Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Lord is Good

Matthew 20:1-16

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    Lutherans are often accused of not being very good at promoting good works, of getting people to lead a more Christian life.  I don’t usually harp on all the things you should and shouldn’t be doing but on the fact that we’re saved by God’s grace alone and that good works do not make us right with God.  To some that sounds like saying we can live however we please.  But, of course, we’re not saying that good works aren’t necessary; they are.  God’s Law is still in force.  The Ten Commandments are still commanded.  They’re not the Ten Suggestions.  God has told us to do them, and so we should.  In fact, we must.

    However, this also must be pointed out: If you do good things in order to gain some eternal reward out of it, is that truly a good work?  Or if you do something good out of fear that if you don’t you’ll be punished, is that truly a good work?  In both cases the good deed is tainted, isn’t it?  It may be good humanly speaking, but it’s not in God’s sight.  For with Him it’s not just the outward act but what’s going on in the heart that counts.  Love and trust in Him is what He seeks.  If heaven is the reward we get for living a good life, we’re hopelessly lost; because then living a good life would end up being a self-serving thing, which in fact is the opposite of doing good before God.

    Let me illustrate it this way: Valentine’s day was just celebrated.  If a husband gets his wife a card and flowers or some other gift only because he feels like he has to or else he’ll be in the dog house, is that really love for his wife?  Or if he does something romantic because what he truly wants is to score some points that he can cash in on, is that really love for his wife?  What he does might be good outwardly speaking, but what makes it real love is when it’s done without thought to rewards or consequences, but with a desire for the good and the happiness of the spouse and their marital communion.

    So what God has done is this: He has enabled you to do truly good works by taking the eternal threats and reward entirely out of the mix.  The reward is already yours before you even start working.  It’s been purchased by Christ for you; it’s a done deal, whether you entered the vineyard at dawn or at the 11th hour.  Your reward, your eternal life in Christ is not in doubt.  The denarius is yours through faith, simply by trusting Him.  So now what?  Now you are truly free to do the work God has given you to do from the heart, out of love for Him and love for your neighbor, without any thought of what’s in it for you.  All the tainted motives you might have are taken away in Christ.  Fear of what might happen to you, self-serving goals no longer have a role to play since Jesus has already given Himself to you with every blessing.  You are set at liberty to do good, not because you have to in order to win God’s favor, but precisely because you already have God’s favor in Christ, and because your neighbor needs you.  In a sense you are free to do as you please.  For what pleases the heart of faith is not to go back to living in the same old shallow, empty, self-serving ways, but to live in Christ, loving and trusting in God and serving others.  That’s why it is written that without faith in Christ, it is impossible to please God.  Only in Jesus are you truly free to do good.

    When we forget that, that’s when we’ll start to grumble and complain, like the children of Israel in the wilderness, like the laborers in the vineyard who worked all day.  You only grumble and complain like that when you think God owes you, that you deserve better based on what you’ve done.  “I’ve worked harder than that other guy; I’ve done more for the church.  So I deserve better than him.”  “It’s not fair that God is letting me go through this hardship.  I’ve lived a good life and been a good person.”  You can only talk and think that way when you believe it’s your works that run the show with God.  And when your works run the show, then it’s all about you, not Jesus.

    The laborers in the vineyard wanted the landowner to be fair.  But in fact He was more than fair.  A denarius is a good and proper wage for a full day’s work.  That’s exactly what they received.  The landowner wasn’t being miserly; he didn’t stiff them.  It’s just that the landowner was extremely generous to the others.  He treated even the ones hired at the 11th hour as if they had worked all day.  You might say that it was by grace that they received their denarius.  The landowner wasn’t unfair but good and gracious.  Besides, he had the right to do whatever he wished with His own things.

    Beware of applying standards of fairness to God, as if the clay can tell the potter how to do his job.  Beware, because generally the fairness argument is just a mask for promoting our own interests.  That’s why we love to grouse about the rich and income inequality.  “They don’t deserve it, and we deserve more for all our hard work; it’s not fair.”  But whether or not that's the case, that's not how God wants to deal with us, on the basis of what we deserve, as if we had a contractual arrangement with Him, a business deal, a pre-nuptial agreement.  Rather, He wants our relationship to be one of real love, freely given, no strings attached.  As soon as it’s about what we think God owes us, then we’re not seeking to love Him but to use Him.

    We should beware of wanting God to be fair with us, anyway, as I’ve often told you before.  For then we’d be in grave danger.  If you want fair wages, then here’s what the Scriptures say, “The wages of sin is death.”  Those who end up in hell are really in the end only getting what they asked for, namely, the just and fair payment for their faithless works.  “Go your way,” the landowner said.  Have it your way.  Hell is filled with grumbling and complaining against God.  You might think that hell would mostly be about regret.  But regret quickly shifts to anger and blame, especially toward God.  The damned actually believe that God is wrong, that He’s being unfair.  This worsening bitterness and teeth-gritting frustration is part of their unending torment.

