Sunday, August 23, 2009

Today's Sermon

Trinity 11 – August 23rd, 2009 – Luke 18:9-14

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost +
Two men head up to church to pray. One is well respected, the other, not so much. One is welcomed joyfully and takes his typical seat, the other slinks in somewhere off in a corner. One is full of confidence, the other full of remorse. One looks around and sees just how much better and his friends are than the rest of the world, the other confesses his guilt and shame. The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector lays before us two men – the well-respected Pharisee and the despised Tax collector. Both are in Church, both acknowledge that there is a God, both even pray – but there is a dramatic difference between the two of them. It is the humbled tax collector who receives forgiveness, who is justified, who is declared righteous by God. The Pharisee receives nothing but the sound of his own prideful words echoing back into his ears.

This is a familiar parable – I almost think of it as the Lutheran parable – it strikes to the heart of so many of the themes and ideas that we focus on, that we cherish here as Lutherans. The fact that forgiveness is a free gift, not based upon works. The fact that confession of sin always leads to God being merciful, that he never hesitates to be merciful to us. Even our worship service sounds more like the tax collector’s – we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We will say, “I, a poor, miserable sinner.” Our hymns are all about what Christ has done – because we know that when we come here this place is all about what Christ has done. Everything seems so clear in this parable, so familiar. It’s one we know, it’s one we nod our heads at and smile. Don’t be proud and boastful like the Pharisee, be humble and confess your sin like the tax collector.

So why do we hear it again today? Listen to what Luke says, how Luke introduces this parable. He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt. Now, I’m sure most of us here wouldn’t have the audacity to say that we trust in ourselves. We’ve been trained better than that, we wouldn’t have the gall to just come out and say “I’m going to heaven because I’m so awesome.” But just because we don’t say it doesn’t me we don’t think it on occasion. As evidence of this – let me ask you a question. How many of you, if asked, would say that you are a pretty good person? Eh, I’m a pretty good person. I go to church, try to be nice. And I’m certainly not a criminal. I take care of my responsibilities, unlike some people. I pay my taxes, I don’t cheat the system, put in a good day of work – I’m a pretty good person.

Listen to the Pharisee here in the parable. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all I get.” We hear these words today, and we can think, “What a braggart! Look at that Pharisee just boasting of all the stuff he does for God.” And we miss it, we miss it because we don’t think like a 1st Century Jew. What the Pharisee says of himself, what he “brags” about is merely stuff that is typical. The Pharisee tithes – well, so did most everyone else, it was what the law required. He fasted twice a week – we so did most of the Jewish folks, that was the custom, to fast twice a week. It was the custom with Early Christians as well – the Christians fasted on Wednesday (the day we have Lenten services) and Fridays – and they fasted on those days because the Jewish fasts were typically on Monday and Thursday – we put our fasts on separate days, that’s all. Even going off and standing by himself – that isn’t boastful. You’ve seen video or pictures of Jewish folks today at the wailing wall in Jerusalem – that’s how you prayed – you picked a spot and you went and you prayed. The Pharisee isn’t bragging about all the things he does over and above everyone else – he isn’t saying that he’s a super Jew – rather this – the Pharisee is just thinking, “Well, I’m a good little Jewish boy.”

Now, let’s consider ourselves again. How many of you, when asked if you are a good person, would say, “Well, yeah, I’m a good little Christian. I do the typical Christian things, I love my spouse and kids, I go to Church, I put some money in the plate, I try to be nice”? Those thoughts, those words, are the exact modern equivalent of what the Pharisee in this parable said and did. You see, this is the heart of Christ’s warning to us today – it isn’t that the proud people out there need to be wary, it’s that you, O Christian, need to be wary of becoming proud! Our Lord is telling us that this attitude, that the attitude of self-righteousness is something that is common, that each and everyone of us must face.

