Proper 20 – Series A
If you have never read the Confessions of Augustine, you really need to do it sometime. He created the genre of autobiography with it and shaped the human self-understanding right up to the present. Luther was profoundly influenced by his reading of Augustine. In the first sentence of his Confessions Augustine wrote that we are always restless until we find rest in God. What is it that we seek? What is this “rest?”
Paul will speak of it as joy for the next several weeks as we hear his letter to the Philippians read in our Sunday services. In a negative example, Jesus today will depict a group of people who have been given heaven itself and still find a reason to complain. Are they pictures of opposites? Paul, in prison, without the basic liberties we so take for granted, is joyful. The laborers in the vineyard of Jesus parable have a job, they have been hired, they are about to be paid, but they grouse.
What does Paul have that the laborers do not have? And how do I get some of that?
For the past two weeks we have been exploring forgiveness as a community, and especially within the community. Just before I walked into the service one Sunday at the congregation for which I was the pulpit supply, a member walked up to me and asked for a prayer. A family which he knew had undergone a truly horrific tragedy. The father of a 13-year-old autistic son had shot and killed the boy. Suddenly the words that Jesus’ forgiveness is big enough to cover any sin took on a whole new meaning as did Joseph’s forgiveness of the brothers that tried to do away with him through enslavement in Egypt.
We noticed last week that the unforgiving servant did not seem to believe that the forgiveness of his debt had actually happened. He was collecting so that he could repay what he owed. His failure to forgive the debt of his fellow servant was a fundamental denial of the forgiveness he had received.
It would seem that this week’s readings flow right out of that matrix. The peace, the joy, the rest for which we pine, is not found in the accumulation of things, or the exertion of power, or great fame. It is not found, according to Paul, in the things the world counts as security. This rest is found only when we rest in God, in the Christ who has given all for me, and to whom all is owed.
The failure to find such peace is not due to some material lack nor is it the fault of others, but it is the fundamental human condition whose cure can only be Jesus. My deepest issues are faith issues. The grumbling servants in the parable have completely missed the point of the kingdom. No one gets paid. Whether I am welcomed into the pearly gates after a lifetime of service or a moment of conversion, it is a matter of gift, pure and simple. The master has given, who am I to question his largess, especially when I am so lost without it.
But that restless old man will fight it. He will rebel against the notion that God is not paying for this. He wants something from me. My endless hours sitting in committees or putting up with the women in the lady’s aide society must mean something. After all, did I not suffer too? 2
Alas, the subject of the verbs in the prior paragraph is all mixed up. Yes, I did suffer, but that has not purchased me one square inch of heaven, that has not earned me one smile from God. It was the kingdom of heaven showing up in my life and my tears are precious to the Father, but they in no way indebt him to me. I cannot apply the same economics to God that I use for the rest of the world. They just do not work that way.
Lord God, heavenly Father, since we cannot stand before You relying on anything we have done, help us trust in Your abiding grace and live according to Your Word; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Once again the collect begins in that uncomfortable place for us to be as modern Americans: dependence. We like our independence but this reflects on our dependency on God. Our own deeds, our own right-ness is insufficient. But we do stand before God. We do not get squashed like bugs but we are given the beautiful name of “son of God” and we are counted as his precious children. Can it be any better? The prayer asks God to keep us trusting in his abiding grace and living according to the Word of God.
Which of course has us asking what the grace is that we should trust it and what the Word says that we should live by it? This seems like pretty basic stuff and perhaps we do not want to get too deep here, but it simply should be noted that grace is not easy to trust. In this world in which we live, we have very few occasions to experience grace. Most of our dealings horizontally with one another are decidedly ungracious and that is a good thing. We have rules about paying for things, so that the merchant can feed his children and the man who grows the food or makes the shoes or builds the car gets his fair wage as well. This is not a bad thing, but it all can conspire against us when it comes to hearing and especially trusting grace. We have a natural and human tendency to take those horizontal relationships we have with one another and tip them on end and interact with God on that same economy. I think we have an easier time with the one-time grace shot. We all like to imagine that we would be big enough to say “I forgive you” in the face of some whopper sin. But often it is the little things, the cumulative things that annoy us even more and for which we find it more difficult to receive grace. How many times does she have to pick up his dirty socks? It seems like every day. But this grace of God is abiding grace, it doesn’t just show up on the days of the big sins, but it is there for the persistent and the pervasive sins which often are not life wreckers but are sins nonetheless.
