Archive for October, 2017

Justified by faith

Tuesday, October 31st, 2017

Romans 3:19-28

Dear friends in Christ,
The day has finally arrived. The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is here. We’ve been waiting a long
time for this.
The official date of the anniversary is 31st October. That’s when, in 1517, Martin Luther released his 95 Theses.
At that time the church had turned to the law and forgotten the gospel. It was not teaching the love of
God. Instead it was spreading fear and the punishment of purgatory and hell, selling indulgences for cash
as the way to have your sins forgiven. It needed the money to build a huge new Cathedral in Rome. Luther,
among others, knew this was all wrong, and he decided to tell his bishop.
The rest, as they say, is history. Instead of a pastoral conversation about indulgences, Luther ignited a storm
of change – religious, economic, political and social. The Reformation really did change the world.
Luther’s passion was the gospel. How am I justified before God? How can I know that I have a loving God?
Do these questions still mean anything to us in the 21st century? Why should this anniversary be important?
You might think, for instance, that people no longer care about having a just relationship with God, or any
relationship at all for that matter. Humanity has matured. We are now independent thinking people who
don’t need that kind of crutch. I think you would be wrong. Faith is not a crutch. It is essential to human
well-being.
A Lutheran congregation in the USA recently asked worshippers to write their deepest needs on sticky
notes. They stuck the notes to the walls of the chancel. Words like ‘acceptance’, ‘love’, ‘forgiveness’, and
‘healing’ kept appearing. There was a common theme: lack of self-worth, guilt, inadequacy, failure and
unworthiness. Simply not being good enough to deserve love. From my experience I think we are not so
very different in Australia. Modern hearts have similar problems to those of 16th century Europe.
Or you might think that people no longer care about justification, the key topic of the Reformation.1 That’s
not how we think these days. But we do know what it means to want and demand justice. We still feel the
sting of injustice when we are treated badly. We scratch the itch of self-justification every time we feel
misrepresented or misunderstood. Our media and law courts are full of people wanting to be justified.
We might express our core spiritual questions in different language to the 16th century, but they are
remarkably similar. We have adopted fashionable new attitudes and thoughts but on the inside our basic
human needs stay pretty much the same. We want to be justified, to be right, to be worthy.
Law without gospel means that the only solution is to prove yourself better and more worthy than others.
Your only hope of recovery is to learn techniques of survival and believe in yourself and your own strength
and achievements. Or, in 16th century language, to buy an indulgence so that when you die you wouldn’t
spend so long being punished for your sins.
God’s law, given to us in the Bible, has the insight and authority to show us where we are wrong and where
we need to change. We know the command to love God above all others. We know the command not
to kill and to do good to others. We know the command not to lie and to speak well of our neighbour. We
know the commands not to steal from our neighbour but to protect everything she or he has. These rules,
and others like them, are our built-in minders. They form the bedrock of our society. They help us live well
together.
The law also shows us our sin, disobedience, and rebellion. We know that even under the best
circumstances we humans break the law, first in our hearts, and then by what we do. This happens even
with the human laws that control society. If you drive a car, for instance, you will know how the traffic slows
down when there’s a police car or safety camera nearby. Then, when it’s out of sight, things speed up
again. Law can make us conform but it cannot reform the heart.

