The Third Sunday After Epiphany January 23, 2011
99, 129, 376, 324(1-2, 7-8)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Grace, mercy, and peace be multiplied to you in the revelation of Jesus Christ as the one and only Savior from sin, death, and eternal torment. Amen.
Dear fellow-servants of the one true God:
One of the greatest threats to our way of life in these not-quite-so-united states is our ever-growing sense of entitlement.
Consider the following: John Patterson is suing Apple Computers. Why? Because he says that the iPod that he bought from them can cause hearing loss. Who knew? What makes this suit all the more silly is that Mr. Patterson does not claim that he has suffered any hearing loss in the past, and he can’t say for sure if his iPod will harm his own, personal hearing in the future. He apparently believes it is a possibility, so he has filled a massive, class-action lawsuit against Apple. In his opinion customers of Apple Computers Inc. are entitled to a healthy portion of Apple’s money—apparently because they are just too dim-witted to turn down the volume on their iPods.
This is by no means an isolated phenomenon. Ask yourself a few questions to determine if you too have been adversely affected by our growing national sense of entitlement: Do you feel that you are entitled to more money from your employer just because your boss’s salary is much greater than your own, or because your company is presently making a great deal of money? On the other hand, do you feel that your salary should be cut dramatically if your company looses money in any given quarter? Do you believe that you are automatically entitled to a raise at work just because another year has passed even though your workload has not increased? Do you believe that working roughly one third of your life should entitle you to a life of ease for the last third of your life? Do you think that it is fair and just to give your accumulated wealth to your children so that others (your fellow taxpayers) have to pay for your nursing home costs at the end of your life? Do you think you ought to be able to watch television for free and that programming ought to be commercial free? Do you think it is acceptable to download pirated software or music from the internet just because the companies and artists who produce such things already make plenty of money?
Interesting questions—often disturbing questions. Go a bit deeper. We expect our religion to provide us with answers to such critical, pivotal questions as the meaning of life, death, Heaven, Hell, disease, even God himself. How hard are you willing to work to achieve or gain such insights? How much time and effort are you willing to expend or invest by reading and meditating on God’s Word to gain the gifts therein offered? Are you willing to give lavishly of your time and treasure so that you can continue to be fed the Word of God on a regular basis, or do you expect others to pay the bills so that your church doors can stay open? In other words, is it your opinion that you should be able to gain all of the benefits of your church without cost or effort?
To a certain extent every single one of us has been infected with an entitlement mentality. We leave our parents’ house with the expectation that our standard of living should start where theirs left off—even though they have worked for decades to get where they are and we have done essentially nothing but live off of others.
While this entitlement mentality is crippling our society, such problems actually pale in comparison to the spiritual havoc it is creating in the Church. That is the subject we examine today. The text that will form the basis of our study is found in the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus:
Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles—if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the Gospel, of which I became a minister according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power. To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through faith in Him.”
So far the very words of our God. Confident that God will keep His promise not only to visit us with power whenever we study his Word, but also that He will keep His promise to grant to us, His children, those good things for which we ask, so we pray: “Sanctify us through your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.
Entitlement is more than just a by-product of greed. It is a symptom of sinful pride. It is pride that tells me that I am worth more than I am being paid, worth more even than someone who does the same sort of work that I do. It is pride that tells me that I somehow deserve more than the bare necessities of life, or that I am owed something more than a hand-to-mouth existence. It is pride that makes me imagine that those who make more and have more than I should be obligated to raise my standard of living to their own, and that this should happen without any extra work or effort on my part. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “The worst day in a man’s life is when he sits down and begins thinking about how he can get something for nothing.”
Again, while all of this is absolutely destroying our country—economically and socially—the spiritual implications are truly terrifying. The consequences in the spiritual realm are eternal. Our growing sense of entitlement means that the Gospel itself is in peril as are such key Christian doctrines as grace and justification.
We define grace as “God’s undeserved love for sinners.” He demonstrated that love nowhere more obviously and dramatically than when he sacrificed his Son, Jesus, to pay for our sins. This sacrifice of the Lamb of God is robbed of its beauty and meaning whenever and wherever mankind imagines that God was in any way obligated to do anything at all to secure our rescue. The key word in our definition of grace is the word “undeserved”—God’s undeserved love for sinners.
