The Light of Confession

This sermon was preached on April 11, 2021. The text of the day was 1 John 1-2:2.

Let’s pray together: Lord God, we pray for the one who preaches, for you know his sins are many. Amen

That’s a different prayer than I normally use before the sermon. On a normal Sunday, you’d hear me repeat some lines from Psalm 19: “may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer.” That prayer is one of hope, hope that what is said, what is thought might be in line with what God, who is our bedrock and our true hope, might want us to say and think. It’s a prayer that orients us to something a little bit deeper than the usual dribble we see on social media, watch on TV, or listen on the radio.

But I didn’t say that prayer. No, I said another one. One that was a little more personal. And while I do hope you prayed with and for me (I need all the help I can get!), I’m sure you were struck by the words I led us in. “Lord God, we pray for the one who preaches, for you know his sins are many.” The first time I heard a preacher use this, my ears perked up when she said, “for her sins are many.” Did she really just say that? Did she really just use the “s” word? About herself!?! Maybe you reacted that way when I said it in that prayer.

I like to tell the story of one of my Elders at the church I served at in Iowa. One Sunday, he was serving as a Greeter, welcoming everyone into the building for worship. He saw a visitor coming in, one whom this Elder knew from work. The Elder in a deadpan joke shook the visitor’s hand and said, “Welcome to First Christian Church. The sermon is about sin. You’re gonna love it.” The visitor just looked at him. Then he turned around, went to his car, and drove away.

I think his reaction would be commonplace for many of us. We bristle whenever we hear the “s” word. It conjures up adverse images and feelings we’d rather not have to deal with. We think of finger-wagging mothers saying you’ll go to hell for listening to KISS like in the 1999 movie Detroit Rock City. We think of grotesque protestors just outside funerals of veterans or high school play productions or on the campus of colleges marching around and holding up signs that say “God hates fags.” We think of those fundamentalist preachers who drone on and on about the sin of reading Harry Potter or practicing yoga or watching movies that aren’t “Christian.” We think of the many ways sin has been used as a bludgeon and a curse, denigrating any and all things a certain set of people likes, does, or is. Who would blame you for hightailing it out of here?

The preacher Barbara Brown Taylor shares a story about her baptism as a baby. In the side chapel of a Catholic church, the priest started reciting the baptismal liturgy and in it, he “began saying all kinds of terrible things about me. He said that I was sinful through and through, that I had the devil in me, but not to worry because the waters of baptism would soon wash me clean as snow.” Brown Taylor’s mother wasn’t having any of it. When it was over, she told her husband that they were leaving and never coming back. “She chose a Methodist church after seven years of staying away, and nobody there ever said a word about sin.[1]

So why bring it up? If we all would rather me talk about the good things of life, or how God just wants to love everybody, or what are the ways you can have a more meaningful prayer life, or anything other than the “s” word, why devote this much time to it? Better we just move along and get on with our days, right?

Well, I’d ask you to hold off on that conclusion for just a second longer. Sin, at least as it operates here in 1 John, ultimately is that which separates one from God and one another. The two go hand in hand, and John is concerned because the Church he is writing to is one set upon by schism and division. The fellowship between believers has been broken and so the fellowship between the community and God is in serious jeopardy. Sin, that has always been there, has revealed itself among the Church. We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:3-4). John is writing to try and bring the band back together, so to speak.

Simeon Zahl writes this about sin: “sin is not best defined as specific acts of moral transgression—say, committing adultery, or embezzling from a charity, lying to get your way, and so on. Those are indeed what we might call sins, but they are not sin itself.

Rather in the first instance…sin is a condition under which human lives exist. Sin is a way of describing the fact that there is a fundamental flaw in the human system and is an explanation for why that system keeps throwing up errors.[2]” The relationship between God and humanity and humanity with itself was fundamentally ruptured when sin made its way into this world.

We will be spending the Eastertide in 1 John, so I don’t want to put the cart in front of the horse or step on my own toes, but how John tries to bring about reconciliation and restoration, repairing the breach between God and humanity (and humanity with itself in conjunction) is one that begins with honesty. It starts with being honest about the reality of ourselves.

Walking in the light, as John calls being in fellowship with God and each other, is not about walking the straight and narrow path, avoiding the temptations that beset you, or toeing the party line perfectly. Walking in darkness (the opposite of light and therefore separation from God) isn’t abiding in the cacophony of sin. When you are walking in the light you are honest about sin and the ways it manifests in your life. When you are walking in darkness you aren’t honest, you are blind to it. The old adage gets it best, at least according to John, the Church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners. And so, walking in the light isn’t teetotaling and law-abiding, but acknowledgment and confession of sin, admitting the vertical (God) and horizontal (humanity) relationships are broken, and knowing where restoration comes from (God in Christ by the Spirit)

But therein lies the problem. Though we might acknowledge, begrudgingly, sin is a real thing and it is a problem (even if we can’t agree on what constitutes “sins”), we place its location “out there.” We see the actions of others, usually people we disagree with or find distasteful, as sin, but do not see it in ourselves. Some years ago, there was a survey done on Christians in a Midwestern state, “Although 98% said they believe in personal sin, only 57% accepted the traditional notion that all people are sinful and fully one-third allowed that they make many mistakes but are not sinful themselves.’[3]

It’s easy to see the sin in others (especially “those” people), but we can come up with all sorts of excuses and self-justifications for the things we do. “Oh I was just having a bad day,” or “well my Father didn’t hug me or tell me he loved me” or “I shouldn’t have done it, but she really deserved it.”

We obfuscate, run around, and explain away the different things we might do, all the while never owning up to the fact that here, East of Eden and after the Fall, Sin is close to humanity, to each of us as individuals, like the air we breathe.

G.K. Chesterton of “Father Brown” fame, was asked once by an editor of a magazine to write an article. He responded to the editor’s topical question, “What’s wrong with the universe” not with an article, but a single sentence. “I am.” Honesty about sin isn’t detailing its existence in the ephemeral “out there” or the collective, “them,” but admitting it starts in our own hearts.

 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)

The beginning of the solution to the problem of sin isn’t avoiding it at all costs, it is being honest about how we do it. Sure, John will get into how we can live lives according to our identity in Christ and not sin, but the start isn’t the Law, but Gospel.

Confession of sins is only possible because we are assured forgiveness, otherwise, we are tempted to just go at it alone, continuing our self-justifying ways. But hear this good news, “By the power given to me by Jesus Christ the Son of God, your sins are forgiven.” Christ is our advocate, the guy in our corner, the mother who helps when we happen to sin. Not only is he our advocate, but he is also our fall guy. Through his death and resurrection, the sins of the world are expiated, cleansed, forgiven, including yours.

So, taking the teaching of this little letter seriously, you’re now invited to join me in a prayer of confession:

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins
through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all
goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in
eternal life. Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 2000), p.5.

[2] Simeon Zahl, “Hiding in Plain Sight” in “The Mockingbird: Déjà vu Issue”, p. 28.

[3] Marianne Meye Thompson, 1-3 John, IVP New Testament Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), p. 46.

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