Christ, the Way of Love

Texts: 1 Sam. 16, 1 Cor. 13, Lk. 18

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians in our Epistle reading about the enduring importance of love in the life of a Christian. You cannot have a right faith before God if the fruits of faith, love especially, are not displayed in your life. Paul uses himself as an example. If he were to speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, he would be as useless as noisy gong or clanging cymbal. If he were to have the gift of prophecies and a faith that was strong enough to move mountains, without love, he would be nothing. If he gave everything he had, even his own life, without love, it would all be for nothing. To paraphrase the blessed saint, if you ain’t got love, you ain’t got nothin’.

The same is true for us. If we do not have love and if we show ourselves to be unloving people, then it seems that our faith is misplaced. For, a living and active faith in Christ necessitates, and actually produces, love for our neighbor. But let’s stop for a second here and talk about Christ and His love. Our fathers in the faith selected our texts today and placed them on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the Sunday before the 40-day journey to the cross, for a reason. In the Epistle, St. Paul extols love. It is patient and kind; it bears and endures all things. In the Gospel reading we heard Christ speaking of the things which He’ll endure for us: being mocked, spit upon, flogged, and being killed. The reason He undertakes all these things is the same as why He gives sight to blind Bartimaeus, and it’s the same reason why David, though the youngest of his brothers and last in line to be king, was chosen to shepherd God’s people: love. As we enter the season of Lent, we see in Christ the way of love. By choosing David over His older brothers, and by healing the blind beggar others rebuked, Jesus shows Himself to be the true way of love.

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We see this play out a few different ways in our readings this week. In our Old Testament text the boy who would become King David is anointed by the prophet Samuel. The current king, Saul, disobeyed the Lord’s Word and was rejected as king, though not immediately deposed. Samuel also anointed Saul to be king earlier, and one of the things that Scripture notes is that Saul was the son of a rich man. He was handsome, a head and shoulders taller than anyone around. Even though he was of the least of the tribes of Israel, he still looked the part of a king, and so he was. But, one of striking things that we see through the Lord’s Word is that He doesn’t always do things the way that would seem right. Particularly for Samuel and us, He doesn’t choose the strongest or the oldest for His inheritance. The Lord spoke to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

And so it was that the Lord anointed David, the youngest, to be king. This is just like how, out of Abraham’s sons, God chose the younger – Isaac. Of Isaac’s sons, it was Jacob who received the birthright and inheritance. Out of Jacob’s sons, Christ does not come from the line of Reuben, the firstborn, but from Judah. And now, here, is David – not the oldest, not the strongest, but the still the one from whom an offspring will come who will sit on the throne forever. This is how God works. He doesn’t choose us because of who we are or what we do, but because of who He is and what He’s done in Christ. In Christ, God has reconciled the world to Himself, including we, who like St. Paul, are untimely born. We all live two millennia after Christ walked the earth, and yet He dwells among us now in grace, truth, mercy, and love, in His Word and Sacraments. He daily and richly forgives our sins and binds up our broken hearts.

In His love for the lost and fallen, Christ reaches out to the untouchables, those scorned and rebuked by society and considered least in the eyes of the world. In our text from St. Luke’s Gospel Jesus is already on His final journey to Jerusalem and draws near to Jericho. This will be Jesus’ final miracle before His passion, and it is a work of love. Along the roadside sat a blind beggar, and when he heard that Jesus was passing by he began crying out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” What he could not see physically with his eyes, he saw with the eyes of faith. This Jesus is the Son of David promised so long ago, who would usher in the kingdom of God and the forgiveness of sins. The crowd rebuked the man and told him to be silent, but Jesus stops. He shows Himself the true Good Samaritan. In the parable, a man is attacked by robbers on his way to Jericho. Now, here in Jericho, Jesus stops to have mercy on a man in need. Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.” Immediately the man recovered his sight and followed Jesus, glorifying God. All the people around also gave praise to the Father.

