Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Authority of Jesus and the Obedience of Faith

Matthew 21:23-32 Jesus did not simply say wise and pious things that we can take or leave without any concern that they have a claim on us.  He said that he was the only way to have a life with God; that he had been with God in the beginning; that to know him was to know God; that he had the power to forgive sins; and that he would return to judge the world. 
When it comes to the identity of Jesus, because of what he said about himself, we cannot simply call him a great teacher or wise leader but in the end, just a man.  By his own testimony about himself, Jesus never made this an option.  Instead, C.S. Lewis says that we ought to consider the identity of Jesus this way:  liar, lunatic, or Lord—a trilemma where each option poses a difficulty.  And so then…
    If we consider the claims of Jesus in light of our choices:  liar, lunatic, or Lord, we have to say that if these claims were lies, he is the worst kind of man—a scoundrel, a deceiver, a destroyer of souls like Jim Jones or David Koresh.  But when we read in the Bible about what he taught, everyone in the world affirms that this is the way we ought to live.
But what if he were a lunatic?  What if he were like someone suffering from a profound mental illness that makes them believe that they are Napoleon—someone to pity but certainly not to take seriously their claims.  And yet we see in the Bible how people were drawn to Jesus, how they loved him, how good and kind and gentle he was, how everyone—friends and enemies—took him seriously.   
That leaves just one option—that he was not a liar or a lunatic—but that he was the Lord—that his claims about himself were true:  that he is the eternal God in human flesh.  But what is the difficulty with that view?  After all, isn’t that exactly what we believe! 
The difficulty with the view that Jesus is Lord does not lie within the life of Jesus or what he taught or his claims about himself.  The difficulty lies within the hearts of men. 
You see, if Jesus was a liar then we can reject him and we should!  If he were a lunatic we can pity him and we should!  But to confess Jesus as Lord is to acknowledge his absolute authority over us and recognize how much of our lives are still lived outside his gracious, mighty rule when what we ought to do is offer him the obedience of faith.  The Bible says that:
When [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  
What were those things that had them so concerned?  Several days earlier Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and was welcomed as a king and proclaimed him the Son of David.  The next day Jesus entered the temple and drove out the money-changers and claimed it as his own house of prayer.  He healed the blind and the lame and received the praises of children.  And he cursed a fig tree for its lack of fruitfulness and it withered at once.
Was he a liar when he promised his disciples that whatever they asked for in prayer they would receive?  Was he a lunatic who went around making a scene in sacred places and cursing plants?  Or was he the Lord whose words and actions clearly portrayed him as the anointed One from heaven and the one true king who has authority to rule over all men?
That was the question in the minds of the religious leaders.  We need to get this settled in our own minds as well.  Now maybe you say, “But Pastor, I’ve decided this a long time ago.  I know that Jesus is my Lord, he is my master, and he is my king.”  I’m glad! 
But what does it mean for us that our King has commanded us to forgive and we still hold grudges?  What does it mean for us that our King has commanded us to stop worrying and our hearts are filled with anxiety?  What does it mean for us that our king has commanded us to seek his kingdom first when all kinds of other things take priority over our life with God?
What does it mean when his word—is not the last word—in our lives?  At the very least it means that there is a lack of clarity about who Jesus is and what his role is in our life. 
But there shouldn’t be!  The words of Jesus about himself- and the witness of the Old Testament to Jesus- and the actions of Jesus- are more than enough to identify him as our one true king whose divine authority calls for the obedience of faith.  It should have been enough for the religious leaders too which is why Jesus answers them as he does.  He said:
 “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”
            There was much in the ministry of John the Baptist that the religious leaders could appreciate.  He was calling sinners to repentance and proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven was at hand.  People were confessing their sins and leaving behind their old, sinful way of life.  And that message and those results were fine with the religious powers of the day. 
We all like it when a scoundrel is told to straighten up and fly right and he does!  We can all appreciate a sermon that applies to someone else!
            But John went farther than that!  Not only did John call open sinners to repentance he also said that the religious leaders needed to repent as well—that they were in the worst shape of all spiritually because they were covering up their sin with a false piety.
And there was more!  Besides calling people to turn from sin he was also calling them to believe in Jesus as the Savior of the world.  Here was the real problem for them. 
If the religious leaders acknowledged that John’s authority was from heaven they had to acknowledge Jesus as their Savior and King because the content of John’s ministry was Jesus and- this- they- would- not -do.  The Bible says that:
They discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” They answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things. 
Jesus didn’t answer them directly because they already knew the answer and rejected it.  John proclaimed Jesus to be the Savior of the world but if they acknowledged Jesus’ identity they would have to also admit that his divine authority also extended to them.  They would have to yield themselves to Jesus’ rule over their lives and this they would not do.
So it is for so many in our world today.  They say that Jesus is a good man and wise man—but just a man.  Even we Christians struggle with what it means that Jesus in our king and true, sovereign Lord.  We respect Jesus and admire what he taught.  We think his life ought to be an example for us all.  We’re glad he is our Savior.  But that he is our King means that we will have to listen to and do what he says.  It means that our lives will have to change.  Jesus said:
“What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went.  And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 
            Both of these men were sons. Both had a problem with the Father’s authority.  Both of them said “no” to a direct command from their Father.  Shocking!
            The first son had a change of heart and did as his father commanded.  This first son represented all the people who had taken to heart the message of John the Baptist and repented and amended their lives after a lifetime of sin and believe in Jesus.
            For the people in this group, there was no telling how many times they had heard that they needed to change their ways from friends and family and religious leaders—no telling how many times they had closed their ears to the voice of the Spirit—no telling how many times they kept right on doing what they were doing--but when they heard John something clicked and their hearts and lives were changed.
            Many of us have had the same experience.  If we came to faith late in life or even if God has laid on our heart some change we need to make after we came to faith and we resisted it and closed our ears to it but then one day we heard the Spirit in a new way and our hearts were changed--we understand how it was for this first son who repented. 
It would have been better if we had never resisted the Spirit.  It would have been better if we had never said “no” to our heavenly Father.  But God is glad to see a heart that is changed whenever that happens and that is true for us too.  If we find ourselves on the wrong track—if we have been making room for sin—it is not too late to repent. What about the other son?
The second son said the right things—what came out of his mouth sounded good—but he never did get around to doing what the Father wanted. 
This second son represented the men Jesus was talking to-the religious leaders who knew all the right words to say but never did yield their heavenly Father the obedience of faith.  He also represents every hypocrite sitting in a church pew who has never really come to faith at all-who still lives in sin--and yet says the right things and goes through the motions on Sunday. 
But that is not enough and even the religious leaders knew it.  Jesus asked them:  Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” The one who repented?
The father loved both sons.  He had a will and a plan for both of them.  But for each of them it would take a change of heart and mind about the direction of their lives and a willingness to do their father’s will.  Everyone falls into one of those two categories of the first son who eventually comes in or the second son who still needs to come in.
Even though he is not mentioned in the story, there is another Son—a third Son who said yes to his Father and who did his father’s will.  That third son is the One who tells this story—God’s only-begotten Son, Jesus.  Jesus spoke his Father’s word and did his Father’s will.  He was obedient unto death—even death on a cross.
It is because of his perfect obedience that the first two sons can be part of the Father’s family at all if they will only repent of their sins and believe in the Son.  Jesus said:
“Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.
            It’s important to recognize that Jesus is not saying that there was not a place for them in the kingdom.  There was-- if they were willing to repent of their sins and believe in Jesus!  So long as they were living and breathing there was a day of grace when they could have a change of heart and mind, acknowledge the authority of Jesus over their lives, confess him as Lord and Savior and take their place in the kingdom. 
But that would only come as they believed the message of John the Baptist that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Jesus was given that wonderful authority by his heavenly Father who sent him into the world for these men and for all of us for- that- very- purpose!
Open, notorious sinners believed that message, repented of their sins, amended their lives and entered the kingdom of heaven.  The religious leaders had seen this remarkable change with their own eyes. 
The authority of Jesus was only a problem for them because they rejected God’s salvation in Jesus. 
But for the tax collector- and the prostitute- and the sinner sitting in these pews and standing in this pulpit--it is the best possible news that Jesus possesses the authority to take our sins upon himself and wipe them clean by his blood.  It is because of him alone that the Father calls us his sons and daughters and invites us to take our place in his vineyard.  As we hear the Spirit’s call this morning, let us offer our King and Savior the obedience of faith!  Amen.

