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Taking Sin Seriously, Pt. 1
The First Sunday in Lent

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
March 9, 2014

Matthew 4:1-11 [link]


Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent, forty days in which we are invited to wrestle with the idea of what it means to be the children of God. In the same way Jesus wrestled in the wilderness for forty days with the idea of what it means to be the son of God. It’s a good time for looking deeply within ourselves and seeing what’s in there that might need to change. Welcome to the season of Lent. During these days I’ll be preaching a sermon series called “Taking Sin Seriously,” and we will look at some big scary theological words like penance and repentance, and salvation and damnation, but today we are going to look at one little word with big consequences. The word is sin, S-I-N. And Barbara Brown Taylor points out that there are at least three words in the Bible that are translated as “sin.” One of them she says is a word that would be better translated as transgression, an open act of rebellion against God. This is when you make God your enemy. When you say “I’m in charge here, not you.” That’s transgression. Another word, she says, is iniquity. And you find that in the Bible. It mostly means a wrongful act, something you do intentionally even though you know it’s not the right thing to do. But Barbara Brown Taylor says by far the most common word for sin in the Bible is a word that can be translated as “missing the mark.” And you can almost picture this one can’t you? The archer strings his bow, fits an arrow to the string, draws it back, lets it fly, and misses the bulls eye, maybe only by inches, but he misses. For all the words for sin I think this is the most hopeful one. It suggests that we are at least trying to hit the bulls eye, sometimes we miss, but at least we’re trying, right? It’s not like we lie on our beds at night, plotting evil. It’s not like we wake up in open rebellion against God, but sometimes, even when we try, we miss the mark. Maybe the important thing today is not to say what sin is, but to say what sin does. And this is what it does always, it separates, and it can happen so easily. For example, and I know I’ve used this example before, I’m not sure why I go back to it again and again. I don’t think it’s autobiographical, but, imagine a boy sitting at the kitchen table doing his homework while his mother bakes a big batch of chocolate chip cookies. They’re having a wonderful time in there, the mothers is helping the boy with his homework and he’s helping her lick the spoon and the kitchen is full of that delicious fragrance, deliciously baked chocolate chip cookies. She takes the trays out of the oven, she sits them on the stove to cool. As she’s putting them into the cookie jar she says to the boy, now I don’t want you to eat any of these before the party, and he nods his head obediently, of course not, why would I eat the cookies before the party. But then she says, listen, I’ve got to run out a do a few errands. I’ll be back soon. And she goes, leaving the boy alone in that kitchen with the smell of chocolate chip cookies hanging in the air. And just out of curiosity he goes and lifts the lid of the cookie jar, he looks inside, and he begins to believe that he could remove one cookie, just one, and rearrange all the others so that it would appear no cookies at all had been taken from the jar. And that’s what he does. And he leans over the sink and eats that chocolate chip cookie and he brushes the crumbs from his face and he washes the rest of the crumbs down the drain. He goes back to his place at the kitchen table, resumes his studies and when his mother comes in he is looking so studious, so dutiful, so obedient, that she says, is everything ok? And he looks up, surprised, yes, everything’s fine, just fine, everything’s fine. Trust me. But things have changed. things have changed between him and his mother, he can feel it now, the tension in the air when there was before only the smell of chocolate chip cookies and the feel of love. And without saying anything about it he gathers up his books and goes to his own room. That’s what happens. That’s how sin begins to separate. And if you have eyes to see it this is so much like the story from Genesis today, where God says to his children in the Garden of Eden, don’t eat the fruit of that tree in the center of the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the day you eat of it you will surely die. And they nodded their heads obediently. Of course, why would we eat the fruit from that tree? You told us not to, we wouldn’t do it. But at the beginning of chapter three we hear that the, the serpent was craftier than any of the animals that the Lord God had made. And this sneaky snake said to the woman, is it true? Did God really say that you can’t eat fruit from any of these trees in the garden? Do you see, how he twisted the words just a title bit? But Eve said no, that’s not what he said at all. He said we can eat fruit from any tree in the garden except the tree in the center of the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He said in the day you eat the fruit of that tree you will surely die. But the serpent said, no you won’t, you won’t die, you will be like God. Your eyes will be opened, you will be able to tell the difference between good and evil. It was tempting and Eve was tempted. She looked at the fruit and saw that it was edible, and beautiful, and possibly magical. This could be the fruit that opens my eyes, she thought, that makes me like God, that helps me know good and evil. And so she took the fruit and she ate. And I wonder what it would be like to take that bite and to consider whether it was in fact poison and whether it might in fact kill you, to be waiting with the taste of that fruit still on your lips, to see if you would die. Or, as the serpent said, to see if this fruit were perhaps magical, to see if it would open your eyes so that you could tell the difference between good and evil. Eve tasting that fruit, waiting for it to have it’s effect, whatever it might be. You will know the difference between good and evil the serpent said, and as soon as she bit into the fruit she discovered he was right, and she realized she had done an evil thing. Misery loves company. Eve did not want to be alone in her sin, she shared this fruit with her husband. He ate it too, apparently didn’t even ask why not, and then there were the two of them with their eyes opened, no longer innocent, looking around, seeing everything, and seeing themselves and knowing that they were naked. They were naked before, the Bible says, but they were not ashamed. This is how sin works, it separates us from the one we