Ash Wednesday + February 14, 2018
Text: Luke 18:9-14
Hymn: Jesus, I Will Ponder Now (Christian Worship, 98)
Wouldn’t it be great to be like that Pharisee? Just think. You ooze with self-esteem. If you were that Pharisee, you would have so much self-confidence you could bottle the extra and sell it. I envy people like that. They have loads of poise and tons of self-assurance.
And wouldn’t it be great to come to church with such dignity and composure? Imagine this fellow walking through the doors of church today. Everybody looks up to him because he never misses a service—not even when it snows! He knows the liturgy. He never mumbles. He sings with a beautiful, powerful voice. He also serves on all the boards and committees. The finance committee loves him because he actually gives ten percent of his income. And since he is such a talented, hard-working fellow he has a really good, high-paying job. So, his offerings really help the church budget.
And what is more, this guy is in great shape. He has such great self-discipline that he can stick to his diet. He works out. He gets regular medical checkups. And all his doctor can say is, “Wow. I wish all my patients took care of themselves like you do.”
Yes, it would be great to be like this guy. You would be healthy, wealthy and wise. You would be a vital member of your community and your church. People would respect you like you deserve to be respected.
And if you were like that Pharisee you would come to church totally at peace and happy. You would come to church well-rested. That’s because you always get a good night’s sleep. There’s no lying awake at night for you; no worries about guilt, fear and personal problems keeping you up. Yes, you would come to church with all that confidence. You would come to church with such peace and security.
But what about when you left church and went home? If you were like that Pharisee what would your status be after you walked out the church doors? What change would have happened to you after the service was over?
Well, if you were like the Pharisee, the answer would be, “Nothing.” You see, that Pharisee did not go to the temple to change or to be changed. He simply went to the temple to announce to himself, to announce to his neighbors and to announce to God one simple message: “Hey, everybody, I do not need to make any changes. I am A-OK, just the way I am.”
So, no, it would not be great to be the Pharisee. He came to the temple a self-confident sinner. He went home from the temple the same way—a self-confident sinner—a damned sinner—an unjustified sinner.
And then we have the tax-collector. When he went to the temple he was not brimming with self-confidence. Instead, the tax-collector had a heart filled with sorrow. He wanted to stay out of the spotlight. He felt so awful about himself all he could do was say, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner." (v 13)
Yes, this tax-collector entered the temple soaked to the bone with grief and shame. He had spent many sleepless nights reflecting on all the wicked things he had done. He had fretted over how he had abused his power to lie to and cheat his neighbors. He felt the burden of his guilt crushing him every day. He knew that his neighbors did not like him or respect him. But even worse than that, he knew that the almighty God did not like him or respect him. So, all he could do was offer a quiet but intense cry to heaven: "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
But what happened to this tax collector? What happened to this man who was so tormented within his soul? What happened to this man who was well-known as a sinner, a cheat and scoundrel? What happened when this man went home? Jesus says. "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.” (v 14)
He went home justified before God. That’s what matters. That’s what counts. When it comes to eternal life and everlasting security it does not matter how much self-esteem you have. It does not matter how great of a reputation you have as a pillar of the community. It does not matter how people judge you. It only matters how God judges you.
And how does God judge? Jesus says it plainly: "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (v 14)
Do you want God to exalt you? Do you want God to make you a changed person? Do you want to leave church after this service free from guilt, free from sin, and free from the fear of death? Do you want to go home tonight, crawl into bed and fall into peaceful sleep being able to say, I am forgiven! I am at peace with God. I am saved for all eternity. I deserved hell but now heaven is my home?
Well, of course, you want that real peace and eternal security. So, do what Jesus says. Do not exalt yourself like that Pharisee did. Do not strut around like you are the be-all-and-end-all of what it means to be a Christian. Do not announce to yourself, to the world or to God, I am A-OK just the way I am.
No, instead, humble yourself before God. Be like that tax collector. Examine your life with God’s holy law. Face the reality of your sin. Look in the mirror and see that you have cheated and lied. You have given God half-hearted devotion and inconsistent praise. You have gossiped and lusted. You have neglected God’s Word and failed to pray continually.
Yes, admit it freely. Confess it without holding anything back. You are a sinner. Do the only thing that is safe for a sinner to do. Throw yourself on God’s mercy. Be like that tax-collector: "But 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." (v 13)
But after you have spoken, listen. Listen to how God exalts you. God’s Word says, "For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us." (Ps. 103:11) God’s Word also says, "the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin." (I John 1:7) God’s Word also says, "you were redeemed from the empty way of life … with the precious blood of Christ." (I Pet. 1:18) And God’s Word says, "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:26)
That’s how God exalts every humble, penitent sinner. God washes away your sins with the blood of Christ. Washed and cleaned by the blood of Christ, you don’t need the false veneer of your own self-righteousness. You don’t need to prove yourself to God like that proud Pharisee wanted to prove himself to anyone who would listen. No, instead, the blood of Christ makes you pure and holy in the sight of God. God exalts you to the status of his own holy saint. And since the blood of Christ purifies you, you are as pure and holy in God’s sight as Jesus is pure and holy in God’s sight.
So when this service is over, go home. Walk out those church doors a changed person, a new person, a person covered with Christ, a person pleasing to God. Go home in peace and joy with grateful hearts. Go home justified. Go home justified in the sight of the only one whose judgment matters. Go home justified before God. Go home justified in the name of Christ. Go home justified through faith in the blood of Jesus Christ, your only Savior.