A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.

March 16, 2014

The Second Sunday in Lent

John 3:1-17

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (NRSV).

It happened a couple of years ago. 

I was hiking with my regular backpacking partners, Chuck and Joe, in the Shining Rock Wilderness in North Carolina.  We had just started our hike when we came to a fork in the trail that wasn’t clearly marked.  I was leading at that point.  I should have stopped and looked at the map.  That’s what you’re supposed to do in these situations.  But we had just started the hike and so, instead of stopping, I struck off confidently to the left, simply because that trail looked wider, and smoother, as if more people had gone that way.  In other words,

Two roads diverged in a wood and I—

I took the one more traveled by,

and that made all the difference.

It certainly did.

Things started out well enough.  The trail led us down to a mountain stream full of deep, clear pools where we imagined rainbow trout were lurking, just waiting for someone to drop a dry fly on the surface.  We stopped long enough to enjoy the moment, but soon pushed on, eager to get where we were going. But just beyond that spot by the creek the wide, smooth trail we were on began to branch out into smaller, less-traveled trails.  We would follow one for a while until it gave out and then backtrack and try again on another.  Soon we were pushing our way through dense undergrowth, where there was hardly any trail at all.  And that’s when we realized that the wide, smooth trail we had been following was the one people used to get down to the lovely spot by the stream, but not the one we were supposed to be on. 

It wasn’t easy to admit that I had been wrong, but I did, and then we tried to figure out what to do next.  We had come more than a mile already.  We didn’t really want to go all the way back to the fork in the trail.  We studied the map and thought perhaps we could reconnect with the trail by going up the hill to our right.  But it was steep!  It came up out of the gorge almost vertically.  I led the way, pulling myself up the slope by the trunks and branches of the trees that were growing there.  And then I grabbed a low branch that snapped off just as I put my full weight on it, and I fell backward, onto my loaded pack, and then heels-over-head down the slope for a full thirty feet between rocks and trees before skidding to a stop.  But not before my shin had banged against a tree trunk so hard I thought it might be broken.  I pulled up my pants leg and took a look.  My shin was scraped and bleeding, but not broken.  I breathed a sigh of relief and struggled to my feet.  And that’s when I suggested to Chuck and Joe that we turn around, and go back the way we had come. 

The title of today’s sermon is “Damnation,” defined as “divine punishment and torment in the afterlife for actions committed on earth.”  In other words, it is the idea that human beings can mess things up so badly in this life that God will punish them for it in the next one, and that he will punish them for it forever.  But if you can set aside that traditional meaning just for a moment you might agree that it often happens like this: you don’t openly rebel against God (which the Bible calls “transgression”); you don’t lie on your bed at night plotting evil (which the Bible calls “iniquity”); you don’t do those things that might deserve divine punishment but you do “miss the mark” (which the Bible calls “sin”): you make a bad choice, and then you pursue it, stubbornly, going further and further in the wrong direction until you realize you are in a hell of your own making.  And then, if it’s not too late, you turn around.

In a book called Whatever Became of Sin? psychiatrist Karl Menninger notes that the things people once commonly referred to as “sins” are now being treated as either crimes or illnesses, and the distinction can be seen in what kind of treatment is prescribed, or, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, in “what kind of rescuer is chosen to do something about the failure to realize the moral ideal.  Choose the policeman,” she says, “and the paradigm for the failure is crime and punishment.  Choose the counselor and the model becomes sickness and cure.  Choose the pastor and you choose the language of sin and repentance.  Of the three,” she says, “the medical model is the least punitive.  What sense would it make to punish someone who is mentally ill, or to ask someone to repent of a symptom?”[i]

We hear a lot of that these days, don’t we?  People say they can’t help themselves, that they do what they do because they have an addiction, or a disorder, or a disease.  I want to go on record as saying that it’s true: some people do have addictions, disorders, and diseases, and some of those things cause them to feel helplessly out of control.  A Chinese proverb says, “Your heart begs you to stay away, even while your legs are carrying you back.”  But I also want to go on record as saying that when it comes to sin we are not talking about addictions, disorders, or diseases, but about the moral choices we make every day—the paths we take—some of which can lead to disastrous consequences.  Last week I talked about the Great Commandment—to love God and others—and suggested that if that’s what God really wants us to do then sin is anything that would keep us from doing that.  Inspired by that idea I defined righteousness as anything that moves us closer to God and others and sin as anything that moves us further away.  I don’t know that I had ever had that thought before.  It rang true in the moment, but this week I want to test it to see if it really is.  I want to heave a few things up onto the “Sin Scale” and see whether they tip the balance toward God and others or away.[ii] 

It’s not hard to guess what the big things will do—murder, adultery, theft.  It seems obvious that they would move us further away from God—who told us not to do them in the first place—and from others, especially the people we do them to.  But what about the little things?  I’ve been thinking about that in the past week, and for whatever reason I’ve been thinking about some of those things Baptists have traditionally frowned on: things like smoking, drinking, dancing, and gambling.  It’s been drilled into my head for years that “good Baptists” don’t do such things.  But why?  Are they sins?  Do they move us further away from God and others?  Let’s heave them up onto the “Sin Scale” and see which way the balance tips. 

