June 3, 2007

The Wise Person’s Character: Self-Controlled
Matthew 4:17

For those who only know Jesus as one who is a wise teacher who considers the lilies of the field and serves the poor, these words which begin and characterize Jesus’ ministry are difficult to hear. This call to repentance is the very essence of Jesus’ Gospel. It is a call to repent of sin and our sinful ways.

If you are a normal human being, however, either Christian or not Christian you will have some kind of reaction to these words of Jesus, most likely not positive. The imperative call to REPENT elicits certain images and thoughts. Perhaps your first thought was that of a clichéd southern pastor who preaches-a about-a God-a who will judge you and send you to the fiery pits of hell-a. Or maybe you saw an urban setting with a disheveled looking sandwich-board-wearing-sage displaying the words for all to see “The end is near” as warning of the inevitable apocalyptic doom. We think both of these characters are either laughable or unfortunate (you choose which one is which). But Jesus started his ministry with similar words.

We don’t want to hear that we have a need to repent because it contradicts what we want to believe about ourselves: that I am basically a good person, or that my chosen lifestyle is really okay with God. Jesus’ call to repent tells us that despite our religiosity, our self-righteousness and our outward appearance of having it all together we are sinners through and through. To call someone a sinner is not to call someone a bad person or less of a person or to use it as a stand-in for a vulgar four letter word. To be called a sinner is to (here’s were you need to hold onto something) make a theological claim that there is a problem between you and God. A sinner is someone who has rebelled against our sovereign creator and is trying to be something he or she was not created to be.

Imagine, as an example, you are a gazelle watching an elephant trying to fly (now you’ll have to realize that Disney’s flying elephant Dumbo was in fact fictitious). Imagine the elephant standing near the edge of a cliff with the intent of flying. The elephant takes a running start, begins to flap its ears, its trunk maybe even a leg or two in an attempt to fly across the gorge to the other side. A great dust cloud begins to surround the poor animal in its futile and rather dangerous attempt to fly. You, the smart gazelle, can see the ridiculousness of this attempt, but the elephant has been blinded by a lie which tells it that it can, in fact, fly. The elephant will follow the lie to its inevitable conclusion unless it can be shown how much it really can not fly. It is up to someone who is not subject to this lie to reveal to the elephant that it is going down a dangerous path and needs to repent of its belief in its ability to fly and become a redeemed elephant.

I find it interesting, though, that we don’t know about sin from a bunch of wise people sitting around a campfire pondering the state of humanity. Rather we learn of sin first by being shown what God is doing in the world and who God is. We first learn about ourselves and our general situation not from the beginning of Genesis, but from a God who frees Israel from slavery in Egypt and by the light of the cross. We learn how unloving we really are when we kill the one who loves us so much he is willing to die to show it.

The extent of our sin must first be exposed to us before we can even become aware that we are sinful. Sin is the lie through which we see ourselves and our purpose in this world. It is so much a part of our life, our identity, our choices and behaviors that we can’t even see it for what it is or watch how it operates. Sin blinds us to the reality of its existence and we need to be shown our sin for what it is. Once our sin is exposed we can see ourselves honestly. Like a doctor who accurately and honestly diagnosis a patient with a life threatening disease – only after the disease is exposed can the patient accept a method of treatment. Only after we have been redeemed can we honestly begin to deal with our sin.

This may seem rather counter-intuitive or just a bit confusing, but stay with me. I was watching TV a few weeks ago, as I commonly do, when I came across a particular show. I’m not sure of the show’s name, but it was one of these that follows a couple who is trying to save their marriage after one spouse has been unfaithful. I found it interesting that the couple was able to talk honestly about the affair, the relationship and all the emotions that go into it only after the cheating spouse was able to confess and ask for forgiveness. All during the years of cheating the offending spouse operated out of a lie that perhaps it was okay, or maybe it was just a one time thing. That spouse operated out of a lie and traded the marriage for something it was not created to be.

Only in the context of a cheater forgiven by the other spouse could the relationship have hope of final healing and final redemption. So, too, in the words of Will Willimon “The Gospel story that we are forgiven-being-redeemed sinners is the means whereby we are able to be honest about the reality, complexity, and perversity of our sin.” To truly be Christian, then, is not merely to say that I am forgiven and now I’m fine, but to live a life that is forgiven, truly freed from sin, yet still deals with the seriousness of sin. It is only a Christian who has been forgiven who can honestly and truly begin to deal with the sin in her or his life.

Salvation, then, is not the point in which sin is removed completely from our lives, but it is the point in which we are freed from sin in order to begin dealing with the pervasiveness and seriousness of our sin. It is only at this point that we begin to see how completely and utterly compromised we are by sin. Sin runs deeply to the core of our being. It affects every aspect of who we are and who we see ourselves to be. This Christian life then can be seen not as a level of achieved moral perfection as if salvation gives us license to think of ourselves as superior to others. Rather this Christian life should be one in which we learn to deal with sin in our lives in a structured guided lifelong process. The church then should actually be a place not where we come with our church clothes on and our church masks in which we present a false self to others, but a place where we can all admit and confess that we are in fact sinners-forgiven-being-redeemed.
This journey is not an easy one. There is a lot to confront, there is a lot to expose, and there is a lot to confess. One of the things we learn about God in the life of Jesus Christ is the pervasiveness of our sin. More often than not we see sin as those acts that are external to us, those crimes which are terrible actions against other humans. The reality of sin, however, is much closer to home. Sin is not the exclusive realm of the outwardly dramatic, the tragic, the horrific or the grotesque, rather it is primarily about the everyday, the mundane, the ordinary foibles of humanity that lead us into the outwardly dramatic and horrific actions of sin.

Jesus tells us that the law says not to murder and that is something I think everyone has not done. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Instead Jesus sees murder existing not simply in the outwardly horrific action of taking another person’s life. Rather Jesus tells us that this sin starts as a simple yet all too common thought of hatred or anger towards another human being. It’s not enough to not murder; what we really need is to control ourselves and come to a point at which we no longer have hatred towards someone. It’s easy to avoid killing someone and it’s easy for us to see someone who does commit murder as someone who is abnormal. We can watch the news every night and tell ourselves that we are not like that person; we would never kill someone because after all we are basically good people. Jesus exposes to us the extent of sin that starts as hatred or simple anger that goes out of control which leads to the outward action of killing someone. When we see Jesus on the cross asking God the Father to forgive those who have crucified him because they don’t know what they are doing that we see what love truly is and that even at our best we cannot compare with this kind of love.

Look at the action of road-rage to see how uncontrolled anger leads a normal human being to kill another normal human being. Not long ago there was an act of road rage not too far from here which led to the deaths of two people. Perhaps you saw it on the news as well. Two drivers were driving along the road when one did something that angered the other. The angered driver responded out of that anger, gestures were exchanged, driving became reckless and aggressive until one person made a mistake which caused the other car to spin out of control flip over the guard rail at excessive speeds, land upside down killing both inside. The other driver left the scene of the crime. Now I ask you, how does sin play itself out in this situation? Is it in the aggressive driving? Is it in the act of killing two people? Or is it something deep within us and insidious?

Jesus tells us that it is not the outward thing that defiles us or makes us unclean. He says, “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” Sin begins in the heart and usually starts as something small that if left unchecked and uncontrolled will manifest itself as an outward action of sin. The thing that is so damning about sin is that it is just far too human a thing. Sin is the common, stupid, often minor things of our lives, our choices, our views of ourselves that are not in line with what we see in God at the Cross of Christ.

Once these things are exposed to us, that murder begins every time we entertain thoughts of anger towards our brother, that adultery begins every time we look at someone through lust-filled eyes, that wars begin when we believe the lie about ourselves, we must take them seriously and begin to deal with them.

For the Christian to not take sin seriously and to not begin dealing with sin, to not beg forgiveness every Sunday and confess what we have sinned, is to deny the truth about ourselves. The self-controlled Christian is one who acknowledges the truth that we are sinners that, yes, we are forgiven, but we are only beginning to deal with sin, to be healed from its affects, to repent from our Godless ways.

As Christians we are called to control ourselves and our sinful impulses by the help and power of the Holy Spirit. This journey of the Christian is to expose sin in our lives so we can see how sin still rises within us and to then choose not to sin. It is to look upon the cross and see the extent of our sinfulness and fall to our knees in repentance. It is to see ourselves honestly as faithless by seeing the faithfulness of Christ on the cross. It is to see ourselves as unloving by seeing that it was the love for sinners that Jesus died on the cross. It is to prevent our sinful impulses from arising from within our hearts and to choose to see ourselves not through the lie of sin, but through the truth of the cross. The self controlled Christian sees how sin in his or her life arises and then chooses not to entertain certain thoughts, but chooses to seek God in prayer, song, study, communion, baptism, meditation or perhaps a walk in the woods to name a few. To truly deal with and struggle against sin is not to see ourselves in light of Adam and Eve, but in light of the cross. We are sinners-forgiven and being redeemed by the blood of Christ.

Our sin is great, but our God is greater. Our sin is pervasive and perverse, but our God is deeper and holy. Our sin crucified our God, but our God crucified our sin.

To repent of our sins is to choose no longer the distorted view of ourselves, reality, our human condition, but it is to choose the God revealed to us on the cross. This is the God who died for sinners like us. To confess our sin is to desire God; to deny our sin is to reject our God.

Let us now, as we listen to a song of confession, silently confess our sin to our God. Ask for forgiveness of known sin as well as the sin you are unaware of. Let us be honest with God and about ourselves for he is willing to and wants to forgive us and help us continue to deal with sin.