    Repent, then, of dealing with God as if He were against you, as if He needed to be negotiated with and badgered into loving you.  Turn away from your anger with Him.  Trust that He is good, that He is merciful and abounding in steadfast love.  He is blessedly unfair with you, pouring out on you the fullness of His generosity in Christ.  He does love you.  He will provide you with all that you need.  After all, if the Father has given you His own Son, will He not also graciously give you all that is good and necessary and right for you?  Remember that the laborers who were hired later in the day went to work without being told what they would be paid, just trusting in the goodness of the landowner, that He would give them "whatever is right."  So you also, even though you can’t see what the future holds, even if life doesn’t seem to be fair–trust in the goodness of your heavenly Father; stake your life on His grace in Jesus.  Know that He will give far more than you could ever dream of.

    Just like the landowner dealt with those hired at the 11th hour, so the Lord treats you as if you did all the required work, from the beginning to the ending of the day.  For what you failed to do, the Lord Jesus has accomplished perfectly on your behalf in His perfect life and death and resurrection.  He Himself is the true Laborer in the vineyard who brings you the generous reward at the end of the day.  He began His work even before dawn on Good Friday, being condemned by the Jewish authorities.  He was questioned by Pontius Pilate, flogged, and then crucified at the 3rd hour.  Darkness covered the land from the sixth hour, noon, until the ninth hour, as a sign of the judgment He bore in your place.  Our Lord cried out “It is finished!” and died as the perfect and complete sacrifice for your sin.  See how He did all the work for you!  He who is the Rock was struck, and water and blood flowed forth from His side for your cleansing and your forgiveness.  He was buried at the eleventh hour just before sundown to sanctify your grave and make it a place of rest from which you will awaken and rise in glory on the Last Day.

    “The Lord will save the humble people, but will bring down proud and haughty looks.”  And so we look not for fair wages but mercy and grace from God.  We know that it is only by the Lord’s goodness that we are even in the vineyard, no matter how long we’ve been there.  We consider it a privilege to be able to contribute to the health and the growth of the vineyard, which is Christ’s church.  We are not jealous of the newcomer or of the one converted in his dying days, but we rejoice that the same mercy that saved us has also saved another.  Even a faithful lifelong Christian recognizes that of himself he deserves nothing and that it is only because of Jesus that he has forgiveness and life.  As it is written, “The free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).”  And again, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.  For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).” 

    Let us then be truly full of good works by trusting in the grace of Christ alone to save us.  Or as St. Paul puts it, let us run in such a way as to obtain the prize of life with Christ, which He Himself has won for us.  Let us run with the certainty of faith, setting our hearts on Him, disciplining our bodies and minds, more than even a dedicated Olympic athlete, filling ourselves with His words and His life-giving body and blood.  Come and lay hold of the denarius Christ earned for you–not because it’s owed; but simply because it is His good pleasure to be generous and loving toward you.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Jesus, the Greater Jonah

Matthew 8:23-27; Jonah 1:1-17
Epiphany 4

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    Jonah was called by God to go and preach to the city of Nineveh, to cry out against it because of its wickedness.  But Jonah wanted nothing to do with that.  He found a ship going in the opposite direction and got on it.  He tried to run from God, to avoid God’s will, to flee from the presence of the Lord. 

    We are not unlike Jonah.  For by nature we also want to go our own way rather than God’s way.  Our old Adam seeks to escape God’s will for our lives and wriggle out of His calling.  We too run from the presence of the Lord. 

    Now your running may not be so obvious as Jonah’s.  But it is there in subtle ways.  You may not be leaving for a far away place.  You may not be running from God by staying away from church and religion.  But you do want religion that’s on your own terms, one that doesn’t require too much of you, one where you can keep God at a manageable distance and stay one step ahead of him and still be pretty much in charge of your own life.  And when God gets too close, when His Word calls for you to go in a direction you don’t want to go, when it involves changes in your life and the forsaking of your favorite idols, that is when you run.  Whatever it is that you do to avoid your responsibilities as a husband or wife, as a worker or a neighbor, as a parent or child; wherever it is that you go to hide out and escape from the stations of life into which God has placed you; whenever you engage in excuse-making for your failure to follow His words and heed His calling, that is when you are being just like Jonah here, stowing away in the belly of some ship.

    Of course, you can’t run from the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.  Jonah’s rebellion against the Lord caused a great storm to rage against the ship he was on.  Nothing that the crew tried could save the ship from certain destruction.  The only thing that finally kept the ship from breaking up was the sacrificing of Jonah.  He was thrown overboard, and the sea stopped its raging.  So it is with us.  Our sin causes God’s wrath to rage against us.  There is nothing we can do to save ourselves.  The judgment of the Law is that our eternal death is required.  Only then will the raging cease.

    But then comes the Gospel in which we learn of a new Jonah, one who takes our place under judgment and who saves us from its surging storm.  For here is Jesus in the very same circumstance as Jonah, in the midst of a tempest on the sea.  Just as Jonah was sleeping in the ship, so also here Jesus is sound asleep in the boat despite the commotion of the wind and the waves.  Our Lord was weary and worn out from the day’s work and teaching.  He took on our very flesh and blood and subjected Himself to all of the exhausting effects of sin on our behalf. 

