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Asking for Mercy
Conversations at meal times are usually light and causal, especially when people are just becoming aquatinted. They are usually times for sharing stories and humorous antidotes allowing everyone to enjoy the food and the fellowship. I never use a luncheon to spring a surprise or to confront someone, therefore I was caught off guard when I found myself having to defend a basic tenet of the Reformed faith. I had requested a visit with a retired couple to get to know them. Although my responsibilities were youth ministry, I wanted to expand my contacts beyond just teenagers. They suggested lunch.
I had only been ordained a few months so I was still a rookie at handling sensitive questions. The conversation began innocent enough. Karl asked "John why do we have the prayer of confession in every worship service?" I explained that the public confession of sin was an essential element of Reformed worship. It reminds us that we have broken God's laws and are in need of his forgiveness. It also serves to reaffirm in our minds that God freely offers grace to us through Jesus Christ. I could tell that Karl did not agree with my answer so I waited, he finally replied, "Do you consider yourself a sinner?" From there the conversation went downhill. Karl was not going to be convinced by this young preacher of his right standing in the eyes of God. We were able to end the meal on a somewhat positive note. Karl and his wife had very irregular attendance for several months and then stopped coming. Later in the year, they transferred to another church.
Over the years, I have thought about that conversation. I wondered what I could have said differently. I tried not to be too harsh yet they were questioning a doctrine that I consider vital to my faith. Throughout the history of the church, the emphasis on the wickedness of humanity has at times been excessive. Robert Schuller, the author of Possibility Thinking accused the Reformed church of having a "worm theology." The phrase comes from a passage in Psalm 22:6
6 But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
Schuller correctly pointed out that if people are only told negative things about themselves, they will only think of themselves in negative terms. Rather than serving to motivate them to improve, such an approach discourages people. Somewhere the church needs to find a balance between limiting the Gospel to the proclamation of the our inner goodness and preaching in a manner that punishes people for not measuring up.
Schuller accurately warns against presenting a gospel "in substance or spirit ...that assaults a person's self-esteem.1" However, Albert Einstein eloquent captured the grim reality of the human state when he said
The real problem is in the hearts of [people]. It is not a problem of physics but ethics. It is easier to denature plutonium than to denature the evil spirit of [humanity}.2
Jesus captures a balance by telling parables that illustrated both. The parable of the Pearl of Great Price reminds us that God considers us so great a jewel that he is willing to pay a vast sum of money for us. The parable of the lost sheep speaks about a God who is willing to expend a vast amount energy and even take an enormous risk to search for us because he thinks that we are that important. And the parable of the lost coin and the prodigal son tell of the jubilation God feels when a person who was lost is found. But Jesus also warns his disciples that they must strive to enter by the narrow gate. The invitation to the kingdom is only offered once, if people do not respond others will be invited and the door will be closed and locked. And two weeks ago we read about the rich man who chose to ignore the needs of Lazarus only to find himself after his death in torment and pain while Lazarus enjoyed both food and drink. These and other parables serve to alert believers to the dangers of continually violating God's laws.
The gospel lesson for today uses the subject of prayer to present the theme of warning. In the previous passage, Luke, the physician, encouraged us to pray even during times of unanswered prayer, even when injustice prevailed unabated. We are to maintain a sense of 'peskiness' to our prayers because unlike the unjust judge who did not fear any man or God, we have a trustworthy God who stands ready to hear our prayers. Luke now concludes this mini section on prayer with a warning against developing a self-righteous attitude in our prayer life.
While we tend not to think of ourselves as self-righteous, religious legalists, we are not given much choice when we read this story. When he was talking with his disciples Jesus usually divided the world into two groups. There were the religious types, the Scribes and the Pharisees and the non-religious types-the whores and tax collectors. Now unless some of you are moonlighting on some jobs you have not told me about, I am going to guess by your attendance this morning that you are part of the religious establishment. Therefore, the challenge for us is how to capture the contrite spirit of the tax collector without falling into excessive condemnation that destroys the human spirit.
ASKING FOR A CONTRITE HEART
In his marvelous book on prayer, Richard Foster writes on the acts of contrition. He presents four parts to the process. He is somewhat apologetic that they sound trite. However, in their simplicity lie their profound beauty and truth. For Foster the first act is TO ASK for a contrite heart. We do not by nature willing admit our wrongdoing. We excuse our behavior by blaming the circumstances or other people. The popularity of Flip Wilson's the "Devil Made Me Do It" comedy routine reveals our urge to push the responsibility of our misdeeds onto someone else. Paul's shocking "Wretched man that I am (Ro 7:24) is a difficult declaration. We want to leave room for excuses or extenuating circumstances. So, we must begin by asking God to give us the willingness to admit that we have broken the law.
