Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sermon: Trinity 11 - 2017

27 August 2017

Text: Luke 18:9-14

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

At first glance, it appears that there are many different religions in the world.  But in fact, there are only two: the right one, and all the rest.  But to be more specific, as our theologians put it, there is the religion of the Law, and there is also the religion of the Gospel.

Religion is all about how man is reconciled to God, how we overcome the brokenness of this world of death, and how we transcend the fallen world and restore communion with the Creator.  In other words, how we close the gap between man and God.

And so there are only two religions in the world: the one where mankind climbs his way up to God (the religion of the Law) and the one where God condescends his way down to man (the religion of the Gospel).

In the religion of the Law, you can have salvation by obeying the simple little verse: “be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Just don’t sin in thought, word, and deed, and be like God.  And every religion in the world, except for Christianity, teaches this.  Every other religion has a program of steps to climb the ladder to righteousness: you have to pray, make pilgrimages, do good works, give money, avoid sin, and so forth.  But if you fall off the ladder, well, you either start over after being punished, or are sent to hell, or you come back in the next life reincarnated as a toad or something.

But in the religion of the Gospel, that is, Christianity, God Himself comes down the ladder; He meets us where we are.  He takes human flesh; He fulfills the Law on our behalf; He pays the penalty of our sins; He makes a “happy exchange” between our unworthiness and His worthiness.  And this is “good news” – which is what the word “Gospel” means.  In Latin, “good news” is called “Evangelium.”  And it’s why we do “Evangelism,” and why our Lutheran churches in Germany are called “Evangelical.”  Recovering the Gospel that had become buried under the Law was a big part of the Lutheran reformation.  We Lutherans became known as “Evangelical Catholics.” 

Jesus teaches this very doctrine by means of one of His compelling stories: “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector.”

These two competing religions are personified by these two characters.  Listen to the Pharisee’s prayer, and consider whether he is proposing the religion of the Law or of the Gospel.  He prays: “God, I thank You that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”

By contrast, listen to the tax collector’s prayer, and consider whether he is proposing the religion of the Law or of the Gospel.  “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’”  Think of the contrast between these two men.

One of them is offering his works as payment to God, a sort-of admission price to the kingdom of heaven.  The other offers nothing, but instead, prays for God’s mercy.  And so only one of these men is a Christian, or as our Lord says in the story: only one of them “went down to his house justified, rather than the other.”

Most of the religions of the world would side with the Pharisee.  For just look at all of his good works!  It’s a pretty impressive resume. He avoids the sins of “other men,” and he fasts (actually twice as much as the law requires), and he gives tithes of everything (not just after taxes).  He is clearly a “good person.”  And this was the goal of the Pharisees in the first century: they strove to be good people, to obey the law perfectly so as to climb the ladder to God.  And these were the people who hated Jesus and often got into fights with Him.  For in spite of their high and mighty attitude, they were still poor, miserable sinners.  Even their good works were tainted by sin.  They needed a Savior just as much as anyone else – and Jesus was not shy about telling them as much.  But they were too proud to ask for, or even to accept, help.  And this is why Jesus says: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The religion of the Law fails simply because we can’t keep the Law.  We’re too broken.  We need a Savior.

Of course, we are expected to strive to keep the Law, to really do the best we can.  The Law is good.  The Ten Commandments are the first thing we learn in our catechism.  Avoiding sin is good.  Fasting is good.  Giving tithes is good.  Showing mercy to one’s neighbor (like another of Jesus’ stories, “The Good Samaritan”) is good.  The Law keeps social order, shows us our need for a Savior, and gives us a guide to the good and virtuous life.  But the one thing the Law cannot do, dear friends, is save you.  It always accuses and always condemns.  And this is where the Gospel comes in: the Good News that our Lord shed His holy blood to redeem us from death and hell!  He keeps the Law where we fail.  He rescues us from our own wretchedness and helplessness.  And so we trust in Him rather than in ourselves.

The world (and even our own reason) recoils from the idea of a tax collector (which in that time and place essentially meant a crook and a thief), a man so convicted of his sinfulness that he cowers in the temple, and who has no good works to boast before God, but simply prays: “Lord, have mercy!”

And yet, there it is.  He is humble.  He confesses his sin.  He offers no works of his own to justify himself.  And because of his humility, he goes home justified, for Jesus has justified him!  That, dear friends, is the Christian faith, the faith of justification, the religion of the Gospel!

In receiving this Good News, our tax collector can now repent of his sins, joyfully confessing the Good News of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  He can struggle against sin, fast, and tithe, all as an offering to the Lord – not the kind of offering that claims to forgive sin, but rather the kind of offering the Old Testament calls a “thank offering.”

We poor, miserable sinners pray just as this tax collector prays: “Lord, have mercy!”  We plead for forgiveness.  We are forgiven.  Our sins are washed away in Holy Baptism – pure Gospel.  We hear the words of absolution – pure Gospel.  We eat and drink His very body and blood for the forgiveness of sins – pure Gospel.  And we hear the proclamation of His Word, pure Gospel – and we believe – not in ourselves and our works, but in Him and His work on the cross, that is, in His Gospel!

And so, dear friends, let us never fall into the trap of the Pharisee.  Your good works don’t impress God or earn His salvation.  But having been justified, having been made holy by the blood of the Lamb, your good works are a “thank you” for what you have received from God as an answer to the prayer, the sinner’s prayer, the Christian’s prayer, the prayer that is answered by the Gospel: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  

This is good news indeed!  Amen.

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

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