Der Vasken's Sermon on March 31, 2019

Apr 2, 2019

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

Today is the fifth Sunday of Lent.  It is called the Sunday of the Judge and the focus of today's Bible lesson is on prayer.  In the Bible reading we just heard, Jesus shares two stories about prayer.  Now 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 seem to go unanswered day after day.  We must repeatedly and continually pray the prayers of our heart because God's timetable may not be the same as our timetable, but do not give up, He says.  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 a social 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 moral selfless person with an immoral 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 as knowledgeable as the temple rabbis.  And because of their knowledge, the Pharisees often saw themselves as superior to the general population.  They often came across as arrogant and Jesus indicated 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 loud enough to be heard all over the temple. "God, I thank you that I am not like other men.  I am not like the robbers, not like the evildoers, not like the adulterers, or not even like that tax collector over there.  I keep my 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 and conceit.

The story continues and starts talking about the tax collector. It says that the tax collector stood off in the distant corner of the temple away from everyone else and he was deeply in prayer. "And that 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'."
It is 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: "He, who humbles himself in this world, will be exalted in the Kingdom of Heaven." 

Do we thank God like the Pharisee, that we are not like "the others"--those people we know who live questionable life-styles or do we pray like the tax collector and try to live a life that resembles Christ and brings honor to Him?  Let me end on this thought.  The Pharisee left the temple that day the same way he came in--unchanged.  The tax collector left faultless because he didn't look around at the "other people" and compare himself; he only looked within and by doing that, he moved closer to God.

Something for us to think about during the remaining days of Lent.  How do you pray?  When do you pray? What do you pray for?  We are encouraged to open up our hearts and pray every day.

Amen.