The Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 24:15-28
In Christ Jesus, who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6), dear fellow redeemed:
If somebody were to tell you that this church building will be demolished, taken apart piece by piece, until there is hardly a trace left, you would have a hard time believing it. What would ever bring on something like this? When would it happen? This is similar to how the disciples of Jesus responded when He told them the impressive temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed. The disciples had been commenting how wonderful the stones of the temple were and how beautiful the buildings. Didn’t Jesus think so too? But He said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Lk. 21:6).
As soon as the disciples could talk to Jesus alone, they asked Him when these things would take place. He told them, “[W]hen you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near” (21:20). Then “the abomination of desolation” would be set up in the holy place of the temple, and great destruction would come upon the city and its inhabitants. The holy place in the temple is where sacrifices were made to the holy God for the sins of the people. But now in that sacred space, there would be an abomination set up for the purpose of tearing down.
Jesus said that Daniel had prophesied about this event hundreds of years before. We know Daniel for his God-given ability to interpret dreams and for his deliverance from the den of lions. But Daniel also wrote about future events in a style similar to St. John’s Revelation. He predicted the passing of power from the Babylonian Empire, to the Persian Empire, to the Greek Empire under Alexander the Great, and then to the Roman Empire.
He also foretold the coming of the Messiah, and said that “the abomination of desolation” would occur sometime after the Lord’s death. Then “the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary,” he wrote. “Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate” (Dan. 9:26-27).
These terrifying events are what Jesus now warned His disciples about. These things would come to pass, and sooner than they expected. His death was not far off at this point, which meant that the clock was ticking in Jerusalem. Awful terror and destruction were coming. I can imagine how the opponents of Jesus would have mocked Him if they heard what Jesus said. “The temple destroyed? Flee Jerusalem? You’re crazy!” This is probably what the unbelieving world thinks whenever we confess that Jesus is coming again to judge the living and the dead. “You think a God is coming down from the sky to judge us? You’re crazy!”
This will always be the response when people hear something they can’t make sense of or don’t want to face. They will simply ignore it and mock those who tell it. It happened in the days of Noah when he and his sons were building the Ark. For 120 years, they wore themselves out putting a boat together in the middle of nowhere, while their neighbors made fun of them, partied, and pursued their own plans and dreams. But then the rains fell and kept falling. The prophet Jeremiah told the Israelites that Jerusalem would be destroyed if they did not repent, and false teachers contradicted him telling the people, “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine. There is peace!” But then the Babylonian army overwhelmed the city and enslaved the Israelites.
In the same way, people ignore the Word of God today and carry on as though they will never have to give an account of their actions before God. But they are wrong. Every person must “appear before the judgment seat of Christ,” and every person must answer for “what he has done in the body” (2Cor. 5:10). That is an uncomfortable thought. Our sins are so numerous and pervasive. We have not even come close to the righteousness that God requires.
But Jesus will not judge you and me on the basis of our sins. He will judge us on the basis of His righteousness. He clothed us in His righteousness at our baptisms, and He keeps us in His righteousness by sustaining our faith. We have not earned this holiness; we do not deserve it. It is ours by the free gift of God, given to us by grace.
Naturally, the devil and our old Adam will do everything they can to pull us away from the certainly of God’s grace, and to focus us on the uncertainty of our own efforts. Or they may tempt us to take advantage of the gift, so that we have no real desire to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus. “If Jesus forgives my sins and judges me by His righteousness,” we think, “then I can do whatever I want. After all, salvation does not depend on me!”
But just because your purse is yours and your wallet is yours, can you just leave it anywhere you want in a big city and expect it will remain yours? No, in fact there is an excellent chance you will lose it! If you set your faith aside, so that you can fit in with the world—doing what it does, thinking how it thinks—, there is an excellent chance that you will forget where your faith resides, and why you need it in the first place. If you have ever seen a Christian stop being a Christian, then you should know that the same thing can happen to you.
This is one of the things Jesus warned His disciples about in today’s text. He told them, “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There He is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” The Greek text says “pseudochristoi—pseudo-christs,” and “pseudoprophetai—pseudo-prophets.” Pseudo-christs and pseudo-prophets are anyone who say they hold the key to your happiness, your success, your personal fulfillment, and your future. “I will give you everything you desire,” they promise. “I will fulfill your needs. All it takes is a bit of dishonesty. All it takes is a little secrecy. All it takes is a money transfer. And then everything will be yours.”
