Sin – A sermon for Passion Sunday, evensong, 18th March 2018 St Mary’s evensong (not preached due to snow!)
Very occasionally when watching an old film, usually set in London, the street scene will include a man with a sandwich board declaring something like “Repent your sins, the end is nigh”. The only sandwich board I have seen in real life is some poor chap who stands on the A303 somewhere near Andover advertising a pub during opening hours. Like the sandwich board men who have disappeared so has discussion about sin. The church plays it down nowadays perhaps because people see the church as judgemental, goody-goody, and self-righteous if it does call sin out.
There are of course many types of outpourings of sin, of the Ten Commandments written down by Moses, eight are things you must not do. The two readings tonight seem to me to be about stubbornness and disobedience. The king refuses to accept that God is supreme and Adam of course went and ate the apple from the tree when he had been told specifically not to.
I don’t think many of us set out deliberately to sin do we? Do you get up in the morning and think “I’m going to be really bad today”? But there are times in life where we come up against it almost as a dare or just because we wish to rebel. Honour they father and mother is one of the two commandments that doesn’t have a “not” in it, but oh, what an opportunity there is to “not” honour your mother and father. My mother, a primary school teacher who I and Margaret both had the unfortunate opportunity to be taught by, was exceptionally good at pointing out what we should not do. Given this I spent 3 years of my life finding as many opportunities as possible to rebel against her instructions. I may have shared this before. Given we lived in Grantham in Lincolnshire; you may wonder why the school decided that the year four trip would be to Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire. Over 100 eleven year olds cooped up in coaches on one of the hottest days of the year for several hours. We had all been given some pocket money to enable us to but a souvenir but we were instructed, by Mrs Ward, that the one thing we were absolutely not allowed to buy was a pen-knife. Well, challenge laid down, I set off for the gift shop to locate the pen-knives, made a purchase and whilst showing it to my friends cut my finger so badly that eventually I had to own up for fear my life-blood was ebbing away. Needless to say this resulted in the wrath of mother and endless threats as to what she would do to me for several weeks to come. It was, however, the best pen-knife I ever had; I discovered when she eventually reunited it with me. Was it worth it – you bet your life it was. I was the hero of the hour. Have I repented – no.
But disobedience can get us into far worse trouble than a cut finger and being grounded. Fortunately for us though, disobedience to God gets us into far less trouble than it did in Old Testament times. For the Old Testament is full of the vengeful God, the God that punishes, the God that brings terrible things to bear on those who disobey him. If we had started this service at the beginning, instead of where we now do, we would have all repented of our sins, meekly kneeling on our knees, as the prayer book puts it. And here’s the big difference. One act of utter obedience changed the whole relationship we have with God. The only person “without sin” gave up his life so that God would begin a new covenant with us which allows us to be forgiven, no matter what the sin. He didn’t need to go to Jerusalem when he knew the chief-priests were after him. He didn’t need to announce his arrival in such an obvious way which wound them up even more. He didn’t need to stay there when he knew Judas Iscariot was going to betray him, and he may well have been released by Pilate if he had answered his questions differently. But he knew what he had been asked to do – he says to God “if you can take this away, please do so”, but when God doesn’t he stays the course, he is obedient to the last and he suffers the most terrible fate as a result.
But does this really give us carte blanche to do whatever we want to because we know we can have the slate wiped clean? That rule doesn’t apply in society does it? Well, the cynic might say it does when you look at the list of possible crimes that can be committed before action is taken, especially with car crime and robbery. In some places now the police won’t even attend a burglary because they argue they are too stretched to do so. But in general society still exacts punishment for crime. Despite what I’ve just said, our prison population is as high as it has ever been. In secular life we don’t forgive as readily as God forgives. Just take the case of John Warboys, the convicted rapist, due to be released after serving his sentence. Only now are ways being found to try to get him for other crimes so he is never released. Of course the difficulty we have is that unlike God, we have no way of knowing if that person has utterly repented and has changed. The only way we will find out is if he or she is released and then what happens as a result and of course if it goes wrong, out will come the knives. But clearly God will forgive that person. Jesus does exactly that as he hangs on the cross, telling the repentant criminal hanging next to him that he will go to paradise. My guess is that Jesus saw into his soul and saw the absolute repentance of that man.
Where does that leave us then? And of course we are not just talking about simple disobedience now are we, for sin can manifest itself in much more evil ways. Clearly we can forgive huge sins. Just look at some of the reconciliations between allied and German or Japanese soldiers from the second war who have surpassed the hatred to form bonds which have lasted until death. Torture has been forgiven in the name of peace and being able to move on. But it can’t be easy can it? How does a mother forgive someone who has murdered her son, yet it happens.
Fortunately few of us will ever be placed in such situations but we do face sin every day in our lives. People hurt us, people say things which cut into us, sometimes it is intentional, and sometimes it’s just carelessness of actions or thoughts. Families are torn apart, relationships ruined, over relatively trivial things, because sometimes we would rather keep the hurt than let it go. How many times have I heard, “I have a brother but we haven’t spoken since…” I come from a tiny family. I knew my parents, two of my grandparents and I had an aunt and an uncle. All my other relatives were a more distant link than that. I didn’t have the opportunity of brothers, sisters, cousins and I’m certain I lost out as a result. I married into a huge family and now I have a reasonably significant one of my own, three children with spouses and almost six grandchildren. I look at families that have split and I wonder, how could that have happened, how could they have lost something so precious? Things have happened in the family I am now part of in the past which could have caused rifts but I thank God that every time at least one person on the wrong end of the issue has been gracious enough to forgive.
So I guess my message is this. From one sinner to another, and I very rarely dispense advice, but I’m going to make an exception tonight. Over the next two weeks we will watch Jesus take the most excruciating journey, the ultimate sacrifice for every one of us here, a man without sin, nailed to a cross and left to die in agony, for us – to give us the chance to start again, to be free of all the things that mark us. So tonight I leave you with this – if there is a hurt you can forgive, if there is something which has separated you from another – forgive it, let it go, especially if it stemmed from some petty disobedience, for God has forgiven our disobedience time and again, and will continue to do so as long as we ask for it. Amen.