It is hard to live a righteous life, to follow the Ten Commandments, to be the kind of people our God wants us to be. In fact, Christianity teaches that it is impossible. No matter how hard we try, we cannot escape the realities of sin. We are not perfect creatures, we never have been and we never will be. In our lesson for this morning, St. Paul describes well the human condition when he says so openly and honestly – “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but the very thing I hate. I can will what is right but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” In essence, Paul says – God, no matter how hard I try I keep messing up. I act in ways I shouldn’t even when I know better, even when I know what is right sometimes I still do wrong.”
It’s true isn’t it? I know that everyday I fail to do things I ought to do and I do things I ought not to do. I do not treat my body as the temple God created it to be. I do not forgive others in my life the way God has forgiven me. I am too quick to anger too slow to love. Sometimes in spite of my best intentions, sin traps me and I am not the person I want to be and certainly not the person God wants me to be.
The truth of the matter is you and I live in a broken world, a world that is broken by sin. You and I live in a world where we are separated from our best selves, separated from God and from one another. Lent is the season when we are called to admit this truth about ourselves, to look in the mirror and see that while we are God’s children, loved by God, we are also people fenced in by sin.
Nothing could better illustrate this truth than events of this past week. Once again, human beings are at war with one another. Once again, as has happened countless times throughout the history of the world, we have found it necessary to kill one another. It isn’t that we don’t want to find other ways to handle our problems, we do – I think the months of diplomatic wrangling are evidence of that. Nevertheless, in spite of the best efforts, our nation has come to the decision that it has no other choice but to use force against Saddam Hussein. Our nation has decided that in order to confront the evil of a dictator we must go to war. And while I would have preferred our nation take a different path, I support our leaders and I support the men and women of our armed forces in this difficult and awful task, as I hope you do.
However, let’s make no mistake about it, while this war may be a necessary evil, it is nonetheless an evil. It is not the way the world is supposed to be. Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one year old men and women should not have to be trained to kill in order for others to live in freedom. Innocent men, women and children should not have to suffer because of the hubris of one cruel dictator. If Lent is the time for individuals to honestly look in the mirror at the truth about themselves then it ought to also be the time when humanity too takes a good long look at the truth of the human condition. War is sin.
When I was a kid, I thought Lent was a time when you were supposed to make yourself feel bad. I didn’t really know why, it seemed to me most everything else about church and God seemed pretty positive with holidays like Christmas and Easter, with themes like new birth and resurrection. I remember thinking that Lent just must be the price you pay for feeling good the rest of the year. That made sense to me when I was little. After all, during Lent I was asked to either – give up something that made me happy or take on some extra work or responsibility that always made me feel unhappy. As I got a little older, I began to think that Lent wasn’t about making me feel unhappy, Lent was all about making me feel guilty. I thought I was supposed to think about all the bad stuff I had done and feel guilty for forty days and forty nights.
Ridiculous as that may sound, I think there are many people who believe that Lent and or Christianity in general are designed to make you feel bad about yourself or guilty for your actions. I have spoken with many people who wanted nothing to do with religion because they thought there was too much guilt involved. And while they are right historically, there has been far too much emphasis on unnecessary guilt dished out in large heaping doses by the church, it was never intended to be that way. Lent isn’t about guilt; it isn’t about making us feel bad and of course neither is Christianity. As Christians we are called to be honest about sin, about the sin in our hearts and the sin in the world not because we need to know we are bad (we aren’t bad, God made us good) but because we need to know that we cannot make it back to God on our own. We need to know that the reality of sin makes it impossible for us to save ourselves. Lent is the time to honestly repent for the sin in our lives in order to receive Easter. Because we can’t appreciate what Christ has done for us if we are not first honest about the fact that it needed doing. We can’t really rejoice in the power of the resurrection and Christ’s promise of salvation if we do not first realize how much we need saving.
This is the purpose of Paul’s confession in his letter to the Romans that we read this morning. Paul did not write this because he was on some personal guilt trip. Rather, he was honestly admitting the very real fact that no matter how hard he tried he could not live up to God’s demands for his life. He had been given Ten Commandments but he could not always obey them. Paul, the educated and religiously strict Pharisee realized that he could not be the righteous man he wanted to be, no matter how hard he tried – “I do not do the good I want,” he says.
If current world events have anything to teach us as a people of faith then it is the crystal clear message that we are very much in need of a savior. In spite of our best efforts, humans cannot unravel the sin of humanity on our own. We say we want to rid the world of a dictator, remover weapons of mass destruction and free a people – all noble aims. However, the reality of sin in our world forces us to have to kill and be killed in order for these things to come about. – We can will what is right but we cannot do it.
As a people of faith, who proclaim that Christ is our savior, that Christ is our way out of the trap of sin, we have three things that we are called to do. First, as I have said before, we must pray. Pray to the God of love and mercy for the forgiveness of our own sins. Pray that there will be peace. Pray for our soldiers and their families. Pray for the innocents and all those who are injured and killed in this war. Moreover, pray for our enemies. Second, we are called to be honest, to call a spade a spade, to be candid about the ever present reality of sin, to admit the broken-ness of our world and to acknowledge our own ultimate inability to save ourselves. Third, and most importantly, we are called to proclaim the good news, the good news that sin does not have the final word. We are called to proclaim the good news that there is new life and new hope to be found in Jesus Christ. The good news that while salvation may be beyond our control, it is not beyond God’s.
Our world may be broken but it is not lost. Sin may be real but it is not eternal. And even though we may be walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we need fear no evil for God is with us, and indeed it is only God who wins in the end.