Are the sins of believers worse than those of the world?

Sermon Notes for 03182012 – Matthew 11 vs15-24

Are the sins of believers worse than those of the world?

Will believers be judged more harshly than unbelievers?

Why does Jesus speak this way? How can it be that Jesus’ audience would come under greater judgment than Tyre and Sidon and Sodom and Gomorrah? We’re not as familiar with Tyre and Sidon, so how about a little background information. In Ezekiel 26-28 and Isaiah 23 we read prophecies against Tyre and Sidon. These cities gentile nations had given support to Israel, including providing materials and resources for building the palaces and the temple. Yet they were to come under judgment because they became arrogant and oppressed their neighbors and the poor among them. So they also were conquered by Nebuchadnezzar.

And what about Sodom and Gomorrah? Their story is a proverb and a byword, it stands for all sin and the judgment that comes upon it. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we hear Sodom used as a comparison, a benchmark for the worst sin and greatest judgment imaginable. Listen to what is written in Ezekiel 16:46-63

So, now we may have a little more appreciation for what Jesus’ own audience might have heard when he referenced Sodom, Tyre and Sidon. And it even sounds as though he is in large part paraphrasing and quoting this text from Ezekiel 16. But that still doesn’t really tell us what is going on. What is he saying theologically? How are we to understand this word?

Are the sins of believers worse than those of the world?

Will believers be judged more harshly than unbelievers?

What’s going on here?

Let’s ask a preceding question – are all sins equal? Popular Christian theology tells us that yes, all sins are equal. That God does not judge us differently. We say this, I think, as a way to extend grace to those who have sinned greatly, and as a way to warn those who think they are ok because their sins do not seem as grave.

In Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus speaking to the Pharisees: 23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! (Mt 23) Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount he says, “3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Mt 7)

Those two passages sound to me like Jesus is saying that all sins are not the same, that some are worse than others. I think the Levitical code supports this idea, since more severe punishments are assigned to some violations of the covenant.

1 John 5 says this: 16 If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that.

It certainly sounds as though our theology should be that all sins are not the same, that some sins are in fact worse than others. We’ll need to find a different way to extend mercy and grace on those with more guilt while not absolving those with less.

So is that what’s going on? Is it that the sins of believers are worse than those of unbelievers? Did the Jews of Jesus’ day sin more gravely than the residents of Sodom? Well, in a manner of speaking, yes.

Hear two more passages from the New Testament.

Luke 12:
47 That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. 48 But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

James 3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

Clearly there is much more to say on this topic. We could explore the teachings of Jesus and Paul regarding how our words and actions might cause others to stumble. We could discuss ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ as the one unforgivable sin. We could wonder about how Noah, Abraham, David and Job were considered righteous even though they were not without sin. We could study Jonah’s visit to Nineveh and think about calling unbelievers to repentance without conversion.

For now, let us remember:

Are the sins of believers worse than those of the world? – not necessarily.

But yes, some sins are worse than others,

Will believers be judged more harshly than unbelievers? – apparently yes.

The greater judgment comes because we have greater knowledge. Those who know and do not are more guilty than those who do not know what to do.

So, what does this say then about our understanding of being saved by grace through faith, if in fact our faith and belief put us in a position of being under stricter judgment from God?

2 Chronicles 7 vs11-22 – When it’s time for a turn-around

Sermon Notes:

What precedes the text:     Solomon

  • asks for wisdom above all
  • gathers support from others with resources and expertise
  • builds the temple
  • asks God to hear the prayers of all people
  • asks God to forgive and restore when the Israelites sin and are defeated, become captives, or have droughts
  • Sacrifices 22k oxen and 120k sheep – hosts a great feast!

The people said:    “For he is good. His steadfast love endures forever.” (2 Chron 5:13)

If my people, Called by my name

  • Humble themselves
  • Pray
  • Seek my face
  • Turn from their wicked ways

THEN I will..

  • Hear from heaven
  • Forgive their sin
  • Heal their land

1. God will hear…

The first of these is kind of strange. God promises to hear the prayers of God’s people. Does this suggest that at other times God is unable or chooses not to hear? Would that limit God’s power? Or might we liken it to a parent responding to an insolent child by saying, “I can’t hear you when you speak to me with that tone of voice and posture. I ask you to speak to me respectfully.” Does that literally mean that the parent can’t hear? No. it is rather that the experience of the parent is dominated by the negative energy of the bratty attitude coming from the child. Perhaps this is what the author has in mind in thinking about God hearing or not hearing us.

