Letting Go of Our Golden Tickets
Remember the classic children’s movie, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?” It starred Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. He’s basic a reclusive owner of a famous candy factory who starts a global craze by offering five children a tour of his factory and a lifetime supply of Wonka candy. The only catch: to be one of the five children you have to find a golden ticket inside the wrapper of a Wonka Bar. Eventually five children get their hands on these golden tickets – including Charlie. He’s kind of the hero of the story. When Charlie finds his he runs home, grabs his Grandpa and they sing a little song, “I’ve got a golden ticket.”
And each of these five children take their golden tickets and proceed with a tour of the factory. They sign a long contract each holding their tickets, expecting their lifetime supply of candy. And then, through the story, one by one each child invalidates their contract by breaking the rules somehow. One falls into a river of chocolate, another eats something she’s not supposed to… Each one somehow wanting to take possession of something they they believed they were entitled to.
That storyline… that idea of having a golden ticket and a spirit of entitlement somehow has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it? Don’t we tend to think that way about our faith and our religion? Haven’t you heard the language of entitlement in our midst at times? Its as if we think we’ve got some kind of golden ticket – and we’ve got a binding contract with God that states we get certain things, we’ve earned certain rights…
This isn’t a new problem among the religious; it’s a pretty old one. Old enough that Jesus addressed it himself. He does so in Luke 18. This morning we’re going to listen in to the prayers of two men. Listen closely; see if you can hear the ‘golden ticket thinking’ in one of them. And see if you can hear yourself praying in either.
9To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18: 9-14
This parable gives us quite a contrast of characters doesn’t it? Imagine the way it was heard in Jesus’ day. Both characters are well known characters among the common jewish people. The Pharisee was a religious leader, an example of leadership among the Jewish faith. The Tax Collector probably wasn’t jewish, nor would he have been popular. He was probably seen as someone compliant with the Emperor of Rome and the oppression of the Jewish people. The hearers of this parable as it began would have assumed that the Pharisee was the hero of the story and the Tax Collector an outcast and enemy. They would have identified with Pharisee’s prayer and his assumptions of righteousness and spiritual superiority. They would have been appalled by the Tax Collector’s presence in the Temple and his audacity to even offer a word of prayer to Jehovah.
But then Jesus, the master of mysteries, turns everything upside down doesn’t he? He reveals that the Golden-Ticket theology of the Pharisee is wrong and that the untrained, unspiritual, unexpected Tax Collector is the one who goes home justified before God.
Recognize this golden-ticket theology? Is fairly common these days; there are plenty of people walking around just sure they’ve got a lock on what God is about and what he will do for them.
Some people’s golden-ticket is belonging. They’re just sure that if they belong to the right group, they’re guaranteed a seat at the table. The Jewish people really struggled with this. “I belong to the tribe of… I am from the line of….” They were just sure of their election because they belonged to the elect. Being a child of Abraham made them holy and assured them their place before God.
Does any of this go on today? Do we make assumptions about our standing, or others standing, based on what group people belong to? We may not ask about being a child of Abraham, but we’ll sure enough ask if you’re from the legacy of Alexander Campbell or Barton W. Stone… Think about the kind of questions you ask if someone comes up to from a different group? Do you ask them about their journey of faith or do you question the validity of their faith – because they don’t belong to your group. Some of us have a golden ticket – just sure we belong to the ‘right’ group – as if one group is automatically more right than any other.
Another form of golden-ticket thinking comes from behavior. If I do the right things God is sure to love me. Again, we have an example from Jewish history. Children of Abraham were confident that if they practiced the rites handed to them by the law they were necessarily made righteous. Doing the right things at the right times equaled righteousness.
The Pharisee in the parable tries this. “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I have…” Noble efforts – but hardly true righteousness. Doing the right things is never a substitute for righteousness.
There’s still plenty of that thinking alive today isn’t there. Somewhere down the road we became convinced that we could be good enough for God to love is and to make us righteous. We’ve fallen for the fool’s gold of ‘good-enough’ theology. Somehow we’ve believed that doing the right things makes us righteous – as if taking a bath or eating crackers and juice somehow makes a person holy. Religious rites don’t make your more acceptable to God.
Don’t you remember what God has spoken in the Psalms? David writes to God in Psalm 51:
“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Psalm 51: 16-17 (NIV)
It’s not the observance of religious rites that makes us righteous. You can’t do enough good things to make yourself right before God.
And thirdly, some hold on to the golden-ticket of bettering. You’ve probably used this one when you were a kid. Mom or Dad was about to discipline you for something and you turned to comparision to try to sway their opinion. Sure you got a C on the test, but everyone else did worse; D’s an F’s. Sure, you got dirty playing the mud… but Bobby was so covered with the stuff his dog didn’t recognize him. Sure you took a candy bar from the counter without paying, but your brother took two.
We do it today. We say to God, I may not be perfect, but at least I’m not like so and so. We’ve bought into the human idea of comparison and manage to transfer that to our theology. We look at the lives and mistakes of others and have the audacity to believe that God should be grateful that at least we’re not like them… Let’s face it God, in the world today, we’re the least of your problems.
