Sermon on Luke 18:9-17, for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (C), "The Record-Keeper or the Merciful God?"

 Sermon Outline:
·         Parables: ordinary story with spiritual meaning. Look for the surprise/unexpected. The recognized sinner is “justified”, while the apparently upright religious person is not.
·         Who are the Pharisees? Model citizens, lay leaders with intense dedication to their own version of religiosity. Highly respected. Tax collectors? Despised. Took more than allowed, worked for enemy.
·         Dimensions of the story/pitfalls to avoid
o   Comparisons/treating others with contempt (look at all those terrible people)
o   Self-righteousness/trusting yourself, nothing to repent (look at my record!)
o   Boasting before God/not a real prayer (my good deeds should impress God; reward)
·         What is it aiming for?
o   Humility established in repentance before God
o   Humbly receiving righteousness by faith in Christ
o   Humbly cultivating a life of righteousness and mercy toward others
·         In our life: may feel better about myself if I can just find someone worse than me. But we’re not judged “on a curve.” See the posture of the Pharisee? Self-righteousness, condescension; not humility. Looking down on everyone. He thinks God sees him as he sees himself—better than everyone else. He thinks he will be judged against others. Don’t we often assume the same? Trying to be judged before men, instead of before God? Rank yourself against others, find a guiltier person than you, by reason of their sins, or power and privilege, or their past, or whatever made you think: “I’m better than them”. It’s a short stop from there to: “And God should know, after all. Maybe I should be rewarded!” But with this posture and attitude, we are in for an unpleasant surprise.
·         How did the tax collector find righteousness? His posture was humiliation and repentance before God. No righteousness of his own but sought the God of mercy. Psalm 130:3 “If you, LORD, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” 
·         Psalm 32:1 “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”
·         Psalm 32:5 I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. [Confess your sin! God already knows!]
·         Psalm 25:7 Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O Lord! [Seek God’s mercy for all our past sins!]
·         Psalm 19:12 Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. [There are many sins we don’t even know that we have committed.]
·         The total realization of the Psalmist is thankfulness that we don’t have a “Record-Keeping God.”
·         Psalm 103:10-12 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. [Again God is not a record-keeper, but His forgiveness is a total separation of our sin—not parole or probation]
·         Micah 7:19 He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. [when Christ forgives our sin, it is gone forever!]
·         Humans judge each other differently by a variety of standards, better or worse. But God alone judges by the fixed and eternal standard of His Law.
·         Military has a quick way of sizing a person up in a few seconds—checking rank, patches, and tabs. Quick judgment. Some might puff up their chest while others with all the patches, tabs, and experiences wear the uniform with humility and leadership that is strong, but not boastful. There’s nothing wrong with healthy competition and pushing each other to strive and excel, but the Bible often warns against selfish ambition; negative rivalry. Positive rivalry in doing good is encouraged.
·         Often we crave some form of affirmation from others—respect, love, admiration, fear—in different ways. Noticed for our strength, or intelligence or achievements; some people even seek attention in negative ways also. But Pharisee would find no affirmation from God for his boastful, self-righteous attitude, no matter how righteous he might have been in the sight of people.
·         The problem was not that the Pharisee was trying to cultivate a life of righteousness—it’s not his fasting or generosity that is at fault, or that he didn’t bribe, cheat, steal or commit sexual immorality—the problem was his prideful spirit and how he despised others. Self-condemned.
·         Les Miserables book/musical/movie (available on Netflix); strong themes of justice, mercy, and redemption. Jean Valjean: imprisoned 19 years for stealing. Life in prison turned him into hateful, bitter man. Relentlessly Javert pursues because he thinks “once a thief, always a thief.” Out of prison, no work or food anywhere because he’s a convict, and is mistreated by everyone. But priest shelters and feeds him, and treats him with kindness and humanity. Though Jean Valjean is puzzled and touched by this human act of kindness, at night he steals all the silver platters and tableware from the priest’s home, and runs away. Caught and returned by the police, the priest makes a costly act of redemption—saying, Sir, you left without the best! Take these candlesticks also! After police are gone, invites Jean to see this act of redemption as a higher plan of God; his soul was saved for God. Transforming event in Jean Valjean’s life; from a hardened and hateful ex-convict and runaway, into a man who is dedicated to living by mercy and compassion.