General Prayer Pentecot 16 Proper 21a

Gracious heavenly Father, You are abundant in power and Your understanding is beyond measure.  Hear us as we pray in Jesus’ name and answer us for our good:

You have promised to lift up the humble and cast the wicked to the ground.  Look upon our nation and its leaders and our fellow citizens with mercy and help us to humble ourselves before You as our one true King.  Cast down our enemies and protect our military personnel who serve You for our good.

We believe that You have numbered the stars and given to them all their names for You are the Creator of heaven and earth.  Continue to graciously sustain and uphold this world and meet the needs of Your creatures.  Give food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless and jobs to the discouraged.

Throughout our life, help us by Your holy Spirit to turn from wickedness and do what is just.  Create in us a new heart and new spirit that desires to do what is right in Your sight.

As we interact with those around us, help us to count others more significant than ourselves and put their needs before our own.  Fill us with love and affection and sympathy for one another and help us with one heart and mind to hold fast to the word of Christ.

Bless our marriages and families and make them places where we can grow in Christ-likeness and experience Your love.  Especially do we pray for Emma as she celebrates her second birthday, that You would bless her in body and soul all her days.

Because You take no pleasure in the death of anyone, You sent Your Son Jesus Christ to be our Savior.  Through faith in him and his work for us we have forgiveness and life.  As we give You thanks for the gift of salvation help us also to acknowledge him as our true King and Sovereign Lord and do his will in word and deed.

According to Your promise heal the broken-hearted and bind up the wounded.  Especially do we pray for Marty and Mildred.  Protect expectant mothers and grant them safe deliveries and healthy children.  Especially do we pray for Jodie that You would give her health and strength.

Be with us all throughout our life and in every moment and circumstance help us to sing Your praises until that day we join our voices with all the saints around the throne of the Lamb in his kingdom.  Amen.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Last Will be First, and the First Last

