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4 Brief Meditations on the St. John Passion

John 18:1-27

    The contrast between Peter and Jesus couldn’t be more stark.  Peter had talked big about his faithfulness and devotion to Jesus.  He had flailed around with his sword in the garden, as if he were Jesus’ personal bodyguard.  But now he is suddenly a coward.  Now that Jesus is captured, he is fearful even of a little servant girl suggesting that he is Jesus’ disciple.  Peter is afraid of what might happen to him.  He is afraid to suffer.

    And so are we.  We’re in love with the idea of faithfulness. We look up to the martyrs of the church and believe that we too would rather die than deny Jesus.  But we deny Him in so many little ways, when we fail to speak or act because that might associate us with Jesus in a negative light.  We’re afraid of what might happen to our reputation or our income or our life if we’re stereotyped as one of “those” Christians.  We don’t want to suffer for the name of Jesus.  null

    But Jesus is most willing to suffer for us.  He doesn’t hide from those who come to arrest him.  Rather, Jesus goes forth boldly to meet His captors, fully prepared to drink the cup of judgment given Him by His Father.  Jesus is not like Adam, who hid among the trees in fear.  In this garden Jesus meets his enemies head on, so that we who are the children of Adam may go free.  For this man Jesus is the great I AM, the eternal God revealed in the burning bush to Moses.  His name causes His enemies to draw back and fall to the ground.  For all who do not call on His name in faith will fall to their own destruction.

    Peter would later not deny but confess the name of Jesus boldly on Pentecost with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  In the end Peter would die courageously for the name of Christ.  God grant us His Holy Spirit that we too may confess the name of Jesus with full confidence in Him.  Let us take to heart Jesus’ words, “Be faithful even unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

John 18:28-40

    The Jewish leaders do not want to enter Pilate’s Praetorium, especially during this time of the Passover, lest they be defiled by being in a Gentile building.  But they are already defiled within by their sinful motives and desires.  So also, we are all too often concerned about outward righteousness and appearances, when the Lord looks at the heart and desires the inward righteousness of faith.  To be undefiled is to confess your sins for what they are and to trust in Him who is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleannullse us from all unrighteousness.  

    Jesus stands before Pilate.  Pilate received His authority from God.  And now God in the flesh humbles Himself to be placed under this authority.  The Judge of all men is being judged by a man.  Judgment should be based on truth, but the only thing Pilate can say is “What is truth?”  All fallen human beings are liars, the Psalm says.  But Jesus is Himself the truth.  He is reality.  He is the way things are, the truth of God’s mercy shown to those who have not deserved it.

    Pilate finds Jesus innocent, no fault in Him at all.  But the crowds don’t want Jesus, they want Barabbas.  The violent robber goes free so that Jesus might rob us of our sin by being violently executed.  The one who took life lives; the One who gives life dies.  This is God’s good and gracious will, that Christ should die in the place of sinners.  Jesus goes to death in our place, so that we might live forever in His place, in His kingdom, which is not of this world.  Pilate’s plan to release Jesus fails.  The Passover Lamb will be sacrificed by the Father to take away the sin of the world.

John 19:1-22

    People will sometimes blame their failings on the fact that “they’re only human.”  However, the problem since the fall of Adam is not that we are human but that we are less than human.  Our sin has dehumanized us, turning us in on ourselves rather than outward in love toward God and others.  Beastly thoughts and words and actions often proceed from us.  Survival instincts dominate. So it is written, “Man is like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49:12).  

    And we don’t like anyone drawing this to our attention, either.  Better if they can be ignored or shut up.  This is the behavior of those who are less than men.  It is the behavior of the chief priests and the officers when they see Jesus.  He is a threat to their territory and domain.  And so they growl  for His crucifixion.  null

    But before they can cry out their desires, Pontius Pilate speaks words that were more true than he realized.  He presents a bloodied and beaten Jesus and says, “Behold the Man!”  Here is the One who is truly and fully human, who is not degraded and corrupted by His own sin.  Here is the only real Man, who lays down His life for fallen creatures like you to raise you up as the people of God, His own beloved bride, His Church.  He willingly allows Himself to be treated inhumanely to rescue you, to restore your humanity, to give you to share in His life and His glory.  By His wounds you are healed and forgiven.

    Behold the One who wears thorns on His head as a crown, to redeem you from the curse on the ground which you were created out of.  Behold the Ram whose horns are caught in the thorny thicket of sin, who is offered up in the place of you Isaacs as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Behold the woman’s Seed who is crucified at Golgotha, the place of a Skull, whose cross is driven like Jael’s tent peg into the skull, whose pierced feet crush Satan’s head and defeat the power of death.

    This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.  The chief priests don’t like this inscription that Pilate placed over Jesus’ head, and they ask him to change it.  But the earthly authority whom God has established proclaims the truth.  “What I have written, I have written.”  Jesus truly is the King of the Jews, that is, the King of all those who are the true children of Abraham.  He reigns in mercy over His baptized ones, over all you who believe in His promises, and who are credited with His righteousness by grace alone.

John 19:23-42

    It is Friday, the sixth day of the week.  It is the day not only of man’s creation in the beginning, but now also of His redemption and re-creation.  For here is the new Adam who is put into the deep sleep of death, that the new Eve might be created from His side.  The sacramental water and blood that flow from His pierced heart are most certainly what gives the church her life.  “We are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones” (Ephesians 5:30).

    The new Adam bears the shame and the nakedness of our sin, which the fig leaves of our denial and excuses cannot hide.  Jesus is exposed and laid bare on the tree of the cross.  As the first Adam and Eve were clothed with the skins of sacrificed animals, so we who are tnullheir children are covered with the seamless garment of Christ, as it is written, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27).  His bloody death covers our shame and atones for our sin.  

    In the sweat of His face, Jesus cries out “I thirst!”  He who is the fountain of life is parched like the dusty ground.  His tongue sticks to the roof of His mouth (Psalm 22:15).  He is given sour wine, vinegar for His thirst (Psalm 69:21).  Our Lord endures this scornful gesture that we might hunger and thirst for His righteousness and drink deeply of the Living Water that He gives and so be honored with Him in His resurrection.

