“you have not yet considered the weight of sin”—Anselm, Cur Deus Homo?
Sin appears to be making something of a comeback*. Consider that over twenty five years ago, Alvin Plantinga could write, “The awareness of sin used to be our shadow…but the shadow has dimmed. Nowadays, the accusation you have sinned is often said with a grin, and with a tone that signals an inside joke”.** Most of us would agree that the heightened awareness of sin that Plantinga spells out seems to be returning, even if the places where that moral impulse is emanating from has shifted in perhaps surprising ways. The last two years, to say nothing of the last ten, have seen society rocked by public debates over race relations, the climate and public health. The language of justice, sacrifice and public wrongdoing have returned to our public vocabulary. Nevertheless, despite sharing a common language, we have fallen, even (or especially) in the church, into entrenched camps. Cultural conservatives have tended to deny the reality or existence of certain sins altogether. Cultural progressives have seen these sins everywhere and the hope for redemption nowhere.
All of this makes it easier, in a sense, for me to write a blogpost on the subject of sin. It is still a challenging task, however. For while sin is back as a topic that we discuss, there is no denying that it is also a topic that we greatly misunderstand.
This applies on a very personal level. I have multiple degrees in biblical studies and yet when it comes to defining (never mind tackling!) sin, I find myself in spiritual diapers.
Palm Sunday sermon, preached at St Barnabas Church, Cambridge (14th April 2019).
On this Palm Sunday, let us pray: True and humble king, hailed by the crowd as Messiah: grant us the faith to know you and love you, that we may be found beside you on the way of the cross, which is the path of glory. Amen.
Have you ever felt disappointed with God?
In 2013, two things happened to me that caused me to re-examine some of my assumptions about life and God: the first was that the church I was going to experienced a painful split and the second was that one of my mentors became unemployed and began struggling with deep depression. I remember at the time feeling a mixture of emotions—anger, fear, a sense of loss—but the deepest feeling of all, was that of disappointment. Disappointment at my church, my family, but most of all disappointment at God. You see, I had thought—with good reason and a fair degree of logic since my existence up until this point had been relatively care-free—I had thought that God would give me an endless succession of the things I wanted. The events of 2013—which seem relatively minor now when I look back—blew that faulty assumption, that illusion, right out of the water.
I argued in my last post here, that Lent is about God’s mercy for human misery. The season leading up to Easter is not, or at least not centrally, about human miserableness or even ways of devising humans solutions to that misery. It is about what God has done in Christ to unite us to himself so that we, in our spiritual misery and poverty, might become new individuals and a new people. Lent is centrally about participation in Christ and only secondarily about imitation of Christ.
What does this mean practically for the way that we mark the Lenten season?
Lenten disciplines, at their best, draw us back to the basics. Not to our vague sense of miseria but to the specific miserere, the mercy of God, which fully and radically—to the roots—understands and deals with our miserable condition. Lent is about God’s pity for our pitiable condition. Lenten disciplines should remind us of this reality.
In the spirit of placing God, and not us, at the centre of Lent, allow me to suggest very briefly a few practices that we might recover over the Lenten period.
Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam (Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercies). Psalm 51:1
Misery: noun. Brit. pronunciation/ˈmɪz(ə)ri/, U.S. pronunciation/ˈmɪz(ə)ri/ classical Latin miseria wretched or pitiful condition. Anglo-Norman and Old French miserie: unhappy state.
a condition of external unhappiness, discomfort, or distress; wretchedness of outward circumstances; distress caused by privation or poverty.
colloquial. A gloomy, peevish, or self-pitying person, esp. someone who is constantly disgruntled or depressed; a killjoy. Frequently used as a term of (mock) abuse.
Old Misery Guts
I remember well the first Ash Wednesday service I attended. It was February 2015 and I had dragged myself along to a Cambridge College service. I was miserable and determinedly so. I was in my dark night of the soul. But instead of turning outwards and towards God with my doubts, I had turned inwards and into myself. I received the imposition of the ashes. Then the choir sang Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere. The voices echoed from one side of the chapel to the other, notes piercing the air, though not my soul. I wouldn’t let them.
The second definition of misery given in the Oxford English dictionary fitted me perfectly. A gloomy, peevish, or self-pitying person, esp. someone who is constantly disgruntled or depressed; a killjoy.In my pitiable condition, I had turned to self-pity. In my misery, I had become miserable. Old Misery Guts, you might say.
Lent is fundamentally about God dealing with the evil done by and to man in the Cross of Jesus Christ. It also a good season for considering our human response to this miracle of divine love, mercy and justice.
One of the ways of doing this is to contemplate the human capacity and propensity for wrong-doing, or sin. Fewer works in recent times have shed more light on the psychology of sin and temptation than CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters.
