Sermon on Luke 18:9-14, Ash Wednesday
The Son of Man Came to Seek the Lost
Text: Luke 18:9-14
As the words still echoed new in their ears, their blood must have boiled over. It’s a wonder steam didn’t shoot back out of their ears! “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.” “Say what? You want us to believe that a tax collector could be better in God’s sight than we? Ha! That’s not even funny, that’s plain wrong.” Their furious passion for Jesus’ death surely reached a new feverish high.
After all, to think that a tax collector could be right before God was just silly. Tax collectors were the scum of the earth. Back then tax collectors were not brainy, pencil-pushing CPAs that you just had to employ because you didn’t have time to figure out Quickbooks or Turbo Tax. Tax collectors were greedy. Tax collectors were liars. Tax collectors were cheats. They would come a-knockin’ at the house and collect whatever amount was determined. But if that amount was 6%, they might ask for 7%. If they knew you were more wealthy and the amount was to be 12%, they might ask for 16%. The difference, of course, lined their own pockets. Today we might compare a cutthroat CEO of a company like Enron—someone that tramples on others, destroys their livelihood as he swindles their money, and then enjoys fine wines and cheeses to celebrate. You may even recall that in Matthew 18 Jesus says you are to treat an unrepentant sinner like an unbeliever—or a tax collector!
Pharisees were just the opposite. They were the crème de la crème. They were thoroughly trained in the Old Testament Scriptures. They “knew” God’s Word inside and out. Their devotion to the laws of the Lord went unmatched. If God’s laws put a fence of rules around their lives, then the Pharisees put another fence 20 feet outside that fence just to make absolutely sure they didn’t break a law of the Lord. God demanded a tithe of their harvest, but they would even snip off 10% of the herbs in their garden to give to the Lord. God declared two or three days of fasting every year, but the Pharisees would fast twice a week. They were the best of the best. How could anyone match their “knowledge” or their “holiness?” And how dare Jesus say that a tax collector could be more right in God’s eyes than a Pharisee? Impossible!
This is a polarizing parable that Jesus told. As you hear it, you automatically identify yourself with one of the two characters. There’s the Pharisee who stands up to pray in front of all the others so he could be clearly seen. He actually doesn’t even pray to God. He almost prays to himself, declaring how much God must need and value him: “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.”
But then there is his antithesis and polar opposite, the tax collector. He doesn’t dare allow himself to be seen by others, but stands at a distance. He felt such shame and guilt he couldn’t even look at God. His prayer is not full of boasting but of begging. His pleas are so fervent yet he still feels so unworthy. So he tries to beat the sin out of himself. All he can muster to utter is, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
So which are you? Surely we all like to think we are the tax collector. Besides, that’s the one that Jesus says is just in God’s sight! But are we? Are we really as humble as we think? Or have you ever come to church because that’s just what you do. You hold the service folder in your hands. The words cross your lips. But does the meaning touch your heart? The very same words this tax collector spoke are the very same words Christians have used for millennia in worship—“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In fact, this very evening we repeated over and over, “Lord, have mercy.” Do you say these words with trembling fear? Does the service folder vibrate with the tremors of your hands as you even begin to think about the sins you are pleading with God to forgive? Or maybe sometimes we walk in late after the confession of sins because it’s not that important anyway. The sermon is what’s really important.
Have you watched the news before and just been appalled? If you were recorded watching the news, would the audio playback be filled with constant “tisks” and “Oh, how awful. That’s just terrible.” Did you have thoughts like this: “That Casey Anthony is pathetic. How could a mother be so horrible and so wretched? I just know she did it. To murder her own beautiful daughter Caylee! What a revolting person!” “That Tiger Woods. What a deplorable and despicable guy. How could someone be so evil?”
Have your eyes caught a visitor coming into church before and your first thought is not, “How great! A new visitor!” but instead “Whoa. That person is a little different. Haven’t seen someone like that in here before.” How do you feel about reaching out to people of different cultures? What if we had a service in Spanish? “That’s nice . . . for other people. Not my thing though.” Have you thought, “I know he said to go and make disciples of all nations, but he couldn’t have meant those people too . . . or those weirdoes across the street. And those people over there are a different color than I. That’s just not my cup of tea. Others can try to make them disciples.”
