WHAT DOES SIN HAVE TO DO WITH THE FINITE AND THE INFINITE?

I once preached a sermon at my North Philadelphia congregation with the title: “What Does Sin Have to do with the Finite and the Infinite’? I immediately added that when they heard the title of this sermon, some probably thought: “ Come off it , Ron. Get off your high horse and cut the high fallutin’ nonsense.” 

So I said, okay if you prefer, I can title this sermon: ”What is sin all about?” 

I believe thinking about sin in terms of the finite and infinite really helps. Finite things have an end. This pulpit ends. Every honeymoon ends. The earth is very big but it has an end.  Everything in the created order has an end. 

Only one thing has no end: God. God is infinite. 

As we look at Genesis and Romans, we see that the heart of sin is making some finite, created things god instead of accepting God himself, the infinite one, as God. We human beings love to make ourselves the center of everything. We like to think that we are more beautiful or handsome or smarter than our friends. 

This is really pretty silly! 

One morning this week, I was sitting on my prayer cushion having devotions. I was excited about all the things happening in my life. And there were many good things God was allowing me to do. 

Then I began to think about how tiny and insignificant I really am. I am just one small person in Germantown, which is just one neighborhood in the city with dozens of neighborhoods. And Philadelphia is just one city in a country of 330 million people. And the US is just one country on our planet with over 7 billion people. And the earth is just one of several planets revolving around our sun. And our sun is just one of billions of stars in our galaxy. And our galaxy is just one of perhaps 200 billion galaxies and each galaxy has billions of stars. So there I sat on my little cushion in a tiny part of Philadelphia in one country on a tiny planet in one small solar system in one small galaxy: feeling important! 

I'm not exactly infinite. I am very very limited, very very small! 

Only God is infinite. 

Genesis 3 verses 1 to 19 tell us that the first thing satan did was to make Eve doubt God.  In verse 4, satan assures Eve that even though God said they would die if they disobeyed, they will not die. So Eve began to doubt God. Notice verse five. Satan promises that if she disobeys God, she will be like God! 

Verse 6 says that they looked at the tree of knowledge and it looked great. There was no obvious reason not to eat the fruit except that God had said they should not. So they placed their tiny limited reason above the command of the infinite God. Instead of letting God set the rules, they made their own rules even though they were small and finite and God is infinite. 

The result of course is that Adam and Eve messed up everything.   They messed up their relationship with God,  themselves and the earth. Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake. What a family fight they must have had that night! 

You see the created world is finite, but still very good. The Bible gives us a fantastic picture of joy and goodness in the garden of Eden. God wants us to enjoy this good earth: fruit trees, flowers, and the ecstasy of a man and woman living together in love and joy. But we can enjoy the good finite earth only if we don't make it more important than it is. If we make these good finite things more important than God, then we spoil even the goodness of the finite. 

Romans 1, verse 18 and following has a profound theological discussion about the nature of sin. Romans 1 makes the same basic point as Genesis 3. Verse 23 says that persons replace the glory of the infinite God with finite things. We make images of people and birds to worship instead of God. Verse 25 shows that we worship the creatures rather than the creator. Verse 28 says we will not accept God as God. 

In truth, only the all-powerful, all-knowing God is infinite. We are tiny, limited, finite. And the heart of sin is to want to play God, to try to place ourselves at the center of the universe. So we place our weak reasoning above God’s knowledge and revelation. We place our desires above God's commands. 

Now all that still sounds very abstract. It's just theory. Maybe it sounds like just a dry theology lecture! 

So let’s make it concrete. 

Think about three specific areas where we refuse to accept our being finite, limited--where we worship the creature instead of God. 

First marriage. Every husband and every wife is finite, limited. Except for one husband in the world, somebody else has a prettier wife. Except for one husband in the world, somebody else has a smarter wife. Except for one husband in the world, somebody else has a kinder wife. If we don't accept the fact that our husband or wife is finite, limited, indeed quite imperfect, we are in for big trouble. 