Perhaps you were as indignant as I when you first learned that some of the very companies that demanded and received billion dollar taxpayer bailouts were actually paying workers for not working—a program they called the “jobs bank.” Even though their companies no longer needed their services, the incredibly twisted thought was that these unnecessary workers were somehow still entitled not to a job, but to the pay for that job.
Yet before we become too indignant, consider that you and I are ongoing beneficiaries of a much sweeter deal. The Law commanded every human being to carry out the tireless work of keeping God’s will perfectly. We opted not to do so. God’s rescue plan was to have His Son carry out that work in our place and to have you and I reap the benefit of forgiveness and eternal life. We didn’t do even one thing to earn such benefits. Jesus did. Far from deserving, we were the ultimate in undeserving, lazy spiritual slobs; and yet, God the Father in light of what Jesus has done has declared each of us to be sinless in his sight.
Were any of us deserving of such a gift? Obviously not, which is why grace and the Gospel itself are such a remarkable example of an undeserved gift.
Recently, we have celebrated two events that also provide insight into God’s love and our own undeservedness: the Baptism of Jesus and the beginning of the season of Epiphany. Both lose nearly all meaning and significance in any heart steeped in the entitlement myth.
God knew that even with the birth, life, and death of his Son, human beings could not even bring themselves to believe in that Savior on their own. In fact, having been brought to faith we could not even sustain that faith on our own. So God gave us another gift—Baptism. With the Word of God applied to simple water, God the Holy Spirit promises to work saving faith in human beings, young and old. The part that man carries out could not be more simple: God’s Word plus water applied to a human being. The part that God the Holy Spirit carried out could not be more amazing: a dead soul is brought to spiritual life—simply amazing and never earned. It is a pure and holy gift from a merciful and loving God.
Jesus, of course, had no sins to wash away. His baptism was an anointing by the Holy Spirit for the work that lay ahead of Him, namely, our salvation. His baptism was an example that we certainly eagerly follow.
We have also now entered the season of Epiphany. Our typical reaction is a yawn. In other words, while the paraments on altar and pulpit change color, we notice and appreciate little else. It’s not that big of a deal to us. Why? Mostly it’s a result of our own ignorance combined with our natural sense of entitlement.
Epiphany is when we celebrate the fact that God not only sent his Son to be our Savior, but that He also revealed that Son to the world as the Savior of all mankind. Our sense of entitlement works against us here in two different ways.
First, because our sense of entitlement spawns the following thought: “Of course, God will reveal His Son to us as our Savior. Why else would he send Him?” Yet isn’t it more than a bit prideful and arrogant for us to take anything at all for granted from our God? God owes mankind nothing, and yet He has given us everything.
Secondly, Epiphany generally flies under our appreciation radar because it is about God revealing his Son as the Savior of all mankind—not just the Jews. To this our old Adam responds: “Well of course God sent His Son to save more than just those troublesome Jews. In fact, isn’t it true that Americans are actually much more deserving of such generosity than the Jews?” The proper response, of course, is: “Obviously not!” Every bit of this sense of privilege and deservedness is sin that irreparably damages the Gospel and God’s grace.
It is, on the other hand, the very essence of humility to affirm that God owed me nothing. Nothing at all. What I deserved was a life of misery and an eternity of torment. Paul understood this full well, didn’t he? He gives evidence in our text when he says, “I became a minister according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power. To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” [v.7-8]
Paul was arguably the greatest Christian missionary of all time. Through his mission efforts untold millions—directly and indirectly—came to hear the Gospel and be saved. Yet Paul still referred to himself as unworthy, as “less than the least of all the saints.” Perhaps this is part of the reason why Paul thrilled and rejoiced so at the good news of sins forgiven through faith in Jesus Christ—because he had no sense of entitlement, privilege, or deservedness. Paul recognized it as a pure, undeserved gift from his God. The undeserved part was magnified by the fact that Paul had once persecuted his Lord and his Lord’s Church. Paul’s confidence and boldness came not from himself, or his own accomplishments, or worth, but from the underserved promises of his Savior. So also he wrote in our text of what “[God] accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” and the result that now “in Him we have boldness and access with confidence through faith in Him.” [vv.11-12]
This is the very spirit that you and I want for our own—a sense of continual awe and thanksgiving at the great things that our God has done for us, for which we were and are utterly unworthy. To this end we pray that our God would purge from our hearts every last shred of our prideful sense of entitlement and deservedness, and to fill us instead with humble gratitude for every one of his countless blessings. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.