In one illuminating letter (number 15), senior devil Screwtape instructs his nephew, Wormwood, on the temporal nature of sin. In short, all sin is future-oriented. The present is what God would have us focus on; if we are to think of the future, it is to the ends of contemplating our future union with, or separation from God (Letter 6 foreshadows this point). The devil and his minions would have us “hagridden by the future”, overcome with fear or hope, neglecting the present cross, present pleasure or present duty.
Images: by author, from ‘The Screwtape Letters’ in The CS Lewis Signature Classics (New York: Harper One, 2017), 227-229.
The lectionary for this week takes us right up to the edge of two great turning points in the narrative. In Exodus 7-13 in the Old Testament readings, we encounter the 10 plagues, the passover and the Israelite departure from Egypt. We stop just short of the crossing of the Red Sea.
In the journey through the gospel of Matthew, we read of further miracles (12:15-21; 14:13-36; 15:29-39), teaching episodes (e.g. on family, 12:46-50; 13:53-58), the third “sermon” which takes the form of an extended series of parables (13), and the increasing tensions between Jesus and the Pharisees (12:22-42; 15:1-20; 16:1-12). We stop just short of the turning point of Matthew, when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (16:16).
This week’s notes are limited to just the list of questions, which I hope to return to and address at a later point.
List of Questions
Exodus 7:3, 13, 22, 8:15, 19, 32, 9:12, 34-35, 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10: what does it mean for God to harden Pharaoh’s heart? And what is the relationship of this to Pharaoh hardening his own heart?
Exodus 8:4-5: why is there no initial response this time from Pharaoh?
Exodus 8:18: why can’t the magicians produce gnats?
Exodus 8:22: why now the distinction between Israelites and Egyptians?
Exodus 9:31-32: what’s the purpose of these two verses?
Exodus 12:23: what is the destroyer?
Exodus 12:37: is 600,000 the right translation?
Exodus 12:42: when was this written? There seems to very much be a later present day sense to this account.
Exodus 12:43, 48: so can a foreigner eat Passover?
Exodus 13:6-7: why is this material repeated?
Exodus 13:13: what does it mean to redeem a firstborn donkey with a lamb?
Exodus 13:21-23: why a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire?
Matthew 12:25-27: what is the logic of Jesus’ argument here?
Matthew 12:31-32: what is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?
Matthew 12:36-37: what is the role of speech in the judgment? How does this relate to the verses on speech in Matthew 7:21-23?
Matthew 12:43-45: what is the meaning of these verses?
Matthew 12:46-50: what do these verses say about family?
Matthew 13:10-17: so why does Jesus speak to the people in parables?
Matthew 13:39-40, 49-50: is the role of angels here in judgment consistent with other early Christian and Jewish texts?
Matthew 14:9: why is Herod distressed at having John executed if he wanted him killed (5)?
Matthew 14:28: why would Jesus asking Peter to come out of the boat on to the water convince Peter that it was Jesus?
Matthew 15:1-10: what, in context, is Jesus saying about the traditions of the Pharisees and the elders?
Matthew 15:21-28: is Jesus initially reluctant to heal the Canaanite woman’s daughter and if so why?
This week sees us finds us at the beginnning of Exodus in the OT/HB readings and in a section of Matthew’s gospel that begins to introduce more overtly, the opposition Jesus and his followers will face.
Exodus is vital for our understanding of covenant (cf. 2:24), atonement and salvation (see the final plague or act in Exodus 12), and political theology (it is particularly poignant to read of Israel’s harsh treatment at the hands of the oppressive Pharoah on this week of all weeks). In this week’s section, it is the nature and character of God that stands out. In particular, we encounter God’s presence and his name. We are re-introduced once more to the care and concern of a God who is concerned present or “with” his people (see the references to God being with Israel in 3:12, 18; 4:12, 15; 5:3, picking up on God’s promises to be with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob throughout Genesis). And we read the amazingly rich account of God revealing his name, in three stages, to Moses in Exodus 3.
In Matthew, we begin with a cycle of miracles and healings (8:18-9:38) that introduce Jesus’s power over nature and illness and his ability to forgive sins. Dark clouds of opposition appear as Jesus is accused both of having a demon and blaspheming. Matthew then introduces the second block of teaching (after the Sermon on the Mount, 5-7) with the missionary sermon/sending of the 12 (Matthew 10). This section introduces further promises of opposition and hardship for thsoe who follow Jesus (cf. 10:24-25 which neatly connects the opposition Jesus encounters with the expectation his followers should have of similar treatment). Chapter 11 introduces further disputes over fasting, woes on unrepentant Jewish cities. This week’s readings then conclude with two disputes about the Sabbath (12:1-21). The question this week deals with Pharoah’s enslavement of the Israelites.