September 15, 2019 Sermon
Old Testament Scripture: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse-a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.
"For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good."
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger.
For thus says the LORD: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.
New Testament Scripture Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-of whom I am the foremost.
But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Sermon: “We Confess…”
Every Sunday, as we begin worship, we have a time of confession. A moment where we remember, as individuals and as members of the Body of Christ, those ways in which we have fallen short of the Gospel. You won’t find this time of confession in all Christian traditions. This is a uniquely Reformed approach to worship, and it is a reminder of our conviction that our faith is not just a private, personal faith, it’s also a corporate faith; that we are not just individuals, we are members of something bigger.
And while I’m sure that many of us tune out from time to time during this part of worship, I encourage us all to think, not just about how we individually have sinned, but how we have as a body sinned. As the church, as a community, as a nation, as a human race.
This time of confession is that time in which we remember that Jesus died for me, and for you, but he also died for us, and for them. And this is a big deal. Confession is not just about unloading the burdens of our conscience. It’s also about remembering that we, you and I and us and them, are also forgiven those sins.
I would go so far as to say that this short moment at the beginning of our worship service is the very crux of our faith. And that’s why it’s at the beginning. Before we do anything, we remember our finite nature, and the extraordinary lengths to which our Lord and Savior went to reconcile our human nature with his own. It’s a big deal.
Ok, enough worship talk for one day.
We find Paul today writing to his friend and student, Timothy. He is offering some guidance for Timothy’s church, which is obviously causing Timothy some problems. Some of his advice has to do with social conventions, and some of it has to do with his concerns that there are some people in his congregation that are teaching a message that is contrary to the Gospel.
Paul doesn’t spend much time discussing the problems that these teachers are causing, but he does indicate that they are guilty of placing on Timothy’s congregation an unhealthy burden of particular behaviours, behaviors that reflect their interpretation of the law. He is especially angry at their insistence that a certain lifestyle is intrinsic to receiving the grace of God.
Now it is curious, that Paul would be so very angry at these teachers linking the Gospel to a certain set of behaviors, while in the very same letter he sets out quite a laundry list of his own expectations of how members of Timothy’s congregation ought to conduct themselves. I’m not going to go into that paradox today, although I do want to point out that Paul’s instructions are offered as advice to Timothy in order to help him restore some order to an unruly congregation, not as commands that must followed in order to receive God’s blessing.
It might be helpful for us as we read the rest of Timothy to remember the context of the letter itself. It is written in response to some problems in the congregation, and while these problems are not named, they are implied in Paul’s instructions. And, above all, Paul is very critical of those who would use the threat of the law in the service of teaching the Gospel of Christ.
And it’s this wrongful use of the law that provokes Paul to tell Timothy of his own testimonial, if you will, a personal history of how Paul, while under the authority of the law, was the ultimate law breaker, a man of violence, a persecutor, a blasphemer. He remembers his own life that was lived under the weight of the law, and he finds it difficult to believe that God could ever have forgiven him the acts that he committed.
This is the same man, after all, who held the coats of those who stoned Stephen to death. He was a participant in some of the bloodiest raids against the early church. His name was feared by the Church, and he was proud of that.
But now he looks back at his past with amazement that God and the church would have forgiven even him. That even though he was one of the worst persecutors of the church, he would be welcomed into the ministry, and given the commission to plant churches all around the Mediterranean. And he can only account this forgiveness to a grace that he cannot understand and cannot escape. God has forgiven him, even him, and though he cannot understand why, he can trust it, and move forward with his life.
Paul gives us a beautiful description of what confession looks like. It is truthful, it is real, and it recognizes a deep break inside his own soul. Paul knows that he has killed people, killed people that loved Jesus, people who had dedicated their own lives to bringing a Gospel of peace and forgiveness to a hurting world.
And this knowledge is very nearly overwhelming for Paul. That he was, and, if truth be told, still is, capable of such evil. Paul can hardly stand himself. And it could have been paralyzing, this awareness of this fundamental brokenness inside him.
He could have been brought so low by the realization of how bad his past really was that he could have simply quit, curled up into a fetal position, and given up on doing anything, on trying anything, on risking, saying, attempting anything. He could have withdrawn inside himself, and left the world to its own devices.
But he didn’t. And this is an important part of confession. It’s not just admitting wrongdoing. It’s also recognizing that wrongdoing has been acknowledged, and forgiven. Paul’s confession is not just that he has done bad things in his past. It’s that he trusts that God knows all about these bad things, and yet has forgiven them.
He trusts that knowledge to the point of going back to those very same people that he harassed and persecuted, and killed, and asking for their forgiveness as well, to request that he be allowed to work alongside them, that he be accepted by them as a fellow worker in the kingdom of God.
Confession is not just admitting that we did something wrong. It’s about telling the truth about ourselves, that we are all quite capable of deep evil, that we are all capable and some of us a even guilty of the worst kinds of sin.
And even those among us who are not aware of their own sin live in a world that makes us complicit. We enjoy the fruit of an economic system that is built on the cheap labor of workers third world countries who live in deplorable conditions. Our amazing gadgets and smartphones are built in countries that do not recognize the same kind of human rights that we do, in factories without fire exits, in buildings where suicide attempts are so frequent, they have installed netting around the windows.
We are broken, whether we know it or not, as individuals and as a people, and Confession is the truth-telling of that brokenness.
But Confession is not limited to simply recognizing our brokenness. Confession is also telling the truth about a God who has given us the grace necessary to confess, who has given us that safe space we need in order to cry out our words of guilt, and sorrow. Without that grace, we would be unable to speak about the great weight that rests on our souls. Without God’s grace, we would never be able to conquer the fear that is in each of that that somebody might find out who we really are, what we’re really like.
