The Truth of the Word – Sermon for Ash Wednesday

The Truth of the Word

Psalm 51:1-7

Ash Wednesday

February 18, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

History has many great things to say about King David.  He was God’s chosen King over Israel, anointed by the Lord’s Prophet Samuel while he was still a boy.  He was pulled out of tending his father’s flock in the fields and told he would one day live in the palace to tend the Lord’s flock.  He slew the mighty Goliath, penned many of the Psalms, some of the most beautiful poetry ever composed, and led the nation of Israel to the height of its political dominance.  There are many accolades that history would have us lay at the feet of King David.  Yet for all that he accomplished, King David will forever be 2-slice-bannerremembered for his failures. While it is true that David was a great king, it is equally true that he was a miserable sinner.  King David, a man with tremendous wealth and comfort at his fingertips, stood on the roof of his palace and coveted another man’s wife.  He lusted after the flesh of Bathsheba.  He acted on that lust by arranging for her husband Uriah to be placed in the front lines of battle, secretly orchestrating his death.  He then took Bathsheba as his own.  Yes, King David sinned against many people.  He sinned against Uriah by coveting his wife and sending him to his death.  He sinned against Bathsheba by lusting after her flesh, objectifying her and treating her as nothing more than an outlet for his passion.  He further sinned against her by sending her husband to a bloody grave.  He sinned against the each and every person of Israel by dishonoring his vocation as their king, using his office to satisfy his own sinful desires rather than using his God-given authority to defend and protect his people as God intended.

So the Lord sent the prophet Nathan to speak God’s Word to King David.  Nathan told of a wealthy man who stole a lamb from poor man, slaughtered it, and served it at a banquet. The man could have taken one of his own lambs and served it, but he took the poor man’s only lamb instead.  King David was rightly outraged and spoke the Lord’s judgment upon such a man.  He said that such a man in his kingdom (which, as the Old Testament kingdom of Israel is basically the kingdom of God) should face judgment. Then Nathan, using David’s own words of condemnation, showed him his guilt.  David was pronounced guilty not merely by the word of the prophet, but by the judgment of the King. He was convicted by his own words.

Convicted in his sin, David wrote Psalm 51, which we chanted to begin the service.  It is a psalm filled with striking language of repentance, language which is scattered throughout our liturgy.  And yet nowhere in the psalm is there mention of any of the sins that so famously inspired David to write.  Nowhere in the psalm do we find David repenting of lust, adultery, murder, or abuse of power. David knew that his guilt did not rest on those public sins alone.  He knew that his guilt was deeper than just those actions.  David saw that he was convicted by the Word of the Lord, a word spoken from outside himself.  David was convicted in his sin not only by his actions, but much more by the declaration of the Lord’s Word.  David was absolutely guilty because of the terrible things he had done.  But more than just because of his actions, David was guilty because the word of the Lord declared him guilty. Consider someone who commits a crime. If a person stole something they may be morally guilty of theft, but they only get into real trouble with the law if they are tried and convicted in a court of the law. A guilty person might very well get away with a crime. Similarly, an innocent person might be wrongly convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.  Innocent or not, it is the declaration of the court that matters.  If the court declares a person guilty, that person is guilty in the eyes of the law and will be sentenced accordingly. If the court declares a person innocent, that person will be sent home.  It is not simply the presence of actual guilt that condemns a person. In many ways, the official pronouncement or declaration of guilt is far more devastating. So it was with David. Not only had David committed several sins, he had been sentenced for them. He had been declared guilty by the Word of God himself.

Thus, in spite of all he had done to Bathsheba and Uriah, David writes of repentance to the Lord who had declared him guilty: “Against you, you only, have I sinned / and done what is evil in your sight, / so that you may be justified in your words / and blameless in your judgment” [Psalm 51:4].  David acknowledged that his sins justified God’s word of 3813forgiven-400x254condemnation over him.  David saw that the presence any sinful thought, word, or deed in our lives gives evidence that God’s judgment is accurate, that his Word is true.  Just as a person who stole something does not actually face judgment until the court delivers its verdict, it is ultimately God’s word, spoken from outside ourselves, that truly condemns us.  We are guilty not simply because of our sinful actions, but much more because the Word of the Lord has convicted us in that sin.  God’s Word has called a spade a spade, condemned our sin for what it is, and pronounced his righteous judgment upon it, and upon us.  David recognized that his condemnation had come from outside himself.  He recognized that his sentence was spoken by the mouth of the Lord himself. His guilt was deeper than any particular sins involving Bathsheba or Uriah.  He was guilty because of the Lord’s Word of Law spoken by the Lord’s prophet.  And because the verdict of guilt had come from outside himself, David looked outside himself to see the Lord’s salvation.

