Sermon for Trinity 11
2 Samuel 22:21-29 + 1 Corinthians 15:1-10 + Luke 18:9-14
I want you to understand this morning the great blessing that has been given you, the unspeakably great blessing of knowing God the Father, who is the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent. As Jesus said, that “is eternal life.” If you’re out in the world at all during the week, you probably spend lots of time surrounded by lots of people who don’t know and trust in the true God through Jesus Christ, and who, therefore, remain dead in trespasses and sins. Yesterday, I was in a room full of people who don’t know the true God. I attended a Jewish Bar Mitzvah ceremony—for the second time this year. A lot of work and a lot of emotion went into that service, and everyone who spoke or sang did a fine job. The only problem was that the people in that room were just like the Pharisee in our Gospel in relation to God.
Now, in relation to man, the people at that Jewish temple didn’t act like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable despised his fellow man and looked down on the sinful tax collector in the temple in Jerusalem. The people at this Jewish temple were warm and welcoming. But in relation to God, they and the Pharisee were very much alike.
St. Luke tells us that Jesus spoke this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others. Jesus paints the picture of the Pharisee for us—this pompous religious man who walks into God’s temple with his head held high, telling God what a good man he was and how many good things he had done: “God, I thank You that I am not like other men.” Now, he may have realized at some point in his life that he had sinned against God in some way, and maybe he had even repented of those things. But he was past that now. Now, sin was a distant memory in this man’s mind. He didn’t come before God in His holy Temple with sins that weighed on his heart, seeking God’s forgiveness. He came with good things, so many offerings given, so much care taken to live his life without sin. He had gotten past repentance.
That’s where the Jews are today, as a religious people. They’ve gotten past repentance. They’ve moved on. Now, they seek to be righteous people. They seek justice here on earth. They seek to be the agents of change for the betterment of mankind. In other words, they trust in themselves that they are righteous. Or, at least, they trust in themselves that they need to make themselves righteous, and for many, that is a source of constant guilty in their lives, because they know they need to be righteous before God, but, in a moment of honesty, they also know that they haven’t done it, and can’t do it. And yet they continue to trust in themselves, that they have to do it, that they have to establish their own righteousness before God.
That’s what the Apostle Paul recognized about his own flesh and blood, his own countrymen: Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable sought his own righteousness and so did not submit to the righteousness of God—the righteousness of faith in Christ as the Mercy Seat, as the Throne of Grace. Only the righteousness of Christ counts before God. Only His perfect love, only His perfect obedience and submission to His Father’s will, only His innocent death on the cross atones for sin. Only in Christ does God offer peace and mercy and rest and righteousness. And so, Jesus says very bluntly in the parable, “I tell you this man did not go down to his house justified.” For he exalted himself and his own works before God, and did not humble himself in repentance and faith in God’s mercy toward him, a sinner.
So it is with the Jews today. In seeking to establish their own righteousness, they exalt themselves, and they lose out on God’s peace and God’s mercy and God’s forgiveness and God’s righteousness which He gives solely through faith in Christ.
But God’s Word to you today is not, “Thank God you are not like the Jews.” No, Jesus’ words were spoken to unbelieving Jews, but St. Luke’s Gospel was written for Christians. Because you are in as much danger as the Jews were of falling into the pit of self-righteousness and this mindset of “getting past repentance.” Watch out. The only thing you’re left with when you get past repentance, is impenitence.
See how dangerous it is to get past repentance. See how damning it is to stand before God and offer Him your good deeds. The Pharisee went down to his house not justified—that is, still condemned to hell for his sins, which, even though he didn’t acknowledge them, God knew them all too well.
Now, you’ve learned too much of the Gospel and of the righteousness of faith for the devil to deceive you into relying solely on your good deeds. He can convince the Jews to do that, but not you, I think. No, with Christians who have learned the Gospel, the devil doesn’t waste too much time trying to get you to reject Christ and trust only in yourself and your own righteousness. Instead, he allows you to trust partially in Christ, even while he convinces you that you still have to rely partially on yourself.