That is how the devil destroys faith. He does not go for it all at once. He picks away at it. He convinces you that the sin you are caught up in is actually a good thing. It is justifiable. Other people in your shoes would make the same decision. Nothing to worry about. He also gets you to think that you can deal with sin later; there’s plenty of time – what’s the rush? But that’s a lie too. You might live for 50 more years, or you might not. The Last Day might be a long way off, but are you willing to bet on it? Jesus said, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Mt. 24:44).
We are living in the end times, and we should not forget it. While Jesus was foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem, He was also looking ahead to the Day of Judgment. Think of it like a camera lens. With the focus on Jerusalem’s pending destruction, everything in the background looked blurry. But once the prophecy about Jerusalem was fulfilled, Jesus’ predictions about the end times come into sharper focus. That’s where we are now, because the destruction of Jerusalem happened long ago. In A. D. 70, the Romans broke through the walls of Jerusalem following a several month siege. To demonstrate that their victory was complete, the Romans tore the beautiful temple to pieces and left no one stone upon another.
But in one of the more fascinating footnotes in history, the Christians escaped the horrible destruction in Jerusalem. How? When they heard the Roman army was on the march, they did not seek shelter inside Jerusalem’s great walls; they fled to a little town called Pella. They believed Jesus’ words, and the Lord mercifully spared them.
It may seem to you that the armies of the devil and the world are closing in. There are constant reports of wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes, and increasing lawlessness in the world. But the Lord has not forgotten about you. He knows how vulnerable you feel. He sees how you struggle with temptation and sin. “Trust in Me,” He says. “I will not let you down. My Word is true.” As the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah says, “the LORD has comforted His people and will have compassion on His afflicted” (49:13). He comforts you with the message of sins forgiven in Christ and of eternal life won for you. Your cares and struggles are ever before Him. He says, “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of My hands” (v. 16).
By faith in Jesus, you belong to the Jerusalem that will not be destroyed, the heavenly Jerusalem. Its walls cannot be breached because they are defended by the mighty God. Its citizens cannot be overcome by the enemy, because they reside in the presence of their gracious Lord. His holiness covers them. His blood cleanses them. His Word keeps them from harm. The Lord Has Mercy on His People—on you!—and His mercy endures forever.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
+ + +
The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 17:11-19
In Christ Jesus, to whom belongs “blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might… forever and ever” (Rev. 7:12), dear fellow redeemed:
Whether you are a father or a mother, a son or a daughter, an employer or an employee; whether you are a prince or a peasant; whether you are young or old—if someone kindly gives you something or does something for you, two words are expected in response. They are not hard to remember or hard to say. They are the words, “Thank you.” These simple words do not look like much at face value, but they have a tremendous effect. They show a person that you recognize their kind deed, and that you appreciate them.
These words are so common in our vocabulary, that our ears might hardly hear them when they are spoken to us. But the absence of these words is a message heard loud and clear. As easily as we might shrug off a thank you, it is much more difficult to forget ingratitude. When we have gone out of our way to help someone, and they don’t acknowledge our sacrifice, we feel used and insulted. We won’t be so ready to help that person again, THANK YOU VERY MUCH! So in some way, we understand what our God and Lord puts up with every minute of every day.
What good thing do you have that was not ultimately from God? He gives us exactly what we ask for. He gives us our daily bread, which includes plenty to eat and drink, clothes to wear, a place to live, family and friends to care for us, authorities to protect us, medical professionals to assist us. The heart that beats in our chest is from God, the air that we breathe, the beautiful land we see all around us. And how do we thank Him? We complain when something does not go just the way we want. We wonder why God does not give us better things and more things. We focus so much on what we lack that we fail to see all that we have. How ungrateful!
What does the Lord do about that ungratefulness? I know what I would do. I would take back the good things until everyone learned to appreciate them. Isn’t that what you would do? Let’s say you brought a plate of food or a glass of water to a child, and the child said, “It’s about time! It took you long enough! Why didn’t you bring me more! Why didn’t you fill the glass higher!” What I would do, and I think you might too, is snatch away that plate or glass until the child showed some respect and exhibited a little gratitude. To do anything less is to let him become a spoiled brat.