    Jesus is buried in a garden, an indication of the greater Eden to come.  For in Christ paradise is restored and all creation is made new.  The work has now been completed.  “It is finished,” Jesus said.  The Sabbath is at hand.  “And God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.”  “And God saw everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

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

Not a Bread King, the Bread of Life

Lent 4
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
Today’s Gospel concludes by saying that the people tried to take Jesus by force to make Him king.  They had finally found the leader they were looking for from among all candidates that were out there.  Politics and theology were running close together in the people’s minds.  Jesus had developed quite a following through His teaching and His healing.  Now, by feeding the 5000 in this miraculous way, Jesus was the instant frontrunner to lead the people.  While some seemed to understand who Jesus really was when they said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world,”–referring to the Messiah Moses had prophesied–most seemed to be more interested in the power and the miracles.  They followed Jesus not for salvation, not for forgiveness of their sins, not for reconciliation with God, but rather for free food and health care.  Here’s a guy who could really help my economic circumstances, and my medical needs, and maybe do something about those foreign Roman occupiers, too.  This is about as close as they could get to an election.  The people had spoken.
 
Now at this point, Jesus would be the envy of every politician running for office.  His poll numbers were strong, and He had proven he could deliver on his promises.  Church politicians would be thrilled with Jesus, too.  Jesus really seems to have hit upon a successful evangelism program; just look at the crowds!  (Of course, by the end of this chapter, after Jesus had talked about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, He went from having thousands of followers to only a dozen.  But that’s another sermon.)null
 
Just because the majority speaks, it doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily right–whether it’s the 99% or the 51%.  The notion of a democratic republic wasn’t handed down from heaven as the way to run states or countries.  To paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy is a lousy form of government; it just happens to be the best one available in this fallen world, since power (which inevitably corrupts) supposedly doesn’t get concentrated in the hands of a few.  But majority votes are sometimes not too far from mob rule, as we are seeing in North Africa and the Middle East, where majority rule has meant the persecution of Christians; or in this country where majority votes have meant the normalization of sexual perversity.  So also with the majority in today’s Gospel–other agendas were at work that didn’t belong to Jesus, political agendas that weren’t the Father’s design for His Messiah king. 
 
That’s why Jesus goes to the mountain all alone and shuns the voice of the people.  For Jesus understands that while presidents and prime ministers are elected by the people, kings are not.  The king is who he is by virtue of his birth, by virtue of his person–regardless of the voice of the people.  
 
There is a temptation offered here to Jesus that is not unlike what the devil had offered earlier when he took Jesus up on the mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  “All these I will give you,” the devil said.  But to attain such glory would require a deal with the devil, which our Lord Jesus would never do.  His kingdom is not of this world, it is from above.  And His kingship is not subject to the will of the people but the will of the Father.
 
Jesus was all alone on the mountain, which is the way I’m sure Moses felt in the Old Testament reading as the people grumbled against him.  When they were in Egypt, they groaned against their yoke of slavery.  And once liberated, they groaned against the burden of freedom.  And this is right after God saved the children of Israel by opening the Red Sea to them as an evacuation route, and drowning the army of their enemy.  With very short memories, they now tell Moses they would rather be back in Egypt–note just how fickle public opinion can be!  If the Israelites could vote, Moses would surely have been recalled. 
 
And yet, God does not oust Moses.  The Lord alone is the deciding vote.  He gives the people that which they don’t deserve; in spite of themselves He rains bread from heaven upon them, manna, literally giving them their “daily bread.”  Of course, the children of Israel would later complain even against this generosity of God.  They wished they had more variety in their free meals and not the same old manna every day.
 
Likewise in the Gospel, our Lord Jesus provides miraculous bread for the 5000, even for these people who did not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.  For God gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people.  He send rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous, that we may learn to receive His undeserved gifts with thanksgiving.  
 
And again notice here how this calls to mind the wilderness temptation of Jesus.  Back then, Jesus would not turn the stones into bread to feed Himself, in faithfulness to His heavenly Father.  But now, perhaps very near the same spot where He had earlier been tempted, Jesus does use His power to produce bread, not for Himself but for others in their need.  Jesus is focused not on Himself but on others in the way of love.
 
And this is where we often fall short.  We must confess that we get turned in on ourselves and have sometimes grumbled and complained against God for the way He’s provided for us or hasn’t come through for us as we wanted.  We want God to fit our agenda, and when He doesn’t, we become disappointed or upset.  Too often we let the voice of the majority affect our desires more than the voice of Jesus, the only divine voice of His Word.  It’s the opinion of our peers that drives us, a desire to fit in and keep up with the world, to have the approval of those who are considered important.  We are by nature people pleasers rather than God pleasers.  For this we must repent. 
 
And so must the church at large, which is constantly facing the temptation of watering down its confession and practices to make itself more amenable to the world–with market driven megachurches and success driven preachers.  We must ever be reminded that Jesus is Lord, not public opinion or financial pressures or human votes.
 
And we must also be reminded that God is still at work in the midst of all these things, turning even evil for the good.  Even the rebel will of the majority becomes an instrument of the will of God, both for judging and for saving.  Sometimes the worst judgment that can befall a people or a country is for the majority to get its way and suffer by its own doing.  And our salvation also came through the rebel will of the majority.  You recall that when Pontius Pilate placed Jesus and Barabbas before the people, and asked them which one they wanted him to release, there was something of an election.  They shouted for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be crucified.  And the murderer was set free while the Lord of life was sentenced to death.  Though this was a grave injustice humanly speaking, yet it was precisely how divine justice would be carried out.  For Jesus had come to take the place of us sinners, to bear the judgment for sins He did not commit, so that we would be forgiven.  And so the voice of the majority was indeed the voice of God the Father Himself, speaking through the people saying, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”  It was the will of God that His Son die for the people in spite of themselves.  Because of that sacrificial love of God, we Barabbases are released from sin and death.  We are now children of God in Him who is the Son of God.
 
When politics and theology become indistinguishable, people die.  In the Gospel, the people were going to take Jesus by force to make Him king.  And in the end the crowds did just that when they forced Him to the throne of the cross, where He was crowned with thorns.  That is where Jesus is lifted up and exalted in all His royal love for us.  It is from the cross that we hear the true voice of God which trumps all other voices:  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”  
 
Jesus said in John 6, “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die.  I am the Living Bread which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this Bread, he will live forever.  And the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”  Jesus is our Manna, given over to the cross for the life of the world, given out to you in Sacrament of the Altar.  
 
Thanks be to God for this, that our Lord does not give in to the mobs to become an earthly king.  For His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom to which you belong in baptism.  Jesus is more than a bread King; He is your Redeemer King, the very Bread of Life Himself.  Thanks be to God that His mercy overcomes our sin.  For in spite of our grumbling, our Lord also gives us that which we don’t deserve.  Not only does He give us our daily bread and the things we need to support this body and life, He also gives us the bread of immortality, His own flesh and blood.  Again, Jesus said later in John 6, “I am the Bread of Life.  He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. . .  Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”  We have our own greater miracle from Christ right here in divine service: the Bread which is His body multiplying His forgiveness to you so abundantly that it never runs out.  Those who eat here are filled and satisfied with the goodness and mercy of the Lord.
 
