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Preparation for Lent
the Nature of Sin
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Septuagessima - 2/20/11 Josh. 1:1-9; Ps. 20; I Cor. 9:24-7; Mt. 20:1-16
We begin the pre-Lenten season today, the three "gessima" Sundays in which we are invited to prepare for the Lenten season, which begins with Ash Wednesday on March 9. We will begin with looking into the notion of sin and the Fall -- so that we can begin to understand why there needs to be such a thing as salvation, redemption, atonement, the basic New Testament themes.
During Lent, we will be looking at those classic New Testament themes, asking, Why did Jesus have to die? What was the price He paid, and to whom was the price paid? What is justification by faith, and what does it mean to be born again. All standard Christian fare, but all continually needed by ourselves to keep on focus with the Lord.
We will not be talking much about the public arena, but it needs to be understood that these issues of our personal salvation are preparation for the Great Commission, that we go out into all the world to be witnesses to the sovereignty of God and to the message of salvation for all persons. That includes social and political righteousness and justice. Only a saved people can keep a stable and civilized society. As Augustine pointed out in his monumental, The City of God, there are two cities, the city of the world and the city of God. The city of the world is not an optional extra to the Biblical world, it is the fallen world, which stands in deadly opposition to the City of God. One will live, the other will die.
The Great Commission is to convert not only the people of those societies of the world, but their institutions, there economies, their politics -- to the honor and glory of God. God cares about all of those things. Just like the law, God insists on institutions which are made for man, not man for the institutions. Tyrants want persons made for their own tyrannical institutions of control over the people. That is absolutely contrary to the original plan of God for His creation, and to His plan for salvation.
It has been the planned and deliberate subversion of our own Western, largely Biblically oriented, institutions, including the churches, over the last two centuries which has led to the present collapse of the West. The centralizers of power did not much mind who won or lost the two Great Wars. They knew that if they were able to subvert the spiritual life of the West, they could get control by non-military means, by the long slow march up through the institutions. And so they have.
I and others here lived through much of that subversion and collapse, but the watchmen in the Church towers were out sleeping in the poppy fields, oblivious to the spiritual warfare being waged to control the lives of the human population.
We have been losing that war, not only because we did not know how to function in the public arena, but even more so, because we did not know how to explain personal salvation to the supposedly sophisticated population of the West. Something in my young spirit told me in the 1940's and -50's that things were terribly amiss. I did not catch on to just what that was until much later, when I was pastoring St. Stephen's Church in East Haddam, CT. during the 1970's.
So we must go back to the beginnings, restore our foundations, learn afresh the basics of our faith. Otherwise our Christian journey from Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the world will end in frustration and collapse. We will have been successfully sidetracked and rendered ineffective for the Lord.
The Reformation of the 16th century helped rescue the Church from similar conditions. As must happen every so often, we must have our own reformation today, exploring the Scriptures again, reuniting reason with revelation to hear and interpret the Word of God in a manner which is consistent with the intent of Scripture and which can speak to the troubled people of our time.
In the early 1900's, there arose the fundamentalist movement. It began, as I understand it, as a reasonable and helpful attempt to discern the fundamentals of the Christian faith, so that we could present a coherent and unsplintered version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world which was then chasing after Darwin, Marx, Freud, and other secular wisemen.
But we Christians failed miserably, not everyone and
everywhere, but sufficiently to bring the Christian faith into disrepute. It was
under the tutelage of that miserable failure that I grew up. The search for the
fundamentals became fundamental-ist -- a caricature of true Christianity,
anti-intellectual, opposing revelation against reason, and so dividing the
two-edged Sword of the Spirit against itself. We privatized our faith, and
became irrelevant to public affairs, at which the secularists and emerging
neo-pagans rejoiced. We left the field wide open to the forces of the
enemy. And now we are paying a terrible price, with much worse in store for our
children and grandchildren. When they see what we have allowed to be passed on
to them, they will not thank us for our stupidity and cowardice. I made no
audible outcry against the banning of prayer from schools (or even more
important, against government in schools), nor against Roe v.
Wade. May the Lord forgive me.
So, as the Lord guides, once again, let us seek His mind and heart for the meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must refocus again on the Promised Land which we have a chance to enter at a deeper level. God tells Joshua:
...be strong and of good courage; for you shall cause this people to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law which Moses my servant commanded you; turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
We are right in that place today for our culture if we will humble ourselves before God. Jesus told His disciples that the law was made for man, not man for the law. God had already said that same thing over and over through their history. "Do what I tell you... that you may have good success wherever you go. ...for then you shall make your way prosperous, and you shall have good success." God is not saying, "Do what I say... or I will beat up on you..." He is saying, "Do what I say because that is the road to your success. You will beat up on yourselves if you depart from My directions." God wants to confirm His covenant with His people -- which He can do only as we obey. The commandments are like sign posts -- directions to the Kingdom. Any other path will not lead there.
"Have I not commanded you?" The command is not a threat, it is a promise that "when you obey, you will have all of my authority behind you". The Centurion understood authority to be the foundation of faith in Jesus, that if Jesus commanded healing, it would happen. The commands of the Lord are not only commands, they are assurances, as to Moses at the Burning Bush, that those things commanded will come to be -- if we remain faithful and obedient. As we do our part, God will do His.
The Kingdom of heaven is a relationship so that the building of it must be a cooperative effort. It is not a place into which you can walk by yourself, or for which you could buy a ticket for entry. We are invited to become co-creators with God in this community building. It takes mutual effort and giving. Living stones, as St. Peter says.
For Joshua and for us, it requires great courage, because we will be tested to the limits of our endurance. Gaining and increasing that endurance is the goal of our spiritual growth together -- with God and with each other.
The endurance needed, as St. Paul notes in the Epistle, is not just a passive endurance, it requires effort and strain, like running a race. There is a prize, a goal sought, which makes the effort and endurance worth while. Those who strive for mastery are "temperate", Paul says. They do not get obsessively involved in other things, but only as befitting the running of the race.
Those who serve the Lord, who endure for the Lord, must also train themselves to that kind of temperance, to not be involved with things which might hurt the running. It means a focusing of one's life so as to aim narrowly at the goal, and avoid sidetracks and rabbit trails.
Those who run in foot races or chariot races run for a
corruptible crown, which fades with time. But we, for an incorruptible
crown, the Kingdom. We are all offered a crown by our very
creation, a small kingdom of self, which we are to submit to the Kingship of
Jesus. That is how the Kingdom of God is built, by that submission of our
own crowns to His.
The Kingdom was a natural, on going event in the pre-Fall Garden. God, Adam, and Eve all very naturally gave themselves to each other. There were no barriers between them. They could walk in the cool of the day when the Lord visited them, with no effort, no hiddenness, no fear. The crowns of Adam and Eve were by nature submitted to the Lord, in a joyful participation of living in the Light with each other.
But all that ended tragically with the choice by Adam and Eve to try to be "like God" in the sense offered by the serpent, rather than accepting being made in the image of God as given by God. What the meant, of course, is that they wanted to separate themselves from God, replace Him, and be on their own.
One can speculate about how they came to that kind of decision from having been at one with God and each other. But the current state of human affairs is testimony to the fact that a Fall happened, that we are not now in anything like a close relationship to God, and that terrible consequences flow continually like poisoned blood into our veins from that Fall. A few "lucky" ones, like most of us Westerners, manage to get born at a time and place where physical comforts help hide us from the reality of our disintegration.
From chapter 3 on, the Bible is about the rescue efforts of God to save us from this self-inflicted disaster. He works to save us from our own self-inflicted destruction -- and willing to do this at any cost to Himself.
Adam and Eve, as it were, stepped off the supporting Hand of God, the stable ground of their being, onto the quicksand of the fallen world. They were fleeing the now dreaded Voice of God whom they now saw as "out to get" them -- the Great Moral Snoop in the Sky. Satan had masterfully interposed his own image between God and them, so that the Image of God was now filtered through and distorted by the image of Satan. They saw God tinted in Satanic terms, unfriendly, distant, threatening, and uncaring. And so they backed off further and further into the bushes and deeper into spiritual darkness. They were fundamentally out of touch with reality.
The rescue mission required that they be willing to get back
into reality, willing to challenge their own distorted vision and perception.
We get a glimpse of their fallen souls in the parable of the 11th hour told by Jesus this morning. The kingdom of heaven, says Jesus, is like a householder who goes out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. He agrees with the earliest for a penny a day, and tells those hired later that he will pay them justly. When those who worked the shortest received a penny just like those who worked the longest, those working the longest objected.
Most of us would agree with the complaints of those working the longest. We too might feel cheated. And economic problems would emerge if the householder kept up that practice. Everyone would wait till the 11th hour to show up for work, and so the work in the vineyard could not be finished. So the householder would have to offer higher wages early in the day to get workers early in the day.
But this is not about a vineyard, it is about the Kingdom of God. Jesus is saying that there is only one kind of Kingdom, and that it is either all or nothing at all. There is not a better Kingdom for those who come early and a lesser one for those who come late. They all come into the same community.
We wrongly tend to treat the Kingdom of God as a place -- which supports the notion that you can earn your way in, you can purchase a ticket with your good deeds to obligate the gate keeper to allow you in. But the Kingdom is not essentially a place, it is a relationship, a community, a communion. It is the quality of community which makes the place heavenly, not the place, however beautiful, which makes the relationships heavenly.
It was the terrible, rebellious relationships which motivated God to destroy the place of the Temple. The Temple as a place did not sanctify the relationships, rather it was the Godly relationships of trust and obedience which sanctified the Temple and the people who worshipped there.
Faithful Christians welcome all persons into conversion and the Kingdom at any time in their lives and are glad to share the joys of being sons and daughters of God without distinction as to who came in first.
The parable is another way of saying that you cannot work your way into the Kingdom, it is a gift of grace, a free gift from God. We freely build a relationship with God, we do not earn our way to buy a ticket into a pleasant plot of land.
Jealousy about letting others in is a sure way to put up
barriers in our own relationship building with God and each other. Entering the
Kingdom is becoming a family member in which all are invited to grow into the
same full maturity -- servants of one another. Jesus spoke more words about how
we handle our money and belongings than any other subject. He understood how our
addiction to the world blocks our loyalty to Him and His Kingdom.
That is a glimpse at our fallen world, not a pretty sight.
Sin is rebellion against God, a denial of our reason for existence, a denial of the sovereignty of God over all things, including over our wills. Because God is our Creator, He owns us, lock, stock, and barrel. But because He has given us a freedom of will, we can choose to disobey His reason for our existence. We can choose a contrary goal at which to aim our lives, and for which to spend the God-given resources of our lives. That is rebellion and thievery.
The Old Testament tends to focus on this legal aspect of sin and salvation, and on our rights and obligations. It is not until the New Testament and the revelation of the Holy Spirit and our ability to be ourselves that we begin to focus clearly on our healthiness and wholeness, as well as our holiness. We begin to discover more about our ability, as well as our obligation, to be holy. In the Fall, our ability to be holy is as damaged as our willingness to be holy is in rebellion.
That means that we must focus on both repentance and inner spiritual healing. Our souls are broken as well as guilty. Our wills then become paralyzed so that we are incapable of effective repentance. We repent -- but nothing happens. Nothing changes. A healthy Christian community, with strong mothering and strong fathering figures united as children in the worship of Almighty God is the most healing place in the world. Nothing can compare to it.
I will be suggesting our putting on a weekend conference for inner spiritual healing at some time in the not too distant future. It will help set people free from brokenness so that we can effectively repent. Our wills and emotions and intellects can be healed as well as forgiven.
The ontological and moral stabilities are a good generic definition of salvation, giving our relationship to God as Creator and Sovereign. If we Christians can frame salvation and atonement in terms of these two stabilities, which effect every human being, we will find many receptive hearts and minds.
Next week we will discuss more specifically the destructiveness of our sin nature.
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