Our True Home

John 14:1-2 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.”

Jesus’ disciples were experiencing some painful emotions when he spoke these words to them. He had announced that he was leaving them. Where he was going, they could not come–at least not yet. In less than a day, he would be dead. Grief, and confusion, and denial were starting to overwhelm them, so he tells them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  He invites them not to be afraid, but to believe. “Trust in God; trust also in me.”

Though sometimes Jesus confronts his disciples for their lack of faith, that is not his point here. This is an invitation, a promise. He is saying, “You can believe in me. I am here for you, and I will not let this hurt you.” As he tells us in so many other places, trusting him does so much more than make us feel better. “He that believes and is baptized will be saved.” “Whoever hears my words and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned. He has crossed over from death to life.”

Trusting him settles our hearts. Eventually, every human helper will fail us. They will be powerless to make any difference. Even for the doctors it is only a matter of time. But Jesus? He never fails. He offers something so much better. It is the ultimate reason to trust him: He is preparing our true home.

“In my Father’s house are many rooms.” You may know and love the King James Version because it used the word “mansions” here. We should say something about that. People like that word mansions because it makes them think of a place full of comfort and luxury. Today the word “mansion” is defined as a home that has at least 8000 square feet. Wow! That’s many times bigger than the house I live in.

The Bible certainly assures us that heaven is a place of luxury compared to the world we live in now. You know the pictures: streets paved with gold, gates made of pearl, foundations made of precious stones. Everything is perfect and pleasant. It comforts us to think we will upgrade from a simple house, or perhaps a single room in a hospital or nursing home, to a residence billionaires would envy.

While the size and accommodations in heaven will not disappoint us, that is not Jesus’ emphasis here. The old English use of the word “mansion” referred to little more than a place to stay. You have seen mansions before. I have toured some of the royal palaces of Europe. For all their impressive size, gold trimmings, marble floors, and priceless art work, the places seem cold and hard for a place to live.

Jesus is describing not so much a fancy house, but our true home. All our life in this world has been nothing more than a journey. All our houses, rooms, or apartments were nothing more than an inn or hotel. We stay for one night or maybe many. But these places aren’t home. They were stops along the way. Each day we pack up our things and move a day’s journey farther down the road. We travel a day’s journey closer to our real home. It is the house of my Father, a place he calls heaven.

What makes heaven our true home is not more and better stuff (though we have it on God’s own word it has both). Heaven is our true home because our true family lives there. Our hearts are reunited with hearts who shared our faith. There Jesus, who made himself our brother, is waiting and welcomes us. There is the place where we are loved, because it is our Father’s house.

This home is waiting because Jesus prepared it for us. When he told the disciples he was going to prepare a place for them, he wasn’t just referring to his ascension into heaven. Preparing our place cost him everything. He went to the Garden of Gethsemane, to sweat blood in prayer, and to be betrayed. He went through beatings and insults, mocking and whipping, in the courts of the high priest and Pontius Pilate. He went to crucifixion and death for the sins of the world.

He did it to prepare a place for us. And then he rose from the grave in triumph over death so that we could be sure a room is ready for us in his Father’s house. He wants us to be sure it is our Father’s house, too.

Beyond Fair

Matthew 20:11-15  “When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ But answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’”

            Sometimes God seems unfair, like the landowner in this parable. He seemed unfair to the men who worked the longest. We look at someone else who has more or has done less, and we think, “I just want God to give me what I deserve.”

Think about that for a moment. Do we really want a God who gives people what they deserve? There are other wages the Bible talks about. “The wages of sin is death.” “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Do we really want no one to be saved?

            Isn’t it better to have a generous God who calls people who weren’t looking for him, who seeks all people regardless of how much time they have to give to him, who keeps his promises and gives his gifts not based on our work but his promise? The way God treats us isn’t fair. It is better. It is generous. That’s because he bases his treatment of us on grace. That extends to his response to our service as well.

            If you won the lottery, would you still work? Maybe you wouldn’t do the same thing you are doing now, but watching TV or going on vacations would get old after a while. I’ve known a few wealthy people. They continued to work not because they needed money. They had enough of that. But free from the need to earn a living they could pour themselves into doing what they loved. That meant doing something meaningful, not endless entertainment.

