A recent scientific study debunked the famous “five-second rule”: if you pick up food that has fallen on the floor within five seconds, it’s “germ-free” and safe to eat. In fact, bacteria contaminates food and other objects almost instantly. Just as it’s difficult to keep ourselves safe from germs, it’s at least that difficult to keep our hearts safe from sin. What do we do about this serious problem? This sermon explores that answer.
Sermon Text: Luke 18:9-17
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
Friends, I hate to tell you this, in case you haven’t heard, but the five-second rule is bunk. Last month, a food microbiologist from Rutgers University published a study that proved that bacteria got on food instantaneously when dropped on the floor—whether it’s within five seconds or a fraction of a second.
By the way, bacteria also gets on pacifiers when they fall on the floor. Parents know this when the first child comes around: Pacifier drops on the floor and we’re like, “We have to sterilize that pacifier!” By the time the second or third child comes around, we’re like, “Eh… Five-second rule! It’s fine.”
But Dr. Aaron Carroll, a medical professor at Indiana University, wrote an article in the New York Times last week that made me feel better: He said that if food falls on the kitchen floor, he’ll likely pick it up and eat it. Why? Because, he said, the floor is a much cleaner surface than many other surfaces that food may fall onto—for example, kitchen counters are much dirtier. Yet, if a chip falls off the plate on the counter, most of us wouldn’t think twice about popping it in our mouths. Or what about the handle on the refrigerator? Much dirtier than the kitchen floor. Yet how many of us open the fridge at some point while we’re eating—and we probably don’t wash our hands in between?
And how many of us reach for our smartphones at some point while we’re eating? Or the remote control while we’re eating? In my family, we are likely to do both during the same meal. Phones and remote controls are germ factories.
But not to worry: the upshot of all this, Dr. Carroll said, is that our immune system is pretty good at fighting off illnesses that may result from all this bacteria. He does recommend washing our hands frequently—but when we do, let’s be careful with those faucets… they are nearly the dirtiest objects in our house!
My point is this: It seems impossible to keep ourselves safe from germs and bacteria. Similarly, it is impossible to keep ourselves safe… from sin.
I mean, we are at the beginning of stewardship season in the life of our church—which is the reason I’m starting this sermon series on generosity. And I would love to be able to tell you, “Here is the law: you must to give this amount, this percentage of your income, to church in order to be a good Christian.” And traditionally, that percentage that we ask for is a tithe—which is ten percent of your income. This is, in the Old Testament at least, the biblical standard for giving.
It’s no secret that most church members—in our church and in churches throughout America—don’t come close to a tithe. In fact, for many of you, tithing would represent a major step up from what you normally give to God. And I’m guessing that if you could step up to a tithe, you would feel better about yourself—spiritually speaking. You would think, “Finally, I’m getting my financial house in order… Finally, I’m submitting my wallet, or my purse, or my bank account to the lordship of Jesus Christ… Finally, I’m being faithful to the Lord when it comes to giving.”
But brothers and sisters, if you’re tempted to feel that way, watch out! Because like bacteria lurking in places we least suspect, sin is also lurking in places we least suspect—even behind our impulse to give. Sin is pervasive. Sin is insidious.
This parable proves it! Look at the Pharisee in this parable! He’s a tither. He is, by all outward appearances, unassailably generous with his money. Not only that, the Pharisee isn’t lying when he says, by way of contrast, that he acts justly, that he doesn’t extort money from others, that he doesn’t commit adultery. He is what anyone would describe as a deeply moral person—a person of strong character and values.
He also isn’t lying when he describes himself as a religious man: he fasts twice a week and tithes and does everything else a good, religious person is to do—and more.
My point is, when we hear Jesus talk about Pharisees after all these centuries, we often think, “They’re the villains of the story.” But keep in mind: Jesus’ original audience would not have heard it that way. Pharisees were considered good, righteous, and upstanding citizens. They were role models to emulate. They were deeply committed to God’s Word. Even politically, unlike the Sadducees and priests in Jerusalem, the Pharisees opposed the Roman occupation of Israel.
Tax collectors, by contrast, were considered traitors. They collaborated with their Roman oppressors—all for the sake of their love of money. They were greedy. They oppressed the poor. They took advantage of people who could least afford it. They were the kind of people that the Pharisee describes in his prayer: “unjust” and “extortioners.”
