Acceptable Worship. Trinity 11, 2014. St. Luke 18:9-14
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 18:9-14
August 31, 2014
“There is a lady who lives in this building who goes to church every day,” a homebound member told me. “Every day she goes. And she does all sorts of good things for people around here. And everyone says, ‘Oh, is she holy.’”
This was a story with a hidden question. The question behind the story was: Does going to church daily make you more pleasing to God than going once a week?
The readings for today raise this question: What is acceptable worship to God? What makes a person pleasing to God?
Jesus answers the question in His parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector. Acceptable worship is faith in Jesus’ offering. Faith in Jesus’ offering, by itself, without any works, makes us acceptable in God’s sight and is acceptable worship to God. By faith in Jesus’ offering, without any works of our own, we are not only close to God but united to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By faith in Jesus’ offering, without any works of our own, all the works and worship of Jesus are imputed to us. By faith in His offering, without any works of our own, we are forgiven our sins and saved from eternal damnation. This is what St. Paul says in the Epistle reading: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
So does going to church every day and doing good deeds for people bring you closer to God or make you more pleasing to Him? No.
Through faith in Jesus’ offering alone you are already perfectly pleasing to God. Like the tax collector, you are justified in God’s sight through faith in Jesus’ offering alone. Apart from any good works. You are counted as having fulfilled the whole law.
This is not a new teaching, and yet it often sounds new to us because everything in our old nature is violently opposed to it. “Wait a minute,” says old Adam. “If acceptable worship is faith in Jesus’ offering, are you saying we don’t have to do good works? God doesn’t care if we go to church or do good for our neighbor?”
Not at all. God not only wants us to do good works; He wants our good works to overflow and to characterize our lives. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them, says St. Paul in the epistle reading (Ephesians 2:10). Jesus says, By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples (John 15:8). God wants good works to abound in us and characterize our lives. That’s why He does not teach us to try to please Him by works, but teaches us that we are pleasing to Him and offer acceptable worship through faith in Jesus’ offering.
To be acceptable to God, works and worship must be pure. They must be given freely and they must be undefiled by sins like pride and idolatry.
In the Old Testament, when people wanted to worship God, they were required to bring animals to the temple to sacrifice. These animals had to meet certain requirements before they could be offered on God’s altar. They couldn’t be dead or have defects. God commanded: When anyone offers a sacrifice from the herd or from the flock, to be accepted it must be perfect; there shall be no blemish in it. Animals blind or disabled or mutilated or having a discharge or an itch or scabs you shall not offer to the Lord…since there is a blemish in them…they will not be accepted for you (Leviticus 22:21-22, 25).
Now look at the Pharisee and the tax collector in Jesus’ parable. They are coming to worship God, but the offerings they bring are not sheep or goats but prayers and works.
Now the Pharisee seems to have everything going for him to offer acceptable worship to God. He not only has lived an upright life, without cheating at business or in his marriage, he also tithes on everything he has. And he even goes above the commandments of the law and fasts two times a week! He looks like a really devoted, holy man on the outside, and he considers himself one, even before God, because his exceptional life that is better than that of other men is what he offers to God in his prayer.
The tax collector, on the other hand, seems doomed. He is a member of a profession that decent people want nothing to do with, because it is known for corruption and thievery. It’s surprising that he was even allowed into the temple, because tax collectors were cast out by religious Jews. And when he prays, the tax collector doesn’t protest that he is really innocent, the world’s one honest tax collector. He agrees with the condemnation against him. In fact, he beats his breast, a sign of extreme grief, seldom done by Middle Eastern men, even at funerals. With great sorrow he confesses himself lost and brings no good works, only one plea: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” What he is literally saying in the original language is, “God, receive a sacrifice to blot out my sins!” That’s his only hope, his only prayer.
One man’s worship is rejected by God; the other’s accepted. One man goes home under God’s wrath and judgment, condemned, with no good works. The other goes home justified, which means that God regards him as righteous and declares him worthy of eternal life. This man goes home God’s friend, like Abraham and Moses.
Who goes home condemned and cursed? The Pharisee, with all his moral and religious striving. Why is his worship rejected? Because he has brought God dead works. Like an Israelite bringing a lamb with scabs or with a deformed leg, or a bull that was already dead, the Pharisee brings works that God rejects. God does not accept works that come from a heart that trusts in its own works or goodness. They look like good works, but inwardly they are dead. They have come from a heart that is dead toward God.