It’s God’s grace that makes it possible for us to confess. And it’s God’s grace that takes the confession from our lips, and carries our confession as far from us as the east is from the west, as far as the cross of calvary is from the throne of heaven.
Now, before we get too far into this discussion about the importance of confession, let me say a controversial thing: Confession is not necessary for salvation. Let me say it again: Confession is not necessary for salvation. God can save whoever he wants, whenever he wants, under whatever conditions that he wants. That’s why he’s God.
But I do believe confession is a part of salvation. Without confession, we would carry our shame, our guilt, our burdens forever. Confession is healing for the soul.
Confession is telling the truth both about what we have done, and what God will do. It is both trust and honesty. It is both convicting and healing.
But there is just a little more about confession that I think we sometimes forget. Last week we talked about how giving advice is not limited to the attitude and receptivity of the one receiving the guidance. Giving advice has a lot to do do with the posture of the one offering the guidance.
And we see some of that same dynamic in today’s text. Paul is not talking to God in this letter. He’s talking to Timothy. He’s laying his heart out, not in the privacy of his own room, on his knees, but rather putting pen to paper and writing a letter about his own shameful behavior for all the world to see, for 2000 years.
He could have only have done this if he had trusted Timothy with this information. And I don’t mean trusted him to keep it confidential. I mean, that he trusted that Timothy wouldn’t turn from him in shame when he told Timothy these things. That Timothy wouldn’t think less of him, wouldn’t abandon him, wouldn’t accuse, or forsake him.
And that is also a part of the discipline of confession. It is both private and public. It is trusting that those whom we would give the truth of our hearts might still love us and accept us afterwards. In other words, there is a not just a discipline of making a confession. There is a discipline to hearing a confession. There is discipline in giving enough room to someone for them to confess.
Because if we sense that we are going to judged, and found wanting, if we feel that we will be shunned, or abandoned, or mocked, or accused, the last thing we will do is confess. Who would open themselves to that kind of abuse?
Let me offer two different examples of experiences I’ve had with confession. I remember when I was in the Army, I had a very good friend, who I respected very much. He was a great musician, a wonderful Christian man, and was a kind of a role model for me. One night he had a little too much to drink, which was pretty rare for him, and made some unwanted advances toward a friend of Karen’s. It was uncomfortable, and awkward.
The next day we talked about it, and I remember him saying how sorry he was for the way he acted, but I would have none of it. I was so very angry with him. I didn’t accept his apology, and I stayed angry at him for quite awhile. I’m sure some of you have had an experience like that, where you discovered that someone you looked up to had feet of clay. It’s a terrible feeling of disappointment.
It took a long time for our friendship to recover from that, and in fact, I’m not sure that it really has. And it’s not because I haven’t forgiven him. I have. It’s that he knew on some level that I had not forgiven him at that moment. I had turned my face, I had walked away.
And so, we have been in contact several times since then, and we talk as if nothing happened, but there’s this thing there that we probably won’t be able to ever talk about, and I regret that I was not able to provide the sort of safe space that true confession and forgiveness could have occurred at the time that it would have been most healing.
It is hard to hear a confession.
Of course, it’s hard to offer one as well.
While I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to study for a semester in Cambridge, England. I arrived in the middle of the year, and consequently, I wasn’t able to attend the normal orientation classes that are offered to visiting students that help them in getting used to the rhythms of study abroad.
One of the topics in those orientation classes that would have been helpful to me was the fact that in English upper level education, you don’t have the normal routine of assignments, quizzes, tests, that sort of thing. In fact, the way it worked, was, you went to class (or not, depending on your mood), and at the end of the semester, you wrote a gigantic paper using the lectures and reading materials as resources. I did not know that.
So, I went merrily to class, loving every moment of these really smart people with their funny accents and after a couple of months, I begin to feel a little uneasy that we hadn’t actually been required to read anything, or take a quiz or a test, or write a short paper, or anything. Just show up to class and listen. But I didn’t pay enough attention to this feeling, and at the end of the semester, I realized that I was supposed to write 4 major papers of around 15,000 words each for the four classes I had been attending, each of them using the notes from the class plus citations from ten different theological books.
Now, what I didn’t know, was that what most students at Cambridge did was to write the bulk of the papers during the semester, and finish them up during the month long break between semesters. But I had done no work whatsoever, and I was going be in Berlin for the next couple of months.
I tried to get some English language theological books on interlibrary loan from a library in Berlin, but I could only have them for a week, and they cost a lot of money to get, money that I simply did not have. I gave it a shot, but got about halfway through one paper and realized, to my very great shame, that I was not going to be able to do it.
It was a terrible moment. A lot of money had been spent on me to send me to Cambridge. Space had been made for me, accommodations had been made for me, and I had repaid those generous offers with nothing. Trust had been placed on me, and I had failed that trust.
Not only that, I was supposed to be one of the best and brightest of Columbia Theological Seminary, and I was going to completely and utterly fail. What a great example of the academic rigor of American Education. I was heartbroken, embarrassed, and ashamed.
When I got back to Atlanta, I had to go to the Academic Dean’s office and confess my failure. And to my very great surprise, I was forgiven. The reality was, the school never really expects the exchange students to complete the studies in Cambridge. The schedule doesn’t really allow for that, what with the fact that the students come right home after the semester and don’t have access to the resources they need in order to complete the assignments. The reality is, the point of the exchange is for us to live and work and play and worship in a different context, to see God at work through a different lens.
And so, while I didn’t receive any credit for my time in Cambridge, I certainly learned something. I learned that the next time I went into a new situation, I might take a little more time to find out the expectations. I learned that in English schools, they cook fish on Friday. And I learned that sometimes failing horribly is the only way to truly understand the meaning of grace.