Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Labor Day weekend. A time when we observe and celebrate the efforts of workers and the nobility of work, even as most of us take a short respite from it. Labor Day is certainly not a special day on the church year’s calendar. Even so, apart from the infinite, eternal blessings we receive as we gather this morning around God’s Word and Sacrament, it’s kind of difficult to get excited about the umpteenth Sunday after Pentecost, isn’t it? So, let’s consider Labor Day.
More specifically, let’s consider your labor; your work. There are lots of places we might start with that. We could consider evaluating ourselves according to the doctrine of vocation. Most of you learned at least the basics of that doctrine when you studied the Small Catechism, in preparation for your confirmation and your admittance to the Lord’s Supper. Perhaps you recall that in advance of coming to Confession, Luther suggested that everyone evaluate themselves according to the Ten Commandments, based on his or her station in life—that is, in one’s vocations. You might also remember that in the Table of Duties, Luther listed a great many Bible passages that could be applied to us in the various positions we hold in our families, in our livelihoods, in civil society, and in the Church.
We hold vocations as child, sibling, spouse, and parent. As student, employee, supervisor, subordinate. As citizen, voter, public employee, elected or appointed official. As redeemed sinners, as those called by God to serve others.
If you’re like most people, though, you probably don’t really stop too often to consider your various vocations or callings, or see how each of them—and all of them working harmoniously together—are not just God’s way of giving you your daily bread. Your vocations are also means He uses to make His kingdom come, His will be done, to lead you out of temptation, and to deliver you from evil. So, too, your vocations are His gifts that are meant to help you realize that the God you confess as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the first, second, and third articles of the creeds works in your life and the lives of others through His creative, redemptive, and sanctifying actions.
There are certainly other ways you might consider your labors on this Labor Day weekend, though. If you don’t want to consider the full breadth and depth of vocation in all its richness and nuances, you could always narrow it down to just those activities which bring you money.
That could include the academic work that will lead to future earnings if you’re still a student, your job that brings you or your spouse a paycheck if you’re currently in your employment years, or the income you derive from your savings and investments, pension, and government benefits if you’re in your retirement years. That is, however, a pretty minimalistic view of your work.
How about considering your good deeds? I’m not going to insult you by accusing you of thinking your good works for God or for others are somehow going to earn your salvation for eternity. As faithful, confessing Lutherans, you probably carry Ephesians 2:8-9 around fully loaded and with the safety off, if not halfway out of the holster already. C’mon, let it loose; let’s hear it: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God; not because of works, lest anyone should boast.” If that wasn’t your confirmation verse, I hope it’s at least a close second.
What’s more, the Bible tells us that whatever good works we might do don’t benefit God, either. They may please Him on account of our obedience, but He doesn’t need anything from us. In the final analysis, though, our good works are for the benefit of our neighbor, not God, and not ourselves. They are to help meet the neighbor’s worldly needs, and also to give witness to our faith in God and love for others. By such signs, our brothers and sisters in the Church receive God’s love through us, and unbelievers may be drawn closer to us and become more open to hearing and considering what God has also done for them in Jesus Christ.
Even so, the Holy Spirit caused Isaiah to write,
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
If even our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment, or (as some other translations say, “filthy rags”) how then shall we consider our deeds, our work, our labor, this Labor Day? Well, work can sometimes be described as those activities we do to achieve a particular objective, according to a certain set of expectations—often externally-imposed objectives and expectations. After all, isn’t that what doing schoolwork is? Isn’t that what making a living is all about? Someone in authority over us says, “Do such-and-such a thing, in such-and-such a way, and I’ll determine how well you do it and decide how you’ll be evaluated and rewarded for it.”
As Moses was giving his farewell speech to the people of Israel in our Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy today, he was giving them guidance and encouragement to meet God’s objectives and expectations.
The instructions were quite simple, really: Listen, learn, do, achieve, succeed, repeat. He even told them that God’s expectations—His statutes and commandments—would make them the envy of other nations. So would God’s presence. All they had to do was remember what the Lord had done for them, meet all His expectations, and teach their children to do the same.
