September 05, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
In the United States for certain—but perhaps in other parts of the world, too—it will escape the notice of very few that this Sunday falls on the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the 3,000 lives that were lost in New York, in Washington, and in a field in Pennsylvania. We tend to mark anniversaries that fall in multiples of five so we will likely see and hear more remembrances this year than in the past couple of years since the 10th anniversary in 2011. In the church, the Lectionary on this day presents us with a couple of parables of lost and found, even though the very anniversary we observe on this September 11 Sunday stands as a reminder that in this life at least, some things that are lost cannot be found back. Not ever.
It’s hard to believe it’s been a decade and a half. Hard to believe that there are kids entering high school this Fall who were not even born yet on that September day. But for those of us who can remember, there are certain memories seared into our consciousness, not the least of which was the sight of all those children, spouses, parents, and friends posting signs all over New York and on the chain-link fences that eventually surrounded Ground Zero. Photos of missing loved ones were stapled to crayon drawings and hand-written signs. “Missing: If You See My Daddy . . . Missing: If You See My Wife . . . Call 555-678-5047.” But the phones never rang. Some things, some people, who are lost cannot be found back. Startlingly, all these years later, there are over 1,100 people of whom not a single trace has ever been found. Nearly 40% who died in the Twin Towers are not findable even at a trace level.
But here’s the thing: those who lost someone will never give up hope of finding . . . something. Anything. That’s what love does for you. It makes you look and never give up. How easy it is from the outside looking in to be incredulous that families of the missing Malaysian jetliner still hold to a scintilla of hope that these people may be found alive somewhere someday. “Of course not” the rest of us think. But we’re not the ones who lost someone—someone we love.
And that’s who God is, Jesus says in Luke’s version of these two parables. From the abundance of his love he searches until he finds. He won’t give up. Not ever. There’s just too much love involved.
As Luke frames the parable, there are two audiences: there are the Pharisees who are out on the fringes, sneering at Jesus for the bad company he was keeping at table. But then there were the “sinners,” the members of that alleged “bad company” with whom Jesus was sitting at the table when he told his triplet of “lost-and-found” parables in Luke 15. Verse 3 informs us that Jesus “told them this parable,” but the antecedent for the “them” is not clear: is it the “tax collectors and sinners” who were gathered all around him for dinner that evening or was the “them” the eye-rolling and snippy Pharisees who are critiquing Jesus from a distance?
Well, it is probably both, and yet it is instructive to wonder how differently these parables sounded in the ears of those two groups.
Let’s start with the “bad company” in front of Jesus. To them these must have been great stories because if they needed a reminder that they were the ones God needed to seek out and find, all they had to do was look over their shoulders at the scolding religious leaders looking in through the windows. The Pharisees and company never failed to signal the message that folks like these tax collectors and the like were not God’s kind of people. They were lost to God. They were, therefore, unwelcome among the truly righteous because the only thing these greasy folks would accomplish would be the messing up of the already found and saved folks. Indeed, the religious establishment viewed those other people as being quite literally “lost causes,” so much so that it seems never to have occurred to the Pharisees to reach out to such sinners.
It reminds me of a motif that ran through the wonderfully poignant and humorous movie Babe some years ago. The animals on Hoggett Farm all had pre-conceived notions about one another: sheep were convinced that dogs were stupid, dogs were convinced that sheep were stupid and—as the narrator often intoned—nothing would convince them otherwise. “The way things are is the way things are” the animal characters would say to one another as a way to bolster their iron-clad worldviews.
So also for the Pharisees: there were good and righteous people like themselves—these were people whom God could not fail to love because they were just so morally attractive. But then there were pagans like tax collectors and prostitutes whom God could not possibly love no matter what (such that there was nothing the Pharisees could do to change that circumstance, either). That was simply the way things were. (It’s what you see in the Book of Psalms, isn’t it? There are the righteous and the wicked and that’s that. The Psalms may often wish for the destruction of evildoers but attempts to reach out and redeem them are not frequently depicted in the Psalms and so maybe, the Pharisees thought, that really is just the way things are.)
