Baptism Means Being United with Christ

Sermon on Romans 6:1-11 for the Baptism of Our Lord, January 11 & 14, 2018

  1. Maybe you’ve had this thought when hunting or fishing, or maybe when you really wanted to borrow something: “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to ask permission.” That’s a saying that’s been around—and I think it should be banned because of the impact it may have on our thinking about our Christian lives. St. Paul asks much the same question: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? (that is, we can sin all we want, live selfish lives, indulge our desires, and get forgiven later.) By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” To that way of thinking, Paul says, “By no means.” “Absolutely not.” Remember who you belong to! Remember the connection that God himself made to you! When we were baptized into Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. That means, in baptism, Jesus and his death and everything that means was connected to us. John the Baptist was talking about that when he pointed to Jesus and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:28). The word “lamb” meant “one that would be sacrificed.” The purpose of that sacrifice was to take away the sin of the world. Long before Jesus’ death, John was preaching about it, and what it would do. In baptism, we are freed from sin, not freed to sin. Forgiveness is pardon from God himself. It doesn’t make the sin okay. It declares that God has taken the sin away and looks at you as his own. We are baptized into his death, that is, connected to his death, and to everything his death means. Forgiveness. When we look at our life—deeply and honestly, we see mistakes, failures, and worst of all, failures to do what our God wants. Baptism says, you have that blood of the Lamb of God covering you. When you feel guilty, remember, Jesus took that guilt. When you feel worthless, remember, Jesus has given you a much higher worth by purchasing you with his own blood to be his own. When you feel alone in the world, remember what your baptism means. You are clothed in the righteousness of Christ, along with all Christians of all time—part of God’s family.
  2. If we look at baptism or at forgiveness in general as a license to do as we please, we are taking the precious gift of God and giving it the lowest value. And practically, as it works out in our lives, it usually means that we walk away from the freedom God gives with his forgiveness, and walk back to sin, guilt, and the pain sin brings to our lives. Worst of all, we’re stepping outside the limits of God’s grace. Now God’s mercy endures forever. His grace is infinite. The opportunities he gives us are not infinite. That’s why all of scripture talks about God’s grace also with urgency. “Seek the Lord while he may be found” (Isaiah 55:6). “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). St. Paul says it in a more positive way. “We died to sin. How can we live in it any longer.” “Our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with,[a]that we should no longer be slaves to sin.”
  3. So with Christ, we die to sin. Our sin went with him to the cross where he paid for it all so that we could be forgiven and free. You know that the death on the cross was not the end for Jesus. His death on Good Friday was followed by resurrection on Easter. We are connected with him there, too—doubly. St. Paul says, “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Those bright Easter Alleluias and trumpet blasts are for you and me, too. Because we are baptized into Christ, we’re baptized into his resurrection, too. One Easter hymn says “Could the head rise and leave his members dead?” (CW 167:2). He is the one who said “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11).
  4. We are connected to Jesus and to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. But we have something even now in this life. Again, St. Paul says, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” That means that new life is yours now. In our Catechism, this passage is connected to “What does Baptizing with Water Mean?” “Baptism means that the sinful nature in us should be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance, and all its evil deeds and desires be put to death.” So when you wake up in the morning and pray, “Keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doings and life may please you…” …you are reliving your baptism. When you go to bed at night and pray, “Forgive us our trespasses,” or “Forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong,” review your failures of the day and put them at the Lord’s feet, you are reliving your baptism. Forgiveness is yours because of him. It’s connected to you in baptism.
  5. The power to live as a child of God is not yours alone—that it comes from within you. If it did we would sputter and stop like a car running out of gas. And that’s exactly why that happens sometimes. The Christian’s life and the Christian’s faith are like a car—we need fuel in the tank. It doesn’t self-generate. The words and promises of God are our fuel. And we are connected to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His gospel promise and the message of his victory over sin, death and the devil—that is our power for life, because it tells us who we are (children of God). It tells us what our purpose is (that we live to serve and glorify him in this world). It tells us where we are going (we are heirs of heaven). That is our fuel for faith and life and our power for living.
  6. This lesson closes, “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Many times in the Bible we see words like “life” and “death” used to talk about a connection. Think back to Genesis 3—“The day you eat from the tree you will surely die.” They didn’t fall over dead. The apples weren’t poisoned. But they died to God, and the holy image of God in them died—and we’ve been suffering from that separation ever since. In Baptism, God reconnects us to himself. He does it through the holy life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He clothes us with Christ and counts us as his own. Worthless, wretched sinners no more, but redeemed children, washed and cleansed, bearing his name before the world. Living in him—with the hope of living in his presence forever.


Romans 6:1-11

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with,[a] that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  (NIV 2011)


