Sermon for Septuagesima

I always mean to post sermons. But the week slips away, and often it doesn’t get done. This week I remembered. Sermon for Septuagesima, for those who couldn’t make it to church this Sunday.

Mercy is love in action. Mercy isn’t fair. Mercy isn’t deserved. The grace of God is given because of his love, who he is, not because of our works and efforts. That’s what Jesus would teach us today in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.

A master of a house needs workers for his vineyard. Some agree to work all day for a days wage. Others agree to work less than a full day for “what is fair”. Still others are just called to work, with no word on what the reward will be. At the end of the day, the man in mercy he pays a full days wage to those who were hired later – some working 9 hours, six hours, three hours, and even just 1 hour. The man is merciful and generous. And then he pays what was agreed to those who worked all day.

Luther cautions that in the working world, we can’t and shouldn’t work this way. This isn’t about how the world should be run. It’s about how the kingdom of heaven is run.

It’s run purely on the grace and mercy of God. If it were on merit and worthiness, we would all be condemned. No one has a right to brag or boast or be arrogant before the Lord, because our life is given only by the grace and mercy of God.

He is the one who knit us together even while we were in the womb. We are fearfully and wonderfully made because of his grace and mercy. And yet, when we rebelled against God he still did not abandon us. He sent Jesus to save us. It’s grace and mercy all the way down. At no point can we earn our life in this world. We certainly then can have no claim on our redemption from sin.

Instead we see the love of God in Jesus Christ, who sacrificed his throne in heaven for us, and then after living the perfect life on our behalf, he sacrificed himself. We’re only 2 ½ weeks from Ash Wednesday now. Lent is coming. The time of self sacrifice, of testing, trial, and purification. And as we look ahead to it, the first thing we hear from scripture is “Nothing that you are about to do will earn you anything.” It’s a good reminder, so that we don’t misplace our trust and faith. We don’t trust in our own works and efforts. We don’t even put our trust in our own faith. That would make the object of faith our own self and our own faithfulness. Paul comforts and warns us with these words, “When we are faithless, he is faithful.” This is a great comfort to us, because despite hearing the history of salvation year after year, we are still weak. Despite hearing from God how we are to trust him first in all things, and how we are to love our neighbor, we still stumble and fall repeatedly. We can’t do it.

Jesus is making a single point in the parable today: Your works don’t earn you anything, even if you spend your whole life on them. It’s a word the people in Luther’s day had forgotten. And we are tempted to forget them in our own day. We go to church, we hear the Word of God, we are faithful, we obviously have something about us that is good and acceptable in the sight of the Lord.

It’s all Jesus work. That’s what is acceptable to the Lord. His work on your behalf. That’s it. If the parable were an account not of how the kingdom of heaven works, but of how the kingdom of God on earth works, the master would go into the harvest field to find that some were sleeping from exhaustion, some had wandered off into the hills to see the scenery, some had gotten into his wine and were drunk, some had taken a lunch break and forgot to come back, others were standing among the vines chatting merrily, having forgotten what they were supposed to do. Others had been working at the harvest, but they were unable to lift the grapes they had picked and were now waiting for some assistance.

That’s really what it would be like, if Jesus were telling the parable about the church from the world’s point of view. The only reason the men worked through, bearing the burden and heat of the day, and accomplishing anything, is because the master saw the work graciously. God looks at us weak and ineffective as we are, and sees us through Jesus and his work for us.

If this were an earthly view of things, it would be “The master got a bunch of workers to work in the vineyard, and then his son went behind them and fixed their mistakes, did their work, woke them up when they slept, got them coffee when they had too much wine, and in general made it so the whole day wasn’t a terrible disaster. And then the people complained about their pay – which was generous in the first place.”

But because this is as things are in the kingdom of heaven, the work is good. Don’t look at your faithfulness or your efforts, look at Jesus and what he does for you.

In the collect we prayed, “we who justly suffer the consequence of our sin may be mercifully delivered by Your goodness.” That’s a great summary of all of this talk about work in the kingdom, especially as we approach Lent with its increase of devotion and discipline and love for neighbor. Even with the power of the Holy Spirit given us in Baptism, we are still sinners in this world, and we still need the grace of God.

Paul teaches us in Romans 1 that when we sin, the punishment from God in this world is that he let’s us continue in our sin. That is our punishment – that he doesn’t stop us if we don’t ask for help. Listen to Paul’s words in light of what we have already heard in our Gospel today:

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

He lets us live desperate lives if we really want. That’s why we spend a good part of the year hearing again how important it is to turn away from sin, to rely on him, to call out for help in our need, to place our burdens on Jesus who cares for us.

In the confession of sins, we say “I have justly deserved your temporal and eternal punishment.” This is a radical statement. It leaves no space to ask why this or that calamity occurs. We are sinners who deserve punishment in this world and the next. God in his mercy cares for us, and does not desire that we should live in desperation and sin and end up dead. He wants to give us life in Jesus. That’s the whole purpose. That’s why we plead before him not for our sake, but we ask that he would be merciful to us solely for the sake of the holy bitter sufferings and death of his beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul talks in our epistle about running so that we would receive the prize. That’s why we discipline our bodies and place them under the Word of the Lord. So that we don’t wander off, so that we don’t spend our days sleeping in the vineyard when there is work we can do. So that we do not test the Lord God and say, “Well, if you really want me, then you’ll have to come get me from my wanderings and bring me home.” First, God is not subject to our tests. He has no obligation to respond. But second, if he does, he comes with his rod and staff – basically a wacking stick – to drive us back to safety, or in extreme situations, just grabs us and carries us back to where we should be. We’ve all seen parents who have to do that with unruly children. Crying, screaming, kicking on the ground, the parent just grabbing and going. If that’s how you want God to deal with you, in his grace he may do that. But it involves him leaving no option for but a return to faithfulness, or a life of struggle running from his promises.

How much more blessed is it if we accept correction before it gets to that point, if we remain in the Lord’s vineyard, in his Holy Church, not because we think it earns us anything, but because that is where the grace and mercy of God has been promised to us. We know he works through preaching and the sacraments to bring us salvation. And when we submit ourselves to his word and will, then it’s not so much a screaming toddler in the store or a sheep getting corrected with the wacking stick, then its God gently calling us back to him, showing us love and mercy all the days of our life, and finally carrying us in his arms and taking us home as he has promised for all those who love him.

The end result for those who gladly hear and learn the Word of God, is a life lived according to love and mercy. First and most importantly, receiving the love and mercy of God which he gives in Jesus Christ. And second, showing that love and mercy to those around us, especially those in the church who need our help. Like the generous man in the parable, we can just help, without regard for whether it is deserved or earned, but instead we consider whether we have the ability to help a neighbor in need and so show them the love which Christ also shows us each day.

This is the blessed life of the Christian – basking in the forgiveness of the Lord. In that, the burden and heat is not oppressive, Jesus bears the burden for us, instead we are given a gracious and merciful chance from God to share with others the gifts and blessings we ourselves have been given.

As we come to the time of discipline and increased rigor in the church year, remember the grace and mercy of Jesus. That’s the only reason for any of this. Not to earn our own way, but to give thanks to God for all he has given, all he continues to give, and all that he has promised to give us each day in this world, and when this world ends, the entire riches of heaven which we are promised through Jesus Christ and his work alone. Grant it Lord to each one of us, in his most holy name and for his sake.


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