Let us, then, come continually to where we may truly hear the voice of God–not in majority votes, but in Christ’s Word, in His sacraments, in His preached Gospel.  Let us gladly hear and learn the words of Jesus, for they are the words of eternal life.
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
(Some of the above was adapted from a sermon by the Rev. Larry Beane.)

Spirits, Demons, and Jesus the Stronger Man

Lent 3
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
C.S. Lewis once observed that when it comes to the Devil, there are two mistakes we can make.  One is thinking too much of him, and the other is not thinking enough about him.  Some people conceive of the devil almost as being equal with God, when in fact he is merely a fallen angel, very powerful and utterly evil to be sure, but a creature nonetheless.  People become terribly frightened of the devil and forget that his rebellion has been crushed under the heel of Jesus, who died and rose again in victory over him.  However, others don’t give the devil any thought at all.  They think of Satan as the stuff of fairy tales, at best a figure who is only symbolic of evil, but not a literal being.  They forget that the devil’s goal now is to lure people away from the safe refuge of Christ Jesus; and if Satan can do that by making people think of him as nothing real, just a Halloween caricature, all the better.
 
But I would add that there’s a third mistake we can make which, in a way, combines these first two mistakes.  And it’s something even many Christians do.  We know as believers that there’s more going on than what the eye can see, that there is a spiritual realm beyond the simple grasp of our five senses.  But too often, instead of listening to God’s Word on this subject, we embrace all sorts of superstitious beliefs that also have the effect of doing the devil’s work.  And in particular what I’m talking about here is our pop culture’s belief in ghosts and spirits.  Whether it’s a belief that loved ones who have died are still roaming the earth and interacting with us in our lives, or whether it’s something more sinister and spooky, like spirits of the dead haunting buildings, far too many Christians are open to this false belief rather than hearing and holding to God’s Word.null
 
Here is what Scripture says: It is written in Ecclesiastes 12 that when someone dies, their spirit returns to God–plain and simple.  Hebrews 10 speaks of how it is given to man to die once and then the judgment of heaven or hell–certainly no reincarnation or inhabiting of other bodies or anything like that.  To the thief on the cross, Jesus said “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  And on and on it goes.  Never in the Bible is there a period of time where the spirits of the dead are doing unfinished business on this earth before they can enter into the light or some other such nonsense.  Don’t let Hollywood movie fictions or TV shows about the supernatural and communicating with the dead and ghost hunting and prankster ghosts and good or evil spirits of the departed–don’t let such things lure you into foolishness.  It’s not true.  In fact, it’s occult.  Scripture speaks about attempts at communication and interaction with the dead as wicked and an abomination.  It’s in the same category as witchcraft and sorcery.  
 
For in the end, while most of this is the stuff of hoaxes, if people really are having contact with a supernatural being, it’s not the spirits of the dearly departed, it’s demons that are at hand.  It can’t be human spirits we’re talking about according to Scripture.  It can only be angels or demons.  And angels almost always do their work unnoticed.  For it is their joy to glorify God and to draw you to Christ as they watch over you.  These mighty creatures that God created in the beginning (who never were and never will be human beings, btw)–these mighty creatures would never distract you or draw you away from Jesus and His Word.  But demons on the other hand, that’s all they want to do.  And if they can get you to dwell on this mysterious occurrence or that supposed haunting or some supposed appearance of a deceased spouse or relative, then that’s right up their alley, for then you’re being distracted from God and His words.  People think they’re being “spiritual” by doing this, when in fact they’re just engaging in another form of foolish unbelief.  That’s why I say that this sort of silly superstition combines both mistakes C.S. Lewis spoke of–people are giving too much attention to the occult at the same time that don’t even realize they’re doing so.  For the devil likes to come in disguise, even as an angel of light.
 
Again, it is the goal of the devil and the demons to lure you away from the safe refuge of Christ to something else, anything else, and to keep your attention there away from the Savior.  And if Jesus is center stage, then they’ll try to pervert and distort who He is and what He has said.  That’s what happens in today’s Gospel reading.  Jesus casts out a demon, and what do the unbelievers say?  That somehow He did this good by using an evil power, the power of Beelzebub, another word for Satan.  This is the way of the wicked: to call good evil and to call evil good–we see that all the time in our culture.  The devil is a liar, and like an obnoxious politician at a debate, he’ll do whatever he can to try to shout over the truth of Jesus and to keep you from trusting in Him.  Our Lord does not cast out demons by Beelzebub.  He is the Stronger Man who overcomes the satanic strong man with nothing but a finger, the finger of God, which is the power of His Holy Spirit.  
 
Jesus is warning us here to be vigilant about our ancient enemy.  For once an unclean spirit (a demon) is cast out, if he gets the opportunity to return, he will do so–and it will be even worse the next time.  This is why the Church generally doesn’t baptize a child unless the parents are committed to teaching the child the catechism, the Word of God, and making sure the child is brought to God’s house.  For baptism is truly a form of exorcism.  Luther’s ancient baptismal rite begins this way: “Depart unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit.”  It is not enough to baptize a child, only to have his tender faith starved by parents who deprive their son or daughter of God’s Word.  In such a case, it is better not to put a target on the child’s back in the first place. Christians are to be continually on guard against the evil one by being devoted to the Word of God and prayer.
 
A good deal of Jesus’ ministry involved battling unclean spirits–and his body, the Church, continues to wage the battle against lying, satanic spirits.  Now demon-possession may indeed be extremely rare.  Typically, the devil and the other fallen angels are more subtle, tempting us behind the scenes, working through our sinful flesh to drive a wedge between us and God, chipping away at the stone, gradually eating away at us until we are alienated from God and don’t even realize it or care.  Remember that the devil’s ultimate goal is to take away your faith in Christ.  And that’s best accomplished not by an obvious frontal assault but by deceptively trying to undermine what you believe, by planting doubt, by turning your attention to other spiritualities that appear holy but are devoid of the Gospel of Christ the crucified.
 
So how do we fight an enemy we can’t see?  How do we guard ourselves against such a crafty enemy who is more powerful than we are?  The answer, very simply, is to take refuge in Christ.  For He is the Stronger Man who overcomes the strong man.  He is the One who not only won the victory for us in the wilderness, the Son of David slinging the smooth stone of the Word and felling the Goliath Satan.  He is also the One who outmaneuvered and outflanked the devil and utterly destroyed Him through the cross.  He turned the devil’s own weapons against him.  Jesus overcomes the crafty one with His own divine and holy craftiness, sneaking into the devil’s kingdom of death, allowing Himself to be crucified, and then from the inside nuking and laying waste to the devil’s power, rising from the dead in glory on the third day.  
 