Have mercy on me, O God, / according to your steadfast love; / according to your abundant mercy / blot out my transgressions” [Psalm 51:1].  In his plea for mercy David appealed to the Lord’s steadfast love.  If we trace the use of that Hebrew word through Scripture, we see that the Lord’s steadfast love is his mercy in action, mercy revealed in continued faithfulness to his people in spite of their constant failure.  Psalm 136 is a wonderful example of this. In that Psalm the refrain, “his steadfast love endures forever” is interwoven into a confession of the different ways God has blessed his people throughout their history.  From creation to the deliverance out of Egypt to the deliverance of Israel into the Promised Land to his continued support of life in this world by giving food to all flesh, the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever. It is to this steadfast love of God that David turns in time of need.  It is in God’s track record of deliverance that David finds his hope.  David pleads that the Lord would have mercy on him not because of his contrition or sorrow, nor because of anything else found inside David, but because of the certain and inexhaustible mercy of the Lord; mercy that is not simply an emotion God feels out in heaven somewhere, but mercy in action, mercy delivered to us.

Because the mercy of the Lord that David appealed to is always mercy delivered, David also appealed to the place that mercy was found in the daily life of an Israelite: in the work of the Priests. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, / and cleanse me from my sin! Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” [Psalm 51:2, 7].  The way that an Israelite in the time of David would be cleansed by the Lord is through the words spoken by the mouth of the Lord’s Priest.  Hyssop was a plant regularly used in the tabernacle to sprinkle cleansing water upon those who were unclean.  David is pleading that the Lord, who rightly pronounced him sinful by his holy word, would by that same word pronounce hyssophim washed and clean, and through the gift of the tabernacle make him clean.  David knew that when the Priest pronounced him clean, that word was as sure and certain as the convicting word spoken through the prophet Nathan.  David trusted the cleansing water sprinkled from hyssop as God instituted it. As his conviction had come from outside himself, David looked outside of himself to find his forgiveness.

So it is with us.  Let David be our guide not in sin, but in our response to it.  Like David, we have been convicted by the Lord’s word of Law, a word spoken from outside ourselves.  Like David, our salvation is also found outside ourselves.  Just as the Lord’s word is true when he says that we are all sinful, so also is his word true when he says that we are all forgiven by the death of his Son.  But like David, we do not find this forgiveness inside ourselves.  We look outside ourselves, to the forgiveness of sins won on the cross, and delivered by the hands of the Church.  Like David, we appeal to the Lord’s steadfast love, his mercy delivered to us.  Like David, we are given the Lord’s mercy through the hands of another.  If the Psalm were composed today, instead of reading “wash me” and “cleanse me,” it might read “absolve me,” calling to mind the words of the Pastor the way that David spoke of the words of the Priest.  Instead of reading “purge me with hyssop,” it might say “refresh me with your own body and blood in the bread and wine of your altar.”  What was true for David when he wrote this psalm is still true for us today: our forgiveness is found outside ourselves, in our Lord’s Means of Grace, in his Word and sacraments, the very things around which we gather today.

This Lenten season we will spend time meditating on several temptations that God’s Word-and-Sacramentpeople commonly face.  As we embark on this season of repentance and preparation for Easter, we are given to see that like King David, we live in the midst of temptation.  And like David, we are sinners who have been justly condemned by the word of God’s Law.  But as David was also righteous in spite of his sin, declared washed and clean by the Word of the Lord spoken by the Priest, so we too are pronounced righteous by the Word of absolution spoken by the Pastor and distributed through the Holy Sacraments, forgiveness from outside ourselves, a gift from our Lord delivered by the hands of another.

