Jace Robert Zelhart is baptized today.
God, be merciful to me, a sinner! Might as well stop there and not have preaching today. The publican’s words in the temple say it all. Compare the publican’s words to the Pharisee’s words. God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get. Where to begin? Why not the verbs. Though the Pharisee’s prayer begins with the address to God, it goes downhill from there.
Everything is “I”. Look at me! Look at all the things I do. God, You tell me in Your Word this is what I am supposed to do. I am supposed to tithe and fast. Shucks, I even fast twice a week, just to show how pious I am. What matters most with the Pharisee is that he is thankful that he is not like other men. What he doesn’t realize, what you don’t realize, is that you are like other men. You are like every man that has ever lived, except for Jesus Christ.
You are a sinful man. You have lived as if others have not mattered and you have mattered most. Everything you think, do, and say is soiled with sin. The harder you try to show God and men how pious you are, yet will not believe that you are dead to sin, the more you set yourself up as an idol surrounded by other idols.
The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican exposes the central point of the Gospel: faith in a God who raises the dead. The Pharisee does not believe God can raise the dead because the Pharisee does not believe he is dead. Instead, he reminds God of all the good things he does for Him. He also points out that he is not like extortioners, the unjust, adulterers, or even that filthy, rotten, stinking, no-good tax collector over yonder. I am better than they are.
No, you’re not. You are actually far worse than they are. Consider the matter from God’s perspective. God is sitting on a throne watching over extortioners, the unjust, adulterers, and tax collectors. Meanwhile, the Pharisee walks up to the throne with a deck of cards. The Pharisee fans the cards and says, “Pick a card, any card. I can’t lose.” God looks at the Pharisee with a sad smile and says, “Friend, don’t do it. The odds are always on My side. See that guy over there, the publican, the one you can’t stand? He couldn’t guess your card even if you showed him what card to pick. Have a drink with him on Me and go home. You can’t win.”
Both the Pharisee and the Publican are losers, but there’s a difference. The publican at least has the sense to recognize that he is a loser. He trust’s God’s offer of a free drink. The Pharisee is looking for a way to pay for that drink, even though it is free. He could lose, but he won’t lose.
God uses His holy and perfect Law to show you exactly how you fare before Him. You’re dead. You can’t even begin to attempt to satisfy the debt you owe Him. The Lord God knows it, too. That is why He sends His only-begotten Son to suffer death on your behalf. He Who has no sin becomes sin on your behalf so you may have life, life to the fullest. Jesus says that the publican went down to his house justified, rather than the other. The publican says it all when he says, God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
That’s the response of a person who has everything to gain and nothing to lose. He’s already lost. He is the least in the kingdom of heaven. He is dead. Only then is he, are you, ready to receive the blood-bought justification from Jesus Christ. Only then is he, are you, ready to be declared “not guilty” before God’s almighty tribunal. The publican believes he cannot justify himself. He won’t even try. So he clings to what he does know: God is a merciful God Who has mercy on Whom He will have mercy.
God has mercy on Cain, even though Cain whines about it and, ultimately, won’t believe it. God has mercy on Saint Paul, even after Paul was once the chief persecutor of the Christian faith. He says, by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain. You walk in the same sandals as Saint Paul. You are who you are because you are His dear child, called out of darkness into His marvelous light. You are washed clean in Baptism, just as Jace Robert is today. God’s grace is never in vain. His favor shines on you in the Light of Christ, Who tramples death when He rises victorious from the grave for you.
Jesus came to raise the dead. Put your name where “the dead” is. Jesus doesn’t come to reform the reformable or to improve the improvable. You are dead. Yet you live because Jesus Christ lives. The cry in the liturgy: Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy, is one of faith. The God Who created you, Who redeemed you, and Who keeps you steadfast in the holy Christian Church has mercy on you. God, be merciful to me, a sinner. He is.