    Jonah’s shipmates awakened him and asked him to call on his God, that they might not perish.  So also the disciples woke Jesus with the prayerful plea, “Lord, save us!  We are perishing!”  Jonah’s shipmates cast lots to see for whose cause this trouble had come; and the lot fell on Jonah.  In the same way, the Lord Jesus took our place under the Law.  Though the storm of judgment was brought on by our own doing, Jesus allowed the lot to fall on Him, that He might receive the punishment in our place.  In other words, Christ became as if He were the sinner fleeing from God.  He became Jonah for us, in order that we might be forgiven and brought back to the heavenly Father and restored to fellowship with Him. 

    Jonah was cast overboard, and the storm stopped.  Jesus was cast over to death not on the sea but on the cross.  In view of that impending sacrifice, and with His authority as the Almighty Son of God, Jesus rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.  Christ is not only true man but also true God.  He is the One through whom all things were created.  By His Word the wind and the waves were called into being in the beginning; and by His Word these fallen elements of creation are subdued and tamed.  “Quiet, be still!”  And there was perfect peace on the water.

    Jonah was three days in the belly of the great fish before being vomited onto dry land.  So also our Lord Jesus was three days in the belly of the grave.  Having paid for our sins by the shedding of His blood, Jesus then came forth from the depths of death victorious over the grave, bringing His resurrection life to all who believe in Him.  By the holy cross, the storm of God’s judgment has subsided for you.  Through Jesus there is a great calm, the full forgiveness of your sins.  “Be still and know that I am God.”  In the risen Christ you now have perfect peace and reconciliation with the Father. 

    And that perfect peace is yours in the water.  For it is through holy baptism that you are placed into Christ.  It is by water and the Word that Christ became your refuge, like the great fish was for Jonah.  Most of you know that the fish has long been a  symbol in the church for Jesus.  The Greek word for fish is IXTHUS, as we see in the wood carving on the wall.  And those letters form an acronym in Greek for the phrase, “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.”  So it is that Jesus is our great fish.  He saves us from the watery depths of death by taking us into Himself, protecting us in His body, joining us to His death.  And then He sets us forth on the shores of new and eternal life, joining us also to His resurrection. 

    It is written in Romans 6, “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”  The old, fleeing Jonah was buried in the water, and a new Jonah came forth whose first destination was Nineveh.  So also the rebellious fallen nature in us was buried at the font, and we came forth from the water as new people with a new direction, ones who share in and who are given to live the very life of Christ Himself.  In fact that is the substance of the Christian life–to drown the sinful nature through repentance, so that the new man, Christ, may daily emerge and arise in us to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

    As we await the day when our old nature will be put off from us forever, there will be times when our faith will be tested.  There will be times when it seems as if the storm of judgment still threatens to do us in.  Sicknesses and pains in our body, sorrows in our hearts, troubles in our family, strained relationships, financial problems all can make us feel as if we’re going to go under and never come up again.  And as this tempest rages around us, it might seem as if our Lord is sleeping, as if He’s paying no attention to us and doesn’t even care.  “Why don’t you do something, God?  Don’t just sit there.  The ship’s about to go down!  Help me, if you care!”  That’s the temptation we face: to doubt God’s goodness toward us in Christ, to fear the things that are going on around us and inside of us rather than revering and trusting in God above all things. 

    Jesus said to His disciples, “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?”  At least they had little faith and called on His name in their time of need, “Lord, save us!”  If their faith had been greater they would have recognized that the only way they could go down was if Jesus would go down, if the wind and the waves would prove stronger than He who created them.  Jesus was unthreatened by the storm, sleeping soundly, trusting in His Father’s care.  In fact, there was probably no place safer in all of Israel that night than right there on that boat.  For Jesus was on that boat, He who is Creation’s Master, He who is the refuge and the fortress of His people.  They are held in safety in the palm of His hand.

    Remember that when it seems as if the wind and the waves in your life are going to overwhelm you.  Remember who their Master is.  Remember these words of faith from Romans 8, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” 

    You’re in the same boat with Jesus.  He has received you into the ship of the church.  The only way that you can go down is if He goes down.  And the fact is that He has conquered the storm and every threatening evil by the power of His cross and resurrection.  You are safely sheltered in His holy wounds.  His risen presence surrounds you as an impenetrable stronghold, so that not even death can snatch you out of His hands.  Therefore, cast all your cares on Him, for He cares for you.  Our Lord Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, ruling over all things for the sake of the Church.  He has promised to work all things together for the good of those who love Him, for you who are the called according to His purpose.  He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  He has given you the Sacrament of His body and blood to strengthen you in that confidence, that you might be certain that He truly is with you, that He forgives you, that He loves you. 

    Believe that truth; trust in His Word.  For though this fallen creation may groan all around you, though you may groan inwardly under the power of the curse, yet the Word of Jesus overcomes the wind and the waves and brings calm to your heart.  We are those who live with a sure hope in Christ and a sure destiny in our voyage.  We eagerly await the redemption of our body, the resurrection to come on the Last Day.  And so we boldly confess with St. Paul, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