A Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (04/10/20): The Stone that the Builders Rejected

 The Stone that the Builders Rejected
Matthew 21:33-46
Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
This was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”?’
The builders have been incompetent, because they have rejected as useless the stone that turns out to be most critical to the building’s strength and stability. It is not hard to recognise what Jesus is getting at. He is continuing his denunciation of the chief-priests and the Pharisees. They have failed in their roles of leadership of God’s people. They are, as Jesus puts it, like tenants who not only refuse to pay the rent, but abuse the landlord’s representatives and conspire to take over the vineyard for themselves. Of course we know how the story carries on. So Jesus’s talk of “the stone that is rejected” is sharper and clearer for us than it perhaps was for his first listeners. These are the last few days of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem. As the events turn out he will indeed be rejected by the chief priests and their allies. He will be rejected in a most brutal and final way. Jesus is about to be betrayed, arrested, handed over to the Romans and killed. That much was perhaps predictable at the time. Pretty much any observer could see that the confrontation between the itinerant preacher from Galilee and all the power of the Temple backed up by the power of Empire was not going to end well for the preacher. Anyone could see that. But we have the advantage of being able to see how the rest of Jesus’ proverbial use of words from Psalm 118 turn out to be true. Jesus is rejected and dies. But on the third day God raises him from the dead. Jesus is vindicated by God. He is indeed the one through whom God is working to bring about his rule in the world. It turns out that Jesus is indeed the cornerstone of God’s building his kingdom. What is more, because we recognise this, it is “amazing in our eyes.” It is the cause of our celebration!

To me there is a troubling feature of the Gospel narrative: We can see Jesus is the cornerstone – why couldn’t the chief-priests and Pharisees? Why did the builders reject the cornerstone? After all, they of all people were best placed to recognise Jesus. The chief-priests and Pharisees have the advantage over us of being able to witness Jesus’ ministry at first hand, and they have the advantage over most of their contemporaries of being exceedingly well versed in the scriptures. They doubtless already knew the verse from the Psalm which Jesus quotes against them. And yet with all their knowledge and with Jesus right in front of them they do not recognise who he is. There is something about Jesus and there is something in themselves that leads them to reject him.
Jesus didn’t look like the Messiah. At least he didn’t look like their idea of a messiah. He was not what they were expecting. He did not fit their conventional assumption about how God could and would and act, and through whom that action would take place. It is hardly Jesus’ fault that he didn’t match the chief priests and Pharisees’ expectations. Their faith in God had begun to resemble wishfulness. They were looking for someone who would give them what they wanted. Who would deliver on their preferred outcomes. They indeed wanted the establishment of God’s kingdom, probably seen in rather political terms, what we would perhaps think of as a national liberation. They probably wanted an kingdom that would leave the chief priests in their role as a ruling class, and one which gave the Pharisees credit for their devotion to the cause. Those are very typical assumptions. They are all too human. Any of us might look for God to act in ways that made us the chief-benfeciaries of his actions. Which is why the chief priests and Pharisees are a warning to us.

It is very easy for us to celebrate our recognition that Jesus is the cornerstone. We can express our joy over what God has done in the remarkable turnaround that takes place in Jerusalem over these few days. We know better than the chief priests and Pharisees than to reject Jesus. But our expectations of what God might do, and where Jesus is to be found may be no less conventional and no less shaped by our desires and our wishfulness, than were the ones of the chief priests and Pharisees. We tend to evaluated what God might be doing in terms say of “success” or “effectiveness.” These are “conventional” because it is how we might evaluate anything or everything: Does it work? Does it produce results? In church those tend to mean that we think God is working when our churches get bigger and more lively. Our expectation is that God’s action will restore our church, that there will be a renewal, a renovation of what we have, what we value. But what Jesus points to, by using this quote from the Psalm, is a consistent feature of how God works. There is no correlation between the conventional ways in which we evaluate things and the way God is actually working!
It is not always the biggest liveliest churches that God is working in. The 19th Century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard when he was criticising the Christianity of the Copenhagen of his day, pointed out that the gospel was more likely to be heard in some shabby back street chapel than in the fashionable churches with their great congregations and magnificent worship. Mega-churches, which by those conventional measures are the must successful churches of our day, Mega-churches do not always preach what we might recognise as Gospel but rather prosperity theology. Precisely the kind of wishfulness we would expect to find in people shaped by living in the world we live in today. That is not to say small/weak is necessarily good, or even that big/lively is necessarily bad, just that their is no correlation. You just can’t tell by using that kind of measure. But we are not to reject what seems to us small or weak without suspecting that that may be exactly where God is at work

The chief-priests and Pharisees rejected Jesus because he didn’t fit their idea of what is successful or effective. He didn’t look like he could overthrow the Roman empire, and perhaps in that sense they were not wrong. But then it was their expectations that were faulty! That wasn’t where God was trying to lead. That wasn’t what God was trying to do in Jesus. We have to be careful not to make the same sort of mistake. To allow our expectations, that are often not much more than our wishfulness,  to lead us into not recognising Jesus or seeing where God is actually at work. Is keeping our show on the road and even making it bigger and better necessarily on God’s agenda? Or does God have something else, wider and deeper, in mind? The risk is for us that we might reject what God is doing because it doesn’t look like what we have come to expect. We could become the kind of builders who could reject the very thing that God is making the cornerstone of his building in this age and so miss out on being incorporated into that building ourselves

Creative Commons Licence
The Stone that the Builders Rejected by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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