March 17, 2013

Sermon, Passion Sunday


White as Snow
Psalm 51, Isaiah 1:10-20, 1 Peter 4:12
Passion Sunday
March 17, 2013

Isaiah 1:18 contains some of the most famous words in the world, "though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow."  When I hear these words I think of Nathaniel Hawthorn's story, The Scarlet Letter.  He probably got the idea for the scarlet colour of the letter from Isaiah, for, in the story, Hester Prynne was forced to wear a red letter "A" for committing the sin of adultery.  Of course, in reality, we are all adulteresses, all branded with a scarlet letter.

We understand this when we look at the people outside of Christ.  We see their carousing, chasing pleasure, reveling in drunkenness, debauchery, and fornication.  We see them giving themselves to power, position, material possessions, physical pleasures, and self-indulgence.  We understand that they have made these things their gods.  They are their first loves.  They receive the devotion and love God deserves.  They covet these things, and "covetousness," as Paul wrote in Colossians 3:5, "is idolatry."  What is idolatry but adultery of the soul?  They have left their true Husband to commit adultery with things that are not even gods.

But, I have noticed something that is very important; when the Bible talks about spiritual adultery, it almost always refers to those who claim to be the people of God.  I don't know of a single place where the word is used of those outside of the visible Church.  There  may be, but I don't remember any.  The reason it is used of the Church is because it is we who have taken vows to love and serve God as our God, and to keep ourselves for Him alone.  Thus, the Bible calls the Church the "bride of Christ" (Rev. 21:9).

We seldom think of ourselves as spiritual adulterers, but I wonder, when we are honest with ourselves, if we do not see that our sins are as scarlet as Hester Prynne's?  Who has not become aware that our very best efforts fall far, far short of God's perfection?  Who is not aware that pride, greed, jealousy, lust, and a general spiritual laziness still live in us, even after years and decades of trying to follow Christ?  What parent reprimanding a child does not remember committing the same offense?  What minister preaching the word is not aware of the sin still dwelling in him?  I read once of a young minister leading a catechism class and being stricken with the awful truth that he had not carried the burden he was now asking others to bear.  St. Augustine is reported to have prayed for purity and chastity, but not today.  Even St Paul admitted his own continuing battle with sin.  "I am carnal, sold under sin," he wrote in Romans 7:14. "[T]o perform that which is good I find not" says Romans 7:18.  Then there are those famous words in Romans 7:19, "The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do."

But it is not just what we do that is sin, it is what we are.  If it were possible for us to peel back the layer of God's grace that hides our sinfulness from us, we would shudder at the writhing mass of evil that is in us.  Once in a while it breaks out.  Then we act in the most unGodly ways.  That is the real you coming out.  You are able, by God's grace, to keep it under some control most of the time, but sometimes it breaks out.  Truly our sins are as scarlet.  How shall they be white as snow?  White of course means pure and clean.  In spiritual terms, red symbolises wickedness, white stands for good.  Red is ungodly, white is Godly.  How can we go from red to white?  It can only come to us as the gift of God.  And that happens in three ways.

First it happens when God forgives our sins.  By that I mean God simply stops holding our sins against us and starts treating us as though we were not sinners.  This happens only because Christ paid the price of our sins for us.  He suffered  the wrath of God for our sins on the cross.  There was nothing we could have done to make up for our sins.  But God forgives our sins.  Our sins were scarlet, now they are white as snow.

I know I say this often, but that is because it is the primary message of the Bible.  The Bible addresses many things, good government, marriage, home, family, child rearing, work, economics, war, and peace.  I hope to talk about some of these things this summer. From the Bible we learn that kings and presidents are not supreme any more than bishops or churches.  God is supreme, and all rulers, civil and ecclesiastical, rule properly only when they rule under God and according to His will.  From the Bible we learn that people have rights.  Thou shalt not kill means you have the right to life, and you have the right to defend your life.  Thou shalt not steal means you have the right to own property and to enjoy the fruits of your labours.  Thou shalt not commit adultery means other people are not your sexual toys.  All of these things are addressed in the Bible, but they are not the theme of the Bible.  Redemption is its theme.  God is Redeeming for Himself a nation which will inherit a new Kingdom that is Godly and righteous.  In it we will serve and glorify God perfectly and forever.  Those who enter into this Kingdom are only allowed in because God has forgiven their sins through the cross of Christ.

Second our sins become white as snow when, in the grace of God He accounts us as righteous.  This is due to the righteousness of Christ accounted to us; credited to us, credited to our account.  Christ has taken our unrighteousness upon Himself and suffered for it on the cross.  He has given His righteousness to us, so that God now sees us as righteous and good and holy.

We need to remember here that righteousness is credited to us, not achieved by us.  The old sinful ways of thinking and responding to life still remain strong in us, and have to be denied and crucified moment by moment and day by day every day of our lives.  Progress is slow and painful, but does happen, so keep at it.  Remember that doing the will of God goes against your natural impulses and desires, and the more you give in to evil and spiritual laziness, the easier it becomes.  "Thou shalt find," wrote Anglican Bishop Joseph Hall in the 1600s, "that deffering [spiritual things] breeds an indisposition to [them]; so that what was before pleasant to thee, being omitted, to-morrow grows harsh, the next day unneccessary, afterward odious.  To-day thou canst but wilt not; to-morrow thou couldst, but listeth not; the next day thou neither wilt nor canst."

But this is what I want to emphasise today.  Your sins are white as snow in God's eyes because He sees you covered with the righteousness of Christ.  Do not fear that you are not going to Heaven because you battle sins and temptation.  Do not fear that God does not accept you because you still sin.  God accepts you because He has placed the righteousness of Christ in your spiritual account.  Because of that, you are righteous in His eyes.

Third, your sins will be white as snow because one day you will be fully purified.  The day will come when the tendency to sin, that is now so much a part of you, will be gone forever.  The day will come when your will, emotions, mind, and every aspect of your being will be completely righteous.  The process of fighting against your sinfulness will be over because your sinfulness will be gone.  You will be pure.

O God, who has made our sins as white as snow through the redeeming work of Christ; grant that we may live in holiness and peace through Thy grace.  Amen.

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