Would you please turn in your Bibles to the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, that we heard read earlier. That's Matthew 20.1-16, on p987. And my outline's at the back of the service sheet, with some space for any notes. You might think that Remembrance Sunday and the 40 Days of Purpose theme of 'Ministry' don't sit very comfortably together. The opposite is the case – because the call to ministry is the call to lay down our lives in the service of God's kingdom. And today we remember those who laid down their lives in the service of earthly kingdoms such as this country. The Bible says:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.
Thank God, this nation is not at war at the moment. Most of us have never been through anything like, for instance, the experience of the generation that went through the 1914-18 war. And yet the truth is we are at war. The Bible says:
… our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground…
The test is whether we keep serving 'when the day of evil comes.' It's easy to be gung-ho in the first flush of enthusiasm. Here are the words of William Dove. He's talking about 1914. War had been declared and the following Sunday I went with a friend of mine to Shepherd's Bush Empire to see the film show. At the end they showed the Fleet sailing the high seas and played Britons Never Shall Be Slaves and Hearts of Oak. And you know one feels that little shiver run up the back and you know you have got to do something – I had just turned 17 at that time and on the Monday I went up to Whitehall – Old Scotland Yard – and enlisted in the 16th Lancers. Kitty Eckersley, recalling the same period, said this:
"[My husband] would go to his work and I would go to the mill in Clayton in Yorkshire. We were very happily married. Very, very happy because we were very much in love, he thought the world of me and I thought the world of him. And then the war started… I was terribly upset. I told him I didn't want him to go and be a soldier – I didn't want to lose him. I didn't want him to go at all. But he said, 'We have to go. There has to be men to go.'"
The reality that those young men faced would require more than a memory of feeling a shiver run up the back to enable them to endure. Private Harry Patch recalled a day in 1917:
"At Pilckem Ridge I can still see the bewilderment and fear on the men's faces when we went over the top. I came across a Cornishman, ripped from shoulder to waist with shrapnel… As I got to him he said, 'Shoot me'. He was beyond all human aid. Before we could even draw a revolver he had died. He just said 'Mother'. I will never forget it."
Laying down our lives doesn't come naturally to us. It's only if God makes radical changes to our nature that we'll be ready to give our lives willingly, unstintingly and unceasingly for the sake of other people. And that's the point of this parable that Jesus tells about the workers in the vineyard. The vineyard image is a common biblical picture of God's kingdom and God's people. So we're to think of these guys who get hired to work in the vineyard at different times of the day as representing believers who are engaged in ministry. Not paid workers, on the church staff. All of us are called to full-time service for God. This is about all of us. And in this parable Jesus is forcing us to take a good look at what we're really like, and then what God's like in comparison, so that we can get a whole new perspective on our lives, and on what makes them great. So my three headings are questions: What are we like? What's God like? What's true greatness like?
First, WHAT ARE WE LIKE?
Here are five characteristics of our nature before Jesus gets to work on it. They're apparent in the men in this parable, and I think we recognise them in ourselves.
One. We work to earn. If I do something for you, you owe me. Verse 1:
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 the vineyard.
That was the deal.
Two. We want to be treated fairly. We want justice. If we're asked, 'Do you want to be given everything that you've earned?' our answer is an immediate 'yes'. And we check ourselves against other people. If they do less than us, they should get less than us. Here's a memory of Sergeant Thomas Painting of the 1st Battalion, King's Royal Rifle Corps.
"During the fight we got pushed back about three hundred yards, we had to leave our wounded and dead. The HLI's and Worcesters came up. Private Wilson of the HLI and one of our men attacked a machine gun. Our man got killed but Private Wilson killed the machine gunner and captured the position and got the Victoria Cross. Our man got a wooden cross. That's the difference, you see. One killed – one a Victoria Cross."
It's not fair. We all understand that. And that's why the reaction of these men in the parable seems so natural to us when the guys who've only done a fraction of the work get paid the same. Not fair. Verse 9:
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. 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.'
