Where do we begin, the rubble or our sin?
The band Bastille in their hit song Pompeii asks that question. It’s a poignant question for any of us who have looked at the wreckage of a life, or a family, or ourselves, and wondered where to begin.
With the poor financial decisions or the chaos of our finances?
With the poor eating and dietary practices? Or the poor state of our health?
With the sins of the father visited upon the son? Or with the havoc wreaked by those sins?
With the secret sins we keep? Or the ways they cause us to mistreat others?
Where do we begin, the rubble or our sin? We want to fix things, we want things to be better, and when confronted with our sin as well as the consequences of that sin, we wonder where to begin. Where do we start to pick up the pieces? So we can be restored. So things can be right again. So that we can be, once again, in God’s good graces; in right relationship with our creator.
Where do we begin, the rubble or our sins?
What if that’s the wrong question?
Let’s hear our scripture for today, Psalm 139:1-14
This Psalm is beautiful, gorgeous, poignant. It’s a snuggle up with your favorite blanket, book, or drink, and get cozy because God loves you so much Psalm. If the Psalter has a “Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul,” this is it.
It says that we’re fearfully and wonderfully made. Another translation puts that this way: fearfully set apart. That idea of being set apart is related to the word holy, for to be holy means to be set apart. So we are set apart. And when God regards us, there is respect and wonderment from God.
God knew us before we were even a twinkle in our parents’ eyes, according to this Psalm. Before creation even, God beheld our unformed substance. God has known us intimately, better than we have known ourselves, from since before time, through our nine months in utero, and ever since. Have you ever known a relationship where the person knew you better than you know yourself? Dana’s that way for me. It’s a beautiful thing to be known so well and, still, loved.
And, still, loved. That’s what we say when we remark that someone knows us well and still loves us. Because we tend to regard ourselves from a negative position. When we ask ourselves if we should begin with the rubble or our sin, we cast ourselves in a wholly negative light: I’m not great, I’m pretty crappy, if you knew me, you wouldn’t really like me. So when someone does really know us, we’re pretty amazed that we’re still loved.
Because we know ourselves to be sinful. We know ourselves to be corrupted. We often say we’re a sinner in need of grace. We’re incapable of any good on our own, but God redeems us. Where do we begin, the rubble or our sin? If we begin with sin, God redeems. If we begin with the rubble, God restores. So we begin with sin, from the negative position, when we think of our relationship with God.
But note that this Psalm says none of that. Even in the verses I didn’t read, there’s none of this. The Psalmist never discusses, nor declares, being sinful, being redeemed. There’s no mention that the Psalmist was outside of the fold and God brought him in. There’s no mention of any kind of salvation or being part of the covenant. In Old Testament language, there’s no comment on having been good about bringing sacrifices, righteous for having followed the law; nothing of that sort.
No, the Psalmist boldly declares that he is loved, he is fearfully and wonderfully made, he is, with utmost respect from God, set apart, known intimately from even before he was born to the very day he wrote these words, just because he’s alive.
From before he was born, the psalmist was cherished, known intimately, by God. In utero, the psalmist was fearfully and wonderfully made. After he was born, and throughout his life, God looks upon the psalmist with respect. And there’s no justification for that except that the Psalmist is human, is in God’s image, is just like any of us.
What are we to make of that?
Typically, we focus in on our sin, on how we’re imperfect. We ask ourselves subconsciously and consciously if we should begin with the rubble or our sins. We talk about original sin: that we need Jesus Christ because our sin has so corrupted us, so undone us, made us so awful and bad from our birth, that we are without any means of anything good on our own.
We are, to put it in theological terms, totally depraved.
Total depravity, as it’s often understood today, says that before we were born, we were already sinful. When we were being knit together in our mother’s wombs, sin and evil did the knitting, not God. As we have lived our lives, God has no knowledge of us until we reach out for Jesus Christ because sin has so corrupted us that it forms a total and complete barrier between us and God.
It’s like those old Sunday School drawings where you’re on one cliff, God is on the other cliff, and there’s a chasm in between. When we accept Jesus Christ, the drawing shows a cross that spans the gap, allowing us to know God. But what’s clear in these drawings is that we are, at the start, separated from God, and have no knowledge of nor relationship with God, because we are totally depraved. We’re totally corrupted and thus we need God so much because we can do no good on our own.
Because this totally depraved state means that we’re completely separated from God. There’s no connection between us and God because there can’t be; we’re too sinful, too corrupted, too bad, for God to know us, for God to be in relationship with us. That’s what total depravity means, just like those old Sunday School cartoon drawings.
