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Monday, February 18, 2013

Ash Wednesday, 2013

The Sin Problem (2 Corinthians 5:20-21)

             “Sin.”  What comes to mind?  Sin sounds dirty, filthy, unsavory; it is just bad. 

At the same time, darker parts of ourselves think of something enticing, alluring.  “Naughty,” comes to mind; naughty in a way that is immoral, but at the same time feel sensually pleasurable.  The forbidden fruit always looks good, even when it is known to be harmful.  Erotica; drugs; money acquired dishonestly; how many rationalizations can we come up with to make it sound like what we are doing or what we are thinking isn’t really sinful. 

Sin can be reactionary, a sharp word thrown like a poisonous dart.  We know the damage our words do, but still, we rationalize. 

I was forced.  He had it coming.  I am not normally like that.  If we ever doubt humanity’s ability to think creatively, all we need to do is ask someone to explain his clearly sinful behavior.  We don’t want darkness in us.  But it is in us.  Underneath the impatience, the foul language, the judgmental heart, lurking below the prejudice, the grudge-holding, the sloth, down deep, there is darkness in all of us.  We have a sin problem. 

The worst effect of sin, and there are many ways sins injure and destroy us, but the worst is that sin cuts us off from God.  Justification is us – humanity and individual humans – declared innocent of sin before God because of what Jesus did on the cross.  We are justified because of Jesus and justification takes effect for each one of us when we put our faith in Him.  Before God we are innocent.  Jesus has accomplished this. 

Still, sin weakens our relationship with God and with one another.  Even after we are saved, sin continues to vie for mastery in our lives.  The more we fall under sin’s control, the less developed our relationship with God is, the farther it is from what it could be.  We slip away into waste places.  Relationship with God is not rich, not a daily present reality, not a source of abundant joy, not as full, not as deep as it could be; as it should be; as God wants it to be; as we need it to be. 

We name our sins.  But then what?

We sin.  We confess.  We are forgiven.  Repeat the cycle.  No!  Life in Christ is exciting, full of purpose and growth.  It is the life of joy God desires for us.  He longs for the fellowship he had with Adam and Eve before they brought sin into the world.  He wants that fellowship with us.  The issue is how do we get past our sins so that we have life in Christ growing in holiness and relationship with God instead of life under sin? 

Theologian James McClendon wrote, “Authentic knowledge of my sin, clear awareness that I am a sinner, comes only when and as I am saved from it” (Systematic Theology: Doctrine, p.122).  McClendon offers two categories which help us see sin beyond simply misdeeds, disobedience, and bad behavior.  He describes sin as refusal and as rupture.

“God is making all things new,” he writes.  And then he refers to 2nd Corinthians 5:17 which says that in Christ, there is a new creation.  Thus for McClendon, sin is whatever “opposes entry” into the new world Jesus creates (130).  We refuse to receive the new life he offers, drink the new wine he produces.  We willfully resist becoming the new creations he desires to make of us. 

It’s not always that we intend to refuse God’s good.  We simply don’t seek it.  The implication is when we turn to things – relationships, possessions, professional success – for the satisfaction that only God can give, we are actually sinning.  This sounds extreme, but the reality of God is extreme.  We either live with God or we live under the evil of sin.  Even people who have confessed sin and expressed full belief in Jesus, his crucifixion and resurrection, in daily life settle for the world’s pleasures while neglecting God’s blessings.  We marginalize the place God has in our lives and thus reduce His impact while at the same maximizing our own vulnerability to sin’s devastating consequences for us. 

Sin as rupture is McClendon’s second category.  This is essentially social sin, a direct violation of Jesus’ second great command to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Divorce; bigotry; verbal abuse; deceit; gossip; do we honestly need a list?  Again, this is not headline-making type stuff like terrorism or school shootings.  Here we are talking about everyday relationship failures that 21st century American culture considers normal in the course of human life. 