Yet somehow, somehow, somehow, Jesus says, the tax collector goes home justified. And not the Pharisee.
That’s scandalous. That’s shocking. And Jesus intends for us to feel the shock of these words.
And throughout the gospels, Jesus is always shocking us like this. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, it’s the hated Samaritan, the enemy, who’s justified by God and not the two deeply “religious” people. In the Prodigal Son, it’s the no-good younger son who takes advantage of his father and squanders his father’s fortune who is justified, and not the older son, who, for all those years, remained faithful to his father and would never think of hurting him the way his younger brother did. When Jesus is at a dinner party in the home of a prominent Pharisee named Simon, it’s a prostitute, of all people, who’s justified and not the righteous Pharisee.
When Jesus heals the Roman centurion’s servant, he says that this Gentile—this man who’s a leader of the occupying army that oppresses the Jewish people—this man somehow has greater faith than anyone in Israel. And on the cross, he turns to the man who is often identified as a “thief,” but he was no thief; he was likely a terrorist who murdered innocent people; Jesus turned to this man, of all people, and said to him, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” How? How are all these sinners—and I’m talking about genuinely sinful people; no one’s making excuses for their sin—how are they justified while so many others are not—others who seem much more righteous, by all outward appearances?
Do you know the answer? You better figure it out because, friends, let’s not mince words; let’s not water it down; let’s not interpret it away: We better figure out the answer to that question because nothing less than eternity hangs in the balance. If we misunderstand it, then we ourselves risk going to hell. If we misunderstand it, then we ourselves risk falling under the same judgment as the Pharisee in verse 14, when Jesus says that the tax collector went to his house justified, rather than the other.
Four of the most frightening words in all of scripture! “Rather than the other.”
If we understand this parable, then we understand that baptism won’t save us. Confirmation won’t save us. Church membership won’t save us. Neither will church attendance, or tithing, or Bible study, or prayer, or personal morality, or ethical business practices, or any good work… None of these things will save us.
We cannot be saved if we, like the Pharisee, the fail to understand the basis on which we are saved.
And there are so many people who misunderstand! According to a recent survey, 71 percent of the U.S. population identifies as Christian. Yet according to this same survey, when you ask them how you get to heaven when you die, over half of these self-identified Christians will say it’s by “being a good person.” God forgive me and forgive our United Methodist Church if we have given anyone the impression that “being a good person” can save you.
I mean, I have heard Methodist pastors, not to mention plenty of laypeople over the years, say things like, “If I make it to heaven some day.” “If I’m fortunate enough to make it there…” And I want to stop them in their tracks and say, “If you make it? What are you talking about if?” There is no if. There is no “if” when the Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit will testify with our spirit that we are children of God.” There is no “if” when the Bible tells us that nothing—neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. There is no “if” when the apostle Paul, facing possible death in prison, says that he’s torn between living and dying because he knows that “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” There was no “if” when he tells Timothy, “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day”—by which he means Judgment Day. There’s no “if”…
Unless you’re like the Pharisee, and we’re counting on your own goodness, your own righteousness, to save you. You have to live under the weight of that dreaded if. It’s got to be killing you. Because you think that going to heaven depends on your own goodness. I mean, how confident are you that you’re good?
You might have heard that there is a presidential election happening soon. Maybe you saw something on the news about it? I don’t know… Let me preface these words by saying the following: I hope I’ve earned your trust over the past four years that I don’t talk partisan politics from the pulpit. I don’t believe in doing that. I do not care who you vote for. But I want to make reference to that audio tape that surfaced last week—from 2005, in which Donald Trump is talking to Billy Bush, who was at the time the host of Access Hollywood. Trump has apologized for those words and said that they don’t represent who he is. And I know in the past week, the question everyone’s asking is whether or not Trump acted on these words. But that’s not what I want to talk about.
I want to talk about the tape itself—and what I thought when I first heard it. When I first heard it, I thought, “Thank God no one was taping or filming me at my worst eleven years ago—or worse, recording the thoughts in my head eleven years ago—and then broadcasting it to the world. Thank God no one was taping me at my worst eleven months ago, or eleven weeks ago, or even eleven days ago. Because if they were, I, too, would be deeply embarrassed and ashamed. I would be mocked and ridiculed. As Bob Dylan, the new Nobel Prize winner for literature, once sang, “If my thought dreams could be seen/ They’d probably put my head in a guillotine.”