Or, maybe this kind of hearing is linked with an active response. If I am in genuine need and cry out for help, and you do not respond, then you have not truly heard me, even if you did receive the auditory stimulation of my voice. To hear is to be moved to act, to take in the message and allow it to move one on a deeper level. Perhaps this is what it means when we say God hears our prayers. When we ask selfishly, God does not hear. When we ask a prayer that will bring harm to others, God does not hear. When we ask something that is contrary to God’s will, God does not hear, at least not in this second sense. This seems to be the message of 1 John 5:14-15 And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him.

The phrase “hear from heaven” is used by Solomon 7 times in 2 Chronicles 6 in his prayer to God.

The Psalmist repeats the call for God to hear, answer, be gracious and revive. (Psalms 4, 17, 39, 54, 61, 84, 102, 143) We need to understand that this first promise of God is not a statement that before God was not hearing, but rather that these actions of ours move us toward a humble posture of relationship in which we can experience God hearing us.

2. Forgive…

Here too, the issue is not that God is otherwise unforgiving, or that our actions result in God deciding to forgive or being made to forgive. It is rather that until we take the necessary steps in our own lives we are not free to experience God’s forgiveness. Recall this affirmation from Exodus 34:
6 The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And again, in Numbers 14: 18 “The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.’ 19 Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have pardoned this people, from Egypt even until now.” 20 Then the Lord said, “I do forgive, just as you have asked; 21 nevertheless—as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord— 22 none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, 23 shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it.

These texts demonstrate Israel’s faith in a God who desires to forgive. They also make clear that forgiveness does not prevent the natural consequences of sin from unfolding. God forgives, but we (and others) may still receive the harvest of what we (and others) have sown.

3. Heal their land…

Finally, God promises to heal. This third step is about the journey back from the brokenness that comes as a natural result of our sin. We do not know why, but God seems not to prevent injury to the innocent. Sin has consequences, often unintended, and often to innocent bystanders. What God promises in this prayer is to bring healing to the land – the Hebrew word ha erets connotes both the physical geography and its inhabitants. In a time of violence and greed, people and the rest of the natural world are injured. God promises a healing to flow that will bring restoration and renewal.

This is a wonderful vision – God will hear. God will forgive. God will heal. We want and need this, in our personal lives, in our families, in churches, communities, nations, and among nations and peoples in the world. Solomon asked that God would do this, and that the temple might be an earthly focal point for this encounter between God and human kind. There is not mention here that it is the only place, and Solomon clearly affirms the Hebrew understanding that God cannot be limited or contained by any building, place, people, or even by the heavens we see.

The text also makes clear that we have a role to play, not only in the brokenness, but also in the redemption. God says, “If my people will…” This promise is given to the people of God who were a nation. This is not about political boundaries or ideologies. This promise is given to whoever is called by God’s name. Everyone called by God’s Name. 1 Peter explodes this notion by clearly including the Gentile followers of Jesus, establishing a parallel to the story in 2 Chronicles 6-7, now envisioning God building us together as a temple for God’s self – a spiritual, mystical temple not made with hands (cf 2 Cor 5:1?)

If my people will…

  • Humble themselves
  • Pray
  • Seek my face
  • Turn from their wicked ways

Notice that turning from wicked ways (i.e. repentance) is the fourth item in this list. Does that suggest a necessary order in the process? Not necessarily, but perhaps. It is something to consider – i.e. what are the steps toward repentance? Can we just jump right into repentance, or do some other things precede? I suspect that repentance is like forgiveness and love of enemy or love of neighbor as self – it is something toward which we are directly called, but we can’t get there directly. So, what can we see are three steps toward full repentance? Humility, prayer, seeking after God.

1. Humble themselves. This is an active discipline that requires our attention. It is about our thoughts and attitudes toward other people. Our humility is a posture before self, others, the world and God. It is our awareness that:

  • We do not know everything
  • We are not the center of everything
  • We are not in control
  • I.E. We are not GOD

2. Pray – Prayer also is an active spiritual discipline – it is attending to the spiritual conversation continually in process between God and the world – its like entering a chat line, picking up a party line, or tuning in to a CB or ham radio channel.

  • We have to turn the radio on.
  • We have to tune in.
  • We have to be quiet and listen.

This posture of prayer follows the openness that grows from our humility. Once we assume this receptivity, then we are able to understand more deeply God’s heart for us and for the world. We see the gap between all God desires and all that is. Our hearts break, not because of all that has been done to us, but because of all that we, individually and collectively, have done.

