Ash Wednesday Sermon Transcript
Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ Ash Wed., Feb 17, 2021 ~ Luke 18:9-14
Brushing your teeth. Checking your phone. Eating your lunch. Opening a door. Picking up a book. Pushing a pencil. What do all of these routine activities have in common? Besides the fact that they are things people do every day, things that most of us have done already today, they are most often accomplished using our hands. In fact, it would be very difficult for most of us to even imagine performing any of these daily tasks without them.
Because hands are such an indispensable part of people’s lives, it should come as no surprise that human hands also figure prominently in the events surrounding our Savior’s suffering and death. That’s why the theme for our midweek Lenten sermons this year is “The Hands of the Passion.” Later in this series we will be talking about the prominent part that the hands of Judas, Caiaphas, Peter, Pilate, and especially of Jesus, play in the passion history. But tonight, we open our Lenten journey looking at two pairs of less familiar hands, hands that our Lord describes in the gospel for Ash Wednesday.
The story of the Pharisee and the tax collector is one you may already know, but as we study this account again, as we imagine what these men looked like and what their prayers sounded like, I want you to do something you have probably never done before. I want you to picture their hands. I want you to make a connection between the actions of their hands and the attitudes of their hearts. And based on what you see, I’m inviting you to apply what you observe to your own life, to your own heart, embracing what it means to have . . . Hands of Repentance.
The setting for this story is the temple in Jerusalem. Two fictional—but very believable— people have come to this sacred place for the same purpose (to pray), and both men begin their prayers with the same word (“God”), but that is where the similarities end.
The first man is a Pharisee. Pharisees were the religious elite of Jewish society. Pharisees were always quick to seize the moral high ground. They were more reverent and more obedient than their fellow Jews, and this particular Pharisee wanted everyone else in the temple to know it. Which is ironic since humility is also a tremendous virtue, but apparently one this Pharisee was willing to fudge on a little.
Well, maybe more than a little. His arrogance shows up right out of the gate: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (v. 11). His prayer reminds me of a compliment that Ted Turner paid to himself, “If only I was a little more humble, I’d be perfect.” Maybe this Pharisee was an inspiration to Ted? He praised himself for not being a robber. He had kept the Seventh Commandment. He was no adulterer. He had kept the Sixth Commandment. The way the Pharisee saw it, he was a good guy.
Well, not just good. Like Ted Turner, he was nigh unto perfect. This Pharisee was convinced that his obedience exceeded expectations. He was a moral over-achiever: “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (v. 12). The Law of Moses required faithful Jews to fast one day out of the year. He fasted two days out of every week. And on top of that, he gave God back ten percent of everything he received whether he had earned it or not.
No one could bring a charge against this guy, and not just criminal activity but also in his religious observance. He walked the straight and narrow. He was more than generous. The kind of upstanding guy that makes for a good neighbor. At least on paper.
I wonder what it was like to be part of this guy’s life? If he’s praying a prayer like this to God, he’s undoubtedly doing something similar when he talks with those in his life. I have a hunch he’s the kind of guy who would have filled his social media with posts about himself. Praising himself. Drawing people’s attention to himself. The kind of guy that if you tried to bring a concern to his attention, he’d find a way to turn the finger of blame back on you. Always. He was right. He was always right. And if any criticism were directed his way, he was the victim of the judgmentalism of others. And he would let you know it and make you feel sorry for him because of it. And if you were the one who was offering the critique, he just had a way of making you feel guilty for even suggesting there might be something about him that maybe, just maybe could use some examination and adjustment. He wouldn’t hear it because he couldn’t hear it. He was too wrapped up in self-bragging! Could it be that he wasn’t trying to convince the other worshipers in the temple of his special relationship with God as much as he was trying to convince himself.
But this poses a real spiritual problem! Because hands (and the hearts that direct them) that vigorously protect a fragile ego also resist any kind of acknowledgement of failure. Those hands are defensive, not repentant. Because this Pharisee didn’t admit his sins, because he didn’t acknowledge his need of God’s rescue, it didn’t matter how publicly or how loudly or how often he prayed or even how many good deeds he did. He went home empty-handed.
While the Pharisee angled for everyone’s attention, there was another worshiper at the Temple who escaped everyone’s notice. And he preferred it that way. I’ll bet he was a Lutheran because when he came to pray in the temple he looked for a spot in the back row, as far from the front as he could get. His chin was buried in his chest. He was so ashamed that he clenched his hands into fists, silently beating his breast in remorse. He knew what he had done. He knew what he deserved. But instead of giving up hope, he offered up a simple prayer, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (v. 13).
It’s quite the contrast. The man up front compared himself with the worst to prop up his own ego, but the man at the back compared himself to the rigorous requirements of God’s law and realized, painfully, how far short he was of the standard. He despaired of trying to offset his bad by a resume of good deeds. He knew that no matter how much he gave it would never be enough to cover the debt of guilt he owed to God for his failures. He realizes just how desperate is his situation and he flees to the only hope a helpless sinner has: to plead for mercy.
It wasn’t a long prayer (only seven words in English), but it was powerful because it flowed from a heart of humble faith. And the faith of the tax collector was honored when Jesus declared, “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” (v. 14). Humble hands will be held high by the Almighty!
By the way, it’s worth considering why Luke made sure to record that Jesus was talking to people “who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” (v. 9). Why does that matter?
When you hear this story, where do your hands go? Do your fingers pinpoint someone who needs to hear this? Maybe the classmate in school who is always talking about how great she is. Maybe the coworker who is constantly trying to tell you how to do your job. Maybe the friend whose social feed is thinly veiled self-brag?
Or do you hear this story and beat your own breast? Do you see the hypocrisy in yourself as you run others down in order to feel better about yourself? Or the defensiveness posture you take on when someone comes with a word of critique or criticism for you? Maybe you would never choose the front row in church. But might God’s ears be turned away from your prayers because of the judgment you harbor about the people who wear masks in church? Or who don’t? The kid that won’t sit still? Or the parents that aren’t reacting fast enough to de-escalate? Or the people you’ve determined are here just for show not to grow?
How quickly the proud heart of the Pharisee rises up in each of us. How much better when the clenched hands of the tax collector turn us from haughtiness to humility, from bragging to pleading: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Take heart. God hears that prayer and honors it. How do I know? Because of the third man in this story, the One telling the story. If anyone had a legitimate reason to boast about himself, it was Jesus. He honored his parents. He obeyed the laws of the land. He kept every commandment of God perfectly. But he didn’t stand in front of the Temple to shame everyone else for not being more like him. Instead he allowed his arms to be stretched out on a cross and nails to pierce his hands in order to give his perfect life and his spotless record in exchange for all the wrongs our hands have committed and our hearts have plotted.
His innocent blood that flows from his pierced hands cleanses your heart of guilt and renews it to offer your hands to him. To offer those hands in prayer, talking to him anywhere, anytime, about anything, from the things that way on you most to the ways in which you are thankful and blessed. To open your hands in confession and find relief from the burdens you carry, and fold your hands in grateful devotion for the healing and help that Jesus promises. And you have his promise that when you pray he will hear you and answer you and always, always do what is best for you. Your Savior promises he will listen, help, and go with you as long as you live. Yes, you can leave this house of worship with humble confidence because you are in good hands. You are in God’s hands. Amen.