230226 – Lent – Status

Yr A ~ Psalm 32 ~ Lent 1

[sermon intro]
One of the things I love about the season of Lent is that I get some license to delve into heavier theological topics. I hope that isn’t perceived as a ‘downer’, but more as an opportunity to really do some good chewing, and pondering. During Epiphany we had the apostle Paul calling the Corinthians ‘spiritual babies’ who could only handle milk, and that he’d save the meatier stuff for those who were more mature. Guess what? That’s y’all! Welcome to Lent! Today we’re going to talk about two United Church favourites – sin, and confession! Let’s dive in, but first, let’s pray…

[pre-sermon prayer]

The social media platform ‘Facebook’ has a section on your profile where you can declare your relationship status. You can say you’re single, married, in a relationship, separated, divorced – or my favourite, you can say “It’s complicated!” I think that’s the one most of us would probably claim about our relationship with God: it’s complicated! It’s also very theological. Today we’re going to go to the theological heart of our complicated relationship status with God. Hang onto your hats!

In Hebrew, the word ‘sin’ means offence, so in order to offend there must be something that says that somehow some action, thought, intention, omission, did not meet some standard that must exist. A judgment had to have happened. How do we know we’ve offended? How do we know we’ve sinned? One way to think about sin is to say it is a ‘falling short’. Falling short of what? Falling short of that ‘standard’.

Ok, now we’re into it. What is God’s standard?

Love! Light. Holiness. Kindness. Mutuality. Harmony. Relationship. Shalom.

God is not just a highly evolved, spiritually mature person who practices those things at a supremely high level. No, God IS those things – entirely, substantively, unchangingly. So think that through.

God IS harmony. If I do something that causes disharmony in any way, I have fallen short of God’s way, God’s standard. I have sinned. But God doesn’t desire punishment, or recompense, or vengeance, or even shame or guilt! God only desires harmony, because God IS harmony. So the only way to make things ‘right’ with God is to regain harmony! Are you with me?

How do I do that? How do I regain harmony?

Well, let me tell you how NOT to do it, but how we usually choose to do it, and how it always causes more trouble than doing it right.

Psalm 32:3-4 While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up– as by the heat of summer.

While I kept silence, while I kept everything to myself, while I kept pushing down my short-fallings and letting them stew, and fester, and eat me up inside, my body wasted away through all my groaning. It literally says that it makes our bones grow old, or turn to dust. Swallowing all that trouble, keeping it all locked away and not facing it, wears us out and kills us inside. This psalmist knows a lot about the human condition! Have you ever been worn out by situations you couldn’t, or wouldn’t speak about? I bet you have. I know I have.

And when we keep that kind of silence, then it feels like day and night God’s hand is heavy on us. We can feel the burden of our un-faced failings. It says “my strength was dried up” but it literally means my ‘juice’ or my ‘vitality’ is like a drought. That’s what not owning up to things does to us. It robs us of our juice! It sucks the life out of us.

So, how do I make things right? How do I work to regain the harmony? How do I change my relationship status with God from ‘strained’ to ‘blessed’? Well, if holding it all in is killing me, then obviously I need to do the opposite.

I recognize somehow that I have caused or contributed to disharmony. Doesn’t matter if I meant to or not. Doesn’t matter if I did something or neglected to do something (commission or omission). I recognize that I’ve brought about disharmony.

Then, instead of denying it, I admit my part. I ‘acknowledge’ my part – which in Hebrew means to ‘say it out loud’. There’s something about saying things out loud that make them more real and make us own them more! In other words, I confess, which literally means that I ‘lay it all out in the open’. This all carries the assumption that in doing all these things I have every intention to do better in the future, that I resolve to try not to sin (fall short) in this way again. And that in doing so I’ll be moving forward in a new, healthier, deeper, more spiritually mature way.

That’s confession. When we’ve realized we’ve fallen short, we lay it all out and seek forgiveness. That’s our side of it.

What’s God’s side? What does God want or desire in all this?

Again, God is harmony (in this example). God ‘wants’ harmony restored – because God IS harmony, and therefore only by being in harmony can we commune with God.

So, in order to restore harmony, and change our relationship status from strained to blessed, God sends us on a quest to find the magic feather from the rare bird that lives on a high mountain that is covered in thorny plants in the heat of summer. No?

