This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Luke 18:9-14
Confessional Reference: Lord’s Day 45, Q&A 117
Before we read our Scripture passage, I invite you to imagine yourself as being enrolled in the school of prayer. The subject for today’s class is how to position ourselves for prayer. And by position we do not mean the position of our body but the position of our soul – the spirit or attitude we are to have when we pray.
Now it may help to know before we begin our session, that this is not a required class. This is not to diminish the importance of what is being taught, but to emphasize that this is a school for those who want to learn how to pray. This is education for those who want to be in the school of prayer.
It may also be of interest to you, now that you know you don’t have to be here, and just in case you are thinking of skipping out, who is giving the lesson. We are privileged today to have Jesus as our teacher. And just so you know, Jesus does not force anyone to be in his class or even to pray.
In fact, one of the great benefits of having Jesus as a teacher is the amount of freedom he gives. Like with university, Professor Jesus does not force you to do your homework. You actually can go and do with this information whatever you like – you can drive away and ignore it all.
But before you assume you can brush this teaching off, please be aware that if you want to truly live, you must heed what the Master teaches about prayer. For you see, prayer is basic to life – it is as basic to living as skating is to hockey.
I don’t know if you have ever watched young kids play hockey, but for the first few years they aren’t really playing hockey, they are learning how to skate. They learn how to put one foot over the other, how to turn without toppling over and how to stop without going half way down the rink. Once they learn how to skate they can play the game. And once we learn how to pray, we learn how to live. And just like a hockey player cannot stay in the game without skating, we cannot remain near to God and share in his life without prayer.
Perhaps a more fitting analogy is to say that prayer is as basic to living as communication is to marriage. If a couple rarely talks – if they just think about or wonder about their spouse – it will be difficult to have a close relationship. If a Christian just thinks about God and wonders about him, they do not have much of a relationship with God. In marriage a husband and wife are to share honestly, praise each other, confess wrongs, express thanks and make requests. And the same is to happen in prayer, where we tell God our troubles, praise him, confess our sin, express gratitude and ask God to supply our needs. So being a Christian is a relationship with God that starts and is sustained by prayer.
So, with that being said, are you ready to hear Jesus teach a few basic things about prayer? For this we turn to the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, where Jesus gives us the position for praying.
And again, this position isn’t about whether we are sitting, standing or kneeling – it isn’t whether we have our eyes shut or our hands folded. This is about the position of our soul, the spirit with which we enter into prayer. It is the position of humility – of deep dependence upon God. Prayer is not learning the right words so that we can manipulate God and make it happen. Prayer begins with the humble recognition that we lack any power or ability to make things happen, but that God is able to do all things – especially the so-called invisible things.
Luke tells us Jesus directed his parable to those who were satisfied with the shape of their soul. Christ’s teaching was targeted to those students who had learned how to manage sin well enough that they looked better than others – they always won when it came to the comparison game.
Luke 18:9-14 The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (TNIV)
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Here is a snap shot of two church-goers. They are in sharp contrast, with few things in common. What is similar is that both of them have chosen to go up to the temple at the time of worship and stand before God. Both of them have come to call upon God in prayer – both are men of prayer. And both of them give thanks to God, one for God’s goodness and the other for his grace. They are thankful for different things, but they are both grateful.
Apart from being in worship, praying and giving thanks, they are quite different. Which one do you find yourself identifying with more? Of course we know who we should be more like, for we want to be known as humble, and we also prefer leaving church justified before God, like the Tax Collector. What can also happen is that we describe the Pharisee in such a way that we naturally dislike this arrogant religious bigot. So we are far more eager to identify with this humble, honest church back bencher. We might re-think that, however, when we learn a few more things about this Pharisee.
He is really a very sincere person who is zealous for the ways of God. He would be the kind of person who, in running for public office, would be unafraid to have his books examined or his life put under scrutiny. He has taken many measures to ensure he has walked a straight path. He likes his office so he wants to be held in high regard by the people around him.
He is an honest man who upholds the law and has gained enough confidence to be able to say it the way it is and speak up for what he knows to be right. He encourages good behavior and is concerned for God’s honor. He avoids certain parades and shadowy places, for as he whispered to his friend over lunch, if you hang out with those dogs you are bound to get fleas.
