Monday, October 25, 2010

Sermon on Luke 18:9-17, for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, "Who is Approved by God?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector that you heard in the Gospel reading contrasts two men who came to the Temple to pray. But the parable is more than just about teaching us the right way to pray. Jesus told this parable to a crowd of people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” This attitude is sometimes described as “Pharisee-ism.” A self-confidence in your own righteousness—thinking that you’re better than others because of what you’ve done or they haven’t. The parable that Jesus taught helps us to see why the sinful tax collector received God’s approval while the Pharisee didn’t. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

When the Pharisee came to pray, it wasn’t even really a prayer that came out of his mouth. While he addressed God, it wasn’t really for any other reason than to boast about himself. Thank God I’m not like all those sinners! You and you and you and you! From his standpoint everyone looked worse than him. Why was that? Because when he came to pray he stood up on the tiny pedestal of his own works, and looked around at everybody else and concluded that he was better. He boasted of his “good works” of fasting and tithing. Certainly fasting was far better than extortion or blackmail, and tithing far better than adultery. His actions had the outward stamp of moral approval. He was a law-abiding citizen. But he wasn’t content to practice his faith and do his acts of service and worship unnoticed. He basked in his own self-glorifying light, thanking God that he was better than others.

Truly, his confidence was in his own righteousness, and when he examined his own life, he was self-assured that he deserved God’s stamp of approval. He measured his life by the failures, the sins, and the lack of religious acts of worship of others, as well as by his own self-chosen religious works. By this measuring stick he was confident that God was pleased with him, God would approve. What he was trying to do was to justify himself. To be justified is a very important Biblical term, and we often forget or confuse its meaning. It means to be declared righteous, like a judge passing a verdict of innocence in a court. It means that you’ve been found innocent of any wrongdoing. You have been tested and approved. The Pharisee was trying to justify himself or find God’s approval based on his self-righteousness. And he failed. God did not approve him, he didn’t go home justified.

When we hear this parable, and we see the smug self-satisfaction of the Pharisee, and how he looked down on others, don’t we all give a little huff of contempt and whisper to ourselves, “Boy! What a jerk! I’m glad I’m not like him! I could point out quite a few people who are like him, though.” Stop. When that little whisper in our mind is spoken out loud, do you notice something? Doesn’t it sound an awful lot like, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!”? But this reaction shows us that we are in fact just like him! When we look in smug contempt at the Pharisee, like he did at the tax collector, we’ve become just like that Pharisee.

See the Pharisees didn’t have the corner on the market of building little pedestals of self-righteousness for themselves. They’re not the only people (safely buried in the dust of history, by the way) that elevate themselves on the pedestals of their own “good works” and look down on others as being more sinful than them. Every one of us has that same inborn tendency in our heart. We’re just as good at building up those pedestals for ourselves. We want to compare ourselves with others. We feel the need to be better than someone else, so we build our expectations of others based on the good we think we have done, and then it’s easy for us to feel at least a “cut above the rest.” And it’s no escape-hatch of denial to say that, “well I never claimed to be perfect!” But we still say in our hearts, “Sure, I’m not righteous, but can’t so and so get their act together?” Or maybe it’s not so crass, but more like this: “I’m happy to be serving my Lord, I just wish the rest would.” We disguise our self-righteousness in concern for what the rest ought to be doing. You see, Jesus told this parable to me. To you. To every sinner. Not just to the easy targets of our disapproval, the Pharisees. We all have a little bit of the Pharisaical spirit in us.

So how do we break free of this? We put that old sinful nature in us to death by repenting of our sin. By confessing that we too are sinners, and laying down any pretensions of self-righteousness. Stepping down off the tiny pedestals of our good works, and comparing ourselves to no one else. In short, we become like the tax collector. You know that when the tax collector and the Pharisee said their prayers, there was one thing I noticed they had in common. They both looked down. The tax collector physically looked down because he couldn’t bear to lift up his eyes to heaven. He felt the weight of his sin too greatly. Now I know it doesn’t say the Pharisee physically looked down too, but he was clearly looking down on others. He was comparing himself to others, approving himself, and disapproving of them.

If only we can become like the tax collector and free ourselves from constantly comparing ourselves with others, to try to find approval for ourselves! Then we can cry out like the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The tax collector saw himself before God, not before other sinners. He saw that the measuring stick he had to measure up to was God’s; not his own. He saw that he had sinned and fallen woefully short of the glory of God. When we repent, let us do likewise. Put no one else in your view for comparison. Those who are confident of their own righteousness usually fail to see the sins of their heart before the presence of the Holy and Righteous God. Then we will begin to see how truly tiny our pedestals of self-made righteousness are, and how the height of God’s true righteousness soars above us. The tax collector didn’t dare to look up to that impossible height. Instead, he pleaded for God’s mercy.

