“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”
By The Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, April 11, 2021
Reading: 1 John 1:1-2:2
Recently, in one of the discussions of our Lent Study Group on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we reflected on a question that was raised in the book about whether sin is taken seriously anymore in the church or by Christians today. In some periods of history and in some parts of the church maybe we’ve seen an unhealthy obsession with the evil of sin and harsh punishments inflicted because of it; but there’s also been a tendency at times to dismiss sin – that what we do is not important; it only matters what we believe.
It was interesting to hear people’s thoughts and questions on a topic that normally isn’t particularly fun to talk about. One of the members of the group made the comment that they don’t hear a lot of ministers talk about sin anymore, and there may be a number of reasons for that, aside from the fact that it’s just not fun.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: ministers don’t particularly relish the thought of talking about sin. But we kind of have to. You could say it comes with the job. One of the things Bonhoeffer wrote that struck me during the Lent study was this: “Nothing can be more cruel than that leniency which abandons others to their sin.” Why would he say that it’s cruel to be lenient about sin? Well, because sin is inherently destructive in our lives, and it causes our relationship with our God who loves us and who offers us abundant life to be strained or even broken. So Bonhoeffer’s idea is that the most loving thing a Christian can do for another is to address problems of sin. So, if we truly love you, we ministers have to talk about sin because we care about your lives and your relationships.
Ever since the positivity movement came along, talking about sin is seen as a downer. Norman Vincent Peale taught us all “The Power of Positive Thinking,” and self-help gurus have told us to focus on our strengths, not our weaknesses - until Dr. Phil came along and reminded us that “you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.” Sometimes focusing on our strengths is better than working on our weaknesses. If all we ever do is focus on improving the things we’re not good at, then we may miss an opportunity to add value to the world in our area of strength.
But when it comes to our Christian life, we really do have to spend some time focusing on our weaknesses, because our weaknesses – or our sins – cause our Christian walk and our relationship with God to deteriorate. When we think of the 10 commandments, for example, I might keep 9 of them perfectly…but occasionally dabble in a little murder. How is the quality of my Christian life then? Or if I never, ever steal from anyone but my weakness is adultery, then probably I should work on my weakness rather than my strength if I want to improve my relationship with God and neighbour, who in this case would be my spouse.
Now, maybe I’m weird, but I actually like to talk about sin – including my own – and strangely enough I get a little excited when people start to acknowledge and get real about their own sin! That’s because only once we have a profound understanding of the seriousness of sin that we’ll have a life-altering experience of grace! I didn’t have a deep, existential appreciation for what God’s grace really meant until I was in a position where I had to confront the reality of my sinfulness.
This morning’s scripture from the 1st letter of John talks about sin – not any particular sin, thankfully, just sin in general. It’s part of a letter written by someone who calls himself “the elder” and delivered to communities of believers that were associated with the apostolic tradition of John, and so the letter is attributed to John. The first 4 verses serve as a prologue that sets up the theme of the letter, and that theme is that the “word” or message of life is grounded in the person of Jesus, God’s son, who has revealed the nature of eternal life, which all believers now share. The point “John” is making in the verses we heard is that if we truly share in the life of God then we must be what God is.
In v. 5 he writes that “God is light,” and if God is light then God’s children must live in the light. Then in then verses 6, 8 and 10 he presents three moral tests for determining whether a believer is living in the light, living in the sphere of eternal life with Jesus. And the three moral tests each have a counterpoint. It’s clear that to “John” the quality of our religious faith can be tested, which may feel a little “judgmental” to us, but this is consistent with the teaching of Jesus who said, for example, “each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil.”[i] We know a tree by its fruit. An orange tree can say it’s an apple tree all it wants – if trees could talk – but when we see that it’s producing oranges, we know that it’s fooling itself.
So, John writes: 6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true. There he’s saying there is a close link between what they say and what they do. If they say they are Christian, but their actions are not Christ-like then he says they’re living a lie, both in their words and in their actions. This is not an idea that is original to John: again Jesus himself said, “why do you say Lord, Lord, but do not do what I say.”
Then in v. 8 John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” That is, they’re fools if they think their sin is not a problem. And then in v. 10: “If we say that we have not sinned then we make him a liar and his word is not in us.” So not only are we kidding ourselves, but we make a liar out of God, because God has named our “sin” and brought it to light through the laws of Moses, so how then can we say that we don’t sin or even that there is no sin? So “John” makes it clear that having close fellowship with God and living in the light of Christ requires rigorous honesty with ourselves and with God and it requires the acknowledgment and confession of sin.
But what is sin, and why does it matter? What’s the big deal? Why should we talk about it? On a purely semantic level, it doesn’t seem like it would be that bad: the Greek word that we translate as sin is “Hamartia” and it was a term used in archery that meant “missing the mark.” In archery, you’re aiming for the bullseye, but if the arrow lands off centre that’s “hamartia.”
It sounds innocent enough, but the consequences when it comes to sin in our lives are serious. We get a better idea of how serious when we consider those daredevils who shoot arrows at an apple on someone’s head. If I’m that person with the apple on my head, I do not want the arrow to miss the mark or I’m going to be dead! Well, our sin separates us from God, who is holy and perfect, and that results in spiritual death, as we are separated from the source of eternal life.
Quoting Douglas John Hall, as I did on Good Friday, the understanding of sin that the cross of Jesus depicts is “relational.” He says, “No word in the Christian vocabulary is so badly understood both in the world and in churches as the word sin. Christians have allowed this profoundly biblical conception, which refers to a broken relationship, to be reduced to sins – moral misdemeanors and guilty thoughts, words and deeds…”[ii]
Hall, here, is drawing on the theology of Martin Luther, who defined sin as “unbelief” and said that all of the little misdemeanors we think of as “sins” are the result of our faithlessness, our lack of trust in God. Whenever we commit an act that we would call “a sin,” – something that hurts another person, or something that violates the word of God – it’s a reflection that the light of God’s truth is not in us. It shows that we doubt God’s commandments are valid; we don’t believe that disobeying them will harm us. We turn our backs on what God has said is good and right and true, and determine that we know better than God what is good for us. According to the Bible, the very first temptation to disobey God was offered with the words, “did God really say that?” When Jesus was tempted in the desert, it was by putting God’s plan into doubt. There was nothing sinful about turning bread into stones; the temptation was to doubt God’s promises.
Sin needs to be taken seriously, because whenever our hearts are turned away from God’s truth, it affects our whole lives, especially our relationships with others. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Life Together, wrote: “there is no sin in thought, word, or deed, no matter how personal or secret, that does not harm the whole community.” That’s a bit of an eye-opener! It’s not uncommon for us to think that when we sin we’re only hurting ourselves; or that what we do makes us happy and is nobody else’s business.
But when we are engaged in behaviours that are the result of sin – even if nobody ever finds out about it – it changes who we are. It changes the way we view the world, and it changes how we relate with other people. Pornography is a perfect example of that – it’s so easy to consume in total anonymity and secrecy – even for children! – but it absolutely changes how we perceive other people – it turns human beings into objects for our pleasure - and it distorts our understanding of what a loving relationship should be. What internet porn is doing to the minds of our youth is absolutely heartbreaking. They have become innocent victims of a deeply evil industry.
If John says that we must be what God is, what are we to do with the fact that we know we can never be what God is? Most of us are only too acutely aware of just how flawed we are, even when we’re too afraid to admit it. So what do we do? We ground ourselves in the cross of Jesus Christ so that we can come before God with Him as our advocate.
After each of the three moral tests, “John” offers a conditional statement, and offers assurance to those who recognize the presence of sin in their lives – of unbelief – and confess it to God. After saying in verse 6, “6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true,” he counters, “7 but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Jesus is the light of God, so it is by fixing our eyes on Him that we follow him and walk in the light.
In verse 8, again, he says, “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us,” and in v. 9 he counters that with “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Not “might” forgive us, but “will” forgive us. Once we confess our sins to God and receive forgiveness, we don’t have to fear, wondering if we’re really forgiven. The sins we committed in the past no longer define us in God’s eyes. God will forgive us because Jesus has died for our sins. “It IS finished.”
The importance of confessing our sins is not because God is an angry judge who is waiting to catch us and wants to condemn us; but like we said before, it’s because honesty with ourselves and honesty with God is crucial to living in a right relationship with God, with others, and even with ourselves.
And finally, after v. 10 where John says, “If we say that we have not sinned then we make him a liar and his word is not in us,” he counters with a bold and loving declaration: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
He says that Jesus Christ is now an advocate – a defense attorney, so to speak – before the Father for all those throughout the whole world who confess their sin before God and look to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as the event which has won our freedom. That means that when we come before God with our “guilty” plea; when we honestly confess that, yes, our unbelief has broken our relationship with Him and maybe because of it we have even done things that have hurt others, Jesus will turn to God and say, this one is mine. I died for this person’s forgiveness.
The beauty of the forgiveness that God offers is captured powerfully in the poem written by George Roemisch, which is entitled “Forgiveness:”
Forgiveness is the wind-blown bud
which blooms in placid beauty at Verdun.
Forgiveness is the tiny slate-gray sparrow
which has built its nest of twigs and string
among the shards of glass upon
the wall of shame.
Forgiveness is the child who
laughs in merry ecstasy
beneath the toothed fence that
closes in Da Nang.
Forgiveness is the fragrance of the violet
which still clings fast to the
heel that crushed it.
Forgiveness is the broken dream
which hides itself within the corner of the mind
oft called forgetfulness so that
it will not bring pain to the dreamer.
Forgiveness is the reed
which stands up straight and green
when nature’s mighty rampage halts, full spent.
Forgiveness is a God who will not leave us
after all we’ve done.
God will not abandon us to spiritual death, and God will not abandon us in our moment of physical death, no matter what we’ve done. If you’re carrying around a burden of guilt for something you did and you haven’t confessed it, trust in God’s invitation to receive His mercy. If you’re carrying a burden of guilt for something you did in the past, and you have confessed it, but still don’t feel sure that you’re forgiven, trust in the promise of God, which is sure and true, much more so than our fickle feelings. The sureness of God’s forgiveness was shown on Easter Day, when God took Jesus’ sacrifice and raised him from the dead, offering new life to all those who receive it. This is the assurance of forgiveness that we have in Jesus Christ. Thanks BE to God.
[i] Luke 6:44
[ii] Ibid. p. 104