This man walks the talk – he reads his Bible, prays before and after meals and faithfully attends church. He goes beyond what is expected – he fasts more than required (twice a week), gives regularly and has made a few sizable gifts.
We meet his shadow side when we find out how he actually prays. This may not have been a spoken prayer, or if he did pray it out loud it was likely while others were praying so his words kind of blended in with all the rest. His prayer reveals his heart. It is the same heart that, when he reads in the Jerusalem Journal of certain immoral or criminal people, causes him to secretly thank God he didn’t end up like that. He has been faithful to his wife, he did not abandon his kids, he worked for his money and has always paid his bills – unlike this scum ball of an official who took money from people and enjoyed wild parties. When he sees the kind of life this man has lived and the sorry state of his soul, he is grateful – yes, very grateful.
And he has good reason to feel this way. For this Pharisee knew in the core of his being that he was a better man – he was the better candidate, if you will. He certainly is a better person than that cheating, no-good traitor of a tax collector hanging around the fringe of church.
And this gets to his problem – he knows he is good and is not afraid to admit it. Through years of experience he has come to know what he is made of, and while he hasn’t taken the time to ask, for the love of him he can’t understand the likes of this Tax Man. Charles Spurgeon said he thought a man in his church was very righteous, until he told him so. Holiness is a beautiful thing, until it takes on a holier than thou attitude. When a good person becomes a better than you person – when a righteous soul becomes self-righteous, something very ugly happens in the soul. Pharisaic pride is one of the most deadly diseases to infect the church. It is what put Jesus on the cross and it has ruined more than a few people and congregations.
It can and it does happen to us all in one subtle way or another. We slip from being good to knowing we are good, and then thanking God we are good and not like that ignoramus neighbor of ours. We become grateful for how disciplined we are, unlike this other lazy so and so. I watch my money, and she wastes it. I avoid certain foods, not like that obese fellow.
Some in the Reformed tradition grew up with a disdain for Roman Catholics, lumping them all into this huge false church. Others like to distinguish themselves from those man-centered Arminian evangelicals who water down the faith and sing cheap repetitive songs. And still others, who have learned to be a bit more inclusive, have a hard time stomaching those conservatives – especially hard line fundamentalists – and our culture encourages looking down on these despicable, judgmental people.
So what kind of person do you tend to look down on? When you are in class, or on the shop floor, or enjoying coffee in the foyer, who do you tend to secretly give thanks that you aren’t like them?
Please notice how Jesus points out that the trouble with this Pharisee was not that he was so far down the road of spiritual maturity that all he needed to do was brush up a bit – you know, just apply a bit of stain remover to one little spot on his soul. The problem was that he was now walking down the wrong road. He didn’t need to not just blow off a piece of white lint from his dark Sunday suit, he needed to bring the stinking suit to the cleaners. Forget sanctification, he needed to be justified before God. The great surprise in the story is that the one who went home saved is the sinner sitting slumped over in the bench with his hands over his face.
Now today tax collectors don’t carry the same reputation as back then. Roles have reversed in that now it is the person from the tax department who keeps us honest, not the other way around. Perhaps we could compare this first century tax man to a sleazy used car salesman who sold a dozen pre-owned cars to church members, until it became known what kind of a so-called “deal” they had actually gotten. (Note: You may include or think of other examples.) Why he kept coming to church was anyone’s guess, but he would regularly slip into the back pew during the singing of a song, while everyone was still standing.
This man on the fringe knew himself as well, and he deeply felt his distance from God. He had no reason or basis for approaching God, except to come begging for mercy. And he isn’t making any excuses like: “O God, if you just knew the kind of home I was raised in, if you knew the husband I have to live with, if you knew what it was like to be behind closed doors with that wife of mine you would understand why I am the way I am. Deep down I’m not so bad Lord – not like that arrogant elder up near the front.”
The Tax Collector could have compared himself to the Pharisee and expressed what might be called publican or tax collector pride. There is false piety. “I thank you God that I am not like that phony babbling brook over there who loves to pray in public. I at least am honest. I know I’m a sinner; I know I’ve done wrong.” We must all guard our piety or pride sneaks in. As author Helmut Thielicke commented: “Everything one does and thinks can be used by the devil; he can use even the holiest waters to drive his mills.”