So if you fit into the category of a “lost cause” but then heard Jesus tell three stories about how God is the champion of the lost . . . well, it must have sounded like Good News for sure. What’s more, to hear that there was even more joy over one of those being found than in the static piety of the ostensibly already-found must have sounded swoon-worthy to those people. Because then it turns out that there is no such thing as lost causes—just lost and wandering people waiting to be found by God’s grace.
It goes without saying, therefore, that Jesus’ parables sounded rather different in the ears of the Pharisees and company. In the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin joy busts out all over and there is no mistaking the fact that such divine joy is getting aimed at Jesus’ “bad company” and not at the Pharisees themselves. But in the end—just to be sure no one misses the point—Jesus will conclude with an elder brother refusing to enter into the joy of a party, and there is no way the Pharisees missed recognizing themselves in the portrait of that surly kid.
I wonder sometimes which set of ears most characterizes many people in the church yet today. Does the gospel sound wonderful to us only when we see ourselves as the target of God’s grace and joy and happiness? Or does it sound best to us when we see others getting caught up in the divine embrace, even if those “others” are people very unlike us (and maybe even people we ourselves do not particularly care for or are able to relate to)? And if we can feel joy over the salvation of “others,” is it because we properly know that when you get right down to it, we are all the same? Life-long church members and newly saved drug addicts; conservative Christians with a backlog of moral virtue and more progressive folks whose views don’t always jibe with our own—we are all the same. We all need the same amount of grace to get saved.
If we stop thinking in terms of “Us vs. Them” in the church, maybe we will arrive at a day when we all have just one set of ears through which to hear parables like the ones in Luke 15: ears that are highly adept at picking out the tune of sheer joy that just is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ!
It is easy when preaching on these texts—especially the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin—to produce a sermon that is long on inducing guilt (“Why aren’t you going out and seeking others more often!?”) and short on celebrating the joy of salvation. Yes, at least one major thrust of Jesus’ parables is precisely to tell us that—contrary to those judgmental Pharisees—we should be seeking the lost. True enough. This text is shot through with a sense of mission. But let’s get the motivation right: it’s not because this is some grim religious duty that, darn it, we just have to do if we want God to love us.
No, it’s because we remember the joy of our own salvation, of our own having been found by the Savior, and it is now our privilege to beam that joy to all and to invite others to come and join the celebration by letting Jesus become their Lord and Savior too. It comes when we remember the never-ending well of love and hope that motivates God’s own search. He won’t give up. He can’t. There’s just too much love involved for him to throw in the towel even when the odds are really long.
If we can preach sermons that center on that, then we are proclaiming Good News indeed.
Two small items in the Greek text may be interesting. First, in Luke 15:2 we are told that one of the main reasons the Pharisees disdained Jesus so much was because he “welcomes” sinners and tax collectors. The Greek verb for “welcome” is PROSDECHOMAI from the root DECHOMAI, which literally can mean to bring into one’s arms. The image here is very nearly of an embrace. This is not just a polite word of “Welcome” spoken at the front door of someone’s house when a guest arrives but more an active embrace, a drawing in, of this person. (It reminds you of the big embrace that the father gives to his prodigal son later on in Luke 15).
Another small point is in verse 4 when the shepherd is said to leave his 99 sheep not just “in the open” as the NIV translates it but more along the lines of the NRSV’s translation of “in the wilderness” as the Greek there is EREMO, which is the word for the desert or wilderness—a dangerous place to be and a very dangerous place to be left unsupervised and unprotected.
From a sermon by Hugh Reed, as quoted in Paul Scott Wilson, Setting Words on Fire: Putting God at the Center of the Sermon (Abingdon, 2008, pp. 159-60):
Allan (not his real name) came to me at my previous church in Hamilton, wanting to be baptized. He was a child (or victim) of the “me decade” and felt compelled to leave home and family to find himself and, of course, lost himself, becoming a stranger to himself and the world, wandering the streets of Vancouver trapped in a world of drugs. One night he managed to get off the street for a night in one of the shelters. He crashed into the bunk, staring up at the ceiling, listening to the groans, and trying not to be overcome by the odors of the strangers in the bunks around him. He didn’t know where he was, he didn’t know who he was, but he wanted it to be over with and he considered how he might take his own life.
