Friday, November 13, 2009

Sermon: 24 Pentecost (16 November 2009)

Sermon: 24 Pentecost (16 November 2009)
(1 Samuel 1:4-20/1Samuel 2:1-10/Hebrews 10:11-25/Mark 13:1-8)
Pandemics and Cures

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be His kingdom, now and forever. Amen.

We haven’t heard much about AIDS lately, despite the sobering statistics: 33 million people infected worldwide, 2.3 million new cases each year, 2 million deaths annually – all this at the end of 2007.[1] Yet, AIDS was the “disease of the decade” in the 1980s; in the U. S. we lived with the fear of contracting the fatal disease through casual contact and with the specter of an AIDS pandemic. The media reported daily on new developments and new anxieties – but not so much anymore. What has changed? We learned that AIDS is not nearly as contagious as we feared. Normal behaviors are not particularly risky; for the most part, “old fashioned” morality is an adequate safeguard, though I understand the use of “morality” is subject to debate. We also grew tired of fear – at least of that particular fear. Long-term anxiety eventually numbs us and we need new fears to stir us – fears like mad cow disease, bird flu, West Nile virus, SARS, and now H1N1. When the latest threat of annihilation fails to terrorize us any longer, there will be a new one in the wings – until 2012, of course, when the world comes to an end, sort of the ultimate threat. And then there’s this: AIDS has become the scourge of the third world – Haiti, Sub-Saharan Africa – not of the first world. Cynically, it’s out of sight, out of mind.

But mainly, I suspect, AIDS is no longer forefront in the news and in our fears because it has become a disease you can live with – literally. With advances in treatment, with improved medication, AIDS is no longer unavoidably terminal in the short term. If you take the proper medication, if you alter your behavior, if you take good care of yourself, you can manage the disease and manage to live with it a good, long time. Of course, you still have the disease; there is treatment, but there is no cure. And cure is the ultimate goal – with AIDS and with all diseases. We want to go to the doctor and be given a pill or an injection – we’d even be willing to submit to surgery – and be cured, be disease-free. Imagine an AIDS patient being told by his doctor, “I have a new drug that won’t just treat you; it will cure you. It works from the inside out; it destroys the virus and creates within you a new immune system. Take this pill one time and you can stop all other treatment. The cure isn’t instantaneous, though; it takes time to achieve its full effect. And it takes your cooperation: get plenty of rest, eat right, exercise regularly, change any high-risk behaviors. Take the medicine, do these things, and you never need see me again. You will be cured completely.”

That is what an AIDS patient longs to hear. But the reality of taking scores of pills each day – day after day for as long as he lives – is a constant reminder that the medication is not a cure, but a treatment. It allows him to lead a relatively normal life – to be a member of a family and a community – yet being all the while infected with a life-threatening disease. The treatment is the reminder of his plight.

Fortunately, AIDS just didn’t materialize as a global pandemic, though it has devastated certain countries and regions. Frankly, I don’t fret over each new pandemic prophesy of doom any more. I’ve seen them come and go – sensationalized by the media – and the species is still here, while the one real pandemic – the terminal disease that affects all mankind, that makes all other threats pale by comparison – is largely ignored. We don’t like to mention it; the word spoken in public seems somehow out of place, somehow inappropriate: the real, global pandemic that threatens the entire species of man is sin.

Some today – perhaps many – deny the existence of sin in the biblical sense. I tend to agree with British author G. K. Chesterton, though, who maintained that original sin is the only objectively verifiable Christian doctrine. He wrote of trends in early 20th-century thought:

Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers of the Rev. R. J. Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and Man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.[2]

But we cannot deny the cat; we cannot deny sin, because we recognize the symptoms of the infection within ourselves. We somehow know – and that is another important discussion for another time – we somehow know that human life is meant to be expansive, outwardly-directed, lived in relationship with God and man and all of creation. And yet we also know ourselves alienated, cut off from these life-giving relationships, curved inward on ourselves: such selfishness, pride, arrogance – And who is immune? – are symptoms of sin. We want what we cannot, and should not, have: things, people, power. And we plot and strive to make them our own: greed, lust, and dominance as symptoms of sin. We judge harshly those with faults no greater than our own: hypocrisy. We plot revenge for minor insults and take pleasure in retaliation: violence. We shade the truth in our favor: lying. And on and on the symptoms mount – and we recognize them in ourselves – until the diagnosis is unavoidable: the entire human species is terminally infected with sin, the only truly global pandemic.

There are treatments for sin of course – each culture develops its own – treatments to manage the sin and to allow the individual and the culture to manage to live with the sin. Our modern Western culture is enlightened and rational, so our treatments cluster around the physical and social sciences: biology and psychology. We have managed to convince ourselves that sin can be medicated or analyzed out of existence with drugs and psychotherapy. I don’t want to be dismissive of these tools; they frequently do manage sin and allow the sinner to remain part of a family and a community, to function within “normal” boundaries of behavior. But the fact that we continue to take medication and continue to schedule follow-up appointments with the therapist testifies that sin has only been treated, not cured. These are constant reminders of our condition. If even these treatments prove ineffective, or if they are unavailable, there is always quarantine. Our prisons – we’ve emptied out most of the mental institutions, it seems – are full to overflowing with those who received no treatment or who were resistant to it.