Golden-ticket theology. It is such a corruption of relationship with God. Where does this come from? Easy answer – pride. Pride is perhaps the easiest of temptations for us to fall into sometimes. Pride ruins relationships, undermines faith and pollutes our prayer life. I want to show you four things pride does to us, especially as it relates to this golden-ticket theology struggle.
Pride leads to already-arrived thinking. When pride infects our minds, we start think we’ve arrived. That we’ve become what God wants us to be – that we’re somehow the pinnacle or peak of Christian existence. We assume that our views of God are the right ones. We presume that our practices are the holiest ones. We assume that our church is the only one. And anyone who disagrees isn’t just wrong – they’re a heretic. Anyone who would call into question our standing, our beliefs, our character is unacceptable and unforgivable… Pride leads us into foolishly believing that we’ve arrived.
Pride leads to down-nose looking. When pride infects our vision, we start to look to look down our nose at other people. We ignore their needs, don’t notice their struggles, laugh at their requests; all the while believing that we are in some way better or superior.
And this down-nose thinking contaminates the way we fulfill God’s call upon our lives. Why be evangelistic if others aren’t smart enough to understand? Why minister to those kinds of people? Why fellowship our lives with others if they’re just going to damage our station or place or reputation?
Can you hear the pride in the Pharisee’s prayer: “Thank you that I’m not like…” Down-nose looking is a terrible consequence of pride in people.
Pride leads to empty-word praying. Pride can infiltrate our hearts and show itself in our prayers. The prayer offered by our Pharisee accomplishes nothing. He’s not seeking God’s will, he’s not surrendering to God’s plan, he’s not honoring God’s presence… His prayer is a waste of time and good air. God doesn’t hear this prideful prayer. And I have to admit that I’m concerned about how much of our prayer time is just wasted in prideful prayer. Self-worth and self-fulfillment praying is the surest way to rob yourself of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in your prayer life.
Pride leads to self-fulfillment theology. When pride infects the will of the believer it alters not only what we ask God to do, but our perception of what God wants done. Instead of seeking his will, we act in our churches and our lives to fulfill our will. We make arrogant assumptions of what God would want done and foolish choices with God-given opportunities. Pride causes us to chase after goals God has not set; pride tempts us to fulfill our own dreams and satisfy our own egos long before we chase after God’s vision for his people and his church. Pride is what makes the Pastor pat his own back; pride is what makes the deacon force his own plans; pride is what makes the giver demand things be done his way. Pride splits church, splinters Christianity and sabotages God’s campaign for souls.
Golden-ticket theology isn’t going to bring about God’s will. Golden-ticket theology is nothing more than the fool’s gold of modern Christianity. It creates artificial relationships, hypocritical believers and reduces the church to powerless, life-less and prideful social organization.
So how should we be? If not golden-ticket holders, then what?
Instead of a golden ticket, I suggest you pursue a heart of Gold.
Listen again to the Tax Collector’s prayer:
13"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ’God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Luke 18:9-14
Do you hear it? It’s barely audible to the untrained ear. His prayer doesn’t sound like much. But don’t mistake very few words for very little meaning. This seven-word prayer is dripping with humility; its drench in an understanding of the real order of things. I’m not fit to stand before you, I’m not worthy to be speaking to you, I have no ground to stand on, no legal case to argue, no ticket to claim my rights from you….
“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” No fancy words, no pious chest pounding, no artificial religious preservatives here. Just honest, open, begging from a man who was probably wealthy otherwise.
And he is the one who goes home justified.
Why? Why is this man justified before God. Because he prayed the right way?
No. Because God heard his prayer. Because God never turns away a broken, humble heart.
Listen again to David’s words from Psalm 51:
“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Psalm 51: 16-17
Listen to the voice of Jehovah, spoken through Isaiah:
“This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” Isaiah 66:2
We need to be a people of humble hearts; people without presumption or pompous agendas or expectations. We need to learn the lesson of the college girl visited the home of Beethoven. She slipped under the rope and began playing Beethoven’s piano. She said to the one in charge, "I suppose every musician who comes here wants to play this piano." He explained to her that recently the great Paderewski was visiting there and someone asked him to play that piano. He replied, "No, I do not feel worthy to play the great master’s piano."
What is this humility, this contriteness in spirit and heart? Let me show you five things that I know to be true about chasing after a heart of gold.
First, chasing after a heart of Gold comes from an Honest Appraisal. Its too easy life your life, day to day, assuming too much about who you are and where you are in your relationship with the Lord. Think about everything we just take for granted in our friendships, our marriages… we do that 10 times over in relationship with God.
The greatest mistake the Pharisee made in the parable was an assumption he held his position or standing before God. We need to be people who aren’t afraid to take an honest look at where we are. That’s part of why I like the fact that we take communion each week – it serves as a spiritual gut-check each week – Paul calls it a self-examination.
