First Sunday in Lent

Holy Trinity, DanvilleGenesis 9:8-17, I Peter 3:18-22

It’s Lent. Penitence is in the air. You came together four days ago and confessed your sinfulness and got doused with ashes as a sign of your contrition. We will continue to explore that theme explicitly today and Fr Richard will have the opportunity to keep on doing so over the next two Sundays, and implicitly for the rest of the Lenten season.

Sin happens. Sin can be defined in a number of different ways:  Rebellion against God, putting ourselves in the place of God, deviation from God’s revealed will or the evident order of creation, or breaking one of God’s laws.

Sin affects us; it affects is profoundly. We are the victims of sin. People lie to us, and we make important decisions based on false information, and we suffer as a result. People cheat us. They take advantage of our instinct to trust, to be generous, to give the benefit of the doubt, and we suffer as a result. People steal from us in numerous subtle and not-so-subtle ways. In recent years, identity theft has become a widespread problem that has robbed people of their reputations and their life savings. We are all victims of sin.

But we’re not exactly innocent victims, because we’re also all perpetrators of sin. We lie to other people routinely. We may not blatantly publish “fake news,” and we may think we have worthy motives, like sparing people the pain of hurt feelings, or withholding relevant information in the advancement of a noble cause, but we do lie to other people. It’s amazing what moral gymnastics people will go through in order to justify lying. We also cheat people and steal from them in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. We cheat people and rob them when we make assumptions about their character based on their ethnicity, or the language they speak, or how they dress, or what kind of car they drive, or their taste in music.

But the effects of sin transcend even the dynamics of the relationship between victims and perpetrators. Sin affects the fabric of creation. It’s not part of God’s plan that earthquakes cause tidal waves that wipe out entire populations. Tsunamis are evidence of sin, the fallenness of the created order. It’s not part of God’s plan that cells multiply in strange ways and grow into tumors that result in the failure of vital organs. Cancer is evidence of sin, the fallenness of the created order. It’s not part of God’s plan that cats catch and eat birds, and birds catch and eat worms. Predation is evidence of sin, and the fallenness of the created order. Now, I’m certainly not trying to pick a fight with geologists, who are no doubt eager to tell me about plate tectonics that cause earthquakes and how they are completely mindless and wouldn’t know a sin from a sunset. Nor am I trying to alienate molecular biologists and organic chemists and zoologists and evolutionary biologists who have perfectly plausible scientific explanations for cancer and predation. I am not in any way saying that scientific accounts of these horrible things are wrong. Science is essential in describing what happens in the natural world and how it happens. It’s the job of philosophy and theology, however, to interpret, to give meaning to that which science describes, and the significance of natural disasters and diseases and suffering of any sort is that they tell us all is not right with the world. It is fallen. We live and move and have our being under the power and curse of sin. As our Eucharistic Prayer puts it, we have become “subject to evil and death.”

But we’re not through yet, because sin also affects God—even God. The reality and presence of sin creates a conflict for God, a conflict between the very attributes of God’s divine nature. We know, from what God has revealed to us about himself, that he is infinitely loving and abundantly compassionate. In the prior edition of the Prayer Book, the formula for absolution following the General Confession at Morning Prayer included the biblical language that God “desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live.” We also know that God is perfectly just, to a degree of fairness and impartiality that we cannot even imagine. More to the point, God is supremely holy. He is the very essence of life and wholeness. It is against his basic nature to tolerate anything that deviates from perfect justice and perfect righteousness. So, sin creates a conflict for God, because it pits God’s love against God’s justice, his mercy against his holiness.

What can God do? What options are available to him? How can he deal creatively and constructively with the problem of sin—sin as it affects human relationships, sin as it affects all of creation, and sin as it affects God himself? One strategy might be to simply ignore it, overlook it, engage in what might be called benign neglect. Perhaps, if God is just patient enough with us and our sinfulness, we’ll eventually figure things out, and get better under our own motivation. As most of you know, I’m married to a woman who spent multiple decades as a piano teacher. Over the years, I’ve heard her complain, of course, about students who don’t practice in a way that does justice to their talent. But, more frequently, I’ve heard her complain about parents who make practicing the piano a chore, like setting the table or cleaning their rooms. Brenda’s philosophy of piano practice has always been that it should be self-motivated, its own reward, an end in itself. Maybe God could take the same attitude toward our progressing in overcoming sin. Punishment serves no practical purpose. We’ll eventually get it.

Of course, this is what we hope for with respect to our own sins, or the sins of someone we love. I once watched a movie on television about a teenager who unintentionally kills his girlfriend in an isolated place, then walks away from the scene. When the boy’s father discovers incriminating evidence, he gets rid of it, and does his best to steer the authorities in the wrong direction. Yes, his son made a mistake, but why should he go to jail until he’s a middle-aged man because of a momentary lapse in judgment? He tells the boy, “Let’s work on keeping you out of jail now. We’ll worry about saving your soul later.” He obviously didn’t trust the judicial system to come to the same conclusion he hoped God would come to. However, when we’re the victim of sin, we have a slightly different attitude. Just read Psalm 109 sometime, and you’ll see what I mean. 109—make a mental note of it. In any case, though, this is not a route God chooses to follow. It’s in keeping with the spirit of his compassionate love but would be hugely inconsistent with his justice and his holiness.

Then again, in response to sin, God could decide to wipe the slate clean and get a fresh start, to see if he could make a world that would not fall captive to the power of sin, to destroy what he had made and start over. Since the advent of personal computers in the 1980s, and the simultaneous rise in the popularity of computer solitaire, I’ve noticed that some programs are strict, and make you lie in the bed you make, so to speak, while others are more lenient, and allow you to start over with the same cards, but with no penalties. So, you can learn from your mistakes but not suffer their consequences. What a lovely idea! This must have been the sort of program God was playing with when he told Noah to build an ark and then made it rain long enough to wipe out all human and animal life that wasn’t on the ark. But when it was all over, God decided to swear off “do-overs.” To destroy in vengeance is not in keeping with God’s nature of love. He decided to live thereafter in the bed that he had made. And he put a rainbow in the sky as a sign—a reminder to himself—of this covenant not to press the reset button on his creation ever again.

Instead, God is committed to redemption as his strategy for responding to sin. Not neglect, which compromises God’s justice and holiness, not destruction, which abrogates God’s compassion and love, but redemption, which honors both.  Redemption doesn’t make a new thing; it makes something new out of something old. God wants to take each of us as we are and take us apart and put us back together according to his own likeness and image. God wants to take creation itself and remake it, not to bring back Eden, but to introduce something better, not to merely restore what we’ve lost, but to give us something we’ve never even thought to want!

Redemption is not a slam dunk. It’s not easy or simple. It’s not a matter of God snapping his fingers, or telling his executive officer, “Make it so.” Redemption is complex. Ask anybody in the construction business, and they’ll tell you that thoroughly remodeling an old building is usually much more complicated and difficult than constructing a new one from scratch. It would have been much easier for God to deal with sin by sending another flood, or an asteroid, or a swarm of fire ants, to destroy our race and give him a blank slate to work with. But whenever that thought occurs to him, he looks at the sky and sees a rainbow and reminds himself of his covenant with Noah not to go that route again. He has made a commitment to the hard work of redemption.

Redemption is not easy, nor is it cheap. When you’re responsible for a house or another building that needs constant maintenance, it’s always tempting to do a patch here and a patch there, and just paper over problems, rather than tearing out the dry rot and really fixing the place, which would be very costly. In the same way, redemption is costly. It cost God the agony of watching his own beloved Son—literally his own flesh and blood—die on the cross. It would have been much cheaper for God to wink and nod and hope we’ll find our own way out of the mess we’re in. But that would have been inconsistent with his nature of justice and holiness.

My brothers and sisters, as we walk through Lent, as we live under the covenant of the rainbow, the cost of our redemption will become progressively clearer to us, culminating in our celebration of the Paschal Mystery in the Triduum. May we worthily keep the fast, that we may worthily keep the feast. Amen.

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