This may mean asking God to give them a new understanding of who God is. I believe that our greatest obstacle to repentance is our view of God. If a person views God as a hard driving task master who is always telling them that they never measure up, or is a God who angrily punishes every act of wrongdoing, the person is going to have a difficult time approaching the throne of grace. Often these images are a carryover of our relationship with our parents. One young man shared that he had a difficult time with confession because of his father's punitive style of discipline. The father had an explosive temper that would be unleashed in unpredictable ways. This young man went to incredible lengths to hide things from his father, e.g. broken tools or yard furniture or sports equipment. Things that he broke through carelessness or abuse but sometimes things that just wore out and needed to be replaced. As a mature teen, he had a difficulty understanding that he was declaring his sins before a loving and gracious Father.
CONFESSION OF SIN
Once we are willing to approach God with a humble heart, the next step requires us TO CONFESS. We have a policy in our house. When someone has done something that has hurt another person or broken a family rule they are expected to apologies to the injured person. They cannot simply say, "Sorry" or "I am sorry you were hurt by what I said." They must say they are sorry for doing a specific deed and ask for forgiveness. This policy is mandatory for both parent and child. It is necessary because unless we are willing to name the specific deed, we are not willing to admit that we have done a wrong. An old confessional once had the congregation say
By my own fault, my own most grievous fault3
Foster highlights the importance of the all-inclusive nature of our confessions by writing:
Before a loving and gracious Father we declare our sins without excuse or abridgement: unbelief and disunity, arrogance and self-sufficiency, offenses too personal to name and too many to mention.4
RECEIVE THE MERCY OFFERED BY THE GOD OF OUR SALVATION
Sometimes I wonder if people really believe that God forgives them. We sentimentally retell the story of the prodigal son and recall the joy of the father and lavish gifts showed upon his undeserving son. But do we really believe it. Another standard policy in our house is for the injured party to say, "I forgive you" Those are very important words in the healing process for both people. For the transgressor, they experience love and acceptance. They are affirmed as a person of worth and value. For the injured person, they are released from bitterness and hard-heartedness. They discover tenderhearted compassion. Maybe the reason we do not really believe that God forgives is because we are not willing to forgive one another.
I once served a church as interim pastor after it had become embroiled in some very serious conflict. People said things to one another that should not have been said. Several months after the conflict subsidy I heard some people ask the congregation to forgive them. Unfortunately, I never heard anyone respond by saying, "I forgive you." While the atmosphere was less tense when I left, I was not sure if the wounds were really healed. The person who made the public confess was not the only one who had said some unkind words. Later he and his family joined another church.
It is not enough to just admit we have done wrong. It is not enough to humbly ask for forgiveness. It is not enough simply to say I am sorry. At some juncture, the contrite heart must strive TO OBEY. Foster writes, "Embedded in the word of forgiveness is the call to obedience."5
I have heard many preachers use the story of the woman caught in adultery to condemn anyone whose moral standard is to rigid. From this one episode, they attempt to persuade the church to free itself of legalism and be more accepting of alternative lifestyles. After all, which person could cast the first stone. What they fail to include is Jesus last words to the woman. "Go and sin no more."
God offers his hand of mercy to anyone, no matter what they have done in the past, no matter how often they have done it. But he then calls that person to a radical lifestyle of obedience. He calls that person to demonstrate their new life in Christ by living a life of holiness and obedience.
THE BLINDNESS OF SELF RIGHTEOUSNESS
The story of the Pharisee and tax collector helps us understand the importance and difficulty of maintaining a contrite heart. Self-righteousness can subtly infect our spiritual life as one Adult Education teacher discovered. Bill had just completed a wonderful lesson on today's lesson. He listed the abuses of Pharisaism and offered some particularly insightful advice on avoid succumbing to legalism. He then concluded his class by praying:
Thank you, Lord that we are not like the Pharisee in this story"!6
And we need to be very careful not to laugh too hard, lest in our laughter we find ourselves saying "Thank you, Lord, that we are not like that Sunday school teacher."
1 Robert Schuller, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, (Waco: Word, 1982), p. 31.
2 Albert Einstein, Christian Century, unknown issue.
3 Source unknown, quoted by Foster, Prayer, p. 43.
4 Foster, Prayer, p. 43.
5 Foster, Prayer, p. 44.
6 Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for all Its Worth, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1982), p 134.
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