Septuagesima Sermon 2004

1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5

ďRunning for the Imperishable CrownĒ 

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard vividly illustrates a common complaint people level against God.  People think God is unfair.  Sinners presume to accuse God.  They put God on trial.  What are the charges?  They charge Him with being gracious to sinners.  What a sad irony!  Sinners who need Godís grace more than they need the air they breathe complain to God about His grace.  They work a twelve-hour shift under the blazing sun and expect to be rewarded for their hard labor.  They resent the fact that God is not impressed with their hard work.  In fact, God prefers those who didnít even break a sweat.  Religious people who think they are working their way to heaven are bitterly resentful of the Christian doctrine of grace. 

God wants to be gracious to unworthy and undeserving sinners.  There is no other way to know God as God wants to be known than to see God in His Son, the Word become flesh.  He is, as St. John testifies, ďfull of grace and truth.Ē  The works-righteous Ė those who believe that they can by their own will and strength win God over to their side Ė do not know God or worship God.  They refuse to see their own deep spiritual poverty.  They will not listen to Godís law as it exposes their hatred, greed, lust, deceit, and idolatrous desires.  They will not listen to God but they pretend that they have something to say that God should hear.  They pray to God, not by laying claim to the merits and mediation of Christ their Savior, but by reminding God of all the good things theyíve done for Him.  They trample under their feet the blood of Jesus shed for their sins.  Then they point the finger at God as if He has no right to forgive sinners for Christís sake!  Not only do they despise Godís grace for themselves; they forbid God to be gracious to anyone else!  How dare God make these others our equal!  Is God blind to the fact that we have worked and slaved harder than they have?  Who does God think He is? 

God is God.  Thatís who He thinks He is.  To all who challenge His grace, He asks the penetrating question, ďIs your eye evil because I am good?Ē  And he settles the matter by saying, ďSo the last will be first, and the first last.Ē  If you insist on riding up to God on your own virtue, you will ride yourself straight to hell and there is no escape from hell.   

If our Gospel Lesson for today answers the most common objection to Godís grace in Christ, our Epistle Lesson responds to a common misunderstanding about Godís grace.  People assume that since Godís grace is given to us freely without any cost or obligation on our part this means that a life lived under the grace of God must be an easy life.  But this is not so. 

Christian labor is easy.  Thatís true.  The workers in the vineyard who were called at the last hour did not suffer the heat of the sun or the tiring burden of long, hard work.  It is as Jesus said, 

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

The reason Christís yoke is easy and His burden is light for His Christians is because He has borne the burden for us.  The labor we do as Christians is no labor at all.  We arenít working for pay.  Christ has borne the full burden of our sin and guilt on the cross.  It is no longer ours to bear.  Christians cast their care on the One who cares for them.  So Christian labor is easy. 

But this does not mean that the Christian life is an easy life.  While we, as Christians, are free from the cares and troubles of this life, we are also sinners.  The forgiveness of sins is ours by faith.  It is not ours by sight or by feeling or by some kind of religious experience that rids us of all our temptations and sinful desires.  Deep inside of us, living right along side the faith that God has implanted in our hearts, is a deep and irredeemable wickedness.  The Bible calls this our flesh.  Our Catechism refers to this as the Old Adam.  The Old Adam is an unbeliever. 

Every Christian lives a life in conflict between the spirit and the flesh.  The Holy Spirit sanctifies us to be Christians.  The sinful flesh wants to say and do everything that is opposed to the will of God. 

