The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
I don’t know about you, but as I read through and listen to the Old Testament and Gospel lessons for today, I’m confronted with images of God that are quite unsettling; perhaps even a bit terrifying. Here is God—our God—telling His people rather bluntly that He will search through all of Jerusalem, even by night with a lamp, in order to root out and punish and put to death the fraudulent greed and lawlessness that the Israelites were putting forth under the guise of “faithful worship and stewardship and obedience.” Here is God—our God—represented as a rich master in the parable of the unfaithful steward, who condemns a poor sap for not producing a return on his investment, throwing the poor guy out of the house and into the darkness, where there’s only weeping and gnashing of teeth. Nowhere in these readings are we presented the VBS, soccer-playing, always smiling and happy Jesus we’ve all been taught about and come to accept as “God.” This God we encounter into today’s lessons is a God of wrath who has no problem punishing wicked unbelief and apathy.
And before anyone counters by saying, “Well, of course that’s not the image of Jesus in these lessons! The angry God that is portrayed here is the God of the Old Testament God, before Jesus made everything better. Jesus is and always has been the nice one,” save it. You’re wrong. That’s heresy as old as the New Testament itself. As Christ Himself says to His disciples when they inquire about seeing the Father, “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father.” If you want to know what God looks like, look at Christ. Here He is, in the flesh, and as He says in Malachi, “I, the Lord, do not change.” The God of old is the God of new. The God of old is the God of always and ever.
So…this brings me back to the point I was making. This Jesus we see and hear in our lessons for today; this angry God who seeks out and destroys lawless unbelief and apathy by lamplight; this angry rich master who casts wicked and lazy servants out into the depths of hellish darkness and abandonment for poor stewardship and laziness; this Jesus is probably not the version of Jesus we like to think about. In fact, we may even be so bold as to say, “That’s not my version of Jesus.”
And there is the problem that faces each and every one of us today. Our version often doesn’t match up with Scripture’s version. Our version of Christ; our version of faith; our version of Church and love and mercy and forgiveness and stewardship and evangelism; our versions quite often don’t match up with God’s version. Are you surprised? Are you offended? Do you disagree with the fact that I’m saying it about you? Sure, we can recognize this in others, but that’s not how it is with us, right? After all, that’s a pretty broad indictment. Folks: You shouldn’t be offended, nor should you be surprised. And you certainly can’t deny this reality in your own life. It’s the truth.
Case in point: How many of you know what God says about unbelief, impenitence, and salvation? It never turns out well, does it? The proud and unrepentant soul never fares well with God. No salvation for those bearing fruits of unrighteousness and impenitence. And yet…how many of us know people, whether family, friends, or even people we admire and adore who don’t know us from Adam (i.e., celebrities), who thumb their noses at God and faithfulness? Can you be a faithful, repentant Christian and willingly despise God’s Word and Sacraments? Can you be a faithful, repentant Christian and say that Jesus isn’t the only way? Can you be a faithful, repentant Christian and say that you don’t need church or baptism or Holy Communion or forgiveness? “Forgiveness? I haven’t done anything wrong!” Can you be a faithful, repentant Christian and believe and do these things? Can you be a faithful, repentant Christian who only puts on a good show and goes through the motions?
We know the right answers, don’t we? However, what about when it is our loved one, our friend, or our hero saying or doing these things? What about when it’s someone close to our heart doing the despising of God and His Truth and gifts of grace? What about when it’s us? Then it’s different, isn’t it? Our Jesus would never condemn us for our sins, right? Our Jesus would never send that person to hell. Our Jesus would recognize what a good and moral and upright person He’s dealing with. Our Jesus would take into account all the good intentions and good works that our beloved unbeliever does. In the end, we reason and we justify, our Jesus welcomes, maybe not all, but certain good people into heaven, whether they fear, love, and trust in Him above all things or not.
Folks: This is what got the lazy servant in trouble with the master. Our version doesn’t match up with reality. So often, though, people prefer their version of the truth over God’s version of the truth. If you listen to the parable; if you listen to your Lord teach you, you will hear that the lazy and apathetic servant wasn’t condemned because he failed to return a good investment on the master’s gift, nor was he condemned for burying the gift, or even for being lazy. What he was condemned for; what got him into so much trouble with the master was the fact that his version and understanding of the master didn’t match up with reality. You can hear it in the master’s incredulous response to the servant. “You knew I was a hard man who reaped where I didn’t sow and gathered where I didn’t scatter? You knew me to be an unscrupulous cut-throat who only cared about the bottom-line and nothing else? You don’t know me at all! That’s not me at all!” The servant’s version didn’t match up with the truth.