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It’s About Time

Sermon on Psalm 90 for New Year’s Eve December 31, 2017

  1. Psalm 90 is the New Year’s Eve Psalm because it has so many words that reflect on time. I could read a list of them, but it would be about like reading the whole psalm again. It was written by Moses, somebody who had seen a lot of time pass, and as the leader of Israel, he was aware of what it means that time passes. The book of Numbers tells us that there were 600,000 men who could fight in an army when they left Egypt. So some multiplication for women and children would give us a population of over 2,000,000. How many funerals a day for a city that size? And the trip from Egypt to the promised land, which should have taken a few months, was extended to forty years so that a disobedient generation would die off, and their children could inherit the land. So Moses saw some time pass, and he saw many people pass, too. He knew what the passage of time meant.
  2. Now we can measure time precisely. We have atomic clocks. All our cell phones are synchronized to the atomic clocks to keep accurate record of our calls and for global positioning for map programs. But the precision is irrelevant, really. Time still passes. Now we have fanciful ideas about time. There were the Back to the Future Star Trek had several episodes and a movie about time travel. Still, with all the precision and imaginative thinking, there is something that we will never understand—at least in this life we will never understand it. We will never understand eternity. Moses describes eternity as best he can. He said God endures “throughout all generations.” “From everlasting to everlasting you are God.” “A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by.” God is eternal. Time doesn’t pass for him the way it does for us. He doesn’t change with the passage of time. Artists depict God as an aged man with a flowing white beard—and I think that’s more confusing than helping. He is forever new and forever old. He is beyond time. His name Yahweh or Jehovah means the same as “I am who I am.” Maker of all, mover of all. Independent of anyone or anything. Unchanging—especially in his love and faithfulness. That’s what it means that God is unbounded by time.
  3. And what about us, within the bounds of time? Moses reflects on that, too—that’s his main theme in the psalm. “You turn people back to dust, saying “Return to dust, you sons of men.” … “You sweep people away in the sleep of death—they are like the new grass of the morning: in the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered.” There is a reason why time has such a horrible effect on us. St. Paul said it in words you know well, “The wages of sin is death.” Moses says it here, too. “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.” Because of sin, God sets a limit to our lives. I think Moses is describing the high end of life expectancy at his time when he says “The length of our days is seventy years or eighty, if we have the strength.” In our time, we see that extended about ten or twenty years. The length of our days is eighty years or ninety if we have the strength. Some even make it to one hundred. But what still happens? Death. “our days are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.”
  4. So we look at time, life and death, and we’re bound to ask, “Is that all there is?” If so, that’s pretty grim—like King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, writing “Everything is meaningless—a chasing after the wind.” But there’s more to the meaning of life than its shortness. Moses tells us this in his psalm. “Relent, Lord! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants. 14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. 15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble. 16 May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children. 17 May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us.” Here Moses tells us that the time we have, we have because of God’s compassion and unfailing love. Those are other words for grace, aren’t they? God gives us time, shows compassion and unfailing love to us. He gives us time so that we will seek him and find him (See Acts 17:27). And to help us find him, he has given us his written word so we will know clearly that we have a creator, so we will know what he expects of us—and so we will know that he is a gracious God and Savior who forgives sins.
  5. Our Savior, Jesus Christ, was born in time. That’s as mind boggling as the infinite God taking the size of a baby and being wrapped in swaddling clothes. God, who is unbounded by time, has a birthday. We just celebrated it. The God who is eternal and who does not change grows in wisdom and stature. St. John begins his gospel with these words, “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us. We have seen his glory, the glory he has as the only-begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.… No one has ever seen God. The only-begotten Son, who is close to the Father’s side, has made him known” (John 1:14, 18). This is why God gives us time. This is why God gives us his Word. So that we will know that there is more than just a short life with a death at the end of it. So we will know there is a Savior who says, “I am the resurrection and the life… Do not let your heart be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you. I am going to prepare a place for you.” (John 11:25; 14:1-2). That is our gladness in affliction and trouble. That is the kindness of the Lord that rests upon us. People in the Old Testament waited for fulfillment in Christ. We have the fulfillment, but look forward with hope, even when we see death around us. We know our God has something more for us.
  6. Moses prays, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” It’s unwise to say, “Death is just a part of living.” That ignores the reason why we die and death’s connection to sin. It is unwise to say at a funeral, “He or she lived a good long life,” because that looks only at the earthly time that has been given. “Life is short—but each day is a gift of God’s grace.” “Life is full of misery and death—but God is still gracious and still gives us joys from day to day.” “Make use of the time God gives you—especially as you learn about him, serve him, and help your neighbor.” “Life is short—but eternity follows, and it’s yours because of his grace in Christ.” That’s the kind of wisdom our God gives as we consider time. So whatever happens in 2018, you’re prepared. There will surely be some surprises in the next year. But you know your gracious God. You know his compassion and patience. “May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us.” May he use our work to his glory.



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Mary: A Favored, Blessed, Believing Servant


Sermon on Luke 1:26-38 for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 21 & 24, 2017


