Fourth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 11C, June 12th, 2016
1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21a, Psalm 5:1-8, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36—8:3
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let’s talk about sin, and forgiveness. Our Old Testament reading for today is certainly an example of sin. It starts out with coveting. King Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard. Now, coveting isn’t just wanting something. Coveting is jealousy. Coveting is a belief that you have a right to possess something that belongs to someone else. Coveting is a resentment that anyone else has something that you don’t. Coveting is the toddler on the playground grabbing another child’s toy. It’s the girl who spreads rumors about another girl dating the guy she wants. It’s the man who gets mad when a woman doesn’t pay as much attention to him as he wants. It’s the supervisor who belittles an employee who’s better than they are. It’s the ugliness that happens when we believe we’re entitled to other peoples’ things, time, attention, or bodies. And all the evil that we do because of that belief.
That’s the thing about coveting. It’s bad in and of itself, but it leads us to do other sins. Theft, violence, bearing false witness, rape, murder, abuse of every kind. Coveting is the root cause of much of the evil in our world today. It’s the cause of big sins, but also of a lot of the little miseries. And usually, we come up with all kinds of reasons why we deserve what we want, why it’s good that we should take it, or attack the one who has it. Reasons to justify anything that gets us what we want, regardless of the harm it does. And, like most sins, it knots us up inside, turning us around in circles of justification and resentment and self-centeredness.
For Jezebel, it was simple. Her husband was the king, so he deserved whatever he wanted. That was what being king meant, for her. And if Naboth didn’t want to give it to him, well, then Naboth deserved whatever he got. And so she had Naboth falsely accused, and then killed. Coveting lead to false witness and murder; one sin led to another. Ahab wasn’t quite willing to order Naboth killed himself, to get the vineyard he coveted, but he was certainly willing to take advantage of Jezebel’s actions. He didn’t want to get his own hands dirty … but he’d take advantage of his wife’s dirty hands in a hot second. But to God there was no difference which one of them killed: Naboth died because Ahab coveted his vineyard, and so both Jezebel and Ahab were equally guilty of it. Jezebel did the deed, but Ahab took advantage of it and profited from it. Jezebel did it, but Ahab stood back and let her, and used her to get what he wanted. This was not a subtle plan. Everyone must have known what was happening, and no one did anything to prevent it or speak out against it. And so God proclaimed judgment on Ahab and his household, because the whole household was complicit in the sin. The sinners had been judged and found guilty … and the payment for their sin was death and destruction.
Then in the Gospel reading, we see Jesus forgiving a sinner. We don’t know what her sin was. Maybe she cheated on her taxes. Maybe she was a thief. Maybe she slept around. Maybe she was a habitual liar. Maybe her sins were big, maybe they were small. We don’t know. All we know is that everyone in town knew about it, and judged her harshly. But Jesus forgave her, and she loved him greatly because of it.
We believe in a God who judges sin, but we also believe in a God who forgives sin. It’s a contradiction, and different people reconcile it different ways. But what a lot of us do, is we separate out big sins and little ones, sins we really hate and sins we think aren’t really that bad, when you get down to it. And we separate out the kinds of sins we ourselves commit, or those we love, from the kinds of sin other people commit. Our own sins, and the sins of our families, well, we can find a hundred reasons why they’re not really problems at all, or only little ones. But when it’s people we don’t like, as the Pharisee didn’t like the woman in the Gospel reading, well, then it’s a horrible crime that God should cut them down for.
But that’s not the way God sees things. Our sins, big or small, matter. Each and every one of our sins affects us and the world around us. Every sin makes the world just that much worse off—whether it’s a huge and visible sin, like Ahab and Jezebel, or the small sins we ourselves are so ready to shrug off. We hurt ourselves, and we hurt others. We reduce the love in the world and fill it up with envy, fear, hate, greed, malice, and selfishness instead, and we purposefully blind ourselves to the consequences of our actions, to the way even little sins add up and lead to greater ones down the road. They’re not so bad, we tell ourselves. After all, everyone does stuff just like it—and a lot of people are worse! It’s not just other people who deserve judgment, though; we, ourselves, do, as well.
So if God doesn’t forgive based on whether our sins are really big or small, why does God forgive? Another Old Testament story tells us. Do you remember the story of David and Bathsheba? David saw Bathsheba, a married woman, when she was bathing, and decided he wanted her. Like Ahab, David’s first sin was coveting, although instead of coveting a piece of property he coveted a person. And, like Ahab, David believed that he deserved whatever he wanted. So he ordered her brought to him, and gave her no choice to say no. And when she was pregnant, he had her husband killed. Coveting lead to rape, lead to murder. One sin led to another, spiraling outward with consequences for many others besides David himself. Just like with Ahab and Jezebel and Naboth’s vineyard. And, just like with Ahab and Jezebel, God sent a prophet to tell David what he had done and what the judgment for his crime was.
That’s where the similarities stop, though. When Elijah came to Ahab to tell him about God’s judgment on him, Ahab called Elijah an enemy. Ahab didn’t listen. Ahab didn’t repent. Ahab went on doing what he had been doing. David, on the other hand, listened to God’s prophet. David acknowledged his sin. David didn’t make excuses, or get mad, when his own bad behavior was pointed out. David took responsibility for it, and asked for forgiveness. And so, although he still had to deal with the earthly consequences of his behavior, God forgave him. David’s sin was wiped away, because he recognized and acknowledged what he had done.
God doesn’t forgive us because we deserve it, or because our sins weren’t really that bad, or because we can come up with a good enough excuse. God doesn’t forgive us because we’re nice people. God forgives us because he loves us, because he would rather forgive us than condemn us. But before that can happen, we need to be willing to admit that we need forgiveness. God can’t forgive us if we’re too busy justifying ourselves to listen. God can’t forgive us if we’re too busy getting angry at anyone who dares to point out the bad things we have done.
It’s easy to sit here and listen to stories like the story of Naboth’s vineyard, and pat ourselves on the back for being decent people. I’d be pretty willing to bet none of us here have arranged to have someone murdered. Compared to Ahab and Jezebel, we look pretty good, so we can sit here and shake our heads and agree how bad and shocking they were while still feeling fairly comfortable about our own lives. But God doesn’t compare our thoughts and actions to the worst humans can do; God compares our thoughts and actions to the best, pure, good people God created us to be. And by that standard, we, too, have fallen very fall short of where we should be. We covet things and people, and we do nasty things because of it. We ignore God, and lead ourselves down bad paths. We disrespect those we should honor. We steal, and tell ourselves it’s no big deal. We cheat on one another, and think it’s okay because everyone does it. We add our voices to those calling for hate because we’re scared of the future. We lie even to ourselves, about all the ways we add to the misery in the world around us.
God doesn’t want to condemn us. God loves us. God wants to shower us and our whole world with abundant gifts. God wants us to do the right thing, not out of fear of retribution, but out of joy and love for God and one another. God can and will forgive anything, any crime, no matter how vile … but first we have to confess and repent. We have to admit what we have done, and let go of the hostility and bitterness and jealousy and fear in our souls. We have to let God love us. Thanks be to God for the love and forgiveness he gives to all who call upon him.