The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send workers into his harvest field.
What should they say?
What should they do?
How would these workers collect a harvest of souls, how would they seek the lost sheep?
How would they collect God’s elect - those whom God had chosen before time? After all, that wonderful truth provides every reason for evangelism - every reason for speaking up about the Christian faith, again and again. The truth of election is God’s promise that he will use our words to bring people to faith.
But how would this harvest be collected?
- Scripture is clear that faith comes from hearing the message; obviously, the Christians would share the message about Jesus.
- Scripture is also clear that baptism and Holy Communion are important sacraments, important tools of God’s grace through which he pours his forgiveness into our lives and connects us more closely with Christ.
But as Christians took God’s Word for granted, and stopped studying and sharing and reading and learning…things changed.
- As generation after generation became further & further removed from persecution, things changed.
- As parents thought that their own parents had been too rigorous, and consequently they relaxed in their task of teaching their children, things changed.
- And in the Roman Empire, things really changed when the emperor became a Christian. Christianity was widely accepted, permitted, spoken of freely; yet those new conditions did not produce a new era of Christian faith, hope, or love. Christianity was widely accepted, permitted, spoken of freely – and almost from that moment, the Christian faith began to forget its connection to the Vine.
You can almost predict what happened next. At various times and places over the last 1500+ years, Christians worked to revive the faith. But an astonishing number of those attempts were prompted by or focused on changing outward behavior. Simply get more people into the churches, tell them to shape up, live a more Christian life; inject a bit of uncertainty, maybe place some conditions on one’s Christianity, and voila! You’ve got one of the myriad of movements that have criss-crossed Christianity.
A remarkable number of movements and trends have grown out of that formula:
- Tell Christians to improve their actions, turn away from sin, and do good works;
- Crank up the heat by putting some conditions on one’s Christianity - if you were really a Christian, you would do THIS; if you were really a GOOD Christian, you would live like THIS;
- Add a bit of uncertainty to the mix, like the secret sauce on a McDonald’s Big Mac.
Then stand back and watch, as people are driven by guilt and doubt to do the sort of work and fulfill the sort of conditions that have been placed on them.
In the process, God’s Word is turned into a tool for mere outward change; the heart is neglected, people were pointed away from Christ and to their own actions. The problem of guilt just made things worse; no one is perfect, and there was no objective, external, rock-solid comfort declaring our standing & status with God.
When Christians stopped taking the time for God’s Word, and Christians stopped doing battle with the sinful nature being encouraged by God’s work through the Means of Grace…they stopped being Christians.
The main point that so many Christians seem to have missed? The Christian life is, first and foremost, an internal life. Faith is the internal attitude of trust in Jesus for salvation; the sinful attitudes of coveting, and jealousy, and greed are directly opposed to the fruit God desires – faith, hope, love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control, etc.
Internal attitudes. Thoughts and desires of the heart, emotions of trust and love and hope directed toward God and flowing out in action to others.
And almost 500 years ago, the Lutheran church began in an attempt to restore the proper Biblical emphasis: Christ, and Christ alone. Because the reality is - no amount of guilt or doubt or law would change human behavior long enough to meet anyone’s satisfaction…which only points us to the Biblical truth that no amount of human effort can bring us into a right relationship with God.
The Lutherans started proclaiming and sharing an unconditional gospel, a message that your standing with God depends on what God has done – not on your own effort or merit, not on the way you have fulfilled any set of commands or obligations.
Of course, the Lutherans were accused of not teaching good works; and right there, you can see the line we walk. It’s a very fine, very Biblical line:
Good works are necessary. The Bible commands and encourages them. Faith naturally produces good works; Jesus describes it as a branch being connected to a vine naturally producing fruit.
But they are only the fruit. They are not the root or the stem; they are the result of being connected to Christ. They play no part in your salvation. The only reason you or I or anyone is going to heaven - is because Jesus died for us, to wash away our sin.
With that background in mind, we consider our reading from Ephesians 5. And you’ll see the proper Biblical emphasis - it’s on the WHY. Every portion of Ephesians thus far has always begun with the WHY, the work God has done to make us his new people.
It’s the same thing here: Paul can barely talk about the WHAT - the way we ought to live, the good things we ought to do - without first talking about the WHY - the who we are in Christ, the reason we do anything good or God-pleasing at all.
Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
There’s the why, the reason: Not to pay God back, but simply because of who you are in Jesus. Your sin has been forgiven and you’ve been given a new life with God; you’ve been clothed in the holiness of Jesus - so be holy in all you do!
Paul explains what this looks like: basically, don’t be deceived. What you think, what you do, even the impression you give - these all matter. These all are opportunities to worship God in your everyday life, by setting aside your sinful nature and following the Jesus who made you clean!
3 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. 4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. 5 For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. 7 Therefore do not be partners with them.
Empty words, like: “Everyone’s doing it. It’s not that big a deal. It doesn’t matter. We’ve arrived at a new age, a new time, and there’s no reason to live with such backwards, constrictive notions about sexuality; and heaven forbid we call something sin!”
The way you live is an imitation of who you follow.
Child imitating parent: little girl playing in makeup, little boy putting dad’s shoes on his feet.
Why? Love for parent means they want to be like that parent.
This covers everything: why we worship the way we do, what we do in worship; why we have VBS and Bible instruction class; why we carry out church discipline, clean our church, or host Sunday School…all because of the WHY. All those WHAT things, WHAT tasks, WHAT programs stem from and point toward the WHY: Christ has done everything for you, made you a new person, given you a new life. That, and that alone, gives the proper motivation and right reason for WHAT we do; that, and that alone, will prevent burnout when the numbers or participation is lower than we would expect.
That’s also WHY it matters that a Christian couple isn’t living together outside of wedlock, even if they promise to have separate bedrooms. The WHAT - the living together outside of marriage - definitely gives the impression that the WHY is irrelevant. That’s why Paul says Let there not even be a hint of sexual immorality among you… WHY? Because the WHAT we do stems from and points back to the WHY we do it. And the Christian’s WHY makes the WHAT a joy.
Dear friends: We’ve covered the history. It’s easy to think we are far removed, outside observers to a relatively foreign set of dry & dusty historical facts.
We can be just as easy to be deluded into thinking that our actions don’t matter, or that spiritual care for our own faith life doesn’t matter.
That’s what previous generations thought as well.
Jesus said the harvest is plentiful, the workers few. And you know that your standing with God is based entirely on what Jesus has done for you; now, he’s looking for a harvest from you! Go, remembering WHY you do what you do - and let the WHAT be your joyful response! AMEN.