  1. We Lutherans don’t usually say too much about Mary, and I’m sure that it is because there is another Christian denomination that has a habit of saying way too much about her—even praying to her and calling her the queen of heaven. But the extreme of saying nothing about her isn’t good either. The Bible does tell us, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Carefully consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). Mary is certainly someone who “spoke the word of God to us.” She said, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior,… He has brought down rulers from their thrones. He has lifted up the lowly. … He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever” (Luke 1:46-55). Her song was the basis for our devotions at our Advent service in Juneau a few weeks ago. And what she does and says in today’s Gospel is also very important—a big deal. She is someone for us to take note of and an example for us to follow.
  2. First, we note how the angel greets her. “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” If you remember your English grammar, you’d recognize favored as a passive verb. That means that it is not talking about something the subject is doing, but about something that is being done to the subject. “You are favored” means someone else is doing the favoring. The translation “full of grace” is an unfortunate one. The Greek word is κεχαριτωμένη, does have the root word of grace in it, but someone else is doing the favoring. Someone else is pouring out the grace. God is the One who is favoring. God is the One who is pouring out grace. What do we know about grace? What definition have we learned? Undeserved This is something Mary also knew. She said, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” When God calls someone to follow—the reason is his grace. When God calls someone to do a special task—the reason for that is his grace, too. St. Paul remarks on that many times in his letters when he says “By the grace of God given to me.” “By the grace of God given to you.” (See Romans 12:3, Romans 15:15, 1 Corinthians 1:4, 1 Corinthians 3:10, 2 Corinthians 8:1, 2 Corinthians 9:14, Ephesians 3:2, Ephesians 3:7) Those God calls with his gospel have God’s grace poured out on them. Those God calls to do special work have even more grace poured out on them. God doesn’t choose us or choose us to do his work because of anything in us, but because of everything in him. That was true of Mary, a sinful, mortal, great-great-granddaughter of Adam and Eve who also needed God to be her gracious Savior.
  3. “Blessed are you among women.” “Blessed” is a word much like favored. It also is passive. It also means Someone else is doing the blessing. “Blessed” means that you are receiving some gift from God. Mary was blessed in many ways. She was given special work to do, to bear Immanuel, Jesus Christ, who would be the Savior of the world. Everything we read in the gospels, she saw. The gospel of Luke is based on many of the things Mary “pondered in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51) Jesus did turn that thought around, though. Once, when he was teaching, someone in the crowd shouted, “Blessed is the womb that carried you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” And he replied, “Even more blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:27-29). By that he was saying that a family connection is good, but taking his Word to heart is even better. Because we read and hear the same things Mary saw and pondered in her heart, we are blessed, too.
  4. And we know that Mary did take the word of God to heart. The angel told her this: “Do not be afraid, Mary, because you have found favor with God. Listen, you will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.” The fullness of time has come (Galatians 4:4), and Mary sees that she is at the center of it all. How would you respond when given a job like this? (And no one else has been given a job like this!) Earlier in Luke chapter 1, Zechariah was told that he and his wife would be the parents of the forerunner, John the Baptist, and Zechariah responded, “How can I be sure of this, because I am an old man, and my wife is well along in years?” (Luke 1:18) For Mary, it would be even more impossible because she was an unmarried virgin. But Mary’s response was not like Zechariah’s. She didn’t say “I’m not sure of this,” but instead she responded in faith. “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” “How will this be” means, “I know this will be… tell me how.” “I know how biology works. How is God going to work his way around it?”
  5. The angel’s answer focuses on one thing: the power of God. He doesn’t get technical. He simply points her to the power of God. “The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Listen, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age even though she was called barren, and this is her sixth month. 37 For nothing will be impossible for God.” The power of God. Nothing in you. Everything in him. And that’s our answer, too. Because we are called by the grace of God, we are upheld by the power of God. How will you do what you need to do? How will you remain faithful in my calling, whatever it may be? The answer is ‘the power of God.’ When you are sick—laying on your back in a hospital bed—the thoughts fill your mind, “Will I get better? And what if I don’t?” If you get better, that will be by the power of God, and if you don’t, the power of God will bring you home to heaven. When you are dragging, and even stumbling in your life of faith—the thoughts fill your mind, “Should I just give up? How can I get out of this dead end?” The answer is ‘The power of God.’ Specifically the power of his Word that assures you and empowers you as a child of God. It empowers you by showing you the same power of God that brought the infinite God to be a six pound, eight-ounce bundle of joy wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a donkey’s feeding trough. It shows you the same power of God that bore the sins of the whole world on a wooden cross and was held there, not by nails, but by the love that wanted you to be his own. This power of God, this gospel power of God is what opened Mary’s heart and empowered her. And it is what opens our hearts and empowers us.
  6. Empowers us for what? Empower sounds like putting gas in the tank, and that’s exactly what it is. The gospel is our fuel. Without it, we sputter and stop. With it, we go. And we see Mary ready to go. What does she say at the end of the angel’s visit? “I am the Lord’s servant. May it happen to me as you have said.” Servant is a loaded word. It’s a word that describes a person who has a purpose, ready to serve, ready to work. “I am the Lord’s servant.” That means, “It’s not about me. It’s all about what God and what he wants me to do.” Don’t we get that turned around? Especially in our prayer life? God is not like “the Force” in the Star Wars movies, there when you need it, ready to respond to your command, but not really caring about good or evil. No. God is the King, the Sovereign, the Savior, the one you are dependent on, and the one you are here to serve. Being a servant of the Lord gives your life purpose. Serving yourself always leaves you empty. King Solomon learned that, and that’s what his book of Ecclesiastes is all about. “Meaningless, chasing after the wind.” But as a favored, blessed, believing servant, Mary had a purpose, a great purpose. Connected to Christ, favored and blessed by him, we have a great purpose, too. To glorify God and to serve one another in love. And instead of thinking, “What about me? When will someone serve me?” We will find ourselves even more blessed when we reflect and give what we have been given by our gracious, favoring, forgiving God through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee named Nazareth, 27to a virgin pledged in marriage to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women.”  29But she was greatly troubled by the statement and was wondering what kind of greeting this could be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, because you have found favor with God. 31Listen, you will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.”  34Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”  35The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36Listen, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age even though she was called barren, and this is her sixth month. 37For nothing will be impossible for God.”  38Then Mary said, “See, I am the Lord’s servant. May it happen to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (EHV)


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“Magnify” Devotion on Luke 1:46b-49 

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior,
because he has looked with favor on the humble state of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed,
because the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

What happens when you look through the wrong end of a telescope? First, it makes everything look very small. Second, it limits your field of vision to a very small circle.  It doesn’t give you a true view of the world you are looking at. Flip it around and look through it the right way, and you see things as they are–and because it’s a telescope, you can see things bigger with more detail.

What happens when we ‘magnify’ ourselves. Everyone and everything else looks very small, and your view of the world becomes very narrow. It isn’t a true view of the world. This is a terrible problem with our human nature–and we all have it. Our sinful nature or our flesh is always focused inward. “What’s in it for me?” “What’s to my benefit?” “How can I serve myself?” And if you are thinking, “Oh, not me. I’m not that bad.” Think of what you do when nobody’s looking. Think of the thoughts that you alone know–especially the thoughts about other people. If those thoughts make certain people look dark, small, unimportant compared to you, then you’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Then you’re magnifying yourself.

In her song, the Magnificat, Mary has the true view of things. She begins, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” Sometimes that is translated as “My soul magnifies the Lord” or “My soul glorifies the Lord.” It all means the same thing. “I see the Lord as the biggest thing, the greatest, the most important.” And she has a true view of herself. “[God] has looked with favor on the humble state of his servant.” Servant! That word is a loaded word, isn’t it. A servant knows his or her place. A servant has a purpose… to serve. Especially in her relationship with God, she knows her place–and she acknowledges his grace to her. “He has looked with favor on the humble state of his servant.” She looks at everything she has, everything she has received, everything she has been promised as God’s gift to her. His “favor.”

Think of your prayer life. Do you ask God or tell him? Does the Holy Spirit have to inexpressibly groan over some of your requests? “God, you’ve got to do this or that.” “Ohhhh!” God is the King. We are his servants. He is not there to serve you and me. We are here to serve him.

But he did serve us. In Philippians, Paul wrote: Indeed, let this attitude be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus. Though he was by nature God, he did not consider equality with God as a prize to be displayed,  but he emptied himself by taking the nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:5-7). Christ, the only Son of God,  God himself coming to be our servant should humble us–just with the awesomeness of the thought: God gave himself for us, even though we were unworthy. That is what gives us any value. Mary knew this, too. “My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” 

She does talk about herself. She does talk about something like fame. But even then, where does she put the focus? “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed, because the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” This is what she is saying: “Look at what God has done. Look at his grace to the world. Look at his grace to me. Look at the Mighty One!” “Holy is his name.”  Praise, magnify and thank him. Serve him as servants who follow Christ the servant. Look at yourselves as people who have been lifted up and who have received his great, amazing grace.


