The Lord in His mercy, for the sake of His holy Love, has created you for life with Himself, and He has planted you as a tree in the midst of His Garden to bear good fruits to the glory of His Name and for the benefit of your neighbor. That is the point and purpose of your existence, that is, to live and thrive by His grace, and so to bring forth fruits after His own kind within your proper place.
Not only that, but as you are baptized in His Name, born again of water and the Spirit, you are not an isolated tree, but you are planted in the Vineyard of the Lord of Hosts. Your life is found and rooted within the Body of Christ, His Holy Church, and your neighbors are not only those in the world around you but especially those who belong to the household of faith, the family of God. The Church and Ministry of Christ define the character and content of the fruit you are to bear.
So, what good are you doing? What good fruits are you producing in the Vineyard of the Lord?
Do not respond with a catalogue of all your good intentions, hard work, and contributions. Don’t start a tally of credits and debits, assets and liabilities, as though to demonstrate that you’re in the black with the Lord your God. And do not compare yourself to what you can see in your neighbor, as though to measure yourself by that standard, and as though you and your neighbor were given the same talents and responsibilities. Whatever in your body and life is not devoted to the glory of the Lord and the good of your neighbor is fruit that you have failed to produce. And that, not according to your own assessment and evaluation, but by the standard of the Word of God.
You are not your own, and whatever you may possess is not your own to do with as you like. All that you are and have are a sacred trust and stewardship of the Lord’s own creation, which He puts into your hands — as He has planted you within His Vineyard — in order to bring forth abundant fruits. It is not a matter of your charity, but His. You are not your own. You are created by God, to begin with, and you are bought with a price, that of the precious Blood of Christ. You are His workmanship, created for good works that God prepared beforehand that you should walk in them.
The Lord has revealed and bestowed upon you the fruits of His Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Gentleness, Faithfulness, and Self-control. As a tree of His own planting, these are the fruits that you are to bear and bring forth in kind. Where, then, are those good fruits in your life? And where have they been lacking, or altogether absent, in relation to the Lord and your neighbor?
Repent. For thus says the Lord, “Unless you repent, you shall perish.” Repent of your lack of love, your sour disposition, and your animosity. Repent of your impatience, meanness, harshness, and unfaithfulness. Repent of your short temper and irritability, and of your reckless, undisciplined life. Repent of all that you have been doing wrong, and of all that you have not been doing as you ought. No excuses. It is neither too early nor too late to cease your wickedness and live rightly.
Again, do not compare and compete with your neighbor, as though he and his life were the measure of yours. Do not contrast your works to his, nor his suffering to yours, as though to evaluate how you are doing and where you rank. Your outward behavior is not the starting point, in any case. Nor is it ever sufficient (at all) apart from the righteousness of faith and love in your heart before the Lord your God. Outside of faith and love, even your best and greatest efforts are all fruitless.
As for your neighbor’s suffering and hardship, that is a call for you to repent of your own sins — and not a cause for you to sit in judgment of your neighbor, lest you yourself be judged by God. Have you not learned from the example of Job, and from the poor example of his friends, that he suffered so greatly, not on account of his sins, but because he was accounted righteous by the Lord.
There’s no point arguing the matter. The Lord’s own judgment is clear, that all have sinned and fallen far short of His glory. There is no distinction between you and your neighbor, not before the Lord your God. There are no exceptions. There is no one who is righteous by works of the Law. There is no one who does not deserve to be condemned and punished for his sins, now and forever. But the Lord in His mercy is patient and long-suffering, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. He does not desire that anyone should perish in his sins, but that all should repent and live.
Repent, therefore, and do not die but live. Whatever you may suffer in your own body and life, and whatever suffering you may encounter in your neighbor’s life and in the world around you, hear and heed the Lord’s call to repentance. Live according to His Word in the righteousness of faith.
The trouble is that achieving such repentance is not within your power to accomplish for yourself. You cannot simply turn your life around and make it right. You cannot raise yourself from death to life, which is what true repentance really entails. You cannot heal yourself or become productive by trying harder to do better. Trying isn’t good enough, and doing better is not sufficient. Your own self-righteousness does not avail before God. Your outward semblance of righteousness, in and of itself, is filth. It may look good on the outside, but on the inside it stinks of sin and death. There is nothing in you, that is, in your mortal flesh, that avails before God. All of your own efforts and striving accomplish nothing. On your own, you’re wasting the soil in which you’re planted.
Do not blame the Lord your God! He has done for you and for His Vineyard everything that could be done. He has given His Word and caused it to be preached in your ears. He has sent teachers to catechize you. He has placed you within His Church. He has set your neighbor right in front of you with needs to be addressed, and He has given you the means to address those needs in love. He has given you an office and station in life, with its own particular duties and responsibilities. So, there is no ambiguity as to what you ought to be doing. And yet, you do not do it.
The Lord looks for figs from His fig tree, He looks for grapes from His Vineyard, of course. But all that He finds in you are weeds and thorns and thistles. Maybe on occasion you manage to produce some pretty flowers or clusters of leaves, which look impressive but do not feed anyone. Such things are not fruits, they are not the good works that God requires and seeks from His people.
There is no righteousness in you that will ever be able to save you. You simply are not capable of achieving that. And so, as it stands, you deserve to be cut down and thrown into the fire to perish.
