A Sermon For Year A, First Lent
Copyright © 2008 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on Genesis 2-3; Romans 5:12-19; Psalm 51; John 1:9-18
What's so sinful about sin? Why is sin so bad? What is all the fuss about?
I mean, if you read what Paul says in Romans, you would think the world is going to heck in a handbasket. He talks about sin entering the world through Adam, and then death happening because of sin... And eventually, like a bad Rambo movie, sin kills everyone.
It sounds like whatever sin is, it must be horrible. And whoever this Adam guy is, he must have REALLY screwed up royally.
So, you turn to the beginning to find out what all went down to make everything go bad, and what you find is... well... let's be honest here... childish.
In fact, the story looks more like a children's fantasy than an explanation about how the world got so botched. A children's story with nudity, that is.
Just look at it: You got a man and a woman innocent and happy. You have a sneaky talking snake. And you have a tree of knowledge. It sounds like a rock concert in the late 60's rather than the end of the world as we know it.
And what is the great crime that gets everyone in deep trouble? Eating a fruit. A fruit. Not killing another person (at least not yet). Not committing adultery (at least not yet).
Not even littering.
Just eating a fruit. So what's the big deal?
And if you look at the culture, or even at what is preached in many churches, you would still be hard pressed to find out what is so sinful about sin.
On one hand, in pop-psychology propaganda and pedantic pulpits everywhere, we are sold the Gospel of self-esteem and told that nothing is really ever our fault. We are really good people deep down inside, and we really always want the right thing, but we just can't do it because of our circumstances or the people around us.
If no one likes being around me, it is everyone else's fault for not understanding me, and catering to my individuality. If I can't seem to be responsible and hold down a job, it is my parent's fault, and the fault of the dreaded public school system.
If I cannot stay within a budget and am buried in credit card debt, it is the credit card company's fault for offering me the darn cards in the first place, and my job should really value me more and pay me better.
Whatever happens, it is never my fault. Blame it on parents. Blame it on people. Blame it on the system. But, whatever happens, don't blame yourself.
This pattern goes back to the Garden of Eden story too. In the next section- the one we didn't read- as soon as God comes to ask man what happened, the blame game begins.
God asks man. Man blames woman (and blames God for giving woman to man!). Woman blames snake. And the blame keeps getting passed right down to the present day where it seems like everything in society is broken, but it is never actually anyone's fault.
Perhaps the story of the sneaky snake has more going for it than we saw at first glance, after all.
Perhaps instead of blaming everyone else about sin, we need to get deadly serious about sin, and preach sermons where we emphasize sin by making it several syllables long:
"Tew-nite we're gunna tawlk about siiiiiiiiiiiin-uh!"
But, ironically, it seems like the morbid fascination that some churches have with sin ALSO cheapens how powerful it is.
In some places, it seems that humans are treated like little more than miserable little cockroaches that feed on sin's filth. God, the cosmic exterminator, would like nothing more than to wipe us out of existence.
But, meek and mild Jesus has a thing for us little cockroaches, and begs God not to kill us. So, God puts Jesus to death in our place, and Jesus becomes our deflector shield from God's wrath.
In this theology, you really wonder why we are worth saving at all. Can anything good be found in our sin-ridden existence?
You also find that sin becomes just a long list of "do nots". Do not cuss. Do not lust. Do not question. Do not fuss. Furthermore, the list seems fairly arbitrary, and not balanced at all.
For instance, let's say we walked into any Church to give a sermon about hunger, poverty, and child prostitution in developing world nations, as well as how we could alleviate these systemic evils with our national wealth. Let's say, in the midst of describing the horror of these systemic evils, we accidentally let out the s-word or an f-bomb.
What do you think the majority of people would be offended by, the language, or the injustice that the language describes?
I give that illustration just to say that it seems that even when we seem to take sin seriously, we tend to cheapen it, by making it into a list of manageable behaviors that nice people avoid.
And so, on one hand, we are faced with a world that is in a mess: Glaring social injustice and misery face us on personal and social levels. But, on the other hand, the very concept we use to describe why this evil is so prevalent- the concept of sin- seems to be so cheapened. It is cheapened by shifting blame, or making lists, or giving a Sunday school version of the sneaky snake story.
So, what IS so sinful about sin?
But what if we return to the sneaky snake story, and find that there is another reading of it that makes better sense of all of this?
What if the key question to ask of this text is not whether it happened, but whether it happens?
We get so wrapped up in the details. Was there a real Adam and Eve, who lived in a real Garden, and were tempted by a real sneaky snake? Maybe.
I am sure we have first parents back in history. Biology class tells us that much. And, I am sure that those first humans- however they got there- were also the first people to do something that violated their own conscience, something they knew was wrong.
