St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Septuagesima Sunday, January 27th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
Septuagesima - Grace Alone Matthew 20:1-16
Septuagesima. Sep-tu-a- ges-ima. What is that?
Septuagesima means seventy, in late Latin, I think, and it is the name given in the historic one year lectionary to the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Septuagesima, seventy, Sexagesima, sixty, and Quinquagesima, fifty, these are the names given centuries ago by the Church to the three Sundays of the pre-Lent time, a kind of bridge from Epiphany, which closes the Christmas season, to Lent, which opens the Easter season. The idea is that these Gesima Sundays are fifty, sixty and seventy days before Easter. Of course, since each Sunday is only 7 days apart, a difference of ten in the counting for each week doesn’t quite make sense. But hey, the Church is full of theologians, not mathematicians.
We’ve switched to the one year, old-school lectionary, with its old-school names like Septuagesima, switching for a number of reasons, not least interesting perhaps being that it matches well with the old-school look of our vicar. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Vicar Toombs has a very old-school beard. Wild and wooly. Old school, as in the early days of the LCMS, when church men wore mighty beards. Indeed Vicar’s beard is very CFW Waltheresque, very much reminiscent of the facial hair of the 19th century founder of our Synod. You might even think Vicar’s facial hair is like an Old Testament prophet. It also happens to be very hip these days, to let your beard grow where it wills, gnarly and free. So celebrating an old timey sounding Sunday like Septuagesima this year when we are enjoying the service of Vicar Toombs just seems to fit, doesn’t it?
Well, anyway, we have the readings of Septuagesima before us today. The three traditional Pre-Lenten Gospel readings for these Gesima Sundays were set centuries and centuries ago, long before the Reformation, and yet they serve very well to highlight three great “Solas” of the Reformation: Grace Alone, Scripture Alone, and Faith Alone,– demonstrating once again that the Lutherans weren’t changing anything essential in the Reformation of the Church, just clearing up the clutter that had accrued onto, the clutter that was obscuring the Gospel.
Luther and his fellow reformers were scraping off the barnacles from the ship of salvation, barnacles like purgatory and indulgences, the sacrifice of the mass, and the forced celibacy of priests. All of these false teachings grow from the granddaddy of all barnacles, works righteousness, the anti-Biblical idea, indeed the Satanic idea that Christ’s way of salvation includes a requirement for works by us sinners, the unbiblical teaching that we sinners can and must in some measure earn our own salvation. By the year 1517 these works-righteous barnacles seemed to be nearly running the ship of the Church aground. Christ was presented as an angry judge, and salvation as a long, difficult climb up a ladder of good works, a ladder that stretched beyond your physical death, many rungs remaining for you to climb in purgatory. There was precious little teaching of Christ for sinners, of forgiveness, or of our utter inability to earn salvation. This last, desperate news, that there isn’t any work we sinners can do that can earn God’s favor, this frightening truth makes us ready to hear about God’s free gift of salvation, by the Cross of Christ. But these things were rarely being preached in 1517; such was the state of the Church, 500 years ago.
So thanks be to God for raising up Luther and thousands of others who proclaimed the Truth of Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone. Still, today, Churches and pastors and Christians still try to attach barnacles to the hull of free salvation in Christ, but this Truth is certainly much more available today than it was before Luther. Available, but still, somehow, not always believed. But I digress. Suffice it to say, as we approach Ash Wednesday and another Lenten journey to the cross, nothing could be better for our faith and life together than a review of the basics, how it is that God saves us, so that we will be resting in this good news, as we come to Ash Wednesday, to face the trials and bitter repentance of Lent. And so, regardless of what Vicar Toombs may choose to do with his beard, we are blessed today to focus on Grace alone, next week on Scripture alone, and the following on Faith alone.