It’s amazing how quickly children’s attitudes can change when they realize they are in danger of losing good things. Just like that, complaining and whining can give way to ever-so-sweet “pleases” and “thank yous.” But sometimes they need to learn the consequences of ungrateful behavior. They need to learn that ungratefulness is indeed a sin, not only against their parents, but also against God.
Today’s text speaks of this sin. Jesus had just healed ten men of leprosy, a terrible disease of the skin. He had mercy on them just as they asked. And yet only one out of ten came back to thank Him. Their ingratitude did not cause Jesus to take back the healing. He did not lose patience with them. But He did address their selfish behavior with words of condemnation: “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
He could ask the same thing about our response to the blessings He gives us. “I gave you a good job to provide for your family, and all you can do is complain about it?” “I gave you a healthy body and mind, and this is how you put them to use?” “I gave you a God-fearing spouse, and all you can do is pick at little faults?” “I gave you children, and you resent having to raise them?” “I gave you eternal salvation, and all you care about is earthly prosperity?” “Is this how you thank Me?”
Who can argue with these words? Who among us has not ignored the great blessings right in front of us? We are everything God’s law accuses us of being—sinners who deserve the wrath of God. And yet the Lord has taught us to cry out to Him for mercy. We would not do this, if we did not know He was merciful. The lepers believed this about Him too. They had heard how Jesus preached good news, and how He healed the sick and hurting for no charge. They called out to Him, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Whether or not in His state of humiliation Jesus knew how the men would react to their healing, He still helped them. The possibility of future ingratitude did not stop Jesus from showing present mercy. He directed the men to show themselves to the priests, and as they went, they were cleansed, healed. We do not know what happened to these men. Perhaps upon reflection, they realized they let their good fortune cloud their thinking and regretted not coming back to Jesus. Maybe later they became His devoted followers.
Not knowing what God has planned for our neighbor’s future, we should not let ingratitude on one occasion discourage us from showing love to them on another. Perhaps those constant acts of love will chip away at a hardened, calloused heart, and lead one day to repentance and faith by God’s grace. You can probably think of an example of this happening in a marriage. A believer’s love for her unbelieving spouse eventually led him to hear God’s Word and trust in Jesus (1Cor. 7:16). Even the crankiest and most selfish unbeliever is not beyond the heart-changing power of the Holy Spirit.
The same love that God would have us show even to an ungrateful neighbor is the love that God perfectly shows us. He knows very well what we will do with His gifts. We will take them for granted. We will use them for ungodly purposes. We may even despise them like the Israelites despised the manna and quail in the wilderness—the only food they had! But God still gives. He opens His hand and satisfies the desire of every living thing (Ps. 145:16). “[H]e makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt. 5:45).
Beyond that, God even provided for our salvation. He sent His Son to save us when we were His enemies (Rom. 5:10). Jesus deserved a warm welcome from the world of men, but instead received the cold shoulder. He miraculously gave good things, and the people cared more about those temporal things than about Him. Never in history has more ingratitude been shown than how we treated our Savior. Even when He was going to the cross to pay for our sins, all He received in thanks was shame and derision. He said of Himself, “I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people” (Ps. 22:6).
None of us would go even one inch forward on the lonely way Jesus walked. That is because none of us loves like God does. We cannot fathom how He would do so much for those who deserved nothing. We cannot understand how Jesus could say, “Father, forgive them,” while He was being condemned and crucified. But this is our God. He is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6). He has mercy upon those who cry to Him for help, and even upon those who don’t. He does not give to get something in return. He does not bless only when proper gratitude is shown. Like we see in the healing of the ten lepers, He had mercy even on the self-centered.
We sinners should gratefully acknowledge His goodness and grace. We, like the Samaritan, should thank Him – not just with words but with actions too. Our life should be an offering of thanks and praise to Him who has given us all that we need. Because He gives good things by the hands of others, we thank Him in part by thanking our neighbor. God is the one who gives parents to care for their children, friends to encourage one another, and neighbors to help each other. So when we express gratitude and thanks to them, God hears it as gratitude and thanks to Him. And when we fail to give thanks to others due to our selfishness, God sees it as ingratitude towards Him.
