The following sermon on Luke 20:9-19 was preached by LCMS Fourth Vice-President, The Rev. Dr. Daniel Preus at the International Center Chapel on Friday, March 22, 2013.

In Jesus’ name, amen. As I read this text over a number of times, there was one thing about it that jumped out at me as being truly interesting. It was the initial reaction to the telling of Jesus’ parable. Jesus tells this story about the owner of the vineyard whose servants were brutally treated and then sent away empty handed, whose son was beaten and killed and thrown out. He says the owner of the vineyard will surely come to punish those who have acted this way and the response is, “Surely not!”

What an amazing response! When Jesus tells this parable, he is picking up on an Old Testament theme. In Isaiah 5 the prophet depicts God as planting a vineyard, taking care of it in every way possible and then coming to look for fruit on the vines and instead of finding good sweet grapes, finding only wild grapes or as one translator puts it, rotten, stinking grapes. Jesus picks up on this illustration in His parable and depicts the owner of the vineyard, whom all understand to be God, sending servants to determine what kind of fruit his vineyard is producing. The servants in the story are obviously the Old Testament prophets who frequently confronted and condemned the people for their lack of fruit – for their faithlessness. The servants are not only sent away empty-handed, however, with no fruit whatsoever, but are beaten and treated shamefully. The owner then sends his Son. Surely they will respect the Son of their Lord! But instead the vine-growers determine to kill him, thinking the inheritance will then be theirs. And then they do kill him and throw him out. In the face of such unthinkable dishonesty, brutality, murder and treason the owner of the vineyard determines to destroy the evildoers, take the vineyard away from them and give it to others – and the response to this parable of Jesus? Surely not!

Surely not!? The response seems so incredibly illogical, unreasonable and strange. And it is – but it’s not so unusual. Take a culture like the one you and I live in where increasing numbers of people forsake and show contempt for the commandments of God, where they dabble in the Eastern religions or forsake the worship of the one true God entirely, where they insist that all gods are equal and all religions have equal access to the truth, where those who are actually faithful are treated with disdain or even persecuted. What is the reaction when God’s law is applied, when people treat the owner of the vineyard as though he had no right to expect fruit and the one who made them and has so abundantly blessed them promises to punish them for their disobedience and unbelief? What is the reaction? An indignant “Surely not!”

And what about you and me? When the Lord comes to us and says, “I came looking for good, sweet fruit and I didn’t find it. I came looking for those who would love me with all their heart and soul and mind, for those who always love their neighbors like themselves and I didn’t find them. Your fruit stinks! You deserve to be punished; you deserve to be destroyed.” What is our reaction? It is in our nature to think, “Surely not!” In the face of judgment, it is in our nature to justify ourselves and say, “Surely not!”

Thank God that, in the face of his Law, the Holy Spirit has led us to reject that self-justification that is always striving for domination in our lives and spirits and has led us to remorse for our sin. Thank God that in His mercy, He has led us to cry out for mercy and forgiveness and has provided a way to forgiveness that has removed His judgment from us.

But perhaps when the people reacted to Jesus’ parable with the cry, “Surely not!” they were not disagreeing with the just judgment of the owner of the vineyard. Perhaps they were instead telling Jesus that he was wrong when he said that the vine growers would kill the heir when he came. Perhaps they were expressing outrage at something so unthinkably horrible that they simply could not imagine it happening. That they would kill the Son of God. No, that would never happen! Surely not!

But of course, it did, and the scribes and the chief priests, whose voices may very well have joined with the others in crying out, “Surely not!’ were already planning to take him captive and to kill him. And their crucifixion of Jesus became a rejection of everything he ever said about Himself.

“I am the way, the truth and the life.” Surely not.

“I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” Surely not.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his onlybegotten Son.” Surely not.

It is this message of rejection the chief priests and scribes intend to send with their crucifixion of Jesus.

But then He rises from the dead! And of course in the resurrection of Jesus all those “Surely nots” are dissolved and evaporate in the face of his clear conquest of death, as his power to deliver on all his promises is made evident to all who will see.

And now the heir to the vineyard, the one who holds the whole world and everything in it in his nail-scarred hands has a message for weak and sinful people like you and me. It is a message of forgiveness and comfort from the one who freely gave Himself up to death in order that we might live. It is a message that responds to every doubt and every fear you have.

“I am afraid that I have been too disobedient for God to forgive me.” Surely not!

“I am afraid that I have been too weak and dirty for God to love me.” Surely not!

“I look at my troubles. I am overwhelmed. I am afraid that God has deserted me.” Surely not!

“I look to my future; I consider my frailties and I am afraid that death will defeat me.” Surely not!

“Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Amen.