Sermon for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost based on Luke 18:9-17
Dear people gathered in the house of God: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
When you come to God’s house, you can come as the Pharisee or you can come as the tax collector. You can come as one who relies on his own works, or you can come as one who relies on what Jesus has done. You can come to thank God how good you are, or you can come praying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”
Our trouble is that we have a hard time seeing our own sin. Our eyes are blinded by our own sin so that we do not always recognize it to be sin. It is easy for us to come to God’s house thinking about our own good works: how we help our neighbour; how we give offerings to God; even about how we come to church in the first place while so many others don’t.
It’s easy to look at the world, to listen to, read, or watch the news and think, “The world is full of horrible people. The world is full of awful sinners. Thank God I’m not one of those murderers, arsonists, or terrorists. God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” It’s easy to trust in ourselves that we are righteous, while treating others with contempt.
Scripture, however, teaches that “whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” (James 2:10) The same Law that says you shall not murder tells you not to sin when you get angry (Eph. 4:26) and to help your neighbour in every physical need (SC I.5). The same Law that says you shall not commit adultery tells you not to lust (Matt. 5:28) or even speak crudely or foolishly (Eph. 5:3-4). The same Law that says you shall not steal tells you not to be dishonest and to actually help your neighbour improve and protect his possessions and income (SC I.7).
You cannot come to God on your own merits because you don’t have any. You cannot rely on your own good works because they cannot save you. Scripture says that our good works are like filthy rags (Is. 64:6) so how polluted do you think our evil works are; how polluted our sins are? If we come to God relying on our own works, we will not go home justified.
If you take the case of the Pharisee praying in God’s house, the Temple, you will see that he wasn’t lying in the eyes of men. He was not an extortioner in the eyes of men. He wasn’t unjust in the eyes of men, nor was he an adulterer in the eyes of men. He didn’t sin in these open ways that others could see. He kept his sins hidden. He did such a good job hiding his sins that he had even convinced himself that they weren’t sins. All he came to God with was his own merits, his own works: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” He claims to be doing even more than the Law demanded of him. He’s fasting more than the Law demands and giving a tithe of more than the Law demands.
The Pharisee’s prayers were a charade. Prayer is an act of worship, but the Pharisee wasn’t worshiping God. He was worshiping himself. He trusted in himself as righteous and treated others with contempt.
Since prayers were normally spoken out loud, whether in private or in public, the Pharisee also prayed to be heard by others. He wanted everyone else to see how good he is and worship him, too. Maybe even the tax collector could hear him saying, “Thank you God that I am not like this tax collector.” He hides his own sins and compares himself to those whose sins can be seen by the whole world, so that in the eyes of men, he would be justified and righteous.
But Jesus says that that Pharisee did not go to his home justified. God did not declare him righteous. He could fool men, but no one can fool God.
The tax collector, however, came to God’s house in humble repentance. Were there worse sinners than him in God’s house? He didn’t care. They weren’t his concern. He didn’t compare himself with others or his sins with others. He hung his head in shame and prayed saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” He actually uses the definite article, not calling himself “a” sinner, but “the” sinner. God, be merciful to me, the sinner, like he is the only sinner on earth. No one else’s sins mattered to him. Why should they? You cannot use someone else’s sin as an excuse for yours. It benefits you not at all that someone is a worse sinner than you.
We should all say to ourselves, “My sin is why Jesus died. I crucified Him. My sins are the reason Jesus came and suffered. My sins are inexcusable and undeniable. God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”
True worship is not being in church so that others can see you. True worship is not pretending to be good or trying to get men to think that you are good.
True worship is receiving the gifts of God. True worship is believing God’s promises and receiving blessings from Him. True worship is coming in humble repentance to God’s house and praying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”
Praying “God, be merciful to me” is praying that God would be propitiated to me. God set your anger aside. Do not deal with me in your anger and wrath. Be merciful to me.
God is merciful. He has never and will never refuse to forgive a penitent sinner. He has never and will never charge a repentant sinner with his sins because Jesus was charged with and paid the price all sin. God has never and will never reject the sinner who comes to Him relying not on his own works, but on what Jesus has done.
We can rely on what Jesus has done. Jesus never failed even in one point of the Law, yet He was held accountable for all of it. He was held accountable for all our failures to fulfil the Law. He was held accountable for all of our sins of thought, word, and deed. Jesus was held accountable for the sins of the entire world, and suffered the wrath and punishment of God for all sin.
You can rely on what Jesus has accomplished because He has accomplished everything for your salvation. The price of your sins has been paid in full. God is not propitiated to you because of your pleas for mercy, but on account of Jesus. Jesus bore the punishment and wrath of God for your sin. That’s why the Bible says that Jesus is the propitiation for our sins (I John 4:10). Jesus turns God’s anger away. On account of Jesus, God is merciful to you.
So you can say, “Jesus’ death on the cross was for my sin. My sins are forgiven. My sins are forgiven whether they are known to others or if they are secret. I have peace with God. God has been merciful to me, the sinner.”
You will go home justified. You will go home declared righteous. In God’s house you receive the forgiveness of sins that Jesus earned for you by His life, death, and resurrection. Through Absolution you have been declared righteous. Through the true body and blood of Jesus you will be justified because you will receive forgiveness. Through the Lord’s Supper you are united in communion with Christ, so when God looks at you, He does not see your sin. He sees Jesus. God sees His own Son who has fulfilled the Law.
God, be merciful to me, the sinner. Don’t make excuses. Don’t compare yourself to others. Don’t tell God what good you’ve done. Rely on what Jesus has done for you. Rely on the forgiveness you will receive in the true body and blood of Jesus, and you will go home justified. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.