All of this means we get to live according to the Word. Where does that challenge you and your people? Where does God’s authoritative claim to shape my life run into that old stinker of a sinner? Is it in my materialism? Is it in my need to compare myself with my neighbor? Does God’s shaping Word have the most to do in my life when it encounters the way I treat my children, watch my television, or solve my problems?
The preacher may also want to keep in mind a growing phenomenon of our generation: we are too apt to trust. The whole Enlightenment project was designed to make us skeptical. We were 3
not supposed to follow blindly any authority. But notice how that has worked out. We trust just about anything we read on the internet; how can we say that we cannot trust? The fact is that we always have to trust someone, the key is whom do we trust. The picture of us as inept is very Lutheran. We are terrible at discernment. Luther starts the 3rd Article’s explanation with the famous words, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ…” We would unfriend God on Facebook and fail to follow him on Twitter, but we are willing to buy into the latest fad diet or miracle pill which gets hawked at us in a social media ad. Or perhaps you have subscribed to the classes and books promoted by the fellows assuring you that you can make thousands every day as an online trader. We are not untrusting people, we are gullible.
The other important point to make here is that God’s love does not find its object, it creates it. God never loves someone because he found them to be loveable, rather his love makes us into loving and lovable people in his sight. God never reacts to our faith or our trust.
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 3 Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. 4 Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. 5 Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know, and a nation that did not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.
6 “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; 7 let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, 4
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12 “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the LORD, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
Isaiah 55 shows up again and again. It is just one of those root texts of the OT, especially for Christians who come to the mystery of God’s grace. This is the third time it has shown up since Pentecost. Today we focus on that part of the text that tells us that His ways are not my ways, thank God. My ways tend to be vindictive and scale-balancing acts in which I strive mightily to make sure I end up on top. God’s way involves a cross and the death of Jesus and my forgiveness at His expense. His way is indeed not my way, his way is the way of the cross, on the bottom of the heap, losing all, that others might gain.
So, seek the Lord while he may be found, call on him while he is near. God does not stand today with a club and a thunderbolt to smash the sinner, but with merciful arms spread wide he embraces his lost children. It will not always be that way. The last day is not a day for repentance, but Scripture certainly says that there is a day when the sinners will be judged, and the unrighteous man will bear his punishment. But that is not this day. As long as it is day, we can return to him. The night comes, the days grow short. In this time God offers abundant pardon. There is no sin for which Jesus has not died.
One might preach on the presence and accessibility of God with this text. Many generations of OT people never heard a voice from the sky. That actually was a very rare event. God was 5
present in temple and prophets. They brought their sacrifices and God restored them to the covenantal purity which he established at Sinai. There were miraculous events in the OT, but surely many lived and died without seeing them. Likewise, many rejected Jesus. Look at the final verses of John 6. Jesus did not appear always to be a heavenly voice. In order for them to walk away, he must have seemed very human, very normal.
God is available and accessible to us now. He is discoverable. We can find him. What makes him available to us is that he has not yet come in judgment. These are the days of God’s mercy and gracious hearing of confession. We should use them.
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall.
3 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident.
4 One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.
5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock.
6 And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD. 6
7 Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud; be gracious to me and answer me! 8 You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, LORD, do I seek.” 9 Hide not your face from me. Turn not your servant away in anger, O you who have been my help. Cast me not off; forsake me not, O God of my salvation! 10 For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the LORD will take me in.
11 Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies. 12 Give me not up to the will of my adversaries; for false witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence.
13I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living! 14 Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!
I am not sure why the editors of the pericope system cut this psalm where they did. Verse 10 especially seems like a powerful statement of the Gospel. What is more, I think the later verses in the psalm really serve to balance the initial verses’ triumphal praise of God. I am still needing to be led, I look upon the goodness of the LORD, it is true, but I have to believe that I will do so. I still need the exhortation to courage.
Poets, and the psalmist is a poet of the first rank, intend for their work to be experienced in its entirety.
Is this psalm a perfect psalm for our day? There is so much that would make us afraid and rob us of confidence. The enemy that consumes our flesh might just be named COVID. But our hope is to dwell in the house of the LORD forever. Heaven has gotten a bad rap lately. Perhaps it needs to be rehabilitated.
Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30 (Here is another example of editing which I find less than salutary. This omission of verses 15-18 seems to be a particularly egregious effort to shape the text to certain parochial interests. I am sorry if I offend anyone, but as Lutherans we need to be glad 7
that the gospel is preached, wherever it is preached, yes, (gasp) even if it is from a Methodist pulpit!)
1Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. 6And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. 7It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. 9And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.
27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from 8
God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
Today begins another sermon series opportunity. We could preach for the next several weeks on Paul’s letter to the Philippians. After a steady diet of heavy Romans theology over the summer, this fall we get to think about something a little lighter perhaps, but equally significant.
Paul writes this letter from prison. Ancient prisons are nothing like they are today where prisoners can expect regular meals, clothing, decent conditions and even exercise and television opportunities during their time of incarceration. The prisoner was often responsible for his own clothing and sustenance in ancient prisons. It was expected that his family would feed and clothe and take care of him. Apparently, the good folks up in Philippi had taken their love of Paul and their affection for him quite responsibly. They had sent a young man to be their caregiver for Paul, a fellow by the name of Epaphroditus. This was a very generous and kind thing for them to do, but unfortunately poor Epaphroditus got sick, almost died and Paul ended up caring for him.
Hearing about this situation the Christians, who likely included his own family, in Philippi were concerned and Paul decided that it was best to send him back home. Not wishing to appear ungrateful, you can imagine he wanted to send a letter explaining what had happened and how grateful he was. But that letter would have taken all of one page. Paul took the occasion to include a theological treatise, an essay, an exploration of a pertinent theological theme with the letter which he sent home with Epaphroditus. This theme was Christian joy.
Now, it may seem odd for a man in prison to write about joy, but that is exactly the point Paul wants to make. Even when things are not so great, he can rejoice because these things are not the real story, the real story of my life took place on a cross and an empty tomb some years ago when Jesus died and rose again for my sins and for my justification. That event has now totally transformed Paul’s life. He used to throw folks into prison for believing this and now, himself thrown in prison, he wants the Philippians to know that he is OK with that, that this is not a failure of his mission or ministry, but in fact may be another opportunity for the Gospel to shine. What is more, he wants them to see how this generous gift on their part has given him joy and can also give them joy.
We don’t know exactly when Paul was imprisoned and wrote this letter. We know of at least three possible imprisonments with sufficient time for all this to have transpired. He was imprisoned in Ephesus apparently when he was there. Very little is known about that one. Luke records that he was in prison for over two years in Caesarea, Palestine. From there he journeyed to and was imprisoned in Rome, initially under a house arrest of sorts but apparently later under a much more severe arrest, at least reading from the second letter to Timothy. The later imprisonment is probably the best candidate for this. This of course puts this letter toward the end of Paul’s career when he was at the height of his conservable theological powers and when he had had several years to reflect upon and consider his mission and ministry. 9
This initial chapter, which I have included in full for us today, begins immediately with a discussion of joy, not the circumstances of Paul’s imprisonment. He can rejoice for a couple of reasons in this first chapter First of all, his imprisonment has not stopped the gospel from being preached. In fact, with Paul in prison, now more folks are preaching. It is too bad that they elided the verses in the middle of our reading. The idea that even the greedy or self-serving preacher is still preach the Gospel is a real challenge to the Donatist impulse which continues to plague western Christianity. (The Donatists were fourth and fifth century heretics who believed that a sacramental act performed by a priest who was insufficiently rigorous was invalid.)
The second reason that Paul can rejoice is that no matter what happens, he either gets to serve Jesus here or be with Jesus in heaven and those are both really good options. He likes these options and really is having a hard time choosing between the two. But he is confident that God still has a few things for him to do here for the Philippians.
The upshot of all this is that the Philippians are challenged to live like Paul here. Their joy and confidence, even in the face of suffering and persecution is a sign of their own salvation and the destruction of the bad guys. We don’t know exactly who they would be, but probably the same Judaizing crowd that plagued his ministry in nearby Thessalonica and Berea.
