Sunday, 8 March 2015

What do we do with our sin?

If someone was to imply that we are a sinner we are likely to take offence.  We tend not to think about ourselves in terms of sin. Or, we will set the bar very low. We will say things like “well, I’m not Hitler” and “I’ve never killed anyone”. So we set the bar so low that nearly anyone can step over it. But it’s work asking, “who gets to set the bar”?

We could take a traditional stance and look at the Ten Commandments. As I go through them keep your own tally privately to yourself.

1)      Have you ever made something in your life more important than God? Have you used something like an idol? Have you put something in place of God?

2)      Have you ever used religious language to justify something that really wasn’t the way of God? Have you ever used God's name in vain? Have you ever made God’s name meaningless?  

3)      Have you ever broken the Sabbath? Or, to put it another way, have you ever gone a week without taking a day to stop and remember that the world won’t stop turning without you, and to refocus your life on God?

4)      Have you ever dishonoured your mother or father? Have you ever treated them less than kindly, or spoken less than kind words to them, or about them?

5)       Have you ever murdered anyone? We have to add to this Jesus’ statement from Matt 5:21-22 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment”. So have you ever harbored deep seething anger towards someone? Have you let the seed of murder germinate within you?

6)      Have you ever committed adultery? Jesus shifts this one too. He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:27-28). Jesus isn’t saying you can’t notice that someone is attractive. The idea here is do you indulge in erotic thoughts about someone and let your mind run wild and unchecked?

7)      Have you ever stolen? It doesn’t have to be anything big. It might not even be a thing. Have you ever taken an idea and presented as if you thought of it?

8)      Have you ever lied?

9)      Have you ever coveted something that belonged to someone else? To covet is to want something very intensely- you almost make yourself sick over it.        
So how did you do?

These are God’s laws we have broken. We sometimes will say, “Well, I did that a long time ago”, but if you stole a car or murdered someone 10 years ago you would still be liable today in a court of law as if you did it yesterday.

So for those of us that had to say “yes” to a number of the questions I just asked about the 10 Commandments what do we do? If we lie, we are a liar. If we sin, we are a sinner. It’s not a particularly fun thing to think about, but what do we do about it? We seem to be the kind of people that do these kinds of things.

I think we do a few things to deal with our sin. One thing we do is just say we don’t believe in sin. Sin isn’t a really thing and we aren’t sinners. Basically it is denial, but some people seem to use that as a strategy.

Others psychologize it. I was watching a show with my parents on Friday night and this woman was presented with a number of horrible things she has done to a number of people, and one person makes the comment, “I think she has a mental illness”. So she wasn’t suddenly responsible for the horrible things she has done. We sometimes blame our childhood or past experiences for the things we do. And I’ll admit that our experiences and our metal health has an effect on our ability to make decisions, but I don’t think we can chalk up all our sin to mental illness or the way we were brought up. I realized how much I did this when I read a book by a psychologist on the Seven Deadly Sins. So often I don’t look at a horrible thing a person does as sin, but as the action of someone who is psychologically diseased. So someone who is prideful or narcissistic is really just overcompensating for low self-esteem. Someone who is full of lust has issues with intimacy and never really feels accepted. So one way of dealing with sin is so psychologize it. We remove the responsibility saying that they can’t really be held accountable for it because they can’t help it. We sometimes psychologize ourselves claiming to be victims of circumstance and refusing to deal with our destructive habits.
Sometimes we deal with our sin by retreating into a habit. We self-medicate through alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling, or a number of other escapist habits. We attempt to dull the pain of carrying our sin around.    
Sometimes we become perfectionists thinking that if we can be perfect now then that will make up for our past failings. We become legalists.

In ancient Israel (and most other ancient cultures) they dealt with sin through sacrifice. What can you give God? God has given everything. Mysteriously, all over the world, people decided to offer life. Animals were sacrificed to deal with sin.

The Temple in Jerusalem was a massive sacrifice machine. It took a lot of structure to keep it going. It had an army of priests that were continuously presented with animals for sacrifice. During Passover people from all over Israel (and even all over the Roman Empire) would flood into Jerusalem to offer sacrifice and worship at the Temple. Many people wouldn’t bring animals with them on their long travels to be used for sacrifice. Imagine pilgrims from all over flooding into Jerusalem for the most important festival of Passover. Most of them have to buy an animal for their sacrifice in the temple. The outer court of the Temple becomes a market.  The sounds of cattle, sheep, doves, and the crowd fills the temple courts. Maybe those selling are taking advantage of the situation, charging a bit more than they should. Some in the crowd grumble and argue about the price gouging with those that are selling and changing money.  Only certain monies were allowed in the temple. Some coins had images on them that weren’t allowed in the temple so you had to change the money if you wanted to bring money into the Temple. No doubt there was a fee for changing the money. I imagine it a bit like buying popcorn at the movies- You are a captive customer. 

This is the situation Jesus walks into. It is important to realize that this is not a new scene for Jesus. It would have been as expected as walking into the church at Christmas and seeing a nativity scene set up.  This would not have been a new scene for him. This was what he experienced every year since he was a boy.

This is the background of our gospel reading, “he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:15-16).

What do you think was happening here?

I think we get a hint at what is happening when we look at where all this is taking place. The temple was a segregated place. There was a section that non-Jewish people were allowed (the court of the Gentiles). Everyone was allowed there. As you progressed deeper into the temple it became more and more exclusive. There was a place where Jewish women were allowed (The women’s court). As you go deeper there was the court of Israel, where Jewish men were allowed. Then there was the court of the priests. And then there was the Holy of Holies, where only one priest entered once a year.  
The Temple court where all this buying and selling is taking place was the only place where the Gentiles were allowed to worship. Isaiah 2:2 says, “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it”. Israel was meant to be a light to the nations. They were meant to draw the whole world to God. But, they tended to turn in on themselves. The court where the world was permitted to come worship was made into a market, rather than a place of prayer. It was an unjust market at that- where people were taken advantage of for financial gain. Jesus’ actions could be seen as primarily about Israel not fulfilling her calling. Jesus was bringing judgement on the temple.

I think we get a hint at what was happening when we look at Jeremiah chapter 19.  There, God tells the Prophet Jeremiah to go and buy a clay jar from the potter and gather some of the people. And there he was to foretell the coming destruction- “Behold, I am bringing such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place…” (Jer 19:3-4). “Then you shall break the flask in the sight of the men who go with you, and shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter's vessel, so that it can never be mended” (Jer 19:10-11).  Then Jeremiah stood in the temple “court of the Lord's house and said to all the people: ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, behold, I am bringing upon this city and upon all its towns all the disaster that I have pronounced against it, because they have stiffened their neck, refusing to hear my words’” (Jer 19:14-15).

I suspect something like this is happening with Jesus. Jeremiah broke the clay vessel as a symbolic judgement and destruction. In a similar way Jesus was declaring God’s judgement. When he ran the animals out and scattered the coins the sacrifice machine stopped. The flow of animals for sacrifice stopped. Jesus symbolically destroyed the Temple in this action. I don’t believe this was Jesus losing his temper or using violence to deal with injustice. This was a prophetic action declaring the judgement of God and destroying the Temple.

When they ask for a sign of his authority to do this he said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19). Jesus equates the Temple with his own body. The temple was the place for Israel to deal with sin, now suddenly Jesus was the place to deal with sin.

Do we maybe have our own little temples that we use to deal with our sin? Do we have a temple of denial where we bring our sin? Do we have a temple where we psychologize out sin? Do we have a temple of perfectionism? Maybe it’s a temple of addiction where we bury our sin? Do we use these as temples to deal with our sin, when the real place to deal with sin is Jesus? Maybe Jesus wants to destroy those temples.

One of the primary symbols of Jesus is the “lamb of God”. It is the image of a spotless lamb, wounded, and slain, for sin in order to save people. During Passover they would remember the blood of the lamb on the doorposts that protected the household from plague of the death of the firstborn.

We no longer have to travel to a temple to deal with our sin. We no longer have to offer the blood of a lamb as a sacrifice for our sin. The Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 70 AD. Sacrifice in Jerusalem stopped on that day and it is unlikely that it will ever be rebuilt (especially with the Dome of the Rock built on the temple mount). Animal sacrifice stopped very shortly after the death of Jesus. The worldwide phenomena of animal sacrifice for sin that seems to have been a part of almost every culture has almost stopped entirely because of the influence of Christianity (even among some who didn’t convert to Christianity).[1]   

So what do we do with our sin? We bring it to Jesus in prayer. Not in a short little dinner time prayer. But we really come before Jesus in prayer, bringing to mind the damage the sin has caused and the cost Christ paid. With as full an understanding of the sin and its effects as we can muster we come before Jesus and ask forgiveness and for understanding and grace so that we can be free from committing the sin again.  Then we come to members of the body of Christ and we hear words of forgiveness spoken over us.
There are some who say that we really need to speak our sin to another human member of the body of Christ. There is power when our secret sin is exposed to another person and we see that the person still loves us and accepts us and even declares Christ’s forgiveness over us. This has a very old tradition. James 5:16 says, “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed”. This doesn’t have to be the case for every sin we commit, but there are times when we do something particularly destructive that would make it helpful to involve another person.            
We no longer need temples to deal with our sin. The place to deal with sin is Jesus himself. It doesn’t require the blood of animals that was spilled for thousands of years all over the world to deal with sin, instead Jesus offered his blood to deal with our sin. We can go to him for healing and transformation.

[1] I should mention that Buddhism (~450BC) and Jainism also speak against the sacrificial practices of the Vedic Hinduism they arose out of.  

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