Posted by: Johnold Strey | February 25, 2009

Sermon for Ash Wednesday (2009)

Sermon Series for the Midweek Lent Services: “Father, Forgive Them”

FORGIVE US FOR OUR SELF-CENTERED WORSHIP

Text: Luke 18:9-14

Introduction

Arrested without just cause for a crime you didn’t commit.   Bound like a common criminal.  Convicted in a kangaroo court with lying “witnesses” who never witnessed a thing you did.  Sentenced to the death penalty.  Proven innocent before the governor who could issue a pardon, but no such luck.  Hauled off to the executioner.

God forbid that this happen to anyone, but put yourselves in that scenario for just a moment.  As the executioner straps you in the chair, what are you going to say?  “I didn’t do it!  I’m innocent.”  You would be totally justified and correct to retort with those words.  “How dare you convict an innocent person!  God will repay you for this!”  You would have every right to scream out in anger for the total injustice taking place.

How about this for your rebuttal?  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).  Those were the words of Jesus, not as he was strapped in the executioner’s chair, but as he was nailed to the executioner’s cross.  “Father, forgive them.”  Imagine that!  The grossest abuse of the legal system sends the sinless Son of God to an eternal death sentence on the cross, and he says, “Father, forgive them.”

Not only is Jesus’ first statement from the cross stunningly remarkable, it is also the perfect summary of the season of Lent.  For in this season, we remember the truck loads of our sin that sent our Savior to the cross.  And at the very moment Jesus was about to suffer the eternal fate of the world’s weight of sin, Jesus does not say, “To hell with you all!”  He says, “Father, forgive them,” and then suffers hell itself to make that forgiveness a reality.

This Lenten season, those stunning and remarkable words of Jesus will provide the theme for the sermons you will hear during our midweek Lent and Holy Week services.  And on this Ash Wednesday evening, when our worship puts us in mind of our own sinfulness and our need to come honestly before God in confession, the Gospel for this service applies the Jesus’ words from the cross to our lives of worship.  Tonight we consider Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector from Luke 18:9-14.  As we consider this important call to repentance, we pray, “Father, forgive us for our self-centered worship.”

I.

This is my eighth Ash Wednesday with you as your pastor.  I have preached on this Gospel text for exactly half of my Ash Wednesday sermons.  Even though I have worked with Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector several times, there is always something more to be gleaned and gained.  I realized that again this year.  Where does the story take place?  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”  I have read and heard that verse countless times, and I knew very well that Jesus set the parable in the temple, but the significance of that setting never struck me until this week.  Because what was the temple?  It was the house of God.  It was the central place of worship for the Jews.  It was the place where the divinely prescribed sacrifices took place day in and day out.  And what were those sacrifices supposed to do?  The blood of goats and bulls and lambs preached a visual sermon every time, the sermon that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:12,22), the sermon that the future Lamb of God would shed his blood to cleanse the world from sin.  When you went to the house of worship in Jerusalem, the unspoken sermon was all about Jesus, who was the coming Messiah and the future Sacrifice.

So what does the Pharisee pray about?  The message all around him is about Jesus, and you’d think that his prayers would have reflected that, right?  Think again!  “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'”  Thank you, God, that I’m so wonderful.  Thank you, God, that my righteousness measures so much higher than the dregs of society.  Thank you, God, that there are people in this building who are worse and more miserable than I am.  Thank you, God, that when the church donor list is published at year’s end, I’m always in the top tier of givers.

Do you think God would be deceived into thinking that this man’s worship was about the Lord just because he is speaking to the Lord?  Are any of us fooled by this prayer?  Of course not!  You can smell his arrogance a mile away!  Who would be so arrogant as to break his arm patting himself on the back before God?  Who would be so self-centered as to make worship all about himself and not at all about God?  Who would do such a thing?

Look in the mirror.  That’s who!  The self-centered, self-righteous, pharisaical sinful nature inside your heart loves to play the comparison game.  “I thank thee, God, that I am not like my foul-mouthed neighbor, my lazy coworkers, my inconsiderate spouse and kids, those Christians-in-name-only or those know-it-alls at church.”  And we break our arms patting ourselves on the back and congratulating ourselves because we’re not as bad as someone else.  And we can actually bring that attitude with us into this building when we gather for worship.

And that’s not the only way we turn our time in God’s house into a self-congratulatory experience.  We are not only experts at making worship about us, but we are also quite gifted at making sure worship is not about Christ.  Do you know what one of the most common criticisms of Lutheran worship is?  It’s boring.  I’m not talking about churches in a “worship rut.”  I’m talking about people who are bored hearing the message of the forgiveness of sins in Christ each week in worship.  “Oh, I suppose it’s okay to be reminded of that every now and then, but can we not beat a dead horse?  Can we talk about what God’s Word subjectively means to me?  Can we talk about what idea God supposedly put on my heart even God never promised to do such a thing?  Can we talk more about money or parenting or sex or the victorious life or something besides the cross?”

Don’t kid yourselves for a minute thinking that these thoughts don’t cross your mind.  They have crossed my mind.  They continue to be a temptation for me every day in my ministry.  And this temptation is alive and well in the church at large, in American Christianity, in the Lutheran Church, in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and even here at Gloria Dei.  Self-centered worship is the menu item of choice because talk about Jesus just seems so boring.

