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The Definition of Insanity

Exodus 17:1-7; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6; Matthew 20:1-16

Pastor Jason Zirbel

Grace Lutheran Church  
Greenwood, AR

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Sun, Feb 12, 2017 

The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.

I’m fairly confident that all of you here today are quite familiar with the popular definition of insanity: “to do the same thing again and again and again and expect different results.” I’m confident that we all know this definition so well simply because it comes up all the time in daily life, especially in politics.  There’s ALWAYS insanity happening in politics!  “We’ve thrown a ton of money at the problem, and the problem has only gotten worse.  I know...let’s throw more money at the problem.  That’ll fix it for sure.  We’ve brought government control to bear on this particular issue, and yet it’s only gotten worse.  You know what?  We need to get involved more.  We need more government control and more laws and more regulations!  That’ll fix it.” Textbook insanity. 

This popular working definition of insanity is often attributed to Albert Einstein.  Maybe it’s true.  Maybe it’s not.  It’s on the Internet, so it must be true, right?  Here’s the thing: While Einstein may have put those particular words in that particular order, he is most certainly NOT the first one to recognize or address the reality of insanity at work in the lives of people.  Just look to our Epistle lesson for today.  Nearly a full nineteen-hundred years before Albert Einstein is doing his thing, St. Paul is telling a congregation of Corinthian knuckleheads that their rebelliousness and doubt and covetousness and infighting and selfishness and glory-seeking is pure insanity.

“Our grandfathers of the faith were all under and all led by the same mighty cloud of God.  They all passed through the same Red Sea, and they were all baptized into Moses in that cloud and in that sea.  They all ate the same manna from heaven.  They all drank the same spiritual water from the Rock, and that Rock was Christ.  They all did this, and yet with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” Think about what Paul is saying here.  All those Israelites were delivered by God from Egyptian bondage.  They all experienced and lived through the same ten plagues.  They all went through the Red Sea together.  They all received the same goodness and sustenance from the hand of God.  They all were led by the same pillar of cloud and pillar of fire…and yet most of them gave God the finger.  They rejected Him.  They despised Him and His grace.  They expected more.  They expected better.  And because of this rebellious, self-centered unbelief, they were overthrown in the wilderness.  Not one of those unthankful, rebellious fools was allowed to enter into the Promised Land.  God walked them in that Sinai wilderness for forty years until the hard-headed and hard-hearted rebellion had died off.

This is what Paul is holding up to the Corinthian Christians, who are dead-set on serving themselves and doing everything they can to get ahead and get all the glory.  “Guys: Looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck.  You’re not acting or sounding or doing any different than our self-centered and thankless Israelite forefathers, who constantly griped and complained about how God was treating them, and that didn’t turn out well for them, did it?  Why are you expecting it to be different for you?  You’re insane!”

And then there’s the Gospel lesson parable for today.  More of the same.  The master graciously gives to everyone, and this doesn’t sit well with those who got in at the ground level.  Those who began their vineyard service in the morning felt cheated because the Johnny-come-latelies received the same exact wage as they did.  “That’s not fair!” And this is when the master gently, but firmly rebukes them.  “Did I not say that I would pay you a denarius—a full day’s wage?  You’ve received everything I’ve promised to you.  What’s the problem?  Are you angry because I choose to be gracious and generous to those who came after you?  That’s not your call to make.”

Easy enough to understand, right?  What if I told you that this parable wasn’t spoken against wicked Pharisees and Sadducees, who had real entitlement issues, but was actually taught to the disciples of Jesus, particularly the twelve apostles?  It’s true.  The end of chapter nineteen makes this abundantly clear.  We’re told that a rich young ruler came to Jesus, seeking to follow Him and become one of His chosen disciples.  “Teacher, I’ve followed all the commandments perfectly.  I’m the guy you’re looking for!” Jesus knew the Truth though.  He knew this guy’s heart.  “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor.  Then you’re ready to follow Me.” We know how that turned out.  The rich young man went away very sad.  And this is when Peter and the boys start puffing out their chests a bit.  “Look at all that we’ve given up.  We’ve left everything to follow You.  Look at how awesome and selfless and humble we are!  What will be our great reward?” And this is where this morning’s parable enters into the story.  Hmm…that kind of puts this parable in a little darker light, doesn’t it?  It wasn’t spoken against wicked Pharisees and “bad guys,” but it was spoken to faithful fools who had real entitlement issues; fools who thought they deserved more or better, at least more or better than those who “haven’t done nearly as much.”

