THE LAST SHALL BE FIRST
"O God, graciously hear the prayers of your people that we, who justly suffer the consequences of our sin, may be mercifully delivered by your goodness to the glory of your name." Collect for Septuagesima
TODAY the church begins her descent into suffering and death with the Lord. Lent does not begin for three weeks but the trio of Sundays before hand, designated pre-Lent, help us to gradually descend into a season of imposed sorrow and resolute repentance. Not that we don't repent of our sins daily, because we do. We must, and not only that, but with humble repentance we also obtain pardon, cleansing and new resolve to accomplish what we pray for in the post communion collect, viz. "faith towards Thee and of fervent love toward one another." Those are the loftiest endeavors of all.
Today's Scripture lessons all work together to impose what many would call a negative theme upon us, and right they are, for we are the faithless congregation of Israel asking, "is the Lord among us or not?" We are the ones who passed through the water of baptism and yet still live like the unwashed. We are the laborers in the vineyard who disdain the Lord's generosity and who think that we can do business with God. A negative theme indeed, but one that is much needed because until we rest in heaven we can never rest on our laurels. We must never become smug, over-confident or self-satisfied, not in our faith and not in any other pursuit either, because the moment you start to swagger is the moment you are about to fall: as Scripture says, "pride cometh before the fall!"
Yes, the theme of today's Collect is most negative, most offensive to human pride, and contrary to the liturgy that the world demands we sing. That line, "we who justly suffer the consequences of our sins," would never be tolerated outside these walls. You won't find such sentiment in government publications, college campuses, or even displayed on one of the many pandering church signs that dot our city. Such a proclamation amounts to "hate speech" in the ears of the Old Man, and would sound that way even to the New Man were it not followed immediately by the gospel, but it is! "...that we who justly suffer the consequences of our sin may be mercifully delivered by your goodness!" That we most definitely are! Hence empowered by the Gospel, which is God's supreme Word to us, let us understand that everything we suffer in this world, large or small, individually or collectively, is the wages of our sins coming down upon our heads. Sin always promises us great benefit! It is suave and silver-tongued, but it only delivers bloodshed and sorrow, and it always incurs the wrath of God, but there is a cure, and that cure is Jesus.
You may alleviate the consequences of sin by other means: technology, virtuous behavior, or just institutions if only you could find one, but those are only bandages. Jesus is the cure, but we must say more than that, because slogans can never provide the mercy we pray for in today's Collect. The church is much more than slogans; much more than the sound bites or the cozy encounters that pass for Christian worship today.
This was the case for Israel and it is still the case for us today. Then, God commanded His Old Testament church to build an exquisite place of worship. He instituted religious observances, sacrifices, liturgies, rituals, clergy, vestments, craftsmen, musicians and an army of other assistants, so that God's people might always have the remission of sins readily at hand; so that it was something they could grasp with their senses as well as with their minds because God always comes to men dressed in flesh and blood.
In today's epistle St. Paul talks about the Old Testament church. He asserts that they were the beneficiaries of every grace and blessing that God had to give. When they were hungry God gave them manna from heaven, which was prophetic of Jesus who is the Bread of Life and of the Sacrament of His body and blood. When they were perishing from thirst God commanded Moses to strike a rock with the staff he had earlier used to open the Red Sea and water came out: enough to quench the whole congregation! That Rock was Christ and the staff prophetic of the cross that gives life to the world -- His life in exchange for yours!
Thus today's gospel lesson bespeaks the mercy of God that relieves us from the consequences of our sins! There are any number of lessons we can draw from this parable, but the heart of the matter is summed up in two sayings. First the master says to the self-righteous worker: am I not allowed to do what I choose with what is mine? And of course we must answer, yes! Creation belongs to the Lord, however mangled it is become especially in these latter days when the love of men waxes cold, our God has redeemed us by Christ and wishes to give us every good gift that a Father gives His beloved children; more than we can ask or even imagine, but it is not a meritocracy like the early hires of the parable thought. It is "by grace I'm saved, grace free and boundless." Then there is the final word of the parable: the first shall be last, and the last shall be first! Jesus is the firstborn of creation, the firstborn from among the dead, the firstborn among many brothers. You are those brothers. He is the Lord of Life and the Lord of Glory, but He who is first made Himself last so that we who are last due to our sins and their unbearable burden, are made first by Him, and it is this sparkling promise that makes it possible for us to boldly confess our sins, and to believe with Child-like faith that they are forgiven and forgotten by God. So be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven! Amen
~ Rev. Dean Kavouras