The sermon text is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
How we worship affects what we believe. The reverse is also true. What we believe affects how we worship.
We can see this principle in the parable. The pharisee prays from what is in his heart. He is full of self-righteousness, so he prays a self-righteous prayer. The tax collector is filled with repentance by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, he prays a repentant prayer.
We can also see this principle from experience. If someone in their heart does not really believe that they are a poor, miserable sinner, then they will get tired of confessing these words in the liturgy. If a person thinks that the love in their heart is the most important thing in worship, then they want to sing about how much they love Jesus. And vice versa. If a person sings songs over and over about the love in their heart, then they will forget about repentance, or at best, repentance will become shallow, not heartfelt.
But if we keep ourselves in the historic Divine Service handed down to us by centuries of saints before us, then we will keep confessing these important Biblical truths. We are wretched beggars who must cry out to God constantly, "Have mercy upon me, the sinner."
But we should make sure that we do not confuse prayer with the means of grace. In other words, a person is not forgiven merely because they pray for it. Although God surely gives forgiveness in answer to the prayers of His saints, it is not the prayer itself that earns forgiveness. Jesus is not saying that the tax collector was forgiven because of the great fervor and sincerity and humility in his prayer.
We know this for certain because not everyone who is sorrowful over their sins and prays for it is forgiven. Many pagans pray to the wrong god for forgiveness. Many Americans suddenly decide to get religion and pray to God. They may even name Jesus, yet not have faith in His sacrificial death. Even sorrow over your sins is not enough. Judas was very sorrowful over his betrayal of the Messiah. Yet he received no forgiveness, since he had no faith. Without faith, there is neither true prayer before God nor is there forgiveness.
The prayers of both the pharisee and tax collector took place within the context of atonement from the true God. In the Temple of Jehovah, there is no doubt to whom they were praying. More than that, their prayers would take place at the time of the morning and evening sacrifices. Those were the times that public, individual prayer was allowed in the Temple. So there was before their eyes the true God's covenant of forgiveness through the shed blood of lambs and goats.
But only one of them prayed out of sorrowful humility and awareness of the magnitude of his sins. Only one of them looked upon God as the only possible Savior from the incredible weight of his overwhelming sins.
The other one believed that he is not that bad. Sacrifice would only need to take care of a few small mistakes in his life. Overall, he was a pretty good guy, or so he thought.
But no one is a pretty good guy before God's Law. The tax collector saw things as they truly are. We are very great sinners, each one of us. We should see things as Saint Paul did, who said, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief." In the words of the tax collector, we are "THE sinner," not just "A sinner". There should not be a sinner greater than us in our eyes. We should approach the throne of God with the awareness that we are most unworthy that He should listen to our prayers.
Yet He hears, nonetheless. We beg Him, "Have mercy upon us," and He grants what we ask. What we are asking for, along with the tax collector, involves more complicated words like "propitiate" and "conciliate" and "expiate." We are asking that God pay the price for the incredible weight of our overwhelming sins. The only price that can satisfy God's anger against sin is the sacrifice of a pure, innocent Lamb. There can be only one such Lamb. Christ alone could be the propitiation for your sins. He alone could silence the wrath of God against the magnitude of your sins by shedding precious Blood and dying in perfect innocence. Only He could atone for your sins by sprinkling His Blood upon you.
This He has done. Therefore, the Father does not see your sins. They are covered up by the Blood of the Lamb. Because of the sacrifice upon the Cross, the Father has declared you righteous in His eyes.
He has done it even today, as He delights to do it as often as He can. He has declared you righteous in this Divine Service, and every Divine Service where the pure Gospel is proclaimed. He has declared you innocent in your Baptism, in which you were Baptized into His sacrificial death. In this Holy Supper, He also bids us eat the sacrifice of the Lamb, whose true Body and Blood are received by our mouths.
For Christ is the sacrifice. Christ is the propitiation for your sins.
He also is the true Temple. He is the presence of the true God Jehovah, since He is the same Lord, one with His Father. Where He is, there holy saints are gathered to worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth. Therefore, you also are the Temple, since you are one with Christ, and He with you. You dwell in Him, and He in you. You are a holy building not made with human hands, one Church with all the saints on earth and in glory.
Christ could only be these things for you because He claimed for Himself the most humble place. Even though He had no sin, He was willing to be numbered with us sinners. More than that, He became sin itself, since He carried all sins upon His shoulders on Calvary. He became THE sinner, taking the guilt of all and the punishment of all. And by His wounds, you are healed. In His suffering for your guilt, you are declared innocent.
Therefore, you are going home from this House of God justified today. For to all whom He has given the gift of repentance, He has also declared righteous. So depart in peace today, since your sins are forgiven you.
In the Name of the only God that justifies sinners, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
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