We all know how that worked out for them, don’t we? Just as badly as it would have worked out for us, if we had depended upon our work instead of on our trust in God. Had we chosen to follow after gods of human making rather than on the Creator Himself. Had we conformed ourselves to the behaviors of the peoples and cultures around us, instead of remaining holy, set apart as He has chosen us as His own.
Oh, that’s right—we have done all those wrong-headed things, haven’t we? We have defiled ourselves, chosen the filthy rags, become a man or woman of unclean lips dwelling among a people of unclean lips. We are God’s creatures and His people, that’s true.
Yet we have taken what He had intended us to be, and corrupted and defiled it by what is within us, all those things that come from the heart. Jesus listed them in the Gospel: The evil thoughts; the immorality; our thefts, large and small; all our murders, real and imagined, of both commission and omission; our adulteries of body and of mind; our coveting; our wickedness and deceit; our chasing after pleasure; our envies, slanders, pride, and foolishness.
Pick one of those or pick ‘em all. Even a tiny sliver of this baker’s dozen breaks the whole of the Commandments. As Jesus said, “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
And who is there to egg us on, to poke and nudge, to cajole and to encourage? If our own nature wasn’t bad enough, we have the world cheering us on—those outside the New Israel, those who want the Church to fall so we are not a people set apart.
So, too, the evil one seeks to tear you down, to place obstacles on the rough, narrow path to righteousness and to put enticing treats on the smooth, wide way to destruction. Lest we forget, however, neither the devil nor the world actually causes us to sin. They provide the opportunities, it’s true. Temptations will come, as we know they must. The encouragement is always there, as Satan and his rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers in both the physical and the spiritual world do their own labors, their own unceasing work to lead you astray.
But the sin… ah, the sin is all your own doing, my friend. You are never forced to sin. You defile yourself with the evil things that come from within, on account of the corruption of your nature and the weakness of your flesh. All the wisdom and understanding of God’s statutes and commandments, you thrust down and cast away as surely as Moses did the first tablets of the Law which the Lord gave him—pulverized to pebbles and ground to powder by the hardness of your heart.
It’s a process made inevitable by what we have become through our fall into sin: Where commandments are broken, righteousness is lost. Without righteousness, there is condemnation. In condemnation, there is death.
Where, then, is hope? Where is the remedy? Where is the rescue? Moses gives us an impossible task in one lesson, and in the other, Jesus tells us that evil things come from within us. Are we doomed, lost forever?
Thankfully, no. Of today’s lessons, it is the epistle that actually gives us the answer. From, Paul, student of the Law, comes Gospel. From the Jew of Jews comes the message of Christ. From the Pharisee of Pharisees comes direction to place your reliance not on yourself and your deed, but on God’s doing—God’s Labor Day, if you will.
If you are to be strong, he writes, be strong not in yourself and your deeds and works, but in the Lord and the strength of His might. He then gives us the listing of the components of the armor of God, and make no mistake: They are God’s armor for you, not armor you have crafted yourself. It is only through the whole armor provided by God—and not through a few selectively-chosen pieces of it—that you can stand against the devil’s schemes.
The exact pieces of the armor are not what’s important here, for Paul was using analogies to describe the function and work of God’s gifts to us, so that we may have confidence that we are completely protected, fully defended, entirely prepared to do battle with Satan and receive the spoils of Christ’s victory on the cross for us. Listen not to the words of the armor, but the words of Gospel that Paul proclaims: Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and the Word of God.
It is through these that you stand in the Lord, clinging to His might and not your own. Through Him can you struggle against the forces of evil and stand firm. By faith you are saved for eternity, and by faith you are protected even in this age as the spiritual warfare rages all around you, and within you.
Tomorrow we may celebrate and remember the labor that God has given you do—the labor for your body and mind, your family, your employer, your neighbor, and your country. But today and every day, rejoice in God’s Labor Day—the work accomplished for you in the suffering, death, and resurrection of your Lord and Savior, Christ Jesus.
May the good work begun in you at your baptism continue to grow and flourish. May the fruit of His labor bring you comfort, peace, and joy. And may what comes out of you and defiles you be purged, expelled, and replaced by the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. He never takes a day off; He never rests from His labors, but works constantly to enlighten, sanctify, and keep you armored, protected, and strong in the faith.
Jesus labors. Jesus saves. Rest easy. Amen.
 Isaiah 64:6 ESV