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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/mountnasura/
 
Title:Unworthy but Thankful Servants
Text:LD 24 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Thankfulness
 
Preached:2018
Added:2018-09-16
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 134:1,2,3                                                                            

Hy 1

Reading – Luke 17:1-19; John 13:1-17

Ps 135:1,2,9,10

Sermon – Lord’s Day 24

Hy 77:1,2,3

Ps 84:1,5,6

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved in Christ, you’ve probably heard someone say before: “That’s my good deed for the day.” Maybe you’ve said it yourself. When you held open the door for someone in a wheel chair, or you gave a few dollars to a homeless person, or you chatted extra nicely with the server at McDonald’s—you might’ve walked away with the thought, “Yep, that was my good deed for the day.”

That sets the bar pretty low, of course. Why only one? Each day has so many moments, so many opportunities for doing good. Compared to all the other activities that fill our waking hours, one deed isn’t much. And really, what was our motive for doing that solitary deed? To relieve our guilt? To avoid an awkward moment? To meet someone’s expectations?

I think we realize how this doesn’t measure up. And if we closely looked at our lives, hopefully we’d see quite a few good deeds. There’s personal prayer, at least a few times per day. There’s your efforts to help the people in your home, or your classmates, or to care for those in the church. There’s Scripture-reading at meals and bed-time. There’s our dedication to our friends, and general “nice-ness” as we interact with the people in our office.

As Christians, we do practice good deeds. But the same attitude that afflicts others can afflict us: that we do good works with the wrong motive. Almost invariably, our motives drift away from what they ought to be, and we forget why. So the lesson of Lord’s Day 24 is much needed: that we do good only as servants of God, saved through Christ—servants who are called to a constant, sincere and thankful duty. This is our theme,

When you have done everything you were commanded, remember:

  1. we are unprofitable
  2. we are servants
  3. we have our duty

 

1) we are unprofitable: Our theme and points come from a short parable of our Lord in Luke 17. The story has a scenario that his listeners could easily imagine, that there was “a servant plowing or tending sheep” (v 7). They could imagine it, because servants were a key part of the society and economy at the time. Maybe Jesus’ listeners had some servants themselves— or maybe they were servants.

For us, servant-hood is more of a foreign concept. When we hear “servant,” we think “employee.” Like the person serving at McDonald’s, or the fellow carrying bricks around the jobsite. And being an employee isn’t the same as being a servant, even if it feels like it at times. For another way of translating the word “servant” in our text is “slave.” That makes it clearer to us, for we know that a slave is actually the property of his master. A servant earns no wage for his work. He or she is obligated to serve—no questions asked.

“So,” Jesus says, “imagine a servant—a slave.” He’s out in the field plowing behind a team of oxen, or he’s in the meadows tending a flock of sheep. He’s doing what his master told him to do, from sunrise to sunset. And he might be a faithful servant in every way: devoted, punctual, conscientious, hard-working.

Yet what words does Jesus put in the hard-working slave’s mouth, when that slave speaks to his master at the end of the day? The slave admits that he’s “unprofitable” (v 10). Or like the servant says in the NIV, “I am unworthy.” That description means at least two things.

In the first place, it means the servant hasn’t done a perfect job. He could dedicated, reliable, and efficient—he gets the job done, and pretty well too. But there’s always something lacking in his labour.

Perhaps those in our midst who’ve had employees can relate to this. You’ve hired some men or women for your business, or some students and part-timers. And on the whole they work well—but never perfectly. Maybe they’re not quite fast enough. Or they don’t plan ahead in their work. Or they sometimes cut corners when you’re not looking. In short, they can’t do it like you. It’s hard to hire good help these days!

So it is for that servant in the parable: he’s good, but he’s flawed. When he’s plowing, he could always get a bit closer to the edges of the field. After a day of shepherding, the sheep sometimes have too many burrs in their wool because he drove them through some rough grass. The servant’s work isn’t without its shortcomings.

And then Jesus draws a direct connection from the work of servants in general, to our work as his disciples. He says, “So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, “We are unprofitable servants” (v 10). When it comes to our service of God, we’re unworthy. Because just like that plowman and that shepherd, we don’t do the job rightly. We are eager servants of Christ, and many of us genuinely want to be faithful and active! That is God’s amazing renewal of our hearts. But our work for him just doesn’t measure up. In whatever position God has put us, our failings and our flaws are many.

