Monday, October 20, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22, for Reformation 2, "Church and State in the Reformation"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. As we continue in our Reformation month, today we consider the relationship between church and state. How does a Christian live at once governed by God, and faith in His Word, and at the same time living under a government that rules Christian and non-Christian citizens alike? How do we face the interactions and overlap in our lives, between church and state? How does God’s Word guide and inform our responsibilities to both?

Jesus and His apostles address these questions. In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus in a question about taxes. First they flatter Jesus by admiring His truthful teaching about God’s way, and that He shows no favoritism. He won’t give in to anyone’s opinion. Then they ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” If “yes”, that will be unpopular with the common people; if “no”, then they can accuse Him of stirring up rebellion. Ironically, though they claim to know He’s not fooled by appearances, that’s just what they hope to do by pretending to want a sincere answer. But Jesus is not fooled or swayed by their appearances.

With a single, memorable line, He silences them and settles the matter. They show Jesus a coin, He has them identify Caesar’s image and inscription on it, and He answers, “Therefore render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus describes two duties—one to government, and a higher duty to God. Don’t neglect duty to government; but even worse is to neglect our duty to God. Instead of falling into their trap, Jesus upheld both duties and showed how they had failed in their greater duty to God, by rejecting Him. Even though they themselves said He was “true and teach[es] the way of God truthfully.

Their question about taxes sat at the crossroads of their religious identity and the unwelcome presence of foreign Roman rule. Many questions of American life today sit at that same intersection between church and state, and are guided by Jesus’ same principle of two duties. The Lutheran Hour Ministries put out a good movie two years ago, using the analogy of a busy intersection to describe the frequently crossing paths of church and state. It discussed how our Constitution wisely established a traffic signal or stop light, in the First Amendment, to safely negotiate those crossings and avoid collisions.

Let’s consider our constitution for a moment, because our government, the USA, is our “Caesar.” Did you know that the only mention of the word freedom in the text of the Constitution is in the First Amendment? It reads in full: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Thankfully and wisely, our Constitution places limits on our government. It does not allow our government, the power to create a state enforced religion; it does not allow itself the power to prohibit the free exercise of religion; and the Constitution does not allow government the power to abridge the freedom of speech, etc.

You should study it yourself if you need convincing, but our Founding Fathers—who were not all Christian, by the way—had great foresight about the relationship between our new American government and God. They stated this principle in the Declaration of Independence, before the writing of the Constitution. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Though the Constitution never mentions God, and it’s not a document about God—freedom of religion and freedom of speech were the first liberties to be enshrined in our Bill of Rights. They recognized that God stood over certain rights that they were bound to recognize. Unalienable rights: life, liberty, pursuit of happiness—are from our God—not from the government. That’s a big difference; because without God granting these rights, who is to say that government is not the highest authority that can give or take away our rights? That is a frightening thought, and the founders knew it, and so built these protections into our Constitution.

But how does a Christian in America, answer to the higher authority of God, and render obedience to Him, when we run into conflict with “Caesar”, our government? The simple answer is that God’s authority overrides for the Christian whatever any government may prohibit, command, or allow. The apostles of Jesus gave a clear direction about what to do when they confessed that “We must obey God, rather than men.” If the government allows same-sex marriage or abortion—it is not therefore allowed to the Christian, who must obey God’s clear Word. If the government commands us to violate our faith by participating in something that is contrary to our faith and conscience—doing something unethical—we must civilly disobey. If the government tries to prohibit what we are free to do—namely preach and teach the Word of God—we must also disobey.

Am I just inventing hypothetical or abstract examples? Sadly they all happening in current events in America. Most recently, in an unfolding story in Houston, Texas, the mayor’s office has subpoenaed the speeches and pastoral communications of five pastors. They exercised their free speech to stand against a new city ordinance opening public restrooms to people of both sexes. Though the outcome is still uncertain, it’s alarming that the government wants to silence free speech from pulpits, or cannot bear criticism and opposition. The Founders envisioned churches and people of faith forming the moral conscience of America. We see what happens when that voice is silenced. Do you believe that the government should dictate what churches can or cannot say, and define what speech is political, or simply Biblical?

Fortunately we have a constitution and bill of rights that protects those freedoms—but they are being tested and eroded every day. A former president warned that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” And your duty as Christian citizens is to make use of your freedoms—the free exercise of your religion, the freedom of your speech, and your right to vote so that your voice is heard, just as much as those who hold different beliefs and opinions. As Christians, we should also remember that those who have no voice or who cannot speak for themselves, have a claim on our voice to speak up for them as well. Our duty to God includes a duty to our neighbor, including the unborn, the aged, the defenseless, and the infirm.

Under the best of circumstances, Christians shouldn’t have to choose between rendering to Caesar or rendering to God. Under the best of circumstances, freedom of religion is protected, and we can carry out duty to God and government in good conscience. But in countries around the world, and increasingly in our own, we don’t live under the best of circumstances, and conflicts often do arise. Christians cannot afford to remain silent or avoid participating in the discussion as life in our nation is reshaped. Often we feel or hear pressure from the media, politicians, or maybe even from fellow Christians, that we should just “keep our faith to Sunday morning”. But you tell me—isn’t silence or hiding our faith rendering to Caesar what belongs to God? Neither Jesus nor His apostles were silenced by anyone’s opinions.

One of the most common arguments I read or hear, is that Jesus never said anything about abortion, or homosexuality, or some other hot topic. And while undoubtedly not all issues come up in Jesus’ teaching, this argument artificially limits what Jesus said. It fails on a number of levels. First of all, Jesus never mentioned a variety of other sinful behaviors, incest, spousal abuse, drug abuse, etc, but this doesn’t mean He approved of them. That’s called an argument from silence. Also, Jesus did speak broadly against all forms of sexual immorality and taking of innocent life, not just those specific examples He thought to name. Secondly, we can’t separate Jesus words from all the rest of Scripture, as He repeatedly, explicitly upheld the authority of all God’s Word. Paul’s letters or what Moses writes in the Old Testament, are all God’s inspired Word. And finally, while there are categories of Old Testament laws that became obsolete after Jesus fulfilled the law, and are no longer applicable to Christians, these examples were not.

