Presumption: It’s Not for Lent

Sermon delivered on Lent 3C, Sunday, March 24, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 55.1-9; Psalm 63.1-8; 1 Corinthians 10.1-13; Luke 13.1-9.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Two weeks ago we looked at what it takes to observe a holy Lent. I suggested that observing a holy Lent is not about us or our ability to follow the rules set forth by God. Instead, I suggested that keeping a holy Lent starts with our presence at the foot of the cross of Christ with thankful hearts. It starts by acknowledging the power of God to change us and opening ourselves up to the presence of his life-changing Spirit. Observing a holy Lent is about God’s power working in our lives, not our ability to follow the rules. Many of us need to hear this message on a regular basis because many of us are all about the delusion of self-help. We also need to hear that God loves us and is merciful and gracious to us because many of us have a hard time loving ourselves, so it is natural for us to believe that God doesn’t or can’t love us either. Today, our readings point us in a different direction, one that is not nearly as popular or comforting as the topic of my last sermon. In various ways, our readings warn against the sin of presumption in all its destructive forms and this is what I want us to look at this morning.

We begin by acknowledging our aversion to talking about the power of Sin in our lives. We live in a day and age in which it is simply not acceptable to talk about the seriousness of sin. Doing so lands us in the cultural doghouse and we find ourselves labeled as haters, bigots, and the like. Even those brave enough to dare suggest there is Truth as well as rights and wrongs tend to deflect the topic of human sin by talking about the sins of others. Doing so allows us to avoid having to address our own sins, not to mention our standing before God. Our sin avoidance, especially when it comes to our own sins, is nothing new. We see it alive and well in our gospel lesson when our Lord was asked about those killed by Pilate and who had fallen victim to man-made disaster. What about those people, Jesus? Were they worse sinners than us? We ask these kinds of questions all the time. What about those killed in the recent Ethiopian airliner crash? Were they worse sinners than us? Or what about the victims of the various floods, cyclones, and tornadoes? Were they worse sinners than us? Did they really do stuff that was bad enough to warrant death? Or how about victims of AIDS? Isn’t that God’s punishment on them for their sins? Behind such questions, of course, is the old belief that God punishes us for our sins while “good people”—and we always include ourselves in that category—escape such punishment because, well, we’re good people. Do you see the presumption behind these questions? Some sins are more deserving of punishment than others, especially when we are talking about the sins of others and not our own. We don’t seem to realize that from the perspective of God’s perfect holiness, all sins are abhorrent because all sins corrupt and dehumanize, and because God loves us like he does, this is not acceptable to God. What parent, for example, would always allow his children to tell little white lies, especially if in allowing this pattern, he might teach them to become chronic liars? No, God wants the best for his image-bearers and therefore abhors anything we do that corrupts and chips away at God’s image in us. The problem is that we humans don’t take sin as seriously as God does, especially when it comes to examining our own sins. Our Lord’s message in response to our sin-aversion is pretty stark. You’d better knock that kind of thinking off while you still can and focus on repenting of your own sins. Otherwise you are going to fall under God’s good and just judgment just like they did, whether or not you think your sins are serious enough to be judged.

St. Paul says something equally worrisome in our epistle lesson. Here he is addressing Christian presumption that goes something like this. Hey God, I’m a baptized Christian and I come to Christ’s holy table each week for communion. Therefore I can do whatever I darn well please because you have to forgive my sins since I’m a baptized Christian and take communion and stuff. Never mind that I gossip and speak evilly about my neighbor and those in my parish family (especially those I really dislike). Never mind that I criticize, lie, cheat, or steal. Never mind that I sit in haughty self-righteous judgment over my fellow Christians and refuse to admit I am ever wrong. Never mind that I sneak in an affair or two or am addicted to porn. And me turning a blind eye to human need and suffering, all the while rationalizing my stinginess? That’s OK too because, hey! I’m a baptized Christian and you have to forgive me, God. It says so right there in the rules somewhere. Welcome to Christian presumption at its finest where we presume God must forgive us because we are Christians. While St. Paul firmly believed that baptism and holy communion are necessary for our membership into Christ’s family (the Church) and for our salvation, he never saw them as some kind of magic that guarantees God’s forgiveness and mercy while allowing us to live our lives in ways that corrupt, dehumanize, and lead us to eternal destruction. Again, this is not love on God’s part. How can a loving God desire our destruction? This is our attempt at turning our relationship with God into one of codependency where God enables our fallen desires and pride to run rampant. The season of Lent, therefore, is an appropriate time for us to reflect not only on our own sins (that will keep us occupied for a good long while) but also on the love and mercy of God.

So is there an appropriate form of presumption for us Christians to have? Yes there is and it is implicit in all our readings. It is quite appropriate for us to presume that without God’s intervention and help we will fall under his terrible and just judgment on our sins, irrespective of our level of denial about the seriousness of those sins. This kind of presumption takes sin seriously and acknowledges our utter helplessness to fix ourselves or our standing before God. Many of us balk at this because it makes us feel bad. I’ve heard it a gazillion times. But is it thoroughly bad news when we acknowledge our terrible predicament before a just and holy God? If so, why do we confess each week that we follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts? Why do we acknowledge that there is no health in us? Is it just to make us feel as rotten as possible and lower our self-esteem? Does God get some kind of delight in calling us out for our sins and making us feel rotten? 

Of course not (and if you think that, now is a good time for you to examine your unholy assumptions about who God is and what God wants). When we presume that our sins leave us without recourse and under God’s good and just judgment, and that we are utterly unworthy of God’s forgiveness, it begins to cultivate the necessary humility in us to accept God’s unwarranted love and forgiveness, and that helps make us ready to spend time at the foot of the cross with a thankful heart. When we realize that we can do nothing to make us right in God’s eyes except for the love of Christ made known supremely on the cross, we are developing a Spirit-led antidote for the kind of unhealthy and unholy presumption we’ve just talked about. God wants to forgive us because God loves us, despite our unloveliness. But God also wants us to be the fully human creatures he created us to be and that means we have to turn from our unhealthy self-love and pride and turn to God so that we can be healed. It’s the kind of mindset we find in our psalm lesson this morning with its hunger and thirst for God and the psalmist’s realization that nothing is more desirable than God’s love and care for him. When we realize there is nothing we can do to earn God’s mercy and love, but that God offers both to us because of who God is, it opens us up to God’s healing power made known to us in Christ, and him crucified, through the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s why we confess our sins—to be forgiven and healed, and because we are confident that God will.

When we realize that it pleased God to rescue us from our slavery to Sin by way of the cross (1 Corinthians 1.18-25) and to heal us in the power of the Spirit, and that God did so while we were utterly helpless and still his enemies (Romans 5.6-8), we look at God’s gifts of love and mercy through the lens of a grateful and penitent heart instead of through the lens of sinful presumption. This in turn increases our desire to love God for his awesome love for us made known supremely in the cross of Christ, and we are perfectly content to spend time at the foot of our Lord’s cross because we realize it is here, and only here, that we find healing, forgiveness, and salvation. As we continue our Lenten journey, my beloved, may we desire the grace to be bold enough and humble enough to see our sins as God sees them, and to give thanks to God for freeing us from the power behind our sins to make us his own. Then we can come to Christ’s table, rejoicing in our baptism, with a humble and contrite heart, the kind that pleases the Father, and be reminded that we are invited to the Father’s great banquet because we truly are Christ’s own, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.