21 August 2006

A Homily for Trinity 11

Homily for Trinity 11

Our God does not leave us to grope after him and try to find him on our own. The God we worship is the God who makes Himself known AND who locates Himself in grace so that His people can find him and receive the life He wants to give them. That’s what the temple was all about; what it was there for.

When King Solomon prayed the prayer of dedication for that holy place, over and over again he asked: “and when someone comes and prays in this place, hear in heaven, your dwelling place, and forgive.” The Temple was the place God was dishing out forgiveness of sins. There was a never-ceasing flow of blood from the sacrifices there – for without the shedding of blood there is no remission, no forgiveness. But you get the temple all wrong, all backwards, if you think that the people were bringing their gifts to appease the Lord. No way! It was the other way round. God was giving them the gifts they brought so that He might use those gifts to give them forgiveness, to answer the prayer that the temple was put in place to answer.

Cain had it backwards. Even though there was no temple in those days, already Abel understood that the worship that pleases the Lord is when we let Him give us forgiveness, and that forgiveness always seems to involve blood. So Abel brings the Lamb and sacrifices it for the forgiveness of his sins, so that God can through that offering reach Him pardon and life. The sacrifice confessed that Abel’s life was forfeit because of his sin, and that he needed a substitute, a life interposed in place of his own. And Abel recognized in the Lamb God had provided exactly that. Even when Abel’s blood is spilled, and cries aloud to God from the ground, it is blood of one who has been redeemed, and it does not cry in vain. God will raise Abel, first martyr for the Lamb.

But in the Gospel the sad Pharisee, standing apart by himself, doesn’t seem to know why he’s there. The temple was the forgiveness place, where God dished out the “abundance of His mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid and giving us those good things we are not worthy to ask.” [collect] God was standing ready to give, as He always was at the temple, but the proud Pharisee didn’t think he needed what God was serving up.

“Forgiveness? Why that’s for the likes of sinners. Like the rest. Like that miserable tax collector over there.” The Pharisee had come to tell God what a lucky bloke God was to have such a servant – one who took the faith seriously enough to effect both pocketbook and stomach. He was all about what HE had done for the Lord. You slip into that whenever you are ready to pat yourself on the back for you service, and look disparagingly on those you don’t think have quite put in the same effort.

In contrast stood the poor tax-collector. He had come to the right place. The forgiveness place. And he came asking for what God was dying to give there. Beating his breast he cried out: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Our English there doesn’t serve as well as it might. More literally, what the man prayed was: O God, be propitious to me, THE sinner! O God, grant the sinner, me, a sacrifice that will take away my sin and give me forgiveness! That’s the sort of mercy that he ached for; a bloody mercy from the hand of God.

Jesus tells us who went home justified. Not the proud man who forgot what the Temple was there to give, but the sinner who came to use it aright. The tax man came, asking for nothing but bloody mercy and forgiveness, though he was nothing but a sinner and so didn’t even try to pretend that he had any claim on God. He went home a righteous man. For God answered the prayer he raised, and the only way anyone is righteous is when God forgives their sin.

How richly God answers that prayer for which the Temple was put in place He shows by the mouth of Him who tells the parable. He is the answer to the prayer and the whole structure of the Temple, all its worship, the endless streams of blood pouring from its altars, points in every way to Him. Jesus is the bloody mercy that the tax man prayed for. Just as that man claimed not to be just “a” sinner, but THE sinner. So Christ came to be THE Sinner in his place – and yours and mine.

He goes to His Cross, condemned that we might be declared innocent; forsaken that we might never be abandoned; given into death that we might share His endless life. Behold, the Lamb! Abel’s lamb was already pointing to Him, but it was only a type, a sign, a prefigurement. Here is the reality, here is the One who on His cross answers the plea for mercy, blood mercy, giving forgiveness, giving life.

As the Risen Lord, who gambled everything upon His Father’s promise and found it to hold, He has gotten rid of the Temple in Jerusalem that people would have to journey to, and He has sent instead the very thing the Temple foretold out into all the world. Now, wherever the Church erects an altar and through her ordained servants lending the Lord Jesus their mouth and their hands, Jesus goes on giving to His people the bloody mercy for which they plead: His body given into death for the forgiveness sins; His blood, spilled upon the cross to blot out the handwriting that was against us. It’s yours today, all you who confess your guilt, your sin, your countless failures to live the life He has called you to, also your sin of looking down on others. He reaches it to you anew: “For you! For forgiveness!” The bloody mercy of His body and blood. The gift that once was prefigured by the Temple now standing in countless temples throughout the world.

Paul reminds us in the epistle that its all for free. You can’t pay for it if you tried. God doesn’t need what you can do for Him! You need what He alone can do for you and does for free. Be done today with silly Pharisee praying and thinking. God’s not in your debt, but you are in His. And when you stand before Him, beating your breast and praying with the tax man, Jesus delights to dump down on you “those good things you are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ,” to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all honor and glory, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages! Amen.

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