Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent

Text: Isaiah 55:7
Let the wicked leave their way of life and change their way of thinking.  Let them turn to the Lord, our God; he is merciful and quick to forgive.

The joy of being wrong

This is supposed to be true or maybe it’s an urban legend but it makes a good story.  A man who was a rather eccentric collector purchased a box of very rare and expensive cigars and insured them against (get this) fire.  The cigars proved to be too much of a temptation and within a short while he had smoked the lot and filed a claim against the insurance company.

In his claim, the man stated that he had lost the cigars “in a series of small fires”. Of course, the insurance company refused to pay, citing the obvious reason that the man had consumed the cigars in a normal fashion.  The man sued — and won! The judge ruled that the cigars were insured against fire and since the insurance company didn’t define what was an unacceptable fire it was obligated to pay $15,000 to the man for the loss of his rare and valuable cigars. 

Now this bloke probably thought that he was pretty smart to pull this off.  He couldn’t have been more wrong.

No sooner had he cashed the cheque than he got a knock on his door and was arrested on 24 counts of arson.  With his own insurance claim and testimony from the previous case being used as evidence against him, the man was convicted of arson, intentionally setting alight the rare cigars, and fraud, and sentenced to 24 consecutive one-year terms. 

This bloke’s joy at getting one over the insurance company took a turn for the worse when he realised that he had got it so wrong.

James Alison wrote a book on the church’s doctrine of original sin, a teaching that explains that all people are born with sin.  It’s quite a heavy going theological book but it’s not the content of the book that I want to refer to but rather the book’s title – The Joy of Being Wrong.  The title suggests straight away that even though we fail and get things awfully wrong so many times, as Christians we can still be joyful.

Before I elaborate on that further, let me say that we are conditioned from an early age about the kinds of hoops and hurdles we need to jump through and over in order to make ourselves and other people happy. 

When we were at school we set ourselves a standard and in some cases other people did it for us.  That standard might be to get ten out of ten words or eight out of 10 words right in a spelling test or an A or B on an exam paper or whatever and O what joy when we achieved that.  
How we function at work or how we keep our homes we set ourselves a standard and what a joy when we achieve it.  That boosts our self-image, everything is right in our lives and we are happy. 

We judge other people with the same measuring rod.  When someone flunked a test at school we smugly thought to ourselves, “This is the kid who doesn’t do his homework and doesn’t listen in class. No wonder he gets wrong answers”.  Or “That test was so easy. What a dunderhead!”  
When a colleague at work does something to frustrate the management we wonder how anyone can be so stupid.  There is no joy in being wrong.  The way to succeed in life is never to make any stupid mistakes.

We look at Adam and Eve and they sure made some stupid mistakes.  What is more they didn’t want to admit that they had been wrong in disobeying God and there weren’t too happy when they realised that God had found out what they had done.  They did what most people do when they are wrong, they were uncomfortable talking about it and tried to pass off that there was anything wrong at all in what they had done. 

Over the years I’ve had people complain about the church’s emphasis on sin.  They would say something like, “As soon as we get into church, what does the pastor start with – ‘confessing our sin’?  And when he preaches sure enough he does it again – more talk about sin.  It’s so depressing.  All the church is doing is heaping guilt on people, adding to the troubles they already have.”  For this person there is no joy in being wrong. 

Being wrong and admitting that we are wrong is not an easy thing.  A woman went in for surgery and when she woke up in recovery she found that her left leg was bandaged and not her right leg as she had expected.  When the head of the hospital investigated what had happened he gave this explanation, “For whatever reason, the surgeon felt he was on the correct side of the patient”.  What kind of an explanation is that?  Did the surgeon operate on the wrong leg or didn’t he?  Of course he did.  There is no joy in admitting to being wrong.

