IT BEGINS WITH THIS GIFT
THROUGH the blessings of the church year we'll once again make our annual journey from the joys of Christmas and light of Epiphany to the hard realities of the penitential season. In Lent we'll once again come face to face with our sins. We'll feel like the cancer patient whose x-rays are held before his eyes and told, "there's a spot, there's a spot and there yet another." But we'll also be reminded of the gracious Savior who cured our disease on the cross, and of His Holy Spirit who put us into remission by faith in Jesus Christ the day we passed through the baptismal waters. In Lent we'll once again humble ourselves before God; not by kneeling on prayers rugs and bowing to the east, but by confessing that we're "poor, miserable, sinners" in need of God's steadfast love. Whoever makes himself last in this way, will be made first by the Lord of the Vineyard. During this solemn season, before we taste the unspeakable joys of the resurrection, we'll view the appalling price that the Son of God paid to satisfy the charges which the Law lodges against us. In Lent we will view the Lord of Life arraigned. We'll see Him, and not ourselves: stricken; smitten of God; and afflicted (Is. 53:4). We will take note of His suffering and shame, His bleeding and dying, and know all the while that it's our sentence carried out on Him: the just for the unjust, as St. Peter writes: that He might bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18). This, in a phrase, is the Gospel!
There are three Sundays we mark before the rigors of Lent begin called Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima. Those words simply mean 70th, 60th and 50th. They count down the number of days till the Sunday of Resurrection. The purpose of these days is to plant the Gospel firmly in our minds, so that in the mortal anguish of Lent, which is symbolic of the mortal anguish of our lives, we won't lose hope; won't forget that we have been called into the vineyard of God for glorious purposes, larger than our tiny minds can presently conceive.
The Old Testament and Gospel lessons appointed for this Sunday remind us of the power and the grace of God as they are active in our lives today. These are things that we don't easily retain unless the church does her job and regularly preaches them to us, but why do we need to be constantly built up? Simply because thick darkness envelopes the human heart as regards what is true and what is false, what gives life and what leads to death. We're like the children of Israel. Though they were all baptized into Moses when they safely crossed the Red Sea, many of them fell away. They had received every grace and blessing from Christ, but though he'd performed mighty miracles in their sight and shown them love that would melt the hardest heart, theirs were not melted. They were a stubborn and stiff-necked people, representative of us all as we rush aimlessly through life; non-thinking, emotional beings ruled by our passions, looking for whatever meager prize we might gain for the moment and let the devil take tomorrow, casting the Holy Spirit aside so that we might excel in life by our own wisdom, might and riches; little interested in spiritual discipline or the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14) and all that that means for us.
Yet the Father's love is greater than our rebellion! Hear this again and let it melt your hearts: the Father's love is greater than our rebellion. He remembers that we are dust (Psalm 103)! He knows how we've been compromised by sin and the devil, but this doesn't drive Him away. Instead it makes Him all the more zealous to preserve us in the one, true faith and never rests till His beloved children are safe on heaven's shores. His love for shiftless sinners drives Him to come out into the marketplaces of life, not just once but repeatedly like the vineyard owner who deliberately kept going out, finding those who had no purpose in life, no present or future prospects, and no reason to live, and bringing them into His marvelous light.
There's no greater pain for parents than to see their children going astray, doing things which can only lead to their downfall, and having no power to stop them. Though we as human parents are often helpless to do anything about it there is a Heavenly Father who does intervene. As He saved us He'll save our children, so don't despair. We can't salvage ourselves, we'll have less success with our children and even less with the world at large. In spite of what pious meddlers tell us, earth will never be heaven. Green technologies won't do it, nor will stimulus packages. There will always be pollution, poverty, courts and orphanages, but there are three words which Jeremiah uses to renew us: loving-kindness, justice and righteousness. Without getting into great theological detail, those words mean that God reconciled us to Himself through Christ and will, in the end, set all things right and terminate every sorrow.
Now that's a lot of good news for one morning but there's still more in this outstanding parable. It teaches us the liberating truth that we can't do business with God; that He who created us and sustains us, who knew us, loved us and called us to Himself in Christ before the foundation of the world, doesn't do business. There's no quid pro quo with God on the upside or the down, There are no bargains to be struck. God has only one mode with us and that's to pour His gifts on us generously. He doesn't "treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities" (Psalm 103:10). God doesn't do business but delights in exercising loving-kindness, justice and righteousness in the earth, and because of that fact we know that the words of Romans 8:28 are undeniably true: that all things; all circumstances; all conditions; all crosses of life however distressing, will and must change direction, and come out for our good. Nothing is as it now seems O Vineyard workman, and "the fears that now annoy, shall be laughter on the morrow" (TLH 409).
The parable's climax is when the Master of the vineyard says to the whining workman: I want to give to this last person, this nobody, who has contributed nothing, but believed everything I told him the same as I gave to you. Don't I have the right to do what I wish with what is mine? So the last shall be first, and the first, last. We are the "last" people of the parable, who've been made "first" by the grace of God. We've been called into the vineyard of God, which is a symbol of the church, which is the house of God and very gate to heaven (Gen. 28:19). We've been called to wonders, blessings and benefits more extensive and far-reaching than words can possibly express. Isaac Watts says it like this in his memorable hymn, Jesus Shall Reign Where'er the Sun: In Him the tribes of Adam boast More blessings than their father lost. No we don't get the temporal and eternal punishment we worked for. Instead we get what the Lord of Life earned by His perfect work on our behalf, righteousness and life!
As Christians needed to remember these things in the past, so we need to immerse ourselves in them today. This is why God gave the church and commissioned her to preach the Word, to baptize, absolve and to administer the Holy Supper… so that we might have our sins forgiven, our wounds salved and our hearts strengthened.
Hard days are ahead. This Gospel message which the world hates, the devil cannot abide and which is offensive to human reason cannot stand unchallenged for long periods of time in any one place, not even in a land such as ours which was founded on religious freedom. As the world hated the Lord it hates us too. The Jesus of the Bible, who died not as a martyr for a cause, but to atone for our sins, is the largest possible offense to human pride. His death reminds us that sin is our real problem and that only His righteousness counts before God. We need to remember and immerse ourselves in the Gospel. We need to have the Word of God dwell in us richly (Col 3:16) so that we might survive these evil days and extinguish all the fiery darts of the devil, but there's one thing we don't need to do, and that's be afraid -- ever! At this time Christ's people are last in honor, last in importance, last in success-stories, last in statistics, last in our own righteousness and last in anything the world values. Like St. Paul we are considered: the scum of the world and the dregs of all things (1 Cor. 4:13), but we know how the story ends. God generously gives us what is His own to give! His Son, His Kingdom, His loving-kindness, His righteousness. He makes the ones who seem first to be last and we who are now last, to be first, so don't think as the world thinks. Don't judge things by human wisdom, strength or resources, but trust God's Word that Jesus was made last on the cross so that we might be made first with Him in His resurrection. Amen
~ Rev. Dean Kavouras