The preacher who undertakes this series will want to keep in mind the whole setting for the book. Paul wants them to have joy and has some pretty clear reasons for joy, even when you are sitting in a dark and dank prison cell. This can be hard for folks who are sitting on padded pews. The tendency of such people is to take the little deprivations and feel them more acutely for the fact that they are against such a backdrop of relative ease. I was sitting in my colleague’s office the other day listening to a man describe his life. He was a refugee from Ethiopia and was currently living on the wages his wife earned as a parking lot cashier downtown and $1,000/month he earned as a leader in the locol Oromo congregation. He was searching for the most menial work. He called himself blessed. Both Herb and I remarked after he left that we would have found his situation a terrible affliction, yet, he counted himself blessed.
That brings to mind as well the Sudanese Christians in Salt Lake City who sang and worshiped with such joy even though they had been persecuted out Sudan, many had seen family members murdered, raped, starved, and beaten. They had not been allowed to go to school as a Christian. Yet, here they were on Sunday morning singing and worshiping with obvious joy. I had the same experience in India six years ago. Despite a hostile Hindu government and many problems, these people had real joy. They had something the bad guys could not take away and something which day would result in the undoing of all this persecution. They had Jesus.
Our lack of joy is not a problem of our environment or health or government or anything of the sort. Our lack of joy is due to a lack of Jesus or at least our inability to perceive him amid all the blessings we clutch to ourselves and think we own by right.
The preacher, especially the preacher who has a number of military veterans within his parish, may want to look at the last paragraph carefully. It is filled with military metaphors, standing 10
firm in the face of an opponent, united into a military formation in which the individual members depend upon the steadfast presence of the others.
Philippi was a military town. This is the site of the important battle between Octavian Augustus and the last remnants of the republican old guard who had murdered Julius Caesar on the Ides of March. Octavian and Mark Antony finally caught up with them in Philippi and defeated them. In a sense, this city is the Gettysburg or Valley Forge of the Roman Empire. They commemorated this event by turning the city into a Roman colony and granting retiring military veterans the first century equivalent of a pension. In the first century you got a farm, a piece of land that could support you and your family. Plus, as a colony, the people in Philippi had the same rights as a citizen of the city of Rome. Paul is playing on all this throughout the letter. Here he seems to be appealing to the soldiers’ memory of their legionary cohesion. They are united in a very different army now, but the imagery applies, or at least, Paul applied it.
This is masterful preaching and letter writing here. Paul knows his audience and is using the metaphors and language which speaks to them.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”
17 And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, 18 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death 19 and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” 11
Another parable of Jesus, and this one is really designed to deliver a shot right to the solar plexus of our human pride and the self-righteousness to which Christians are especially prone. Robert Capon has a marvelous retelling of this story as if the owner of the vineyard is Robert Mondavi which is really worth reading if you have his little books on parables. They have now been bound into one text: Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment This is a book worth reading if you have not already.
The basic gist of the parable is that the grace of God is somewhat scandalous. He loves people and gives them his heaven and his blessing in a rather prodigal way, especially for those of us who have been slogging along in the pews, serving on committees, tithing, teaching Sunday School, and setting up the altar every week. .
For the Christian, the guy or gal who has served on the committees and the altar guild and eaten burned pancakes at the Easter breakfast because they ran out of the good ones, this comes as a terrible shock. God is not really counting my good deeds. He is not noticing what I have done, at least not like I want him to. He sees it alright and in a sense takes pleasure there, but when it comes to grace, it is grace and not for sale. My good works don’t really buy anything when it comes to God. He loves the good deeds which are done for our Father. Because we love doing them these deeds really are a delight to him, but when it comes to opening up heaven, they are not part of the picture. We are admitted on the same plan as the guy who has the deathbed conversion and had been married six times before he died. It doesn’t seem fair, and in one sense it is not, but this is God’s gift to give and he gets to give it like he wants and we are not really in a position to complain. Yes, we did indeed work hard, but did we do it to earn something? Then we were deceived. Did we do it because we love Him? Then why are we looking for a payment? It makes sense, but it also galls. There is no suitable explanation of this. For the one who believes, the kingdom really needs no explanation, for the one who does not believe, there is no explaining this. Even so, the Christian often finds that he would really like that explanation. People can take this rather seriously. A man once threatened to kill my father because he welcomed, taught, and confirmed the wrong sorts of folks. There was a lot of history there but it more or less boiled down to the fact that this fellow did not think the grace of God extended to those folks.
