Linked to the Bible study post for October 4 (TLW39A).
Here’s an introduction video in ‘Just a Minute’ to the Oct 4 Revitalisation theme.
Do you attend a church that is imaginative in reaching new people, growing, with a clear vision for the way ahead? Or are you one of a faithful, hardworking but maintaining-the-tradition group who are discuss how to manage the decline, and constantly concerned about finances? In villages, towns and cities all over the world, these differences are striking. The reason may be found in this week’s readings.
In the OT reading (Isaiah 5:1-7) we have Isaiah’s poem which paints a prophetic picture based around a story of a vineyard. Most vineyards were established on rocky slopes, good situations for sun ripening. But these are not the best places to find soil — so a lot of stone clearance would be needed, followed by careful planting of good vines, nurturing them until in the third year they produced their fruit. The valuable crop needed to be hedged around and protected. The pay-off for all this hard preparation was in the quality of the grapes at harvest.
The vineyard in the story was producing rank, inedible fruit like a wild vine. Who needs sour fruit! The owner, devastated at the failure, let the whole plantation go, to be overrun and become wasteland. It was a picture of the people of Judah, represented by the vines, and the kind of fruit they produced which lacked the ‘sweetness’ and ‘flavour’ of God’s covenant love, but had the harsh tang of injustice and iniquity. Without repentance, God would withdraw His protection of the people, and after pillaging by the conquering nation, the land would revert back to fruitless scrub — and anarchy.
Rough and controlling tenants
In the gospel reading (Matthew 21:33-46) Jesus alludes to this well-known story and builds on it. His story focuses on the wicked tenants of a vineyard who not only would not pay the landlord the first share of the produce as rent, treating the whole production as their own, but also set about beating and murdering the landlord’s agents. No surprise then, that they were evicted and the vineyard leased to a new kind of tenant from a different nation.
This, too, was a prophetic picture. The religious hierarchy and elders of Israel, who sought to control religious life and ultimately God Himself, were producing the wrong fruit. They would have to go. Within a generation, and after much bloodshed, the temple and all It represented was destroyed. The church of believers in Jesus would start off mainly Jewish but in its rapid growth, would soon change amid to become largely Gentile. Now we have different tenants, producing good fruit.
Barriers to knowing Jesus
Paul rounds this off with teaching (Philippians 4:4-13) about how, in the kingdom of God, his exemplary CV as a Jew was more of a liability than a help. Why was that? Whatever gets in the way of us knowing and relying on Jesus as Lord, any idea of self-generated righteousness, has to be ruthlessly consigned to the rubbish pile. Paul’s objective is to be closely identified with Christ — so closely identified, that going through the kind of suffering that Christ endured, would have a positive side: a way of honouring Him. Paul intends to be so heavenly minded he produces much earthly fruit, to restate the old saying slightly.
Revitalisation: cultivating kingdom fruit
If our stewardship of what God has planted and God is growing, is like a vineyard, what kind of vineyard and what kind of tenants does the church represent? Arguments and injustices perpetrated by those who are supposed to stand for God’s sacrificial love, are totally out of order. So is the cultivation of anything that exalts men and not God. Dry, formal worship performed from the front in an unfriendly way is sour, unattractive fruit! The fruit of the kingdom of God is love for God and love for others; love for God must want to talk about Jesus, making Him and His new life central —and accessible. Bringing people for Him to add to His kingdom is surely honouring Him as Lord of the church; if any other purpose or programme seems to be more important, the warning of what God will do with His ‘vineyard’ stands.
Throughout church history the church has revitalised itself. Following the Reformation, which put the Bible in ordinary people’s hands, the emergence of Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, Salvationists, and Pentecostals in each successive century, tells us something. More recently, formal churchgoing has found newer, freer expressions in the rapid growth of church streams no one had heard of a generation ago. The reason for this is the desire to find new expressions and new ways to bring people into relationship with God through coming to know Jesus.
The work Jesus is blessing
Any church of any tradition, young or old, can revitalise and get back to the kingdom agenda of workers in the harvest field — and that’s the point. That’s the work Jesus is blessing, because it is producing the fruit of good flavour He is looking for.