Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! “Repent!” What comes to mind when you hear that word? Maybe you think about one of those sensationalist street preachers who holds up a big sign saying “Repent before it’s too late!” or “Repent the end is near!” Or maybe you think that repent means to feel bad about yourself or down about yourself or be upset with yourself. Or maybe repentance means to be full of remorse or regret. What is “repentance”? It seems that our world is constantly considering that question. It’s true in our day. It was true in Martin Luther’s day as well. As many of you are aware this year marks the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran reformation when Luther nailed 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg. Well, many of his theses focused on what true repentance means. In fact, his first these says, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Well, tonight we’ll learn a key truth about repentance. A truth that Jesus’ taught using a parable. Notice first of all who it was that Jesus was speaking to, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable.” To such people Jesus gives them a mirror in the Pharisee that he describes. Picture it. You’re in the temple, there’s a lamb burning on the altar, the sun is going down, there’s a crowd, you notice this man, he’s a Pharisee, he spends plenty of time in the temple, he’s dressed well in flowing robes, he’s a religious professional, stands up probably in the middle of the crowd, and prays, and notice his favorite word, “I thank you…I’m not like other men…I fast twice a week…I give a tenth of all I get…” He’s not praying! He’s celebrating himself! He’s turning to himself. He doesn’t need anything from God- He is everything God wants! God was sure fortunate to have someone like him!
This Pharisee is a mirror for all who are confident in their own self-righteousness, not just in Jesus’ day, but also today. It’s horrifyingly easy for any of us to become this Pharisee. Notice that this Pharisee is self-focused, comparing, and inventorying. He’s self-focused- notice his vocabulary, it’s “I, I did this, I did that, I’ve accomplished.” I’m becoming more like this Pharisee when I’m self-focused. Notice that he’s also comparing. “I’m not like other men…” Isn’t that one easy? “Wow! I’m sure glad I’m not like that drug addict, that alcoholic, that criminal, that proud, pompous person, that jerk, etc.” And he’s also inventorying everything that he’s done. “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” In other words, he’s saying that God ought to be happy with him and reward him for all that he’s done. Do we do that? Perhaps it doesn’t show up all that often until something bad happens in our lives and we’re complaining in our heart, “God, after all that I’ve done? After how faithful I’ve been? After everything that I’ve done for you? And you give me this??” In other words, I don’t deserve it, I deserve better for all that I’ve done.
Today is Ash Wednesday, today we focus on repentance. Repentance includes sorrow over sin. Repentance is sorrow over both the bad things I’ve done, but also sorrow over the good things I’ve done. Because even the good things I haven’t done with the right heart, right motives, right intentions. Don’t turn to yourself, turn somewhere else.
Totally opposite of the Pharisee is the Tax Collector. He stood at a distance, he looked down, he beat his chest, and said, “God have mercy on me a sinner.” Literally, he said, “God be appeased…” He knew there was nothing he could do to appease the wrath of God for his sin. No praying, no fasting, no giving could make his sin right in God’s sight. He wasn’t the solution. He had to turn toward another. God Himself would appease His wrath toward sin. That’s what our first lesson said, “He [The Lord] saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm achieved salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him.” The Lord appeased His own wrath against sin by becoming one of us, suffering and dying on a cross as the payment for all of our sins. God didn’t ignore our sin, he punished it on his own Son. Jesus became the Chief of sinners on the cross so that you and I – chiefs of sinners- could become his own sons and daughters!
You and I are really like that tax collector. The only, only reason we are where we are is by the grace of God. And so a Christian’s entire life is a life of repentance – a constant, lifelong turning away from ourselves, from our works, and turning toward Christ and his work. It’s not your work, your prayers, your dutiful service, your commitment to your family or church or country that saves you. It’s Jesus and His cross. There God HAS been merciful to you, there God HAS forgiven you, there God HAS lavished grace upon grace to you forever. Repent! Don’t turn to yourself, turn to Jesus and only him always. Amen.