23 Pentecost Proper C25
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Luke 18:9-14 Sermon
October 23, 2016
Click here for service internet broadcast/podcast.
Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal & With One Voice):
TLH 657 "Beautiful Saviour"
TLH 276 "Today Thy Mercy Calls Us"
TLH 279 "Come Unto Me, Ye Weary"
TLH 15 "From All That Dwell Below The Skies"
TLH 250 "Holy God We Praise Thy Name"
WOV 784 "You Have Come Down To The Lakeshore"
WOV 771 "Great Is Thy Faithfulness"
TLH 338 "Thine Forever God Of Love"
TLH 658 "Onward Christian Soldiers"
NOTE: This is a "hymn sing Sunday." Hymns replace various portions of the normal liturgy, all of which were requests from the congregation.
ARE WE SANCTIMONIOUS?
TEXT (vs. 14b): “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Do you know anybody that is sanctimonious? That's probably the best term to use when somebody pretends to be morally better than somebody else, or they are hypocritically pious or devout. We might use terms like "self-righteous" or more colloquially, "holier than thou."
Ah yes, we know people like that. And they are really irritating too, especially when people make themselves better than we are. We want to get about as far away from them as we can.
In this election year, we are especially sensitive to this. One candidate will say, "You don't want to vote for that dirt-bag; I'm so much better than they are, so you'd better vote for me!" And true to form, their opponent will say much the same thing. They might not use the exact same words as I just used, but you can quickly strip away the verbiage and see that this is the intent.
So let me make this a bit more personal for you. I don't think I've met any more sanctimonious people than I have amongst seminary students and new pastors. They are in classrooms learning languages and the fine arts surrounding dogmatics and homiletics. In fact, they look for ways to show off their head full of knowledge. They hold themselves up as shining examples. And when they eventually fall off their pedestal, the result is what we might call "learning a lesson the hard way."
My dad shared a story with me years ago that stuck with me. It's a simple story really, about half a dozen seminary students who went to a church service one day. They sat together and took copious notes throughout the service. After they left the church, they got together and wrote the pastor a lengthy letter critiquing him and telling him everything he was doing wrong. The pastor was a seasoned veteran in the ministry and knew what he was doing. The Lord was using him as one of his spokesmen. And instead of being fed and paying attention to what was being said, they spent their time being sanctimonious.
So here was my dad's advice to me. He said, "God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason." That's a very old saying, but very true. He also said that all of my education was a resource upon which I should draw, but not in a way that should be lorded over anybody.
He said he learned this in his first rural congregation, where only two people had a college education. They could care less about conjugating a Greek verb, or figuring out the accusative function of a Greek noun. The message they needed to hear was one of sin and grace, of law and gospel, and that Jesus loved them and had died on the cross to forgive their sins. They needed to hear that when they folded their hands in prayer that God heard what they had to say, and that he cared about them. They needed to know that when they closed their eyes for the final time, they would inherit the mansion in heaven Jesus had prepared for them. There was no room for being sanctimonious.
Today in our Gospel lesson, Jesus is teaching a lesson on being sanctimonious. It's a rather short lesson, because the concept is not all that complicated. It's the proud versus the humble. And digging just a bit deeper, it's a case of someone being honest with themselves, as opposed to someone who is living a lie.
I remember a situation a while back, where I was sitting at a table eating with a group of people. Another pastor and his wife were there. The pastor's wife was talking about another pastor's wife, who used to live in the same town. She said, "You know, I saw her out behind the church one day, smoking a cigarette! Somebody like that could never be in our fellowship!"
Both of my parents smoked, and most of you know that I smoked as well. I wonder what this pastor's wife would have to say about my parents? What would she have to say about me? Would she say, "Pastor Dan, I thank God that I'm not like you, because I'm better than you?"
Self-righteousness is a nasty disease that makes people judgmental over others. And when we encounter such sanctimonious people, don't you just want to walk right up to them and slap them silly? It's people like this in the church that make others just want to turn and run away.
The one person in our Gospel story today is the Pharisee. He's the sanctimonious pietist who believes himself to be so much more superior than everybody else. He even lists all of his various accomplishments and brags himself up to God. "Hey God, get a load of me! See how good I am and all the things I do! I deserve your favor and blessing!"
Every time I hear someone go on a pietistic tirade, I think of this parable Jesus is talking about. And there are so many other areas of the Bible that warn about this type of behavior! Both Peter and James in their epistles quote Proverbs chapter 3 verse 34: "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."
The Virgin Mary, when she is told that she will give birth to the Saviour, she says in Luke chapter 1 verses 51-52: "He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble."
God doesn't have any more use for sanctimonious pietists than we do! He even gives a warning in Proverbs chapter 16 verse 18: "Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall." And even with this, people are still out there being huge self-righteous pains in the neck. What in the world is wrong with them?
It stems partly from taking something too far. We know that as Christians, we're supposed to act like Christians. We're to love God, and love our neighbor. And furthermore, we are supposed to identify sin for what it is, and not try to justify it or gloss over it. That's essentially living a Christian life. We are to give God glory through our lives.
The problem comes in when people make that the "be all to end all." The important thing then becomes what one does as opposed to what one believes. And when that happens, it throws everything off-kilter.
The other thing that happens is when people start interjecting their own rules and regulations where God has remained silent. This infringes upon what we know as Christian liberty. Let me give you an example.
The Bible speaks about drunkenness, and the problems connected with it. That's all well and good. However, people take this too far. They interpret this to mean that there is a general prohibition against the consumption of any alcohol. And that's wrong too.