For those moments of ingratitude, we fall on our faces at Jesus’ feet, and beg for His mercy. And He gives it as He has done so often in the past. He forgives us for failing to acknowledge His blessings, and He promises to continue to give them. He is pleased with all who trust His Word of grace, as the Samaritan did to whom Jesus said, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” No sins were counted against this man, who praised not himself or his good fortune, but his God who saved him. In the same manner, God counts no sins against you, but says to you, “Rise and go your way,” for you are justified in His sight by faith.
It is no mystery who deserves the thanks and praise of all. It is not we ourselves, but the One who has given us all good things. He deserves our thanks at the dawning and closing of each day and every time in between. And when we are taken to join all the saints and angels in heaven, we will have the opportunity to say “thank you” to God face to face and to sing His eternal praises.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
+ + +
The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 10:23-37
In Christ Jesus, who “loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2), dear fellow redeemed:
Seeing the destruction caused by recent wildfires and hurricanes in our country is heart-breaking. But in the midst of these great difficulties, it is heart-warming to hear stories of neighbors helping neighbors. There are people who spend their days assisting in clean-up efforts in their communities, even though they themselves have lost their homes and possessions. Many others have donated toward relief efforts, with contributions for relief in Texas likely to reach hundreds of millions of dollars. At times like these, reference is often made to “the natural goodness in people.” Others comment that their “faith in humanity” has been restored. In a society sharply divided by political and religious differences, these moments of charity and kindness among neighbors are worth celebrating.
But it is not the good in a person that causes them to do these things. It is God. He is behind all the assistance and charity and love. It is no stretch to say that if God did not put His moral law in every human heart, no trouble, hardship, or pain experienced by my neighbor would cause me to lift a finger to help him. But because God has given this inner law, my conscience tells me that it is not okay to ignore a neighbor in need. It is my moral obligation to help as far as I am able.
If you had to sum up God’s Commandments in one word, that word would be “love.” This is just what Scripture says. It says that “[L]ove is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10). In the first three Commandments, God tells us to love Him, since He is our Creator and Savior. The last seven Commandments are about how His love should be shared with others: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 9).
But who is my neighbor? This is what a lawyer asked Jesus. It is an honest question, and yet the lawyer had ulterior motives. He asked the question, we are told, out of a desire “to justify himself.” He already thought he had fulfilled God’s requirement of love. Jesus answered him with an illustration. He described a man traveling on the road to Jericho (a journey which thankfully is not so treacherous around here). The man was attacked by robbers and left to die.
Along came a priest, one of his countrymen. Surely this “holy man” would help! But turning his eyes away from the dying man, he continued on his way. Another temple worker, a Levite, did the same thing. They acted like he wasn’t even there. Their plans were too important. They would not be delayed. No doubt someone else more qualified than they would come by soon. Perhaps they even calmed their consciences by saying that at least they would pray for this man. So it isn’t as though they did nothing….
There are many reasons we can come up with why we shouldn’t help a neighbor in need. We might tell ourselves that we are in no position to help. Others can provide much better assistance. Besides, I don’t want my neighbor to get comfortable with handouts. He should learn to work harder and help himself. And where was he when I needed help? What goes around comes around….
As logical as these reasons may seem, they are wrong. If I will not show love to my neighbor until it is most convenient, or until he has shown himself worthy of my love, then I probably won’t end up helping him at all. But God commands love for neighbor without any qualifications. Your neighbor, He says, is anyone around you, anyone whose life intersects in some way with yours. Your neighbor is the child who misbehaves and talks back to you. Your neighbor is the boss who unfairly criticizes you. Your neighbor is the teacher who blames you for something your classmate did. Your neighbor is the community member who doesn’t care how his plans affect yours. Jesus tells us to love all our neighbors, even the ones who treat us badly.
But how is that even possible? How can God expect you to “love your enemies” (Mt. 5:44)? A lot depends on the perspective you have toward another. If you imagine that their primary goal in life is to make you feel miserable, and that they are constantly plotting to harm you, it is going to be difficult to have kind thoughts about them. Then your mind will be occupied with revenge, how you might return evil for evil.
But what if the disagreement between two neighbors started with a misunderstanding that could easily be cleared up? What if your neighbor thought you were attacking her before she ever attacked you? And could it be that the unkind words your neighbor directed toward you, were actually the result of other troubles going on in his life? This could help you look at your neighbor not as an enemy, but as someone who needs compassion.
