Joel 2:23-32; Luke 18:9-14
October 27, 2013 – Reformation Sunday
Once there was a rabbi who was at the point of death, so the Jewish community proclaimed a day of fasting in the town in order to induce the Heavenly Judge to commute the sentence of death. On that very day, when the entire congregation was gathered in the synagogue for penance and prayer, the town drunkard went to the village tavern for some schnapps. When another Jew passed him on the way to synagogue, he rebuked him, saying, “Don't you know this is a fast-day and you're not allowed to drink? Why, everybody's at the synagogue praying for the rabbi!” So the drunkard went to the synagogue and prayed, “Dear God! Please restore our rabbi to good health so that I can have my schnapps!” The rabbi recovered, and it was considered a miracle. The Rabbi said to the: “May God preserve our village drunkard until he is a hundred and twenty years! Know that his prayer was heard by God when yours were not. He put his whole heart and soul into his prayer!” (A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People, Edited by Nathan Ausubel, © 1948, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York page 161)
We laugh at this very human folk story. See if it helps you hear Jesus’ story in Luke 18:9-14 with fresh ears.
[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’
13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Luke put this story right after the parable of the widow and the unjust judge Regina preached on last week. Luke wrote that Jesus told that one to teach us to always pray and not lose heart. This one is also about prayer. It is not about our attempts at righteousness or even our self-improvement. Our situation is always hopeless, but God is the master of the impossible. When you pray, do not justify yourself, just ask God for mercy!
The Prophet Joel did not suggest that the people of Judah finally achieved some modicum of righteousness, but that God would pour out the Holy Spirit to empower them for the impossible. Spiritual renewal and restoration would spring from humble dependence on God’s mercy.
I chuckled when I saw that the day we’d be receiving our stewardship pledges for 2014, we’d hear Jesus’ critique of the Pharisee who bragged that he gave a tenth of all his income. Jesus wasn’t criticizing his tithing but his bragging about it and using it to justify himself to God. So if your pledge is based on a tithe, you can’t use this story as an excuse not to give 10%. Tracing to the examples of our parents, Candy and I have tithed for the entirety of our almost 45 year marriage. I’m not bothered if you want to lump us in with the Pharisee because I told you that, but I can say we’ve never regretted it.
Generous giving (without talking about it) reinforces humility and dependence on God’s mercy. When our perspective is that we are giving to God rather than the institution that receives the money, we release our claim to control what happens to that money and our sense of owning it. I’m not suggesting we don’t need to make wise choices or that institutions don’t need to be accountable, but that our humility is spiritually nourished by releasing our gifts. We all know about some philanthropists who seem to be motivated by pride. They make large donations that really purchase getting their names on buildings, not that that is wrong, but it doesn’t have the same spiritual effect on the giver that releasing does.
When we give in a spirit of humility, our gifts become tangible prayers like that of the tax collector. We are in effect telling God we are letting go of our claims to control, ownership, pride and righteousness.
By letting go of whatever we claim as our own: wealth, accomplishment, even righteousness, we are open to receive God’s mercy. Spiritual renewal and restoration spring from humble dependence on God’s mercy.
With this parable, Jesus springs a spiritual trap on us. He knows we’ll switch our identification from the Pharisee – the good church member – to the tax collector – the outcast. We become as proud as the Pharisee that we are tax collectors. We discover that we regard the Pharisee with contempt and belong to those who trust in ourselves that we are righteous.
Since the Greek text doesn’t have modern punctuation, it is not clear whether “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” is Jesus’ conclusion or Luke’s explanation, but it is one of the most pervasive principles of the Bible. It comes between the two banquet parables in Luke 14:11. In Matthew 23:12, it comes in the middle of Jesus’ scathing criticism of the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees. It is quoted in James 4:10 and 1 Peter 5:6 as essential to discipleship and spiritual leadership. I found over a dozen similar sayings throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
Humility as the path to exaltation defined the life of Jesus. In the Magnificat (Luke 1:52), Mary sang before Jesus was born that he would bring down the powerful and exalt the lowly. The great hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 celebrates that as Jesus humbled himself as a servant, God highly exalted him with a name above every name.
We experience God’s great reversal when we worship. Aware of our spiritual helplessness, we exalt God who welcomes us with great mercy. As the magnitude of this mercy dawns on us, we experience exuberant, exalted worship. Spiritual renewal and restoration spring from humble dependence on God’s mercy.
Today is Reformation Sunday. We celebrate, not only God’s renewing work in the Church in history almost 500 years ago, but also God’s renewing in our own time. Since the days of the Apostles, the Church has gone through many cycles of decay and renewal. Whether we feel like we are hanging on in a cycle of decay or on the verge of the next restoration, we can pray what has come to be known as “The Jesus Prayer” modeled on the prayer of the tax collector. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. We are sinners.”
The Church should not be surprised at these cycles of decay and renewal. That was the pattern for ancient Israel for a couple of millennia. Joel wrote when people had lost hope in a decay cycle. He not only promised that renewal was coming, but that God would restore all that had been lost. I take this as a word of encouragement for this congregation. God is at work and days of renewal and restoration are ahead, even if we can’t see them clearly.
In keeping with what Jesus tells us about humble dependence on God’s mercy, Joel did not tell Judah that they could create the restoration, but that God would do it by pouring out the Holy Spirit. The future of 1st Christian Church of Odessa does not depend on having the right programs or even on finding the right pastor. We don’t make it happen. We let God do it to, with and within us, which means humbly relinquishing control to God.
As you make your pledges today, I encourage you not to think of your money funding the future of this congregation but to think of it as a humble appeal to God to be merciful to this congregation. Think of it as a tangible prayer relinquishing yourself and the church to the Holy Spirit’s leading and power. I moved the sermon ahead of communion and the offering today so that they could be your response to having heard the call of Jesus.