Sin and Forgiveness
The Bible is full of characters like you and me. Men and women with flaws, sinful and disobedient towards God. The Bible is not a book about heroes or perfect saints. Even the best had their wobbles, rebellions, struggles and disappointments. Jesus had many disappointments in his ministry. Truth to tell at the end of his life he was heartbroken as well as battered and bruised. Paul endured a lot and wondered sometimes if it was all worthwhile. The Bible is about how people experience God in their lives and the difference that experience of God made to their lives.
We had Paul Jones and Fiona Hendley here last Sunday evening. Paul Jones was the lead singer in the sixties pop group Manfred Mann and he later became a solo artist. He told us that he became a Christian in 1984. He and Fiona were living together though they were not married. They saw nothing wrong with that – until they both became Christians and then they got married so that they would no longer be ‘living in sin’. I was surprised to hear that icon of the swinging sixties Paul Jones use the term ‘living in sin’. It seemed an old fashioned idea by today’s standards. Many people live together without it would seem, having any sense of sin. People also have multiple and serial relationships without any sense of sin. So it must be that only people with a sense of God in their lives have a sense of sin. That may explain why fewer and fewer people go to Church, fewer love, worship and serve God, and fewer people make professions of faith in Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord.
Is the Psalm read earlier we learn of King David’s profound sense of sin. Most commentators explain this Psalm in the context of King David’s affair with a woman called Bathsheba during which he engineered the death of her husband so that he could have her as his wife. As a king of a middle east nation in the 10th century BC he was all powerful and could do anything he wanted. Except – that he was King of the Jewish people, the people of God whose personal and social standards had been given to them by God through Moses in the form initially of The Ten Commandments. King David had begun to think that these did not really need to apply to him. But within God’s providence and care for his people there were prophets who taught and guided everyone in the ways they should conduct their lives. One of them called Nathan confronted King David at the risk of his life about his relationship with Bathsheba and what he had done to her husband. Although King David had the power of life and death over Nathan, he took the prophet’s rebuke to heart and admitted publicly that he had done a great wrong in God’s sight. And in Psalm 51 he wrote down his confession.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
2 Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
King David realised that he was not above the will of God, which, for a time he had thought he was. He used the language of baptism in his prayer… 'wash me, and I will be whiter than snow'.
In Mark’s Gospel we heard again about how Jesus Himself was baptised by His cousin John the Baptist. He went down to the River Jordan and was baptised by full immersion. In Matthew’s Gospel John is recorded as having baulked at baptising Jesus, something he thought to be unnecessary for Jesus to undertake. Jesus – I need to be baptised by you – not you by me. He said. But Jesus wanted to fulfil all righteousness and set a good example for others and he wanted to support and validate John’s ministry too. Lots of people did not think that they needed to be baptised 'It’s not for me' they said. It was those who had a sense of sin who went down to the River Jordan to be baptised. During Jesus humble acceptance of John’s ministry, he himself was called to begin his own public ministry.
It was ever thus. There’s a story in the Old Testament about an Aramean military general called Namaan who suffered from leprosy. His Jewish maidservant suggested that in Israel there was a prophet who could heal him in God’s name. So he went to visit Elisha. But Elisha did not enact the diplomatic protocols of the day. He did not receive him personally. He sent his servant to tell Namaan to bathe seven times in the River Jordan and he would be cured of his leprosy. Namaan’s pride was hurt; he felt humiliated and he decided to return home. But his own servants persuaded him otherwise. They said to him in effect, 'If the man of God had asked you to do something difficult you would have done it – why not just do as he says – give it a chance – you might be healed after all and that is why you came all this way'. So Namaan humbled himself and bathed seven times in the River Jordan and was healed of his leprosy. He was also healed of his great pride and his self-regard and his pomposity and of his racial enmity. Note that this was a baptism. Water. Immersion. Healing. Peace.
Baptism is still a washing away of sin; it is so only in relation to God whom we know through Jesus Christ our Lord. The first Christians were baptised and every Christian ever since has been baptised. Baptism is the sign of being a Christian. Baptism is also the sign of forgiveness. Those who came out to John the Baptist were forgiven their sins upon repentance of them. The slate was wiped clean. The Temple in Jerusalem offered sacrifices for collective sin but John the Baptist transformed the relationship between God and the people in his ministry making it personal and intimate and no longer reliant on the ritual of animal sacrifices or the role of mediating priests. It was a big step forward. But even John admitted that his ministry was limited and partial and only a preparation for something better. He said publicly of Jesus…'I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit'. Today we baptise with water and with the Holy Spirit. God’s friendship and company are good; this is a happy time. Forgiveness is something we all need and the Christian Church specialises in offering forgiveness in Jesus’ name to those who ask it.
But if you have no sense of God, do you have no sense of sin and no therefore need of forgiveness? That seems to be the way of our society today. Baptism is the sign of becoming a Christian. Jake is baptised into Jesus Christ as a Christian. What kind of Christian he will be we do not know. We know that over 2,000,000 Scots have claimed allegiance to the Church of Scotland in the 2011 census. But our Church has only 400,000 members. Here we have 400 members but only about 100 regularly attend worship. We baptise children and then we never see them or their parents again. But we take Jesus’ words to heart…'Let the little ones come to me and do not try to stop them'. Baptism is a sign of the relationship of forgiveness that is in Jesus Christ. All of us are equal in Jesus Christ’s forgiveness. We receive His love freely. Infancy is the most dependent state of human life. But all of us receive forgiveness as spiritual dependents. It is the Lord who baptises and validates the Baptism.
Christianity affirms life at its beginning. Christianity affirms life in adulthood. Christianity affirms life at its end. Christianity has been the meta-narrative of these islands for 1500 years and more. Christianity has been the umbrella above the nation and the people under which generations have sheltered. But – today – that narrative is being questioned and darts and knives are being thrown at that umbrella to burst and puncture it and render it ineffective. 'We don’t need or want Christianity anymore' is the war cry of pressure groups. And though their numbers are tiny, they have the ear of governments. They can claim to speak for the majority of the population who are not practising Christians.
So – here we are – fulfilling our calling and mission to baptise in Jesus' name. We declare the unconditional love of God for Jake and for his family. We receive again in our souls the same love of God that he has just received. We are blessed. Our relationship with God may be hidden from the media and from the world but it is real and strong and will stand the test of time. We will not be shaken. We will not be moved. We have a sense of God in our lives, and a sense of sin and a sense of forgiveness and the hope and promise of eternal
life. There is nothing better, nothing greater.