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In choosing David, the least of his brothers, and by healing the blind man who was worth so little in the eyes of the world, Christ shows us the way of God, the way of love. Christ Himself is the image of the invisible God, the embodiment of love. He is patient and kind. He does not shame us for our sin, but daily walks with us and forgives us when we fall. He does not envy or boast. He is not arrogant or rude, and He doesn’t resent us for all our transgressions against Him. Instead, He bears and endures all things for us, even the cross. This Sunday puts us at the brink of Lent. In just a few short days we will adorn ourselves in ashes, marking the Church’s season of focused repentance. Christ teaches us about all the things that His love for us will lead Him to endure. He says,

See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.”

St. Paul wrote that if he were to have power to understand all mysteries and have all knowledge, and if he had faith to move mountains, and if he delivered up his body to death, but had not love, it would all be for nothing. My friends in Christ, Jesus is love. He is mercy, grace; forgiveness. These are what drove Him to the cross for you. It’s what lead Him to endure being handed over to the Gentiles, being mocked and treated shamefully. He bore being spit on and being flogged. Then, His love for you led Him to allow those nails to be driven into His flesh with hammers, and to hang there helpless, bearing in Himself the wrath of God against sin. He did this all so that, as He rose from the dead, so, too, will all those who believe in Him.

This love that Christ has for us, the mercy that He showed by choosing us for salvation from before the foundation of the world – and that not because of our works, but because of His grace – will never end. All things will pass away. In Paul’s language, prophecies, tongues, and knowledge will pass away, but love will not. In this life we don’t always see things clearly, for we know only in part and see as through a mirror dimly, but soon we will see the love of God in Christ Jesus face to face. And though our lives seem like one great Lent, a time full of trials and cycles of sinning and repenting over and over again, soon we shall know fully the eternal love that Jesus has for us. And while we are in this life, He looks past our sin and shame, past our weaknesses and temptations, and He brings us the forgiveness that He won for us on the cross. He chose David, the least of his brothers, and He healed blind Bartimaeus, to show to us His way: love. As He shows us His love, through His Word and Sacraments, He also strengthens us to show forth that love. May He ever continue the preaching of His Word and the administration of the Sacraments among us, both gifts of His love, as we enter His Lent and look to His Easter.

 

 

The Parable of the Sower

Text: Luke 8:4-15

There was a something in my sermon last week that I’d like to visit again today in light of our text. Last week I said that the parable of the vineyard shows us that God’s grace is shown equally to all sinners. This means that no one is more sanctified than anyone else. Rather, all sinners receive the same grace of God in Jesus Christ – the forgiveness of their sins and eternal life that are given through faith. You will receive the same grace whether you were baptized as a baby, or you are convicted by God’s Law and receive His Word in faith on your deathbed. If this is the case, that God is so extravagant in showing mercy, why is it that out of 7 billion people in the world, only 2 billion are Christians?

Or, maybe the more traditional way of asking the question will make more sense; Why are some saved and not others? This question could take us into some heady realms, where theologians and pastors argue past each other, or we could keep our heads down here where Jesus is in the parable. To put it bluntly, Jesus’ ministry was met with two responses. The overwhelmingly popular one was rejection. Jesus indicates in our text that to His disciples, and to the others who received Him in faith, it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God. But to the crowds, who pressed in on Jesus from every side, seeking not forgiveness but food for their bellies, it has not been given. That is why Jesus spoke in parables, so that the words of the Holy Spirit through Isaiah are fulfilled, “Seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”

Jesus teaches through the parable why some are saved and others not. There are two reactions to God’s Word: rejection or faith. Many hear the Word, but it goes in one ear and out the other. Others receive the Word with joy, but when times of persecution come, or the cares and riches and pleasures of this life, they fall away. But, all is not lost. For, by the grace of God there is another group: those who receive the Word in faith, and hold it fast in their hearts with patience. Though the broadly-cast Word of God is met by many with rejection, in those whom it takes root, it bears fruit – even a hundredfold.