From the time of Jesus, Christians have understood which laws of the Old Testament are still binding and which are not, in a simple and straightforward way. Those laws that are repeated and reaffirmed in the New Testament for us to follow, are still binding on Christians, as for example, the forbidding of homosexuality. They are “moral laws” that we still must obey. The laws that Christians no longer must obey, are also defined in the New Testament: Old Testament ceremonial and worship laws, food laws, laws concerning Old Testament Israel’s unique government and criminal penalties, etc. These are not repeated or expanded universally to all people in the New Testament, or they are declared complete, and no longer binding.

The government and laws have changed through time, from Israel, who had its law direct from God, to Rome or America whose laws have mixed origins. But there is an overarching truth that covers all of time, and that is that all governments and all citizens are finally answerable to God alone. Jesus said it simply when He said, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” God is not “running for office”—He already stands as King and Sovereign over all, whether we acknowledge Him or not. And just before His death, Jesus acknowledged this Kingship, though He clarified that His kingdom was not of this world.

What kind of rule does He extend? It is a reign of grace and peace. He showed His reign when He submitted to tyrants and injustice on the cross, and unseated the powers of sin and death. He rose from the dead to usher in an eternal kingdom that is now, but not yet. A kingdom that stands and grows forever. Our present, earthly government is a part of this sinful, temporary world that will one day pass away. But Jesus’ kingdom was prophesied by Isaiah in these famous words (ch 9), “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom,  to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”

The role that our earthly government and our participation in it as citizens plays in God’s eternal plan is significant, and we cannot ignore our duty to taxes or to strive for a just government—but we have an even higher calling and duty, and that is to belong to our God and the everlasting kingdom of His Son. The kingdoms of men can never give us salvation, and their plans often come to nothing. But the kingdom of God’s Son brings us salvation full and free, and His plans never fail. He is the God in whom we trust. In His kingdom we live by faith and by the forgiveness that He freely grants to all who trust in Him. Render yourself to God, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. The relation of church and state or politics and faith can often be a tense or controversial one. What particular issues are most concerning to you? Do you consistently apply a Christian, Biblical worldview to your life and voting? How does it inform you?
  2. In Matthew 22:15-22, how did the Pharisees hope to catch Jesus in His words? How did His answer outwit them? What two duties does Jesus describe? Which is higher?
  3. Do you think a traffic intersection is a good analogy for the relation of church and state? The first amendment of the Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” How does our government (our “Caesar”) protect our religious freedoms from interference? Why is it so important that the Founding Fathers of the USA recognized that government was beneath the authority of God?
  4. What must a Christian do when their duty to government conflicts with their duty to God? Acts 4:19-20; 5:29; Daniel 3:12-18.
  5. How can a Christian in good conscience exercise their freedoms and privileges as an American citizen? Whose interest are we to look out for, besides our own? Philippians 2:4; Proverbs 31:8-9; Matthew 25:35-40
  6. A common argument says that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality or abortion or ____, so Christians should have nothing to say about them either. Does this mean that Jesus approved of all the sins that He didn’t mention by name? What about those things that are named as sin in other Bible passages? See what Jesus said about sexual immorality in general, as well as the taking of innocent life: Matthew 5:27-32; 15:19; John 8:11; Matthew 5:21-26.
  7. The simple way Christians understand which Old Testament laws are still binding on Christians today is whether or not the New Testament repeats and reaffirms them for Christians—as Jesus does with the moral law in the Sermon on the Mount, and as the apostles do in their letters. At the same time, Jesus and the apostles also show which laws have been fulfilled and are no longer applicable, such as ceremonial, sacrificial, food, and OT governmental laws. How is Jesus’ kingship eternal and overarching? Isaiah 9:6-7; John 18:36-37.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Sermon on Philippians 4:4-13, for Reformation 2, "Rejoicing and Prayer in the Reformation"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Did you notice the strong themes of rejoicing, feasting, and wedding celebration in all the readings today; even the Psalm on the front of your bulletin insert, that we didn’t use? They’re all also themes of Christian worship. Every Sunday we gather for rejoicing and a feast, as our worship is centered around Jesus, our Heavenly Groom, and the Lord’s Supper that He gives to His Bride, the Church, as a foretaste of the feast to come. We hope and rejoice each week because of the presence of Jesus and His outpoured blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Paul says “Rejoice in the Lord,” because true joy is found only in Him. The Old Testament reading describes the heavenly celebration when God swallows up death forever, wipes away the tears from all faces, and takes away the reproach of His people. The Gospel describes a wedding feast filled with undeserving guests, while those who despised the invitation were left out.

When we hear Paul say, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”; that seems like a tall order. How can we rejoice always? A superficial survey of local, national, and international news is always a quick way to dull your joy. But should it? Rejoice in the Lord always—Paul says. “But don’t you know the world is filled with trouble and with suffering, Paul? How can you expect me to rejoice?” But Paul answers: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” Tell me more, Paul—what is that secret of your contentment? “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Back to the Lord! Rejoice in the Lord! The emphasis on rejoicing is not in finding elusive joy within me—but in finding it in the Lord! God is the source of contentment, joy, and peace. And anyone who has heard me teach or preach on joy and rejoicing before, knows that I always remind people that joy runs much deeper than happiness. It has deeper roots than the emotional ups and downs and external circumstances that can so quickly change my mood from happiness to sadness, or from excitement to worry or fear.

But Paul is telling us about the deep-rooted joy that sinks our heart and mind into God’s peace, and the joy of God’s incredible love for us in Christ Jesus, and the strength of God building you up even in the worst of circumstances, when “every earthly prop gives way”. Like the hymn “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” says:

His oath, His covenant and blood, support me in the raging flood; when every earthly prop gives way, He then is all my hope and stay. On Christ, the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand. (LSB 575:3).


Probably no one counts on the evening news for their daily boost of joy—but I think we are tempted, all too often, to build our security, our hope, or confidence on all sorts of earthly props, that prove to be sinking sand. Whether we’ve put that trust in other people, who are but sinners and who may let us down; whether we put out trust in financial security, job security, a safe home, school, or neighborhood; even hopes for a world without war—trusting in politicians and leaders to deliver it—we will continually find that these things often cannot sustain us through the raging floods of life—the disasters, the times of failure, the wars and times of darkness. And if our hope is built on these, if our joy is dependent on the world and the uncertainties of our external circumstances: wealth, safety, or prosperity—then we are doomed for disappointment.

