"He Gets Me"#90-08
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on October 23, 2022
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2022 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Luke 18:9-14
There are a few people who really get me, who understand me. Maybe you have some of those people, too, people who really get you, people that you can be real with because they know you; they understand you. For me, I think of my friend, Paul. Paul gets me.
We went to the same elementary school. I ended up marrying his sister. Paul was there when I was nine, and I threw rocks at his sister and called her "Medusa," which is apparently how third- grade boys sometimes show affection. Paul was there talking with me 13 years later when his sister and I broke up, and we called off our wedding.
And Paul was there as one of my groomsmen when she finally walked down the aisle and became my bride. Paul was there, and he took a risk on me. He's seen me at my best and my worst. He's seen me argue and bicker childishly with his sister. He's seen me grow awkwardly into being a husband and a father.
And now 30 some years later, we are godfathers of each other's children. We've camped and skied and snorkeled together and vinyl sided a house together. When I think of someone who gets me, I think of Paul. What about you? Whose names come to your mind?
You've read the same books; you've seen the same movies; you've visited the same places. Maybe you went to school together or worked together, vacationed together, laughed and cried together. They stood by you at your wedding—and maybe at the second wedding too when the first didn't turn out as planned.
They have seen you at your worst and your best. They know you. To a friend this close you could say, you have searched me. You know me. You discern my thoughts. You're acquainted with all my ways. Those words, while they do sound like something you could say to a close friend are words from the Bible.
They come from the Bible's book of Psalms, Psalm 139. It's a poem written by one of the ancient kings of Israel. David, king of the Jews. In this poem, David is speaking to a friend, a friend who gets him. But as you hear it, you realize that David is talking to no ordinary friend; he is talking to the Creator of the universe.
He's talking to God. And David says to his friend, "You created my inmost being. You knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise You, because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be."
David's words raise a question for me, and maybe for you, too. Could I relate to God like this? Like David does? Could I regard God as a Friend who gets me? For me, I want to say yes, but this is easier said than done. On the one hand, it sounds strange to say that I could relate to God like I relate to my friend Paul, for example.
I've never seen God. I can't relate to God exactly like I can relate with merely human friends. With God, things are different. But on the other hand, I am a part of a people who follow Jesus. And we believe that Jesus is David's greatest descendant, that He is the King of the Jews and the Son of God. And because of Jesus, we are taught that David's prayers in the Psalms can become our prayers. That David's God is our God, our Friend. But it still sounds strange when I say it out loud. Even if you are a regular churchgoer, it might sound strange to you, too.
I was talking with someone a while ago, who is a regular churchgoer. And he said that he wasn't comfortable talking in this way that God is his Friend, because God is God. God's at the top of everything, and we are down here at the bottom. With God, it feels more like relating to a CEO of your company, four levels of management above you. Or maybe it feels more like relating to a hiring committee, interviewing you for the company that you hope you could be part of. Or maybe like being introduced to the family of the person that you hope to marry or talking with the judge who you hope hears your case.
That's what it feels like with God. And in situations like that, you and I are not relaxed like we are with friends. We are guarded in those situations because you have to be careful about what you say. You don't want to give the wrong impression. You want to give a good impression. And you don't even have to be a wholehearted believer in God to sense this uneasiness. As long as you haven't stated dogmatically there is no God, as long as you're open to the possibility of the supreme eternal Being who invented the universe and is active in its ongoing operations and even is now securing a vision for its future. If there is anyone you would do well to fear, to be concerned about the kind of impression you're making, then God is the one. It is strange to regard God as a friend. And the more fear and awe and respect you for God, the stranger it gets.
Jesus of Nazareth once told a story about two people relating to God in two different ways. Jesus identifies the first person as a Pharisee. Now in our time, the term Pharisee or pharisaical has a negative connotation. It usually implies some hypocrisy or judgmentalism or extreme strictness. But for the people who first heard Jesus tell this story, the term had a wider meaning. A Pharisee was a Jewish man who was especially respectful of God. He was devoted to God and had a place of honor and privilege in his society. And this story that Jesus tells about a Pharisee, although it is fictional, it is lifelike and based on real people that Jesus knew and observed.