It happens all the time. The ugly Pharisee inside rears its disgusting head. We just love to think we are so good or so worthy, or at least not as bad as that person over there. Being honest with ourselves is one of the hardest things we could do because that would mean that we might not look as good in the eyes of others, or worse, in the eyes of God.
But are we so great? Have we done that much? Are we really that much better than Casey Anthony or Tiger Woods or Jeffery Dahmer or Adolf Hitler? God views the one who hates the same as he views the one who murders. God views the one who has countless mistresses the same as the one who thinks about countless mistresses. God views the greedy, cheating, power-hungry CEO the same as he views the tax-evading, Dolce & Gabana hoarding, possession loving blue collar worker.
The word sin in the Bible literally means to miss the mark. It was an archery term in Greek culture. If you shot at the bullseye and missed by one ring or even missed the whole target, you hamartanowed—you missed the mark. You may have completely missed the target only a few times in life. You may have hit the inner circle thousands of times. But as long as you didn’t hit the bullseye, you still missed the mark and sinned.
God demands perfection. He doesn’t forbid idolatry most of the time. He doesn’t want us to remember the Sabbath day some of the time. He doesn’t tell us to love our neighbors as ourselves only when they are nice to us. God demands the bullseye. Perfection.
Knowing that, now I start counting and tallying in my head. How many arrows have I shot in my life? How many actions do I do each and every day? I probably do dozens, even hundreds, of different things every day—different thoughts, different words, different deeds. Each one is an arrow I shoot at God’s target. And if I shoot 100 arrows every day—do 100 different things—how many of those 100 are off mark? What if I missed the perfection of a bullseye 25 times a day? That would be a half million sins in 50 years. What a pathetic sinner I am!
So this evening I kneel before the Lord. I don’t even deserve to stand. I don’t even deserve to look up to the Lord. This evening I bow my head low and I kneel before the Lord. I beat my chest and I beg and I plead in the words of David, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”
Though they are not hot, this evening the Ash Wednesday ashes burn on the back of my hand. For I know the symbolism. Because of my sin—because of the things I have done in my life—I am destined to die and return to the dust from which Adam was first made. So I humbly fall at the feet of my God and I plead with the tax collector, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
But then the words of Jesus ring out in our ears: “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.” The word justified means to be declared innocent, like in a courtroom when the accused is declared not guilty. Jesus tells us that this tax collector was declared not guilty. It wasn’t because he was so humble. It wasn’t because he did a good job of confessing his sins. It was because of where his heart was. The Pharisee looked to himself for salvation. The Pharisee considered himself a shoe-in for heaven because he was so “upright” and so “holy.” But not the tax collector. He looked to the Lord for help. He put his trust in God’s mercy and forgiveness, which means that he put his faith in God’s Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.
This evening and throughout this Lenten season we will meditate upon a marvelous truth: The Son of Man Came to Seek the Lost. Each Wednesday we’ll examine another “lost” person or persons whom Jesus came to save. As we focus on Jesus who Came to Seek the Lost this Lent, we are reminded that means Jesus came to seek us. We were lost in our sins and transgressions. We were hopeless and helpless. We were doomed to death and destined to hell. We were lost.
Follow Jesus this Lent. Follow Jesus as he marches one step closer and closer to Calvary. Follow Jesus as he silently goes like a lamb to the slaughter. Follow Jesus as the accusations fly and the whips crack and the fists are hurled. Follow Jesus as he carries those wood beams through the streets toward a hill called Golgotha. Follow Jesus to the place where he was lifted up. For there, your sins were lifted up. There, your sins were placed onto him. There Satan was battled. There the flames of hell raged fiercely. There the cry of “Finished” echoed into the night. There the Son of God bowed his head in death.
Follow Jesus this Lent. Like the tax collector, with humble cries for mercy, follow Jesus to the tomb on Good Friday. Follow Jesus this Lent and prepare your Alleluias for Easter morning. For the The Son of Man Came to Seek You, the Lost, and the Son of Man has saved the lost. Thanks be to God!
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