TAKING SIN SERIOUSLY
Text: Luke 18:9-14
Lent Sermon Series: The Minor Characters of the Cross
For any play or drama or musical to be a success, you need strong main characters, solid supporting actors, and a reliable behind-the-scenes crew. The story follows the main characters, but if there are no minor characters to follow, the plot will not advance, and if the behind-the-scenes crew doesn’t do its job, the performance won’t get off the ground. All of these roles are important for the story to be told.
Tonight marks the start of another Lenten season. Tonight marks the beginning of our annual journey through the greatest historical and factual drama the world has ever seen. Tonight is the first step in our 40-day journey through the sufferings and death of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Our viewing of this drama will always focus on Christ as the main character, but as we make our journey this year, we will stop along the way and take note of the minor characters who played a part in this story—minor characters like the Sanhedrin, King Herod, Barabbas, Simon of Cyrene, and the two criminals crucified with Jesus. But as our review of the Lenten drama begins tonight, we will look first not at the minor characters but the behind-the-scenes characters—people you do not see in the Passion drama, people without lines to speak in the Passion story, but people who are in a sense responsible for the story that is about to unfold. On this Ash Wednesday, our sermon series begins with a parable of Jesus that puts the Passion into perspective and that urges us to take sin seriously.
An article in a Lutheran journal I subscribe to began with this sentence: “The sense of one’s own sinfulness and one’s own need for forgiveness has disappeared from contemporary piety.” The writer, a graduate of a Lutheran seminary, laments that Christians do not seem to take sin seriously anymore, and the rest of his article shows how this has affected the Church’s view of the Lord’s Supper, turning it primarily into a sentimental meal of unity rather than a sacramental meal of forgiveness.
But that complaint is nothing new. In the 1950’s E. Arnold Sitz, the first president of the Wisconsin Synod’s Arizona-California District, said this memorable line: “One thing we need to repent of is our repentance.” Pastor Sitz lamented that Lutheran Christians can shuffle their way through the weekly corporate confession of sins and hardly consider a word that they have spoken.
But that complaint is nothing new. In the Large Catechism, Martin Luther himself raised a concern about the disuse of private confession after he and the other Lutheran reformers got rid of the man-made demands for confession. “Everyone is now aware of this,” Luther wrote. “But unfortunately people have learned it only too well. They do as they please and apply their freedom wrongfully as if it meant that they ought not or must not go to confession.” Luther lamented that people of his day, freed from the tyranny of Rome’s demands, never took advantage of privately confessing their sins to the pastor and so finding comfort and forgiveness in a personal and assuring way.
But that complaint is nothing new. In the Ash Wednesday Gospel you heard a few minutes ago, Christ our Lord issues a strong warning to people in his day who failed to take sin seriously. The problem then was the problem in Luther’s day, which was the problem in the 1950’s, which remains the problem in 2004. Sin is not taken seriously.
Listen again to the beginning of Jesus’ parable in tonight’s Gospel. “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told 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.”’”
Did you notice the number of times the fictional, yet not-so-fictional Pharisee mentioned himself in his prayer? “I thank you that I am not like other men. … I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” Four times in two sentences! Do you detect the not-so-subtle message Jesus was communicating to the self-righteous minds and souls surrounding him as he spoke these words? “So you do all this ‘stuff’ for God. Oh, really? You think your little bi-weekly spiritual diet and your perfectly prescribed offerings are going to get God’s attention?” The problem then is the same problem today. We do not take sin seriously.
But God does. Ask the people of Noah’s day how seriously God takes our sin. Their death by drowning seems to suggest that God doesn’t take sin lightly. Ask Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, how seriously God takes our sin. The book of Exodus tells us that these two sons of Aaron offered “unauthorized fire” before the Lord, and because they did not follow his specific instructions, God killed them. Ask the exiles of ancient Judah and Israel how seriously God takes our sin. They ignored warning and warning after warning from God’s prophets, until God finally let their enemies capture them, kill some of them, destroy their cities and yes, even the great temple in Jerusalem. Ask all these people from the Old Testament how seriously God takes sin and you might get a different answer than the one your sinful flesh would like to believe.
