Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
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Ash Wednesday Service at Armagh UMC

Psalm 51

 Psalm 51:5 may be one of the most controversial verses in Scripture.  “I was born a sinner.”  There are some pretty hefty implications to that little phrase about the very nature of humanity.  

 And maybe even among Christians, it might be controversial.  A couple years ago,  I was teaching a Bible study, and we got talking about the idea of original sin.  Original sin is the belief that we are born with an irresistible tendency toward sin.  One of the ladies in this Bible study had been a lifelong church member.  As it happened, we had just had our second child a few months earlier.  And this woman said to me, “You mean you think that your little kids are born with sin?  What can a little baby do?”

 She was surprised when I said that, yes, I believed sin was there from the very beginning.  And I told her that I could see the hints of sin already there.  For example, I don’t know about your kids, but ours both learned the word “no” long before they learned the word “yes.”  As if they were born with a rebellious spirit.  And we didn’t teach them to lie, or at least I hope we didn’t.  They both seemed to learn that one on their own.  And of course, all children have a really deep-seated self-centeredness.  They just seem to see the world revolving around them.  Some people never outgrow it.  You can explain those things in many ways, but what I see there is a rebellious spirit from the very beginning.

 That is the essence of sin, rebellion.  We rebel against God as God.  We dethrone God, and we put something else in his place.  Usually we put ourselves in his place.  The most traditional Christian explanation of that is what we call original sin; the rebelliousness we have from the very beginning.

 It’s not the only explanation of humanity and human nature.  When it comes to human beings and the question of evil, there are several other explanations out there.  

 One explanation is scientific materialism.  Materialism is the belief that everything can be explained by purely physical phenomena.  To the materialist, there’s no such thing as good and evil; there is only cause and effect.  Behavior is not a choice.  Behavior is simply the result of chemical processes in the brain.  Human freedom is an illusion.  God does not exist.  There is nothing spiritual in humans or in the universe.  

 Some people hold that view.  In the wake of Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, I read someone who apparently holds to this view say that, “There was nothing evil about it.  He had imbalance in his brain, and that explains his behavior.  If we could just fix the chemical problems in the brains of mentally ill people, we wouldn’t have things like this happen.”

 A second explanation of evil is the humanist explanation.  The humanist says that we are capable of good or evil, but we are inclined toward good.  Evil only exists because of poor education or bad influences in the world.  If we could just perfect education, if we could just eliminate bad influences, then we wouldn’t have evil in the world.  

 A third explanation is what is often called the Wesleyan-Arminian explanation, named after John Wesley and Jacob Arminius, who were two of the Christian theologians who held to this opinion.  The Wesleyan-Arminian explanation of evil says that we are capable of good or evil, but we are inclined toward evil.  On our own, without any help, we tend to choose evil.  

 And finally, there is the Calvinist explanation, named after John Calvin and it’s debatable whether or not John Calvin would totally agree with the Calvinists.  Also known as total depravity, this explanation says that human beings are only capable of evil, on their own.  Even the good we do apart from Christ is actually evil.  We may seem to do good, but we do it with “evil motives.”  If we give to charity, we are not doing good.  We are only trying to give ourselves a better image.  We only act self-centeredly.

 Obviously, several of these are problematic from a Christian perspective.  Materialism is atheistic and denies human freedom.  Humanism may not necessarily be atheistic, but it doesn’t require God.  In humanism, the answer to the problem of evil is us, not God.  We have all the answers within ourselves.  The other problem is that it doesn’t seem to fit with the evidence.  If the answer to evil is better education, then why is it that some very well educated people do some very horrible things?  

 Calvinism is a Christian answer to evil, but I find it to be problematic, because in that understanding, there really is no human freedom.  We are only free to choose evil.  And it presents challenges, to me, about accountability.  How can we be held accountable to God for doing evil if we are incapable of doing anything else?  

 The Wesleyan-Arminian perspective seems to be the best to me.  We are capable of good, but we have a deep-seated tendency to choose evil.  And in practice, that’s what we see.  People do choose evil.  They may do it in “big” ways, like murder or robbing banks.  But we all do evil in some way.  It may be as simple as “little white lies.”  It may be by slandering other people.  It may be as simple as failing to do good to others, thinking only of ourselves.  The tendency toward sin within us leads to acts of sin outside of us.  

 The humanist answer may be the most common answer out there, at least in our society.  The humanist tries to “solve the problem of evil” with better education, better influences, attempts to remove the temptations to do evil.  “Just take away guns and there won’t be any gun violence.”  But the failure of humanism is that it doesn’t address the inside.  It doesn’t change who we are as people.

 For that to happen, we need help from outside of ourselves, which is what the Bible teaches over and over again.  In verse 10, David says to God, “Create in me a clean heart.”  He doesn’t say, “l’ll try harder.” Or “If I’d just had a better education.”  Or “If I could just get on the right medication.”  Transformation is what we need.

 The shortcoming of the Old Covenant was that it was a law outside of oneself.  And what we really need is a change of heart within ourselves.  That’s what God offers through the New Covenant of faith in Jesus Christ.  Believe in him, and God will put his Spirit within you, and his Spirit will transform your heart.  

 So why are we here tonight?  What’s the purpose of this service?  We are here tonight to remember our sinfulness.  However we want to explain the evil we’ve done, we’ve still done it.  We are here to remember that in big ways or small, we have all followed in the way of the world.  We have chosen evil instead of good.  We have placed someone or something in the place of God.  And we lament our share of the evil in this world.  And so we pray for God to transform our hearts.  

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