Posted by: Johnold Strey | February 17, 2010

Sermon for Ash Wednesday (2010)


Part of a Lent sermon series titled “The Places of the Passion”

Text: Luke 18:9-14


Have you heard of the Stations of the Cross?  The Stations of the Cross is a meditation on the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus Christ common especially among Roman Catholics, although it is not unheard of in other Christian denominations.  People meditate on the Passion of Christ by viewing fourteen different “stations,” whether they are fourteen different outdoor shrines, or 14 individual paintings depicting different scenes from the Passion.  The traditional Stations of the Cross begin with Pilate condemning Jesus to death, and end with Jesus’ body laid in the tomb.  Because six of the fourteen stations did not have scriptural support, the Roman Catholic Church authorized a new concept, called the Scriptural Way of the Cross, with fourteen stations to mediate on, each one connected to a particular biblical account.

In a sense, our midweek Lent services this year will be our own version of the Stations of the Cross.  In these Wednesday services during Lent, and in the services of Holy Week, we will walk through the Passion history and meditate on particular incidents that took place at specific locations.  We will start in the Upper Room, and ultimately end at Golgotha, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion.  But before we consider the original places of the Passion, we will first consider the place where we gather to meditate on the places of the Passion.  So tonight, as our Lenten journey begins, we consider this place—God’s house, the church, his “temple.”  We will consider the attitude that we bring with us as we study and meditate on the places of the Passion.  And in the Ash Wednesday Gospel account, the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus tells us that this place, God’s temple, ought to be a place of humility.


If you know your New Testament well, you know that Jesus had several spars with the Pharisees.  We are used to viewing the Pharisees as the bad guys.  But most people in Jesus’ day wouldn’t have thought that way.  The Pharisees knew their Hebrew Bible better than the rest of the population.  The Pharisees followed Jewish religious laws and customs more stringently than the rest of the population.  By all accounts, these were good people.

At least, that’s how they appeared outwardly.  But looks can be deceiving.  We know this from the news.  Tiger Woods appeared to be a devoted husband and father until his secrets were recently unraveled for all the world to see.  And in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus unravels the sinful hearts that resided inside these religious leaders who appeared outwardly to be so religious.  Luke does not say that Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees, only that he was addressing “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.”  But that description certainly suggests that representatives of the Pharisees, and others who aspired to be like them, were among the audience as Jesus began this parable.  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  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.’” 

For us to have a proper relationship with God, two things must be in proper order.  We must have no sin, and we must be perfectly holy.  We can’t have the negative, but we must have the positive.  And the Pharisee knows that!  Listen to his prayer.  He tries to make himself appear sinless by comparing himself to a wide range of people known and named by their sin, even going so far as to shame the tax collector who was within earshot.  He tries to make himself appear holy by measuring his life with the standards of Jewish traditions—traditions that he far exceeded with his twice weekly fasts and tithing all his income.  But notice what he does not say.  This man, who supposedly knows his Old Testament so well, does not make any reference to the stern standards of the Ten Commandments.  His life and especially his heart would not look so pure if he compared himself with God’s moral law.  Compare yourself to sinful men and man-made standards, and you might look pretty good; but compare yourself to a holy God and his righteous standards, and that will tell a very different tale.

 A couple having marriage problems sought a counselor’s help.  In one session, the husband expressed his frustration over a recent argument.  As he related the incident to the counselor, he said, “I told my wife that if I offended her, I’m sorry.”  The counselor stopped him immediately.  “‘If I offended you’ is not an apology.  That’s blaming her for your actions.  ‘I’m sorry’ is an apology.  ‘I’m sorry if I offended you’ is not.”

How many times does that scenario play out in our lives?  How many times do we mentally manage to place the blame for our sins at someone else’s feet?  How many times do we try to be like the Pharisee and make ourselves look sinless by a direct or indirect comparison with someone else?  How many times do we hear the Word of God and create a mental list of other people who need to hear that sermon or who ought to take this or that particular point to heart?  To be sure, there are plenty of other people who need to hear how God’s Word cuts to the chase with the sin in their life.  But isn’t the first person who needs to hear that always me?