·         Javert is a picture of justice with no mercy. He says “I am justice and justice is not mocked. I spit on your pity.” What is right must be rewarded and what is wrong must be punished. But cracks develop in his rigid legalism when he is shown mercy by Jean. Jean is a picture of a life redeemed from sin and hate, to live for God and with mercy. Javert is very much of the same mindset as the Pharisee. Contempt for everyone; can’t bear that ex-convict Jean Valjean could become a better man than he, or anything but a lowly thief. Believes in the same record-keeping God as the Pharisee; sees himself as God’s enforcer of justice. But that crumbles under him. Finds himself guilty under the higher good of mercy, and will not receive mercy from the one he saw as beneath him.
·         Our biggest blind spot is ourselves, and how hard to recognize when this mindset creeps into us. We assume a certain sort of people are beyond God’s redemption or reach, or we write someone off and despise them. We treat others with contempt. The Pharisees list of contemptibles were extortioners, unjust, adulterers, and tax collectors. Our list might be different.
·          Self-righteousness is not just a problem for the religious. It’s a problem for all people. We all try to find ways to feel superior to others, or more “put upon” than others, or whatever. It might turn into: “thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!” Or “Thank God I’m not like those religious people!” Or those democrats, or republicans, or rich people or poor or you fill in the blank with whoever we are trying to claim superiority over or blame for our circumstances. Whatever the list, do this and we’ve become a photo negative of the Pharisee’s self-righteousness. It doesn’t matter if we’re pointing the finger at the self-righteous Pharisee instead of the sinful tax collector—either way, the same three fingers are pointing right back at us. It’s only by stopping all the comparisons—by looking at our own hearts and humbling ourselves before God, that we escape that vicious cycle of blame or comparison or puffing ourselves up.
·         How then are we to cultivate a positive life of righteousness, if the way of the Pharisee is a clear dead end? It must begin with humility, as Jesus began His Beatitudes with the saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). We cannot be filled with pride and count ourselves so rich in spirit that we have nothing we need to receive from God. This will never work. We must be poor or empty in spirit; open to receive everything from God. This kind of receptive spirituality is how Jesus tells us to pursue righteousness: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). God is the source of the only righteousness that allows us to stand justified before God like the tax collector. Because we are clinging to His mercy. And the righteousness that we receive from God—how does that inform the life of righteousness that we cultivate or practice? “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 6:1)—not announcing your giving, not praying to be seen by others, or fasting so that others will see. A life of righteousness is to be cultivated and practiced humbly, without show or display, and for our own private growth in faith and for the actual good of those who need our good works, not to post our good works to be seen by others. This again is why the Pharisee failed to be justified, but the tax collector, who humbly confessed his sins and sought the God of mercy, went home justified.
·         Paul speaks about this same dynamic in Romans 9:30-33, “What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as it is written,“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
·         Jesus Christ is the stone of stumbling, the rock of offense—and whoever believes in Him will not be put to shame. He is the God of mercy who gives the righteousness by faith. Those who try to pursue this righteous standing by the law or by their works, did not succeed, but stumbled. Pursuing righteousness by works of the law is begging for the record-keeping God. It’s begging God to examine our record. I can say with the authority of Scripture that’s a bad idea for all of us. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” But humbling ourselves to confess: “God be merciful to me, a sinner” has a much better outcome: “and are justified by His grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 3:23-24).
·         Because there are many who fall for a different lie—the lie that God can never love them. The lie that their sins must be too great for God to forgive. Those are the people who may never even dare to enter a church, because they believe the lie that “it’s too late for me” or they’ve only seen self-righteous glares of condemnation, and have never had the hand of the repentant tax collector grab them and say, “Come! I will show you the merciful God! Come! Meet Jesus who has forgiven my sin and who will forgive yours as well! Come! Taste and see that the Lord is good!” It’s with this kind of love and humility that we must bring other sinners to know the God of all mercy in Christ Jesus.
·         Becoming like the tax collector, emptying ourselves to be filled by Christ, is to grab hold of the merciful God. God have mercy on me a sinner! We crave, cry out for the God who will not count our sins against us, who will not punish us as we deserve, who will not remember the sins of our youth, but in steadfast love casts our sins into the depths of the sea, sends them from us as far as the east is from the west, and lifts up the head of the humble and calls you, “My forgiven, precious child.” The merciful God in Christ Jesus. His mercy put Him on the cross for us, bearing away all our sin to the grave, and rising to give us new life. His mercy and His life declares Your debt is paid! Come to me and be righteous by my judgment! Stand forgiven by my verdict! He is the God of mercy, claimed by the tax collector, claimed by all who would be righteous by faith. In His Name, Amen.


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