Through ... Sin

John 12:12-16; Romans 5:12-21

Preached on Palm/Passion Sunday -- Inspired by John Wesley's Sermon "Original Sin"
By: Michael Roberts

We are in crisis? And I’m not talking about our political predicaments, or our economic struggles, or our social problems. Or I should say I’m not “just” talking about our crisis at these surface levels. Our crisis goes much deeper into our history and into our souls. In Genesis chapters 2-3, we have the second creation story in the Bible. In this story, we encounter Adam and Eve for the first time. They are in a garden. It is a place of grace, but not forced grace. In the midst of the garden is a tree to remind them that they are free to choose. This tree symbolizes their freedom and agency as beings created in the image of God.

Then, a talking snake enters the story. I don’t know if you’ve ever known a talking snake. I bet you have. Talking snakes try to use God for their own ends, and own prejudices, and own worldly needs. The best thing we can do when confronted by a talking snake is to keep our mouths shut. But that is hard. We try to “defend” ourselves and God, and that gets us in trouble. In a subtle way, the talking snake already has us, because now we are trusting in our own arguments and own solution rather than relying on God – even as we defend God, as Eve tried to do.

Adam and Eve start to think they can be more like God. They can be independent. They can be their own judge of what is good and what is evil. And that’s what this story is about. It is not just about the crisis that Adam and Eve faced a long time ago; it is about the sin that is at the heart of our crisis today.

They eat of the tree, both of them. They break the one prohibition placed upon them, and all of a sudden they realize something. Do you remember what they learned about themselves? They realized that they were naked – exposed, vulnerable, fearful. That’s what this new-found knowledge brings to them. Fear and Death becomes their reality. Original Sin comes into the world.

And what do they do? They cover themselves with fig leaves. Once again, first hearers of this story, the Hebrew people, would have started laughing. Have you ever felt a fig leaf? It feels like sand paper, and many humans are allergic to it. It’s like poison ivy. This is meant to be funny. “They did what?” somebody would have said. “How stupid can you get?” “Fig leaves? You’ve got to be kidding.” And that’s the point. When we try to be like God, we make fools out of ourselves every time. When we try to deal with the crisis on our own, we get ourselves in big trouble.

After this the blame game begins. The man blames the woman and ultimately God. He says, “The woman, whom you gave me, caused all this.” The woman blames the snake. We immediately see this preoccupation with the word “I.” Adam says to God, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” We get our first picture of fear-dominated, guilt-ridden, spiritually dead humans who love the blame game so that they don’t have to deal with their own stuff. That’s who we are when we cease to live in a trusting relationship with God.

So, why would we tell this creation story on this day? Well, this week we are called to reflect deeply on this question: “Why did Jesus have to die?” This is an important question in a culture where we want to believe that we are intrinsically good and are capable of fixing the crisis on our own. We can use our own ingenuity to fix our problems. If we believe that, then we really don’t need a cross. We just need another law, or another class, or to go to counseling. We can solve our own problems – perhaps with God’s encouragement in the background. That’s a common perspective.

If, on the other hand, we hear the scriptures, and face our sin, then we come to see that we need so much more. Fear and Death are our reality. We can’t fix it. We can try to hide behind fig leaves, or escape it with temporary pleasures, but we can’t fix the crisis. Sin is much too deep.

This sin is so much more than outward actions. At its core, sin is a disconnect from God’s will, as if God’s will doesn’t really matter. Sin is saying “my will be done,” instead of “God’s will be done.” Our deepest need is the restoration of the image of God, and we can’t do this for ourselves.

On this Palm Sunday, we see this story played out again, in a different context. Jesus enters Jerusalem with much fanfare. The people wave palm branches and proclaim Jesus as king – “King of Israel.” They are looking for a different kind of king than Jesus came to be, a conquering king who would restore Israel to its former glory. They were looking for a way to solve their political crisis. Palm Branches were a symbol of victory and power at the time. Such branches were used to hail a conquering king or warrior who came home victorious. The conqueror would have entered the city on the biggest horse with the most elaborate regalia. And notice what Jesus does. He finds a young (small) donkey. The people are focused on an immediate and worldly crisis, looking for an earthy king with a mighty army. Jesus reveals that he is focused on a much deeper and more universal crisis. And I love the way the gospel of John puts it. “His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they got it.” Confusion reigns.

Here is the truth for this day. The great purpose of “true religion” is fulfilled, not by a class or by an earthly king, but by a cross. Using the metaphors of the sacrificial system, the scriptures tell us that Christ took the sins of the world within himself and paid all penalties for them. He did what we could never do for ourselves. He took away the power of sin and death and opened the way for us to be received into a life where forgiveness and grace rules. In this sense, the cross is a “crossing-over.” It is the defeat of death and the opening to life- abundant and eternal. This great “end” could never be accomplished by our own wills. It is a gift of God, given through pure and perfect love.

So, to paraphrase John Wesley’s conclusion on this subject, “Let us keep to this ancient faith. First, know your disease – sin. Then, know your cure – Christ. By nature, you are wholly corrupted. By grace, you shall be wholly renewed.” As our scripture says, “In Adam all die; in the second Adam, in Christ, all are made alive.” In Christ, our healing comes. The price is great, yes, but to God, you are worth it. This week, let us all bow before the cross and cry out with grateful and solemn praise. Amen.