A Sermon for Septuagesima
A Sermon for Septuagesima
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 & St. Matthew 20:1-16
by William Klock
Today we transition from the season surrounding Christmas and Epiphany to the cycle of Sundays that will lead us to Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. Today we begin this short Pre-Lenten season, these three Sundays with the funny Latin names: Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinqagesima. Those are Latin for “seventieth”, “sixtieth”, and “fiftieth”. They begin our countdown to Easter—seventy days away—and they come to us from a time thirteen- or fifteen-hundred years ago when Lent was forty days long as it is today, but when the Church hadn’t yet settled on which days of the week were included in the fast and which weren’t. That meant that in some dioceses where, say, Thursdays and Saturdays were excluded, it stretched the season out over a longer period of time. The themes of these three Sunday are very much the themes of Lent, and yet they’re also preparatory. As Lent approaches, the scripture lessons we read on these Sundays remind us of themes that are important for our Lenten fast, themes of discipline and humility and love.
Discipline is our theme today. I think we all know that discipline is important. We are disciples of Jesus and you can’t be a disciple without discipline. And yet, if there’s one thing Christians are prone to forgetting, it’s discipline. Sometimes we’re just plain lazy. Sometimes we’re half-hearted in our loyalty to Jesus, trying to live with one foot in his kingdom and another in the world. In our modern age discipline has often been downplayed as being somehow contradictory to grace.
Lent is an annual reminder of our need for grace, so it’s appropriate that as we prepare for Lent, we’re first reminded of our need of discipline, too. Grace and discipline, as it turns out, are really two sides of the same coin. So let’s begin with today’s Epistle. Look with me at this short passage from 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.
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. 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.
If you haven’t read 1 Corinthians in a while, it’s helpful to recall the context. The church in Corinth had a lot of problems, but one of the big ones was an insistence on “liberty”. It’s a problem we see plenty of in today’s church as well. You’ll hear people say something like, “Jesus has set me free by grace, so don’t try to enslave me with rules and works. I can do what I want.” Something like this was going on in Corinth and causing all sorts of problems and, so, Paul rebuked them for some specific sins they were tolerating and now goes on to tell them that if you’re going to be a Christian, you’ve got to do it with all you’ve got.
The Christian life isn’t aimless. We have a mission and we have an end goal of which we live in hope. St. Paul likens the Christian life to running a race and boxing in a match. Serious athletes train. They push themselves. I haven’t been that kind of athlete since I was a competitive swimmer in high school. Now I just swim for general fitness. But about two years ago I realised that in about six years, I’ll be eligible to compete in the BC Seniors’ Games—scary, right?—and I started looking at times for the 55-59 age group and realised that if I shaved ten seconds off my 100 metre freestyle time, I could probably win silver and maybe even gold. So I started pushing myself and I realised that if I was going to do that, it was going to take some serious discipline and going above and beyond my usual routine that I maintained just to be active. Paul uses the illustration of a runner in a footrace. If he’s willing to discipline himself and put in that effort for a laurel wreath, how much more ought we to discipline ourselves to run this race that ends with the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come? But how often do we dink around instead? How much do we invest in things that don’t ultimately matter instead of pursuing Jesus and his kingdom with everything we’ve got? Paul compares this to a poorly trained boxer throwing punches at the air instead of his opponent. Aimlessly throwing punches won’t win the prize. Instead, it’ll probably end with your opponent landing a knockout punch on you. So Paul stresses the need to discipline ourselves—especially reigning in our sinful appetites. He even talks about being disqualified in the end because of failure. What’s that about? If we’re saved by grace, how can we fail?
Well, to answer that, let’s look at some biblical context. We have a tendency to think of our salvation and of God’s grace in sort of universal, abstract theological terms, but sometimes we need to ground our thinking about things like salvation and grace in the story of God and his people. So let’s think back to Israel and to the Exodus. We were just working our way through Exodus the last couple of years, so the story should be fresh.
