Still trusting in grace at the end of the day

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Sermon for Septuagesima 2014

Jeremiah 1:4-10  +  1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5  +  Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus highlights God’s grace for us in today’s parable of the workers in the vineyard. He compares God to a kind and good landowner who goes out throughout the day and looks for workers, over and over again, from the first light of dawn right up to the eleventh hour, one hour before quitting time. And at the end of the day he gives to each one the same wages, which demonstrates that the benefit given out by the landowner is not in any way based on the amount or the quality of work that is done. He isn’t rewarding them based on their work, but based on his own generosity.

So it is with God. The vineyard is God’s earthly kingdom, His holy Church. All people are born outside of God’s vineyard, born enslaved to sin, born hostile to God and subject to death and eternal condemnation. But God, who is rich in mercy, calls many people by the Gospel into His vineyard, into His Church. He calls them at different times in history and at different points in their lives. Every time the Gospel is preached, as it is being preached today, God calls out to all who hear: You are evil, but Jesus has come and died for your evil and has risen again from the dead. Repent and believe the good news! Repent and come into God’s vineyard through Holy Baptism! That Gospel is preached, and many people never believe it, never come into God’s vineyard at all. Others do believe it and come into God’s vineyard. They’re baptized and given entrance into God’s field of grace. Here all sins are washed away in Holy Baptism and holy Absolution. Here God forgives sins every time the Church comes together to “do this in remembrance of Me.” Here we live by faith in a constant state of grace.  Here in the Church there is pure forgiveness, all the time.

Here in the Church, the new obedience is also rendered to God, obedience that flows from faith and that is rendered freely and willingly. Here in the Church, in God’s vineyard, we do work, not to be “compensated” with salvation, but as those who have been promised the gift of salvation through faith in Christ. Here in the Church, we aren’t rid of sin. But we’re struggling to get rid of it in ourselves. Here in the Church, we aren’t done sinning. But we’re daily repenting of it and striving to be done with it. Always striving, always working, always being renewed by the Holy Spirit, and always forgiven. We’ll hear more about that this Wednesday at Vespers.

But this parable wasn’t only told by Jesus to highlight God’s generosity. It was told primarily as a warning to the workers who worked the longest, because here’s what happens. The workers who start earlier and work longer than the rest start to glory in their own work. They begin to take pride in it, and they expect the landowner to reward them on the basis of their work and all those hours they put in, especially as compared to the lesser work of those hired toward the end of the day. They take His goodness toward them for granted. They despise His goodness toward others. And they are sent away from the vineyard with a rebuke. The last shall be first and the first shall be last.

It was the Apostle Paul who wrote to the Corinthians in today’s Epistle, admonishing them, encouraging them, pleading with them to “run the race” in such a way as to come in first, to win the prize. This Gospel is about Jesus’ desire for you, who are now workers in His vineyard, to get to the end of the day in first place, still trusting in God’s grace, still relying on His promises, still captivated by His generosity, so that you don’t end up like the workers who were hired first in Jesus’ parable, so that you don’t end up last at the end of the day, cast out of God’s vineyard and eternally ashamed.

See, it’s a great blessing, to be called to repentance and faith in Christ, to spend as much of your life as God permits having been rescued from slavery to sin and being made a slave to righteousness, being a worker in God’s vineyard.  There’s nothing better. It’s a great blessing to be no longer deceived by the devil’s lies, to know the truth, and knowing the truth, to be truly set free. It’s pure grace to be surrounded in this vineyard by the Means of Grace, the preached Word, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion. The more time in His vineyard, the better.

But the longer you spend working in God’s vineyard, knowing and receiving His grace, the longer your enemy, the devil, and his ally, your flesh, have to work on you, so that you go back to trusting in your work. “See what a good Christian life you’ve led! See what a decent person you are! Here you are in church. Again! You’re going to give an offering today. Again! See how nicely you’re dressed. See how reverent you are. See how you’ve kept yourself from great shame and vice. See how you adhere to the pure doctrine. See what a hard worker you are!” And then, you start to think—and I know this is true, talking to any number of Christians—you start to think, “I think I might just make it into heaven.”

Uh oh. You see what you’ve done? You’ve turned your hope of heaven from Christ and placed it onto yourself. You’ve turned your faith away from Christ and back toward your work. You’re no longer trusting in God’s grace and generosity, but in His duty to repay you according to your own merits. And so, of course, you get angry with God—your eye becomes evil toward Him—when He goes and gives the latecomer the same forgiveness He gives to you, the same love, the same grace. And if, at the end of the day, you despise God’s grace for others and view eternal salvation as the wages God owes to you, then you have broken away from Christ and will be rebuked by Him at the end of the day.

It’s for this very reason that St. Paul addressed the Corinthians with such seriousness in today’s Epistle. Remember Israel, he pleads with them. Learn from Israel. God called them out of Egypt. They drank from the Rock that was Christ. They were His vineyard, just as you now are! But after just a short while, as the hours of the day got long, they started looking at their work. Here they were, more godly than those wicked Egyptians. Here they were, children of Abraham, out in the wilderness, having to rely on God’s grace to supply them with food and water every day. They started imagining that they deserved something better from God. And when they didn’t get what they thought they deserved, they started grumbling and complaining. “God isn’t good enough to us. We are His people. We deserve better treatment.” And God—God scattered their bodies across the wilderness, dead.

Why? Because the same ones who at first were brought into Christ allowed their flesh to get the better of them. They took their eyes off the prize that is Christ. They turned to idol worship. They turned to self worship. They imagined that they could remain in God’s grace and at the same time despise His grace and live however they wanted, do whatever they wanted, even committing idolatry and leading sexually impure lives. But God will not be mocked. He destroyed them. And He tells us about it, as the Apostle says, so that these things should serve as an example and warning for us. It’s God way of keeping us from falling into the same pride, into the same self-reliance instead of grace-reliance, into the same destruction and death at the end of the day.

Our flesh is naturally twisted against grace. We would all quickly fall away, and maybe some have fallen already. Now what? God’s Spirit constantly calls us back through His Word, calls us to daily repentance and convinces us to trust in Christ, to keep our hope planted in God’s grace alone, to run the race in such a way as to win the prize. Here He is again today, doing this in the Gospel.

Our flesh hates grace, but then there’s that other part of a Christian, the believing part, the part that is being remade into the image of Christ. We’re enthralled by God’s grace, amazed, that He would give His Son into death for the likes of us, that He would repay us, not according to our sins, but according to His great mercy, as we sang today in the Tract from Psalm 130: If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared.

Today once again, Jesus tells you this parable of the workers in the vineyard and offers His body and blood in the Sacrament to keep you looking away from your work toward the work of Christ, to claim Him as your only righteousness before God and as your only hope of reward. He is your sure hope, because in Him God’s grace is fully revealed, His desire to give gifts to the unworthy rather than to pay out wages to those who think they’re worthy. May this Gospel and this Sacrament preserve you in faith until the end of your days so that you are still trusting in grace at the end of day, to the praise of God’s glorious grace. Amen.

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