I want to begin tonight by saying something that might sound a bit jarring: we have a problem with sin. It is probably fair to assume that if a preacher sets out with that kind of an opening, he or she has something very particular in view; some issue, some problem, some deep moral failing that needs to be rectified, remedied, stamped out. “We have a problem with sin,” I say, and you wonder what’s been going on. People have a tendency to hear the word “sin,” and to think in terms of particular acts… really fun, self-indulgent ones at that.
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In the early 1970s the comedian Rolf Harris had a minor Canadian hit with his song “Vancouver Town,” which included the following verse:
I passed a church; I had to grin
The sign said “Tired of sin? Come in.”
And written in lipstick loud and clear
Was “If not, call this number here”!
Harris’s lyrics actually offer both a demonstration of the problem we have with sin, as well as a rather helpful theological insight; though he probably had little sense that this is what he was doing! The message scrawled in lipstick across the bottom of the church sign suggests that by calling that phone number you could get yourself a bit of really appealing sin, as in “if you’re not ready to act morally, religiously, properly, then come on down.” Oh, you’ll get around to repenting and getting your moral ducks in a row someday, but until you do you might just jot down that phone number… You get the picture.
But it is the text on the church sign itself that actually takes us in the really interesting direction. “Tired of sin?” it asks, pointing to a perspective that challenges the very assumption that informs the lipstick scrawl, namely that sin is somehow deliciously invigorating in its excess, self-indulgence and libertine freedom, to be in a sense envied by those who have renounced it. That’s the perspective held by the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal, when he refuses to come into the party to celebrate the return of his lost brother, instead complaining to his father that this prodigal brother, “has devoured your property with prostitutes, [and yet] you killed the fatted calf for him!” He’s been having a great time sinning in the big city with the prostitutes, and now you’re not going to make him pay for it? But of course we know the other side of the story, and have seen the younger brother broken in his lostness and exhausted by his sin; as good as dead, in fact.
Now, consider these words from the prophet Isaiah, as he gives voice to God’s alternative. “I am about to do a new thing,” the Lord proclaims, “now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” To a people who have neglected the very God who is the source of the only life that matters, something utterly new is being offered.
[Y]ou have burdened me with your sins;
you have wearied me with your iniquities.
And yet still, says the Lord,
I, I am He
who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins.
That which has exhausted this people is to be blotted out and remembered no more. Just as the father in the parable of the Prodigal can embrace his lost boy, Isaiah here is proclaiming that God will not hold the knowledge of the peoples’ sin as a big club of moralism over their heads. God isn’t interested in holding this people on an endless probation.
You see, the problem we have with sin is that we so often fall into the trap of imagining it as the thing we’d rather be doing; you know, that’s where the real fun is. In fact from a biblical perspective, sin distorts and exhausts us, and keeps us from being the people we were created to be. For instance, when in 1st Corinthians Paul expresses a concern that some in the community are apparently visiting prostitutes his isn’t a moral issue at all. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” Paul asks. “Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her?” (6:15-16a) His concern is about the distortion of the self, presumably including the “self” of those women who live by prostitution.
Which is why when those men in the gospel story dig through the roof of that house in Capernaum in order to get their paralysed friend into the presence of Jesus, the first thing he does is to offer the man forgiveness. “Son, your sins are forgiven,” he says, and you have to wonder what would have happened next if the scribes hadn’t got all up in arms about what to them is an enormous presumption on Jesus’ part—“It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” You see, we might assume that the thing this poor guy most needed was to have his paralysis healed, but to Jesus the more important move was to proclaim God’s new thing: the blotting out of the man’s transgressions, the deep forgetting of his sins. All that has been keeping you from being what you were created to be—all that has emptied and exhausted your soul—is no longer even in the divine memory banks.
But you heard the story and what came next. “‘[S]o that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins… I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’” No kidding. And yet as much as it would have been wondrous to watch that man take up his mat and go dancing out the door—and much as it must have been a wonder for that man to feel his legs again—in Mark’s view the deeper miracle is in Jesus’ gift of forgiveness to that man. And to be really clear, there is not even a hint of a suggestion that the man’s paralysis was some sort of punishment for sin. It is simply that in Jesus’ view, what would make him most whole was forgiveness.
There’s a question in the baptismal liturgy that asks the candidate, “Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” Did you catch the wording? Not “if you fall into sin,” but “whenever you fall into sin.” That represents a pretty realistic view of how life in this world of ours goes, in which moving yet again into postures sure to exhaust and limit us will happen. The answer to that question is, “I will, with God’s help,” which is equally realistic, for it acknowledges that to be what we have been created to be can only happen through the gracious help of the one who is yet again and always about to do a new thing in us.
Starting this week on Ash Wednesday we will be in the season of Lent; the season in the church year in which we are invited to place a particular focus on these matters of who we are and how we need to be unsettled and relocated “with God’s help.” It is framed as a time to intentionally enter a symbolic wilderness or desert terrain, and to do a bit of work on our selves. There’s a brochure available at the back of the church and on our website, which gives a bit of guidance as to how you might engage this season, which I’d really encourage you to do. In particular, I’d commend to you a daily Lenten discipline of some sort; something that day-by-day can remind you to pay attention to your needs and hurts and, yes, your sin. That might involve changing your daily practice by choosing to give something up—candy or caffeine, maybe Facebook, televison, or going to the mall… in a consumer society, the possibilities are endless. It could also involve taking something on—daily reading, a new practice of prayer, some sort of simple service to others… again, there are any number of things you might choose to do. But do try to choose something that will mark this as a different season. And on Good Friday as the season draws toward its close and we tell the hardest story of the church year, maybe ask yourself what sort of problem you have with sin. You might be surprised by what you’ve learned, and by the real promise held out to us in God’s new thing, again and always.