An Advocate for Judgment Day
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The world is a courtroom. We are all judges who hear cases daily. Friends and family members come to you with the alleged facts of a situation they are in and you weigh the evidence and render a verdict. They act as both the prosecution of the other party and their own defense attorney, and you fill the role of judge and jury. Naturally they are looking for a favorable judgment. Usually we deem them "not guilty," perhaps because they truly are, maybe because we're biased in their favor, but often because we don't want to offend those we care about. Better to avoid the conflict, even if we suspect the truth might be more painful if we did extra due diligence. Some typical ways of stating "not guilty" are: "It's not your fault." "You gave it all you had." "You did the best you could." "You did what you thought was right at the time." "Don't be so hard on yourself." But given what Jesus says, we should be careful with our words: "I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned." (Matthew 12:36–37)
All this judgment talk leads us to the most important question: "How will the Lord judge us?" This is the big question of the day, for the time is short, and we come to church to face up to God Himself. Consider these promises from the Lord. "Surely I am coming soon," Jesus says. "It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). And St. Paul says that on that day, "Each of us will give an account of himself to God" (Romans 14:12), and "We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:10). Under the Lord's judgment, how do you plead? Guilty or not? Do you appear as your own attorney before the throne of Christ defending yourself with the sort of arguments with which you defend yourself and friends and family in the day to day courtroom cases: "It wasn't my fault. I gave it all I had. I did the best I could. I did what I thought was right at the time."?
Our Introit provides a reality check. There we acknowledge that God won't just judge us at the end, but does so constantly. "The Lord is righteous in all He has done to us, for we have not obeyed His commandments," we confess. When we sin, the Lord is completely right to discipline us. We say in the weekly confession of sin that for our guilt we deserve "temporal and eternal punishment." If we're honest, we know that we should be sent to hell right now. Even now, between today and Judgment Day, the Scriptures remind us that "God knows the secrets of the heart" (Psalm 44:21). He judges our hearts right now and always. We have no good defense. No matter how pious you appear to be, He can see beyond appearances. He knows about all the crimes you committed even when you claimed to be the "innocent" party in a case. He knows as well as you do all your sins of commission that no one noticed.
But most damning of all, God knows your sins of omission, when you know you should have done something but opted not to. He knows every time you have failed to make the best use of the time He has given you in this evil age. He knows about every time you've passed up the opportunity to help someone in need; every penny you didn't put in the offering plate so that you could waste it on some wasteful luxury that you don't need; every time you fretted over a problem and forgot to pray about it. Oh, and He even knows when your motivations for doing good aren't entirely pure, like when you do a good work in order to gain recognition rather than doing good solely to give glory to God and to help your neighbor.
God's Law says that He has the right to judge you for how you've lived your life, and His standards are infinitely more exacting than your own. That's why we need to continually hear God's Law preached in all its severity, to learn His radical expectations for how we are supposed to live our lives, so that we do not become secure and self-righteous.
On the other hand, if we were to judge ourselves based on our own standards of justice rather than God's, we might convince ourselves that we're doing all right. We would be overly lenient in our judgment, as we are for our friends and families who want a favorable verdict from us. We all want to judge ourselves righteous, even if that means a little self-deception.
That was how the Pharisees in Jesus' day approached the law, and how self-righteous hypocrites of all times try to manipulate God's courtroom. They seek to cut God's demands down to a manageable size. They try to revise God's Law to make it easier to fulfill. And based on those standards, they judge that they are doing all right. They become so proud of their own righteousness that they cannot see their guilt from spiritual sins and their need for repentance and God's mercy.
In today's Gospel, Jesus tells a parable condemning the legalistic Jewish rulers and everyone who relies on his own righteousness to be saved. He shows that everyone who trusts in his own righteousness actually rejects God's Son and His bloody sacrifice on the cross. Everyone who tries to save himself is committing violence against none other than Christ Himself.
Jesus says, "There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country." Often in the Old Testament, Israel is depicted as a vineyard and God is the owner. God chose Israel out of every nation to be His vineyard. He said that they were the chosen race from whom the Messiah would come. He rescued them from oppressive slavery in Egypt and promised to be their God. All He asked was that they not chase after false gods but live in faith, under His gracious covenant. Yet time and again the people strayed. The leaders of Israel were no better than the masses; actually, they were worse. They forgot God's mercy, ignored His promises, and disobeyed His commands.
