Proper 8A, Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
Listen to the sermon here!
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Have you ever visited a shopping mall and seen those rent-able carts for children? Sometimes they are designed to look like race cars with a fake steering wheel so that the child can have some fun as the parents shop. These carts usually have a bag on the back where you can put your personal or shopping items. Quite often they also have a sign on the bag: “DO NOT PUT CHILD IN BAG.” Why is that sign there? Because some parents were putting their kids in the bag! Maybe someone got hurt. Maybe the bags were damaged. Something happened, and a sign needed to be made. Up until the very moment when you saw the sign, you hadn’t even thought about doing that. But now, since you were told not to do it, what happens? You have a sudden urge to put the child in the bag! I should never have known what it was to want to put the child in the bag, if the sign had not said, ‘Do not put child in bag.’ Through that sign sin found its opportunity, and produced in me all kinds of wrong desires.
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul the Apostle tell us that this situation reveals a serious defect in us. In order help us to understand what’s going on when we have that desire to put the child in the bag, Paul says first that the Law exposes sin. Second that sin exploits the Law. And third, that sinners need grace.
The Law Exposes Sin
When Christians talk about what we are supposed to be like, what we’re supposed to do, or what we shouldn’t do, we’re talking about God’s Law. Since Christians often fail to live up to God’s Law, they are often charged with being hypocrites. But the primary purpose of the Law is not to make us better people. The Law exposes sin. It shines the light of God’s truth on sin. It unmasks sin, strips off the deceptive veneer and shows it up for the ugly rebellion that it is. The Law exposes sin for what it really is—it helps us see what has always been there.
No longer can we live in ignorant bliss. Now we are accountable. When I do something selfish, it is selfish even if no-one has told me not to be selfish. But when the Law accuses me of selfishness and I go ahead and am selfish anyway, my sin is clearly seen for what it is. When you read the sign that says not to put your child in the bag, and you go ahead and do it anyway, you are accountable. The sign points out exactly what you have done wrong. The Law accuses us of being in the wrong, of being miserable offenders. With the law as a lens through which to filter and evaluate our actions, we quickly realise that the Law is not the problem. Sin is the problem We are the problem. Sin has always been present, but we didn’t recognise the degree to which it had infiltrated our lives. The Law goes to the inner recesses of the heart and reveals that we do not fear, love, and trust in God above all things, but instead we are at the heart covetous idolaters. That sin you think is a little thing is far worse than we ever could imagine. Every gossipy word, adulterous look, covetous desire is another symptom of how deep the condition goes. When Christians are measured up to the Law, the Law will always expose our sin for the hideous corruption that it is.
Sin Exploits the Law
The Law not only exposes sin, but Sin exploits the Law. When we see the sign “stay off the grass” we want to walk on it. How much more tempting it is to take a look inside a letter labelled ‘private and confidential’ than an ordinary letter. As Proverbs says, “stolen water is sweeter” (Prov. 9:17). Of course stolen things are not sweeter or better than things we acquire lawfully; the “sweetness” is a matter of perception. Somehow, knowing that we are banned from doing something—like stealing—seems to increase our desire to do it. Sin as like a tempter, taking advantage of the law to call our attention to new and exciting opportunities to sin.
The law does not produce greed, hatred, lust, or sloth, but it heightens our awareness of sin and increases our desire to act out. There is a terrible lure to sin once the Law brings it to light. Instead of discouraging sin, it seems to cultivate more of it. That’s not the Law’s fault. It’s ours. Those evil desires that are riled up by the Law were always there in us, they just needed an opportunity to make them selves known. This means, the Law which shows us our sin, also is exploited by our own sinful desires.
The thing we don’t ever seem to get straight is that the Law doesn’t make sinners better. In fact, it makes them worse. This means that the Law with its commandments cannot save you. It is a sword that will kill you. It is a magnifying lens that will enlarge sin and reveal it to be worse than you ever imagined. It is an amplifier that will crank up the volume of Sin to the pain level. Piling commandments on a sinner is like pouring gasoline on a fire. It is an petri dish that will give rise to ways of sinning you haven’t even thought of before. There is no way to rehab a sinner.
There’s a lesson here for all of us. Don’t expect a steady diet of law to make you into a better person. The Law doesn’t change a sinner into a saint. All that the Law will do is accuse and kill the sinner. That’s all. This means we need to have realistic expectations of the normal Christian life. Anyone involved in the life of a church will discover many flaws. Every individual will be struggling with sin. Churches will be struggling with sin in the way we relate to one another. Churches can be characterised by fighting and a party spirit. Christians can be vicious and hurtful towards each other. This show us we do not need be discouraged by these struggles, because Paul says that these struggles will are going to be worse now we are Christians.
Sinners Need Grace
Christianity’s central message is that although we are seriously flawed, we are accepted by God only by his grace. Christianity is not about attempting to live up to the Law. Christianity does not depend on whether or not certain Christians have kept the rules all the time. Christianity depends on Jesus. It is all about what Jesus did for us. He lived consistently with what the Law demanded, and at the end of His life He challenged those who had lived with Him night and day, for over three years, to point out any sin in Him. His disciples were silent, because there was no sin in him.
But God cannot simply overlook our sin, ignore it, or pretend that it doesn’t exist. God is just and the Law that threatens punishment upon sinners is a reflection of who God is. However, Jesus became sacrifice for us. He kept the Law and the Law killed Him in our place. And He conquered it all in His dying and rising. We stand in continual need Christ who became our substitute, died our Death, and who took the best death could offer and came out victorious. God has dealt with our sin and accepts us through faith. God has shown us mercy through Christ. God cares for you, and wants you to call on him, to trust in him.
Sin is still around, it still clings to us Christians and is still present in our Churches. But now we are forgiven and accepted by God only because of Jesus. God has declared the old you dead. By baptism a Christian is joined to Christ. Marriage is binding only so long as both parties are alive. It is “till death us do part.” Once a spouse has died, the legal bond of marriage is ended. In the same way we are legally bound to Sin and Death by the Law. This is the condition in which you were born. But now, by the baptismal Word of God, you have died to the Law through the body of Christ into which you were baptised. You are no longer bound. That unhappy marriage is ended. You are free to be bound to Christ, which is true freedom. A believer who has died to sin through baptism into Christ’s death is cleared of sin. Sin has no claim over you. Christ’s death, which has become your own through baptism, has satisfied all the debts which you owed. Through Jesus’ work of redemption, the Christian finds the motivation to live a life of repentance. Even in times of great temptation the believer can find comfort and the strength to resist, to put to death those desires.
Even Christians do not live up to God’s Law! Sin clings to us, and its infection has not gone away. The Law exposes it for the mess that it is. Sin uses the Law as an excuse to sin more! Instead, what we need to realise is that the basis for our relationship with God is not how well we keep the rules, but how Christ kept the rules and died as our substitute. The point is not about our worthiness or unworthiness, but repentance and forgiveness. May we show each other the same long suffering mercy which God has shown us in Christ.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hears and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.