If you don’t believe it, if you don’t think that you need to worry about self-righteousness, let me read a verse again and ask you another question. He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt. Here’s the question. Have you treated anyone with contempt this past week? And be honest. Have you looked down upon anyone, thought, “I just can’t believe that they would do that”? That should show you that self-righteousness is trying to creep in and dominate your life. The two are linked by our Lord – self-righteousness and contempt. There is no room, no place, for contempt in a Christian’s life. Why should you ever have contempt for anyone? If you see someone doing something foolish, shouldn’t you rather wish that they become wise and learn, perhaps even instruct and guide them yourself? If you see someone sin, shouldn’t you rather hope that they repent and be brought to forgiveness, perhaps even speak God’s Word to them? After all, isn’t being made wise in Christ, isn’t receiving the forgiveness won by Christ upon the Cross the heart of what Christianity is? Why would we have contempt when we should see an opportunity to share the Word of God? But we end up thinking about ourselves rather than our neighbor, about how we are good and they are bad, and things get all messed up.

This, dear friends, is the danger, this is the temptation that Satan and our sinful flesh throw at us constantly. To think that we aren’t all that bad. To think that we are pretty okay. That we are decent Christians. When we think this, where is our focus? Who are we looking at and saying, “Eh, that’s pretty good?” We look at ourselves. And one of the easiest ways for Satan to make us look at ourselves and think we are okay is to have us look at our neighbor with scorn and contempt. And when we’ve done that, when we think like this, when our focus is upon ourselves. . . it’s no longer upon Christ. Our focus shifts away from Jesus, and rather on to how nice, how okay we are. And we end up justifying ourselves, we defend ourselves and say, “Yep, I’m alright.”

The Pharisee thought this way – and he left the temple with nothing but the arrogance and pride and contempt that he had walked in with. But our Lord contrasts the Pharisee with a Tax Collector. Doesn’t say a corrupt tax collector, just a tax collector. Someone who wasn’t overly popular, was looked down upon. And what approach does the Tax Collector have? But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The tax collector doesn’t talk about what he does that is good, he doesn’t act as though he’s okay. Rather this – he is a sinner. He isn’t in the temple to tell God how wonderful he is – he isn’t in the temple because he’s a good little Jewish boy and Jewish boys just end up going to temple. He is in the temple for one reason – he is a sinner, and he needs God’s mercy. He needs God to be merciful to him. And what does our Lord say – I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. The tax collector saw his sin, confessed it and sought mercy – and that is precisely what he got. He left the temple clean and forgiven, justified, declared righteous by God. The tax collector’s relationship with God wasn’t focused on what that tax collector gives, what he does for God – but rather what he needed from God, forgiveness. And that’s what He got.

So why are you here today? Are you doing your hour of Christian chore work that you must do to be a good Christian boy, to be a nice Christian girl? That’s not why you should be here. We come to this place for worship because we are sinners who need to be here. We are sinners who need God’s forgiveness, we need to hear His Word preached, we need His Body and Blood given to us in the supper, we need it. And Satan does everything in his power to try to make us forget this, Satan does everything he can to make us think that we are okay, that we are better than this person, that at least we aren’t as bad as that person. And all the while, Satan tries to make us forget that we are sinners who need Christ’s mercy. And when that happens, we forgo this place, we even misuse it – we smile, nod our heads, think, “Boy, so and so really needed to hear that sermon.” No, my friends, each and everyone one of us is a sinner in need of God’s mercy.

And so God calls us here to this place, and He speaks His Word to us. His Law calls us unto repentance, so that we might realize that we are indeed sinners, that we are indeed just like everyone else out there, and that we are in need of His mercy. And then out of His great love for us, without any worth or merit in us, Our Lord gives us gladly the forgiveness which He won for us when He died upon the Cross and rose from the dead. And our Lord would have us keep this mercy, this love foremost in our minds, so that we are not led into damnable pride and vanity, but rather remained focus on Him. We see our sins and are made humble, but our Lord exalts us, raises us up with His Word of forgiveness, indeed, has promised to raise us to life everlasting. He speaks His Word of forgiveness, and we leave this place justified, assured of His forgiveness and love to us. Lord, keep us from all sins of pride, and richly forgive us all our days. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost +

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