Lent 2 – They Mystery of Sin, Suffering and Hope
Luke 13:31- end, Genesis 15:1-12, 17,18, Philippians 3:17-4:1
The Mystery of Sin, Suffering and Hope is the subject I have been given for today’s talk on this second Sunday of Lent. Unfortunately, it is too appropriate a title this Sunday as we mourn our Muslim brothers and sisters in Christchurch who were doing what we are doing right now, gathering as a community to worship God in a house of worship when they were violently and brutally murdered en masse because they were “different” – they believed in what some consider a different God, they looked different and they came from a different place. At moments like this, we cry out and say Why Lord? How do we approach this mystery of sin, suffering and hope in the world we live in?
First off, let’s go back to the beginning when God created the world. Over and over, in Genesis chap 1, the word “good” is used to describe how God perceived what he has made. It is all good. Then God makes people in his own image in the male and female image of God and he puts them in the middle of all this creation commanding them to care for creation, to manage it, lovingly use it and creatively order it. People were place in the midst of this dynamic, changing and vibrant environment charged with 3 choices – 1. the divine responsibility of doing something with it in harmony with God or 2. to use it for their own purposes or 3. Doing nothing with it was a choice as well. Eating the fruit was much more than Adam and Eve simply disobeying God. They were throwing off the whole deal. They were placed in the middle of a web of interactions and relationships with the world God has made. It was one. So when one part falls out of harmony, everything starts to crumble. The bible starts off with unlimited potential, unbelievable promise and possibility and then splintering, fracturing and chaos. The greatest truth of the story of Adam and Eve isn’t that it happened but that it happens. We all make choices to live outside of how God created us to live. We have all come up short.
Sin is more than breaking God’s law or disobeying God or making God angry. While those may sound accurate, they don’t tell the whole story. Now, for a definition. The theologian Cornelius Plantinga Jr puts it like this: Sin is culpable disturbance of shalom. Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace, wholeness, health and blessing. Shalom is the harmony God intends for the world. Shalom is how God wants things to be. Shalom is peace with yourself. With your neighbour, with the earth, with God. Disturbance. Things aren’t how they’re supposed to be. From environmental degradation to domestic violence, from separation of migrant children from their families to massacres of tribes or people groups – such as the horror of those in the mosques in New Zealand; from corporate greed to the petty little ways we disrespect each other – the world isn’t everything it could be. Culpable is any way we have contributed to the disturbance of shalom we see all around us. Sin is anything we do to disrupt the peace and harmony God desires for the world. When sin is understood primarily in terms of breaking or violating or disobeying, there’s no larger context to place it in. Because it limits sin to whatever you did or didn’t do and then there’s God’s anger or wrath or displeasure with you. But when you place it in the larger context of the good, the peace, the shalom that we all want for the world, then it starts to make way more sense.
Despite our sin in that first Garden, God did not give up on creation but continued to be actively at work within it, bringing it back to how he originally intended it to be. And he started this restoration project way before Jesus. At the centre of this in the Hebrew scriptures is this man Abraham. In our old testament reading, we hear that familiar story of God’s covenant with Abraham – God promises this old childless man that he would have descendants as countless as the stars in the sky. God’s calling to Abraham was to be the father of a new kind of tribe in the world, one that shows the world the redeeming love of God.
Contrary to how many of us are taught, in the bible we are not primarily identified as sinners, but as saints. The words “saints” is a translation of the Greek word “hagios”, which means “holy or set apart ones”. Those who are “in Christ”. Not because of what we have done but because of what God has done. There is nothing we can do and there is nothing we ever could have done to earn God’s favour. We already have it. This is important: your primary identity, your true self, is found in who you are in Christ, not in the ways you have disrupted shalom. In the bible people are taught first who they are, because the more you know about who you are, the more, you’ll know what to do. That is why some sermons are soul destroying. Sermons which quote lots of bible verses but then teach you that your identity is found in your sin. It is not. It is found in Christ who has taken care of your sins. In the gospel reading today, Jesus is warned by the religious leaders who were puppets of their Roman overlords that he should shut up and get out or he will be killed. Because Jesus came and taught and called disciples and healed and preached and confronted the injustice and indifference of the religious, military and economic machines of his day. He threatened the security of the empire. He was dangerous. But Jesus didn’t leave. He says to the pharisees “Go and tell that fox, Herod, I ain’t leaving this place. I will keep on driving out demons and healing people and on the third day, I will reach my goal”. His mission was to continue with God’s plan of restoration of the world that he created. His mission was to subvert the culture of the day. His mission was to restore shalom. He was willing to die instead of resorting to violence. This was a new way to be in the world.