Satan is defeated and undone and humiliated.  Christ is the Conqueror has rescued us from the realm of darkness and brought us into His own kingdom of mercy and love and goodness.  Our Lord has cast out our unclean spirits at the baptismal font and made our bodies the temple of His Holy Spirit.  He has spoken His powerful, forgiving words into our ears.  He feeds us with His holy, life-giving Flesh and Blood to sanctify us and fortify and strengthen our spirits.  We come to this church week by week because we need it all the time, to be strengthened against the crafts and assaults of the devil and to be equipped to resist them.
 
There is only one way to be safe from evil: to be with Jesus, our fortress and our refuge.  Jesus says, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.”  We gather with Jesus right here.  And like the mute person who was gagged by the demon, when Jesus casts out our demons, our tongues are loosed, and we give praise to God for his gifts.  We are given to tell the marveling multitudes just who it is who has delivered us.  And we can also raise our fists at the devil and give him the “finger of God” and curse him to hell in the name of the Lord Jesus.
 
The Epistle reading said: “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.”  Your days of being imprisoned to Satan are over.  You have been released from your shackles and led out of the dark prison into the glorious light of Christ!
 
And this blessing from God is for all of you who hear and believe and hold on to His Word.  Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.”  Holding on to Christ’s words, you are blessed and you are safe.  So if you are concerned or fearful about strange or unexplained experiences in your life, remember that all things are sanctified and made holy by the Word of God and prayer.  At the name of Jesus, the demons must flee.  Call upon His name, not only here in this place, but also in your homes.  Read the Word and pray out loud so that both the angels and the demons can hear.  God’s Word cleanses and blesses and makes holy.  God’s Word sets you apart as His own, and it sets apart your dwellings as the place where God dwells.  Don’t allow the things of demons into your homes, only the things of God.  It used to be a common practice to have house blessings of Christian homes, especially when someone was just moving into a house.  And on at least one occasion that I was involved with, when there were some unusual and frightening things happening in someone’s home, when the Word of God and prayer were brought to bless that house, those things stopped happening.  
 
It is written that God has not given us a spirit of fear but a spirit of power and love and self-control (2 Tim 1:7).  So cling to the Word of God spoken and given to you in your baptism.  Let the words of God continually be in your ears and on your tongue.  And be filled by the Holy Spirit with the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for the forgiveness of all your sins.  For the Scriptures say, “Greater is He who is in you (Jesus), than [the evil one] who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). 
 
And if you want to be close to departed loved ones, don’t try to do that in superstitious ways.  Meet them instead at the altar.  For if they died in the faith, they are with Christ, and Christ is here.  Here is where the communion of saints is.  Let the highest love of your heart always be fixed on Jesus.  For through Him, nothing can snatch you from the hand of God.  For on that hand of God are the fingers that cast out demons and that point you to the cross where your salvation was won.  You have been liberated from all your sins by the Lord Jesus Christ.  You are now free to walk in love as children of light.  Let your eyes ever be toward Christ, who plucks your feet out of the net, who conquers your enemy, and who will deliver you from all evil in the resurrection of the body.
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Revelation 2: To the Church in Smyrna

Revelation 2:8-11
Midweek Lent 1

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

    The second letter of our Lord Jesus in Revelation is to the church in Smyrna.  Smyrna was a city in Asia Minor that had become fairly well-to-do because of its firm loyalty to Rome and the Roman empire.  Smyrna was the first city in the ancient world to build a temple in honor of the goddess of Rome.  There was also a temple built to Tiberias Caesar, and to the Roman Senate.  Because of Smyrna’s strong allegiance to the empire, they were rewarded with imperial monies that built a well-known stadium, a noted library, and a large public theater.  Rome referred to Smyrna as “the crown” of Asia.

    These circumstances presented some trouble for the Christians who lived there.  For believers could not take part in the various pagan temple rites that would’ve been common among the citizens of that city.  This caused economic hardship to many believers.  How were Christians supposed to get a decent job when everyone thought of them as irreligious and unpatriotic for not taking part in the imperial worship?  Even though the church would pray for the Caesar as God’s civil authority and would obey the laws and pay the taxes, they would still be looked on with suspicion.  Through a serious distortion of what the Lord’s Supper was, rumors abounded that Christians were cannibals, eating the body and drinking the blood of some victim.  In this sort of context, it’s easy to see how most believers were poor.  Jesus says here, “I know your tribulation and your poverty.”

    During certain periods in the early church outright persecution of Christians would take place.  All someone had to do during these times was to bring a charge against someone for being a Christian, and they could be imprisoned or put to death.  Often those who had been charged as Christians would be given an opportunity to deny their faith or recant it by offering up incense to Caesar and saying “Caesar is Lord.”  If they performed that act of worship and loyalty to the Roman emperor, then they could go free.  However, if they didn’t, then they could lose their life.  Believers could not say, “Caesar is Lord,” but only, “Jesus is Lord.”null

    One of the groups that was giving Christians trouble in Smyrna was the Jews.  Jesus says here, “I know the blasphemy of those say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”  True Jews, true Israelites believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Savior.  But these were blasphemers, in league with the evil one.  For the name “Satan” literally means, “accuser.”  And they were accusing the Christians to the authorities in order to do them harm.  These Jews did not like the pagan worship of the Romans, but they seemed to hate the Christians even more passionately.

    One famous Christian from Smyrna who was martyred was a man named Polycarp, who was the bishop of the church in Smyrna.  This old man was brought into the stadium before the crowds, who shouted at him, “Away with the atheist!”  See, they thought of Christians as atheists, because Christians had a God you couldn’t see and wouldn’t bow down to their gods, whom you could see.  But bishop Polycarp turned to the crowd, and with a wave of his hand said to them, “Away with the atheists!”  After refusing to renounce the Lord Jesus whom he had served for 86 years, Polycarp was burned to death.

    So, how does all of this apply to us?  Well, thankfully in one sense, things aren’t so dire for us yet as they were for those in Smyrna.  But still, consider this: Roman citizens made a god and a religion out of their empire and their rulers.  In a similar vein, are people in this country sometimes more religiously fervent about their patriotism than about Christ and His Word?  Do we ever see symbols of our country and symbols of religion being combined and intermingled–angels holding the American flag, or flag draped crosses, or July 4th church services that are more pro-USA than they are pro-Jesus?  We must always be on guard against the mixing and confusing of the civil realm and the spiritual realm.  For to make any worldly thing, even our country, the object of our worship and highest loyalty, is to commit idolatry.  