Perhaps the problem here is that we think that Christians are not these vineyard workers. Just because we have been baptized does not mean that the old man simply goes away. Paul struggled with him and we do too. We need to preach Law and Gospel to these guys too. We are the vineyard workers. Grace is scandalous!
Another way to express this is that we have a very difficult time imagining that God would love us completely out of his grace. We imagine that there is something about us that is just even a little bit more loveable than the fellow down the street. That is why I am a Christian and they are not. Perhaps it is even the fact that I go to Church on Sunday and throw my offering in the plate when it passes my pew. I have sacrificed my Sunday morning while they slept, golfed, or got 12
ready for the big game. This is why I am saved and the other is not. I have done something right, even if it is to say that I am not worthy, at least I said that much properly and therefore I get the “go to heaven” sticker on my casket.
What must I do to go to heaven? Most Christians would say something about confessing Christ. But the truth is, to go to heaven, we must die. We are all rather good at that. Jesus will take care of the rest. I don’t want to denigrate the confession, but if we understand even that good thing as a purchase of God’s favor, we have completely missed this point.
But if we confess grace, real grace, then my salvation is utterly outside of my purchasing power, it is a result of God’s decision, God’s action, God’s motive, purely without respect to me. Then why me and not that guy down the street who mows his lawn every Sunday morning or is out drinking late on Saturday? I don’t know. Today’s parable suggests that it might just be me and him. And it if is really the both of us who get to go to heaven, why should I sit through another voters meeting?
The preacher who preaches this sermon has to be a little uncomfortable. If you take away all the reward motivation for being part of the Christian mission, why should folks volunteer to serve, give money, or offer their time and talent? This question has vexed the Church for a very long time. Many at the time of Luther thought he would ruin the Church for this very reason. You can read one of his early responses to this in his “Treatise on the Two Kinds of Righteousness.” If they took away the economy of salvation in which God recognized our deeds and rewarded us for them, would people still do good deeds? I hate to say it, but they had a point. The medieval Christians built massive cathedrals and more. That all came to a crashing halt with the Reformation’s emphasis on grace alone. Luther rather expected that Grace alone would move Christians to do more, not less. But has it really played out? Can Lutherans give more than 2% of their income with a purely Gospel motivation? I haven’t seen too many of them who have pulled it off. I wonder what a whole congregation of them might look like?
Yet, Jesus also preached a parable about a Sower and different sorts of soil. When the seed does connect and the Gospel does take root and bear fruit, it can bear fruit 30, 60, and even 100 fold! Have you ever seen that? You might want to have an illustration of that.
We don’t want to preach against good works here. That also puts out outside the Confessions. I Corinthians 15:58 – our work has value – it is not in vain. Stand firm in your faith, let nothing move you from that, not even the scandal of sharing a hymnal with a guy who stumbled through the door and is now communing at the same table as you, without ever putting in the work that you did. Your work and his work are not to be compared, either negatively on his part, or positively on your part, they are all rendered meaningless and meaningful in light of that central reality, which is Jesus.
1. Our world works on a pay as you go system. You either earn what you get or you get it through some advantage of connection or manipulation. This is the world we understand and in which we operate. It is not God’s world (thank God!)
2. Our joy seems so fragile. Let there be ants at my picnic or a few raindrops and it is ruined.
3. There are a lot of folks who don’t go to Church on Sunday morning. I have noticed them golfing and getting things done around their yard as I drive to church. I am jealous of them. In fact some of us are perhaps doing the same thing, I notice a significant gap between the communicant membership and the Sunday attendance.
4. This also has a dynamic presence inside a congregation. We often are in this comparison mode as we look at one another across the aisle of Church. The young family looks to the elders and says, “why can’t you teach Sunday School so I can go to Bible study?” and the elders say, “When my kids were young, I taught Sunday School, so you should too.”
5. What I cannot imagine is that on judgment day the C and E Christians will be in the same line with me, enjoying the same retirement benefits that I am getting as a hard working member of the congregation, board of elders, altar guild, Sunday school teacher, etc. This sours my joy.
6. “If we had a purgatory large enough for the Missouri Synod our money troubles would be over.” I remember my father saying that a few years ago. Was he right? Is the gospel motivation a bust? The LDS seem to have their financial footing and their volunteerism going a lot better than we do. How is that we can worship the right God, have the more potent motives and give far less? This Grace system of God does not seem to be working.