Matthew 20:1-16 To understand what Jesus is telling us today and what he wants us to know and believe, the very first words of our text are of critical importance:  The kingdom of heaven is like…  In other words, Jesus is teaching us what our life with God is like.
Jesus is not talking about the economic system of first century Palestine- or equal work for equal pay- or fair labor practices -or really anything about money and work at all-- except as an example. 
Then and now there was an understanding that labor and effort ought to yield reward and payment.  People in every place and time have had a keen sense of justice, that our pay ought to correspond with our work so that the harder and longer we work ought to be reflected in what we are paid.
Jesus knows this and it is a just way for the world to work.  But work and pay is not the way our life with God works. 
Our life with God, from beginning to end, is based upon his grace—not our works.  The blessings of a life with God come to us as a gift—not as a payment we are owed.  And that life begins with his call to us to come and take our place in his kingdom.  Jesus said that:
The kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.  And so it went throughout the day.
            Even though this story is not really about the economy of first century Palestine it is still necessary to know a bit about it.  The vast, vast majority of people lived hand to mouth and so if they and their families were to eat that night it was necessary to labor that day.  And if there was no work—then there was no food.  And so then…
You can imagine what a blessing it was for these men to be called to work in the vineyard.  That call meant “life” for them and for those they loved.  They could not demand a job from the master.  There was no trade union to be their advocate.  There was no labor agreement between the workers and the farmers.  For them to have life—it was necessary for them to be called by the master to come and take their place in his vineyard. 
So it is for us and our place in God’s kingdom.  Since Adam and Eve were barred from Eden, mankind has no natural right to a life with God.  We cannot demand that he take us into his kingdom.  We cannot storm the gates of heaven.  We cannot buy our way in.
But what we cannot do and what we cannot insist upon, God graciously does by calling us to take our place in his kingdom.  Every time and in every place the Good News of Jesus is preached and taught and administered in the sacraments people are being called by God to take their place in his kingdom and receive the gifts of life and salvation and hope for the future. 
Most of us sitting here today heard that call early in our lives.  Others of us have come into the Lord’s kingdom at later stages in our life just like the workers in Jesus’ story.  But whenever we were called, there is a place for us in God’s kingdom. 
And that is the important thing because the time is coming when this day of grace will come to an end.  Jesus said that:   
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’  And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 
            Can you imagine how grateful these workers were!  They never could have expected that the master would pay them for a full day’s work for just a few hours of labor.  How good he was!  How generous!  And you can bet that the workers standing behind them thought the same.  These last-called were their friends and neighbors.  They didn’t begrudge them the denarius.  They knew that the call of the master meant “life” for these men and their families.
            So it is for us.  We’re thrilled when someone comes to faith late in life and takes their place in the kingdom of God!  We know that for those who never hear that call—there is no life or hope.  And so we’re glad when people come to faith no matter how late in life.
But as we picture this scene in our mind’s eye, with the workers all lined up and the last-called receiving the generosity of the master, we know that there’s something else in the mind of the rest of the workers, isn’t there?  “If the master has been so gracious with these last called, surely there must be more for us who were called first”.  Jesus said that:
When those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius.  And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house
            It’s only natural that those who were called first, who watched as the last called received the denarius, to think that they would be getting more.  “It’s only right!  That is how the world works!  That is what is just and fair!”
But when they were given just exactly what the master promised them, they grumbled.  All their good thoughts about the generosity of the master—all their gladness that their friends were also called into the vineyard—went right out the window.
When they were called that morning how glad they were!  To know the peace of having work to do—to know that your needs and the needs of those you loved would be met—what joy must have filled their hearts as they labored that day.
But here at the end of the day how that had all changed.  There was no more gratitude—but only grumbling.  Their joy at being called-- and the lightness of their labor (knowing that their needs were met)-- all of that was gone. 
What had happened?  What had changed in them from the morning to the evening?  The direction of their gaze moved away from the goodness of the master who called them and provided for them-- to their fellow workers and what they received.  They were embittered and angry at the generosity of the master.  They said to him: 
‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.
            When the first called went into the master’s vineyard that morning they knew just exactly what to expect.  The day would be long.  The labor would be difficult.  They didn’t care.  In fact they welcomed it because they were glad to be called and have their needs met.  So it is for us.
            When the Lord calls us into his kingdom how glad we are even though we know it will not be easy.  Jesus told us right up front that we are to take up our cross and follow him—that blessings in his kingdom come when we are persecuted and misused. 
And yet we are glad to answer that call because we know that it is only within the kingdom that life’s deepest needs for forgiveness and peace and hope can be met.
Our entire lives as workers in the Lord’s vineyard ought to be filled with gratitude for having been called there in the first place!  But how easy it is for our gratitude to be changed to grumbling as we look around us at the lives of our fellow servants!
This person has some blessing that we lack and that person was spared some hardship we had to undergo and often times there is no correspondence that we can see between anything in our life of faith and those of others in how those lives of faith are rewarded.  And we begin to measure and compare and grumble.
Jesus forbids these kinds of thoughts because they change our life with God from an incredible gift he gives to us simply because he is good-- into something that is owed to us for the work we do.  Jesus went on:
[The master] replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?Take what belongs to you and go.
            The Lord is just.  He is absolutely just.  No one will ever be short-changed by God.  The master of the vineyard agreed to give these men a denarius and that is exactly what they got.  And so in the same way God will give to us if we demand payment for services rendered.
If we want from God what we deserve—we will get it!  If our life with God is about what we do and what we are owed God, will pay!
We will get the recognition of being counted as a pious person.  We will get the respect that comes from being part of a church.  We will get to surround ourselves with people who are kind and good.  We will get the praise of men for our acts of charity. 
If that is what our life with God is about, if it is a contract for services rendered, God is just and he will pay—but that is all.
Those who were first-called received their pay but they were sent away from the presence of the master.  This was a warning to the Jews who resented sinners coming into the kingdom.  It was a warning to Peter who had just asked Jesus what he and the other disciples were going to get out of their life with Jesus since they had been with him from the beginning. 
It is a warning to all of us to make sure that our gladness at being called into the kingdom does not change over time into grumbling over the contents of a contract we have made for services rendered.  Jesus wants us to understand that our life with God is about his grace and not our works.  The master said:
I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? “Or do you begrudge my generosity”. 
            In the kingdom of heaven—when it comes to our relationship with God—God is the one who calls and God is the one who chooses and God is the one who gives because the gifts of salvation belong to him. 
Jesus Christ has earned salvation for us in his death and resurrection.  The Holy Spirit gives it to us in Word and Sacrament.  And our heavenly Father has planned it from eternity.  Salvation belongs to God who gives it to us as a gift of his grace. 
And so then when Jesus says that “the last will be first, and the first last” it is both a warning and a promise. 
It is a warning that when we stand in judgment of:  who is called into the kingdom and when- or who receives some blessing from God and preserved from some hardship- or how God orders our lives and the lives of others--we are standing in judgment of God himself just like the first-called that day in the vineyard who grumbled about the master’s generosity.
But it is also a promise that when we count ourselves last—when we recognize that what we have actually earned is punishment for our sins-- but what we have received is forgiveness and life---and this by God’s grace alone—when we simply trust in the generosity of God, we will not be disappointed.  Amen.