Or maybe it’s true – maybe your neighbor does hate you. This was likely the situation between the man on the road from Jerusalem and the Samaritan who helped him. The Jews and the Samaritans despised each other. The Jews accused the Samaritans of being godless, and the Samaritans accused the Jews of being self-righteous. So how is it that the Samaritan decided to help the man by the side of the road? Well he certainly could not control how the dying man thought about him, but he could control how he thought about the dying man. He decided to be merciful.
This is a picture of Jesus. He found us beaten up by sin, stripped of any righteousness, dying the death we deserved. We were His enemies. We broke His law. But He didn’t wait for us to be worthy of His love. He freely gave it. He had compassion on us. He bound up our sin wounds by taking those stripes on Himself. He brought us spiritual health through His Word and Sacraments, and continues to strengthen us by those same means. He loved even the most undeserving of neighbors, which is what He calls you and me to do as well.
But loving and helping your neighbors does not mean giving them whatever they want. If they want you to join them in promoting or defending sinful behavior, it would be wrong for you to do this. Or if they ask you to give them one of your treasured possessions, or even your home, you do not have to do this. The Lord tells you to be generous and to share, but He does not command you to give away everything you have. Your neighbor is in no way entitled to your property, your possessions, your spouse or children. In fact, God commands us to help our neighbor keep these things.
What you are obligated to do for your neighbor is to help him have what he needs, more than what he wants. And the greatest need your neighbor has is Jesus. You can desire nothing better for your neighbor than that he repents of his sins and believes in Jesus alone as his Savior. This is our greatest treasure. It is our life and comfort and hope. With Jesus, you can stand to lose all of your earthly possessions, because they are only temporary. In Him, you are assured of the riches of heaven, which will never pass away.
But how can you Give Your Neighbor Jesus? There are two main ways, and neither of them works well without the other. The first way to give your neighbors Jesus is to be kind and merciful toward them. Take an interest in their lives. Listen to their problems. Lift them up when they are down. Offer a helping hand. Encourage them. Cheer for them. Call them up or stop by to let them know you are thinking about them. In these ways, you will gain your neighbor’s trust and respect, and you will probably find a friend to help you in your difficulties. When you show love in these ways, you are really sharing God’s love. He is the one working through you. John writes that “if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1Jn. 4:12).
But if your concern for your neighbor goes no further than assisting with physical and emotional needs, you have failed to give the thing that is most needed. Above all else, your neighbor needs to hear the Gospel. This is the second major way to give your neighbor Jesus. Your neighbor needs to know that a loving God watches over her and that He has sent His only Son to redeem her, so that she may live eternally in heaven. All people are dying just like the man by the side of the road. All of them need the salvation and healing that come only through Jesus.
And just as love for your neighbor falls short if you do not take the opportunity to share the Gospel, it also fails if the Gospel message is not accompanied by kind and loving actions. For example, you may have had the experience of a complete stranger approaching you in a store or the mall to ask if you know Jesus as your personal Savior. It is as though the message-bringer is just trying to fulfill a quota. He doesn’t spend the time to get to know you or find out how he can assist you. He just throws the Gospel in your face and hopes it sticks. That approach is rarely if ever effective in bringing about conversion. It turns people off to Christianity.
But when your neighbor has come to know your dedication and care for him, and sees the sacrifices you have made to serve him, he will be much more likely to listen when you share the message of Jesus. This is the outcome Jesus speaks about when He says, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).
This light of love does not always shine brightly in your life. You remember many times that you ignored a neighbor in need. But Jesus does not pass you by, bruised and battered by a guilty conscience. He forgives you for the times that sin and selfishness overcame you. He gives you, His neighbor, exactly what you need, which is His perfect love and His perfect righteousness. With these things as your possession and your motivation, your neighbor will not fail to receive through you good things from God.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
+ + +
The Fourth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 6:36-42
In Christ Jesus, the Merciful, dear fellow redeemed:
Suppose you woke up one day with a special power, but you did not know you had it. The special power is that everyone you meet immediately adopts your attitude. If you are happy, they are happy. If you are kind and gracious, they are kind and gracious. But if you are in a bad mood, they are in a bad mood. If you complain, they complain. If you act self-centered and rude, they act the same way. How much would you enjoy being around others? How pleasant would that be? I suppose it would depend on the day, wouldn’t it? This is a special power you probably are not interested in having.