Maybe you’re an office bearer: then you’ll know that sometimes we say the wrong things at a homevisit, or we make a hasty decision at a consistory meeting.

Or you’re an employee, one who tries to work hard and set a good example, but then you have a day where you’re grumpy and rude toward your co-workers. You go home knowing that you didn’t put forward a great portrait of a Christian.

Or you’re a husband, a wife, and you fail to live up to those noble things you promised on the day you were married. Instead of being self-sacrificial and giving, you seek your own benefit instead.

Also as brothers and sisters in the faith, we overlook many chances to help and encourage each other in the church. Instead, we seize most available opportunities to complain or gossip.

As parents too, one moment we miss a great opportunity to teach our children about the Lord and his Word, and the next moment we exasperate them again.

And then there’s our thoughts and motivations. Behind even the best deed and the most faithful service, there lies a sinful heart. This is something that an earthly master wouldn’t see—but God sees. Maybe you help someone out, and you give an extra-generous gift, mostly for the nice feeling that you get afterward. Or perhaps there’s someone who attends church every Sunday, largely so that his parents or the elders don’t get on his case. And then there’s a lot of things we might do, just because we’ve always done them: praying for a blessing on our food, reading Scripture, being polite.

Sometimes we’re even tempted to keep track of our good deeds. Have you ever made a mental list of ways in which you’re doing pretty good? Or more likely, have you ever compared yourself to a person who was pretty clearly worse than you? There was a person who had failed badly, who brought a lot of suffering onto himself by his bad choices—have you ever thanked God that you’re not quite as bad as someone else? Jesus shatters all our pride with that one word: “unprofitable.” We have to remember who we are.

We’re unworthy as servants of the Lord, because as the Catechism puts it, “The righteousness which can stand before God’s judgment must be absolutely perfect and in complete agreement with the law of God” (Q&A 62). To stand before God’s judgment, to pass his scrutiny, our works must be perfect—but they’re not.

But let’s understand that being “unprofitable” is not the same as being “useless.” Notice how the master in Jesus’ parable didn’t get rid of his servants. They might’ve been slow and sometimes incompetent, but he didn’t fire them in his anger—after all, they did do some worthwhile things. For all their shortcomings, the field got plowed. The sheep got cared for. These servants still had a good purpose.

And that’s true of us too. We’re unprofitable, but we’re not useless! It’s true that “our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin” (Q&A 62). It’s true that God could do all these things himself—the Almighty God could do everything, from raising our children, to explaining his Word, to meeting the church budget. None of this is outside of God’s ability! He doesn’t need us for it, and He’s not dependent on our service. Even so, the Father doesn’t sigh heavily, roll his eyes, and tell us to do better next time. No, God accepts our works!

As an analogy, think of the artwork that little children will do. A child will happily give their artwork to a parent, or send a home-made birthday card to Oma. Judged from one angle, the children’s work really isn’t much. It’s messy. It’s imperfect. By any artistic standard, it’s pretty amateur. But think of how it’s received, all the same: with joy and pleasure! And then it’s put on the fridge or hung on the wall. It’s because Oma knows that this humble gift was given in love, that this work was done in all sincerity. That makes all the difference.

God the Father doesn’t reject our humble efforts at Christian service. He doesn’t scorn the imperfect works that we do in the home, or in the church, or in the world. No, He graciously welcomes them. God takes pleasure in them because we’re united to Christ, and because we’re slowly being conformed to his image. By our will and work, God is honoured.

Beloved, remember that God delights in what you do as a Christian. He loves your prayers, even if they’re short and simple. He delights to hear your singing, even if it’s off-key. He finds joy in your service and your gifts, even if it doesn’t look remarkable. He doesn’t send us away because we can’t always stay on task. Rather, God receives what we do, and He uses our efforts for his own glory!

 

2) we are servants: Let’s go back to the parable, where Jesus asked us to imagine a servant or slave, working hard to finish the day’s work. While we sit there on the porch, sipping a cold drink, we can see our servant way off the distance, heaving the plow into position one last time, or chasing after a few stubborn sheep.