As you get dressed each morning, as you drive to work, as you wrap up your day at night… make it a practice to spend some time evaluating yourself and your relationship with God. I’ve got a few questions here that might help you do that.
1. How much of your life today (your speech, your actions, your checkbook, your time) reflected Christ in-between and outside of church events?
2. How much of your prayer life reflected a relationship instead of a rote responsibility?
3. Is Christianity something you tried to give away to other people or something you used to protect you from other people?
4. Would the people you know the best, who don’t yet know the Lord, describe you as intensely proud of your faith or deeply affected by your faith.
This kind of honest appraisal can serve a vigilant watch to keep pride from infiltrating your heart. Pride can’t be given a foothold or it will begin a mutiny in your heart; trying to topple God from His rightful throne.
The goal here is not to discover you’re a sinner… I assume you already know that. And we’re not trying to beat you into submission or somehow destroy your sense of worth. Quite the opposite. An honest appraisal takes into account the struggles of the day and the victories. It allows you to recognize where God is working in your life and to give him thanksgiving and glory for working through you a sinner.
Second, make a humble request. I just love the simple words of the Tax Collector. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. Wouldn’t it be great if we would learn to approach God with that kind of open, humble honesty? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were a church of people who approached one another in that kind of a spirit? That we would see each other as sinners saved only by the grace of God… That we could put aside any presumptiveness and posturing and politicking… and instead simply have an open atmosphere of acceptance for sinners?
There’s something powerful about a church that encourages, welcomes and handles in a healthy way the discipline of confession. Every church wants people to be convicted of their sin. But honestly, not every church wants to hear it pronounced aloud. Sometimes, we act as if we don’t want to be troubled or bothered with other people’s problems and struggles.
One of the marks of a healthy church is that it is a place where confession is encouraged and welcomed. Not to feed the gossip tree, but to feed a spirit of growth and healing. The book of James tells us:
“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” James 5:16
If we are going to bring the Good News of Christ to our community, then we have to be a people and a place where confession isn’t just welcome, its encouraged. Its encouraged by a spirit of inclusion and acceptance of people in their sin – because God doesn’t just convict us of sin.
He doesn’t just leave us trapped in the frustration and disillusionment of a people convicted of crime. He offers us absolution. He offers us justification. He offers grace.
And that’s number three – a Holy Gift. We accept God’s Holy Gift of forgiveness and grace. We embrace the only hope we have – mercy that is made new each day.
God is constantly calling us, inviting us, begging us to allow him to transform our lives. Your Father in Heaven has a plan and a life designed for you so amazing you won’t be able to get your mind around it. And he is constantly inviting us, chasing us, calling us, wooing us back to himself – pursuing us the way a young man might pursue his bride.
And too often in the church we’ve gotten ourselves confused with this idea of a God who chases after the unprepared, unready, unholy people. The Pharisees couldn’t get their minds around a messiah who socialized and personalized with tax collectors, harlots and sinners. And sometimes you’ll hear us getting the cart and horse in the wrong order – suggesting that someone has to get their life right before they can come to Christ.
Of course that’s not possible. God didn’t send Jesus among us to call the Saints to salvation. He came to call the sinners. You can’t get your life right until you discover and meet the source of all righteousness. People have to hear God’s call and invitation before any transformation can take place. And in the midst of a life stained with sin, in the middle of a heart confounded with clutter, in the heat of the moment in passion of indulgence, at the last bit of rope in the pit of despair - God appears and whispers or shouts, and pours out his invitation of hope, and love and grace.
And the apostle John writes to remind us:
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1: 8-9
These aren’t just steps on the road to salvation – they’re descriptions of a healthy growing community of believers – where confession is recognized as an outgrowth of the Holy Spirit’s work among us. Where everyone knows that you can open your mouth, bare your soul and the only response you’ll get is love. Where people are free to be honest about themselves and wholly given to becoming God’s community of acceptance and love.
Listen, you can’t look at this as a diagram or map for fixing your heart. It doesn’t work that way. This is a blurry, fuzzy-logic kind of thing. Pride isn’t defeated in a day, and no one is finished confessing after a week. All of it is part of a healthy process of receiving God’s grace – dwelling in the mercy he makes new each day. Its part of a life-long, continual heart change that goes on in believers who will bend their knees, break their pride and look to Christ to be made worthy of His love.
We got into this discussion because of our friend Willy Wonka. Remember how the movie ends? Wonka breaks the heart of Charlie telling him that he’s forfeited his lifetime supply of chocolate by breaking the contract. And Grandpa suggests that they take this new secret candy they’ve been given and sell it to Wonka’s competitor now. But after thinking about it, Charlie walks up to Wonka’s desk and leaves the Gobstopper there. And just as he’s walking out, Charlie is stopped by Wonka. “It was a test Charlie; it was a test and you passed.” Wonka was looking for someone who’s heart was pure and right... And he found in that young man.
How about us? Are we people who are just sure God loves us because of our golden tickets? Or are we a people who fall before him begging him to remake us with hearts of Gold?