(Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15)
Augustine of Hippo, one of the Church Fathers, who lived from 354-430 AD, wrote the following about God in his book, Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Truer words were never written. God made us for himself out of eternal, overflowing love, and until we find our rest in God we are restless. God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. God is our home, and there’s no place like home.
Sadly, most of the time, we don’t find rest in God right away. We try to find it in all sorts of other things, first: people, places, activities, objects – whatever we can get our hands on! Sadly, whenever those things take the place of God for us, we have sinned; we have become separated from God.
Last Sunday, we began a new Bible study. We are studying a book titled, Seven: The Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes, by Jeff Cook. After all, Lent is a time of recognizing sin in ourselves, our lives, and our world; repenting; and turning back to God. Why not study the seven deadly sins, right?
For those who don’t know what the seven deadly sins are, here’s a list, with definitions, from the book:
- Pride: the natural love of myself magnified and perverted into disdain for others
- Envy: the rejection of the good life God has given me for an obsession with what God gives to someone else
- Sloth: the indifference toward my neighbor, my soul, my world, or my God.
- Greed: the desire to possess more than I need because of fear or idolatry
- Lust: the handing of control over to my body and mind to [forbidden] cravings.
- Wrath: the love for justice perverted into bitterness
- Gluttony: the excessive consumption that deprives another human being of a life-giving necessity
Cook asserts, “Sin is first and foremost a power. . . . It is a parasitic force, and like all parasites, sin does not exist on its own. It thrives off a host. The unconscious goal of sin – in devils, governments, and ourselves – is to cut pieces out of the fabric of reality and call the incisions ‘real life’” (14).
What is the fabric of reality? God is love. God created the world out of love. God created us out of love. God loves us. God loves the world. God created us to love the world. God created us to love each other. Sin cuts pieces out of this fabric and then states that the fabric riddled with holes is reality. We see this in the Garden of Eden story. The serpent – which represents sin – tells Eve that God is lying to her (snip, snip); that she could be like God (snip, snip) if she just ate the fruit she was forbidden to eat (snip, snip). Eve, who had been existing just fine, thank you, believes the serpent’s lies and eats the forbidden fruit. The cut-up fabric now becomes her reality. It is a damaged version of the real thing, but it is now experienced as the real thing. The nightmare of sin and its effects begins for humanity.
The rest of the Bible chronicles God’s attempts to wake us up from the nightmare created by sin. God tries starting fresh after a devastating flood. He makes a covenant with Noah and his descendants and states that he will never again wipe out humanity with a flood. He sets his rainbow in the clouds as a sign. He chooses Abraham to be the father of his people and declares circumcision to be the sign of this covenant. He sends Moses to free his people from slavery in Egypt and lead them to the Promised Land. He chooses judges and kings to rule over his people when they need or ask for a leader. He chooses prophets and speaks through them. God tries, over and over again, to wake us up! But most of us stay in our nightmare state. What is God to do? He sees his beloved humans gripped in the power of sin and caught in a nightmare! It doesn’t have to be this way! God decides to come himself to save us. He arrives in human form in the person of Jesus.
My daughter, Tula, is a very deep sleeper. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because she isn’t woken up easily, which is handy when a pet or a family member is making a lot of noise while she is sleeping. And, it is a curse because she isn’t woken up easily, which isn’t handy when she has to get up for school. She sets an alarm clock, but it doesn’t wake her up sufficiently to get her out of bed. So, I have to go in, shake her shoulder, tell her it is time to wake up, and make sure she is actually woken up enough to get out of bed!
In this scenario, Tula is all of us, sleeping in our nightmarish state of sin, and I am God, who came, himself, to shake our shoulders, tell us it is time to wake up, and make sure we are actually woken up enough to be freed from sin! God set a lot of alarm clocks for us, but they didn’t wake us up long enough for us to leave the nightmare of sin. So Jesus was born. He grew and, eventually, came to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. The Holy Spirit descended on him and he was proclaimed the beloved Son of God as he came up out of the water. He resisted temptation in the wilderness. And, after these events, he proclaimed, “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:15).