    On the economic side, being a Christian can also present challenges to God’s people today.  Refusing to engage in unethical practices like everyone else seems to be doing can close the door to advancement at work.  Likewise, having it known that you’re against abortion or homosexuality or living together before marriage, or that you believe that the Bible is literally true and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life can cause you to be ostracized or thought of as extreme.  That’s certainly how the cultural elite today want to paint the church.  We’re not yet faced with demands to deny the faith or be executed.  But we are tempted to compromise and downplay what we believe and go with the flow so that we don’t lose our social or economic standing.  Giving such homage to the spirit of the culture is also a form of idolatry that we must be on guard against.

    To all of this Jesus says, “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer.”  To live in fear of what men can do to us is not to live in trust of our Creator and Redeemer God.  In the Gospel Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”  Rather, let us learn to fear, love, and trust in God above all things.  For we are of great value to Him.  Jesus reminds us here, “I am the First and the Last.”  In other words, “I was here before your enemies were, and I’ll be here long after they’re dead and gone.  So do not fear them; I will deliver you from them.”  “I am the One who was dead and came back to life.  They did their worst to me and failed.  So also, they may cause you grief or pain or even death, but they can do nothing to separate you from My love.”  “You will have tribulation, but it will only be for ten days; in other words, it has a limit and an end when it will all be over.”  “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”  

    Smyrna may have been called the crown of Asia, but it wasn’t long before it’s edifices were piles of broken stone, as was the case also with Rome.  It was a crown that faded.  But Jesus gives a crown that does not fade away, that not even death can touch.  For the crown of glory we wear is His own.  The life that we have is His own eternal life.  That is how Jesus can say to those who are poor, “You are rich.”  For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  St. Paul writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.”  Not only will we be with our Savior Jesus, but we will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

    We are given to wear the crown of life because Jesus was given to wear the crown of thorns.  He bore our curse and died our death–not only our first death, but also our second death.  That is to say, not only did He suffer temporal death but also and especially He suffered eternal death and hell for us on the cross.  That second, eternal death is conquered by Jesus’ death and resurrection.  It has no power over you any longer.  That’s why Jesus says, “He who overcomes [by faith] shall not be hurt by the second death.”  Rather, we look forward to the resurrection of the body.

    “Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father in heaven.”  To confess Jesus before men is to say “yes” to Him when the world wants you to say “no” or “maybe” or “I’m not sure.”  To confess Jesus before men is to be willing to let it be known that Jesus is your Lord and the One you stake your life on.  And if you’ve faltered in confessing Jesus in the past, remember Peter, who denied Christ three times but was three times forgiven and restored.  So also, all your sins are forgiven, and you are restored in Jesus.  He has said an unwavering “yes” to you in your baptism, confessing your name before His Father in heaven.  And on the Last Day He will again say, “Yes, this one was born in Zion; this one is Mine.”

    “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

Jesus the Scapegoat

Leviticus 16; Matthew 4:1-11
Lent 1

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

    Most everyone knows what it means to be a scapegoat.  It means to be blamed for something that you didn’t do, or at least that you only had a very small role in.  A scapegoat bears the full consequences for someone else’s mistakes.  When a sports team or a politician loses, when things go wrong at work or a when a crisis or a tragedy occurs in the world, one of the first things that happens is scapegoating, finding someone to blame and to punish.  But while most people know the term, not very many could tell you the original biblical meaning of the scapegoat.  That Scriptural meaning is to be found in today’s Old Testament reading where the Yom Kippur is described.  

    Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement.”  God had commanded many different sacrifices for various occasions in the Old Testament;” but on Yom Kippur, something special would happen.  Only on this day, the high priest would go into the Holy of Holies behind the veil in the tabernacle, bringing with him with the blood of slaughtered animals to make atonement for the people.  The blood would be sprinkled on the mercy seat above the ark of the covenant.  Through the promise God attached to these sacrifices, He was merciful to His people and covered their sins.  null

    All of the sacrifices of the Old Testament were opportunities for God’s people to look forward in faith to the coming of His Son to be their Savior.  Without the shedding of blood–Christ’s blood–there would be no final and complete forgiveness of sins.  All the blood that was shed in Old Testament times was meant to foreshadow the blood that Christ would shed upon the cross in order to deal with man’s sin once and for all.

    Sad to say, though, among the Jews of Israel, rituals like the Day of Atonement often became occasions for people to think of themselves as doing good works to bribe God into forgetting their sins, buying Him off with their sacrifices.  To this day, even though there is no temple now standing where the animal sacrifices can be made, on Yom Kippur pious Jews afflict themselves with fasting and mourning over their sins.  Their hope is that they can somehow be sorry enough to satisfy God’s righteous wrath against their sins.

    We also are guilty of this when we think that our sorrow over sin is what makes God forgive us, as if His mercy is dependent on our good work of being sorry enough rather than on the cross alone, as if by spiritually beating up on ourselves, we can get God to forget our sins.  That’s especially important for us to guard against during this Lententide.  It is good for us to discipline our bodies and give things up so that we can dwell more fully on His saving Word and prayer and loving our neighbor.  But we must always be on guard against the works-righteous notion that our penitential sacrifices for God are what get us into His good graces. No. The blood of Christ alone does that.

    The Day of Atonement, then, is really all about Jesus, in particular the part about the goats.  You will recall that two goats were to be selected and presented before the Lord.  One would be sacrificed; but the other would not.  Instead, the high priest would lay his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the people, and in this way put all their sins on the goat.  Then the scapegoat would be sent away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man, presumably to perish there in the desert along with the transgressions of the people.  

    This is particularly interesting in light of today’s Gospel.  For just like the scapegoat, we find Jesus in the wilderness, fasting for 40 days and nights, even as Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.  And just as the scapegoat had become the bearer of Israel’s sin, so Jesus here bears the sins of the world.

    For Jesus has just been baptized.  Though He was without sin, yet Jesus submitted to John’s baptism, standing shoulder to shoulder with sinners, that He might be our substitute and stand-in.  There in the water God the Father there made Jesus the scapegoat, laying on His head the guilt of the world, which He would take and carry away.  

    And just as it was a suitable man who led the goat into the wilderness, so also it is written that the Holy Spirit immediately led Jesus up into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  It is the Father’s will that He endure this for us.  Jesus does all of this in our place.  Whereas Adam had succumbed to the devil’s temptation, whereas the children of Israel had grumbled and been unfaithful in the wilderness, whereas we all too often give in to the desires of the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature, Jesus did not.  He took everything that the devil threw at Him and prevailed, for us.  He was and is entirely without sin.  

