Toorak Uniting Church

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Fronting up to God

Luke 18: 9 – 14     Joel 2: 23 – 32
Rev. Ian Brown
24 October 2004

"Grant us peace, Lord," that’s all most of us want – a reasonable peace to live in now and a secure peace for the future. It seems straight forward enough. "Dona, nobis pacem" - grant us peace.

Why then does Jesus tell such difficult stories?!!!
I come to this parable of two men praying, .and I want to object!! It is all upside down and back to front.

The good man with the religious past, the one with the devotion, the training and the pedigree comes of worse.
This man was a leader of the people, does that count for nothing? He was a upstanding religious enthusiast, does that mean nothing? He was a Pharisee, yes, and Pharisees have had a bad name in Christian circles, but Jesus did commend some of the Pharisees too, - remember Nicodemus? – so why this nasty characature?
It’s not fair - I want to object !!

Jesus says, "Two people were at the temple to pray.
One was pious, devout and thoroughly religious. A respected man of good standing, one of the "A" list.
He prayed, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people.
I’m not a murderer, a cheat, a bully or like that tax - collector.
I fast , I pray, I give 10% of all I have."
- A thankful prayer, a prayer born from a devoted life.

The tax - collector made it onto no one’s list, he was reviled in good society, he could hardly pray.
He beat on his chest, crying, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner." - A simple prayer, inarticulate, not at all specific, a prayer born from a dissolute life.

And Jesus says that he, not the righteous man, went away justified. "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

There ought to be some benefit in living a righteous life. There ought to be some benefit in living by the book and being a religious high achiever, but not here today.

It’s easier for us to stand in this Pharisee’s shoes and to feel that putting a life time of effort into being good ought to count for something, than it is for us to identify with the professional betrayer of his people that a tax-collector had to be, working for the Romans as he was. There’s no question - he knew what it was like to be an outcast, to feel unworthy and unclean as a person. Yet his prayer is commended.

I must say that I believe this is a parable more about God’s character and our attitude when we approach to God, than about what we say in prayer and how we should live.
We need to have humility, yes - but only God really knows about our inward state.
We’re not meant copy the tax-collector’s prayer nor to somehow practice exerting humility. That would be the opposite of Jesus intention.

Just before this parable comes Jesus story of the widow who persisted with the obstinate judge - and Jesus point was to encourage us to faithful and persistent prayer. This next story is not about praying just sentence prayers - but about the attitude we front up to God with.

So if I put the provocative material of the story to one side and let Jesus speak through it to me, to us – these might be some of the issues to consider.

I thinks Jesus might want us to think about when we turn to God. When do we, as individuals address God, when do we turn God’s way and try to make a connection?
Is it only in times of dire need, or great joy, is it only when the worship leader says, "let us pray", do we even then, spirit to spirit, soul to God, front up and really engage with God?

What sort of space do we inhabit in our encounter, in this engagement with God?
Is there listening as well as speaking, humour as well as seriousness, giving as well as wanting?
There is a tremendously deep yearning met within when we pray with authenticity, with integrity and humility.
And when we can, when we, like the tax – collector are justified by our honest praying – what, I wonder is the business transacted in that time? What helps you or hinders you in this work of faith?

The promises of scripture are simple in this regard,
As we heard from Joel, "then afterward I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, the young see visions. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." Our unwelcome tax man, he calls, he is saved.

How will this all happen – not particularly clear, what are the best formula for prayer – not specifically given – guidelines, yes, encouragement, sure – but no easy answers.

Some time ago there was a poor man, a cobbler, a very diligent worker and a generous man, who always gave what he could to any who asked for help.
He worked all day, from before dawn til well after dark.
Some thought he was poor and needed to work hard because of his generosity, some that he worked hard in order to be charitable. It doesn’t matter.
But the man who spent all his time repairing and making shoes had one constant frustration – he felt painfully that he did not have the time to pray. Each night when he finished his work he was too tired to do anything but eat and fall asleep.
In frustration, one Sunday he approached a monk, respected as a holy man. He told him of his concern and how he wanted to pray, but always fell asleep and how he thought of God and sighed as he hammered away on his work bench.
"Ahhhh", said the monk – "your sighs are prayers, sweeter to God than all the words heaped up by those who prattle to God, in their leisure."

How ought we approach God!? - Jesus says it must come from our desire, from a hunger for the source of life and forgiveness.
There ought to be a humility about our approach.
But this too needs some exploration.
The word Humility is close in origin to humus, that is, earth or earthy.
The tax - collector’s prayer was earthy, genuine, touching the ground of his being. There was no show, no pretence.
He didn’t have it all worked out before he came in.

Perhaps this is your experience sometimes too.

Things aren’t always so good, we aren’t always so good, we get at odds with others, at a distance from God and beautifully articulated prayers don’t just roll of the tips of our tongues.
There are times when we have no words, but a deep ache inside - a friendship is fractured, a family is at war, the whole world seems to be badly out of whack and we are powerless to make "it" right.

Jesus parable tells us that God meets those who come with the earthiness of their honest needs; with the personal, the painful and difficult, asking simply for God’s mercy.

Our God is the one who heals the brokenhearted, frees the captive and liberates the oppressed, God deals with such, for all of us, giving new life, new hope and promise.

Good news indeed, Amen.

© Rev. Ian Brown, 2004


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