Well, then God sends us on a missionary trip where we have to help 17 people in need and bring back proof of their gratitude. No?

Well, then God requires us to say 4 prayers, and swear off chocolate chip cookies for a month, and put an extra $500 in the offering plate. No?

Well, what then? What does God require of us to earn God’s forgiveness?


Psalm 32:5 Then I acknowledged (out loud) my sin to you, and I did not hide (from it); I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’, and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

We don’t have to earn God’s forgiveness! It’s a theologically nonsensical thing to say. One cannot earn something one already has! One cannot earn something that is freely given before the fact.

So, am I saying that anything goes because God’s already forgiven us for everything? Absolutely not! That is also a theologically nonsensical thing to say! (This is tough stuff!)

God is harmony. We’ve caused disharmony somehow. We’ve sinned. We’ve fallen short somehow. We’ve strained the relationship. The simple act of our realizing it, admitting it, acknowledging it (saying it out loud), confessing it (throwing it out in the open), and authentically desiring harmony again…recreates the harmony! The harmony is waiting for you to realize that you’re not in harmony at a given moment, and in your awakening to that disharmony, and your desire to be in harmony again, you become in harmony again! Yes, it really is that easy! Status: blessed! Status: beloved! Status: grace!

God’s love is not something you earn – it’s something you return to whenever you stumble away from it! It’s waiting for you to receive it.

Psalm 32:5 Then I acknowledged (out loud) my sin to you, and I did not hide (from it); I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’, and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

Now, what does forgiveness actually mean? What exactly is God offering us here?

To forgive, in Hebrew, literally means ‘to lighten’, as in lightening the load. It means to have someone make your load lighter by carrying it for you, bearing it with you.

Does this all seem too good to be true? Isn’t theology awesome?!

The first big theological mistake we make is to limit God to acting like a human. We know how we feel when someone offends us on some level, or does wrong by us in some way – it hurts. Relationship status: dead to me! We humans hold grudges, and keep score, and need time to consider whether we’ll allow the relationship to continue depending on how egregious the offense was. That’s understandable, for humans.

But God is not human! God does not react and respond like we do. Our great mistake is to limit God’s loving ways by thinking we couldn’t do that so God wouldn’t either.

The second big theological mistake we make is to not accept God’s gifts when they’re freely given to us!

And here’s the most destructive part of it all. Theologically we end up with a warped view of who God is – because we refuse to believe that this wonderful gift of forgiveness, and lightening the load, could possibly be so generously and readily offered, so we recreate God in our own image and decide that God couldn’t possibly love me that much, so God mustn’t really love me at all, and all of a sudden God is a horrible, despotic, judgmental, thunderbolt chucker who’s out to get us! – when the exact opposite is true!

And instead of our burden being lifted by our loving God we continue to bear it, and it continues to eat us up inside. We might be able to fathom that God could forgive us, but then in practice we can’t seem to forgive ourselves, to let ourselves off our own hook, and we suffer and suffer for it. “If God won’t punish me then I’ll punish myself!” Yikes! Forgiving ourselves seems to be very hard to do.

But until we do we are forcing ourselves to carry a heavy burden that we are not required to bear. The old saying is that “confession is good for the soul”. Yes, it is! – And not because we’re in God’s bad books and need to avoid punishment. Confession doesn’t change God’s opinion of us. God only and always loves you. That never, ever changes. Ever. Confession wakes us up and allows us to receive God’s love that’s already there waiting for us to accept. Confession doesn’t change God – it changes us! It opens the way for us to be restored to harmony with God. And it lifts the burden that’s eating us up and weighing us down.

Friends, I know that many of us are carrying all sorts of different burdens. I have no magic wand, and some of the things we carry aren’t about our relationship with God. But for those things that are – for those things you may be carrying that make you think that God doesn’t love you – couldn’t love you – please know that you do not have to carry them. God’s love is absolute. Confession, facing our short-comings and laying them out before God in prayer, is the sure route to restoring harmony between you and God, and experiencing God’s peace.

You are beloved. And you are forgiven.

Harmony awaits. You don’t have to carry it all on your shoulders.

Your relationship status with God is always, always, always ‘blessed and beloved’.

And so, we enter the season of Lent, knowing we are forgiven and blessed, and ready to draw on the love and strength of Jesus as we journey together toward Holy Week.