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Since this is the second week in a row that our text one of the parables, it’s important to get something out there. Not everything in a parable is filled with meaning. In allegories, another type of story, different elements can all have different levels of meanings. A parable is different. There is usually one central point, and everything else given is to support that one point. It’s kind of like spokes in a wheel, but instead of going out from the center, they go into the center. In the parable of the sower the central idea is that the seed is sown generously and bears much fruit when it takes root. Jesus says the seed is the Word of God. The sower is Jesus. Now having said that, let us hear the parable.

A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.

In the parable Jesus compares Himself to a sower, who goes out to sow His seed. This parable is first about Jesus and His ministry, but then it is also about how He continues to sow His Word among us today. He does this through those who follow in His stead: His disciples, the Apostles, pastors, teachers, missionaries, and all others who teach and spread His saving Word. The sower in the parable scatters the seed just about everywhere. Some fell along the path, some on the rocky soil, some fell among the thorns; but some fell into good soil. This teaches us about the spread of God’s Word.

When Jesus came to preach the Gospel, He didn’t come to share it with just a few people. Rather, He directed that all nations be baptized and taught. The Good News is not just for some, but for all. The scattering of the seed all over, even in places where it wouldn’t have been sown otherwise, is like how Jesus sends us out to the byways and alleys, to sinners and tax collectors, to those who dwell in the shadow and darkness of death, to share with them the light of His Gospel. His will is that all be saved through the preaching of His Word, and through it be brought to repentance and faith.

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Therefore, God broadcasts His Word throughout all the world, and will continue to do so until time has reached its fulfilment. But, now we get to the hard question: why aren’t all people saved? We learn in the Catechism that the temptation to sin comes from three places: the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. Luther gets that partially from this text. Jesus contrasts the two types of hearers in the parable: those who reject the Word and those who keep it in an honest and good heart with patience. These are represented by the different types of soil.

Some of the seed fell along the path and was devoured by the birds. Jesus interprets this for us, “The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.” Notice that devil isn’t too concerned about people hearing the Word of God, but it’s their hearts that he battles for. It is with the heart that we believe and are saved. The seed that falls along the path represents those who hear the Word preached, but it goes in one ear and out the other.

These are not just the open unbelievers, unfortunately, but even some who go to church. There are some who come to worship, not to receive forgiveness and the gifts of our Lord’s body and blood, but purely out of habit or custom. And when the sermon comes, they check out, and the words are lost. There is no repentance, there is no progression in the faith, for the devil comes and steals the Word before it takes root.

Others are like the seed that falls on rocky soil. These are the ones who hear God’s Word and initially receive it with joy. But, as we learned from the Transfiguration, there is no glory without the cross. The Christian will be faced with persecution for the sake of Christ’s name. And many, when faced with the hatred of the world, fall away. They might not be openly divorced from the Word, but they dilute it just enough fit in and siphon off the world’s ire. And still, there are others who receive the Word, but then the cares and pleasures of life come. This was St. Paul’s point last week, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” For many, the Church is not seen as the place where forgiveness and grace are, but as an inhibitor of life’s pleasures. And for that reason, many depart from God’s Word and surround themselves with teachers who will tell them what they do want to hear.

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This is all painting a pretty grim picture, but it confirms what we see in the world around us. Many people reject Christ and His Word – most even. That’s because God’s Word always produces one of two reactions: rejection, or faith. Faith is the reaction that God desires and creates. It’s why He casts the seed all over, so that as many as possible can hear the Word. In the parable, some of the seed does fall into good soil. It takes root and grows, yielding even a hundredfold. The interpretation that Jesus provides is that these are the ones who hear the Word and keep it. Though faced with many a persecution, the cares and pleasures of the flesh, they hold the Word and bear fruit in patience.