            In a sense, we have won the spiritual lottery–not a game of chance but the gifts God has chosen for us and given to us. Free from the need to earn our eternity, we can pour ourselves into doing something meaningful and serve the needs of our neighbor’s body and soul. The opportunity itself is a gift. At the end of life’s day, both the service we have given and the reward we receive are the result of his grace.

The Certainty of Grace

Matthew 20:8-10 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.”

Here’s a little science terminology for you: “Correlation is not proof of causation.” Do you know what that means? Just because two things correlate, just because they happen at the same time, or one right after the other, does not necessarily mean that one caused the other. Just because the car broke down when my wife was driving it does not prove that she caused the break down. Correlation is not causation.

It is similar with serving God and our final reward. Just because the landowner promised pay at the same time he hired the workers; just because they received their pay when the work was done, does not prove that their work was the cause of their pay. In fact, no matter how much each man worked, each received the same pay, to the surprise of those who were hired first.

The same thing is true of our service to God now and our heavenly reward. Our long work, our hard work is not the reason God gives us heaven. Everyone gets the same heaven, whether you have been a Christian for a short time or a long time, whether you have served God much or little. God’s gifts are based on grace, not merit. Sometimes that is hard for people to accept, but the Bible makes that point time after time from beginning to end.

So what do the wages in the parable teach us? God’s promises are certain. He does exactly what he says he will. God promised to send us a Savior. Then he did it, just like he said. God promises to build and preserve our faith through his word and sacraments. Your trust in Jesus is evidence that he has done it, just as he said. God has promised to welcome us home to heaven when our time on earth is done, not because we earned it, but because he has promised it. I don’t think he will do it. I don’t hope he will do it. The best research doesn’t suggest he will do it. I know he will, because his promises are certain.

I wouldn’t be so sure if his reward was based on my service. But God’s promises are certain, and that makes serving him not a desperate struggle to deserve a reward, but a matter of living in his grace.

The Constant Call

Matthew 20:3-7 “About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. He went out again about the sixth and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’”

Our life is this long day when people are working in God’s vineyard, and serving God is all grace no matter when he calls us. If we know Jesus already from childhood, that means an entire lifetime of serving him.

That’s a good thing, right? You grow up knowing that God loves you so much that he let his Son die on a cross to pay for your sins. Maybe you can’t remember a time when you didn’t know God forgives every sin. Do you have any idea how life-changing that realization is, how it molds your entire worldview, the daily relief and peace in which you live compared to the guilt and fear of so many?

So yes, that also means that you are fighting sin and temptation when others are just going with the flow, that you are living for others when others are living for self. But you live your entire life aware of God’s grace, certain that you are loved, convinced that you will go to heaven and live forever. It’s all grace if he called you to faith and service so young.

Because God is all about grace, he doesn’t limit his call to those who are young. Studies suggest that the best time to reach people with the gospel is childhood. A far greater percentage of the children will believe and stay in the faith. But what does God care about our studies? Love drives him to seek people at every age of life.

If the gospel called you to faith and service somewhere in the middle of your life, aren’t there special gifts that go along with your place in life? I never appreciate warmth so much as when I’ve been cold. Food tastes so much better after I’ve been hungry. If you know what it is like to muddle through life without the gospel, then that gospel may feel so much warmer and taste so much sweeter when you do get it.

If you lived for years without the gospel, you can also relate to your unbelieving friends and their challenges. You get why there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. Because the Lord called you when he did, you have special gifts, and you can see why serving God is all grace.

Then there are those who are hired at the eleventh hour. That’s just an hour before closing time, before the sun sets and the world goes dark. In old age don’t many people begin to wonder, “Why am I here? What is desirable about me anymore? I’m used up. I’m getting weak.” But God still wants you if you are old. He still has a purpose for you, or you wouldn’t be here. His call is constant, right up to the last days of life. It’s more proof that serving God is all grace.

Privileged

Matthew 20:1-2 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.”

