Pastor Eric Schroeder  -  Ash Wednesday - March 6, 2019 

Text: Luke 18:9-14

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Four games left to go in the season, and the team isn’t living up to expectations…It’s time for a change—so the coach gets fired. A couple has been dating for a few months, and it is becoming increasingly clear that he or she isn’t “the one” …It’s time for a change—they break up and move on. One business is bought out by another larger corporation, and the new bosses are all about the bottom line…It’s time for a change—and people start looking for new jobs. 

Situations like these happen all the time in our world, and depending on what side you’re on, change can be a good thing or a bad thing in life. Typically, the most successful people are the ones who have a knack for recognizing the times and the ways that change can make things better: whether it’s a small adjustment here or a “scrap this and try something else” there, change can make a world of difference in a business plan, in a stock portfolio, in a golf swing or a fishing lure. 

What about our relationship with God, though? Quite often the conversation surrounding the season of Lent has to do with some kind of change for these 40 days—doing more of this or less of that, giving up this or cutting out that, spending more time than usual doing something productive. The idea is that this Time for Change will bring us closer to God than we were yesterday. Now, it isn’t wrong to think of Lent as Time for a Change, but what kind of change is the question. 

Our gospel reading helps us find the answer. Jesus tells a parable about two individuals who both recognized the need for a practice of their religion. “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  So, they go to the same place; they both go up to the temple. They go to do the same thing; they both go to pray. But, of course, it is the content of their prayer that is the big difference between the two. Here is the first example: 11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

On a scale of one-to-ten, how would you rate your obedience to God? A one would be that you don’t do anything right, and a ten would be that you do everything right. Do you have a number in mind? A humble person might call him- or herself a 3, 4, or 5. A more confident person might land on a 6, 7, or 8. The Pharisee here sounds like he’d call himself a 9 working toward a 10. No matter where he started off years before, he had made some changes. He might have started off fasting once a week, and then bumped it up to twice. Some people rounded down on their tithes, he kept a spreadsheet of his income and deducted exactly one tenth off of the top to put in the offering plate. In comparison with the majority of his fellow Jews, this Pharisee behaves better, and he knows it. 

But Jesus gives another example, too. This man is not so proud; he has a different spirit altogether.  His personal scale tells him he has a long, long way to go between where he is and where he wants to be.  We know his career, but not much else. But that’s enough to tell us that at one time, he agreed to take a job that would basically rob his fellow Jews to feed himself. It sounded good. He could charge as much as he wanted, and if they didn’t pay, he’d have a Roman soldier or two come with him to collect. Somewhere along the line he noticed the conflict between the holiness that was commanded and the sin he had committed. It was time for a change. He knew he couldn’t balance out the bad by doing more good. He knew that finding someone who was worse wouldn’t make his situation any better. There was only one thing left to do. He may have come into the temple area as a one or a two, but he knew he had zero chance to change himself… “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.’

Their time of prayer completed, both men went home. The Pharisee may have stayed a 9 on a scale of 1-10, or maybe he lost a point for his pride… But the tax collector…he went home as a perfect 10. In the words of Jesus, “I tell you that this man [the tax collector], rather than the other [the Pharisee], went home justified before God. How is that possible? Jesus answers immediately. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

You know where the Pharisee went wrong? He recognized it was time for a change, but he went about it all wrong. He tried to change himself. He did less of this and more of that and tried to earn the favor of God and men. And when that didn’t work, the only way he could be so proud was the temptation that has always threatened mankind—the temptation to change God. You see, he convinced himself that if he tried hard enough, maybe he could get God to ease up on his holiness and lower his standards and play the comparison game…but God is not going to change anytime soon. His standard remains: Be holy, as I the Lord your God am holy. 

On the other hand, the tax collector recognized that the only way for him to find the change he needed was to let God do it. He knew that his sinful desires weren’t going to fade, no matter how well he could shine himself up on the outside. He knew that the soul-deep stains couldn’t be hidden or explained away from a God who knows all and sees all, so he took a different path. Instead of climbing the ladder, he stepped off and admitted that only a merciful God could lift him up. He repented; he admitted not only what he had done but what he was, and is, and always would be unless God rescued him from his sin. He was a sinner with no claim on any righteousness of his own, but he trusted that a righteous God could, and would forgive him. He humbled himself before God, and God in his mercy exalted this sinner and sent him home justified. 

And all of us who humble ourselves in repentance today can be certain that God is merciful enough to do the same for us, to send us home justified through the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  So …Repent. Admit that no matter what your number is, it’s not a 10, and that means you aren’t good enough. Even your attempts at good are soaked in sinfulness.  All our righteous acts are like filthy rags, Isaiah writes.  James writes something similar whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. Every one of us is a lawbreaker, an offender, a sinner. It’s time for a change.

Throughout the season of Lent, we follow our Lord to the cross and we see just how merciful he is, that he would rather go through shame, anguish, agony and death than see us suffer in hell forever. He would rather be punished than punish us. He humbles himself to exalt us; he gives his life to raise us up eternally and set us free from our sin forever. 

Yes, Lent is time for a change. But our hope and our confidence isn’t based on any changes we make. Only God can change our hearts and cleanse us from the inside out. And in Jesus Christ, our hope is rewarded. God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness make us his children. Our baptism united us with Christ, his word strengthens our faith by the power of his Spirit, and the holy supper proclaims his death until he comes again to nourish our weary souls.  He is the one that empowers us to change our behavior, to fight against sinful desires knowing that he has defeated sin for us. We strive to live according to his law not to earn God’s favor, but because we already have it in Christ.  We fill our days with good works not in order to be saved, but because we already are through the cleansing blood of God’s own Son. 

May this season of Lent be a reminder to us all of how our unchanging God works. He does not lower his standards, but when we humble ourselves in repentance, he lifts us up with his forgiveness and declares us righteous for Jesus’ sake. Go out tonight with confidence that in Jesus Christ, no matter how you came in, you’re going home justified.  AMEN.