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2013 Sermon 9 15

Sunday, September 15, 2013

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

More Joy in Heaven

Jeremiah 4: 11-12, 22-28; 1 Timothy 1: 12-17; Luke 15: 1-10

One of Jesusʼ teachings is this: if you are going to worship, and recall on the way there that you owe someone an apology, first go put things right with that other person and then go worship God. Now maybe itʼs too late today, since you are here worshiping already, but perhaps you ought to think, “I can do something to restore harmony between that other person and me before next Sunday.”

Of course, there may be reasons that itʼs impractical to address any lingering business between another and yourself no matter how much time you have. The point is that Jesus is saying God wants you to prioritize addressing human relationships in your religious behavior. Do you want to acknowledge God? Do that by establishing peace with others. Once you have done that, you can go celebrate with God the power God lends to efforts to make things right. Once you have made peace with the people who have something against you, you can worship God in good conscience.

This church has a prayer of confession in every worship service. Thatʼs a way to emphasize the need to get rid of spiritual baggage in order to enter more fully into the presence of God. Itʼs also a way to reiterate one of the basic beliefs of Christianity, and that is the forgiveness for sins we have through Christ, and the imputed innocence freely given to us to enable us unselfconsciously to approach God.

Now right away we see a problem. Must we always make sure we get forgiveness from everyone with regard to whom we have a bad conscience in order to have a good conscience before God? There are times when it isnʼt possible. Perhaps the person is not available to exonerate us. Perhaps the person is unforgiving.

Our weekly prayer of confession together and hearing words of assurance is based on Christʼs having won absolution for us completely. The once-for-all nature of the imputed innocence we have through Christ is a vital principle of the New Testament. We canʼt treat it lightly either by presuming on it and continuing to do wrong, or by disbelieving in it.

Todayʼs scriptures come at questions about guilt and forgiveness from slightly different angles, but I began with thinking about our individual consciences because thatʼs where most of us feel the pinch. Despite the fact that we pray a prayer of confession sincerely, and believe in Godʼs forgiveness, most of us still harbor misgivings, based on things that have happened in the past, problems we suspect might partly have been our fault, failures or weaknesses which have marked our behavior. We are like that crowd Jesus addressed when the woman had been taken in adultery. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” Jesus says, and donʼt we all just turn and leave the scene? How is that the same as feeling freed from the burden of guilt or shame?

Thereʼs not much in the religion of the Bible more important than forgiveness, and thatʼs true even though the topic is complicated. For one thing, the scriptures almost always emphasize the social nature of righteousness or unrighteousness, purity or impurity.

This is obvious in Jeremiahʼs prophesying the comeuppance due to Godʼs people for their failures to keep the covenant God has made with them. God made the covenant, not with individuals, but with the people, and the consequences of failure will also be felt across the whole community.

We are a very individualistic culture and it is hard for us to relate to the idea that our individual good or bad behavior reflects upon that larger population of which we are a part. We hear this when we are members of some group which wants to keep its reputation, as when we either are a credit to our school or not, or to our profession, or to our family, or conversely when we blacken the reputation of our business, or are a disgrace to our race, or our sex, or something. Generally, though, unless it is in some connection with some subcategory of persons, we donʼt think of our behavior having much to do with other people unless we have been intentionally behaving toward them in some way. In fact, we have a big category of things we consider “victimless crimes,” meaning that only we suffer by them. This would be an odd notion in Old Testament terms.

The Old Testamentʼs approach to an individualʼs being in the right or wrong gives us more responsibility than we care to have. It requires us to think beyond ourselves, similarly to when we are challenged to master some personal impulse or assume some private sacrifice on behalf of others. It makes of virtue or vice not simply an individual matter, but something with the power to influence everyone elseʼs lives for good or for ill.

Practically speaking, we often acknowledge this. The reckless motorist who gets into an accident involves other people, even when nobody is hurt. Public safety personnel have to respond, perhaps traffic is slowed, there is a whole chain of various kinds of inconvenience imposed on those close to the person and everyone else. The careless motorist who neither has a mishap nor gets in trouble with the law still, by both those things, undermines regard for following the rules, and gives a subtle tug toward indifference to limits to other motorists witnessing his actions.

The Bible will always encourage us to think in bigger terms than ourselves. When we turn to our personal prayers of confession I sometimes– and I donʼt do this thoroughly, because a person could go on for a while– try to cover the different relationships. Thatʼs the arena of wrong, and always is, if you buy the Bibleʼs belief that even private vices influence other people. We pray as persons, partners, parents, children, siblings, neighbors, employers, employees, citizens, followers, leaders, friends, volunteers. We might be all those things at once, and every one of those distinctions creates its own connections for us to do what we should, or shirk– to be wise, kind, and committed, or the opposite.

I had a man come to the office years ago to inquire about a family which used to be in the church. He wanted to know if they were still in the area, because he owed them an apology. He had begun to take Christianity very seriously and was trying to settle accounts with his past. I couldnʼt help him find those people. That was before the internet was such a big deal. Probably by now he has located them.

Weʼve already admitted, however, that it might not be practical or possible to take that approach. The good thing about that impulse is that it holds us accountable, and should make a difference in how we relate to people going forward. If you hate to apologize as much as I do, it should influence the way you behave. It should make you dodge doing anything for which youʼll owe an apology.

Thatʼs not always possible, either. So we are left, as Jeremiah reminds us, with the potential to bring wrong into the world which will mess up other peopleʼs lives. We can change direction, and do right, and redeem things. Thatʼs one way, but itʼs not always directly applicable, and itʼs rarely something we can keep up.

I always think of those towns that have tried to engage in one of those “Great American Smokeouts” where nobody in the city limits smokes all day for one day. How well does that work? If one day works out, would everyone agree to add another? Why hasnʼt the whole world become good if itʼs a matter of willpower?

God knows we need a solution that doesnʼt require us to achieve it. Thatʼs what the grace of God means, and thatʼs what Paul, in his letter, offers himself as an exemplary instance of–someone really, really bad, and incapable, by himself, of atoning for the wrong he brought into the world, who was released from it by Christʼs transforming power. Paulʼs saying, “If Christ can set me free from guilt and shame, Christ can do that for anyone.”

One of the sticking points for Christianity always is the liberality with which God rescues and redeems. People hate to think some old reprobate, or some young punk, for that matter, is going, merely by coming to faith in Christ, realize that his or her sins are forgiven, and that all life is new for him or her. That person is going to be defined by that verse, “the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” He or she will own the truth of the saying that “if anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation.”

Are we always glad to see someone forgiven? Not really. So itʼs not surprising weʼre tough on ourselves, too. Do we really believe that God loves us so much that the things of which we are ashamed can be scrubbed off our record by God?

That skepticism about people who behave even worse than we do being made good by God is what drives Jesusʼ critics in the gospel lesson. What is heaven thinking, to offer love to such people? what does he think heʼs doing, forgiving such people, welcoming them into fellowship, getting them to see themselves as God sees them?

Whatʼs the motivation? Itʼs not justice. Itʼs a deep desire to redeem, to heal, to have back. Itʼs rejoicing in the good. Itʼs love. Thatʼs what creates such joy in heaven when a sinner turns from error and takes one step in the direction of a faithful life. Itʼs not the angels saying “we won!” Itʼs heaven saying “now that person will know the peace and joy of a good life, and who wouldnʼt be glad?”

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