A Sermon for Septuagesima
Sermon for Septuagesima Sunday
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 & St. Matthew 20:1-16
by William Klock
Today we know that Lent is just three-and-a-half weeks away as we see that today is one of those three Sunday with the weird Latin names that all end in “gesima”. Today marks a shift in the Church’s calendar and you’ll notice it in the collects and the lessons. But the “Gesimas” don’t actually measure our time until Lent; they measure our time until Easter—the great feast of the Christian year. Today is “Septuagesima”. “Septuaginta” is the Latin for “seventy” and so “Septuagesima” marks the (roughly) seventieth day before Easter. And since the Church used to measure the time before Easter in “decades” or groups of ten days, next week will be Sexagesima (the sixtieth day before Easter) and then the Sunday after that will be Quinquagesima (the fiftieth day). But as much as these three Sunday point us to Easter, they’re meant to prepare us for Lent. And, of course, Lent prepares us for Passiontide where we remember Christ’s death, and Passiontide prepares us for his resurrection at Easter. But the cycle doesn’t begin here—it began in Advent and in Christmas, where St. John’s Gospel told us about the Light of Christ. Christmas put our attention on the light shining in the darkness. At Easter we focus on how the darkness was not able to overcome the light. But during Lent we see Christ’s light pushed by the darkness into a sunset. As we prepare for Lent the light is lower in the sky and by the time we get to Good Friday the light will have dropped below the horizon – but on Easter we’re reminded that the light can never be overcome; the short victory that death had on Friday disappears as the light blazes forth again on Sunday brighter than ever before.
One source I recently read described these “gesima” Sundays as the pep-talk before Lent. I don’t think that’s a bad way to put it. It’s sort of like being on a sports team. Good Friday is the darkest point of the Big Game and Easter is when we see our victory, but before we get there we have to go through a time of preparation. You can’t just jump into the thick of the game untrained and unprepared. Lent serves as a time of preparation. It’s sort of like a bootcamp, but to get to bootcamp we have to take a three-week bus ride. These “gesima” Sundays are like that bus trip. We sit and the coach prepares us with a pep-talk. He encourages us and prepares us for the hard work that’s coming. We have three weeks to focus on the work we’re called to do – to be triumphant over sin.
This really ties in well with what we read a few weeks ago from 1 Corinthians 12—that passage where St. Paul describes us—the Church—as the body of Christ and where he describes how the Holy Spirit has given each of us gifts to use in building the Kingdom of God. We’re each a part of the body – we’re not just dependent on the body for our existence, but it’s dependent on us to get its work done. Being a part of the Body means that we really have to work. The problem is that we’re all a bunch of fallen sinners. We’ve been redeemed by the grace of God through Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit he changes our natures, but with everything that surrounds us, and the fact that we won’t be perfect this side of eternity, we fall back into our old ways. God gives us tools, but sometimes we get lazy and don’t use them or sometimes we even abuse them and use them in ways he didn’t intend.
Our Epistle lesson from 1 Corinthians calls us as members of the Body to be disciplined. God knows what we encounter as we struggle to be faithful to doing the work of his Kingdom, so here, through St. Paul, he gives us a reminder. The Christian life isn’t a walk in the park; it’s a race and it’s a fight. Look at 9:24-25:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.
The Christian life is a race—not a race where you run around a track and get a ribbon, or a trophy with a little gold-plated plastic man on top, or even a gold or silver medal. But St. Paul uses the analogy of that kind of sporting event because we can identify with it. The prize for running the Christian race is something more important than the prize you might earn for any earthly race—its incorruptible and unfading, is a condition of glory that the Bible represents as a crown. As Christians we run the race with that glorious crown leading us along, always in front of us, always there to remind us what we’re running for.
This isn’t a race where we can ever stop and take a break. Remember how in the story of the tortoise and the hare, the hare got way ahead of the tortoise so he decided to stop for a little rest. What happened? Remember that while he rested he succumbed to his sleepiness and ended up sleeping as the tortoise passed him and finished the race. Sure he was faster, but speed isn’t everything. Our race is more about endurance—it demands a continuous effort on our part. Consider how long it is—it’s a race as long as our own lives. To finish the race we need to be determined and we need to be fixed on the purpose of finishing it. We can’t run the race aimlessly or run it in fits. As St. Paul says, the winner isn’t necessarily the fastest runner—it’s the runner who endures the course. There is of course an element of speed involved in running a marathon, but more importantly the runner has to be able to focus and to endure to the end. You have to deny the indulgences along the way that can compromise your chance to finish. An earthly, bodily race is hard work. The Christian race is a spiritual race that’s even harder.
We need to be running with the Kingdom of God in our sights, but as we run our sinful world, our own sinful natures, and sometimes even the Devil, try to distract us from our goal. They throw up signs in front of us urging us to take a break, “It’s okay. You’ve been doing really well this week, how about a little indulgence. Slow down a little and have a rest. Enjoy something for a little while.” And before we know it we find out that that sign wasn’t a sign, it was hurdle and instead of jumping over it and continuing on with the race, we’ve blundered into it and have got ourselves trapped in sin. Thanks be to God we can still get up, dust ourselves off, and get back in the race, but the fact is that the more hurdles we blunder into the less effective we become in the Christian race – we start to fall back and get further and further from the prize. We have to run wisely, not wildly. We have to run with our goal in mind, knowing that we will succeed, but more importantly making that victory certain.
In verses 26 and 27 St. Paul gives us another illustration. This time it’s not a race, but a fight. Again, it shows us the effort we’re called to as Christians.
So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
We’re not just racers, we’re prize-fighters too. The race is the pursuit of holiness, the fight is to conquer evil. In the fight it’s not the length of the race that’s important, it’s the magnitude of the struggle. We need to run patiently, but we also need to fight desperately, with the same sort of determination and straining effort that will win the race. St. Paul gives us a lesson from the earthly fighter: a boxer will never win a boxing match if he doesn’t get into the action. As Christians we’re involved in a fight that makes the world’s biggest boxing match look easy. We’re not in a match with Mohammed Ali—we’re in a match with Satan. We have to plant our blows wisely and with practice—not wildly swinging at our opponent and beating the air. This fight is about beating the tar out of sin and kicking Satan in the teeth.
We’re not engaged in a show—the Christian life isn’t the WWF (no, don’t try to tell me that it’s real). Walking around the ring to strut our stuff isn’t going to win—it’s going to get us distracted. Showing off or beating up on sins we don’t struggle with or have already beaten down isn’t going to win. We need to fight the here and now. We need to fight and overcome the sins that we’re struggling with right now.
You can jump into the Christian ring and make yourself look really good to other people by beating down things you aren’t struggling with. It’s easy to show off and strut your spiritual stuff and show how you’ve “overcome” the sins of gluttony, anger, or adultery, but what about when you get home and succumb to internet pornography or when you go to work on Monday and cheat your boss when you fill out your time card or when you get angry and treat others in un-Christlike ways. Put your energy into winning the fight and beating down the sins that you struggle with—don’t try to show off how spiritual you are by showing how you’ve overcome something you never struggled with to begin with.
When I was in seventh grade health class one unit looked at bad habits and how they’re formed and broken. Each of us was supposed to pick a bad habit we had and use what we’d learned in class to overcome it over the course of about a month. We were each given a paper football and started out on one side of the wall, and as you progressed you were supposed to move the football toward a goal post on the other end. So I picked knuckle-cracking as my bad habit – not because I struggled with it, but because I didn’t struggle with it. I started cracking my knuckles a bit here and there for show, then gradually stopped over the course of four or five days and by the end of the week moved my football over the goal post. It looked really good and my teacher even commented on the fact that she hadn’t seen my cracking my knuckles any more—the problem was that I never had a problem with knuckle cracking to start with. I setup a cardboard opponent and push him over. I should have been working on overcoming a bad habit that I actually had, not one I didn’t have.
In our fight we need to examine ourselves. We need work on confessing our sin – and not just our sin in general, but our specific sins. We need to ask God to show us where we struggle—because sometimes we just don’t see it ourselves. We can’t fight an enemy we don’t know is there—that’s the point of self-examination. If we know what we struggle with we can practice discipline in those areas and build up our armor where we’re weak.
Where the Epistle lesson tells us about Christian effort, the parable we read in the Gospel lesson tells us about Christian work. Jesus was trying to convey to his disciples what their attitude was supposed to be as they did the work of God’s Kingdom, so he tells them this story of a man with a vineyard. The man went to the town square where the day labourers gathered each morning looking for work. He hired some of them to work in his vineyard that day and agreed to pay them a denarius. He went back in the middle of the day and hired some more, and then again late in the afternoon and hired still more. When the day was over the men filed by to receive their pay of a denarius from the man. The men who get there latest were paid first and to the shock of the men who had laboured all day long and through the heat of the mid-day, the man paid the late-comers the same amount that he had agreed to pay them when he had hired them early that morning. Of course their reaction was, “What gives, Boss? You’re paying them the same amount that you’re paying us even though they only worked an hour?” The Boss asks them, “Am I not paying you what we agreed on? What’s it to you what I do with my money? Are you upset with my generosity?”
Those labourers are like those of us working in God’s Kingdom. Some of us came to the work very early in life and others of us came later—some in fact only show up at the last minute. The point is that we’re all working for Christ. It’s a labour of love—not of selfishness. We are to run, to fight, and to wrestle not for our own personal gain. In our work we imitate the intensity of the worldly labourer, but not his worldliness. We’re not here to compare ourselves with those working alongside us—that’s a surefire way to spoil our work because that’s when we start putting ourselves first. The worldliness, the selfishness, the personal ambition and desire to compete against others have no place in God’s field of workers. The length of our service is important. God rewards those who do work through the heat of the day and who wear themselves out with long hours, but more important than either the length or amount of work we do is the spirit in which we do it. The man who works an hour for God is better than the one who worked a full day for himself.
Jesus’ parable also tells us about the reward for which we are racing, fighting, and working. The reward of learning is knowledge and the reward for diligence is ability—in our case the reward of virtue is to be virtuous and Christlike. That’s not the only reward—we know that the New Testament tells us about other heavenly rewards too, but the great reward is eternal life. When the sun sets and the Boss comes out to the field to pay us our denarius the great reward is eternal life. If we’re working out in the field for selfish reasons, we aren’t going to end up being like Jesus, our Boss, and if we aren’t conforming to his image and to his calling, we’re going to be left out in the cold with no reward at the end of the day. As we prepare for Lent, this is the first caution we receive: The Christian life requires that we work diligently, but it’s a work that we do for the prize of being more like Our Lord, not a selfish work done for our own gain.
As we come to the Lord’s Table we make a confession. We know that death is all around us and that we deserve that death because of our sins. We come to Christ, our Rock and our Fortress, for refuge from death. At his Table we proclaim his death for us and declare that that if it weren’t for him, we would have no hope. He bought our forgiveness and our new life when he gave his body and blood for us. When we eat and drink in the Sacrament, what we’re declaring is: “He saved me by suffering the punishment that I deserved. He bought me at great cost to live under him and to serve in his Kingdom. By grace he called me to be a worker in his vineyard. I am bound to serve him and him alone.” We eat and drink in remembrance of him, as a reminder of how he devoted himself to the work of the Kingdom, even to his own death. In remembering him we work on through the long day and the scorching heat. Life in his Kingdom is a race for an eternal crown, a fight against the sin in our lives, and it requires us to master our selves and our natural desires. In our Lord’s Supper, we find strength for the fight by remembering him, by making all that he won for us our own, and by remembering his self-sacrificial devotion to saving us. Here we receive in advance the victory wreath, a down payment of the heavenly denarius.
Our Lord, we thank you that you that you have been merciful to us. Each and every one of us has offended you with our sins, but you died for us anyway. We ask that you would continue with your work of grace in our lives by helping us in the race that you’ve set before us. Empower us with your Holy Spirit to endure to the end and to jump the hurdles of sinfulness, selfishness, and pride that are thrown in our way. Remind us each day that we’re working for you, not for ourselves, that we’re here to help you to build your Kingdom. In your name we pray. Amen.