"Living by Grace--Really!"
Texts: Exodus 17:1-7; 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:15; Matthew 20:1-16
Can you imagine if God had said that to the Israelites in the wilderness? They had just been rescued from their slavery in Egypt. They had just experienced the Lord’s grace in delivering them by means of the plague of the first-born of Egypt. They had just witnessed the Lord’s gracious and mighty arm parting the waters of the Red Sea and allowing them to walk through on dry ground, escaping from Pharaoh and his army. And they had just sung His praises for doing that. God also graciously turned bitter water into sweet water for them to drink. God also graciously sent them quail so they could eat meat. And God also graciously rained honey-sweet bread—called “manna”—from heaven to sustain them on their journey.
Still they struggled to live by grace. They came to Rephidim, and “there was no water for the people to drink.” So they “quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’” And Moses’ reply goes to the spiritual heart of the matter: “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” Translation: “Why do you insist on living in your sin and not trusting God and His gracious ways? Why do you insist on not living by grace?
Can you imagine what would have happened if God had told them, “Alright, I forgive you. But don’t do it again. I don’t want to have anything to do with you. Don’t come back”? Then they really would have known misery in the wilderness! As it turns out, St. Paul reminds us today, “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” That’s what happens when we don’t live by God’s grace in Jesus. But then, forty years later, God did take the next generation into the Promised Land. God did continue to deal with them by His grace. God still wanted them to live by grace—really.
But living by grace—I mean really living by God’s grace; I mean really and joyously receiving God’s grace in Jesus; I mean really and joyously reflecting God’s grace in Jesus—is quite the struggle, isn’t it? Take, for example, those workers who were hired first thing in the morning, at 6:00 a.m. They agreed to the proper day’s wage that the vineyard owner offered. They “signed on the dotted line” we might say. Then they bore “the burden of the day and the scorching heat”—all twelve hours of it. But when those other workers—those slackers who started their workday at 5:00 p.m. and worked only one hour before quitting time—when they received a full day’s wage, for only one hour of work, well, the first workers cried foul. “You’re paying them the same as you’re paying us?! That’s outrageous!” They struggled with the master’s graciousness and generosity.
And so do we. We struggle with living by God’s grace when we think that God must favor us just a bit more because, after all, we’re the ones in church. We’re the ones who picked up our box of offering envelopes and give in the offering. We’re the ones who help out with our time, our skills, and our work. We’re the ones who have been Christians for blank number of years—fill in the number that fits for you. God’s smile upon us must be, well, just a little bit bigger, right? But that’s turning God’s grace into a punch the time clock and get your paycheck system. That’s not grace.
We also struggle with living by God’s grace when we take His free and lavish forgiveness to mean that we can live any old way we want. We go along with the culture and say, “If it feels good, then it must be right. God would want me to be happy, right?” Or, as the Israelites did, we turn to the grumbling and complaining and quarreling. After all, this world is not perfect, things just don’t go as we expect or want, and someone needs to hear our discontent. But that’s turning God’s forgiveness into free-reign with no responsibility or repentance. That’s not grace. It may be cheap grace, but not God’s grace.
We also struggle with living by God’s grace when we “forgive” others in the same way as that so-called “absolution.” No problem. Forget it. You should be sorry. Don’t ever do it again. I forgive you, but I don’t want to have anything to do with you. What? You don’t want your fellow Christian, your family member, your friend, your co-worker, to receive the same “day’s wage” of forgiveness from you that you have already received from God Himself?
Remember when Peter was a bit confused about how many times he should forgive his brother who sinned against him? Should it only be seven times? Jesus then told another parable—about a forgiving master who graciously forgave a billion dollar debt, but an unforgiving servant who could not forgive a debt of only a few hundred bucks. It did not turn out well for that unforgiving servant. You remember. Perhaps you also remember Jesus’ punchline: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:35).
We do struggle with living by God’s grace. We love the sweet sound of God’s amazing grace, but living by it? And in real, everyday life? That’s harder. It feels more like St. Paul’s athlete who has to train hard to exercise self-control and not run aimlessly. As we admitted in today’s Collect, or Prayer of the Day: we “justly suffer the consequence of our sin.”
But we also prayed that our gracious God would graciously hear our prayers and deliver us by His goodness. Talk about dripping with the sweetness of God’s grace!
When Jesus tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard—all hired at different times through the day, but all getting the same wages after quitting time—He’s drawing our attention to God’s rich, deep, endless generosity and grace. You keep sinning against Him, and He keeps forgiving you. You keep complaining—like the first workers and the Israelites before them—and He keeps forgiving. You keep treating sin—your sin—as thought it’s “no problem,” “no big deal,” and yet He keeps showering you with His forgiveness in Jesus. In fact, not only is Jesus the vineyard owner who delights in being generous with the things that belong to Him, He is also the real worker who bore the burden of our sins and the scorching heat of the cross—all for you, and all for your neighbor.
Not only do we hear a strange, so-called “absolution” today, but we also see a strange banner for this time of year. No, this is not Reformation Sunday. But these three Sundays of Pre-Lent strike the same three Reformation themes that we know and love. Today, of course, strikes the theme of sola gratia—“by grace alone.” You and I labor and struggle in God’s vineyard to live by His grace and to reflect that grace and forgiveness toward each other. And yet God is amazingly rich in His generosity. He just keeps giving and forgiving. In the waters of your Baptism; in the words you hear proclaimed; in the Body and Blood under bread and wine. And in Confession and Absolution—when you confess your sins, even individually to your pastor, and then hear the forgiveness that God speaks to you. And with that forgiveness you get to forgive your family, friends, co-workers, and others with the same delight as the vineyard owner paying his workers.
Let’s go back to our so-called “absolution.” A certain Pastor Williams once used that very “absolution,” just as I have today. He also used it to introduce a sermon on grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. He wanted to make the point that living by God’s grace—living in and with forgiveness—happens in real, everyday life. At the end of his sermon, he did give the real Absolution. Several weeks later, a young couple thanked Pastor Williams for his unusual message. They said, “Pastor you’re helping change the culture of our home.” The pastor asked, “What do you mean?” Andy, the husband said, “Last week Janet and I had one of our typical spats in the kitchen. But was we cooled down and regained our senses, we used a different way of speaking. We used words such as I confess and I forgive. You reminded us that as Christians, we have a new language to deal with wrongs. It’s God’s way for us to share the Good News with each other.” (Kober, p. 171)
Ted Kober tells this story in his book Confession and Forgiveness. He also points out how sin is never “okay.” Sin is never “no problem.” There’s only one cure for sin—forgiveness through our Lord Jesus Christ. Living by that forgiveness in the burden and scorching heat of each and every day. How generous our gracious God is! That’s living by grace—really!
Now please stand for the real Absolution:
“Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins. As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”