Sorry I didn’t get this out sooner, but, well, it’s Lent and I’m busy. Home visits to make, folks in the hospital, ladies having babies, extra services to prepare for and conduct — all of it good! No complaints here, but it does take time. This blogging thing is a spare time pursuit (“what’s that?”), so that’s why you’re reading an Ash Wednesday sermon two weeks into Lent. It’s okay, it all still applies. Timeless truths, even if they are a little tardy to their appointed day. Anyhoo….
Ash Wednesday is special because it marks the beginning of Lent. The forty days that follow (the Sundays aren’t counted, as each and every Sunday is a “little Easter” reminding us, by the choice of that very day, the first day of the week, of Our Lord’s resurrection) are a time to tighten up: to focus, to pare away at excess, both physical and spiritual; to confess one’s sins and be relieved of the crushing burden of guilt that many times we aren’t even aware we’re carrying anymore, we’re so used to it — until, that is, we examine ourselves through the ruthlessly clear-sighted lens of God’s law and see what we’re really like. It’s also the time to contemplate God’s wonderful love that showed itself in His Son’s passion and death on the cross, to knit the purple robe, as Johann Gerhard referred to meditation on Christ’s passion. It’s a time to grow in appreciation for the mercy of God towards sinners. Each of us can place ourselves in the place of the proud Pharisee below, and of the contrite tax collector as well.
It’s also special to me because it marks an anniversary of sorts — it was the first time I preached at my new congregation. I was not yet ordained (that took place the following Sunday), but I figured since I was already here, it was good to get right to work. People already knew I was their pastor, I was called but not yet ordained, but I thought it more important that they hear the man who in time they would come to know as their pastor address them at the start of Lent. It seemed like a good starting point. I guess we all start out from Ash Wednesday, in a sense — the Christian’s whole life is to be one of repentance, as Martin Luther famously said in his first of the 95 Theses.
This isn’t the historic gospel for Ash Wednesday (which has its own set of readings etc and is separate from the midweek Lenten services), but it’s an excellent choice nonetheless. It presents so clearly the need and grounds for repentance. We are all the Pharisee, telling God how great we are. Even the “good” church members? Yes — perhaps especially them! It makes a preacher a little queasy to call his “best” people (by which is meant most involved, most apt to volunteer, always around) Pharisees and works-righteous, but the genius of Jesus’ parable is to take direct aim at what is most admirable to the natural human spirit. The Pharisee in the parable indeed was outwardly upstanding and virtuous, but inwardly his proud heart rejected God and thus he was far from Him.
The tax collector, by contrast, knows he is nothing, has nothing, and will have nothing if God does not pity him in his distress — but he’s the one who finds mercy. The example of the tax collector is a great comfort to those of us whose souls are wearied with guilt and battered and bruised with the toll of our own sins. Find hope, life, and forgiveness in Jesus! This text is also a precious doctrinal text, because Jesus states so clearly both with a picture and with a direct propositional statement that faith in God’s mercy for Christ’s sake justifies the sinner, that is, makes him right and holy in God’s sight. Only the tax collector trusts that God will be gracious to him and forgive his sins; only the tax collector goes down to his home from the temple at peace with God, having the status of a saint, and entirely forgiven and pure in God’s sight. Defiled and contemptible in the sight of men, yes, and he probably still would be as long as he held that profession and had that reputation; but with God he was unimpeachable — and God’s opinion is the only one that matters in the end. He was totally innocent. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (rom 8.1).
