Sunday, August 03, 2008

Sermon: Trinity 11

3 August 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 18:9-14 (Eph 2:1-10)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Dear Christians, our Lord Jesus speaks to us today concerning mortal sin. There is a tendency for us sinners to categorize certain sins as bad, and others as not so bad. And the way we do it is pretty simple: the sins other people do are really bad, the sins we do are minor.

To us sinners, the mortal sins are the really big ones, like mass murder, genocide, blowing up buildings, and things like that. In fact, most of us would add things like murder, adultery, and abusing children to the list of sins we believe are unforgivable.

Some may even add homosexuality and abortion to the list, as these sins are high on the political agenda.

But all of these sins are forgivable. These sins can be confessed, repented of, and absolved. A person can ask to be forgiven of these sins, and our Lord Jesus Christ died specifically for these transgressions, even as He charged me “by virtue of my office” to absolve these trespasses.

But a sin that is mortal is a sin that kills. It destroys both body and soul. It is a sin that, by definition, can’t be forgiven. And what makes a sin mortal is not necessarily the amount of damage done, but rather the fact that the sinner refuses to be forgiven.
Any sin can well become mortal, can drag us body and soul into hell. The quickest way to condemnation is not to go on a serial killing spree, but rather refuse to be forgiven!

Some people refuse to be forgiven out of despair. We see this in Judas Iscariot. He is the son of perdition. Satan blinded his eyes to faith, so that even a very sorry Judas refused to believe that the holy sacrifice of our blessed Lord even covered his sins. The refusal to believe, the lack of faith, is mortal. For you cannot make a man accept salvation any more than you can make the proverbial unwilling horse take a drink.

But there is the kind of refusal to be forgiven that isn’t based on despair, but rather the opposite.

Jesus is warning the Pharisees, and He is warning us, dear brothers and sisters, that the first step to hell is to trust in yourself. Notice what provokes our Lord’s story: “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” These people did not “fear love and trust in God above all things,” but rather placed themselves on that pedestal, “trusting in themselves that they were righteous.”

For if you trust in your own righteousness, why do you need a pastor to absolve you of your sins? Why do you need to come to communion? In fact, if you trust in your own righteousness, Jesus is a fool, for He went to the cross for nothing. If you trust in your own righteousness, the Holy Spirit is also a fool, for He inspired the Scriptures that tell us again and again that we are all “like sheep that have gone astray,” that “there is none righteous, no, not one,” that “the wages of sin is death,” that through one man, death came to all men.

If you trust in your own righteousness, you not only have no need of the Christian religion, you have no need of Christ. If you trust in your own righteousness, you have no need of a Savior, because you are your own savior.

And what a sad delusion this is, dear friends! God the Father has given us His “only begotten Son,” the “Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world,” who “bears our iniquities” and “by whose stripes we are healed.” God gives us the Holy Spirit, who inspires Scripture like our crystal-clear letter of St, Paul to the church of Ephesus: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

It doesn’t get much clearer than that, dear friends. The Holy Spirit has articulated the Gospel through St. Paul, the apostle and servant of Christ Jesus – who likewise preached the same Good News and backed it up by dying and rising.

In our Lord’s parable, there are two men, but only one of them “went down from his house justified rather than the other.” The world would look at the religiousness of the Pharisee, and conclude that he is by far the one who is justified. After all, this man is a churchgoer, a big giver to the treasury, a volunteer who serves on boards and councils, a respected pillar of the community.

And what must the world think of the tax collector? He is a petty thief, a man who is so great a sinner that his guilt impels him to hunch over in church and carry on begging for mercy. Why, he even calls himself a sinner in his prayer!

This is a no-brainer, isn’t it? Well, it is to our Lord.

For our Lord doesn’t judge by shallow appearances and the public face we wear as a mask. What does our Lord see in these two men? In the Pharisee, he sees a man who trusts in himself that he is righteous. He sees a man who not once asks for mercy or prays for a Savior. He sees a man immersed in sin, but deluded into not seeing it. He sees a man who is so blind that he cannot even see his own sins. He sees a man who worships himself instead of the Triune God. He sees a man in mortal danger if he doesn’t confess and repent – which is exactly what the tax collector is doing.

It is the humble tax collector, not the arrogant Pharisee, who goes down to his house justified. And it is by his fruits that we know him. While the Pharisee is loudly confessing other peoples’ sins and boasting that he doesn’t do any of them, the Pharisees, as our Lord points out, not only trusts in his own righteousness, but they also despises others. Seeing everyone else as a sinner, the Pharisees love themselves but hate their neighbors – all the while patting themselves on the back and dismissing their need for forgiveness.

But notice the attitude of the tax collector. He has stolen from people, and it grieves him. He is guilty of breaking the commandments, and his heart is contrite. This is a man who in spite of his sins, truly loves other people and regrets the way he has treated God. And, what’s more, he knows who God is, and it’s not himself. Instead of confessing the sins of others, he confronts his own. Instead of boasting, he is broken. Instead of justifying himself, he prays the true “sinner’s prayer”: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” For he confesses his sin, and though he feels unworthy, still has enough faith to ask for God’s mercy. He doesn’t ask for it unless he believes he can get it. He is confident, but not cocky. He has faith, but a humble faith that is anchored in the promises of God rather than in his own righteousness.

Our sinful flesh always wants to be the Pharisee, always seeks glory, always demands recognition and credit, always loves and trusts in itself rather than in God, all the while, despising others. And it is this Pharisee that must be drowned daily in the repentance given to us and our second birth at the font. It is this demon that must continually be exorcised by the sign of the cross. It is the mortality that must be put to death before it becomes mortal.

And so here we are again, dear friends, gathered to hear the promises of God, kneeling humbly to eat His flesh and drink His blood – all because we know we need a Savior, all because the one thing we truly know about ourselves is that we can’t trust in ourselves that we are righteous.

You who are humbled by your sins, take heart! For hear the final word of our blessed Lord once more: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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