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Oct. 4, 2020: The 8th Deadly Sin by Joe Coalter

The 8th Deadly Sin Recording:



The 8th Deadly Sin

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 4, 2020
Joe Coalter

 

Old Testament Lesson:  Exodus 20 (selected verses)

Then God spoke all these words:

You shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol,

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, …

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.

Honor your father and your mother, …

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet … anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Psalm 19: 7, 11-14

7 The law of the Lord is perfect
and revives the soul;

the testimony of the Lord is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.

11 By them … is your servant enlightened,
and in keeping them there is great reward.

12 Who can tell how often he [your servant] offends [the Lord’s law]?
cleanse me from my secret faults.

13 Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me;
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.

14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

The Epistle Lesson:  Philippians 3:4b-8a,

If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more: 5 I was circumcised on the eighth day, from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. I lived according to the law as a Pharisee. 6 In my zeal for God I persecuted the church. According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. 7 But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. 8 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung! — that I may gain Christ, 9 and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness — a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. 10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

12 Not that I have already attained this—that is, I have not already been perfected—but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, 14 with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

The Gospel Lesson:  Matthew 5:21a, 22a, 27-28, 38-42

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; … 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; …

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

 

The Sermon: The 8th Deadly Sin

In the 6thcentury Pope Gregory declared seven sins deadly for the human soul.  Of course, all sins put the soul in jeopardy.  But these seven sins were considered particularly perilous because they spawned other sins, thereby spreading all sort of immoral behavior. The seven deadly sins were pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth.

Thirteen centuries later in colonial America, preachers began to single out an eighth sin.  It was related to the sin of pride.  But it was believed to be far more lethal than all seven of Gregory’s deadly sins put together.

Let me give you an example of what this sin looks like.

The ten commandments have been recognized as a brief summary of God’s law ever since they were first handed down to the Hebrews in the wilderness. However, the ten commandments were never intended to be used as a checklist like those that you find in popular magazines that help you determine whether you have a good marriage, whether you are eating right or whether your partner’s habits are as obnoxious as you have long suspected.

Nevertheless, some folk have used these commandments as a checklist by assuming that if they could check off each of these commandments as satisfied by their behavior, then they were righteous in God’s eyes.

When I took a look at the ten commandments from this perspective, I was pleased to find that I am doing pretty well, even if I do say so myself.

 

In the first commandment, God said: “You shall have no other gods before me.”  The second commandment is like the first in that God said:  You shall not make for yourself an idol. 

Now, I will admit that I have an inordinate affection for the Green Bay Packers football team.  I do check my computer religiously each week to know exactly when their games will be televised on the Sabbath.  I also insist that my wife not interrupt my careful observance of their games, and my most prized possession is a Green Bay Packers cap that my son got me when he was blessed with the opportunity to actually attend one of their games in person.

But I would not say that I worship the Green Bay Packers.  I have not made any graven images of their players – nor have I kept little statues of Packers team members on the shelves in my bedroom. Well, at least not since I was twelve.

So, I can safely check off these two commandments as satisfied.

 

In the Third commandment, God said:  You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, …

I am ashamed to say that I have, in fact, taken the Lord’s name in vain.  But I have breached this commandment only occasionally and, then, only momentarily when a situation got the better of me.  I certainly don’t make a habit of it.

So, I think that I can check off this commandment as well – though considering my infrequent transgressions, I should probably make my mark in pencil rather than the indelible ink of my ballpoint pen.

 

God said further: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.”

This commandment I regularly follow.  I attend church on the Sabbath except, of course, when I am on vacation, and I keep the Sabbath holy except when the Packers have a bad day, and I begin to use the Lord’s name in vain.  But again these are only momentary lapses.

So, let’s be charitable and mark this commandment off as well.

 

God said: “Honor your father and your mother, …”

Here I imagine my parents – God rest their souls – might have said at times that I did not accord them the honor that they deserved.  We did have our little tiffs – more often than not, though, they started the arguments with demands that would outrage the most dutiful son or daughter.

So, here again we can put a mark beside the commandment.

 

Next God said: “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. And You shall not steal.”