So follow David.  Rend your hearts and receive your forgiveness in humble repentance. Feast on the body and blood of your savior. Have your sin purged with the blood of Christ. Have your impure lips opened that your life may sing forth God’s praise.  Receive the gift of a new heart that lamenting your wretchedness you may receive from your Lord full pardon and forgiveness. Come experience the steadfast love of the Lord as he acts in mercy for you at this altar, for in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

May God grant it for Jesus’ sake.

Love Is – Sermon for February 15/16

Love Is

1 Corinthians 13

Quinquagesima

February 15th/16th, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

             Love is in the air. Love is all around. But mostly, love is on clearance at drug stores and supermarkets around the country today as managers try to move the last of 511aad926118f.preview-620their Valentine’s Day merchandise and make way for St. Patrick’s Day. The weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day are a natural time for us as Americans to contemplate the nature of love. Romantic comedies typically fill the broadcast schedule for most cable networks, and the movie theatres are usually good for a new release or two that promise a happily ever after. Although this year’s Valentine’s Day film de jour has a much darker and violent tone, it is still being billed as a love story, for this the season for romance. This is the season for love.  And when most people want to know what God’s Word teaches about love, 1 Corinthians 13 is the first place they look.

The section of 1st Corinthians read today is often referred to as the great love chapter. It is so frequently read at weddings that we have come to naturally associate it with romantic love, but that is not really the case. Paul is writing about something bigger. Consider at the flow of the letter: In chapter 11 he writes about the division present in the Corinthian congregation and reminds them of the unity they have in the body and blood of Christ. He chastises them for their division. But in chapter 12 he reminds them that the unity they (and we) possess as the body of Christ is a unity in diversity, each person having a unique set of gifts and abilities that are united in service of the one body of Christ. The Christian life consists of embracing godly diversity without falling into sinful rivalry or divisiveness.  In chapter 13 Paul holds forth love as the glue that holds this unity together. Godly unity in diversity requires this love. Without it, such diversity is destined to fall into rivalry and division.  Paul describes this love in detail before concluding this section in chapter 14 with several concrete examples of how this love-bound unity in diversity demonstrates itself. But the great love chapter highlights godly love as the glue that holds the body of Christ together. This chapter gives us a more excellent way of approaching our life together as the body of Christ in this place.

Our world’s view of love and our Lord’s view of love are often so far apart that we wonder how the same word can be used to refer to such wildly different things. While 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t strictly about romantic love, there are helpful parallels that can be Infatuation-Dreamstimedrawn between our world’s approach to romance and the approach we are often tempted to take in our relationship with God. Our world tends to confuse infatuation with love.  I wonder sometimes how much our view of reality has been shaped by the time we spend watching movies or reading stories that end “happily ever after.” We absorb these stories so frequently that part of us begins to think of life in these terms, that the goal is to get to the credits, to the happily ever after. But in almost every single case the “happily ever after” is merely the beginning of the relationship.  Happily ever after is the puppy-dog eyed, head-over-heels, immature infatuation that marks the beginning of a relationship instead of the mature, deeply rooted love that is only possible after a lifetime of companionship. Because the credits seem to always roll at the first kiss, this first kiss is seen as the fulfillment of the story, we begin to associate the energy and emotions of the first kiss with true love.

