A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
March 23, 2014
The Third Sunday in Lent
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (NRSV).
Last week I told a story about taking the wrong trail on a backpacking trip and ending up in what could have been serious trouble. I should have known better, I should have turned back sooner, but one of the reasons I didn’t is because I didn’t want to admit I was wrong. I’ve thought about it since then and realized that if I’d had a GPS that never would have happened: my GPS has no trouble admitting that I’m wrong. Her name is Shania, and I inherited her from my daughter, Elllie, who gave her that nickname. Most of the time Shania just sits there, glued to my windshield, but if I get distracted and miss a turn she says, “Recalculating.” She’s so gentle. She doesn’t tell me I’m an idiot, that I should have been paying attention, that she’s been telling me that turn was coming for the last ten miles. She just says, “Recalculating.” It’s her own, gentle way of saying, “Jim, you were wrong.” She doesn’t have any trouble admitting it, but I do, and I don’t think I’m the only one. Why is that? Why is it so hard for us to admit that we are sometimes, and perhaps even frequently, wrong?
I have a theory.
I may still have on my shelves a book called Coping with Your Anger by Andy Lester in which there is a diagram that explains what makes us angry. It shows a large circle, representing the self, and then an arrow coming toward it, representing a threat. “When we feel threatened,” the diagram explains, “we become anxious, and prepare ourselves to either fight or flee.” But somewhere else I learned there is a difference between our real selves and the ideal self we construct in our heads. My ideal self would never take the wrong trail on a hiking trip, but my real self did, apparently, and the reason it was hard for me to admit it was that I felt my ideal self was under attack. It was threatened by the very suggestion that it could be wrong. It became anxious, and prepared itself to fight or flee. But eventually the facts stacked up against it, overwhelmed it, and allowed my real self to admit: “I was wrong.”
My real self doesn’t have any trouble admitting it was wrong. It’s often wrong, and it knows it. It has a way of shrugging its shoulders and saying, “Oops!” Maybe I need my ideal self to hold my real self to a higher standard, but more often than not it’s my ideal self that is the problem. It’s the critical voice I hear when I look in the mirror in the morning and the reflection looking back doesn’t look so good, or when I run the Monument Avenue 10K and don’t finish as well as I hoped I would, or when I do something I shouldn’t have done or fail to do something I should have. But Jesus once said if we want to follow him we have to deny the self, and maybe he meant the ideal self. Maybe he knew that it can become a kind of idol, one that is never satisfied, one that makes more and more demands on us as time goes by.
If that’s true then we need to knock that idol off the mantelpiece, let it fall to the floor and smash into a million pieces, and one of the ways we can do that is to quit listening to it, and to stop getting angry when we look in the mirror and don’t find the ideal self looking back. We are real, after all. We are human, we are fallible, and the sooner we make peace with that reality the better things are going to be. I still remember the girl who said, “You know how some people, when they trip on the sidewalk, take a few quick running steps, as if they suddenly decided to break into a run?” Yes. “Well, I have a friend who doesn’t do that,” she said. “When she trips she says, ‘Look at that! I tripped over my own two feet!’ and then we laugh and move on.”
We laugh and move on.
That’s what you can do when you accept the real you, but when you are constantly trying to defend the ideal you there’s not a lot of laughter. It is deadly serious business, and it leaves God out completely, because if you are perfect you don’t need God. Can you see how all of this is connected to sin? In the Garden of Eden the serpent told the woman she wouldn’t die if she ate the forbidden fruit. No, she would become like God. And that’s all she wanted: to be like God. That’s all the ideal self wants: to be like God. It’s practically the definition of sin. But the more we pursue that goal the more lost we become, the further we stumble down the path to perdition. We have to stop at some point and admit: “I was wrong.”
Or, as my GPS would say, “Recalculating.”
I don’t want to trivialize the seriousness of this. Some of you are dealing with situations right now that you got into through a series of wrong turns and now you don’t know how to get out. I talked with a man recently who admitted—and these were his words—that he was in “a hell of his own making.” I counseled with a woman who said she sometimes sobs into her pillow at night because she doesn’t want to wake her neighbors. I heard a story about a young man who had way too much to drink, got into his parents’ car, and wrapped it around a tree on a county highway. When the paramedics pulled him out the GPS was still saying—without any hint of judgment—“Recalculating,” because it isn’t the GPS’s job to judge: its job is to get you where you’re going.
