Der Vasken’s Sermon on December 20, 2020

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

Today is the Fifth Sunday of Advent.  The Bible passage for this day focuses our attention on prayer.  Prayer is a cornerstone of the Christian faith and one we focus on many times each year.  It is noted in the Bible that the twelve disciples were new to the practice of prayer.  So in today’s reading, Jesus helps them develop their prayer in life by offering this example.  It is the example of two men, who entered the Temple one day to pray and through their story, He teaches His disciples the spirit of prayer.  

One of these men was a Pharisee–a highly-respected man of rank, very devout in his religious ritual.  The other was a tax collector–a man considered to be an outcast, a traitor, a legal thief in the eyes of his own people.  Jesus compares these two men and it is within this comparison that He makes His point.  These two men were very different.  The Pharisee was part of the religious elite.  He knew the scriptures and teachings of the Temple far better than the average person.  Because of this knowledge, the Pharisees often saw themselves as superior to other people. They often came across with a definite sense of arrogance and Jesus explained that the prayers of the Pharisees often reflected that 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 prayed, “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 over there.  I fast twice a week and I give a tenth of all I earn to Your Temple.”  He prayed these words with a clear attitude that he was better than everybody else. He prayed not with humility but with clear pride and conceit.  

The story continues and talks about the second man–the tax collector.  It says that the tax collector stood in the distant corner of the Temple away from everyone else and that he was in prayer–deep prayer.  It must have been so deep that he looked down as he prayed and beat upon his chest as he prayed this simple prayer: “Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner. Lord, have mercy upon me for I have done wrong.”  This was a simple prayer from a humble heart.  This tax collector didn’t know scripture at all.  He only knew what he heard the Pharisees read aloud during the Temple services he attended.  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 proud 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.  A person, who humbles himself or herself in this world, is a servant of God.  I say this because that is where this passage leads me every time I read it.  A humble heart is a heart that reflects Jesus Christ Himself.  “He, who humbles himself in this world, will be exalted” in the Kingdom of Heaven.  That is a servant of God.

So I want to end by asking us all to consider thinking of ourselves as “servants of God” during this period of Advent and to keep thinking of ourselves as “servants of God” as we walk through our daily lives.  

  • Can we say “I am a servant of God” when we experience changes in our lives?
  • Can we say “I am a servant of God” when a loved one suffers with dementia and we stay away?
  • Can we say “I am a servant of God” when we discover that we have some terrible illness and we think God abandoned us?
  • Can we say “I am a servant of God” when a family member turns to us repeatedly for help in dealing with a problem they can’t fix alone?
  • Can we say “I am a servant of God” when the burdens of age start to weaken our bodies?
  • Can we say “I am a servant of God” when our plans don’t turn out as we hoped and expected?
  • Can we say “I am a servant of God” when we have to carry a cross in our lives that is labeled as an addiction or an anger issue or the desire to talk about people behind their backs?
  • Can we say “I am a servant of God” if we spend more time surrounding ourselves by the distractions of affluence and reality shows and the Internet then we do with people living under our roof?
  • Can we say “I am a servant of God” in how we use our influence and prosperity?
  • Can we say “I am a servant of God” when He calls us to follow Him and help make His world a little bit better every day?

So on this Fifth Sunday of Advent, we are encouraged to spend time in prayer remembering that it isn’t so much the words we use, but the heart with which the words are offered and that makes all the difference.  “Lord, shine Your Light upon me. For I seek ways to serve You.”  It is a prayer like this coming from the heart that will build a relationship with Him that will least for eternity.  Something for all of us to think about during the beautiful week ahead.

Amen.

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