Sin, Righteousness and Judgement

And when He comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement. – John 16:8

Sometimes there are phrases that just jump off the page and grab the imagination.  I think the one above is one of those phrases. Today is the Feast of Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church. And that phrase is what Jesus says the Holy Spirit will accomplish.  In a world where standards seem to be up for grabs the idea of the Holy Spirit convicting the world about anything seems doubtful. Convicting this world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement is quite the boast.  It is worth pondering those three words and two others in that phrase – convict and world.  What do they mean?

We think of convict purely in a negative legal sense – convicted.  The word used here does have that meaning, but it might be better to remember an older sense of a trial.  The purpose of a trial is to bring to light, to force what was hidden or in the darkness out into the open.  The Holy Spirit will bring to light.  And what will the Holy Spirit force into the open?  The world.  The entire cosmos. John likes that word cosmos. God so loves the cosmos. The Holy Spirit will expose how the world works.

How specifically will the Holy Spirit do this?  The first thing will be concerning sin.  And what is the sin of the world brought into the light? “That they do not believe in me (John 16:9).” The Holy Spirit will expose the fact that the World does not fear, love or trust in God above all things.  That the World fears the mighty.  It loves money and pleasure. It trusts in its own strength.  All of which are temporal.  The day the mighty dies, his plans die with him (Psalm 146:4).  The fool thinks I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones (Luke 12:28), yet tonight my soul is required of me.  The Holy Spirit will bring to light our foolish belief, our disbelief in God.

The Holy Spirit will bring to light righteousness. Jesus’ explanation here might be a little less immediate. “Because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer. (John 16:10)”  It is not immediately apparent why the ascended LORD is the Spirit revealing righteousness. I think this is something of an answer to Psalm 24.  That Psalm asserts that the earth is the LORD’s and the fullness of it.  And then it asks “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?…He who has clean hands and a pure heart. (Paslm 24:3-4).” Paul ponders this in Romans 10.  “The righteousness based on faith says, ‘Do Not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend?’”  According to the law we are always worried who could stand before the throne, and the answer is not a single person is righteous.  But Christ the Lamb was worthy to ascend and take the seat at the right hand.  The Holy Spirit bringing to light righteousness is the testimony that Christ sits at the right hand of God, and that our righteousness is dependent not upon our ability to ascend, but upon faith in the one who has ascended.

The Holy Spirit brings to light judgement? Should this place us back into the fear of not ascending? No, because what the Holy Spirit reveals is that “the ruler of this world is judged (John 16:11).” The important judgement is not ours, but Satan’s. He’s judged, the deed is done, one little word can fell him.  The sin that is brought to light and confessed has no power over us.  Because the one who sits on the Throne has had mercy, and brings to naught the plans of the evil one, who has been cast out of heaven and can no longer accuse us.

He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement. He will testify to the light that shines in the darkness.  A light that the world cannot overcome. In this light is the life of all who receive it.

The Light of the Cross

Biblical Text: John 3:14-21

There are Sunday were you look at the text have trouble finding any hymns to go with them or any themes that are preachable…and then there is Lent 4 series B. You could preach a year on these three texts. And there are at least 3 services of great hymns usable, and another 3 that nobody would complain about.

Jesus explicitly connect the cross to the episode of Israel and snakes in the wilderness. The pastor’s corner this week (scroll down) wrote that up more fully. But this sermon brings some of that in. What is Jesus connecting to directly? There are a couple of things that the lifting up of the snake does. It is a picture of the toxic nature of our sin. It also makes completely clear the sin and the environment we live in rife with “fiery serpents.” This sermon makes the connections between that OT lesson (Numbers 21:4-9) and the cross. It then examines how the cross goes further. How this is one of the rare places God answers some “why?” questions. It finishes with the encouragement to live the Christian life and our hope stated so clearly by John – eternal life. The cross is the light by which we can see all this.

Concupiscence

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. – James 1:14-15

Also they teach that since the fall of Adam all men begotten in the natural way are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with concupiscence; and that this disease, or vice of origin, is truly sin, even now condemning and bringing eternal death upon those not born again through Baptism and the Holy Ghost. – Augsburg Confession 2

Most of Christianity up until the 20th century has a focus on sin as a personal thing.  The biggest change in vocabulary which picked up velocity in the late 20th century was the movement of sin away from the individual heart and toward systemic things. The Augsburg Confession article 2 uses a big but useful word – concupiscence – which is the tendency to sin.  This is what James is talking about when he says each person is tempted by his own desire. Sin lives in our members (Romans 7:5, 23).  They are constantly proposing things for us to think and then do.  And the Reformers considered this concupiscence itself to be sin. We are bound to sin.  It is the intervention of God through Baptism and the Holy Ghost that can free us or give us some control over that desire.  For the first time we can mortify it (Romans 8:13, Colossians 3:5). 