And even if the servant’s version of the master WAS reality; that is, even if the servant’s perception of the master was right on the head (which it’s not), did his actions match his beliefs? Did his practice match his doctrine? You see, this is where the servant really got into trouble. That’s exactly what the master was getting at when he let loose on the wicked servant. If this guy truly believed in his heart that the master was all these terrible and ruthless things, then his actions would have matched his beliefs. If he truly believed what he confessed, he would have gone out and at least invested the money the master gave him so as to give the master what he thinks the master wants. However, as the old saying goes, his actions didn’t match his words. His actions spoke far louder to what was truly in his heart than any words that came spilling out of his mouth.
And here’s the thing: We could go on and on about how our versions of God, Christianity, Church and the like all differ from God’s version. We could go on and on about how our versions of the faith closely mirror and resemble the Israelites’ version and the wicked servant’s version; how our words don’t match our practices, and we wouldn’t be wrong. We might be offended. After all, we love to hear sin preached on until it’s our sin being preached on. We might try to deny the truth or justify our actions and beliefs, but our denials and our self-justifications don’t change the truth. We could do all these things, but in the end, when we get down to the bottom line, our versions don’t match God’s version, and that’s a problem. Our versions can’t and won’t save us, no matter how well we spin or justify the Truth.
This is precisely why these readings—these apocalyptic, end-times type of readings—are appointed for study during this time of year. For those of you who don’t know, we’re at the end of the current Church year. These readings at the end of the Church year are appointed for our meditation so that we don’t lose focus and get comfortable and complacent in our faith, especially as we enter into the “holiday season” and forget why God came into our world—to die for our sins. These end-time readings are appointed for us so that we can be reminded that God is in charge—ever and always—and He knows what’s going on in His created world, and He is coming back in all power and glory to save His faithful people, and punish all enemies of His version of sin and salvation. Yes—these readings are appointed to give us a good swift “wake-up” kick in the rear-end of our complacent faith. We’re not nearly as “good” or “righteous” or “squeaky-clean” as we think we are! Our version of repentant, merciful, gracious, loving faith is, more often than not, a poor counterfeit of the original God-given real McCoy. And this cold, hard reality should inspire a proper, repentant fear of God in you. But take heart, for these readings are also appointed to provide God’s people comfort, though, admittedly, it’s a Gospel comfort that is recognized only through the eyes and ears of faith, which is a gift from God. Be of good cheer. God is in charge. He knows what He’s doing. He’s got it all handled.
And this is why I’m not going to stand here today and tell you what to do. I can’t make you do anything in regards to hearing, believing, and living out God’s version of the faith in your life. I can’t make you change any more than I can make the leopard change his spots or the zebra change his stripes. But…God can, through the hearing of His Word and Truth and the working of His Holy Spirit in that Word of Truth. Hear His life-changing, life-saving Word and Truth. Behold His version of life and salvation and forgiveness. Here is the eternal, unchanging God of Scripture. Here is God, in your midst, desiring not the death of sinful man, but that all men—you included—hear His Truth and turn and repent and be delivered. Here is almighty God, in the midst of all the tumult and pain and suffering and sin, coming to us to bring us His comfort and peace that surpasses all human understanding. Here is the God who loved you so much that He took on your flesh in order to save you; to save you from sin, death, and the devil…to save you from yourself and your false version of salvation. Here is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Note all the singulars. This is it. He is it. Salvation through faith alone in God’s grace alone, which is ours because of the all-redeeming life, death, and resurrection of Christ alone.
Behold this crucifix. Here is God’s version of mercy and love, in the flesh. Here is God’s life-saving, life-giving version of the Truth. You are a sinner, no different and no better than anyone else, including the person you don’t care for or dare to fancy yourself better than, and they’re a sinner no different or worse or better than you. That’s God’s version of the truth. The justly-deserved wage for that sin? Death. But… God loves you—and everyone else, for that matter—so much that He willingly sent His one and only Son to take your place and suffer that justly-deserved death for you. Christ Jesus took your place, calling all of the Father’s righteous wrath and judgment down upon Himself so that you would be spared.
Behold this cruciform reality of God’s version of just and righteous wrath and divine Fatherly mercy and love. Yes—the wage of sin is death, and Christ suffered that death for you. And in this death of God we behold the love and mercy and grace of God. Here is God’s mercy; that is, here is God not giving you what you deserve, but instead putting all that punishment upon Christ. Here is God’s gift of grace for you; that is, here is the gift you receive that you don’t deserve. Here is His free and unmerited gift of life and forgiveness. Here, my fellow redeemed, is the one and only version of true life and comfort and peace that surpasses all understanding. Here is Christ for you.
May this one and only version of life and truth and grace and mercy grant you the peace that surpasses all understanding; the peace that holds fast to God’s Truth; the peace that whole-heartedly trusts that whether we live or die or anything in between, we belong to Christ. May God’s version be your version, ever and always.
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