There is something special about being chosen, even if it is being chosen for work. The men in the parable weren’t applying for the job. They didn’t submit a resume that bragged about their current skills or past accomplishments. The landowner came looking for them. He hired them without a lengthy interview process. He wanted them, whoever they were, just as they were, in his service.

That mirrors the process by which God came looking for us and chose us. We didn’t put in applications to become Christians. We weren’t selected because the Lord spent a long time looking at our qualifications, then determined that we would be a good fit for Christianity. Quite the opposite. We would have been happy to be anything but Christians.

Several years ago, Christianity Today magazine ran a series of articles featuring unlikely converts to our faith. There was the Muslim student from Saudi Arabia who could trace his family tree back to the prophet Mohammed himself. Now he finds his only comfort in Jesus and the Bible. There was a feminist lesbian professor who ended up marrying a pastor and raising a family with him. There was an avowed atheist, a liberal journalist, a lifelong Buddhist, an armed bank robber–none of them looking for Jesus when he came calling.

 Jesus may have tapped on your shoulder much earlier in life than these, but we wouldn’t have been looking for him either. We were born in sin, outside of loving and serving God, like the rest. Still, he sought us through parent’s prayers, our pastors’ baptizing hands, a Sunday School teachers’ faithful Bible storytelling. He wanted us, whoever we were, just as we were, in his service. The very opportunity to serve God is all grace, all forgiving, undeserved love!

And the task, the work, the mission in which we serve is all privilege. Working in vineyards means working with living, growing things. Tender vines need to be nurtured and fed. There is a harvest of fruit to be gathered at the end. These pictures are similar to others Jesus and the Scriptures use for serving in the mission of the church. The application isn’t limited to pastors or missionaries. All of us have been called to service, to plant seeds, to nurture faith, to help God gather his harvest of souls.

Isn’t that an incredible privilege? Were there tasks around your house growing up that weren’t so much a chore as they were an honor, a sign that you had matured and your parents trusted you? When my dad first asked me to build a fire in the fireplace, I wasn’t disappointed about interrupting my play. I was thrilled. Hand me the matches!

When the God who rescued us from sin and death invites us to help him rescue other souls, what an honor! What an expression of trust! We have been given a privilege, a task that says we must be the objects of God’s undeserved love.

As We Forgive Our Debtors

Matthew 18:28-35 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his follow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailors to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

I can imagine a scene like this in a crime drama. A petty criminal, maybe a drug dealer or a loan shark, gets shaken down by his crime boss. So he goes out and shakes down one of his customers because he is behind on his payments. Otherwise Mr. Big is going to stick it to him if he doesn’t come up with the cash.

But that’s not what happened here, is it–nothing like it at all. The servant had just walked away free of all debts for the first time. What does he need money for? In a sense, he has just been given an enormous fortune. The debt he is owed isn’t tiny–about three or four months of paydays. But you might expect him to be in a generous mood.

We all know that people are going to hurt us. They are going to take advantage of us, be rude or inconsiderate, trample on our rights. But add it all together, and it will never add up to a tiny fraction of the ways we have offended our God. One of those ways is our failure to let his forgiveness transform us into forgiving people as well.

The interaction between the two servants looks familiar at first. One is pleading with the other using almost the exact same words between the first servant and his master. He isn’t defending or denying his debt. He wants to make it right. But this ends horribly different. The first servant throws the man into prison until the debt is paid.

Think about that for a moment. What is the first servant going to get from his fellow servant while he languishes in prison? How much is his friend going to be making in jail? Nothing. What do we get for holding grudges and withholding forgiveness? What does it pay other than high blood pressure and ruined relationships? Our refusing to forgive gets us nothing good and invites God’s attention, this time with judgment rather than forgiveness.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailors to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” God’s grace and forgiveness is a little like my car. It has no cost, but it does have consequences. The car I drive cost me nothing. It was a gift from a friend. It was free. But it needed some maintenance when I got it. There was something I needed to do once I had it if I wanted to keep it, a consequence of ownership, if you will.

The consequences of free grace are never negative, but they do impact our lives. God has empowered his gift of forgiveness to change our hearts. In general, those changes make us more like him.

One of those changes is to make us more forgiving. It’s not so much a rule to follow, an expectation we feel obliged to fulfill: “Okay, I get it. God has forgiven me a lot so I ought to forgive others a lot, too.”

When grace has had its way with us, we are more compassionate people, we pity those who sin against us, and we want to forgive them like God has forgiven us. When we are unforgiving, something has gone horribly wrong. We are guilty of a sin as serious as any other moral lapse or scandal.

Refusing to forgive is a slap at the God who has forgiven us so much. Thank God his forgiveness is still available to us when we repent of our unforgiving hearts as well.

Completely Free

Matthew 18:23-27 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything. The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt, and let him go.”

Let’s talk about the man’s debt. Sometimes it is hard to come up with modern dollar equivalents for biblical currency. Let’s look at it this way. This parable measures money with two terms: the talent and the denarius. A denarius was the amount of money you would pay an unskilled worker for a day’s work. One talent was worth 6000 denarii. That’s the equivalent of a little over 19 years of work. The servant in Jesus’ story was in debt to the tune of 10,000 talents, or the sum total of all his wages for the next 190,000 years. This is what you call a bad case of overextended credit.

The king in the parable was no fool. He realized a servant wasn’t going to be able pay off that kind of debt. He decided to cut his losses. “Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.” We deal with bankruptcy differently today, but you get the picture. The debt was immeasurably bigger than anyone could possibly pay.

So what is Jesus teaching us about our sin with the servant’s debt? Just about everyone agrees with the phrase, “Nobody’s perfect.” I have had a few brave (or arrogant) souls tell me that they had stopped sinning, but even they admitted that they had sinned in the past. Convincing people that they are sinners is no big deal.

The size of our problem is the thing no one understands until God reveals it to us. Every inclination of our hearts is evil from childhood, the Lord said at the time of Noah. “Dead in your trespasses and sins” is the way Paul describes our situation to the Ephesians. That’s not “mostly dead,” like Wesley, the hero of the movie The Princess Bride, waiting for Miracle Max to wake him up again. We are dead-dead. A Christian website once noted that non-religious people criticize faith in Jesus as a crutch for weak people. But the criticism understates the situation. Jesus is more like a defibrillator for dead people. There is nothing we can do. Our debt never stops growing as long as we live.

Even after God reveals this, it is hard for most people to accept. The servant in the story is holding on to some shreds of hope he will repay the debt himself. “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.” Right…with whose diamond mine? Our sin, my sin, leaves me no choice but to plead for God’s forgiving mercy.

And that’s exactly what God does. He forgives us in his mercy, over and over, until there is no sin left. “The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt, and let him go.” There are all kinds of feelings the master could have had about his servant at this moment. He could have been hot with anger at the huge loss. He could have been cold and uninterested, like a driver at a stoplight trying not to make eye-contact with the panhandler holding the “will work for food” sign.

The king is moved to pity. When God looks at us in our sin, he sees how it has broken us, the misery we bring on ourselves. He doesn’t want to crush us. He wants to rescue us. Remember how Matthew once described Jesus? “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

He “canceled the debt.” He didn’t negotiate a lower figure and work out a payment plan with his servant. He simply canceled the entire debt at his own expense. That is how the God of the Bible forgives sin. He simply cancels the entire debt, one hundred percent at his own expense.

Then the master “let him go.” He let him walk away, as though he had never borrowed a single dime. There was no fine print. There was no stern warning. He was free. I don’t care what you have done. I’m sure it was terrible. Mine was. I don’t care how many times you have failed. I’m sure you have lost count long ago. I know that I have. The King has let you go. You are completely free. And we all agree–that’s a good thing, right? Because you know, you can never have too much forgiveness, especially when you need it yourself.

Just Keep Forgiving

Matthew 18:21-22 “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’”

“Too much of a good thing.” The application of those words is almost limitless. Food, money, technology, information, exercise, work, free time, vitamins, medicine, tender loving care, even oxygen–they are all good things, every one of them. But there comes a point where enough is enough. Too much starts to cause problems. Sometimes people suffer from too much of a good thing.

In these words, Jesus impresses on us a major exception. He had been teaching his disciples the principles for addressing a Christian brother or sister about his or her sin. We sometimes refer to them as “the steps of Christian discipline.” The goal is always to offer forgiveness and reconcile relationships. In some sad cases it ends with excommunication instead. It is an inescapable part of church life, life together in the family of God, if we faithfully love and care for each other and follow our Lord.

That naturally led Peter to wonder: “Forgiveness is good, yes. But there must be some kind of limit. How often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Is six times enough? Seven? If I keep forgiving, might I be encouraging them to hurt me? Might I be giving away too much of a good thing?”

Jesus answers Peter’s question with a number that puts to bed any thoughts of limits on forgiveness: “Seventy-seven times.” It may also be translated “Seventy times seven times.” Either way, Jesus is telling him, “Don’t worry about stopping, Peter. You just go on forgiving. You can never have too much forgiveness.”

We live in a world that is less and less enthusiastic about forgiveness. People say something unacceptable on social media, and a mob descends on them to shame them for their mistake and ban them from the platform for life. Maybe they go so far as to get the offenders fired from their jobs and driven from their homes. No apology, no act of penance, no attempt to make amends is enough. Such people must not be allowed to participate in public life ever again.

That would never be Jesus’ approach. None of us has ever offended each other a tiny fraction of the times, or with nearly the seriousness of the ways, we have offended him. That hasn’t stopped him from forgiving us for a lifetime of sins. More than personally pardoning us, he paid the price for our offenses with his blood. So the forgiveness from him to us keeps flowing in a never ending stream regardless of the size or number of our crimes.

By faith we follow Jesus. The grace of forgiveness has moved us to do so. Following him implies that we will forgive as he forgives as well. Don’t put a number on grace to your neighbor. Just keep forgiving.

To God Be the Glory

Romans 8:36 “For from him, and through him, and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”

Everything is from God. When my children were little, there were sometimes gifts under the Christmas tree from them for me or my wife. How did that happen? The money with which they paid for the gift–that came out of our pockets. We took them shopping and guided them in the selection. They were only giving us back what we had provided to them, and they needed a good deal of our help to make it happen. An old commercial features a little boy dumping out some change and a few dollars on the jewelry store counter to get his mom a gift. Behind him stands his father, making sure the sales lady sees the credit card he is holding in his hand. You know who is really paying for this.

It’s the same for us with our Lord. Everything we have, everything we are, everything we give comes from him. Nothing about my life or existence isn’t a gift. He is the source of all things. Such generosity, far beyond me and my humble ability to give, deserves my adoration.

Even more, “through him… are all things.” Our Lord makes everything happen. I may think that my careful diet, supplements, and exercise program are keeping me healthy. The Lord may genuinely use those things in the process. But unless he touches it all with his blessing and power, it’s useless.

For most of human history, people have been bent on climbing into heaven on their own power. They believe they can qualify on their own good record. It’s not possible. Only through God’s work can any of us be reconciled with God. Only his life pays for sin. Only his blood washes it away. Only his Spirit can change doubters and deniers into believers in our Lord Jesus Christ. All of this lies far beyond me and my meager efforts. Through him are all things, especially salvation, and that makes him worthy of praise.

Finally, “to him are all things.” Everything that is, everything that happens, is for God and his own purpose. He intends all of it to lead us home to him. That is the goal of all history.

It is easy for us to lose sight of this. We may think the world is all about our present happiness. We are here to make the world a better place or enjoy ourselves for a while. But that’s not right. We are here so that he can gather us and others to faith in him now, then come home to him when our short life is done. The purpose of this world, this life, extends far beyond me. But it sure serves and blesses me, and that makes God and his ways worthy of my thanks and praise.

We don’t always need to understand something to benefit from it. I don’t understand how long strings of zeroes and ones in computer code become the beautiful music that comes out of my iPhone or music system. But it wouldn’t sound any better if I did. I don’t understand exactly how water, dirt, and sunlight become the food that nourishes my body. But it wouldn’t taste or feed me any better if I did. I don’t understand all the why’s and how’s of God’s love that rescued and redeemed me. But I would be no more loved as his child, no more bound for heaven if I did. Sometimes, many times, his ways are beyond me. That’s just reason to praise him all the more.