18 February 2019

Homily for Septuagesima (2019)

"The Wages of Grace"
Matthew 20:1-16

You and I are called to work in the Lord’s vineyard. We are called to work at different times of the day of this world. We are called to work for the wages of God’s grace.

Today we enter the mini-season of Pre-Lent. We have seen the goodness of God in Christ in the Babe of Bethlehem. We have witnessed our Lord revealing Himself as God in man made manifest. Now we turn our attention to a season of serious reflection on Christ’s teaching and kingdom.

The scene in today’s Gospel reading sounds a lot like the time of the Great Depression. People who lived through the Great Depression remember the days of standing idle outside of factories and offices, just hoping that a foreman would come out in the morning and say, “I need people to work today.” If you were fortunate, you would be told how much you’d be paid at the end of the work day. Then you could take it or leave it. If you refused the low pay, someone more desperate than you would gladly accept the job.

But rarely would you refuse. Any job was a good job. If you worked hard, and if the foreman liked you and your work, then you might get invited back the next day, or the next time they needed workers. The dollar or two that you earned might have been the first cash you had seen in weeks. In those days no one assumed they had a “right” to health care, or paid vacation, or retirement benefits, or even “income equality.” You took what you could get, even if it meant you had to leave your friend outside, standing idle in the market.

By our current standards, this was a time of “unfair labor practices.” Men and women did not get what they thought they deserved for their labor. And this was often true. Some employers certainly took advantage of the high unemployment to hire people for a pittance.

Yet there have also been times when people got paid very well, and still they thought that they were underpaid. Even today, when you ask someone if they are getting paid enough, I doubt they will say, “Oh, yes, I’m getting paid a lot. In fact, I think I’m getting paid more than I’m worth.” Just doesn’t happen, right?

Most people—no matter how well they are paid—will complain that they aren’t being paid nearly enough, especially compared to someone else. That’s envy for you. It’s always the other person who’s overpaid and underworked, and it’s always you who are overworked and underpaid.

In God’s vineyard—the spiritual realm—things work much differently. The ultimate reward is living with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, along with all His saints. But you cannot earn this “reward” with hours of labor or “community service.” The wage is God’s forgiveness, and you receive it only by His generous grace in Christ.

So, let’s picture ourselves as Jesus mentions in the parable: as unemployed, doing no works that profit us spiritually. After all, by birth, we stand idle outside God’s Vineyard. And our old Adam continually seeks to stray outside of God’s Vineyard.

But then in His kindness, our Lord Jesus comes to us and arranges for us to have profitable labor in His Vineyard. First, He announces the wage of His grace. God gives benefits for any and all who labor in His Vineyard—eternal life at His banquet table and the resurrection of our bodies on the Last Day. Like workers during the Great Depression, you and I get to view God’s call to work as an undeserved invitation to receive wages that save our lives in desperate times. So, don’t think you deserve to work for Him. And don’t think you can bargain with Him for wages or perks.

You see, you will receive all the “wages” God delights to give you. And you will not receive any more or any less than your fellow workers. God does not give one person half-pay and the other person full-pay. No, He gives only full-pay, and He gives that same full-pay to all workers in His Vineyard. And what is that “full pay”? Forgiveness of sins and eternal life through Christ Jesus, and resurrection of your mortal flesh. There’s no way you can earn a greater or lesser “reward” than that!

So, if you have worked your whole life for the Lord, do not expect your Master to reward you with extra, even though you’ve borne the heat and burden of the day. Instead, be ready to receive joyfully your fellow sinners who come to faith late in life. Also, don’t look around the vineyard of the congregation and think, “I do more for my church than him or her! Who has worked harder, or longer, or at more events than I have?”

Put such thoughts as far from you as the east is from the west. The only worker who truly got what he deserved was sent away empty. Everyone who works in the Lord’s Vineyard is “overpaid,” always receiving more than he or she deserves. Yes, your labor in the vineyard of Jesus’ Church is just that—undeserved wages of His grace and mercy. Thank Him that He has placed you in this world and in His Church to work for Him. Rejoice that you labor long and hard to love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, soul, and mind. Count it all joy when you love your neighbor as yourself … even when you get no earthly reward for your work!