    And pleanullse note that Jesus does this without using any of His divine powers.  Don’t think this was easy for Him.  Why do you think angels had to tend to Him at the end?  It wouldn’t be of much comfort to us if Jesus had done this with a brush of His almighty hand as God the Son.  Instead He humbles Himself to do this as one of us, our representative, as the Son of Man–weak, hungry, alone, face to face with the devil.  He even allows Satan to cart Him around–to the pinnacle of the temple, and then to an exceedingly high mountain.  Jesus uses nothing but the Scriptures to fight with.  And He wields the sword of the Word powerfully, skewering the devil and fighting off and defeating the him at every turn.  

    “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”  “Go ahead and give in to your self-seeking desires.  Serve your own appetites.  Who cares what your Father has said.  A little bread is no big deal.”  We would give room to the devil’s words, dialogue with Him, and perhaps even give in.  “You know, that’s true.  I’m not sinning by providing a little bread for myself.”  But Jesus stands firm and is not moved.  His food is to do the Father’s will, which means self-sacrifice.  And so for us, in our stead He simply replies, “It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” Strike one for the devil.

    “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.  For it is written, ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and ‘In their hand they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”  The devil can play the Scripture-quoting game.  Only for him, it’s just that: a game, a way of shrouding his temptation and making evil and falsehood appear to be good and holy.  Don’t think that just because someone quotes Scripture that they’re using God’s Word rightly.  Every false prophet uses the Bible.  Jesus sees through the devil’s game.  To put God the Father to the test, to make Him give you evidence that He’ll really protect you and be true to His Word, is to act not in faith but in unbelief.  It’s to put yourself above God, making Him prove Himself to you.  For our deliverance, Jesus replies, “It is written again, ‘You shall not test the Lord your God.’” Strike two.

    Finally, the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, saying, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.”  “You don’t have to suffer and go to the cross.  Let’s team up and you can get to the glory right now.”  We know that temptation to take the path of least resistance, to take the easy way out rather than the narrow way.  But on our behalf, Jesus says, “Away with you Satan!  For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’” Strike three.  The devil’s out.

    The good news for us today is that because Jesus was there as our stand-in, being tempted in our own flesh and blood, His victory over the devil now counts as ours, too.  Whatever the devil had accomplished through the temptation in the Garden of Eden, Jesus has completely undone in His own sinless temptation.  That’s what the hymn is all about when it says, “But for us fights the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected.  Ask ye who is this?  Jesus Christ it is.  Of sabaoth Lord, and there’s none other God.  He holds the field forever.”  On this wilderness battlefield, the devil has been routed.  Through faith in what Christ has done, the sin of Adam your father is no longer what’s most true about you; now the faithfulness of Christ your Brother is your true identity before the Father.  You are children of God through faith in Him.

    But be warned: the devil is going to call into question that identity of yours in Christ.  He said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, let’s see a little proof, a little divine glory.”  And he’ll do the same to you.  “If you are really a child of God, show me some glorious proof.  You don’t look much like a Christian, with all that sin and trouble in your life.” After your baptism, you also are cast into the wilderness of this world with nothing but the Word of God as your defense.  And yet, the Word of Christ is all that you need to put to devil to flight.  Don’t believe Satan’s definition of what it means to be a child of God, where everything is success and victory and exaltation in this life.  Skewer the devil, rather, with the sword of the Spirit.  Trust in the sure words and promises of God.  For Christ truly is your mighty fortress, your refuge and defense against all the power of the evil one.

    In all of this, we see Jesus as our great High Priest, the one who makes sacrifice for us to rescue us–except that Jesus is both the sacrificer and the sacrifice.  The blood He sprinkles on us in baptism to cleanse us is His own.  He is both goats to accomplish our Day of Atonement.  First, He is the one cast into the wilderness, actively obeying His Father’s will in our place, who was tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin.  Then, bearing our sins He is the second goat, passively being offered up on the mercy seat of the cross.  Out of great love for you, Jesus has willingly made Himself to be your scapegoat.  In Him you are free from blame.  And in Him you are free from the need to blame others.  Jesus has covered it all, for you.  

    Therefore, since we have such a High Priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses, and who stands before the throne of the Father in heaven as our mediator, let us come boldly to the throne of grace–let us come boldly to the altar in faith–that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

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

The Sower and the Seed

Luke 8:4-15
Sexagesima

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

    When Jesus told a parable, he didn’t just sit the people down and start telling them a story for no particular reason.  There was almost always some circumstance or event that moved him to tell it.  So, for instance, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, in part, to humble a self-righteous lawyer.  Our Lord tells the parable of the Prodigal Son to explain to the Pharisees why he’s eating with tax collectors and sinners.

    And the context of today’s Gospel is very important, too.  It is written here that a great multitude had gathered before Jesus and that people had come to Him from every city.  Everyone had heard about Him and wanted to see Him.  And so Jesus tells this parable to make something clear, especially to His twelve disciples, who might have been thinking at this point that this was going to be just one big victory procession, everything seemed to be going so well.  Jesus tells a parable that gives a dose of reality.  He says that there are four possible outcomes to the hearing of the Word, and only one of them is good.  For three out of four hearers, the Word of God comes to no effect.  The apostles are going to experience more failure than success, more rejection than acceptance in the long run.  They shouldn’t be fooled by the large crowds coming out to see Jesus.  Big numbers don’t mean anything.  Not all of them were believers.  

    In fact there came a point in Jesus’ own ministry when the crowds stopped following Him; just about all He had left were the 12 disciples, and even one of them would turn away from Him and betray Him.  After the feeding of the 5000, Jesus had been teaching how the bread that He would give for the life of the world was His flesh, and how His flesh was real food and His blood was real drink (John 6:55).  That was too hard for the people to accept; Jesus went from 5000+ down to only 12 followers.  Finally Jesus asked the 12, “Do you also want to go away?”  Peter replied in those familiar words, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”null

    And that’s where we can find some comfort, especially in this little flock called Mt. Zion, when numbers are sometimes disappointing.  What we must finally cling to is not outward signs of success, but the sure promise that the Word of Christ is living and powerful to fulfill its purpose.  Sometimes the purpose of the Word is to reveal the unbelieving heart. That’s why we have those unsettling words in the Gospel, that Jesus spoke in parables so that, “seeing, they may not see, and hearing, they may not understand.”  But above all the Word of God is sent to give life and joy to us descendants of Adam created from the dirt.  God said through the prophet Isaiah, “(My word that goes forth from My mouth) shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”

    The going forth of God’s Word is like the scattering of seed on all different kinds of soil.  God scatters the seed of His Word recklessly, freely, even on places where there seems little hope of a harvest.  For in His love He desires all to be saved.  The Lord’s Word is alive with His Spirit to give life even to the worst of soils.

