Der Vasken's Sermon on March 11, 2018
Mar 13, 2018
Today is the Fifth Sunday of Lent. It is called the Sunday of the Judge and the focus of today's Bible reading is on prayer. In the reading we just heard, Jesus shares two stories about prayer. There are many ways to talk about prayer, but He says there are two sides of prayer that are especially important to a Christian heart. In the first story He stresses that prayer must be persistent--that we must not give up if our prayers appear to go unanswered day after day, prayer after prayer. We must repeatedly and continually pray the prayers of our heart because God's timetable may not be the same as our timetable, but He says not to give up. Tell God what is in your heart and He will answer.
The second story is of equal importance. After encouraging His disciples to be persistent in prayer, Jesus taught them how to pray. He told the story of two men, who went up into the temple to pray. One man was a Pharisee--a highly-respected man of rank, a power player in his day, very devout in his religious practice. The other was a tax collector--a man, who was an outcast, a friend to no one, a traitor and robber of the people. And as the story unfolds, Jesus contrasts these two men, and as He does so, you begin to sense that He was comparing a pure-hearted person with an immoral or selfish person. It is within this comparison that He gives His main message.
Here is a little background. The Pharisee was part of the religious elite. He knew the scriptures and teachings of the temple far better than most anyone else. That was his job in life. He and his peers were the most knowledgeable in all matters of faith. And because of their knowledge, the Pharisees often saw themselves as superior to the greater population. They often came across as arrogant, and Jesus said that the prayers of these Pharisees often reflected that arrogance. The story continues and claims that this particular Pharisee stood up in the middle of the temple for everyone to see him and he prayed these words at the top of his voice: "God, I thank You that I am not like other men. I am not like the robbers, not like the evildoers, not the adulterers, nor even that tax collector. I fast twice a week and I give a tenth of all I earn to the temple." He prayed these words with an attitude that said he was better than everybody else. He prayed, not with humility, but with clear arrogance.
The story continues and starts talking about the tax collector. It says that the tax collector stood in the distance corner of the temple, away from everyone else and he was in prayer. He would not even look up as he prayed but he beat upon his chest as he said this simple prayer: "Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner, for I was wrong." It's the same prayer we say during our Wednesday evening Lenten services, as well as during the confession reading before receiving Holy Communion. This was a simple prayer from a simple man.
This tax collector didn't know scripture at all. He knew only what he heard the Pharisees read aloud during the temple services but there was one thing he knew better than the Pharisees. He knew what it meant to have a humble heart in front of God. And so Jesus teaches that it was the simple tax collector and not the learned Pharisee who found favor with God. And He ends by saying this: "He, who humbles himself in this world, will be exalted in the Kingdom of Heaven."
So on this Fifth Sunday of Lent, we are encouraged to spend time in prayer, to find a little extra time in our lives to offer a prayer to God, remembering that it isn't so much the words we use, but the heart with which the words are offered, and that means all the difference to God. "Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner, for I was wrong." It's a prayer like this, coming from the heart, that will open the way for God's forgiveness in anyone's life and build the strongest of relationships with Him for the rest of our lives.
So what areas of your life, what concerns, what issues in your life would you benefit from sharing in prayer? Something for us to think about during the remaining days of Lent. "Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner, for I was wrong." We are all encouraged to pray this prayer every day and then go speak humbly with your Lord.