Though so many hear the Word and fall away, all is not lost. The fault is not with the seed. God says of His Word, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth.” Neither is the difference in the soil, for the Scriptures clearly testify that all are equally conceived dead in iniquity.

The difference is that some, according to God’s will, receive the Word in faith. They are forgiven their sins through the washing of Holy Baptism and in the words of Absolution spoken from the altar. They are fed and strengthened in the faith with the very body and blood of Jesus Christ, and are led to take up their crosses and follow. They weather the persecutions and hatred of the world, and they refuse to be ruled by the pleasures of the flesh. These are the ones who bear fruit with patience. We are the ones who bear fruit with patience. Soon, the seed of Christ’s cross will bear fruit that is one hundred-fold, the eternal triumph over the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh in the resurrection to eternal life.

Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” May He ever grant us those ears by His Holy Spirit, so that hearing the Word, we receive it in faith, casting off the hatred of the world and the pleasures of the flesh, and according to His will, abide until the end. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

Septuagesima, “The Wages of Grace”

*Septuagesima marks the beginning of the season called Pre-Lent in our lectionary. The word means, “seventieth,” and stands for the seventieth day before Easter. It is three Sundays away from Ash Wednesday.


 

Text: Matthew 20:1-16

Life isn’t fair. Life isn’t fair. Either you’ve said this yourself, or you’ve heard it spoken by someone around you. I must confess that those words crossed my lips many times when I was a child. I wish I could say that I only uttered them when a real injustice was committed against me. But really, I was just upset at one thing or another. What I actually meant by, “Life isn’t fair,” was more like, “Why don’t things work they way I want them to?” You might’ve thought this way from time to time. This sort of feeling was common in the Bible, too – if I can speak a little candidly about King David and our other fathers in the faith. Though, for David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Solomon, and others, the question was more often phrased in terms of, “Why do other people prosper and I fare so poorly?”

However, as I look back on these long 26 years of my life, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably for the best that I don’t always get what I want. But, just as I don’t always get what I want, neither – by the grace of God – do I always get what I deserve. Actually, it is far more often that I don’t get what I do deserve. Meaning: When we confess in the liturgy that we have offended our heavenly Father with all our sins and iniquities, we also confess that, because of those sins and iniquities, we justly deserve God’s wrath in both the eternal sense (hell) and the temporal sense (afflictions, diseases, and death). By the grace of God alone, we are spared the majority of the terrible things that we deserve as the consequences of our sins. And by the grace of God alone, we are also invited into His heavenly kingdom. Jesus illustrates this for us in the parable of the vineyard. In it Jesus shows us that there is only one way to heaven, grace alone, and this grace is given equally to all sinners. As Jesus said, many who are last will be first.

Our text today is part of a larger chunk of teaching. After the Transfiguration, Jesus’ teaching was amped up a little bit; things got more serious as He drew nearer to the cross. Just before our text, Jesus was teaching His disciples and the crowds about getting into the kingdom of heaven. The conversation went like this. A rich young man came up to Jesus and asked Him, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus, being the model preacher and knowing when to give either the Law or the Gospel, gave the man the Law. He knew the Commandments. If the man desired to enter eternal life by works, he must keep all of the Commandments perfectly. The man insisted that this was already the case. However, it was not. When Jesus instructed him to sell all his possessions and follow, he went away sorrowful. He was not rightly honoring the First Commandment. He did not fear, love, and trust in God above all things.

This caused no small ripple among the disciples, for if a rich person could only scarcely enter the kingdom of heaven, how could anyone be saved? The rich were looked to as the ones most able to do good works. They didn’t have to labor in the hot sun all day, and then worry about doing good works after. Instead, they could just do the greatest work of all and give away money. Surely the wealthy were on the short list to heaven. Not so. St. Paul clearly writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The way into heaven is not by works, but only by the grace of God. That is why Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of heaven belongs even to little children. Everything a child has he receives as a gift. So also is the kingdom of heaven. In this way, many who are last are made first.