But if our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’s blood and righteousness—if we’re built on Christ the solid rock—we can ride out the storms of life secure on the One who is immovable, unshakeable. Not any loss, not even death, can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ our Lord. This is the joy built on the Rock—an inner peace and contentment with God, a knowledge that He is for us, and nothing can withstand His love. Paul said in Philippians 1, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” The believer in Christ Jesus faces a win-win situation in whatever situation they are, high or low—because even death brings us to life eternal with Him. It doesn’t mean your external circumstances will never be rough. It doesn’t mean a smile will be always painted on your face, even when going through a terrible illness or depression, or great loss or suffering. But it means that neither you nor your external circumstances are the source of your joy. But rather the Lord gives you strength—He is your joy. It might even mean that in your suffering you can sing and praise the Lord as Paul and Silas did in their prison, or like Job trusted God even in his evil circumstances—because their hearts and minds were guarded by God’s peace that surpasses all understanding.

Notice, it’s not just human understanding that is surpassed—but all understanding. I believe that includes the angels and demons as well! None can comprehend the boundless good of God’s peace, and it’s power to transcend even the most evil of circumstances, to find joy in the Lord. I’m sure it’s infuriating to the devil. I’m sure its infuriating to wicked terrorists who are executing innocent Christians in Iraq and Syria, in a desperate attempt to create fear, in those who will not renounce Christ Jesus their Lord, even in the face of death. That even a humble child trusting in Jesus can defy those cowards, is a testament to Paul’s words, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Angels must marvel at the power of God’s peace to heal even the deepest wounds, to bring forgiveness through Jesus’ blood to hurting and guilty souls. The New Testament describes how the angels longed to see and understand the unfolding of God’s salvation in Christ Jesus. It also tells us how they rejoice in even a single sinner’s conversion to the Lord. How intimately they watch and attend to our daily lives, all behind the scenes, and for no glory to themselves, but to help us to give more glory to Jesus, the object of our mutual hope and joy. And this peace of God even surpasses their understanding!

So how does rejoicing relate to the Reformation? Well, worship is one of the many places where Christians express their joy. We lift up our voices, we tune our instruments to give Him praise. And perhaps we take even that joy for granted sometimes. Do you know that one of the key reforms that Martin Luther brought to worship, 500 years ago in the Reformation, was to bring the worship back to the language of the people? Have you ever imagined what it would be like not to understand the worship service because it was in Latin? No hymns or songs you could sing in your own language, and you were a mere observer in worship? How could you find the joy of the Lord if you didn’t understand the sermon, if there even was one? How would you know what God had done for you?

We take it for granted, but this was just the situation Martin Luther faced, and he responded by translating the liturgy into the common language, and by writing hymns to be sung by the people. The return of congregational singing gave back to the people their voice to praise God, and words to teach the faith to them and future generations in a memorable way. Music and repetition are two of the best aids to memorization, as every teacher knows. The Lutheran church has been known as a “singing church” ever since! We have probably one of the richest collections of excellent Christian hymns in all the Christian church in our hymnal. Hymns that proclaim Christ and Him crucified as the center of our salvation and our worship. Hymns that give voice to our rejoicing, as well as to sorrow or the deep need to trust in God. Music is one of the best expressions of joy and thanksgiving to God. And if the words we sing are rich in proclaiming Christ Jesus and His redeeming work for us, we are doubly blessed to be writing the Truth of God’s Word into our hearts and minds. What an excellent way to set our minds on honorable, commendable, and praiseworthy things—and to be filled with the peace of God.

Paul also addresses our anxiety and worry, and tells us to take it to the Lord in prayer. God invites us to call on Him anytime and everywhere, with a direct line to Him through Jesus Christ our Lord. 1 Timothy tells us that Jesus is the One Mediator between God and man. Here again recall what Martin Luther recovered in the Reformation. By the 1500’s, prayer had long been redirected through a maze of saints—and most prominently, the Virgin Mary—on its way to God. This was an entirely unbiblical idea, and still is today—that we should pray to any saint, dead or living—as though they can assist in getting our prayers to God’s throne. We can and should pray to God directly, in Jesus Christ, and through no other mediator—not angels or humans. Of course we as Christians pray for one another, as we should—and maybe even saints in heaven continue to pray to God for us on earth. We can’t know for certain. But even if we knew they prayed for us, it doesn’t follow that we should pray to them, any more than we should pray to each other, as Luther noted. Again, all our requests and prayers and thanksgivings should be made known to God. We have no Word of God ever promising us that saints in heaven can hear or help us, and yet the Bible overflows with God’s promises and invitations to pray to Him, and that He will answer. Not only is it infinitely better to go straight to Him—it’s also the right way to honor and worship Him alone.

Prayer, Christian community and brotherly support, setting his mind on the noble things of God—these were all the daily stuff of life for Paul—they were signs of his life in Jesus—practical helps for his life. He was strengthened in all circumstances, rich with God’s peace, and rejoiced always. Paul was no stranger to hardship, suffering, and loss—more so than most of us. But he knew his strength and peace and joy were to be found in Christ Jesus our Lord. God is as accessible to you as your most immediate prayer; He is so near to you as to dwell in your body as the Temple of His Holy Spirit; His peace that goes beyond any understanding makes its home in your hearts and minds. And He has fully reconciled us to Himself in Christ Jesus, through His death on the cross. Contentment and joy are in Him! Let go of everything else, and stand firm on Him, so that the storms and floods will not frighten you—and you will know that He holds you secure in life or in death. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. Study the bulletin insert, the Introit on the front, and the readings on the back. What themes of rejoicing and celebration do you notice? Why does worship share all these themes?
  2. Where does Christian joy come from? Do we produce it ourselves? Does it come from our circumstances, or where? In Philippians 4:10-13, what is Paul’s secret to contentment? What confidence does he have about what God will do for him? Philippians 1:19-22.
  3. Look at the hymn “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” (LSB 575). What are the “earthly props that give way”, that we often mistakenly trust in? Why is Christ the only solid rock we should build on? Luke 6:46-49; Psalm 46; Matthew 21:42-44
  4. How is joy different from external happiness? What would it mean to have joy, even when suffering or in prison? Philippians 4:6-9; Acts 5:40-42; Acts 16:19-34; Job 2:7-10.
  5. How did Martin Luther reform the worship of the church, to recover both the joy and understanding of the people? How did he reform prayer, to return it to its original purpose and pattern? 1 Timothy 2:1-6 How does Christ-centered and cross-focused music help us to set our minds on noble things? Philippians 4:8-9; Colossians 3:16.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14, for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Reformation 1, "Righteousness and the Reformation"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. During this month of October, we’re going to celebrate again a “Reformation Month” where we’ll take the opportunity to highlight some themes of our Lutheran Reformation heritage. We’re closing in on the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, which falls on October 31st, 2017. The Reformation played a large role in returning the church to the foundational authority of the Bible, and the centrality of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. Today we look to the theme of “righteousness” to consider what Paul was teaching about it in Philippians, and how that informs our Lutheran understanding of our relationship to God.