Smoking, for example.  Is it a sin to chop up dried tobacco leaves, roll them in a little piece of paper, set them on fire, and suck the smoke into your lungs?  Some people might argue that it doesn’t make much sense, but it’s not a crime, at least not above a certain age.  And it’s not a disease.  You don’t have to have that first cigarette (although you may find that after you’ve smoked a thousand of them you have a hard time giving them up).  But is it a sin?  Does it move you further away from God and others?  Well, no.  Not necessarily.  I can imagine that you could have some very meaningful moments with God while having a smoke.  And you might find a whole new community of friends—the smokers—who take you in like a long-lost sibling.  But it’s that moment when your doctor tells you that you have lung cancer, and the moment after that when your wife and children look at you with their big, sad eyes, that you realize you have chosen to participate in an activity that has risks, and one of those risks is cancer, and now it’s got you in its grasp.  You might wish in that moment that you had never gone down that path, but it’s too late to turn back. 

And what about drinking?  Is it a sin to pour fermented grape juice into a glass, swirl it around, and sip it?  To drain off the liquid leavings of water, sugar, malt, and yeast and toss that down your throat?  Again, some people might argue that it doesn’t make much sense (it sounds disgusting!), but it isn’t a crime, at least not above a certain age.  And it isn’t an illness: you don’t have to have that first drink (although you may find that after a thousand drinks you have a hard time giving them up).  But is it a sin?  Does it move you further away from God and others?  Not necessarily. Some people would argue that a good glass of wine, under the right circumstances, can be a kind of religious experience.  And when you share that experience with others it can become a kind of Holy Communion.  But what happens when you find that it’s no longer a choice, that you have to have it, that you can’t function without it?  When it becomes the master and you become the slave?  And what happens when you have too much of it, and drift across the center line while driving home from the bar, and kill a car full of teenagers? 

What then?

And what about gambling?  Is it wrong to put a quarter in a Las Vegas slot machine and pull the handle?  I hope not.  I’ve done it myself.  I did it with my hiking partners last fall on the way home from Zion National Park, and I lost my quarter, and we had a good laugh about it.  But I saw other people who were not laughing, people who were pulling the handles of slot machines, or playing blackjack, or shooting craps as if their lives depended on it, and maybe, in some way, they did.  I know stories of people who have gotten so deeply into debt through their gambling that they’ve lost their savings, their houses, their families.  Does gambling move you further away from God and others?  Does it tip the balance in the direction of sin?  Well, like those others, it can.  And so can a million other things.

I think that’s why Baptists have traditionally frowned on things like smoking, and drinking, and gambling.  They’ve seen what those things can do to people.  They’ve seen lives ruined, families torn apart, bodies pulled from the wreckage. I’ve read a poem about heroin addiction that sounds as much like damnation as anything in Dante’s Inferno.  You don’t have to wait till you die to go to hell; apparently some people do it right here on earth.  But did the heroin addict know what was coming when he got high with his friends the first time and felt like he could fly?  No, probably not.  Our Baptist forebears have warned that it would be better to never start down that path than to face the possible consequences, and they’re right!  Where they’ve gone wrong is to make the thing itself a sin, and to condemn those people who do it. 

Our Gospel lesson for today says that God loved the world so much he gave his only son.  He gave him for smokers and drinkers and gamblers and every other sinner in the world.  And what he wanted for those people was what the Hebrew language calls shalom: a kind of wholeness and completeness that can only come when you have everything you need to live, and when everything is right between you and God and you and others.  He sent his son Jesus to show us the way, and Jesus invited us to follow him on the path that leads to life abundant, overflowing, and everlasting. He showed us how to choose the way of love again and again, and when we did we found that we came closer and closer to true shalom. 

We quote John 3:16 so often that we sometimes miss the next verse, 3:17, which says that God didn’t send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.  In other words, damnation was never God’s plan for his creation.  He never wanted us to start down the path that leads to our own destruction.  But when we did he sent his son to call us back, to turn us around, to set our feet on the path that leads to life.  If we do that—if we stop choosing the things that move us further away from God and others and start choosing the things that move us closer, if we heave every thought, word, and deed up on the sin scale to see which way the balance tips, and then find the strength and courage to embrace the good and reject the bad—we will, with God’s help, find our way.

Chuck, Joe, and I did that: we turned around.  We hiked more than a mile back through the woods, retracing our steps, until we came again to that lovely spot by that clear mountain stream.  I took a look at my leg.  The bleeding had stopped, but my shin was bruised and swollen.  Joe had slipped coming down that same, steep slope, and one of his trekking poles was bent.  Chuck said his left shoulder was hurting, but other than that he was OK.  We had been spared the worst.  We hiked a hundred yards farther and then took the fork we should have taken in the first place.  Within a few minutes we knew we were on the right trail, headed toward the place we were trying to go.  Our packs were heavy but our hearts were light, and it wasn’t long before one of us started to sing.  That’s what you do sometimes, when you know things are the way they’re supposed to be, with you and God, with you and others.  I hope you’ve had a taste of that in this service today, and that in a moment or two you will find yourself standing, and singing, grateful to God that for now at least,

It isn’t too late.

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley, 2000), p. 24.

[ii] In Ancient Egyptian religious tradition, citizens would recite the 42 negative confessions of Maat as their heart was weighed against the feather of truth. If the citizen’s heart was heavy with guilt, they would face torment in a lake of fire.

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