Friday, December 5, 2014

How much sin can I get away with and still go to heaven?

MERCY, NOT SACRIFICE

Public Domain
We don't often think of the prophets Amos and Hosea these days.  They were prophets in the Northern Kingdom, the kingdom of Israel, who were scolding the Israelites for the lack of any connection between their worship and their lives.  These two prophets lived during the reign of Jereboam II, or Jereboam the son of Joash, in the middle of the 8th century BC.  They called the people to repentance, saying that God was dissatisfied with Holiday Hebrews.  What does that mean?  It means all year long they lived as if God didn't exist, but when the time came for the holidays they offered burnt offerings, shook their ceremonial jewelry, and played their musical instruments to God.  Amos told them point blank, Take away from me the noise of your songs, to the melody of your harps I will not listen.  Would not a similar judgment rest on Christmas Christians, for whom God is otherwise unreal?

It isn't just a matter of attendance.  Several summers ago there was a bumper sticker that asked, How much sin can I get away with and still go to heaven?  Whoever wrote that was not familiar with today's text.  To answer that bumper sticker, Jesus proclaims, Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus is looking for a radically different kind of righteousness.  The Scribes and Pharisees would have been more diplomatic than that bumper sticker, but you have to admit it is honest, honest to a fault.  So what does that sticker really mean?  When you ask how much sin you can get away with, you're really asking how you can live as an enemy of God while escaping the consequences.  Sin is hostility to God.  You can't bring sin into heaven.  For all its honesty, the bumper sticker is rather shallow.  If sin is what makes you happy, then you probably won't like heaven very much.

Please note:  Jesus was not saying that the Scribes and Pharisees were bad people.  Later on He calls them hypocrites when He's calling them to repentance, but here He is not talking to them, He's talking about them, so He isn't saying anything bad about them.  No people before or since have succeeded in honoring God's Law as those sectarian Jews.  They were not insincere - in fact it was their very sincerity that made them hate Jesus.  They were not bloodthirsty; rather they were the ones who prevailed on the Romans to release a prisoner at Passover every year.  Scribes and Pharisees were good neighbors.   They were quiet, gentle, generous, given to hospitality, and regular in their prayers.  The sorry fact is they did not believe Jesus.  They rejected John's Baptism, and later the Lord Himself.  They adhered to a religion that agreed with the opinion that is born in everyone, the opinion that you get what's coming to you, the opinion of the Law; and the way of the Law is sacrifice, not mercy.

The Pharisees' whole lifestyle was centered around sacrifice.  They studied the books of Moses to see whether they were fulfilling all the commandments that concerned religious duties.  As a result they set up a schedule of what was required and what was free.  When they met the requirements, there were on their own.  If they were required to fast twice a week and give 10% to the Lord, if they had to provide sacrificial animals for the holidays, that meant they could feast five times a week, waste 90% of their means, and enjoy whatever they liked on non-holidays.  What has the devil introduced here?  We see religious duties that have nothing to do with the rest of a man's life.  God is the Lord of the religious section, the rest is chaos.  The Pharisee could never sing a song that goes Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.  That is a radically different righteousness, yet it is the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven.

Sin makes us enemies of God.  You cannot make peace with Him by bringing a sacrifice.  Those who try offend God by their very efforts to make peace with Him.  Perhaps the Pharisees did not have Amos to preach to them, but they did have John the Baptist.  He said the same things Amos and Hosea said.  They didn't listen any more than their fathers in the 8th century, so Jesus turned away from them.  He offered grace to thieves, prostitutes, tax collectors, and ne'er-do-wells.  He offered sinners peace and rest.  None of those people brought any sacrifices, but Jesus had mercy on them.  That infuriated the Pharisees.

Please don't think that these people had any rights.  Jesus was not calling these people victims who needed protection.  He knew the only thing any of them had a right to was eternal punishment.  Jesus was not offering them rights, but mercy.  He was giving them charity, pure grace.  To offer them that, He took upon Himself all of the abuse, injury, insult, and oppression that people have inflicted on their fellows.  Because He bore it all, no one owes anything any longer.  God's mercy has covered the tower of sin that was raised as a siege engine against Him, and covers all their malice with the blood of Jesus.  Once He died He rose again, proving that His death was undeserved, an offering not for Himself but for the sins of the world.  Mercy and sacrifice meet at the cross, for this one sacrifice God accepts.  He offered it to Himself.

Our fathers, ancient and modern, interpreted this text as a warning not to partake of the Lord's Supper if you have an unresolved offense against somebody else.  Heaven forbid that we let the altar of Christ become our version of the Pharisees noise.  No one must ever think that religious duties can atone for a life of hell, but be careful when you use the text this way.  Never think that we offer something to God in the Lord's Supper.  No, no, no!  God does the giving here.  God offers everything to us.  While we must agree that we cannot live like pigs all week, then do God a favor by attending church, we must also realize that sacrifice gains nothing.  Mercy covers all.  We cannot have anything against our brothers, and they cannot have anything against us, because all sins have been nailed to the cross of Jesus.  God listens to the song of the Passion, and attends the melody of Jesus' dying sighs.

Mercy is like a wave.  If you see a wave coming and roll with it, it picks you up and carries you  It might turn you over, but it continues until you're right again.  But if you stand up to resist a wave, it knocks you down and might well drown you.  So it is whenever men try to bottle up God's mercy, to bind it, to pin it down, to stand in its way, to put it away on the religion shelf.  They will be engulfed by God's anger.  Roll instead with the wave of mercy, the wave of forgiveness.  Be glad it's rolling over you.  Be glad it's covering those who trouble you.  Let it carry you.  AMEN.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

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