What an incredible thing! I think we’ve taken the words “Lord have mercy” on our lips so often that we forget how amazing they are, that we can even know that God IS a merciful God, and that this is at the core of His identity. How could we even know that God is a merciful God, and not that He would rather destroy us all in our sin? A clue comes from the prayer of the tax collector. His cry for mercy was not the usual one found in scripture, but the fuller meaning of his cry was, “O God, make atonement for me, a sinner!” Gathered at the time for public prayer in the Temple, it’s reasonable to conclude that the Pharisee and the tax collector had seen the morning or afternoon sacrifice of a lamb that was offered twice a day in the Temple. The tax collector cried out for atonement. For God to take away his sins. So great was his grief over his sin that he struck his chest while he prayed, “O God, make atonement for me, a sinner!”

You know the one other place in the New Testament where people were so filled with remorse that they struck their chests like this? It was when they watched the perfect sacrifice of atonement, Jesus Christ, being crucified on the cross. Listen to those words from Luke 23:

It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. (Luke 23:44-48)

Striking your chest was no everyday show of sadness. Seeing the innocent death of Jesus, and how He suffered without malice or contempt for others, moved those bystanders to strike their chests with grief. Finally they saw their guilt. Yet here was God making atonement for the sins of the whole world.

Like the tax collector looked for mercy, for atonement for his sin in the sacrifice that showed God’s undeserved love to forgive him, so we look to the loving sacrifice of Jesus for our sin. We can pray, “O God, make atonement for me, a sinner!” and look to the One who made that atonement. Who came down from the heights of heaven and brought perfect righteousness and innocence to give to us. He came to justify the tax collector and the sinners. He came so that he could lift the weight of sin from our shoulders, so that we can lift our eyes to heaven, not in pride, but in thanksgiving that we have been forgiven. Jesus hung on the cross with all His perfect righteousness, yet did not look down on others to condemn them, but to have mercy on them. To atone or pay for their sins. He took up our sin so that the tax collector could go home that day justified, approved by God. So that you can go home today justified, approved by God. Not because you have confidence in your own righteousness, not because you’ve found yourself better than anyone else, not even because of the humility of your prayers, but because of the faith that believes in God’s righteousness, and God’s mercy. Because of Jesus’ death on the cross that proves to us that God does have a heart of mercy, and that He is at the heart and core of His identity, a merciful God.

So we can pray that amazing prayer with confidence, “God be merciful to me—make atonement for me, a sinner!” We can know that laying all our sins down before the cross, Jesus has laid on us His righteousness. That’s what it means to be justified. That’s what it means to go home with God’s approval. Nothing of our own righteousness, imperfect, sinful, and soiled as it is. But everything of Jesus’ pure and perfect righteousness, His innocence given to you so that you can share in God’s approval. This is what it means to humble ourselves before God and be raised up and exalted by Him. God says that because you didn’t trust in yourself, but trusted in Him, in Jesus, you have His approval, even though you had nothing to deserve it in yourself.

This is a marvelously freeing truth, to know that we’re justified and approved by God by faith in Jesus. It sets us free from the foolish task of building our own pedestals of righteousness, of trying to get God’s approval on our own. It breaks us free from the sinful habit of comparing ourselves to others, using our own measuring sticks instead of being measured by God’s. It transforms our hearts from loveless looks and feelings of contempt as we look at other sinners. Instead, we’re filled with the joy and satisfaction that God has had mercy on us to make us His own, and to thankfully look to heaven and praise Him for His awesome love. We’re filled with a humility about our own sins, and a patient willingness to give others the same chance that God has given us, and to speak with them of the love and the mercy of God that takes away our sins. Who is it that is approved by God? Who is it that goes home today justified? You who put your confidence in Jesus, the merciful Savior. To Him we pray, “O God, have mercy on me—make atonement for me, a sinner.” Amen, Amen. Yes, yes, it shall be so.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. What was the problem that Jesus addressed in this parable? What were some people confident of? Luke 18:9. How did that false confidence affect how they looked at others? How is the same attitude present within us? What thoughts or actions toward others betray this sin in us?

2. Why was the prayer of the Pharisee really no prayer at all? Was he an outwardly moral man? What was his failure then? What was the “pedestal” he built up for himself, with which to look down on others? How do we build similar pedestals for ourselves?

3. Why is boasting in our own works a futile enterprise? Only other humans can possibly be impressed, not God. Romans 4:1-6; 2 Cor. 10:12, 17-18.

4. How do we break free from these sins of self-confidence in our own righteousness, or trying to justify ourselves and look down on others? 2 Cor. 10:18; Rom. 3:23-24. Psalm 51

5. Realizing that he could not ascend by himself to God’s righteousness, what did the tax collector look to instead? His prayer, “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner” has the fuller sense of “make atonement for me”. Read what Jesus’ atonement for us did: 1 John 2:2; Hebrews 2:17. Instead of ascending to God’s righteousness on a ladder of our good works, how did Jesus bring God’s righteousness to us? Luke 23:44-48.

6. Instead of coming to condemn the world, for what reason did Jesus give up His life on the cross? John 3:16-18 How does this change how we regard other sinners? How do we finally become approved by God?

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