Imagine for a moment that you were the most successful person in your field—whatever that may be. Maybe it was that you were the employee of the year, or the world’s best mom, or the winner of the beauty pageant, or the valedictorian of your graduating class, or you received the Nobel Peace prize, or whatever commendations and praise it might be that you aspire to. Let’s add that you were the undisputed winner, and your achievement was genuine. Any of these achievements might be profitable to you in various ways. Looks great on your resume; shows the respect and admiration of your peers, your friends, family, community; makes you famous; etc. You would probably feel great about yourself too. Could anything, then, make you count all of these accomplishments, and even your identity itself, as a loss, as rubbish, as nothing? Something worthless to you?

The thought is shocking—because these are all good and noble things. Why would you want to “trash them”? But just like this, Paul abandons all his own credentials and achievements. He began the reading by saying if anyone thinks they have a reason for confidence or boasting in their flesh—they should check out his “credentials.” First he points to his ancestry or pedigree, showing he was a true Israelite. Then, for the sake of making a point, he “boasts” of his achievements: his unparalleled righteousness and zeal for God. He would have been a top contender for any awards and prestige in his day. But then in a surprising move, he says, “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…

All of Paul’s pedigree and achievements are worthless to him—not a profitable gain, but a worthless loss. Rubbish—or more literally, excrement. What could make Paul so “irrational” as to consider all his personal “best” as just so much dirt and trash—something to discard? It was the sight of something far better—infinitely better and more valuable. He was ready to cast it all off for the sake of knowing Jesus Christ his Lord, and finding a righteousness not his own by the law—by right, by merit or earning it—but the righteousness of faith—a gift, an invaluable treasure from God. Paul could so easily “toss away” what in earthly eyes looked desirable, valuable, and good—because he saw something of infinitely greater worth: Christ Jesus.

Martin Luther, 500 years ago, once stood in the Apostle Paul’s shoes, and came to the same realization about his own life. He saw that his good works and achievements amounted to nothing more than an anthill or a hill of beans when he looked up to view the lofty grandeur and beauty of the Mount Everest that is Jesus Christ. Luther realized, like Paul, that a stellar record of earthly achievements is poor and shabby—no, even worse, its filthy rags before God. But God desires to clothe us in rich clothes—He desires to clothe us with Christ Jesus, the Righteous One. If the choice is between my hill of beans, my rags, and the loftiest mountain or the robe of Christ’s righteousness—the choice is clear.

If you stand in Paul’s shoes, or whatever shoes (or slippers) you wear, I pray that you will also see that whatever stands to your credit in good life or pride of accomplishment, is nothing to hold up before God. You’ll want to echo what Paul said about Abraham, “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (Rom. 4:2). It was not Abraham’s good works, but his faith that was counted as righteousness (4:5). So say it, “I have nothing to boast about before God...”  Now say, “But I am righteous by faith in Jesus!”

In both Philippians and Romans, Paul identifies two different kinds of righteousness. A Law-righteousness—based on earthly obedience and good deeds—and secondly, the righteousness of faith in Christ: a gift from God. The two are the difference between night and day. Loss vs. gain. Worthless excrement vs. surpassing worth. Mud pies vs. a real homemade pie, if you will. Counterfeit bills vs. genuine currency. The point is, that our own righteousness is so far from the righteousness through faith in Christ, that they’re not even on the same spectrum or scale. It’s not like our good works and best efforts are just pennies in comparison to a thousand dollar bill, or cheap clothing in comparison to rich brand name wear. It’s that they are dirty rags and excrement. Worthless; of no value.

This is the breaking point for our human pride. The realization that we can’t boost our own righteousness up to give us something to boast about before God; is where our heart rebels. Our sinful heart can’t tolerate such  terrible blows against all we’ve built up or stood on. All our confidence in the flesh. “That’s going to far! I worked hard for this! I deserve at least some inkling of credit!” And on and on our heart protests, until God’s law speaks its authoritative word, and every mouth is silenced before God. “Your sin has earned you death”—the law intones. “You are cursed if you have not done everything the Law requires”—the judgment rings harshly in our ears. God’s Law rains hammer blows down on our pride: “Your righteous deeds are like filthy rags”. To look up at this assault, we imagine a terrifying, angry God.

Until, that is, our pride is broken, and our blindness is made sight, and we see that God wants to trade us all the worthless empty things we’ve been clinging to, for something of infinite value and worth. Until we see the face of Jesus. When we see Jesus, we see the merciful face of God shining upon us and being gracious to us. We see God’s face lifting up to show us His favor and grant us peace. The storm cloud passes and we see that God was not after our destruction, but the destruction of our sinful nature—to put our sin and pride to death with Jesus on the cross, so that He can give us life. The joyous discovery of the Gospel is the thrill of knowing that everything you have, or are, or were, is as nothing compared to God giving you Christ Jesus. Jesus’ own righteousness. A gift by faith. Nothing you earned, but Christ in whole, poured out for you in life, death, and resurrection.

If our former “righteousness,”  if you can even call it that, had no “currency”—was worthless before God—this righteousness that you have in Christ Jesus is the real deal. It is Christ’s own righteousness of immeasurable worth. And this immeasurable worth was everything to Paul—to know Jesus, to gain Him, to be found in Christ Jesus with His righteousness. And it was everything to Martin Luther, it’s everything to me, and I pray that the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus is everything to you. I pray that sinful pride will never hold back even one of you from being found in Him. And your new life and new identity in Christ Jesus now has “currency” before God. You are precious and valuable to Him, not because of anything of your own, but because of Christ Jesus. And in that faith, all the life you live and lead for Christ is to His honor and glory, and for the service of your neighbor.

One of Luther’s great insights was that our old sinful nature is stubborn and persistent, and always looking for ways to insert our own pride or effort back into things. Pride wants our righteousness under the law to count for something before God. But Luther warned that any amount of credit that we try to steal for ourselves, however small, only serves to diminish or take away the glory and honor of Christ Jesus. The full credit and glory and honor belongs to Jesus Christ alone. So we must constantly keep the old sinner in check, humble him and put him to death through the drowning repentance of baptism, and rise daily before God to live as the new person He has made us in Christ Jesus.

The great fear of opponents to the Reformation, and a fear of many Christians today, is that if our good works aren’t counted for our justification before God, or even in some small way to put us in God’s favor—that people will give up striving and give up doing. People won’t have any motivation to do good, and will just turn into slackers and backsliders. The Apostle Paul knew this charge too: “Shall I sin more that grace may increase?” Paul answers, “By no means! How can we who have died to sin live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:2). In today’s reading he also shows that this fear is unfounded, for to know Christ Jesus is also to be conformed to Him. God has already begun transforming us into Christ’s image. We share in Christ’s sufferings and in His death, but we’ll also share in the glorious new beginning of His resurrection.

Paul then closes the reading by acknowledging how he’s far from perfection, but he’s striving and straining forward and pressing on like a determined runner in a race—to reach the prize of God’s heavenly call for us. It was easy for Paul to cast off all his works, achievements, and credentials as nothing and loss. And it didn’t stop him from doing good and seeking to live after Christ Jesus. In fact it the real freedom to do so out of genuine faith and love. And it shouldn’t stop you either. Just like a child who learns that mud pies aren’t edible has no trouble becoming a real baker when the loving mother washes her clean and teaches her how to make the real deal. God has prepared good works for us to do, and He’s already willing and working in you to do them, as your sinful nature never could before. So strive and strain and run for the goal. It’s not that we give up striving for excellence, but the reason why we do has changed from doing it for our own glory, to doing it for the glory of God and the service of our neighbor. But the foundation of your faith and your salvation is not any works of your own—neither before nor after your salvation—but the foundation of your faith is Christ Jesus, and His perfect righteousness that is ours by God’s gift through faith.

And one final thing—about how we see God. True love and worship of God—true trust and obedience to God, doesn’t come from cowering in fear and begrudgingly obeying because of threats. That is not God-pleasing obedience. Rather it comes from knowing God in Christ Jesus. True love, worship, trust, and obedience to God comes from knowing the merciful and loving God who gave up everything, even His Only Begotten Son to die for us, so that we could become His treasured possession. Seeing and knowing God in Christ Jesus, and becoming conformed to His Son, makes us into the new person transformed by joy and delight in the God of surpassing worth and greatness. Accept no imitations! Trust only in Him! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

Read past sermons at:

Listen to audio at:


  1. In Philippians 3:4b-14, Paul counts up all his “reasons for confidence in the flesh”—anything that he could boast in, if he had a mind to boast about earthly accomplishments. What about your identity or your achievements would you be most tempted to boast in?
  2. Why does Paul count all these things as “rubbish” or “loss”? What would he far rather have? Why are those things all empty to him?
  3. Paul speaks of two kinds of righteousness in v.9. What are they? What is the difference between them? Romans 3:21-22. Why is the second kind so far superior to the other? How do you get either?
  4. In the Reformation, the primary concern of the Lutheran Reformers was that a righteousness of the law was being taught in the church, instead of the righteousness by faith. They rightly saw this as a danger for human pride, for wounded and troubled consciences, and for diminishing the glory of Christ. How does the proper Biblical teaching of righteousness by faith correct those three dangers?
  5. In what ways do we become like Christ? Philippians 1:27; 2:1-8; 3:10-12, 21; Ephesians 5:1-2. Who makes this happen in us? As we are conformed to Christ, how does this change us in relation to the world and our flesh? Romans 12:1-2; 1 John 2:15-17.
  6.  How can we give full honor and glory to Christ Jesus? What will it mean for you to live as though all your earthly accomplishments and identity are as rubbish or nothing, and that Christ is everything? What is the surpassing joy of knowing Christ Jesus?
  7. How does knowing Jesus change the “face” of God toward us (compared to how we would know Him through the Law alone), so that we are able to truly love Him and worship Him?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Sermon on Ezekiel 18:1-32, for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, "Personal Responsibility and God's Justice"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Our OT text from Ezekiel 18 strikes on an issue that we often wrestle with today—our personal responsibility for sin, and the temptation to question God’s justice or fairness in how sin is punished. God spoke through Ezekiel during one of the darkest times for the Jews—when the kingdom of Judah and the city of Jerusalem were facing God’s judgment for their sin, and war and destruction from the armies of Babylon was pressing down on them. A popular saying was going around the nation: “The fathers have eating eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” It meant that the children were suffering for the sins of their parents, not their own sins. In essence, it said God was being unjust because “you’ve got the wrong guy!” It was a victimization mentality that passed off the blame of guilt to someone else, and/or accused God of taking pleasure in punishing those who didn’t deserve it. Ezekiel 18 is God’s answer to these charges, and His determination that they would never again use this proverb, this saying, in Israel. Though God has no need to prove His justice, He voluntarily does so, and shows that they have actually reversed things from reality. So a question we will have to answer, is how is God going to lift this charge they’ve made against Him?

It’s easy for us to fall into the same victim mentality and chalk up our problems to someone else’s mistakes or faults, or to deny our responsibility for a situation. It’s easy for Christians in churches to look at the lamentable state of affairs in our nation, and to point the finger of blame at the “sins of society” while ignoring our own “pet sins,” or forgetting our inaction to help matters. And while there are countless situations where people are legitimately victims of someone else’s violence, malice, jealousy, lust, or something else—we are all too often masters of spinning almost any situation into one where we are the victims and someone else is to blame. Even if that’s far from the truth. Ever since Adam and Eve first sinned and tried to pass the blame, “she made me do it”; “he made me do it”; we’ve fallen into the same habit. In Ezekiel 18, the Israelites were blaming their ancestors for the impending doom that faced their city, and were claiming they weren’t responsible, and therefore God was unfair.

Of course to the believer who knows God’s Ten Commandments, they might even quote Exodus 20 to support their view. Didn’t God say in the commandments, “I, the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,  but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:5-6). The “sour grapes” saying was basically passing the blame to the parents, and claiming the children bore no blame of their own. They might have thought Exodus 20 proved this. But a careful reading of the Exodus passage shows that it’s not innocent children suffering for the sins of guilty fathers, but it’s guilty children who continue in the hatred of God that their fathers showed. But that God is faithful to thousands of generations of those who love Him. Ezekiel 18 goes further to clarify this, by saying that the “soul (or person) that sins shall die.” In verses 5-24, which were not in our reading today, he gives five examples to prove his point.

The first three examples talk about three generations of men. A righteous father who obeys God and does what is right—living faithfully. His wicked son who turns from his father’s righteous ways and falls into terrible sins. And the righteous grandson who turns away from his father’s evil to walk again in the way that is right. In three successive generations, there is good, evil, and good again. Each of these three are presented as living consistently as righteous or as wicked throughout their life. And the righteous live—and do not bear the guilt of their wicked son or wicked father. And the wicked dies—and is not saved by the righteousness of their family member. These examples show our individual responsibility, and that we are not guilty of the sins of our family if we don’t participate in them. The fourth and fifth examples are of a person who changes course in the midst of their life—either turning away from their wickedness to the way of the Lord—and living by their new righteousness; or a righteous person abandoning the right path and turning to evil and dying for it. In these two examples we see that it was not the things that they had previously done in life that condemned or saved them—but the final state of things—whether they returned toward God or turned away from Him.

In every case, we’re judged individually by God and share no one else’s blame or righteousness. And picking up at the end of the chapter, God again drives home His point. It is not God who is unjust, but we are unjust. If we are punished, or if we die, it is for our own sins. But if we turn away from sin; if we put it behind us and do what is just and right, we will live. Though not spelled out in detail in this chapter, as it is elsewhere, it must be understood that it is by God’s mercy and forgiveness that the person’s former sins are forgiven and forgotten by God. God shows the worthlessness of this victimization proverb, the “sour grapes” saying, by proving that He does not delight in the death of the wicked, but rather that a sinner would turn from their ways and live. This expresses to us the incredible heart of God, that is most clearly seen in Jesus, but is prominent also here in the Old Testament. That for all God’s warnings of punishment, and declarations of His wrath against sin—He takes no pleasure in punishing, but rather the purpose of these warnings is to turn us back to Him to find life. Life and salvation is God’s goal and desire for every living person; His heart is for the lost and the wicked, to turn them from their ways to find the Way, the Truth, and the Life in Him.

God is not unjust, punishing the wicked and the righteous indiscriminately, or punishing innocent children for the sins of their guilty fathers. Rather the soul that sins will die—we bear personal responsibility. And here is the hinge on which God’s refutation of the false proverb swings: God is working for the salvation of the sinner, to keep us from being ruined by our own sin. God is holding out for us, delaying judgment so that He can call us to repentance. The New Testament tells us that “God desires all men to be saved, and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). God wants to give us a new heart and a new spirit. It’s not possible to call God unjust, because He is actively seeking to restore lost sinners to Him.

If we read Ezekiel 18 in isolation from the rest of the book, or even from the rest of the Bible, we could easily fall under another mistaken impression—that we actually have the power to make our own heart and spirit new. Or that salvation is merely a matter of our good works, straightening out a crooked life, or balancing the scales, and that God rewards our change in behavior with eternal life. But if we read the rest of Ezekiel—especially chapters 34 & 36, we see that the Lord is the Good Shepherd who goes out and rescues His lost and endangered sheep. We see that the Holy Spirit is the one who takes our stony heart of sin and replaces it with a living heart of flesh and a new Spirit. We see in Psalm 51 that the sinner cries out to God to create a clean heart and right spirit within him, because he has sinned against God.

And in the fuller light of the New Testament, we see that Jesus Christ is that Good Shepherd who came to seek and to save the lost. We see that there is no one righteous, not one who seeks after God; but God seeks after us. When Jesus made a new covenant with us in His death on the cross, He did it for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus’ extraordinary sacrifice shows how God is at work refuting the claim that He is unjust, or that He delights in the death of the wicked. God could be fully proved as just, if He simply punished us all as our sins deserved—and that would mean hell for all of us. But God has gone far beyond mere justice—He gives extraordinary mercy. While we each rightfully bear the responsibility of our sins—Jesus took upon Himself our guilt and punishment. Jesus suffered Himself to be unjustly accused and condemned to death as a guilty man, while simultaneously undertaking a great exchange. That He took on our guilt in exchange for giving us His righteousness. He took our death, that we might have His life. Our sin in exchange for His perfect life.

God’s Divine Justice went above and beyond the call of duty—we could say that it puts the “nail in the coffin” of the argument that God is unjust, or punishes us for what we don’t deserve. But perhaps it would be better said that Jesus’ empty tomb is the proof of Jesus’ innocence, and of God’s invincible power of life over death. God allowed Himself to be punished for what He did not deserve—that He might give to the undeserving a new heart and new spirit, and everlasting life. God’s true character shines forth in His mercy and love.

God delights in life, and not death! He delights in righteousness, and not wickedness. And life and righteousness only come from Him. It is God who wills and works in us according to His good pleasure. Only He can reorient our life to the right path by His power and guiding. And we don’t have to beg God for help as though God is a stingy and reluctant giver—He is eager and generous to give. That doesn’t mean the walk of a righteous life will be easy or without trial; it doesn’t mean that our sinful nature won’t constantly try to sabotage the Holy Spirit’s work, or that the devil won’t use every trick up his sleeve to make us stumble. But God is eager to give His Holy Spirit, and He is powerful to overcome every sin and struggle we face, as Jesus overcame them Himself in His body. We can put the blame game to rest and take personal responsibility for our sins as we confess them and turn away from them, and then rejoice as Jesus forgives them and gives us life. In His hands we can turn away from sin and onto the path of righteousness. By Jesus’ faithful shepherding, He lifts us up when we stumble on that path. He does it because He delights in life! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

Read past sermons at:

Listen to audio at:


  1. In Ezekiel 18:2, the people of Israel are repeating a saying or proverb, that seems to accuse God of being unjust, and punishing the children for the sins of their parents. Compare to Jeremiah 31:29 and Lamentations 5:1-7. How does God answer what this “proverb” accuses Him of doing? Ezekiel 18:3-4.
  2. Ezekiel 18:5-24, not read during the service, gives several examples that each show individual responsibility for sin. Why is it so common for humans to try to “pass the blame?” Genesis 3:10-13.
  3. Why is continuing on a sinful path so dangerous? Ezekiel 18:4, 30; Romans 2:5-10; Psalm 1. What alternative is there?
  4. Because of God’s impending judgment, for which we are all individually accountable, God calls us to repent and turn away from all our sins, cast them away, and make for yourselves a new heart and spirit (18:30-31). Does this mean that we are actually able to create a new heart and spirit ourselves? Compare what is said in Ezekiel 36:25-27; Psalm 51:10-12. What sins do you personally need to cast away and return to God for forgiveness from them?
  5. According to Ezekiel 18:32 and 33:11, what does God not delight in; and what does He delight in? How does inform our understanding of God? What does God show His will is toward sinners? 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9.
  6. How does God’s sending of Jesus, His only-begotten Son, silence the criticism that God is unjust or delights in punishing sinners? How does it show God’s character and His generosity?
  7. How did Jesus take personal responsibility for all of our guilt? How does this destroy the charge that God is unjust?



Monday, September 22, 2014

50th Wedding Anniversary Litany

Note: It was my great honor and privilege to celebrate the 50th anniversary of my parents and aunt and uncle this summer, at a special worship service and renewal of wedding vows. In putting together the service, I followed the Lutheran Service Book Agenda order  for Anniversary or Affirmation of Holy Matrimony. This volume is available at

The following is a Scriptural Litany (responsive reading) that I assembled, to celebrate the gift of marriage and the blessings that God has given through their marriages. Since this was a gathering of three generations, I wanted to help us to think about passing that legacy of longevity and faithfulness in marriage down to the next generation. The Litany therefore has the following teaching elements from the Bible: God's purposes in creating marriage and the blessings He intended it to give; the importance of faith in house and home, and the blessing of godly children; God's call to the older generations to pass on the faith to future generations; a confession of our sin and failings to be faithful and obedient to God; and the blessings of finding a godly spouse. The inspiration for this litany came from an excellent suggestion by my sister, which leads to the closing passages from Proverbs 31, where the gathered children and husbands enacted the words about the children rising to call her (the mother of honor) blessed, and concluded with our fathers speaking a word of praise to their wives as well. It was very special to be able to live out those words of Proverbs 31, and in a small way express our appreciation for what our parents have done.

If you are celebrating an anniversary for your parents, I am posting this for anyone's consideration and use. There are certainly many more Bible passages that come to mind, like Ephesians 5, and how Christ is at the center of a Christian marriage. These and other passages could be used to enlarge upon these themes of marriage--though if you use the renewal of vows from the Lutheran Service Book, some of those themes are wrapped up in the prayers, or could feature in a homily. If you are planning an anniversary celebration, God's blessings to your family, and Happy Anniversary!

A Litany of Celebration of 50 years of Marriage

 Men: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them.

Women: And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.                                                                       (Genesis 1:27-28)

Women: Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him…” So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.

Men: Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

All: Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.                                                               (Genesis 2:18, 21-24)

Pastor/Leader: Marriage was one of God’s highest and best blessings to Adam and Eve before their fall into sin. They were made in the image of God. They would be blessed with fruitfulness in childbearing, and were to rule over the earth. They were perfectly matched companions and found in one another a profound unity that would be the basis for forming a new family for thousands of generations afterward. The two would become one flesh. Family and home bring many blessings, but that home is most greatly blessed that is built on the Lord.

Men: Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.

Women: Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.

Men: Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame!    (Psalm 127, excerpts)

Women: Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways! Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.

Men: Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord. May you see your children’s children!                                                                                            (Psalm 128, excerpts)
Grandparents: Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth! [God] established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.                                (Psalm 78:1-8, excerpts)

 All: Both we and our fathers have sinned; we have committed iniquity; we have done wickedness. Our fathers, when they were in Egypt, did not consider your wondrous works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea. Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power.. Let us thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! We will not hide them from our children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done! Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things; let them consider the steadfast love of the Lord. (Psalm 106:6-8; 107:8, 43; 78:4)

Pastor/Leader: Scripture also reminds us of the great blessing to find a godly spouse. One who fears the Lord. (following are excerpts of Proverbs 31)

Men: An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.

Women: The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.

Men: Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.

 All: Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:

 (At this time all the children and grandchildren stand, and those who wish to speak a short blessing or thanksgiving upon our mothers or parents can do so. When those who speak are finished, the Grandfathers will continue…)

Grandfathers: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

(At this time the grandfather(s)will speak some words of praise to their wives)


Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16, for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Children's Sunday, "God's Generosity"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. One of Jesus’ favorite ways to teach was through parables, which are little stories about ordinary life that He used to teach us about God and His ways. Parables show the surprising differences between God’s kingdom, values and priorities, and those of the world. The parables often are unexpected, and they move us to reevaluate and change the way we think. Today’s parable about a master who goes out to hire workers for his vineyard, is no different.

The story begins at an “unemployment line” of the ancient world—day laborers waiting at the market to be hired for the day. Some of you may have actually been on the unemployment lines before—worried and stressed about how you would provide for your family or pay your bills. No matter how many mouths you have to feed—the unemployment line is a picture of basic human needs. So out goes the master, personally, to hire workers early in the morning, to work in his vineyard. An unusually persistent master, who returns not once more, but 4 more times to the marketplace, to hire more workers. A total of 5 trips to the unemployment line, to bring workers in, even up to the last hour of the day.

Now what could be the reason for this strange behavior? Certainly the master had enough workers to finish the job after his third or fourth trip. Certainly it wasn’t a matter of the work not getting done at the 11th hour, with only one hour left in the day. So why did he keep going back? And more unusual behavior follows when he pays the workers in reverse, and gives them all the same wage—one denarius—the normal day’s wage of Jesus’ time. When the workers who had actually agreed to work for one denarius, see the latecomers getting one denarius also, they begin to get greedy, and think to themselves, “Oh! This means we will get more!” But their attitude quickly changes when they get the same pay as all the rest. They grumble until the master turns and addresses them, and pulls together the meaning of the parable for us.

Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” So the last will be first, and the first last. Adding together all these unexpected elements of the story, what does this parable teach us about God and His kingdom? The parable explains itself—it’s about the generosity of the master. His generosity explains the strange behavior. And why was He generous? It’s no stretch to see that He was compassionate towards the human need of the workers. The point of the parable is to paint a picture of our generous and compassionate God, who cares for the need of humanity.