He was shaken out of this thoughts when someone came in and called out a name from another world.
“Is Allan Roberts here?”
That had been his name once but he hadn’t heard it for some time. He hardly knew Allan Roberts anymore. It couldn’t be him being called.
The caller persisted, “Is there anybody named Allan Roberts here?”
No one else answered and so Allan took a risk. “I’m Allan Roberts (or used to be).”
“Your mother’s on the phone.”
My mother, no, you’ve made a mistake. I don’t know where I am, how could my mother know where I am?
“If you’re Allan Roberts, your mother’s on the phone.”
Unsure what to expect, he went to the desk in the hall and took the receiver. “Allan,” it was his mother, “It’s time for you to come home.”
“Mom, I don’t know where I am, I have no money, you don’t know what I’m like anymore. I can’t go home.”
“It’s time for you to come home. There’s a Salvation Army officer who’s coming to you with a plane ticket. He’s going to take you to the airport to get you home.”
She hadn’t known where he was, she just called every shelter and hostel for months until she found him.
He went home and, supported and loved by his mother, who had never ceased to know him even though he had forgotten himself, and influenced and inspired by the faith that had sustained his mother’s hope and love, he began attending church services and one day came to my office seeking to be baptized.
He did not find his own way to my office . . . A path, not of his own making, [was] made by the love that found him, that knew him better than he knew himself, and invited him to “follow me.”
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Author: Doug Bratt
I suspect that were Jeremiah 4 not on the Lectionary schedule, few preachers and teachers would be willing to tackle it. After all, among other reasons, relatively few of us like to talk about the kind of divine judgment it so graphically describes. What’s more, its grim apocalyptic imagery resists easy understanding and application.
Of course, a few Christian leaders might see in Jeremiah 4 predictions of coming global ecological catastrophe. They might even claim it foreshadows the climate change our world currently seems to be experiencing.
Yet as my colleague Scott Hoezee notes in an earlier (September 9, 2013) posting on this website, it’s very hard to tell if creation’s desolation that Jeremiah 4 describes will be the product of human evil, or if God is actively wreaking havoc on the creation. Or perhaps, as Hoezee posits, it’s both.
The prophet sets the Lectionary’s Old Testament text for this Sunday in the context of a larger section of his book that addresses Judah and Jerusalem’s sins, as well as God’s judgment on them. Yet it’s hard to pin down the precise historical context of this chapter.
Verse 5 refers to impending disaster that will come from “the north.” Verse 11 describes “scorching wind from the barren heights in the desert.” While this might seem to link verses 11-12 to the impending disaster verses 22-28 speak of, some scholars suggest that “scorching wind” is actually a metaphor for the irresistible judgment the invaders from the north will impose on Judah. So the link between the two separate sections the Lectionary appoints seems tenuous at best.
The imagery of Jeremiah 4:22-28 is nearly as mysterious as it is grim. It begins with Israel’s moral and spiritual check-up. God grieves that Israel is foolish because she doesn’t “know” the Lord. Among other things, she seems ignorant of God’s willingness to punish her for her sins. She can’t even imagine that God would ever scold her.
In verse 22 the Lord also mourns Israel’s childishness. She’s so immature that she can’t even imagine God doing anything but affirming her actions and her. While the Israelites are God’s “people” (22), God grieves that they act like foolish kids.
Yet the Israelites aren’t so childish that they don’t know how to sin against God and each other. Jeremiah insists, in fact, they’re quite “mature” at rebelling against God and God’s good purposes and plans. The Israelites are far better at doing evil than doing “good” by acting, talking and even thinking the way God created them to.
Verse 22 gives Jeremiah’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to explore our own foolishness, childishness and sinfulness. How does such foolishness manifest itself in our interactions with our friends and members of our families? How might God’s “people” (22) need to repent of our childishness and sinfulness in our relationship not only with God, but also the creation?
Yet while Israel’s moral and spiritual health is poor, it’s a picture of vitality compared to what God through Jeremiah warns creation will experience. When, after all, the prophet “looks” at the creation, he sees something eerily similar to what things must have looked like before God went to creative work. It isn’t just Israel that suffers as a result of her rebellion; the whole creation is also miserable.
