5th Sunday in Lent
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in the name of Jesus, because of whom we have every reason to praise God eternally, dear friends in Christ, how do you feel about praise and thanks? I remember when I was a child and my dad saying something like this after a meal, “What do you say your mother for making this meal for you?” Or after someone gave me a gift, “What do you tell them?” And, now, as a father I hear myself saying to my own children, “What do you say to mom? What do you say? Tell your mom how much you enjoy this meal, tell your mother, ‘thank you.’” Why is it that we have to be told as little children to say, “Thank you”? Isn’t it because praise and thanks don’t come natural to us? The consequence of being sinful is also being selfish. And when we’re selfish we can’t see beyond ourselves, when we’re selfish we just expect good things for ourselves, we just expect people to serve us. That doesn’t just happen with our relationships with other people, it happens all the time with our relationship with God. How do you feel about praising and thanking God?
There are all kinds of passages in Scripture that tell us that we are to “praise God.” Read the book of Psalms and you’ll see this phrase repeated again and again, “Praise the Lord.” In fact, it occurs 51 times just in the book of psalms. Why are we called to praise the Lord so much? I mean, typically, if someone demands praise, if someone continually wants to be told how good they are, we consider such a person to be full of themselves and we’re disgusted with them. Is that God? Does God say, “What I most want is to be told over and over again how good and great I am”? Does God need our praise? To put human terms on God, does He feel hurt if we don’t praise and thank him? We recognize that there’s something wrong with that, but what exactly?
When we say that something is admirable? What do we mean? We mean that that thing, whatever it is, ought to be admired. It is of such a quality and a beauty that it simply has to be admired. And if you don’t admire it, you’re missing out on something wonderful. And if God is the Perfect Maker and Creator of all things, then behind every good, pleasing, and beautiful thing is God. God is the Creator of beauty, God is the Creator of magnificence and excellent. Everything that is admirable finds it’s source in God Himself. So, if you admire anything, praise anything, you have to ultimately praise God otherwise you’re not really living in reality.
Not living in reality was really the problem that the tenants in Jesus’ parable had. They wanted to enjoy the owner’s vineyard without the owner – they were living in a dream world. The Israelites to whom our text was first written were living in a dream world.
The first part of our text points out what God had done for them. “This is what the LORD says – he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, who drew out the chariots and horses, the army and reinforcements together, and they lay there, never to rise again, extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:” God did incredible things for the Israelites. He led them out of their slavery in Egypt, He parted the Red sea for them to cross through on dry ground, He drew out Pharaoh’s army and caused them to pursue the Israelties, then He snuffed them out like a candle causing the Red Sea to crash down upon them. Amazing things! What’s even more amazing is that the verbs used to describe what God did are participles, in other words, they are describing God’s characteristics- so even more than thinking about those events, God wants us to consider the One behind them – the power, the love, the dependability of the God who did those things. But then what does God say? “Forget it. Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.”
Wait, what? God brought incredible deliverance in the past…BUT…forget it. Why? Because what He’s going to do doesn’t even compare. There’s going to be a preliminary fulfillment of this. The Israelites are going to be exiled way off in the foreign land of Babylon, it’s going to look hopeless, it’s going to look like their nation is devastated, their land is lost, God has given up on them and God won’t fulfill His ultimate promise to send a Savior. BUT, what does God say? He’s going to make a way in the desert, streams in the wasteland. In other words, God’s going to bring His people out of exile and back home. Why? Because He’s faithful. But that’s not even it. He’s going to bring them back so that He can fulfill His ultimate promise and that is sending the spiritual Savior that they need. He’s going to send someone who is really going to deliver them, deliver them from their real enemies, the enemies of sin, death, and Satan.
So great is God’s deliverance that He pictures it as wild animals honoring him, jackals and owls jumping for joy because they were devastated with thirst and now they have water to drink. But animals aren’t the real recipients of God’s grace and blessing. No, it’s His people, His chosen ones. To them He gives real drink, to them He gives living water, to them he gives water that quenches thirst, to them He gives water so they don’t have to keep going back to find drink. Earthly water doesn’t satisfy. It’s only the water that comes from the one who calls Himself the Living Water that satisfies life. It’s Jesus who calms our hearts, satisfies our needs, quenches our spiritual thirst, gives us all we need.