But reality is much different. In reality, the credits don’t roll at first kiss. In reality, the energy and excitement felt at the beginning of a relationship fade over time.  And that is where love shows its true colors. Our culture has taught us to assume that when the excitement of the first kiss fades, that love has faded too. Paul disagrees. According to Paul, true love is patient, which would be better translated “longsuffering.” It remains even while emotions wax and wane. To put it another way, love takes time. It takes endurance. It is not simply an emotional flood that sweeps us away beyond our ability to control.  It is Gutter-Weedsa conscious choice of the will.  It certainly affects the emotions in a profound way, but its foundation must lie somewhere else.  Emotions are shallow.  Our emotions are like the muck that accumulates in uncleaned gutters.  The decayed leaves that accumulate there may have enough nutrients to support a sapling or some weeds, but a tree will never grow healthy and large there.  That kind of growth requires actual soil, and it takes time.  I remember having a debate in my English class when I was a high school senior. We were reading Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, play that is supposed to be a comedy. In a Shakespearean comedy, things are supposed to end happily ever after. In this particular play, one of the couples who gets to live happily ever after consists of a And-they-lived-happily-ever-afterwoman who has long loved a particular man, and that man, who is under the spell of a love charm. It bothered me that what was supposed to be a happy ending involved one character who was not willfully sacrificing himself for the woman he was to marry, but was rather bewitched. It bothered me because true love is an act of the will that evidences itself in our actions. Love is not simply the emotion one feels on his or her wedding day. Love is the decision to live the rest of your life faithful to the vows made before God and family. Love is the decision to act in a certain way, to walk away from the flirtatious temptation of a coworker and remain bodily faithful to your spouse, to sacrifice your pride for the good of the marriage, even when doing so doesn’t make you feel particularly good.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “It is not your love that will sustain your marriage, it is your marriage that will sustain your love.” Godly love is sustained and strengthened by daily living in such a way that fosters and strengthens it.

And yet this is so hard for us to do. We are constantly fighting the temptation to a prideful and egocentric view not only of love, but even of life in general. Our sinful nature wants to view other people in terms of what we can get from them instead of what we can give to them.  But this is not how love works. Love does not insist on its own way, but it bears all things. And as much as we see the importance of this in marriage, the same can be said about our life in the body of Christ. Remember, 1 Corinthians 13 is primarily about the way Christians should act as the body of Christ. We can certainly use these words to help us understand the love that makes for a godly marriage, but their primary purpose is to mold us into loving relationships with other Christians. But thoughts of romance and love are helpful here because we so often approach the church as our culture approaches romance. As we are tempted to equate the excitement and energy of the first kiss with love, we are also tempted to equate the excitement of the mountain top or conversion experience with faith. But neither is true.

Our life in our Lord’s church takes as much willful dedication as a faithful marriage does. It takes the Holy Spirit living in us to recreate our wills and desires so that they are in line with God’s will. It takes time.  It requires moving beyond the infatuation phase and into a deeper and more mature understanding of our Lord and his Word.  It shows itself in the sacrifice of time when we make it a priority to be in the services of our Lord’s house, hearing God’s Word, praying with the faithful, feeding on the body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins. Even at those times where our excitement for the faith is particularly low, mature love shows itself in action – the action of participation. Love is not arrogant or rude. It does not ask what can this church do for me, but it asks what I can sacrifice for the betterment of the people of God in this place. It does not seek out the bare minimum that can be contributed before someone notices that I’m not pulling my own weight. It seeks to contribute to the betterment of all the people of God in this place, not only with gifts of time, but with financial offerings as well. Love looks out at this place and the community around us and sees a need to train up children in the way of God. But love takes action.  Love is commitment to that action even when such action is difficult, monotonous, or mundane. Love is an act of the will, a conscious decision to act, live, and think in ways that are patient and kind, not irritable and resentful, even when we don’t really want to.

For this is how our Lord loved us. This love marks our lives only because Christ lives in us. He who loved the world by giving himself up for it now lives in you where he continues to sacrifice himself for the needs of your neighbor. He knows no other love, for self-sacrificial love is love as it was intended, love in its purest form. Self-giving love is the love that knows no end. Self-seeking love always comes to an end, for there will come a time when the other person will no longer satisfy the ever-growing demands we place upon them. Self-serving love acts like a swarm of locusts that devours everything in its path before moving on to the next stop. It always takes, never gives, until there is nothing left to take. Then it moves on to the next victim.  But not self-giving love. Self-sacrificial love has no end, not even in eternity. As Paul wrote, faith, hope, and love are three great gifts from God, but love alone lasts forever. Faith will not last forever, but only as long as this creation. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. But those things will be seen one day. Faith trust the promises of God, that he will fulfill those promises one day. But once those promises are fulfilled, faith has served its purpose and is no longer necessary. So also hope. Hope by virtue of what it is waits for fulfillment. But that fulfillment will arrive when Christ returns and makes all things new. Faith and hope will reach their fulfillment and will come to an end one day.

