Something is wrong. Things are not how they are supposed to be. This is what the Christian faith is about.
This claim is a central dimension of our faith, though it is, admittedly, a bit awkward. We claim that there is something wrong with the human condition, something wrong in this world, something that needs to be acknowledged and confessed, something that needs to be brought to light and not covered over, something that needs to be put right, put back the way it should be, be atoned for, redeemed, reconciled, forgiven.
Something is wrong. This is what the Christian faith is about. It is what Jesus Christ came to redeem, to set right. It is Jesus Christ who calls us to work toward fixing this situation.
But first, we must knowledge the extent of the problem, and to acknowledge the fact that we are part of the problem. The Season of Lent began this past Wednesday, and will continue until Easter. This is a season in which we are invited, instructed even, to examine ourselves and to admit our own faults--that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr observed, “The doctrine of original sin is the one empirically verifiable doctrine of Christian faith.” In other words, we just need to open our eyes, look at the world around us, and know that this doctrine is true.
It is, however, not a topic we like to talk much about. We find it to be uncomfortable, perhaps even improper to discuss.
Neil Plantinga, at Calvin Seminary, remembers the day when preachers would get red in the face and worked up about sin, Catholics lined up to confess their sins, our grandparents agonized over their sins.
Reading through some sermons from the 19th century and early 20th century, even good Presbyterian sermons, you can feel the fervor rising, see the drops of sweat beading on the forehead of the preacher as he gets warmed up and the fervor begins to rise, talkin' about hell and our sins and what is to come.
Sure, in some circles today, that kind of language still exists. But in many churches today, we don't hear much about sin. Neil Plantinga says. “The only place you see the word sin, in print, is on a desert menu.” Peanut Butter Binge and Chocolate Challenge are advertised as deliciously sinful. “The new measure for sin is caloric.” (Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, Preface.)
Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace, points out how we often dance delicately around the topic of sin. She says, “I am a sinner and the Presbyterian Church offers me a weekly chance to come clean. But pastors can be so reluctant to use the word ‘sin’ that in church we end up confessing nothing but our highly developed capacity for denial. One week the confession began, ‘Our communication with Jesus tends to be too infrequent to experience the transformation in our lives which you want us to have,’ which seems less a prayer than a memo from one professional to another. At such times, I picture God as a wily writing teacher who leans across a table and says, not at all gently, ‘Could you possibly be troubled to say what you mean?’ It would be refreshing to answer simply, ‘I have sinned.’” (p. 165).
I must say that I am glad that the days of the hellfire and brimstone preaching have left and gone from many pulpits. I don't know that I could give one if I tried. You know me well enough by now to know that me getting worked up in the pulpit might mean that my face gets a little red, and my voice might get raised ever so slightly. My career as a brimstone preacher would be very short lived.
Nevertheless, to ignore the topic of sin and the impact that it has on our lives would be for us to turn our backs on reality and deprive ourselves of the freedom that comes from being honest with the depth of our need for Christ and then receiving God's grace. As the great Bonhoeffer said, "cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ."
So if we decide to face this problem of Sin, what do we find?
To speak in general matters about sin is quite difficult. What we think of sin carries much baggage. Some sins, of course, are quite clearly sins. The taking of an innocent life, seems to be a clear-cut case. But what about the taking of life in war? Is that sin? Greed seems to clearly be a sin. But how do we define greed? Am I greedy because I am spending money on a vacation to Colorado, when, according to the World Food Program, it costs just $10 to feed a boy in a refugee camp for 3 weeks and it costs only $50 to feed a school-aged girl for an entire year in many developing nations?
To speak meaningfully about sin, we have to get specific, and do the hard work of interpreting the biblical text and applying it to our lives.
The passage from Genesis, is a good place to begin, but it is quite tricky. There is a lot here, but let's look, very quickly, at one element of the passage.
Human beings were created to live in close relationship with each other and with the creator.
But things quickly turn south.
Theologian, and my former professor, Daniel Migliore, says that the serpent, with those clever lines, effectively sabotages the relationship of trust between the creatures and the creator (Faith Seeking Understanding, p. 130). In the act of eating that fruit, and trying to cover it up, humans have stopped trusting God, they have lost faith that God will always care for them and provide all they need. As a result, there is the loss of innocence and the appearance of fear, suspicion; jealousy, hatred, and violence. The world is no longer as it should be, a fact that we know too well.
Our text from the New Testament begins to point us in the direction of discovering how this terrible tragedy will be resolved.
The gospel reading for today, on the temptation of Jesus, is a text that is commonly read on the first Sunday in Lent.
It is, in many ways, a mirror reflection of our text from Genesis. Like Adam and Eve, Jesus too was tempted and tested. But, unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus did not give into sin.
As Paul said in Romans, "Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous."
Our faith, at its core, claims that what is wrong with the human condition is that we are not willing to trust God, we are not willing to care for the garden and to care for one another. We aren’t willing to be who God created us to be and to live up to God’s expectations. Frederick Buchener says sin is a centrifugal; it pushes everything out and away from the center of our being, even God, until there’s nothing there but self. Sin is finally selfishness, self-centeredness, hubris, pride; that secret sense that I, truly, am the center of the universe: Me, Mine, My nation, My religion, My tribe, My race, My clan, ME.
One sin we need to acknowledge, I believe, is thinking too highly of ourselves--using others for our selfish ends—material, emotional, vocational, political, personal—which naturally leads to us thinking too little of others and our communities.
Kathleen Norris wrote:
“Maybe there is someone who only thinks of good things in the middle of the night, who never lies awake regretting the selfish, nigh unforgivable, things that he or she has done. Maybe the unconscious of some people does tell them they are OK all the time. But, I wonder. I suspect that anyone who has not experienced wretchedness, exile, wandering, loss, misery, whether inwardly or in outward circumstance, has a superficial grasp of what it means to be human.” (Amazing Grace, p. 166).
Lent is a time for us to think about such things. It is a time to look at the world around us, then to look at ourselves, to ponder what has gone wrong--all the while trusting that God's love and patience and grace is more than enough to see us through and to set things right.
All will one day be well. This is the promise. This is our hope.