Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B, 2015 – Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
“Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb.”
This line from Psalm 51 is traditionally understood to refer to the mysterious doctrine of original sin, which is that we are sinners from our mother’s womb even before we open our eyes and take in our first breath. The beginning of this state of affairs is usually attributed to Adam and Eve’s “Fall” in the Garden of Eden, after which their offspring become subject to death. Like all Christian doctrines (the Trinity and the Incarnation), it comes across as a paradox. It not only expresses the fact that I suffer the consequences of my parent’s sin, but that I somehow share the responsibility for it. It’s unjust and it’s just at the same time. Well, what do I mean by just? In contrast to Jesus, who took responsibility for our sin though he was not a sinner, we share responsibility for our parents’ sin because we are sinners. This morning I want to talk about how this is more than just a doctrine, but a key for understanding our own spiritual experience.
In order to begin to understand, however, we should turn to the context of the Psalm, which in the Hebrew comes with a title that reads: “A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.” This story can be found in 2 Samuel 11 and 12.
A prophet and a song writer, David was raised from the humblest beginnings to become the best king Israel ever had. And yet at the height of his power, he suffers a fall. Walking along the roof of his palace one evening, he spies a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing. So David, unsatisfied with the women he already had, calls her up and sleeps with her. Weeks later she comes back to the king distressed and pregnant. So David hatches a plan. Bathsheba’s husband, one of David’s most loyal officers, Uriah, is out at war, so David offers him a day off hoping that he can cover his tracks. But instead of spending the night with his wife, Uriah loyally sleeps on the king’s doorstep and tells him the next morning: “…my lord’s men are camped in the open fields. How could I go to my house to eat and drink and lie with my wife? As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!” (2 Sam 11:11). Desperate now, David tells the commander of his troops to send Uriah to the front line and to abandon him when the fighting is the most intense, which is what happens. Uriah is overwhelmed by the enemy and is killed in battle.
David thinks he’s off the hook until Nathan the prophet confronts him with the fact that God’s seen everything. At this point David knows he can’t escape and that what he has done is wrong. Out of his great remorse he composes our Psalm, and then says to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” The prophet sees that the king is truly sorry and extends God’s forgiveness saying, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” Yes, David shall not die. That is, given his repentance, his sin will not result in spiritual death and separation from God. And yet his sin still affects others, in this case his unborn son. Nathan explains, “because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.” (2 Sam 12:13,14). We aren’t told how David’s sin has this consequence, nor are we told that every time a child dies it’s the result of adultery, we are only told that in this case the innocent is suffering for the guilty.
And isn’t this the way it is in our world? That the weak suffer the consequences for the strong, children for parents? Think of how often our parents’ habits become our own? Addictions–fetal alcohol syndrome, abusive behaviour, bigotries. Think of how often a generation of soldiers rightly or wrongly feels caught fighting an older man’s war: WWI, the Cold War, Vietnam. Or think of how your generation pays for the experiments of the last? What will my grandchildren think of a country in which, say, euthanasia has become entrenched? Change a law and the full consequences may not be felt for a few generations, and by that time there’s no one left to hold accountable. How infuriating is that?! Our environment is another obvious one: in the last 20 years, I’ve found out this week, 98.6% of tigers have died. We’re down to 3,200, people. Who should pay for this? But this is the way of the world.
We rarely suffer the full consequences of our folly. We leave that for our children. This is all part of Original sin.
But this doctrine isn’t just about shifting the blame to our parents. Every generation fails and will continue to fail. Even if we could get out from under the negative influence of society and go back to the Garden of Eden, we would corrupt it again because the corruption is not outside of us but inside of us. The Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, has a memorable little story called “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” in which a man struggling with the thought of suicide falls into a very odd dream. He begins in a grave that is opened by a shadowing figure, who flies him away on a long journey to a planet identified as the earth before the fall. The happy and sinless people there find him and he lives a long time with them in this utopia in absolute bliss, amazed at their goodness. Yet one day the man accidentally teaches them to lie, and a deluge of increasingly bad sins follow ending in murders and wars. Soon the people have entirely forgotten their happy past, which the ridiculous man begs them to remember and to return to. He even begs them to kill him for his role in destroying paradise. They refuse.