At the same time, the way you communicate with others does have some effect on the way they communicate with you. If you greet someone warmly, you have a much better chance of a kind response than if you shove them out of your way. If you help and befriend others, they will be much more likely to want to help and befriend you. But “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Lk. 6:31), should not be driven by selfish motives. If a Christian gives primarily so that he might receive, how is that different from the way unbelievers operate?
In today’s text, Jesus talks about what it means to live a godly life. He does not say that our interactions with others should be based on how they treat us. He does not teach us to look out for ourselves above all else. He tells us to love instead of seeking revenge, and to forgive instead of storing up wrongs. Revealing to us the How and the Why, Jesus commands us to “Be Merciful, Even as Your Father Is Merciful.”
“Being merciful” could mean a lot of different things. If I am a parent, it could mean assigning no consequences for bad behavior. If I am a banker, it could mean cancelling all debts. If I run a service organization, it could mean not charging for services rendered. These things would be merciful. But God does not command me to act in these ways. On the contrary, He commands parents to discipline their children, and says that honest work deserves an honest wage.
Jesus speaks here about a godly mercy, which takes its cue from God the Father. This is how you are to be merciful: “even as your Father is merciful.” And how exactly is that? Psalm 103 provides a good summary of this mercy: “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (vv. 8-10). What are the qualities of mercy we see here? The text says that the Lord is compassionate and loving. He does not have a quick temper, but is slow to anger. He is patient and kind. He does not dwell on the sins of mankind, but rather forgives sin.
This is also how the life of God’s children should look. We should have an attitude of compassion and love, looking for opportunities to improve the life of others. We should “turn the other cheek” when we are insulted and attacked. We should not jump to conclusions about people, but have patience with them and help them. We should not store up sins against others, but forgive and forget. That is godly mercy. And it is very hard to carry out.
In fact, by our own efforts, it is impossible. If this came naturally to us, Jesus would not have to talk about it. But He knows how the old Adam operates. The LORD was there at the ugly outbreak of sin. What did Adam do when confronted with his sin? He blamed his wife, and God: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12). Eve played the blame game too. Your old Adam, your sinful nature, can come up with a million reasons why you should not be merciful – “She started it!” “It wasn’t my fault!” “He had it coming!” “They will just throw it back in my face!” What these are, are reasons why I should not have to do the right thing. They are justification for my bad behavior in view of the bad behavior of others.
But the wrongdoing of my neighbor is no excuse for my own wrongdoing. In a sermon on today’s text, Martin Luther said, “I’ll do what a good tree does: Though this year’s fruit is picked and enjoyed by good-for-nothing pickers, a year later it produces another crop of fruit, and doesn’t get upset at all. I will react the same way, be a good tree and bear good fruit; I will not repay one evil with another evil.” A little later he said that even if a prickly person—like a brier bush—scratches a Christian badly, yet “I refuse to become a brier bush because of your actions. I shall, instead, do nothing but good for you when you are in need” (Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. 2, Baker Books, 1996, p. 261). This is how a Christian is merciful even as God the Father is merciful.
But why must a Christian be merciful? Can’t we just leave the dispensing of mercy to God? Well for one thing, Jesus commands that we be merciful. That should be good enough for us. If He tells us to do something, we should do it. But there is another reason to be merciful. This comes from recognizing what we have received from God.
When the people listened to Jesus’ words, including the portion of today’s text, they might have thought He went too far. They would not have liked being called hypocrites for noticing specks in their brother’s eye, while logs were sticking out of their own eyes. But Jesus could say this without a hint of pride or self-righteousness. He was not a smooth-talking preacher like the rich and famous ones we see today, who display a façade of righteousness while carefully concealing their sins. Jesus had nothing to hide. He could talk about logs and specks in eyes, because He is the only one who could see them clearly. You can pull one over on your family, your friends, your co-workers, and your congregation. But you cannot pull one over on God.
