Expecting the Unexpected

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

September 20, 2020
16th Sunday After Pentecost
Scripture readings: Exodus 16: 2-15 and Matthew 20: 1-16

Scripture readings: Exodus 16: 2-15 and Matthew 20: 1-16

Whenever we come together to worship our Lord, there are certain things that you expect from me, so…

  • If I were to begin my sermon by shouting, that would be unexpected.  Yet, in many other churches around the world, preachers begin their message by shouting.
  • If I were to dance down the aisle, moving to rhythmic  music as I spoke, that would be unexpected.  Yet, in many church traditions, the preacher regularly does just that (and so does the congregation).
  • If I were to begin or end my sermon for the day by singing in a rich baritone voice, that would be unexpected – especially because I’m a tenor, not a baritone.

In each case, we have all become accustomed to certain things happening – and certain other things NOT happening.  Each of them is learned behavior: to expect certain things to happen at certain times.  Somehow in life, we respond to these things in normal and predictable ways.  It happens because we have witnessed previous events and have become expectant that they will happen again.

In a previous church I attended, there was a certain elder who would shout, “HALLELUJAH!” each and every time he stood in front of the pulpit microphone to give an announcement.  Once you saw him do it a time or two, you began to expect it whenever he appeared.  Some members would even turn down their hearing aids if they saw him approach the pulpit.  And he never disappointed…we expected it!  

Yet, I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to the Lord, expecting the normal things should not be our usual response.  That’s just not how the Lord operates.

The two pictures that accompany this week’s order of worship show the Israelites gathering manna in the wilderness as they journeyed to the Promised Land, and day laborers gathering grapes in a large vineyard.  In both cases, normal, usual behavior seems to be demonstrated.  

And yet, in both cases, unexpected things are happening.

Looking closely at the ancient Israelites, when they escaped from Egypt’s Pharaoh led by Moses, we have a story that should have encouraged those Hebrew slaves to expect that every day would bring a new miracle, a new demonstration of God’s power, a new act of love and protection by God for his people.  And yet, despite all that they had seen and knew, those Israelites seemed to go out of their way to ignore the unexpected instead of waiting and watching for it.

Note the following:

  • God brought multiple plagues upon the Egyptians, and yet the Hebrew slaves were completely untouched; still, the slaves were afraid and didn’t want to follow Moses.
  • God sent specific instructions for the Passover – the ultimate act that would force Pharaoh to free his slaves; still, after their escape, those Hebrew slaves would grumble aloud that they had it better back in Egypt.
  • When they were thirsty in the desert, God made water gush forth out of a rock.  Only then were the Israelites ready to give praise to God.

So, if we examine the behavior of the Hebrew-slaves-turned-Israelites, their expected behavior was to fuss and complain every time something came up – any hardship at all – instead of turning immediately and instinctively to God and awaiting his actions.  Instead of expecting the unexpected, they just conveniently forgot all they knew.

So often that is our own human response to God’s generosity…

This is the very definition of “normal human behavior.”  I mean, how long does it take before we actually and truly trust God?  How many times does God have to deliver before we begin to routinely expect the unexpected?

In today’s reading, the Israelites were hungry.  They had just left a lovely desert oasis and were heading right into a vast nothingness.  I think we can all agree that this didn’t look good; perhaps they were panicking because they had just been in a place where they could get food and water if they needed it.  Perhaps they saw God’s blessing as bringing them safely to this spot where they could fend for themselves.  If that were true, we could almost understand their whining.

But stop again and consider all they had seen and experienced.  Expecting the unexpected should have been their first reaction.

In fact, the “expected” that the Israelites witnessed was pretty unexpected.  They saw plagues that haunted the Egyptians but didn’t touch them.  Now they saw manna on the desert floor every morning and quail every evening – plenty to eat for everyone.  And their first reaction was to ask, “What is it?” probably in manner that really said what my grandson says when we put a new type of food in front of him: “I’m not eating that!”

Another point to consider in the Exodus reading is to remember that God proved he was present in the ordinary needs and issues of daily lives, not just those that were crucial and vital to their survival.  Yes, God brought plagues and even death upon Egypt; yes, God parted the Red Sea, saved the Israelites, and even drowned the Egyptian army.  Yes, God did all those things.  But God also handled the ordinary, everyday human issues like food and water.  When he did, he even took the object of the Israelites’ anger away from Moses and Aaron and directed it upon himself.  To most people, that seems pretty unexpected.

In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Jesus could be possibly telling a story that would truly bother the Pharisees and religious leaders who were always looking for trouble.  Note that the religious authorities of Jesus’ day had lived every second of their public lives training and living public examples of obedience to the Law handed down to their ancestors by God himself.  In obeying and guarding every particle of that Law, they saw themselves as somehow deserving of the mercy that God would show for all his faithful servants.  Yet, in their piety, they seemed to have no room at all for mercy.  Recall how often we have heard the phrase “tax collectors and sinners” when the Gospel tells us about some of the people Jesus hung around.  Those “lowest-of-the-lows” would have to work long and hard to earn enough stars in their heavenly crowns to be admitted into heaven…and even then, the religious leaders of the day would get there first.  They would probably earn the best seats at the table of God too.

Jesus did not see salvation that way, and we should not either.

We say and proclaim that we believe God wants to save every single one of his children.  We profess that God’s mercy cannot be earned but is joyfully given through the grace of God.  We understand and teach that even if you have sinned mightily, you can still be forgiven – even in the 11th hour – if you truly repent and believe.  This is a basic foundation of our faith.

So, we should understand fully the parable of the laborers in the field.  The first workers labor all day and receive their reward from the Master.  The next set of workers – who arrive a little later – work half the day and receive the same reward from the Master.  The Johnny-come-latelys show up late in the afternoon, work hard for a couple of hours, and still receive the same reward from the Master.

That isn’t fair!  In America, we believe that you earn what you work for.  If everyone is paid the same wage – no matter what – what is that?  We are certainly not comfortable with it because it’s not expected.

Just like those stubborn, whiney Israelites in the days of Moses, we seem to be blind to the mighty power and the awesome mercy of God.  We understand intellectually what God has done, what God is capable of doing, but we don’t expect it.  Instead, we expect God to act like we do.

Even more, we want what we think (or what we know) should deserve to happen.  We also want others to get what they deserve too – especially if it’s punishment.  We want sinners to get what’s coming to them!

But we don’t know anyone’s heart and mind except for our own.  Not really.

We only know ourselves.  And that’s a problem for us.

In our own tiny windows of faith, we don’t often have room for wonderful, amazing, unexpectedthings to appear in our lives.  We may believe it happened in Biblical times, but not now.

Those who claim to worship our God of mercy should imitate His mercy, not begrudge it to anyone. Jesus put both religious authorities and tax collectors and sinners into the same category, titled “Possibly Saved For All Eternity.”  

He puts all of us in the same category until the final second of our natural lives…and then he decides.

Perhaps expecting the unexpected in our lives would be a good first step in our relationships with others.  And perhaps living with others in those relationships would demonstrate to them to expect the unexpected in their own lives.