Sunday, October 24, 2004

Twenty-first Sunday in Pentecost
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 or Sirach 35:12-17
Psalm 84:1-6
2 Timothy4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

They go from strength to strength; Every one of them appeareth before God in Zion.

At the end of last week’s Gospel lesson, we heard Jesus ask, “Nevertheless, when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” I imagine a great many of us, myself included, began to run through the marks of our Christianity. We probably went through a checklist that included our worship attendance, Bible study or active service in Christ’s name. We probably counted how much time we spend each week in prayer. We probably thought about what it means to have faith and looked to Jesus speaking the confession, “Yes, Lord, I believe in you.”

We might even have thought to ourselves that we certainly have more faith than our neighbor. We will go through the checklist of righteousness, pointing out to our Lord how we have worshipped, prayed and served more than the next guy. Unfortunately, as I reflect on last week’s service, I can even remember having some negative thoughts about some of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I really do not want to think that I was setting myself above those other Christians – I believe they have faith and that they are loved by Jesus as much as me. Yet, I am sure I said “I have faith” with the same breath I judged my neighbor.

It is shocking, then, to read the first words of Jesus in today’s Gospel passage. “And he spake also this parable unto certain who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and set all others at nought.” It is so easy for us to assume that we are better than the Pharisee because we would never walk into church and speak a prayer like the man in our parable. He set himself against the tax collector, taking inventory of his righteousness so that he could compare his works to that of the sinner. Yet, I think we would be lying to ourselves if we refuse to accept that we do the very same thing.

Jesus tells us that the Pharisee spoke these words, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I get.” We are offended by this prayer, wondering how anyone could be so self-serving with his words. However, this was a typical prayer for the day. There is a prayer of thanksgiving in the Talmud that was used by rabbis as they left or entered the house of study. This prayer includes thanks to God that the rabbi is not like those who do not study God’s word. In it, the rabbi compares himself to others. It was not considered self-righteous to say this prayer, but rather it was expected of those who were set apart for Torah.

In other words, this prayer of the Pharisee was probably an acceptable rote prayer that was regularly said by his peers. I imagine that as the crowd heard these words, their pride continued unabated, after all, this was the way things were done. But Jesus did not let them wallow in their pride.

As we look at the Old Testament text for this day from Jeremiah, we are reminded of the constant tension between God and His people. In this passage, the people cry out to God in the hope that He will not forsake them. They confess their sin and declare His presence among His people. They seek His mercy. Yet, God seems to argue with the people. “Even so have they loved to wander; they have not refrained their feet: therefore Jehovah doth not accept them; now will he remember their iniquity, and visit their sins.”

The people answer God’s judgment with a question of His faithfulness. They wonder if God so hates Judah that He would break the covenant. Then they points out that the idols are unable to care for God’s people. “Are there any among the vanities of the nations that can cause rain? or can the heavens give showers? art not thou he, O Jehovah our God? therefore we will wait for thee; for thou hast made all these things.” Only God can provide everything that the people need.

We are left to wonder what happens to this stiff-necked people. Yet, if we were to read further into the story, we would find that God refuses to be deceived by smooth words that are intended to delude Him. He does not believe the cries of His people.

Jesus continued the parable with a description of a tax collector. These men were hated because they were seen as traitors. They were Jews who worked for the Romans. They took the money of the poor to give it to their oppressors. The tax collectors earned their pay by keeping a portion of the taxes they collected, but they had to ensure they gave the empire its share. This meant that they had to raise the price of the tax so that they could earn a living. Some tax collectors took advantage of the situation, making themselves quite wealthy in the process. Due to the sins of some, all tax collectors were mocked and outcast as sinners.

Imagine how hard it must have been for that tax collector to even walk through the doors of the temple. He knew he was hated and unwelcome, yet he went there to stand humble before his God and confess his sins. He had little to say, only a cry for mercy and confession of his sinfulness. He could not look to the heavens because he felt so unworthy even to show his face to God.

