March 1, 2009
Too Much of a Good Thing
Around the 1600s many churches had a certain kind of chair that sat near the front of the sanctuary. That chair was known as the stool of repentance. The idea was if you had committed some sort of sin, on a particular Sunday-usually on a Sunday when communion was being celebrated-you would be brought into the church and made to sit on that stool.
You would sit on that stool during the whole worship service. Then, you would be given the opportunity to speak to let the church members know how sorry you were for your sin. When you were finished, the congregation would take a vote. They would decide if you were sincere or not. If you were judged to be truly sorry for your sins, you would be welcomed back into the fellowship of the church and would be given communion. (Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (New York: Viking, 2004), 578-79.)
It is not difficult to guess why that tradition ended. But Lent is the time of year when we are all placed on the stool of repentance and consider the topic we would rather ignore- sin.
Often times "sin" makes us think of a list of things that we're not supposed to do. We think of specific acts, like lying, stealing, swearing, doing something mean or hurtful. But in the Bible, the word "sin" quite literally means "to miss the mark." The idea is that if you're shooting a bow and arrow, you should try to aim at and hit the target. Because if you let your attention wander somewhere else and point your bow and arrow in some other direction and shoot, you're going to miss the mark. From the Bible's point of view, that's what sin is, aiming your life in the wrong direction, having an agenda for your life that's different from the agenda that God has for your life. When that happens, when we miss the mark, eventually it results in disaster.
(C. Edward Bowen, Lectionary Homiletics, Lent 2009)
This morning's Old Testament story of Noah is case in point. People were aiming their lives in the wrong direction. They were not aiming for God but rather for wealth or power or self-satisfaction. See what had become of a once beautiful creation, God looked at the world and said, "Let's start over."
You know the story, the animals, Noah and his family, and the ark that saves them from the flood. And after the flood God started again. This time with a promise. I won't flood the world again. I won't wipe you out again. I won't punish you like this again. God kept the promise. But it did not take long for God's beautiful creation to return to sin.
Once again God looked at a once beautiful creation and said, "Let's start over."
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan... 12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan... Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
In this reading today we hear that Jesus was tempted by the devil for 40 days out in the wilderness. When we're tempted, we're put in situations where we need to decide which direction we're going to aim our lives, which agenda we're going to pursue-God's agenda or our agenda. In the case of Jesus, of course, he made the right choices.
But what about us? We try but we do not always succeed. Sometimes we blow it intentionally. Sometimes we make mistakes that result in great harm to others. We would probably understand if God decided to start over again and clean up the world with a flood. The fact is, God has said, "Let's start over."
In baptism God says, "Let's start over," but let's do it one person at a time.
In baptism we are invited to wade into the same waters that swept away the sin in Noah's time, because Jesus has gone before us and calls out, "Come on in, the water's fine! It has been blessed by my presence. Come back to the womb so that you can be created anew. [Sin] may still reside in your heart, but I am there also and I will prevail. My graceful ways are more persistent than anything you may do. And if you need a reminder of this, you do not need to look into the distant sky, because the reminder is dripping from your forehead. This is my new covenant with you. Go where you will. Do whatever you will. Try as others might to threaten you, try as you might to abandon me, I will never leave your side. You are mine." (Martin Copenhaver, Christian Century, February 21, 2006)