April 28, 2013, Easter 5 – Deliverance
To listen to this sermon, click here:
I hate watching scary movies, because they stay in my head and keep on scaring me for a long time. I have nightmares, sometimes for months, and the images that frightened me keep coming back to me for years. The few times that I let myself get talked into watching things I knew were going to be scary, I always ended up regretting it. One of the images that comes back to haunt me decades after watching the film is an image from the film “Deliverance.” I don’t actually remember a lot from the movie because I had my eyes closed through most of it, but as I remember it the men in the film murder two men and they bury their bodies where a dam is being built, assuming that when the lake comes flooding in the bodies will never be found. But at the very end of the movie one of the men has a dream in which he sees a hand rise up from the waters of the lake, and he wakes up screaming. The men had made an agreement between themselves never to speak of their experiences again, but they would never really be free from their guilt. No matter how well they had hid the violence and evil they did, it was right there ready to rise to the surface and condemn them.
The dream makes a creepy scene, very effective, good for nightmares, but also I think it is so gripping because it portrays something we all struggle with. We all have done things we wish we had never done, said things we wish we had not said, experienced things we wish had never happened. The life of every one of us has been spoiled by sin to some extent. And for all these things we bring our guilt or our shame our regret to God in confession. We ask his pardon. We bury the dead bodies of our past and we ask God to cover it over, to make it OK. We ask him to be patient with us – again. And do you ever feel like God must get tired of you coming back with those same old problems? Here I am, God, I did it again, I lost my temper again, I lost all self-control and I overate, or I drank, or I smoked, again. Please forgive me God, again. Can’t you just feel the weight sometimes of all your failed attempts at being good, and the weight of all that guilt piled on guilt piled on guilt, year after year after year. Sometimes we feel crushed under the weight of all the labels we have put on ourselves because we are just so disappointed in ourselves; we’re just not the person we ought to be. I have no will power; I’m so useless; I’m so stupid; I have such a terrible temper; or the one-size-fits-all label, I’m just a bad person. I think sometimes people go through their whole life under the shadow of their disappointment, never really free of it. They might sincerely believe in Jesus, and they bring their sins to him faithfully, but they think of their confessions as the dam that lets the waters of God’s forgiveness pour in and cover their shame, but it’s always still there, just under the surface, and they live every day with the dread of knowing that it’s only a matter of time before it pops right back up to the surface again.
But when they feel like that, when we feel like that, it is because we have forgotten, or maybe because we never really knew, what real deliverance is. In his letter to the Colossians Paul wrote: “God has delivered us out of the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Paul isn’t talking about slapping some whitewash over the grime of our sins. He’s not talking about getting a note from our Father, “Please excuse Kathryn from punishment this week.” Forgiveness is not some kind of permission slip to keep our feet out of the fire for one more week. God’s forgiveness is way bigger than that. God’s plan of redemption wasn’t a scheme to give us all a makeover so we can look like decent members of society; his plan is to get us the hell out of our little world of blame and shame. His plan was to deliver us right out of our domain of darkness and transfer us into the kingdom of Jesus Christ, his beloved Son. Forgiveness is not a makeover, it’s a whole new beginning.
In the story from Acts today, Peter got his world turned upside down. Everything he thought he knew about what God expected from him, about what makes us acceptable to God turned out to be wrong. He was a good Jew; he’d grown up studying the Torah and living according to the all the regulations of the Rabbinic traditions, keeping himself pure by not eating unclean foods and not associating with unclean people. Repentance meant making the yearly sacrifices on the Day of Atonement. It was sort of like our dental hygiene routines, we floss, we brush, we schedule our checkups, we get fillings when we need it, and there’s no end of it, we just have to keep keeping at it day after day and year after year. The slaughter of bulls and goats and sheep just kept death at bay; but it never had the power to give life. The big news God revealed to Peter was that he was never intending to just keep his people in some kind of a holding pattern, just good enough that he didn’t have to wipe us out with another flood. God’s plan all along was to bring us real life, and that’s what Peter finally understood when he saw the Holy Spirit poured out on the Gentile believers, exactly as He had come upon the Jewish disciples at Pentecost. The Gentiles weren’t being accepted into the Righteousness maintenance club, to join the Jews in the neverending and fruitless cycle of trying to be good enough for God. They were being invited, along with the Jews, into a whole new world, into the life of freedom that Jesus offered through his death and resurrection.
God has that same good news for us. He isn’t calling us to make our confession week after week, over and over and over so that we can keep on getting a temporary reprieve from the punishment we so justly deserve. His plan is to deliver us right out of what Paul calls “this body of death” – to rescue us each from this disappointing “me” that haunts us and keeps popping up above the surface, that part of us that just seems to keep on choosing the wrong course and desiring the wrong things. The good news is that when we were baptised into Jesus’ death and resurrection all our sin and shame was cleansed and forgiven, once and for all.
But here’s the thing – every week, before we gather together around the table of the Lord, to share his body and his blood, we kneel down once again and confess our sins. And I’m sure that many of you seek God’s forgiveness and grace at night, lying in your bed and thinking over the events of your day, and mulling over memories from the past. Sometimes night us the time our disappointment and failure come crowding around us most closely, looming largest when we are alone and tired out. But I think what God wants passionately for us to learn about all our confessions is that our confessions are not for the purpose of reconciling us to God. We are already reconciled to God. That’s what Jesus did. Our confessions are not for the purpose of wiping the slate clean – again. Jesus nailed our every sin to the cross. We come in confession because we need to remember the truth about ourselves. We need to draw close to our Father and shake off the shadows that cling to us, and wash away the grime of living in this world, and to remind ourselves again that we are his beloved children.
Confession is not a weekly pass that lets us into the holy place today, but expires by next Sunday, and sooner if we are really bad. God never sighs when we come to him, and he never, ever uses the word “again” as in “you messed up – again”. The Father is always there to give us a fresh start, because he has delivered us out of our domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. We lie down at night and pour out our sadness and our guilt and our regret and our worry so that we remember that we rise in the morning to a brand new day, as beloved children with whom our Father is well pleased. And we kneel down together every Sunday so that we can remember that we stand up together as free people, clothed in the pure garment of Christ’s righeousness.
And we need to be reminded because we live in this awkward now-and-not-yet time. The true truth is that God’s abundant life is ours NOW, we are forgiven and cleansed NOW, the power of death over us is broken NOW. And yet we still disappoint ourselves every day, our thoughts and words and deed still fall far short of what we know they should be every single day. The war with hell is won NOW, but we still find ourselves fighting those ongoing battles every day against evil and selfishness and violence, within ourselves and in the people around us. But we fight as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, as free people, beloved of the Father, cleansed by the blood of Christ, and led by his Spirit. Paul wrote, in his second letter to the Corinthians, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself.” I pray that we may all go forth this week in the assurance that we are new creations, permanent citizens of the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.