God is not happy with the state of affairs.  Disciples – and all who follow Jesus are disciples just as Peter, John and the rest were disciples – disciples are called into a body.  In his great prayer in the Gospel of John, chapter 17, Jesus asks that the same unity that exists in the trinity would exist in his followers (v.22-23).  The Apostle Paul says all Christ-followers are baptized into one-body (1 Corinthians 12:13).  To be Christian is to be unified with other Christians.  Yet, as Ron Sider points out in Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience the social ills that make the world a broken place exist in the lives of people in the church almost as frequently as they do in the lives of the unchurched.  Based on divorce rates, spousal abuse statistics, and a number of other categories, it would be hard to tell between two groups of people which was the church and which was a gathering of strangers in a restaurant.  How can the body of Christ show the world the way to the Kingdom of God when our own relationships are so broken?

Sin as refusal is a rejection of God’s blessings.  It is an unwillingness to trust God with our desires, our quest for happiness.  This lack of trust is a lack of love.  Sin as refusal is violation of what Jesus called the greatest command – to love the Lord our God with all the heart, soul, strength, and mind. 

Sin as rupture is a clear violation of the second great command, the command to love our neighbor as ourselves.  We treat people with contempt, not grace, and the world is marked by hatred and death.  We have a sin problem.

I propose, as a spiritual discipline or spiritual practice and I use the terms ‘discipline’ and ‘practice’ interchangeably, each one of us this Lent acknowledge our sin problem.  This will include individuals making confession.  That is very important.  Write down specific sins.  Confess them and receive God’s forgiveness. 

Also meditate on the way sin rejects the vision Jesus has for the Kingdom of God.  Think prayerfully about Biblical characters: David; Peter; the Pharisees; Judas Iscariot.  In each case, how does sin invade the story God is writing?  In a big picture way of seeing things, how does sin distort the picture God wants to pain of your life?  This in and of itself is a discipline for each of us to practice over the next week.  Commit time for prayer and in your prayer, consider your life and all the ways your life is darkened by sin.  Sit before God, hands and heart toward Heaven, and acknowledge the sin problem.  Ask God to shine His light on the darkness that has invaded your soul.  This is important work for all of us.

Throughout Lent this year, we will set spiritual goals.  We will cite things God has done to make it possible for us to attain those goals.  And we will name spiritual practices we can do to positions our hearts so that we are ready to receive what God wants to give, which is blessing and hope and peace and life. 

Our overarching spiritual goal is a relationship of intimacy and love and communication with God in Jesus through the Holy Spirit.  This relationship can be at the heart of life – all arenas of life; every nook and cranny of your life and mine.  But sin refuses it and ruptures it. 

God though, is bigger than sin.  Second Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake, God made to be sin him who knew no sin” – Jesus – “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Jesus’ action on the cross deals with sin completely.  It as if as when he died, sin died.  Yet, sin dies slowly.  It holds on in our sinful choices.  That’s why Paul so urgently says, “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (5:20).  He has made the way.  Jesus came so that believing in Him we can be adopted as sons and daughters of God. 

  He’s even taken care of the stumbling block – sin.  But we have a part to play.  Jesus has done it all in the sense that sin is rendered powerless.  Yet, we have to acknowledge that He is the one who conquers sin. We are slaves to sin.

That’s why I think the best place for us to start this Lent, our first spiritual practice, is confession.  Ask God to meet you where you are an utter failure.  Each one of us has that place.  This is not a time for you to hate yourself and envy the person next to you because you’re sure he has it all together.  He doesn’t.  This is a time to meet with the God who loves you in the place you least want to go; the place in our own hearts where we are powerless before sin.  God will meet us there with love we cannot imagine. 

That meeting is the starting point of us walking in the light and living in the relationship God wants with us.  There is some urgency.  Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 6, “Now is the favorable time.  Now is the day of salvation” (v.2). 

I don’t know if you normally practice disciplines; if you give something up for Lent.  This year, I am going to suggest some spiritual practices that if done in earnest will take us face to face with God.  We begin with sin problem because we can’t get past it until we acknowledge it.  Naming it with honesty that is undecorated and is invasively bold frees us to receive forgiveness and to invite God in to begin making us wholly new.  Now is the day of salvation because now is the day to begin living the Kingdom reality Jesus introduced.

Each week, we will continue suggesting spiritual practices designed to draw us closer and closer to God.  In Christ, your life and mine is made the righteousness of God.  The sin problem is covered.  We walk in light as God shines the light in us. 



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