And the outcome? “That they may proclaim my praise.” You see, if praise is forced, it’s not really praise, right? True praise has to come from a heart that wants to offer that praise. You can’t force someone to praise. If you do, it will only be canned, hypocritical, not heartfelt. When we say that something is admirable, what are we saying? What we’re really saying is that whatever it is is worthy of being admired and if you don’t admire it, you’re really missing out on something.
But notice how God goes on: “Yet you have not called upon me, O Jacob, you have not wearied yourselves for me, O Israel. You have not brought me sheep for burnt offerings, nor honored me with your sacrifices. I have not burdened you with grain offerings or wearied you with demands for incense. You have not bought any fragrant calamus for me, or lavished on me the fat of your sacrifices.” This was their attitude. God’s point wasn’t that they hadn’t done these things, but that they hadn’t done them from the heart. They went through the outward motions of sacrifices and offerings, but it wasn’t from the heart. Rather, “You have burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your offenses.”
Do we do that? Are you declaring the praises of God? Do you live your life to praise God? Or, do you see service to God as a burden? Do you see living according to God’s commands as a burden that needs to be thrown off? Or, are we like the Israelites of old. They gave offerings, they offered sacrifices, they followed God’s laws, but why? It was as if it was a burdensome thing. It was as if this is what they did in order to enjoy God’s favor. True praise is a response. True praise isn’t forced. True praise comes from a renewed heart.
Two kinds of people in the world: those who acknowledge that everything that we have, everything we enjoy, everything that is excellent and good is from God and those who do not. The tenants of the vineyard in Jesus’ parable did not. They wanted the fruit of the owner’s vineyard without the owner. They wanted His stuff and that’s it.
The Israelites wanted God on their terms and not on his. God was simply a means to an end. They wanted God to give them the life they really wanted. So they offered sacrifices, they gave offerings, but it wasn’t from the heart, it was forced praise to get from God what they really wanted: an easy comfortable life, free from hardship and trouble.
Do you praise God with your life? Do you view everything that you do as an opportunity to sing God’s praises? Do you praise God when you drive your car? Do you praise God while you’re at work? Do you praise God with the things you let occupy your mind? Do you praise God in the way you speak, act, and think about your spouse? Do you praise God in the way you interact with your children? Do you praise God for good times, praise God for bad times?
Or maybe we say, “Yes, I’m praising God.” I go to church to praise God, I’m nice to my spouse so I’m praising God, I say my daily prayers so I’m praising God. But why? The Israelites offered sacrifices, they gave offerings. But why? Is it so God will feel compelled to bless us? Compelled to give us things? Compelled to make our lives easy?
You see, praise isn’t forced, it can’t be. Praise is something that comes naturally. If we don’t praise God from the heart, the answer isn’t to try harder to praise God, the answer is looking at the “new thing” God did. Who would have ever dreamed up this deliverance? Who would ever dream that the vineyard owner would send His own Son? I wouldn’t, you wouldn’t, but God did. God delivered you and me in the most profound way: His own Son Jesus came to be what we were not. Jesus came to praise God perfectly and that’s exactly what He did with His entire life led for the praise of God. He even praised God in His death. He praised God to the very end by offering the ultimate sacrifice, His life on the cross as payment for every sin of every person – yours and mine included. That’s what God says, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” Because of Jesus God has forgotten all your sins, they’ve been washed in Jesus’ blood. That’s the most excellent thing, the most joyful thing in life. And what does that lead you to do? Praise.
Praise perfects pleasure. When you thoroughly enjoy something, what do you have to do? Your joy isn’t complete until you express it, right? When you enjoy a meal at someone’s home, you feel compelled to express it. If you attend a concert and someone has a beautiful solo that you thoroughly enjoy, you have to go and tell them. I just heard recently about former Justice Scalia who once attended a funeral of some important person and he was so pleased with the pastor’s sermon because it wasn’t the normal talking about the person who died, but about Jesus and His resurrection. He was so pleased that he wanted to go and tell the pastor afterward, but he searched and couldn’t find him, so instead, he wrote a letter to the pastor expressing his gratitude. Our pleasure isn’t completed until we’re able to express it, right?
The ultimate pleasure is the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Savior. He has opened heaven’s doors for us with His death and resurrection. Praise Him. May every good thing of life lead you back to God, the author of all Good. May hardship and struggle also lead you back in praise to God who uses even those to draw us to Himself. May God’s goodness in Jesus lead you to praise Him in prayer and song and praise Him to others. For praise perfects pleasure. Amen.