Sermon by: Robert Austell
Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the first day to observe Lent. And today is the first Sunday of Lent. The observance of Ash Wednesday and Lent is a type of spiritual discipline. We currently have a Sunday school class on spiritual disciplines like fasting, prayer, and the like. The observance of Lent and a church calendar is another form of spiritual discipline that has developed historically in the Church. The purpose of the discipline of observing Lent is to consider the plight of human sin and the identification of Jesus Christ with humanity for the sake of becoming our representative before God’s judgment and justice.
Last Wednesday, we experienced this dynamic vividly through biblical imagery. In that service and through scripture we were challenged to be on fire for God, yet recognized that apart from His help, we are as cold and dead spiritually as ash – God made us from dust and to dust we shall return. The purpose of pondering our sin, our mortality, and our plight is to cause us to see all the more clearly the hope of salvation and resurrection through Jesus.
Today we continue what we began last Wednesday. Today and over the next six weeks we are going to look at sin, to understand our plight and to understand and celebrate God’s provision on the cross. We’ll look at our sinful nature, sins of omission, sins of commission, sins on the outside, sins on the inside, the pervasiveness of sin, how we treat sin in others; during Holy Week we will look at sins of idolatry and betrayal. And then together we will journey to the cross. I invite you to focus, connect, ponder, process, and grapple with the biblical teachings on sin. I believe that if you do, you will experience the Good News of Easter with a deep and profound joy, perhaps in a way that you never have.
I used the word ‘plight’ to describe the human situation, the human condition, the human problem, in relation to God.
So let me first ask, “What is our plight?” Or maybe even more basic, “Is there a plight?” There are at least a few options I can think of:
One option to describe the human condition is that we are born good and our problems largely arise from our environment. Basically, personal ‘sin’ is reduced to crimes, and even then others share the responsibility for any deviation from that basic goodness. Lack of education, or poverty, or abuse, or any number of societal ills/sins rob us of our inherent goodness.
Another option to describe the human condition is that our goal is to be as good as we can – what more could God expect? So our morality is more or less governed by being better than the next guy. For goodness’ sake, I’m a better person than Tiger Woods, right? So, I can read about him, or Mark Sanford, or any number of public ‘sinners’ and congratulate myself on my own relative goodness. God has to take somebody, right? It becomes kind of like school – if I can graduate in the top certain percentage of “goodness class” then I’ll be on the big Dean’s list and be okay.
There are pros and cons to both those views. In fact, whole political and sociological models are based off those views. Certainly a general societal norm of “good behavior” is a good thing. Certainly efforts to reduce poverty, increase education, and the like are good efforts. But will they save our souls? Will they even save society?
There is another view of the human condition; interestingly enough, it is associated strongly with John Calvin, the father of the Presbyterian branch of the church. But the view predates him – it is described in the early church father’s writings. And it is most foundationally found in the pages of scripture as the biblical description of the human condition.
That view is that we do indeed have a “plight” – and that plight is our innate and continuing inclination to disobedience, to sinfulness, such that we are dead to God and little more than ashes. What Calvin called “total depravity” is rooted in Adam’s original sin in the Garden and in the pervasiveness of our ongoing sin and disobedience. Yet the end of this dismal news is not death and ashes, but hope in a miraculous God who can and does breathe life into death and fire into cold ash.
Today we will look at what is called “original sin” and some of its implications for us. I will add that there are a variety of purposes to Scripture, and likewise to sermons. Some urge us to action; some comfort us in distress; some inform us and teach us new things; and so on. Today, we mainly will consider a theological and spiritual reality, though I believe it will cause us to yearn for the Good News of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. It may be, too, that this discussion of sin causes you to view the world and those around you in a different way. So, that’s the information and the application(s) to look out for. Let’s turn to Genesis 3 and dig in.
Original Sin refers to the actions and consequences of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden, in the story you just heard. God had created them good, in His own image; and God had created them for worship – loving service and obedience in relationship with Him.
But then Adam and Eve disobey God and all human beings are considered and proven sinful except through God’s intervention in Jesus Christ. And that original sin has ongoing implications: not only are we betrayed and cursed by our first parents’ disobedience, but we continue to sin and turn from God just as they did.
This is the second story of the Bible, after creation itself. And there is a lot to unpack here. For today, we’ll just focus on this notion of original sin. I’m going to divide it up into two parts, both of which are significant.
