7 March 2014

The Last Word

Passage: Matthew 4: 1-11, Romans 5:12-19

Purpose: To invite an understanding of sin as the backdrop for grace and not just as a moral compass.

Once upon a time in the interests of keeping abreast of the events of the day, I read three newspapers daily. Not anymore! These days most of my news comes from ABC radio and television although each morning I explore the headlines on Guardian Online as I drink my morning coffee.

These days I guess I an ex-newspaper connoisseur though I still like to think I know something about them. So if I was to buy a copy of the “Courier Mail”, I would be surprised to find that it carried an editorial from “The Age” even as a paid advertisement.

If it did happen, I think I would take more than a second glance. If it did happen, I think that I would believe that the editorial writer thought that they had something especially significant to say. So I think that I would take them quite seriously.

Well actually it has happened – though not I think in Australia. It happened when the “Wall Street Journal” one of America’s highest circulation newspapers published its editorial in one of its close rivals “The New York Times" as a paid advertisement (Cited in Long, Thomas G., and Edward Farley. “Preaching as a Theological Task: World, Gospel, Scripture: in Honor of David Buttrick.” Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.)

“When was the last time you had a good conversation about sin?" the headline asked. Then proceeded a roll call of many of the moral and ethical dilemmas of the time: the breakdown of ethics in corporate and community life; perennial favourites like teenage sex and a culture of addiction; and so on.

Let me quote from the editorial:

"Sin isn't something that many people, including most churches, have spent much time talking about or worrying about ... But we will say this for sin; at least it offered a frame of reference for personal behaviour. When the frame was dismantled, guilt wasn't the only thing that fell away; we also lost the guide wire of personal responsibility.”


At least with respect to the church, I hope the editorial writer was wrong. If the church forgets about sin, it loses its sense of the power and potential of salvation. Without sin in our good news story, it becomes well nigh impossible to find a good news story for Christians to tell.

Our theology is a theology of grace. Even as sinners, God loves us and although the line of thought has a certain complexity to it, in today’s epistle to the Romans Paul identifies it again. Jesus is God’s gracious gift to a world in which sin is real and apparent. In Jesus God speaks one last defiant word in a world – to a world - enslaved to sin and injustice.

If we jettison a concept of sin from our human history and contemporary human experience then Jesus’ death on the cross makes him looks more like the village idiot, a mad martyr who dies without a cause, than the miracle working messiah who acts for salvation.


Especially during Lent the Church cannot ignore the reality of sin. As rain brings life to the desert, so the Easter story of resurrection brings hope to a world that wanders in the wilderness.


So I hope the editorial writer was wrong when they described the Church. But, I question whether they were right even beyond the church. I guess it depends how you measure it! If the measure is how often sin rates a mention in newspaper editorials, perhaps they are right. I suppose it hasn’t featured in many coffee shop conversations that I’ve had in recent years either. So, if that’s the measure, I guess that they could be right.

Yet it doesn’t explain the personalised car number plate I noticed on a recent trip. CUNHLL “See you in hell!” That’s not someone who has forgotten about sin. That’s a person who understands about the guide-wire of responsibility, but decides to defy it. Is it that the world can no longer tell the difference between right and wrong? Or is that the world has just ceased to care!

And if sin has long since ceased to rate on the public radar, why does provide the motivational edge to so many television commercials? You know the kind I mean. Be a devil and do this! Give in to temptation and try that! Sin – or at least giving in to it – must sell!


So if sin is no longer a fashionable topic for table conversation perhaps there’s another reason for it!

Don Marquis is an author and columnist whose life spanned the turn of the last century (See http://donmarquis.wikispaces.com/home). He often writes through the imaginary characters of Archy and Mehitabel. Archy is a cockroach who in another life has been a free form poet. In one poem, Archy remarks:

i was talking to a moth the other evening he was trying to break into an electric light bulb and fry himself on the wires ...

Archy wants to know why the moth does it. So the moth replies:

we get bored with the routine and crave beauty and excitement fire is beautiful and we know that if we get too close it will kill us but what does that matter it is better to be happy for a moment ...

That’s what life is for! One instant of beauty is better than an eternity without it. Perhaps there’s not much difference between the moth and the see-you-in-hell car owner.


“Sin,” says the anonymous sermon writer, “is simply trying to get more out of life than there is in it to get.” So we eat too much. We play too hard. We work too long to earn more money to buy too many things that we don’t really need. The moth’s reply to the cockroach could almost be a theme story for our time.

If you really want to live you got to eat a little more, drink a little extra, and push the limits of the credit card a little further. Humanity is drawn to excess like a moth to the firelight. Life lacks spice unless we push the limits, defy the guidelines, break the rules and cast aside our moral and ethical compass. Better to defy conventions now and see you in hell than to resist temptation and attempt to live a devout and holy life.


When was the last time you had a good conversation about sin? Perhaps the Wall Street Journal editorial writer missed the main point. What we say about sin hardly counts. What we do about sin is what really matters.

In the gospel story today, three times the tempter challenges Jesus. Three times Jesus resists the temptation. Three times Jesus stand firm. Three times evil is defeated and God’s plan for salvation is secured.

That’s important. Jesus’ resistance encourages us to stand firm for Christian gospel values. The world needs a moral compass if it is to make sense of a crisis like that which exists in Crimea.

In Southern Sudan for each one hundred live births more than two mothers will die in childbirth. Infant mortality rates are also among the highest in the world. In circumstances like these the world needs a moral compass which is why Uniting World is working to improve the number of midwives in a country where there is only one qualified midwife per 30,000 people.

But inspiring a moral compass is not the most important thing about our gospel reading today. The most important thing is that when challenged by the tester Jesus stands firm so that when it happens his death on the cross achieves its purpose. There is a beauty about which the moth in Don Marquis’ story remains ignorant. It is the beauty which lies beyond the struggle. It is the beauty of the resurrection.

In Christ, the tester confronts God’s final word. It is a last, lingering word that culminates beyond the cross and opens the way to peace and justice for all humanity. In this last and final word, the tester discovers that the days of evil are numbered and that God’s love cannot be defeated.

We need to know about sin. The world needs to find its moral compass. But, against that backdrop, we discover a deeper need – our need for grace and the promise of God. In Christ we have a future and beyond the testing lies true beauty.

In Christ, we discover place and purpose in God’s new community of justice and peace. That is what gets preserved for us back there in the wilderness when Jesus resists temptation.

If we jettison a concept of sin from our human history and contemporary human experience then Jesus’ death on the cross makes him looks more like the village idiot, a mad martyr who dies without a cause, than the miracle working messiah who acts for salvation.

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