God sees everything clearly. He sees the log in your eye. He sees your hypocritical behavior. He knows full well when you have been unmerciful, judgmental, unforgiving, and selfish. But the Lord does not measure back to you in wrath what you have produced in sin. He gives you a generous measure of His grace, “pressed down, shaken together, running over.” He puts it right in your lap through the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments! Why would He do that? Because He is merciful.
He is, as He declared Himself to Moses, “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex. 34:6-7). This is how He looks upon you. This is why He sent Jesus to be your Substitute. He does not judge you by your sinful life, but by the holy life of Jesus. He does not condemn you for your transgressions, because He condemned Jesus in your place.
Like me, you can look back and recall many moments that you picked at the speck in another person’s eye while a log was protruding from yours. In tearing down your neighbors and making them feel pain, you felt a little bit better about yourself. You thought that if you could expose the sin of others, it might somehow make your sin seem less significant, less serious. But the guilt is still there. You know who you are and what you have done. You know the good things you have failed to do.
And yet God still has mercy upon you. He still loves you. All your sins and failures and unkindness He has transferred to His Son, who atoned for them all. Such mercy is so far above us, so strange to our way of thinking. Nothing in the world is like this mercy of God. It cannot be measured. One hymnwriter described God’s love as a “bottomless abyss.” He said, “O Love, Thou bottomless abyss, / My sins are swallowed up in thee! / Covered is my unrighteousness, / Nor spot of guilt remains on me, / While Jesus’ blood, through earth and skies / Mercy, free, boundless mercy! cries” (ELH #499, v. 3).
This other-worldly mercy is what Jesus calls His followers to have toward their neighbors – to love even when love is not returned, to forgive even when no remorse is shown, to be charitable even when help is not deserved. This is how we disciples will be like our Teacher, because this is how He is toward us. An attitude of mercy is not easy to have. We would rather have an attitude of selfishness and revenge. But then we shouldn’t be surprised when the same sinful attitude is reflected back at us. Jesus said, “For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”
This is why we ask the Lord to help us “Be Merciful, Even as [Our] Father Is Merciful.” We want others to see in us the effect of God’s love and kindness. We want them to know that there is hope for the wicked and pardon for guilt. We want them to hear the comforting message that the Father’s mercy is big enough to cover even the greatest sinner, even sinners like you and me.
+ + +
Septuagesima Sunday – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 20:1-16
In Christ Jesus, who repays our sins with a double measure of His grace, dear fellow redeemed:
My first job off the farm was in the frozen and dairy department of a grocery store. This was my first taste of what it was like to work with people who had very different backgrounds than my own. If you have ever been employed somewhere away from home, you know what this is like. You have to figure out how to navigate the personalities and moods of your co-workers while still getting things done together. This is not always so easy. Not all have the same work ethic, the same ability, or the same focus.
It may not be fair to lump workers into broad categories, but certain types do emerge. There are:
- The worriers, who are always fretting about their deadlines and their job security;
- The talkers, who will gladly occupy you, your co-workers, or customers for as long as possible;
- The whiners, who complain about their fellow workers, their pay, and their duties;
- The go-it-alones, who get their work done well enough, but would just as soon avoid any human interaction;
- The lazy, who would be quite productive if only they worked as often as they checked the clock.
- And then there are the rest of us—hard workers, noble-minded, loyal—worth every penny (and probably a bit more).
In truth, there is no such thing as a perfect employee. None of us is perfectly focused and perfectly efficient. We all have our foibles and weaknesses. This is important to keep in mind as we consider Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard.
Imagine if the scenario Jesus described actually played out today. How long do you think it would take the laborers who worked all day to go online and trash the landowner’s business practices? A legal challenge would not be out of the question to address such “wage discrimination.” But the workers receiving significant pay for just an hour of work would be singing a different song. They would be shocked at their good fortune. Some of them would talk about their intentions to pay this kindness forward. Others would see the landowner as an easy target for future windfalls. If a person actually conducted business this way, he probably would not be in business very long.
But this parable, along with Jesus’ other parables, is not meant to be applied in a literal way to earthly matters. Jesus began by saying, “For the kingdom of heaven is like….” So what follows after that statement is not about the earthly realm, but the spiritual one. Jesus is describing how God functions, not how businesses and employers must function. First of all, we see that God communicates clearly. When the master of the house went looking for laborers, he told them what would be required of them and what their reward would be. These laborers agreed to a denarius a day. We also see that God is generous. He was not obligated to give the later workers a denarius each, but He chose to treat everyone the same.