My wife Arbutus is a wonderful person. But she's not perfect. In fact on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, she's a long way from being perfect. 

So I can do one of two things. I can accept her with her limitations and remember that I too am far, far from perfect and have no right to suppose that I deserve the most beautiful, the most intelligent, the most loving, the most thoughtful wife in the world. 

Or I can secretly long for a perfect and infinitely wonderful, infinitely fabulous wife. If I do the latter, our marriage is in big trouble. If I do that, I will keep wanting other women who are more intelligent or more kind or more sexy or whatever. 

I need to accept my finitude and her finitude. 

Or take a second area, material things. 

Material things are very good.  Material things are so good that the biblical picture of heaven is that of a banquet, a grand feast!  But it is so easy to make finite, limited material things more important than God, to let them become our god. 

So we make money more important than people. We want more and more clothes, bigger houses and better cars. And we forget God to get these things. Sometimes we destroy our families to get these things. Sometimes we even kill to get more things.

Finally, Aging. Why are we so afraid of admitting our age? Of getting gray hair? Perhaps it is because we don't want to accept our being finite and limited. 

Since the fall, God has declared that all persons will live for a few short years and then die. Of course we will eventually be resurrected. But for now, our teeth decay, our eyesight dims, our hair falls out, our energy slowly slips away.

To proudly ask that this body of clay last forever is to reject the result of the sin of Adam and Eve. It’s to try to be God. 

One final point in conclusion .

There is a reason why we keep seeking for “better” spouses, bigger cars, longer life—more, more, more. 

God made us with a longing for the Infinite. St. Augustine said our hearts are restless until they rest in God. We have a God-shaped place at the center of our hearts. Nothing finally can satisfy that longing except the living, infinite God. 

No wife or husband no matter how wonderful can satisfy that longing for the infinite God. No car or house no matter how new and improved can satisfy that longing for the infinite God. No knowledge or scientific discovery or technology no matter how fantastic can satisfy that longing for the infinite God. No political power, no matter if it controls the whole Earth or the whole galaxy can satisfy that longing for the infinite God. 

The human tragedy, the core of sin, is that we try to satisfy this longing for the infinite God with little tiny finite things. So we go for more and more sex, more and more money, trying to satisfy our need for the infinite creator through finite creatures. And it never works! 

Let's stop looking for our ultimate happiness in the wrong places. Let's turn our hearts to the Infinite, Almighty God. 

This is a short version of a sermon in my new book, PREACHING THE GOSPEL.  The book is available from Amazon or www.wipfandstock.com.

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PEACE AND JUSTICE IN ISRAEL/PALESTINE: BEYOND THE TWO STATE SOLUTION?

One of my best students decades ago, Jonathan Kuttab, has just published a provocative book BEYOND THE TWO STATE SOLUTION.

An evangelical Christian born in Bethlehem, Kuttab is a brilliant lawyer who has worked for decades in Israel-Palestine to use non-violence to bring peace and justice to that troubled, seemingly impossible situation.  (He has argued  cases --in Hebrew! --before the Israeli Supreme Court.)

For decades, Israelis, Palestinians and the global political community said that the only possible solution to decades of terrible conflict was a two state solution. The Palestinians would have to give up the “right of return“ to the land from which they were expelled or left when Israel was founded in 1948. And the Israelis would have to give to the new Palestinian state most of the West Bank and East Jerusalem which they seized from Jordan in the 1967 war.

But year after year, decade after decade, the Israeli  government allowed (even quietly encouraged) more and more Jewish settlers in the occupied west bank – – even though that was contrary to publicly stated official Israeli policy and illegal according to international law.

Until now, the official position (both of Israel and the international community including the United States) has been that most of the Israeli settlers in the West Bank would have to be removed to allow a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank

But Kuttab points out that it is now totally impossible to remove the 700,000  Israeli settlers now living (some for decades)all over the West Bank. Any decision to remove them would prompt the immediate fall of any Israeli government. And any serious attempt to do that would almost certainly lead to civil war in Israel.

So if the two state solution is no longer viable, what is to be done?  Kuttab thinks the only possible solution is one democratic state for the whole area where Israelis and Palestinians are both full citizens. He would embed the rights of minorities (whether that minority is Jewish or Palestinian) in the constitution. He describes constitutional mechanisms that would guarantee that no democratic majority (whether Jewish or Palestinian) could trample on the basic rights of the minority.

Is that vision viable? My sense after reading the book is that Kuttab’s solution is approximately as unlikely as the two state solution which he says is impossible. But read Kuttab’s book, BEYOND THE TWO STATE SOLUTION, and decide for yourself.

If you conclude that Kuttab’s solution is impossible, then please show why the present policy does not look more and more like apartheid – – which is both fundamentally unjust and fundamentally contrary to the long Jewish prophetic tradition of justice.

You can get the book on Amazon or at www.nonviolenceinternational.net/beyond2states.

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"FOR BETTER OR WORSE": UNCLE JESSE'S MARRIAGE

Cascade Books just published a collection of my sermons.  Here is a shortened version of my story about my Uncle Jesse and his response to his wife’s mental illness.

I always called him “Uncle Jesse.” As a teenager, I thought of him as that friendly uncle with the shock of white hair and warm smile that everyone in my home congregation respected. We all knew that Uncle Jesse had to raise his two daughters by himself because his wife had been institutionalized for mental illness for as long as any of us could remember. But I never thought much about that—as a teenager, that is. His warmth and joy seldom betrayed deeper pain. 

But several decades later, I decided to interview him.

Jesse and Lydia had been friends since childhood. After a five year courtship, they finally got married. 

The first seven years of life together were good—"for both of us, as far as I know,” Uncle Jesse said. On the morning of December 30, 1935, a second daughter, Ruth, was born. 

But the next morning, something was obviously wrong. Mental illness had invaded a happy marriage. 

 For two and a-half years, Lydia was able to live at home. She was clearly not normal. Her careless housekeeping and lack of concern for the baby were new and strange. For a time, however, she remained fairly stable. 

Then in the middle of 1938, Lydia “really let loose” and just became quite unmanageable at home. 

 Uncle Jesse finally took her to the Hamilton hospital, one of the best psychiatric hospitals in Southern Ontario. The government would have covered the costs. But Uncle Jesse wanted to pay it himself. And he did—for thirty years. 

At first, Uncle Jesse kept checking with the doctors each week when he visited Lydia, believing that his wife would soon be better. 

One day the doctor called him into the office. “Your wife is not going to get any better,” he announced grimly. “I think what you should do is go home, and make a new home. Take care of your girls, and forget about this woman. The girls don’t even need to know she ever lived.” 

“Well, Doc!” Uncle Jesse protested. “I can go home and take care of the girls. But I can’t forget her. She’s part of me.” 

 

For thirty years, Uncle Jesse drove the two hours to Hamilton every two or three weeks to visit the woman he had promised to love for better or worse till death them would part. 

After Lydia had been in the hospital a long time, the doctor again called Uncle Jesse in. He said, “Lydia says she wants a divorce.” 

“Well, if she had her right mind she wouldn’t want a divorce,” Uncle Jesse countered. “But I brought her up here to get help. So if you think a divorce is the answer—I’m sure in my mind it isn’t, but if you think it is—I won’t say no. If you think it’s needed, then, go on with it.” 

The doctor never mentioned the subject again. Jesse thinks the doctors may have been testing to see if he would take a very rigid stance against a divorce. “Perhaps they were trying to determine whether or not I was contributing to Lydia’s illness.” 

For many years, Uncle Jesse hoped and prayed that God would heal his wife. “Why she couldn’t get healed, I don’t know. That’s one of the mysteries of this life.” In 1953, the doctors suggested performing a lobotomy. (In this surgical operation, used for treating serious psychological disorders, a lobe of the brain is cut.) 