 We can also imagine the scene that unfolds when the sun dips below the horizon, and the servant finally comes trudging back to the house, tired and dirty. Jesus asks us, “Will [you] say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’? But will [you] not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink’?” (vv 7-8).

The point is, even though the servant has worked all day, he’s not going to get a foot rub and a hot bath when he returns to the house. Rather, he must first prepare dinner, and then serve as the master eats. And only when the master has had enough, when the table is cleared and the dishes are washed and dried—only then may the servant eat his own meal. And probably it’s only leftovers heated up in the microwave! For that servant remains a servant—all day, and even into the night. We can agree with that. It seems right, only proper; a servant serves.

But when He gets to the end of the parable, Jesus reminds us of our position. We’re not the master who’s relaxing while the work gets done—we’re the servant who is sweating in the furrows, running hard in the fields. Listen again to verse 10, “So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants.” That’s who we really are before God: servants. And it’s only fitting that a servant serves.

It’s important that we look at this in the right way. The master that we have isn’t some unreasonable tyrant. He doesn’t treat us like garbage. But He is a master. Like we confess in Lord’s Day 13, “Jesus is Lord.” He paid a dear price in order to free us from our miserable slavery. He owns us, and therefore He calls us do what He commands.

Redeemed by Christ, we are his servants. So the Master calls us, in the words of the parable: “Gird yourself” (v 8). We probably haven’t girded ourselves lately, but it’s a vivid image. People back in Bible times wore long, outer robes. It was a good way to stay cool in that hot climate, but these robes could trip you up when you had to work or run. And so people would gird them—tuck them into their belt—in order to free themselves for action. “Gird yourself!” Hearing that command, the servant had to wash up, put on a new change of clothes, and keep his focus for fulfilling yet one more task.

That’s what Jesus calls us to do. Seeing the holy task before us—whatever that task is—we have to get rid of what hinders us. Are there things in your life that keep you from actively doing God’s will? Are there things that are tripping you up in your task as a Christian?

For example, if you tend to look down on others and feel superior to them, then you won’t be willing to help them. Or if you’re always too busy doing your own thing, too busy working or playing, then you likely won’t have much time to get involved in the work of God’s kingdom. Or if there’s a sin that you haven’t confessed and dealt with, then it’s going to be really hard to be wholly devoted and enthusiastic in God’s service. So we have to get ready. Be prepared to do good works! Gird yourself!

And doing good shouldn’t be a haphazard thing. Sometimes we just wait for a nice service-opportunity to come along, to knock on our door and call us by name. So some will say, “I didn’t do anything, because nobody asked me.” Other times we say that our turn for contributing will come later: “I’ll get involved once I’m less busy.” Or we leave it to the people in church who always get things done: “I’m sure they’ll take care of it.” But these aren’t the attitudes of a servant! If Christ has redeemed us, then we all must be ready to serve our God.

It doesn’t mean that we all serve in the same way. Part of being ready means knowing what gifts God has given. How has He enabled you to contribute? Are you an encourager? A giver? A teacher? A leader? A helper? A mother, a father, a friend? A mentor and example? Any one of countless combinations? Knowing your strengths helps you see where you can serve.

Being ready to serve means training yourself. God has given us many things to do, yet it’s not always a simple task. How do you speak an uplifting word, without sounding insincere? How do you help someone, without embarrassing them? How can you remember to pray for all those people in need? How do you talk about the gospel with someone in a way that’s understandable? As servants, we have to learn to do good—by practice, and by prayer.

Putting ourselves in the sandals of that servant in Luke 17, we’ll also see that a true servant of God is always on call. That plowman or that shepherd didn’t get a break when he came in at the end of the day. Rather, he kept at it—making dinner, serving, cleaning up. Likewise, we have the continuous task of doing good. There’s no time when we can think, “I’ve done my bit. Lately I’ve been really busy with church and kingdom-work—maybe it’s time to ease off.”  Don’t forget that you’re one of Christ’s full-time servants. Paul exhorts, “Let us not become weary in doing good” (Gal 6:9).

