Where God Meets Us
The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| August 19, 2012| St. Luke 18:9-14
Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men; extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14
They both went to the temple. They went to the temple to pray because it was in the temple that God promised to meet his people. The temple is where the blood is. God won’t meet you except where the blood is. Where there is no blood shed for you, God won’t meet with you and that’s that.
This has been the case from the very beginning. After Adam and Eve fell into sin, God promised a Savior from sin who would crush the lying head of the devil. But in so doing his heal would be bruised. He would suffer and die, and rise again. The shedding of his blood would be the price for the forgiveness of sins. The necessity of the blood was pictured by how God covered up Adam and Eve in clothing made from the skins of animals. They hid themselves with fig leaves. But figs shed no blood. They were merely covering up. But God covered them with animal skins. Animals shed blood. This prefigured the blood that Jesus Christ would shed on Calvary for the sins of the whole world. The worship of God’s Old Testament Church was saturated with blood. And at the center of our New Testament worship is the body and blood of Jesus, given and shed for the forgiveness of sins.
God won’t meet with you except where the blood is shed for you because the shed blood of Jesus is how God takes away your sin. Only a true man our brother can take our place and offer his most holy obedience up to God as the sacrifice to take away our sin. Only the true God can offer a sacrifice sufficient to appease his own anger against sinners. Only Jesus can take away sin. The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses sinners of their sins. The grace of God is where the blood is shed. The forgiveness of sins flows to us from the blood. Without the blood of Jesus, no sinner can enter into the presence of the holy God and presume to pray, praise, or give him thanks.
The Pharisee didn’t think of that. He cared nothing for the blood. He didn’t think of God. But that’s a common feature of the most religious people. They don’t think about God. They think about themselves. Jesus said of the Pharisee that he “prayed thus with himself.” He didn’t pray to God. His prayer was addressed to God but he didn’t really pray to him. He did not consider God. He considered only himself.
“God, I thank you that I am not like other men; extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” He thanks God. But that is mere pretence. Prayer is an act of worship. But the Pharisee doesn’t worship God. He worships himself. He twists God’s law into a caricature of what it really is so that it will condemn his neighbor instead of himself. He does this by an exercise of religious smoke and mirrors that replaces God’s law with public opinion.
Watch him as he clouds his own sin by comparing himself to people whose sins are visible to the whole world. He mentions specifically the sins of extortion, injustice, and adultery. The first two were particularly common among the tax collectors – one of whom was conveniently standing nearby as a sort of “show and tell” image to illustrate the Pharisee’s point. Tax collectors worked for the Roman government. They habitually extorted money from the people by charging them more in taxes than they really owed. Simple and law abiding people who live under a brutal government will do whatever they must do to avoid conflict with that government. Tax collectors knew this and took advantage of it. A more loathsome way of making a living is hard to imagine. The Pharisee understood this and he understood popular opinion. He appealed to it in his effort to persuade God of his righteousness.
More than that, he appealed to his own righteous deeds that went above and beyond the demands of the law. He fasted, not just on special occasions when it was called for, but twice a week, every week. He tithed, that is, gave ten percent, not just on those items that were subject to a tithe but on everything he had. Surely God would be impressed with this man, considering the alternative: a greasy, disreputable bully.
He was wrong. He presumed to stand before God while ignoring the blood shed for the forgiveness of his sins. He went to where God met his people and he did not meet God. He left the temple unforgiven. The only righteousness he had was that of his own pretence – impressive to impressionable religious people like himself, no doubt – but worthless in the sight of God.
The tax collector appealed to the blood. That’s all he had. The word comes into English as “mercy,” as we read, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” But it isn’t the usual word for mercy. Literally, it means, “God be propitiated to me, the sinner.” I suppose translators translate it “be merciful” because nobody knows what it means to be propitiated and people do know what mercy means.
