January 19, 2020 / Epiphany 2 / Richard E. Holmer
First Reading: Isaiah 49:1-7; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; Gospel: John 1:29-42
Part of my routine each and every Monday morning is dealing with the trash. I empty all the waste baskets in the house, add them to the galvanized trash can in the garage, and then set out the trash can for the garbage men to come and collect. There has never been a Monday when there was nothing to put in the trash can. We are dedicated to recycling, so all the paper, cardboard, cans and glass go in the rolling recycling bin. But there is always a load of trash. Some weeks it takes two trash cans to hold all the garbage.
The average American generates over four pounds of trash a day. That amounts to 1600 pounds a year! Trash has become a regular, inevitable part of our lives. We gather it up, put it in the can and forget about it.
However, what if you were a garbage man and had to deal with other people’s trash all day long? It’s an unpleasant, even nasty job. You are outside all day, in all kinds of weather: freezing cold, snow and slush, blazing heat and pouring rain. Whatever the conditions, the mail must be delivered – and the garbage must be taken away. Imagine spending your day, spending your work life dealing with garbage and waste: spoiled food, dirty diapers, old and broken stuff, pet waste – emptying cans of stinky, rotten, disgusting stuff.
Then imagine what it would be like if no one came to take away the trash. Garbage strikes in major cities provide a preview of what that would mean. Trash quickly piles up. There’s no place to put it. The stench increases each day. Rats have a field day.
For good reason, most garbage strikes are quickly settled. But what if garbage removal completely ended? Then each of us would have to deal with our own garbage. If we weren’t allowed to haul it away we would have to pile it up in our own backyard. Or dig a deep hole and bury it? Or burn it? (Imagine every household burning garbage…) Dealing with the trash would move from being a weekly chore to a major dilemma.
Think about trash as a metaphor for another unavoidable feature of our daily lives: SIN. Day by day, we all generate sins just as we do trash. Sin crops up in what we say and do – and what we fail to do. Human sin comes in all shapes and sizes, some rather petty, others highly toxic. The garbage comes in the form of greed and selfishness, vanity and lovelessness, backstabbing and cruelty, envy and bitterness, laziness and unfaithfulness.
Like garbage, sins accumulate. The weight of sin isn’t tangible and visible, like garbage piled up on the curb. Yet it’s just as real. It weighs heavily on our souls. It’s a burden of guilt and shame and remorse. When Jesus says, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden..”, we know what he means. He’s talking about the weight of human sin.
Sin is more than an abstract, theological concept. Sin is a personal, existential reality. Whenever you hurt another person, (or yourself), tell a lie, take what’s not yours, break a promise, compromise your integrity, fail to show love and mercy, it adds to the burden. The load of guilt gets heavier.
If you have any conscience at all, you feel the weight of your own failings. (And to be utterly devoid of conscience is to be less than human – spiritually dead.) Of course, you and I can rationalize, explain, excuse and justify our short comings all we want – and we often do. But denying our sin really doesn’t make it disappear or lighten its burden.
So we’re left with two options:
We can disconnect our conscience and so become hard-hearted, cynical and self-serving. People do this, some sporadically, some permanently; they cut the moral nerve and become cold-blooded and heartless.
However, if you are unwilling or unable to silence that still small voice of conscience then what you need is someone who is willing and able to take away the garbage that is stifling your soul. Now a psychologist might manage to tell you why you’re feeling guilty – but a psychologist can’t make the reality of sin go away.
What you and I need is a spiritual trash man. Lo and behold, along comes Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. When Jesus appears, John the Baptist says in effect: “Hey, I’ve been talking to you about all your sins. Here comes someone who can actually do something about the problem.”
The gospel story of Jesus only makes sense when we get a grip on the reality of our own sinfulness – when we clearly see the world and its people distorted and polluted by the relentless waste of human sin. Jesus shows up with a clear mission: to deal with the destructive power of sin. Sinners desperately need a Savior.
The angel made this mission very clear to Mary when he instructed her: “You shall name him Jesus for he will save his people from their sins.” And that’s what Jesus does.
John the Baptist signals the focus of Christ’s mission at the outset: “Here he is, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Throughout his ministry, we see Jesus confronting human sin in all its many forms. Jesus takes way our sin. It’s what he does, what he’s really good at. Through the miracle of forgiveness – and it is truly miraculous – Christ removes our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west.” Forgiveness is like bringing the dead back to life. It opens a way forward where there was no way. Forgiveness sets us free!
Some people stay away from church because they feel they are not worthy – which is unfortunate because our unworthiness is why we need to be here. Others accuse those who do go of being hypocrites (and sometimes they’re probably right). But we are here mainly because we have discovered that Jesus can do for us what no one else can: he forgives us, takes away the dimness of our souls, and removes the suffocating burden of guilt. I can’t imagine living without forgiveness. Day by day we live in God’s grace.
Then after cleansing our souls, Jesus has the audacity to tell us to go and sin no more – knowing full well how unlikely that is. He tells us to aim high, even though we’re bound to keep falling short.
Martin Luther said that sin is like the whiskers on a man’s face. You can shave them clean off, but they all grow back the next day.
You and I cannot totally stop sinning, but we can recognize that there’s a better way to live, a more excellent way. The more excellent way is the way of gracious love: love for God and for our neighbors. Knowing the Golden Rule doesn’t mean we will always live it, but it helps us realize when we’re falling short.
And so we return here, week after week, openly admitting to God and to one another that we have not loved God with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. (It’s a stunning, humbling thing to say – when we mean it.)
Over time we come to appreciate that loving God and others isn’t just what we’re supposed to do, it’s what we want to do – what we need to do – that without love we are nothing. The Good News is: our burden of guilt, our mixed bag of shortcomings, compromise and failure can be left here at Christ’s table – no questions asked. We are set free to go forward with our lives, loving as we are loved, forgiving as we have been forgiven, aiming to avoid making the same mistakes, over and over.
Together we sing:
O Christ the Lamb of God, have mercy on us.
And he does.
O Christ the Lamb of God, grant us peace.
And he does.
Thanks be to God.