Verses 22-28 make up what Walter Brueggemann calls “a staggering study of creation run amok, creation reverted to chaos.” In fact, Jeremiah’s vision is of a creation that has somehow reverted to its pre-creative state.
After all, everything Jeremiah sees is “formless and empty” (23), just as it was before the Creator began God’s work.
What’s more, when the prophet looks at the sky, he finds its light has been extinguished, leaving things as dark as they were before God created light (Genesis 1:2).
Nor can he see any mountains, among the most lasting reminders of God’s creative and sustaining power. On top of everything else, when Jeremiah looks, he sees no people, echoing the creative state before God created our first parents.
In other words, everywhere God gives the prophet sight to see, he can see only desolation, destruction and emptiness. Sin has unmade what God lovingly made. Since there is rampant human disobedience, there is no viable creation. Rebellion has created complete chaos.
This provides Jeremiah 4’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to explore with hearers examples of the kind of devastation human sinfulness wreaks on our world today. Polluted air, water, and ground points to our own destruction of what God creates and cares for. Less than stewardly use of both water and soil has wreaked havoc on those parts of God’s creation.
Jeremiah 4 contains so many descriptions of sin, rebellion and trouble that it may not be easy to find much grace in it. But to those to whom the Spirit graciously gives eyes, there is hope. After all, the prophet insists that all is not yet lost for God’s people or creation. Creation will suffer greatly. God has, after all, spoken and will not relent. God “will not turn back” (28) from what God has decided to do.
However, while scholars as diverse as John Calvin and Walter Brueggemann suggest verse 27 means God’s judgment is not yet complete, others scholars suggest it means God’s judgment will not be permanent. It at least implies evil and its affects on what God so lovingly creates and cares for don’t get the final word. God does. God will not completely destroy creation. God will give Israel a chance to repent, to spiritually mature. God, after all, longs not for destruction, but for healing for God’s sons and daughters, as well as all the works of God’s hands.
For the time being, however, Jeremiah 4 helps to remind us that God’s good creation is suffering deeply. As Paul wrote long after Jeremiah spoke, “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22).
Of course, Christians have responded to those groans in a number of ways. Some have basically plugged our ears to them by insisting that because creation’s misery is a byproduct of human progress, we shouldn’t worry or grieve about it too much. Others have decided since God is going to someday destroy the whole creation anyway, we shouldn’t waste our time caring for something that won’t last.
Yet still others recognize that God’s creation is very precious to the Lord. God didn’t, after all, send God’s Son Jesus to die just for sinners like us. God sent God’s Son to also redeem the entire creation that we sometimes seem so hell-bent on destroying. So those who maliciously and deliberately harm creation maliciously and deliberately harm what Jesus came to save.
Jeremiah 8 signals that God is not indifferent to the suffering of either God’s children or God’s creation. God will not simply let God’s people destroy each other, our earthly home and ourselves without trying to jolt us into renewed faithfulness and obedience.
So at the proper time God sends God’s one and only natural Son, Jesus Christ, into that groaning creation. He demonstrates power over that creation by calming storms and walking on water. Jesus also mitigates creation’s chaos by, among other things, feeding hungry people.
And when Jesus lets the Romans crucify him, it’s not just for the sake of sinners whom God so deeply loves. It’s also for the world that God passionately loves. A world that God will renew when Christ returns so that it can join the God’s redeemed creatures in offering unending praise to their Creator, Caretaker and Redeemer.
Illustration Idea (from the September 9, 2013 CEP Posting)
In That Hideous Strength, the final volume of his “Space Trilogy,” C.S. Lewis showed that he understands the way evil seeks to sully God’s good creation. Witness the following conversation involving a group of evil people and their plans for the physical environment of earth:
Having heard that the leader of a certain group had just ordered the destruction of a number of beech trees on a local estate, someone asks why he did such a thing. He then goes on to say that in general, he prefers artificial, aluminum trees.
“Consider the advantages. You get tired of [the tree] in one place, two workmen carry him somewhere else: wherever you please. It never dies. No leaves to fall, no twigs, no birds building nests, no muck and mess.”