1 See the Augsburg Confession Article 4
Sermon for 31 October 2017
500th anniversary of the Reformation Page 2
The gospel, the bedrock of the Reformation, reverses all that. It’s more than a story about a corrupt church
a long time ago. It’s a divine/human story of the renewal of the human heart, body and soul. God gives
us his Word so we can believe the gospel. Faith in Jesus and forgiveness, justification, rebirth and renewal
go back to Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and reach forward into our time. St Paul and the apostles
preached this faith and wrote it. The church has believed it and taught it from the beginning. Our text
today, dating from the 1st century AD, says ‘…no one is put right in God’s sight by doing what the Law
requires; what the Law does is to make people know that they have sinned… For we conclude that a
person is put right with God only through faith, and not by doing what the Law commands.’2
Of course we know that rules are not the final answer. Of course we know that a patch-up job never makes
the grade. Deep down we have always known that we need to start again from scratch – new people,
with a new life, a new hope and a new salvation. That’s why the Reformation message – the gospel itself –
still matters today.
You can’t earn or deserve forgiveness and justification. You can’t save up to buy salvation like a medieval
indulgence. You can’t bargain for it. You can’t Google a self-help course to practice perfection. It’s a gift,
or its nothing at all.
Jesus Christ is that gift. He brings salvation, justification, hope, forgiveness and eternal life. He is the Word of
God creating us again: reborn, brand spanking new human beings.
When Christmas comes around we often sing about Jesus as ‘Immanuel’. Quite literally ‘Immanuel’ means
‘God is with us’. We need to keep that in our sights because our natural tendency is to separate God and
daily life. When people understand God as a God only of law, they don’t want him too close. When people
choose not to believe in God they are often rejecting an impersonal, legalistic God who doesn’t care
about us. People don’t want a God who controls them through outdated rules and regulations.
The scandal of the Reformation, of the gospel, is that God is nothing like that. Our God is right here on
earth, mucking in with us, growing up with us, suffering like us, and even dying like us. This distinctly Christian
scandal turns the tables on all law-based religious beliefs. In our multi-faith society no other faith believes
in a God who, while remaining in highest heaven, is born on earth and dies as a human being. Agnostics
and atheists don’t think that any god, if one did exist, would personally suffer and die for them. Humans
assume god, by definition, must be remote, impersonal and unfeeling. The gospel of the Reformation flies
in the face of all that. Because of Jesus we know that God loves us deeply, personally and unendingly.
So if you’ve ever felt unjustly treated, inadequate or unworthy, then the Reformation is for you. If you’ve
ever been afraid of failure, or that you aren’t good enough, then the Reformation is for you. If you’ve ever
thought that if people really knew what you are like on the inside then they could never like you or love
you, the Reformation is for you.
Today we need the gospel of God’s love, grace, and forgiveness as much as we ever did, for we are still
‘… put right with God only through faith, and not by doing what the Law commands.’
That’s what this Reformation anniversary means and why it is important for us today. It’s all about faith in
Jesus, and God’s free gift of forgiveness, justification and salvation in him.
Amen.

THE HOLY SPIRIT IS YOUR PERSONAL ASSISTANT

Saturday, October 28th, 2017

1 Thessalonians 1:2-6

What is it that keeps you going? What motivates you to do things for others? Some people are motivated by their love of a particular activity, such as gardening or sport. If you’d have asked what led the Christians of the New Testament to do all the extraordinary mission and welfare work they did, they would have said they were led by the Holy Spirit to share the good news about Jesus in word and deed. What a difference the presence of the Holy Spirit makes!

Before Pentecost, our Lord’s followers were often weary and ran out of energy. This changed when the Holy Spirit came. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit transformed the disciples of Jesus from being faint-hearted and cowardly folk into courageous heroes: awe-inspiring advocates and promoters of the Gospel; passionately committed Christians who boldly defied the whole Roman Empire and who, before long, were accused of turning the world upside down. In turn, those who became Christians (like the congregation in Thessalonika, to whom St. Paul writes this first letter) were filled with a radiant, active and productive faith and a powerful love for others.

St. Paul writes this freshly minted letter to encourage Christians who have made an enthusiastic beginning in the practice of their faith, to keep up the good work. Letters play a vital role in strengthening relationships between people. We delight to get personally written letters that share good news with us. We treasure St. Paul’s letters with the wonderful way they’re able to strengthen our faith and deepen our commitment to Christ and His Church. He begins on a positive note, constantly thanking God for all the faithful folk in His Church.

In today’s world, faithfulness to Jesus Christ is a most commendable quality, worthy of praise and thanks. For our lives often get shaken by hardships, disappointments and setbacks. We don’t always have a good day, despite what others say when they greet us with their cheery “good day to you”. On those days when things don’t go according to plan, or when we hear bad news, we need the personal encouragement and assistance the Holy Spirit gives. The Holy Spirit delights to be our P.A.- our personal assistant- amid all the joys and frustrations of daily life. The Holy Spirit is actively present amid the most adverse circumstances of daily life. He works in disappointing circumstances, taking us onto a different and more fruitful path through life. When St. Paul was driven out of Antioch, the Holy Spirit enabled him to rejoice in the new direction in which Paul was led, where He added greater blessings to his mission work.

The Holy Spirit can work wonders through our failures and setbacks. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Romans 8:26) is one of the most comforting and consoling things said about the Holy Spirit in the Bible. The Holy Spirit works wonders through Christians who acknowledge their weakness and their need of the Holy Spirit‘s help. Our sense of helplessness before God is the most essential thing for effective prayer. Almost without exception, those who pray are aware of their own weaknesses and shortcomings, and long for all the help from heaven they can get.