Some churches have had the custom in the past of striking one’s breast during the confession of sins, as we speak the words of the tax collector, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” in imitation of the tax collector and his penitential spirit. This is one of those older customs that has fallen out of use, by and large, and that’s kind of a shame. It’s a worthy thing to do, if you’re doing it for the right reason — as a physical reminder of the spiritual reality that should be there. I’ve been doing it lately because it’s in the rubrics for the setting of Compline that I follow, and it caught me off guard the first time or two I did it how intensely it reminded me that I am a sinner. When you say the words, you can somehow believe it’s not true, but when you force your body to participate, then it becomes very clear that you, all of you, is sinful and in need of redemption. That’s also the rationale behind making the sign of the cross, as well — you confess with your whole body what you believe in your heart. The physical motion is a reminder of the spiritual reality (in the case of the sign of the cross, the fact that you’re a baptized child of God and an heir of eternal life through being buried into Christ’s death and resurrection, Rom. 6). I recommend both striking one’s breast and the sign of the cross, if you’re looking for something to try out during Lent.
A blessed Lententide to you and yours, as you contemplate our Savior’s sacred Passion and find your comfort and solace as you hide yourself in His holy wounds.
“To 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. 11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I 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.” (luke 18.9-14 niv)
“Watch where you’re going!” How often do you hear that phrase? You come around the corner at the wrong moment and almost run into someone. You’re looking in the wrong direction or paying attention to your cell phone or just daydreaming, and you walk into an open door or fall down an open manhole. Or you’re trying to change lanes or merge onto the freeway, and all of a sudden you hear angry honking from a car you didn’t know was there. Maybe there’s some yelling you can’t hear from the other driver, or even a raised finger here and there. It’s important to watch where you’re going.
Accidents big or small might happen if you don’t. Some of us might struggle with this more than others, but we all need to watch where we’re going. The same holds true spiritually as well. If you’re not looking in the right direction, you could end up with a lot worse things than a bump on the shins or angry words directed your way. Tonight we see two men who are looking in very different directions. As we consider the differences between them, Jesus will remind us to Watch where you’re going.
In this parable Jesus draws a picture of two men for us: one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector. Right away, before we even really look at these two men, we know what we’re supposed to think about them. The Pharisee is bad, the tax collector is good, the end. We’re so used to Jesus’ condemnations of the Pharisee, and to hearing this parable, that we don’t see it the way Jesus told it. The Pharisee is the good one. He lives an upright and moral life. He does just what he’s supposed to, and even goes above and beyond. The Law required that the Jews fast one day a year, on the Day of Atonement, but this Pharisee fasts twice a week. Nobody can accuse him of anything wrong. It’s self-evident that he is a good person.
Maybe fasting and tithing aren’t what we’d think of for a good person. Fasting nowadays for most people means giving up sweets or their favorite TV show or something else they like during Lent – if people do anything at all. Fasting, not eating for a specific spiritual purpose, eating less, used to be a good custom, but over time it got corrupted into a good work people did to earn God’s favor and it was enforced with manmade rules. There’s no need to follow rules that are just made up by men in order to make God happy, so fasting has become rarer in our day and age. Most people don’t understand what might be good about it, or how to use it well, so it’s not all that common anymore – except as a rule that somebody else says you have to keep, or else. Fasting doesn’t really connect for us now. We don’t understand it as readily.
Let’s see if we can redraw the picture of the Pharisee so he’s a little more recognizable. The Pharisee is always the first to volunteer if something needs to be done at church. The Pharisee is respected because he or she is always involved, always there, always on time and dependable. The Pharisee is big on commitment and responsibility – usually how others aren’t living up to theirs. The Pharisee laments how standards have slid in recent years – things are let go nowadays that would have been unthinkable in the days of our fathers, it never used to be this way, but what can you do. The Pharisee wonders why nobody cares – by which they mean nobody cares as much as I do. The Pharisee devotes far more time and energy to scrutinizing the words and actions of others for any hint of wrongdoing, rather than looking at themselves. The Pharisee is quick to lay blame on everyone else, but their hands are always clean. The Pharisee refuses to forgive others, even after years have passed, because they feel that the other person doesn’t deserve forgiveness – not remembering that we are to forgive as Christ forgave us, freely and totally, even if the other person is not worth forgiving or doesn’t care that they hurt you. The Pharisee prays out loud, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” and does not realize necessity of actually forgiving the specific person that hurt you. Pharisees see themselves as the preservers of purity, decency, and good order against the forces of bad taste, sloppiness, apathy, and degeneration. They feel like the world’s going you-know-where in a hand basket, and it’s their personal mission in life to turn the tide and reform the world – starting with the other guy.
