The Jesus Prayer and the Path of Repentance

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/23/22, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: Luke 18:9-14 & Joel 2:23-32. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

This is the “Jesus Prayer,” a prayer with its roots in the eastern monastic tradition. And as we see this morning, it’s a prayer that is based in the teaching of Jesus.

The Jesus Prayer is a powerful prayer. It’s meant to be prayed repetitively. Prayed so often, that we approach the state of heart that Paul wrote about when he advised the church in Thessalonica to “pray without ceasing.” To pray without ceasing, we have to get down to the basics. Nothing complicated, a fundamental encounter with the living God.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

In the Jesus prayer, we hit bedrock. This is an atomic prayer; the most basic unit. This is a prayer that, spiritually speaking, you can build a whole life out of. It’s a prayer that cannot be broken down any further, cannot be made any more simple, any more direct, any more profound by adding or subtracting from it.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

This is a prayer that Jesus gives us to pray. In our reading this morning, he teaches us what is the acceptable prayer that God is looking for – and how different it is from the status-seeking religion that we are often used to.

The upright religious person, the Pharisee in the story, thanks God for just how wonderful he is. He thanks God for not making him like other people. The Pharisee, and I dare say, many of us, think that we have made it. Oh sure, we have our faults. But we’re basically good people, right? Thank God for our good lives.

The tax collector in the story has a completely different attitude. What does he say in prayer? “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

Now let’s be clear: The tax collector is definitely a sinner. The tax collectors not only were collaborators with the occupying Romans, but they generally were expected to collect more than they were owed. They got paid by cheating and extorting the people in their community. They got paid by shaking down their own people to fund the Roman army.

So, tax collectors have a lot to answer for. But in the case of this particular tax collector in Jesus’ story, he knows that he’s in the wrong. He’s in the Temple asking for God’s mercy. Meanwhile, Mr. Nice Guy Pharisee is just busy counting his blessings and feeling smug. Jesus says it is the bad guy, the tax collector, who leaves the Temple blessed by God. Not because he is good, but because he knows he isn’t, and throws himself at God’s mercy.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

The prophet Joel, in our reading this morning, gives a comforting message to Israel. The whole nation had been suffering dreadfully from a plague of locusts that were eating all the crops and causing mass starvation. But in our reading from chapter 2, Joel says that the suffering is about to come to an end. God is going to bless Israel again.

He follows this up with an inspiring vision of the coming day of the Lord. A day in which God’s spirit will be poured out on everyone. This is the vision that Peter invokes on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit comes and fills the early church with life and power.

So, it’s all good news from Joel in the reading we have for this morning. But we’re missing the point if we don’t understand the context in which Joel is giving this good news. We misunderstand Joel’s prophecy if we think that Israel’s vindication – now, and on the Day of the Lord – is automatic. Looking earlier in the same chapter of Joel, we see that it’s not. 

There’s a reason that good things are about to happen for Israel. There’s a reason that Joel foresees the Day of the Lord as one of blessing for Israel. That reason is repentance.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

In the gospels we read that the Pharisees, the religious people, the people who followed the rules, were constantly asking Jesus: “Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners? Why do your disciples not fast? Why do they not wash their hands? Why do they not observe the sabbath?” In short, “Why do you not do the things that we do, to demonstrate that we are the good people – not like those other people?”

Jesus told them that he had come to save the sick, restore sight to the blind, to rescue the captive. The Pharisees thought that the Great Physician had come to give them a check up and congratulate them on how healthy they were – but Jesus said that the real job of a doctor is to treat those who are sick.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

I am sick. We are sick. We live in a sick society. We need God’s mercy. For peace in Ukraine. For peace in our streets. For an economy that works for all of us. For government that is just and lives that are filled with compassion.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on us sinners.

There is healing available to us. There is a Day of the Lord that is coming, and it can be joy for us and not terror. There is a world of peace, tenderness, and justice in which the lion lays down with the lamb and a little child leads us. There is a blessing waiting for us, but we have to see that we need it.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on us sinners.

We are sinners, but we can be made whole. We are lost, but we can be found. We are unworthy to approach the throne, but God is ready to lift us up and bless us as sons and daughters.

This is Joel’s message: Repent, and the disaster that is befalling you can be transformed into God’s vision.

This is Jesus’ message: Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.

Both Joel and Jesus point us towards salvation through repentance. They tell us that although the times are dark and we are in trouble, it does not have to be this way. We have a choice. We can begin to walk in a different path – one that leads towards life.

Walking this path must begin with a genuine approach to God, aware of our own weakness and need of God’s grace. Like the tax collector who humbled himself, acknowledging his lostness and sin, we too can be put on the path to transformation when we cry out to God: 

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.