Needed Surprise - thrive UMC Official Blog

Needed Surprise


Next week, in precisely a week from right about now, something is going to happen, right?  Next Sunday is no ordinary Sunday, but it is, instead…. Easter, isn’t it?  And also April Fool’s day, which to me is a beautiful and completely appropriate overlap.  Because Easter really is a day that commemorates and celebrates being fooled.

I mean, the disciples were all like: “oh no!  Jesus is dead!”

But then three days later, God goes: “Haha -April fools, dudes!” Right?

And then we all go: awesome!  Where’s the chocolate and the gratuitous brunch?

But it’s weird, isn’t it?  To have a surprise like that scheduled on a calendar.  Just imagine planning a surprise birthday party for someone in your family, but just to make sure this family-member can be there, you tell them: ‘hey Betsy, make sure you keep your calendar open for April First, 2019, from 4-10 p.m. so you can come to the Applebees in Clive, okay?”

And Betsy goes: “Yeah sure.  But, uh, why?”

“I can’t say, because it’s a surprise!  …For YOU!”  And then you repeat the same event, year after year after year for two millennia.  That’s what Easter is.  Where, sure, maybe the first time around people were caught a little off guard, but eventually everyone comes around to the realization that this is just another thing that happens.  At the same time, and in the same place, every year.

So it’s also no surprise that most of us already have our Easter plans: for food and fun and family.  Some of you, I bet, even have your outfits picked out already.  Because Easter is a thing that’s going to happen; and we know how to do Easter.  We bust out our pastels; we go to church; we hide impossibly-bright plastic eggs allegedly spilled forth from the loins of magic bunnies; and we peruse WebMD because –Christ is risen!-  but we’re not so sure about the state of our liver after consuming a toddler’s weight in sugar.  That’s Easter.  That’s what we do: church, eggs, hyperglycemic fits of rage, we’ll see you next year.  Let’s all just hope the weather cooperates.

Which, incidentally, is also why Jesus died, horrifically, on a cross and rose from the terrible pit of Sheol in the first place, right?  Because we Americans were a little short on excuses to play tricks on children and because the Peeps-brand marshmallows company needed saving.

It’s a weird Easter basket we have on our hands now, isn’t it? But it’s not really a surprise, because after a while, the shock just wears off, right?  And you’ve got to fill it with something, so why not candy and fun?  But the great irony of it all, and the reason it seems to me so fitting that Easter falls on April Fool’s day this year, is because, if we follow the larger narrative in the Bible, we’ll discover that that’s precisely what started all of the trouble in the first place, seven hundred years before Jesus was born.

Throughout this last month of Lent, we’ve been reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah.  And this is an extremely important part of the Bible as we approach Easter, because it –perhaps more than any other book in the Hebrew Bible (O.T.)- helps to set the stage for the events that unfolded around the life and resurrection of Jesus.  And we’ll talk about that a little more next week, but for now I just wanted to share with you all an illustration from Isaiah, which goes to explain how history turned against God’s chosen people.

Please turn with me to the book of Isaiah, chapter five.  Here the prophet has composed a song or a poem about God.  It goes like this:

Let me sing for my loved one a love song for his vineyard.

My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.

He dug it,

cleared away its stones,

planted it with excellent vines,

built a tower inside it,

and dug out a wine vat in it.

He expected it to grow good grapes—

but it grew rotten grapes.

So now, you who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah,

judge between me and my vineyard:

What more was there to do for my vineyard

that I haven’t done for it?

When I expected it to grow good grapes,

why did it grow rotten grapes?

Now let me tell you what I’m doing to my vineyard.

I’m removing its hedge,

so it will be destroyed.

I’m breaking down its walls,

so it will be trampled.

I’ll turn it into a ruin;

it won’t be pruned or hoed,

and thorns and thistles will grow up.

I will command the clouds not to rain on it.

The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel,

and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted.

God expected justice, but there was bloodshed;

righteousness, but there was a cry of distress!

Here in this song, we find Isaiah singing a song to Jerusalem.  It’s a love song for someone he loves, about a cherished vineyard.  And in it, he lifts up all of the work that went into its creation, so we can imagine the tenderness with which this unnamed lover toiled: digging, clearing, planting, and building.  All of it so that he could grow ripe, delicious grapes.  And perhaps these delicious grapes would be fermented into a fine wine.  We’ll never know because in spite of the tireless, tender care, and in spite of the faithful labors, the delicious grapes that were hoped for never sprouted.  Instead, the grapes that grew were ‘reeking’ –they were bad.  They were rotten.

And here we’re invited to sit with the frustration of this anonymous winemaker.  I would imagine that even some of you here have been where that winemaker has been: where you did your research, bided your time, did all the work, and made all the necessary investments, only to eventually find all of your hard work turn out barren –or what’s worse, rancid.

Imagine the Iowa farmer who has hundreds of acres of fertile land, and the best, most cutting-edge equipment, who invests in premium seed, and the most effective and environmentally friendly fertilizers and pesticides (possessing all the debt to match!). This farmer toils, from sunrise to sunset to till, plant and spray –and the weather is perfect and the crop is bountiful!  Only to start to harvest and notice the corn smells like it’s already been run twice through a chicken!  Even Brach’s –the candy company-  refuses to take it for free, to use for corn syrup to make their already inedible Fiesta eggs.

Or what teacher hasn’t had a student who’s a little behind –so you stay after school, provide extra encouragement and tutoring.  You reach out to the family, and do everything you can to be invested in this student and in their success.  And yet, at the end of the year, you catch them blatantly cheating on all of their work.

Imagine the insurance agent, who gathers a wide, terrific client-base, providing incredible coverage at an affordable price.  Even their underwriting is immaculate.  Only to awaken one fateful morning, to the news of the second coming of Jesus.  Suddenly, of their pristine policies and protection plans are dropped like a beer at a high school party when the cops knock.

Most of us can relate, can’t we?  We can feel, within ourselves, the frustration that comes from the experience of working so well and so hard, only to have all the fruits of your labors go bad –that frustration comes alive again just from hearing someone else’s story!  How maddening it is when the effort expended far exceeds the outcome!  How unjust!

So of course it’s no surprise to hear that the winemaker in the song goes on a bit of a rampage –given the circumstance, who wouldn’t?  Who wouldn’t kick over the walls and uproot the stinking plants?  Who wouldn’t scream at, and stamp down, those cursed, malodorous grapes?  That seems like the obvious thing to do.

But the curveball here comes at the very last line: “the vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted.  God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress!” And in the original Hebrew, this poem is much more powerful, because the word for Justice here is “mishpat” and the word for bloodshed is “mishpah” –they’re words that sound nearly identical, except for the last note.  And it’s a similar case for the Hebrew words for righteousness and distress.  How close are the sounds of justice and bloodshed in our mouths, but we’ve spoken the wrong word! So here’s the surprise, you people of Jerusalem: the condemnation you shared with the righteous winemaker is for you.  You are the foul grapes!  You are not the good fruit you were planted and tenderly nurtured to become.  You’ve wrinkled with disgust the very noses you were supposed to delight.

And then, if we continue to read on, we’ll see a long list of what my translation of the Bible titles as “sayings of doom.” Doom to those who buy houses they don’t live in.  Doom to those who live to party.  Doom to those who think they’re wise. Trust me, in the sixteen verses that follow, there is plenty of doom for everyone.

When I read this, especially as it’s said out-loud to all of you, I can’t help but wonder: what’s going on within all of us when we hear these words?  Are they frightening, or wise, or boring?  Is it confusion we feel, or a reverent sense of mystery?

And what do we do for the brief few fleeting moments that they inhabit our skulls?  Do we dismiss them as an angry tirade of an obsolete god? Do we ignore them because we assume they’re about someone else, in some other time and place?  Or are we so bewildered by the words as they appear that we can’t help but refocus on more familiar pastures?

