Philippians 3.4b-14 & Matthew 21.33-46

Background to understanding the Gospel Reading

The gospel passage consists of a parable Jesus tells about a vineyard owner trying to collect the rent and produce due to him. He sends a along a succession of servants to collect it, and they are treated with increasing amounts of violence, and the owner remains empty-handed.

In the bible the vineyard is a classic symbol for the Promised Land, Israel. The vineyard owner therefore represents the one who gave the gift of the Promised Land, Israel's God; the tenants, the citizens; the servants, the prophets whom God sent to urge those citizens to "produce the fruits of the kingdom". The phrase "produce the fruits of the kingdom" refers to the qualities God wants from his chosen people - mercy, justice, humility, worship and so forth.

Finally, in the story there is reference to a stone - a cornerstone that makes people stumble. In architecture, a cornerstone is the foundation stone on which all other stones are built, so Jesus seems to be placing himself as the foundation for our lives (and indeed, for all existence). However, he is also using imagery from Daniel chapter 2, where a large stone smashes a statute of bronze and iron, but with feet of clay before becoming the foundation stone for a mountain that fills the whole earth. In Daniel, the statue represents the kingdom of Babylon (then holding Israel captive), so the stone becomes a symbol of liberation. Most particularly it becomes associated with a person, sent by God, who will smash Israel's oppressors and set them free (the Messiah). Jesus identifies himself with the stone (the Messiah), but in a surprising twist, seems to be suggesting that he has come, not to smash Israel's political enemies (at that time, the Romans), but those within God's chosen people who, despite persistent warnings from the prophets, still refuse to "produce the fruits of the kingdom". The story is dynamite, and Jesus predicts that they will kill him for it. How right he was to be…

Sermon

I have never been very good at maths. When I was a child, I had to have all sorts of extra help to get myself a scraped pass in 'O' Level maths (I'm giving away my age now, for those of you who can do the maths.) My late father-in-law was a maths teacher and he always said "there are three types of people in the world - those who can count, and those who can't!" (If you don't get the joke, you're as bad at maths as I am.)
So it is a relief to know that I'm not alone. Bishop Tom Wright, in his commentary on Paul's letter to the Philippians, tells the story of John Keble, the Oxford Don and founding father of the Oxford Movement, who was briefly bursar of his college. One year, when doing the college accounts, he persistently found them out by a factor of £1,820 - a very considerable sum in those days. It was only after many agonised re-workings that he discovered what he'd done. He'd begun by writing the date at the top of the page and had then added in the year (1820) into his column of figures.
In our epistle reading today, Paul is doing some very bad maths too, but managing to balance his account in a most remarkable way. He is weighing up his life and he has a number of things to put in the credit column - things to be very proud of and satisfied with, things that really should make his life a success.
For one thing, he says, he was born into the right family; he was a thoroughbred citizen of Israel; he was among the most learned and respected religious leaders in his society (the Pharisees) and he was a war hero - having fought against the movement of Jesus, which many thought was a great threat to Israel. In every way, he was ahead of the game - socially, financially and spiritually, he was at the very top of the pile - every reason to be satisfied with himself and to lord it over others.
But then, having made his case so compellingly, he does a very surprising thing. He takes all those things (which should be in the credit column) and dumps them all in the debit column. He even goes so far as to say that he considers it all rubbish.
So how, then, does he balance his account? With one solitary thing, or rather one solitary person - Jesus. Knowing Jesus is worth everything else put together, and more.
"Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."
Jesus is the cornerstone - the one who holds the whole structure of life together and makes it stand up. What is it about Jesus that makes knowing him worth so much? Well, Paul has already spoken about it earlier in Philippians 2:5-11, but we get a glimpse of it here in our gospel story too. Jesus is simply the most remarkable human being ever to have walked this planet. Partly, of course, because he was also God. But Jesus also, though he was God and though everything belonged to him, didn't lord it over us, but emptied himself completely, becoming humble and suffering so that we might go free.
What does all that mean exactly? Well, Paul has realised that his old way of life, which he had been so proud of, was actually a nonsense. That whole round of social status and financial ownership and religious respectability was simply a way of elevating himself over others and leaving them in the mire. It was a bit like climbing your way out of a swamp by clambering over others. The trouble with it, is that you're still in a swamp and you'll sink in the end.
Our human obsessions with social, economic or religious status are simply disguising a deep underlying problem - we're desperate for significance. Our lives are lived in the blinking of an eye. Everything we achieve evaporates almost as soon as we achieve it. And even the most superhuman efforts to achieve greatness and lasting significance end up looking pretty pitiful.
One man who did achieve something of lasting greatness, was the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelly, who wrote about this in his great poem, Ozymandius, relating a traveller's tale of discovering the shattered remains of a statue of some long-forgotten king erected to preserve his greatness:
"I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".
We all have a temptation to build our lives into something mighty and of lasting significance. It is so deep in our subconscious that we don't even notice that we're doing it. But the scales have fallen from Paul's eyes. He has noticed that it's a mug's game. Because however mighty we might make ourselves in our own eyes, we simply create "vast and trunkless legs of stone, a shattered visage and a colossal wreck." The higher we climb, the further we fall.
But is there a way of avoiding the climb altogether? Yes, says Paul. There is something of such surpassing value, that it makes all the glories of man seem like the grass of the field - Jesus.
Our true value, our eternal significance (the vital ingredient we're all searching for in our lives) is that we are loved so much by God, that he came to us as a frail human being, just like us and died our moral death that we might live in his eternity; that God himself lived a human life, but free of that fruitless and barren search for meaning in worldly things; but producing fruit that really does last - love, peace, mercy, justice, faith, hope.
Those are the things that make us great. And they're all gifts from God. All achieved through Jesus' cross and resurrection. In Jesus, God takes all my suffering and transforms it from the cruel destruction of all my dreams into the gateway to a better future. In Jesus, God suffers my violence and aggression (I, after all, am one of the tenants of the vineyard who refuses to give him his due), but in doing so he takes all my mistakes, my faults, my wrong turns, my failure and takes them to death, so that I can go free. In Jesus, God conquers over death and offers me the life of his future, to be lived here and now. Truly free from the anxious quest for meaning and significance, because I am significant to him.
Thanks to Jesus, my existence is no longer under threat. It no longer needs to stand or fall on the basis of what I make it - whether I'm respected, wealthy, recognised by the world as a success. My existence is God's gift to me for all eternity.
So whatever I do wrong can be forgiven and even recycled by God to produced an unexpected good. Whenever I fail, I find myself actually drawn closer to God and become the stronger for it. Whenever I suffer, I find Jesus already walking the path before me and pointing the way back to the path of hope.
What, then, is Paul asking of us? Very simply this: to abandon the anxious quest to make your life significant and instead to know Jesus. Not just know about him, but to know him, enter into a relationship with him. Speak to him, listen to him, take his message to heart, receive his Holy Spirit - open yourself daily to him working in your life, moulding your heart until you too can live like Jesus. Live the freedom that is on offer in Jesus, so that like Paul, you can say:
Okay, I haven't yet got it all sorted, "but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus."
Amen.

Preached: Bolton, 02.10.2011