Contrary to that individual story of sin, the modern story tells us something much different. I think the modern story tells us that we ourselves are neutral, maybe even good.  It is evil systems that ensnare us.  Sin is not the result of us giving in to our own desires but participating in evil structures.  It is not that the bible denies such systemic evil.  It would call that the devil and the world, the powers and principalities of this dark realm (Ephesians 6:12). The big difference being that Christ is victorious over the powers and on the last day will condemn them to the pit.  Until that day, we walk in danger all the way.  We might be complicit with these powers, but they are not responsible for our sin. If you took natural us and placed us in the New Jerusalem with perfect systems, we would still desire to sin. Adam and Eve did, and they were not fallen.  They just had the potential to fall.  Our natural selves are bound.  And ultimately, when we have learned to remain steadfast under trial, those systemic structures would fall themselves.  When Satan and the World can no longer sway me, their structures blow away and are nothing.

I rehearse that for this reason.  If our sins are due to what is outside of us, the problem abides with God who placed us in bad places.  Yet James is explicit that “God tempts no one.” God desires to lead in green pastures and still waters. It is we who desire to push and shove the other sheep and make the green grass a mud hole. And God never changes in this desire. “Every good and perfect gift comes from above. (James 1:17).” And the real problem of a lifetime of sin is that we become defined by our pet sins. We are our sins. So when Christ offers his salvation, which is the exchange of our sin for his righteousness, it can literally feel like we are giving up ourselves. Lewis’ The Great Divorce is magical at this depiction.  The various souls on vacation from hell are all bound in some way to a representation of their sin.  And almost all of them refuse to give them up.  Their sin is ultimately too precious to themselves. And Pharaoh hardened his heart.

The one who will receive the crown of life recognizes that the concupiscence might be from within me, but it is not me.  Not in the good way God desired to make us.  And we must hand it over to Christ at the foot of the cross. My sin is no longer mine, but it is held for all of us by the crucified, where all sin dies.  That work of handing over what feels like our very life is the daily gritty struggle of faith.

Be Silent

Biblical Text: Mark 1:21-28

The text is specifically an exorcism text. And if I am being honest, these texts are outside of the philosophy and experience of many people. If you’ve had an experience of spiritual evil, you’ve been forced to change your philosophy and these texts are strong comfort. “Even the Spirit’s obey Him.” If you grew up early accepting Spiritual reality, then the Biblical accounts are formative on your philosophy of them. But if you are part of the great sweep of de-mythologized WEIRD de facto atheists, exorcisms and real spiritual evil are embarrassing stories. The purpose of this sermon is not exactly to defend the idea of personal evil. Let’s just say I know that it is a fact. The purpose of this sermon is two-fold. First to proclaim the gospel which is that Christ has freed us from anything such uncleanness can throw at us. Yes, the unclean spirit is partially correct. We initially have more in common with them than we do with Jesus “the Holy One”. But Christ has taken mankind into himself. We now have a place and our sin is cast out; even if it leaves kicking and screaming, it is forgiven. The second purpose is to think about a way that might give even a sceptic second thoughts.

Her Warfare is Over

Biblical Text: Isaiah 40:1-11

The jump from Isaiah 39 to Isaiah 40 is one of the big discontinuities of the Bible. With Hezekiah’s cynicism Isaiah turns to a far future generation. That got me thinking this week about some of my mystery verses. What I mean by that is verses that make simple sense, but that simple sense doesn’t make theological sense. At least not easy theological sense. This sermon is an attempt, through John the Baptist promised by Isaiah, to understand what might be called generational sin. When the weight of sin long neglected catches up with us, what do we do?

Light and Darkness

As I’ve been hobbling around with a bit of gout this week, one theological idea became clearer.  Just how scary the darkness can be. Swing your gouty toe into a carelessly discarded school bag or a dirty laundry basket taking up most of the space between the bed and the wall, because you refuse to turn on the lights, what seemed melodramatic in the prophets – “the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there (Zephaniah 1:14)” – can feel appropriate.

Both Zephaniah and the Apostle Paul pick up the metaphor of darkness and light for the Day of the LORD and the gospel.  And the theme of darkness and light might be the oldest one in the bible.  The first act of creation was “let there be light…and God separated the light from the darkness and it was good.”  Biblically the theme of darkness and light is part of creation and the created order. What does it mean when Zephaniah says that the Day of the LORD is “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and think darkness. (Zephaniah 1:15)?’ I think there are three groupings of the darkness.