Being wrong is a part of life in this world.  It’s not the way God planned it when he created the first people but it’s the way things have happened since.  Sin has invaded our lives and our world and it’s inevitable that we will get things wrong today, tomorrow and the day after all the rest of our days on this planet.  This can be frustrating and upsetting and depressing, especially when we are confronted with a whole lot of wrong things that affect us deeply and personally.  It might be a sickness, a relationship break down, a tragedy or whatever that sucks all the joy out of our lives and leaves us feeling all wrong.  Every day the wrongness in our lives comes as a result of our sinful nature.

For Christians joy is possible in spite of the wrong in our lives.  While the rest of the world is busy denying or hiding wrong, and even when we are inclined to want to deny the wrong in our lives, the message of the gospel tells us that it is possible to admit to our wrong and do it with joy. 

Let me explain.  It’s not hard for us to admit that we are hopelessly caught up in sin and to honestly confess our failure to love God and others because God is merciful and quick to forgive” to use the words of the text (Isaiah 55:7). 
Because God has set things right between him and us through Jesus’ death on the cross, we gladly admit that we have “sinned against God in thought, word and deed”. 
Because our guilt before God has been taken away we gladly and willingly confess our sin because we are loved by a God who will even die for those who are hopelessly trapped in the web of sin and keep on offering his grace as often as we need it.
It fills our whole being with joy to hear those words again,
“Your sins are forgiven”.

We are right in the middle of Lent, that season that leads us to Good Friday and Easter.  It is a season of looking at our lives, of honest self-examination, and of reflection on the suffering, bleeding and dying that Jesus endured to be our Saviour.  Every Sunday when we come to worship we come before God acknowledging our sinfulness and asking for forgiveness.  We may want to make excuses and give explanations for our bad behaviour but we know that God can see right through them all, and besides, why should we be afraid of being honest with God?

We come here into the presence of the God who made us and loves and has sacrificed so much for us;
he understands what it means to live in a world where so much is all wrong;
he cares for each of us and we trust in his love for us and his never-ending grace.  We come confidently confessing the wrong that is in our lives and we are assured and refreshed with the joy of knowing that because of Jesus our wrong is not held against us.    

In the Gospel reading today Jesus tells the story about a fig tree that had gone wrong.  It had been growing in the garden for three years and hadn’t borne any fruit.  A fruit tree that doesn’t bear fruit is all wrong.  “Cut it down”, the owner says to his gardener. 
The gardener replies, “Let’s give it another chance.  I’ll give it some TLC – dig around it, give it some fertiliser”.  Does the tree respond to the gardener’s TLC?   Does it bear fruit or is it cut down?  Jesus leaves us to ponder that question and connect that to our own lives.

Zaccheus is a real life example of what Jesus was talking about.  Zaccheus was a hated tax collector.  As far as everyone else was concerned he was as wrong as anyone could be. Then he experienced the welcoming love of Jesus.  This once oppressive tax collector gladly confessed his sins of greed and unfairness, and changed the wrong in his life by returning the money he had dishonestly taken.  There was joy in his open and honest admission that he had wronged God and the people of Jericho. 

When it seems that there is so much that is wrong in our lives and in our world, there is hope and with hope there is joy.  Whether we talk about sinful actions and thoughts or what sin brings into our lives – sickness, pain, death, grief, despondency, unfaithfulness and so on – there is always grace.  We come to God with so much that is wrong in our lives and ask and trust God’s love and his care for us; inviting him to place his arms around us and give us the boldness and confidence to face whatever it us that challenges us at this moment.  Sometimes what is wrong can’t be fixed in an instant or can’t be fixed at all in this life and can only be fixed when we enter our eternal home in heaven, but in the meantime in spite of what is wrong we have the joy and the peace of knowing that we are safe in the hands of our Creator and Saviour. 

This Lent we are invited to be honest, open and thoughtful when it comes to confessing and handing over to God what is wrong in our lives.  We can risk exposing all of our weaknesses and warts because God is ready to forgive and will keep on loving us and supporting us and changing us because of Christ’s Easter victory. 

He will fill us with the joy of his grace.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
3rd March 2013

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