Der Vasken's Sermon on December 23, 2018

Dec 24, 2018

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

I want to share two stories with you on this Fifth Sunday of Advent.  The first story is whimsical.  I heard it a long time ago and it gave me a chuckle and made me smile.  It's called An Answer to Prayer and goes like this:  Years ago an older lady down south somewhere had little to no money to buy food and she was often very hungry, but she did have her faith and she did have a strong trust in God.  And she often turned that faith and trust into prayer.  And on this one particular day, she got down on her knees and prayed aloud:  "Dear Lord, if You could just send me a plate of chicken and pilaf, I would be so grateful."  Over and over again she repeated that same prayer in a loud voice.  "Please Lord, just a plate of chicken and pilaf," she prayed.  Now a couple of boys from the town walked by her house one day and they overheard her prayer and they decided to play a trick on her as many young boys do and have done.  These boys hurried off to the nearest restaurant and bought a plate of chicken and pilaf and they rushed back to the older lady's home and knocked on her front door, leaving the food on her step.  When the lady opened the door, she smelled the delicious food, looked down, let out the greatest expression of joy and she dropped to her knees to thank God for answering her prayer.  And when she stood up, she ran all around her small town, telling everybody the good news.  As the young boys watched all this taking place, they ran after her telling everyone what they had done and laughing at her because of their joke.  And so the wise older lady quickly answered them. "Well," she said, "little devils may have brought food, but it was the Lord Who sent it."  It's a cute little story about prayer and putting our trust in God.

Today is the Fifth Sunday of Advent and our Church Fathers encourage us to focus our attention on prayer.  So the second story I want to share talks about prayer and comes from today's interesting Gospel reading.  It's often highlighted throughout the Gospels that the disciples of Jesus were new to the idea of prayer.  We know this because it is brought up on more than one occasion.

So in today's reading, Jesus teaches His disciples 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, 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 a legal thief in the eyes of his people.  Jesus compares these two men and as He does so, you begin to sense that He was comparing a moral upright man with a criminal.  It's within this comparison that He gives His main message.  

See, the Pharisee was part of the religious elite.  He knew the scriptures and teachings of the temple far better than the average person. And because of this knowledge, the Pharisees often saw themselves as superior to other people.  Often times, they came across with a certain sense of arrogance and Jesus said that the prayers of these Pharisees often reflected their arrogance.  The story says that this Pharisee stood up in the middle of the temple for everyone to see him and he loudly prayed these words:  "God," he said, "I thank You that I am not like other men.

  • I am not like the robbers;
  • Not like the evil doers;
  • Not like the adulterers;
  • Nor even that tax collector over there;
  • I fast twice a week;
  • And I give a tenth of all I earn to the temple."
He prayed these words with the absolute attitude that 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 distant corner of the temple far away from everyone else--that he was in prayer, that he was focused, that he would not even look up as he prayed, but he beat upon his chest as he prayed this simple prayer.  "Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner."  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 and teach about during 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.  He ends by saying: "He, who humbles himself in this world, will be exalted" in the Kingdom of Heaven. 

So on this Fifth Sunday of Advent, 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 wrong-doer." 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.

Something for us to think about during this weekend of Christmas.  "Lord, have mercy upon me for I have done wrong; for I have ignored You; for I have neglected You and I need You."  We are all encouraged to pray this prayer every day.