Three. We find work hard. Ministry is a burden. It weighs heavy on us. Especially when the conditions are tough – when the sun is high in the sky and we'd rather be snoozing under the shade of a tree – work is hard.
Four. We grumble when we don't get what we want. Our hackles rise, our irritation indicator leaps upwards, and we begin to moan. The Firefighters are demanding a 40% rise. The Union's general secretary said there was 'enormous depth of feeling' within the service. John Prescott said the strike would be 'dangerous and damaging'. The union man said, 'John Prescott's comments are astonishing. He led the rush by cabinet ministers only last year to vote themselves a 40% pay rise.' When ministry is difficult we don't like it. The self-pity comes into play. We tell ourselves how hard done by we are. And we tell anybody else who'll listen. Even God – '…they began to grumble against the landowner.'
And five. We're envious. In America, a poll has found that 87% of all adults believe that most top company managers are paid more than they deserve, and they're angry about it. Worst of all is when what we're doing is tough and thankless, and we think the other guy's got it easy. That's when we get jealous. It's very easy to get envious of someone elses ministry. They get all the fun. They get all the thanks and the recognition. They see all the results. And they don't put in anything like the sheer hard slog that we do. In verse 15 the landowner puts his finger on it:
'are you envious…?'.
Well, yes. That's what we're like, before Christ gets to work on us. But what Jesus makes clear in this parable is that God turns all that on its head. The landowner in Jesus' story represents God. In what ways is God like this landowner? That's the second question.
Secondly, WHAT'S GOD LIKE?
Here are five ways that God's like the landowner.
One. God's working for a harvest – but not of grapes. It's a harvest of people. We live in the era of God's great harvest. Never mind sickles - or combine-harvesters – the tool God uses to bring in his harvest is the gospel.
Two. God puts people to work for him. The tool is the gospel, and the workforce is the church. Every believer is sent out into the fields. We have different roles. But we're all working for the same thing. God's great harvest.
Three. God's fair. How does the landowner respond to the grumbling of his early-bird workforce? Verse 13:
'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?'
And the answer to that, of course, is yes. So:
Four. God can do what he wants with what belongs to him. Relatives of a retired farmer from East Lothian have confirmed that totally unexpectedly he left £17m in his will. Edward Reid, a reclusive bachelor, lived a simple life in a two-storey cottage which lacked central heating. He occasionally drove his 12-year old Ford Fiesta on day trips to North Berwick. His former house-keeper said he was a thrifty man, who didn't like spending money. She said he refused to have central heating, wrote letters in pen and ink rather than buy a computer, and preferred to have his clothes mended rather than buy new ones. Mr Reid could do whatever he wanted with his own money, and no doubt his heirs are delighted.
But if Mr Reid has that right, how much more does God? We're not in a position to make any demands of him at all. In fact being on his workforce is an unspeakably great privilege. He saved us from the scrapheap, he raised us up from our spiritual deathbed, he rescued us from the conscripted army of the forces of darkness to fight on his victory side. We should be paying him for the privilege of being his servants. But then, last, and most amazing of all:
Five. God's generous. I didn't quite finish quoting what the landowner says in verse 15:
'Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'
This is where our petty jealousies and envy and grumbles start to look very grubby indeed. Here's a landowner who's overturning all the normal commercial practices. Why? To make an unscrupulous quick buck for himself? Just the opposite. He wants to be generous – to pay more than justice demands. And that's what God's like. So when we look at the circumstances of others with envy and we want what they've got, Jesus says to us, 'Are you envious because I'm generous?' Do we really want to be given what we've earned, nothing more, nothing less? The Bible is clear what we've earned: 'The wages of sin is death'. If we want what we deserve then death is what we'll get. It's not just other people God's generous to. It's you. It's me. And the generosity of Jesus puts the largesse of this landowner in the shade. That's what God's like. So then, finally and:
Thirdly, WHAT'S TRUE GREATNESS LIKE?
