February 17, 2010
“What to Do with Your Sins” (Psalm 51:3-4; Joel 2:12-13; 2 Corinthians 5:21)
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. There are a number of things that people do when this season comes around. Some people give something up for Lent. They may give up soda pop or ice cream, for instance. Some people take something on for Lent, like a regular exercise routine. Whether by giving something up or taking something on, these folks may be using Lent as a second chance at the New Year’s resolutions they stopped doing, oh, sometime around January 8. Now don’t get me wrong, giving up soda pop or starting up an exercise routine–these can be good things, healthy things, and the idea of Lent as a time for renewed personal discipline can provide a helpful impetus to get you going. But this is not the essence of Lent.
Better is to connect personal disciplines to a spiritual purpose: for example, fasting as a way to subdue and master your appetites and pleasures, so that you are not mastered by them; giving up a meal or an activity, in order to use that time for additional prayer; taking on a new spiritual discipline, like reading that devotional book you’ve been meaning to get to. These are good ways to keep a Lenten discipline. But we’re not yet at the heart of what to do for Lent.
What to do for Lent? At the heart of it is “What to Do with Your Sins.” If that isn’t there, then you’re not really keeping a holy Lent. And so tonight, on this day of ashes at the start of this penitential season, I want to suggest three things that we should do with our sins: 1) Recognize them. 2) Repent of them. 3) Receive forgiveness for them.
What to do with your sins? First, recognize them. That may not be as easy as it sounds. The Bible says, “The heart is deceitful above all things.” So we may not always recognize our sins as sin. We try to rationalize them away: “Oh, they’re not so bad. They’re just little sins. Besides, I deserve . . .” whatever it is. Or, “It may be bad for other people, but I’ve got a good excuse.”
Another problem: We may recognize our sins of commission, the things we actively do wrong, but we may neglect or ignore our sins of omission, our failure to do the right. Or we may not recognize how our little sin or our neglect in one area of our life affects how we do in other areas. For example, the time we waste doing stupid things may affect the time or energy we have left to be doing productive things later.
So we need to ask ourselves: How are we doing as stewards of the whole life God has gifted us with, our time, our talents, and our treasures, my body, my soul, and my mind? Are we managing these God-given resources wisely and well, for the glory of God and the good of our neighbor? Do we recognize where we are acting foolishly?
Another problem in recognizing our sins is in keeping everything at the level of the general and not getting down to the specific. We may be willing to admit, “I, a poor miserable sinner,” but we need to recognize that poor miserable sinners do poor miserable sins. These things have names and take specific forms. We can identify them.
God’s guide for recognizing sins is called the Ten Commandments. Examine your life in the light of God’s holy law: How are you carrying God’s name around with you in the world? Are you bringing honor or shame to his name by how you conduct yourself? How have you been receiving God’s word? Are you gladly hearing and learning it and taking it to heart, or is it often a case of in one ear and out the other? Have you been holding anger against your neighbor in your heart? Have you failed to love and cherish your spouse as you ought, which is not based on how much he or she deserves your love but rather on your initiative to love the spouse God has given you? Have you been damaging the reputation of your neighbor, in order to feel better about yourself? Are you content with the blessings God has bestowed on you, or are you always dissatisfied and grasping for more?
In all of these ways, and countless others, you and I sin and fall short of the standard God wants for us. And while these sinful ways are countless, it is good for us to count at least some of them, to confront them, to put a name on them, and so to remind ourselves of how much we need God’s forgiveness and his help to do better.
So the first point on what to do with your sins is to recognize them for what they are. Be brutally honest about your sinful nature and all the bad fruit that it produces in your life. Don’t try to cover up your sins with the fig leaves of excuse and rationalization. Rather, recognize them.
What to do with your sins? Second, repent of them. To repent is to turn away from your sins, to admit the damaging effect they have on you and on others. To admit that you have been sinning against your neighbors, and, most of all, sinning against God. You and I have offended God, our good Creator, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. With David of old, we must confess to God, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.”
Repenting of your sins means turning against them. To join in God’s judgment on them and to agree with God. God hates how we abuse his goodness and hurt ourselves and one another. We should learn to hate our sins also. These wrongheaded ways, the ways of the world around us and of our own sinful, selfish desires–this is not the best way for us to live. We’re not fooling God; we can’t hide anything from him.
The Lord our God wants us to come to him with our sins. In his great mercy, he calls us to turn from our sins and turn to him, lest we perish eternally: “‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”
And that now brings us to our third and final point. What to do with your sins? Receive forgiveness for them. Yes, give them up to God. Let him handle them. He is rich in mercy and he will forgive you. You see, the most important thing is not what you do with your sins; it is what God does with them.
And this is what God has done: He has sent his only-begotten Son to bear your sins for you, taking their full weight and their guilt and the punishment you have earned by them. Jesus Christ has taken all that for you. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Did you hear that? Let me say it again. This is one of the most wonderful verses in the Bible: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This is saying that by God’s will, Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God, became sin for you. Jesus became sin, he was the embodiment of sin–all of it, the whole world’s sin, including yours, he bore in his body on the cross. And there on that cross, all of your sin was paid for, atoned for, so that it no longer is held against you. Your guilt is removed. The weight of God’s judgment is no longer dangling over your head. Your sins are forgiven you.
And in exchange for your sins, God gives you the righteousness of Christ. That is what God looks at now when he looks at you. He sees Jesus Christ and his righteousness. And that’s good. That’s perfect. That’s just what you need to be put right with God and receive eternal life. What wonderful good news this is! “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
What has God done with your sins? He has forgiven them. And what’s more, he delivers that forgiveness to you now, time and time again, through the means of grace he has appointed. Through Word and Sacrament, God gifts you with the forgiveness of sins you need. Tonight I especially want to call your attention to two of those means of grace. One is the gift of Holy Absolution. The other is the gift of Holy Communion.
In Holy Absolution, God forgives your sins through the voice of the minister Christ has authorized to do just that, forgive sins. Absolution is the word of forgiveness won by Christ and delivered by his called and ordained servant of the word, as good as if Christ himself were speaking that word to you. And so I want to encourage you to take advantage, during this season of Lent, of the opportunities to come for Individual Confession and Absolution, or, as it is also called, Private Confession. Private Confession is a good gospel practice that the Lutheran Church reformed and retained in our life as the church. What is so good and comforting about Individual Confession and Absolution is that you can freely confess the sins that are troubling you and then hear God’s gracious word of forgiveness in your ears, with your own name on it.
The other gospel means I want to recommend to you tonight is one you will be partaking of here in just a few moments. It is the Sacrament of the Altar. In Holy Communion, God forgives your sins through the body and blood of Christ that you receive in your mouth. Jesus says of this sacrament: “Take, eat; this is my body. Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in my blood. Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” And where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. What more do you want? What more could God give you? Come often, as often as you can, and receive all the blessings God has for you in this blessed sacrament.
Today as we enter the sacred season of Lent, we may be doing all sorts of things as a form of Lenten discipline. But along with those good and salutary practices, let us not forget what is at the heart of this penitential season. And that is, what to do with our sins. What to do with them? Recognize them. Repent of them. And receive forgiveness for them. For the most important thing is what God does with our sins, and that is, he forgives them for Christ’s sake.