God’s job is not to judge us. He makes that clear in today’s Epistle lesson. Paul says we were miserable sinners, actively engaged in evil, the enemies of God, and yet in that moment God did not judge us or condemn us—he died for us. So, why do we sometimes seem to assume that it’s God’s job to judge us, that he’s just waiting for us to slip up, to make a mistake, to take the wrong turn, so he can damn us to hell forever? What if your GPS did that to you? What if it were wired so that you were fine as long as you were following that big, purple line on the screen, but if you ever got off the line your car exploded? Who would want to ride in a car like that? And who would want a God who would send you to hell as soon as you made a mistake? God’s job is not to judge us, but to get us where we’re going, and he sent his son Jesus to do that job: to pull us from the wreckage, set us on our feet, and point us in the direction that leads to life. “While we were still sinners,” Paul says, “Christ died for us.”
This is incredible, actually. We have been around so much religion that assumes God wants to roast sinners in the fires of hell for eternity that we might easily miss what Paul is saying here. He is saying that this is what God does when faced with the problem of miserable sinners sinning their miserable sins: he dies for them. But just so we won’t miss it, he repeats it, twice. In Romans 5:6 he says, “While we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.” In verse 8 he says, “While we were still sinners Christ died for us.” And then in verse 10 he says, “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his son.”
In this season I’ve been pointing out that the Bible uses three different words for sin. One is transgression, which means open rebellion; one is iniquity, which means doing evil; and one is sin itself, which means “missing the mark.” If you have ears to hear it, Paul speaks to all three of those meanings. “Enemies” of God would be those who openly rebel against him. “Sinners,” in the active sense, might be those who actually do evil. And the “weak” might simply be those who miss the mark, who sin in a more passive sense. But in every case, God does not judge us or condemn us, he sends his son to die for us, to redeem us, which means that he sees something in us that is still worth redeeming, no matter how badly we’ve messed things up.
I was thinking about that regarding this story of the woman at the well of Samaria. We sometimes think of her as a sinner because she’s had five husbands, and the man she is living with is not her husband, but we don’t know her circumstances. Her husbands may have all died. She may have been widowed five times. And now she’s afraid to marry her fiancé for fear the same thing will happen to him. It’s not impossible. There are stories like that in the Bible. We don’t know this woman’s circumstances but we know she comes to the well in the middle of the day when no one else will be there and, to her surprise, finds a Jewish man who asks her for a drink of water. “How is that you, a Jew, ask for water from me, a woman of Samaria?” Because Jews and Samaritans don’t have anything to do with each other. But Jesus says, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it was asking you for a drink, you would have asked him, and he would have given you some living water.”
Jesus already knows that she’s had five husbands. He knows that she’s living with a man she hasn’t married. But he also knows what she’s looking for—living water—and without judging her or condemning her he offers her the gift of God. And this is almost unbelievable too, isn’t it? One of my colleagues pointed out that Jesus doesn’t ask her to repent, and really, in the most literal sense, she couldn’t. Repent means to turn around; it means to go back to where you started from and start again. Sometimes my GPS tells me to do that. I missed a turn on an interstate in New Jersey a couple of weeks ago and all I could do was drive to the next exit, five miles down the road, do a U-turn, and come back and give it another try. But sometimes my GPS can get me back on track a different way. “You missed that left,” she says, “try the next one.” In some ways that’s what Jesus does for this woman: he lets her start from where she is, and change the course of her life. She leaves her water jar behind when she goes back into town. Her thirst has been quenched. She asks the townspeople, “Could this be the Messiah?”
Whether we have to turn around completely, and start back in the direction we came from, or make a few small course corrections that will put us on the right track, God doesn’t seem to have any interest in judging us or condemning us. God wants to help us get where we’re going or, rather, to get us where he wants us to go. One of the things I love about my GPS is this button right in the center called “Home.” When I push that button, no matter where I am, Shania starts figuring out how to get me home. And if get tired, or distracted, and miss a turn, she doesn’t say, “You idiot! How could you miss that turn? I’ve been telling you it was coming for the last 10 miles!” Instead she says, in that patient way she has, “Recalculating.” Maybe that’s the most hopeful thing God could say to us when we wander off course, when we miss the mark, when we sin. Maybe God could say in that patient way of his,
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.