How can you tell which righteousness you’re depending on? Well, what is your hope of heaven based on? “I was a good Christian and I did the best I could. I tried to do the right thing—oh, and yeah, I believed in Jesus, too.” Is that it? That’s the righteousness of works. Or, what do you come to church for? Do you come to confess your sins and to receive God’s mercy and comfort and peace in His Word and Sacrament? Or do you come to do the good work of coming, or to have a good time, to be entertained, to socialize, or to praise God for how good you are? Or, another question—why don’t you come to church on the Sundays when you don’t? Apart from illness or occasional work-related absence, could it be that you’ve gotten past repentance, or that you think you can receive mercy from God apart from His Word and Sacraments? Could it be that you don’t really believe He will deal mercifully with you at all?
Learn from Jesus’ parable today. If you ever begin to trust in yourself, that you are righteous, even a little bit righteous, if you ever begin to think that you don’t need God’s mercy so much, or, as a result, if you ever begin to despise others or think of yourself as better than them, remember the Pharisee and the condemnation he received from the mouth of Jesus. And then, remember also the tax collector.
The tax collector was a real sinner with real sins to confess—sins that he wasn’t proud of, sins that he now acknowledges and wishes he hadn’t done, but he can’t change the past, and he can’t cut out his sinful heart and make it clean. So he does the only thing God has given sinners to do. He goes to the house of God, where God has promised to be propitious, where God has promised to accept prayers and show mercy—the Temple in Jerusalem, the place where God’s altar was fired to burn up sacrifices every single day and to accept the blood of spotless animals as the propitiation for the sins of those who offered up the animals. To this temple the tax collector goes, with his dirtiness, with his guilt, with his sinful heart. But he doesn’t go with his head held high. He goes with his eyes toward the ground and beating his breast. He offers God nothing, no good works, not even an excuse for his sins. He simply pleads with God, God, be merciful to me a sinner! —actually, literally, he says, “the sinner,” as if he were the only one around. And Jesus tells us what God in heaven did for the sinner who came to His Temple in repentance, seeking mercy from the God of mercy: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified.” Forgiven. Absolved. Pronounced righteous before the divine tribunal.
God does not justify those who think themselves righteous. But He does dependably, faithfully justify the sinner who repents, who seeks God’s mercy in the place where God has promised to be merciful.
That place was the Jewish Temple, but no longer. Because the One whom the Temple foreshadowed has now come. Christ Jesus is the place where God has promised to be merciful, and where God has promised to hear the prayers of those who seek forgiveness in Him. The blood of Christ has been shed, once for all, and it’s valuable enough to cover the sins of all. Those who have gotten past repentance do not seek refuge in the blood of Christ, but in their own imagined improvement. But the sinners who walk in daily repentance, believers in Christ—they are constantly seeking refuge and shelter in the blood of Christ, who is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but for the sins of the world. God invites all men to seek shelter in the blood of Christ, to find forgiveness there, not just once, not just at the time of your baptism, but every day, every week, as long as you live here on this earth.
You will not find Christ in Jerusalem, though. You will not find the place of propitiation—the Throne of Grace—in your heart. God has not directed you to somehow approach Him directly. He has directed you to Baptism once, and to the preaching of His Word and to this Sacrament of the Altar over and over and over again. Here God is propitious and merciful. Here God forgives sins, not to people who come with their own righteous, but to sinners who seek righteousness only in the blood of Christ.
This is what separates true Christianity from the Jews, and from the rest of the world. While the world seeks to establish its own righteousness before God and fails every time, Christians have righteousness and God’s favor and eternal life as a free gift, through faith in Christ Jesus. This is the blessing that you have been given: to repent and believe in Christ. This is the Word of faith that is also yours to proclaim to the world. May God preserve us from ever getting past repentance. And may He use us to spread the Word of Christ, that the Holy Spirit may bring many more to repentance through our witness. Amen.