Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sermon: Septuagesima

31 January 2010 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 20:1-16 (Ex 17:1-7)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

God is not fair. He is the kind of boss that we complain about. He pays the guy who works little the same as the guy who works a lot. When the wages are calculated on an hourly rate, the guy who makes the most by far is the one who does the least work.

God does not pay us what we deserve, and thanks be to Him that He doesn’t! For even if we may seem to be more diligent or harder working than the next person, we all know the wages we truly deserve – “the wages of sin is death.” To be honest about it, every one of us who labors in the Lord’s vineyard is pretty much worthless. We’re not exactly “employee of the month” material. Anyone who says otherwise is also a liar. We are shiftless and lazy, we are dishonest and unmotivated, we are litigious and we do nothing but grumble.

Moses knew a thing or two about grumbling. After leading the people out of Egypt, out of slavery, they griped and moaned about all sorts of things, from the lack of variety on the menu to the fact that others were not permitted to exercise the kind of authority Moses did among the people. On more than one occasion, Moses prayed the “just kill me now” prayer – which is fortunately not included in most prayer books of the Church.

In spite of the constant grumbling of the people, the Lord provided for their needs in the form of life-giving water from the rock – even though the people’s response was to doubt the Lord’s presence among them.

God has a history of not giving His people what they deserve. And again, how grateful we ought to be, dear brothers and sisters of that Rock that continues to bear life-giving water among us who grumble and complain and doubt the Lord’s presence in our midst!

In paying all of His laborers the same, in making the last first, and the first last, in granting free and full salvation to those who came to the faith early in life as well as those who have made deathbed conversions, the Lord is proving that He is indeed the Boss. And in His unfairness, He shows Himself to be merciful. In His refusal to pay wages according to the dictates of reason, He demonstrates His grace.

For which of us lazy, grumbling, dishonest, and greedy workers wants to actually be paid what we deserve?

And so how is it that St. Paul speaks of the Christian faith with an athletic metaphor? For only one person wins the gold medal. And in order to win it, an athlete must train, work hard, be diligent, and persevere. And so must we, dear friends. This is no contradiction. For the Lord Jesus has run the race and won the prize. He has gained the victor’s crown for finishing in first place. But we are His followers. As His disciples and followers, we too discipline ourselves. Not so that we can earn our own prize, but rather because we share in His. We run the race knowing that we too have a share in His prize. And that reality ought not make us lazy, but it should encourage us to train even harder, knowing that the prize of eternal life given to the Victor is given to us as well. For St. Paul says that we are “more than conquerors.”

And even as we train and practice self-discipline, even as we run with perseverance, we keep our eye on the prize so as not to lose it. For we already know it will not be taken away from us. Furthermore, we know that though our efforts do not earn us salvation, our efforts do bear fruit for the good of the kingdom, bringing more and more people to the victor’s stand with us to share the prize.

And only our own petty sense of greed could make us grumble that we share the victor’s podium with a multitude of our fellow-redeemed. Only our own sense of inflated self-worth could ever lead us to complain that we who work eleven hours are paid at the same rate as those who work only one. May it not be so among us!

And when we realize that the denarius in the parable is not just a day’s wages, but rather the unearned wages of everlasting life – that should remove from us any desire for God to be “fair” in the eyes of the world, or that we should grumble that God has “made them equal to us.” For when we realize what the denarius is, when we really comprehend how we have cheated the hangman, when we truly meditate on what it means that “salvation unto us has come,” and that “by grace I’m saved,” what, dear friends, do any of us have to gripe about?

We’re free! We’re rich beyond all measure! We are not paid according to the wages we deserve, but rather according to the wages that Jesus deserves. His work on the cross is credited to us. His bearing of the “burden of the day and the scorching heat” of his passion and death are borne unfairly by Him while we, the eleventh-hour malingerers, strut into heaven without so much as a paper cut’s worth of blood of our own by which to plead worthiness or even a drop of sweat by which we have earned salvation.

And yet Jesus does not grumble. He does not shake His fist at God and complain of the unfairness of it all. He who is first does not spurn being last. Rather He embraces this happy exchange of our sin for His righteousness, all for us, all out of love, not begrudging the Father’s generosity toward us in the least, but rather rejoicing with us and for us.

And this is the thing about the Christian faith that confounds the world. The Eastern religions teach of karma, but Christianity proclaims grace. The world speaks of revenge, and the Church proclaims forgiveness. Our sinful nature thumps its chest and cries out for fairness, while our emerging New Man drowns the Old Adam in the water that flowed from the Rock, and proclaims this “unfair” Good News before all nations.

God is indeed not fair! And we Christians, we forgiven sinners, we the undeserving redeemed and beloved of God – should not want it any other way. It is a cause of rejoicing. It is the Good News we have to offer a grumbling world stuck in karma, revenge, and delusions of self-justification. We are not paid the wages we deserve, and thanks be to God – now and unto eternity. Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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