The central thought of this parable is that whether you have been a Christian your entire life, or you become one shortly before your death, you receive the same reward. All believers in Jesus are saved by grace, and not by any works of their own. The Apostle Paul writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). No person can be good enough for God, because God requires perfection. “[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (vv. 23-24). We do not deserve to be among those working in the Master’s vineyard. We should rather have been forgotten in the marketplace of the world, sitting there idle and hopeless.
Still, we cannot help but wonder if this is all entirely fair. As the all-day workers said, “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!” Our natural sensibilities tell us that the longer we endure the heat of the devil’s temptations and the scorn of the world for following Jesus, the greater should be our reward. And Jesus seems to confirm this in His words just prior to today’s text, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mt. 19:29-30). Jesus says He will reward faithfulness, but He also warns us about self-centeredness and pride. If our motivation for living according to God’s Word is simply to get a greater reward someday, what does this have to do with love for God or neighbor?
We should recognize that we deserve no good thing from our Lord. Why among all the unbelievers of the world should the Holy Spirit have worked faith in my heart through the Gospel? Why should I be saved when I have sinned and still sin just as much as anyone? And even if I have worked in the Lord’s vineyard for a long time, who says my work has been done well?
I mentioned before the different types of workers that many of us have known: the worriers, the talkers, the whiners, the go-it-alones, the lazy. As much as they are present in the workplace, they are also present in the Church. You won’t have to look too far into your past to see yourself in each of these types:
- You have been a worrier, fretting about the pressures you feel as a Christian, wondering if God still loves you, having doubts about the future of the church.
- You have been a talker, one who can sound like a world-class Christian, but who does not always back it up with the kind of righteous life that God requires.
- You have been a whiner, who complains about your fellow Christians, about your lot in life, and about your God-given responsibilities.
- You have been a go-it-alone, one who looks out for yourself and has little interest in the needs of others.
- You have been lazy, letting the good tools of the Christian trade sit unused—God’s Word and Sacraments—, which equip you to carry out the tasks you have been assigned.
But despite your distinction as an unworthy worker, you still get a denarius. You still get a reward. Jesus opens His chest of holy treasurers and shares His riches with you—His forgiveness, His righteousness, His life. Jesus was not a worrier; He obeyed His Father’s will and did what He was sent to do. He was not a mere talker; He backed up His promises with a perfect life and a sacrificial death. He was not a whiner; He said, “[Father,] not my will, but yours, be done” (Lk. 22:42). He went to the cross alone but not for selfish purposes; He suffered alone for the sins of all people. And He certainly was not lazy; besides winning your salvation, He also actively rules over the world and the Church for your well-being.
Jesus willingly bore “the burden of the day and the scorching heat” for you. His reward for His perfect keeping of the law and His innocent suffering was God’s wrath. If anyone has been compensated unfairly, it is Jesus. But His compensation was not for His failures on the job, it was for yours. Your weak efforts and idle behavior, whether in the home, the workplace, the church, or the community, all these failures were laid upon Jesus. He received the wages of your sin. He was given the payment of your death. Everything you earned was assessed to Him, and everything He earned was assessed to you.
All that was lacking in your spiritual resume was filled in by the work of Jesus. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” But that does not mean there is no work for you to do. The next verse in Ephesians says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” The Master has work for you whether you are enlisted at the first hour, the third, the sixth, the ninth, or even the eleventh hour. There are people to pray for. There are neighbors to love.
This is work that you can do cheerfully, knowing that in Christ, your reward is already secure. As Paul wrote to the Colossians, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (3:23-24). You serve your Master Jesus, the One who gave Himself up for you. He is not harsh but is patient and kind, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2Pe. 3:9). And when evening falls on the vineyard, the reward—the denarius—is the inheritance of eternal life that He obtained and gives to each one of us.
The Master Is Merciful to Unworthy Workers. Seeing what Jesus accomplished for us, we have no reason to envy one another in our work or to consider ourselves better than others. Everything is by grace. This is why we humbly count ourselves as the last, as the ones who merit nothing good. It is Jesus who calls us to the front of the line and presses into our hands the great riches of His grace.
+ + +