Put together what we're like and what God's like and you realise that Jesus turns upside down the values of the world . In place of grumbling you get generosity. Our worldly understanding of what makes a great life is blown apart. It's not self-serving or status or salary. It's the generous service of others. This parable is like the filling in your favourite sandwich. The butter on the bread is there in 19.30 – just before the parable, and again in 20.16, at the end of it. Look at those verses. 19.30:
But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
God doesn't value what the world values. More often than not, the world looks at a life laid down in the service of God and calls it a wasted life. But Jesus looks at such a life and says, 'That's a great life'. Then the tasty, wholesome bread in this parable sandwich is two slices of God's staggering generosity towards us. Take a look. How does God treat those who've decided on a life of sacrifice in his service? That's exactly what Peter asks Jesus in 19.27:
Peter answered [Jesus] 'We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?' Jesus said to them, 'I tell you the truth… (verse 29) everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.'
The sacrifices involved in a life of service and ministry are real, but the rewards are overwhelmingly greater even in this life, never mind in eternity. That's the bread on top of the sandwich. And what about underneath? Well how does God treat those who've decided on a self-serving life lived ignoring or opposing him? Turn the page to verse 18, where Jesus says:
We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man [Jesus himself] will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death [there's the reality of the world's so-called justice for you] and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.
Jesus lays down his life. That's how God treats us sinners. That's true greatness. And that's the pattern for us. So Jesus sets up his example as the way we should live in verses 26-28:
… whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
God treats those who love him with overwhelming generosity. He treats those who hate him with even more astounding grace. He turns our worldly values upside down. And he calls us to a life of ministry.
On this remembrance Sunday we remember those who laid down their lives for others. Here's a couple of examples – the first from peace-time. A 12-year-old boy died saving his older brother from a falling tree during the storm which battered the UK the other day. Christopher Vince pushed his 16 year-old brother Ben clear as a tree was toppled by high winds in Norfolk. Christopher and Ben had gone for a walk in woodland near their home. The boys' father said: "The storm hadn't got quite up to its full strength, and they wanted to watch the leaves blow about. I was at the window thinking, 'I hope they come back soon.' Then Jessica (the boys' 10-year-old sister) came up to the window screaming 'Chris is dead, Chris is dead.' I just ran up the road and my wife was behind me. He was a lovely little boy, he was tiny, handsome but with a huge personality … and always liked to be brave." Ben Vince, the older brother, said: "Suddenly my brother yelled 'get out of the way' and pushed me to the ground. The next minute I just woke up and the tree had fallen." A neighbour helped emergency services rescue Christopher from under the tree but he was pronounced dead in hospital.
The second example is from war. Kitty Eckersley, whose memories of her husband joining up we heard earlier, recalled another moment later in the war in these words: "I had a very nice job and worked there until I was seven months pregnant. And then I'd just given up work on the Friday night when I received the letter on the Monday morning. I heard the postman come and I knew that it would be a letter for me. So I ran down in my nightdress and opened the door, snatched the letter off him and ran in and shut the door again. And I opened the letter and I saw it was from his sergeant. It just said, 'Dear Mrs Morton, I'm very sorry to tell you of the death of your husband.' Well, that was as far as I could read. I don't really know what happened over the next few minutes, but I must have run out the house as I was, in my bare feet, and banged on the next door. The next-door neighbour let me in. Then they brought some blankets and wrapped me up in them and sent word to my mother, so she came home and they treated me for shock. But his letter was only from his sergeant, so I thought perhaps it was an error. So later on I wrote back to the sergeant, but I had another letter to say that he had also been killed. Then later on, I got the official news."
A boy unselfconsciously sacrifices his life because of his concern to save his brother. A wife gives up her husband to a cause she hardly understands. A young man lays down his life for his country. Millions of people give their lives in war, sometimes for a good cause, often for a cause that's dubious or plain bad. We are called to serve Christ and there can be no better cause. The victory we'll share is for all eternity. This spiritual battle really is the war to end all wars. What can possibly hold us back from enlisting? Let's go for true greatness by giving our lives in the service of Christ who laid down his life for us. No grumbling. No grudging giving up of a few hours here and there. But a life generously given in ministry to others. And if you don't know where to begin serving, well that's what the Ministry Fair through in the church hall now is all about. Go and have a browse.