God’s October (Third Day) Surprise

GOSPEL: Matthew 21:33-46
37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

What a week. 

Unless you live under a rock, the breaking news, local and world events of this week hit us like a torrent of hail. Here in Winnipeg we began by entering into the ‘Orange’ zone because of increasing COVID transmission. Gathering sizes have been limited to 10 indoors and outdoors. Our own cautious plan to potentially begin in-person indoor gatherings for worship has been put on hold for the time being. 

And then on Tuesday the worst United States presidential debate took place, like a dumpster fire inside a car crash inside a train wreck as one commentator put it. Two angry old men took the stage, with one being particularly belligerent and bullying, refusing to denounce white supremacy and seemingly endorsing neo-Nazi groups. 

On Wednesday, the CERB came to an end, with a potentially messy transition of millions of out of work Canadians to Canada Response Employment Insurance programs. 

By Thursday, Ontario and Quebec were introducing greater lock down measures with cases spiking there. And here in Manitoba, the Exposure App came online (make sure you download it!). 

And then by Friday morning, the news came that President Trump and the First Lady, along with some staffers and other legislators tested positive for the coronavirus, shaking a good chunk of the world with a big October surprise… on the 2nd day of October. 

Events that have captured our attention in gripping and anxiety inducing ways. 

In case we have forgotten, this is actually a sermon and not a news report! 

So let’s talk about Jesus then. 

In the midst of all that other stuff going on in the world, Jesus hits us with this curious parable. The 3rd parable in a row about a landowner. First it was the labourers in the vineyard getting hired throughout the day, yet being paid the same daily wage. And then it was the sons who said one thing and then did the opposite. 

And now we get this parable, which is rather nakedly an allegory for Jesus’ own death and resurrection. 

A landowner rented his land to some tenants. When it came time to collect the rent or harvest, he sent his servants to collect it. Yet, the tenants took a wicked a turn and killed those servants. 

So the landowner sends more slaves to retrieve the harvest and again the tenants kill the messengers. 

Finally the landowner deciding he needs to get serious, sends his son. 

It is a curious parable with a curious ending. Certainly, those listening to Jesus would have wondered the same thing that we might wonder. Why would the landowner keep sending messengers. Why not an army? Why not soldiers?

It is a parable where we can see the ending coming a mile away. The son will not fare well. Certainly, Jesus’s first hearers knew that the landowners rationale for sending his son was incorrect. Like when one of the characters in a horror movie decides to investigate the dark basement or abandoned mental hospital… things are not going to end well. 

And sure enough there is no surprise or twist. The wicked tenants kill the son.

But then Jesus asks a question. A question on which the whole parable hands.

“What will the landowner do?” 

I think we know what we would do. The crowds listening say it out loud. 

They think the landowner will answer violence with violence. This is the way of our world. When someone does you wrong, do more to them to make sure they understand their mistake. The punishment must fit the crime. 

There is something about this kind of narrative that grips us. There is something about the power to kill and the power of death that catches our attention. When those first slaves are met with violence and hostility we are hooked. 

And with each wave of messengers, with each response of violence and death on the part of the wicked tenants, we are drawn deeper into the dark narrative. Death has a hold over us, its power both frightens and allures us. But the time the son is sent, based on the flawed thinking of his father, we are caught up in the story even though we know the ending. 

Such is the power of the original sinner within us, the part of each human being that fears and craves the power of death. The thing within us that makes us unable to turn away from an accident scene, from breaking news, from a dark story, with dark twists and turns. The original sinner within both fears death and wishes for its power. We imagine the control we could exercise in the world were we to wield the power of death. 

And so this parable takes us along for the ride, hitting the right parts of our flawed humanity and biological self preservation instincts to keep us rapt.

The parable is almost like different version of our barrage of news this week. Enough violence, drama, suffering and death to keep us glued to screens. 

And yet, the parable isn’t meant to be a litany of things gone dark and wrong. 

For you see, the parable also is supposed to make us think of the other story of a son who is send to wicked people and is killed. 

A story that goes much the same way all the way to Good Friday. 

But that doesn’t end there. 

A story that completely surprises with a twist we would never imagine by Sunday morning. 

The Easter story keeps going. Resurrection changes the game. Life continues on. 

And this parable that we hear today only makes sense with the easter story as the backdrop. 

For you see, as the tenants keep killing and killing. As the hearers of the story keep expected more and more death. God is focused and intent on something else. 

God keeps expecting, hoping for, anticipating life. It seems almost naive. 

The landowner sends more and more messengers and finally sends his son. 

Just as God sent prophet after prophet, messenger after messenger to the people of Israel. God sends messengers and teachers to proclaim life, again and again. To keep calling a death focused humanity to something different, to something new. 

Finally, God sends the son, the revelation of God incarnate. The Messiah who has come to meet God’s lost people, to walk their paths and challenge their death focused ways. 

And when the son encounters the power of death head on… something new happens. The God who keeps expecting life, who keeps expecting something new, shows us a power greater than death, a continuation of the story when there should have been only end. 

And so it is with us during our heavy news week. At a time when we are bombarded over and over with death, with COVID restrictions, with ugly political debates, with shocking breaking news…. God is there in the background, expecting different outcomes. Expecting life, over and over and over again. 

And then when we least expect it, when death seems to have won, once and for all, there is new life. There is a new ending, there is resurrection, there are empty tombs, and there is the realization that death does not have the power we thought it had. That death is not our ending. 

Instead, God doggedly pursues new life. What God has been doing since the begging, chasing after Adam and Eve as they leave the garden, going with Abraham and Sarah into the wilderness, showing the Israelites the way out of Egypt, rescuing the Israelites from foreign occupation, calling for the repentance of God’s people, sending prophets to proclaim a return to God. 

And finally God sends us the son. 

The son that we will surely listen to, but don’t. 

The Messiah who calls out to us, 

who heals the sick, 

receives the poor and down trodden, 

who eats with sinners, 

and frustrates the powerful. 

The son who is nailed, unsurprisingly to a cross. 

And the son who walks out of the grave, extended the story. 

Extending life.

Loosing our grip on death. 

Showing us a new way. 

What a week, we declare today. 

And God responds by saying, 

“Just wait until you see my October, my third day surprise.”

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