Monday, March 12, 2007

Opportunity Knocks

(A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent based on Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke 13:1-9)

Do you remember the Flip Wilson Show? One of his recurring characters was Rev. Leroy, who served as the minister of The Church of What’s Happening Now. “What’s happening now” is a hot topic for people who try to lead churches. We are always trying to find that balance between leading the church to be contemporary enough to be relevant while at the same time bearing sufficient witness to the old, old story. Whatever medium we use to communicate the message, we always want the Gospel message to come through clearly. One answer to the question “What’s happening now?” is that a lot of the same things are happening now that have always been happening. As my high school history teacher Mr. Julian was fond of saying, some things have been happening “ever since Adam and Eve came out of the garden.” Sin certainly falls in that category.

What is sin? Perhaps you think that it is not necessary to formulate an answer to that question. Most of us figure that we could say about sin what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said in 1964 about obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” There are problems with such a presumption, however.

For one thing, we tend to see sin in others before we see it in ourselves or more than we see it in ourselves. While it is impossible to know exactly what was in the hearts of the people with whom Jesus was conversing in today’s Gospel lesson, we can make some pretty good guesses based on the flow of the discussion. Luke tells us that some people told Jesus about some Galileans who had been killed by Pontius Pilate. In response Jesus said, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” His question pushed them to think about whether the great tragedy suffered by those people was an indication that they had greater sin in their lives than other people did. Perhaps he also intended for it to push them to consider the validity of any belief that they themselves were less guilty than those who had been killed. You know how those questioners might have been because you know how we can be. If we can conclude that others are sinners and we are not or that others are worse sinners than we are, it can, in a pathetic kind of way, make us feel better about ourselves.

For another thing, we tend to form our own limited definition of what constitutes sin. We may think of certain sinful acts as worse than other sinful acts. We may regard personal acts of immorality as sin, which they are, but tend not to think so negatively of sins of the heart, sins of attitude, or sins of neglect that are just as sinful in God’s eyes. Again, we tend to be especially skilled at calling something sin that we see in someone else’s life but turning a blind eye to the sin that is present in our own lives. The truth is, though, that sin is sin and that every human being who has ever lived, who lives now, and who ever will live is in need of repentance and forgiveness.

You see, then, that understanding sin is not as simple as concluding that we will know it when we see it. Therefore, it may be helpful for me to pose a definition for you. There are several good definitions of sin that have a biblical foundation. Sin can be defined, for example, as “missing the mark,” as “trying to be your own god,” or as “living outside of a relationship with God.” I’d like to offer another definition for you that I believe is also grounded in biblical teaching: sin is missed opportunity. Another way to put that would be to say that sin is settling for less than God in his mercy and grace intends for us.

God has given us the opportunity to live the kind of life that will lead to fulfillment and joy. Now, in some ways, life is a struggle for anybody and everybody. Living God’s kind of life does not eliminate struggle. We will all have hard questions and difficult choices and we will all experience painful events and tragic circumstances. Still, we can know fulfillment and joy even in the midst of hard times if we submit ourselves to the Lord and live in relationship with him. We can have the life God intended for us if we will look past the things out of which our culture makes false gods but which ultimately have no value—money, status, power, prestige, reputation—and let God give us the realities that have ultimate value—a relationship with him, a place in his family, and a part in his purpose.

It is sad that so many people insist on going the way of the world that turns the transient into the ultimate and that finally leads to frustration and judgment. It is a wondrous event when someone turns from that way and turns to the Savior in whom ultimate meaning is found and through whom fulfillment and redemption are experienced.

Such a wondrous event can happen for you right now. I have defined sin as missed opportunity, by which I mean missing the opportunity to live God’s kind of life which is clearly the best kind of life to live. But you don’t have to continue missing that opportunity. Opportunity is knocking. It is knocking because God is standing at the door of your heart, patiently seeking entry. He is standing there, offering forgiveness. So long as God makes forgiveness available you have the opportunity to repent and to experience real life. Why would you ignore him? How can he make the offer more obvious?

We were in a store the other day. We were ready to check out. No one was at the registers at the front of the store. I saw two employees standing in front of the customer service desk. One of them was talking to a customer; the other was standing there, listening. I walked over and stood near them, directly in their line of vision. They ignored me. Finally, I waved my arms over my head like I was trying to flag a taxi. I really did. Still, no one said, “May I help you?” One of them just looked at me like I was crazy until I asked, “Is there someone here to take my money?” She pointed me to a register at which no one was working. I walked over to it and someone magically appeared. God is standing right over there, waving his arms in front of us. He has done everything he can to get our attention. Above all else, he has sent his Son Jesus into this world to die for our sins. How much longer will you ignore him?

Indeed, God has been making the same offer for 2000 years. Have you heard the story about the jogger who would run by the bagel stand every day? The stand sold bagels for fifty cents. Every day as the jogger would pass the stand he would throw two quarters in the bucket but he never took a bagel. After months of this activity, one day the proprietor stopped him. The jogger said, “You probably want to know why I always put money in but never take a bagel, don’t you?” The vendor replied, “No, I just wanted to tell you that the bagels have gone up to sixty cents” (Cindy Hess Kasper, “What God Owes Us,” Our Daily Bread, January 22, 2007). God has been amazingly patient with us. The price of forgiveness has not gone up for 2000 years and it never will. Jesus really did pay it all.

2000 years is a long time, but opportunity will not knock forever. God in his grace has waited, giving us the opportunity to repent. But neither life nor time will last forever. Will you open your heart today to the gracious knocking of our God?

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