The Holy Spirit treasures our weaknesses because they give Him more room to do His life-changing work. Struggling with our Faith with all the pressures placed on it in today’s world isn’t a sign of the Spirit’s absence, but of His presence. Our struggle over our faith and our inadequate and less-than-ideal prayer life are the surest signs of the Holy Spirit at work inside us to keep our faith alive. A man came to a priest to tell him: “I have no faith.” The priest, replied, “It is not your faith, my friend, but your conscience that is at fault.” You see, the Holy Spirit had led him to come to a man of God who could help him come to faith.

The Holy Spirit seeks to glorify God in and through our weaknesses and inadequacies, because these lead us to depend more on His help than do our strengths and successes. The Holy Spirit isn’t above details, like lighting lamps and sweeping out corners in search of one lost coin, as we read about in Jesus’ parables. The Spirit is ours, not only for the high “inspired” moments of prayer and worship: He’s there to assist us amid our daily routine and scarcely-noted failures. No prayer request is too trivial for Him. When we pray, the Holy Spirit gets to work.

The Holy Spirit and prayer are inseparable. As Paul tells us in Ephesians 6:18-19, “Pray on every occasion, as the Spirit leads. For this reason keep alert and never give up; pray always for all God’s people.” We need to “pray at all times” because there’s a constant temptation to put off prayer. Plug up every gap and meet every eventuality with prayer. There’s no Christian so weak that he or she lacks the strength to pray for others, and there’s no one so strong that they can do without the prayers of fellow Christians for them.  We grow stronger in our faith and commitment to Christ Jesus by strengthening each other through prayer and Spirit-inspired words of encouragement. The simplest thing to do if you’re finding difficulty praying for others is to follow Jesus’ advice and pray that our Heavenly Father will give you the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him (Luke 11:13).”

The greatest contribution we can all make to the growth of Christ’s Church (and we all want to see Christ’s Church grow) is to pray for its mission outreach into our community. We need to pray for our next door neighbours and those across the street from us, as well as for our “not-yet-believing” friends and relatives. We bring them nearer to God through our persistent personal prayers for them. As we pray for someone dear to us, Satan’s hold on them is broken. By praying for the pastors of our church, we help remove the obstacles Satan has placed to stop their ministry from succeeding. By interceding for our children and grandchildren, nephews and nieces, we are aiding their protection from temptation.

Who in our church or neighbourhood do we think is most at risk from the devil? Pray for them, and ask God to bless them. Such activity thrills the Holy Spirit immensely. The Holy Spirit seeks to make prayer a joyful and refreshing time for us. Our text mentions the joy the Spirit of God inspires in those who treasure the Gospel. “The more joyful you are and the more certain and sure the faith in your heart is, the nearer the Holy Spirit is to you (Luther).” The nearer the Holy Spirit is to you, the more you will want to bring joy into the lives of others.

A psychologist, Abraham Maslow, reported that:

“I never met a happy individual who was not committed to a job or cause outside himself. Because such people have a mission in life, they are not self-centred and introspective. For them happiness is the by-product of work and duty.”

A young mother testified to the joy that living for others gave her:

“I was scurrying round the kitchen getting breakfast for my husband and our three children. The sun was streaming in, the sound of frying bacon mingled with the casual chatter of husband and children. As I looked at them I was so overwhelmed by their beauty that tears sprung to my eyes, and I was all joy.”

The Holy Spirit inspires in us a joy that keeps coming back, a joy that eliminates pessimism and fills us with hope.

A lot of emphasis is sometimes placed on the Holy Spirit’s gift of healing and this has had its rich blessings. But how should we view those who remain ill after many prayers for their healing?

Not all are healed, since sickness and death are part of the Church’s glory. Sickness is a social sign; since social conditions have often contributed to the illness, the community has a responsibility for those who are ill. They must be visited and reassured they’re not forgotten. Then their illness is no longer seen as the fate, deserved or undeserved, of an individual. Visiting the sick is a two-way street as our Lord ministers to the visitors through the sick. Illness can become a spiritual strength in our Lord’s hands. It occurs so that the works of God might be manifest (John 9:3). Illness has as much a place in our growth in faith as good health.

The world has yet to see what the Holy Spirit can do with churches where every member is fully committed to Jesus Christ.

“Now to Him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to Him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21).”

We pray, “O Spirit of God, revive this church of ours, beginning with me. Amen.”

What shall I do?

Saturday, October 21st, 2017
Text: Matthew 22:19-21
Jesus said, “Show me the coin for paying the tax!”  They brought him the coin, and he asked them, “Whose face and name are these?”  “The Emperor’s”, they answered.  So Jesus said to them, “Well, then, pay to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and pay to God what belongs to God.” 