3. Seek my face. We realize through our humility and openness in prayer that we need God more than anything else. We yearn for God. The Psalmist captures our heart: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so we long for you O God.” (Psalm 42:1); “Who have I in heaven but you, and having you, I desire nothing else.” (Psalm 73:25) “As a servant looks to the hand of his master, and a maid to the hand of her mistress, so we look to you.” (Psalm 123:2). We seek God’s face – God’s presence, God’s radiance. We seek God looking upon us as a loving parent.

I don’t know really whether these things MUST precede repentance – a turning away from our wicked ways – but they certainly will help in the ongoing process of turning away. Repentance of this sort is not a onetime thing. Our wickedness has a depth and breadth to it. It is not just a series of actions, but a complex of ideas, habits and systems. The turning away is a long, slow, laborious process that will continually require us rehearsing those other three steps in order for us to maintain our sense of who we are in God. Humble ourselves, pray, seek God’s face. Repeat. Continually.

Returning to the text of chapter 6 of 2 Chronicles, we hear a list when it may be time for a turn-around.

  • If someone sins against another
  • When your people Israel, having sinned against you, are defeated before an enemy
  • When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you
  • If there is famine in the land, if there is plague, blight, mildew, locust, or caterpillar;
  • If their enemies besiege them in any of the settlements of the lands;
  • Whatever suffering, whatever sickness there is
  • If your people go out to battle against their enemies
  • If they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to a land far or near;

When we know we have sinned against someone, then it’s time for a turn-around.
When there is suffering or sickness, then it’s time for a turn-around.
When we are overcome by our adversaries, then it’s time for a turn-around.
When the things that sustain life are in short supply, then it’s time for a turn-around.
When we are up against great obstacles, then it’s time for a turn-around.
When we find ourselves in captivity, then it’s time for a turn-around.

And when it’s time for a turn-around, then we know what we need to do:
Humble ourselves. Pray. Seek God’s face. Turn from our wicked ways.

Temptation and Confession

Luke 4:1-13

1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.’ ” 5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ” 9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11 and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” 12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. (NRSV)
My name is Ken, and I’m a sinner.

I try really hard not to be, but it seems beyond my control.

One of the recent insights from Leadership Psychology is that when we spend all our time working on our weaknesses, we may get to adequate, but we will never excel at the things we are really meant for.

This doesn’t mean we yield to sin, throwing our hands up in defeat, nor like the ___ do we revel in our sin “so that grace may abound”.

It does mean that we have to be honest, with ourselves, God, one another, and even the world. Like I said, my name is Ken, and I’m a sinner.

I’d been looking forward to my Sabbatical, well, since I began to think about being a pastor. “One day, I’m going to be somewhere long enough to earn a Sabbatical.” I had very high expectations in those days. When I went to Seminary @ Brite Divinity School, I envisioned a monastic-like community where people truly knew, loved and challenged one another as followers of Jesus, studied theology, and went out into the world to build the kingdom of God. Unrealistic, but true. And I think my hopes for Sabbatical were similar – that I would have an amazing spiritual experience, everything would work out just as I wanted it to and it would be nothing but blessing.

Back to reality. I realized the week before Sabbatical began that I was definitely going to need a new car. I hate buying cars. I don’t hate many things, but that’s one. Anything that requires that size financial commitment is very intimidating to me. Plus, I have a deep aversion to the car buying process. NOW, I know, in my head, that car salesmen are good people, and I believe that the vast majority of them are honest – all the ones I know personally are.

And yet, I have deep within me an aversion to the process, and when I get into it, some very base instincts take over. I get VERY defensive, the moment I walk onto a car lot. My posture changes, and its as though I am just daring a salesman to come and try to talk to me. Go ahead, I dare you.

Again, I know they are good people simply trying to make a living. I’m not saying this is rational behavior, or something of which I’m proud. Remember what I said.

My name is Ken, and I’m a sinner.

So, I had to buy a car, and I spent the first several days of my Sabbatical – where I was supposed to be resting and praying and being all spiritual, doing something utterly material, and potentially materialistic. I was not in a good place. Just ask Laura. I was grumpy, short-tempered and deeply frustrated, which was spilling over to every area of my life. Things were not off to a good start.

In fact, the worst of it – I had a car to get rid of. I maybe hate that more than buying a car. I wasn’t getting nearly what I needed for my trade. So, on a whim, late on Tuesday, I thought to call a salesman I know who owns a small lot. Now understand, this is someone I deeply respect. I don’t know him well, but everything I know I like, and his friends are people I highly respect as well. I wasn’t really expecting the call to go anywhere, and he says, “Sure, bring it on over. I was just about to close up.”