love, it makes us feel all of that shame and guilt. Adam and Eve looked at themselves, they saw that they were naked, imagine how pitiful was that scene when they began to stitch fig leaves together to try to make some kind of covering for themselves, something that would cover up their sin and their shame. They hid themselves, and the Bible says that when God came walking in the garden in the cool of the evening calling out their names, they were hidden. It almost breaks my heart to think how it must have been like before. God walking in the garden in the cool of the evening with his good friends Adam and Eve, talking about the events of the day. It must have been on a walk like that one, an earlier walk, that he said to them, now don’t eat the fruit from that tree in the center of the garden. The day you do that you will surely die. But this time God walks in the garden and calls their name and there’s no answer. He keeps calling, more urgently, more insistently, they begin to hear the panic in his voice, that’s when Adam steps forward and says I’m sorry. I heard the sound of your voice in the garden and I was, I was ashamed, I was naked. And God said who told you you were naked? Have you eaten the fruit from that tree? And it all came out. The man tried to blame the woman, the woman tried to blame the snake, but in the end God put them out of the garden. And I wonder if this is where we get the idea that there will be no sinners in heaven. If you sin, the Bible seems to suggest, you get put out of paradise. Somebody sent me a gospel tract last week. I don’t know why they do, but they do it from time to time. Pastor, you might need this gospel tract, you might want to give it to somebody, you might want to read it yourself, we’re not always absolutely sure about you. This one was called Heaven Can Be Yours, and when you open it up you see that everybody wants to go to heaven, that’s what it says. Everybody wants to go to heaven, but guess what? Not everybody is going to get there. What separates us from heaven this author says, is sin. But thank God there is a way that our sins can be dealt with. We can lay the burden of our sin on the Lord Jesus Christ, our sin will be forgiven and we can go to heaven forever and ever, hallelujah, hallelujah. It’s all right here in the tract. It reminds me of something Jesus said while he was still on earth. The scribe didn’t ask the question in just this way but you remember the story. A scribe said to Jesus, which commandment is the most important? He might just as well have asked, how can I get to heaven? And Jesus said, well you’ve, you’ve read the commandments, you know what they say, love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength. Love your neighbor just as much as yourself. All the law, all the prophets are fulfilled in these two commands. Everything God wants you to do is hanging from those two pegs. Love God and love others. Got an email from Buddy Hamilton not long ago. Some of you know Buddy, I know Buddy. He sits here in the balcony. He is the patriarch of the Buddy Hamilton Sunday School class, and although he doesn’t teach actively anymore he does sometimes weigh in and offer the wisdom of his many years. He heard me preach a sermon from John 1: 29, when I was talking about the difference between sin and sins. The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Buddy said, Dear pastor, for many years I have been intrigued by the use of the singular form of sin in this passage and have come to a possible explanation. I think that at birth every creature is given an abundance of selfish interest, in fact an inordinate amount to ensure a chance of survival. However I think God intends for individuals to turn this powerful force of excess selfish interest from inward to outward as the years go by and as they mature. The powerful force turned outward then becomes ministry to others, the ultimate goal. Do you hear this? My friend Buddy Hamilton says ministry to others, service to others, maybe even love for God and others is the ultimate goal of life. But that’s not what the author of this gospel tract says. He says heaven is the goal and if you want to get there you need to lay the burden of your sin on Jesus, let him take it so you can go to heaven. At the end of this tract he says and oh by the way, if you have signed this document, if you have committed your sins to Christ, you might want to find a good Bible believing church and get yourself baptized. You might. But the goal, the real goal here, is heaven right? Not as far as Jesus is concerned. The real goal is love for God and love for others. And I think Jesus might say sin is anything that keeps you from doing that. From loving God and loving others. If righteousness can be defined as those things that move us closer and closer to God and neighbor, then sin can be defined as those things that move us further and further away. And often those are little things, tiny things, the point of the wedge that goes into the block of wood. And then we tap the wedge with one sin and then another, and then another, little things, tiny taps until that block of wood splits apart. This is what sin does, it separates, it separates us from God, it separates us from others. What is our ultimate purpose? Is it to get to heaven when we die? Is that what it’s all about? Is that why we’re here? So that someday we can be rewarded with heaven? The gospel tract says says so. I think Jesus would say the goal, the goal for every one of us, is to love God and love others. Every day we make the choices that move us in that direction. We come closer to true righteousness and we come closer to heaven. What is heaven really, except that place where we are with God, and we love God, and God loves us and there is nothing between us and our neighbor but love. What is heaven but that? And how do we get there but to practice those small acts of righteousness every day, choosing love instead of sin. Think about that boy who went up to his room with his books. How will things ever be right again between him and his mother? What can he do? Here’s the good news. He can do something. He can come back down to the kitchen and say, mother, I have to tell you something. I was here, you were not. Those chocolate chip cookies smelled so good I had to have one. I took it and ate it even when you told me not to, I’m sorry. What do you think that mother would do? What would you do, except to put your arms around that boy and say, my son your sins are forgiven. When that happens it is like heaven on earth. Sin separates, separates us from God, separates us from others. Sometimes something as simple as saying I’m sorry begins to bring us back together again with those we love.

Jim Somerville 2014
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