A nine year old girl returned from Sunday School and as her father was sitting down with the Sunday Mail after lunch, she asked,
“Daddy, why did God make all the leaves green?” He thought a moment and replied, “I don’t know.”
Then she asked, “Daddy, if God made the world and everything else who made God?”  Again he said, “I don’t know.”
Again she asked, “Daddy, how did Noah catch the two snakes and put them in the ark?”  He put down the newspaper and said with a smile, “Honey, I don’t know.”

Like many children, this little girl was asking her dad some very important questions.  Dad was right in answering, “I don’t know” because there are certain questions for which we have no answers, at least until that day when we can ask God face to face (and most likely they won’t be important to us any more).

The Pharisees had a question for Jesus.  It’s one about religion and politics.  They asked, “Is it right, according to God’s will, to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  This was no minor matter.  The Jews were taxed heavily by the Romans – not only were grain, oil and wine taxed but every male from age of fourteen and every female from the age of twelve had to pay a tax for just being alive.  This was a trick question.  Whichever way Jesus answered he would get into trouble.

If he said, “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to the Roman emperor,” he would be in trouble with his own Jewish countrymen who deeply resented the oppression Rome had imposed on their nation. Paying taxes to the Emperor was tantamount to kneeling at his feet – a posture reserved only for the worship of God.  Clearly, Jesus would be a traitor to his own people and to God, if he answered yes.

On the other hand, if he said, “No, it is not lawful to pay taxes to the Roman emperor,” he would be a traitor to Rome.  Whether they liked it or not, the Roman Empire had now taken control of Palestine. If Jesus spoke against paying taxes, he would be arrested and imprisoned.  Make no mistake about it; the Pharisees were out to get Jesus.

And how does Jesus answer?  He asks for a coin.  “Whose picture is stamped on the coin?  The emperor’s!  Well then it’s simple.  He must own it if he’s got his picture stamped on it.  You give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.  But be careful!  Don’t give to Caesar what belongs to God”.  End of discussion.

Jesus cleverly states there are those things that belong to the state and those that belong to God.
Someone summarised Jesus’ words saying, “The coin bears Caesar’s image; man bears God’s image, so give the coin to Caesar” – meaning pay tax – “but give yourself wholly to God.”  Serving God covers all of life.  It also includes serving Caesar in a way that brings honour to God.

In his answer Jesus is giving some broad principles but notice he doesn’t give any slick answers about how we are to carry out this responsibility.  Jesus leaves the details wide open.  He refuses to give two neatly divided lists of duties relating to God and those relating to Caesar that leave no doubt about what we are to do.    (Something that the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law would have liked – they liked rules that were black and white).

However in Jesus’ answer, the question about what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God remains open.  You and I must decide that for ourselves – struggle with and assess each new situation.

Making a choice between two options that are appealing, logical and where there are arguments both for and against is not an easy task.  We might wish that there were some black and white guidelines that would make the decision for us.  It is true there may be some general rules, or principles, like the Ten Commandments, or the Sermon on the Mount, that make matters look simple and clear, but when it comes to applying these to the individual circumstance that we are faced with in our lives making a decision isn’t all that clear.

Why doesn’t Jesus make things so much easier for us?  Why doesn’t he make a decision once and for all in this whole matter of paying taxes and giving to God, and with authority set up percentages and limits, say something about tithing, talk about our responsibility to God, and our responsibility to the government and so on?  We long for a clear ruling, one that is binding, one that will relieve us all the headache of making a decision.  But Jesus doesn’t make the decision for us.  He doesn’t want us to blindly follow a set of rules.

He challenges us to find out again in each new situation what action we ought to take.
Situations like
whether to reveal to a very sick friend that he/she will soon die or to say nothing;
whether to turn off a life support system or hope for a miracle;
whether to join an IVF program or remain childless;
whether to protest about a government policy or to remain silent;
whether to stay in an unhappy marriage and hope for a change or to get out,
whether to accept this new job or not because of the impact it will have on family life,
whether to be tough on a drug-addicted child or show tenderness, love and support to bring him to his senses.
Everywhere in life – in our marriage, in visiting the sick, as a teacher in a school, as an executive doing his tax return, as a mother or father – we have to discover what is the will of God for us at this time and in this place and in this set of circumstances.

Often we can’t answer the questions that confront us, by thumbing through the Bible to find crisp, clear answers.  Or referring to an answer found on Schedule C. There is no dictionary we can look up what we have to do here and now to be in tune with the will of God.  Again, the burden of making responsible decisions falls on us. We know how difficult that can be because we are sinners.  We are biased and critical; we prefer to take the easier path; we avoid going against the crowd and simply sidestep making hard choices.