When Uncle Jesse saw Lydia the next day, he marveled at the change in her. She asked questions about home, and other things she had never talked about in years. “This was the first thing that ever showed any signs of really helping her.” 

After a little while, Uncle Jesse tried having her home for a week or two, but it didn’t work well. One time Lydia wandered away from home and walked to my Mom’s and Dad’s farm about four miles away. “Some people were scared of her. It was a long pull there.” My Dad went along as Uncle Jesse sadly returned her to the hospital. 

Months later, he tried again. This time, things went much better. The doctors had been testing various kinds of medication for Lydia. Finally, they found the right combination. After twenty-nine years of separation, Lydia was home again. She was “not quite normal, but livable.” Her sloppy appearance and religious indifference were painful reminders that Lydia was still not the woman he once knew. But she was far more reasonable and cooperative. 

For three years Uncle Jesse gently cared for the woman he still thought of as his youthful sweetheart and bride. 

“Then, one Thursday, Lydia got sick to her stomach. Four days later, she died of a ruptured appendix. Because of the operation on her brain, she never felt the pain that otherwise would have warned her that something was wrong.” 

The day before she died, Uncle Jesse visited her in the hospital. “Would you pray for me?” Lydia asked. 

This was a bit unusual. “I’m sure she was a Christian before her mind got warped, but after that she could think most anything. While she was home those last years, she never showed any spiritual emotions at all, that I could see. And now she said, ‘Would you pray for me?’ And I said, ‘Sure, I’ll pray for you.’” The next day she was gone. Uncle Jesse said, “I felt as if this was the Lord’s time to take her home. It all went so peacefully.” 

I cried as I listened to Uncle  Jesse tell me his story.. And I cried often as I listened later to the tape and wrote this story. 

“Did you ever feel angry at the Lord?” I asked. 

“I did right at first,” he said. “I thought, ‘This isn’t fair; she was twenty-nine years old when this happened.’ But that doesn’t get you any place. All those years, never once did I feel that she was a burden. Oh sure, she was a burden, but I never felt that it was anything I should be relieved of. I loved her, and I did all I could.” 

“Do you think it would be harder today, to do what you did?” I asked him. “Thirty years back, divorce was seldom heard of, but today men abandon wives for far less reason.” 

“I can’t understand the modern attitude,” Uncle Jesse replied. “I chose a wife who I thought was it. Now why, after ten years, would I want to get rid of her for somebody else?” 

“It looks like a very very difficult road to have been asked to walk,” I suggested softly. 

“Yes, especially if I had seen those thirty years ahead,” he agreed. “I took her up there [to the Hamilton hospital] with the feeling that, like others I’d seen, she would be returning in three months or so. It just didn’t work that way with her. We walk with the Lord one day at a time.” 

Uncle Jesse made a vow before God with the woman he loved to live in lifelong covenant for better or for worse. And it got much worse. But he kept that covenant, by God’s grace, one day at a time. 

You can read the full story as well as a number of other sermons and speeches in my new book,  PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL: COLLECTED SERMONS ON DISCIPLESHIP, MISSION, PEACE, JUSTICE, AND THE SACRAMENTS (Cascade Books, 2021).  You can order it from www.wipfandstock.com or Amazon.

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HOPE FOR BETTER TIMES

Sometimes the current situation seems hopeless. Political gridlock with the parties deeply divided seems to prevent negotiation and compromise. There is a huge gap between the rich and the poor with the  richest 1% having about twice as much wealth as the bottom 90%. A radical self-centered individualism and widespread decay in family life prevail. And the number of Americans who claim to have religious faith has declined dramatically . One is tempted to feel that there is no achievable solution to this interlocking complex of problems.

