Most of the time we preachers deal with topics that are so mysterious we don’t really know what we are talking about, or that require so much specialized expertise of sorts we lack that we speak in ignorance. Yet we must address those topics in order to remain true to the gospel. Today’s topic is different, however: sin. Sin is no mystery, and I am expert in it. Sin comes up at this moment in the Christian calendar because Advent is only two weeks away and sin is that from which the advent of Jesus Christ is supposed to save us. The text from 1 Samuel was used by Christians to pre-figure the birth of Jesus: Hannah is a bit like Mary, and little Samuel grew up to save Israel. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, in Luke 1 is a self-conscious parallel to Hannah’s song of thanksgiving in 1 Samuel 2, both of which texts are in your bulletin insert. Our text from Mark is an apocalyptic discussion of waiting for Jesus’ second coming, a premature topic when we haven’t considered the first coming yet. Today the word of God is about the human condition and how Jesus stands in relation to that.
Sin is a double offence, outward and inward. Most obviously sin is an offence because of the harm it does to people or things. What to do with this aspect of sin is, first, avoid sinning, second, make amends when you have sinned, and, third, expect to pay an appropriate price for the harm done others, our environment, our institutions, or ourselves. The second kind of offence is that in sinning we make ourselves into sinners, compromising the contributions we might make to the righteousness of the cosmos and putting us before God as deviant from the holiness we should have in gratitude for creation. Whereas the first, outward, aspect of sin is a moral problem, the second aspect is religious, sin against the inward heart. The religious dimension of sin is that it alienates us from the Ground of our Being that gives us a context in which we both are free enough to be responsible and are surrounded by choices in which our obligation is to choose the best option insofar as we can know that.
The religious problem is what to do with the religious offense in sinning. Ancient Israel understood the situation this way. God had laid down on Mt. Sinai an elaborate set of rules for what we would call both moral and cultic or ethnic behavior. The Ten Commandments and many other rules are moral in our sense of the term. Rules about what foods are unclean and should not be eaten, or what kinds of fabric you can combine in a garment, are cultic or ethnic, special practices that distinguished Israel from the surrounding nations. Because Israel was ordained to be a whole nation of priests, according to the covenant with Moses, its very identity depended on keeping the rules of the covenant. Of course, infractions of the covenantal rules were inevitable, and often unintentional. So in addition to prescriptions to pay for the sins where possible respecting the outward offence of sin, the Mosaic covenant established a variety of ritual sacrifices that restore the individual offender and the whole people to a right relation with God. The priests who conduct the sacrifices are the people’s special representatives to God.
This situation is a profound expression of God’s seemingly conflicting traits of righteousness and mercy. On the one hand God sets up the covenantal rules for right living before the righteous divine majesty, thus in effect establishing the ways by which people can become alienated from the divine majesty, sin in the sense of breaking the covenantal conditions. On the other hand God sets up the atoning sacrifices that allow sinners to be returned to right relation with God, restoring Israel to the status of a nation of pure and holy priests who can approach the divine majesty. God is righteously demanding, and yet merciful to sinners.
We sophisticated late-modern people—some of you young folks might even be postmodern—are likely not to be able to take the ancient account of Israel’s covenant at face value. Many people today are unwilling to believe in a God whom they believe sets up rules to trip us and then condescendingly establishes ways to pick us up again. Such an image of God is not only too anthropomorphic, it depicts God as an adolescent. Yet I ask you to think outside the scriptural language for a minute.
We find ourselves in a world filled with things and ways with varying values. Because we are free to choose among different ways to go, we know that some of those ways are destructive of important values and others are productive of them. Some options are better than others. Situations sometimes are so complex that it is hard to tell which are the better choices. Most often, however, we do know what is right and what is wrong. We are obligated to choose the better course precisely because that is the better course to choose: that’s the meaning of obligation. When we do the worse rather than the better, there are two results. The first is that the world is worse off by our choice than it would be had we chosen differently. The second is that we make ourselves into bad choosers. We give ourselves the moral character of being the people who made these wrong choices when we could have made better ones. Rarely is our moral character wholly determined by one choice. It develops over a lifetime of choices, some bad, some good, some important, others trivial, some made with deliberate intent, some with thoughtless inadvertence. Moral character is extremely complex. Yet it is what we make of ourselves through the lifetime of conditions in which we have to live. Although throughout our lives we are connected to other people and environing conditions in many ways, and most of our actions are not ours alone—we act conjointly with others—the one thing for which we have sole responsibility is the building of our own moral character.