Jesus is boring?  The greatest drama in the world, that the holy God would descend among his sin-filled creatures and then further descend into the depths and pangs of hell, is boring?  The greatest news for our souls, that the God whom we have so offended by our sin sent his Son in grace to rescue us from sin at the cross and free us from death by his resurrection, is boring?  We dare to claim that the gospel of Jesus is boring?

Did you ever think that maybe God is bored with us?  He sends his Son to redeem us from the clutches of hell, and we dare to think that the story is boring?  And to add insult to injury, he has to deal with our same tired complaints, the same foul-mouthed arrogance, the same repetitive sins, and the same self-centered worship day after day after unending day.  Do you think that maybe, just maybe, God is literally bored to hell with us?

II.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”  And while the Pharisee offered a self-congratulatory, self-centered prayer to God, the tax collector knew that he had no case for self-centered worship in the house of worship.  Though the tax collector is only a character in a story told by Jesus, Jesus knew what he was doing when he told the story.  He chose a man with an occupation that was known for cheating and dishonesty.  And so the man in Jesus’ story knew that he had no business in the house of God.  He hides behind a pillar in the corner.  Like little children in trouble with their parents, he cannot even look up to his Father in heaven.  He draws no attention to himself, for deep down inside he knows that his worship in the temple cannot be about his sinful self.

After a public shunning by the Pharisee, the tax collector mutters his prayer to God.  “The tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'”  Do you know what is most remarkable about his prayer?  The original Greek text of the New Testament includes one small but important detail that is not reflected in our translation.  The man prayed, “God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”  He calls himself, the sinner,” as if he is the only one in the world who has offended God.  He does not compare himself to worse cheats and frauds.  He does not say that he is sorry but he was influenced by the culture of corruption and greed around him.  He does not make some excuse that might soften his confession or place his blame on another.  No, he confesses the whole thing.  “God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”

And then comes the shocking conclusion that we would never have expected if this were the first time we heard the parable.  Jesus said, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  The Pharisee was highly respected by his fellow Jews, but he was so obsessed with himself that he managed to turn his worship into a self-centered show.  But here is the poor tax collector, the man whose biography contained more collection scams that you could count, and he lays the whole mess before God and confesses the whole thing.  And this man is the one who goes home justified before God.  This man is the one whose sins are forgiven by God and whose status is now holy and innocent before God.

“God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”  What a simple, humble prayer.  And yet that simple, humble prayer is also an entirely self-less prayer.  There is no Hollywood spotlight shining on the tax collector.  There is no silver lining of righteousness amidst the guilty confession.  This act of worship and prayer is all about Jesus.  It is all about the mercy of God that sees the tax collectors and prostitutes and soccer moms and hardworking dads and hormonal teenagers and crying children and tired retirees and everyone in between and says, “They are so lost, I must have mercy on them.”

Enter Jesus Christ.  In Jesus Christ, you and I have seen the mercy of God in action.  In the birth of Jesus Christ, you see the mercy of God that sent his Son to become like us to save us.  In the life of Jesus Christ, you see the mercy of God that sent his Son to be righteous for us who could never be righteous on our best day.  In the death of Jesus Christ, you see the mercy of God that offered his own Son and even poured out the full fury of his justice on his Son to redeem us from hell.  And in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, you still see the mercy of God at work as Christ conquers the one foe that had previously been unconquered — death.

And this good news is why our worship should never be about us.  If all our righteous acts before God are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) — to say nothing of our sin — then why would we want to assemble as the people of God only to talk about ourselves?  Self-centered worship only turns us back toward the path that leads to damnation, but Christ-centered worship puts us back on the path of salvation.

You will never find a greater reason to worship than the story of salvation in Jesus Christ recorded in the Scriptures.  So center your worship on the gospel of Christ in the Word of Christ!  Marvel at the miracle of forgiveness that comes to you each week as God’s called servant announces the Lord’s absolution.  Wonder at the mystery that Christ is among us as his Word is read and as his work is preached from the pulpit.  And as we gather around the gospel in the spoken Word, we also gather around the gospel in the visible word — the sacraments.  Rejoice when the Word of God is combined with the waters of baptism and another soul is brought to repentance and faith.  Celebrate the tangible expression of God’s mercy at his altar where Jesus gives you his own body and blood that won your forgiveness and now delivers forgiveness to your soul.

Conclusion

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”  And in this great parable of Jesus, we learn what our worship ought to be.  Father in heaven, forgive us when we turn worship into a self-centered show of our accomplishments.  Father in heaven, send us your Spirit that our public worship and daily lives of worship may be filled with gratitude for the one whose work is worthy of our worship, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Acknowledgement: Some of the thoughts at the end of part one of this sermon are taken from thoughts I heard in the closing sermon preached by Pastor Mark Bitter at last weekend’s (Feb. 21-22, 2009) School of Worship Enrichment at St. Paul’s First Lutheran Church in North Hollywood, CA.  Pastor Bitter serves Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in the Woodlands, TX, and is chairman of the WELS Commission on Worship.  Some of the thoughts at the end of part two of this sermon are taken from the sermon I preached last Sunday morning (Feb. 22, 2009) at the School of Worship Enrichment.  Because that sermon was preached to a congregation other than my own, I’ve duplicated a few of those thoughts in this sermon.

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