So what’s the crisis in the parable? The workers were not cheated or paid any less than they had agreed to work for. In fact only the first group of workers agreed to the wage—all the others went to work simply on the promise that “whatever is right, I will give you”. But our gut reaction is right there with the workers who pulled the full 12 hour shift. Certainly it stands to reason that the ones who worked longest should get more, or that the ones who worked less should get less, right? Isn’t that fair? But the master answers that he’s free to do what he chooses, and asks why we resent his generosity. This is the heart of the matter. Our problem is with who God is—and at our core, we find His generosity hard to accept. Perhaps not hard to accept for ourselves, but we do find it hard to accept His generosity toward others, or to show the same ourselves. We always seem to feel we deserve a bigger or better slice of the pie than someone else—and just like in the parable, the first group even becomes blind to the generosity they received from the master in the first place. They even try to put the master in their debt.

We are trained in almost every aspect of our life to live by a merit-based system. School is no exception. Students earn their grades by hard study and effort, they receive perfect attendance awards only if they are present, on time, every day. In sports it’s usually the athletes who put the most effort into their sports and practice, who will be most successful in competition. Job promotions are supposed to come by demonstrating hard work and achievement. Awards in science, writing, or entertainment come to those who show excellence and hard work. We’re programmed to think this way about nearly everything in life. And it’s natural that these things should work that way, and the lesson of Jesus’ parable is not about how to set your payroll—it’s about the kingdom of heaven and God’s ways.

This parable shows that when God came to meet our human need in Jesus Christ, He did not give out His gifts by the merit system. Jesus did not come to earth to reward those who were proud or boastful of their upright lives, or thought they’d earned God’s favor or put God in their debt. Rather, Jesus came to the needy, the suffering, the low and humble. Those who seemed most undeserving and unworthy. He made the last to be first, and the first last. He came for sinners and those in darkness.

God doesn’t grade on a curve or scale His gifts or blessings according to how much we deserve. He doesn’t reduce the gift of eternal life, for those who believe in the last hour of life. Do you know what Jesus promised to the thief on the cross, who saw Jesus as King in his dying hour? Jesus told him, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” No period of probation, no waiting period or second rate gift. He received his “denarius”—his reward of eternal life—even though he hadn’t earned it. God’s goodness and generosity were on full display even as Jesus was breathing out His dying breath. In God’s kingdom, comparing ourselves and looking down on others is completely out of order. Helping and caring for the lowly and the needy—that’s the order of God’s kingdom. Keeping a humble attitude about yourself, and being content with what God gives you—this is how to live in His kingdom. Dependency on God, and not claiming self-reliance in things spiritual—this is what God desires.

The proud and self-important soul will not listen to God; but the humble heart is open to God’s Word and His call. God has done His share of cracking through the tough shell of stubborn hearts, and opening them to hear His Word. But pride cannot stand before Him. But He lifts up the lowly, taking them from the dust and giving them honor. This is what God is pleased to do in His kingdom, where the first will be last, and the last will be first. This is what Christians mean by the “Gospel” or the good news. It’s a message totally unlike our knee-jerk way of thinking about what is fair; what we’ve earned or deserved.

The hard truth is that if we push God to treat us and others by what we think we deserve—what is fair—we just might get what we’ve asked for. The Bible tells us what “wages”  we’ve earned or deserved. Sin earns us death. All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. That means we haven’t “scored” rewards and commendations from Him, no matter how self-convinced we are of our own good life. Instead we’ve earned death. The Bible tells us this is the source of our human need. This is the equivalent of the “unemployment line” of the parable. What we need from God is not a job, but a restored relationship with Him. The forgiveness of our sins and a place of belonging in His family. And an eternal home with Him in heaven. But we have no means to provide this for ourselves (or our family or anyone else). We can’t meet our own human needs before God. We need His generosity—His undeserved goodness.

And God is willing—no He is eager!!—to give us what we don’t deserve! Do you see the urgency and eagerness of God in the parable? He doesn’t send His employee, but goes Himself to find workers. At the last hour He certainly had no more need for workers—as if the work would be unfinished without them. But He has compassion on them and wants to give them each a day’s wage. What dignity He gives to the lowly! What generosity to even the last and the least! God doesn’t make a “cost-benefit analysis” to see whether it’s a good investment of His “money” to hire at the last hour—He wants those workers in the vineyard, and He’s got generosity to spare! This how God is generous to us and to all people. He’s not measuring how long you’ve been in His “vineyard”—but He is sure eager to get you in there before the day is over and the darkness sets in.

If the master in the parable doesn’t want even the last worker to miss out on His generosity, and to get their “living wage”—how much more does God, whom the master represents—how much more does God want every last person to receive His generosity? And how eagerly and persistently Jesus calls for us to come to Him! So don’t delay! He’s calling you! There is no greater blessing than to receive God’s generosity and the gifts that He freely brings us. There is no better way to provide for yourself and your family than to receive God’s free gifts. He went to great lengths to give them to us—even to death on the cross and rising from the dead for us. The gifts that Jesus brings are the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, and eternal life. Nothing that we earned and better than we deserve. But God is free to do what He chooses with what belongs to Him—and He chooses to give us life! Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. To Him be our worship and praise, Amen!

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. What was the wage the first workers agreed to accept from the master for a day’s work? When the master returned four more times to the marketplace, why were there still workers there? (v.7)
  2. What is surprising about the master’s trips to the marketplace, in light of the fact that he had an employee (v.8)? What about the order in which he made payment? How much he paid to each?
  3. What does this parable teach us about the compassion and generosity of our God? What was the protest of the first workers? Were they underpaid? How and when do we show a similar jealousy or resentment? What must we do with sinful feelings of “entitlement?”
  4. The end of verse 15 could literally be translated as “Or is your eye evil because I am good?” What does Jesus say about having an “evil eye?” Matthew 6:22-24. How should we look on one another instead?
  5. God commanded this same kind of mercy of His people in Deuteronomy 15:7-11 and 24:14-15. This parable shows how God would (and does!!) keep those same commands. How does the parable show that God became man in Jesus Christ, and how He made atonement for the world?
  6. How can we look out for and help the “11th hour” unemployed? What is significant about the fact that this was the “last call” for workers to come into the vineyard? What is the “equal reward” for all who trust in Jesus? It’s not a “reward” in the sense of something we earned, but given how? Romans 6:23