As for you, you were dead in your trespasses and sins. That’s how Paul describes all of us as we are conceived and born from Adam. What can dead people do? Nothing. They can rot and stink and decay. That’s how we are in God’s sight by nature. That’s how the Pharisee was.
And yet most people are like the Pharisee. They think they are good. If not perfect, they are at least better than most people, they are not like the rest of men, greedy, dishonest, adulterers…It’s not just religious people who are Pharisees. Everywhere in our society, people are convinced that they are good and have no fear of God’s wrath and punishment. That’s why they feel no need to attend divine service in which Jesus serves us the forgiveness of sins in His Word and His body and blood. They don’t need to come because they think they are righteous without it. They don’t realize that this self-righteousness that says, “I am good” is the stench of death in God’s nostrils. God rejects people who think they are good. He casts them out. Though they may do all kinds of good things for people—though they may even go to church—if they trust in their own goodness they commit idolatry and go home not justified. Not at peace with God, not righteous in His sight. Under His wrath and judgment.
Who goes home justified and pleasing to God? Who goes home with God’s verdict that he is righteous and pleasing to God? The tax collector, who came to God with nothing but shame, grief, and horror over his sins, and the plea, “Be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Why was his worship accepted by God? Not because he was so sorry for his sins. He was sorry, but neither his sorrow nor anyone else’s is enough to be a pleasing offering to God in itself. You could weep tears of blood and it wouldn’t be a pure enough offering to be acceptable to God or to turn away His wrath at Your sins and turn His gracious face toward you.
It was faith in the offering of Jesus that made the tax collector’s prayer and worship pleasing to God and made the tax collector himself pleasing to God.
Jesus made a pure offering to God. He was born and conceived without sin and his entire life, his entire heart was dedicated to God, not just a part of it. He not only loved God above all things, but was meek and gentle in heart, not despising his sinful neighbors but his heart breaking for them and his life given to serve them. And this spotless, unblemished life, dedicated to God, He offered up as the sacrifice of atonement in exchange for our sinful lives.
The tax collector’s prayer was “God, accept a sacrifice to blot out the sins of this sinner!” It was a prayer of faith in the promise of God to provide a sacrifice that would reconcile God once and for all. God made this promise throughout the whole Bible, and it was faith in this promise alone that made people in the Old Testament righteous in God’s sight. By faith in this promise Abraham was counted righteous. So were Moses and David.
Jesus, who tells this parable, is the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises of a sacrifice of atonement that would end all sacrifices. He is the propitiation for our sins, the sacrifice that turns away God’s wrath and turns His favor toward us. Through faith in Him a person is justified—that is, God no longer counts his sins to him but instead the righteousness of Jesus. His is the sacrifice that all the Old Testament sacrifices were pointing to—the one sacrifice that covers our sins and blots them out.
In exchange, the person who believes in Him is credited with all Jesus’ good works. Jesus’ perfect obedience to the Father is credited to the one who believes in Him. His innocent suffering and death is credited to the account of the one who believes God’s promise that He receives us for the sake of Jesus alone. All of Jesus’ good works become ours through faith in Him. And to strengthen and increase faith in Him, God has given the gifts He bestows in the Divine Service—His Word, Baptism, Absolution, the Holy Supper of Jesus’ body and blood. In all these things the atoning sacrifice of Christ is applied to us.
Through faith in Jesus’ offering all of His life and good works are credited to us. So then can our good works bring us closer to God? No.
Yet God desires us to be fruitful in good works. So for this purpose He instituted the Divine Service—not so that we could earn God’s favor by going to church a lot, but so that we would receive His gracious power that strengthens our faith and makes us overflow in gratitude toward God which expresses itself in love toward our neighbor.
Here God invites you to come and be justified. He gives you His body and blood that atone for your sins and blot them out from God’s sight.
Then, what do you do with that precious gift? You rejoice over it. You are the tax collector who has been sent home justified, a friend of God. What else can we do with such a tremendous gift but good works—thanksgiving to God, kindness toward our neighbor? What else can we do but praise God for His mercy and gladly live in love toward those He calls us to serve? That is acceptable worship. May God make it abound among us through His precious Gospel. Amen.
The peace of God that passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.