The first Christians insisted that when we became Christians, a profound change occurs in our fundamental identity, in who we are at the core of our being. In identifying ourselves with Jesus’ death on the cross, something within us dies. As Paul says in the book of Colossians “For you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. So this old nature of mine – the one constantly pulling me down and causing me to live in ways I wasn’t created to live has died. And not only did that old person die, but I have been given a new nature. The goal that Christ reaches on the third day is not just his own resurrection but ours through his. I have this new life. This new identity that has been given to me. I have taken on the identity of Christ. So what does this mean for the Christian life? To begin, Christians are people learning who they are in Christ. We are being taught our new identity. I heard a teacher say that if people were taught about who they are, they wouldn’t have to be told what to do. It would come naturally. When we see religious communities spending most of their time trying to convince people not to sin, we are seeing a community that has missed the point. The point isn’t sin management. The point is who we are now.
When Jesus died on the cross, he died for everybody. Everybody. Everywhere, ever tribe, every nation every tongue. People who don’t believe in God, people who are opposed to God. People who do violent evil things. Everybody’s sin on the cross with Jesus. So this reality, this forgiveness, this reconciliation is true for everybody. God is re-telling each of our stories in Jesus. Our choice is to live in this new reality or to cling to a reality of our own making. It is our choice everyday about the reality we are going to live in.
When we live in harmony with God’s intentions for us, we bring heaven to earth. When we live out of sync with how God created us to live, we bring hell on earth. Hell is happening in Christchurch now and hell happens amongst us and around us. Famine, debt, oppression, loneliness, despair, death, slaughter, they are all hell on earth. For Jesus, this new kind of life in him is not about escaping the world but making it a better place, here and now. The goal for JC is to get heaven here.
When God chose Abraham to be the father of all nations, it wasn’t so that he could feel good about himself but it was to use him as a vessel to bless others. God chooses people to be used to bless other people. The point is that person serving others making their lives better. Jesus came to serve. In his topsy truvy world the first becomes last and the last becomes first. The best and greatest and most important are the ones who humble themselves, set their needs and desires aside and selflessly serve other. So what is a group of people living like this called? That’s the church. The church doesn’t exist for itself. It exists to serve the world. It is not ultimately about the church. It’s about all the people God wants to bless through the church. When the church loses sight of this, it loses its heart. Often the Christian community has sent the message that we love people and build relationships in order to convert them to the Christian faith. So there is an agenda. And when there is an agenda, it isn’t really love, is it. We have to rediscover love. Love that loves because it is what Jesus teaches us to do. I love talking to people about Jesus and my faith. But I have learnt that when I toss out my agenda, I end up learning more about God than I could have imagined.
But let’s not kid ourselves that following this path of Jesus means that all our problems go away and that we always have a cheery smile and sing “Shine Jesus Shine” 24/7. Just as we learn to love, we all learn how to suffer. Not to avoid it but to feel the full force of it. Following Jesus may bring on problems you never imagined. Suffering is a place where clichés don’t work and words often fail. As a community, we have experienced some of what Christchurch is experiencing not so very long ago with Grenfell. It isn’t fun, it isn’t pretty but in the pain and confusion, God is there. In our suffering together, we find out we are not alone. And we can get through it.
Ultimately our gift to the world is to bring hope. Not blind hope that pretends everything is fine and refusing to acknowledge how things are. But the kind of hope that comes from staring pain and suffering right in the eyes and refusing to believe that this is all there is. Hope that comes from not going around suffering but from going through it. Rob Bell the writer and theologian says that the church has nothing to say to the world until it throws better parties. By this he means that we need to reclaim and affirm that when God made the world, God said it was good and it still is. Food and music and art and friends, strangers and stories and wine shared together celebrates that God has given us life. Food is the basis of life and comes from the earth and the earth is from God. The church has to lead the world in affirming and more importantly enjoying the goodness of creation. This is our home and our home is good. The bible ends not with our being teleported somewhere else but with God coming here. What did Jesus do most besides teaching and healing. He ate long meals. As Christians our duty is to master the art of the long meal. When we gather around the table here later, we acknowledge that this is an altar that is it holy. But we need to also remember that when we gather round the tables at home or in a restaurant for long meals with each other, it is also time spent with God and that table too is holy. So the mystery of sin, suffering and hope will always continue to be a mystery but every now and then when we sit round a table and share a long meal in the midst of sin and suffering and celebrate that the world is good, that it is very good, that there is shalom in the world, we take a step of shining a light into that mystery.