Come to St. John’s in Juneau Wednesday, December 6 at 6:30 p.m. to hear devotional thoughts on the rest of the Magnificat!

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About Advent

The word Advent  means “coming.” Advent has been a time in the Church’s calendar to remember the Old Testament believers’ expectation of Christ’s coming, and for us to look forward to his second coming. Advent is not to prepare us for the birth of Christ (an event that happened 2000 years ago). It is to prepare us for the celebration and remembrance of his birth.

Christians have been celebrating Advent since the 300s. At first, some congregations celebrated a six week Advent. Most celebrated a four week Advent, as is the custom today.

Advent is not a penitential season like Lent; we still sing “Alleluias.” Advent is more a season of hope, expectation and anticipation.

One of the traditions of Advent is the “Advent Wreath.” The four candle wreath comes to us from Scandinavia. There are at least a half dozen different explanations for what the candles represent. One widely accepted explanation corresponds to the Sunday lesson themes in Advent.

  • 1st Sunday — Readiness. Jesus will come again. He urges us to be ready for his sudden and unexpected coming.
  • 2nd Sunday — Repentance. John the Baptist cries in the wilderness, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” John prepared the people for Jesus’ coming by preaching repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
  • 3rd Sunday — Rejoicing. Jesus is the one who fulfills all of God’s promises. We rejoice that the Promised One is finally here. Many use a pink candle on the third Sunday of Advent to symbolize joy.
  • 4th Sunday — Revelation. God reveals himself as the Son of Man, born of the virgin Mary.

Many churches use blue as the liturgical color of Advent. That tradition also comes from Scandinavia. Blue is the color of heaven, and symbolizes hope and anticipation. An alternate color for Advent is purple. Purple is the color of royalty, since in ancient times purple was the most expensive dye to produce. It is an appropriate color for Advent since we remember our coming King. Purple also reminds us of repentance, the theme of the Second Sunday in Advent.

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God Is Faithful

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 for the First Sunday in Advent, November 30 & December 3, 2017

  1. I was a terrible student. Sometimes I tried to absorb what was going on in class and then just wing it on a test, or other times, I would just go along in the class for the ride, and then panic or cram at test time. Neither of those is good preparation. What does it mean to be prepared? Well, preparation is something you can’t really do at the last minute. Jesus’ parable of the ten bridesmaids teaches us that. You have to keep your lamps burning with extra oil in case the bridegroom is late. It’ll be hard to buy oil at midnight—Jesus point there was that you can’t get faith at the last minute. The Christian life is just that—life, and a way of life, devoted to the Word about Christ and growing in it. A phrase from Romans that Luther loved was “The righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:17). We often emphasize faith is what is accounted to us as righteousness, yes. But also, we live by faith. We live and act with the righteousness that God has given to us.
  2. Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, and was writing about being prepared—prepared to live a life of faith and prepared for the day Christ calls us out of this world—at the end of our lives or at the end of the world. The church in Corinth has many problems—and because Paul was setting out to prepare them in faith, he would have a hard task ahead of him. The church in Corinth was divided. They were divided because they played favorites with their preachers: not just “Paul is our favorite” or “Peter is our favorite,” but it was an unfriendly rivalry. “Our guy is great. Your guy is rotten, and you’re rotten if you follow him. You’re a lesser Christian or not as strong in faith if you follow your guy.” And then they were divided more—some thought they had special spiritual gifts. Some thought they had the gift of prophecy. Some thought they had the gift of speaking in tongues, languages they hadn’t learned, like the Spirit gave on Pentecost. It’s good to have gifts. It’s bad to despise those who don’t have the same gifts as you. It’s bad to despise those you don’t think are gifted. And then they were divided again—much like divisions we see among Christians today. Some thought “We’re progressive and in touch with our culture. See how accepting we are.” And they were accepting of sin. How would Paul even begin prepare people in faith when they have divisions like that?
  3. He does it by taking the focus off the divisions, off of the people, off of their favorite subjects that divided them. He begins the way we often begin sermons: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!” He doesn’t say, “What a bunch of bums you are! Can’t you ever shape up?” No. He puts the focus on God, on our faithful God. “Grace to you and peace from God.” They were lacking in grace and peace. And in case they missed it, he says it again: “I always thank my God for you because of the grace of God given to you in Christ Jesus.” The focus is not on the Corinthians—troubled Corinthians. The focus is not on their divisions—many divisions and many problems. “I always thank my God for you because of the grace of God given to you in Christ Jesus.” The focus is on God and his love, his grace that is theirs because of Christ Jesus. The focus was not on who they were or what they were doing. It was on what God was making them—his own dear children, and what God was giving them—grace, undeserved love, the purest of pure love.

I. He Enriches Us,

  1. Some of the Corinthians were proud of their spiritual gifts. So Paul tells them about the real gifts—the most important gifts. “You were enriched in [Christ] in every way, in all your speaking and in all your knowledge, because the testimony about Christ was established in you.” He focuses them on Christ—he’s lovingly drawing their attention away from their arguments, “Look at us! We follow the right guy!” and “Look at us! We have special gifts!” He tells them, “Look at you! You have been enriched in Christ! The good things you say and the good things you know you all got from him.”
  2. How do you feel when you receive a gift? Sometimes you open it and you say, “Oh, I’ve always wanted one of these!” Sometimes you open it and maybe you groan, “Oh, one of these things!” Sometimes, if it is a good gift, an exceptional gift, perhaps an expensive gift, you open it and say, “Oh my. I don’t deserve this! Wow!” The gift humbles you. That’s what Paul is doing by telling the Corinthians, “God has enriched you.” They were proud of themselves and their abilities or their own little groups. Paul says, “Let this be your pride. Boast in Christ.”
  3. Among us, and sadly, in our churches we find things to be proud of. One person might say, “My family was one of the founding families of this church!” Another might say “I’ve taught Sunday school for twenty years!” Another might say “I donated that new window.” Those are all fine things. We want people to establish new churches, teach Sunday school and donate windows and other things. These are all good—but none are anywhere near as good as the gifts God has given. It is Christ and his work alone that has brought us into his Holy Christian Church and communion of saints. That is what has made us Christian people. That is what has given us value in God’s kingdom.

