One of the reasons I’ve started blogging is so more people can read my sermons than just those who hear them in our church on Sunday mornings (and at other times). Occasionally people ask for a copy of one of my sermons, or there may be other interested parties out there who’d like to get a taste, so I’ll be posting them on here every so often. I have some catching up to do, as now even Holy Trinity is in the rear-view mirror and we cruise into summer.
I wrote this particular sermon before we left Milwaukee. Along with a baby being born to us, packing & planning to move, worship planning, etc, this was what I could do. I actually preached this before I was ordained and installed at my church; I figured that since I was here and everybody knew I was going to be the pastor, I may as well preach and relieve the vacancy pastor of the duty in the bargain. I may start linking the texts for these sermons to some other site if I can figure that out (this is kind of a new thing for me — I’m more of a pen & paper type.) Peace be with you!
Luke 18:9-14 : 9To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood up and prayed about[a] himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
“Appearances can be deceiving”, the old saw goes. Nowhere is this more true than in the spiritual realm. Scripture tells us that man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. On Ash Wednesday, this parable gives us a chance to search our own hearts before the Lord. Jesus tells you this parable so that you will See Who You Really Are. You are a self-righteous sinner; you are justified by the mercy of God.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” Sometimes people or events from the Bible are so familiar that we don’t really see them. Maybe it’s good to be reminded how Jesus’ first hearers would have thought of these men. The tax collector we’ll get to in a moment. First, the Pharisee. He strides boldly into the temple courts. He finds a place off to the side but still in full view, where everybody will be sure to notice him. He throws his arms up in the air – a common posture of prayer for Jews at that time – and starts praying in a loud, clear voice. But that prayer! Who prays like that? “I thank you, God, that I am not like other men”?! What a jerk; what a, well, a Pharisee. I’d never pray like that.
Maybe you would. Do you ever feel like you’re the only good person left in the world? Like you’re the only one who does a honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay? Like you’re the only one who pays all their taxes, who drives the speed limit and obeys all the traffic laws? Who tries to tell the truth, who makes a honest and consistent effort to be a good person? Ever feel like you’re the only good person left? This Pharisee did. He feels that way because that’s how he saw himself, and that’s how other saw him. Pharisees made a big deal out of living their religion. They went above and beyond the rest of the Jews in their strenuous efforts to keep every law God gave – and hundreds that he hadn’t. As a consequence, everybody generally accepted that Pharisees really were better than everybody else. Everybody thought the Pharisees were good people. They didn’t have our perception of them as hypocrites. Their piety was proverbial. Even Jesus said, “Unless your holiness exceeds that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” And compared to other people, Pharisees were pretty good – on the outside. They put such trust in their works that it hollowed out their religion, leaving the shell of the outward works while killing off faith in God. They became hypocrites, pure and simple. This Pharisee felt so sure, so certain that he had done everything God wanted, that he could demean everyone around him – some of whom could hear him – because he considered himself better than them. He saw only other people when he should have been seeing himself as he really was.
You might be thinking, “I’d never be that crass. I know I can’t save myself by my works.” Perhaps we don’t think that outright, but it sure is easy to look at the world with a Pharisee’s eyes. What do you think about when you hear yet another celebrity on TV agitating for gay rights, or any number of other ungodly causes? What do you think when you hear about another celebrity abusing God’s institution of marriage with unlawful divorce and philandering? It’s so common that I hardly need to mention any names, like Tiger Woods. What’s your reaction when your coworker starts his day with a string of foul language, or complains about how ill she feels after a night of hard partying? What’s your first thought when you hear about the latest misdeeds of the black sheep in your family? “Wow, I’m glad that’s not me! What horrible behavior.” Disgust over sin is good, but it can get twisted into self-congratulation and works-righteousness. I thank you, God,that I am not like other men. Look at all I’ve done, Lord. I’m one of the good ones.
It feels nice to measure ourselves by others and conclude we’re better, but it totally ignores another fact. We ignore our own sins, which are just as bad before God, in favor of focusing on the notorious sins of others. Too often we think that pleasing God is a matter of outward actions: going to church, not stealing, not using foul language, and whatever else we might do outwardly. We forget that every sin is a sin against God, the righteous Judge, who hates sin and sinners. We don’t see ourselves as we really are. Our gaze is directed horizontally, at those around us, when we should be looking vertically, at God.
God doesn’t look at other people when he considers what you’ve done. God looks at you. He examines your thoughts, your intentions, your desires; your motives, the real reasons behind what you do or don’t do. He looks at you and He sees right into your soul, straight to the bottom, like He’s looking into a sunlit room. Objectively, impartially, no bias whatsoever. If you’re guilty, he knows. What good are your works then? As much good as a wisp of straw before a blazing fire. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. He sees you and me as we really are: all too often, self-righteous sinners.
Another man was in the temple that day: a tax collector. Tax collectors were hated by everyone around them. They were widely thought of as rip-off artists. Nobody likes the tax man, but in those times they were especially despised. The Roman government authorized them to collect a set amount in taxes, and whatever they could squeeze out of the people on top of that was theirs to keep. Add to that the fact that they were almost continually in contact with Gentiles and therefore ritually unclean, and you have someone for whom most people had a special place in their hearts to hate. This was someone who obviously did not deserve a thing from God. This tax collector in Jesus’ parable is the kind of person that isn’t even supposed to be at the temple, in God’s presence. When he confesses that he’s a sinner, Jesus’ first listeners would have nodded right along. Yup, that sounded exactly right to them.
Here’s a man who sees himself as he is. This particular tax collector needs to be here too badly to be able to afford to stay away. He neither notices nor cares who’s paying attention to him. He doesn’t think about other people at all. For him, there are only two here: God, and himself. From off to the side, in the shadows, comes a prayer choked out between tears: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Maybe you live with guilt every day. Maybe you have a constant nagging sense that you’re never good enough for God, or you’re afraid of what God would say if he looked into the closets of your life. Maybe your conscience bothers you. If so, you can pray the prayer the tax collector did – “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” – and find what he found.
The only thing he wants, the only thing he craves more than anything else in the world, the one thing that matters most to him, is to be right with God. Just to be right with God. When Jesus pronounces the tax collector justified at the end of the parable, that was a twist that would have taken his first hearers by surprise. They didn’t understand the mercy Christ has. When we seek God’s mercy instead of relying on ourselves, we find it, because God is always merciful. God has mercy for you too! He forgives you. All is right between you and God. God has taken away your disgrace for the sake of Christ, and He has washed away all your guilt, all your shame, and everything that makes you afraid before His throne. God promises that he has more forgiveness and love than you have sin, always. When you confess your sin, he willingly and instantly lays aside his wrath, opens His arms, and calls you His child.
When we confess our sins at the beginning of our services, we follow the pattern that the tax collector used. First we confess who we are; then we confess what we have done. We are sinful, our hearts are sinful, and because of that we commit specific sins. Sometimes we feel like God forgives our sins, but not who we are – our innate sinfulness. But He does! Christ has suffered and died so that you are now perfectly at peace with God, your entire self. You are sinless in His sight, because of what Christ did to make you clean. When you were baptized into His name, He made you without spot, wrinkle, or blemish. Forgiven by His love, saved by His mercy, all your sinfulness is covered and atoned for. The absolution that Christ gives is the only one that matters, the only one that can make you truly pure. He has promised that when you trust in all He did for you, you are set free from your sins, your sinfulness, and all of their consequences forever. Now when your sins bother you or your conscience won’t give you any rest, return to the Lord your God and he will give you what you want the most: pardon for your sins, peace for your soul, joy, a clear conscience, everlasting life. God’s mercy never fails.
Part of seeing yourself as you really are is to see your sinfulness. But that’s not all of it. See yourself the way God sees you now – clothed in the righteousness of Christ. When you confess your sins and are forgiven, your outward circumstances might not change. You might not have more money in the bank or better health. The people who don’t like you still might not like you. But that’s okay, because God has graciously made you right with Him by forgiving your sins, and that is worth more than any other blessing in this world. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will purify us from all unrighteousness. That is the promise of God, and His promises never fail. See yourself as you really are now; see yourself as Christ has made you. Amen.