The first grouping is simply the unknown.  Life is full of things we don’t know.  From the day we are born we are learning things, but the horizon of knowing always seems to expand faster.  Maybe somewhere in your 20’s, when you safely know it all, you can feel like you are on the cutting edge living in the light by your own efforts.  The other not-so-effective strategy is often making your world so small that you know all of it.  Just hope that you never get thrown outside of it where there is darkness, the wailing and gnashing of teeth. This might be the hardest lesson.  We will never know everything, because we are not God.  But the Apostle sheds light on this area.  “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:9).” The unknown is rightfully scary, but living in the light is faith that the Father cares for us and intends good for us because of His Son.  We need not fear.

The second grouping of darkness I call intentional ignorance. It is me stumbling around on a gouty toe knowing full well that the kids have dropped school bags and laundry baskets are in the way but refusing to either go to bed earlier, clear the path before hand or turn on a light.  I can convince myself that I’m helping others already asleep by not turning that light on, but that doesn’t mean much when I’m screaming out because I’ve hit something. Likewise there are lots of things that we like doing, like eating fish, that bring on things like gout.  Paul address this type of darkness saying, “We are not of the night or of the darkness.  So let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. (1 Thessalonians 1:5-6).”  The law is given as a light to our feet and lamp for our path so that we might walk in the light.  Yes, we can convince ourselves that we are helping other by staying in the darkness.  The darkness can even feel good for a time.  But slamming a gouty toe into a box because you like the darkness, is a pretty good metaphor of sin.

The last grouping of darkness is simply evil.  The evil in our own hearts that likes the darkness. But also simply the evil that wishes to bind us in the darkness perpetually.  Why is the Day of the Lord one of darkness?  Because the LORD comes not as savior, but as judge. “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamp, and I will punish the men. (Zephaniah 1:12)…I will punish the officials and the king’s sons…those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud. (Zephaniah 1:8-9)” The judgement comes upon all. The light of God – those lamps in Jerusalem – brings all evil into the light that it may be known before it is cast out eternally.  The Apostle Paul’s words here are both complex and easy.  The easy part is “For you are all children of the light, children of the day. (1 Thessalonians 5:5)” As God separated the light from the darkness as the first of creation, at the end the children of the light are separated from the darkness. And in Christ you have been made children of the light.  The hard part? The separation comes not like the moon and the sun.  The separation comes “like thief in the night.”  Until that Day of the LORD, the light and the darkness live side by side.  Often within the same heart.  “But since we belong to the day having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation (1 Thessalonians 5:8)” we need not fear the evil one. The faith, hope and love of God armor us for the fight.   And even death has no claim on those in the light, for He has dies and is risen “so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him. (1 Thessalonians 5:10).” 

The Fellowship of this Altar is Sinners

Biblical Text: Matthew 9:9-13

This date in the lectionary is probably the best one out there. I hate the phrase, but it is Jesus’ mission statement. I have come to call sinners. It isn’t the outright theme of this sermon, but in hindsight it does surface. And it is completely appropriate for our time, a time when we “cancel” people and refuse to talk with those who might disagree and guilt by association is the name of the game. You can’t do any of those things unless you have judged yourself righteous. And Christ did not come for the righteous. He came for sinners. He came as the Physician for the sin sick souls. That is the fellowship of the altar, sinners. Sinners coming for the only thing that works.

A New Hope

Biblical Text: Isaiah 2:1-5, (Romans 13: 8-14)

It is the first Sunday in Advent, the church new year. Advent is a season set aside to prepare for Christmas. Like the secular New Year that looks backwards and forwards, Advent as a season looks at the past and then toward the future. At least for me its overriding theme is about Hope. The Bible is a book grounded in our human reality. If you think GRR Martin is salacious, read the Bible. Although the players in that Game of Thrones have reasonable motivations behind actions. In the bible the motivations are as often as not that we are just sinners and like sinning. And that we are all in this Empire of Sin. Advent is about the hope, the rebellion of the Kingdom against that Empire. The downfall, already accomplished and yet to come, of the tyrant and the coming of the Reign of Justice and Peace which is founded on love. Things are broken, but there is a New Hope.

Among the Tombs

Biblical Text: Luke 8:26-39

The Gerasene Demoniac is one of those stories that is so vivid for me it stands a proof of the rest of the biblical story. Nobody could make it up. And it is such a perfect living symbol that only God could be behind it. This sermon ponders the demonic for a bit and how at least compared to my childhood, it is so much more apparent today. We live among the tombs, in Phillip Rieff’s word, among the deathworks. But you Christian have been cleansed and put in your right mind. Which causes its own problems. We know the trouble of demons. We know we have enemies. And that our very existence reminds them that they have been defeated and their time grows very short. Yet Jesus bids us “go home and tell what God has done.” The right mind knows what kind of request that is. It also knows that our Lord is with us and does not ask more than he has given.

Good Friday

The recording is of the full tenebrae service. The sermon is by parts between the readings. The theme would be the dual apocalypse or revelation of the cross. The first is what the passion says about us, the second is what it says about God. And the day ends with the challenge, waiting for the Day of the Lord.