But not love. Love knows no end because love is what we were created for. It was not good for Adam to be alone because if he was then there would be no one for him to love, no one for him to give himself to, no one for whom he could sacrifice his own wants and needs. Even within the eternal Trinity there is love, for the Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds in love from both. Love knows6a00d83451596669e20120a569f42b970b-800wi no end.  Heaven itself will be marked by this love. In eternity, our love for God and for each other will be perfect. Now, any experience of such love is like looking in a dimly lit mirror, or perhaps like looking at our reflection in a spoon. The reflection is there. You might be able to make out the contours, but it is distorted and fuzzy. Our ability to love with a pure and godly love is distorted and fuzzied by sin, but the gift of the new creation alive in us through the preaching of God’s Word still seeks to live in this love.

This is the love we strive for today.  We know we can’t live in it perfectly, but we commit ourselves to it anyway, trusting in the forgiveness we have been given in the blood of Jesus. We are able to love in this way because he first loved us. He has redeemed us. He has renewed us. He has placed us in this congregation to live lives marked by his love. May our Lord continue to bless us as we strive for this love in our relationships today, and may he deliver us into the perfection of this love for all eternity.

Thou Shalt Not: God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized (1st Comm)

Thou Shalt Not . . .
God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized
The First Commandment

 Many, if not all, of us have had the experience of our computer or TV not working quite right. There could be any number of problems that need addressing, but if you call a tech-line for help the first question they ask is, “Have you tried turning it off and back on?” More often than not, simply resetting the system will unravel whatever technological tangle was bogging down the device. It’s a simple principle: If things aren’t right at startup, then nothing will work right. Or looked at from another angle: Correcting a problem at startup will solve a whole host of other problems down the line.

In many ways, the same principle is behind the First Commandment.  Having a healthy understanding of it will lead to a healthy understanding of those that follow, while problems with those that follow can often be solved by reflecting on the first one.  It’s not by mere happenstance that it comes first; rather, it serves as the foundation for what follows.

It is helpful to remember at this point that the Law is a gift to God’s children, not a curse. Our problem is not with the Law, but with our sin which makes us incapable of keeping it. Thus, when Martin Luther wrote in the Large Catechism, “A ‘god’ is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need,” he was emphasizing that the point of the Commandment is not that God is vying to be the alpha dog in the divine pack or that these words are the slogan of one campaigning to be our choice from among the buffet line of available deities.  Rather, the point is that there is no other option, for there is no other God.

Whether or not we are willing to admit it, the truth remains that there is no God but the True God. To look for help from somewhere else is foolishness, for there is no other help available. We might understand this commandment as simply, “Let God be God.” He is the creator, we are the creatures. He is the redeemer, we are the redeemed. He is the provider, we are those being provided for. The list multiplies itself, but the point is the same: the first and most fundamental instruction God gives his people through the Law is that because he alone is God, life works best when we treat him as such.

It is also significant that the first commandment follows closely on the heels of God’s reminder to Israel that he is the one who delivered them out of slavery in Egypt [Exodus 20:2-3]. This is important because it emphasizes to Israel, and to us, not only that God alone is God, but what manner of God he is. He is the delivering, redeeming God; we are the delivered, redeemed people. If the commandment were rewritten for today, it might read, “I am the Lord your God who took on human flesh in the man Jesus to live, suffer, and die as your substitute. I’ve proven my love for you. Let me alone be God to you.”

The heart of the First Commandment is living in a right relationship with God. The whole Law is a reflection of the people God created us to be and the relationships he created us to have. While the effects of this can certainly be seen in the relationships we have with the people around us as well as with creation itself, it all begins with our relationship to God our Savior. If we do not live in the reality that we are sinners and God is our Savior, noting else in our lives will work quite right. It may work well enough to get by, but it cannot measure up to the peace that passes understanding given to the Lord’s redeemed people. In such a situation, we need to “reboot the system” by confessing our sin and rejoicing in God our Savior.

Thus, the First Commandment is the fountain from which flow all other commandments. When we allow God to be God, our use of his name will be right, our worship will be right, our relationships with the people around us will be right. In the words of Luther, “If the heart is right with God and we keep this commandment, all the rest will follow on their own” [Large Catechism].

