Undeserved Rewards

Sermon for Septuagesima based on Matthew 20:1-16

Dear labourers in the vineyard: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

God has promised great blessings to those who keep His commandments. For instance, Psalm 19 says that there is great reward in keeping God’s rules (v. 11). Proverbs 29 says, “Blessed is he who keeps the law.” (v. 18) Psalm 1 says, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.” (v. 1) Proverbs 3 tells us to write God’s commandments on our hearts so that we will find favour and good success in the sight of God and man (v.3-4). The Fourth Commandment has a special promise connected to it: Honouring your father and your mother is rewarded by God with long life (cf. Ex. 20:12). Malachi 3 says giving a tithe to God will result in God opening the windows of heaven for you and pouring down on you a blessing until there is no more need (v. 10).

Do not let the blessings God gives you confuse you into thinking that you thereby earn favour with God through following His commandments. This can never be, but this is the error into which the first labourers of the vineyard fell, and the error into which we fall when we think that God owes us something.

The workers who worked all day grumbled because they thought they were entitled to more than they received. They thought they deserved to be rewarded. If the workers who worked for only an hour were given a day’s wage, surely they thought they deserved more than a days wage, having borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.

When it comes to business, this is certainly true. You cannot run a business paying workers who work for only one hour of the day the same as the workers who work twelve hours of the day. No one would be willing to work for you more than an hour in a day.

The whole point of Jesus’ parable is that the kingdom of heaven is not like a business; it is not like life on earth. You cannot work your way into it. You cannot deserve it. Entry into the kingdom of heaven is by grace, and only by grace. The workers in the vineyard were rewarded for work they did not perform. So also you will be rewarded for work you have not performed.

The simple truth is that God owes you absolutely nothing. He doesn’t owe you health or wealth. He doesn’t owe you clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, or anything that you have. Most especially, God does not owe you entry into the kingdom of heaven.

This is contrary to popular opinion which holds that everyone should go to heaven. Everyone is entitled to grace. Sins don’t matter. Everyone getting into heaven is right and just. We all deserve heaven.

This is of course nonsense. No one deserves heaven. We all deserve the torments of hell. What we deserve is far worse than a miserable, pathetic life on earth filled with suffering and affliction, poverty and sorrow, illness and a slow, painful death. Because of our sins, we all deserve nothing but punishment.

If you realize that you only deserve punishment, then you realize what Jesus is teaching in this parable. God doesn’t think like you. He doesn’t reward workers how you reward workers. If God rewarded us as we deserve and paid us for what we have done, we would all end up in hell for eternity.

God out of His great love for you, without owing you anything, gives you what you do not deserve. He welcomes you into His kingdom because of work not done by you, but by Jesus. Jesus did the work that you could not do. He did what the Law demands of you but you could not fulfill. He suffered a brutal and bloody death to pay for your sins.

This is the heart of the Gospel: God rewards those who do not deserve it. He loves poor miserable sinners and gives them eternal life. He is so generous that He gives eternal life to those who deserve eternal death.

Do not begrudge His generosity. Is He not allowed to do what He wants with what belongs to Him? If God gives unbelievers their daily bread why should this bother you? If you see the wicked prosper, do not be envious of them (cf. Ps. 11, 73). God makes His sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45). This is God’s generosity, that even unbelievers benefit from His grace. When an openly public sinner turns from the vileness and wickedness of his ways, do not begrudge God’s generosity in showing him mercy.

Do not ask God to give you what you deserve. Even if you have to bear the burden of the day and the scorching heat, God owes you nothing. Yet, by His grace, He gives you everything. He gives you everything you need for this body and life, and He gives you entry into the kingdom of heaven.

Grace is undeserved and unearned. Grace is a gift. God has given you His only Son and brought you into His kingdom through water and the Word as a free, undeserved gift. You are thus not just a servant or labourer, but an adopted child of God and an heir of the kingdom. He grants you a place at His table where He gives you Jesus’ body and blood and He blesses you so that your cup overflows.

Entry into the kingdom of heaven is not owed to you, but is given to you by grace. You are rewarded with work that Jesus has done for you. Praise and thanksgiving be to God for His generosity. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Transfiguration Glory

Sermon for the Transfiguration of our Lord based on Matthew 17:1-9

Dear future witnesses of the glory of Christ: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Peter, James, and John saw a glimpse of the glory of Christ. They fell down on their faces and were terrified. When they saw Jesus’ glory that was no longer veiled under a cloak of humility, He revealed that He is God under the veil of human flesh. He deliberately hid His glory except for this moment with His three disciples. These three disciples were witnesses of the glory of Jesus, along with Moses and Elijah.