As Christians we are joined with Jesus and we share in his love and take on his way of looking at the moral dilemmas that challenge us and so for us the issue always is, “What would Jesus do if he were in my situation?”  And sometimes we might not like the answer that we get back.

You see, Jesus was always shocking people in the choices he made as he reflected the will of his Father.
When he came across a prostitute, instead of quoting the Ten Commandments to her, he befriended her and said, “Your sins are forgiven”.
When he met the white-collar cheat Zacchaeus, he loved him and went to dinner with him.
To those who were exiled from their community because of a dreadful disease, he showed compassion and gave them healing.  The word that summarises Jesus ministry is “love”.

You see God doesn’t give us a list of laws and detailed instructions for carrying them out.  He doesn’t lead us around by the nose in every detail of our lives.  Rather he desires to make us mature sons and daughters, confident of his love, confident of our relationship with Jesus our Saviour and in his love we discover what is the right thing to do that reflects the love of Jesus that is in us.

We need to be diligent in coming to know God’s mind ever better through studying the Scriptures.
We need to be unceasing in our prayers asking for the Spirit’s guidance.
We need to listen to the prompting of the Spirit as he shows us the way of love in the choices we make.

Some years ago a man talked about the tough decision he and his wife had made when they decided to terminate a pregnancy.  They had three daughters and their unborn child was the son they had wanted so much, however, doctors told them that something was terribly wrong and that if the pregnancy continued the mother’s life was in danger and if the baby survived he would most likely be severely brain damaged.

The father said something like this, “I had such strong opinions about abortion –   no unborn life should be terminated.  I firmly believed God would always take charge and if the baby was born as a result of rape or was disabled that God would provide a way.

But now what was God thinking?  This wasn’t fair.  This didn’t fit into any of my ideas.  To think of terminating the life of our son was unbearable.  And the possible death of my wife, June, was just as unbearable.  Our girls needed their mother.  June and I prayed.  We wrestled with the decision.  The doctor, a member of our church, prayed with us.  We decided.  And I don’t know if what we decided was the right thing but our pastor assured us that God knows what was in our hearts and how we wrestled with this situation and if we chose wrongly, his love burns even stronger for us.  It is precisely for the wrong choices we make that Jesus died on the cross.  At the funeral he admitted he didn’t understand God’s ways but he did say that Jesus loved our son as much as we did”.

I’m sure that many of us have made and will make many mistakes as we search for the right answers to many of life’s perplexing problems.  It’s ever so hard at times to know what God wants and to make a decision confidently knowing we have done the right thing.

We make decisions about some of those tough questions in life in the knowledge that he forgives us when we do blunder and bungle.  It is a comfort to know of the forgiving love of God, otherwise we would be frightened to make any decisions at all.  Let’s remember that God can still bless us through those decisions that are poorly made.

In today’s gospel Jesus doesn’t give us rules but the permission to struggle with the question of what is appropriate for us to do in the world that God created.  Jesus gives us an assignment to seek out the will of God as best we can and go forward entrusting the choices we make into the hands of our loving and forgiving God.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

THE BEST INVITATION YOU WILL EVER RECEIVE

Saturday, October 14th, 2017

Matthew 22:1-14

 

 How do you react when you get an invitation to a wedding? Do you feel honoured? Have you ever had to decline an invitation to a wedding because of other commitments? Weddings are overwhelmingly joyful occasions. Yet they seem to bring out the worst in some guests or participants. Those invited might behave themselves in church, but sometimes alcohol loosens manners to breaking point at the reception. A wedding can bring out bad behaviour because the happiness of the bride and groom can make some guests jealous and make them realise they’re not as happy as that. They hope that alcohol will drown their unhappiness.

In today’s Gospel reading, we have no ordinary wedding celebration. We have all the extraordinary magnificence of a royal wedding banquet. The king is putting on the greatest wedding feast ever for his son, in honour of his son. He wants to honour his son by having the banquet hall full of guests. So he sends his servants to remind those who had already been invited that it’s time to come. But can you believe it? They refuse to attend, even though to do so would be viewed as a gesture of disloyalty to the royal household.