There’s the insanity of it all!  There’s the insanity that St. Paul is talking about.  We are no different than our great-grandparents of the faith, and it doesn’t matter whether you can trace your family tree back to Moses and Egypt or to St. Peter or to any of the Gentile Johnny-come-latelies to the faith.  The problem has always been the same—God’s loving grace and providence is never good enough.  The problem, whether it’s witnessed in the Sinai wilderness or the Galilean countryside or the Corinthian villa or the 21st century “fruited plain and land of milk and honey,” is one of faithlessness; one of unthankfulness; one of despising God and His goodness simply because it doesn’t match up with our expectations, our desires, and our timelines.  God provides and leads and protects and serves, and we respond with the very familiar complaints and bitterness and apathetic unthankfulness of our forefathers, thinking that we deserve more or better for all the time and effort and money we so generously and humbly give.  And yet…we expect God to be pleased with our grandstanding and complaining and doubting and selfishness.  It’s different with us.  It’s always different with us. 

You know what’s truly insane?  God keeps providing and protecting and loving and serving and guiding and leading!  In spite of all our rebelliousness and pride and greed, God remains faithful to us.  That’s what I love about the Epistle text.  Yes, there is Law there.  There is a great and sobering warning to us about the insanity of sinful behavior and its deadly consequences.  But…there is also tremendous Gospel Truth here in these words.  God remained faithful to Old Testament Israel.  He kept His Word.  He kept the promise that He first made to Adam and Eve in that Garden on that fateful day.  He kept the promise that He made to Abraham so many centuries before.  Israel didn’t deserve to be set free from bondage.  In fact, they deserved more bondage!  They certainly didn’t deserve to be made into a great nation, and they DEFINITELY didn’t deserve any of God’s merciful love and providence.  They deserved to be treated no different than their hard-hearted Egyptian taskmasters.  They deserved to be treated no different than any of those Egyptian charioteers at the bottom of the Red Sea.  And yet…God continually loved them, provided for them, led them, and protected them…in spite of them.  That’s insane! 

The same goes for the apostles.  Every one of those guys had abandoned Jesus when the cross bore its ugly head.  Every one of those guys doubted and despaired and lamented over all that they had lost on that terrible day.  Every one of them was hiding behind locked doors three days later, licking their wounds and having a big old pity party.  And it’s to these very schleps that Jesus Christ appears, holding out His nail-pierced hands and declaring His peace and victory.  It’s to these self-centered rubes our God and Lord does the insane: He forgives them and then breathes on them and sends them out as His pastors and emissaries, preaching, teaching, and baptizing all nations in His resurrected and victorious Name.  That’s insane!

The same goes for the Corinthian Christians, who were making an absolute shipwreck of the faith.  And yet…God continued to provide for them.  They never got “less grace” or “less forgiveness” or “less mercy.” They got the full share, each and every time that Word was proclaimed.  Through faithful men such as Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, and Titus God’s Word was faithfully and fully taught and His sacraments were faithfully, fully, and graciously given out.  That’s insane, because we know that those same Corinthian Christians had basically hijacked Holy Communion and turned it into a catered lunch, where the “haves” got to feast, and the “have-nots” were left out and left empty handed.  In spite of such wretched, self-serving foolishness, God still fed them with His Word and Sacrament!  He kept His Word.  He was with them, coming to them in His Word, His Holy Baptism, and His very body and blood…in spite of them and their self-serving ways.  That’s insane!

And that, my friends, is our blessed insane reality this very day.  Nothing has changed.  There is nothing new under the sun.  That being said, I’m not going to start listing off all the many sinful ways we’re no different than our forefathers.  As I said earlier, it all comes down to faithlessness, plain and simple.  In the end, it all boils down to the First Commandment issue of not fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things.  You can try and justify yourself all you want.  You can try and explain away how it’s different with you and your case.  It’s not.  It never is.  It’s insanity—plain and simple.  The sin is the same, and the result is the same.  The wage of sin remains death.  It hasn’t changed since Adam and Eve first fell headlong into it. 

But therein lays our Gospel assurance.  There in the very midst of all this insanity is God’s peace and comfort.  God has never left us or forsaken us.  He’s never taken a break or fallen asleep at the wheel.  He’s never reneged on His Word and Promise.  He’s never given or provided in half-measures.  He’s ALWAYS given us all that we need for eternal life, and He’s given it in full, blessed abundance.  Even when things are tough, and life has never looked darker, our cups overflow with God’s love!  It’s insane this love of God for us. 

And when you begin to faithfully understand and hold fast to this insanely divine love that God has for you, it changes you.  No coercion or brow-beating or bribing or fear-mongering is necessary.  God’s insane love for you works the miraculous; it actually creates a different result.  Because of faith in Christ’s victorious justification that declares all the work of redemption finished and complete in Him and because of Him, the baptized child of God goes out into the world full of His peace and love, desiring to sin no more; desiring only to show forth the Light, the Life, and the peace of Christ Jesus.

My fellow baptized: Here is Christ.  Here is His love and grace and peace for you.  Here He stands, arms outstretched.  This never changes.  His love for you never changes.  That’s why He forever bears the marks of crucifixion.  It is finished, once and for all.  That’s God’s insane, unending, and unconditional peace for you.  And may this same peace of Christ, which does surpass all human understanding, guard and keep your hearts and minds ever and always in Him. 


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