The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
January 15, 2023
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” There’s a certain genius to that line. The examples abound. My dog is barking at the next door neighbor. So I yell at my dog to quit it, like I’ve done a thousand times. Of course, it’s never worked in the past but maybe this time my dog will pay attention. But all I end up with is a sore throat and a confused dog. Every single time. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.”
So we come into this church and Sunday by Sunday, we drop to our knees and confess our sins, praying that we would walk in newness of life. Well, has that ever worked for us in the past? Look, I know some of you have been coming to this church for decades, for your whole life, to say this prayer; I kneel at that kneeler nearly every day of my life and confess my sins. Has anything changed? So perhaps we are insane, for confessing the same thing over and over again and expecting something different to happen.
But that seems harsh.
Or it could be that we’re all disingenuous. That we don’t really mean the prayers we say. Like that scene in “The Godfather.” The mafia family is in church for a baptism. They’re renouncing Satan and all his works, while the camera cuts away to show some murders they’ve ordered. While we may not be that evil, perhaps we are not very honest. We’re confessing with our lips but in our minds we’re not really honest.
But then why would we even bother to show up at church?
Or perhaps we’ve not listened to the gospel. Jesus died on the cross to take away our sins. Could it be that we don’t need to confess our sins? That, since Jesus, everything is just cool now?
So we’re in a pickle. Are we out of our minds, are we impostors, or have we not paid attention? It’s never popular to preach on sin, but here I go.
One of the clues to unpacking this is right here in the Gospel of John. John the Baptist is out in the wilderness with some of his disciples. He sees Jesus walking by and John cries out, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Now, I know just enough New Testament Greek to get me into trouble; but I do remember that “sin” here is singular. It’s not the “sins” of the world, it’s the “sin” of the world. Just one.
The old bishop, William Temple, reflected on this passage and he wrote, “for there is only one sin…it is the self-will which prefers ‘my’ way to God’s – which puts ‘me’ in the centre where only God is in place” (Readings in St. John’s Gospel, 24).
I think he’s on to something here. The sin of the world isn’t anything that we do or don’t do, it’s deeper than that. The sin of the world is the selfish motivation for all the sinful things we do or don’t do. The sins that you and I confess here in church, those are symptoms of the deeper problem. The problem is not, say, that we lie, cheat, and steal – the deeper problem is that we lie, cheat, and steal because we are the center of our attention. That’s getting closer to what we mean by the sin of the world.
And no number of confessions will make that go away. Sure, we can improve ourselves, we can try harder, set new goals. And sometimes we can make a little progress. That’s great. But that’s not what this sermon is about. This isn’t some metaphysical self-help program. At the end of the day, so often the motivation to improve ourselves is just that, our own motivation. We remain the center of our own attention. And really, that’s not what Christianity or the Church is about. We are here because of the deeper problem. The sin of the world.
Just as an aside – I think this is what is meant by original sin. Original sin is not that Adam and Eve ate an apple or “enjoyed each other’s company.” Original sin is not some inherited disease. No, original sin is a way of talking about the deeper issue; that matter of the will. Decades ago a lay woman in the Episcopal Church asked a seminary theology professor, “do Episcopalians believe in original sin?” The professor replied, “madam, we practice it every day.”
And still John cries out, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” By becoming human flesh, by his sacrifice on this cross, by his rising again, Jesus breaks the power of self motivation. The power of sin is broken on the cross. Not the little sins, goodness knows that we still need to confess those. But it’s the power, the deeper problem that Jesus has conquered. Because in Christ we see the One who is completely for God and neighbor; God is not the center of God’s own attention. This is who God has always been. God is always reaching out, drawing us back to that state of original righteousness. God is always sending the prophets to draw us back, God is sending the saints as examples of holy life, God anoints us with the Holy Spirit so that our hearts and minds would be fixed on Christ. This whole thing – church, confession, prayer, sacrament – it’s not about getting us to stop something bad – it’s about inspiring us to live in the One who is good.
And that’s the other clue we get from this gospel passage. Two of John’s disciples start following Jesus. “When Jesus turned and saw them following, Jesus said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Come and see.’” Notice the invitation to come closer. The story tells us that it’s four o’clock in the afternoon, and I can see Jesus and these two disciples sitting, talking, being with each other at the end of a long day. Yes, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But he doesn’t do it by shouting at us to quit doing this or quit doing that. Jesus doesn’t transform our hearts by berating us. No, he does it by drawing us closer. By being with us. By inviting us to “come and see.” This is exactly what happens with Andrew and Peter.
Jesus invites Andrew to come and see, but the first thing Andrew does is to go and get his brother, Peter. Andrew doesn’t think to himself – “I have the Messiah all to myself for the afternoon.” No, Jesus has already transformed Andrew’s will, his motivation. Upon meeting Jesus, the first thing Andrew thinks about is someone else. Already, the power of sin in Andrew’s life is being broken.
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
So, you may have heard sermons giving long lists of what’s a sin and what isn’t. Where the preacher condemns this, that, or the other. I know I have. I find those sermons to be quite boring; and most of the time they have very little to do with the actual gospel. This is part of what defines us as Episcopalians, we have a different perspective on ethics and morality. Rather than creating lists of what’s good and what’s bad, we explore the deeper questions. The questions of the will, the questions of motivation. The sin of the world.
We’re not lunatics, we’re not fakers, and we’re not unfaithful. And you are proof of it. The very fact that we do return, week by week, to pray and to confess, shows that the sin of the world has been broken. The power of self motivation is still there, certainly, but now we’re just dealing with the symptoms. We are just honest disciples trying to live out those words we pray, “thy will be done.”