What We Deserve – Sermon for Feb. 1/2, 2015

What We Deserve
Matthew 20:1-16
Septuagesima
February 1st/2nd, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

In William shake Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, a character named Antonio takes out a loan from his mortal enemy Shylock. Antonio takes out the loan in order to give the money to his friend who needs it as a dowry. Now, as you might expect with a story in need of a plot, the terms of this loan are fairly unique. The deal was that if Antonio didn’t pay back the entire loan on time, then his enemy Shylock would cut out a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Antonio is a wealthy man who has fallen on hard times, so he has a hard time getting a loan from anyone else. He is waiting for a ship to arrive in port so that he can sell the shipment, and he intends to use the cash from the shipment to repay the loan, so he agrees to the ridiculous terms. Well, as you can probably guess, due to circumstance beyond his control, Antonio isn’t able to pay back the loan. The ship is lost at sea, and when his enemy comes to collect his due, Antonio is forced to admit that he is without the liquid assets to repay the loan. The case goes to court, where Shylock sharpens his knife while demanding his due. He keeps repeating, “Give me what is owed me.” The judge pleads with Shylock to be merciful, but Shylock demands that he be treated justly, according to the law of the land, and according to the contract signed. He wants Antonio’s flesh.

Then, in a strange twist, combined with a bit of legal gymnastics, the judge tells Shylock that he may indeed cut a pound of flesh as stipulated in the loan agreement. But it must be exactly one pound, not an ounce more, not an ounce less, for those were the terms agreed upon. Additionally, he may not shed even a drop of Antonio’s blood while cutting away exactly one pound, for the loan didn’t say anything about blood, only flesh. If Shylock does shed even one drop of Antonio’s blood, he will be arrested and charged with attempted murder. Suddenly, Shylock is not demanding justice anymore, but is seeking mercy of his own. Suddenly, he sees that the law he so desired and demanded is holding him as a slave as well.

Shakespeare was a master at painting so vividly the emotions and experiences of everyday life. Here he portrays so skillfully a situation that we can all identify with, and emotion that we all feel: entitlement. We want what’s ours, what we feel we deserve, until we realize that what’s ours isn’t exactly what we expected.

That’s what happened with the workers from today’s Gospel lesson. The workers who were hired first thing in the morning felt entitled to more than those who were hired at the end of the day. For a certain perspective, I suppose they were right. They had worked longer hours. They had worked through the heat of the day while those hired later had only worked toward sundown. They had invested more time in the project than any of the other workers. From their perspective, the whole situation was unfair. I think most of us understand where they’re coming from. The problem is that they, like Shylock, like us, were victims of tunnel vision and selective amnesia. In their case, they were ignoring the simple reality that they had agreed to work for a specified wage, and when the time came, that wage is exactly what they were paid. When viewed in comparison to the workers around them it might have seemed unfair, but not when viewed from the perspective of their relationship to the owner. The owner’s relationship to each individual had nothing to do with his relationship to anyone else.

It’s a dangerously common temptation to evaluate ourselves and our standing before God by comparing ourselves to other people rather than comparing ourselves to God’s standard as set forth in his holy Law. It’s a common temptation because if we compare ourselves to other sinful people rather than against the standard set forth in our Lord’s Word, we can “stack the deck,” so to speak. We can choose the people with whom we TrueSelf-FalseSelfwill compare ourselves, and which ones we will forget. “Sure, I’m not better than the best people out there, but I’m definitely better than the worst, so I’ll just compare myself to them.” We can choose which of our own actions we will put forth as evidence in these comparisons, and which we will conveniently forget. “Sure I’m may have fudged the truth a little to my boss or had that hatred flare up toward my coworker or my lust for the woman in the elevator, but those don’t count. I choose to focus on the time I spend in prayer and at church.” We can easily explain away our sins by simply telling the judge in our head, “Yes, I did that, but everyone else does too. It’s really not that big of a deal.” Because the trial takes place in the courtroom of our own mind and is one of our own devising, we can control which witnesses will be called, whose testimony will be stricken from the record, and what the final verdict will ultimately be. The problem is, this is a courtroom of the mind. It is a verdict of the mind. While we may be able to convince ourselves it is right, it’s not reality. Reality is much different.