Jesus’ glory witnessed by Peter, James, and John is an indication to us that Jesus does not intend to keep His glory just for Himself, but He will share it with us. His transfiguration is a foretaste of eternal glory, joy, and blessedness where we will also be.

However, Scripture tells us, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” (I Cor. 15:50) As we are, we cannot be with Jesus in His glory. As sinful flesh and blood, even a glimpse of Jesus’ glory would knock us down on our faces in terror.

Our perishable bodies must put on the imperishable; our mortal bodies must put on immortality (I Cor. 15:53). Then, and only then, we can see Jesus face to face.

Until then, Jesus veils His glory from us, even though He is with us. He has promised us, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20) He has promised us, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matt. 18:20) He has promised to be with us in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, where He gives us His true body and blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of all our sins (Matt. 26:26-28).

Jesus is here, even though He is veiled from our sight. Since Jesus is here, it is impossible to be too pious, reverent, or respectful. God is here, even though we cannot see His glory. We cannot have a church building beautiful enough, or singing, artwork, or crucifixes that are majestic enough for what takes place here. This is the closest that we get to heaven on earth. Jesus comes in His body and blood to us and for us.

Our response to God’s presence among us is to bow our heads and to kneel as we are able. If we would see the glory of God, we would fall on our faces like the three disciples on the mount of transfiguration. Above all, our response to Jesus being among us is listening to Him. After all, that’s what God the Father said from the cloud, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.”

Indeed, you can have the most beautiful cathedral with the most beautiful paintings and statues. You can have the most beautiful choirs and orchestras playing the most beautiful music. You can have golden vessels, jewel encrusted vestments, and the most expensive of paraments. But if you don’t listen to Jesus, you have nothing except eternal damnation. Even if you saw Jesus in His glory, but you don’t listen to Him, you have nothing but eternal damnation.

This is what Peter writes about his witnessing of the transfiguration in our Epistle lesson. He writes, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honour and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to Him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with Him on the holy mountain.”

Peter, James, and John were eyewitnesses of the glory of Jesus. They heard God the Father speak from heaven. Yet, what does Peter say? He says, “We have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place.” We have something more sure than experience. We have something more sure that feelings. We have something more sure than anything. We have the Word of Jesus. God the Father says, “Listen to Him.”

Listen to Him of whom Moses and Elijah spoke, and all the prophets before and after them. Listen to Him to whom all Scripture points. Listen to Him to whom God the Father points. Listen to Jesus, because only He has the words of eternal life.

Anyone can tell you to live a better life. Anyone can tell you to be more helpful to your neighbour, more loving to your family, and more supportive of those in need. Anyone can tell you to stop being selfish and self-centred. Only Jesus can say to you, “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28)

Jesus gives you rest from the demands of the Law. He gives you rest from the accusations and curses of the Law. He gives you rest from your failures and sins because He gives you forgiveness.

Only Jesus has the words of eternal life and only Jesus gives eternal life. Only Jesus gives eternal life because only Jesus has earned eternal life for you. No one else has paid the price of your sins. No one else has fulfilled the Law of God on your behalf. No one else can give you eternal rest.

Jesus’ death for you was Jesus purchasing your eternal rest. He took all your sins so that you can enter His eternal glory, in which you will see Him face to face. Jesus will not keep His glory just for Himself, but He will share it with you. Not just a brief glimpse of glory, but eternal rest, joy, and blessedness in His glory.

To bring you safely to that place where you will see Him in all His glory, He comes to you with His glory veiled to give you forgiveness. He gives you His true body and blood, in which His glory is veiled so that you can eat and drink without falling on your face in fear. Indeed, He gives you His body and blood so that you would have no fear, but instead have joy in the forgiveness of your sins and the promise of eternal glory.

Receive His body and blood in firm faith for your eternal blessing, and as God the Father says concerning His Son, “Listen to Him.” Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Jesus Calms Your Storms

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany based on Matthew 8:23-27

Dear disciples in the boat with Jesus: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

On a nice, calm day, the disciples followed Jesus into the boat. If you would have asked them at that point if they trusted Jesus, they would have responded strongly in the affirmative. Of course they trusted Jesus. They had just witnessed Jesus healing the leper, the centurion’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, and many others. They were of good cheer and content, thinking that because Jesus was with them, they would have no trouble. They had no fear, apprehension, or uneasiness. Jesus, weary from preaching and teaching, laid down to sleep.

Then, the storm hit. A great storm with waves swamping the boat. The disciples were overcome with fear and fright. They were in a panic as the amount of water in the boat increased and increased, even as the howling winds and great waves tossed it back and forth, completely out of their control. Jesus remained sleeping, seemingly unaware of what was happening.

Jesus remained sleeping to bring the weak faith of the disciples to light. Faith is revealed to be true or false precisely through crosses and trials.