I can certainly place check marks alongside these commandments. I have never murdered anyone.  I have not had inappropriate relations with man nor beast, at least none that seemed inappropriate at the time.  And I am no thief – though the taxman might choose to differ.

 

Then God said: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

I try to be charitable towards my neighbor.  I have been known to pass along a rumor or two. But they all appeared to be factual at the time and, in any case, they only concerned neighbors who insisted on promoting some political party that any thinking Christian would recognize as misguided, if not deranged.

 

Finally, God said: “You shall not covet … anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

This commandment does cause me to pause.  I may have a bit of a problem here.  But as with the other commandments, it is only an insignificant one!

I do recall once or twice looking longingly at a neighbor’s boat – wishing that I too could sail away to parts unknown. But who doesn’t have such fanciful thoughts? And in any case, we are only talking about a boat!  I did not covet my neighbor’s wife – she was not very attractive anyway – and he did not have a manservant that I could covet. How serious can coveting a boat really be?

So, yet again a check mark seems appropriate.

 

By now, it may have occurred to you what the sin was that preachers in the 18thcentury told their parishioners to fear the most.  I find myself particularly susceptible to this sin.  It is the sin of self-righteousness – the sense that one has fulfilled God’s law.

During my studies in seminary, I ran across an early 18thcentury revivalist who focused his ministry on the cure of this particular spiritual malady.  His name was Gilbert Tennent, and Tennent was known for “preaching the terrors of the law.”  Indeed, one of his most famous homilies carried my all-time favorite title for a sermon.  I like it so much that I have long craved the opportunity to use it for one of my own sermons whenever the lectionary readings would permit it.  The title of Tennent’s sermon read as follows:  A Solemn Warning To the Secure World, From the God of Terrible Majesty, Or, the Presumptuous Sinner Detected, his Pleas Consider’d, and his Doom Display’d. 

The Presumptuous Sinner to which Tennent’s sermon referred is, I think, none other than the sin mentioned in Psalm 19 that we read responsively this morning.  In verse 13, the author of Psalm 19 asks this of God:

Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me;

 

Gilbert Tennent’s sermons echoed this plea.  Tennent was convinced that we humans presume too much. We believe that we are more righteous than a careful look at God’s law in the Scriptures would suggest. According to Tennent, this self-righteous attitude is a far greater obstacle to our salvation than sin itself because it leaves us feeling spiritually secure when, in fact, we are sinking ever deeper into a quagmire of sins.

Tennent felt called to awaken his parishioners to this danger by showing them that their most impressive “good works” invariably fall short of the perfection required by the biblical law.  Such preaching, of course, terrorized his congregation since it laid bare the shortcomings of their actions.  But it was not Tennent’s intent to leave them cowering before a righteous and vengeful God.

Facing the terrible demands of God’s righteous law was in Tennent’s mind the first step to receiving grace.  The farmer plows under the earth hardened by the sun so that the seed that the farmer sows will take root and be fruitful.  So, Tennent reasoned, in like manner, God provides his law to plow under the heart hardened by sin so that the grace offered by Jesus Christ can take root and flower in us with works of mercy and love.

Tennent believed that he was only following Jesus’ example when he preached the law’s terrors.  The Gospel lesson for this morning would suggest that he was right. There in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus cautioned his followers:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; … 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; …

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

 

As if this were not troubling enough, Jesus then expanded the demands of God’s law even further by addressing other ethical instructions found in the Old Testament.  According to Jesus, God’s law requires far more than that we simply resist sin.  We are also expected to take positive action – action that runs contrary to every human instinct.  As Jesus put it:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

 

If I am hit, Jesus says turn the other cheek?
If I am sued for a coat, Jesus says surrender your cloak as well?
If I am asked to go one mile, Jesus says go a second?
If I encounter someone begging for my aid, Jesus says give what is asked?
And if they need a loan, Jesus says don’t refuse them?

With these instructions, Jesus made the ten commandments look relatively easy in comparison!  The level of perfection required here is off the charts!

Certainly, Paul recognized this in his letter to the church in Philippi.  Paul had given his all to be an apostle.  But he did not feel that his all had been enough.  He told the Christians in Philippi:

According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. 7 But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. … 8b  indeed, I regard them as dung! … 10 My aim is to know Christ, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.  … 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this.