“I suppose one or two, as curiosities, might be rather amusing.”
“Why one or two? At present, I allow we must have forests, for the atmosphere. Presently we find a chemical substitute. And then, why any natural trees? I foresee nothing but the art tree all over the earth. In fact, we clean the planet.”
“Do you mean,” a man named Gould put in, “that we are to have no vegetation at all?”
“Exactly. You shave your face, one day we shave the planet.”
“I wonder what the birds will make of it.”
“I would not have any birds, either. On the art tree, I would have the art birds all singing when you press a switch inside the house. When you are tired of the singing, you switch them off. Consider again the improvement. No feathers dropped about, no nests, no eggs, no dirt.”
From C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, Collier Books 1946, pp. 172-73.
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 51 will probably provoke very different reactions in most congregations. Some will be bored and skeptical because it is so familiar, and “familiarity breeds contempt.” Been there, done that, doesn’t work. Some will be scornful and dismissive because it is so out of fashion. Nobody thinks like this about sin and guilt anymore; it’s so yesterday.
To capture the imagination and interest of those two diverse groups, I suggest using a vivid image and a couple of true stories. The image that I’d suggest comes from verse 7; “wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” Even though it is still early fall, the image of snow and winter will give you some imaginative purchase on your listeners. Here are the two stories, one from my personal experience and one from today’s political headlines.
The young woman was distraught. She sobbed, “I’ll never be able to forgive myself and get back to where I was before I did all this.” She was a fine young Christian woman, raised in a devout Christian home. She had gone to church, Catechism, Christian school, and a Christian College. She was a faithful member at church, she and her husband. They had been married several years when things began to go bad for them. Gradually they grew apart, until there was very little left in the marriage for her. That’s why, when a man at work began to get friendly, she was vulnerable to the affair she was now confessing to me.
She felt trapped. She couldn’t imagine going back to her husband because in her eyes the marriage had been such a disaster. But she knew that what she was doing was absolutely wrong, contrary not only to the way she was raised, but also to everything she believed with all her heart. She felt as though she had ruined her life, but she didn’t know what to do next. That’s when she said, “I’ll never be able to forgive myself and get back to where I was before I did all this.” She was frozen in “the winter of her sin,” as the old Easter hymn put it, completely stuck in great gritty drifts of guilt. It was the bleak mid-winter of her young life.
The other story comes from the Presidential campaign of 2016. At a campaign event in Iowa, Donald Trump raised many eyebrows by saying that he had never asked God for forgiveness, even though he claims to be a Christian. (Don’t worry. This is not going to an anti-Trump screed. I’m merely using his words as an example of a widespread attitude to sin and guilt, and thus to Psalm 51.)
In an issue of First Things, Matthew Schmitz traced the roots of Trump’s comments back to Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, whose church Trump often attended. With his philosophy of Positive Thinking, Peale promised his readers “constant energy.” Schmitz writes of Peale: “Negative thoughts, especially a tendency to dwell on one’s faults, could interfere with the divine charge. He warned those with active consciences that ‘the quantity of vital force required to give the personality relief from either guilt or fear’ was so great that it left ‘only a fraction of energy’ for going about one’s tasks. Where the Bible urges us to search our hearts and know our faults, Peale encourages us to ‘make a true estimate of your own ability and raise it ten percent.’ Thus the necessity of repentance recedes. It is important to think positively, and a negative thought, such as Domine, non sum dignus, can be injurious to spiritual health.” The person who thinks that positively will never feel the chill of a mid-winter guilt in the soul; “for Peale [the heart’s] dark recesses are bathed in California sunshine.” Such a person feels no need to be washed whiter than snow.
Both Mary and Donald need to hear the careful confession of Psalm 51, so that they can discover (again) the “joy of salvation.” (verse 12) It was written by a man who knew both the despair of Mary and the pride of Donald, a king with absolute power whose heart was as black with guilt as his hands were red with blood. But King David had discovered that it is possible to get your life back, to once again enjoy the springtime of your soul.
