Sunday, February 17, 2013

Just a little sin needing just a little forgiveness...or not

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, preached on Wednesday, February 13, 2013.

    Some enjoy sermon series on sins, especially specific sins.  Perhaps a series on the seven deadly sins. I admit I have never done one.  The problem with focusing on individual sins is that we see sin merely in light of individual transgressions.  I sinned this morning and it was a doozy but I have been pretty good ever since.  God willing, I will avoid any major potholes before bedtime.  Then sins become isolated acts instead of merely the signs and symptoms of bigger things – of a terminal disease, an illness that causes death, of a corruption of our nature.
    When we see sin merely as individual screw ups, then forgiveness becomes something small – individual little fixes, the repair of an occasional bad word, evil action, or wicked thought.  When sin is merely something we do occasionally, then forgiveness is but temporary grace.  Only when we see sin as the fatal character flaw and terminal illness that it is can we being to appreciate what healing and life is given in the forgiveness of the cross.
    Am I a sinner because I sin or do I sin because I am a sinner?  If I am a sinner because I sin, I do not really need forgiveness.  All I need to do is to stop sinning.  Repentance becomes like a diet you are on not to lose weight but to shed sins.  Redemption becomes merely good coaching and encouragement from the sidelines as we work toward our goal.  If, on the other hand, I sin because I am a sinner, then I cannot fix what is wrong.  I am sinful by nature and my sinful nature keeps me from repairing the wrong, from working out the problem.  Sin has so corrupted me that I require new birth from my lost life and a Savior who can make it happen.
    Scripture is blunt in describing our sin as a body of death which has encompassed this flesh and blood and stolen our lives from us.  It began with our willful rebellion but now sin is fully out of our control.  Sins are not isolated cases of irreverence or indiscretion.  They are acts of hearts that fear and despise God, that have become enemies of God.  God wants to love us but our sins make us unlovable.  In order to love us, God must do something about our sin.
    He gave the Law to us not to point out our individual wrongs like we might check off the Ten Commandments for the ones we did and the ones we have avoided.  This would lead us to the inescapable conclusion that we can fix them.  The Law is there to teach us the depth of sin and its terrible claim on our lives.  All we like sheep have gone astray... There is no health in us... We have fallen short of the glory of God... Who will save us from this body of death?  No, if repentance were merely a matter of giving up certain sins, we could to it.  But because sin is more, repentance is also.
    Are we forgiven for certain sins or are we forgiven sinners?  If we are forgiven certain sins, it is like a test in which we got some answers right and still have some wrong.  Perhaps not an A but at least a gentleman’s C, a passing grade.  Forgiveness hits some sins – those for which we are fully sorry and contrite but leaves other sins under God's judgment.  On the other hand, if we are forgiven sinners, then sin and forgiveness are not pick and choose but the very clothing of grace we wear by baptism and faith.  Repentance is more than merely being sorry for our screw ups.  It expects and includes the faith to grasp hold of and rejoice in the rich grace our Lord has won by His cross.    
    Absolution from God is not applied here and there to us like a band aid applied to individual wounds.  Each and all our sins are answered by the cross, are atoned for by His saving death for us, and we stand as the forgiven people of God in Christ Jesus.  Baptism does not wash one sin at a time but cleanses us wholly and completely.  Baptism washes us so that in Christ sin's guilt no longer sticks to us because we are in Christ.  That is why church is important – it is by our participation in these means of grace that we remain in Christ and therefore live under the banner of His forgiveness.
    The Gospel is not a magic word.  It is death by death.  We should have died but Christ came to die for us, in our place, the death to sin so that we might live new lives in Him.  The death that killed Christ was Christ killing death and sin for us.
    Therefore repentance is not an action or an attitude.  Repentance is the way of life for those who live their lives under the cross.  We are not washed again and again and again but continually being made clean by the blood of Christ.  This comes to us through the means of grace, absolution and Holy Communion.  As long as we are in Christ, sin's power is undone.  When we leave Christ, we lose the benefit of what He has done for us.  Therefore, to remain in Christ, to live repentant lives means to live in connection to the means of grace where forgiveness and life are to be found. 
    We come here tonight not to fess up to individual wrongs and to repent of them.  No, we come for much more.  We come as those marked for death whom Christ has redeemed by His blood.  We come to reclaim and renew our connection to Christ through the means of grace. We come to stand before Him in the clothing of His righteousness.  We come to acknowledge that though this body is marked by ashes in humble confession of what sin and death have done to us, these ashes are in the shape of a cross and also acknowledge what Christ has done for us, redeeming us sinners from our lost condition through the new birth of holy baptism, for a life of faith.  The Spirit has brought us here tonight to reclaim that gift through our participation in the means of grace.  That is the repentance to which we are called and in which we daily are renewed.   Amen.

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