But a recent book by Robert D Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett offers hope for genuine improvement. (Putnam, Author of Bowling Alone, is a distinguished professor of public policy at Harvard and Garrett is a former  student of Putnam.)  In The Upswing (2020), they point out that all the major factors that prompt despair today were also present in the 1890s with equal intensity, but that in the next 70 years, things improved dramatically.

Around 1900, huge corporate monopolies successfully fought unions, oppressed workers and made  vast wealth for a tiny few. Substance abuse was widespread and family life was decaying. A radical individualism made selfishness a virtue. Political platforms moved toward the extremes as politicians demonized each other rather than seeking compromise. “Inequality, political polarization, social dislocation and cultural narcissism prevailed” (p.8).

Then in the 70 years from 1890 to 1960, things changed slowly but substantially. Economic inequality decreased dramatically. Negotiation and compromise grew much stronger in politics. Social life became more cohesive, strengthening community and family ties. And concern for “we” rather than “I” became much stronger in the culture as people focused more on responsibilities to one another rather than narrow self interest. 

Economic equality grew in this period. In 1913 the richest 1% of Americans received  19% of the national income. But in 1976 their share had dropped about 50% to10.5% of total income. After taxes and transfers, the richest 1%’s  share of national income  dropped from 18% to 8%. While the real income of the top 1% rose 21.5% in this period, the average family income of the bottom 99% grew 300%!

The Upswing shows how similar improvements happened in politics (more collaboration), stronger family life, increased religious engagement and a much stronger sense of “we” and the common good.

Then about 1970, things began to reverse. Economic inequality dramatically increased. 0.1% of American families today hold 20% of household wealth and the top 1% have nearly twice as large a share of national wealth as the bottom 90%. Between 1974 and 2014, the inflation adjusted income for the bottom 10%  rose a mere $388 while the income for the top 1% rose by $929,108 – – and $4,846,718 for the top  .1%!

The Upswing traces the same kind of decay in most other areas from 1970 to the present. Politics has become increasingly divisive and unable to compromise. Radical individualism has increased as family life, religious institutions and labor unions decayed. Divorce and cohabitation have soared. And the culture has largely abandoned a sense of “we” and returned to a radical individualism.

I find The Upswing deeply encouraging. It shows that a radically unjust, politically dysfunctional, socially disruptive and radically individualistic culture slowly improved from 1900 to about 1970. Putnam and Garrett suggest that the same thing can happen again. 

Read the book and be encouraged.

This book, however, does not suggest what would cause such a change for the better. I believe Christians who truly believe and live central biblical principles can play a crucial role. The Bible’s vigorous demand for justice for the poor certainly calls us to structural changes that empower the bottom 50%. The biblical teaching on human selfishness (and the resulting political fact that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely) calls for structural changes that reduce the political and economic power of the very rich. Jesus’ command to love the neighbor as oneself certainly points to actions that emphasize “we” as much as “I”. Biblical teaching on sex and marriage can restore family life.

I beg God to raise up a generation of Christian activists who model and promote biblical principles so winsomely that they slowly transform today’s broken society.

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BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES, DEMOCRACY'S DEMANDS--AND CURRENT FIGHTS OVER LAWS REGULATING VOTING.

Vast numbers of Americans of fundamentally contradictory political positions are Christians. That means that for most, at least, they truly want their actions to be shaped by biblical principles. Is there some way for all Christians to listen carefully enough to biblical teaching so they can hear the concerns of those who vehemently disagree politically  with them?

The areas of sharp political disagreement today are vast: climate change, racial justice, economic justice, etc. 

But here, I want to focus on just one important question and area of disagreement. What do biblical principles mean for the current sharp disagreement over what legislation best protects the democratic principle that every citizen has the right to vote?

It does not take much attention to the news to realize that there is a huge political debate and divide on this question. Many people think that there was widespread voter fraud in 2020 that undermined the democratic principle of one person, one vote. Many states are passing laws that restrict easy access to mail-in ballots. Many states are passing laws  that reduce the length and places for in person early voting.  And much more. Georgia even makes it a crime now to give food and water to someone standing in line for hours to wait to vote.

