Tuesday, February 5, 2019
When I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, I was a member of the Kiwanis Club that was responsible for hosting the Alabama National Fair. Kind of like a state fair that wanted to brag about itself, the Alabama National Fair was a typical conglomeration of amusement park rides, street food vendors, animal husbandry and horticulture competitions, circus acts, and exhibitors. Several of the exhibitors were religious in nature, and one had a display that included three riddles about God. Designed to teach passers by about Christianity, there were three questions about God stenciled above three hinged wooden flaps under which the answers were written. I don't remember all three, but one of the questions was, "What is one thing that God has never seen?" The answer, which quoted some out-of-context Bible verse, was "sin."
I can't remember the Bible verse either, but I suppose that, in one way, that makes sense. Sin seems like the kind of thing that God has not seen. I think the point of the display was to encourage the viewer to forsake sin and turn to God, but I found it to be an invitation to contemplate the nature of sin. What is sin? Although I wasn't willing to accept the exhibitor's claim on the surface, why might sin be something God has not seen? What is God's attitude toward sin? When God "looks" down from heaven and "sees" me preparing to sin, does God avert God's "eyes," withdrawing the divine presence from my general vicinity until the sinning is over? Is this similar to the Augustinian claim that the Holy Spirit withdraws from the bedroom during the procreative act in order not to witness the transmission of original sin?
This Sunday, we have three different lessons that in one way or another deal with sin. In Isaiah 6, the prophet cries out, "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" In response, the angel brings a coal and touches his lips, declaring, "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes, "For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain." In Luke 5, when Peter recognizes that the man in his boat is a representative of the divine, he falls down on his knees and confesses, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" In all three cases, sin seems to be something that threatens to keep the individual away from God's presence, out of God's commission, apart from God's plan. Of course, in all three cases, that isn't the end of the story.
This Sunday's collect is a little different in structure from a typical collect. There is no address or acknowledgment--no "Almighty God, who in creation has declared all things good..." Instead, we jump right to the petition: "Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life." It's as if the collect anticipates our need to get right down to business. There's no prelude, no spiritual foreplay, just our need. The lessons this Sunday reflect that urgency. Three people who, upon encountering the holy, need to be set free from their sin. I don't take a lot of comfort in considering a God who does not see sin, but I desperately need God to set me free from it so that I can dwell securely in God's presence. The problem isn't God's but mine, and the answer comes from God. That's where I'm headed in this Sunday's sermon--back to the basics.