Sermon for Septuagesima
1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5 + Matthew 20:1-16
In today’s Lessons, the Holy Spirit cries out for you who are Christians to take your Christian faith seriously, not to neglect it, not to take it for granted, and certainly not to despise it. You have been called out of darkness into the marvelous light of Christ. You have been baptized into Christ and called out of Satan’s kingdom and into the kingdom of Christ. But you’re not home free until you’re home; you’re not automatically safe from falling away from God’s kingdom and from God’s grace, just because you have been called into God’s kingdom. Because while you dwell on this earth, you are still running the race. While you dwell on this earth you are still fighting the fight. While you dwell on this earth, you are still laboring in God’s vineyard. That’s a good thing! That’s a blessed thing! Because even now you bask in God’s favor through faith in Christ Jesus. Even now you have the forgiveness of sins and the love of a gracious Father in heaven, and the promise of everlasting life. You have been shown wondrous grace. But you also have a warning from your God in the pages of Holy Scripture that you do well to heed, never to take His grace for granted.
In today’s Epistle, the apostle Paul urges all Christians to run the race as he runs it, to live your Christian life on your way to heaven as if you were competing for a prize and seeking first place, even as the Apostle Paul was doing. Did you notice in the Epistle that even St. Paul didn’t take God’s grace and his salvation for granted, as if he could never fall away. I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. How can he speak about becoming disqualified? He was hand-picked by God to be an apostle! Yes, but he also learned the Holy Spirit’s lesson taught throughout Scripture. He learned from Israel. See what happened to Israel after God had redeemed them from slavery in Egypt. They made a good beginning. They were “baptized into Moses” as they crossed the Red Sea with him. They received the Word of God at first. But of the adults who left Egypt, how many entered the promised land? Two. Two adults, together with the children who had left Egypt or who had been born in the wilderness. As for the rest, with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.
It was the same sad story throughout most of Israel’s history. They always made a good beginning. They always started the race well. But usually the ending was tragic for most of the people.
It was no different at the time of Christ. Jesus illustrates the problem in our Gospel today. A landowner went out early to look for workers for his vineyard. God went out early, 1500 years before Christ, and brought Israel up out of Egypt and called the children of Israel to be His special people. In the Old Testament God often describes Israel itself as His own, precious vineyard, His beloved Church. God went out early and sought the Jews to be His workers, His Church members. He gave them plenty of work to do within His Church. It was called “The Law of Moses,” which they were to keep, with all its commandments and prohibitions—not just the moral law, which required love for God and love for one’s neighbor, which God still commands to all men; but also all those ceremonial laws: Don’t eat these certain foods, do celebrate all these festivals, keep the Sabbath Day holy, circumcise your boys, give your tithes, etc.
The Jews worked under those conditions for the whole day—for their whole lives. But later in the day, the landowner went out and found other workers to bring into His vineyard. God went out and found others who hadn’t been in His Church: a few Gentiles, here and there, thieving tax collectors, prostitutes, public sinners, people who had previously refused to submit to God’s Law. Through His prophets and through the Word of Christ Himself, God called them to repent and believe in Christ, and He forgave them and gave them equal status in His Church with the Jews who had been working so hard in God’s vineyard.
Finally, at the end of the day, at the end of the age, at the eleventh hour, the landowner went out to find even more workers. With the coming of Christ, the hard service under the Law of Moses was coming to an end. And it turns out that God’s grace and favor were divvied out to the latecomers—to the Gentiles—in the same measure as they had been divvied out to the Jews who had worked long and hard under the burdensome Law of Moses. The same gracious God, the same Christ, the same favor, the same forgiveness of sins, the same place in God’s house, the same status in God’s kingdom was conferred upon them—upon us! —as upon the Jews who worked the hardest and suffered the longest.
Now, first of all, this highlights the grace of God and His great goodness and generosity to the one who came along last and has worked the least. Jesus is showing us here how the grace of God works. It isn’t earned with our works at all. It doesn’t depend on how long you’ve served or how hard you’ve worked or how much you’ve suffered. All is given freely, for Jesus’ sake. All people, regardless of their works and regardless of how great their sins may be—all are called to repent and believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. And all who believe are given the status of sons in God’s house. The last are made equal to the first in the sight of God.
That would all be fine, except for what happened toward the end of the parable. When the landowner goes to pay the one denarius to each and every worker, he begins with the ones hired last, who had worked the least and suffered the least. That made the full-day workers think they suddenly deserved more from the landowner. Suddenly they feel cheated by the landowner, even though he was giving them exactly what he promised at the beginning he would give them. See how evil that is? They were no longer content with the promise of the landowner. Now they wanted their work to be judged against the work of the latecomers and compared with it. Now they wanted to be rewarded according to their works and not according to the landowner’s promise, not according to grace.
Even so, the Jews who thought they had worked the hardest—the Pharisees, the teachers of the Law—grumbled at Jesus for forgiving tax collectors and sinners and Gentiles and for giving them an equal status in God’s kingdom with the hard-working Jews.
But the full-day workers were reprimanded by the landowner when He heard them grumbling about their wages. Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?
If only Israel had heeded this warning given by Christ. But, just like their forefathers who left Egypt with Moses, they took God’s grace to them for granted. They assumed that, since God called them into His kingdom, therefore they deserved something from God, and so they fell away from faith into works-righteousness, and most of the Jews were cut off from God’s vineyard, from His Church, because of unbelief.
What happened to Israel can happen to the individual members of the New Testament Church at any time. You may assume that, since you were once called to faith and baptized, you don’t need a living and active faith in Christ; you don’t need to hear His Word and receive His Sacraments as much as other people do. You may assume that, since you have worked so hard to live a good and decent life, you now deserve God’s grace and recognition more than someone else does.
Don’t be deceived. Satan will try to lead you to such false assumptions, to take God’s grace for granted and to imagine that you’ve earned His favor and deserve His goodness. But such wickedness drives out faith and the Holy Spirit and threatens to make our outcome like that of Israel.
Many are called, Jesus says, but few chosen. Rejoice in your calling! It’s real! It’s effective! God has called you to be Christians. He has called you into fellowship with His Son, whose works of obedience have earned eternal life for you, whose death on the cross has blotted out your sins, and whose Holy Spirit has brought you into Christ Jesus through the Means of Grace and promises to keep you in this faith through the same means. Only don’t take God’s grace for granted. The chosen—the elect—are those who are called to faith in Christ Jesus and who persevere until the end, cherishing the grace of God toward us poor sinners and trusting in Christ Jesus and in His works alone for salvation. Amen.