Lent I (C)
February 25, 2007
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
Let us pray. Loving and caring God, in the darkness of our sin and the confusion of our world, we seek to renew our faith in you this Lent. In the face of death and suffering, we long to hope in your promise of everlasting life. In times of loneliness and alienation, we desire the consolation of your undying love. Touch our hearts this Lent that through the mystery of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection; we may come to live faithfully in your realm, both now and forever. Amen.
I want to talk to you this morning about something from which we all suffer from time to time. It is persistent and pervasive. It is far worse than a summer cold, more annoying than seasonal allergies and completely unresponsive to the remedies of modern medicine. It is a condition that grips you like a free-floating sense of worthlessness or an existential dread. It burrows deep down within you, an agonizing writhing of conscience permanently buried in the hardest to reach places of the soul. And that is “guilt”.
In his book, Infinite Desire: A Guide to Modern Guilt, Paul Oppenheimer states that our modern secular guilt sits there inside us constantly like a lump, rotting away, unrelieved and unarticulated, growing ever more rancid. He writes that millions of seemingly innocent people feel guilty. Yet they have committed no crimes, done nothing truly shameful. "Nonetheless their guilt persists, at least in their own eyes," he observes, "and often neatly tucked away, though it cannot help but infect their other emotions and everything they do with unmentioned pain." Where does this guilt come from and what does it mean? Oppenheimer suggests a number of possibilities.
First, consider regulations regarding the watering of lawns and others laws of that variety. We feel constrained by all kinds of new laws that appear to regulate every aspect of life: littering laws, seat-belt laws, lawn-watering laws, drink and drug laws, gambling laws, and parking laws – you name it. When you cross any of these lines, you may well immediately feel a twinge, if not the burden, of guilt.
Second, there is our day-to-day respectability that we have to think about. Oppenheimer believes that there is another kind of guilt that arises out of mediocrity, conformity and unfulfilled potential. We believe that we can do more with our lives, be no more true to ourselves, take more risks and have more fun, and we feel guilty when we compromise our potential by following the safe road of quiet respectability.
Third, and as strange as it sounds, we feel guilty about rejecting our guilt. We think that a clear conscience is the sign of a faulty memory. We feel guilty about our modern abandonment of genuine morality, nagged by our rejection of traditional guilt with which our parents and teachers in their good intentions filled us. When everything was black and white, we knew precisely why we felt guilty, and we knew what to do about it. We live in a world of varying shades of gray and confusion and moral relativity; we have no widely accepted moral truths to give shape to our guilt. We need a strong personal sense of morality to make sense of our suffering conscience, or else our guilt festers and will eventually consume us.
Oppenheimer's overarching insight is this: The modern world gives us a deep and disturbing sense that there is something terribly wrong with our lives. What we are facing is an absolute glut of guilt, and it feels absolutely awful. So, what are we going to do about it?
Well, we have the apostle Paul and his message in the letter to the Romans this morning. He starts out by mocking Moses a bit, quoting the words that God spoke to Moses in Leviticus: "You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the LORD" (18:5).
Paul knows that it is ultimately and entirely impossible for anyone to keep all of those statutes and ordinances. The requirements of Leviticus alone make society's laws about littering, seat belts, lawn-watering, drinking, gambling and parking seem like a child's game. Paul seems to be saying that if you think that keeping all God's statutes and ordinances is easy, then you in fact do not know all of God's statutes and ordinances. Righteousness that comes from any law, human or divine, just ain't gonna happen.
Paul, like more and more people today, draws a distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt for Paul is a juridical concept. You do not, you cannot "feel" guilty any more than you "feel" innocent. You are either guilty or you are not; you are either innocent, or you are not. You either got caught with your hand in the cookie jar or you didn't.
But, what you can "feel" is shame. Paul points out to us that the law declares us guilty, and thus it is normal to feel shame because of our condemned condition. Fortunately, for the Romans and for us, the apostle has a better idea, and it is called "the righteousness that comes from faith" (Romans 10:6).
This righteousness has is rooted and grounded in faith, and it is not initiated by repentance or good works or anything that originates in human beings. This righteousness is all about God, it is all good news, it is all gospel – in fact, it is a free offer just waiting to be claimed, one that is "near you, on your lips and in your heart" (v. 8).
The good news is that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; or, in the familiar words of the apostle, "if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (v. 9).
Plain and simple, that is the solution to sin, the one and only antidote to our all-consuming guilt. Both the juridical declaration of guilt and the emotion of shame are lifted in and through Christ. "No one who believes in him will be put to shame" (v. 11). If you think about it, this makes a surprising oddly logical sort of sense. After all, we know from our own painful personal experiences that freedom from sin and guilt is never going to come from human effort.
We wish that the damage we have done over the years could be fully repaired, our cruel words retracted, mistakes erased, the betrayals obliterated, the failures reversed and the long list of selfish and sinful acts wiped clean. But we know that this cannot be done by our own efforts. It requires the gracious forgiveness of another party.
Paul reminds us that freedom from sin and guilt never comes from doing, but from being; not from law, but from grace; not by works, but by faith. We are invited to enter into a relationship with a savior, Jesus Christ. We are offered the grace of a God who truly wants to free us from the burden of our sin and guilt. We are told that we can obtain this gift of forgiveness through faith in God's Son, Jesus. It is all about being in relationship, receiving grace and experiencing faith.
What frees us from our guilt is not a lot of feel-good, do-gooder works – things that make us feel proud of ourselves for an hour or two. What really lifts our burden for all time is the good work of Christ on the cross, when through his selfless sacrifice he absorbed the guilt of all people everywhere and performed a spiritual sin-check for the world. Christ's death on the cross turned our glut of guilt into a flood of forgiveness.
Greg Jones, the dean of Duke Divinity School, tells the true story of a 12-year-old boy named John who was playing one day with the 9-year-old girl who lived next door. Her name was Marie. They found a loaded pistol in a dresser drawer, and their make-believe game turned into a tragic nightmare. Marie was shot dead.
Everyone in the small town attended the funeral of the little girl – everyone that is, except John, who could not face anyone and refused to talk to anyone. He was completely overwhelmed by guilt.
The morning after the funeral, the families of that neighborhood went to church again. Then Marie's older brother went next door to talk to John. "John, come with me," he said. "I want to take you to school." John refused, saying, "I never want to see anyone again. I wish it was me who was dead." Marie’s brother insisted and finally persuaded John to go with him.
The brother talked with the school principal and asked him to call a special assembly. Over five hundred students filed into the gymnasium. Marie's brother stood before them and said, "A terrible thing has happened; my little sister was accidentally shot by one of your fellow classmates. This is one of those tragedies that can mar a life forever. I want you all to know that my family and John's family have been to church together this morning, and we shared in Holy Communion." Then he called John next to him, put his arm around his shoulders and continued: "This boy's future depends on each one of us. My family has forgiven John because we love him. Marie would want that. And I ask you to love and forgive him, too." Marie's brother knew that Christ’s blood was shed for John. And for himself. And for each and every one of the students in that hall and for each one of us as well Marie’s brother believed with absolute certainty what Paul wrote: that "the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him" (v. 12).
He discovered that only one thing could lead to forgiveness and salvation. Something that is pervasive and persistent. Something that is always near you, on your lips and in your heart: Not a glut of guilt but a flood of forgiveness. Amen.