SCRIPTURES – Genesis 4:1-15; 2 Tim. 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-17; Ps. 56
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Today we have the story of two brothers in the flesh, Cain and Abel, and two brothers in the faith, the Pharisee and the tax collector. Fittingly, these stories are told on the day when we have the baptism of a boy whose father has two brothers, whose grandfather is one of two brothers, and whose great-grandfather was one of two brothers.
Just as there are two brothers, so we can divide those who worship the Triune into two groups: Abels and Cains; tax collectors and Pharisees; those whose worship is pleasing to God and blessed by Him, and those whose worship is rejected by God and who receive no blessing. To which group do you belong? Are you a Cain or an Abel? A Pharisee or a tax collector?
Now, surely you are not like the Pharisee in Jesus’ story, are you? You would not boast to God about the good things you have done. Certainly not on this Reformation Sunday! We Lutherans know that we’re not supposed to boast about our good works! But, are you bad? Are you bad enough, sinful enough that God could and should condemn you to hell? “Oh, I hope not” – right? So, then, you can thank God that you’re not like other people, like those who are that bad – whoever they may be. Right?
Learn this from today’s Scriptures, and take it to heart: God doesn’t have to accept you and bless you. He doesn’t have to because you’re here in church and are worshiping (which, after all, is what you should be doing).
- Cain offered his worship to God, as did Abel, and yet God had no regard for his worship. The mere fact that he worshiped brought no blessing.
Nor does God have to accept you and bless you because you are a church member and bear the name of Christ. This is what you should be.
- The Pharisee was a Jew, one of God’s chosen people, as was the tax collector. Frankly, he was a better Jew. But, he did not go home justified, forgiven and blessed by God, because of that. God was not obligated to him because he was a good Jew who went to the temple.
God is not obligated to us; we are obligated to Him. We have received our very lives from Him and are to follow His direction in our lives. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your body,” we are told in 1 Cor. 6.
How do you honor Him with your worship? That is the question before us this day. Worshiping God is expected. But it must be more.
What was the difference between Cain’s worship and Abel’s worship? Abel freely and gladly offered to God the best of what he had, “the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions.” His gift was a sacrifice; it cost him. Cain gave “an offering of the fruit of the ground.” It seems there was nothing exceptional about it. It cost him little. And so, if you come to church and worship God and offer to Him a portion of your time and your money because you have to, you are a Cain. Your worship is not pleasing to God and “sin is crouching at your door,” ready to devour you. But, if you are glad to be here, and when you give your offering wish that you could give more, you are an Abel. With you God is pleased!
What was the difference between the Pharisee’s worship and the tax collector’s worship? Here is where we see most clearly what pleases God. Certainly there was a difference in the heart. The Pharisee was arrogant and self-righteous. He not only looked down upon others, and especially the tax collector; he also did not fear to look up to God. He so expected God’s favor and blessing that he didn’t even ask for it. God was obligated to give it! How different was the tax collector. He knew his sin, and that he was utterly undeserving of anything but judgment from God. He did not look up to heaven, for he could not look to Him who is holy with the expectation of any blessing. This did not mean, however, that he did not ask for or expect anything. He wanted, and expected to receive, one thing: mercy. “God, be merciful to me, the sinner,” he prayed.
How could this sinful man ask for and expect to receive mercy? Take note of where he was. He went to the temple to pray. The temple was the place where sacrifices were offered on behalf of sinners to take away their sins. Doing this was not an idea that the priests came up with. God had told the people to do this, with the promise that by them He would cover their sins, would not look upon them and judge them. When King Solomon built the first temple, he dedicated it with the prayer:
“O Lord my God, may your eyes be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there.’ Listen to the plea of your people Israel when they pray toward this place, and when you hear, forgive.” (1 Kings 8:28-30)
Looking upon the sacrifices God instituted and remembering the promise He had given, the tax collector humbly confessed his sin and prayed for God’s mercy. God was pleased with his prayer of faith, and he went home forgiven.
Is this why you are here: to humbly confess your sin and to look for mercy from God, the mercy of His forgiveness in Christ? This is why Christ’s Word is preached and His Sacraments are administered here every week: that God’s mercy might be received. In the Son of God who died and rose for our forgiveness, God is mercy, and He wants to be known and confessed and relied upon as mercy. Mercy defines Him, and the desire for mercy defines those who please Him and are received by Him as His own.
Martin Luther, our father in the faith who we remember this day for sparking a reformation of Christ’s Church by nailing 95 Theses to his church door on October 31, 1517, said this about the faith that saves:
“This is how faith speaks: “I am going to the place where the Word is taught, where the Sacrament is offered and Baptism is administered.” And all those things that are done in my sight in a physical place are heavenly and divine words and works. That place is not only ground or earth; but it is something more glorious and majestic, namely, the kingdom of God and the gate of heaven. There is no reason for you to [run off on a pilgrimage] or to withdraw into a corner or to hide yourself in a monastery. Do not seek a new and foolish entrance. But look in faith at the place where the Word and the sacraments are. Direct your step to the place where the Word resounds and the sacraments are administered, and there write the title THE GATE OF GOD.” (LW 5:247)
May this be how we believe and speak, and so act! God will then gladly accept you here, no matter how unworthy you may feel, and He will pour out upon you without measure His forgiveness in Christ. You will always go home justified, forgiven by God, to live in His grace and favor until that glorious day when He calls you to your eternal home and you live in His mercy forever!