7. But perhaps this is not the fault of God’s system; perhaps it is the emptiness of my own heart, of my own faith, of my own relationship with God. Is my religious angst a sign of much deeper problems?
1. God does not work on a pay as you go system, thank God. It may be alien to us, but he has filled Scripture and his church with marvelous examples of how he does do this. This is in fact what the whole set of parables is about, this is why he has carefully maintained these books for us, they are a record not of human wisdom but of God’s great grace for us. Whether it is God still loving the grumbling Israelites or turning a Saul into a Paul, God just does things differently than we do.
2. This graceful love, not hinged on our meriting it in the least, is the great bulwark of our joy. God loves us, despite us, and so no matter what we have done or said, he still loves us. No matter what the world may throw at us, no matter what the world takes away from
us, it cannot take this away from us. God loves me. And that makes me and my life valuable, much more valuable than the world can stand.
3. Many don’t know this and so they either ignore it or see it as a license to do what they want. This is sad, but the fact that his love has gripped my life in a way that I love him, I want to be with him, I want to work with him, I want to see his kingdom grow is a truly beautiful thing. Working beside the king in his vineyard is a great place to be. He is glad you are here.
4. The new Normal does not ask the “what about me” question when it comes to service. The world does not get this, but the regenerate man does. The question is what about my beloved Jesus. The servant of God experiences the joy of a parent who cares for their newly born child, this is the peace that comes when we do something we love. There is a real joy to labor as well. God made the world and saw that it was good. Being created in the image of God means we can look upon a day’s labor and not measure it by the sweat or the ache or in comparison to someone else, but simply rejoicing in the fact that I am serving my beloved Jesus. The Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s patient might long to be exhausted like we are.
5. The difference between what we have to do and what we want to do goes away. For the Christian, the labor of the kingdom and the desire of his heart increasingly are the same thing, finally reaching a culmination in a heavenly reality in which they are absolutely the same thing. (The danger of this is that the person who does not feel this won’t hear this as good news but as a condemnation of their empty heart and the conflict they feel about their service to Jesus. “Am I not a Christian?”)
6. And being in that sort of a place with him, means that I can see the guys golfing on Sunday morning very differently. I can hope they have a good time. I can also pray that they somewhere, somehow come to know the love of Jesus so that it grips them and their life too. It is an incredible joy. I am glad I am not out there, but am going to church.
7. This love, this graceful, joyful relationship I am given to have with Jesus makes me into a different sort of person. God does not need our money or our time particularly. I am purchasing nothing, but he is making room for my grubby little gifts in his kingdom and he is indeed delighting in them. My pictures are on God’s refrigerator. If we need money or people or time or talent, God has them aplenty. I will not ever really lack for them, even if I feel a need, it is his gracious love pulling me to trust the more in him.
8. Indeed, my own angst may be a sign that I am holding God at a distance, but it is never a sign of God’s desire for that distance. He overcomes my fear and my old human nature. He loves the grumpy servants who worked all day, he even loves a persecutor like Saul and can find ways to knock them to the ground, point out their problems, and still carry them to himself.
1. “My Pictures are on God’s Refrigerator” (Gospel and Epistle – That the Spirit of God would fill the hearer with joy at being in God’s kingdom, his vineyard.)
I am thinking of children’s art here with this title. You know the art, the crudely drawn figures, the flowers all in a row, the sun with the smiling face. It is beautiful to the parent, but it never will be confused with a Van Gogh.
Somewhere I fit into that parable of the workers in the vineyard. There is always someone who has put in more time than me and who has done more or done it better. Likewise I am not the sort of person who has made that deathbed conversion of the reprobate, but I am somewhere between, perhaps one of those mid-morning hires, maybe somewhere on the tail end of the afternoon. What does that really matter? Here I am working the vineyard of my beloved Lord and Master Jesus. He has taken my humble works and put them on his refrigerator. Perhaps they are better than some other Christians, perhaps they are not, in any event, he loves mine and he loves theirs. That is enough for me. It gives meaning and purpose to my life.
What is taking the joy from our folks? What keeps our people from seeing this? How will we proclaim the Law here? How do we think that God is critically looking at my life or my service? How do I think he is looking at the lives/service of others? How does that competitive Christianity show up? Can we imagine a world in which we are not competitive about some of this? This can show up in a number of ways.