What you need is a remedy that is more than simply rehabilitation or a self-improvement program. Not to become your best self now, but to be undone and made brand new as something altogether different than what you have been. The preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins is not a strategy for making yourself better. It is a far different and superior Word and remedy than that.
As the Lord alone is righteous and holy, and there is no righteousness or holiness except in Him, there is no might of man that could save you. And yet, the Lord in His love desires that you should be saved, that you should not perish but live. In His own righteousness and holiness, therefore, He has come down from heaven to be your righteousness and holiness by grace alone — by His grace, His divine charity — which you receive through faith in Christ Jesus, crucified and risen for you.
That same Lord Jesus Christ has produced the fruits of faith and love, perfectly and sufficiently, on your behalf and in your stead. He alone has done, for you and for all, what the entire Vineyard did not and could not do apart from Him. And the works He has done are credited to your account.
But that is not all He has done. For it remains that, unless you repent, you will perish. There must yet be the putting to death of your sin, for evil cannot dwell with God. If you would abide in the House of the Lord, there must be the new life of faith and love. You must be turned around and away from your relentless pursuit of sin and death — turned away from your wickedness — to the way of righteousness in the fear, love, and trust of God, and in sacrificial love for your neighbor.
Such repentance and righteousness do not emerge and arise from within yourself. They are from the Lord in the greatness of His mercy. This, too, Christ Jesus has done and accomplished by His Cross and in His Resurrection from the dead. By His innocent suffering and death, He has opened up the way of repentance for you, so that by your Holy Baptism in His Name you are crucified, put to death, and buried with Him, dead to yourself, to your sins, and to the world and its wickedness. And in His bodily Resurrection and Ascension to the right hand of the Father — in human flesh and blood like your own, with the very Body in which He has borne your sins and suffered your death — He has opened up the way of real life to you and to all the sons and daughters of Adam.
His dying and rising have established the way of repentance and righteousness, the way of faith and love, which have becomes yours by the catechesis of His Word and Holy Spirit, and so also by the washing of the water with His Word and Spirit. He has made the way straight before you, and He leads you in His righteousness — which is yours by His grace through faith in His Gospel — so that you enter with Him into the House of His God and Father in peace, as a member of His Body.
He is the one truly righteous Galilean, whose Blood was shed under Pontius Pilate as the atoning Sacrifice for the sins of the world. As the atoning Sacrifice for all of your sins. He has reconciled you to the one true God in His own Body, crucified and risen, in order to bring you to His God and Father in and with Himself, in His Body, ascended to the right hand of the Father in glory.
So here, in the Word and Flesh of Christ, is where your repentance is found. The towering inferno of God’s righteous wrath and judgment has fallen upon Him, upon the beloved Son, the well-pleasing One. And so have the righteous wrath and judgment of God been quieted toward you.
It is by the stripes that Christ Jesus has received that you are healed. For He has perished in your place, and He has given His place to you. He has been cut down and thrown into the fire because of your unfaithfulness and failure to bear good fruits, in order to secure your place in the Vineyard of the Lord by way of His good fruits of faithfulness and steadfast love for God and man. He gives it all to you by His grace. So your life and health and strength are secure, your righteousness and holiness and salvation are secure, because they are established for you in His Body and Life.
Because His death has atoned for all your sins, and because His death has conquered death and the power that it held over you, so is your life now found and lived in His Resurrection from the dead. His Resurrection is God the Father’s vindication of the Son’s innocent suffering and death, which He undertook and bore and offered in holy faith and holy love, as the fulfillment of His Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of the sins of the world. His Resurrection from the dead is the Lord’s declaration of the Victory of His Cross, which is for you, and is given to you in your Baptism.
It is by the Cross that you are cultivated and nurtured in the waters of your Holy Baptism, in the preaching of the Law and the Gospel, in Confession and Absolution in the Name of the Lord Jesus, and in the ongoing catechesis of His Word. It is by these ways and means of His grace and tender mercy toward you, that the dear Lord Jesus calls you and brings you, day by day and week after week, into repentance and faith, so that you do not perish but have everlasting life in and with Him.
Likewise, it is with the blessed good Fruits of His Cross and Passion that you are fertilized and fed, especially in the Holy Communion, in the Body and Blood of your Savior, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, given and poured out for you. Fed not for death but for eternal life in both body and soul.
It is by the fruitful and life-giving Tree of His Cross that you are rescued from the fires of Gehenna and delivered from death and the devil through the forgiveness of all of your sins. That is always the most essential thing in this poor life of labor. And it is yours, freely given to be freely received.
Here, too, the outward appearances will deceive you, and comparisons will mislead you. And the foolishness of the world, which it calls wisdom, will lie to you. But the scandalous Cross of your Lord Jesus Christ and the divine foolishness of His Gospel are the true power and wisdom of God, by which He saves you from yourself, from your sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. These scandalous Words and works of Christ do forgive you all your sins, set you free from their tyranny over your body and life, and protect you from the eternal death and judgment of hell. For His sake, you are not cut down and thrown into the fire. And in Christ Jesus you shall not perish, because you live with God in Him, already here in time by faith, and hereafter in eternity forever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.