What does your experience tell you? How innocent are you? We all know that our present lifestyle costs other’s something, we all know we shouldn’t click on that porn ad, or that our words hurt, or that our drinking makes us mean, and on and on…. But we all still do it despite our best intentions. Looking into his own heart, Paul regretted that “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing” (Rom 7:18,19). This is such a serious problem for humanity that he can say in another place “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10).
Look inside yourself. How many times have you ignored your conscience? Can you still hear it? What’s at stake isn’t just whether we follow a bunch of impersonal rules or not. Hear the Psalm of David: “Take not your Holy Spirit from me.” This is about so much more than rules, this is about a broken relationship with God, this is about whether you have the Holy Spirit or not. That’s why David prays: “Against you only have I sinned.”
Look, God didn’t create us bad, but our actions are. In fact badness has become second nature for us. You know what second nature means? It means it’s habitual. And if it’s a bad habit, it gets worse with time. We know from experience what this means as individuals. Original sin, by analogy, is the bad habit of the human community as a whole. That means all of us, young and old, are a part of one big sin addict. Many people find this doctrine scandalous, since it contradicts our individualistic instincts to think of humanity as a great big body, and since it implies that infants–one part of this body–have this addiction too. And to be sure, if I stood up at an AA meeting and said, “Hi, my name is Jeff, and the hand holding this beer is an alcoholic,” you would think I’m crazy. So, to single out one member of the body of humanity, this baby, and say that it’s a sinner is weird. Still, my hand is a part of me, and I’m a sinner. It might not be accurate to call my hand a sinner, but my hand is part of one great big sin addict. It’s complex I know, but that’s what we mean when we say “I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb.” When we pray this we express our solidarity in sin with all of humanity: our parents, their parents, their parents parents…. As Dostoevsky would say, we are all responsible for the sins of the whole world.
So back to David’s son: on the one hand he suffers the consequences of his father’s sin innocently. But on the other, he’s part of the same lump of dough as his Dad. He and David stand and fall together as part of a single human race that has lost the Holy Spirit. If we hadn’t, these injustices wouldn’t go down the generations. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be subject to the consequences of other people’s evil, we wouldn’t be born so vulnerable, we wouldn’t have internalized sin so completely. But here we are, infant and adult alike, totally weakened and in need of God’s help.
And in looking at the infant can’t we see ourselves? “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.” Does this describe you? If it does, you’re in the same boat as David’s infant son, helpless and weak in the face of death, with “no power of ourselves to help ourselves,” as the Prayer Book says. In truth, before God we’re all like that child: needy.
This is what made Christmas all the more amazing. That the Son of God became the Son of David, became an infant, became helpless and subject to other peoples’ violence and hatred. Jesus suffers innocently. But unlike us, unlike David’s son, he’s not a part of the same old lump of dough as David. He’s not just another body part subject to the same sin addiction as the rest of us. He’s not another weak-willed hand moving to and fro against his best wishes picking up another whisky, or clicking on another porn page, or clenching his fist for a fight. No, Scripture says that if Jesus is any body part, he’s the head. That means he’s the one making the decisions, not some second nature sin-addiction. That means when he suffers the consequences of our sin, he’s doing it voluntarily. Again, in contrast to Jesus, who took responsibility for our sin even though he was not a sinner, we share responsibility for our parents’ sin because we are sinners.
We are all part of one big sinful body. Jesus, though, has given us the opportunity to be a part of a new body and a new humanity in which he, not our old habits, call the shots.
The story of David’s son concludes in this way:
On the seventh day the child died. David’s servants were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they thought, “While the child was still living, we spoke to David but he would not listen to us. How can we tell him the child is dead? He may do something desperate.” David noticed that his servants were whispering among themselves and he realized the child was dead. “Is the child dead?” he asked. “Yes,” they replied, “he is dead.” Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the LORD and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate. His servants asked him, “Why are you acting this way? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept, but now that the child is dead, you get up and eat!” He answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Sam 12:18-20)
No, David, like his son is weak and vulnerable in the face of death. He can’t raise the dead. Jesus, however, can. Jesus can create a new humanity free from the corrupting habits of the old. This is what we believe in any case. And if like David we are forced for a time to stand by helplessly and regretfully as the consequence of our sin continues to mow down innocent people in this life, we know that our God forgives and that he can raise the dead. We also have the example of David who was honest enough to take responsibility for it and to live with the consequences without complaining. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” The only reason he could do this is because he knew God, who raises the dead, would not ultimately take away his Holy Spirit from him. May it be the same for all of us.