Jesus was saying, “The kingdom of God isn’t far off; it’s at hand! Wake up from your nightmare and recognize the kingdom of God that is here for you if you have eyes to see and ears to hear! Do not let the power of sin snip away at your life and convince you that that is reality! It isn’t! Follow me, and I will show you.”
And that is what Jesus did. He proclaimed the kingdom of God in word and deed. The sick were healed. The hungry were fed. The dead were raised. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear woke up and rejoiced.
But sin would not be defeated without a fight. Those whose eyes and ears remained closed did not rejoice. They became anxious, afraid, and angry. They had too much power to lose if people woke up. So they decided to kill Jesus. That should rid them of the threat they thought they faced!
Thus, he who was without sin died on a cross: the righteous for the unrighteous. It looked like parasitic sin and its hosts had won! But sin had only killed Jesus’ flesh. His spirit was alive and well and thriving, for he had stayed true to God’s will. As Peter wrote, “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (1 Pet 3:18).
On the cross, sin was overpowered once for all. The sky darkened, the ground shook, and the temple veil was torn in two. An epic battle had taken place. God had won; sin had lost. God had saved us from the nightmare we had created when we believed sin’s lies.
Here’s the catch, though: We have to believe and accept that God has saved us from the nightmare of sin. We don’t wake up from the nightmare until we believe and accept that God has saved us. We can look at ourselves and our world and think nothing has changed. We can say, “Look at all that is wrong with us and with our world!” Sin has lost its ultimate hold on us, but it still seeks to cut holes in the fabric of God’s reality. It still seeks to convince us that God has lied to us, just as it did with Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is only through a leap of faith in God that we believe that, on the cross, the power of sin was overcome once for all. Despite any evidence to the contrary, we must take a leap of faith and believe that God has not lied to us! Sin’s power over us and this world is broken! It only has as much power as we give it, just as a parasite only has as much power as it can get from its host. If the host refuses to feed the parasite, it will die. Our job is to not feed the parasite of sin! We must not give in to despair! We must not give in to cynicism! We must not give up believing that the kingdom of God is at hand, for it is. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear rejoice at this reality.
This past week, we were given plenty of evidence that the power of sin was not broken once for all on the cross: There was another mass shooting at a high school, this time in Florida. These shootings and their aftermath have become all too familiar. There is the shooting, the shock and horror, the speculations about why the shooter did what he did, the arguments about how to prevent future gun violence, the dying down of the debate, the return to normal . . . until the next shooting. We are all sick to death of the cycle. We are all sick to death of ourselves. We could all give into despair, cynicism, and the power of parasitic sin. Yes, we could. We are in the wilderness and we are being tempted.
Do not give into the temptation. Do not believe the lie that sin is telling. God has not lied to us. God desires for us lives filled with love. It is humans who have chosen to live in the nightmare rather than wake up. It is humans who have given in to the power of sin and who have made choices that lead to death and destruction. And this is where the seven deadly sins make themselves known: It is greed that powers the gun industry, the gun lobby, and the politicians who receive money from the NRA. It is sloth that powers the indifference of the family, friends, and neighbors of those who desperately need love and community but cannot find it and so become deeply wounded. It is wrath that powers the search for justice that slowly turns the wound to bitterness and then to violence. The incident this week didn’t come from nowhere: It came from the power of the seven deadly sins that human beings gave into.
So, what do we do? Just as Jesus told us to do, we repent and believe in the good news (Mk 1:15)! We continue to take the leap of faith and believe that once for all the power of sin was defeated on the cross. It has no ultimate hold on us. It will try, mightily, to feed off of us, but we don’t have to let it. When Jesus was in the wilderness, angels, at the behest of God, tended to him. We can call on the power of God; we can call on the power of angels; we can recall the faith of the apostles amidst their trials and tribulations; we can remember the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us; and, then, we can pull up our bootstraps and get to work bringing the kingdom of God to light and life here on earth. Each of us can figure out how we are called to do that, but do that we must. If not us, who? As Peter proclaimed in his letter, “Our baptism has saved us, not as removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him” (1 Pet 3:21-22). Our good consciences, gained through Jesus, demand that we work with God to bring the kingdom of God to light and life here on earth.
What do we do? We repent, believe, discern, and then we get to work. In other words, we stay awake. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, February 18, 2018, the First Sunday in Lent.