I imagine you could not fail to notice that our lectionary readings (I Kings 21:1-21a; Psalm 32; Galatians 2:15-21 and Luke 7:36-8:3) are absolutely loaded with references to sin and sinners. I suppose I should be very grateful this morning that I am not responsible for the lectionary. But in reading these over I could not help thinking about the famous book by Karl Menninger titled, “Whatever Became of Sin?” Menninger was a psychiatrist and, as far as I know, not a Christian. But the title of this book and its thesis have been the subject of countless sermons in the 43 years since it was written (1973).
Menninger believed that moral health and mental health cannot be divorced from each other, and that sin and the consequent sense of guilt must be acknowledged and addressed. He suggested that mental illness cannot be dealt with unless one recognizes individual responsibility for correct moral behavior without laying the blame for every misstep at the feet of society in general. He wrote, “The assumption that there is sin... implies both a possibility and an obligation for intervention. Presumably something is possible which can be reparative, corrective, ameliorative, and that something involves me and mercy. If the concept of personal responsibility and answerability for ourselves and for others were to return to common acceptance, hope would return to the world with it!" (p. 188). He concludes, "If we believe in sin---as I do---we believe in our personal responsibility for trying to correct it, and thereby saving ourselves and our world" (p. 220).
As psychiatry goes, Menninger is making some brilliant observations and offering some positive solutions. As Biblical theology goes, Menninger’s diagnostic skills work far better in identifying the problem than in providing any solutions.
I have rather recently discovered blogs by a chap named Chad Bird, an insightful Lutheran scholar and speaker. This week, he wrote about his lifelong fascination with the David and Goliath story as well as other stories of Bible heroes. But in mid-life, he changed course a bit and, seeing his own deep spiritual needs, wrote: “We need less Goliath, and more Bathsheba, in the stories we tell ourselves, our children, our friends and neighbors. Show me a sinner, and I’ll write you a story of a God who saves them. Show me a man with a scarlet letter, and I’ll show you divine blood that dyes that letter white as snow. The scarlet "A" now stands for “Absolved,” “Atoned,” “Alive.” Show me broken hearts and broken lives and I’ll show you the God who’s never met a heart or life He won’t mend. I now love Bible stories about sinners—about drunks and liars and cheats. Because in them all I find the greater story of a God who so loved a world of drunks and liars and cheats that He bled and died and rose again to redeem it.”
I have mentioned before that I begin Morning Prayer every day, 7 days a week, with the same Prayer of Confession that we say on Sunday mornings: “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.”
In that prayer we ask for God’s mercy; but we ask in complete confidence because the first words we say in that prayer are “most merciful God.” We know Who it is that we are addressing. We know what He is like. And at least twice every day I pray the prayer that Jesus taught His own disciples to pray, a prayer that includes these words: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.”
No one understood better than King David what it was to throw oneself on God’s mercy. In Psalm 51, he writes, “Have mercy on me, O God, in Your great goodness; according to the abundance of Your compassion blot out my offences. Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my faults and my sin is ever before me. Against You only have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You are justified in Your sentence and righteous in Your judgment. I have been wicked even from my birth, a sinner when my mother conceived me. Behold, You desire truth deep within me and shall make me understand wisdom in the depths of my heart. Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”
There we have the basis for Chad Bird’s confidence in a God Who mends sinners, Who dyes our scarlet letters white as snow in divine blood. Does He do that for everyone without exception? It may be that He offers to do that for everyone without exception. But when His offer is repudiated, scorned and rejected, He shows Himself to be a God of justice and judgment.
After the division of the Kingdom, Israel was riddled with kings who rejected God. Perhaps the worst of them all was Ahab along with his queen, Jezebel. Despite the many things God did as witness to Ahab, including the sending of His prophet Elijah again and again, Ahab continued to label Elijah his “enemy” and to heap scorn on all of his words. Ultimately and inevitably, the Word of the Lord comes to Ahab through Elijah: “I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do evil in the sight of the Lord. Behold, I will bring evil upon you, and will utterly sweep you away, and will cut off from Ahab every male, both bond and free in Israel” (I Kings 21:20, 21).
David had written in our psalm for this morning, Psalm 32, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit! When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”; and You forgave the guilt of my sin” (Psalm 32:1-5). What a difference from the spirit of Ahab!
Paul has some words to say about sin and sinners in our reading from Galatians: “We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? Absolutely not!” (Galatians 2:15-17).