Jesus tells a story about a Pharisee going up to Jerusalem, into the temple to pray. And the Pharisee, he stands off by himself, away from the others and he prays like this, "God, I thank You that I am not like other people, greedy, unjust, adulterers. I fast twice a week and I give a tenth of all that I get."
Now listening to this guy talk, maybe it sounds less like a prayer and more like a job interview. He certainly is working to make a good impression for himself or a good defense of his case. But Jesus says that this Pharisee is not relating to God rightly, and that God would not be pleased with this sort of prayer, with this self-promotion. Because not only does that cut a person off from honest openness to God, it also leads him or her to look down on other people. The biography of Jesus that records this story, the Gospel of Luke, gives the context. In Luke 18:9 it says that Jesus told this parable to people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.
It is understandable that people like us would want to impress God, to be guarded around Him. Because if we believe or are at least open to the possibility that God does exist, that God created us and cares about what we say and do and how we treat others, then it's understandable that we would want to make a good impression on Him.
But think about that other prayer I mentioned from King David, Psalm 139. Put David's prayer in contrast to this Pharisees prayer. The Pharisee is coming at God with a posture of self-promotion, but Psalm 139 shows us that this is absurd. You can't make an impression on God. He already knows all about you: the best and the worst.
How can you even begin to put on an act for Someone who is so intimately acquainted with all your ways? Your closest friends can see right through it when you're trying to impress someone, how much easier is it for God? You can't fool Him. He knit you together in your mother's womb. He knows your words before you speak them. It is absurd to be guarded with God, but that doesn't mean it is comfortable to be open with Him. And that brings us to the other character in Jesus' story, the one with that self-promoting Pharisee. This other character is identified as a tax collector.
Now in our day, tax collector means white-collar office worker. But in an ancient Jewish context, it meant traitor, outcast, sinner. That's because the Roman Empire hired locals to collect taxes for them. So in Jewish lands, the tax collectors were Jews. And this meant that they knew the people intimately. They were acquainted with their ways. They knew who lived where, how much money they made, and they knew whom they could extort for their own personal profit. And many tax collectors in Jesus day used this insider knowledge to take advantage of the people, to do them harm, to put the whole community at risk.
But when this tax collector, the one in Jesus story, goes into the temple to pray, he knows he can't hide what he's done. He is not there to self-promote. He is ashamed. He won't even lift up his eyes to heaven, Jesus says. How do you deal with shame? Some people try to sweep it away with self-affirmation.
Author, Robert Bellah in the book Habits of the Heart describes an interview with a woman named Sheila. They were asking Sheila about her religious beliefs, and she called her faith Sheilaism. Sheilaism? The interviewer said, "Could you define that?" She said that it's just her own little voice. It's a voice in her heart telling her, "Just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself." Like many Americans, Sheila identifies that little voice in her heart as God. And so whatever her heart tells her, whatever she says to herself in a heartfelt way is God speaking to her.
But notice what happens with a strategy of self-affirmation. If you worship the voice in your head or in your heart, you're not in a conversation; you're in an echo chamber. It's isolation. It's the absence of friendship. Think about how you relate to real friends. Do you have any intimate friends who always affirm everything you say and do? Who revere the ground you walk on? I don't. Not even my dog affirms me like that. Self-affirmation is not a way into a relationship; it's a self-inflicted sentence in solitary confinement.
This tax collector in Jesus' story knows that he can't come to God like the Pharisee in a posture of self-promotion. God sees right through it. And he can't sweep away his shame with self-affirmation. He is not in the presence of the self-made gods of America, the land of a hundred million Sheilaisms. He is in the presence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Moses and the Exodus and the Psalms, the God who goes to war with rival gods and defends the widow and the orphan, the God who redeems His people from slavery, even when it's self-inflicted. The God who doesn't simply affirm us, but stands against us with His own values, things He loves like community and family, faithfulness and friendship and things He hates like lying and lust and greed. The God who, because He loves, threatens punishment and brings judgment. And this tax collector is standing before that God, the One true God. And he won't even look up to heaven. The only words he can say are, "God, be merciful to me. Have mercy on me, a sinner." And Jesus says, this is the right prayer to pray.
Whether you are a Pharisee or a tax collector or a self-affirming American, it's still the right prayer. Because God doesn't need your good impressions, He already knows you completely. He knows your selfish motives, He knows how you sometimes try to impress people, and sometimes you look down on them. He knows how you sometimes worship yourself and sometimes you're ashamed of yourself. And He knows all this about me, too.
