This sermon was preached at Peace Hill on July 3rd, 2011. To listen to the audio of this sermon, just click on this link – Justin 7/3/11.
Luke 18:9-14 Leave Your Yardsticks at the Door 7/3/2011
One man comes to a worship service in desperate need of mercy and reconciliation from God, and he gets it. Another man comes to display his impressive deeds to God (and to play judge over other people), thereby ignoring the forgiveness that God is trying to offer him.
With this story, Jesus confronts the way we come to worship: Do we come projecting an image to God, to ourselves, to everyone else—an image that we have it all together, that our own works have placed us in the “good folks” category? That is, do we focus on how we are measuring up (or not) compared to other people? Or do we come looking to God to give us the forgiveness, grace, and power that we cannot supply on our own?
Two Different Ways of Worshiping
“Two men went up to the Temple to pray” (vs. 10). This is probably happening during group worship, in the gathering place for believers. Twice a day, in Jesus’ time, people could come to the Temple for the prayers and the sacrifice that promised reconciliation with God for all who trusted in Him. Today we’d say “two men walked into a church service.”
–The Pharisee is a pretty good person who does good things, and he’s made sure that he measures up to a standard (even if it isn’t God’s standard). He comes to the Temple “spiritually dressed to impress.” He is glad that he isn’t sinning (at least not in any of the ways on his list). He is self-focused (he says “I” five times in just two verses): He doesn’t thank God for God’s gifts. He lists his religious accomplishments and distances himself from other people, including one of his fellow-worshipers. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people [he claims to know this!]: I’m not like rogues, swindlers, the sexually immoral, or even like this tax collector [here he is attacking/accusing a fellow-worshiper]. I fast twice a week [which is much more than the once-a-year fast the Law required] and I tithe ten percent of everything I get [again, this is over-and-above what was required].” In other words, “On my grading scale, I’m doing well.”
–The tax-collector is not a good person. But his focus is on how he stands with God. He knows that he has no claim on God’s favor. He doesn’t try to make anyone think he’s a good person, and doesn’t claim to be better than others; we don’t see that he makes any comparisons at all. His posture and his gestures of extreme sorrow (vs. 13) show that he understands the seriousness of his sin. He can only trust in God’s mercy, God’s atonement.
Two Different Outcomes of Worship
Jesus gives us the meaning of the parable: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.” Thus he reveals that the Pharisee didn’t come to worship to praise God or connect with him. The Pharisee came to raise himself up above other people (to “be exalted”). In praying this way, he ignores the whole point of the Temple: the sacrifice and the worship around him—the sacrifice that says, “Youhave sinned, and this sin is deadly serious, but God is graciously offering you a restored relationship with him.” Jesus reveals that the sacrifice doesn’t do the Pharisee any good (vs. 14) because he won’t accept that he needs God’s mercy for anything—doesn’t need God for anything, actually. He’s a good person, doing good things, but his life and his “worship” are based on self-defined standards, not on God’s.
The tax-collector humbles himself, and by God’s grace is accepted despite his life of crime. Jesus rewrites his title from “criminal” to “justified person!”
Come As You Are, Not As You Aren’t
How do we come to worship, to prayer, to Jesus’ meal? If we come proud of the obligations we’ve checked off, or focusing on our superiority or inferiority to the person in the seat next to us, then praying & attending worship don’t do us much good. Over time it will only fuel our judgmental and self-righteous attitudes (verse 9). Jesus speaks this parable to us: he lovingly confronts us with how ridiculous our pride is, when compared with God’s majesty & mercy. At the cross, where the “good people” killed the Righteous One, God showed the failure of all our self-salvation projects and the end of any basis for looking down on others. The Supper we take today connects us with that moment where God gives to us what we could never provide for ourselves: forgiveness, a new status not as failures but as his beloved children.
We have the promise of Jesus that if we leave our yardsticks and grading charts at the door, asking God to come to us instead of looking down on others, we will be lifted to our feet and made right with God (vs. 14). Christ’s promise is not empty words: he sealed it by giving his life for failures, rebels and hypocrites—for all who will stop hiding and just rely on his mercy.