Text: Matthew 20:1-16
As we approach our Lenten journey toward Easter, beloved, prepare your hearts and hear St. Paul's warning today from the Epistle. For even most of those Israelites under Moses were destroyed in the wilderness. They who saw the plagues against Egypt with their own eyes - they who heard the wailing of the Egyptians on that terrible night when every first born was slaughtered – they who drank from the Rock in the desert – they who bore the heat of the day for forty years' wandering – even they fell away from the faith and were displeasing to the Lord. For as the book of Hebrews says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.”
So repent. For like the Israelites you too can be disqualified from this race of faith. Indeed, even St. Paul knows that he can be disqualified. For God is no respecter of persons. You cannot bargain with him. For he is like a man who gives to each worker, even those who only worked an hour, the same wage as though hired at six in the morning. You can come and argue for a better deal if you like, but beware: if you will not have him on his terms, you shall get him on yours. Beware lest he say to you, “Go, take what is yours and be on your way.”
Take what is yours! What frightful words! Often we think we want justice, fairness, what we have coming. But stop and reflect on that, dear Christians! What if you really received what you deserved for every cruel word you have spoken? For our Lord says in Matthew's Gospel that everyone who speaks a curse against his brother is liable to the hell of fire! Surely you have day-dreamed about exacting revenge on those who have done you wrong – what if all your neighbor's similar day dreams about you came true?
No, we do not want justice. Justice is giving to each what is due to him. We want mercy. What is mercy? Mercy is getting better than you deserve. Mercy is getting a day's wage for an hour's work. Mercy is a father running out to hug and kiss his son who has ruined his inherited fortune on wine, women, and song in a far country. Mercy is a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to go and search for one lost one. Indeed, mercy is a shepherd who dies for sheep that have gone astray.
For mercy and grace are shown most of all in the cross, that most unfair of places. For on the cross he who knew no sin was made to be sin for us that we might become in him the righteousness of God. There is no such thing as a free lunch. You can't run a business by paying folks a day's worth of wages for an hour's work. Someone has got to pay the tab. And on the cross the bill of God's wrath against humanity's sin came due. But your tab was picked up by Christ. You are forgiven and free. The debt is paid. The wage you didn't earn has been credited to your account. You are now in him the righteousness of God – you get what Christ deserves because he got what you deserved.
This blessed exchange – Christ in our place on the cross – is our only hope of salvation. On the Last Day you may stand in the grace of Christ, or you may stand on your own. If you stand in the grace and mercy of Christ, you will receive the reward he earned. Not a mere denarius or day's wage, but everlasting life. Should you stand on your own, you will go your way with what you have earned – everlasting death.
So beloved, cling to Christ: in him is life, outside of him is death. Like St. Paul take this as a serious warning. Do not run this Christian race in vain. With fear and trembling cultivate your salvation, for it is God who works in you to will and to do according to his good pleasure. Do not think of leaving Christ's grace! To be outside of him is to be dead! So stay in him.
For you are God's beloved child. You cannot live apart from the care of your heavenly Father. You were born again into the kingdom of grace through Holy Baptism. All your sins were washed away and you were given new spiritual life. That life must now be nurtured and cultivated. And God has not left you to work out how this should happen on your own – no, for his Kingdom is a Kingdom of Grace. Your life in him began with his gift of Baptism. This gracious new birth of water and the Word is not just a quaint ceremony to recognize the birth of a child. No – it is the gracious out pouring of the Holy Spirit. It is putting on Christ and being put into Christ. It has lasting effects in your life because it has given you new life. A new life that is rooted and made stronger each time you receive that same Word of Forgiveness in Holy Absolution; a new life that is nourished each time you receive the Lord's Body and Blood in the Holy Supper for the forgiveness of your sins.
This is how you stay in the faith. This is the Christian race Paul speaks of: to struggle against your enemies of the world, your flesh, and the devil by staying in the Kingdom of Grace, by staying a child of the Father, by having your Christian life renewed again and again by God's gracious work in Word and Sacrament. Your enemies want to pull you away from this. They want you to go it alone, to stay away from the Sacrament, to ignore God's Word, to think you will pass God's judgment because you've tried your best, to encourage you to live in willful sin that kills faith. But like a focused athlete ignore these clawing voices as you focus on your goal. Like a worker who has not earned his wage, trust to your master's grace and not your own toil. Like a prodigal son who has no hope but his Father's mercy, cling to him alone. Like a woman drowning in the sea, clutch your life preserver. Like a Christian, turn away from all other hope and cling to Christ alone; yes, come to the Lord's Table and receive Him and with Him His forgiveness, grace, mercy.