And still He decided that you're worth dying for and living for. Jesus came to show you that you can let your guard down. Through His death on the cross, through His resurrection from the dead, Jesus took away your posturing, your self-affirmation, and your shame. And He teaches you to say, "God have mercy on me, a sinner." And then He shows you in every way God's mercy.
When the tax collector prayed, "God have mercy on me, a sinner," he was probably just repeating a Psalm that he had heard somewhere. That's what the Psalms do for us, God's people. They give us words to relate to God when we don't know the words—words to relate to Him even unguarded, like a Friend. Look up Psalm 139 and see how David's words sound in your mouth. "Lord, You have searched me and You know me, You know when I sit down and when I rise up. You discern my thoughts. You search out my paths and my lying down. You are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, You know it altogether. Your knowledge is too wonderful for me. It is high. I cannot attain it. Where can I go from Your Spirit, Lord? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You're there. If I make my bed in the grave, You are there. If I take hold of the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there, Your hand will lead me. Your right hand will hold me.
I called my brother-in-law Paul this week. I love talking to Paul. He gets me. Paul's also a follower of Jesus. And when I told him that I was thinking of talking with you about knowing God and God knowing us, he said, "Michael, what I hear you talking about is intimacy." And Paul and I decided that intimacy with God is different. It's different than intimacy with a friend or a brother-in-law or even with a spouse. It's different because with God, there is no risk.
See, in a merely human relationship, when you let your guard down, there is always risk. Because if a person gets to know you, the real you, then they can hurt you like no one else can. They can fight dirty because they know the holes in your armor. They know where you're vulnerable. They've seen you without masks and makeup. Intimacy incurs a risk except with Jesus, because He's not out to hurt you and never will be. He knows you completely. He has taken in Himself all the risk of intimacy and carried it to the cross. Jesus gets you because He's got you. So let your guard down. There's no risk with Him.
There is, however, still risk with others, with fellow sinners. So how do you relate to them?
Well, you can't be God for them. Don't even try. But you can be there for them as Jesus is here for you. You can take the risk of loving them because Jesus says they're worth the risk.
I started by asking you to think of someone who gets you. But what if we turned the question around, what people would answer that question with your name. Or thinking ahead in 10 or 20 years from now, who might think of you and say, he gets me. She understands me. And what risks would you have to take to start building that intimacy now?
Please pray with me. Lord, Jesus, You know me completely and still You embraced all the risk. Help me, by Your mercy risk intimacy with others. In Your Name. Amen.
Reflections for October 23, 2022
Title: He Gets Me
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. We're back once again with Dr. Michael Zeigler, thinking about what we heard in today's message. You said it's strange to think of God as a friend, but what about the too casual way we sometimes treat God today, "Hey, God likes me and why shouldn't He?"
Michael Zeigler: We have in the Scripture these places where God refers to people, His people, as his friends, at times. So He calls Abraham, specifically His friend, in Isaiah 41:8. In Exodus 33, we hear how God spoke with Moses face to face as a man speaks with his friend. But we do need to clarify to your point, that we're not talking about a shallow friendship, a social media friendship where your friends have a function and their function is to approve, to like everything that you put out there.
And that's actually the perspective of the Pharisee in Jesus' parable, that he just wants God to approve him and affirm everything he's saying, everything he's about.
Mark Eischer: And how does our view of God shape and influence the way we pray?
Michael Zeigler: Well, if you just think of prayer as talking, we're talking with a friend. Well, we all adapt our language based on who we're talking to in a given moment and why we're talking to them. If I want to impress you, I'm going to talk to you in a certain way. Or if I knew that someone was listening to my talk and I was afraid they might take what I would say out of context and use it against me later, then I would be guarded with how I talk. But with God, we talk to Him in the Name of Jesus, baptized, totally exposed, totally known, already judged, already forgiven. And so, we talk openly, we talk freely, honestly, because He knows us better than we know ourselves. As we hear in Psalm 139, "O Lord, You know a word before it's on my tongue. You know all my paths; You know my sitting down and my rising up." He knows us and still He loves us completely, for Jesus' sake. Imagine that.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"What Wondrous Love Is This" sung by Erin Bode. Used by permission.
"In God, My Faithful God" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)