II. He Prepares Us.

  1. The first “R” of Advent is Readiness, or as we have it on our banners, Prepare. Paul is thinking of Advent, even though it wasn’t a season that was celebrated at the time. He was thinking about Christ’s second coming. Being prepared for Christ’s coming is his goal and his goal for the Corinthians. It should be our goal, too. Jesus told us “No one knows about that day or our… Watch! Be alert and pray, because you do not know when the time will come.” Even though Jesus tells us “Watch! Be alert and pray,” Paul tells us how we become prepared. “You do not lack any gift as you eagerly wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also keep you strong until the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He has blessed us with his gifts. He will keep us strong to the end.
  2. The old Sunday school song says “We are weak but he is strong.”[1] Scripture tells us that we are dead in sin. On our own, we can’t prepare ourselves—God himself prepares us. He puts his Word in our hearts. Sometimes it seems he leads us to go places and do things we thought we never could do. That’s because he is working in us. Our broken human nature can resist the work God wants to do in us. He keeps working on us. He began his work in us. He wants to finish it. We need to get out of his way—keep listening, keep praying, keep alert as we look at the world around us—and let him prepare us.

III. He Has Called Us.

  1. One self-help book says “begin with the end in mind.” [2] Paul ends where I think most of us would start. “God is faithful, who called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.” “[God] called you.” He ends with the beginning in mind because he is thinking about God’s faithfulness. Faithfulness means constancy. When we’re talking about God’s faithfulness, we have to also remember his nature—eternal and unchanging and abounding in steadfast love. Calling, election and predestination are a great mystery to us. Why would God choose any broken, sinful human being? It’s because of his grace. Because of his faithful love. He chose us to be his own because that’s what he promised to do.
  2. God called you at the beginning of your life of faith, whether it was with the water and Spirit of Baptism or whether it was from hearing the Word. For some of us the call was renewed when we went through some hard experience that got our attention and drove us back to him. God who is faithful called you at the beginning will be faithful to the end. He will strengthen. He will preserve. He will move you and me. Open your hearts. Follow where he leads. Listen to his call. God is faithful. There is nothing uncertain about him.


1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! 4I always thank my God for you because of the grace of God given to you in Christ Jesus. 5You were enriched in him in every way, in all your speaking and all your knowledge, 6because the testimony about Christ was established in you. 7As a result you do not lack any gift as you eagerly wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also keep you strong until the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful, who called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. (EHV)


[1] Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.

[2] Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

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Liturgical Worship

I was recently asked to write a short explanation of the value of liturgical worship. 

In the Apostles’ Creed, we recite the grace of God as seen in creation, in the life, death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ, and in the work of the Holy Spirit in the church. In liturgical worship, Sunday by Sunday we repeat these truths in Word and song, in teaching, preaching, praying and singing. We use some of the same words week to week to impress these truths on our hearts and minds and teach them to our children, as Scripture tells us to do (Deuteronomy 11:18-18, Colossians 3:16).

In the course of the year, we also recall the life of Christ. From Advent through the Easter Season, we remember the events of his life and work. In the “ordinary time” or “time after Pentecost,” we focus on the teaching of Christ and it’s application in the life of the Christian. Near the end of the year we focus on how our God calls us to be good stewards of the gifts he has given us, and we anticipate the end of all things and the rule of Christ our King.

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A Peek at Heaven

Sermon on Revelation 7:9-17 for Saints Triumphant, November 16 & 19, 2017

On Saint’s Triumphant Sunday, our thoughts turn to heaven and to the people we love who are there, who see Jesus face to face. Usually at funerals, people say things that reveal their thoughts about heaven. People mean well. I know that. And on sad occasions, sometimes people feel like they have to say something. I’m not sure some of these comments are in line with the truth of Scripture. “Grandma’s looking down on you every day.” I think if my Grandmother was looking down on me, heaven would be much less blissful for her. She’d be thinking, “Why is he doing this? Why is he doing that? That yellow car is too flashy for a preacher to drive!” Or sometimes we imagine our departed loved ones or ourselves doing our favorite things, only bigger, better, without any hindrances. “Imagine the quilt Grandma is making in heaven!”  There may be something to this—today’s lesson says “We will serve him day and night in his temple.”  We will have something to do—whatever our Lord and Savior wants us to do. And that will be our delight.

I. Who is in the center?

  1. Revelation is a great mystery—mostly because of the fantastic word pictures that depict the dangers for God’s people in the end times and Christ’s triumph over all. This section from Revelation 7 gives us a peek at heaven. Parts of this are symbolic. “Clothed in white,” means we wear the righteousness of Jesus, since the garments are “washed in the blood of the Lamb.” Holding palm branches makes us think of Palm Sunday—a triumphal procession, a celebration of victory—here, the eternal victory we share with Christ. Parts of this description are more direct. “A multitude… from every nation, tribe, people and language.” That’s not a word-picture, is it? That is describing what will be. “Those who are coming out of the great tribulation…” Every saint who goes from earth to heaven goes from tribulation to bliss.
  2. And what this says about the center of our worship is no symbol. Everyone is shown standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb. They all fall down in worship. Jesus, the Lamb, is at the center of everything. Not Grandma and her heavenly quilt. Not you or me doing our favorite things without any setbacks. No. Jesus. Our Savior and Redeemer. The one who washed our robes and made us pure with his own blood.
  3. Our earthly worship, at its best, is a foreshadowing of the heavenly worship. On Christmas Eve, what is the center of our worship? Isn’t it the manger? On Easter Morning what is the center of our worship? The word about the empty tomb—in our church we display a cross with a white cloth draped around it—to say, “He is not here. He is risen.” And week to week, Jesus is the center, too. He’s at the center when we come to him on our knees, saying, “Forgive me, Lord,” and “Lord, have mercy.” He’s the center of our praise. “You alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father.” His own words, the Gospel, are what set the topic for every worship service.
  4. What happens when we become the center of our worship? Nothing good. When we become the center of our worship, our likes and dislikes take the place of his law and gospel. We’re troubled by thoughts like these: Why isn’t it this way. I don’t like that song. Why does that person need to sit in my spot. Why is that person wearing that suit or dress or T-shirt and jeans. And that’s just the worship in this building—what about in our lives—who is the center? Who are you serving? If it is self—then prepare for even more disappointment—because not everything will go your way.
  5. In church or in the world, what happens with Christ at the center? Well then, your life gets a new meaning, doesn’t it. No matter who you are, what your job is, whatever your age, your life has this purpose: You are here to serve your Lord Jesus Christ, and also to serve him by serving your neighbor. And if hardships come and your life takes some difficult turns, even then, you know who is in charge—Jesus Christ, who sits at the right hand of his Father, ruling over all things. And you know his promise to be with you always. And you know that he has a good purpose in everything that happens, even though we may not understand how it can be good. So with him at the center, even in the hardest times, we say what he said, “Your will be done.”