And it’s then, on that cliff looking out at Jesus, we wonder where do we begin, the rubble or our sins?
But what if that’s the wrong question?
What if we begin here, with Psalm 139. What if we begin with the reality, the fact, that God knew us before time, loved us before time, considers us set apart, with respect, as the apex of creation? What if we start with this fact that we are fearfully and wonderfully made? What if we begin, not with the rubble or our sins, but with the love of God?
A love that spans that chasm between the cliffs. In fact, that cartoon drawing is a fantasy; it does not exist. There is no chasm between us and God. God has always known us intimately, God has always loved us, and God will always be with us. Hear the words of Jesus, “and lo, I am with you always, even to the ends of the earth.” That is true here, too, just as God has always been with us, even before there was time.
God’s love for each of us knows no beginning nor end.
When we begin instead in the love of God for us, in the fact that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, that we are set apart with respect as the apex of creation, that we are intimately known and yet still loved; when we begin there love, not guilt, becomes the driving force of our lives.
In the Methodist Church, we do not believe in total depravity. We do believe in sin, but we don’t think that we’re born totally depraved. We think that we’re born with sin and that God gives us grace to learn how to leave that sin behind and serve him, freeing us from the ways sin binds us and entraps us. We believe this because we believe that, even though we’re born with sin, we’re also born knowing God’s grace.
We believe that Christ died for us so that we could be freed to go and tell the world the good news that God loves us, no matter what! That God has always loved us, even before we were in utero; that God knit us together in our mother’s wombs with love. God knows us intimately and has known us intimately since before time. That no matter what we’ve done, no matter the sins we carry around with us, we are freed to go because the love of God is freeing. Indeed, for love to be love, it must create freedom. True love means that each person in the relationship is freed to be; simply be as they are.
We are set free by the grace that flows from Christ’s death and resurrection. What, then, is the role of confession in the Methodist Church? It’s just this: to further free ourselves to go and serve! When we confess that we have discovered sin in our lives, we give it to God to defeat, and then we move on. What if we sin in the same way again? We confess again, and then move forward, boldly, to go and serve.
Because the point of confession is not to restore our relationship with God. That’s what happens when living in a co-dependent relationship with God. We think that we must confess so that we can be restored to right relationship with God. Perhaps this is the biggest difference between us and those who ascribe to total depravity: we do not believe that we must be made right again in our relationship with God.
No, like this Psalm says, we have always been in relationship with God. The question is not being restored, the question is not having a cross bridge a chasm between two cliffs, the question is how close are we to God?
For God’s always there. In sin, we move away from God. In confession, we move toward God. But God is always there, knowing us better than we know ourselves, saying to us, “you are fearfully and wonderfully made. I knit you together in your mother’s womb. You are, with utmost respect from me, set apart as the apex of creation.” That’s what we believe.
Is that what you believe?
Are you living in the freedom of God’s love? Or are you living in a relationship with God that requires you to constantly confess your sins and live in guilt because you are constantly having to be restored to right relationship with him? Be freed of that today. Don’t delay in freeing yourself. You don’t have to confess your sins over and over again to be restored to right relationship with God. Because there’s no restoration that needs to occur. God’s always been there. Just turn back and draw closer, knowing that God has never stopped loving you.
On the other end of the spectrum, do you think that you’re fine and have no need to confess your sins? That it’s been a while since you sinned and this sermon is for other people? Check yourself. Especially as we approach Ash Wednesday. We are all sinful, we all do the wrong things. Sometimes, that’s just a wrong attitude we hold toward someone. Sometimes, that’s holding onto grudges and resentments and wounds to use against others, such as in families that remain divided even though the reason for dividing is long over. Check yourself, because chances are you, too, need to turn back toward God.
But in turning back toward God, regardless of where you fall, remember this: you are set apart, special, beloved of the Father. You were known before time, you were knit together in your mother’s womb, you are fearfully and wonderfully made. And when God sees you, God says, “with respect, I have set you apart as the apex of creation. You are fearfully and wonderfully made.” That’s you. That’s me. That’s all of us.
We are loved beyond time, beyond space, beyond reason. That’s a central message of Christianity from of old and, yet, fresh for us today. That message of love is the message of this Psalm. We in the Methodist Church hold to that message. Has it had its impact on you? Has it freed you?
Where do we begin, the rubble or our sins?
Neither. We begin in the love of God. Be free today.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.