But the good news is that no one has seen my thoughts, and no one taped me at my worst. The good news is, I can fake people out. I can put up a front. I can look, by all outward appearances, like I have it all together. And no one will see what’s in here [point to heart]. Just like no one could see what was in the Pharisee’s heart. But trust me: I have a pretty good idea what’s in here.
My point is not to say, “Hey, look, don’t judge me. We’re all sinners. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s no big deal.” I’m not letting any of us off the hook for our sin. On the contrary, I’m saying that our sin—yours and mine, Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s—all of our sin is a very big deal… the biggest deal imaginable.
It’s so big a deal that, unless God does something about it, our sin will separate us from God for eternity—and we have no hope of salvation.
I’m saying that our sin is such a big deal that if it weren’t so deadly serious, it would be almost comical to think, as over half of the Christian population in our country apparently does, that our good works could possibly save us! To think that we were depending on our own goodness, our own holiness, our own righteousness, to save us—it’s preposterous. Like Isaiah said, “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”
We need to instead be like the tax collector. See, unlike the Pharisee, he isn’t trying to convince God or anyone else that he’s righteous; he knows he isn’t. He knows he doesn’t have a prayer—correction, he knows he only has a prayer and nothing else. He knows that his only hope for forgiveness is God’s mercy and grace.
And Jesus makes the same point when he says, in verse 17, that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
So we need to ask: How do little children receive things?
Not like adults. For example, when someone gives us a gift that we didn’t expect to receive, we’ll probably be touched: “That’s so thoughtful. Thanks!” But then in the back our mind we’re making a mental note: Find out when this person’s birthday is so I can give him a gift—or her a gift. And the more expensive the gift, the more urgently we’ll want to do that. This is the law of good etiquette. In fact, if the value of the gift is above a certain amount, we might even become suspicious. Like, what does this person want from me? What do I owe this person in return? We may even tell the person, “This is too much! I can’t receive this.”
The point is, even if it’s a gift, we adults will do something to try to return the favor, to pay the person back, to balance the scales.
Needless to say, little children are not like that at all. They don’t give a thought to how much a gift costs—except the bigger and more expensive the gift, the better, as far as they’re concerned. They don’t care! Besides, even if they want to pay someone back for a gift, they can’t! They have nothing. They know they have nothing. They know they depend completely on their parents and other adults for everything that they receive. In fact, very young children would literally die if their parents stopped caring for them. A young child’s relationship with his or her parents is almost completely one-sided. And that’s perfectly O.K. with both the parent and the child.
And so it is with us Christians—who have been adopted by our heavenly Father as his beloved children through our faith in the atoning work of his Son Jesus on the cross. We have nothing to give him that he needs—certainly not our righteousness, our good works. We have nothing with which to pay him back. We depend completely on him for everything. It is very nearly a one-sided relationship—and yet, he’s O.K. with that. And we need to be O.K. with it, too.
This is God’s grace.
But what about good works? The apostle James says that without good works, our faith is dead. And there are plenty of commands for us to follow in the New Testament—and Jesus himself gives us some of the most stringent and difficult commands in all of the Bible.
Pastor and theologian John Piper helps us put them in perspective. He said that the commands of Jesus are not laws. Nor are they useful guidelines for the world at large to follow. They are, rather,
descriptions of the way new human beings behave who have been born again; who have therefore been enabled supernaturally to see the glory of Jesus; who have recognized the incredible outrage of their sin; who have ceased to trust in anything about themselves; and who have cast themselves entirely on Jesus for mercy, for righteousness, and for forgiveness.
Our obedience isn’t something we perform in order to be saved; rather, we obey in response to the salvation that he has already given us—and obedience is something we can achieve only because God is working, supernaturally, in our hearts to transform us.
So at the beginning of this stewardship season, my message is not, “You must tithe!” The message instead is, “You must be born again!”
Being generous isn’t about giving money… It’s about undergoing a a transformation in your heart.
1. 2 Timothy 1:12
2. Isaiah 64:6