II. What is the main activity?

  1. And what will we be doing in heaven? The cartoons I watched as a kid often depicted heaven with people sitting on clouds plucking harps. I even remember a margarine commercial that showed that. Forget all of that! Forget Grandma making a 300 foot heavenly quilt. Listen to what the Revelation tells us. The Lamb will be at the center of the throne, and we will worship him. We will praise him.
  2. During the Easter season we sing a song of praise, “This Is the Feast of Victory.” Its text is taken from this lesson in Revelation 7 and other parts of Revelation. “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and might belong to our God forever and ever. Amen.” In those words, we praise our Savior simply because of who he is—worthy of our praise. “Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God” (See Revelation 5:12). There we praise him for what he has done. We praise him for his suffering and death, his victory over sin and death that he shares with us—that made us God’s own free people. Without him we would be lost. But he washed us with his own blood. “Those who believe in him will not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
  3. Words from Revelation 7 are also in our funeral service. “We will be before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple. Never again will we hunger; never again will we thirst. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be our shepherd; he will lead us to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from our eyes” (Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal, Christian Funeral, p. 145). Here we also praise him for what he will do. Those last words have to be the sweetest. “He will wipe away every tear from our eyes.” At a funeral, that’s what we need to hear. There are tears in our eyes now—even when we’re not at a funeral. There are plenty of things to cry about when we look at our world, when we see what people do to one another and when we see just how badly sin infects everything with death. “He will wipe away every tear from our eyes.” …not by handing us a Kleenex, but by taking away every reason there is to cry. Jesus himself gave this promise, “Let not your hearts be troubled. … In my Father’s house are many rooms. … I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14).

Conclusion: It’s all about Jesus. Heaven is about Jesus. Our Christian life on this earth is about Jesus. When we make something else our center—there will be many more tears—much more frustration—and no peace at all because no one else can give us peace. With him at the center of our life and worship, then we have peace. Then we remember who we are because of him. Then we have purpose. Then we have hope—even when every earthly reason for hope is gone—because we have his promise—“a place for you” “around his throne.”


Revelation 7:9-17

After these things I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing in front of the throne and of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and with palm branches in their hands. 10 And they called out with a loud voice and said: Salvation comes from our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb. 11 All the angels stood around the throne, elders, and the four living creatures. They fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, 12 saying: “Amen. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and might belong to our God forever and ever. Amen. 13 One of the elders spoke to me and said, “These people dressed in white robes, who are they, and where did they come from?” 14  And I answered him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones who are coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Because of this they are in front of the throne of God and they serve him day and night in his temple. He who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. 16 They will never be hungry or thirsty ever again. The sun will never beat upon them, nor will any scorching heat, 17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd. He will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (EHV)


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How Do We Come to God?

Sermon on Matthew 22:1–14 for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, October 26 & 29, 2017

  1. We just had a wedding in our family, and so some of Jesus parable of the wedding banquet is still fresh in my mind from having lived it. Fortunately, my side of the planning was all in the pre-marriage counseling and the service. I didn’t have anything to do with the dresses, tuxedos, or the biggest headache of all, invitations. Who do we invite? Who do we not invite? Who do we invite to the service and the dance? Who do we invite to the dinner? Who do we seat next to whom? Who should be at a different table?
  2. The King who is preparing the wedding banquet for his son in Jesus’ parable doesn’t seem to have those headaches about invitations—his troubles begin with the responses to the invitations. Not postcards sent back that have the box checked that says “Not attending,” but at first an indifferent reaction. “Oh, a royal wedding? Meh. Guess I’ll go back to work.” …and then a hostile reaction—not just hostile, but over-the-top hostile, beating and killing the messengers. If you were hearing this parable for the first time, wouldn’t you think, “Who would refuse an invitation to a royal wedding?—And then who would have such a hostile reaction to a gracious invitation? The King is being a gracious host and is inviting his people to something good. Why the bad reaction?”

I. We come at his gracious invitation.

  1. Jesus is speaking about more than weddings. He is speaking about God’s invitation to his people. People have always had strange reactions to God’s invitations. I suppose you could go back to the beginning. “Adam, Eve, tend my garden and enjoy my perfect world, created all just for you.” The devil comes and says, “That’s not enough. You deserve more. What’s he holding back from you? Take that fruit he forbids!” That was a rejection of God’s invitation, wasn’t it? “A perfect world isn’t enough. I have to have something else.” And then with the people of Israel, God led them out of slavery in Egypt, and what happened? They complained all the way. Some even planned to go back to Egypt. “Oh, we had it so good in Egypt, sitting around plates full of food—and we detest this manna from heaven!” (Numbers 21:5) Did they really prefer a pharaoh who treated them like cattle to be butchered at his command to a God and his prophet leading them to freedom? Many of them did. Then later, most of the tribes of Israel left, abandoned God’s temple and the worship of the true God and worshiped gods who demanded human sacrifice. (Molech and the worship in the Topheth, Canaanite places of death.) Ugh! And then wholesale worship of the powerless gods Baal and Ashtoreth under King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Prophet after prophet came with the same invitation. “Return to the Lord your God” (Joel 2:13). A few listened. Many did not. And Jesus’ illustration in the parable was no exaggeration. People did kill the messengers, even when God said, “I do not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that they turn from their evil ways and live” (Ezekiel 33:11).
  2. We come to God at his gracious invitation. If we had no invitation—really, no gospel—we would not know that we had a gracious God or that he offered us anything. But we have his invitation. There are Christians who talk a lot about ‘making your decision for Christ.’ And there is something to that—but it isn’t everything. Faith doesn’t generate itself. We have to hear the promise—the promise of sins forgiven, the promise of a new life connected to Christ, and of eternal life that is ours because we have a Savior. “Faith comes by hearing” (Romans 10:17). And what do we know about human nature? The flesh? It’s dead in sin. It’s always stuck on itself. What’s in it for me? And it’s that broken human nature that resists God’s invitation. Sometimes responding with indifference. “Bah! That’s just a bunch of mythology.” “That’s just stories that are good for little kids and old people.”  Sometimes responding with hostility. The idea that we need a Savior means that we’re not good enough on our own. To many, that’s an insult. Still God invites. He lays his treasures before us—he lays his promise before us. The gospel says, “In Jesus, these treasures are already yours—you are be counted as a child of God and an heir of heaven.” When we believe and accept his invitation, it’s because the word of the promise did its work in our hearts—the Holy Spirit softened hardened hearts so the seed could take root. Even when faith is there—it’s a constant struggle with doubt—that’s why we need to keep hearing the Word—keep hearing the invitation. If we don’t—then doubt has the advantage, and the daily grind living in a world that is naturally hostile to God can only steer us away from his gracious invitation. “Everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet!”

