The sermon text is the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
Are you exalting yourself? Or are you humbling yourself?
It may be harder to tell than you may think. For instance, if you asked the Pharisee in the parable, he probably would have said that he was very humble. After all, his prayer was not exactly boasting. He was praying and giving thanks to God. If you see someone praying and giving thanks to God, you probably think that they are a good person.
If you watched this Pharisee go about his life, you would see that he really seemed to be a righteous man. He put a tenth of his income in the offering plate. He fasted twice a week. Not many people today do these things. He could also be seen regularly in God's house. Surely this was a good man.
So when the Pharisee thanked God that he was not like other men, he was giving credit to God, not himself. That is not a prideful action.
Usually, people think that Pharisees were sort of cartoonish villains. They would always dress in black, with black teeth. They would steal candy from babies and trip your grandmother.
But a real-life Pharisee is different. He smiles. He's nice. He's friendly. He often helps people in need. He goes to church. Everybody thinks he's a good guy.
You cannot tell a Pharisee from his behavior, because Pharisees often look and act righteous. Sometimes, they may look like the most loving people you know.
So how do you tell if you're a Pharisee who exalts himself? You cannot see it in your actions. It is in your heart.
Do you think that you are a good person? You don't have to think you're perfect to be a Pharisee. But if you find yourself thinking, "Well, at least I'm not as bad as him . . ." then you are a Pharisee.
You don't have to boast out loud. You don't have to brag to others. You can keep it to yourself, in your heart of hearts. Yet you are still a Pharisee, if you think that you are basically good and loving at heart.
It is so easy to slip into the mind set of a Pharisee. It is so easy to compare yourselves to others. It is so easy to think that you are righteous in yourself. You can sit in the pew at church and be a Pharisee. So you have to be on your guard. Watch out for the thoughts of the Pharisee to creep up from your sinful flesh and take over your thinking.
You can see people in some churches who raise their arms to heaven and sing loudly of how much they love Jesus. Then you are hearing the boasting of Pharisees to the accompaniment of electric guitars. As soon as church and worship become about how much you love, then you have become Pharisees.
Instead, church and worship should be about how poor, miserable sinners beg for God's mercy.
The tax collector thought that he was not only a sinner, but THE sinner. The English translations usually miss that little word, "the." The tax collector did not just think he was a bad sinner. He thought that next to him, nobody else quite deserved the name "sinner." In his mind, he was as bad a sinner as they come.
Is that your attitude toward yourself? Are you THE sinner? Are you as bad a sinner as any on earth? Then you are like the tax collector. And remember, only tax collectors go home from God's house justified and righteous before God.
Every Sunday, the Church's liturgy encourages you to think like a tax collector. You confess that you are by nature sinful and unclean. You sing, "Lord, have mercy." There is even an ancient tradition to place your fist over your heart at the words, "Lord, have mercy," like the tax collector who beat his breast in humility and shame.
But speaking the words will not help you if your heart does not repent. Your sinful heart wants you to be a Pharisee. This self-righteous desire is so strong in you that you would not be able to repent or believe in Christ at all, unless the Holy Spirit converted you into a new creature.
Even now that He has made you new, the old still remains. Sin and self-righteousness still lurk in your heart. Still, even now, you must confess, "I am the sinner."
Within your heart there is as much sin as in anyone else. Your nature is stained as black with sin as any robber or adulterer. This is not hyperbole or exaggeration of any kind. Every human heart contains darkness and abomination. You may not see it or feel it. But God's own Word says that it is so, so you must believe it.
When you confess your sinfulness, then you also hunger and thirst for God's forgiveness. The tax collector said, "Have mercy upon me." More literally translated, he said, "Make atonement for me."
The word "atonement" is not a soft, gentle word. It is a word describing blood and violence and wrath. Sin is so deadly and horrifying that it requires a serious and severe solution. Sin requires blood.
In the Old Testament, lambs and goats and bulls were sacrificed to satisfy the anger of God against sin. But it was never enough. There needed to be a bigger atonement. Holier, more precious blood had to be spilled to solve the problem of sin and death, once and for all.
All the tax collectors of the world were begging God that He should provide an atonement of blood. All our human attempts at atonement could not succeed. God had to provide the lamb for the sacrifice.
One perfect Lamb; one perfect sacrifice; one shedding of blood, and one death for all sins; Nothing less than the Lamb of God could atone for your sins. His blood alone is holy enough to erase all your sins from God's record. He alone was precious enough as God's own Son to satisfy His Father's fiery anger against all sins, including yours.
A Pharisee wants to say that sin is not so serious. At least, his sin is not so bad. Surely blood and suffering are not necessary, he thinks. He's made a few little mistakes, he thinks, but surely that does not require God's only Son, dying on the Cross.
A Pharisee does not think that he needs atonement. Likewise, a Pharisee does not think that he needs the forgiveness of sins in worship. He may attend worship for all kinds of other reasons, but not because he wants forgiveness.
A tax collector yearns for forgiveness. He desires it so much because he knows what a horrible sinner he is.
Are you a horrible sinner? I know you are, because Scripture tells me you are. But I hope that you know it, also.
You are not righteous by yourself. But here in God's house, He declares you righteous. He absolves you, and feeds you the food of redemption. If you are here because you think that you are already good, then you will receive nothing here. If you keep on thinking that you are good, then you will eventually become offended and leave this house, because there are so many offensive "sinners" here.
God's house is meant for sinners. If you do not think that you are one, then you might as well leave now. But if you know how great a sinner you are, then God will satisfy you with His atonement. For Christ's Blood was shed for you. He forgives you all your sins. So this is the right place for you.
Repent and believe, and you will be lifted up to the highest heaven, exalted with angels and archangels and saints of old. Humble yourself, and God will exalt you to His right hand.
In His Name alone, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, forever praised. Amen.
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