Those who were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea were set free from slavery by Godís grace alone.  They did nothing to win or earn or deserve their freedom.  God graciously rescued them from bitter slavery by drowning their enemies in the Red Sea.  This was more than a political deliverance.  They were called out of Egypt to be Godís own people.  They were called into fellowship with Christ.  They all ate the same spiritual food and they all drank the same spiritual drink.  The manna that God rained down from heaven was food for their bodies.  It signified for them the true Bread of Life who would come down from heaven to give life to the world.  The water that gushed from the Rock and from which they drank was more than water to quench their physical thirst.  As St. Paul put it, ďFor they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.Ē  

The Old Testament Church communed with Christ.  They heard the gospel preached to them.  Christ graciously revealed Himself to them also in signs: the cloud, the fire, and the rock.  The Exodus itself is a wonderful sign of Holy Baptism.  As the waters of the Red Sea drowned the enemies of the Israelites, the waters of Holy Baptism drown and kill our sinful flesh and deliver us from spiritual death and the power of the devil.  The Israelites were Christians.  The gospel they heard pointed them forward to the coming of Christ.  God also provided signs to teach them of Christ.  The blood of the Passover Lamb signified the blood shed by the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world.  The serpent raised up on a pole signified the crucifixion of Jesus.  They looked up to Calvary by looking at the sign God gave them.  They, like Christians of every age, were justified by faith alone. 

And then many of them gave up the fight.  They heard the gospel, saw the signs, confessed the true faith, and promised their loyalty to God.  Then they fell away.  Listen to what the Apostle says in the words immediately following our text: 

Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted.  And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, ďThe people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.Ē  Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell; nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents; nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer.  Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.  Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. (1 Corinthians 10:6-12)

There is a particularly damaging but popular error promoted these days by those who call themselves Evangelicals.  It is the notion that once you are saved you cannot be lost.  Thatís not true.  The grace that is bitterly won by Christ, freely given in the gospel and sacraments, and received by faith alone can be lost.  It is lost.  Those who once found such joy in the forgiveness of their sins for Christís sake lose their interest in Godís grace and stop hearing the voice of their Shepherd.  The ďonce saved, always savedĒ crowd will argue that it is impossible for a believer to fall away from faith because Jesus promised that no one could snatch His sheep out of His hand.  But the sheep that Jesus promised could never be snatched away from Him are the sheep who hear His voice. 

Our flesh refuses to listen to Christís voice.  He hates the voice that promises forgiveness for Christís sake and so he fights against it.  The Christian is involved in a battle against the flesh.  This battle does not end until we die.  The Apostle compares the battle to a footrace and to a boxing match.  When you run cross-country you must know the course and where the finish line is.  It does no good to run fast to wherever you feel like running.  Running fast wonít get you where you need to be unless you know where you are going.  Spiritual struggles are worthless when they are self-directed.  Self-appointed religious works may appear to be very spiritual, but they do no good.  The runner needs to know where he is going.  The Christian is always running to Christ.  He is never resting on his own laurels because he has none on which to rest.  The crown of victory is Christís.  He alone has won it, and therefore it belongs to all those and only to those who cling to Christ in faith. 

Most boxers box opponents.  They do not box themselves.  But St. Paul describes a boxing match against his own flesh and blood.  Our own flesh is our worst enemy.  To rest secure in the wounds of Jesus makes no sense to us by nature.  Our natural reasoning cannot permit us to leave our eternal salvation in Christís hands alone.  We learn to rely on ourselves for everything worthwhile that we have.  We learn to work hard and we teach the same to our children.  Our flesh asks us why it should be any different when it comes to eternal treasures.  And so he would lead us to trust in ourselves instead of Christ.  So we fight against ourselves.  In the place of every false gospel of spiritual self-help, we confess our total helplessness.  Instead of looking within our own hearts and souls for the assurance of salvation, we look outside of ourselves.  We look to Christ.  We find him, as He has always been found, in His pure gospel and sacraments.  In these treasures God gives us forgiveness of all our sins.  

This morning, communicant members of this congregation will gather together to eat what is more precious than the manna God gave from Moses and to drink what is far greater than the water that miraculously flowed out of a rock.  We will eat and drink the body and the blood of Jesus.  The body that bore all the burden of our sins is real food for us in our need.  The blood that sets our consciences free is real drink for our thirsty souls.  Here we find Jesus, who gives us rest and peace.  As we run and as we fight, we are at rest in the wounds of our Savior.  In Him, our race has already been run and the match has already been fought.  He has won the imperishable crown for us.  This is why and how we can run with certainty and fight with confidence.  Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!


Rev. Rolf D. Preus

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