Our first parents tried to blame someone else for their sin.  Adam blamed Eve.  Eve blamed the serpent.  It was just another form of comparison.  “Yes, I ate the fruit, but she picked it off the tree.”  “Yes, I picked it off the tree, but the serpent had the idea.”  And the fig leaves of their excuses could not hide their bare sin and guilt before God.  God’s verdict was clear.  “Dust you are, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).  And the dust and ashes on your foreheads tonight proclaim the very same verdict from the same all-knowing God who will not be fooled by our lame attempts to compare ourselves to others or blame our sins on others.


Social science research suggests that as much as eighty percent of communication happens non-verbally.  I might greet you by saying, “It’s good to see you,” but you will know what I really mean by my gestures.  If that greeting is accompanied by a hug or a handshake and a smile, you’ll know that I meant what I said.  But if those words come with a blank stare and without an outstretched hand, those gestures will tell you much more than the words did.

Listen to Jesus describe the second main character in the parable, the tax collector.  Listen especially to the description of his actions, because his actions say something.  “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.’”  Picture that man in your mind.  Watch his actions.  What do they tell you?  What do you see?  He doesn’t want to look to the heavens.  He doesn’t want to face God.  He does not stand up tall with a broad chest to boast, but he beats his chest as an ancient gesture of grief and remorse.  This man is the picture of humility in God’s house.

His actions tell you something, and so does his prayer.  There is not a single word about his accomplishments, nor a single word deflecting his guilt to others!  He doesn’t blame the way he has extorted money from others on the culture so common around Roman tax collectors.  He does not arrogantly think that something he can do will take away God’s just wrath for his sin.  He only pleads that the wrath of God against his sin may be absorbed by someone else: “God, have mercy on me.”  And he speaks as if there is only one person God is looking at—himself.  Literally he prays, “God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”  Not, “God, have mercy on me, one of many sinners.”  Just, “God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”

This poor fellow is the picture of humility in God’s house.  But this poor fellow is the picture of the kind of person that should be found in God’s house.  For Jesus ends his sobering parable with this statement: “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.”  If you think you are doing God a favor coming to his house, you’ve got another thing coming.  If you know that you bring nothing to God when you come to his house, and if you come humbly pleading for his mercy rather than the just judgment your sins deserve, God has something great and gracious in store for you.

The temple, the church, the house of God—whatever you want to call it—is a place of humility, because as we gather humbly in this place, we come to hear about the one who came humbly into this world for us.  In the Upper Room, Jesus humbly hides his glory to emphasize his saving purpose.  In Gethsemane, Jesus humbly held back his glory as his enemies arrested him and the eternal wheels of justice begin to place our guilt on Jesus.  In the trials before the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, Jesus humbly confessed his divinity before one court that condemned him for his words and another court that sentenced him to the death that ultimately paid for our sin.  On the cross for those hours of eternal agony, Jesus humbly endured the wrath and punishment that should have been ours but faith has now replaced with the gift of Jesus’ righteousness.  In this house of God, and especially in this Lenten season, we hear and even rejoice in the humility of the One whose power and might created this world and whose sacrificial love redeemed every soul in this world.  With this gospel ringing in our ears, can we come into this temple with any other attitude than humble gratitude for our Savior’s humility?


This week, one of my friends on Facebook wrote that he was genuinely excited that Lent was about to start.  And a few others responded with similar comments.  Maybe Ash Wednesday ashes, somber services, mournful hymns, and Passion history readings sound like a strange thing to be excited about.  Maybe that doesn’t sound like the humility Jesus calls us to demonstrate in our reading.  But when the law of God has humbled us to our knees in repentance, is there a greater message to celebrate and rejoice about than the serious, saving work our Lord Jesus performed?  As austere as midweek Lent services are, I can’t think of a more meaningful worship experience than the services we hold this time of year.  So come back next Wednesday, and the Wednesdays to follow.  Follow Jesus humbly as he humbly travels to and through the places of the Passion.  And humbly rejoice that his humility led him to literally love you to death and eternally place you in the exalted glory of heaven.  Amen.



%d bloggers like this: