October 26, 2014

Heart: Three Ways to Live

Passage: Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:34-46, Luke 18:9-14
Service Type:

I tell you, this man (tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other (Pharisee); for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’


A recent survey (September 2014) reported on in The Telegraph’s (UK) technology news indicated that traditional photo albums are dying out as young people now take more pictures of themselves than friends and family.  We might be witnessing the mass-extinction of the family photo album. The "selfie"— those arm's-length snapshots of you making your most effortless attempt to be suave—now accounts for 30% of pictures taken by people aged 18-24 (with men taking more photos of themselves than women, according to the poll.)

We live in an era where masses of people live their lives without any reference to God.  Historically speaking, this was not the case.  I wonder sometime if the self-focus of our culture is, at least in some respects, fostered by a loss of the idea of the transcendent—that there is someone or some reality bigger than ourselves.  In the absence of reference to God a person is left with only reference to themself.  With the loss of the idea that there is a God who has something to say about how life is lived we are left to ourselves and what we can figure out.

1.  Dr. Timothy Keller writes; “People tend to think that there are two ways to relate to God—to follow him and do his will or to reject him and do your own thing—but there are also two ways to reject God as Saviour.  One is the way already mentioned: by rejecting God’s law and living as you see fit.  The other, however, is by obeying God’s law, by being really righteous and really moral, so as to earn your own salvation.  It is not enough to simply think there are two ways to relate to God.  There are three; religion, irreligion, and the gospel.” (Keller, Gospel in Life, Study Guide, p. 15)

With these three ways in mind Keller explores Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son and the elder brother.  The prodigal son who leaves home and lives as he sees fit is an example of what Keller calls irreligion as a way of living in relationship to God.  The elder brother who stays at home and does everything right is, according to Keller, an example of the religious way of relating to God.  Both have missed the gospel.  The prodigal son comes to know the gospel and is welcomed home; the elder brother has been invited in to the party but the parable ends there—we are not told whether he went in or not.

I think Keller’s analysis is helpful in understanding the spiritual landscape of our world.  Admittedly this analysis is from a gospel perspective.  The idea of “salvation” is a Judaeo/Christian category and strongly a Christian emphasis.  Keller describes the irreligious way of relating to God as the way of being your own saviour.

I am not sure that for people who live life without reference to God think of their life in this way—“I am being my own saviour.”  Perhaps they don’t think they need saving.  It is the gospel that informs us of our predicament before God—that is, that we need saving from our sin.  It isn’t self-evident.  Yes, we can identify the troubles of our human condition psychologically, socially, physically, mentally, economically.  These angles of vision, as adept as they might be in describing much of the human experience, cannot diagnose sin as the root issue.  From a gospel perspective it is God, by the Spirit, who convicts and convinces us of our situation before God.

For many who live without reference to God I am not sure there was a conscious moment of rejection of God.  Perhaps for some who grew up with some exposure to the gospel they may have decided, “I don’t want that”.  For others it a matter of never having given God or the idea of the transcendent much thought.  They live their lives having embraced certain values that they hold as important and full of promise for the kind of life they believe fulfilling.  Family, integrity, keeping commitments are examples of such values—the belief being that commitment to these are the guideposts for a life well lived.

So the concept of the Christian term “salvation” may not be the goal that many have in mind; rather “a life well-lived”, or “fulfilment,” or “happiness” might be more the way people connect the dots of life.  But each in their own way is to live without reference to God and consciously or unconsciously to reject God who is ever calling us to relationship with himself.  As good as these commitments to values might be they do not insulate us from disappointment or disaster; these values do not spare us from disease or the tragedy of a treasured relationship going sideways.   Further, in moments of personal candor we can see that we do not always live consistently with these values.

It wasn’t Jesus who ever said “to thine own self be true.”  The gospel understanding of the human predicament is that we don’t know ourselves well enough to make that happen.  We are blinded to the corruption of the human heart by the corruption.  The root human situation can’t be remedied by human effort.  Worshippers must never be given the impression that “Christianity” merely puts a religious “spin”, a religious interpretation, on the world’s self-understanding, which self-understanding never goes so far as to speak of a predicament.

Have you ever noticed how off-handedly (it would seem) Jesus refers to our polluted hearts and heads?  “You, evil as you are…” he says to his disciples; to disciples, no less. “Out of the heart of humankind bubbles up all manner of depravity…” he says so matter-of-factly, as though it were so obvious that no one could think of disagreeing with him.  In speaking so matter-of-factly about the state of the human heart our Lord is simply endorsing what has since been labelled “Original Sin”. We aren’t going to finesse all the subtleties of the doctrine this morning or attempt to correct all the misunderstandings that surround it. But we must say this much about it. We must understand that sins (small “s”, plural) are the outcropping, the effervescence, of Sin (capital “S”, singular). Our behaviour is an outflow of the condition.

2.  Returning to the spiritual categories outlined by Keller, I invite you to reflect on this religious way of being your own saviour.  Keller writes: “In “religion,” people may look to God as their helper, teacher, and example, but their moral performance is serving as their saviour.  Both religious and irreligious people are avoiding God as Saviour and Lord.  Both are seeking to keep control of their own lives by looking to something besides God as their salvation.  Religious legalism/moralism and secular/irreligious relativism are just different strategies of “self-salvation.”

Now it is the conversation about this category that gets preachers of the gospel into all kinds of trouble.  Moralism is always close at the door of the church.  The church used to sing “The Old Rugged Cross” and confessed with a line from that hymn “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.”  But we like the things in our hands.  It is hard for people we consider of good character, who promote all the right causes—championing the poor and the outcast; it’s hard to hear that these things don’t save; that such people are also in need of salvation.

Well, let’s hear from Jesus—it shocked people when he said it as well.  “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.”  The parable starts out with a typical temple scene.  People coming to pray.  It is 10:00 A.M. on a Sunday and people have gathered for worship at Central United.  Jesus invites us to take note of two worshippers—this Pharisee and this tax-collector.  It was a common enough occurrence, there is nothing unusual here—a typical temple event.

Jesus’ story continued.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”  13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Jesus hearers would not have flinched at this either.  When they heard the prayer of this Pharisee and tax-collector they would have concluded it was just as it should be.  Nothing unusual here.  Some scholars have concluded that this Pharisee’s prayer was typical—as common as hearing the Lord’s Prayer in church.  (Of course, the content is entirely different between this and the Lord’s prayer).  So far Jesus’ parable is just as it should be.  The Pharisee is the good guy and lives a morally upstanding life.  He should be proud of his accomplishments.

Please take notice that Jesus did not say there was anything wrong with the discipline of his life.  His commitment to follow God’s law determined not to steal or commit adultery; his spiritual discipline of fasting and tithing his income; Jesus does castigate him for any of this.

But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  “Good,” thought Jesus hearers.  “This traitor and cheat ought to stand in the farthest corner and keep his head down and not make eye-contact with anybody.  He is pretty nervy showing up in the first place.”

The fur begins to fly, so to speak, because of what Jesus said next.  Here is what made hearers’ heads snap. “I tell you, this man (tax collector) went down to his home justified (in right relationship with God) rather than the other (Pharisee); for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Now people are shocked.  I understand their shock.  In all of our hearts is this desire that the good we do should count for something.  Many people I meet will, because I am a minister, share with me the values they have chosen to live or the commitments they make that are important.  For some reason they want confirmation that the path is a good one.  People want to matter; to connect with something to know they are making a difference.

Please note that Jesus did not castigate the positive things of this Pharisees life.  The challenge was that the Pharisee thought these would save him; trusted in himself that he was righteous and regarded others with contempt.  His prayer was about himself and what he did for God.  The gospel shows us that God’s judgement is that we all have gone astray and out of his great mercy saves.  God’s judgement is medicinal or surgical; and it will heal — as long as we submit to it.

Our obedience as believers is because of God’s grace not in order to receive. Right standing with God is a gift received by faith.  We then live out of the overflow of that good news.  The efforts we make to relieve the suffering of this world does count because God is at work; knowing ourselves the recipients of his grace we bless others knowing ourselves blessed.

3.  One of the most common tendencies of Christians is the tendency to mix up roots and fruits.  If the Christian life is like a tree that bears the fruit of the Spirit, we have a tendency to turn the tree upside-down. The production of spiritual fruit—the very kinds of things for which we Christians are properly thankful to God—grow OUT OF God's gracious love. They don't attract God's love, they flow from God's love.

As C.S. Lewis says, the roof of a greenhouse shines brightly because the sun shines on it. The roof doesn't attract the sun by virtue of being bright to begin with, however! Or, in another Lewis analogy, suppose a six-year-old little girl says, "Daddy, may I have $5 to buy you a Christmas present?" Well, any decent father will give the child the money and, come Christmas morning, will exclaim loudly and gleefully over whatever bauble the child bought. But only a fool would say that by virtue of the gift, the father came out $5 ahead on the deal!

This seems to be what the tax-collector understands.  “Nothing in my hand I bring.”  “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”  To welcome God’s judgement of sin is to be delivered from it.  This tax-collector’s prayer is not the same thing as self-loathing as if there some virtue in grovelling.  It is to accept his need of God’s salvation. To live looking to God for your salvation.  Some, ever clinging to our need for self-importance, turn humility into a way of salvation—“God, I am glad I am not like other people who are so self-absorbed.”   Faith sets us free from all this.  Right relationship before God was won for us by another, our Saviour Jesus Christ.  Trust in him.

I tell you, this man (tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other (Pharisee); for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’