But the king won’t be deterred. He patiently persists in sending more servants out with the added information that he has meticulously prepared an awesome banquet for them, hoping this will act as an incentive to come. In the words everything is ready, come to the wedding banquet”, the king demonstrates the depth of his generosity and kindness to his potential guests. Still they pay no attention. Their occupations have become dangerous pre-occupations. They won’t let anything interrupt their “business as usual”. They stay away from the royal celebration for mundane and selfish reasons. They are even hostile towards the king’s messengers: reminiscent of the aggressive anti-Christian sentiments we’re increasingly hearing over our media. There are powerful anti-Christian voices seeking to drown out the Christian stand on important moral questions like abortion and euthanasia. For us, the life that’s “life indeed” means putting God first.

We can be so busy making a living that we fail to make a life. Satan wants us to respond to God’s invitation to spend time with His Son by saying “later on when I have more time. How I use my time is my own business and no one else’s.” When it comes to practising our faith, delay is deadly. Tomorrow may be too late. You need God most of all when you are busiest. God wants you now, just when your schedules and timetables clash with His priorities for you. God multiplies the time you devote to Him with endless blessing.

God refuses to let those who say “no” to Him spoil the Banquet He’s preparing in honour of His Son. God doesn’t want empty seats at Jesus’ Banquet. When the “high and mighty” of this world fail to show up, God invites the “nobodies” of this world to come. God welcomes those who’ve made a mess of their lives, those ashamed of their past, those who cannot understand what God sees in them. The fact is that God cannot see anything in them, but God makes something of them. God makes them His beloved sons and daughters. At Christ’s Banquet, there will be lots of folk who never ever dreamed they’d be invited.

So there they will be, all enjoying the heavenly festivities, poor wretches whom no one took seriously, ex-criminals and ex-prostitutes, and those who could never get it all right. The most comforting words of all in Jesus parable are: “and the wedding was filled with guests!”

 

Then the king appeared. This is the main thing – to see the king and be able to thank him for the invitation. Heaven isn’t so much about what you and I might get, but rather about what we will “be” – with God our Maker and Jesus Christ, His celebrated Son, forever and ever.

With the king’s appearance, Jesus’ parable takes a dramatic turn. The king sees a guest without a wedding robe that he has specially supplied for the occasion. As the only one without such a garment, this person stands out like a sore thumb. The king is deeply offended by such an insult.

The man no doubt thought that what he had already was good enough. He felt he didn’t need the king’s gift. He’s a self-sufficient, self-satisfied kind of guy, who saw no need to change, a change that’s symbolised by dressing appropriately for the festive occasion. In order to give this potential participant an opportunity to justify himself, the king addresses him in a friendly manner. He gently calls him “dear friend” and assumes he has a good excuse for what he’s done. He wants to put the best construction on his actions. “Dear friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe (v12)?” What a beautiful picture of love to the last possible moment. The man was speechless. In the face of such a lavish expression of grace, his action is indefensible, inexcusable.

What then is the meaning of this robe? To be sure, we’re invited to come to our Heavenly Father’s House just as we are. We needn’t be ashamed of the hedges and highways from which we have come. But we need to leave the past behind and let Jesus Christ transform us by His gift of righteousness. Our Lord compared the time of His coming, the Messianic Age, to a new garment. To be clothed with His new garment is a symbol of belonging to His community of salvation. He compared forgiveness with the best robe put onto the prodigal son when he returned to his father’s house.

Isaiah is overwhelmed with joy at the Lord’s gift of a robe of righteousness. “I am overwhelmed”, Isaiah says, “with joy in the Lord my God! For He has dressed me with the clothing of salvation and draped me in a robe of righteousness (Isaiah 61:10).”

 

The hymn writer, von Zinzendorf, shares Isaiah’s joy. He sings:

            1:         Jesus, your blood and righteousness

                        my beauty are, my glorious dress!

                        mid flaming worlds, in these arrayed

                        with joy shall I lift up my head.

 

            3:         This stainless robe its beauty wears

                        when all else fades with passing years;

                        no age can change its glorious hue –

                        the robe of Christ is ever new.

 

            5:         O let the dead now hear your voice,

                        let those once lost in sin rejoice!

                        their beauty this, their glorious dress:

                        Jesus, your blood and righteousness.

We need to guard against taking this gift of God’s grace for granted, or taking it in a flippant fashion. This is why we confess our sins and promise “to live as in God’s presence” before we receive Holy Communion. This is comparable to our putting on the wedding garment. Is it a sacrifice and burden to change into one’s best clothes to attend a wedding that has been looked forward to for weeks? No! This preparation for the celebration is itself part of the celebration and is full of eager anticipation.

