Sunday, October 26, 2008

Commemorating the Reformation

As October 31 nears, it is good for those who hold to the Lutheran Confession of the Christian faith to remind themselves of their heritage. It isn't as important to remember the individuals who participated in the Reformation as to remember what they confessed, what they believed with heart, mind, and soul. The fundamental beliefs of the Reformers are seen in the Augsburg Confession of 1530. In its first 21 articles, the Augsburg Confession spells out the teaching of the Reformers based in Wittenberg, Germany. These articles serve as an expansion of the creeds that came from the first four centuries of the Church's history.

At the heart of the Augsburg Confession is Article Four on the theological topic of justification. This article tells how sinful human beings are considered righteous in the sight of God, the same God whose Divine Law they have broken, but who acts to redeem them:

"Likewise, they [the Lutheran congregations] teach that human beings cannot be justified before God by their own powers, merits, or works. But they are justified as a gift on account of Christ through faith when they believe that they are received into grace and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins. God reckons this faith as righteousness (Romans 3 and 4)."

That truth was repeated throughout the Reformation; it is also meant for our day. It cannot be spoken enough, as we sin daily and deserve nothing but punishment from the Lord God. But from the prophecies of the Old Testament, the Gospel accounts, and the apostolic witness, we learn that we have been redeemed through the Son of God's sacrificial death on our behalf. As we believe, trust, and rely on that, our sins are absolved and our guilt is not counted against us. Everlasting life is given to us who deserved punishment without end.

Because it is the way to forgiveness, life, and salvation, such a confession of faith in what the Lord God has done for us is worth holding onto without compromise. And if remembering the events and figures of the Reformation helps us to do so, then the Lutheran Church's commemorations in this last week of October have served their purpose. May it be so for all of us who have made that confession of faith our own, and may others be led to the same faith!


Sunday of the Reformation Sermon -- Romans 3:19-28

October 26, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

“The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Torah and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

Again, we of the Lutheran Confession of the Christian faith commemorate the events of the Reformation. It is not simply a repetition of what Luther and the other Reformers accomplished or a celebration of human achievement. Rather, the day is truly about what the Lord God continued to manifest among us: the apostolic witness to what Christ did for our salvation and how that is passed down to us.

That witness to what Christ accomplished is what we heard in the Epistle Reading for this day. St. Paul’s writing to the Romans described the divine work that was done on our behalf. It is a commentary first on the condition of sin that plagues all humanity since the Fall: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But it also testifies to what has been done for this fallen humanity: “[All] are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.”

This apostolic witness of St. Paul is not meant for the Roman Christians alone. Rather, it is a testimony meant for every man, woman, and child to hear. For what the apostle writes leaves out no one. He says: “By works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” That must be understood by all of us and taken to heart, because it runs contrary to how we operate in our society. We know that we don’t meet expectations that others have of us. But in our relationships with others—whether it be our family, friends, employers, or the civil realm—we have ways to make satisfaction for those faults, ways to make good what we did wrong.

But this is not the case with the Lord God. He has expectations for us, and we know them well. Very few of us are not familiar with the Decalogue, with the divine law. The commandments stare us in the face and they outline our expected behavior. And when we compare our lives to those commandments, we see our failures. This is what St. Paul says: “Through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Our faults are made known to us. God’s finger points squarely at each of us, while He declares our transgressions: You have trusted other things instead of Me; you have dragged My Name into all sorts of lies; you have allowed your minds to be concerned with other interests instead of My Word; and your behavior toward your fellow human beings shows little to no concern for them.

And when that “knowledge of sin” is put in front of us, we can’t ignore it. It stands true and is unrelenting. As St. Paul writes: “We know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” That accountability makes us search high and low for ways to make up for our transgressions. But where can we find a way to make good what we did wrong? We can turn back to that law, to the standard of expected behavior that the Lord God instituted, but all it will do is again show us our failures, how “[we] have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

What we need instead is to see a way in which our faults and transgressions are not counted against us, how something or someone has achieved what we could not. That is the apostolic witness: “The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Torah and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” Righteousness that is not dependent upon our actions: that is what we need and that is what St. Paul, along with all the Prophets and Apostles, makes known.

