Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Sacramental Way

This sermon was preached at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Kewanee, Illinois on August 3, 2008

St. Luke 18:9-14

We live in the midst of two worlds and two ways. The world, God’s wonderful creation, soon tainted with sin after it was created. Adam and Eve enticed by the serpent, they were taught to look only at themselves. Seeing their nakedness, they ran and hid at the sound of holy movements in the Garden of Eden precisely because they knew that they saw things differently in an instant, at the eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

This new innovation, this practice of gazing at ourselves has become the norm and the novelty of creation. The struggle that Adam and Eve had in the garden, you know, was over holiness. Satan, that dastardly serpent, enticed our first parents to desire an increase of holiness which they themselves were to take from God of their own doing.

The serpent says to them, “For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” You see, the serpent traps them with a desire to obtain their own greater holiness. They can be like God, he says. And this of their own doing. Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?!

The history of fallen man is encompassed by this desire to be holy. This temptation, therefore, attaches itself to each and every one of us. When Adam and Eve had then subsequently heard the sound of the Lord walking in the garden in the cool of the day, they were frightened. For the first time, they experienced a different side of God. They felt threatened by Him because the holiness that they thought they could obtain was of a very different character than the holiness of God.

This whole account unfolds throughout the Holy Scriptures and we see this battle wage itself in holy Israel, in the patriarchs, in King David, and King Solomon. We see it in the New Testament and the battle between the God and the serpent in the garden is presented in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

The Pharisee was, as far as society is concerned, a very good citizen. Role model citizen, in fact. He was all for the prosperity of Jewish society. He gave tithes, he was learned and held a respectable position as a scholar and teacher of the Jewish law. The Pharisee dressed well and took good care of himself. The tax collector was a different sort in Jewish society. He would have been a man of Jewish origin as well, but he was employed by the Romans to collect taxes from the Jewish people, his own flesh and blood.

This was a no-no. The Jews considered it blasphemous to give taxes to a pagan government. To have one of their own people doing the collecting of the taxes added insult to injury. A Jew of this period would not think very highly of the tax collector. He would be looked upon as a traitor to the Jewish people, all for money.

So, as the parable goes, the Pharisee and the tax collector go into the temple to pray. The Pharisee prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.” This Pharisee gives a portrait of prayer with peripheral vision. He is praying with one eye open so to speak, which smacks of insincerity. In other words, he is so concerned about what others think of him, that he cannot have an honest petition to the Lord.

In fact, the Pharisee goes on to boast that he fasts twice a week, and gives tithes of all he possesses. The Pharisee, unbeknownst to him, is falling just as Adam and Eve fell. The Pharisee is being enticed by the serpent to look to obtain his own holiness. If he can take it of his own doing, then he can rise above others. So he thinks.

The serpent can creep upon all of us, for we are plagued by the same desire to look to ourselves for holiness. It is such a cunning trick. Any virtue or gift that God gives you, can be misused by you. God gives us a gift, then we try to take more by force. In the same way, Adam and Eve were holy because God had made them in His image. They were virtuous by God’s doing, so they thought they would take more. This is an anti-sacramental way of thinking.

This is an innovative way of thinking. This Pharisaical gazing at ourselves is an innovation that tries to creep into the church. When you think that you are becoming holy apart from the hearing of the Gospel and eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, then you are practicing the innovative ways of Adam and Eve in sin. To attempt to obtain holiness apart from Christ’s means of grace is the way of the wicked and cunning serpent.

The tax collector, the filthy lout that he was, understands. He comes into the temple, yet stands afar off, keeping his head low and beating his breast, says, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” In the midst of his sin, he understands that true holiness is not for ours to take by force. It is not ours by right. The tax collector knows that holiness is outside of him. By nature, it is out of his grasp.

This man understands that any holiness that he will have has to come from the Holy One Himself. This is the churchly way of believing, thinking and living. This is sacramental. To know that God’s mercy stands outside of us, to know that God has to somehow give us His love, mercy, and grace, is to wait for His answer.

We have to receive God’s holy pronouncement. This is why Jesus instituted holy baptism, the pastoral office with the office of the keys, and the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. Jesus instituted these things to combat the serpent’s trickery. We cannot take God’s holiness by our own taking or by force. He must give us His love, mercy, forgiveness, and holiness. Jesus wants you to know with certainty when you are being loved and made holy by Him.

So, to conclude, the means of grace happen to be the weapons to combat Satan’s temptation to humans to get us to try to fashion our own self-contrived holiness. Jesus said something that rings through history to conclude this parable, “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Today, humility, looks like the Christian who confesses his sins and approaches the altar to eat Christ’s body and drink His blood, knowing that in this all is forgiven and true holiness is given as a pure gift won by Christ on the cross. Amen.