Ancient Israel had its own treatment for sin – the Law and the sacrificial system – and its own spiritual physicians – the priests. These were not a cure. The sacrifices merely allowed the transgressor to re-establish a relationship with the community and with God, to be purified with respect to the law, and to avoid – at least temporarily – the more serious consequences of sin. But, the sacrifices could never cure the disease; they were not intended to. Rather, they were intended to point beyond themselves to something better yet to come. St. Paul writes:

1 For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. 2 For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. 3 But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 4 For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins. 11 And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins (Heb 10:1-4, 11, NKJV).

The Old Covenant, with its Law and sacrifices, is a shadow, a hint of better things to come; it is a treatment which looks forward to a cure, a cure which works from the inside out. Jeremiah prophesied of the cure to come, and St. Paul makes much of this prophesy in Hebrews.

31 “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— 32 not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jer 31:31-34, NKJV).

Through Christ – through his ministry as both sacrifice (the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world) and high priest (after the order of Melchizedek) – Jeremiah’s new covenant has been instituted and the cure – not the treatment, but the cure – for sin has come. What was needed all along was not the blood of bulls and goats but a perfectly obedient, perfectly righteous man who would fulfill God’s purpose and become the representative for all men – the perfectly righteous man and only-begotten Son of God, Jesus.

5 Therefore, when He came into the world, He said:
“ Sacrifice and offering You did not desire,

But a body You have prepared for Me.

6 In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin

You had no pleasure.

7 Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come—

In the volume of the book it is written of Me—

To do Your will, O God.’”

8 Previously saying, “Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them ” (which are offered according to the law), 9 then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.” He takes away the first that He may establish the second. 10 By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
11 And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, 13 from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. 14 For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified. 15 But the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us; for after He had said before, 16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them,” 17 then He adds, “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” 18 Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin
(Heb 10:5-18, NKJV).

To the Jewish Christians tempted to return to Judaism, this is the radical good news of faith in Jesus: all the limitations of Law and sacrifice are overcome through Christ and in Christ. The repetitive sacrifices of the Old Covenant only reminded the sinner of his condition. The once-for-all sacrifice of the New Covenant changes that condition and cures the root problem of sin. The priests of the Old Covenant stood and continually performed rites that could never take away sin. The priest of the New Covenant completed his work of forgiveness and sat down at the right hand of God. And, most remarkable of all, people who were banned from the Holy of Holies by the Old Covenant are now welcomed to come boldly into the very presence of God.

19 Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and having a High Priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25 not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching (Heb 10:19-25, NKJV).

The Old Covenant holds nothing like this: nothing like access to God the Father, nothing like full reconciliation and restoration, nothing like a cure for sin.

This is good news – really the best news, because if sin is cured then so, too, is death – good news not only for 1st century Jewish Christians but for 21st century Christians of all backgrounds, indeed for all Christians of all times and places. It is good news for the entire human species, good news of hope and life. But, the skeptic in me hedges a bit. If the sacrifice of Christ is a once-for-all offering that cures us of sin, then why do I still struggle so much with sin? Worse still, why do I struggle so little with sin but rather give in without putting up much of a fight? If I’m cured, why do I still seem so sick, so often?

The fault lies not with the cure, but with my lack of cooperation with the curative process. The full cure takes time, and it takes effort on my part. The redemptive sacrifice of Jesus is the heart of the cure – without it no cure is possible – but I must cooperate with the Great Physician for the cure to become effective and manifest in my life.

22 [L]et us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25 not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching (Heb 10:22-25, NKJV).

I must struggle to make my heart true, my conscience clean, and my body pure; only then can I draw near God in full assurance of faith. I must hold fast the faith, rejecting all lies and half-truths. I must embrace love and good works. And I must do so in the community of the faithful, around the Table of the Lord. This is the ascetical teaching of the church – the church’s therapeutic program – the discipline of healing that makes the cure effective and manifest. Jesus offers the cure, a cure that only he can provide. We can settle for mere treatment or even death, a decision only we can make. The consequences of that decision are vast.

26 For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. And again, “The LORD will judge His people.” 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10:26-31, NKJV).

This is a dire warning, and I take no pleasure in it. But I dare not speak less than the truth. If we reject the sacrifice of Christ after we have come to a knowledge of the truth, there is no cure for us. The disease is terminal and we will die.

But I am convinced of better things for you. I share the same confidence in you that Paul expressed to the Hebrew Christians: “But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul” (Heb 10:39, NKJV). And so, I say:

Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.

[1] World Health Organization report summarized at, accessed 11/9/09.
[2] G. K. Chesterton, quoted on, accessed 11/10/09.

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