At the heart of the Reformation Movement was the witness of that divinely-given righteousness and the trust in it, even to the point of losing “goods, fame, child, and wife.” What Luther and the Reformers trusted in and faithfully confessed was the witness that St. Paul gave about the work of Christ to the Romans: “[All] are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.” Sinful human beings cannot make up for their errors; rather, they are made righteous by having the merits of Christ’s sacrificial death applied to them by hearing His Word, receiving His Baptism, and partaking of His Supper. These are not actions that achieve our righteousness, but how we receive by faith the effects of what Jesus has done for us.

This was not a new message, either in St. Paul’s time or Luther’s. Rather, it was a return to what was known from the time of Moses. That is the significance of the apostle’s words: “the Torah and the Prophets bear witness to it.” The testimony of the Old Testament was clear: everything that the people of Israel received was given out of divine graciousness. Even the covenant with all its requirements of sacrifice was based upon the favor given by the Lord God to His people that He delivered out of bondage. And the reminder that the Prophets brought to the Lord God’s delivered people was to return to that favor and to expect the One who would make atonement for the sins of the entire world.

That is what St. Paul wants his audience, even us who hear his words centuries later, to trust in. The same witness was given by the Reformers, and again we don’t emphasize their lives as much as what they confessed and made known. In the Small Catechism, Luther doesn’t hide the fact that our redemption is the effect of Christ’s atoning death, the language of being “purchased and won.” The Augsburg Confession, the essential statement of the Lutheran faith, speaks clearly about how sinners are made righteous: “[They] are justified as a gift on account of Christ through faith when they believe that they are received into grace and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by His death made satisfaction for our sins.”

Why we are here as an assembly of Christ’s disciples is that we believe what the Prophets and Apostles bore witness to, what was handed down through generations of believers to our day. Our parish’s existence is owed to that fact. Even though our mouths are stopped when the Lord God’s law is spoken to us, we are given voice to worship Him when we hear about our justification by Christ’s actions. As we gather together, we make known that which happened to us. We confess it in the words of the ancient creeds and liturgy. We confess it in our hymns and anthems. We confess it in our discussions about who we are and the way of life that has been divinely given to us.

Confess it we must, because it is true. “The Torah and the Prophets bear witness to it,” as do the Apostles and their spiritual descendants. Confess it we must, because it is the only thing that provides a remedy, a satisfaction for our transgressions. Confess it we must, because as vital as that truth is, it can be easily lost. That is what this commemoration of Reformation Day reminds us. It is so very easy to revert back to the thinking that we must, and that we actually can, do something to make up for our guilt. We want to do so, since we know the obligation we have to obey God’s law. We also know the seriousness of our sins.

But not only do we understand the gravity of our situation, we also have the motivation for wanting to contribute to our salvation, to attribute it to our own goodness. Such thoughts must be the least thing from our mind. Rather, we should think of ourselves as Luther did on his death-bed: “We are beggars. That is true.” We are beggars who have been generously given something that we could never attain, never earn. That is what St. Paul reminds the Romans and us about our salvation: “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.”

As another year has passed since the events of the 16th Century, we are given another year in which we can proclaim the gracious and life-giving deeds of Christ while admitting our faults and shortcomings. We do so as it has been made known to us, as we stay true to the prophetic and apostolic witness of the Scriptures, and as we stay true to the teachings drawn from them that have been handed down to us from the first days of the Church through the Reformers and to our day.

Let us stay true to that confession and make it known in our day and time, not boasting about our works, but gladly attributing our salvation to Christ and Him alone. For what we have heard, we so believe: “The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Torah and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Pentecost 23 Sermon -- Matthew 22:15-22 (LSB Proper 24A)

October 19, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

Jesus said to them: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Our Lord’s statement shows that everything has its proper sphere and place. That is how the Lord God has designed it to be. He is the One who places us in relation to one another, who gives us our stations in life. And as He has so willed it, the Lord God vests fallible human beings, even unbelievers, with His authority when He places them in positions of oversight.

This is why Jesus can rightly answer the Pharisees’ question: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar, or not?” Can the people of God pay a tax which indicates that they are subject to a pagan ruler and belong to a pagan empire? Yes, it is lawful, it is even right so to do. That is what we learn from the statement of Jesus which answers this question.