So too, the joy of heaven over one sinner who repents makes our confession of sins an act of joy. Repentance is not a dismal renunciation of things that still mean a lot to us; it is a joyful homecoming to that place where certain things no longer have any importance for us. The joy of confessing our sins and repenting of them can never come too soon. Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount concludes with a warning to take care to not forfeit Christ’s gift of salvation that He gives us through His Word. But first, Jesus begins many times with “blessed” meaning “great joy”. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” or in other words, “O the joy of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for God will satisfy them.”  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” – already in the here and now.

We understand and experience the secret of the Christian life when we experience its joy, the sheer bliss of hearing those welcome words: “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.” Those who treasure and embrace the robe of our Lord’s righteousness may be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; they may be poor, yet make others rich, as having nothing, and yet possessing everything (2 Corinthians 6:10).”

In Christ alone, we have everything worth having that will last forever. Amen.

Lord, what do you want us to do?

Saturday, October 7th, 2017
Text: Matthew 21:33-39
Jesus said, “There was once a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a hole for the wine press, and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to tenants and left home on a trip. When the time came to gather the grapes, he sent his slaves to the tenants to receive his share of the harvest. The tenants grabbed his slaves, beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again the man sent other slaves, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all he sent his son to them. “Surely they will respect my son,’ he said. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the owner’s son. Come on, let’s kill him, and we will get his property!’ So they grabbed him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

Even though the parable in today’s Gospel is story about judgement, it begins with a note of grace and generosity. A landowner planted a vineyard, improved it with a fence and watchtower. He set up everything nicely and now the property would start making money. He employed tenants to take care of his investment. They simply had to tend the plants, keep the weeds down, harvest the fruit, and make sure everything ran smoothly. The tenants had it made. They had a good job, security, steady income, job satisfaction, a roof over their heads, food on the table. Simply – this job was a gift.

As time went on the workers started to think of the vineyard as theirs. They started to use words like “our vineyard, our crop, our tools, our money”. They resented the idea that the landowner should expect to get anything from their hard work. They shamefully bashed, and even killed, anyone whom the landowner sent to get what was his.

The owner finally sends his own son. You might well ask, “What kind of father is this?” He knows how ruthless and violent these people are. He should call in the police to deal with these guys once and for all. But the landowner is always optimistic – always hoping that the tenants will change.

It doesn’t surprise us to hear that the tenants kill the son too. The conclusion to Jesus’ story – the landowner has no rent, no honour, no servants and now no son and no vineyard.

Jesus asked his listeners what they thought the landowner should do now.

A bit of a silly question really! Kill those violent and wicked tenants. After all the landowner had been ever so patient and gracious, giving them chance after chance to realise that they weren’t the owners but tenants.

We know that Jesus was talking about the people of Israel in this parable and how they had rejected God by beating and killing the prophets, and soon will beat and kill his Son. This parable had a special application to the church of Jesus’ day but we would be blind if that is all we could see in this story. God is the owner but how often do we act as if we are the owners.

When you stop and think about it, we are tenants, not owners. In the broadest sense, everything we have is on loan from God. We sometimes imagine that we are owners.
“It’s my money and I can spend it as I please.”
“It’s my body and I have a right to do what I want with it.”
“It’s my life and I don’t need anyone to tell me how to live it.”

It’s clear from the very first pages of the Bible when God gave Adam and Eve the Garden of Eden, that they didn’t own it, they were tenants.

You are made and owned by God. Your life is not yours to own like you own a Holden or a Ford or a wide screen surround sound digital TV system and so you can do whatever you please with it. You’re God’s property. Life is a gift, just as the Holden or the Ford and wide screen surround sound digital TV system are gifts, to be used with God the Creator in mind.

We have a responsibility to use his gifts wisely and faithfully. And God gives his gifts in the hope of finding a harvest of fruit – fruit like honouring, loving and trusting God above anything else, and in our dealings with others – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control.

Jesus was talking to the church of his day through this parable and so I want to focus on that special gift that God has given to us – the church. Like the landowner he has generously and graciously given us the church to care for and to reap a rich harvest.

But we are often guilty of acting as if we own the church. I don’t think it matters if we are talking about the church catholic – meaning the church throughout the world – or St Paul’s here on the local scene –
the church is the people of God, saved by Jesus’ death and resurrection,
the church is the fellowship of believers who are loved by our heavenly Father who speaks to us through the Scriptures and shows us his love through the water of baptism, the body and blood of Jesus in Holy Communion.
As God’s people we are given the Holy Spirit to encourage and support us every moment of every day. He keeps us together in Christ through forgiveness and reconciliation.
The church consists of people who have been chosen by God – as Peter says, “You are the chosen race, the king’s priests, the holy nation, God’s own people”. The church is a gift and our place in the church is a gift from God.