    First, like the hardened, foot-worn path, some people become hardened to the Word of God.  Perhaps they’ve been “walked all over” in their lives, mistreated, abused.  Or they’ve been pressed down and wearied by the struggles and difficulties of life.  They say, “Where has God been for me?  Why should I even listen to His Word?”  Or Satan has pressed and hardened some with his lies about the Word as being untrustworthy, or foolish superstition, or that it’s all just a power play by clergy to manipulate people.  And so the Word floats in one ear and out the other, like seed bouncing off a dirt road. The birds of the air snatch it away–which is a reminder of that passage which describes the devil as the prince of the power of the air.  Think of all that flies across our airwaves that seeks to counter the truth of God’s Word.  For the first group, then, the Word doesn’t penetrate the heart and bear fruit and do what it has the power to do.

    Be on guard, therefore, against inattentive and unserious listening to the Word of God.  Martin Luther once wrote that the third commandment is not only violated by those who don’t come to church each week as the commandment requires, but, “it is also violated by that other crowd who listen to God’s Word as they would to any other entertainment, who only from force of habit go to hear the sermon and leave again with as little knowledge at the end of the year as at the beginning! . . . On the other hand, when we seriously ponder the Word, hear it, and put it to use, such is its power that it never departs without fruit. It always awakens new understandings, pleasure, and devotion, and it constantly creates clean hearts and minds. For the Word is not idle or dead, but effective and living.”

    In the second instance, in the planting of the Seed on the rocky soil, there’s the listening that hears and rejoices, believes and thanks God, and yet it’s only a shallow, good-times faith. When the bad-times come along–and they always do sooner or later–the person lets go of the Word and their faith withers and dies. One of the purposes of hearing the Word regularly is to store up in your heart and mind those passages that will see you through the hard times with your faith intact. The Word has the power to do it, if we don’t let it go. So often this happens when tragedy comes–people stop going to church, stop listening to the Word, and then they’re surprised when their faith grows weaker and weaker and finally dies. Remember: faith is never something you can keep alive inside yourself. It only comes from hearing and holding the Word of God.

    Next, our Lord reminds us that even folks who listen to the Word, can still lose it, if they let it get crowded out of their lives by the thorns.  Jesus says these are the cares, riches, and pleasures of life–which is odd because usually when you think of thorns, you think of something that’s painful, something that hurts.  And yet the thorns Jesus mentions include riches and pleasures, things which seem to be the opposite of pain!  But experience teaches that Jesus’ words are true.  For, in fact, the things that often promise us the most pleasure bring us the most pain.  The things of this world  give a temporary happiness but leave us with a lasting sadness and emptiness if they are what we set out hearts on.  These thorns can sedate us into apathy and cause a choking of the Word of God, squeezing it into an ever smaller place in our lives until in the end we don’t really hear it at all.

    And then our Lord reminds us that it is possible to hear His Word in such a way that it bears abundant fruit. He describes those hearts that hear and hold fast the Word as honest and good.  How did those hearts get to be honest and good?  Not of themselves.  All of us are by nature the first three soils.  Only the Word and Holy Spirit of God has the power to till up and clear the soil and renew our hearts.  If, as the Apostle says, faith in Jesus is what purifies the heart, and faith comes by hearing the Word of God, then our hearts will be “honest and good” in no other way than by that Word making its home inside of us, and creating in us a clean heart–the heart of Christ.  

    Here’s really the best way to think of it:  Jesus is Himself the fourth perfect soil.  He is the eternal Word of God, the Seed, having taken root in the earth of our humanity–fully human, but entirely without the rocks and thorns and hardness of sin.  

    This Word became flesh and bore all that has infested your soil.  Jesus was planted in this world by His heavenly Father to save and redeem you.  Behold how this Seed is cast to the earth, how Jesus the Word is thrown onto the wayside, the way of sorrows, where he is dragged to His cross, mocked in His suffering like the caws of scavenging ravens.  But notice that the birds of the air do not devour Jesus’ body, as was often the case with other crucified criminals who would be left for the animals to consume.  This Seed is hurled upon the rocky ground of Golgotha, where he lacked moisture and cried out, “I thirst!”  But in spite of his suffering and thirst, this Seed would not wither away permanently.  And Jesus was even crowned with thorns, the very symbol of Adam’s curse; yet this Seed would not be choked out of existence, but would rise again.  A Seed has to die, if it is to rise out of the earth and bear much fruit.  The fruit of Jesus’ suffering is your salvation.

    In this way our Lord has overcome all that stands against you, all that keeps you from having life, all that keeps you from growing to maturity.  In Christ you are free from hard-heartedness and the rocks of shallow faith and the thorns of this world.  In Christ alone you are the holy fourth soil, pure and righteous and fruitful and forgiven.  In you, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Word of God is implanted.  You have been watered with the Word in your baptism.  And the Word is sown in the soil of your body, placed on your very tongues, in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.  The power of God to give life is in the Seed.  And the Seed of the Word is in you and with you and for you, the Word of the Father who wants you with all His heart to share forever in His life.

    Let us, then, seek the Lord while He may be found, and call upon Him, for He is near; His Word is here.  Return to the Lord, for He will have mercy on you, and He will abundantly pardon.  His grace in Christ is more than sufficient for you, even in the midst of your weakness.  For His strength is made perfect in the weakness of the cross.  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

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

Whatever is Right I Will Give You

Septuagesima
 
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
What is the real difference between the first and the last laborers in the vineyard?  Some might think it’s simply a matter of greed and jealousy, that the first workers didn’t get what they thought they deserved in comparison to the others.  And we can sort of understand their point.  We wouldn’t like it if somebody got paid the same as we did for doing only a fraction of the work.  Nothing seems to arouse our passions more than if there’s even a hint that we are being treated unfairly in money matters.  We love to grouse about overpaid athletes and greedy political and corporate insiders and how we’re not getting paid as much as we’re worth at our job and how high prices have gotten for this or that.  Of course, when we get more than we deserve, a deal that’s more than fair, we’re rarely as vocal about that, unless we’re bragging–which if you think about it is the same as grumbling in an opposite way, just the flip side of an obsession with oneself.  “I’m not being treated fairly” and “Look at what an awesome dealmaker I am” are both attempts at self-exaltation.  But even so, that’s not the primary difference between the first and the last laborers in the vineyard.  It goes deeper than that.
 
The first laborers had an agreement, a contract with the landowner to work for a denarius a day, which was the going rate for a day’s work.  This was a fair day’s wage for a good day’s labor.  The other laborers, though, had no such agreement, no contract.  They didn’t insist upon definite terms.  The landowner simply said, “Go into the vineyard, and whatever is right, I will give you.” null
 
Now if that was you, would you have gone to work for this landowner?  Would you labor for him not knowing what your wages were going to be, if all you had to go on was His promise to do what was right?  It all depends, doesn’t it?  It depends on what kind of person you think him to be–is he miserly or generous, is he a man of good character or bad?  It depends on whether or not you trust him–do you know him, do you have a good relationship with him?  If you didn’t trust the landowner, you probably wouldn’t go into his vineyard.  If you did, you would.
 