The people of Israel were slaves to Pharaoh. The cried out to the Lord and he rescued them. And yet he didn’t just strike down Pharaoh and his army and set the Israelites free to go do whatever they wanted. No, Israel was his people. He’d called and claimed this people for himself in Abraham. In delivering Israel from Pharaoh the Lord was claiming back what was rightly his. And so he declared to Israel: You are my firstborn son. I will be your God and you will be my people. He led Israel through the Red Sea and through the wilderness, met them at Mt. Sinai, and there he entered into a covenant with them. He gave them the law. For his part, he would be their God with all that entailed. Their part of the covenant—their obligation—was to fulfil the calling he gave them, to be the people who lived with him in their midst and, in doing that, to be a light in the midst of the nations. The law was the means by which they maintained the holiness necessary to live in such close proximity to the Lord himself. So notice that the Lord’s calling of Israel and his deliverance of her from Egypt were all of grace, and yet to live as his people meant devotion and discipline. It’s worth noting the Bible uses the Hebrew word for “slavery” both for Israel’s relationship to Pharaoh and to the Lord.
And as we read through the Old Testament, Israel repeatedly failed in her disciplined devotion to the Lord and to the covenant he had established with them. As the Prophets said, it was a heart problem. And to fix that heart problem, Jesus brought forgiveness to his people—to those who put their faith in him and became part of the renewed people of God, and he gave them God’s own Spirit to fix that heart problem, to turn their hearts towards the Lord. Brothers and Sisters, we are part of that new covenant community, the people who belong to God through Jesus, the people whom he has redeemed from sin’s bondage that we might be bound to him and to the service of his kingdom. Jesus does not set us free so that we can go do whatever we want, so that we can serve the Lord half-heartedly, so that we can live with divided loyalties anymore then the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt so that they could worship other gods or serve foreign kings. Through Jesus, we have been redeemed so that we can be faithful stewards of the Lord in this world, to do what we were created to do in the first place, to be the people who live with the Lord himself in our midst and in that, to be light in the darkness, to be witnesses God’s grace and goodness and love and to declare the royal summons: Jesus is Lord.
And it’s hard work. Jesus has given us God’s own Spirit to turn our hearts towards him. But the world, the flesh, and the devil still compete for our loyalties. We try to live with one foot in the kingdom and one still in the world. Our loyalties are still often divided between Jesus and the gods of the present age. And even in the Church, we too often put too much of our energy into things that don’t ultimately matter. Some of us might as well be sitting on the sidelines of the race. Others of us are like the boxer wildly throwing punches, working up a sweat, but none of them ever landing where they’ll do any good. Brothers and Sisters, we owe the Lord our all in return for the grace he has poured out on us.
Now, our Gospel today reminds us of what’s important about our calling. Paul talks about being disqualified because we haven’t given God our all. This is what Jesus’ parable illustrates. Let’s look at that. We’ve already read it so I’ll just paraphrase here.
Jesus tells a story of a vineyard owner who hires men to harvest his grapes. Day-labourers would gather in the town square in the morning and the men looking to hire them would meet and hire them there. Early in the morning—the work day ran from about six in the morning until six in the evening—the vineyard owner hired a group of men. They agreed on the wages: a denarius for a day’s work. That wasn’t much money, but it was the going rate and it would put food on the table that day. So off the labourers go to do their work.
At mid-morning the man returned to hire more labourers. Jesus doesn’t say why they hadn’t been hired in the first place. Maybe the man hadn’t realised how many labourers he’d need. Maybe these were the men who preferred to lie in bed a bit longer than the others. Whatever the case, he tells them he’ll pay them what’s right and they agree. This happens repeatedly: at noon and about 3 o’clock, and finally again at the eleventh hour—about 5 o’clock. Now, at this point, we might begin to wonder if the man’s concern is actually with his vineyard or with the labourers themselves. “Why aren’t you working?” he asks. And they respond, “No one hired us.” Maybe they were too lazy to be there at nine, noon, or even three. Maybe these were the men who didn’t have families to feed, so when the men with work came around, they hung back or look disinterested. They’d beg some food from someone later. Maybe these were the men with reputations for being lazy or doing work poorly and everyone else had said, “Not you!” But this man sends them to his field even though there’ll be less than hour to work by the time they get there.