Beloved, do you wonder if I am setting the bar too high? Are we going from “one good deed per day,” to “innumerable good deeds?” Is this kind of Christian life only for superheroes of the faith? Can it really be for everyone?

Look at what Jesus says before this little parable. Jesus confronts the disciples with their duty to forgive a brother, even seven times in a day. If you’ve ever been offended by someone, or hurt by someone, you know that’s a tall order: to forgive, even seven times on the same day! Hearing this heavy demand, they plead, “Increase our faith!” (v 5). In other words, “What you’re asking from us is impossible! It’s too much, Lord.”

But Jesus says you don’t need a certain amount of faith to do good, like an Abraham-level, or Elijah-level. You simply need to believe. The rule is: If you believe, you’ll forgive. If you believe, you’ll serve and find many ways to perform God’s will. “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (v 6). A little faith can accomplish great things. As the Catechism puts it: “It is impossible that that those grafted into Christ by true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness” (Q&A 64). If you truly believe, you will most certainly produce.

Slaves, we said, don’t earn anything from their master. After a job well done, he’s got nothing at all to boast about, and has no right to expect wages or praise. But remember that our Master is Jesus Christ. He accepts our imperfect works, and in his grace He even rewards us! For Christ blesses those who serve him. He blesses our families, when husband and wife honour their vows. He blesses our church, when all the members look to the interests of others. He blesses us in our daily work, when we do it with honesty and diligence. Our Master rewards us: He doesn’t need to, but He does.

And then the true miracle: our Master even serves us, his servants! Though He has every entitlement to our service, Christ puts us ahead of himself! That was his mission on earth, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom.

Before Jesus went to the cross, He showed just how lowly He would become by washing his disciples’ feet. This most menial task was a lesson in true humility. It was a foreshadowing of the selfless service that He’d give on the cross. There He died for filthy wretches: washing us clean with his own blood. Through his life of service, Jesus Christ has turned us into servants who are blessed beyond measure. So He calls us to take up our thankful duty.

 

3) we have our duty: At the end of the day, what should a master say to his servant? Asks Jesus, “Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him?” (v 9). And the answer is clear: Of course the master has no obligation to thank a slave who did as he was told! As those who labour for God, we remember that God owes us nothing. We say to God, “We have done what was our duty” (v 10).

These days, duty’s a bad word. Duty implies that you’re not free. You can’t do what you want, but you have to do the job someone else has placed upon you. And as Christians we have a duty, to be sure—but it’s very different. It’s rooted entirely in thanksgiving. Its wellspring is our humble gratitude for God’s grace.

Think of that story of those men with leprosy, right after our parable. Jesus sends the ten lepers to the priest, and as they go, they’re suddenly healed. Their skin goes from being black and mushy and without feeling, to being pink and healthy and alive. But only one of the lepers comes back to Jesus, to praise God and give him thanks.

Do you ever wonder what happened to the other nine? Maybe one went to celebrate—there was a lot of living to catch up on. Maybe another was too shy. Or another was too proud. Perhaps one leper simply forgot to say thanks in all the excitement, or another one couldn’t find Jesus back again. Wherever the other nine were, this man alone responded in the right way. He bowed before Christ and thanked him as the life-giving, life-restoring Lord.

In that same thankful spirit we can fulfill our Christian duty. We gladly bow before our Lord, for we’ve been saved from bondage to death and decay. Like that healed leper, it’s all because of what Christ has done for us—because of that, we can dedicate our lives to him. As Jesus said in John 13, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (v 14). He’s given us the perfect example. And He’s also given us the perfect motive: We do it for him. In all things that you do, strive to have the attitude of a servant: a servant who has been redeemed by grace—a servant who wants to give constant praise to his Lord.

If you wonder about your purpose in life, or if you feel like what you do doesn’t matter, remember that you’re a servant, and God delights in all your work when it is done for him. If someone gives you a compliment, rejoice to be able to say, “I’m just a servant of the Master.” And when God grants you another blessing, remember to say, “It’s all from Christ, and it’s all for Christ.” And when at the end of the day you see that God has enabled you to accomplish a few good things, confess to Christ your Lord, “I’m a servant. I’ve done my duty, and Lord, I’ve done it for you.”  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2018, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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