11/17/13 Sermon (November 11, 2013) "The Good Gift of Salvation"

posted Mar 11, 2014, 10:23 AM by David Hawkins   [ updated Mar 11, 2014, 10:23 AM ]

11/17/13 Sermon (November 17, 2013)

"The Good Gift of Salvation"

Scripture Reading:  Isaiah 12  (Liturgist)

You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.

Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Sermon: The Good Gift of Salvation

For the month of November, we will be looking at those aspects of our Christian faith for which we are especially thankful. So far, we’ve talked about Faith and Hope, and Next week we will end our series by talking about the good gfit of Jesus Christ.

This Sunday we are talking about the good gift of salvation. And I don’t think that anyone would argue against the idea of salvation being a good gift. But, I think tht we can’t really appreciate the depth of the goodness of salvation, without first apprehending the depth of our need for it, the extent to which our Sin separates us from God. Without a profound understanding of Sin, salvation is neither good, nor necessary.

And in the same way, we can’t really appreciate the full impact of today’s scripture, with its beautiful promise of salvation, with it’s comforting imagery of drinking deep from the wells of God’s forgiveness, without first understanding the 10 chapters of Isaiah that came before it. If chapter 12 is an assurance of pardon, Chapters 1-10 are a detailed prayer of confession.

Isaiah begins his book of prophecy with a scathing indictment of Israel. They have forgotten their God. They have forgotten their promises to God. They have forgotten their covenant with God. They have forgotten the poor and hungry among them. They commit evil deeds. Businessmen take bribes. Politicians are corrupt. The strong take advantage of the weak. The land is incredibly wealthy, but the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few.

And those few parade their wealth in front of others. They walk around in fine clothes, they wear ostentatious jewelry, they show off their wealth. They rub their wealth in the faces of the poor, and they grind the poor into the dust. The people no longer trust in the God of Israel, but instead they trust in other gods, gods of money, gods of power, gods of military alliances.

This is the litany of sins that Isaiah lists before we get to chapter 12. And that’s not all. Isaiah predicts a time when Israel will be destroyed in spite of their faith in their own strength and power. Their homes will be taken from them, their wealth, their land, even their lives will be forfeit.

And this description of the way the Israel will be destroyed goes on for 1o chapters. It is horrific, and it is frightening, and it was meant to be so. Isaiah is not pulling any punches. Life is going to get very, very difficult for the people of Israel. They are making some very bad choices, and they will reap the consequences.

And then we come to chapters 11 and 12. What a change. Chapter 11 introduces the coming of a Messiah, a shoot from the branch of Jesse, who will restore Zion to its former glory. Isaiah tells his people that they are not alone in their sin. God is with them, even in their darkest hour of captivity, of exile. God has not forgotten them.

And then in chapter 12, we finally hear the words of forgiveness. “And in that day, Isaiah says, I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. Surely God is my salvation.”

God has seen his children’s misery. God has heard their cries for mercy. God forgives and offers himself as the price of their redemption. In God, and only in God is our salvation. And with these words, the opening liturgy of the book of Isaiah is complete. We have come to worship God. We confess our sins, and we hear the words of pardon. Everything is named: the good, the bad, the awful, and then the promise of forgiveness is extended to us. Nothing separates us from the loving embrace of God. We are free to sing the praises of God’s name to a thirsty world. Thanks be to God.

One of the reasons I chose to attend Columbia Seminary in Decatur, GA, was because I knew that Brian Wren was one of the professors of worship there. Now, most of you probably haven’t heard of Brian Wren, but you have sung his hymns. He has written hundreds of hymns, and has been published in several hymnals, in many different denominations. If you look him up in our blue hymnal, you’ll see some eleven examples of his work, especially in hymns 104 and 108, which we sing practically every Easter season.

And so I was excited to go to the seminary where this giant of the church music world was teaching. It was like going to study genetics with Crick and Watson, or physics with Einstein, or how to grill food with Bobby Flay. I was going to learn at the feet of the master.

The problem was, when I finally had the chance to take a class with him, I got into a pretty heated argument with him about the nature of sin. You see, he was trying to convince me that the theological emphasis regarding sin should be on the collective sin of humankind, that is, the state of being in sin that defines human nature, rather than concentrating so much on the individual sins that we commit, the acts of sin that are the results of behavioral choices.

I had a hard time accepting that Christ’s death and resurrection was all about the forgiveness of humanity’s sin, rather than my personal sin. His view was that it was the state of being in sin , rather than the acts of sin, that was taken away by Jesus’ death and resurrection. We went round and round about it, and I never did convince him that we needed to remember and repent of individual sin. And he never really did convince me that the only point of Christ’s gift of himself was to take away the abstract Sin of human nature.

But he did make me think about it. And I realized that when I think about sin, I have a tendency to just focus on my own personal bad behavior. Now, I might think about someone else’s bad behavior as well, of course, but for me, sin is almost always a personal act, a private, individual thing.

And that’s how I have looked at sin for most of my life. Sin was the word for those things that I did, or that other people did, that were wrong, that were bad, that created a barrier between me and God, those things that hurt the people that I loved, and those I didn’t even know. That was sin to me. Sin was something that an individual person did. And most often, that person was me. This was what I would confess as sin; this is the sin of which I would repent. And of course, other people would confess and repent of their own sin as well.

But Professor Wren was trying to get me to realize that there is also a larger, more universal kind of Sin that we are all part of, whether we realize it or not, a capital ‘S’ kind of Sin that is simply part of who we are as human beings. It’s a sinfulness that has nothing at all to do with our behavior or our choices, but is simply a result of the weakness of being human.

Sin with a capital ‘S’ is more than an act, it is the effect, it is the power that unjust systems have over the powerless. Economic systems, political systems, even religious and cultural systems have Sin built into them. Sin is the larger reality of the world we live in, a reality that is not so easily named, or repented.

And it began to dawn on me, a long time after my argument with Brian, that all of us tend to focus on one kind of sin over the other. Some of us focus on society’s sins, the sins of a consumerist culture, the sins of corporate greed, of political corruption, of a society’s apathy toward the plight of those who are hungry or poor.

Some of us focus on these kinds of communal sin, of public sin, the kind of sin that affects all of us, whether we are actively part of the process, or simply passively caught up in a system that we can’t control. These folks become activists, working to change a sinful system, calling attention to it, in order that society might repent of it’s collective sin. And for them, this is the most important kind of Sin, the kind of Sin that we really should be paying attention to.

And let’s be honest, many mainline denomination Christians sort of fall into this camp, don’t they? Social justice is a big deal, the idea of speaking truth to power, of looking for opportunities to change systems in order to bring those who live on the margins back to the table, in order that they might also have a voice.

But others of us tend to focus on the specific acts of sin, those particular ways we offend God, or hurt our neighbor by our actions, or by our inaction. These are more individualized sins, more easily identifiable, and theoretically at least, more easily repented of, and corrected, than the larger, systematic kinds of sin that infect an entire society, or even the human race.

And many folks who would self-identify as evangelical kind of fall into this group, don’t they? In evangelical circles, there’s more of an emphasis on personal sin, more of an emphasis on the confession, repentance, and salvation of the individual, rather than the group. Salvation is a private thing, not a corporate thing.

But the reality is, both kinds of sin infect our world. Both kinds of sin affect our lives. And both kinds of sin are sin. And in order to truly come to terms with the concept of sin, we need to find ways of thinking of sin as being both private and public at the same time. We need to learn how to live with the tension of our Sin as being both behavioral and a state of being.

And we see this tension in the first 12 chapters of Isaiah. We see the description of both corporate and individual sin. But we also see salvation in both terms of the person, and in terms of the people.

In the first 10 chapters of Isaiah, we see the ways that the people have forgotten the covenant they made with God. We see the sins of princes and rulers, their trust in military alliances. We see the descriptions of the sins of administrators and judges, who write fraudulent laws. We see the sin of the wealthy, as they crush the poor underfoot, and live lives of idleness and debauchery.

But we also see the corporate sin of a people in the systematic oppression of the poor, the widow, the orphan. We see corporate sin in the way the nation has turned away from trusting God, and instead trusting in their own strength. Isaiah points out the ways the people have sinned individually, but he also points out the sin of the nation. None are innocent. All have sinned. All have turned away from God.

And the consequences of their sin will rain onto the poor and the wealthy alike. Prince and peasant will be taken into captivity. The landowner and the businessman and the widow will each live in exile.

For Isaiah, there is no distinction between personal and public sin. It’s all sin. And all sin results in captivity and death.

But that is not the end of the story. Because God does not leave us, individually, or together, in our sin. God so loved the world, each of us, and all of us, that he came among us, himself, to save his people. In the person of Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God was with us, and has taken away our sin, both small ‘s’ and capital ‘S’ sin.

And this is why the gift of Salvation is such a good thing.

Each of us knows the devastating effects of sin. We know the shame it causes us to feel when we fall short of our own expectations. We all know the disappointment we feel when those we love let us down. We see all around us the effects of personal failure, failure in our relationships, failure in our words, failure in our actions, failure in our intentions, failure in our desires, failure in our promises.

But our sin goes deeper than just our personal failures.

We as a society glorify excess, we hold up for emulation the worst displays of greed and vulgar expressions of wealth. We look away when we see poverty, we blame the victims of a heartless economic system. We have perverted the word of God to sustain our own self-interest. In our government, in our courts, and in our laws, the powerful write the rules, and the powerless are without a voice. Isaiah’s words of warning could just as easily apply to us as they do to Israel thousands of years ago.

We have forgotten our covenant with God, both personally and publicly, and we are reaping the destructive winds that we have sowed with our callous behavior, and our soulless systems.

And yet, even in the midst of such sin, God still comes to us. His message of salvation is for you, and it is for me, and it is for us, and it is for them. It is for the whole world, a world groaning in sin, a world walking in darkness. God’s promise of the deep, cool water of redemption is not given on account of our realization of our sin, nor our best attempts at eradicating it, but is purely the gift of his own essence, in the person of Jesus Christ.

Twice, Isaiah introduces the idea of salvation in today’s scripture, with the words: “you will say on that day.” Now, in our English translation, it’s hard to see the difference between these two sentences. But in Hebrew, in the first paragraph, Isaiah is speaking to ‘you’, the personal, private, singular you, and you will say on that day that “I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”

But in the second paragraph Isaiah switches to the plural you, the grammatical form that in Texas, we might call  the “all y’all” version. Isaiah is telling the world that all y’all “will draw water from the wells of salvation.” That all y’all “will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.”

Isaiah is telling the world, regardless of your pain, of your Sin, of the world’s sin, all y’all have good reason to “sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth.”

Isaiah promises Israel that their personal and public despair and misery will not last forever. There will come a time when God’s light will shine upon them again.

And Isaiah promises us that the present shame and the weight we bear privately, and as a people, will also not last forever. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Thanks be to God for the Good Gift of Salvation. Amen.