And what happens if you fail at your work? You know you will. When you look at God’s Commandments, His “job description” for truly loving Him and your neighbor, you realize that you have failed to keep them fully. You always do. You always will. But don’t despair. You and I will never perfectly perform the work the Lord gives us to do. Yet God is still kind and merciful. He still calls you to labor in His vineyard. He still rewards you with the wage of His grace: forgiveness of sins and life with Him both now and into eternity.

He has washed you in the water connected to His Word. His Spirit lives in you by the free gift of your Baptism. He feeds you week after week with His own Body and Blood to sustain you in your work for Him. So, when you do fail to labor as you should in loving God and loving your neighbor, your merciful Lord of the Vineyard still rewards you with forgiveness, resurrection, and life eternal.

When you fail to love your family and friends as you should, “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful.” Ask Him to make you a profitable worker day by day. If you have neglected your family and friends for years, or if you have borne the heavy toil of loving the people God puts in your life, remember that Jesus rewards with a feast of eternal life at His banquet table. And you get a foretaste of that feast here today!

Perhaps you fail to labor constantly as God wants. Perhaps you pridefully look down on your fellow workers, thinking you’ve done more than they have. Christ still “pays” you from His treasure store the very same wages He pays to all. Christ is the One who labored and toiled, all the way to the bloody cross. Jesus is the One who bore the burden of your sins and the heat of God’s wrath. He does all the labor, and you get all the “wages” of His grace and mercy and forgiveness. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

So we come to this day with a funny sounding name—Septuagesima. It’s Latin for “About 70 Days” until we celebrate the joys of Easter, the joys of God’s banquet table and eternal life with Him. Until then, we labor in His Vineyard. Lent, the time for preparation, is coming. We labor in matters of confessing our sins and returning to the Lord and His forgiveness.  We labor in matters of fasting, giving to those in need, and praying. We labor in matters of relearning and rehearsing the Catechism teachings. So, start planning now to take out your Catechism, and blow off the dust if necessary. Get ready to open up that Catechism and relearn the Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Then tackle the Catechism meanings and explanations. Then move on to the Sacraments of Baptism, Absolution, and Communion. Your labor will not be in vain. It will be very profitable. You will relearn and rehearse the “wages” of God’s grace for you in Christ Jesus.

So, fellow workers, the labor is not your own. Christ labors with you. In fact, Christ’s work—His life, death, and resurrection—make your labor profitable in body and soul. He is your great reward and your only benefit. And that benefit gives you abundant life. Christ comes to you, forgives you, invites you into His Vineyard. Remember the vines around the altar upstairs. He promises you the wage of His grace, the gift of eternal life, even now. Amen.

04 February 2019

Homily for Epiphany 4 (2019)

"The Lord of Nature"
Matthew 8:23-37

This little story gives a powerful message. Jesus calms the storm and reveals Himself as the Lord of nature. Jesus steps into a boat with His disciples. They set sail across the Sea of Galilee. All of a sudden, a furious storm hits and this little fishing boat gets tossed about and covered by the waves. On the bowl-shaped Sea of Galilee storms like this happen all the time. You would think the disciples—many of them fishermen—would have been able to handle it. But not this storm! They panic. They despair. Nature is their enemy. They realize they are powerless against it. They cry out to the Lord Jesus: “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.”

And where is Jesus during this storm? He’s in the boat. But He’s sleeping! A Lord who sleeps? God closing His eyes and being unconscious? Yes. Remember, Jesus is both God and Man—as God, all-powerful; as Man, able to become tired and need rest. Yet He is still the Lord of nature, the Creator of His creation. So, all-powerful Lord Jesus wakes up from His slumber and calms the storm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

Many sermons allegorize this story as if it were a parable. Such sermons refer to the boat as the Church. In the boat—the Church—we see Jesus and His followers, His disciples. The Church gets tossed around on the stormy sea of this world. And this is most certainly true. Today the unbelieving world is constantly trying to tell the Church how to worship, how to live, and what to believe and confess. Think of politicians and celebrities demanding the Church get with the times and support culture’s anti-life and pro-sexual revolution agenda. And you can see the waves flooding the boat—the Church—as Christians give in to worldly demands, worldly lifestyles, and worldly views. Yet it’s most certainly true that Jesus in His Church is the One Person who can calm the storms of these trials and temptations.

