The Time Is Right

2 Timothy 4:6 “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure.”

Paul was imprisoned in Rome for the second time when he wrote these words. The first time he had been set free. This time he fully expected the emperor to put him to death. He saw how quickly and unrelentingly his end was coming, like the offerings of wine that were sometimes made at the temple. Large jars or bowls would be poured out at one of the corners of the altar. You can picture the liquid easily sluicing through the mouth of its container and soaking into the ground below. In a few moments it was all gone and could never be put back again. So Paul saw his earthly life quickly slipping away. In a few moments it would be gone. It could never be put back into his mortal, perishable body again.

But Paul isn’t complaining. He betrays no fear. He doesn’t seem to be struggling against his inevitable end. He says “the time has come for my departure.” The word he uses for time describes something more than time on the clock, or time on the calendar. It is the right time, the fitting time for something to happen. We often hear people say, “When it’s your time, it’s your time.” More accurately, “when it’s God’s time, it’s your time.” Like Paul, we don’t have to be afraid of this day. How do we find the courage to face death without fear?

Paul gives us a clue when he doesn’t speak of his death, but of his departure. He knew this wasn’t the end of him. It was the beginning of a journey. He was setting off on a new and better life in a new and better place.

By rights, this ought to be the most frightening journey of our lives. Death, the Bible tells us, is the punishment for our sins. If we weren’t sinners, we wouldn’t have to die. But we all sin, and someday we will all die. Inside, we all know it’s true. Perhaps the most popular hymn sung at funerals is the old standard Amazing Grace. How do we describe ourselves in that hymn? We call ourselves “wretches.” We confess that we were lost. That’s sin, and the wages of sin is death.

For believers, death does not mean we end in the punishment we deserve. The punishment for our sins has already been suffered. When God entered our world to save his people in the person of Jesus, he died, too. He didn’t die for any sins he had committed. He was the holy God. He died for our sins and for the sins of the whole world. He paid the price so that we wouldn’t have to.

Then he rose again from the dead to show that death itself would never be the same. He transformed death from fearful punishment into an exciting departure on the greatest journey, the greatest adventure of our lives. During the pandemic of the last year many of us who love to travel have had to put our travel plans on hold. It hasn’t been the right time for us to leave home and see the country, or see the world.

Regardless of our circumstances, when death comes it is the right time for our departure. Christ is sending us on the journey to heaven. There we will see and enjoy greater things than we have ever seen before. That journey, that trip, is never untimely. When it’s God’s time, it’s our time—and that time is always right.

As Christ Loved the Church

Ephesians 5:25-27 “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”

What does it mean when Jesus says that he wants the husband to be the head of the family operation? Do you notice what is missing from Paul’s discussion for husbands? There is no talk of dictating orders. He doesn’t talk about enforcing the rules. There are no explanations of how he is going to take control. It is true that the head leads. But a leader is out in front on all the action. He doesn’t watch from the comfort of his easy chair. He is the first to get to work. If the leader isn’t out in front, how can anyone follow him?

What I’m saying is that there is nothing in Paul’s description of a husband’s role that excuses him to serve himself. There is nothing that says, “I can do anything I want,” unless all that he ever wants is to love and sacrifice for the woman he has married. With Jesus, leading starts and ends with love.

So look at a Christian wife again through Jesus’ eyes. See her as Jesus sees you. What you see is not a source of cheap labor. She is also not someone who is perfect. But she is still someone for her husband to give up the rest of his entire life. That’s what Jesus did, isn’t it? Not just six hours on a cross, but thirty-three years from birth to death to life again. All that time he had a single purpose: to love us and win our salvation. He made us look beautiful to him by cleansing our souls and getting rid of all the stains, wrinkles, and blemishes of sin.

This is a Christian husband’s mission. He gives up his life to make his wife beautiful, to make her life beautiful–not with make-up and jewelry and expensive clothes. If he can give her some of that, too, then fine. But he gives himself up by being the Christian leader in his family. He studies the woman he married and gets to know what her heart needs. Then he makes it his life’s goal to give it to her.

He gives his time. He gives his attention. He leads the whole family to God’s word and to prayer. Nothing he hopes to accomplish in his career, no hobby or interest, is more important than loving this one woman like Christ loves his church, like Christ has loved him. That means giving himself up for her.

Most models are something to look at for only a little while. Once we have followed the pattern, and built our own thing, we don’t need them anymore. Christ’s model for marriage is different. It’s not just a pattern to follow. It is the gospel that saves us. It is a power that changes us. It is a promise to believe. Let’s keep it in front of us always.

As the Church to Christ

Ephesians 5:22-24 “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”

If we lose the picture the Apostle Paul is using here, we won’t understand these words at all. Almost every picture we have in our heads for the word “submit” involves someone getting less–less freedom, less power, less dignity, less influence. What if there were a picture of this kind of relationship that showed you getting something more? The picture exists. It is the picture Paul paints in this passage.

First, how do we relate to Jesus here? Do we think of all the rules we have to keep? Is life with Jesus mostly about the things you have to give up or the work you have to do? Some people who don’t really know Jesus think about him that way.

But our relationship with Jesus always starts at the cross. Long before any of us ever knew Jesus, he loved us so much that he let himself be crucified. For six hours he slowly suffocated. For six hours he hung as our substitute, paying the penalty for everything from our petty little sins to the great crimes of history. After six hours of pain and agony you and I will never know, he cried out “It is finished,” and gave up his spirit. “No greater love has anyone than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” You are those friends, and Jesus laid down his life for you.

After Jesus rose, he returned to heaven. Since that time he has been running the universe. Sometimes we don’t get it. We don’t understand the choices Jesus makes or the way he runs the show. But one thing we can surely appreciate is this: he wove together the events of the last couple thousand years in a way that brought us to know him as our Savior. He did it even though he never owed us anything. He did it all for free.

Now, what is the proper way to respond to love and salvation like that? Do we fight, and contradict, and criticize the one who is saving our lives? About 30 years ago missionary Mark White was teaching a course in Christianity at an African university. Most of his students were new to the Christian faith. Some of the things they learned didn’t make sense to them. They considered their native god great and powerful. This Christian God who lowered himself to become a man, and then died, didn’t seem very “great” to them.

The missionary explained that there are two kinds of greatness. There is the greatness of the rich and powerful: the way they perceived their god. Then there is the greatness of the brilliant student who goes to the university and becomes a doctor. When he graduates, he doesn’t set up his practice among the wealthy to make himself rich. He spends his time helping the poor and healing their diseases. That is the greatness of someone who stoops to serve, greatness like Jesus.

Finally, to illustrate his point, he told a parable about a man who saw all the ants who came into his house being crushed or poisoned to death. So he magically turned himself into one of the ants to warn them of the danger. Jesus became one of us, not just to warn us, but so that he could spare us from death.

When the missionary had finished making his point, one of the young men in the class suddenly blurted out: “If that is true, then Jesus is my Lord.” Jesus is my Lord. What does that say about the relationship? If Jesus has loved me so much, if he has made such great sacrifices to save me, I will follow him wherever he leads, no questions asked. He has earned my trust and submission.

“Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” A Christian wife’s submission is not forced. That would have no value. It is freely given. It does not mean that she is going to be her husband’s doormat, merely his maid. It doesn’t require her to stop having and speaking her own opinions. It means: let him be a leader; follow him; support him; communicate your needs to him; trust him; even serve him.

You know that all of Christian life is about being a servant. Even Jesus says that he did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Marriage is an excellent opportunity to live as Christian servants. Wives submitting to their husbands is one way we do so. It’s a picture of the way Jesus’ Church, all of us, follow Christ.

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.