First, as the first humans and the representatives of the human race to come, Adam and Eve’s original sin and the resulting curse and expulsion from the Garden affect us all. It’s the first and quintessential case of the sins of the father and mother visited on succeeding generations. Think of it this way: even if you and I COULD live sinlessly, the human race has already lost the privilege of the Garden and the pristine relationship with God enjoyed there. Humanity was kicked out, the gate was barred and guarded, and there is no human way back.
Second and on top of that, we continue to imitate and replicate our first parents’ disobedience. We, too, choose self and idols and disobedience, more often than we’d like to think. In coming weeks we will look at sins of commission – that is, things we do and think that turn us away from God. For now, just recognize that in addition to there being no way back into conditions before that original sin, we and every other human has fared no better in our own lives. Now if you want to argue this second point, wait until we’ve gone through the next few weeks and we see why it is that both Psalms and Romans contain this assertion: “there is none righteous; no, not one.” (Psalm 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Romans 3:10-12)
Sins of Omission
Does that seem unfair? Can’t I really, really try to clean up my act and am I really cursed from the start? Essentially, this is what Tiger promised, inspired by his Buddhist upbringing. Can I go for the next hour without sinning? Would I then be righteous even for a moment? Would I be, even for a moment, right with God?
There are two answers to that. For one, the curse remains. The image of God, in which we were created and indeed pronounced good, is marred, like a burned painting. Only hints and shadows of its former glory remain. But even setting that answer aside, we not only sin when we do wrong things; we also sin when we don’t do the right!
Case in point, look at Adam. His first sin was not eating the fruit which Eve offered; his first sin was not protesting when the serpent deceived her. For Adam was WITH HER. Look at Genesis 3:6 – “…she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.” Why didn’t he say, “Stop Eve; don’t do it!” Why didn’t he chase the serpent away? He remained passive and silent and allowed the temptation to proceed unchecked. And after watching his wife eat the fruit, he took and did likewise.
Think of all the things we fail to do. We can disobey or turn from God through passivity and inaction just as surely as through active disobedience.
As we will see in coming weeks, our sin is pervasive and frequent; and our “good standing” with God was a lost cause from the moment Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden and put under the curse of Genesis 3:16-19 – “…you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That’s the consequence and the destiny of the human race.
Cheerful, I know… but listen: really grasp that… really wrestle and grab hold of that, and see if you do not also lay hold of the yearning and hope for something more. This is not the pessimist’s philosophy, “Well, if I look at the dark side of everything, there’s nowhere to go but up.” Rather, this is the realist’s advantage: if I have truly and accurately understood my situation, then I can more clearly see the options before me. And bottom line, those options are death without God or life with God!
The Ontological: Ash and Fire
In the sermon title, I use one of those big vocabulary words that you hope you’ll never see on the SAT: ontological. You may know the ‘logical’ part – that means “words about.” So theo-logical means “words about God.” So onto-logical means “words about being” or “words about who I am.”
The ontological question is the “what am I?” question. Am I good? Am I pretty good? Am I not good? We are back to the questions I asked at the beginning of the sermon. What is our plight and is there even a plight? If Scripture offers a true description of our situation, then we really do have a problem. And it’s not just a “I’m in a bad place” problem. The ontological problem is the very core of who I am – I have a problem. Deep in my soul, in the core of my being, capturing the essence of who I am – I have a problem. I am not in a bad place; I am dead in my sin. That’s the ontological problem.
In the language and imagery of Genesis 3:19 and our service last Wednesday that original sin problem and that ontological – in the depth of who I am – problem is that I am dust and ashes. Period. End of story. God made humanity in His image – to burn brightly in loving service and obedience. But in disobedience Adam and Eve were expelled from the heart of the fire and their death sentence was delayed, but ultimately still dust and ashes. No amount of hard work, collecting or stirring the ashes, or effort can make cold ashes burn again. That’s our plight; and that’s not pessimism, but reality according to God’s Word.
And yet, we read in Scripture of the possibility of burning with spiritual fire and passion. Last Wednesday our service of ashes was bookended with hopeful scenes of human beings “on fire” for God and with God. There is a picture in Scripture of what could be and it is that which, having heard the true description of our plight, we can and must hope for in faith. Through Jesus Christ, God can and does breathe new life and fire into cold ashes. And through Jesus Christ, we can be born again and live as children of God. Through Jesus Christ, who alone is “good” we can exhibit the rightness and righteousness of the Kingdom of God, the country of the second Adam and the land for which we yearn.
These weeks of Lent, grim and dark may they be, are not the last word; rather, we long for the news of God coming to set things right and bring light and life and fire into the world again. Amen.