In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Two men went up into the temple to pray.” Many people from all walks of life came daily to the temple. These men were coming for Daily Prayer, a time set aside in the morning and in the afternoon to thank and praise God – kind of like our Matins or Vespers. Set prayers and liturgies were spoken and sung. And these two particular men are the ones to whom Jesus draws our attention: a Pharisee and a tax collector.
What extremes in vocation! Their callings in life —their occupations and positions – were as far apart in the eyes of men as one could be! A Pharisee always appeared to be a good and righteous man. And tax collectors? They were the lowest of the low – traitors serving the pagan occupying government, and cheats at that!
And there they were, the supposedly righteous one, and the thief. Which one are you? That depends on the given moment. These men, like you and I, are to live our lives serving. Doing good works. The Pharisee has a list. Many works are in his daily routine. “Lord, just listen to
how great I am! You should be really proud of me!” And his prayer, as he drones on, has nothing to do with God, and simply is a resume of all the great things the Pharisee is accomplishing.
But for all the works he lists, is he really good? Dr. Preus reminds us in chapter three of his book: “in God’s eyes only believers do a good work Only the deed done in faith is acceptable. ‘For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin’ (Romans 14:23b). Even our finest and most honorable deed in this life must be cleansed by the blood of the Lamb.” (Preus, 79.)
When you and I join the Pharisee in congratulating ourselves on how good we are – when we get all smug and pat ourselves on the shoulder and say how great it is that we do all this good, that we collected all these things for those in the Sudan, that we have solid doctrine free from medieval errors, and that we make our guests feel welcome, we become self-obsessed and self-serving; we become unbelieving idolaters! We join the Pharisee in his lack of faith – his damning unbelief. It is joining him in his death.
The tax collector had been dead in his sin too. “But the Holy Spirit called him by the Gospel and enlightened him with His gifts.” He was brought to repentance and pulled to faith. And joined to Christ, he was made alive in God.
In Holy Baptism, Jesus has done the same for you. Believers are alive! Yes, dead to sin, alive in Christ. Our Lord brought you to the font and you were joined with Him, as He was nailed to the cross. Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
You died to sin. The Old Self has been crucified. Now God has raised you to new life in Him. His gift is that we live in the glory of our Risen Savior! Up out of those murky waters of death, Christ has raised a new creature – you!
So, can you accomplish what the Pharisees imagined, that somehow after coming to faith, you will not sin like common people anymore? Sorry. It does not work that way. Luther had a saying that, “Christians are always sinners and saints at the same time” (Preus, 84.) As His baptized children in the faith, the Lord preserves you as His saints. Yet, the Old sinful self still desires to be “number one.” You still want to think, say and do the things that please the sinful flesh. It is an ongoing battle. Yet the Lord will win the victory. He is fending off the evil in you, that you may continue to abide as His baptized children.
At Mt. Calvary, Jesus fulfilled and completed everything demanded at Mt. Sinai. You are no longer under the threat of death that came through that Law. And in His Holy Font at Mt. Zion, you have been given new birth as His saints, rescued from the wretchedness of a sinful life cut off from the Savior and His Church.
“As residents of Mount Zion, we rejoice with saints and angels around the throne of God as we thank Him for the death of our old sinful nature and for our new life in Christ” (Preus, 85.) It is an amazing joy to soak in what is really happening here! You are participating in something grand and cosmic! You are being enveloped in a miraculous moment. You are joining the “angels, and archangels, and all the company of heaven” as you “laud and magnify” our Lord, “evermore praising Him” and eating His Body and drinking His Blood! And every time He gathers you to receive these Gifts, the old sinful nature dies again, and your new life is nourished and sustained in His forgiveness and mercy.
Now we do not stand in fear of the law killing and damning us. Jesus suffered damnation of the cross for you and me. We have been saved by Christ, and are “free to serve Him out of love” (Preus, 86.)
Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to bring you to repentance like the tax collector. He has convicted your hearts and brought you to His life-saving gifts that have rescued you. Like the tax collector, your sin and gilt is now gone. Our Savior has removed it from you. And you go down to your house justified.
Such incredible joy is now in you that you love and serve both God and neighbor. He sends you as His hands and feet and mouths to deliver His mercy. What a joy and honor that is. No way of earning heaven. Jesus has already done that for you. Now He gives and you receive, and all with Jesus at the center. He gives. You receive. And He uses you to give to others. What amazing mercy He gives to others, through you! And what amazing mercy He gives to you!