The next stop in our journey of understanding in a bit more detail just what we believe as followers of Jesus isn’t an easy one. This is going to be one of the more difficult conversations we’ve had together. This isn’t a fun subject. But it’s one we have to talk about or else we run the risk of missing out on something absolutely essential to a relationship with Jesus. This week we are talking about sin. Hang on tight and stay tuned for what comes next. This one is hard, but it gets a whole lot better.
The Trouble with Holes
Have you ever been in a deep pit, but managed to pull yourself out of it? I remember crawling over and around and through some boulders at a park somewhere near Gettysburg, PA on a family vacation when I was growing up. We were playing tag or something with some other kids and I went into a passage that was pretty narrow. I remember crawling in and thinking, “I’m not going to be able to get through this.” Thinking about it today still makes me feel claustrophobic and panicky. Fortunately, I managed to stay calm then and squeeze through the passage to get out the other side.
Have you ever, though, been stuck in a rut you couldn’t pull yourself out of? That one doesn’t feel so good. Being stuck in a mess we can’t fix or climb out of on our own forces us to reckon with the notion that we are somehow not enough by ourselves. Yet that’s the last idea we want to entertain. Everything about our culture trains us from almost the moment we are able to process rational thought that we want to be enough. That’s not just a cultural thing, though, that’s a human thing. Now, how exactly it expresses itself does vary from culture to culture with some cultures being more community-centric than ours is, but at the bottom of all our efforts at life in whatever form they happen to take is this beating pulse of wanting to be enough.
But what if we aren’t?
This morning we are in the third part of our teaching series, You Believe What? The big idea driving this series of conversations is that if you are a follower of Jesus, you can’t get by with not understanding what you believe anymore. Now, that doesn’t mean you need a seminary education to be a good Christian. It does mean, however, that simply saying, “I’m a follower of Jesus” and not really worrying too much about the details isn’t going to cut it anymore. This is because the culture around us is changing. Most of the people you meet on the street now don’t believe basically the same things that you believe anymore. They believe something different, and not only that, they think you should believe more like they do and are going to tell you why they think so. If we can’t offer a response of not only what we believe, but why we think what we believe is a better thing to believe than what they believe, we’ll leave them with the conclusion that what we believe really isn’t worthwhile and we’re small-minded fools for believing it in the first place. That’s not a way to make many disciples.
So far, we have talked about God and people. Although there is much, much more on these two topics than we were able to address together, we settled on two really key ideas to understand. God exists as a trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit and that triune nature is what enables Him to have a loving relationship with us. And, when it comes to us, He created us (and not a random lightning strike a couple of billion years ago as one of the currently vogue theories on the origin of life suggests) in His image to serve and honor Him. And again, there is much more we could say on those topics, but these two ideas serve as the grounds for drawing out the rest with a little bit of thinking and reasoning. And, like I said at the end of our time together last week, if we could get just those two things right, we’d be on the right track on a whole lot of things. The problem is we don’t.
Today isn’t going to be easy. I just want to be honest about that with you here at the beginning of the message. Today we are going to face some truths together that are pretty bruising to behold. They’re not pretty. They remind us of things we have experienced and even things within ourselves that we generally try to avoid facing. This is the point of Christian theology at which most people jump ship, or else try to skip over it in favor of the good stuff. The trouble is: If we don’t get this part right, the good stuff won’t make any difference for us. We have to walk this path because there’s no other way to get to it. Today, we are going to talk about sin.
Now, sin is an ugly word. It’s a scary word. It rings with echoes of evil and judgment. But if we’re honest, we don’t really know how to define it. What counts as “sin”? Well, a lot of that depends on who you ask and how they define what counts as righteousness. Since we’re operating under the assumption that God is the creator and thus definer of all of reality, let’s use this as our definition of sin: Sin is a state of being in which we deviate from the character of God. We can explore another time why that’s a good definition of sin to use, but assuming on it for the time being, what should we think about sin as followers of Jesus? Well, we should be against it, but I think there’s more. To help us get our hearts and minds around this more, I want to take us to some words from the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah was a prophet to the royal court of the southern kingdom of Israel, called Judah, during the time when the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians. The kingdom of Judah during his lifetime was wealthy and strong. They kept faithfulness to God as a kind of veneer over much of what they did, but underneath that glaze was a core of injustice and unrighteousness that God did not like. God used Isaiah to let the people know that if they didn’t straighten up, they would soon meet the same fate as their sister kingdom to the north, but at the hands of the Babylonians. Even though his words were aimed at a people long removed from us and living under a different covenant with God, we can still learn a thing or three about ourselves and how sin can creep in and poison the heart of a whole people if we aren’t careful.
One of the places Isaiah does this particularly well is in chapter 59. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you this morning, find your way with me to Isaiah 59. It’s right near the middle of your Bible. If you’re in Psalms, keep going. If you hit Jeremiah or Ezekiel, you’ve gone too far. Let’s hear these words together and then we’ll talk about them. Isaiah starts by pointing his finger right at the people.
“Indeed, the Lord’s arm is not too weak to save, and his ear is not too deaf to hear. But your iniquities are separating you from your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not listen. For your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers, with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, and your tongues mutter injustice.”
This was a people struggling with feeling like God wasn’t with them; like He had abandoned them. Isaiah says, “Not so fast. God hasn’t gone anywhere. You have. You’ve let sin separate you.”
Here, though, he backs off just a bit from pressing on them specifically and speaks a bit more generally about “them.” Stay with me in v. 4: “No one makes claims justly; no one pleads honestly. They trust in empty and worthless words; they conceive trouble and give birth to iniquity. They hatch viper’s eggs and weave spider’s webs. Whoever eats their eggs will die; crack one open, and a viper is hatched. Their webs cannot become clothing, and they cannot cover themselves with their works. Their works are sinful works, and violent acts are in their hands. Their feet run after evil, and they rush to shed blood. Their thoughts are sinful thoughts; ruin and wretchedness are in their paths. They have not known the path of peace, and there is no justice in their ways. They have made their roads crooked; no one who walks on them will know peace.”
Now, I told you this was bruising stuff. Isaiah is describing his contemporaries, but come on, do those descriptions sound all that different from what we know as reality today? Unjust claims? Lies? Trust in worthless and empty words? Trouble plotted and then attempts to hide behind that very trouble? Check. Check. Check. Check. We are not a culture that is at peace anymore than Isaiah’s was. And if we stick with the path we are taking, we won’t find any peace in the days ahead of us either.
But here’s the thing. Isaiah was writing about 2,700 years ago. If his descriptions are still as on point and relevant as they are, then it would seem to point to the fact that what we are seeing here is not necessarily a problem with that people or with this people, but just simply with people. If we are going to think about sin rightly as followers of Jesus, then here’s the truth we’ve got to embrace: We are sinners. It’s not just that we sin—although we do. It’s not just that we have sinned—although we have. The hard truth about sin is that we are sinners. Sin is not primarily something we do. It’s not something that happens to us. It is something inside of us. It is someone we are. It is us. We are sinners.
There are people with sufficient willpower to control what they do. If sin was merely an action we performed, there would be some people who wouldn’t sin. But it’s not something external like that. It’s in us. We are sinners. It’s the water in which we swim. We don’t know anything other than sin. Our whole being deviates from the character of God. We don’t reflect Him like we were designed to do. His image isn’t gone, but it is severely corrupted. And until we are willing to acknowledge this, to own it, we’ll never have even a prayer of getting out of this hole.
The reason for that is something we can start to see as we keep reading what Isaiah wrote here. Come back to the text with me at v. 9: “Therefore justice is far from…” now what do you think is the next word here? Them? That would fit the perspective of the last several verses. But Isaiah gets more honest with them. The problem of sin is not a “them” problem. It’s not a “you” problem. It’s an “us” issue. “Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We hope for light, but there is darkness; for brightness, but we live in the night. We grope along a wall like the blind; we grope like those without eyes. We stumble at noon as though it were twilight; we are like the dead among those who are healthy. We all growl like bears and moan like doves. We hope for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us. For our transgressions have multiplied before you, and our sins testify against us. For our transgressions are with us, and we know our iniquities: transgression and deception against the Lord, turning away from following our God, speaking oppression and revolt, conceiving and uttering lying words from the heart. Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far off. For truth has stumbled in the public square [amen?], and honesty cannot enter. Truth is missing, and whoever turns from evil is plundered.”
Can you feel the weight of these words? I told you this was going to be tough today. Thinking rightly about sin as a follower of Jesus is not something we should be glad to have right. It should break our hearts to be right about this. Because if we’re right, all the things we try and do to fix the problem are doomed to failure. You see, the problem with sin is not just that we are sinners, but that on our own, we can’t do anything about it.
Could you hear that in Isaiah’s words? We have turned from God, but instead of taking the path back out of sin and toward righteousness, we just keep groping along blindly trying to find our way. We growl like a bear at anyone who gets in our way and tries to separate us from our sin. But we moan and cower like a dove, flying noisily away when the consequences come due. We long for salvation, but we can’t reach it. And anytime we see someone trying to right their ship, we just pull them back down into the mud with us. We are sinners, and on our own, we can’t do anything about it.
Are you depressed yet? I wasn’t kidding earlier. I hate talking about sin. But we have to. We have to because if we don’t, we’re not being honest about ourselves. And if we’re not honest about what’s wrong with us, how are we going to fix it? Or better yet: How are we even going to know what needs fixing in the first place? Because the truth is: We can’t fix it. We are sinners, and on our own, we can’t do anything about it. If this all feels really heavy, that’s because it should. This stuff should bother us. We are in a hole. We dug the hole. And on our own, we can’t get out of the hole. That’s just life.
Don’t you love that word? We are sinners, and on our own, we can’t do anything about it. But, the incredible truth of the Gospel is that we aren’t on our own. Or at least, we don’t have to be. And you don’t have to take my word for it. Listen to what Isaiah says next: “The Lord saw that there was no justice, and he was offended. He saw that there was no man—he was amazed that there was no one interceding; so his own arm brought salvation, and his own righteousness supported him.” Are you with me? Do you hear what he’s saying there? We aren’t on our own. That, my friends, is the Gospel. We aren’t on our own. Our God wasn’t content to leave us in that hole. He didn’t—He doesn’t—care how deeply we dug. He saw the mess we were in and He decided that He was going to come after us Himself.
And I’ve got to tell you: I love this next part. This is absolutely amazing. It’s written in entirely old covenant language and so there’s some of it that we have to read around a bit, but what’s critical to hear here is the passion our God has for us. Listen to this: “He put on righteousness as body armor, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and he wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak. So he will repay according to their deeds; fury to his enemies, retribution to his foes, and he will repay the coasts and islands. They will fear the name of the Lord in the west and his glory in the east; for he will come like a rushing stream driven by the wind of the Lord. ‘The Redeemer will come to Zion, and to those in Jacob who turn from transgression.’ This is the Lord’s declaration.”
A redeemer will come. We are not alone. And do you know who that redeemer is. His name is Jesus. And if you’ll come back next week, we’ll talk about just how that redemption arrived. I can’t wait to see you then.