Brothers and sisters, we have met the Pharisee, and he is…us. Each of us sees the Pharisee in the mirror in the morning. Pharisaism creeps up on us until we’re standing in God’s house, blaspheming with the voice of prayer, “God, I thank you that I’m not like other men.” Can I share something with you? I’m weary of Pharisaism – my own and others’. It’s tiring, but we all do it. That’s the really sneaky part about being a Pharisee – the fact that you’re a Pharisee blinds you to the fact that you’re a Pharisee until the Law reveals it to you. The Pharisee trusts in himself, safe and secure that he’s a good person outwardly and what’s on the inside doesn’t matter.
It does matter, and the tax collector knows that. The tax collector cannot shake his guilt. He knows that he has nothing to offer God. He was a notorious sinner, the worst kind of cheat – a legal one. His job involved shaking people down for taxes, and he was allowed to keep as much over the amount of the tax as he could squeeze out of people. His job led him to be habitually hard-hearted, greedy, and grasping. He’s supposed to be the bad one in the parable, and everybody knew it.
But don’t look at the outside, like a Pharisee – listen to what’s in his heart. Listen to his prayer: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” That’s it. That’s all he prays. He goes so far as to call himself the sinner, the foremost sinner, the worst possible sinner. Nobody could be worse than him. He has nothing left to offer God. Nothing at all. He has nothing left to beg with, nothing left to point to and say, “See, this proves I’m a good person.” With Paul he confesses, “I know that nothing good lives in me.” So he throws himself completely on the mercy of God. All he prays is, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
And you know what? The Lord hears his cry. He answers his prayer, and He gives him exactly what he asks for. The tax collector prayed for God’s forgiveness confident that God would give it to him, and God did. He found peace for his conscience and release from his sins not because he tried to earn it, like Pharisees do, but because he trusted that the mercy of God was strong enough to wipe away all of his sins. God’s mercy is strong enough for you too. He promises that it covers every sin. It takes away what nothing else will: the burden of your sin before God. He has mercy enough to make everything wrong you’ve ever done vanish, and to bring you to Himself.
Sometimes people wonder if it’s okay to pray for forgiveness, or if that’s an appropriate thing to ask God for. According to these verses, yes, it is! If you honestly ask God to forgive you for the sake of Jesus’ suffering and death, it is done to you as you believe. Even as you pray the words, you are forgiven! “Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access into this grace in which we now stand.” When you trust in Jesus as the only way you’ll be forgiven, you are forgiven. You are right with God in a way that nobody else but Jesus can give you.
So pray! Pray confidently, gladly, as if you know that God will give you what you ask for, because He will! Pray with everything you’ve got. You are nothing but Jesus’ promise to hear and forgive you is everything. Then believe and do not doubt that you really are forgiven. Remember who it is who tells you you’re forgiven – Jesus, who cannot lie. If He says it, it has to be true. He guarantees it with His entire life and death, and His mediation for you before the Father. Believe Jesus’ words, and rejoice, because you’ve found the path of life.
Then come to His table and receive Jesus’ personal assurance that you really are forgiven. Here Jesus comforts you personally that you are forgiven of the specific sins you’ve done this past week. He knows what you’ve done, and He has had mercy upon you. He gave His body into death on the cross for you, and He gives it to you here again tonight so that you would no longer be guilty, ashamed, or afraid, but rather glad and confident before God. He spilled His blood on the cross to redeem you, and He gives it you here again tonight so that you can taste His mercy and His love.
Then go to your home, rejoicing that you are right and perfect before God because of Jesus. Go home content that God has been merciful to you and He has heard your cries for mercy. And as you walk out of church and as you’re driving home – make sure to look both ways. For the sake of your body, and much more for your soul, watch where you’re going. Amen.