God’s Story, Our Story: Every Square Inch
Preaching: Ken Eriks
Text: Mark 12:1-17
Before scripture is read
Two weeks ago Marlin Vis preached a wonderful sermon based on Mark 10: 17-31. If you weren’t here, I encourage you to go the web site to listen to it.
I mention that sermon because, as part of his message, Marlin expressed his convictions about what it means that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. Among other things it means that, when Jesus was born as a human child, he emptied himself of the divine prerogatives and became like us in every way, except in terms of sin. As Marlin pointed out, that means that Jesus was fully a person of his day, location, and age—with all of the limitations to knowledge that other Jews of his time faced. There were many things that Jesus did not know about his future and the details of how things would play out.
Marlin went on to say that there was a difference between what Jesus “knew” and what Jesus “believed.” By this time in his life, Jesus had come to know that he was the beloved Son of God (that was confirmed for him at his baptism and the transfiguration among other times). He had come to know that he was the true Messiah—the one who would establish the reign of God on earth. He also knew that by entering Jerusalem—doing many of the things that he would do, and saying many of the things that he would say—he was on a collision course with the Jewish leaders and Roman government and, quite likely, heading toward his death. These are things he knows. There are also many things that Jesus does not know.
Because of what Jesus does not know he has to move forward based on what he believes. Jesus believes that this world belongs to God and Jesus has a mission given to him by God. Jesus believes that he is held in God’s hand and that God won’t let him go. Jesus believes that God loves him and wants what is best for him; that God is wise, and knows what is best for him; and that God is powerful and can do what is best for him. Jesus believes that no matter what happens he will remain in the hand of God—even if he does not know exactly how that will be accomplished—especially through his death.
I remind you of the limits to what Jesus knows, as a fully human man; and what he believes as the faithful, obedient, servant of God, as we listen to the scripture this morning.
Listen for the Word of the Lord from Mark 12: 1-17 (Scripture is read)
It has been nearly 12 years since I reluctantly answered the call from God to leave my role as Minister of Leadership and Preaching at Fellowship to join the RCA denominational staff. It was a difficult transition; made easier for me by the clarity of my call, and the love and support this congregation demonstrated to me. There were many things that I missed—and still miss—about being a pastor—specifically one of your pastors. Preaching—and what preaching means to me—is one of the things that I miss.
You may know—or at least suspected—that many pastors first hear their sermons as God’s word to them; and then a message meant to go through them to others. In many ways pastors are almost always preaching to themselves. I read sermons over the years of my ministry and I see the work that God was doing at me in that season of my life by the messages that I preached. I know that I preached about grace so regularly because I need to hear the message of God’s grace so often in my life.
Marlin’s message and my own awareness that when I preach, I preach first to myself, made me wonder: as Jesus teaches through the parable we just heard, and then deals with the question of paying taxes to Caesar—could he be talking to himself while also teaching the crowds and confounding the religious leaders?
Our scripture this morning comes after another encounter at the end of chapter 11. There the Jewish leaders ask Jesus by what authority he teaches and does the things he does. As he often does, Jesus answers their question with another question that backs them into a corner; so they don’t answer. Jesus says, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” Instead he tells a parable. There can be little doubt that it is a parable that makes a claim about the Reign of God while speaking judgment to the religious leaders.
A farmer very carefully planted a vineyard. He did everything correctly. He painstakingly chose his vines and planted them with care. He built a fence around the vineyard and placed towers at the corners for protection. He built a winepress to handle grapes at harvest time. The farmer hired people to work the vineyard in a share-cropper type arrangement. At the end of the season they would receive some of the produce as a reward for their work, and the owner would receive his share. The farmer then went away.
When harvest time arrived the farmer sent servants to collect his share of the harvest. The tenants beat the servants instead of paying them. The farmer sent servants two more times, with the same result. Finally the owner made a radical move. He sent his son say, “surely they will honor him.”
The tenants were worse than anyone would have imagined. When they saw the son they said, “This is the heir of the vineyard. If we kill him the vineyard will be ours.” So they dragged him outside the walls and killed him.
Jesus concludes by saying, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to someone else. The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing.”
The religious leaders know that this parable is told against them. However, at this point they see no way to arrest him since the crowd was on Jesus’ side.
The parable is followed by another attempt to try to trap Jesus. Some other leaders come to Jesus and begin with words of flattery. “We know you are sincere and you show no deference. You show no partiality and you teach the way of God in accordance with truth.”
They follow with a question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not; should we pay them or should we not?” Jesus knew they were trying to trap him. If he said to pay taxes, his Jewish followers would consider him a Roman sympathizer. If he said not to pay taxes, he would be in trouble with the Romans.
Jesus turns the situation around. He asks for a Roman coin. The very fact they can produce a Roman coin from their pockets and identify the image on it as that of Caesar is a sign that give implicit respect to the authority of the state; since they carry Roman money. Jesus adds the enigmatic reply; “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God, the things that are God’s.”
Common to both of these passages—the parable and the confrontation about paying taxes—is the knowledge Jesus has that this world, and all that is in it belongs to God. The owner of the vineyard is God. Problems arise when anyone—the religious rulers, those who lead the church today, or anyone else—forgets that everything belongs to God. It is all entrusted to us. When we face the question of rendering to Caesar what belongs to Caesar to God what belongs to God, we come to same conclusion—the world and everything in it, including us, belongs to God.