General Prayer Pentecost 15 Proper 20a

Gracious heavenly Father, hear us as we call upon Your name in prayer:

We give You thanks that You have graciously called us into Your kingdom where there is peace and joy and forgiveness.  Help us to always remember that our life with You is a gift You give through faith in Your Son Jesus Christ and not by the works that we do.

We praise You for all the blessings and benefits You have given us over the course of our lives, especially for the gift of our families.  Bless Michael and Lizz as they celebrate their anniversary and grant them many more happy years together.

We know that Your ways are not our ways and Your thoughts are not our thoughts.  Help us to trust You in times of trial and difficulty.  Grant healing to those who are ill, especially Marty as she recovers from a heart attack.  Watch over and protect all expectant mothers and grant them safe deliveries and healthy children.  Especially do we pray for Jodie that You would help her in her time of need.

When we wander away from the path that leads to life, remind us that You are compassionate and always ready to abundantly pardon our sins.  Fill us with Your Holy Spirit and empower us to live lives worthy of the Gospel.  In all that we do and say help us to honor Christ with our bodies. 

In those places where You have ordained that Your people would suffer for the sake of Christ, give them courage to remain steadfast and faithful in their confession of faith.  Help Your holy church on earth to advance the Gospel.  Bless our missionaries and their families and grant us boldness to speak Your Word without fear so that those around us could know Your Son Jesus Christ.

Grant Your blessing to our nation and her leaders and our fellow citizens.  Revive the Christian faith in our land so that all our fellow Americans would acknowledge You as their one true King.  Protect our military from harm and danger and support their families in time of need.

As we live our lives and as we face the future help all of us to say:  to live is Christ and to die is gain.  We ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.