But let’s take this account as it actually is—a narrative of an actual, historical event. Let’s take a good look at Jesus as the Lord of nature. Let’s ask what the disciples asked: “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

For a couple of centuries, we have been living with a split head. Our minds and our way of viewing the world have been divided between two, seemingly opposite things. On the one hand, there’s God. He created the world. He sustains and preserves the world. And He guides how everything works in the world. On the other hand, there’s nature. How trees grow; how the weather works; how puppies and guppies grow up; how rivers flow; how planets orbit the sun; and so on. And for about 200 years, we’ve been taught and trained to compartmentalize these two things. Keep God in His box of faith and the soul; and keep nature in its box of things that can be observed in a laboratory.

This split head over God vs. nature has led us to one of Satan’s biggest lies: evolution. Evolution is the view—actually, the belief—that all things come about only by natural methods. Evolution teaches the belief—not the science—that all things come about purely by random chance and gradual changes over millions of years. God is left out of the picture. That’s what Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, wanted. He wanted natural explanations for life. He wanted to keep God out of the picture.

Now, we Christians have been riding in the boat, suffering this storm, this onslaught of unbelief in the world of nature. And some Christians have even been going along with the storm and welcoming the waves into the boat. The Bible says that God created the heavens, the earth and everything in them in six, 24-hour periods called “days.” Evolutionists say that the universe began suddenly with a big bang and has gradually evolved over billions of years. Some well-intentioned Christians have tried to mix the two teachings. Maybe, they say, the “six days” are really long periods of time. Maybe, they say, God did indeed create the world, but He chose to use evolution.

But that does not make much sense. Why would God say “days” when, as it is claimed, He actually took millions of years? Is God a liar, or at least not quite honest with us? Why would an all-powerful, caring God leave His precious world to random chance development? Why would He promote the life of people, plants, and animals by mutations and death?

But also consider this. Nature itself gives ample witness that there’s some intelligence behind it. We’ve all likely seen Mt. Rushmore, either in pictures or by visiting the monument. You see the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Now when you see those faces of famous men carved into a mountain, how many of you think: “Wow, look how the erosion by water and wind carved out that sculpture over millions of years”? Not likely. You know that there is some kind of intelligence behind that great monument.

The same is true of nature. You can tell there’s some kind of intelligence, design and purpose behind it. You plant a seed in the ground. You water it and fertilize it. And up comes a little shoot. The shoot turns into a beautiful stem with leaves and a flower on top. Or look in a powerful microscope and see living cells. All kinds of things are going on in the cell to make it duplicate itself and function for the good the body. Take out one of those microscopic parts of the cell, and it won’t work. Or think of your circulatory system—your breathing and your pulse. In just the minutes you’ve been sitting here listening, you’ve been breathing and your blood has been pumping, and you haven’t even thought about it. Tinker with anything in the system, and your breathing or your pulse doesn’t work so well.

What does all this have to do with Jesus calming a storm? The wind and the waves listen to Jesus and do what He says. So does the plant; so does the living cell; so do your heart and your lungs; so does all of nature. And this is for your benefit.

Our problem is that we get scared. We get scared because we don’t trust the Lord of nature. We convince ourselves that He’s off sleeping somewhere. And so we worry and we despair at the storms of nature, especially when a tornado or a polar vortex comes rushing in. And when we give in to the false teaching of evolution, we are robbing Jesus of His rightful place as Lord of nature. We are showing that we don’t trust Jesus—we are little faith people.

You see, when Jesus is Lord of nature, He is also Savior for sinners. When He forgives sinners, He is also restoring His nature and creation. He created all things good, but we humans ruined and messed up God’s creation. So God sent His Son to restore creation and nature, as well as you and me. When Jesus comes to reveal Himself, He comes to restore God’s good creation. After all, when He forgives you all your sins, He is restoring creation in you and for you.

St. Paul says it this way: “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” Nature suffers from human sin too! But also remember this: “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God…the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

So, when Jesus calms the storm, let’s marvel at His Godhood, at His power over nature. But let’s also be strengthened in faith toward Him. For this Lord of nature not only calms storms, He dies on a cross for sinners—for you and for me. That’s His greatest work for you and for nature around you. And never forget how Jesus even gives you His forgiveness by using elements of nature—water, bread, and wine.

“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever!…
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man!” (Ps. 107:1, 8). Amen.