Luke 18: 9-14 (Sermon 1: “Going to Church is a Tricky Business”)
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 (Sermon 2: “Letters from Prison”)
Joel 2: 23-32
CALL TO WORSHIP
The light and joy of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
And also with you.
You daughters and sons of God, be happy,
celebrate the Holy Heart who is your God,
whose saving grace rains upon you
like the sun showers of spring and autumn.
You have more than plenty, like silos full of wheat,
you will be joyful like vats overflowing with wine and oil.
Grace to you, and peace,
from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
As we echo some of the words of psalm 65,
let us approach God with thanks on this morning in springtime.
You, God visit the earth and renew it.
The bushes of the wilderness drip with dew,
the hills clothe themselves with happiness.
The paddocks are covered with flocks,
the valleys are decked out with crops,
everything shouts and sings with joy.
From the plains to the mountains,
praise is all due to you, generous God.
To you we come and make our vows.
PRAYER OF APPROACH
Loving God, in the company of your Son, our Saviour, may we become enchanted with the light and the glory of your goodness. Let us praise and serve you with a delight which no sin can cloud, no worry erode and no happiness supplant. Through Christ Jesus, we pray.
CONFESSION AND ASSURANCE
It is written: “O you who hear our prayers, to you shall all flesh come on account of their sins.”
We now come to make our own confession.
Let us pray.
Loving God, Redeemer and Friend, we confess that we are people of many moods and sins.
Sometimes we become so contented with our lot that we forget others; neglecting their rights, needs, hopes, disappointments, and joys.
Sometimes we become so discontented with our lot that we make it hard for those around us; our sourness spreads through home, workplace, church and recreation.
We take many blessings without gratefulness, exercise our gifts without thankfulness, use up our friends without appreciation, and go to church without any sense of privilege and wonder and joy.
Merciful God, we are glad that you understand us, because we cannot understand ourselves.
We are relieved that you can save us, for we cannot save ourselves
By the word of Christ Jesus, condemn that which is rotten,
straighten that which is crooked, and encourage all that thirsts for righteousness.
Let your forgiveness flood over us and through us, leaving no dark corner unwashed. For your love’s sake.
OUR SINS ARE FORGIVEN
Long ago is was written in Holy Scripture:
“To you, Lord God, shall all humanity come on account of their sins.
When our transgressions pile up against us, it is you who forgives them all.”
My sisters and brothers, if some folk so trusted your mercy, centuries before the coming of Christ , how much more should we trust the forgiveness of God.
The grace of Christ Jesus is more sufficient for us.
Live now as those who are truly forgiven.
Thanks be to God!
PRAYER FOR CHILDREN
When We Become Proud
if some days we become proud
and puffed up like a balloon
with our own importance,
please prick our pride
and deflate us.
Then when we are empty,
and feeling flat,
please fill us with the saving love
and that happiness of Jesus.
There once was a man up the front
whose prayers were exceedingly blunt
he scratched his own back
to heaven and back
and stayed a spiritual runt.
There once was a man near the door
who threw himself flat on the floor
he poured out his soul
without much control
and left with the peace of the poor.
The was a man in the middle
who feared that faith was a fiddle,
but to his great joy
he met Mary’s boy
and found the key to the riddle.
© B.D. Prewer 2000
God our most holy Friend, you are the one source unshakeable peace and joy. Please hold us so securely by your hands of grace, that we may never feel the need to build ourselves up by pulling others down. Make us generous with others, that by word and deed we may reflect your abundant love. Through Christ Jesus, who with you and the Holy Spirit as you have been with us deserve all thanksgiving and praise, now and for ever.
SERMON 1: GOING TO CHURCH IS A TRICKY BUSINESS
Luke 18: 11 & 13
The Pharisee stood up and prayed with himself like this: ‘I thank you God, that I am not like other men.”
The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his chest saying: “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Evidently, going to church can be a tricky business.
One person might enter this sanctuary thinking: “I feel good here. I’m doing okay, God. Thank you that I have not fallen in temptation like some others I know. Bless me that I may keep up the good work.”
Another person might slip into this place thinking: “I’ve got no right to be here, God. I really have screwed up and made a mess of life. If you can, God, have pity on me.”
According to Jesus, the first person could leave this church at odds with God, while the second one may leave very much okay with God.
