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The Lord be with you

Today, October 4, 2020, the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, we tried to live-stream our worship service from our sanctuary. If you were waiting for us on-line, then you know we were not successful. In lieu of our streamed service, I’m posting the assigned readings, the collect of the day, and a print copy of the sermon. We pray that things will be more successful next Sunday when we will, once again, seek to stream the service from our sanctuary.

Isaiah 5:1–7
1 Let me sing for my beloved
my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

3 And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard,
that I have not done in it?
When I looked for it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?

5 And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and briers and thorns shall grow up;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.

7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness,
but behold, an outcry!

Philippians 3:4b–14
4bIf anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Matthew 21:33–46
33 [Jesus said:] “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. 34When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.

Collect of the Day
Gracious God, You gave Your Son into the hands of sinful men who killed Him. Forgive us when we reject Your unfailing love, and grant us the fullness of Your salvation; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Sermon Title: Rubbish

Grace, mercy …

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. Philippians 3:8

I expect that the vast majority of LCMS congregations will hear a sermon today based on the concept of the vineyard. Vineyards are featured prominently in our Old Testament and Gospel lessons and, if we were using the appointed Psalm for the Day instead of the Introit, we would have a third lesson with a vineyard image (Psalm 80:7-19). Three years ago, when we heard these readings, that is exactly the type of sermon I shared. The lesson from Philippians kind of gets lost in these sermons with, perhaps, only a passing comment that the works of the tenants were rubbish, or that the letter of Philippians is directed to some of the new tenants, that is to Gentiles. So, today, we are going to zoom in on our Epistle lesson.

Our Philippians reading begins with Paul providing a list of his pre-conversion accomplishments. He did this because his credentials were being attacked by a group of false teachers historically called “Judaizers.” These men taught that converts to Christianity had to observe the Mosaic Law, or at least certain elements of it, like circumcision, food restrictions, and so forth. They claimed that they had been sent from the Mother Church in Jerusalem. They could point to the fact that the Apostles were observant Jews, all circumcised, all observing diet restrictions, all continuing to participate in Temple services, and so on (Acts 10:1-11:18; Galatians 2:11-14; Acts 3:1). The Judaizers would follow up with something like teaching that they personally also follow the Mosaic regulations, as all good Christians should. Christianity was simply an extension of the Jewish Faith and so all the elements of the Jewish Faith, as taught and practiced by contemporary first century faithful Jews, should be maintained. The idea that you are not really a true Christian if you don’t follow such regulations was part of their message. It seems these misguided teachers forgot one of the main points of Jesus’ vineyard parable in our Gospel lesson. Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you [Jews] and given to a people producing its fruits,” that is, the Gentiles. Even the chief priests and the Pharisees who heard Jesus could figure this out. Even they knew that what passed for God pleasing acts in the first century Jewish context, according to Jesus, were not good works.

Now, from a Jewish evangelism point-of-view, there is much to commend in their approach. Paul himself used it, writing, “To the Jews I became as a Jew,” though when he told this to the Corinthians he was abundantly clear he did this in order to get a hearing for the Gospel and not because God demanded such a life to be saved (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). We see this outreach method when Paul went to Jerusalem with the offerings he had gathered from the Gentile Church for relief of the Jerusalem Church (Acts 21:17-26). Where the Judaizers go wrong is when they teach that such regulations should be observes by every faithful Christians in order to be saved. So such practices went from acts of love to win an opportunity for the Gospel to acts of obedience to secure one’s own salvation.

So Paul first rehearses his pre-conversion reasons for confidence in the flesh, which exceed any and all reasons the Judaizers might claim for themselves. With all that he was, he still was not redeemed. He was standing with the first tenants in Jesus’ parable, stoning the prophets and killing the Son (Acts 7:58).

Paul calls all that he had achieved by such a life, “rubbish.” The word translated “rubbish” is skubala. There is some division about how it should best be translated. It might mean “rotted stinking hay,” that is good for nothing. Another possible meaning is “manure” or “dung.” It has also been translated as “refuse, “leavings,” or simply “dirt.” And, of course, as the ESV has it, it can be translated as “rubbish.”

No matter which understanding you go with for skubala, it is clear that all Paul’s accomplishments prior to his conversion are worthless. Outside of Christ, our good works, no matter how sparkling in the eyes of humanity, do not open heavens doors and, because they are done without faith in Christ, will not be remembered in heaven if such a person is converted and becomes a Christian later in life. So we can find such works described as “dross” in the Psalms (Psalm 119:119). In 1 Corinthians, Paul describes all faithless works and teaching as wood and straw that is burned up at the Second Coming of Jesus (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).