You heard how Jesus answered the question. He asks for the coin which pays the census tax. And He points out what is on that coin: “Whose likeness and inscription it this?” When the Pharisees answer: “It is Caesar’s,” then Jesus says to give Caesar’s property back to him. He says: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” In his sphere of influence, Caesar has legitimately stated that the coin has value and he has put his image and signature on it. So if he demands it back, you have no right to hold it from him.

Key to understanding this answer is the knowledge about vocation or the stations in life. The emperor has this authority because he occupies an office where the Lord God has placed His own authority. The Lord God establishes governmental authority to help keep order in His world. Paying the census tax recognizes that divine authority behind the emperor’s office, as well as facilitates the fulfillment of the emperor’s responsibilities as an earthly ruler. So it is that even the pagan Caesar, like the pagan Cyrus centuries before him, is vested with divine authority in his office, authority to be used to keep order in the Lord God’s creation.

But the teaching of Jesus in response to the Pharisees’ question is more than a civics lesson. Jesus does not limit His answer to “Be a good citizen and pay your taxes.” Rather, His answer is much more comprehensive. Jesus says: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and [render] to God the things that are God’s.” There are two renderings to take place, a giving back of things to both man and God.

So what are “the things that are God’s” which you are to render to Him? Jesus’ words about the coin can help answer that. What are the things which bear God’s “image and inscription” on them? What things have been given a value because the Lord God has placed His image and signature on them? Answer those questions, and you will know what Jesus says should be “[rendered] to God.”

A writing from an ancient teacher of the Church can help to give answer to those questions. Hilary of Poitiers commented in the 4th Century: “We are also to render to God things that are God’s: that is, body and soul and will. The coin of Caesar is in gold, on which his image is stamped. But man is God’s coin, on which is the image of God. Therefore, give your money to Caesar; keep for God a blameless conscience.” It is an interesting observation from this venerable teacher: you are God’s coins, God’s things which are to be rendered back to Him.

Such language is full of baptismal allusion. Before your baptisms, there was little value in you. But as the Lord God has inscribed His Name on you and created the New Person (New Adam) in you that shares His image, you have been made His own. You have been given value by the Lord God and you are subject to Him. As you are subject to the Lord God and are His possession, you can be called back by Him, giving a required rendering through faith.

Jesus says: “[Render] to God the things that are God’s.” This is done through faith, as you live the new life given to you in Holy Baptism. It is the new obedience that is to be seen in you. In a matter of hours after Jesus said to give back to God God’s things, He would illustrate how this can be done. He says there is the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.” And He says there is a second commandment like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The fulfillment of these commands is how you “[render] to God the things that are God’s.” They are actions done in faithful worship of the Lord God, what only those who have His “likeness and inscription” on them can do.

Such rendering which was done by the Thessalonian Christians was commended by St. Paul when he heard about their corporate life as disciples. St. Paul told them: “Not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.”

What the Thessalonians had received was the “likeness and inscription” of the Lord God on them. As they believed, the righteousness of Christ was given to them, marking them as His own valuable people. And their lives took on that divine character as witnessed in their true belief—“lov[ing] the Lord [their] God with all [their] heart, soul, and mind”—and in their behavior of Christian charity—“lov[ing their] neighbor as [themselves].”

The Thessalonian Christians provide an example of what it means to “[render] to God the things that are God’s.” And what happened among them does not differ in quality from what happens among you. Like them, you have been taught the Gospel, so that you know that your sins and transgressions have been atoned for by the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. Like them, you have received the Holy Spirit, so that you have been transformed and stamped with the divine seal and inscription. And like them, you have been given a new way of obedient life in which you can both “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and [render] to God the things that are God’s.”

In doing so, you give back to God what is truly His. Obedience to earthly authorities shows recognition that they do have an office of oversight that the Lord God has established and sanctioned. Even that seemingly simple and insignificant act of being a good citizen involves giving back to God as, in faith, you fulfill the Fourth Commandment. Using earthly possessions in their proper role to fulfill the responsibilities of your vocations: that also is a giving back to Caesar and God. It recognizes that your life exists in an earthly sphere in which the Lord God has placed you. But you do not make Mammon your idol, your false God. Rather, you know that there is a greater reality to which you belong, a reason why you use the earthly things in good order, but do not make them the purpose of your life.