Now if that is not another bit of sharp discomforting word from the Parable Man, my name’s not Prewer! Jesus just could not help himself, could he? He keeps on upsetting our ideas of what is appropriate or inappropriate, fair or unfair.
[Pause: Before I continue, I want to warn you (with tongue in my cheek) about one minor thing in the parable. The Pharisee goes closer to the front of the church, the tax collector stays at the back. Please, don’t consider this a justification for the habit of sitting towards the back of this building and leaving the front pews vacant. I can assure you, those who sit nearer to the front are not necessarily Pharisees who are unjustified in the eyes of God. Nor are those who cling to the back pews necessarily more humble and justified in God’s eyes. Things are never that simple!]
JESUS AND THE GOOD NEWS OF GRACE
Back to the parable. The first thing I am eager to say is that this story is vintage Jesus. It’s so typical of him. It unsettles us, maybe confuses us a little, but throws us back into the arms of God’s free grace.
Among the four Gospel compilers, I find Luke especially enthusiastic about this aspect of Christ. The familiar benediction which commences: “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” may not have originated with Luke, but the theme is dear to his heart.
Here is authentic gospel. Great news. Grace. The unbuyable, unpredictable, uncalculated, seemingly indiscriminate, generosity of God to even the most despicable characters.
Do not gloss over this fact; I did just say: “despicable characters.” In the parable the tax collector is not painted as a really nice guy, in spite of his profession. He is a rogue, a despicable person. Our common use of the word “tax collectors”(telones) as those whom Jesus welcomed, must not blunt the fact that they were traitors; “low lights” who collected taxes for an occupying army. These men were hated for good reason. They were the “bag men” for Rome. With the broad swords of the Roman military behind them, they enforced the payment of tolls, even from the poorest of the poor. And they made an extortionate profit from the business.
The tax man at the back of the Temple had been a blood sucking creep. I see him as very plump, well dressed and wearing jewellery.
On the other hand, the Pharisee is truly a good man. I see him as lean from living with moderation and fasting often. He is trying desperately hard to do the right thing. The only obligatory fast for a good Jew was once a year on the Day of Atonement. This chap is voluntarily doing it twice a week . What is more he does not merely give a tenth of his income to the temple, he gives a tenth of the cost of anything he buys; just in case the shop keeper does not tithe on his income.
This is not one of those religious guys who gets legalistic and meticulously pays attention to legal requirement but does not do a thing more. This man is generous. We would love to have him as a member of this church, wouldn’t we?
THE RIGHT AND WRONG OF IT
Well, where does the Pharisee go wrong, and where does the tax collector get it right?
To start with, notice the odd way his praying is described: “the Pharisee prayed with himself like this.” Prayed with himself? He is airing his goodness before God rather than communing with God. Flaunting his virtues instead of falling down in awe before such pure beauty and holy love.
Things get worse. Where the Pharisee goes totally wrong is when he attempts to justify himself by making comparisons with others. “ I thank you God, that I am not like some other men.” He attempts to find his soul’s security by establishing his credentials as compared with the poor credentials of extortioners, the unjust, and adulterers.
You may have heard a similar comment from someone watching the news or reading a paper. They comment on an item about some respectable person who has been caught breaking the law: “I know I am not a saint, but at least I’m not like that!”
Or the worldly person who plays the self-justification game this way: “I know I don’t go to church very often, but at least I am not a hypocrite.”
In the Presence of God, we are not siblings, jealous of each other and hoping to buy more parental love by being better than our sisters and brothers. We don’t earn good points that way. Nor do we earn extra vouchers by bad-mouthing others.
Our only justification for being in the Presence of God comes down to this: God’s unconditional love for us. We are here because God wants us here.
The tax collector was a despicable man, but he knew he was and looked for nothing but the mercy of God. He knew he had no right in the Temple. He was aware that any comparison with others would leave him in more debit. His only source of feeling okay was if God granted it to him, gratis! Grace is what the Gospel is fundamentally about.
It is God’s verdict alone that matter and God’s verdict is grace.
THE TRAGEDY OF SELF VINDICATION
Self vindication lead s to a terrible poverty.
It is an tragedy that those who justify themselves leave no room to receive grace. Morally they may be living exemplary lives; yet their well stocked, neatly packed, self justifications leave no cavity for the grace of God to take hold .
They go home not vindicated, not because God withholds grace but because they are not ready to receive it. If you are full of yourself, there is not much room for God.