In the rest of Psalm 51 David piles up phrases to describe how fresh and clean life can be when you are washed whiter than snow. Your ears are filled with joy and your broken bones rejoice, your heart is pure and your spirit steadfast, your sense of God’s presence is vivid and you know the Holy Spirit is within. In a word, you are filled with the joy of salvation. If God washes you, you can be whiter than snow, and start life over again.
We all know that promise. But to many of us, it doesn’t seem to work that way. I mean that we have confessed our sins until we are blue in the face. We have heard God’s assurance of pardon proclaimed in church and in the depths of our own souls. In that moment perhaps we felt clean and pure, washed whiter than snow.
But we have found that the spotless white snow of God’s grace all too soon gets mixed with the grit and grime of sin. Sometimes in spite of our attempts at confessing our sin and in spite of hearing God’s repeated assurance of pardon, unresolved guilt lies frozen in the depths of our soul like old snow on the side of the road. Other times, we remain stuck in sin because we travel roads rutted with the ice of old sins. And still other times, we slide off the road into new sins because we have this slippery habit of justifying whatever we want to do. Our lives are so habit bound, so frozen and so deep, that we can’t really forgive ourselves and begin life anew and remain white as snow.
If you’ve ever felt that way, let me tell you about an ‘Aha moment’ I had a number of years ago that helped me understand what it takes to experience the warm joy of this snowy promise. The computer lovers in the church office were talking about the new scanner we had just purchased for their computers. Like all scanners, it could copy a printed page right into your computer. You run the scanner over the page and, voila, there is that page in the computer. Up until that time, however, you couldn’t work with the scanned-in page. Our executive assistants were celebrating the fact that they now could do that. They had just received a new software program enabled them to revise the scanned page any way they wanted. For example, on the day were talking about all this, a church member came in to have a mission letter scanned, but as he gave it to the secretary, he noticed a typo. “Oh no,” he moaned. “Now I have to re-type the whole letter.” “No problem,” replied the secretary, “We have this new software.” She scanned in the letter, revised it, and the letter was totally perfect.
I’m always intimidated by whiz bang technology, but I cover it with sarcasm. So I said, “How long will it be until they are able to scan in our lives, use some unimaginable new software, and correct all the mistakes, so that the edited life is totally perfect. Think of it. No typos, no errors, no little sins, no big sins, no old habits, no flawed character, no inherited depravity. Totally perfect.” To which someone said, “It’s already been done.” And I said, “Aha. Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.”
That helped me understand why some of us are stuck in the bleak mid-winter of our sin. To be washed whiter than snow, you have to scan your sin and you have to use the new software. Here are two contemporary images to add to the image of winter’s snow. We need both scanner and software. Let’s use those images to parse Psalm 51.
A scanner reads every single mark on the page; it doesn’t miss a thing. Often our scanning, our confession and repentance, isn’t as thorough. Listen to the way David scans his sin in Psalm 51. He begins with a plea for mercy. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love, according to your great compassion.” He did not say, “Have mercy on me according to my good intentions, or according to my relative innocence, or even according to my faith, but simply according to God’s love and compassion.” To be washed whiter than snow, you have to get rid of any notions that you deserve to be washed.
In fact, in vs. 3 David says that becoming whiter than snow depends on knowing exactly the opposite. Notice how vs. 3 puts it, “For I know my transgressions.” Wash me, because I know how sinful I am. He knows because, he says, “My sin is always before me.” Denial is such a powerful psychological barrier to scanning sin. We want to turn away from it, just forget about it. But before you can safely put your sin behind you, you have to face it squarely in all its ugliness. You can’t move on to new life, until you keep sin before you long enough to see its full sinfulness.
David did, and that’s why he says, “Against you and you only have I sinned….” That sounds as though David is brushing aside his terrible sins against Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. But that’s not what he is doing. Rather, he is naming the heart of his sin. It’s not just that I did this to other people. Often that’s a way of downplaying sin. Well, after all, she was taking a bath on her roof. And he did act foolishly in battle. There’s always something someone else did that excuses our sin. But David wants nothing to do with such justification. He faces the fact that he has rebelled against God in what he did.
That’s why he calls it evil in vs. 4. It was not just a moral failure, not just a slip of decent behavior, not just a spiritual faux pas. It was, simply, Evil. To be washed whiter than snow, you have to confess the evil of your sin. Then you can say to God, “You are absolutely right, O God, in judging me for what I did, because what I did was evil.”