C. S. Lewis once wrote in his book, Mere Christianity that:

Every Christian is to become a little Christ.  The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.

 

Lewis admitted elsewhere in the book that becoming a “little Christ” involves a bit of “fakery” since we finite humans can never be as perfect as Christ. So, he suggested, we must fake being like Christ until the day when we are truly made perfect in the kingdom that Christ will establish fully when he comes again.

I think that Lewis may have been a little off the mark here, though.  There has been much debate over the centuries as to whether the Christian’s calling is to “imitate” Christ or only to “follow” him.  The distinction between “imitating” and “following” may seem trivial. But some theologians say otherwise. They insist that a call to imitate Christ can leave us disheartened and possibly even neurotic because we fallen creatures cannot possibly attain the perfect obedience to God’s law evident in Jesus’ life.  We cannot imitate Christ perfectly.  But, they say, we can surely follow along the path that Christ illuminated in his life and death, even if we do so haltingly.

Paul seems to suggest the same to the Christians in Philippi when he describes his own efforts rather modestly not as an imitation of Christ but a striving – or as some translations put it, “pressing on” – toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Paul admitted that he had not attained the prize to which he felt called and, if we are honest with ourselves, neither have we. But Paul pressed on in Christ’s footsteps – as do we – knowing all the while that when he faltered or went astray – as we most surely will – God would provide sufficient grace to lift him up and redirect his steps back to the path that God in Christ Jesus pioneered and perfected.

Preaching the terrors of God’s law has its place because the 8thdeadly sin of self-righteousness was widespread when Jesus preached his Sermon the Mount.  It was rampant when Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians.  It was prevalent in Gilbert Tennent’s day and, certainly it is no less evident in our own time, particularly – as you may have noticed – in election seasons.

Facing the terrors of the law frees us of the presumptuous sin of self-righteousness.  But the terrors of God’s law are only half the story! Preaching the terrors alone is like recounting the life of Jesus without the cross.  Our repeated failures to satisfy the stringent demands of God’s law were cancelled out long ago.  Our debt was paid in full on the cross by the sacrifice of the only one who could pay such a price.  Because of his sacrifice, we need not be immobilized by the terrors of the law. Instead, we are called to step out in faith following – as best we can – the path that God in Jesus Christ revealed to us.

What is that path that we are called to follow? Well, it is laid out clearly by Jesus himself in the 25thchapter of Matthew’s gospel.  We remain on the path whenever and wherever we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, cloth the naked and care for the sick and the imprisoned.

Of course, none of these actions are easy or simple to effect in the complex world that we inhabit.  Following the path of service and sacrifice that Christ Jesus pioneered is an upward calling that will require our best thought and most strenuous effort.  In this life, we will not likely reach the heights to which the call from Christ beckons us.  But that is not what God expects of us.  God knows our weaknesses.  In fact, God has made arrangements to account for our shortcomings. Why would God have sacrificed his Son on a cross, if this were not the case!

What God does require of us is quite simply this:  We are to do as Paul did.  We are to strive with mind, body and soul toward the prize of the upward call that God has revealed to us in his Son.

 

My friends, the call to us is clear.  Failing to fully execute that calling is likely, but not really an issue because God has accounted for our failings – past, present and future – by his Son’s sacrifice on the cross.

So, what then are we waiting for?

Let’s follow the call!  It is, after all, the call of our righteous, but loving God who offers grace to all who will strive to follow in his Son’s footsteps!

 

Let us pray:

Lord God of Hosts, we stand humbled before the heights of true righteousness revealed in your law.  We have heard its call.  But we find the ascent to holiness too steep for us to manage on our own.  We give thanks for your Son who has gone before us. He laid out a path that we can follow and supplied sufficient grace to sustain us when we grow weary or falter. And yet we tarry.

Give us courage, Lord.  Give us the courage to step out onto the path that he has shown us – a path where others hunger, and we feed them; where others are thirty, and we give them drink; where there be strangers, and we welcome them; where still others are naked, and we cloth them; where there be sick persons or imprisoned ones, and we care for them.  This, we ask, in Jesus’ name.  Amen