Lent is quickly coming upon us and we must make a decision. Will this Lent be business as usual? Or will we hear and heed the Church’s call for us to repent, to turn from the ways of the world and our sinful flesh, to fight our way back to the font of living water, to the life that Christ gave us in our Baptism and to live from it? Which will it be? Same old, same old? Or will we seek the newness of life that God wants to give us?
Our first reading sets the Israelites before us on their journey from the bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land. We’re right there with them. We’ve been baptized and so brought out of our slavery to Satan and sin, and we’re journeying with God toward the eternal homeland that He has promised us. But like them, we gripe and grumble along the way. Why? Because of our wretched unbelief. We have trouble believing that the God who has set us free from the bondage of Egypt will finish the job and see us through. We’re afraid he’s going to leave us high and dry, that we’ll perish along the way. And so the life of complaining. The Church calls today: Repent! Turn from it! The one who came into your flesh to suffer and die on Golgotha is not going to fail you!
And then we heard the second reading. St. Paul reminds us as he did the Corinthians that this new life in Christ does not just happen like magic. No, it does take work and effort to live the life that Christ has given us in our Baptism. Runners compete and athletes exercise self-control for a perishable prize. Today (tomorrow) one well-trained, disciplined, conditioned football team will take home a shiny football on a shiny stand, but it’s still a perishable prize. Well, we Christians train and discipline for the eternal crown of life, given by Christ Himself. As we prepare for Lent, let’s follow St. Paul’s lead and discipline our bodies and keep them under control.
Why? Because St. Paul reminds us of another truth: mere external participation in the sacraments guarantees exactly nothing. Just because you’re hanging out with the crowd that receives the good gifts of God does not automatically make you a true Christian. No way. He reminds us that the Israelites were baptized into Moses in the sea and in the cloud and that they all ate the same spiritual food – the manna from heaven – and all drank the same spiritual drink, but nevertheless with most of them God was NOT pleased and their bodies scattered the wilderness. They didn’t MAKE it to the land of promise, despite the rich provisions God supplied them with! Why not? They received those Old Testament sacraments without really using them. Sacraments are meant to be used in faith. The Word is meant to be heard and heeded in faith. If you think that by just planting your posterior in a pew each week and letting the Word float in one ear and out the other, and then coming and receiving the Eucharist – if you think any of that guarantees you salvation, the Church cries to you today: Wake up, child! Hell will be populated by those who heard, but did not heed, the Word, who received the Body and Blood of Christ, but did so without repentant faith. Just like crossing the Red Sea and eating the heavenly manna and drinking from that spiritual rock were absolutely NO guarantees of finishing the journey, so Baptism, the Word and the Eucharist are not guarantees of such a thing for us either.
The Church says to us: don’t just receive the Word and Sacraments, USE them. Use them for what they were intended to be: signs of God’s good will toward you for the purpose of awakening and strengthening repentant faith. Because their very nature is a promise, to receive them without trusting the promise God makes in them is to abuse them – and that brings not blessing, but judgment.
Finally, we come to the Gospel reading. We can almost hear the folks in it cry out: “But it’s not fair.” And we’d have to agree with them: in the way things work in this world, it is NOT fair for folks who worked for one hour to receive the same amount of pay as those who worked for eight or more hours. But the whole point of the parable is that the ways of the Kingdom are NOT the ways of this world. In the Kingdom, it’s never about “what you’re owed” but about the generosity of the Master – who delights to give what is NOT deserved to all. Those who think that they’re entitled, that they’re owed, will have a rude wake up call when the evening falls and the final accounting arrives.
Maybe you’ve been a Christian all your life. Maybe you’ve taught others about Jesus. Maybe you’ve served on all sorts of boards of committees. Maybe you tried to raise your children in the Word of God and maybe you pray daily to keep them from the ways of the world. All that is good stuff! But if you think that any of that earns you MORE than the poor sinner who at the last hour of his life turns to Jesus and pleads for mercy, you’ll find you never understood the first thing about the Kingdom of God. The very nature of the Kingdom is that we get what we don’t deserve. We get in fact, what Another has deserved.
For there was One who came to work the Master’s vineyard and who toiled tirelessly in it. He truly bore the burden of the work and the heat of the day. He was not like the Israelites and us – grumbling in distrust and fear. He never abused the promises of His Father. He lived from them. Literally. Every moment of His life, and He trusted that His Father’s will was good and just and would come out right in the end.
He trusted in that goodness of His Father even when His Father rolled up the sum of our grumbling and complaining and all our sins and dumped them squarely on His shoulders. He took them all and bore the consequences of such sin in His own flesh to set us free from them forever. His resurrection proved that His faith was not in vain. And so He opened up for us a whole new way of living – of being. A life where grumbling is a thing of the past, because we trust that in all things God is working for the good of those who love Him. A life where thanksgiving and praise characterize every day, for we see the gifts of God in Christ showering down on us constantly. A life where the Word and Sacraments are gratefully received AND properly used. A life where we never look at God’s dealings with others and cry out: “Not fair” because our hearts have been so filled with love that when we see others being blessed, we can only cry out in amazement at the generosity and goodness of the God who dishes out to one and all what is NOT deserved, what is pure gift.
Today as we come again to the Table of the Lord, THIS is the life that Jesus is offering us. We don’t get that life by merely imitating Him. We get it by being joined to Him. HE comes to us to plant that way of living within. “I am the vine, you are the branches, apart from me you can do nothing” He says.
Lent is coming quickly, and today the Church calls out: “Get ready, get set, WORK!” Now is the time for renewal. Now is the time to forsake our foolish unbelief and its fruit of grumbling and complaining. Now, by the grace and mercy of God, is the time to discipline and control our bodies. Now is the time to revel in the goodness of our God who is thankfully so unfair. After all, He does give us life with Himself, life joined to Christ our true Vine, life that never ends. And with that life, it is true joy to work in His vineyard. Amen.
[Note: this week's homily was a collaborative effort between myself and Pastor Randy Asburry of Hope Lutheran Church in St. Louis]