Furthermore, says David in vs. 5, it’s not just what I did. It’s who I am. My sin was not some rare aberration in an otherwise flawless life. No, this sin sprang from what I have been since my earliest days. I’m not a good person who slips occasionally. I’m a born sinner, inherently, genetically disposed to sin.
And it’s not that I didn’t know any better, because I did. Vs. 6, “You desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.” I know exactly what you desire, O God. You have taught me your way, and I understand it deep within. But I have chosen to believe a lie and play the fool. I have baldly and boldly gone against what I know is your will for my life.
That’s what it takes to be washed whiter than snow. You have to scan every detail of your sin. But even that won’t do it. You also have to use the new software. The world is full of people who agonize over their sin the way David did, but they cannot find relief from the stain of sin and experience the joy of being washed whiter than snow.
I think of the great Reformer Martin Luther. He tried absolutely everything to get rid of his unresolved guilt, continued sin, old habits, self-justifying attitude. But no matter what spiritual exercises or moral acts Luther performed, he could never feel clean. He was stuck in the bleak mid-winter of his guilt and shame, until he rediscovered the good news about what God has done to wash us whiter than snow.
God invented this new software, God in human flesh. The eternal Son of God was born as a soft and cuddly baby. He grew into a flesh and blood man who bore our sin and shame, so that by his suffering and death on the cross, we might become totally perfect in God’s sight. An old song now out of favor captures the Gospel in memorable lines. “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus! What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus! Oh precious is the flow that makes me white as snow. No other fount I know. Nothing but the blood of Jesus!”
But God also wants to install new software in forgiven sinners—a heart of flesh where there was a heart of stone. That’s what David prays for in verse 10. “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” No amount of confession, on the one hand, and no amount of positive thinking, on the other, can change who we are inside. Only the grace of God can do that. And the grace of God comes to those who are honest enough with themselves and God to really scan their sin. Then the grace of God can supply the software necessary to experience “the spring of your soul today.”
In her book Glittering Images, Susan Howatch tells the story of an Anglican priest who has such a complete moral and emotional breakdown that he has to seek counseling. Early in his recovery he wants to confess his sins, so he can partake of Holy Communion. But his counselor won’t let him make confession. “You can’t really confess your sins,” says his counselor, “until you know them, and you really don’t know yours at this stage in your recovery.” In Psalm 51, David says, “I know my sins….” In what follows, he shows us that he really does.
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Author: Scott Hoezee
In the first century—and really for a large chunk of the church’s history—most everything a given person knew had to be memorized and carried around in one’s head. There were no published materials, no pamphlets or tracts or catechisms. Not surprisingly, then, by the time the Pastoral Epistles were written it is clear that the church had developed a variety of pithy Gospel summaries that were easy to memorize and that captured core dynamics of Christian faith and beliefs. In 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, the Apostle Paul was able to lend his apostolic stamp of approval to any number of these “trustworthy sayings” that Paul deemed to be theologically accurate and useful in communicating the Gospel.
There are about a half-dozen such sayings scattered in the Pastorals. A couple of them are a little hard to delineate—lacking quote marks around the actual saying itself, it’s a little hard to know where the saying leaves off and Paul’s commentary picks up. But the saying in 1 Timothy 1:15 is pretty clear. The faithful or trustworthy saying in question was the very essence of the Good News: “Christ Jesus Came into the World to Save Sinners.” It’s a veritable bumper sticker of a saying. Short, direct, to the point and absolutely correct in terms of the purpose behind Jesus’ life and ministry. For all that has been written in theological history—for all the commentaries and catechisms and systematic theology volumes—that really is the most basic truth of them all: Jesus Saves! Jesus Saves Sinners! He did not come for those who were convinced they had no sin or that there is no such thing as sin. He did not come for those who first got their own spiritual acts together. He came for the moral train wrecks we all are when left to our own fallen devices.
