The First Step in Problem Solving

Presidents give speeches; it’s what they do. In the speeches they give something of a vision of what might make life better for the nation; and the opposition party gives a response because that’s what they do. Between an inauguration and a State of the Union Address in a span of less than one month, we’ve had opportunity to hear big speeches and much commentary. There’s much to say about what was said, and much to say about what was said in response. There’s something more important that wasn’t said, either by the president or by the respondents.

John 1:29-34
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”

One thing missing in all of the speeches was reference to sin. It’s not that I expected to hear it or was surprised by its absence. It’s just that it should be increasingly obvious that many of the proposed legislative solutions to our most troubling and fear-inducing issues will not in themselves accomplish what needs to be done if we are to be more secure, have greater opportunities, and live more acceptingly of our neighbors near and far.

Everyone but the most uninformed and willfully ignorant person acknowledges that a man named Jesus lived in first century Palestine. What people make of him and what they will do with what they hear is another matter. The New Testament, particularly in John’s gospel, is very clear regarding why Jesus came to our world: he takes away sin.

As we read through the entirety of John’s first chapter, it stand out even more clearly. The eternal, divine Logos, through whom all things were made and all things beautiful, graceful, and truthful are revealed is then first introduced to humankind as the one who takes away the sin of the world. Not as a dictator or legislator, not as judge or as prosecutor, but as the lamb of God did he come to change our world. This, of course, means sacrifice. Of all the things we could imagine God able to do, of all the solutions He could possibly offer to the things that limit, defeat, destroy, bind, and confuse us, the first thing he announces about his personal presence in the world is that he takes away sin.

It’s too serious a matter for us to take Jesus as primarily anything before we see him as the one who removes sin. And if this is the paramount purpose of his coming, we have no choice but to see sin in all of its manifold expressions as our primary problem—in its grip upon persons young and old, wealthy and poor, as persons and as the nations formed of person, as those with every form of lifestyle. And if sin is the problem, we can attempt to limit its impact, but we cannot remove it.

Today’s thought is to look at the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; and to repent of both thinking we can use him while by-passing sin and of thinking that our real problem is anything else than sin—and anywhere else without being in ourselves.

Lent 2013.

“What are you giving up for Lent this year?” Have you heard that question over the past couple of days? Perhaps you heard—or read on facebook—unsolicited answers to the same question. Does it strike anyone else as antithetical to the discipline that one make an announcement about a practice at least partially intended to cure our pride?

Pride. That vicious animal that separates us not only from God, from our fellows–but from our own best selves as well. It is so readily identified in the other and so invisible to its bearer. And that company of bearers, of course, includes all of us to one extent or another. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, we fashion ourselves in the role of the tax collector and never the dreaded Pharisee in the story Jesus told. The more we mimic the Pharisee, the less our hope of knowing our true selves.

Luke 18:9-14 (ESV)
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Lent, penance, reflection, self-assessment. We cannot live successfully if we spend all of our time in such a place; nor can we live very well at all if they find no place in our schedule. That would be a recipe for spiritual death. It reminds me of a cartoon someone posted, with a doctor asking an overweight fellow which one fit better into his schedule: exercising an hour a day or being dead for twenty-four? Themes dealing with reparation of heart and life constitutes a portion of the Christian year, not the whole. There’s a resurrection coming, which means newness of life. But the old stuff has to give way before the new can sprout.

People have always had difficulty with repentance. Just look through the Bible and see how both corporately and personally, letting go of that which springs from selfish motives and goals yields ground very grudgingly, if at all. Our present-day context, more than was the case in the past, seems to celebrate the prideful and the haughty, simply because those who display such traits are deemed successful; and inwardly we’d like the opportunity to strut our stuff like they do, no matter how hideous the Ray Lewises of the world appear when they do it.

We repent of lesser sins, the annoying little habits, far more readily than we do of pride. We give the things we probably would have been well advised never to have begun, then return to them after Easter, and instead of taking up the new life of resurrection, return to that from which we were initially freed. But as long as we can comfort ourselves by not having the manifold sins of the tax collector in Jesus’ story, we can thank God for our superior standing and continue on our way.

Over the coming weeks of Lent this blog will be given to the gospel lessons for the season. Some will deal with the personal, some with the corporate aspects of repentance. I invite your comments and observations; but please spare the information about what you’ve given up—I wouldn’t want you to forfeit what benefit there may be.