A minister told his congregation, “Next week I plan to preach about the sin of lying. To help you understand my sermon, I want you all to read Mark 17.” The following Sunday, as he prepared to deliver his sermon, the minister asked for a show of hands. He wanted to know how many had read Mark 17. Every hand went up. The minister smiled and said, “Mark has only sixteen chapters. I will now proceed with my sermon on the sin of lying.”
Sin is a curious creature. Something we all do in one way or another, and yet, sometimes one of the best kept secrets. In time gone by, sin was the primary topic of sermons pounded from the pulpit. Sin was the language of exclusion and social control. Sin lost its intrinsic faith-based value, and become denigrated to a weapon of morality. Somewhere along the line, using the word sin in most mainline churches became akin to cursing and talking about the other “s” word that one should only ever preach about in derision – sex. But alas, that series is for another time. This month, we find ourselves knee deep in a conversation about sin. We will be exploring how sin is ultimately a helpful and hopeful word, redeeming the lost language and hope. I am leaning on Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation throughout the series. I am grateful to her wisdom and recovery of the hope of sin.
Language here matters and I want to take a moment to say a few things about sin. Language changes and definitions are contextual. Much of our church language was the language of its time. Few of us intend to repent of our trespassing as an offense when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. And yet, this was the language of the Book of Common Prayer from 1549, and the language of the Tyndale Bible from 23 years earlier, translated by an English lawyer. Today, the language of sin, damnation, repentance, redemption, and salvation all sits awkwardly in the mouth of speakers and often squarely avoided, instead of understood. We are quite mixed up about what sin is and what isn’t. In fact it was a presumptive presidential nominee claiming Christian faith who said, why do I need to ask forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes? More than a commentary on political choices, I have deep concern about what our culture has gotten wrong about sin.
You see when we talk about sin; we need to acknowledge that we have not always done it well. In fact, there is a reason in popular culture and the common imagination that we have done it quite wrong. Sin is not just a list of “do this” and “don’t do that.” Morality and sin have too long been mixed up as interchangeable with one another. As we turn to our recovered understanding of sin, we go back to days and places before recorded history. We go back to times and spaces in which there have always been experiences of connection and disconnection, community and alienation, in the presence of the divine and apart from the divine. We turn to one of our earliest stories of a man and woman in an idyllic circumstance with beauty of nature and relationship with one caveat – Do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
But like so many of us, this was the unachievable. This was the playground for temptation and willpower, exploration and discovery, disconnection and loss of innocence. You may recall that nowhere in this telling of Adam and Eve is the word, sin or original sin recorded. It was Augustine in the 4th century who first gave us that tagline and began to bend our ear towards sin as willful disobedience, act wrongly against God. This has root in the Hebrew scripture with the word, avah. But continuing our walk through the scriptures, quickly lead us to the understanding that sin is more than willful disobedience. The second word used is pasha, to rebel. To rebel against the way of God is used as wealthy landowners oppress the poor in the Isaiah passage and other prophets. The third word, chatah, or to miss the mark, describes the other understanding of sin. All of these words for sin are linked through a going against of God’s will or way.
Often the church has sought to change the path of others by bringing about guilt as a motivator for turn from sin to God. In evoking guilt, the church has been successful in bringing about remorse. Unfortunately, it not always had success in true repentance in which people truly turn around and go a different way. It is the story of anyone who has decided it is better to ask forgiveness than permission, to confess rather than follow conscience, and to live as you want, rather than how you know God calls you to live. Guilt and remorse are looped in endless cycle and lead to pain, rather than true freedom in Christ.
This is where Nicodemus finds himself after a lifetime of trying to life the right life, complete with missed marks and guilt. He has come to the understanding that the usual vices and devices will no salve the wound. His God-shaped hole in his heart will no longer be placated by anything other than true repentance, grace, and redemption. He can no longer seek to fill the void that needs God with any manner of vice or device. Only God will do.
Sin, then becomes the most important step towards hope. Sin, then becomes what we must take seriously, not merely because we need to follow closer a set of rules or be healed from a disease or illness. But sin is our only hope for knowing there is something wrong and heading us on the path to God for redemption. In the 12 step world, you cannot begin to seek full wholeness, until you admit that something is wrong and you are in need. Sin, then becomes the fire alarm for us to realize that we need God, not just as a rest stop to regroup before continuing on the same path. But rather, we need God to completely reorient and re-evaluate our journey. And good news! God has been waiting for us all along. As we have sought to fill our need for God with vices and devices, brokenness and unhealthy relationships, God preveniently seeks us. God comes to us at the Communion table, not just to excuse our missed marks, but to invite us into a full, new abundant, life-transforming way of living. Come to the table, not with remorse for indiscretions, but with true hope for reclaimed redemption, offered only through God’s grace.
This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, thanks be to God, Amen.
Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 59:9-12
Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us;
we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes;
we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous[a] as though we were dead.
We all growl like bears; like doves we moan mournfully.
We wait for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us.
For our transgressions before you are many, and our sins testify against us.
Our transgressions indeed are with us, and we know our iniquities:
*Gospel Lesson: John 3:16-21
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Meditations For Your Week
Sunday, July 3~ Saturday, July 9
Sunday: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16. God has never left us on our own. Lean on God, even in the midst of sinful struggles.
Monday: “‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John 3: 17. Where is God calling you to return, even though you might be weighed down with shame?
Tuesday: “But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’” John 3:21. God calls us to repentance as hope. Prayerfully, spend time with God today in repentance.
Wednesday: “Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.” Isaiah 59:9. Without God, there is only darkness. Where has God shown you light today?
Thursday: “We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead.” Isaiah 59:10. DO not let sin and darkness overwhelm. Let your heart not stumble, but cling to Jesus.
Friday: “We all growl like bears; like doves we moan mournfully. We wait for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us.” Isaiah 59:11. Justice is only far, when we seek it on our own. Where is God showing you that the long arc of justice bends towards the kingdom of God?
Saturday: “For our transgressions before you are many, and our sins testify against us. Our transgressions indeed are with us, and we know our iniquities:” Isaiah 59:12. Spend time today in prayer and confession.