Lent 5 – St. Luke 20:9-20
That is the expression we use when we hear something that is hard to believe. We use it when we hear of a huge upset in sports; we use it when we hear that the weather will be quite unseasonable; we hear it when someone is telling a joke; and we use it when we hear that someone has suffered greatly or has died unexpectedly.
But we also use it when we hear something that we do not want to believe; we use it when we hear that the joke is on us, or that the law is being spoken in our direction.
In our Gospel text, the crowds speak the words Surely not after hearing Jesus speak the parable of the wicked tenants; to which we ourselves might respond Surely not. Was something spoken in the parable really all that surprising or unexpected? It all seems rather ordinary.
I suppose it is rather unexpected that the wicked tenants have killed the son of the owner. After all, what kind of monsters are these? They are violating every rule and norm that is put forth when renting – you don’t destroy the property; you don’t treat the collectors harshly; and you don’t kill the owner’s son. Surely not is our own expression that some people could be so harsh, so cruel, so brutal, so disregarding of the laws of the land.
But who can be surprised after the death of the son, that the owner would send an army to destroy those wicked tenants? This one is a little tougher to fathom, because for most of us, the son would have had an army and destroyed those tenants himself, and that would have come far sooner than when this owner sent them. The question must be asked however: why are the crowds surprised at this very reasonable action? What else did they expect the owner to do? Allow these wicked tenants to have the property and do as they please forever?
But perhaps least surprising of all, is that anyone would be surprised that the owner would give the vineyard to other tenants; again, much like the previous, the question is: why are the people surprised? What do they expect the owner to do? Walk away from the land? Tend to it himself, no matter the distance or inconvenience? Give the land to the wicked tenants and never collect his share of the harvest?
But perhaps all of this really comes down to the person of the owner. If this were a random piece of land, owned by a random person in the world, rented out to random tenants, and the events that unfolded before us in the parable occurred, there would be no surprise at all. The owner would be completely justified in all of his actions, and we would laud him for his patience in not destroying those wicked tenants far earlier.
But what happens when we put a name and a face to this owner, what happens when we put an identification on the owner not of some random person, but of the Lord God almighty; and what happens when we go a step further and say that the tenants are those of us gathered here today?
Suddenly we are shocked by all that has happened, confused, left with the response Surely not.
Are we really surprised? Indeed we are. But we are not surprised at the actions themselves, we are suddenly surprised that God would carry them out.
After all, that is not the picture of God that the world has drawn for us. In a world that has no use for God, no need for His gifts or His grace, and no concern for His Word; we have allowed the world to define God for us.
And how has the world defined God?
As a kind and loving God, who never takes any action of consequence against His people. As a God who stands before us and gives us anything and everything we want in His vineyard, with absolutely no expectation of anything in return. As a God who pats us on the head and rewards us, because at one point or another we made a halfhearted confession of faith, that we really never had any intention of keeping.
How the world has defined God is as the owner of the vineyard, who hands you the whole thing, and never asks anything in return. And you can do and say whatever you want, and God still has to let you keep the vineyard, because, well, why not?
You want to reject the prophets and those who come bearing warnings? Go right ahead; after all, what is God going to do about it?
You want to ignore any and all calls for you to repent and bear fruits in keeping with that repentance? Be our guest, because there will never be any repercussions.
You want to kill the son under some half-baked notion that this will somehow yield you an even greater reward? Well, couldn’t hurt to try; after all, what could happen?
And when Christ comes in glory, and you find yourself receiving the judgment of death and hell, you are only left to stand by and say Surely not!
Surely indeed. For those who reject the Word of the Lord, for those who refuse to repent; for those who refuse to bear fruits in keeping with that repentance, there is judgment on the horizon for you.
The story of Israel, the story of the world today, is the same; a constant assumption that no matter what you do or say, there will be absolutely no consequences at all, for God would never do that to you.
And yet, like the parable, the day of reckoning is soon coming; and judgment will be swift and quick on all those who do not believe.
And yet, there is one more Surely not to which we can ascribe to this parable.
Surely not that God would send yet another call to repent and receive the forgiveness of sins, and be welcomed back into His grace and mercy.
Surely not after you have sinned and gone astray, would God send His prophets and messengers to call you to repent.
Surely not after you have ignored the call to repent from those prophets and messengers would God send yet still more prophets and messengers to call you to repent.
Surely not after you have ignored yet again the call to repent from those prophets and messengers would God send His one and only Son into the world to call you to repent.
Surely not after you have killed the Son and buried Him in a tomb, would there be still yet another call to repent.
Surely not, all these years later, there is yet another call to repent, and receive the free gifts of mercy and grace once more from your Father in heaven.
Surely not. We stand in disbelief that the Lord of heaven and earth, who has watched us make a mess of His vineyard both in the church and in the world, would extend to you and to I yet another chance to repent of our sins and be spared the coming wrath and destruction that we deserve.
Surely not; and yet surely indeed.
Hear once more the call to repent of your sins and to bear fruits in keeping with repentance. Hear once more the call of the prophets and messengers of old; hear once more the call of the apostles and evangelists; hear once more the call of the Son; repent, and receive the forgiveness of sins, and be spared the coming wrath and judgement.
Surely not, and yet surely indeed.
The real surprise today, and each day, is not the wrath of God that is coming on those who reject His Word; but rather the grace and mercy He has promised to those who hear His word, repent of their sins, and believe.