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.

Heaven is for You

Sermon for All Saints’ Day based on Revelation 7:9-17

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

Jesus’ death and resurrection have opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. Thus, all believers have the promise that they will be included in that great multitude that no one can number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb in heaven. Jesus’ death and resurrection are the reason we will be there.

The great tribulation will be over. No more hunger or thirst. No more tears. No more war or bloodshed. No terrorism. No riots or murders. No heresy or prejudice. No sadness, pain, illness, loneliness, or death. No more sin.

Heaven is perfection, with nothing bad, only everything good.

We will again see our loved ones who died in the faith.

Even more, God will be there. We will be before His throne, sheltered by His presence. We will be with God forever.

This doesn’t mean much to most people. They spend their lives running away from God. They flee His presence. They avoid the place where He has promised to be here on earth. They deny Him by their words and their deeds, and want to silence anyone who would dare so much as mention Jesus’ name.

Those who flee God’s presence seek to build their own heaven here on earth – perhaps with thoughts of some kind of communist utopia. Steal from one group and give it to another. Force other people to “share.” They use lies and prejudice, rioting and terrorism, war and bloodshed, to quiet those who oppose them to bring this “heaven” about. But it never comes. There is no other heaven than the one created by God. There is no utopia that worldly governments can create.

Those who have sought to build their own heaven have always and will always fail. The only thing that has ever come out of such attempts is more suffering, hunger, thirst, and death than you already had. There is only God’s eternal heaven which is good and perfect with nothing bad. Fleeing God’s heaven to make your own just doesn’t work.

Fleeing God’s presence here on earth results in not being in God’s presence in heaven. Avoiding the presence of God, where He has promised to be and give forgiveness here on earth, is rejecting God and His heaven for eternity. Rejecting Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper – the places where God is present with forgiveness – is rejecting the eternal presence of God in heaven.

Being in the presence of God in heaven will be everything to us. We cannot quite understand that now because we love God so little. We have so many things that we allow to compete with our love for God. We cannot image how we would ever be content just by the presence of God, but we will be.

In heaven, we will love God perfectly and completely. We will love Him so much that we will desire nothing else. He will be our everything. He will be our joy, our glory, our comfort, our contentment.

We cannot really grasp this now. That’s why it might sound odd to us that part of the description of heaven includes us serving God day and night in His temple. Day and night? Twenty-four hours of service a day? That doesn’t sound so great to me!

That’s because we don’t love God like we will love Him when we are in heaven. In heaven we will love Him so much that we will love serving Him, even though we failed to serve Him faithfully on earth. We will love to serve Him, worship Him, and sing His praises. There will be nothing that we would rather do. God’s desire will be our desire. God will be our life, our strength, our wisdom, our happiness. What more is there? It is far better than anything human words can express or human thoughts can understand while we remain here below. As Scripture speaks of it, it is “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him” (I Cor. 2:9, citing Is. 64:4).

We will love God then as we are commanded to love Him now but cannot. We will love Him as He loves us. Only then can we fully comprehend the words of the hymn, “Lord, Thee I love with all my heart… Yea, heaven itself were void and bare if Thou, Lord, wert not near me” (LSB 708 st. 1). The presence of God will be everything to us and we will lack nothing.

Jesus’ death and resurrection have opened the kingdom of heaven to you. He has promised you that He will bring you out of the great tribulation and bring you to Himself in heaven. He will take you from this vale of tears and wipe away your tears.

Jesus will bring you into heaven because you are clothed in robes made white by the blood of the Lamb. You will get into heaven because your sins have been washed clean by Jesus’ blood. His suffering and death were for you. He has taken the punishment for your lack of love.

No amount of your own washing will wash your sins away. Water by itself cannot wash sins away, but only water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word. No blood can wash away your sin, but only Jesus’ blood, given and shed for you washes your sin away – that blood which flowed for your sins.

Through Baptism and His holy Supper, Jesus washes you and makes you clean. He makes your robes white, with all your sin forgiven, so you are ready to enter heaven whenever He takes you home.

The kingdom of heaven is open to you, and Jesus will bring you through the great tribulation to the eternal joys of heaven. Your tears will be wiped away. You will be before the throne of God, sheltered by His presence, and you will love God as He loves you. God will be your everything and you will lack nothing. You will desire what God desires, and never again will you have any tribulation. Amen.

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

[A note to readers: We will be following the One-Year Lectionary beginning in Advent.]

Kingdoms

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent based on Matthew 11:2-15

Dear citizens of the kingdom of heaven: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The kingdoms of the world grow and expand through violence. The most powerful kingdoms have had the biggest and strongest armies. It’s no coincidence. No kingdom ever became great without a great army.

