Thursday, March 7, 2019

Sermon -- Ash Wednesday (March 6, 2019)

LUKE 18:9-14


In the name + of Jesus.

     To some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt, (Luke 18:9) Jesus told this parable.  When you hear who Jesus' target audience is, you may conclude, “Well, that doesn't mean me.”  Oh, how easily we lie to ourselves.  Oh, how much like the Pharisee we are! 
     “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” (Luke 18:10)  The Pharisee was a good man, by all appearances.  When he prayed and spoke of himself, he was probably telling the truth.  “The Pharisee … 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.’” (Luke 18:11-12)  The Pharisee was an example of moral living.  He lived a clean life.  His marriage was solid.  His offerings to the church were exemplary.  He was not linked to scandals and did not associate with low-life’s.  The people would have praised him for being a model citizen and an example of decency.  If you want to find fault with the Pharisee, it will not be for his morals.
     But this is the very man Jesus spoke against when he told this parable.  The problem with the Pharisee would not have been seen with his behavior, with one exception.  He unwittingly confessed it when he prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like … this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)  And all the people who were in the temple hearing the Pharisee pray would have said, “Amen!”  No one had any sympathy for the tax collector.  There is nothing commendable about crooks, cretins, or cheaters.  The tax collector was worthy of the scorn he received.  If the Pharisee despised the tax collector, no one blamed him.  They did, too.
     No one blames us for despising thieves, prostitutes, and drunks, either.  They have made a mess of their lives. They have earned their shame by their foolish, wicked choices.  We teach our children to keep their distance from such people.  We don't want to be like them.  We don't want to be with them.  And we don't want them to be with us.  Why?  Because their sins are messy and shameful, and because we are better than that.  And this is where we discover just how much of the Pharisee we are.  We, like the Pharisee, thank God that we are not like other men.  Like the Pharisee, we conclude that we have been rewarded with our place in the kingdom of God because of our behavior.  We give offerings.  We go to church twice a week in Lent.  We have not sullied our lives with criminal or crass behavior, and we try not to associate with anyone who has.  That should earn God's praise, should it not?  In strong terms, Jesus declares: “No!”
     “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” (Luke 18:10)  The Pharisee was a good man.  He knew it, and he said so.  He trusted in it, and he said so.  He was convinced he had done what God had asked him to do.  But by trusting in his goodness, he was calling God a liar.  For, this is what the Lord says: “None is righteous, no, not one.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10,12)  Like the Pharisee, we also conclude, “I am good.  I have done good.  I am not like others.”  Even if we acknowledge our need for God's mercy, we assume we have it because we've earned it.  Bad people don't deserve it.  But God does not award such attitudes.  That certainly is not God's attitude.  The Pharisee was condemned for it.  We deserve the same.  Repent.
     “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” (Luke 18:10)  The tax collector had nothing to say about himself except that he was a sinner.  He did not try to defend himself in any way.  Did he resort to being a tax collector because he was desperate to feed his family?  It didn't matter.  Was he more honorable than other tax collectors?  If he was, he did not ask God to consider that.  He had nothing to offer God.  He did not try to invent virtues, offer excuses, or claim any credit.  He only begged to God for what God had to give him: 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!” (Luke 18:13)  
     God has mercy upon the sinner.  And the sinner was actually more explicit in his plea than this translation indicates.  His prayer was specific: “God, be propitiated to me, a sinner.”  A propitiation is a sacrifice which is offered to appease God's wrath and to turn it aside.  The tax collector acknowledged that God had every right to be angry with him.  It is what we deserve for dismissing of God's commands, diverting from his ways, and despising our fellow man.  But the tax collector appealed to the sacrifice which was being made in the temple at the very moment he was praying.  He knew that God had attached a promise to that sacrifice.  He appealed that God would be faithful to his promise, that God would honor the atoning sacrifice for his sins, and that God's wrath would be transferred to the lamb which was slain on his behalf.  The tax collector sought nothing but God's mercy and God's faithfulness to his promises.  He was not disappointed.  Jesus declared, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)  God had mercy upon the sinner.
     If you also desire to go home justified, you have only one hope: to come before God as a sinner—not concerned about anyone's sins but your own.  For God has mercy upon sinners, and Jesus comes only for sinners.  Therefore, we pray with the tax collector: “God, be propitiated to me, a sinner.”  That prayer offers no excuses, makes no comparisons, and expects no credit for anything we have done.  We come as beggars, seeking only God's mercy.
     “God, be propitiated to me, a sinner.”  Jesus Christ is the propitiation for us.  He is the sacrifice which is offered up to take God's wrath away from us.  All of our guilt has been transferred to Jesus, and God's wrath has therefore been diverted from us to him.  Jesus Christ, God's own Son, was slain for us.  His innocent blood dripped down from his sinless body, atoning for our wicked choices, our foolish excuses, and our haughty opinions where we exalt ourselves above our fellow man.  God has been merciful to sinners: to you—not because you are good, but because he is good.  He covers all of our bad with his goodness.  He acquits us of all charges since all charges have been put upon Jesus.  God's wrath has been diverted to Jesus.  The sacrifice has been made.  Sinners are justified.
     God has mercy upon sinners.  While it is true that the sins of some are more evident than the sins of others—as even the tax collector would have acknowledged—it does not change the fact that all are sinners.  While we urge our children not to become crooks, cretins, or cheaters, or to bear the shame of thieves, prostitutes, or drunks, or to assume the arrogance of a Pharisee, we never want to suggest that God has no compassion, no use, or no hope for such sinners.  The only hope for anyone—whether we are viewed as decent or deplorable—is Jesus Christ.  Through Jesus Christ, God has mercy upon sinners.  Through Jesus Christ, God reclaims sinners as his own, purifies sinners from all unrighteousness, and declares them to be saints—that is, he justifies them.
     There is no reason to look down on anyone.  Sinners who are covered in shame do not need us to shame them even more or to tell them that we are better.  They do not need more shame, but rather boundless mercy.  So let's look on them with compassion and yearn for their salvation.  Let them know that Jesus Christ has a place for them with us.  We invite them to confess their sins with us, to call upon God with us to be merciful, and to rejoice that the Lamb of God has been slain to be the propitiation for us all.  God is not angry.  God is merciful.  Therefore, depart in peace.  You have been justified.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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