On the other hand, all kinds of sinners who have given up all hope of self-vindication, find grace, mercy and peace. They have a hunger, a gnawing emptiness in their souls, a room for grace to enter and work its miracle.
A STING IN THE TAIL
I have one final comment. A sting in the tail.
There is a little, demonic trap lurking close by after we have heard this parable. It is the temptation for each of us to think: “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee.”
SERMON 2: LETTERS FROM PRISON
Letters from prison are always of special interest.
More so if they are from a Christian man or woman who has been hounded by enemies and unjustly incarcerated. Such letters become compelling testimonies if they are written by a prisoner who is facing the death penalty.
In later years I have drastically reduced the number of books on my shelves.
Yet I still keep there a collection of letters from Christians who were in Hitler’s prisons, waiting to be tried and executed. It is a well worn, small paperback titled “Dying We Live.” It provides deeply moving testimonies from those about to died for Christ.
I still need that book.
When I lose perspective, and become anxious about little things, it is good therapy to take down that book and encounter again the fidelity of those who were about to pay the highest penalty for practising their faith. Their letters both chasten me and inspire me.
ONE LETTER FROM PRISON
There is also one other favourite book of mine.
It also contains such letters from prison. It shifts us from Nazi Germany back to similar scene under a ruthless dictatorship in Italy. A testing time, in which numerous Christians were suffering for their faith, many paying the ultimate price for believing in Jesus the Christ.
One testimony especially gets to me.
.One of these letters from Italy, written by Christian prisoner who is an old man, especially moves me. At a time when by rights he should be able to enjoy a quiet retirement, surrounded by the love of good friends, there he was imprisoned and alone (except for one loyal friend) expecting execution. As was common in Elizabethan England, and is still the case in countries like Saudi Arabia, his death would be by beheading. Not a comfortable prospect for our elderly prisoner?
His trial must have been a lonely time for him.
From his letters from prison we gather that most of his friends no longer wanted to know him. Some, in order to protect themselves from any danger of guilt by association, even went overseas rather than stay and risk being called as a witness at his trial. At his first hearing he stood there completely alone. Not one character witness was prepared to stand by him. He had done nothing to deserve such shabby treatment. This dear old Christian had always been loyal to his friends. Yet while he standing in the dock, there was not one kindly face in the court to encourage him.
How would you feel?
Just imagine it, would you please? Picture this elderly person in the dock. This fellow is a truly a good and loving man, who has done nothing wrong except practice his love for Jesus Christ openly and thoroughly. He refuses to water down his belief. Refuses to compromise and blend in with the common herd of citizens around him who toe the dictatorial government line. His eyesight may be going, his hearing dimmed, his hands may shake with infirmity, yet he loves the Lord Jesus and his God with all his heart and mind and soul and with whatever strength he has left. He has lived that way and he is prepared to die that way rather than fail his Lord.
When he writes this particular letter from prison, the verdict is certain.
He knows there is no hope for anything but his execution, and there will be no reprieve. His years of serving Jesus are almost ended. His letters are his second last witness to the faith. His final testimony will be the public beheading.
Does he regret this terrible nadir to which faith has brought him?
Not a bit of it! He sees his imminent beheading as more like a sacrifice for Christ rather than an execution. He is not eager to be executed, far from it! Yet when it comes he will embrace it to the glory of God.
There is one unexpected note in his last letter.
It is a note of happiness, a joy in looking to the future. Not a joy in beheading. But a joy in what lies beyond it. Eternal life with his Lord Jesus..
It is unlike many pessimists today.
Unlike the many who have fallen for the materialistic lie (a materialism now scientifically outmoded but still persisting in our culture) that there is no other possible plane of existence than this mortal one. This dear old man is optimistic. He not only believes that Christ rose from the dead, he knows it. He has experienced the Spirit of Jesus alive in his own life. In fact, his whole life has been a living testimony to the living power of Christ. Before he met Jesus, he was a self righteous bigot. Since then, all things had become new. For him, death will also be like a resurrection. New life. Expanded, abundant life. This old fellow with his dim eyes and shaking hands, has a mind that is still as sharp as a tack. I can imagine him laughing and saying: “I may be old, but I’m not stupid! Of course I will be dead. Very dead.”
He is not given to wishful thinking.