At the wedding at Cana of Galilee, Jesus' first miracle was to turn water into wine. It was a celebration, and people were consuming alcohol. When the wine ran out and Jesus did his miracle, the master of ceremonies even commented as to how good the wine was, and how unusual it was that the better wine would be kept in reserve until now. That was real wine with real alcohol. The Bible never even alludes to wine being anything other than an alcoholic beverage. But there are those sanctimonious people who contend that Jesus never consumed alcohol, and that he basically turned water into grape juice.
The same could be said about the Last Supper. Jesus and his disciples were celebrating the Passover meal. And at that meal, the associated rules stated that wine was to be consumed at various stages. When Jesus took the final cup of wine, he said, "This is my blood shed for you."
In keeping with this tradition, most churches use real wine for the Lord's Supper as we do here. However there are those who contend that consuming any alcohol is completely wrong! And so, based purely upon this idea, there are those who blatantly refuse to serve wine for the Lord's Supper. We certainly recognize that there may be extenuating circumstances where regular wine couldn't be used, but it can never be asserted that consuming wine with alcohol is Biblically wrong.
Remember the sharp criticism that was leveled at Jesus? In Matthew chapter 11 verse 19 Jesus talks about this. He says, "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
Self-righteousness is definitely a sin, and it is probably one of the hardest ones to grasp. What makes it so difficult is that it seems we are condemning people for being good. Why in the world would it ever be wrong to try to do the right thing?
The problem isn't so much in the action, as it is in the attitude. Some people have even gone so far as to say, "You know, I didn't sin yesterday; I haven't sinned so far today, and I don't think I'll sin tomorrow." And we know that such a thing is absolutely impossible to accomplish.
But we have to confess that we've been sanctimonious at times in our lives. That's where we need to look at this tax collector in our story. Here is a man who was most likely very wealthy and successful. He had a lot of things he could brag about. He probably had even collected his fair share of taxes from that Pharisee.
But he doesn't come before God kiting about himself and making out how good he is. Instead, he beats his breast (which is a Jewish sign of repentance), and places himself at God's mercy. He says, "God be merciful unto me, a sinner."
This is the whole idea of what the Church is supposed to be. Unlike what the Pharisee thought, the Church isn't this place where people can see who can outshine whom. It is sinners who come to God asking for mercy and forgiveness, and receiving exactly what God has promised them. We come to God, and say that we have sinned against him in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done and by what we have left undone; that we have knowingly committed sins, and that we have even sinned without being consciously aware of it.
While we're alive on this earth, we're continually affected by sin. If we look at our Psalm for today, David brings this into remarkable clarity. From the moment that first cell divides until we draw our last breath, we are part of the sinful human race. John Calvin uses the term "total depravity." Throughout our lives, we need a Saviour. The Apostle Paul reminds us of this in Romans chapter 3, verses 10-12: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” That should put to rest any sanctimonious notions we might have.
That's why we come to Jesus, knowing that through our faith in him, we will find mercy and forgiveness. God has brought us to the point where we can honestly see our faults and failures; and whatever they may be, he will forgive us for Jesus' sake. God doesn't ask us how many times we've sinned, or how often we've stumbled and fallen. God doesn't keep a record of how often we have come to him asking to be forgiven. All he asks of us is that we come to him. Just come, and that's it. Come and experience what Jesus has done for us; come and receive forgiveness through faith alone.
The importance here is put upon what we believe, what we have in our heart. God isn't impressed with our level of piety, just our relationship with Jesus our Saviour. In Romans chapter 10 verse 9 the Apostle Paul puts it very nicely: "That if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." It doesn't get much easier than that, now does it?
But still there will be the sanctimonious pietists out there, those people who will literally drive us crazy. They're no different than any other sinner who needs the forgiving love of Jesus in their lives.
You might have heard me tell this humorous story before because it's one of my favorites. One Sunday after church, this lady approached a bachelor farmer who was a member of the congregation. She was shaking her finger as she scolded him, "I saw your pickup truck parked in front of the corner bar yesterday. What kind of a person will people think you are? Won't people think you are a lush? Aren't you concerned about the kind of impression you make on others?"
The bachelor farmer didn't say a word. The next afternoon, he got in his pickup truck and drove over to this lady's house. He parked on the street in front of her house, got out, locked it up, and left it parked there all night long.
In the beginning I told you about the young seminary students who visited a congregation one Sunday and used it as fodder for a sanctimonious critique of all the things the pastor did wrong. This actually has meaning for me too, because I've had it happen, even in the recent past. I have never received any letters, but people have mocked me and made fun of me behind my back.
One such situation happened in my first congregation with a young man who was a friend when he left for seminary, and afterward he proceeded to criticize me at every turn. He didn't last long in parish ministry.
The lesson I learned from this and other similar situations was not to retaliate in anger, as tempting as it might be, but as a reminder to be faithful to God and his Word, and to never fail to give people a message of love, acceptance, forgiveness, and hope. In other words, I need to do my job regardless of the sanctimonious rantings of others, because these treasures of God are theirs as well.
And here's a lesson I learned early on: I loved talking to older pastors and hearing what they had to say instead of making fun of them behind their back. I asked questions, and they were more than happy to share their gems of wisdom. I also enjoy being fed by younger pastors and listening to their insights. God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason, and I can certainly appreciate that.
Jesus wants us to be honest with ourselves. He wants us to see ourselves as the sinners we are, who come to God asking for mercy and the forgiveness of our sins.
But most importantly, he wants us to know that through faith alone in him, we will receive that for which we ask. We will receive God's mercy, not because of a lot of good works and a sanctimonious pietistic attitude, but because just like the tax collector in our Gospel lesson, he has indeed had mercy upon us.