I should be clear; Paul is not calling the Judaizers non-Christians. They were misinformed. They had not thought through their message. They did not understand that the very premise of their message actually undermined the work of Jesus. They taught a “faith plus” form of Christianity. Faith plus your good works made you a Christian. Sadly, this kind of thinking continues in the Visible Church to this day. It appeals to our fallen nature and so we must be on guard.

Now, real good works are indeed good. They actually are remembered in heaven (Mark 9:41; Revelation 14:13). We can even say that good works on the part of Christians are necessary (Apol. XX). But all this is not the same thing as saying our good works are necessary for our salvation. Paul will never let a faith-plus-our-actions-equals-salvation message go unchallenged. Salvation is always a free gift received by faith in Jesus.

Paul teaches that all such works are stinking, rotting, rubbish. He willingly leaves them behind to be a follower of Jesus, for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus, our Lord. He wrote, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

Now we know Paul accomplished a lot, from a human perspective, before his conversion. But, apart from Christ, such actions are less than nothing. They were all done without faith in Jesus, his Messiah. And, as the book of Hebrews reminds us, without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Those whose motivation for their actions is to be remembered in history, are not doing good works. Those whose motivation for their actions is to gain power and influence others, are not doing good works. Those whose motivation for their actions is to put other people in their debt, are not doing good works. Those whose motivation for their actions is to get elected, are not doing good works. It is all rubbish. All those same things, if done in faith in Jesus and love towards our neighbor, become good works because they are Christ working through his people. I might also add that those who do good in order to feel good about themselves, are not doing good in the eyes of Jesus.

To use an example that is near and dear to us here at Our Redeemer, if we support Orphan Grain Train so that we might get a tax deduction at the end of the year, or to feel good about ourselves, then we are not involved in a good work. If, on the other hand, we support Orphan Grain Train because of our faith in Jesus and our love for our neighbor, then we are doing a good work. For such a believer, the tax benefit, or even a positive feeling about ourselves, is a happy personal outcome, but does not factor into our motivation.

The reason Paul willingly leaves behind dependence on his faithless works is because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord. Through this he knows the power of Christ’s resurrection. As is so often the case with Paul, this has baptismal overtones. It was in his baptism that Paul was united to the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6:5). The death and resurrection of Jesus becomes the theme of Paul’s life and message (1 Corinthians 2:2). This is in complete harmony with how Jesus understood the entire Old Testament (John 5:39; Acts 24:25-27).

So true faith does not exclude good works, but provides a new motivation for such works. With our lives dedicated to Christ and shaped by his death and resurrection, we join Paul in pressing towards the finish line, which is the return of Christ and everlasting life. So Paul wrote, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” He is clear that he has not achieved perfection. No one ever does this side of the grave. To believe you are living without sin, that you have somehow arrived, is a sinful attitude. You have returned to the thinking of the Judaizers. If you think about it, anyone who is without sin does not need Jesus. They are doing just fine on their own, thank you very much. But the Apostle John reminds us that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). On the other hand, John also reminds us that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). That is one reason we have a confession of our sins and receive Christ’s absolution every time we receive the Lord’s Supper.

Our righteousness comes by grace through faith. It is never our own personal accomplishments. Indeed, our own accomplishments, our accomplishments done outside of Christ, are rubbish. However that is never a reason to not do good works. In fact, our faith is our motivation to live in the righteousness of Christ. It is a blessed relationship, no matter what our vocations might be. Those works are far from rubbish. They are gold, silver, precious gems, or whatever positive analogy you want to use. Such good works may include suffering for Christ, but who would change places with those who live a life of ease if it means eternal separation of Jesus? Certainly not Saint Paul!

Quite some time ago I heard a speaker on the topic of retirement. Many have difficulty putting something aside for their “golden years.” There is always another ice cream cone to buy, another movie to go see, another dinner out, and on and on. It is a question of immediate gratification verses long-term benefits. He depicted this dilemma by holding up his two hands, as if he held two different things in them. He looked at the one hands and said, “ice cream.” Then he looked at the second hand and said, “my retirement home.” “Movie;” “retirement home;” “dinner out,” “retirement home.”

We can use the same thinking with our ultimate retirement home, that home where we will be with Jesus, that home where our good deeds follow us. If we do, we will gladly join with Paul in thinking and acting as if all this faithless world offers is rubbish compared to what is in store for us who trust in Jesus. As one of the Psalms says, “Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you and worked for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of the children of mankind!” (Psalm 31:19). Jeremiah recorded God as reminding us, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

Yes, the glories and works of this world are rubbish. But so what? For you, and all who trust in Christ, the benefits far exceed such things. For the Christian, the treasures of heaven are waiting on the other side of the grave. For us Christians, we gladly press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Amen.

May the peace …