And what’s more, his advent into this world is most welcomed by those who know—or who can become convinced at least—that they really are lost. If to the best of your knowledge all the plumbing in your house is working just fine, then the unannounced arrival of a plumber at your front door will not only not be a welcome development in your afternoon, you will politely tell him to go away. But if your basement is filling with water from a busted pipe—or if the plumber tells you the city has experienced a sudden drop in water pressure and they think it’s all going into your basement—then you will embrace the plumber’s presence with great ardor and rejoice that something can be done!
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” If you knew that much in the early church—if you could memorize and repeat just that much information—then you were well on your way to convincing people why the Gospel = “Good News” indeed.
In the verses that come just before this particular Year C Lectionary reading Paul reminds Timothy to contend for the truth of the faith and he does so in the teeth of a lot of apparent foolishness and complicated myths that were floating around the ancient world. Some of what was going on, Paul implies, led to endless and fruitless speculation on a whole range of things. And so among other things, Paul’s recitation of this simple trustworthy saying was a reminder that at the end of the day, the Gospel is really pretty straightforward. It’s not finally that complex. We’re broken. God wants to fix us. In Christ he does. Our relationship with God went south a long time ago. Jesus enables a reunion. Now, of course, there are great depths to all that, too. The Gospel is not finally a simple thing. Figuring out why God’s only Son had to suffer and die the way he did is properly a bracing theological task.
And yet . . . there is this core simplicity to it, too. As someone once noted about John’s Gospel: the Gospel is like a body of water that is shallow enough that a toddler can safely splash around it yet deep enough to drown an elephant.
Meanwhile, in the course of approving the accuracy of this faithful saying, Paul trots out his own former self as Exhibit A of the Gospel’s truth. Timothy knows enough of his mentor’s past that Paul need not fill in the details of his dark days as a Jesus-hater. A mere allusion to his violence and blasphemy sufficed. Saul of Tarsus was nasty business. That he carried out all his violent abuse and persecution in the name of the very God he’d later know as the Father of his Lord Jesus Christ only made his crimes the more heinous. God would have been well within his divine rights to swat Saul to deepest hell forever.
But he didn’t. Why not? Because Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Saul may have been the poster boy for blasphemy but he was simultaneously the exact kind of person Jesus most wanted to save by grace alone. And now that he was saved by grace, Paul could assure anyone that there is no such thing as a lost cause, as a person not worthy of someone’s time or effort to save through the message of the Gospel. There is always hope. There is always the possibility of resurrection.
That’s just what the Gospel is all about. And you don’t need more than even ten words to get the gist of it!
In Frederick Buechner’s memorable framing of it, Saul of Tarsus set out as a hatchet man for the Pharisees and returned a fool for Christ. He went from being convinced that eternal life was bought on an installment plan of good works to believing that God is about as wildly loose with his saving grace as Crazy Eddie the used car salesman whose TV ads feature Eddie hopping up and down like a mad man in promising that he’ll do ANYTHING to make you a good deal. It ends up being all grace, all undeserving. That whole thing about God’s grading on the curve? Forget about it. That whole story that said God goes around handing out moral medals to those who had worked the hardest to be good on their own? Forget about it. That whole way of thinking—as Paul indelicately had once put it in his letter to the Philippians—is really just a giant pile of crap. In fact, Paul himself had once been a piece of crap but now shined with the light of Jesus as God’s #1 agent in bringing the Gospel to the whole world.
So many love songs or films in history have been premised on the idea “It Could Happen to You.” Frank Sinatra crooned about it. Others have sung that if true love could find a schmuck like me, it might come your way too. “You don’t think it’s possible—well, look at me and think again” is the idea.
The Nicholas Cage/Bridget Fonda movie It Could Happen to You was premised on the idea that sometimes the best things in life come from out of a clear blue sky in the most unlikely way possible. A cop has to rush out of a café and cannot leave the waitress a tip. He had just bought a lottery ticket earlier that morning and tells her that in lieu of a tip, if he wins, she gets half. “Yeah right” is her common-sense response. And then, of course, the cop wins $4 million and makes sure she gets half (even if doing so ruins his own marriage).
Crazy things happen. And sinners who get caught up by the truth that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” know this more keenly than anyone. It’s the one “too good to be true” scenario that really is true. “Just look at me” Paul writes.