Personally, and especially as I’ve been studying and praying over this book we’ve been reading for the last three weeks, I find myself both thrilled and bewildered by what I see.  Here I know that these are real events.  The doom of war really did visit a whole people.  And throughout the bloody history of our strange species, this is by no means an isolated event or experience.  Even today, war still looms like a cloud of death over so much of our world; and no doubt the question it leaves with its haunted survivors is the shortest, and most impossible of all questions: ‘why?’

Why this doom?  Why this death?  Why this terrible and overwhelming grief?

And sometimes I waver as to the real value of the question ‘why,’ but I’m nonetheless always surprised by what the questioning reveals.  Always there seems to be an openness and a closed-ness that cohabitate in the questioning. Obviously the senselessness wraps some kind of mystery, like an unopened present –and we do what we can to unwarp it; but at the same time, there are always options we refuse to consider.  Truths that would wound us more, if we were to gaze too long upon them.

But there are two things in this Isaiah story that truly set it apart nearly every other thing written down by a human hand.  And the first thing that sets it apart is that we have this record of a defeated people.  As most of us have so frequently heard, history is written by the winners; but the book of Isaiah –and some might go so far as to add the whole bible-  is the story of people who lost.  And it might be worth a moment of our time to marvel at this strange fact: here are a people who were swallowed up by a larger, foreign force –but instead of being absorbed into the dominant culture, they decided to write document the struggle of their people, as if it were a manifesto against conformity.

And the second thing that makes this writing of Isaiah unique is it’s response to the question of why?  Any other people or culture would look at their experience of defeat and likely respond something like: you were just at the wrong place at the wrong time.  I mean look at a map!  The world super-powers of the day pretty much made a circle around your location –so of course it was bound to happen! Or others might look at military tactics, or political strategies, or particular cultural attitudes to answer why this violence happened.  Still others might suggest that, well, the Assyrians were just bad people.

But here the response of the prophet is shocking: the reason, he says, all of this happened to us, is us! We weren’t righteous!  We weren’t just ourselves! That’s why a foreign army came and stole our land, and why so many were killed, and why our people were taken as slaves!

And at first, it seems crazy, right?  It’d be like sitting in your front lawn, watching your house burn, and in the light of the blaze, you see your spouse turn to you and go: “see!  Do you see this?  This is what happens when you shop at Walmart, honey!”  Meaning, the connection is far from obvious –but, as the fire marshal later points out, sometimes the quality of your candles and curtains does matter.  But for the people of Jerusalem, as Isaiah points out, their failure at war was preceded by a much deeper and worse failure: because the people of Israel were set apart to be a blessing.  That is at the core of who they were and who they are: they were put on this earth to bless the nations.  But instead of blessing, they had become self-absorbed. Instead of being a beacon of justice and righteousness of the world, they had conformed.  Therefore, long before the Babylonians invaded and hauled them away, they were already doomed.  Because their real defeat came when they lost the struggle to be righteous.

And I think we call all see a deep truth here: that when we let our vigilance slip, justice can quickly become mispronounced as bloodshed.  Over the last twenty years, we’ve seen our personal privacy balanced against national security –perhaps not so expertly.  We’ve seen the tools that are meant for hunting and protection be used for senseless violence. We live surrounded by strangers and often in fear, because the work of building healthy relationships seems either too scary or uneconomical.  Look at how Christianity and this sacred book have been dismissed out of hand, because the actions of those waiving bibles don’t reflect the love, justice, and mercy of what’s contained within.

Which is precisely why the work of renewal is so vital.  If we don’t renew our relationships with our families and our spouses and our friends, then they stagnate, and then putrefy  into resentment.   If we don’t consciously work to renew ourselves, we’ll turn into lumpy, despairing zombies.  If we don’t renew our nation, and if we don’t actively work to build new relationships with those we call our neighbors, then… just look around! And if we don’t renew our relationship with the holy –with God, and with our community of faith, and with our holy Bible, then we’ll risk forgetting who we were created to become in the first place.

Yes, this is a new time, and a new circumstance.  And we’ll have to face a lot of unforeseeable surprises.  But as we move into a new space, we shouldn’t let go of, or neglect, the spirit that makes us who we are –the spirit that makes us good.