Sunday, September 04, 2011

Sermon: Trinity 11 – 2011

4 September 2011 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

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

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

We live in a “Cain and Abel” world, a world of envy and murder, of insincere sacrifices and false worship. We live in a world where God’s perfect creation has been so corrupted by our sin and by our rebellion against His perfect will, that we consider the shockingly abnormal to be boringly normal.

Of course, we are still shocked to read accounts of brothers killing brothers, but we hardly blink to read about murders happening in our own cities. We think it is normal to lock our doors at night. We do not find it odd that there are doctors and pharmacies and judges and jails. We even refer to destructive storms as “natural disasters” – or worse yet, “acts of God.” We are so used to the absurdities of our sinful existence that we consider such things normal, like Alice who went down the rabbit hole and experienced things out of nightmares, or Neo in the Matrix experiencing the unreal as if it were real. In our sin, we can’t tell what is real, and we certainly can’t see things as they really are.

The kingdom of God is so far removed from our experience of life in this fallen world that our Lord resorts to teaching us about this kingdom – which is our destiny, our hope, and our promise – teaching us in the form of stories. Our Lord’s stories, His parables, are more profound than Aesop and more shocking than anything on “Night Gallery” or in a Stephen King novel. Our Lord in His storytelling glory loves an ironic twist, something that does not seem to make sense. But it isn’t the kingdom that doesn’t make sense – but rather our fallen world of sin, sickness, and death.

In “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” our Lord sets up a comparison and contrast between two characters, two polar opposites: “one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” The Pharisees were the upper crust of society: pious, devout, image-conscious, learned, and expert in the law. They give alms, pray, and worship regularly. They are the guys who wear the white hats. The tax collectors, by contrast, were the bottom-feeders: dishonest, sneaky, collaborators with the Roman military occupation, traitors and thieves. They are the guys who wear the black hats.

And like the Master Storyteller that He is, Jesus sets up the plot. The “two men went up into the temple to pray.” And here is where things get interesting. “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I think you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” The Pharisee is self-sufficient, “standing by himself,” filled with confidence, if not hubris. He continues his prayer which is really a boast: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’” These are the things the world admires. These are the things we think God admires. And Jesus is about to shock us with the truth of what God’s kingdom is truly like, as opposed to our delusional Alice-in-Wonderland world of buying, selling, wheeling, and dealing.

For here is where the tax collector makes his entry into the tale, “standing far off” with a sense of unworthiness that would not allow him to “lift up his eyes to heaven.”

And as would please our own sense of justice, we see him, the crook, the cheat, the bureaucrat who takes the food from the mouths of our children and spends it on himself, beating his breast in shame. Unlike the boastful Pharisee, the tax collector comes to God’s presence empty handed and without claim: “saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

His prayer is so different than that of the Pharisee. He offers no boast, no excuse, no comparison to others, rather, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

The world would end the story here, rejoicing with the strong and contemptuous of the weak, gazing with admiration on the guy with the white hat who is larger than life, and cheering that the ugly villain is getting what he deserves. The credits roll, the crowd cheers, justice is served. So goes it in our fallen world.

But here is where Jesus throws in the twist in the plot, where the credits are interrupted amid the cheering and the story abruptly continues in a new direction. Here is where He teaches us how different God’s kingdom is, where He shows us that the guy who wears the white hat is really the villain and the guy wearing the black hat is really the hero. For in God’s kingdom, it is not enough to be “righteous” in the sense of the Pharisee: proud, arrogant, self-sufficient, eager for praise, contemptuous of others, and good on the outside according to appearance. Indeed, our Lord tells us that if we want a part in the kingdom, our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. And this is where our humble and repentant tax collector comes in. This is where we learn that he is really the hero.

He is a sinner – and he knows it. The reality is that the Pharisee is also a sinner – but he is so deluded, living in the Matrix of his own web of lies and self-delusion, that he does not know it. The tax collector not only sees reality as it is, he confesses his sin and seeks the Lord’s pardon, help, forgiveness, and mercy. Unlike the deluded Pharisee who chooses to invent a beautiful fantasy of his own ugly self, the tax collector honestly confronts the ugly truth of his own sinful corruption.

He knows this is not what he was made to be. And he knows where to go to find redemption and reformation, forgiveness and mercy, a second chance and a new life.

“Be merciful to me, a sinner!” he prays, he pleads, he bows, he begs. “Be merciful to me, a sinner!” There is no greater and more heroic prayer than this: “Be merciful to me, a sinner!”

And in this surprise ending we learn about the kingdom: “I tell you” says our Narrator who is also our God: “this man,” the humble tax collector, “went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

This is opposite of the conventional wisdom of this world. And it is not the kingdom of God that is strange, but our own “Cain and Abel” world that is absurd. Just because death is common does not make it normal. Just because sickness is all around us does not make it proper. Just because there are disasters everywhere does not make them natural.

Dear friends, in God’s kingdom, we do not earn his favor by delusionally confessing our good works. In God’s kingdom, we truly confess our sins. In God’s kingdom, we have no grounds for boasting. In God’s kingdom, we acknowledge our wretchedness and receive His grace, going down to our houses justified in our humility, seeing ourselves as we truly are, pleading with God for his mercy.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, hear the Word of the Lord that shows us our sins and saves us from them! Celebrate your humble baptism that has given you the pledge of the kingdom! Eat and drink of the feast that Jesus offers of Himself to repentant sinners of every time and place. Rejoice in the kingdom where eternal life is not absurd, but simply what God has created us to enjoy through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whose greatest story of all is the very real story of our redemption in the kingdom of heaven and our life that will never end!


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

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