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Worship Theme: The Church relies on God's gracious activity
Sermon Theme: Expect the Unexpected
I don’t know if you are willing to say out loud what you are really thinking about the parable Jesus told in today’s Gospel from Matthew chapter twenty, so I’ll say it. It is very disturbing. We would just as soon have the pastor skip this account and read something else. Then we don’t have to deal with the underlying truth of the story because, if we stop and think about what Jesus is teaching us here, this parable can make us angry. The landowner paid out a day’s wages to all whether they had worked all day or not. And that’s not fair!
Some of you might be thinking, “Don’t tell us what we are feeling, pastor! We don’t have a problem with this parable.” Well, here’s a story parallel to what Jesus is teaching: You get a text from heaven. It’s a message from your grandpa. He says it’s wonderful there. He is especially enjoying his time with the Lord, and he also enjoys doing lunch every day and chatting with his roommates, Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. If that makes you even a little uncomfortable, then it’s time for us to go back to Jesus’ parable to expect the unexpected.
Jesus Teaches Us About Retribution
Two-year-olds usually don’t mind if their sister or brother gets a toy bigger than theirs. They’re just happy to tear open a present and are sometimes more interested in the box than the toy. But it doesn’t take long for children who are a year or so older to complain, “She got more than I did.” I remember watching Dad pour the bottle of 7-Up into two glasses and making sure that when the fizz died down, my sister and I could see that each glass had the same amount. Parents wrack their brains trying to come up with Christmas presents that will equal the same amount of cash for each child, and grandparents just give up, saying, “Here’s the cash. Buy what you want.” As kids we may have been annoyed when we could see that others had what we didn’t, but eventually we learned, “You can’t have everything you want just because you want it.”
What irritates us more than what we don’t get is watching other people get something nice which they don’t deserve, like the professional athlete who beats up his girlfriend and still gets millions of dollars. That’s not fair! Or the politician who lies his way to the top, shrugs off his inappropriate behavior with someone not his spouse, and still gets acknowledged as a great leader. That’s not fair! What really corks us is when those whom we consider to be unworthy get ahead of us. Someone cuts in line in front of you at the grocery store, and, while ringing up their stuff, the check-out lady clicks off the light and puts up a sign, “This line is closed.” That’s not fair!
That’s what bugged those hired first in the parable Jesus told. The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius [a days’ wages]. So, when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. “These who were hired last worked only one hour,” they said, “and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.” That’s not fair!
The only way we calm ourselves down is with the principle of retribution, the old “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:24) principle. We expect that the good will be rewarded, and the bad will be punished. But there’s faulty thinking in that line of reasoning on two levels. The first is the faulty thinking that some people are good and some are bad. The second is the faulty thinking that we are on the good side. The big problem is that not one of us is good. I don’t mean that you are nasty neighbors and lazy laborers. I mean that not one of us is good according to God’s definition of goodness because his standard of goodness is far higher than we could ever imagine. It’s like sitting way up in the bleachers at a track meet and looking at the high jump bar, thinking, “I could do that,” then walking down on the field next to the high jump pit and realizing that the bar is at eight foot six, five and three quarters inches above the world record. It is essential that we come grasp the Bible truth that all have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one (Psalm 14:3), and we are included.
Too often we fall into the trap of expecting that God will just pat us on the head and ignore our sin. But the Scriptures teach us to expect the unexpected. The Bible tells us that when we sin, we are sticking our tongue out at God and spitting in his eye just as the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, called Pharisees, were doing, and we deserve divine retribution. That is fair! The sooner we come to grips with that fact, the sooner we will leave the camp of those who were first hired by the landowner and join the dying thief on the cross who cried out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom (Luke 23:42). Jesus, I give up. I am getting what I deserve. Only an outright miracle can save me, and I know that I really don’t even have a right to ask for it.” You and I simply can’t appreciate what Jesus did for us unless we expect to get what we deserve under God’s divine retribution.
Jesus Teaches Us About Restoration
Jacob, the tricky, devious younger son of Isaac, not Esau, the rugged, manly-man, older son, was chosen by God to be the head of the family and the one in the line of the Savior. Judah, a violator of marriage vows and the fourth son of Jacob, not Reuben, the firstborn, inherited the line of the Savior. Moses was the youngest of three siblings, yet chosen by God to be the leader of the Israelites. David, the eighth and youngest son of Jesse, was chosen by God to be king. Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, all non-Israelites, were in the line of the Savior. Jesus chose the least likely to be his followers, not brilliant scholars but blue-collar fisherman. They often demonstrated their thick-headedness and lack of understanding. Yet Jesus wanted them to be his followers and used them as his first messengers. He had dinner with tax collectors more than with town leaders. He hung out with and healed. The apostle Paul was the least likely preacher, having been a persecutor of Christians. God used the least likely, the unexpected.
Can God save someone who committed a crime? We don’t know what’s in the heart of someone doing time in jail or on death row. Could someone there come to faith in Jesus? I suppose. Could someone there fake believing in Jesus? I suppose. But it is not our job to play God and try to look into hearts. Our role is to watch God and ask, “Can God really save the worst sinners?” If he can’t or won’t, then there’s a problem because I met the worst sinner ever, and I was not visiting in the county jail. I was looking in a mirror. God doesn’t want us to turn into grumblers like the first hired guys in the story. We need to step back and thank God for the most unexpected miracle of all time. Simply put, God’s number one desire is not unloading divine retribution, but unfolding divine restoration.
That started in Eden. If you were reading the first chapters of the Bible for the first time and witnessed God’s incredible love in giving Adam and Eve a perfect home, a perfect relationship with each other, and a perfect relationship with himself, and then watched as they stuck their tongue out at God and spit in his eye, you would expect a bolt of lightning from the heavens to zap them to smithereens. But that’s not what happened. Against all logic, against all reason, and against all the rules of retribution God did the unexpected and promised to undo the damage by sending a Savior to defeat the devil and restore them into his loving arms.
Against all logic, against all reason, and against all the rules of equal pay for equal work, the landowner did the unexpected and paid the last workers the same as the first. He answered one of them, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a [day’s wages]? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am so generous?” “So,” [Jesus said,] “the last will be first, and the first will be last.
Against all logic, against all reason, and against all the rules of retribution Jesus does the unexpected, turns to us, and says, “You, too, will be with me in paradise.” The cross of Jesus puts an end to all talk of receiving what we expect. That pattern was broken when Jesus was nailed there. He was the one who was pure, but he traded his purity for our perversion. He is the only one who is truly good, but he traded his goodness for our guilt. By his work we enjoy the restoration promised and given to our first parents. It is paradise to be welcomed by the heavenly Father. It is paradise to be saved by Jesus. It is paradise to be with him. God’s greatest joy is to save the least deserving. That’s the point of the parable Jesus told. He is not into paying us back for what we deserve, retribution. He is into undoing the damage we created, restoration. We can expect the unexpected. That’s what he announced to the dying thief on the cross next to him, and that’s what he announces to you and me.
And here’s the added bonus. We can encourage one another in the joyful task of bringing more into God’s vineyard. When we meet folks at heaven’s gate on the Last Day, it won’t matter whether they have known the Holy Scriptures from infancy or whether they just came to faith through our testimony the day before. We will just be glad that they are there.
Little kids cannot appreciate our adult displeasure at others getting something they don’t deserve. But we are children of God, and because of Jesus, we can expect the unexpected, living every day in joy and confidence so that when God determines to end our sojourn here on earth, you will hear him say, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Amen.
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