Grace alone. God saves sinners because He wants to, it is pure gift, springing from His heart, which overflows with love and gifts. This teaching is all over the Bible. Nothing in Adam and Eve, no good work by them, was the cause of the LORD’s promise to the Serpent. The man and woman had just turned their backs on God, and the next thing you know, the Lord makes His promise, that the Seed of the Woman would come and crush the serpent’s evil head, breaking his sin-based power over mankind, by removing our sins from us.
In the same way, nothing about Abram’s character and holiness caused the LORD to choose him to be the Father of God’s special people, to be the original ancestor of the human family of the Christ. Indeed, if you read the Scriptures through, you will discover again and again that these chosen instruments of God, like Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, and Paul, were in truth miserable sinners, saved and used by God by grace, totally apart from any merit in them. Abraham tried to give his wife away, multiple times. Moses was a killer, and was prone to losing his temper. David was an adulterer and murdered his friend. Peter denied Christ, and then later denied fellowship with Gentile Christians, in order to impress his Jewish friends. Paul persecuted the Church of God, holding the coats of the mob as they stoned St. Stephen. Such are the human heroes of the Bible.
We are all thoroughly sinful sinners, with nothing worthy to offer to God for our redemption. But God is gracious, and so God saves us, by grace alone, that is as a free, undeserved gift. God saves us, solely because God is love, and in love He wills to save. Which He does, in the way that He knows is best.
Which brings us to our parable this morning, the parable of the workers in the vineyard. The Master of the house, the owner of the Vineyard, is God. The laborers are you and me, individual sinners called to enter and join in the work of the vineyard, which is to say to be a part of the Church Militant, the Church on earth. Notice that the focus is not on the actual work that each laborer does in the vineyard – no, the key element in the parable is the call of the Master, who continually seeks out and brings the idle into His vineyard, all day long, guaranteeing each a reward, regardless of the amount or quality of their work. The Master’s “hiring” is by grace, it’s free gift, unrelated to the value any laborer can or cannot offer in return. This “hiring” is God’s converting call, perhaps best seen in our lives in our Baptism, a gracious selection by God of sinners, by which He brings them into His vineyard, His household, making them His very own, without any reference to their goodness, with no relationship to their merit, simply because God desires to make disciples of Jesus, by baptizing them.
But, while God is naturally gracious, we are naturally ungracious. To coin a term, we are sinfulnaturally ungracious, from our sinful nature we resist sharing, and we also tend toward ungratefulness, unthankfulness. From the newborn selfishly trying to monopolize the time and attention of Mom, to the toddler, refusing to share her toys, to the American public, which in survey after survey wants the government to shrink and spend less money, except don’t take away the programs that benefit me! Don’t ask me to do without for the good of the whole. Indeed, the most prosperous system yet discovered for living together on this planet, the free-market capitalist system, is a just-barely-held-in-check system of every man for himself, struggling to get all he can, more or less within a rule of law. The free-market system is to many a thing of beauty, and it has done more for the material wealth and prosperity of more people than any other system. But still, at its core it depends on our desire for more and more stuff, and on the government’s ability to keep our desires and selfishness operating within certain boundaries.
It’s how we are. When we receive, we may be thankful for a moment, but how quickly we want more, how quickly we grow bored and dissatisfied with what yesterday fulfilled all our needs and wants. This is clearly seen in God’s people, already back with Moses in the desert. Consider their situation. A few months earlier, they were a nation of slaves, laboring painfully under the whip in Egypt. But the LORD through Moses had delivered them to freedom, God even causing the Egyptians to shower them with gifts on their way out of town. When Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his chariots after them, the LORD led Israel on dry ground through the Red Sea. Then the Lord re-purposed the walls of water He had held up for Israel, changing them into a weapon, which crashed down on Pharaoh’s army, destroying horse and rider. Soon after that, when Israel could only find bitter waters, God told Moses to sweeten the waters at Marah with a stick. When they were hungry, God sent manna and quail on the camp, day by day.
God had done all these things for Israel, in a matter of weeks. But still, in today’s reading from Exodus, the Israelites are grumbling again, unhappy with the LORD’s provision, ungrateful and impatient for more and better gifts. God’s people showed no patience, no trust, no thankfulness, even though the LORD had been blessing them so richly. All this from a people who were living as slaves, seemingly forgotten by God just months earlier. Ungracious, and ungrateful.