II. We come on his gracious terms.

  1. Some preachers and writers see this as a double parable—one about responses to an invitation and one about wearing the wedding garment—but I see them as one, one parable about how we come to God. We come at his gracious invitation, and we come on his gracious terms.
  2. Again, I had nothing to do with picking out suits or dresses for my daughter’s wedding. I picked out my own suit. I bought a tie that was similar to what the groomsmen were wearing, but that was it. But here’s where we have a cultural difference between our time and that of Judea 2000 years ago. Now our bride and groom and their attendants wear special clothes that are purchased or rented just for the occasion. Then, all the guests were required to wear special clothing—it may have been something like our tux rental, entire sets of clothing would be set aside and then supplied to the guests when they arrived at the wedding, not at the guests’ expense but at the King’s expense.[a] But this one guy comes in with what he wore at work—his grubbies.[b] He’s not prepared for the wedding. Proper clothing was offered at the door, but he just walked by. The king asks, “Friend, how did you get in here without wearing wedding clothes?” but the man is silent—as if to say, “I’m here. Isn’t that good enough?” But the king has his standards for his banquet, and the man in his dirty clothes is thrown out.
  3. We come to God on his terms, not ours. No matter what angle you look at it, we come on God’s terms, not ours. We live in a time where people value spirituality, but reject religion. They like the idea of prayer—even the idea of reading poetic things out of a holy book, but when God says, “Follow my way. Trust the Savior I have given you. Follow my commands and live to my glory.” …it seems restrictive and not spiritual enough for them. That’s what God requires. In our hymn of the day we sang “Jesus, your blood and righteousness / My beauty are, my glorious dress.” The meaning might be lost a little in the poetry. It means that on judgment day, I can stand before God dressed in the righteousness and holiness of Jesus. Not in the things I’m proud of. Not telling God, “I’m here. Isn’t that good enough?” This is the meaning of “those who believe in him will not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus is the reason why God accepts you. He’s the reason why God accepts me. We haven’t worked our way up to a certain level. We haven’t said the right words or performed the right ceremonies. No. For us, word and ceremony are there to point us to Jesus, our beauty, our glorious dress. He forgives. He makes us ready. Jesus takes me, “Just as I am…” as the hymn says. But then it also says, “…without one plea,…” that means, without giving any other reason, “…but that thy blood was shed for me.” Jesus and the forgiveness he gives and the righteousness he transfers to us—that is what has invited us, opened heaven’s door, and clothed us for the banquet. We don’t stand on our own, but with Christ. We also wear him here on this earth—because we stand as God’s people already. Because we were bought at such a price and given such a gift, we strive to live in that holiness, to glorify God and serve neighbor. We’ve been called out of darkness in to his light—invited to the feast that is yet to come.


Matthew 22:1–14

Jesus spoke to them again in parables. He said, 2“The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent out his servants to summon those who were invited to the wedding banquet, but they did not want to come.  4“Then he sent out other servants and said, ‘Tell those who are invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner. My oxen and my fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet!’  5“But those who were invited paid no attention and went off, one to his own farm, another to his business. 6The rest seized the king’s servants, mistreated them, and killed them. 7As a result, the king was very angry. He sent his army and killed those murderers and burned their town.  8“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. 9So go to the main crossroads and invite as many as you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those servants went out to the roads and gathered together everyone they found, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12He said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without wearing wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. 13Then the king told the servants, ‘Tie him hand and foot and throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.” (EHV)


[a] See Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p. 429

[b] Edersheim in The Life and Times… tells about a Jewish parable from about the same time in which people are invited and the wise get dressed in time and wait. The foolish go back to their work. Then the bridegroom arrives an unannounced time—the wise are ready, the foolish are in their work-clothes, not ready for the finery of a royal feast. (Vol. II, p. 426ff)

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God Is Not Fair

Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16 for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 5 and 8, 2017