By participating in the greater reality, in the spiritual realm, you specifically “[render] to God the things that are God’s.” For there are aspects of the Christian life that are limited only to those who bear the “image and likeness” of God. Only those people, the Lord God’s people like yourselves, can do such things. Turning to God in repentance of your actions and receiving the forgiveness of sins. Receiving His sacraments. Worshiping Him in “spirit and truth.” Making known the salvation which has been given to you by the Lord God’s actions. Calling upon in Him in every trouble and using His name in prayer, especially the Our Father. Building up one another by speaking the wisdom and counsel of God. “Singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Giving charitably to impoverished parishes or to support missionaries. Aiding Christ by aiding “the least of [His] brothers.”

The list could go on. But each of these is an action that is truly limited to those who have a baptismal identity, by those who have been given the Lord God’s “image and likeness” and have been incorporated into the kingdom of God. And such actions truly “[render] to God the things that are God’s,” for they involve rendering to Him yourself, that is, “your body, soul, and will,” as St. Hilary commented—the same body, soul, and will with which you love God.

This is your baptismal identity and discipleship calling. This is what you have been made and what you have been given to do. This is your life, as you have been given the Lord God’s “image and likeness.” And it all stems from what Christ rendered to His Father, that is, His atoning sacrifice that purchased salvation for His people, the salvation that is given to you through your birth from above, the washing of rebirth and regeneration. Therefore, you can “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” as you live your earthly lives in new obedience, even fulfilling the Fourth Commandment. But what is unique to you and to all bear God’s holy name, those who have been made Christ’s disciples by baptism and teaching is that you can “[render] to God the things that are God’s.” That is your calling: so may you live it.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, October 13, 2008

English District Eastern Region Pastors' Conference -- October 6-8

Last week, the Eastern Region of the English District held its Pastors' Conference in Ocean City, New Jersey. For several days, my fellow ministers and I were able to meet together for prayer and worship, instruction, business, and leisure. It also was a time to catch up with several ministers who were fellow students at seminary. As with most conferences, not every minister was able to attend: often parish duties (e.g. funerals, member hospitalizations) will keep ministers from travel. Hopefully, they will be able to attend the District Convention this upcoming summer and our conference next fall.

This was the first conference I attended, as I am new to the District, and I found it to be very good and worth attending. Dr. David P. Scaer from Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, (my alma mater) presented several lectures to us. As is often the case, Dr. Scaer focused on the Gospel of Matthew, but he also commented on the Epistle of James, a book that Lutherans often overlook due to Luther's unfortunate comments about its being "an epistle of straw." Dr. Scaer's presentations are nearly always provocative, but worth hearing, especially as the Gospel of Matthew is being read and taught in our Divine Service during this church year.

Bishop Stechholz and the District Staff also gave presentations regarding issues being discussed in our Synod and District. One hot topic was the proposed restructuring of the Synod, an issue that will be discussed in depth over the next two years. Another topic was the mission of the Church in a society where Christian presuppositions and an assumed positive role for the Church are no longer the norm. I'm sure that more will be heard on this topic.

Next fall, we will meet at the same place for our conference. Ocean City provides a good setting with a long boardwalk to wander on during down times. And for a born Midwesterner, it also allows a new experience of viewing the Atlantic, even if it doesn't really look much different than the Great Lakes. I'll look forward to the speaker and events that the planning committee has in store, even if this past week is hard to beat.


Pentecost 22 Sermon -- Matthew 22:1-14 (LSB Proper 23A)

October 12, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

[Jesus said]: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come.”

What ungrateful people the king in the parable has! He holds a wedding feast for his son, but doesn’t limit the guest list to the elite of society. Instead, he invites people of all walks of life to the banquet. Everything is prepared for a full blowout. The king sends his servants out to gather in the guests with the message: “I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.” No expenses have been spared, but there is also no charge for the guests to attend. The king wants his people to come and join the celebration.

But what do we hear about these wedding guests? Jesus says: “They would not come.” Their desire ran contrary to the king’s desire to celebrate his son’s marriage. Yet, the reaction of the invited guests is worse than their non-attendance. The worse thing is the reasons given, what the invited guests occupy themselves with instead of gathering at the king’s palace for the great banquet.

Listen again to what Jesus says about the invitees’ rejection of the king’s graciousness: “They paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.” Note what the people occupy themselves with instead of attending the banquet. Some go to the fields or to the store, involving themselves with menial tasks, working instead of enjoying a night of leisure. Others are even worse: they actually take the people who bring the invitation and reject it in front of them and then proceed to kill the messengers. There is the full refusal of both what the king offers and the authority he has.

Like last week’s parables, this story of Jesus is a statement of judgment against the people of Israel. The invited guests who refuse to attend the wedding feast are the former people of God, those whom the Lord had delivered and with whom He had made a covenant. But when the One who would fulfill that covenant came and accomplished what was necessary for eternal life, the Jews rejected Him and His servants. Their outright hostility toward the Lord God would not be forgiven. Their invitations were pulled, and in the imagery of the parable, the king’s wrath was visited upon them: “The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.”

But what wasn’t ruined by the ungrateful people was the wedding feast. It still takes place. Recall what the king says to his servants: “The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.” The king will have guests at his son’s wedding. And he will ensure that other people will get an invitation, be made worthy, be brought to celebrate with his son and to receive his graciousness. Jesus’ words describe the mission of the Church, the reason why He sent His apostles out to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that [He] commanded [them].” His Father wants people as His guests to eternally enjoy what He has to give them.

So you have been invited to the wedding feast of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of the Eternal Father. The Lord God’s servants have brought that invitation to you, bringing you the wonderful news that you have a place at the divine table, a spot reserved in Paradise for you. The Eternal Father is gracious and wants you to share in it. And even though you may not descend from the people who exited Egypt and entered the Promised Land, you have been welcomed by the Lord God into the new covenant. You have been considered worthy of receiving an invitation from Him to partake in the salvation that His Son has achieved.

The focus of the Wedding Feast Parable is on what is yet to happen. There is an “end times” aspect of it. The wedding feast is a description of everlasting life and being in the presence of the Lord God for eternity. Jesus’ story provides us with the language that we use in our prayer: “Gather us together, we pray, from the ends of the earth to celebrate with all the faithful the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which has no end.” Where the Risen and Ascended Jesus is united with His people for eternity, there the wedding banquet takes place.

But there is also a present reality that this parable reflects, a lesson for you to learn for the here and now. Entrance into the heavenly wedding feast begins on earth. The invitation is given to you during your earthly lives. And there is a present-day response to that invitation that is to be seen by the guests. All the rejection that was shown by the first guests took place in time: the people of Israel had been delivered; they entered Canaan; they were spoken to by the prophets; the promised Christ did arrive, even though they refused to accept Him. These are realities that took place in history, in the earthly lives of the Israelites.

The same happens to you. You have been delivered out of spiritual slavery by Holy Baptism. You have been made clothed with Christ and His righteousness, connected to His death and resurrection. That is “the invitation to the feast,” the giving of the “wedding garments” to wear. You are part of the Lord God’s kingdom. And not only that has happened, but you have also had servants of the Heavenly King come and speak to you, to invite you to attend other events that the Lord God has planned and held. But what do you do with those invitations? What is your response to them? Those are questions that need to be asked and answered. By doing so, you find yourself in the parable.

Christians rightly speak about the Lord’s Supper as “a foretaste of the feast to come,” a sort of preview of the wedding feast that the Eternal Father will provide for the Church, the bride of His Son. Yet you know that the invitation to participate in this present banquet often goes unheeded. You know of people who reject that invitation, who absent themselves from the banquet. You may know how you fit that description. And the reasons are not much different than those listed in the parable: “They paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.”

What Jesus describes in the story happens when people become so occupied with other matters that they “pay no attention” to what He has for them. And it’s not just missing a couple of Divine Services here and there, but a habit that develops. Even worse is the outright hostility that some have to the message and messengers of the Lord God, an animosity that arises which cuts the people off from what He has to offer through His chosen means of the preached Scripture, the washing of water and the word, the declaration of forgiveness, and the reception of the holy meal. Such hostility leaves no second chance. Just as in the parable, those who are negligent with the invitation miss out on the banquet and those who reject the invitation suffer divine wrath. This is the full impact and result of unbelief.