If we go to our Father in Heaven and lay the verdict of our imaginary trial at his feet for his blessing and approval, we will be as disappointed as the workers at the end of today’s parable. If we take our estimation of our own abilities to God and ask to be given what we deserve, we will be as frustrated as Shylock. For despite the lies we tell ourselves, like Shylock, the law is not ultimately on our side. By means of the law, no one will be made righteous, not even one. Reality is a harsh judge. Reality is that we have not trusted in God above all things. We instead trust in our careers and our bank accounts to provide for our future, and we trust in the bottle or some other self-medication to soothe our sin-sick souls. Reality is that we have not called upon God in prayer and thanksgiving as we ought, but rather to often treat him as a genie to be consulted only when we have exhausted all other options at our disposal. We have not worshiped as we ought, we don’t respect authority, and we’re almost never content with the lot in life that our Lord has given us. No, the law of reality is a harsh judge, and if at the end of the day we go complaining to our Lord demanding what we deserve, we won’t especially like what we get, for what we deserve is temporal and eternal punishment. All we are entitled to is judgment.

nhk2NBut look again at the master in the parable. When the workers come to him and tell him he is unfair, he doesn’t argue. Rather, his reply is, “Do you begrudge my generosity?” There is where we find our joy in the parable. The Master is unfair; he doesn’t want to give us what we deserve. He wants to be generous. It is a sign of our spiritual blindness that we so quickly identify with those who have been working the longest in the parable. In reality, we are the ones who have come last, the ones who don’t deserve anything, but who are given everything. We are the Israelites in the wilderness who receive manna from heaven and water from rocks out of the pure generosity of our Lord. As Jesus himself said, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. It was the love and generosity of the Father that sent Jesus into the world. It was the love and generosity of Jesus that led him to willingly submit to his Father’s will, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Love and generosity are the motivation behind our Lord’s actions to us. It is when we have rejected him as our gracious Lord that we get an auditor instead. It is when we reject the gift of forgiveness and demand that our Lord give us what we deserve that we actually get what we deserve: judgment.

And yet in spite of our continual demands that our Lord give us what we deserve, he continues to come to us in mercy and generosity. He is here today in his body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins. Here is here in the proclamation of his law, reminding us of what we actually deserve, but also in the proclamation of his Gospel, reminding us that we receive forgiveness instead. Like Shylock from the Merchant of Venice, we are tempted to be so sure of ourselves. We are tempted to think we have all our bases covered, that we have it all under control. We are tempted to demand what we believe is ours, what we believe we’ve earned. But when we realize that the only thing we’ve earned is punishment, a one-way ticket to a place much hotter than the Caribbean, suddenly grace is what we desire.

But unlike Shylock, grace is what we receive, full payment for a day’s labor when we’ve only arrived an hour before closing. We receive that which is not rightfully ours. We receive the mercy and generosity of God himself. It goes against everything our culture has taught us, that God would be so compassionate. It is our nature to compare, to measure, to judge according to the standard of other people. We thrive off comparison.

But that is not how God works. God doesn’t work according to the standards we think are best. He doesn’t make such comparisons among his children. He sees us all through the blood of Christ. Through the blood of Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, early worker or late arrival. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but the gift to all equally is eternal life through the same Christ Jesus our polls_05_08_12_cross_at_sunset_web31_2742_684070_answer_1_xlargeLord. We don’t deserve it, but we still get it. Others don’t deserve it, but they still get it too. And Praise the Lord for that! God rewards all his children equally, with the same salvation.

This undeserved generosity gives us a new outlook on life. When we are jealous that someone else is receiving more than we got, or feel that we deserve more than we’re getting, we know we’re right. We do deserve so much more. We deserve death. We deserve hell. Similarly, when we think that someone else is receiving better than they deserve, we don’t have to get bitter, for we remember that we are too. We are receiving the very life of Christ himself. We are receiving the full measure of salvation when you’ve worked for none of it, when we deserve none of it.

We don’t get what we deserve. We don’t get what we’ve earned. And thanks be to God for that.