Lamb of God, Pleasant Prarie
August 19, 2012
Grace, mercy and peace....
Dear Christian friends from Lamb of God, what a joy to be with you this morning. Many of you know me, as our lives have touched somehow along the way. I've served as a pastor in Racine for the last 13 years, and my children have attended your school. As I look around I see many familiar and friendly faces here, and I thank you for having me here this morning. If you'd like to hear more about my new work as an LCMS missionary to Singapore, please stop by for the presentation following the service. I look forward to telling you more at that time.
You know, looking at the texts for this morning, a common thread jumps right out (as if often does in the lectionary). And that theme is this: There are two kinds of people in the world.
In the Old Testament reading, you have the contrast between Cain and Abel. Some are more like Cain. Some are more like Abel. And in our Gospel reading, we see the contrast of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Some are more like the one than the other.
It's pretty obvious that we want to be the one kind and not the other. The contrast is instructive as we explore the different aspects of these two kinds of people.
The Pharisee – the good, upstanding, holy man. The guy who follows all the rules. A pillar of the community. A role model of decency and godliness. A man respected for his stature in all of Israel.
And then there's the Tax Collector – the symbol of all that is wrong in the Roman empire. A turncoat to his own people, notoriously corrupt, growing fat on the backs of others like a parasite on a dog's behind. You want to really insult someone, call them a tax collector. Ouch.
And when the Pharisee prays, he says what everyone thinks about the tax collector, “Lord, I thank you that I'm not like that guy over there. What a sinner he is. Blech. But me, I tithe on my income, and I fast twice a week.” Or today he might say, “I go to church every Sunday. I keep up with my offering envelopes. I pray before meals and read my bible once in a while. I don't do anything too terribly bad, and I try to be nice to people...” and the self-righteous self-deception goes on and on.
But the tax collector, he knows his hands are dirty. He prays, far away – looking down – beating his breast. The sense of sorrow and shame is palpable. Here is a man in touch with his sinfulness. And he prays, admitting and confessing it to God, even as he asks for mercy. No flowery words. No high-phalutin' mumbo jumbo. Just, “God be merciful to me, a sinner”.
And God is. Because of Jesus Christ who shed his blood for sinners and tax collectors of every kind and flavor of sin – yes, even for pharisees, yes, even for you. No matter what your sin, how small or big, how deep or dark. There is no stain so foul that the blood of Christ cannot wash it away. Christ Jesus died for sinners. Christ Jesus forgives sinners.
“God be merciful to me, a sinner”. That's the prayer of a Christian. The prayer of one who is justified. As Jesus says, only the tax collector went home justified. The pharisee, not so much. Not before God, but only in his own mind, in his own little world he had created. He didn't see any sin in himself, so what is there to forgive, anyway? He didn't need a savior.
So then there is you – and if there are two kinds of people in the world, the secret is this – you are both of these. And so am I. The Old Adam in us is a pharisee. Self-righteous and self-deluded. Every time we rationalize away our sinful actions and thoughts and words – every time we pridefully consider our own works to be worth something before God – every time we look with disdain on some other sinner, and forget about the sinner in the mirror. The pharisee in us rears his ugly head.
But what is more important about you is that you are the tax collector – every time the law of God rubs your nose in your sin. Every time you are broken down and humbled by it. And each and every you look to the cross, and the Christ, and sigh, “God have mercy on me, a sinner”.
It happens when you confess your sins corporately or individually, and the pastor announces the mercy of God on you, the sinner. It happens when you gather and kneel and confess at the rail that this bread and wine is not simply bread and wine, but it is the body and blood of the God who has mercy on sinners.
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled. By Christ, the righteous judge who will have none of that self righteousness. The self-righteous man will finally be found un-righteous, unjust, and judged of the sins he never confessed nor believed were forgiven.
And everyone who humbles himself will be exalted, in Christ. Christ who regarded the lowly offering of Abel, made in faith. Christ whose mother Mary was also regarded, though a lowly handmaiden. Christ, who regards you, his lost and condemned creature, now purchased and won with his holy precious blood, and innocent suffering and death.
Christ, in his state of exaltation, will have mercy, exalt all his people at the resurrection on the last day. Even lowly tax collectors and sinners. Only lowly sinners like you and me.