But what is promised to those who take the invitation and act upon it? There is an even greater fate, a wonderful outcome. You heard it spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And He will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of His people He will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” That is what you have been invited to: not just a feast that fully satisfies, but a removal of everything that harms and plagues you, that causes you sorrow and grief.

The wedding feast that Jesus talks about is the fulfillment of everything that Isaiah prophesied. All of it is meant for you, His people. It is meant for you who have been invited to share in everything that He has earned. It is meant for you who have been chosen by the Eternal Father and made worthy by His Son to share in His graciousness. It is your destiny, set for you in the future at the end of this age when all that is transient passes away.

But there is the present reality that needs to be considered. Jesus wants you to take His story to heart, so that you do not miss out on what His Father has in store for you. It is with purpose that He sent His servants “to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.” The clothing of Christ’s righteousness has been deliberately given to you, in order to bring you to the heavenly banquet. But none of that will be of value, if the first words of Jesus’ parable apply to you: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come.” The wedding feast will still go on, but invited guests will be missing.

Rather than missing out, the Lord God desires you speak the words that Isaiah gave to His people: “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for Him, that He might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for Him; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation.” Those words will be spoken by those who heed the invitation in the present day, by those who are given the wedding garments in baptism, by those who gather where the Lord’s words are spoken, by those who locate themselves where the Lord feeds His people on earth. May that describe you, who have once again been invited to the wedding feast.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost 21 Sermon -- Matthew 21:33-46 (LSB Proper 22A)

October 5, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

Jesus said: “When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to Him: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their season.”

In the readings for today, there are two things that can’t be missed: there’s a vineyard that has production and management problems and the owner is very upset about it. That is the message found in the Old Testament Reading, the Psalm of the Day, and the Gospel Reading. All three portions of Scripture bring this message of divine wrath and anger to the people of God.

Though such messages are quite unpleasant they must be sent and heard. No one enjoys receiving a nasty-gram from employers, creditors, or government officials. But it does have a purpose: to correct what is wrong and to change actions for the better. When such a message comes from the Lord God, it most definitely must be heard. For when the Lord God delivers His message of Law and condemnation, it is to correct beliefs and actions that are leading to eternally ill effects. The message He speaks is meant to change those actions and beliefs for an everlasting better.

The stories of the vineyards bring that message in terms that the people can understand. Through these stories, both Isaiah and Jesus use the example of a vineyard owner to speak about what the Lord God had done for His people. And what did the vineyard owner do? “He planted vines on a very fertile hill, dug and cleared it of stones, put a fence around it, and built a watchtower in the midst of it.” The owner even put tenant farmers in charge of the vineyard to tend to it. There was nothing else to do in order for the vineyard to be productive. As an allegory, the story shows how the Lord God brought His people out of Egypt, placed them in Canaan after removing their enemies, built them up into a full nation, gave them His protection, and even was present with them in the Temple.

But what does the vineyard produce? “Wild grapes.” And what do the tenant farmers do? “[They] took [the owner’s] servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.” And when the owner’s son came to the vineyard, “they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” The characters in the allegory do exactly what the people of Israel did throughout their history. Though they were planted by God, the men of Israel produced “bloodshed and outcry.” When the Lord God sent prophets to remind the people of their identity and expected behavior, the leaders of Israel persecuted, tortured, and martyred them. Then the Lord God’s Son appears to provide salvation and forgiveness, and the former people of God crucify Him.

What’s wrong with this vineyard? That’s the question the Lord God asks: “Judge between Me and My vineyard. What more was there to do for My vineyard, that I have not done in it?” The planting was good. The soil was good. The protection and tending was good. So what went so horribly wrong? Whey does the owner say: “I will remove [the vineyard’s] hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down?” What moves the owner to “put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants”?

All this wrath is visited upon Israel and its leaders because of their unbelief and unfaithfulness. That’s what is wrong with the vineyard and its tenants. The people of Israel rejected the Lord God’s unfailing love. They forsook His covenant to chase after other gods. They abandoned their identity as they mixed with other nations. The Lord God’s words of promise were forgotten or rejected. And when prophets came to remind them of it, they were refused and repelled. The vine decided to become a thornbush and the tenants attempted to become owners. Israel had lost their place, lost what they once were.