Always he has been a realist. However, he clearly looks beyond death to a more glorious life to come. He speaks of being rescued from evil, not meaning rescue from mortal death but from any threats in the life to come. This realist is sure that no matter what lies beyond death, nothing shall cut him off from the love of God in Christ Jesus. He trusts Jesus and trusts the unseen heavenly kingdom which even now impinges upon this mortal kingdom and invades it.
A FEW LAST COMFORTS
Meanwhile he waits. He waits for the axeman. The authorities are in no hurry to dispose of their aged client. Now winter in drawing near. Like all elderly people, he feels the cold more than do the young. The long, cool days and lonely nights seem even longer when one is cold.
He remembers a favourite coat.
In a touching aside in his last letter from prison, the old man asks a young friend of his (a minister whom he himself had ordained) to visit him and bring with him a warm cloak which he had left in another city, along with some books and writing paper. There was no need to shiver and be unduly miserable in the time left before the date of execution is set. No need to be idle and self-pitying either; so bring also the books and the writing paper!
You know, this fellow is really something else!
Such a positive approach while waiting execution! Such faith and hope and love!
When I think about the trivial things you and I worry about,
and complain about, and compare them with this letter from prison, how silly and self-absorbed we are! How weak is our trust, how timid our commitment.
LET THIS GUY INSPIRE YOU
Maybe I should pause at this point and apologise.
I am lumping you all into the one generalisation with me. Some of you may well have faced and surmounted difficulties that I have never had to face. Your faith may have held fast where mine wobbled. Your love may have persisted when mine became lukewarm. If that is so, I do indeed apologise.
Nevertheless I suspect that at least some of you are rightly lumped with me.
Some are those who worry and fret about little things. Little setbacks, which in the wide scale of God’s work of salvation, are really trivial. Yet some of you, like me, perhaps complain when the going gets a bit hard, and when some friends let us down.
To you I say:
Let yourself be inspired by this wonderful letter from a prison in Italy. Remember it is written by and old bloke facing beheading. Glean inspiration from this remarkable apostle of Jesus whom we know as St Paul, writing from detention in Rome as he awaits execution. Be uplifted by this prison letter to the young minister named Timothy– son of the loving Christian women Lois, and grandson of the equally loving Eunice. Paul to Timothy: Inspiring stuff!
I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith. Now there is waiting for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge will award me on that Great Day, and not only to me but to all who have loved his appearing.
When you come, please bring the cloak I left with Carpus at Troy, also the books, and especially the writing parchment.
At my first defence, no one took my part. All deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength...... he will rescue me from every evil and preserve me safely for his eternal kingdom..
To him be glory for ever and ever.
The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.
(Why? I won’t be so crass as to prattle: “Because you deserve it”) You don’t deserve it . I don’t deserve it. Be inspired because God offers it to you. Free gift. Out of the riches of God grace, through the gift of the Holy Scriptures, let Paul, and all the saints and martyrs, inspire you!
Yes? O Yes!
Caring for others is not for the weak minded but for the strong. The weak ones get cynical, the strong constantly re-engage through prayer and action.
Let us pray.
It is to our shared human shame, loving God, that there are people who are lost today, homeless and destitute today.
Please aid victims, and bring humanity to a new compassion and sense of a fair go.
It is to our human shame, loving God, that children are abused today, unfed, unclothed and comfortless today.
Please aid victims, and bring humanity to a new intolerance of all abuse.
It is to our human shame, loving God, that there are diseased folk without treatment today, injured people without doctors and nurses today.
Please aid victims, and bring humanity to a new intolerance of indifference.
It is to our human shame, loving God, that some lives are being wasted today, without employment and any realistic hope for work today.
Please aid victims, and bring humanity to a new passion for justice and mercy.
It is to our churchly shame, loving God, that there are people who have never seen the Gospel lived or brought to bear on their despair.
Please aid victims, and bring your church to a new passion for the ways of Jesus.
Merciful God, please enable all people faith and love to treasure and practice that love which includes all who come asking for help, and even searches for those who are too weary or despairing to ask.
In the name of Christ Jesus.
We are loved by a God who calls us to spread
love wherever the poor are neglected,
justice wherever the meek are humiliated,
hope wherever the merciful are despised,
peace wherever the church is divided,
and grace wherever the lost seek mercy.
May the God of seeking bless you,
May the Christ of gracing bless you,
May the Spirit of safe-keeping bless you.
Till you see the land of joy;
Till you see the land of joy.
(adapted from a Celtic blessing).