My question is this. Is there any way that more careful attention to relevant biblical principles would help Christians listen to each other across this vast political divide? I believe the answer is yes. I believe—I hope and pray-- that many millions of Christians on each side of this political debate want to submit to biblical principles.

So what are the relevant biblical principles? The most basic principle is that God has created every single person in the image of God: “God created human beings in his own image… Male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Every single person is equally precious to God. God loves every single person – no matter  their color, race, gender – – with equal love. Since that is who every person is, God’s people will seek to treat every person that way. Not all religions affirm this basic point – – see for example the caste system in Hinduism. But it is the core of what biblical faith says about the equal worth and dignity of every person.

The early church lived out this basic principle in dramatic new ways. Jesus’ gospel was not just for Jews but also for Gentiles – – people everywhere. The church, Jesus’ new redeemed community,  is to be a picture of God’s will now and also the future when Christ returns. Saint Paul said that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female”( Galatians 3:28). And Revelation 7:9 describes what happens when Christ returns and completes his victory over all evil. Standing, worshiping God, is “a great multitude… from every nation, tribe, people and language.”

Biblical teaching is clear and unequivocal. Every person has equal dignity and worth.

A second biblical principle is crucial. God demands truth and hates lies. One of the Ten Commandments forbids lying. Proverbs 6:16ff says there are six things God hates. One is “a lying tongue” (v. 17).  And Proverbs 12:22 says “the Lord detests lying lips.” Revelation 21:8 declares the terrible truth that “all liars” will depart eternally from the living God.

These two biblical principles – – “every person has equal dignity and worth” and “God hates lies” – – are crucial for our question.

These two principles are also central to democracy. America’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, states bluntly: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” And that means among other things that government derives it’s just powers “from the consent of the governed.”

It has taken centuries for this nation to move slowly toward embracing the full meaning of that bold declaration. Slavery totally violated this principle. After emancipation, Jim Crowe laws and lynchings denied the vote to African-Americans. Women finally received the vote only in 1920.

But today, virtually all Americans agree that American democracy means that every citizen has the right to vote and that every vote counts equally. Christians who embrace the fundamental Biblical principle that every person is created in the image of God and is of equal worth and dignity will affirm and demand the basic democratic principle that every citizen has an equal vote and every vote must be counted fairly.

Truth is also essential for democracy to work. Wise  political decisions are only possible if the relevant facts – – eg, economic, scientific – – are widely known.  If large numbers of citizens vote based on what is simply not true, democracy slowly collapses. Today there are vast sources of “fake news” that promote what is clearly untrue. But regardless of one’s political persuasion, we can agree that democracy will simply collapse if vast numbers of citizens vote on “Facts” that are simply untrue. If most of the citizens most of the time vote on the basis of ideas that are simply false, democracy will not work.

So what does all this mean for today’s hot debate about what our voting laws should say? Do these principles provide guidance – – for Christians of every political persuasion! --about how to settle the hot contemporary debates about voting laws?

Every biblical Christian should agree on the following. 1) The laws should make it as easy as is reasonably  possible for everyone to vote. 2)The laws should make it as difficult as is reasonably  possible for voter fraud to occur. 3) We should seek the best available evidence (truth!) about which voting laws will accomplish both goals.

Of course there will be disagreements. But the best way to solve the disagreements is for people with opposing views to come together and listen to the others’ arguments. That’s hard, very hard! I am not naïve enough to think that this will happen widely. But that is what democracy demands.  And even  if only a substantial minority of people on both sides succeed in doing this,  change for the better  will be enormous.

I believe Christians of every political persuasion could make a huge contribution to our democracy  today if we would try our best to do this. In fact, I don’t see how we can claim to be biblical unless we vigorously and persistently seek to do this.

I hope that already today, there are smaller and larger groups seeking to initiate such dialogue. Let me know if you are aware of good efforts.

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