In response to this unbelief and unfaithfulness and the sinful actions that stem from it, the Lord God brings His wrath. If the people of Israel don’t want to be His vineyard, the Lord God confirms their decision: the Temple is destroyed, their nation is conquered, they are no longer recipients of salvation. If the religious leaders don’t want to promote true worship of Him, the Lord God reacts: no more true worship will be found in Israel and His people are given new leaders. This is the temporal and eternal punishment that the Lord God brings, the actions of wrath visited upon those who do not believe and who reject His unfailing love seen in the atoning death of His Son.

Such actions should confront you and cause you to tremble, because the vineyard allegory is not just a retelling of Israel’s history. This is what happened to the people the Lord God delivered from Egypt, but it is also a warning to all who are in a covenant relationship with the Lord God. The allegory applies to you, because you are the Lord God’s vineyard. This is what Jesus tells you when He says: “I am the Vine and you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, it is he who bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

You have been made part of the Church, grafted into the Vine into a covenant relationship with the Lord God through Holy Baptism. St. Paul described the importance of that: “[I do not] have a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” This was true of the Israelites in the past: their righteousness depended upon participating in the covenant the Lord God made with them. But what happened when they rejected it in their unbelief? The vineyard ran wild and the tenants didn’t turn over the harvest. And then the owner destroyed both the vineyard and the tenants.

That is the fate which those who abandon the covenant relationship with the Lord God endure. It will be so for you, if your unfaithfulness drives you away from the means of grace that the Lord God uses to provide forgiveness, life, and salvation, rejecting what the Lord God wants to give you. It will be so for you, if your unfaithfulness produces nothing but “wild grapes” or bad fruit. And it will be so for your leaders, if they abandon the teachings that the Lord God gave through the prophets and apostles and try to make themselves owners instead of tenants.

But such a fate can be avoided. Remember what the Lord God said about His vineyard: “What more was there to do for My vineyard, that I have not done in it?” Think on that question: “What more was there to do?” You can answer the Lord God’s question correctly: everything required was accomplished, everything necessary for my salvation has been done.

That is the beauty and comfort of the covenant relationship: it is really dependent upon what the Lord God has done. Christ has fulfilled its requirements by His sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. Atonement for all sins has been offered. That is the unfailing love of the Lord God. That is what you have been made a part of through your baptisms, as St. Paul confessed: “that you may know [Christ] and the power of His resurrection and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection of the dead.”

The awful fate of the Israelites and the chief priests and Pharisees wasn’t because the Lord God didn’t do everything necessary for their salvation. Jesus atoned for their sins, too. But their unbelief kept them from receiving what the Lord God had for them. The same is true for you. Christ has done everything for you, His vine. Faithful participation in His covenant delivers it to you and delivers you from “a miserable death.”

That is what your Lord wants you to learn from these vineyard allegories. Though they speak of judgment and wrath, they also display a merciful graciousness. At the end of His statement, Jesus says: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from [the chief priests and Pharisees] and given to a people producing its fruits.” That statement speaks of you: you are “the people producing its fruits,” as you participate in the covenant promises. Salvation—a most blessed fate opposite of “a miserable death”—is yours as you have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, as you hear Christ’s words of forgiveness and believe them, as you receive His body and blood of the new covenant in the Eucharist, and as the Spirit works in you through these things to produce the fruits of righteousness.

This is what the psalmist knew, as we prayed today. Asaph knew about the covenant and the faithfulness of the Lord God to it. And in repentance, he writes: “Let Your hand be on the man of Your right hand, the son of man whom You have made strong for Yourself! Then we shall not turn back from You; give us life and we will call upon Your name! Restore us, O Lord God of hosts! Let Your face shine that we may be saved!”

That is the prayer that you, the Lord God’s vineyard, can offer. It is a prayer focused on Christ, “the man of [the Lord God’s] right hand,” and the covenant that He fulfills. Pray it, so that you may be kept faithful in the relationship that He has given to you. Then you shall call upon Him, be restored, and be saved according to His mercy. And you shall live, trusting and participating in the covenant made to you.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.