A pastor who served as a teacher in one of our Lutheran high schools had a very good relationship with his students. They often came to him with their problems and concerns. This pastor tells the story of students coming to him after they had been caught red-handed doing something wrong. They were caught cheating by their teacher. They were cited for under-age drinking at a party they weren’t supposed to be at. Boyfriend and girlfriend cross the line and now she was pregnant. Frightened by the impending consequences of their actions and racked with guilt over their sin, they turned to their trusted pastor for help. And he told them, “We’ll deal with what you’ve done, but why do you feel guilty now? Weren’t you sinner before this happened? Didn’t you need to acknowledge your guilt before this happened? Why do you feel guilty now?” He got them to realize that they had really played the part of the Pharisee all along, not taking their own sin seriously and not seeing their dire need for Jesus seriously until they were seriously in trouble.
It’s a good thing that mature Christian adults don’t think like that, isn’t it? Surely we would not play the role of the Pharisee day after day and not realize that we were playing the part! Surely we would not look at other members of the body of Christ and wonder why they can’t sacrifice an extra hour for worship tonight, or an extra day or two each year to help out with the work of the church. Surely we wouldn’t open up our newspaper and watch the evening news and wonder to ourselves why people could stoop to such violence and filth. Surely we would not put ourselves into a predefined category of top notch believers in contrast with a sub-par class of Christians or of people in general, and surely we would not think to ourselves, “I thank you God that I’m not like other men.”
Except that we do. The teenager who falls into serious sin and repents is far better off than we are when we place ourselves into some class of Christian that stands above the rest, for the only real class of Christian is the Christian who calls “sinner.” If you came into this church tonight with any prayer on your lips short of, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” you have fallen victim to a sad, sorry, and Satanic lie.
There is another character in Jesus’ parable that merits our attention. The tax collector in took his sin seriously. Jesus said, “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.’” Jesus appropriately chose a tax collector as his example of a person who was not only recognized as a sinner, but as a person who recognized his own sin. Tax collectors in Jesus’ day were known for dishonesty, and they were despised for it. There was no way to deny his sin. How could he? There was no way to excuse his sin. How could he? All he said was, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Here is a notoriously crooked man, and all he can do is ask, plead, and beg God for mercy, all the while acknowledging that there is no reason God should accept him.
Jesus’ conclusion is so revealing. “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.” What did Jesus say? This man went home justified, not the other. This man went home with a cleared slate, a verdict acquitting him of all guilt before God. This man went home forgiven, for he took his sin seriously, and so did God.
This Lenten season we will take a look at the minor characters of the cross, all the while keeping our focus centered on the major character that went to the cross for us. As we look at the minor characters in the Passion history, our eyes will still be fixed on Jesus Christ, because in his Passion, God the Father and Christ his Son took our sin seriously.
This is how seriously God takes our sin: He doesn’t shrug it off, wink at it, or choose to look the other way in blissful ignorance. He punishes sin. He punished sin in the person of his Son, his beloved Son. Jesus, the only Son of God the Father, would be rejected by his Father in order to secure our heavenly acceptance and forgiveness. Tonight’s Second Lesson said it best: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” We know that God took our sin seriously because of his justice; he poured out his red-hot wrath against our sin on his Son who bore our sin for us. We know that God took our sin seriously because of his grace; he provided a heavenly replacement in Jesus who now gives us his righteousness. We know that God took our sin seriously because of his promise; he backs up the words of absolution you hear from your pastor and from your fellow Christians with the assurance that those words are as valid as if you heard them from Christ himself. We know that God took our sin seriously by his Sacrament; in the Lord’s Supper he generously gives and pours out his forgiving love in a personal and vivid way.
The Passion history has its main character, Jesus Christ. The Passion history has its minor characters, some of whom will be highlighted in the sermon to come over our five remaining Wednesday services in Lent. But there are also behind-the-scenes characters, and in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, we come to grips with the fact that we are the behind-the-scenes characters whose sin sent the Savior to his suffering and death. This Lenten season, let that humble reality sink in, so that the Pharisee inside us is daily put to death, and that the Tax Collector inside us daily clings to the cross where God’s mercy was poured out for us and Christ’s forgiveness was won for us. And may we daily join our prayer to the prayer of the tax collector: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Amen.