Friday, April 6, 2012

"You Did That For Me" -- Good Friday sermon

I got a lot of feedback on my Good Friday sermon. I used Hebrews 10: 16-25 for a text. Here's the sermon:

"You Did That For Me"
Text: Hebrews 10: 16-25

“I will remember their sins no more.” This is the promise made through the prophet Jeremiah, 600 years before Christ, that comes as close as possible to a one-sentence summary of the Christian faith. God’s declaration, “I will remember their sins no more,” is really the Gospel in a nutshell. It’s all that really needs to be said. All of the New Testament, all of our preaching, all of our practice, it’s all commentary on this one amazing, incredible, almost unbelievable statement: “I will remember their sins no more.”

Because our natural human instinct is to remember sins, both our own and those of others – to hold onto them, to rehearse them, to allow them to work their way deeply into our hearts where they become the dominating reality in our relationships. We find it nearly impossible to let go of the things we have done that have wronged others, or the things others have done that have wronged us.

And we think of God primarily as the one who never forgets our sins – from whom there is no escape. “Be sure your sins will find you out,” is the way that so many people picture God.

And yet here is God saying definitely, without qualification, “I will remember their sins no more.”

Through Jeremiah, God promised to enter into a new covenant relationship with God’s people, in which the things we need to do to keep that covenant aren’t external laws, written on stone, that carry the threat of punishment if we do not obey them, that we struggle to apply to our lives – but instead are written on our hearts – God’s will penetrating our hearts and minds so that serving and obeying God become not something strange and alien, but second nature. God promised a new covenant in which God would come to actually dwell within us, God would confer on us a new identity, not of sinners deserving death, but of dearly loved sons and daughters.

It’s a puzzle that Christianity is so widely regarded as a religion of judgment and condemnation. If you ask people on the street their opinions about Christianity, their responses will usually have something to do with rules and regulations, with self-righteousness and judgmentalism, with people who go around behaving like they are better than everyone else.

Maybe it’s not a puzzle, though, because that is so often how Christians have behaved. Christians over the centuries have not really believed what they’ve been told: “I will make a new covenant with you. I will remember your sins no more.” All too often, Christians are guilty of doing what people accuse them of doing – simply carrying on with their old natural human life of judging and condemning.

Jesus puts an end to all that. Jesus puts an end to our need to prove ourselves worthy of God’s acceptance. Jesus puts an end to the need to offer repeated sacrifices in the hopes that we might appease the wrath of an angry God; that maybe if we give enough, or we’re good enough, maybe, just maybe, God will accept us.

So often we project onto God the harsh reality of many human relationships. If I just do a little bit more, maybe he’ll love me; if I just try a little bit harder, maybe she’ll approve of me.

The history of human religion has largely been the story of two struggles in the human heart – the struggle to prove ourselves worthy; and the tendency to condemn of others for not being good enough. The great theologian Karl Barth said that religion amounts to the effort of human beings to justify themselves before God. Jesus puts an end to that effort by making it unnecessary. We do not need to justify ourselves before God. We simply need to receive the grace of forgiveness which Jesus makes possible.

If we would only listen. “I will make a new covenant – not like the old covenant that required an endless series of ever more lavish sacrifices, offered day after day – but a covenant based on the sacrifice of the Son of God, made once, for all. Because of him, I will remember their sins no more – a clean slate. A fresh start. A new beginning.” And yet it’s so hard for us to believe. It’s hard for us to believe that it is true for us. And it’s hard for us to believe that it is true for other people, whose sins we think are simply too great, too heinous, to merit forgiveness.

”Where there is forgiveness of these sins, there is no longer any offering for sin.”

In other words, we don’t need to live like that. We don’t need to do it anymore. We can stop striving to atone for what we have done. We’re forgiven. We’re free.

But, the objection is always raised, doesn’t that encourage irresponsibility, letting people off scot free? Where is the incentive to live a better life if God has simply forgiven us?

No, the Letter to the Hebrews says. God has not left us in our old dead-end way. God has opened up a new and living way. Jesus has made it possible for us to entrust our lives to God without fear. Our hearts have been sprinkled clean. Our consciences have been purified.

And that means we really can be free to spur one another on to good deeds, because we aren’t dominated by the great weight of either our wrongdoing, or that of others. We can let go of the guilt of our own past; and we can let go of burden of other people’s sins.

St. Paul says it best. His critics asked, “If God just forgives us, does that mean we can go on the way we always have and not worry about it?” “Absolutely not,” Paul replied. “Christ has set you free from sin – from the need to do things that set you at odds with God and your neighbor. Christ has set you free from the need to prove yourself, or to build yourself up at the expense of others. Christ has set you free from being dominated by your destructive impulses. If you’ve been set free, why in the world would you want to go back to being slaves again?”

You see, forgiveness that just leaves us the way we were isn’t really forgiveness. It’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” True forgives always transforms and redeems.

What Jesus has done for us is to create the possibility of a whole new way of life. He makes possible a real change in our relationship with God – from being a relationship based on judgment and fear – to one based on acceptance and love – and because of that he changes the basis of our relationships with others.

The greatest problem is not that we need to be forgiven. Or that others need to be forgiven. Jesus has looked after that. The greatest problem is believing that it’s really true – and living like it’s true.

Because so much of the time we don’t live like it’s true. We continue to strive to earn God’s acceptance to measure up – to be good enough. And even if we don’t think of it consciously as trying to appease God, that’s what we’re doing. Or we simply rebel and say we can get along without God’s acceptance and go it alone.

Or we continue to try to make ourselves look better by making others look worse; to build ourselves up as if God has forgiven us because we’re such good people, and tear others down by saying that what they have done is so much worse.

Our great problem is that we can’t cope with the enormity of grace. That’s, I think, why many people don’t want to deal with Good Friday. It’s not just because of the violence and suffering of the crucifixion. It’s that we cannot deal with the size, the depth, the sheer vastness of what God has done for us. We either think we don’t need it, or we think we couldn’t possibly deserve it.

But that’s why we come here on Good Friday. On Good Friday we do stop to wonder at the enormity of what Jesus has done for us. “And from my smitten heart with tears, two wonders I confess,” the old hymn puts it. “The wonder of his glorious love, and my unworthiness.” That’s a lot to take in. But it’s the truth.

It’s what he’s done for us. We can’t earn it. We can’t deserve it. We can only accept it, and marvel at it.

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