Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sermon for Trinity 11

Trinity 11 – September 4th, 2011 – Luke 18:9-14

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost +
I’ll admit it, this is probably my favorite parable. It’s the first one I remember at least. And it’s one that I think should be both a constant warning and a constant comfort to us in the Christian Church. With this teaching, our Lord shows sincere Christians what their greatest danger is, how Satan will try to attack their faith. Satan has two main ways of destroying faith – one is gross and vile sin. Just stop caring about right or wrong, do whatever feels good. This happens. We know it, we see it around us, and by the Grace of God we know that it is wrong and empty and void. And so with us, Satan will pull out a second weapon, a second tactic to get us to abandon the faith – and that is pride and self-righteousness.

“[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.” Note – this is a parable for the Church, for people who know who God is, who know that there is a right and a wrong, for people who actually care about doing good. But what is the problem? Two problems are noted here – when we think we are righteous in ourselves, and when we treat others with contempt. The very image of this is the Pharisee in the parable. “Two men went up to the temple to pray; one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” Now, first and foremost, remember – Pharisee in Jesus’ day didn’t mean “bad”. So often we will think of the Pharisees as villains, as the bad folks, as jerks. No. That’s not how we should think of the Pharisees… lest we too start looking upon others with contempt. No, a Pharisee was a devoted laymen. A Pharisee was someone who was respected, someone whom the people of the town knew was serious about doing good things. If we took someone from Jesus’ day and dropped him here and said, “find me a Pharisee” – he’d see some member who faithfully attended Church and bible study, someone who volunteered, who was generous – that’s who he’d say the Pharisee was. The good person. You *wanted* to be like the Pharisees back in the day – just like today people want to be nice Christians.

And what do we hear? “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 that I get.’” The problem is not what the Pharisee does. The Pharisee does many good, many nice things. Isn’t it good not to extort people? Isn’t it good to be fair? Isn’t it good not to commit adultery? And he’s generous – he fasts twice a week… and part of the idea of fasting is that you would take the money you would have spent on food that day and give it to the poor so that they could eat. He is basically taking the food off of his own plate twice a week and giving it to someone else. That’s pretty cool. And of course, tithes of all that he gets. If we were to compare works, compare how devoted our lives were – chances are the Pharisee would win. In fact – if we are just talking about works... be more like the Pharisee. Be more generous. Be more fair, exercise more self-control. If you are not doing these things, try harder. But the problem isn’t simply what the Pharisee does… it’s how he thinks of himself.

I thank You that I am not like other men. Not like other men. That’s the problem. The Pharisee thinks that he is fundamentally different, fundamentally better than other people. They sin, I don’t, not really, oh, what a good boy am I. Pride has devoured him, and corrupted him. Indeed, it’s tainted all his works – so that even though they seem good… even though they are proper things to do, they are done for the wrong reason. Does he fast to provide for another simply out of love and concern – knowing that he himself might have been there but for the Grace of God? Nope – he’s just showing how wonderful he is. Or even the Tithing – is that from love – or is that proving how great he is?

See, this is where the rubber so often meets the road in the life of a Christian. As a Christian, you are to strive to do good. You are to strive to be better today than you were yesterday. You are to strive to serve your neighbor, show forth love. But here is the problem. Our sinful flesh loves to look at our Good works and say, “See how good I am.” Our sinful flesh loves to compare - “I do more than so and so, see how good I am.” And do you see the shift – instead of simply focusing upon the neighbor in love and care – instead of our works being truly good and for the benefit of our neighbor, we twist them, we turn our works into things that just stroke our Ego and enflame our pride.

And what happens then? We forget who we are. I thank You that I am not like other people. What was he really saying? I thank You that I’m not a sinner – I thank you that I am awesome and wonderful and not a bad person. And if you note, in this fallen Pharisee’s prayer… there was no need for God. In his prayer, did this Pharisee need God anymore, God’s mercy, God’s strength, God’s guidance? No – rather, see all that I do for God. He might have admitted that God made him that way – but does he *need* God right now? He doesn’t think so. He doesn’t see his sin, he only sees the sin of his neighbor – when he looks at himself he only sees the good he wants to see – and so he is lost.

Compare this with what the Tax Collector, the most hated person, prays: “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” The tax collector shows humility. The tax collector confesses his sins. We don’t know the works of this tax collector – he too was in the temple to pray, just like the Pharisee. Who knows if he was generous with what he had, who knows if he was outwardly faithful? That’s not his concern at the moment. His concern is his sin. He is aware of it, and in His humility, He confesses it.

And our Lord says, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” He confesses his sin, and he is forgiven. He confesses his sin, and he is declared to be righteous before God – not on his works, but because he desires mercy and forgiveness from God. This is why, dear friends, even as you strive to do good, to show love, to show care and compassion, you must always remember that you are a sinner. You will never grow in the Christian faith to where you do not need God. You will never gain enough holiness in this life to where your first and foremost thought will no longer need to be that you need mercy for your sin. Even should God work great and wondrous things through you now – as long as you still draw breath in this body, you will remain a sinner – and by that I don’t mean just that you will do “bad” things – but everything you do will be tainted. Every act, every thought, every word we speak is tainted with sin. Right now, as I preach, as you hear, we are tainted and twisted with sin. There’s that sinful part of me that thinks, “boy, I hope they like this.” Or perhaps you’ve had those thoughts come up about so and so needing to hear this, or this is dull, or this is stuff I surely already know why do we go over it again? Whatever. Our sinful flesh always wants to glorify and praise itself, always wants us to be the mighty hero of the story. But over and against this, hearing the Word of God we confess our sins, we show humility.

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” If we listen to our sinful flesh on this, if we give into pride and glorify the self, we begin to ignore God – to not have a real use for Him – and our faith becomes cold and withers and dies… and we shrug, because we’re good people, we didn’t need it anyway. That is the way of death and damnation. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. That is the key – to be humble, to confess our sins – and not in an arrogant way – don’t go around trying to prove that you’re more humble than the next guy – but rather this. Consider your own sins, your own shortcomings, the times where you are not whom you know you should be – and confess them. Struggle against them. Ask God for forgiveness and strength to fight against them. And you will receive forgiveness, and you will receive strength to beat them down… not that you’ll ever have them totally beaten down, but you will learn to strive against them better.

This is the purpose, you realize, of the Supper. When our Lord gives us His own Body and Blood in the Supper, this is the particular gift that it brings. It brings the forgiveness of sins so that we leave this place justified before God, but it also gives and brings strength – it gives us Christ so that He strengthens us in our struggles against sin. After the Supper we will pray as follows: “We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore You of Your mercy that you would strengthen us through the same in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another, through Jesus Christ...” Do you hear what that prayer teaches? The Supper refreshes us, it forgives the sins and cleanses us – but not only that, it makes our focus to be ever more upon God and His love for us, so that we abandon pride. It makes us to be ever more focused upon our neighbor, so that the neighbor is better served and loved. It joins us to Christ, so that all that we do is actually what He brings about in us and through us.

Indeed, it is Christ Jesus Himself who is the One who humbled Himself to be born of a Virgin, who came down from heaven for us and for our salvation, He is the one who, though He knew no sin became sin for us and went to the Cross – and He is the One whom was raised on the 3rd day. And this same Jesus, who humbled Himself even unto the point of death upon the Cross, gives Himself to you to teach you Humility, and this same Jesus who was exulted as He rose gloriously from the tomb gives you new life now and has promised you your own glorious resurrection. So the, as a Christian, as one who is in Christ, strive to do better, but beware of your pride. Beware of contempt towards others that would make you forget your own sin. Rather, confess your sins, and on account of Chrsit Jesus, God will forgive you and strengthen you – God will be merciful to you and through you show love to others. Rejoice and delight in Christ Jesus, for He is your life and your salvation - In the Name of the Father…. +

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