A. Long ago, when I was in Second Grade, something happened at school—I don’t remember what it was, if it had to do with recess time, or some assignment or birthday treats or what—whatever it was, some of my classmates complained to the teacher, “It’s not fair!” My teacher had a comeback. It was completely over our heads. She said, “If it’s not a circus, it’s fair.” We just looked at her and thought, “Huh?” Years later, I figured it out. She didn’t want a circus of everyone complaining about things not being fair. It was her way of saying “Tough! Deal with it!” Don’t you see this, though, that so many times when people complain that something isn’t fair, it’s absolutely fair. They just don’t like the consequences. Someone does something wrong or illegal, gets caught, and then has to deal with the consequences. The kids misbehave and the teacher tells them that they have a shorter recess and they cry, “It’s not fair!”
B. In our lives, we sometimes have that sense of unfairness when we think, “Why does my neighbor have life so easy when I have it so hard?” “Why does he have so much when I have so little?” God gave us two commandments about that, didn’t he? “You shall not covet your neighbor’s things. You shall not covet your neighbor’s people.” Coveting is really discontent with what you have, and a desire for something you don’t—sometimes an obsessive desire. Why should God care about our wants and desires? Why does he say twice, “You shall not covet”? Because with coveting, we are pointing or even shaking our finger at him and saying, “It’s not fair.” “You give my neighbor more than you give me, and I deserve more.” God is sovereign. He gives what he pleases.
C. If you want to talk about God and fairness, look back at the words we said at the beginning of the service. “I am sinful by nature, and have sinned against you in my thoughts, words, and actions. I have not loved you with my whole heart. I have not loved others as I should. I deserve your punishment both now and forever.” That would be God’s fairness and justice, wouldn’t it? But God is unfairly generous and gracious because he has a better purpose for us. Jesus was on a rescue mission, not to condemn the world but to save it.
D. So Jesus told this parable about God’s fairness and generosity. A landowner went out to hire men to work in his vineyard. As Jesus tells it, it may be a little confusing to us. At that time, Jewish people counted hours of daylight—so that’s what he means by the third hour, sixth hour, and eleventh hour. We would say that the landowner hired people at six in the morning, nine in the morning, noon, and finally at five in the afternoon. He offered the first workers a denarius—a silver coin worth a day’s wage. To make the math easy and to be generous, we’ll say he offered them a hundred dollars for the day’s work. That’s what he offered the workers at 6 a.m. “Come work in my vineyard and I’ll pay you $100.” The other workers at other times he simply said, “I will pay you whatever is right.” Then at 6 p.m. it’s quitting time and time to pay the workers. He starts handing out hundred dollar bills to those hired at 5:00 p.m. and those hired early in the morning start doing some math in their heads. “They worked for an hour and made $100. We worked all day. Nearly 12 hours. We should get over $1000! Wow!” But then the landowner pays them $100 too. “That’s what you agreed to work for. Or are you envious because I am generous?”
I. He is unfairly generous.
A. In the parable, those who worked longer thought they deserved more. And ordinarily, that’s how you would pay workers. But as he puts together his parable, Jesus makes his landowner generous—perhaps even with the attitude, “I just want my grapes harvested. I’m going to give everyone $100.” So is the problem really the landowner’s bad sense of money management, or envy and jealousy on the part of the workers.
B. Forget about what your neighbor has—his house, his car, what he has in the bank. Look at what God has given you. Despite many sins, (hurtful things to your neighbors, disobedient things toward God) God still has given you your daily bread. He gives it because he has promised to. Your neighbor may have more things than you. So what? He may seem to be more successful than you. So what? God has still blessed you. He has given you life. He has given you your various talents and gifts. He gives you each day your daily bread. Most importantly, he gives you time. Time to enjoy these gifts. Time to hear about the Creator who gave all these to you.
II. He is unfairly gracious.
A. I just explained the parable with our earthly blessings in mind. Many look at this parable with heavenly blessings in mind. Consider this: A disciple of Jesus… (Let’s say it’s Bartholomew, because we don’t know that much about him.) Bartholomew follows Jesus for over three years, walking over the hills of Judea and Galilee, learning everything from him. And then at Jesus ascension he is sent out to make disciples of all nations, and he goes, proclaims the gospel of Jesus faithfully—and also bears the cross for Jesus—endures persecution and even death. We know for a fact most of the twelve died that way. And what does Bartholomew get when his life is done? Heaven. Then consider the thief on the cross next to Jesus on Good Friday. He was a thief. Some of you might remember the old-fashioned word malefactor, for the men on crosses next to Jesus. Malefactor means “a person who does bad things.” He did not live a life of faithfulness or service. He stole things. Robbed people. By his own admission he was getting what he deserved. But in his last moments, he turned to Jesus and said, “Remember me when you come in your kingdom.” And Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” So when his life is done, what does he get? Heaven. The same as Bartholomew. Is that fair? Or is fairness the wrong concept here. Is this grace? By God’s grace, Jesus called Bartholomew. By God’s grace, Jesus led that thief by his patient suffering to ask “Remember me.” Bartholomew did much for Jesus. The thief did almost nothing. Both receive God’s gracious reward because of Jesus—not because of their own deeds.
B. It is very tempting for us to think of God’s grace in less than gracious ways. When you think of some neighbor as needing God’s grace or his forgiveness more than you do—that is less than gracious. Someone appears on the front page of the newspaper who harmed a child in a careless accident, or someone makes a complete wreck of his life with drugs or alcohol—it’s very tempting to think—That person needs religion. That person needs to shape up. That person needs God’s help… …so much more than I do. If that’s what you think—then you aren’t remembering God’s grace to you. If you would come to the gates of heaven and say, “God, you gotta let me in. Look at all I did for you. I went to church and put money in the basket every Sunday. I didn’t kick the dog or the kids, so I’ve been pretty good.” God can say—“Yes. I know you did all of those things. That’s good. I know all of the other things you’ve done, too. The covetous, jealous, envious and sometimes hateful thoughts of your heart. I know the times when you were doing good things, but you were resenting and hating having to do them. I know the multitude of things that you would never tell anyone, the things you did when you thought no one was looking, but you were, and I was, and that you’ve conveniently forgotten all that here. The down elevator is over there.” No—our life of faith is by God’s grace. Nothing we earn. He is unfairly gracious. He isn’t gracious because we earned any right to his grace by any decision or action on our part. He is gracious because of who he is. Grace flows solely out of God’s heart. He is gracious because we have a Savior, Jesus, who stepped in and said, “Punish me instead of them.” “Credit them with all my goodness.” “I give myself for them so that they can be ours again.” Fair? No. Especially not for God. Especially not for the Son of God. Generous and gracious? Absolutely!
Matthew 20:1–16
“Indeed the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing to pay the workers a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3He also went out about the third hour and saw others standing unemployed in the marketplace. 4To these he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will give you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour and did the same thing. 6When he went out about the eleventh hour, he found others standing unemployed. He said to them, ‘Why have you stood here all day unemployed?’ 7“They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ “He told them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When it was evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last group and ending with the first.’ 9“When those who were hired around the eleventh hour came, they each received a denarius. 10When those who were hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But they each received a denarius too. 11After they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner: 12‘Those who were last worked one hour, and you made them equal to us who have endured the burden of the day and the scorching heat!’ 13“But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not make an agreement with me for a denarius? 14Take what is yours and go. I want to give to the last one hired the same as I also gave to you. 15Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16In the same way, the last will be first, and the first, last.” (EHV)

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