Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
February 14, 2018
Isaiah 58: 1-12 (CEB)
Shout loudly; don’t hold back; raise your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their crime, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2They seek me day after day, desiring knowledge of my ways like a nation that acted righteously, that didn’t abandon their God. They ask me for righteous judgments, wanting to be close to God. 3“Why do we fast and you don’t see; why afflict ourselves and you don’t notice?” Yet on your fast day you do whatever you want, and oppress all your workers. 4You quarrel and brawl, and then you fast; you hit each other violently with your fists. You shouldn’t fast as you are doing today if you want to make your voice heard on high. 5Is this the kind of fast I choose, a day of self-affliction, of bending one’s head like a reed and of lying down in mourning clothing and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
6Isn’t this the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke? 7Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family? 8Then your light will break out like the dawn, and you will be healed quickly. Your own righteousness will walk before you, and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard. 9Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and God will say, “I’m here.” If you remove the yoke from among you, the finger-pointing, the wicked speech; 10if you open your heart to the hungry, and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted, your light will shine in the darkness, and your gloom will be like the noon. 11The Lord will guide you continually and provide for you, even in parched places. He will rescue your bones. You will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water that won’t run dry.
12They will rebuild ancient ruins on your account; the foundations of generations past you will restore. You will be called Mender of Broken Walls, Restorer of Livable Streets.
I can’t remember the conversation or the context anymore. But I have this vivid memory of someone in my presence once saying, “The problem with the Methodists is that they don’t talk about sin enough!” I remembering balking as I thought to myself, “Of course we don’t! Sin is a terrible subject! Why would anybody want to talk about sin?” As I said, I don’t remember exactly what was happening when that comment was made, but I do remember continuing to reason about exactly why it is that Methodists don’t talk about sin enough (whatever enough means). Anyway, I thought about how talking about sin makes us feel like bad people. I thought about how talking about sin makes us feel “less than,” particularly when it’s other people telling us how awful our sin is. Then I thought about grace, and how grace is central to the particular Christian faith that is United Methodism. And in my mind, I concluded: “Yep, that’s it. We don’t talk about sin enough because we talk about grace!” Once I drew that conclusion, that was it. I never thought much more about that moment or that particular comment.
Until the last few weeks, that is, when I started planning this Lenten sermon series on forgiveness. You know, as Christians, forgiveness is most often tied to sin. Christ died for the forgiveness of our sins. We are taught to repent of our sins. So obviously, you can’t talk too much about forgiveness until you’ve talked about sin. So tonight, this Methodist who doesn’t talk enough about sin is just going to talk about sin.
A few nights ago I was doing some reading in preparation for this sermon. Ken saw what I was doing and asked what I was preaching on this week. Now, in our house, when you ask that question, that means what text will you be preaching on on Sunday. So I explained to him that I was reading for my Ash Wednesday sermon, and when he asked what I would be preaching on tonight, my answer was, “Well, I’m preaching on Isaiah 58 and I’m going to talk about sin. It’s a great prelude to a sermon series on forgiveness.” Ken agreed, and I continued, “So I’m going to tell them all what a miserable bunch of sinners they are; wretched scum of the earth!” Now you know why Methodists don’t talk about sin, because we’re bad at it!
In all seriousness, though, sin is a part of all our lives. God freely offers God’s grace, but that doesn’t change the fact that we all sin. No one is perfect. There are lots of ways to define what sin is, but the one that has come to resonate most with me over the years is that sin is separation from God. Sin is a disobedience of God’s will and God’s way for our lives that effectively builds a wall between ourselves and God. Just listen to the prophet’s word as Isaiah delivers this message from God we heard a few moments ago. “Shout loudly!” God tells Isaiah, “Raise your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their crime, to the house of Jacob their sins.” As you read further on, you hear Isaiah reminding the people that they want to be close to God, and that they are wondering why God is seemingly unresponsive to their fasting and piety. So Isaiah tells the people why God is not responsive. And sin is at the core of the problem. “Sure,” God says, “you are worshipping, you are fasting, but then you go about your daily lives and the way you act is sinful, it’s not righteous, it’s not pious, it is as if you are not even my people, as if you have never even heard my words.”
This is a really tough word Isaiah is bringing. And it might be easy for us to brush it off by reasoning that Isaiah was a prophet thousands of years ago in a different time and a different place, and so this word certainly doesn’t apply to US. But it does, friends, it does. We might think that we’re okay because we come to this place week after week and we worship together. We listen to Scripture readings, we say the Lord’s Prayer. Then we come back later in the week and we study the Bible in small groups or join together in praying for one another, for our community, and our world. So we think we’re set, we think our relationship with God is good. But then we leave this place, and we go out in the world, and we sin. We stand in the grocery line on Monday morning and we gossip about So-and-so’s teenage grandson who just got some teenage girl pregnant. Or we gather in the Board Room and develop a strategy to maximize our profits when all the while, we have employees living without health insurance and barely able to pull together enough money after paying rent and utilities to put food on their families’ tables. Or we are envious of our neighbor’s new car. Or we lust after that beauty we run into at the grocery store sometimes. Or road rage engulfs us when we get cut off on Brainerd Road.
When it comes down to it, we really are a terrible, miserable lot. We say we want to be in relationship with God in Christ Jesus, and I earnestly believe that we do. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t want that with all of our being. And we come here week after week to pray, and worship, and study so that we can grow in our relationship. But that’s only half the story because we persist in our sin. Its liking two steps forward and one step back. We try and strengthen our relationship with God through these spiritual disciplines, but then we go out into the world and we disobey God, and we live our lives in such a way that we build this wall between ourselves and God. And so it feels as if our worship is empty and meaningless because it seems like God is not responding. We don’t sense that our relationship with God is growing. All because of sin. Sin.
We have to deal with this sin. We have to acknowledge that it exists in our lives and that we are sinful people. And that’s what tonight is all about. As we take the ashes upon our foreheads in the sign of the cross, we are reminded that we are dust. Because of our sin and our disobedience, we are low, dirty, dust. We are called to face that reality head-on. To repent not only of our sins, those things we do each and every day, but also to repent of our sin, our complete disobedience of God’s will and God’s way in our lives. The twelve-step recovery method says that the first step to recovery is acknowledging that you have a problem. So that’s what we are doing here tonight. We are acknowledging that we have a problem, or maybe a lot of problems. We are facing these problems, this sin, head on. This is the important first step on this Lenten journey that will take us ultimately to the cross, and then beyond that to the new life of Resurrection.
Now, because I’m a Methodist and I can’t talk about sin without talking about grace, even on Ash Wednesday, let me end with this. We have to confess our sins and repent, we have to take this important first step of this journey because without this, we will never understand the true depth of God’s grace. We will not experience the fullness of God’s forgiveness or truly comprehend Christ’s death on the cross. We will continue going through motions day after day and week after week, persisting in our sin and feeling as if we are never really connecting with God because we haven’t understood the costliness of God’s grace; the costliness of the forgiveness that God offers.
A colleague of mine this week wondered, “What would it feel like on Ash Wednesday to stand and mark the sign of the cross on the forehead of all these people you love, saying, ‘From dust you came, to dust you shall return,’ if there were no resurrection?” But tonight we might ask the question a slightly different way. What does new life mean if we do not die to our sin? What does the Resurrection mean if there is no cross?