Ash Wednesday/Midweek 1 Repent: Turn to Jesus and Not to Yourself / Luke 18:9-14
Picture a lamb burning on the temple altar as the sun is sinking low in the sky. Can you smell the incense wafting in the breeze? As you elbow your way through all the people in the temple courts, your focus narrows to a single man in that crowd. He spends plenty of time in the temple. He is well dressed in flowing robes. He’s all business—a religious professional from head to toe. He stands up, perhaps in the middle of the crowd, so that he can be clearly seen and heard. Then your eye catches another man over in the corner. He’s a tax collector—probably a tax cheat! No one would ever accuse him of being a saint. He is all alone. He is in rough shape. Can you see that picture?
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 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.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The Pharisee had plenty to pray about. But did you notice what the Pharisee’s favorite word was? Lord? Heal? Help? Forgive? No, it was an ugly, all-consuming I. I thank you. . . . I’m not like other men. . . . I fast twice a week. . . . I give a tenth of all I get. . . . The Pharisee was celebrating his own little “Thanksgiving Day” in the temple courts! He was most thorough when it came to thanking God for himself, but he was absolutely forgetful when it came to remembering God’s blessings. He didn’t need to ask for a single thing from the heavenly Father, because he figured that he pretty much had everything he needed; even more, he WAS EVERYTHING God wants! How lucky God was to have a guy like the Pharisee on his side! He wasn’t a robber. He was a big giver! He wasn’t a glutton. He was a disciplined faster! He wasn’t a man like the scum of society. No, he was a spiritual cut above the rest! The Pharisee was doing just fine in his own estimation. Why bother turning to God when you can turn to yourself and your own holiness for the comfort of salvation?!
And then there is the other man in the parable: not an American idol but a clown; not a man full of himself but a man running on empty; not a man looking to be praised but a man looking to be forgiven. In a time when most people prayed with their heads held up toward heaven, the tax collector looked down in shame. At a time when most praying took place with hands held out, this man’s hands were clenched into fists that beat his chest in grief. His prayer was short and simple: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Literally, the tax collector was praying: “God be appeased.” He knew there was nothing he could do to appease the wrath of God against his sin. Fasting and washing could never make his sin “right” in God’s sight. He nor his attempts were the solution. He would have to turn toward another.
That’s really what we will be focusing these mid-weeks in Lent: is Repentance. Repentance is exactly what this tax collector did. It is a turning, not toward yourself and all the great things you've done compared to others, but turning toward God! God himself would have to appease his wrath toward our sin! That’s precisely what Isaiah wrote of in our Old Testament lesson. Tonight, we come to celebrate the Lord’s work of forgiveness, through the suffering and death of his dear Son. Ash Wednesday/Lent is a yearly reminder with the ETERNAL answer to the tax collector’s prayer!
Brothers and sisters, this Ash Wednesday/Lent, will you trade in your soft, comfortable security blankets of self-righteousness for the sackcloth and ashes of repentance? Why? Because turning toward ourselves isn’t only sinful, but it doesn’t make sense! Do you really think God respects that you are sitting in a pew right now compared to the people who aren’t? Do you really think God is admiring you compared to the Fat Tuesday party-ers from last night? Do you really think that God is impressed with your offering envelopes compared to those who give less than you? Why should He be impressed with an envelope in the offering plate when he wants 100 percent of your heart? Isn’t God, instead, comparing you with his holy self? Could it be, just maybe, that God has a right to be sick and tired of us turning toward ourselves for shallow comfort rather than turning toward him for salvation? As Jesus describes, “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus once told the Pharisees: “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness” (Lk 11:39). The Pharisee thought he was God’s right-hand man. He thanked God that he wasn’t a robber; however, in his heart, he was. The Pharisee fancied himself righteous, but he wasn’t. The Pharisee considered himself faithful and free of all adultery. Sadly, he had cheated, not on his wife but on his God as he carried on a long, passionate love affair with himself.
What’s the point of Jesus’ analogy? Jesus clarifies through this picture that people at their “best” is really people at their most dishonest! The Pharisee’s self-confidence is nothing but a false security of peace. Turning toward yourself simply serves as a detour on the road to hell—the place where the Pharisee has ultimately been humbled.
The tax collector? He was humble, and I’m not just saying he was humble with this material things, but he was spiritually humble. The tax collector knew his sin. But, in turning to Jesus, the Lord forgave him. In fact, he exalted this tax collector! Jesus said,“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”
How? By Jesus’ own role reversal. The Lord of heaven was humiliated and humbled for our sakes. He became the criminal on the cross. The God who fills the universe filled a tomb. The Lord of glory became the Suffering Servant so that the Father’s wrath against sin could be appeased, not by ignoring our sin, but by putting our sin on his Son. Jesus became the Chief of sinners up on the cross so that you and I, the real chiefs of sinners, could become sons and daughters in God’s family. Listen and be amazed at Jesus’ role reversal. Our Lord is the ultimate example of the humble being exalted.
The apostle Paul described it so beautifully to the Philippians:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Php 2:5-11)
Jesus taught that a Christian’s entire life is a life of repentance—a lifelong turning away from ourselves and our works and a turning toward Christ and his work. It is not in the goodness of your works that saves you, or the way you look that saves you, or the love and commitment that you have for your family, your church, or your country that saves you.
The humble cross of Christ saves you! Like the tax collector in the corner, the cross doesn’t look like much. But look closer, because in the cross you find a Father’s love and forgiveness, your God’s love and forgiveness! So with repentant hearts, turn to him who sacrificed himself for you! With grateful hearts, receive his mercy anew every morning. With expectant hearts, look forward to Easter victory! Amen.