Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sermon for Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

Trinity 11
                                                                                                            Lk 18:9-14

            If you go to a library, you expect that it will be quiet.  That’s the way it works in our world.  People will be there reading in silence.  It will be quiet so that everyone can concentrate.  In our world, unless you are reading to a group, reading is not something that is done out loud.
            However, that’s not the way it worked in the ancient world.  In the ancient world reading was an oral activity – it was done out loud.  It didn’t matter whether you were reading to a group or to yourself.  You can see this when God sent Phillip to meet the Ethiopian eunuch who was travelling in his chariot back from Jerusalem.  The Ethiopian was reading Isaiah chapter 53, when Phillip came alongside him and asked if he understood what he was reading.  When the Ethiopian asked a question, Phillip didn’t need to be told what text the Ethiopian was asking about.  He already knew because the Ethiopian had been reading it – and that meant that he had been reading it out loud.
            The same point is illustrated by the experience St. Augustine had in the fourth century when he met St. Ambrose in Milan Italy.  Augustine reports that Ambrose was reading and that his lips were moving but there was no sound.  Augustine mentions this because it was so odd.  Ambrose was reading in silence and this was not something that people normally did.
            The same thing can be said about any time a church is open for prayer.  It is expected that the church will be quiet so that people can focus on praying – something they do in silence. As many of you know, this is sometimes the cause for some complaints at Good Shepherd.  We have no narthex and so the sanctuary prior to the start of the service is a loud place as members greet one another and visit.  And I guess, what can I say?  We are a friendly congregation.
            Yet once again, the ancient world was very different.  In the ancient world, prayer – even individual prayer – was something that was done out loud. We see this in the prophet Samuel’s interaction with Hannah in the Old Testament.  Hannah was pouring out her heart to God, asking for the gift of a child.  Samuel saw that Hannah’s lips were moving but that no sound was coming out. His first assumption was not that she was praying.  Instead, he accused her of being drunk! After all, when people prayed, they spoke out loud.
            This background from the ancient world helps us to understand what is happening in our Gospel lesson today – Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. In many ways, the parable is really quite straight forward.  We are told at the very beginning of the text, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.”
            Now it’s not hard to figure out who these “some” are – it’s the Pharisees.  Jesus has been bumping heads with them for quite some time in the Gospel. And the issue is very straight forward: the Pharisees trust in themselves about being righteous – about having a right standing before God.  And in turn, they despise everyone else.
            The vast majority of Pharisees were not religious professionals.  They were instead committed laymen.  It’s important to understand that Pharisees did not think they were earning salvation completely on their own.  They were fully aware that it was God’s grace that had made them part of his people Israel.
            Instead, they were focused on what they needed to do in order to remain in that status.  They had a very positive view of their own spiritual abilities and they had built up a whole body of rules that they placed on top of the Torah that God had given to Israel at Mt. Sinai.
            In some ways, this oral tradition was even more stringent than the Torah itself. So for example, the Pharisees took aspects of religious life that belonged to the priests and applied it to everyday life.  But in other ways it lessened the true spiritual requirements of the Torah because it reduced everything to requirements that people could do.
            And this is where the problem arose.  Because when life with God is a matter of things that you can do, two things happen in the hearts of sinful human beings.  First, people become proud of themselves and the way that they are doing things right.  And second, people start to look down on others who aren’t doing things right.
            That’s what we hear in our text. We learn that the Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed to God: “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.”  The Pharisee was proud of the fact that he was doing all the right things – he was fasting and tithing.  And he thanked God that he was not like the rest of the people – all those other sinners, like that tax collector over there.
            Now recall what we said at the beginning of this sermon.  The Pharisee wasn’t just praying this in his head. He was almost certainly saying it out loud.  We get the impression that he is standing by himself in the temple to gain attention as he prays out loud about how great he is.
            How very different was the tax collector.  He was of course in a despised profession – one that was associated with dishonesty, and either the oppression of the Roman Empire or the injustice of the Jewish rulers like King Herod Antipas.  We learn in our text: “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!’”
            He stood off from afar – for all intents and purposes hiding himself.  He wouldn’t even lift up his eyes. He beat his breast – a physical indicator of repentance.  And he said one thing: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”  He confessed his sin, and begged God for forgiveness.
            At this point, you already know what I am going to say – at least what I am supposed to say.  I am supposed to ask you about which man describes you.  I am supposed to ask whether you are living in spiritual pride or humble repentance.
And of course, this never ceases to be a relevant question. There is always the temptation to identify certain sinful behaviors, and then to condemn the people who do them even as we feel good about the fact that we don’t.  It is easy to condemn homosexuals and people who are living together outside of marriage and to feel good about the fact that we don’t sin in those ways. 
We do this, and then ignore the fact that the lust in our own heart is in fact sin.  We ignore the ways that we gladly embrace the sinful use of sexuality that is present in our culture in the music; the movies and tv shows; the magazines and websites.
            However, I tend to think that while this is always present, our own problem today is more likely to be of a different character.  I think we are more likely to take our sinfulness and God’s forgiveness for granted.  We tend to think that of course we are fallen sinners and of course we are forgiven by God. And because this is so, there is really no reason to strive to live in ways that reflect Christ and his will for life.  What’s the point?  We are going to sin, and God forgives.
            However, this is not the Christian faith that we find in God’s Word.  And incidentally, this is not the faith of the Lutheran Church that we find in the Book of Concord either.  Through the work of Christ’s Spirit we are called to put off that old man, so that the new man born in Holy Baptism and nourished by the Word and the Sacrament of the Altar can live in the world. We are called to live differently in the world as God uses us as instruments of his love and care for others.
            When we seek to live in this way, two things will happen. The first is that we will in fact produce good works that bear witness to the Gospel and serve our neighbor. The Gospel is not some empty thing.  God’s Word does what it says.  The Spirit really does use it to enable us to produce the fruits of faith.
            And paradoxically, even as we produce those fruits something else will happen.  We will also see more profoundly the ways that we really do sin.  Growing in faith and spiritual maturity is likely to mean that we feel less holy – not more so – even as we actually are doing more godly things.
            The one thing that holds all of this together is found at the end of our text.  Our Lord says that the tax collector humbly said one thing: “God be merciful to me a sinner!”  And then Jesus went on to say, “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.”
            The tax collector knew his sin.  He confessed it before God.  And he went home justified – he went home forgiven. He said to God, “be merciful.”  He used a verb that is tied to the language of sacrifice. And Jesus tells this parable because he is the sacrifice in whom God has shown us mercy. He is the sacrifice through whom we have received forgiveness. John put it this way in his first epistle: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
            By his sinless death on the cross in our place, Jesus Christ has removed the sin that separated us from God.  Our Lord gives us the good news that because of his death and resurrection we are justified.  We already know the verdict of the Last Day when we appear before God’s judgment seat.  It is “innocent,” “not guilty,” “righteous.”  That’s what he told you at the beginning of the service in Holy Absolution.  You confessed your sin and he said, “I forgive you all your sins.” He declared to you the same thing here and now that you will hear on the Last Day.
            In repentant humility we seek to live out this faith in the world.  By Christ’s Spirit we forgive those who wrong us.  We do good to those who can do nothing for us.  And where we fail, we humbly say one thing: “God be merciful to me a sinner.”  We confess our sin in the joyful confidence that because of our crucified and risen Lord we can go home justified – forgiven. Indeed, Jesus has promised, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

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