A staggering amount of ink has been spilled in an effort to discover precisely what Paul means by this. The simplest answer is, I think, the correct one: the Judaizers in Galatia claimed that Gentile sinners could only be justified through adherence to all the Jewish moral and ceremonial laws; the libertines in Galatia claimed that their freedom from Jewish laws meant they were no longer culpable for their sins; but Paul is saying that while the Gentile who is justified by faith still may lapse into sin, Christ is by no means a minister of sin.
In other words, the sin question remains before us, even as those who already have been declared right with God through faith in Christ Jesus. But our way of dealing with it is not by retreating into legalism, a system through which no one can be justified in God’s sight. It is instead a radical clinging to what we are in Christ Jesus. Paul says, in this regard, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Galatians 2:20, 21).
What does Jesus Himself say about sin in today’s reading from St. Luke’s Gospel? The first story has to do with a woman who was so notorious a sinner that it almost would seem that “sinner” was a part of her unspoken name! But she demonstrates her faith in Jesus by coming into the house of the Pharisee, washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, kissing His feet and anointing His feet with perfume. And to her, Jesus says: “Your sins have been forgiven, your faith has saved you, go in peace.” And lest we think this is some isolated incident, an aberration or a blip in the course of Jesus’ ministry, Luke immediately tells us that Jesus’ entourage included, in addition to the disciples, women who had been healed of evil spirits and diseases as well as Mary Magdalene, a woman traditionally presumed to have been a prostitute and one out of whom Jesus had cast 7 demons. No wonder the hymn writer, Wilbur Chapman, wrote, “Jesus, what a Friend for sinners! Jesus, Lover of my soul, Hallelujah, what a Savior; hallelujah, what a Friend: saving, helping, keeping, loving, He is with me to the end!”
And so, returning to Karl Menninger’s book title, “Whatever Became of Sin?” why is it that our society has virtually dropped the word “sin” from its vocabulary? Why is “I’m okay, you’re okay” our mantra today even when we are faced with wickedness in high places and sin everywhere we turn? Why is violence peaking in our world? Why did we set a record for Chicago murders last month? Why is it that people are afraid of traveling just about anywhere, including places that not long ago were considered to be among the safest and most desirable places on earth? Even in the face of all this and much more, we live in a time when the very mention of sin is unfashionable and outdated. That would make the entire message of the Bible altogether irrelevant, which is precisely the point! If Satan can convince enough people across the globe that “sin” no longer exists, then we have no need for redemption, no need for Jesus, no need for God Himself.
We can celebrate having come a long way, or we can bemoan the fact that we have our collective heads buried in the sand. Either way, we have come to a place where the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is foolishness to a rapidly growing number of persons. Even when we take the Greek word for “sin” in its very simplest meaning, “to fall short,” the message is clear: we continually fall short of God’s perfections, of His glory, of His standard of righteousness. We are in greatest need of His mercy, His lovingkindness, His redemption through the blood of His Son, and the forgiveness of our sins, whether or not we acknowledge them to be sins.
We may alter our own standards, our labels and our perceptions. But God views us in the very same way that He has viewed all of humankind from creation to the present. We change, He does not. We are not the first generation to think of ourselves as progressive or as having outgrown a need for God and for organized religion. 3,000 years ago in Psalm 14:1 David wrote, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good.” 2,000 years ago in Romans Paul repeated exactly the same thing; quoting from and expanding on Psalm 14, he wrote, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).
That’s a fairly comprehensive assessment of the human predicament. We have had the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century that had to be counterbalanced by the numerous revivals in that same century. We have experienced the liberal theology of the 19th and 20th centuries and now are living with its consequences. But over these centuries and millennia, nothing has changed from God’s perspective. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” and “there is no other Name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved” than that of God’s only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.
And if we truly believe that message, we will do more than attend church on Sunday mornings and go on with our daily lives unaffected by the presence of sin and the need for repentance. We will do more than read our books and have our devotions and pray that someone will address the needs of our corrupt society. We will come to terms with what is required of us as persons having dual citizenship, citizens both of a fallen world and of a Kingdom that is not of this world. We will bear the name of Christ vocally and boldly wherever we go, trusting that the God Who is not dead may still do His work through us in bringing persons to Himself. May each of us be quick to volunteer for this ministry in whatever ways it may be that God is calling us and equipping us.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen