If you have ever wondered why anyone would have wanted a nice man like Jesus dead, your answer can be heard, furious and shouting, in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 23. We call this scene the Seven Woes of Jesus.
Savor the bitter words. Read the pathos and pain between the lines when Love got up and told the truth in the temple courts at Jerusalem. The truth that those who thought themselves good people doing well were sinners living a split second from hell.
“How will you escape?” Christ bellowed. For God is holy. God is unalterably just. And there is such a thing as sin. So the solemn quiet of the temple courts was pierced by the seven bitter shrieks of desperate, good grief. “Woe to you!” That is to say: “Oh, be careful. If you only knew the holiness of God!”
Then, as suddenly as it began, the mighty thunder of Jesus turned to sorrowful rain. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I have longed to gather your children together . . .” He wanted the sinners anyway, even though they were what they were. The woes were wounds from a friend, the kind they could have trusted. They had lived to hear the Lion of Judah roaring in their temple courts on a holy weekday, setting dreadful things in motion, pushing the buttons that would get him killed, orchestrating his own death to occur on the Jewish Day of Preparation. That means Christ was calling out words like Father and forgive and finished even as ten thousand Passover lambs were crying in the holy city and in the temple courts, even as sheep blood flowed like a river down the jagged grooves of Mount Zion. For the Lion became “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
(Please read Matthew 23:1-39.)
I entered the work force as a seventh grader, earning peanuts at a garden nursery. One day I was carrying a wooden tray of carefully separated seedlings—cucumbers on one side, watermelons on the other. I managed to spill them all over the floor of the greenhouse. When I tried to reorganize the seedlings, they looked identical. I thought for half a second of telling my boss what I had done, but there was no way I saw that conversation going well. Before I knew it, a farmer’s wife was asking for cucumber seedlings. And . . . well . . . I sort of guessed.
I’ve thought about those little seedlings many times over the years, reflecting deeply on the fact that watermelon seedlings inevitably grow up into the surprise of full-grown watermelons, no matter what anyone says or thinks about them. They become what they have to become, ignoring and denying all other beliefs to the contrary.
Call it the inexorable law of the farm. “God cannot be mocked,” the Scriptures declare. “A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction.” We reap what we sow. People who deny the reality of sin do not exempt themselves from sin’s natural consequences. If you don’t know sin by a sensitive conscience anymore or by the dos and don’ts that were clear enough when you were small, then recognize sin by its results. Sow criticism into a marriage, anger into a childhood, lies into a friendship, sexual immorality into a life, and stand back to learn the law of the farm. Neglect to do good things that you know are yours to do—recall the words left unspoken, the hand that wasn’t held, all the gifts never surrendered—and reap what you sow. The critics wind up condemned. The merciless fall and are not forgiven. The selfish wake up alone. The violent lie in pools of blood. Not all the time, and the price paid is not always quite so obvious. But these things certainly happen predictably enough to detect the pattern. You can recognize the sinful seeds by their fruit.
Tragically, however, there’s more in view here than just the deserts that might come to us during our lifetimes. The verse above talked about “destruction.” God’s Word states that death, physical death that seals eternal separation from God, is the very thing sin insists on growing into. And while Sigmund Freud commented that “no one really believes in his own death,” disbelieving won’t keep you from dying anymore than denying gravity can help you when you’re falling.
A nagging conscience does not just make stuff up. Sin is what it is nagging about. For a blunt biblical definition, “sin is lawlessness.” Sin means neither following the good will of God nor even wanting to. To use the Bible’s own pictures, sin is failing to hit the target of goodness, it is willfully wandering from the right path and it is being bad enough to step across a good line. Sin is a hard heart, a stiff neck, a beast crouching at the door. We don’t merely break commandments; something ugly stirs within that breaking. We declare our insane independence from God, our life; we show him that we don’t need him, don’t want him, and are not going to follow him anymore. Thus sin is irrational. Though it makes a certain kind of sense to the sinner, sin is ultimately self-destructive. Our very natures are filled up with deep hostility, rebellion, pride, and selfish desire, therefore, every human endeavor is tragically flawed from the start. It sticks in my ear, the ominous sound of the Hebrew words tohoo vavohoo, which mean “formless and void.” These ancient words of Genesis describe the chaos at the beginning of time before God began his ordering words, “Let there be light.” Significantly, this phrase is used one other time in the Old Testament. God intoned through the prophet Jeremiah “tohoo vavohoo” about the sinful condition of the world . . . as if human sin had ushered back in a kind of deathly chaos, a sickening spiritual entropy.
It’s the nature of the beast that we, being the sinners in question, don’t detect anything quite as bad as all that. Ultimately, sin isn’t measured by how we happen to feel about it. Sin gets its gravity not only from its inherent badness but also from the infinite greatness of the one it offends. Guilt looms precisely as large as the One who says, “Do not,” yet we do. Even “little” sins are a “big deal” because God is. Sin is the history-long tragedy of humankind’s hostility toward God. Can’t you tell that something happened?
You see, humanity itself is implicated in a terrible primal crime. Humankind has “a past.” Spiritual death came to our first parents when they sinned the original sin, when they met with God face-to-face in the Garden of Eden and slapped the original slap. And what happened to them also happened to us, hiding, as we were, in their bodies. Indeed, the human race, as one thing in Adam and Eve, fell away from God when it rebelled against him. The very skies seemed to crack like a mirror. The great human ship ran aground. A once beautiful world just fell apart in certain ways, and we are living in the wreckage, daily stumbling through sin’s consequences. That is to say, we aren’t in the garden anymore. We live “East of Eden,” where we hear the screams of childbirth and feel thorns tearing at our ankles.
So you may call sin the great No Wonder. It is not a pleasant thing to confront, but at least we have a perfectly consistent explanation for the way things are. No wonder it’s so hard to keep a family together, make life work out to ten minutes of pristine happiness, or change ourselves in even little ways. Sin is the reason. Existence itself, as we now know it, is out of sync with its good Creator. There’s something wrong, terribly wrong, with everything. Please don’t say you hadn’t noticed.
Cornelius Plantinga’s chilling book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin deals with that pregnant Hebrew word shalom. The word is translated “peace,” but “everything the way it’s supposed to be” comes a little closer to the meaning. Shalom is unspoiled harmony with yourself and with every sister and brother, with the whole universe, and with God from whom, for whom, and to whom are all things. And everyone gets loved. And no one dies. Shalom is perfect well being, such as you’ve never seen but privately ache for. I’m supposed to sing every morning a song that won’t be quiet. And you’re supposed to laugh every day from a full, full heart. We’re supposed to explore in perpetual discovery the landscape called his and stand together, beside ourselves, by some lake, on some green hill, in our sanctuary the size of the world, and robustly holler his name. The way it’s supposed to be.
I think of that shalom . . . and I step disgusted away from my own cowardice and meanness and deliberate, blissful ignorance of human need. I let awaken my sense of sin. Yes, sin. I say the embarrassing word out loud, because loving Jesus means being willing to use his words. The title of Plantinga’s book is not a bad working definition of sin: “Not the way it’s supposed to be.”
There is something terribly wrong with me! Dear reader, don’t think I’m talking (or writing) down to you. The truth is, I know why you sin. I know. Each of us is an intimate part of what’s wrong with everything. I cannot sit high above the world I criticize and not get splashed myself.
Only Jesus can criticize and not get splashed. Think of his gentle healings, his patient teachings, his bold confrontations, his persistent forgiveness. Think of all his words: “What God has joined together, let no one separate!” and “Let the little children come to me!” and “Little girl, get up!” See how his whole life sparkled with the way things were supposed to be.
No such thing as sin? In our own popular culture are hints of the things most of us really believe. How many novels fairly weep over that something that is wrong with everything? How many of our favorite films take their power from that vague modern hunger for redemption? In The Green Mile, for just one example, a black mountain of a man, a condemned man of perpetual tears, is cursed to always feel within himself the ethical horrors of the human race, like bits of glass grinding in his brain. He sees in his mind the vile act another man commits and murmurs, “It’s like that all over the world.” He looks deep into the soul of a woman wasted by a foul disease and whispers the stirring, hopeful thing, “I see it.” He sees what’s really wrong and is one who can reach for it and perform the awful miracle of taking the horrible stuff into himself. In the end, the miracle worker dies, blameless but blamed, in the place of the guilty. We walk out of movies like that thoughtfully, with a dull ache behind our eyes. But I have a story twice better. In my story of redemption, the hero returns alive. Oh, and mine is true.
“Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” His incarnation was a quiet echo of the ancient “Let there be light.” It is Christ who saw to the depth of you and me; it was sin that met his eyes. There was only one thing that would matter at all: his beautiful life given in exchange for ours, such as we were. Look at your own spiritual condition and be appalled; it is at this point that Christianity begins to speak its two languages of sin and grace. To hear the one is to be able, for the first time, to know the other. The paradox, as described by Paul Tournier, is that those who are most severe with themselves, calling sin by its name, are those who live in the most serene confidence in the mercy of God.
Awareness of sin and awareness of our Savior grow side by side. Christianity has always measured the weight of humankind’s actual guilt by the price that was required to atone for it. The very coming of Christ into the world can only mean that we were lost in the sight of God. The agony of God himself on Calvary and the urgency of the call to unite ourselves to him in faith tell us that the main human trouble was desperately difficult to fix, even for Divinity, and that sin is the longest-running of human emergencies. But don’t be afraid. If sin is the ugly man-made scratches on the human shore, grace is the smoothing, covering tide. The news is good.
God has taken away your sin. Because you are loved and because you are grateful, you mumble attempts at encouragement and fumble with small acts of kindness—new seeds you sow in hopes of what they will become.
As for me, I survey the faces of my loved ones and I see that the law of the farm has from time to time, more often than not, been set aside for me. In their presence and their kindness, I am reaping more than I have ever sown, grace upon grace.
The painting at the Christian bookstore holds me in its grip. It is a portrait of the face of Christ, yet his face is partially obscured by the person he embraces, by an anonymous head that is turned away and covered by a cloth.
The fierceness of that hug. The warmth of that smile. The shine in his eyes . . . so happy. So happy. Yet a hint of the pain behind his costly joy remains in Jesus’ face. And with his loved one’s head all covered up like that . . . it could be anyone at all.
The longing for what this picture contains wakes up, sudden and unexpectedly intense. It matches the depth of human desire for the Agnus Dei. The Lamb of God. The Sar Shalom.
That is, the Prince of everything the way it’s supposed to be.