Remember, I had been walking around for days with my shoulders hunched, hands in my pockets, with a HUGE attitude, basically not trusting anyone. Completely irrational, unfair, selfish, petty, just daring someone to try to take advantage of me. “It’s a game, and there can only be one winner”. I know that’s not true, but there’s something else, deeper than what I know, that still pursues that vision.

Well, as I said, all this started because I needed to get rid of the car because it needed lots of repairs. Specifically, I’d been told it needed four struts, and the cv joints – about $2400, with parts and labor. Over the phone, when I wasn’t really expecting to do business but was asking some advice, I’d vaguely said that it needed some work, and I think I mentioned the struts. I was stunned when he told me to bring it on in, and I kept telling myself, “You need to tell him the rest of it.”

But I didn’t. I was so tightly wound up into the lie that life for me in that moment was a zero-sum game, one winner and one looser, that I just remained quiet. I didn’t exactly lie. But I certainly wasn’t truthful. I didn’t fully disclose.

For me, buying stuff is so very fleshly. I have a love/hate relationship with it. I love stuff – particularly cool gadgets. I’m also VERY cheap most of the time. And most importantly, there is something deep inside me that is convinced that we live in a dichotomous world – some things are spiritual and some things are material. One can read Paul that way, as he writes extensively about the battle between the Spirit and the Flesh. But what he is calling us to is not a rejection of the flesh, but an integration of Spirit and Flesh. A bringing together of the two in harmony so that the needs of both are honored and we experience God’s blessings on our lives.

But we, we separate the two all the time.

“Oh,” we say, “This doesn’t really matter. God isn’t interested in this part of my life – this is just material stuff, not spiritual. God only cares about the spiritual stuff.”

The truth is, Everything is spiritual.

What’s my point in all of this and where does the sermon title come in?

Forty Day Wilderness experiences are about transition from one way of being toward another. For example, here’s a quick list from Scripture:

• Noah – it rained for 40 days, and then he waited another 40 days before he opened the ark
• Moses – Forty years as Prince of Egypt
      Forty years as shepherd in Midian
      Forty Days on Mt Sinai
• Israel – Forty years wandering in the wilderness
      between Egypt and the Promised Land
      Between Slavery and Freedom
• Elijah – Forty days in a cave as his ministry was drawing to a close and he was to begin training Elisha to take his place.
• Jesus – Forty days of temptation in the wilderness
      Forty days between the resurrection and the ascension

Wilderness and 40 represent throughout scripture a transition from one way of begin to another – leaving behind a life that was not all bad to move toward a life into which God has called us.

Luke is clear that Jesus was tempted during those forty days. The three temptatio
ns named at the end of the story represent all of those that Jesus experienced. For jesus, the temptations grow from the things that he was loosing, giving up, in order to make this transition into a new way of being in the world.
1) Jesus had given up being a provider, not only for himself, but also for his mother and the rest of his family. So, his temptation was to provide for himself, instead of relying upon God to provide as he would need to do
2) Jesus had given up power and authority in his home and community. Jesus was tempted to take power just for power’s sake
3) Jesus had given up reputation and respect within his community Jesus was tempted to ‘become a celebrity’ by having angels rescue him.

I grew up feeling like I was on the edge or the outside most of the time. Feeling like I was at the mercy of other people’s decisions on whether and how to include me.

Guess what – two of my core temptations are to be defensive, and hold on to control. In the car selling experience, I fell into both of these.

What is temptation, anyway. A temptation is anything that pushes or pulls us toward sin. And SIN, I understand it to be anything that causes you to deny your true self as God’s child. Sin is not about rules, keeping or breaking them. The rules are there to help us understand what kinds of things will pull us away from our true self-in-God. Notice that, had Jesus yielded to any of those temptations, he would not have broken a single “Law” of God. But he clearly would have denied his true self.

Sin is also not some vague, abstract idea, some general character trait inherent in our nature. Sin is ALWAYS rooted in choice and expressed in movement – thought, word, or action. It does us little good to believe or agree that we are sinners. So what. What I need, and what you need, is to be honest with SOMEONES (God, Self, and at least one other) about the specifics of our sin. Which thoughts, words, and actions of yours have disrupted your life-in-God, the life you were born to live?

You and I have done, are doing, and will do things that disrupt our life-in-God. I’m not suggesting that we take turns standing up here bearing our souls. I am absolutely saying that you need to bear your soul to someone, and that we are to be a community that provides many safe ways and places to do that. If we can not be honest with one another about our struggles, then we will not be honest with ourselves or with God.

My name is Ken, and I am a sinner.