That ultimately is the real difference between the first and the last in this parable.  The first were dealing with the landowner on the basis of a contract; the last were dealing with him on the basis of trust in his goodness.  The first wanted to deal with him on what they deemed to be fair.  The last dealt with him on the basis of what he deemed to be good and right.  That’s a big difference.
 
The owner of the vineyard in this parable is God the Father.  By His Word and Spirit He sends out the call of the Gospel to come into His vineyard, which is the church, and for His people to be about the things pertaining to the holy Vine, Jesus Christ.  Some come into the church from the first moments of their life, baptized as infants, remaining faithful their entire lives.  Others are converted as adults.  Some aren’t brought to faith in Christ the Savior until their lives are almost over.  But God gives all the same salvation at the end of the day: full forgiveness of sins, deliverance from death and the devil, everlasting life with Him in heaven.  He does this not because He is unfair, but rather, because He is generous and loving and merciful.  He pours out His gifts on His people abundantly and lavishly.  For the reward at the end of the day is given not based on our work but on the work of His Son, who lived and died and was raised again for us.
 
The problem arises when some in the vineyard of the church begin to think that their length of time and service is what earns salvation, who want God to work on the merit system.  The problem is that this attitude destroys the relationship of love that God wishes to have with His people.  Love has nothing to do with what is owed or deserved.  Real love is a freely given gift with no strings attached.  As soon as we start wanting to deal with God on the basis of what He owes us, it is no longer a relationship of love, but in the end one of manipulation, where we get God to do what we want by pulling the right strings.  We put in the good works, like a coin into the slot, and out comes the blessing.  To treat God like that is really to treat Him as nothing more than a vending machine or a puppet.
 
Besides, it’s foolishness for us to want God to give us what we deserve, anyway.  For here’s what the Scriptures say about our fair wages, “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.  The damned actually believe that God is wrong, that He’s being unfair to them.  This worsening bitterness and teeth-gritting frustration is a big part of their unending torment. 
 
Do you find yourself considering God to be unfair because of your situation in life or something that’s happened to you?  Are you one whose religion is like a contract with God, a system of rewards for your good deeds?  Do you negotiate with God in your prayers (I’ll do this for you if you do this for me)?  If so, then you are behaving like the first laborers in this parable, and you must repent.  Turn away from ranking yourself above others, turn away from your own works, and turn to the works of Christ.  Believe that it is only and entirely through Him that you receive any blessing from the Father.  Trust in Christ alone to save you from death and hell.  
 
That is the difference between the first and the last, between unbelief and faith.  Unbelievers seek a God who is fair, and when they find Him, they don’t like Him.  Believers seek a God who is merciful and gracious, and when He finds them, they love Him.  (Notice how in the parable, it’s the owner who finds the workers.  He initiates the “hiring.”)  Believers know that it is only by grace that they are even in the vineyard, no matter how long they’ve been there.  They consider it a privilege and an honor to be able to contribute to the health and the growth of the vineyard.  They are not jealous of the newcomer or the repentant restored sinner or the one converted in his dying days, but they rejoice that the same mercy that saved them 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 (Ephesians 2:8-9).” 
 
Remember, the landowner said, “Go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.”  The word for “right” in the Greek can also be translated “righteous.”  “Whatever is righteous I will give you.”  That puts a little different perspective on that phrase, doesn’t it.  God is not simply saying, “I will give you whatever is fair,” but, “I will give to you according to my righteous plan of grace.”  “I will give to you what My righteous Son Jesus won for you.”  Or most simply, “I will give you My righteousness.”  It is written in Romans 3, “You are declared righteous freely by God's grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
 
Now this does not mean that we are to be lax and lazy about good works; not at all.  For there is something else about God’s grace here that goes even further, which we don’t often talk about: namely that once God has freely forgiven you and made you a Christian, He does offer rewards for your good works, and that also is a free gift of His mercy.  Listen to what our Lutheran Confession of faith says.  This is from the Apology or the Defense of the Augsburg Confession:  
 
“Here also we add something concerning rewards and merits. We teach that rewards have been offered and promised to the works of believers. We teach that good works are meritorious, not for the forgiveness of sins, . . . but for other rewards, bodily and spiritual, in this life and after this life, because Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:8, “Every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labor.”  There will, therefore, be different rewards according to different labors. But the forgiveness of sins is alike and equal to all. . .  (For instance,) Paul, in Ephesians 6:2,  commends to us the commandment concerning honoring parents, by mention of the reward which is added to that commandment, where he does not mean that obedience to parents justifies us before God, but that, when it occurs in those who have been justified, it merits other great rewards.”  
Just as disobeying God’s commands can bring great trouble and hardship to people, so also keeping His commands has the promise of great blessings, both for this life and the life of the world to come. This should encourage us to do diligent work in the vineyard.
 
But then, since even this notion of rewards for good works can lead to pride, the Lutheran Reformers go on to remind us of this: “Yet God exercises His saints variously, and often defers the rewards of the righteousness of works in order that they may learn not to trust in their own righteousness, and may learn to seek the will of God rather than the rewards; as appears in Job, in Christ, and other saints” who suffered greatly while doing good.  The Word of God speaks of the blessing and the reward of doing good works, both for this life and the next.  And so we should be moved to do good works.  After all, we aren’t in the vineyard to sit around in the shade but to labor while it is day, before the night comes when no one can work.  But our work is always to be offered in the humility of faith.
 
           It is as we prayed in the Introit, “The Lord will save the humble people, but will bring down proud and haughty looks.”  Or as Jesus said, “The last will be first, and the first last.”  For this is His way.  He who is the first and the greatest humbled Himself to be the last of all on the holy cross.  He Himself is the one who bore the burden and the heat of the day that brings us the generous reward of salvation–handed over to Pontius Pilate at dawn, crucified at the third hour of the day; then darkness covered the land at the sixth hour, noon.  Our Lord died at the ninth hour as the perfect and complete sacrifice for our sin.  He was buried at the eleventh hour of the day just before sundown.  See how the work was all done before you were even brought to the faith.  Hear again those words from the cross, “It is finished.”  For you.
 
Let us then be truly full of good works by trusting in this 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.  Let us run with the certainty of faith, setting our hearts on Him, disciplining our bodies and minds, 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 pleasure and delight to be generous and loving toward you, to give you whatever is right.
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

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