As with Israel in the desert, so also with the workers in Jesus’ parable today. None of them deserve to be brought into the Master’s household, none of them earned a spot in the vineyard. And yet this is the call and promise of the Master, a promise He chooses to make, all day long, calling out again and again, “Come into my vineyard, join in my prosperity.” The Master was full of grace. How did the workers react? The laborers hired first expected special, better treatment than those hired last, because that is how sinners naturally are, ungracious toward others, and ungrateful towards the Master.
I’m sure glad that you and I have at long last gotten over this ungracious, ungrateful problem. I’m glad we are so naturally thankful and gracious, happy to share what we have with others, happy to see others praised and blessed, never jealous of the good fortune the LORD showers on another. I’m so glad we never get possessive with the gifts God has given us. We’re never upset that someone has parked in “our” parking spot, on that public street in front of work, never miffed that someone else is recognized for a kind act that we do all the time, never grumpy because someone else got the best seat in the student section at the basketball game, you know, the seat between the coolest guy and the prettiest girl, that seat that certainly I deserve, don’t I? We’re never jealous that God is blessing someone else, maybe with an oil right and royalties that they didn’t do anything to earn it. We never grumble that we’ve worked harder, that we’re just as deserving.
Unfortunately, ungratefulness and ungraciousness are still in our nature. And while it can be funny, it’s really no laughing matter. For the many and various ways we despise God’s gifts from yesterday and want new and better today, for the way we insist God should serve us in the way we think is best, for our ungrateful, ungracious, prideful hearts, we deserve to be cut off, kicked out of the vineyard, rejected by God. Watch out.
It seems our gracious God has a problem: how to give a free, priceless gift to people who claim a right to everything, people whose thankfulness passes away like the mist, whose gracious desire to share lasts but a moment? Well, part of God’s solution is to warn us, with the example of the Israelites who despised God and died in the desert, with the example of all the Jews who saw the Savior, but rejected Him, and with the example of all the people we know who have heard and received and even confessed the Good News of salvation by Grace alone, but then despise God’s gift by living without Him, outside the fellowship of His Church. Don’t be fooled, God is not mocked.
Part of God’s solution is to warn us, but then He does the continually unexpected. When we are put in charge of unruly people, we warn, and then we punish, and then we warn, and give partial rewards as we get partial responses, the carrot and the stick. This is not God’s way. God does warn, but He overcomes our ungratefulness… with more giving, even the supreme act of grace – Jesus doing all our works for us, and then also becoming sin for us. It is as Jesus said, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
You see, Jesus was the very first, the greatest Man ever, and yet He, to overcome our ungratefulness, our sin, our pride, became the very last. Hanging on a Cross, suffering in our place, utterly abandoned, Jesus became the lastest of all, so that we don’t have to be cast out. And then, completing God’s grace, Jesus the Lastest, the crucified, despised one, became the very first, the firstest of all, the first-born of the dead, the ultimate gift of our loving God. Jesus, crucified and resurrected, is the gift that makes new the ungrateful hearts of the very people who by their nature reject Him. That is, Jesus creates new hearts, in you and me. Jesus, dead in our place, and raised for our new life, uses the Word of His Grace to create new hearts in us, truly thankful hearts, by the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus, by His Word of Grace helps us to rejoice in all our gifts, because in Him we realize that all our blessings come from the same God has saved us by His Cross.
Our old, ungrateful, ungracious, sinful natures still war against the thought of the complete free-giftedness of God’s salvation. But God’s giving is greater than our selfishness, and His giving continues, day by day throughout our lives, for we are His chosen, baptized, free-gifted people. By grace you have been saved, and nothing, not even your old sinful nature, will stop God from giving you the gift Jesus’ has won for you. Go forth, in the grace, and joy, and peace of Christ, Amen.