So, I have no doubt that at some point in history, something like this event happened. And I have no doubt that this sin was transmitted in social, spiritual, and physical ways to their children, and their children's children, and children's children's children... And eventually to us.
But doesn't this analysis kind of miss the point? Isn't that kind of the cosmic version of blaming our parents, and not taking sin seriously?
Isn't the point instead to see ourselves in the place of Adam and in the predicament of Eve? Isn’t the point to see that however that Story may have happened then, it is still happening today, right here and now, inside us and in our society?
And that damned snake is still whispering the same lies in our ears:
"You can be like God! All you need is to get a little more control! If you can just manipulate a little more, and use people a little more, to get what you want: You can be like God!"
Or he says: "Now that looks pleasing to the eye and good to consume, doesn't it? No! It doesn't matter if its wrong, because it feels so right! Just do it. You only live once!"
Or maybe he says: "Yeah, that's what they say. But you don't know for sure, do you? Just try it, and find out for yourself."
The tempter tempts. We fall from grace. We do what we know we shouldn’t do, and then we cover ourselves with the fig-leaf of denial and blaming and guilt and bitterness.
We find ourselves a million miles away from the person we know we should be. We hide from the God who made us, for fear that if we look Him in the eyes we will have to admit what we have become.
It didn't just happen then. It happens now.
And perhaps the reason this Story is told like a children's Story is because it is a Story of how God's children loose their innocence.
God is not the cosmic exterminator that we talked about earlier. Neither is God a pop-psychologist who will put up with our blame game. God is instead a Father, a parent.
Whoever you can imagine in your mind as the perfect parent, take that image and multiply it by infinity. That begins to describe the kind of parent God is. And this parent wants his children to grow up healthy and strong, mature and complete.
Yet, there is a problem. The problem is that the power of evil uses God's children to make them weak, feeble, confused, self-centered, and self-absorbed.
In fact, if you read in between the lines of this children's story of the sneaky snake, you find a different kind of children's story. You find something like a story of abuse.
In the late 90's, I spent over six years in social work. In that time, I worked with dozens of people who have experienced abuse, and many people who have been abusers themselves.
In this Genesis story, I see the same seduction, the same betrayal, and the same confusion I saw in the sad stories of the clients I worked with.
Abuse does things to people. It confuses their core identity of who they are, and fills them with shame. It turns them inward, to care only for themselves, unable to deeply share love with others. And, sadly, for many, it sets in motion a pattern of choices that leads them to abuse others with the same abuse they received.
In fact, among all of the clients I worked with who were abusers, they all had one thing in common: They had been abused themselves.
This is what I see in the Genesis story. I see an abuse of innocence: An abuse that leads the abused to become the abuser across a thousand generations, as people visit on each other the evil that has been visited on them.
It is a cycle of destruction that happened then, and it happens now. We hurt, so we hurt others. We are abused, so we abuse. God's image is demeaned in us, so we demean others to raise ourselves up.
And the solution takes more than blaming others for our problems, because however much we are the victim, we victimize others as well.
The solution even takes more than accepting our own blame. Because just admitting where we are at fault does not give us the power to change ourselves... Much less the power to change the world.
We need Someone more greater than us to save us. We need someone powerful enough to confront evil and end its abuse. We need someone strong enough to lift the burden of guilt and shame and bitterness we bear. We need someone mighty enough to reconstruct our inner-self, so that our self-image once again reflects the image of God.
Only one is that mighty. Only one is that strong. Only one is that powerful: And that One is the God who made Himself powerless, and became human just like we are, to endure all of the weakness, temptation, shame, and guilt we go through.
God did not stay in Heaven, uninvolved, detached from what His children suffer in this world infected with Sin. Rather, in Jesus Christ, God became one of us, to become the antidote for our infection.
Jesus came to restore us to our true identity as children of God: healthy, whole, and mature. He came to destroy the abuse, and heal our wounds, and bring us into the abundant life that God our Father promises.
And to be fully healed we must truly receive Christ. This is why our Gospel today says that "to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God."
Do you know your true identity as God's beloved child, free of shame, free of reproach? Do you know your identity as God's child, but you seem entangled by cords of guilt, shame, and sin? Are you confused about your identity, but really want to believe all of this is true?
Wherever you are at with God, I invite you tonight, for the first time or for the five hundredth, to receive the Christ who alone can make you free, and restore your self-image as God's child.
Tonight, as you come forward for communion, and receive Christ in your hands, receive him in your heart. Ask Him to dwell in you. To free you. To make you whole.
As you drink His presence, and eat His life, in the bread and wine, pray and ask Him to nourish your soul, and to free you from whatever bondage you face.
He is here with us. In our prayers, in our songs, and in our sacraments. He is waiting for you to open yourself to Him. I invite you to open yourself to Christ tonight and become God's child. Amen.