Sermon for Ash Wednesday based on Luke 18:9-14
Dear sinners who have become the righteousness of God: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
How easy it is for us to confess the sins of others. We think we’ve hidden our own sins so well from men that we think they are hidden from God also. Oh how good we are at fooling others around us into thinking we are pious, upstanding Christians. Look at us, we go to church all the time but those other people they barely ever go. Look at us, we give generous offerings to the church all the time but those others, they dig into their pockets and throw in some change. Look at us, our family is still together but that family over there, divorced with a child that ran away from home.
Just look at the world, how awful it is and how full of awful people it is! Thank you God that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. Thank you God that I am so good. Thank you that I love my wife so unselfishly and raise my children to be perfect little angels. Thank you that I’m so strong and disciplined that I can give up something very important to me for Lent.
How delusional we can be. Viewing things this way is like being a patient with a terminal illness, and looking at other patients in the same hospital ward with the same illness and thinking you are different from them just because they are showing more symptoms of the same disease. The same disease of sin is in us as is in all the world. If we didn’t have the disease of sin, we would never get sick. We would never hurt or be sad. We would never die.
Look, it’s not like the Pharisee in the Temple was lying. He was actually telling the truth. He never extorted money from anyone. He never unjustly accused anyone, including the tax collector. He never physically committed adultery. On the other hand, he did fast twice a week. He did give ten percent of all his income to God. He did the good and avoided the bad. The symptoms of his sinful flesh were not so obvious to those around him.
The tax collector, on the other hand, had sinned so obviously that the entire nation knew it. Tax collectors worked for the Roman government to collect tax from the people of Israel. They added as much as they could to the tax bills of their own countrymen and put it in their own pockets. The Romans didn’t care as long as they got their share. The people of Israel could complain, but there was nothing they could do. The tax collectors had Rome on their side and could thus easily steal from others.
Other types of sinners the Pharisee mentioned can be equally as obvious. Extortioners steal from others with violence and threats of violence. You can recognize such people by what they do. Adulterers may be living together outside of marriage which makes the sin readily apparent to the world. The unjust do not follow the law but are crooked, dishonest, and untrustworthy which can be seen by everyone around them.
But we all have the same disease of sin. According to God’s Law, it’s not enough that you don’t steal; you cannot even want what someone else has. It’s not enough that you don’t commit adultery; you cannot even have lustful or impure thoughts. It’s not enough that you don’t murder; you cannot even have anger or hatred toward someone, even if that someone hates you. The Law demands to be kept perfectly – not just outwardly, but also inwardly in the heart. Any slip or failure is deserving of punishment.
Understanding this prevents us from comparing ourselves with others. We have enough to worry about with our own sins that we don’t need to tabulate our neighbour’s sins. Jesus says that even if we had done every single thing that God has ever commanded, we are still to say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” (Luke 17:10)
The tax collector knew this. He knew that he had not kept the Law of God. He didn’t try to excuse his sin. He didn’t point to others who were sinning to get off the hook himself. He didn’t try to give a list of all the good things he had done. He knew none of this would do a bit of good. His only hope was in God’s mercy. All he prayed is, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”
This prayer is asking God not to give us what we deserve. It is praying that God will not give us the temporal and eternal punishment that we deserve for our sins. Be merciful to me, the sinner. Not just a sinner, but the sinner. The sins of others don’t matter in your relationship with God. So also the Apostle Paul calls himself the foremost or chief sinner as if there is no other sinner in the whole world (I Tim. 1:15). So we pray for mercy. Be merciful to me, the sinner.
But based on what can we ask this? What can satisfy the wrath of God over our sin? It is not anything that we have done. That’s what the Pharisee tried to do with his list of good works. That’s what Muslims are trying to do with their pilgrimages, prayers, and jihads. That’s what atheists are trying to do with their environmentalism, vegan eating, and saving of endangered animals. That’s what the Roman Catholics are trying to do with their Hail Mary’s, pilgrimages, and sacrifices of the Mass. But none of this can satisfy the wrath of God over sin. None of this turns away God’s anger from us.
There is only one thing that has ever and will ever satisfy the wrath of God over sin. There in only one thing that has ever and will ever turn away God’s anger from us sinners – the sacrifice of God’s own Son on the cross. Jesus’ death is the sacrifice that has removed the wrath of God from us. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
This is because Jesus became the sinner for us. For our sake God made Jesus to be sin even though He had committed no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (I Cor. 5:21). Jesus became the sinner; the only one in the world. He took every single sin on Himself. He took on Himself the sins that are readily apparent to others including extortion, injustice, adultery, and theft. He also took on Himself the sins that others cannot see as readily including anger, discontentment, lust, and coveting. Jesus suffered and died for every single sin ever committed. He took on Himself every punishment with which hell can threaten us.
Jesus came as the Great Physician to heal all of us, regardless of how bad the symptoms have been. He gives us all the same medicine of His holy body and blood which give us the forgiveness He won for us by becoming the sinner in our place. Jesus’ body and blood are the antidote to the disease of sin pulsing through our veins.
Forget the sins of others whether they are readily apparent or well hidden. Receive the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ body and blood that is for you to forgive you all of your sins. Because God has also promised to forget your sins and remove them from you as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12). He has promised to tread your iniquities underfoot and cast all your sins into the depths of the sea (Mic. 7:19). God does this because Jesus’ death has satisfied His wrath over sin. Jesus’ death has turned away God’s anger from us. So don’t hold onto your sins and try to hide them from God. Confess your sins and receive the free forgiveness of sins for the sake of Jesus who became the sinner for you, so that you might become the righteousness of God. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.