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Forgetting God. Conspiracy theories and the true cornerstone. Matthew 21.33-46

Matthew 21 is a story that could inspire a block buster.

A man builds a house on the edge of Moscow. He invests his time and his money to build the most amazing building. He brings in skilled workmen and uses the highest quality materials. It looks good and it is good. It is worth millions. 

But he is going away to the US, so he rents it, at a knock down price, to someone he thought was a good friend. All he says to the friend is, ‘Look after the place, and pay me money to cover the bills.’
After a year or two, having heard nothing, he sends an agent to find out what the place is like and to receive the rent. But the so-called good friend doesn’t let the agent in.
The man sends other, different agents. But this time the so-called good friend has them beaten up.
So the man thinks, I’ll send my son. I’m sure there is a misunderstanding, and my friend will obviously respect my son.
But the tenant thinks: The owner lives in the US. I’m registered to this address. If an unfortunate accident happens to the son, then this amazing house belongs to me.
And so he arranges for the son to be murdered. 

The story Jesus tells is not about a house on the edge of Moscow, but about a vineyard. And he then asks his listeners, the Jewish leaders and senior priests: if you were the owner of the house what would you do to that person who you thought was your good friend? He has stolen your property and killed your son and heir.

And they say, ‘He will put him to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time’.

And in the great tradition of the prophets, Jesus turns on the people he is speaking to and says. ‘You are the people, and you are speaking about yourself’

In the Old Testament, Isaiah 5, God likens Israel to a vineyard.
He planted it, nurtured it, cultivated it. He made it special because he wanted to give it to a special people: the children, descendants of Jacob, also known as Israel. A beloved land for a beloved people.

And all that God asked of them was that they remembered that this was his vineyard, they were his tenants, that they would care for the vineyard, and that they would give him some of the fruits of the vineyard – in their sacrifices, tithes and offerings and in their generosity to the poor.

But they did not.

They lived in fantasy land, as if God did not exist. They treated the vineyard as if it belonged to them, and they could do what they liked with it. They did not give him the rent that was due and they did not remember the poor and the vulnerable.

So God sent them his servants the prophets

In our zoom Bible Study we have been reading through Amos. He is one of the first prophets whose words we have written down.

And he has some harsh things to say.
‘Thus says the Lord. I will not revoke the punishment of Israel, of Judah’.
They reject the law of the Lord and have not kept his statutes. They traffic people – selling the needy for the price of a pair of sandals. They trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth. Father and son abuse the same girl. They persecute the righteous, take bribes and pervert justice. They use violence to get what they want. They lie on their beds made from ivory in their summer houses eating the best food, and their wives call for more thousand-dollar bottles of wine, while others go through the rubbish bins seeking something to eat.

And so Amos and the prophets call the people to repentance, to turn back to God:
‘Hate evil and love good and establish justice in the gate’
‘Seek the Lord and live’.

But the people rejected the prophets.

Some they laughed at and ridiculed, some they intimidated and beat, and some they murdered.
And so, says Jesus, God sends his son.
But you, he says to the chief priests, elders, Pharisees, you rejected him and, anticipating what will happen to him in only a few days, you killed him.

Matthew 21 is the story of the vineyard, the story of historic Israel.
But it is also the story of the world

God has given us this beautiful, precious world
And he sent us a people – a people to whom he had entrusted his law and his word - a special people, a people who the Old Testament describes as both his beloved bride and as his son. And they were wake up call to us that there is a God, that this is his world, that there is his law, there is righteousness, and there is justice.

And, yes, this people did fail in their witness, and for a short time the vineyard has been given to others to care for, but please never use this story – as it has been done – as an excuse for anti-Semitism.
For two reasons:
- Hatred of another person (whoever they are) because they belong to a particular race or tribe is in fact a rejection of the creation of God and hatred of the God who created them
- The Jewish people, by their very survival and existence, remain – as Paul writes very clearly in Romans 9 - a witness to the existence of God: to his call, his glory, his law and to his Messiah, Jesus Christ.

As you enter St Mary’s, Bury St Edmunds, where I used to be vicar, if you look up at the roof window ahead of you, you will see a large star of David. 

People are surprised to see it there. They say this is a Christian church, why do you have a Jewish symbol here?
But as Christians we worship Jesus as the promised descendant of the great Jewish King David, and as Son of God.

Please forgive a bit of an aside

We are drawn to conspiracy theories.

A couple of years ago someone came to see me. He said that he wanted to see the ambassador to pass on some information. I had to say that I couldn’t arrange that – but then over a cup of coffee he told me what he wished to tell the ambassador. That Russia is not run by President Putin, or by his ministers, or by the banks or business leaders or whoever, but that Russia is run by a group of mind controlling Magi.
I have to confess that I did not think that this was critical information that Her Majesty’s government needed to know!

But there are some conspiracy theories that are exceptionally dangerous, particularly in a time when people are uncertain about what is true or not true, or who you can really trust. Yesterday I heard someone interviewed in the US who said that she didn’t believe President Trump had COVID but that it was a way for him to get out of the second debate. And there are others who are convinced that COVID is a global conspiracy – either caused by a new mobile network, or that it was launched by the Chinese in order to bring down President Trump.

Please, as Christians, be very cautious about the stories and theories that you share on social media or what you say to friends. Because they can have serious consequences:

When Alison and myself lived in St Petersburg in the early 1990s, there was the revival of a conspiracy theory which stated that the world was being taken over by Jews. I later heard that in a revised version of the same theory in the UK. That theory first did the rounds in the 1890s in Tsarist Russia and, at the time, led to pogroms and dreadful persecution of a whole people, encouraged by the very top. It was the theory that was seized on by the Nazis when they were looking to find a scapegoat, a people who were identifiably different, someone who they could blame for the troubles in the country, and it led to the death camps of Dachau and Auschwitz.

Conspiracy theories are very attractive: they hint at having hidden knowledge, so that you matter – because you know something that somebody else doesn’t, they make great gossip, and they suggest that behind the apparent random chaos of this world there is a hidden hand at work.

Again, I repeat: Please be extremely cautious about sharing a conspiracy theory. I suggest that the default position for Christians, who are called to love and to trust, is to accept the surface explanation of something, and only to seriously investigate if there are obvious questions that need to be asked. And if we are not sure, then we need to learn not to speculate but to stay silent.

But if you are searching for something that makes sense of this world – and which will guide us through the seeming chaos and randomness of history and of life – and if you are searching for something that shows that you matter - then we can do no better than to listen to the story of that people called by God out of Egypt to take care of his vineyard – and, whatever temporarily became of them, to honour them as a flickering flame that points us to God, and the cradle of our Lord Jesus Christ.

He came into this world to reaffirm God’s love for this world and for us. He fulfilled that love by his death on the cross. And he calls us to remember that this world is God’s world, that God is not an absentee landlord and he calls us to respond with gratitude and love for God and with love for the people who he has created.

Jesus Christ is the cornerstone.
The one on whom this universe is built. The one who holds it all together.
He is the one on whom Israel was built, who held Israel together and who is the fulfilment of Israel.
He is the one on whom the Church, the people of God, are built
He is the one on whom we can build our lives

And if we continue to forget God, to treat this world as if it is our own property, to reject his Son and his word, to neglect righteousness and truth and to pervert justice, then this is one of those places in scripture which warn of dreadful consequences.


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