Summary: In the final days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Jews reached a tipping point in their rebellion against God. Nations, kings, and ordinary men arrive at tipping points, from which they retreat, or pass on to judgment.
The gospel for today recounts yet another parable which Jesus told against the religious establishment of Israel. After he had spoken the parable, Matthew records these words:
45 Now when the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking of them. 46 But when they sought to lay hands on Him, they feared the multitudes, because they took Him for a prophet.
We know, of course, that those multitudes just a day later would be screaming for this prophet to be crucified. Perhaps it is the volatility of the crowd’s moods which the Pharisees and Sadducees really fear. But, we also know from the gospels that within Israel there were some few – and some of them were Pharisees – who after the resurrection would hear Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost, and they would finally believe in the Son whom God had sent to the vineyard.
I expect they remembered the parables Jesus told against the leadership, and as the early days of the Christian faith wore on, the terrible truth of Jesus’ parable was plainer and plainer for them to behold. Truly God had done exactly what Jesus said he would do – he took the Kingdom of God away from Israel, and gave it to a nation which would offer forth the proper fruits of the Kingdom of God. And, so it has been for the past 2,000 years.
The religious apostasy, the religious corruption, the religious arrogance, the genuine hostility toward God’s prophets, and finally to God’s own son – these did not spring up in a night in Israel. You could make a good case from the Bible that they had been growing for centuries. It was Jesus who lamented in Matthew 23, ““O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!” It was Jesus who warned the religious leaders with these words in Luke 11: “Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and your fathers killed them.”
It was Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who preached to these kinds of people in Acts 7, saying this: “51 “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, …”
So, what Jesus was facing in the gospel lesson for today was nothing new. But there is something new here. What we see in this parable is what historians will sometimes call a tipping point. A tipping point in history is a time when trends, movements, historical currents which have been moving for a long time, finally reach a point when they no longer can be reversed.
Imagine the leaning tower of Pisa for a moment -- it began to lean very soon after it was constructed. It continues to lean today. I’ve read that with certain efforts it might possibly be restored, or at least the leaning arrested. But, the leaning tower of Pisa has a tipping point – a moment when its leaning can no longer be arrested. At that point, its fall is sure. What we are looking at in the gospel for today is the tipping point of Israel’s apostasy.
In light of this, I want to back away from the details of this particular tipping point in Israel’s history and pose this question to ourselves: are we as a nation at a tipping point?
Last week, I spoke of God’s astonishing willingness to patiently wait for sinners to repent. Today’s gospel lesson is the other side of that coin. If man can best God at something, surely this is it: his persistence in sin can most definitely exhaust God’s extravagant patience. Are we at a tipping point in our nation’s history? How would we know such a thing? And if we are, what should we Christians be doing?
We might write a book to expound these things, of course, so what I have to offer next is very much a bird’s eye view of the issues. Let me first say that history is littered with nations who reached tipping points as far as their sins are concerned.
The entire earth reached a tipping point about a thousand years before the great flood. That’s how we know how far God’s patience can extend, for through the preaching of the prophet Enoch, and the name he gave his son Methusaleh, we know with some confidence that God’s patience lasted well over a thousand years before the flood. But, a tipping point came – about 120 years before the flood, when God instructed Noah to build the ark.