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March 5, 2017



3.5.17                                    Lent 1                       - Luke 18:9-14 ESV


He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed[a] thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But 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!’ 14 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.”





Almost 500 years ago, the world was turned upside down – not with a weapon of mass destruction but with an instrument of mass instruction.  The printing press invented by Johann Gutenberg was used to make copies of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses which he had posted on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, to be debated by university professors.  You can read the bulletin insert on how this invention spread the message of the Reformation among all classes of people quickly and widely throughout Europe.  But it is the first of those theses that will serve as the general theme of our Sunday sermons this Lenten season.  (Quote) “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”


What does it mean to repent?  We’re not here to debate that question, but it doesn’t mean to do penance as the church of Luther’s time taught.  Repent means to change direction, to turn around.  In the gospel sense it means to turn away from sin and to turn to the Lord for forgiveness.  And we’ll learn from this parable He told about two men who went to the temple to pray that you must turn to Jesus not to yourself in this process.


We know the story well.  Imagine the scene.  You’re walking up a steep hill to the magnificent temple complex in Jerusalem with its massive walls and colonnaded courts surrounding the gleaming central sanctuary.  You can smell the smoke of sacrifices mixed with incense wafting through the early evening air.  The inner courtyard for Jewish men is full, but you can see one man standing tall in the middle, dressed in flowing robes.  He’s a religious professional, a Pharisee, the strictest order of pietistic practitioners.  You notice another man, off in a corner by himself, staying in the shadows, head bowed, visibly shaken.  He’s a tax collector, often regarded as a traitor because his job was to take money from his countrymen for the hated Roman government, and sometimes suspected of taking more than his fair share.


The Pharisee had plenty to pray about, but did you notice what his favorite word was?  “I” – “I thank you that I am not like other people . . I fast twice a week . . I give a tenth of all I get.”  I, yi, yi, yi, yi!  He’s thanking God for himself, how lucky God was to have someone like him pray.  He has total amnesia when it comes to remembering God’s blessings.  He doesn’t really ask for anything because he pretty much has done everything he thinks God wants.  He wasn’t like those awful sinners; he was a cut above, a legend in his own mind.   Doing just fine struttin’ and puttin’  in his own estimation.  Why bother turning to God in repentance when he could turn to himself for his own holiness? 


Then there is the other man . . we used to call him a publican but that sounded like a political party.  He’s not full of himself, he’s running on empty.  He’s not praying to be praised, he’s praying to be forgiven.  He’s not bragging about himself, he’s repenting of himself.  He’s not turning to himself, he’s turning to the Lord.  At a time when most praying took place with heads facing up to heaven, he looked down in shame.  When worshipers held out their hands, his hands were clenched in fists beating on his chest in grief.  His prayer was short, simple, sincere: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 


Literally he prayed, “God be appeased in regard to me. . “  He knew there was nothing he could do to appease the wrath of God against his sin – praying and paying, fasting and tithing – could never make up for his sins to be right in God’s sight.  He wasn’t the solution to his problem, the answer to his prayer.  He would have to turn toward the Lord.  God himself would have to appease His wrath over sin.  That’s what the season of Lent reminds us – through the perfect obedience and innocent  suffering and death of Jesus Christ God was appeased for our sins.   


So now it’s our turn.  Whom do you see when you look in the mirror?  In your heart of hearts, do you identify more with the Pharisee or the tax collector?  Oh I know it’s easy to be pharisaical; it’s become an adjective synonymous with self-righteous, and we’re naturally good at it.  The blame game goes back to Adam and Eve.  When we come before God, do we think of our own performance?   Do you think that God is really pleased because you’re sitting in a pew this morning?  A potato can do that.  Do you think that God is impressed with offerings in the plate?  He owns everything already –“we give Thee but Thine own,” a hymn tells us.  What He wants is not 10% but rather 100% of our hearts.  And the matter of fasting and foods, we probably don’t worry much about that anymore, but Jesus said it’s not what goes into the mouth, but what comes out of the mouth that counts.  Remember what Paul wrote to the Romans (14:17): “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” 


Maybe we need this reminder too that God is tired of people turning to themselves for vindication rather than turning to him for salvation.  Remember to whom Jesus told this story: “To some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.”  We might call them the holier-than-thou club.  Jesus rips the security blanket of self-righteousness from us when He concludes: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” 


Jesus turns the tables on the way we naturally think.  The Pharisee thought he was God’s gift to man.  He fancied himself righteous already. His misplaced confidence in himself was nothing more than a false sense of self-exaltation.  Turning to himself was merely a detour on the dead end road he was traveling.   And the end result would be utterly humiliating. 


On the other hand, the tax collector was humble.  No denying it, freely admitting it, he knew he was a sinner.  He had missed the bullseye of perfection which is the word picture behind that Greek word for sinner.  But the Lord exalted him, took him by the hands and lifted him up with the comforting sentence: “I tell you this man went down to his house justified.”  There’s that beautiful word again – “justified” – “just-if-I’d” never sinned.  Declared innocent for the sake of a substitute by Jesus’ own role reversal.  He takes our sin and gives us His righteousness.


Jesus is the ultimate example of humbling Himself to be exalted.  Read Philippians 2 – (Jesus) being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness . . . he humbled himself and became obedient to death -  even death on a cross!  Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord!”


Underneath the old city of Rome there are caves called catacombs, as you know, ancient burial chambers that go for miles.  Christians secretly worshipped in the catacombs during periods of persecution.  One of them contains an ancient depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion in the form of anti-Christian graffiti.  Scratched on the wall is the picture of a man kneeling before a cross with hands raised in prayer.  Hanging on the cross is the figure of a man whose head has been replaced with a donkey’s head.  Beneath it are these words: “Alexander worships his god.”  The point?  Someone thought Alexander, who was buried there, was a fool to worship a man who was crucified as a criminal.  But we know humble Alexander is now in heaven.  The person pictured with the head of a donkey now sits on a throne as King of kings.  Alexander’s God, the tax collector’s God, your God, has been appeased by the death of His Son in our place.  So with repentant hearts, turn to Him who sacrificed Himself for you.


Jesus taught, Luther believed, that a Christian’s entire life is a life of repentance – a life-long turning away from ourselves and our inadequate works, always turning toward Christ and His finished work.  It is not the goodness of our deeds, the earnestness of our prayers, the zealousness of our church service that saves us.  Not at all.  The humble cross of Christ saves you!  Like the tax collector slouching in the corner, the cross looks weak, an object of scorn.  But look closer because in the cross you find the Almighty appeased, your Father’s forgiveness, your Lord’s love – no matter who you are or what you’ve done. 


Don’t turn to yourself.  Turn to Jesus.  Only Him.  Always Him.  Amen.