Trinity 11 Sermon, 2017
Luke 18:9-14; Genesis 4:1-15
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
The Baptism of young children confesses something that much of the world has a great problem believing:
That even the most beloved newborn baby is not, strictly speaking, in the eyes of God, according to faith, good.
Jesus says, “No one is good [but] God alone” (Mk. 10:18).
He doesn’t mean, “No man can be good.”
He does mean, “Only those who God calls to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ are, properly speaking, good.”
You need to put far from your mind the idea that someone can be “good” apart from faith in Jesus. A Good Samaritan award means nothing if you don’t recognize that Jesus is the Good Samaritan.
Or, to say it this way, you should care about the things that matter. Jesus says, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
And the author of Hebrews writes, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to [Him] must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
Whether we baptize a baby, a teenager, an adult, or an old fool on his deathbed, we’re confessing that, innately, by nature, this man is sinful and unclean. That He brings nothing but a beggar’s cup to God’s table—and—God fills it up.
Our problem is that, as Christians, we know what a good work looks like, because we know God’s law, but we don’t often see good works where we expect to.
We’d like to see them from our family—brother, sister, son, daughter, mother, father. But we often don’t.
And since we don’t, to make ourselves feel better about having heathen children, siblings, and parents, who have heard God’s Word but ignore it, we equivocate.
“Equivocate” is a marvelously specific word. It means “to use ambiguous language so as to conceal the truth or avoid committing oneself.”
So, we say that a faithful Christian, in the eyes of God, is “good.”
And we say of an unbeliever who is kind to his neighbor that he is “good.”
But since our children, siblings, or parents have left the church, since they’re not here, since we’re afraid that they may not be “good” (in the eyes of God), we equivocate.
We call them “good” (in the eyes of man).
Do not be fooled. God is not mocked.
Another way we can talk about this is to realize that we live by wrong comparisons.
We compare ourselves not to God but to each other.
When we compare ourselves to God, we realize how unfit we are to administer rightly the responsibilities He’s given us to do.
But when we compare ourselves to each other, if we’re picky and patient enough, we can find a worse person than the man in the mirror. And we always feel a lot better when we’re not the worst person.
We say, “I’m glad I’m not like him.” Or, “I’m a much better parent than her.” At some point, you were the child whose parents prayed, “Dear God, please don’t let that be my kid.” We always think we’re special.
We always think we’re good.
When we compare ourselves to each other, it’s very easy to see where we line up: Some are rich, some poor. Wise or foolish. Loving or angry. Friend or foe.
It’s an easy line to draw.
Thus, the Pharisee prayed: “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” (Luke 18:11-12).
It’s a very easy line for the Pharisee to draw, because the comparison is made to those around him.
But it’s not just the Pharisee who lives by comparison.
Consider Cain in Genesis chapter four—and some background on Cain will help.
Eve thought Cain was Jesus. I’m not trying to be shocking by saying that. You know that God promised, in Genesis 3:15, to put enmity between the serpent [satan] and the woman, between the serpent and the woman’s singular, male offspring.
Satan shall bruise singular, male offspring’s heel. But that singular, male offspring will overcome the sting of that death and crush the serpent’s head.
Eve believed that promise so fiercely, she bore Cain, a singular, male offspring, and said: [קָנִ֥יתִי אִ֖ישׁ אֶת־יְהוָֽה].
This is one of the few times where I need to explain how English translations don’t do justice to the actual words. It literally says, “I have acquired a man, the Lord.”
Eve thought Cain was the Lord, Jesus.
Now, can you imagine being raised by parents who literally thought you were going to redeem the world?
“Cain,” in Hebrew, can mean “acquired.” Adam and Eve thought they had acquired what God promised—everything else, then, everyone else, is inconsequential.
It’s no surprise, then, that Abel can mean “fleeting” or “wind” as in immaterial or even unimportant. Can you imagine being raised by parents who literally named you “unimportant”?
The names make a comparison already. Cain probably would have prayed like the Pharisee: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.”
And Mom and Dad would cheer with pride while Brother hears and wonders.
Until Cain kills Abel, that is.
The surprise is, we’re just like Cain. We’re just like the Pharisee. We make comparisons and rejoice in them.
Cain was already murdering his brother every time he was angry or cursed him for being foolish and unnecessary. Jesus calls that murder in Matthew 5. So, surprise, you’re a murderer just like Cain.
And here, let’s make it worse: Have you ever compared yourself to others? Thought well of yourself for giving a better gift? Thought poorly of someone else for giving a “bad” gift? Have you thanked God for making you different from the extortioners?
It’s easy to hate a guy named Madoff, for example. Madoff made off with billions of dollars from people who trusted him—and if the HBO movie portrays it accurately—he blamed the people he swindled for allowing themselves to be swindled. I pray God brings him to repentance and faith.
He’s worse than you, sure.
But, how much time and money have you stolen from your children, family, friends, and employers by being lazy, spending too much time on your phone, or not speaking up when you should?
Laziness is a type of extortion, and you’ve been lazy. But you thank God, in various ways, that you’re not like those sinners.
If the comparison is made to those around you, it’s an easy line to draw.
But compare yourself to God’s Law—and everyone fails.
You. Me. Everybody. No one is righteous. No, not one. Either you know that or you ignore that. But either way, you are a poor, miserable, sinner.
Repent. Confess where true goodness and righteousness reside, or you will go down to your house condemned.
Confess the truth: Before God, we are devoid of righteousness and full of sin. Prior to conversion, we’re opposed to God, at enmity with Him, at war.
“For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7).
What the Psalmist says is true: “I am a worm and not a man” (Psalm 22:6).
Repent! Confess and pray as the tax collector does. Standing far off, he wouldn’t lift his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast [praying] “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
I tell you, that man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
We should look at Cain and Abel as we look at the Pharisee and the tax collector.
One grew up thinking he was something special. The other went to his house justified by grace, though faith, in Christ, the Lamb of God.
Not by works.
You don’t start salvation, you don’t finish it. You don’t add to it. Salvation is a complete gift, earned and given, both, completely by Christ.
We were all by nature children of wrath. The Law of God condemns us as murderers and extortioners, unknowing Pharisees. But God, being rich in mercy, because of [His great love], even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ…
And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.
“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
“We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).
When Cain killed Abel, Abel’s blood cried out to God for justice.
When the Pharisee and tax collector were praying, it was at a service of atonement, held twice a day, where the sacrificial lamb’s blood would be sprinkled on the altar, and the people would offer prayers to God. That’s why they were there. That’s what’s going on.
The Pharisee looks around and sees sinners, because he compares himself to others.
The tax collector looks and sees the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, because, while terrified at a comparison to God’s law, he still trusts God for mercy. It’s as if he knows that Jesus, Himself, would cry out “Father forgive them!”
It’s as if this sinner knows that the blood of Jesus cries out—not for our condemnation—but for our acquittal.
“We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).
We all have the same prayer: “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
In Christ, who took upon Himself our sins and the sins of the world, who took our sins away, God is merciful.
Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Eat and drink and taste and see that the Lord is Good.
And go to your house justified.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!