These men reflect two differing attitudes toward God. One viewed God as the owner of a big corporation in which he had a large amount of shares. He was sure that, as he kept building up stock, he would someday have a controlling share in the business. The other saw God as a generous person who extended undeserving grace, extravagant love and endless mercy. It was before such a God that he was willing to be himself – his true self. And when we, like this person, see God for who he is, then we too are able to face up to who we are, and will be given the freedom to confess with this fellow and also with King David: “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Stepping into God’s gracious presence is simpler than square dancing, which has many steps. This is the one step move from phoniness to truth, from fantasy to facts, from justifying ourselves to letting ourselves be justified by God. Jesus did not come to reform the reformable; he came to raise the dead. With this story Jesus calls us to drop our religious efforts, to stop shining up our armor and to make God our sure and only defense.
Jesus said: “Whoever exalts him or herself, will be humbled by God. Whoever humbles him or herself, will be exalted.” And we are to keep this position for we have no other basis on which we stand or walk before God than his grace to us in Christ. We drink from the Communion cup and eat the bread of the Lord’s Supper the very same way everyone else does.
There is a challenge in being humble. It is fair to say that we all desire humility. And the moment we think we have it, we lose it. If we want a project to keep us occupied for the rest of our lives, it is this: be humble.
There is a fairly simple way to keep this humble dependence upon God. Like the Tax Collector, don’t look across at others or down on yourself, but look up to God. Confession of sin is a hard thing if we compare ourselves to others or run ourselves down. We are to see ourselves as our holy and gracious God sees us. When we only look at others, gossip increases and grace decreases. When we only look at ourselves, despair sets in. When we look up and fix our eyes on Jesus, the grace of Christ breaks into our lives and our joy level increases.
Prayer is the key to living in this grace, being aware not only of how I fall short but also of God’s long arm reaching down to pick me up. The position for prayer is choosing not to look down on others, knowing that I am by nature no better a person than he or she is. The position for prayer is summarized well in this quote from our confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 45, Question and Answer 117:
Q. What is the kind of prayer that pleases God and that he listens to?
A. First, we must pray from the heart to no other than the one true God, revealed to us in his Word, asking for everything God has commanded us to ask for.
Second, we must fully recognize our need and misery, so that we humble ourselves in God’s majestic presence.
Third, we must rest on this unshakable foundation: even though we do not deserve it, God will surely listen to our prayer because of Christ our Lord. That is what God promised us in his Word.
Prayer of Response
Let us pray:
Father, we thank you for teaching us how to pray. We thank you for listening to us when we pray. We praise you for making it clear that your grace is available and fully able to cover all of our sin. We confess that we look down on others, distance ourselves from them and then find ways to justify our actions. We come, as humbly as we are able to, admitting we are sinners in need of your mercy. Forgive our pride and failure to love.
Congregation, with your head bowed, think of a person you have looked down upon and in quiet confess this to the Lord and seek his forgiveness. (20 seconds of SILENCE.)
Thank you for your grace and mercy, Lord Jesus. Teach us how to pray humbly so we might live gratefully and gracefully, with you and with others. Amen.
Order of Worship
BRINGING PRAISE TO THE LORD
Welcome and Announcements
* We Greet One Another
* Call to Worship
* Prayer for God’s Greeting: “May God’s grace, mercy and peace be ours in the name of God the Father, son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”
* Song of Praise: “Now With Joyful Exultation” PsH#95
CELEBRATING GOD’S GRACE
Prayer of Confession
God’s Word of Forgiveness: Psalm 130: 7, 8
God’s Will for Our Lives: Romans 12:1-3
* Song of Response: “God, Be Merciful to Me” PsH#235
HEARING GOD’S WORD
Prayer for the Word
Bible Reading: Luke 18: 9-14
Sermon: “The Position for Prayer”
* Song of Response: “Just as I Am” PsH#263
OFFERING OUR PRAYERS & GIFTS TO GOD
Tithes and Offerings
LEAVING WITH GOD’S BLESSING
* Prayer for God’s blessing, “Gracious God we thank you for being with us. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.”
* Closing Song: “May the Mind of Christ, My Savior” PsH#291