Since this parable is the second longest that we have recorded for us. I’ll let it stand as read before; I’ll just remind you how it goes. Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who goes out to hire workers for his vineyard. The first bunch are called early in the morning, and it is agreed that they will work for a day’s wages. A few hours later the owner goes out again and he finds workers standing around in the marketplace. He hires them to work, offering to pay them what is right. A few hours later he does the same, and again even later. Then, finally, when there is only one hour left in the workday, he goes out and hires a last round of workers.

Jesus uses this parable to teach us about the kingdom of heaven. God is the master of the household and the vineyard is His kingdom. We are the workers. We see that life in Kingdom, life in Christ’s Church, is like being called to work in a vineyard. Throughout the Scriptures we are exhorted to serve to the Lord. Psalm 100, for example, teaches us, “Serve the Lord with gladness!” Like the master in the parable, the Lord, in His gracious wisdom, sees fit to call workers at many times throughout the day. The morning is probably the most expected time, but the master is gracious. He goes out many times during the day, calling to himself many who would not have been hired otherwise. We, likewise, have all been called to serve. That call has come to us at different times. Some of us received at Baptism while we were children. Some of us may have received it as adults or in other times of our lives. The Holy Spirit works through the Means of Grace in many times and ways to call laborers into the vineyard.

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Eventually, the end of the workday does come. The owner of the vineyard calls his foreman and says, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” Then, beginning with those who started in the last hour and finishing with those who started first, each received the same wages, a denarius. After the laborers who started first received their payment, they began to grumble. They figured that if those people who only worked an hour received so much, they should definitely receive more than that. That’s understandable. It’s fair, even. But, remember what I said before: life isn’t fair. Or, perhaps a better way to frame it today is: God’s fairness is not the same as our fairness.

That is to say, Jesus uses this parable to show us that with God things are reversed. In our world you work to get paid; in the kingdom of God, payment is given apart from works. In our world, your own hard work merits you a reward; in the kingdom of God, Christ’s hard work earns you the reward. In our our world, you work longer and you get paid more; but, in the kingdom of God, all are paid the same. In our world also, we all earn the same wage. The Scriptures say that the wage that we all earn is death. We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God, regardless of who we are, where we’re from, or what we’ve done. And, if life were fair, we would all die in our sins and trespasses, having justly deserved the earthly and eternal wrath of God.

But, life isn’t fair. Instead of getting the punishment we do deserve, we get the wage that Christ worked for. When someone gets that we’ve worked for, we get upset and grumble like the workers in the vineyard. But Jesus, He is happy when people get what He worked for, because otherwise they wouldn’t get it at all. What I mean is, in the kingdom of God everything is a gift. We are neither worthy of the things that we have, nor have we deserved them. Instead, God gives us all things freely in Christ Jesus. He blesses us with food and drink, house and home, clothing and shoes. He gives us all that we need to support this body and life. And, above and beyond that, He gives us the most precious gift in all creation: the forgiveness of sins and eternal life with Him. And that, He gives to us not because we’ve worked for it or earned it, but because of the sacrifice of His only begotten Son on the cross.

When I was child, I used to complain that, “Life isn’t fair,” often. Mostly, it was just because things weren’t going my way. But, today I realize that might be for the better. In Christ, things don’t go our way; They go His way: grace. Through the sacrifice of Christ, we don’t get what we deserve (the punishment of our trespasses) and we do get what we don’t deserve (forgiveness). Having been forgiven our sins, we are called to be workers in God’s vineyard, sharing the grace and love of Christ with the world around us. And, whether we’ve been in the vineyard a long time, and worked many long hours, or whether our work is still mostly ahead of us, we all receive the same gift. As it says, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Therefore, in Christ, life isn’t fair. Thanks be to God.