Glory is found on the battlefield. Conquering other nations is the only way to increase the size of the kingdom. The strongest, the bravest, and the toughest are those who are valued. Violence serves the kingdom well… until a more powerful kingdom rises and takes dominance.

On the other hand, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence. It is the kingdom of the lowly and the weak; the kingdom of turning the other cheek; the kingdom of martyrs. The kingdom of heaven is violent to no one; it only suffers violence at the hands of the violent.

Even our King fits this description. Our King suffered violence like a Lamb led to the slaughter without complaint. Our King suffered mocking and spitting, flogging, and torture. Our King suffered violence to the point of death on a cross; God put to death by mere mortals.

This is not our way. Jesus said, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20) However, we don’t want to suffer violence. Suffering violence isn’t in our plan. It doesn’t appear it was in John the Baptist’s plan either.

When John suffered violence, he doubted. He sent word to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” How can You be the one if Your followers suffer violence and You’re not doing anything about it? How can You be the King of the kingdom of heaven if You allow Your kingdom to suffer violence at the hands of violent men?

However, while suffering violence, Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36)

The kingdom of heaven is not competing with earthly kingdoms. It is no threat to earthly kingdoms. Yet, the kingdoms of the earth all too often afflict the kingdom of heaven with violence.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were threatened by Jesus because their only goal was having an earthly kingdom, which they tried to pervert the church into being. Therefore, the leaders of the church delivered Jesus for crucifixion. Earthly kingdoms have persecuted the church since its inception because they cannot understand anything except for earthly kingdoms and they always think that the kingdom of heaven is competing with their earthly kingdoms.

Herod, the king of an earthly kingdom, had John the Baptist beheaded because of John’s preaching concerning the kingdom of heaven. John had warned Herod that he would not be in the kingdom of heaven unless he repented. To Herod, that sounded like an attack on him as an earthly king so he threw John in prison, later to be executed.

Historical writings tell us eleven of Jesus’ twelve disciples were martyred. The kingdoms of the earth felt threatened by the kingdom of heaven, so they afflicted the Church with violence. The Church has been persecuted throughout history, and is today persecuted around the world more than ever.

The violent think that they are taking the kingdom of heaven by force. They think they are winning the battle. The kingdoms of the earth think that every dead Christian is a victory for them. They couldn’t be more wrong. They can do nothing to the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven is not of this world. It is present here, it is in this world, but it is not of this world. The kingdom of heaven is present wherever the King is present. Jesus is present here among us in Word and Sacrament, so the kingdom of heaven is here among us. The world cannot take Jesus away from us.

The kingdom of heaven is present in this world but it has no worldly ambitions. It has no desire to topple governments or take over their lands.

Further, the kingdom of heaven has no delusions that this world will be made into a world of peace and harmony. It has no expectation that wars will cease or that the kingdom of heaven will stop suffering violence in this world. Remember, “If they persecuted me they will also persecute you.” Jesus also said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” (John 15:18)

All is not lost, however, because the kingdom of heaven is not about hatred or about violence. The kingdom of heaven is about the victory won by Jesus on the cross.

The crucifixion may have looked like a huge loss. It appeared that not only had earthly kingdoms defeated the kingdom of heaven, but that the prince of darkness, the prince of hell, had won. The King of heaven was dead. God in the flesh was dead.

The disciples went into hiding behind locked doors. What else would they do? They were scared what the earthly kingdoms would do to them. Then Jesus appeared to the disciples behind closed doors. He showed them His hands and side, the marks of His victory over sin, death, and the devil. He proved Himself alive, risen as He has said.

The disciples came out of hiding. They went and proclaimed publicly that Jesus had risen from the dead. They no longer feared the kingdoms of the earth because they were in the kingdom of heaven. They proclaimed the kingdom of heaven to the ends of the earth, in exchange suffering violence at the hands of violent men.

Suffering violence in this time of Advent, what does the Church do? The Church waits. The Church waits for the return of her King. When the King returns, the violence will cease. Christ will return in the clouds of heaven and all peoples, nations, and languages will serve Him. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom which will not pass away or be destroyed (Dan. 7:14-15).

Then the Church will have peace. Our King suffered violence so that we have peace with God now because our sins are forgiven (Rom. 5:1), and when He returns we will have peace on earth also. Our King gloriously triumphed on the battlefield of the cross, and gives us peace: peace with God; peace in the new heavens and the new earth; peace from the enemies of the Church, and peace with each other. We will have peace and the worldly kingdoms will cease to exist. So, the Church waits. The Church waits and prays, “Come Lord Jesus. Come quickly.” Amen.

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