Saint Peter had boasted that he was ready even to die with Jesus, but when tribulation came, Peter fell away and denied Jesus three times. We, too, know how to talk big about the Gospel, cross, and patience, but when the cross is upon us, and we get hit by the storms of life, then it becomes clear how weak our faith is.

“Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Jesus asks.

The winds and the sea obey Jesus. This of course means they obey Him not only when He rebukes the winds and the sea and tells them to be calm, but also when He tells them to rise up and storm. Jesus is the one who commanded the storm to start and to toss the boat and swamp it with water. The storm struck because of Jesus. So also our storms strike because of Jesus.

One way to end the storm is to throw Jesus out of the boat. That’s what the sailors did to Jonah. The Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land sent a great storm because Jonah was fleeing from the presence of the Lord. To quiet the storm, the sailors hurled Jonah, the one who was responsible for the storm, into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.

Throwing Jesus out of the boat to calm the storm is the easy way out of affliction. Scripture tells us, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (II Tim. 3:12) So, walk away from Jesus and your afflictions will end. The devil will stop harassing you at every corner. He will stop lying in wait for your thoughts, heart, soul, spirit, and conscience. The world will stop hating you, slandering you, and speaking evil of you. You will no longer have the constant battle with the desires, passions, lusts, anger and pride of your sinful flesh.

This is what many churches have done. They were beaten down by the social justice warriors of the world, so they caved to their every demand. Regardless of what Christ our Lord says on the matters, they wanted to avoid affliction, so they have fully embraced abortion, homosexuality, women pastors, and every other godless doctrine from Satan.

See, the world tolerates all the teaching and preaching of the heathen, the Muslims, and false Christians, but it cannot stand Christ’s teaching and preaching. As long as you preach what the itching ears of the world want to hear, everything will go smoothly for you. But when you begin to follow Christ, every calamity strikes. Then you invite against yourself the devil, the world, and all ungodly men. Then, because of Jesus, you face great storms and fierce winds, and suffer affliction.

But if you throw Christ out of the boat – out of your life – you throw out with Him all grace, salvation, and blessedness. You throw out eternal life.

Instead of throwing Jesus out of the boat, go in your anguish and distress to Him like the disciples did and say, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” Be patient and commit your cares to God until He is roused from sleep by your calling and crying.

The truth is that God never sleeps. Sometimes it seems to us as if God is sleeping. Psalm 44 says, “Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! Rise up; come to our help!” (vv. 23,26) Psalm 35 prays, “Awake and rouse yourself for my vindication, for my cause, my God and my Lord.” (v. 23)

As a man, Christ did sleep according to His human nature. According to His divine nature, He did not sleep, but was awake. As Psalm 121 says, “Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” (v. 4) Even sleeping, Jesus was not only aware of the storm, but commanding the storm. Even sleeping according to His human nature, Christ was awake according to His divine nature and keeping watch over His disciples in the boat.

Upon being roused by the disciples, Jesus did rebuke them for their little faith, but He calmed the storm. The storm and the calming of the storm were to strengthen the disciples’ faith; that they would trust that Christ alone is Lord of heaven and earth, who made the sea and the dry land; that they would trust that, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.” (Ps. 34:19) Jesus desired them to know that they can find comfort and help in all dangers, be they physical or spiritual, by water or land, as long as they are with Him in the boat, that is, incorporated into Him by faith.

Even though He sometimes takes a long time, and it seems to us that He has fallen asleep, forgotten us, and will not hear us, we should not therefore despair, but cry out with the disciples, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” Then we will quickly find verification of David’s words, “Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” and “When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him.” (Ps. 91:15)

What we should always remember is that our death is our victory. Then we will be in no more trouble. We will face no more storms or afflictions. Because of Jesus’ death for our sin, our sin has been paid for, and our death is precious in God’s sight. Through the storms of this life, Jesus also teaches us to pray for death – that sweet release from the evils of this life. Jesus’ death has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. The kingdom of heaven is thus open to you.

No troubles or afflictions can keep you out of heaven. Sin, death, and the devil cannot keep you out of heaven. Christ Jesus fulfilled God’s Law for you in thought, word, and deed, and He suffered and died for you, taking the full punishment of your sins on Himself. He has defeated all that would bar the gates of heaven to you, and He has promised to be with you until the end, through everything you must face.

With Jesus in the boat with us, the world must rage against us as it rages against Him. Let the world rage and storm. The winds and sea, and all things must obey Jesus. Trial and trouble will last no longer than Jesus wills. He is Lord over all, and He can change it all in a moment. To Him be worship, glory, and honour forever! Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

[This sermon borrows from Johann Spangenberg’s questions and answers on the Gospel reading.]