It is generally agreed that the Psalm for this day was written by David at a time when he was hiding from his enemies, unable to attend to the worship of God in the Temple. He wants to be in His presence, “My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of Jehovah; My heart and my flesh cry out unto the living God.” At that time, David was like a pilgrim, trying desperately to reach a place of comfort and peace, but unable to get there.

The journey of a pilgrim was never easy. They walked for many days through dangerous country. The heat, lack of water and hazards of the road made pilgrimage a difficult trip. Yet, the people went regularly to be in the presence of God. To them, entering into the Temple was like going home because they knew there was no where on earth like His dwelling place. Though we do not know the Valley of Baca mentioned in this Psalm, you can almost a road through a barren wasteland with an occasional pond to refresh and revive the traveler. The one thing that keeps them going is the hope that they will soon see God. “They go from strength to strength; Every one of them appeareth before God in Zion.”

In the Psalm, David is envious of those who serve in the Temple. “Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: They will be still praising thee.” This brings to mind people like Anna who lived in the Temple and spent every hour worshipping God. For whatever reason, the writer of our psalm is unable to enter into such a relationship with God, somehow forbidden or powerless to get into the sanctuary of God. For now, he can only go from strength to strength in the hope of overcoming that which stands in his way until the day he can enter the temple again.

There have been times in my life when I practically lived at church. Unfortunately, I was not there to constantly praise God or pray. I was there taking care of the business of the church, whatever it might be. There were times when I got discouraged or even angry because it seemed no one else cared enough to do the work. I have grumbled about my brothers and sisters in Christ, even questioning their commitment to God. Thinking myself the better disciple, I went about proudly doing the things I thought were important, judging harshly those who did not.

In his letter to Timothy, Paul wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” Taken out of context, it is easy to see Paul as one of those listeners to whom Jesus addressed today’s parable, “unto certain who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and set all others at nought.” He grumbles about the lack of help from his brothers and sisters in Christ. Yet, his writing is not a self-righteous attack on those who did not help him, for Paul confesses that it was the Lord who was his strength through the persecution. “The Lord will deliver me from every evil work, and will save me unto his heavenly kingdom: to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” Just like the pilgrim who finds refreshment and revival at each pond along the journey toward the Temple, Paul knew that God would take him from strength to strength until the day he would appear before God.

Jonathon Swift once said, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” We should be very honest with ourselves when we hear Jesus’ question. “When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” We sin against our brothers and sisters when we set ourselves above them in the name of Christ. Even more, we sin against God when we do not show mercy and humble ourselves before Him in the temple.

The self-righteous listeners were probably shocked when Jesus finished His parable. “I say unto you, This man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled; but he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”

I recently talked to someone who was anxious to move his congregation past a membership model toward a congregation filled with disciples. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all say that the Christians with whom we fellowship could speak the words of Paul with confidence? Can you imagine how much we could accomplish together if every believer would use their gifts and opportunities for the sake of the kingdom?

Yet, how can any of us know at what point on their journey another Christian stands? That Christian whom we are judging might be like David, longing to be in His presence but exiled by his enemies. Or perhaps she is like that tax collector, so humbled by her sin that she can’t even look at God. Oh, there are certainly those who are like Judah – whose confession was nothing more than lip service – or like the Pharisee and self-righteous believers.

In answer to the question about the congregation, I cautioned the man to ensure that those who are stepping out in faith must remember never to take pride in their discipleship or set themselves above those who have not yet made it to that place in their journey. Let us humble ourselves before God because He is the only one who can take us from strength to strength. From grace to grace we are journeying toward the heavenly temple, toward the day when we will be in His presence forever. On this journey, may we never put ourselves above our brothers and sisters in Christ, for when we do so, we also put ourselves above Christ, who lives within their hearts as He does in ours. Thanks be to God.

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