And then the twist in the story. At the end of the day, when the labourers gather to receive their pay, the man has his foreman pay the latecomers first and those who had worked all day last. And into the hands of those men who had worked no more than an hour, the foreman placed a denarius. Everyone saw it. Some of the men who’d worked through the heat of the day were angry. Some were hopeful. “Maybe I heard wrong. If he’s paying these guys a denarius, maybe he’ll pay the rest of us two or three or more!” And yet down the line, the foreman pays them all the same denarius.
Not surprisingly, those men who were there all day grumble, “What gives, Boss? We worked through the hottest part of the day and now you’re paying these guys who worked an hour the same as us!”
And the vineyard owner responded, “Friend, I’ve done you no wrong. I’ve paid you what we agreed on. It’s not your business if I choose to be generous with these other men. Do you begrudge my generosity to them?” And to that Jesus adds his own somewhat cryptic explanation, “So the last will be first, and the first last.”
So what’s the point here? Well, first, the context. Jesus tells this story on the heels of two encounters in Chapter 19 that you’re already familiar with. In the first a bunch of children come to Jesus. The disciples shoo them away, but Jesus welcomes them and rebukes the disciples. Of such as these is the kingdom. The second is the rich young man. The rich young man has been faithful to the torah his whole life and now asks Jesus, “What more do you expect of me?” Jesus tells him, “Sell everything, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow me.” The young man went way troubled. Selling everything was a bridge too far. Then, knowing that he and the other disciples had done just this, Peter asked Jesus about their status. And Jesus reassured them: Those who have given up everything to follow him will have a share in the life of the age to come. Here, too, Jesus closes with those words about the first becoming last and the last becoming first. Repeatedly in Chapter 19 this question arises of who’s in and who’s out. The theme of coming judgement looms over the events. That’s what this first and last bit is about. When judgement comes on Israel, many will be surprised at who is swept up in judgement and who escapes.
And that’s the other important bit to remember. The parable isn’t about you and I, at least not directly. When Jesus tells stories about a vineyard, the vineyard is always Israel. The owner of the vineyard is always the Lord. And so this story takes us back to Abraham and Moses again. The Lord had called and then delivered Israel from bondage for a task, to witness is presence, to be a light to the nations. Judgement was soon to come—before that generation had passed away, Jesus would later reveal. Judgement was coming and deliverance from that judgement would hinge on whether or not Israel had received Jesus the Messiah and been willing to realign their vision of the kingdom and of God’s mission around him. You see, there would be many in Israel who had been zealous about God’s law—and that was a good thing—but in rejecting Jesus would suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the Lord’s judgement.
So what was their problem? What did they do wrong? Notice, Jesus doesn’t have anything bad to say about the work done by the labourers who worked all day. They received the pay they had been promised. The problem was their grumbling when the men who worked only an hour were treated the same.
There’s a trio of three other familiar parables that make the same point. Think of Jesus’ stories about the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the prodigal son. They were told in response to the grumbling of some otherwise upright men who saw Jesus fellowshipping with tax collectors and sinners. In the first parable an old woman rejoices over finding a valuable coin that she’d lost. In the second a shepherd goes looking for a lost sheep, putting himself at risk, and rejoices when he finds it. Both stories tell us the nature of Jesus’ ministry: He came to restore the lost sheep of Israel. They belonged to the Lord just as much as the most faithful and upright of the Pharisees and the Lord rejoiced to see them restored. The third parable, the Prodigal Son, really gets to the heart of this issue. Our focus is usually on the father, day after day looking down the road in the hopes that his lost son will return and on his rejoicing when it finally happens—especially on the his forgiveness and desire to be reconciled to his son. We often forget the end of the parable, the real heart of it, when the father encounters his resentful older son—the one who was good and faithful. Instead of rejoicing at the repentance and restoration of his wayward brother, he grumbled and refused to join the party. Does that sound familiar? That’s just what happened in our Gospel today. The men who worked faithfully all day grumbled when the boss paid those who worked only an hour the same. They could have rejoiced at the fact that those men would be able to feed their families, but instead all they could think about was fairness and justice.