But the Lord expected better; He was looking for the fruit of faithfulness and good works from His chosen people, and that is what Jesus is talking about when He says, "When the season for fruit drew near, [the master of the vineyard] sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit." Apparently the lease payments were some of the fruits of the vineyard. These servants represent one of the Old Testament prophets. The Lord of the vineyard repeatedly sent prophets to call Israel to repentance, to speak on behalf of the Lord and tell the people to return to Him. Their message was simple: "If you repent and return to faith in the Lord, He will forgive you and bless you. If you reject Him and continue to chase after false gods and sin, you will be condemned."
So how did Israel respond to the prophets, God's servants? In the parable Jesus says, "The tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another." In other words, Israel rejected the message of the prophets and often times beat and killed them to show their rejection. Yet God did not give up on His people after one try. Jesus continues, "Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them." These servants represent the hundreds of prophets God sent over the centuries. "Repent, repent, repent and the Lord will forgive you," they cried over and over again. "Return to the Lord because He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast Love," they pleaded. But all of these prophets, every last one of them down to John the Baptist, was met with rejection, often accompanied by physical violence and even death.
Jesus goes on, "Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.'" Is the owner insane? Hasn't He seen what happened to all the other servants? Why would He send His beloved Son to face such evildoers? How could a loving Father place His Son in such grave danger? But that's exactly what He does, sending His Son to face certain suffering and death.
Jesus continues, "But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.' And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him." As we could have predicted, the tenants won't listen to the Son, but they even up the ante. They say to themselves, "If we kill the one who is supposed to inherit this vineyard, perhaps the owner will give up and we'll get to keep it for ourselves." So they threw Him out of the vineyard and killed Him.
Within a few days of Jesus telling this parable, Jesus would be led out of Jerusalem, bearing His own cross, and taken to Golgotha, just outside the city. The heir of the vineyard, the beloved, only-begotten Son, Jesus, King of the Jews, Messiah of Israel, was sent to a bloody death by the tenants of the vineyard, the Jewish religious leaders. He was a threat to their authority over the people, and His preaching of grace and mercy undermined their obsession with the law, so they attempted to rip the vineyard from the owner's hands by force.
Yet this was exactly what the Father had planned all along. He used the tenants' wickedness to bring about the redemption of the whole world. If I were the owner of the vineyard, I would have given up long before sending my son. I would have hired a mercenary force to go in and wipe out those thuggish tenants. But what does God do? He sends His Son to die for the tenants and all other people, to win forgiveness of sins and eternal life for them. Astonishing, inconceivable, profligate love! Yet this is our merciful God! The Letter to the Hebrews says, "Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood" (Hebrews 13:12). He suffered outside Jerusalem in order to satisfy justice. He placated God's wrath toward sinners. He was the perfect, innocent one who suffered in the place of the guilty. He died for you.
In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah 55, the Lord says, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways…For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts." We often assume that these words mean that God is a lot smarter than we are, so we should not question Him. True enough. But even more, the LORD is talking about His mercy and how He wants to deal with us. He says, "Seek the LORD while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon." When God says He is far above our ways and thoughts, He means that He isn't interested in following sinful human ideas of justice, nor does He allow people to justify themselves, but that His mercy is beyond what we could ever imagine, for He loves us so much that He gives up His beloved Son into death, to suffer what we by our sins deserved.
So how will God judge us? Many people still insist on doing it their own way, without Jesus, which is just like the Jewish leaders in their rejection of Jesus; it is a form of violence against God's Son. The self-righteous want to be judged by God based on His Law; they opt to represent themselves before God's judgment seat, to serve as their own counsel, with no advocate. God's system of justice, like our own, allows self-representation, but we all know what they say about the man who serves as his own lawyer. On judgment day or any day, what hope does the one have who shows up with only his own deeds as evidence? None at all.
But you know better, as the Introit says: "The Lord is righteous in all He has done to us, for we have not obeyed His commandments." We are sinners to the core, deserving condemnation. But then we go on to pray: "Glorify Your name, O Lord, and deal with us according to Your great mercy." And He does it! All who trust in Christ, all who throw themselves at the mercy of God, will be well-represented in God's courtroom now and on judgment day, for St. John wrote, "If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:1-2).
What do you think, my friends? Does Jesus sound like a good defense attorney for you, an advocate before the Father? Indeed He is, and here's the best part: He doesn't require a retainer and all His work is pro bono. Through His perfect life, death, and resurrection He has fulfilled all righteousness for you, so He saves you from having to declare yourselves righteous and frees you to ‘fess up: "I am guilty, O God, but I know that for Christ's sake, you will declare me innocent. I know that you will judge me according to His blood and righteousness that covers me and accounts me as righteous before You, O God." May God grant to all of us this faith. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.