Since the church is God’s gift to us shouldn’t we be asking, “What does the owner want us to do? What does the Lord of the Church want us to do? As those who belong to the church through the gracious invitation of our Lord, what does he want us to do?” (Let’s not just think of the church as an organisation – like St Paul’s) but also of what does the Lord want us– the people of the church – you and me – to do).

Last week I emphasised the response of the individual to God’s love and concluded by asking, “Jesus, what do you want me to do?” But today our parable is leading us to ask a further question, “What do you want us, the people whom you have saved with the blood of your own Son, to do?” This is the question that we as church must ask. “Lord, what do you want us, your church, to do?”

When we ask questions like,
What does God want to do for this community through us, his church?
What does God wants us to do to help and encourage those who are facing tough times – whether they are the result of their own making or just happen because they are part of fallen humanity.
What does God want us to do to make worship meaningful across all generations?
What does God wants us to do so that all children are taught about the love Jesus has for them?
What does God wants us to do in order to make the best use of the properties and facilities that he has given us to further his work in this community?

Whatever other important questions arise, we always need to remind ourselves that this is not our church, this is God’s Church. The one who created the church, paid for it with the death of his Son. And so the first and vital question that needs to be asked is this, “What does the Lord of the church, the owner of the church, want us to do.” “How can we be the best tenants possible and serve our Master faithfully.”

And I, like you, want to know what the answers are to these questions. As individuals we come with all kinds of ideas and answers to the question, “What does God want to do through St Paul’s?” Each of us understands the mission and ministry of the church in different ways but in the end together as the fellowship of believers
we wrestle with what God wants us to do,
we argue with God about it,
we argue amongst ourselves (in a friendly way),
we are challenged to be church in our community,
and as individuals you and I may have to change our ideas and that means not always getting our own way.
If we, as church, still don’t know what God wants us to do we need to listen to him care fully again with open minds and pray all the more earnestly about it.

The church is God’s. We can take heart. Being the church is not all left up to us. We are God’s church, God’s people filled with the Holy Spirit to struggle with us and guide us as we seek ways to actively be the church in the world.

I said in the beginning that this parable of Jesus is a parable of judgement. Jesus concludes by saying, “And so I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the proper fruits.” Was Jesus only talking about the church of his time? Could he also be saying this to us today? Is it possible that the church, the gospel, this gift may be taken from us and given to others?

As a family drove into town, they passed by a large, impressive church.
“We’ll go to that church on Sunday,” the man said to his family.
On Sunday they got up, got dressed, and walked to this very impressive church building. When the family entered they saw a small group of people scattered around the empty pews mumbling their way through the service.

It was obvious from the magnificent church building that this had once been a thriving, lively congregation. What they once had, they no longer had. The church had stopped asking, “What does God want us to do?”

On the other hand there was a congregation made up of mostly elderly people and their numbers were slowly but surely diminishing. One elderly man said, “God put this church here for a reason a hundred years ago, what does God want us, his church, to do today. It’s clear that the reasons why this church was formed in the first place have changed. Does that mean God is finished with us as a congregation? If that is the case then we should sell this valuable piece of real estate and worship elsewhere.”

This small group of older people wrestled and prayed about this. The church was located near a primary school. One elderly lady said, “Let’s have an after school activities time for kids. Lots of them go home to empty houses – let’s give them something to eat, crank up the sound system with some of their kind of music, and get some activities going”. They prayed about it. They knew it would be hard work. They didn’t like the music, but they were determined. They started with a small group of children, then some mothers came to help, then the Sunday School was restarted and a support group was formed to help families facing tough times.” That church was once again the church for that community. It all started with the simple question, “Lord, what do you want us to do?”

Jesus told this parable about the wicked tenants to bring the church of his day to repentance. It has the same effect on us today. When we read this we realise how often we forget to ask, “What would the owner want us to do”? We realise that so often we have wanted our own way and not sought what was the will of Lord of the Church.

We are here this morning because we have a Saviour who has died and risen for us. We have a Master who has given his life for us so that we can have forgiveness and eternal life. May God through his Holy Spirit continue to bless his church and give us an ever-greater vision of what he wants for the church and what it means for us to be the church, people bringing a rich and fruitful harvest for God. As great as the temptation always is to be a cosy and comfortable and to simply look after ourselves, let’s be open to the prompting and guiding of the Spirit to be a witnessing and serving church. May God richly bless and guide us as we ask, “Lord, what do you want us, your church, to do?”

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy