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You are defined by God

Pastor  John Gibson preached this sermon Palm/Passion Sunday April 9, 2017 on Matthew 27:11-54.  The recording and the text differ because the sermon was written but delivered without use of the manuscript.

In the early 2,000s, I was the pastor of a church in Apex. It was larger than Grace but still small. One time we needed more counters for the Sunday offering. When a man volunteered, his wife told me it would better to find another counter. He used illegal drugs from time to time and he had taken money in the past to support his habit. When I told the person that our church required two counters, he stopped expressing any interest in counting.

Today, we’re going to talk about a hard subject. It is hard for me to talk about and no one wants to hear about it, either. The few times I have preached on it invariably the next Sunday there are fewer people in church. Since next Sunday is Easter, I decided to take a chance. Of course, I am talking about sin.

If there is any Sunday during the entire church year, when we are confronted with sin, it is today. We are confronted with the sin of Jesus’ followers when they abandon him. We are confronted with the sin of those who crucify Jesus. And, perhaps most difficult, we are confronted with our own sin when, during the dramatic reading of the Passion Gospel, we yell, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” But in the face of the cross, we are confronted with something even greater. We are confronted with God’s amazing love for us, God embracing us and God working even in the darkest places of our lives.

Judith Jones, Professor of Religion at Wartburg College, says the characters in Matthew today “provide a vivid portrait of human sinfulness and its consequences. Judas, motivated perhaps by greed, betrays Jesus but then bitterly regrets his action. The disciples, with Peter at the head, long to demonstrate their faithfulness and love but fail miserably. Jesus’ opponents -- the religious leaders, Pilate, the Roman soldiers, and the crowds -- all in their own ways reject, torment, and ridicule Jesus as they seek their own benefit and their own ends” (1).

We have to pause for a minute to discuss what is called Christian anthropology. The Scriptures teach God made us, male and female, in God’s image. God not only created us but God said afterwards that we were “very good.” At our heart is the image of God and at our heart we are “very good.”

Scripture also tells us in the story of Adam and Eve that humanity disobeyed God. There was one rule, and only one rule, and they broke it when they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

While it is true you and I are created in God’s image and we are very good, it is also true that, to use the traditional language, we “do the things we ought not do and leave undone those things we ought to do.” The Passion Gospel today confronts us with our own sin.

We also have to take a second to consider what is sin, because sin paradoxically only exists in relation to God. A sin is when we go against what God wants for our lives and for our world. People sometimes confuse human law and divine will. Running a red light, as I did yesterday evening, rushing to get to the church service, breaks the law but it is not a sin. There are times when human law itself is sinful as was true of the laws that discriminated against African-Americans during the Jim Crow era in the South. If the cross confronts us with our society’s sin and our personal sin, it also confronts us with something far more powerful.

The cross confronts us with God’s amazing love and forgiveness. This message is the greatest message of the cross. Julia Gatta and Martin Smith wisely say their book Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, “What is genuinely surprising is not our pattern of sinning but divine love” (2).

The cross is the gift of forgiveness. It shows that God embraces all of us, including our “weakest and darkest side” (3). The cross shows God can work even those parts of our lives we hide in shame and fear for our own good and the good of the world. The cross shows that the power of God’s love overcomes even the power of sin and death. You are at the foot of the cross today not because you are a wretched sinner but because you are God’s beloved son or daughter.

Yesterday, Cindy and I were blessed with a visit from her son Derek and our two grandchildren William who is five and Alex who is two. As is often the case, they got excited at times. Once William got Cindy’s foam roller and swung it, hitting first the open glass fireplace door and then his Dad. William then had to spend five minutes in time out. We loved William every second he was in time out, just like we loved him every second before and afterwards. In fact, Cindy and I think William and Alex are the greatest grandchildren in the world – the smartest, the best looking, the most fun …. And God thinks the same of you.

There is a reason we call the first person of the Trinity Father and it isn’t because God is male. We could say Mother, because there are maternal images of God in the Scriptures. We use this imagery to show God’s incredible love for us. Anyone who has ever had children or grandchildren knows this. There are times you get frustrated and upset but you still love them with an amazing love. Even if you’ve never had children, you know this same truth from your pets.

The fact that you are here is a sign God loves you with a limitless love. Your presence here today reveals God’s love, mercy and grace are working in and through your life.

This Holy Week take time to reflect on the cross, to consider how Jesus is working in your life and to give thanks for God’s amazing love for you.

On this Passion Sunday, at the foot of the cross, we are indeed confronted by sin but we are also confronted with something even greater. We are confronted with God’s love, God’s mercy and God’s grace, working in our world and in our lives.

(1) Judith Jones, "Commentary on Matthew 27:11-54,"  Working Preacher (St. Paul MN: Luther Seminary, 2017).

(2) Julia Gatta and Martin Smith, Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confession (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2012), 88 - 89.

(3) Gatta and Smith, 93.