Just so with many in Israel, the Pharisees being the prime but not the only example. They were faithful to the Lord. Notice, the Pharisees had their own problems, but Jesus doesn’t rebuke them for their zeal for the law. The Pharisees were the labourers who worked hard and bore the heat of middle of the day. Their problem was that they—well, some of them—had little or no concern for the wayward in Israel. If folks like the Pharisees had gone after the lost sheep of Israel and sought to restore them, there would have been no need for Jesus to go after them. Instead, many of these otherwise faithful Israelites looked down on their wayward brethren. Many took a self-righteous attitude towards them. When the Messiah came, he’d set them straight—not necessarily by restoring them, but probably by smiting them for their lack of faithfulness. Here was Israel’s problem: most had forgotten the reason why the Lord had so graciously delivered them and made them his people. They treated the law as if it were an end in itself when, in fact, the law was meant to make them a witness to the Lord amongst the nations. But they weren’t even fulfilling that mission in their own nation. They weren’t even seeking the restoration of their own lost brothers and sisters. And for that, many—most!—would find themselves on the wrong side of the Lord’s judgement when it came a few decades later—despite all their otherwise faithful living. This is where grace and discipline come together: In the realisation that God has graciously redeemed us not merely for our own benefit, but to serve him.
Think of it this way: God had a message of redemption and renewal for the world. He put it in a letter and then he redeemed Israel and made them his postmen. But instead of delivering the letter, they kept it to themselves, revelling in being the holders of good news and then praying for the day when the Lord would smit all those awful, unredeemed sinners outside—the people who desperately needed their mail delivered.
Now we can translate the point of the parable into our own lives, because the Lord has graciously redeemed us for the same reason that he graciously redeemed Israel: Not so that we can go do whatever we want free of eternal consequence, but so that we can serve him—so that we can be light in the darkness, so that we can witness his presence, and so that we can proclaim the royal summons to the Lord Jesus. The Lord established a covenant with Israel and he has established a covenant with us. One of the aspects of that covenant that our Gospel today draws forward is this idea of reconciliation. It ties in well with what St. Paul tells us about discipline, too. Because reconciliation is often a very, very difficult thing to do and to live. It’s easy to claim the reconciliation we have with God through Jesus. It’s easy to receive God’s grace. But it’s not always so easy to share that same grace with others, especially to those who have injured us. But it can also be difficult to be gracious to the tax collectors and sinners of our own world. It’s easy to be self-righteous and to think we’re better. It’s easy to look forward to the day when Jesus returns to set everything to rights. They’ll get what they deserve on that day. But here’s the thing, Brothers and Sisters, if that’s how we think about lost sheep, well, then we have precisely the same problem that the grumbling men in Jesus’ parable had. And that’s a dangerous place to be, because it reveals that we’ve never really and truly understood the nature of God’s grace and his purpose in delivering us. Just as it did for Israel, God’s judgement will come one day on the nations and once again many who thought they were first will find themselves last and many whom everyone thought to be last will find themselves first. Let us not fall afoul of Paul’s warning in the Epistle, “Lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Let us pray: Father, in today’s Collect we acknowledge that we who ought to be justly punished for offences have been mercifully delivered by your goodness and for the glory of your name. We pray that we never forget the reason that you have delivered us and that our priority in all things will be the glory of your name as we share your grace with others and proclaim the good news about your kingdom and about the Lord Jesus. Amen.