Deep in our heart each of us knows that our moral identity is who we are before God, who we are in ultimate perspective. Our moral character in this sense is our religious identity. We know we are responsible for it, and we have a good idea just what our character is. And it is terrifying. In our best moments we rush to do better and make amends for our sins, that is, to deal with the first, outward, offense of sin, the actual harm done. Even if our efforts at amendment are successful, however, the moral character we previously created for ourselves remains, only to be supplemented by new virtue, not erased.
And so we talk fast to persuade ourselves and others that our own moral character is not important. We talk about the causes served and the harms done, calling attention away from ourselves. If circumstances push hard at us we explain ourselves as pawns of the forces of history, as the products of problematic families, as victims of a deprived environment, as participants in a story where others are the powerful agents. The faster we talk the less convincing we are. We can’t stop talking because we know that if we did we would hear the truth. Yet we become anxious because we realize we are in denial. We can’t sit still because of our need to be occupied with busyness that distracts us from the inner life. But as we fall asleep at night or wake in the morning, as our thought-controls loosen, the truth sneaks up on us. It’s like suddenly meeting God the Judge: we are caught naked.
“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
Even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become
Even the darkness is not dark to you:
For the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139)
Even though the Psalmist says we cannot escape God in any way, that is good news.
The bad news is that the Psalmist might be wrong. We who rush about too much live in fear that we are empty inside. If we deny ourselves long and hard enough, we can convince ourselves that we have no true self, no moral character at all, that we do not exist as personally responsible people. This is not happy Buddhist emptiness, a cleansing doctrine of no-self. It is an implosion of identity. Although God might be everywhere, we are nowhere. When we turn at last to the inward life, no one is home. Having denied it, we look frantically for our inward life of moral and religious character and it is gone. In ultimate perspective our existence is lost. We are dead before God and ourselves and in horror we know that we will that. This is the seriousness of sin.
With half my heart I wish you all can live in cheery oblivion of sinful offense against the inward life. I hope you approach the world so as to fix it up and suffer only mild pangs of conscience that you don’t allow to accumulate as a moral character. But with the other half of my heart, I wish you can face the truth and attend to the facts of your inward life, for this is what the Christian gospel addresses.
The Letter to the Hebrews, read today and for the last several Sundays, says that Jesus is a High Priest who can offer sacrifices that atone for our sins. Moreover, Jesus himself is the sacrifice, more precious than sheep or bulls, that completely redeems us. Jesus’ sacrifice took place once and for all. Our sins, real as they are, no longer count against our moral character unless we hold on to them.
Now you might not like the sacrifice imagery in Hebrews, which comes from the Old Testament approach to sacrifice. But what it means for the Christian gospel is that we are accepted by God in ultimate perspective. Our moral character, sins included, is acknowledged, registered, and accepted. This is who we are, and who we are is accepted. We do not have to deny ourselves, for even the worst about us is accepted. We should have done better, but still we are accepted. We should do better in the future, but no matter what we do, we are accepted.
If we thought our souls were empty, that was a mistake because they are full of God loving us. If we thought we were dead in the inward parts, that was a mistake because God’s life is there, cradling the intimate faults and virtues of our truest self. If we thought we were lost on the wings of the morning or at the farthest limits of the sea, that was a fault of our vision because, even in our flight from God, God accepts us fugitives. If we thought there was no one home in the dark night of the soul, that was a fault of our vision because God accepts even our will to be nothing. The Psalmist was not wrong: not even nothingness can separate us from the love of God.
Jesus summed up the tension between God’s righteousness and mercy as ever-present creative love, like a father’s, and he taught his disciples to live in love with one another. Jesus’ model of how to live before God as a redeemed sinner changed history. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews symbolized this with the imagery of Jesus as both the Supreme High Priest who can purify us so that we can be taken directly into God, and as the sacrifice itself that makes us clean. Our purification never means denying who and what we really are. We have to be loved for ourselves, or not loved at all, for God knows our inward parts, as the psalmist said: we are who we are in ultimate perspective, and that is accepted into the divine life.
The passage from Hebrews ends, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” As we “see the Day approaching,” which is to say that we think of ourselves in ultimate perspective, I invite you to meet together with those sinners redeemed by Christ, “to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Enter more fully into the community of friends to find courage for living life with all possible fullness, putting sin in its proper place. Sing with us to sin less in the outward ways of harming the world. Sing with us the freedom of the inward life from sin’s bondage, guilt, denial and death. Sing with us a new life made possible by the New Life in Christ whose advent we are coming to celebrate. Come sing again this song of redemption that accepts us in ultimate love and gives us personal status and eternal life before God. For, when you know redemption’s song deep in your heart, only then can you learn the better song that lovers sing to God, our Beloved. Amen.