The person who is effectively a deist is convinced that God does not see my work. He is distant and far away. The alternative seems to be a sort of works righteousness in which God is very concerned about my good deeds, keeps a record, and there are consequences, rewards, and punishments. But is there another way to think about this? Can I see what I do differently?
Is Augustine’s comment on “rest” at the beginning of these notes perhaps helpful? Do we want simply to point to the restlessness of our folks? We cannot rest unless we rest in God. This can even be seen in the way I go to Church or serve in the church. I can begrudgingly attend, I can woefully serve, because no one else will.
This means that I can render service joyfully to God, and it means that I can see the service of my neighbor in a new light. My years spent on a committee or multiple committees are received by God, not as a payment but as a loving sacrifice. Likewise the conversion of the sinner is a delight to God, not as a payment, no one is keeping score, but my life is the same loving sacrifice. When I am at the center of my world, this is a scandal, but when my world centers on the Jesus this is wonderful.
This also means that when Jesus opens a door for me to serve, I can jump in there with joy. And when he opens twenty doors before me, I can say no to some and yes to others, 16
knowing that his love and gracious presence will receive this too. I don’t ever have to wonder if someone has done more or if I have done enough. The enough happened on a cross long ago, the rest of this is something else, this is love rebounding between God and me and everyone else.
This is a true and Christian joy, the sort of Joy that not even prison could take away from Paul. He could serve God there too. He could look out through the bars and see the Gospel preached and, though he longed to be out there doing it too, he could rejoice because Christ was preached. It wasn’t about Paul anymore, it was about Jesus, and that made him glad.
Here is the art on the refrigerator. It is not great in and of itself. In fact, it would never sell at a gallery. But because it is my work, because God loves me, he delights in it. It is not about a buy and sell or value, but it is about God’s love for the child (me) who did the deed, drew the picture, and gave it to him looking for a smile.
Remember this can be a scary sermon for the preacher to preach. If this is really outside the economy of earning God’s favor, then why come to church and serve? What if they listen to me and no one shows up next week? But we will point to the joy of it. And that is a far more important motivator than any obligation. Our work is a delight to God (see the II Corinthians quote above) and that is a reason all to itself. Paul’s life is the sermon. Our life will also be a sermon here. Why do we do this? Surely not for the glory of being a Deacon or a Pastor! What brings us back? It is the love of God rebounding back and forth, that is the only way thing which can explain this. Why does the suitor do what he does? He is in love.
2. Why on earth are we working so hard? (Gospel: That the Holy Spirit would empower the hearer to a life of service which is not looking for God’s reaction but which is simply living out the beautiful gift of Jesus who lives in us.)
This sermon would help us see that what we do is not looking for some reward from God. He is not reacting to us. Rather, having picked us up in Baptism, God has dwelt with us, and now he gives me the joyful place in his kingdom. I am not earning something. I have already been given everything.
That could be an excuse to do nothing, but that is not what really happens. Indeed, the love of God dwelling in us actually moves us to far more than any buy/sell motivation. We will do far more for the people we love than we ever will for the folks who coerce money out of us (thinking the utility company).
This sermon wants to see what we are doing, and notice that God has called it into being, he supports it, and he has put us into that.
3. Thoughts above my thoughts, ways above my ways (OT and Gospel – that the hearer would rest in the graciousness of God.)
We have all heard the phrase “Don’t just stand there, do something!” Today we need to turn that around, “Don’t just do something, stand there!”
This sermon will seek to have the sinner simply rest in the grace of God. Too often we let the economy and dynamics of the world enter into our relationship with God. There is no free lunch out there, but in here, God is gracious, a giver of free gifts to us. Our old man wants to make that into a buy and sell relationship, a quid pro quo, and that is normal. We live in that world all the time. The grocery store does not give food away, the department store does not give the clothes away. The contractor who fixes my house needs to be paid.
But somehow we need to leave that behind when we come to God. How can we do that? Here the OT text helps us. God’s thoughts and ways are far above us. He makes himself accessible to us, urges us to seek his face in Jesus and through this Spirit of God, because we cannot ascend to his thoughts and ways. He has come to us. He has dwelt within us. The Spirit was poured out upon us in our baptism because we do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men. We need his help – he gives it. There is one of your gospel points in this sermon.
Secondly, God’s ways, if you look in the verses on either side of the Isaiah text are really exemplified in the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Isaiah looks to David, but we know David was a sinner of the first rank. God is gracious to sinners, even big sinners. Jesus portrays a God whose economy is seriously messed up. No business man would operate this way, which is exactly the point. God is not a business man. He is God, he is in the field of saving sinners, not balancing his bottom line.
His ways are way above our ways, his thoughts are miles above our thoughts, but by the gift of the Spirit we are given to see them, walk them, think them with him as we forgive and love one another. We can attain to the divine this way. Forgive a brother, forgive a sister, walk in God’s ways.
4. Joy that does not end – I really want some of that! (Epistle: That the Holy Spirit would impart true and lasting joy to the hearer.)
The preacher of the sermon has a well-defined but easily entered pit he needs to avoid. Preaching is not therapy and we are not here to give advice to folks about how to lead happy and fulfilled lives. We don’t have seven secrets of happy biblical characters nor a 12 step program for crabby Germans. We proclaim Christ.
Too often Christian preaching has fallen into this trap and become something other than a proclamation of Christ and his kingdom, descending into inept, popular psychology masquerading as theology. Let’s just not do that this week.
That said, however, one of the great things about proclaiming Christ is that he does have an effect for the better in the life of the believer. We want to look at one of those effects 18
today, note the darkness of sin and proclaim Christ as the antidote, the light, and the solution. What is more, in that proclamation of the Word, we acknowledge that the Spirit conveys Him whose presence effects the cure to our hearers.
Paul has joy, a deep and abiding joy that seems too often to be absent in my life, your life, and the lives of the Christian people whom I know. There are many ways we see that dull, joyless existence. Sometimes our service is nothing but drudgery. Sometimes we can find a reason to be miserable in the tiniest of affronts. After all, when Christians are getting crucified in Syria this week, are we really that put upon here? Why is it that we do this to ourselves? Paul I think offers up an explanation for that joyless life through a positive example. Look at his words in this sermon and you will notice that this is not at all about Paul. He is in prison and cannot fulfill his calling as a missionary as he would like, but that is alright, Jesus is still preached. Some are doing so out of less than noble intent, that is alright, Jesus is still preached. You get the sense that Paul’s world revolves around Jesus and not him. Therein lies a great deal of potential Law development. The preacher will need to find ways to notice the self-centered nature and behavior of the people before him and draw for them the connection. It makes them miserable.
But here is where we depart from therapy land. We don’t tell them to get their thoughts straight and just to get over themselves. That is the way of the world for it does not know Christ. We proclaim the Jesus who slays us in baptism and makes us alive again. Paul again helps us. He was the most self-centered and unhappy man imaginable as he trudged to Damascus many years before he wrote this letter. What happened on that road was not a therapy session, but far more. Jesus encountered him, slew that old Paul, and raised up a new man who orbited a new center, Jesus. Jesus did not ask Paul to fix this, he displaced the self as the center of Paul’s universe and replaced it with Jesus himself.
Jesus has done the same to us. Here is the proclamation part. In our baptism he has encountered our self-centered, fallen selves. He has slain and made alive. He has become our very sustenance, feeding us at this altar. He has poured out of himself and into us the very eternal Spirit which does not die but lives. He has taken us from the wretched, rebellious slaves of God who could never work off our debts to be the children of God who can never escape his love.
The trick will be to illustrate this. I know if I was in my first parish preaching this sermon, I would likely have pointed them to Kay, a dear woman who was the backbone of the parish and who had died a rather grim death from cancer. I say that because the folks there would have known how even in cancer’s painful and fatal clutches she could smile. I remember her struggling up the many steps into our church, her face was gray when she opened that door from the exertion of it. But when she saw us, it lit up. Her pain was real, but her joy was even more real. It had displaced the complaint and replaced it with praise. 19
You might also talk about how a newborn infant to young parents really displaces all their self-centered youthful ways. He/she takes up a great deal of their time, makes them lose sleep, costs a great deal of money, and yet they would not give it up. They are in love with that child. And they have come to know a new sort of joy. It is that joy to which this sermon strives, but it is not just any child who has come, but it is Christ himself.