Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sermon: Trinity 11

23 August 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 18:9-14 (Gen 4:1-15, Eph 2:1-10)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord uses three “whens” describing the Christian life: “When you give to the needy…. When you pray…. When you fast.” These are not options. These are simply things Christians do. To be selfish with what the Lord has given us, to refuse to pray, and to allow our bellies to master us instead of vice versa are indeed all contrary to the Christian faith. These are sins we all need to constantly confess, struggle against, and repent of.

But there is a sin that is far worse and far more dangerous than forgetting to pray or eating the large order of fries – and that is the sin of self-righteousness. For this is rooted in the devilish lie that we can be righteous by ourselves, which is to say, we don’t need a Savior, that the Lord’s death on the cross was a worthless sacrifice.

In His presentation of a story, through the characters of the Pharisee and the tax collector, our Lord is comparing and contrasting two opposing religions.

The Pharisee indeed carries out the three “whens” of the Sermon on the Mount. He gives to the needy – a whole tithe, a ten percent of all that he gets. He prays. In fact, he prays a prayer of thanks right in the Temple that he isn’t like the tax collector! He also fasts, not merely once a week on the Sabbath, but twice that amount! The Pharisee is a religious man. But his religion is misguided. For he is exalting himself rather than glorifying God.

On the other side of the coin, we have the tax collector. These folks were scorned not only as collaborators with the Romans, but as greedy cheats. So terrible are the sins of the tax collector that he stands away from the altar, beats his breast, bows his head in humble prayer, and pleads: “Be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.”

“I tell you,” says our Lord, “this man,” the tax collector, “went down to his house justified, rather than the other,” the almsgiving, praying, fasting Pharisee. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

It is sinful not to give to the needy, not to pray, and not to fast. It is sinful not to go to church and to avoid study of God’s Word. It is sinful when other church bodies that have the name “Lutheran” ordain women and give the church’s blessing to homosexuality, among other false doctrines. It is sinful for tax collectors and public officials to accept bribes and fleece the people. It is sinful to engage in sexually provocative dancing, to sing along with blasphemous music that mocks our Lord and our faith, to gamble away the money the Lord has provided to sustain the family, to drink to excess, and to indulge the lusts and passions and cravings of the flesh.

And indeed, people repent of these sins all the time, thanks be to God. But the really dangerous sin is self-righteousness. For it is much harder to recognize, let alone confess and root out.

Self-righteousness camouflages itself behind a religious façade. It lurks just under the surface of tithing, praying, and fasting. It grows like a weed alongside of church attendance and bible study. It actually thrives among those who attend churches that are more doctrinally pure and theologically rigorous. And it can take over the souls of those who go on crusades against drinking, dancing, gambling, smoking, the wearing of make-up, the partaking of Mardi Gras festivities, or even the enjoying of a fudge brownie or cup of coffee.

For the danger is that such attitudes deceive our sinful flesh by the desire to claim some degree of credit for our justification – as though we have the ability to be righteous unto our selves.

But this Pharisaical self-righteousness is condemned by St. Paul in his letter, his pastoral reminder, to the Christian Church in Ephesus, that “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

“No one may boast.”

Pride, boasting, and the pointing out of the sins of others in order to exalt oneself has no place among Christians. For we are to do all the good works that the Pharisee did, all of the “whens” of Jesus – but we are to do them with humility, in the knowledge and understanding that these works count for nothing towards our righteousness. They do not justify us, and are therefore nothing to boast of. In fact, we should, like the tax collector, be so consumed with the horrific nature of our own many and manifold sins, that we should derive no pleasure from the sins, errors, and false doctrine of others.

There is no room for Schadenfreude (that is, taking pleasure in the failings of others) in the Christian faith and life.

The genuine Christian, that is, the tax collector, bowed his head, stressed his unworthiness, and humbly prayed the very words of our liturgy in search of forgiveness. As a result, the tax collector’s lowly head was lifted up in exaltation. He was declared worthy and righteous by God’s grace “because of the great love with which He loved us,” and his sins were forgiven by God, who is “rich in mercy.”

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we are saved by grace alone, through faith, as a result of our Lord’s sacrifice on the cross. This gift was given to us purely gratis by way of the proclaimed Gospel, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Holy Supper. In securing our righteousness, Jesus has done it all, and we have done nothing. In fact, we have done worse than nothing, because we are “poor, miserable sinners.”

If you give to the needy, pray, and fast, it is by grace alone. God be praised! If your church holds fast to biblical doctrine and the orthodox Christian faith, it is purely a gift. God be praised! If you don’t engage in various social ills that have become acceptable in our society, it is purely by the love and mercy of God that you are held in this faith. God be praised! For not even the Pharisee had the right to boast, and not even the Pharisee went to his home justified. Soli Deo Gloria! To God alone be the glory!

We have no worthiness in us, and no reason to boast. And this, dear friends, is good news indeed! For it means that “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

And when we, by the grace of God and through faith alone, do any good thing for the sake of the kingdom, all glory, all boasting, all credit goes to Him alone. And what comfort and joy this is!

For He has “raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Amen.

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

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