Jesus is on a mission as God’s Messiah to establish God’s claim and rule over all things. His mission into Jerusalem—with all of its risks and eventual death—is to defeat all of the forces that stand against God’s claim. Jesus came into this world, is entering Jerusalem, and is moving toward his death in order to restore creation to its original design so that God can place all of creation under Christ’s rule.
Here is the way Abraham Kuyper, a great Reformed theologian, said it many years ago, at the founding of the Free University in the Netherlands, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
Jesus knows all this to be true. There are many things that he does not know. He does not know exactly how the week will play out. If he is to die, he does not know exactly how that will take place. The Holy Spirit has assured him that since he belongs to God and his life is held in God’s hand, in end, everything will be OK and God will triumph. He does not know exactly how God will keep all of these promises.
Despite all that he knows there are some things that Jesus has to believe beyond knowing. He has to believe that God will take all of the events of the week as they unfold, and turn them all to God’s good purpose. He has to believe that if he walks the path God lays out for him and does not turn away, that God will be faithful to him. He has to believe that when he dies, that nothing finally can separate him from the love of God; and that his life with God will continue on the other side of the grave.
I wonder, as Jesus tells his parable of the vineyard, and turns the table on the religious leaders with his statement about the coin with Caesar’s image; if Jesus is preaching to himself even while teaching the crowds. Because Jesus has to believe and obey beyond what he can know—I wonder if he is reminding himself that he belongs to God; and this mission, as hard as it is, comes from God for the sake a world that belongs to God. I wonder if Jesus is reminding himself of what he knows so he can continue to take the next faithful step all through this week.
We can’t know the answers to such wonderings, since we can’t fathom the mysteries of the incarnation, and we can’t get inside Jesus’ mind. We can however find the courage for our lives when we accept the truth of Jesus’ words for our lives. We find great freedom when we accept the truth that all things come from God, belong to God, and find their purpose in God.
Our Heidelberg Catechism, in the section that explains what we believe in various parts of the Apostles’ Creed, says it this way in Question and Answer 26,
Q What do you believe when you say, "I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth"?
A That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them,1 who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence,2 is my God and Father because of Christ the Son.3
I trust God so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul,4 and will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends upon me in this sad world.5
God is able to do this because he is almighty God,6 and desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.7
This is the point Jesus is making in the parable of vineyard. The owner of vineyard wants nothing more than to share all of creation with us; and has gone so far as to send the only beloved son in order that we might know that the creator of the world is our Loving Parent because of Jesus, God’s Son. This loving parent; who saw Jesus through death into new life; will also walk with us through every challenge and turn every adversity to our good.
Frankly, this is not always easy to remember or to believe. I think back over more than 26 years that Barb and I have been part of Fellowship. During those years we have seen so many good people deal with terrible tragedy in their lives and the lives of those that they love. We have seen lives lost far too young to accidents, to cancer, to heart attacks, and to other causes. Even as I speak these words, I imagine that you are picturing people that you knew and loved.
I will mention one person this morning, in part because he loved the liturgy, and the promises, and actions of baptism so much. During the time that Don Milanowski served as an elder at Fellowship, his already deep love for the sacrament of Baptism that began in his years in the Roman Catholic Church grew in depth and intensity. Don came to love all that baptism declared to be true about God—and therefore about us. Don grounded his life in the fact that in Jesus Christ, he had already received the gift of eternal life; that he was claimed as God’s beloved child and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever; that every sin he had committed or would ever commit was already forgiven in Christ; and that God loved him enough to give invite him to join God’s mission in the world. The truth of baptism gave Don deep joy. Every time we celebrated baptism, whether for his children or anyone else, Don’s faith was deepened.
When Don’s life was ended suddenly, way too early, by a heart attack, and Linda, Max, Nathan, and Ellie were left behind it was a tragedy. The loss that the family, Don’s friends, and this congregation felt was beyond words. The grief was real and lasting. And, at the same time, we could believe the promises of baptism that had grounded Don’s life; and claim with assurance that for Don, all is well; and for us, the same God that claimed Don in baptism walks with us.
Don’s story is just one story among many of what it means that we are baptized, and that, again as Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” That includes death itself.
Jesus’ mission was to help bring the whole world back to its original design as a creation owned, loved, and under God's loving and gracious Reign. Jesus came to reconcile all people, all creation, and the entire universe to God. In Baptism we are commissioned to join Jesus in his mission to reconcile all people to God; and to restore creation to its original design.
I love the way our Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer # 1 say it.
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own,1 but belong—body and soul, in life and in death2—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.3
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,4 and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.5 He also watches over me in such a way6 that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven;7 in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.8
Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life9 and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.10
That was Jesus’ ultimate purpose—to claim us as his own; to set us free from sin and death; to give us the confidence that God will make all things work together for our salvation; and since we know we belong to God now and into eternity, we receive the freedom to live fully for God.
Jesus came to help us find our story in God’s story. Because of Jesus, we are invited to play a role in the biggest, best and most satisfying story ever told: the story of God’s plan for the reconciliation of every human being and the restoration of creation to its original design.
Just like Jesus, as he walked through the last week of his life, we enter into our mission with greater confidence because we know that every square inch of this universe—and every hair on our head—already belong to God.