But we should all know what propitiate means. It’s an important word. Remember what the temple was. It was where God met his people. The tax collector went to the temple because he wanted to meet God. He wanted to talk to God where God himself had said he could be found. That’s why the temple was built. It was to be the meeting place of God and his people. It was rich in both precious stones and metals as well as in religious symbolism. The most important part of the temple was a place called the holy of holies. It was patterned after the original tent of meeting that contained the Ark of the Covenant. Inside the ark was, among other things, the Ten Commandments engraved on tablets of stone. On the top of the ark was a covering made out of pure gold. This was called the mercy seat. On either end was a golden angel. The blood of a ritually sacrificed animal was sprinkled on the mercy seat. This was to teach God’s people that their sins against God’s commandments were forgiven by the blood of God’s Son. When the tax collector cried out to God for mercy, he chose the word for mercy that appealed to the blood of the mercy seat, that signified the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross.
“Be propitiated to me.” To propitiate means to set aside anger. God sets aside his anger against our sins, not on account of our pleas for mercy, but on account of the blood to which our pleas for mercy appeal. God sent his Son to bear the punishment of our sins. The Bible says that Jesus is the propitiation for our sins. God sees Jesus. He sees him obey. He sees him suffer and die. His obedience and suffering propitiate God. God is pacified. His anger is stilled. Our sins are swallowed up in Christ’s suffering. This precious gospel is what the sinful tax collector offered up to God in prayer. “God, I deserve nothing but punishment for my many sins. I am not worthy to look up into heaven. I am the sinner – not just a sinner among many, some of whom are a bit worse than I – but the sinner, the only sinner, for my conscience sees no sins on anyone’s soul but my own. Be merciful to me. Set aside your anger. For the sake of the blood of your dear Son, forgive me.”
And so he did. God forgave. The tax collector left the temple justified by God. When God justifies you he pronounces you to be righteous and by saying you are righteous you are righteous because God cannot lie. Here is the foundation on which our faith rests. A man who offered nothing up to God but what God offered up for us on the cross is the man who left the temple righteous in God’s sight. He didn’t have a single good dead of which he could boast. He had only the blood and righteousness of Jesus, and that’s all he needed.
That’s all we need. As we sing:
I have naught my God to offer
Save the blood of thy dear Son
Graciously accept the proffer
Make his righteousness mine own.
His holy life gave he, was crucified for me
His righteousness perfect he now pleads before thee
His own robe of righteousness, my highest good
Shall clothe me in glory through faith in his blood.
When the only thing we have to offer up to God is the blood and righteousness of Jesus, then we are rich beyond human measurement. The Pharisee had it precisely wrong. He thought that goodness that brings God’s approval can be quantified by amassing good deeds and avoiding bad ones. He didn’t understand. It is out of the heart that evil comes. It is out of the heart that love is expressed in word and deed. The only one who can change the sinful heart is God and the only way God does it is through the gospel.
The law is not ours to use against others. The law is God’s to use. He speaks and he indicts and he condemns. So you don’t extort people out of their money or deceive in business dealings or cheat on your husband or wife? But why would you even think of such things? Why would you even consider such things? You should be honest in your business dealings and faithful to your promises because this is what love does. If you hold your neighbor up to God for condemnation, what does this say about you? Love covers sin. Love prays for repentance, forgiveness, and faith. Love doesn’t stand in judgment.
True Christian love flows from the true Christian faith. The true Christian faith comes from the gospel. The gospel is not the contradiction of the law. It is the answer to the law. Jesus is the propitiation for our sins. He bore in his own body our sins and the wrath of God against all sinners. He suffered as the guilty one so that we, the guilty ones, would be forgiven by his blood.
This is why we come to church. We come to meet God in the blood. The body nailed to the cross and the blood shed there to forgive us all our sins is given and received here in this church today by sinners who can offer to God nothing more than that tax collector. We come to eat and to drink. We cry, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” We don’t make excuses, pass the blame, compare ourselves with others, or toss before God’s eyes the good things we have done that we imagine will outweigh the bad things we have done. We lay claim to the blood of Jesus shed for us. And when our Lord Jesus gives us his body and blood to eat and to drink and he tells us that this is for the forgiveness of our sins we believe him. And we leave church justified by God. Amen.