Sermon by Rev George Hemmings
Tonight, after all the church events are over, after the boys have gone to bed, you’ll find me flopping down on the couch. There I’ll indulge in at least three of the top five guilty pleasures. I’ll have some chocolate treat on the coffee table, alternating between a trashy novel and catching up on some ridiculous reality TV. We all love guilty pleasures like these don’t we? I wonder what yours are? In case you are wondering, the other two in the top five are expensive accessories and greasy food. The enjoyment we get from these things is somehow heightened by that thrill of knowing we probably shouldn’t be indulging in them. We should feel guilty, but instead we find pleasure in these things.
Real Guilt isn’t as much fun
But real guilt isn’t pleasurable at all, is it? When we think we’ve actually done something wrong, we don’t feel a flutter of excitement. Real guilt is more like gut wrenching despair that eats us up from inside. King David knew guilt intimately, and so he could say of his experience of guilt:
While I kept silence, my body wasted away, through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
This is exactly how I feel when I feel guilty. You feel like you’re wasting away inside, living in fear, anxiety and dread. Life becomes hollow as you await the judgment that you’re sure is inevitable. Just think of the feeling you get when you pass a police car on the road and realize you’ve been doing that little bit over the speed limit. For the next few weeks you keep berating yourself for being lead footed. You live in dread, fearing every letter that comes in the mail. When you know you’ve done something wrong it’s terrible.
And so we do anything we can to avoid feeling guilty. We’ll try pleading ignorance, trying to convince ourselves we’re not guilty, ‘I didn’t know you can’t park in a loading zone.’ We’ll try to share the guilt around, ‘Well everyone ignores that Stop sign.’ Or we’ll try to justify our guilt away, ‘I needed to ‘borrow’ that $10 from the coffee fund at work because I had to catch the tram for a meeting.’ Or even better, we’ll just try to hide from our guilt. That’s what I did when I was just a kid on the farm, and had broken Dad’s drill while trying to build a raft. Right then I knew I’d done something wrong, that I was guilty. But I was terrified of the punishment that I would get, so I hid. Of course that tactic only works for so long. But almost as bad as the belting I received was the feeling of guilt that came beforehand. It’s that feeling of guilty that I was trying to hide from.
We’re not alone in trying to avoid feeling guilty. Our post-modern world cries out, ‘Don’t sweat it!’ We’re told we should live care-free, worry-free and that we shouldn’t be so caught up with feeling guilty. One psychologist recently described guilt as a ‘wasted emotion.’ Why? Well because ‘if you’re guilty, it’s because you’re attached to judgment, and that judgment is coming from outside of you.’ Guilt is redundant, because it’s the result of us clinging to an outside definition of who we are, or how we should behave. At it’s best guilt might, might, point to something about ourselves that we’re not happy with that we might want to change. Our world says that only you should define what’s right and wrong for you. And if that’s the case guilt goes out the window. If it’s only up to me, well anything goes.
But we know this approach is bogus. There are some things outside of us that define how we are to behave. Last week the trial of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass killer began. While he admitted to killing 77 people last year, he claimed that he shouldn’t stand trial because he doesn’t recognize the authority of the courts. Imagine if the judge said, ‘That’s fair enough then, off you go.’ We’d be outraged. It doesn’t work like that, it shouldn’t work like that. Justice demands that the guilty are punished. And no matter how hard we try to avoid it, to hide from it, to justify it, to rationalize it, we can’t help but feeling guilty.
The Problem of Guilt
The problem is, we’re all guilty. We feel guilty, because we are guilty!
The Bible is clear that everyone of us is guilty. This goes against everything we’re taught to think. We’re told that we’re basically good people. We like to think of ourselves as basically innocent. But we’re not. We’re inherently guilty. Actually, our guilt, our sin, is something we’ve inherited, from our first parents Adam and Eve. So even from birth we are guilty as David testifies in the Psalms:
5Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
As he looked back on his childhood in his biography, Augustine confessed that even as an infant he was a sinner. Even as an infant he was guilty. I look at Micah and Joshua and think, how could you be guilty of anything except being cute? But the reality is that despite their cuteness, there are times when they deliberately flout our authority as parents. There are times when they’re nothing but guilty.
We’re the same towards God. We deliberately rebel against his rule and authority over our lives. God is our Maker and our Judge. He’s the one who created us, who knows us best, who rightly should take centre place in our lives. He’s also the one who has told us how we should live, he’s the ultimate authority. But we have sinned against him in thought, word and deed, and in what we have failed to do. We don’t love him with our whole heart, nor do we love our neighbours as ourselves, as he has commanded us to do.
None of us is immune from this. Before God each and every one of us is guilty, just as Paul reminds us in the passage we’ve had read from Romans 3:
10as it is written: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; 11there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. 12All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.”
Paul summarises this well in verse 23;
23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;
The Answer to Guilt – Our Death
The question remains then, what are we to do about our guilt? If we feel guilty, because we are guilty what can we do? If we can’t avoid it, can’t hide from it, can’t claim it doesn’t exist, what can we do about our guilt?
I remember at one stage in my life thinking that whenever I’d done something wrong, whenever I knew I was guilty I would have to have a shower, and then for some reason cut my hair. That’s not why I keep it short now though! I thought I could wash off my guilt somehow. That’s the tactic Lady Macbeth advocated, ‘A little water clears us of this deed.’ But just as she found out, no amount of washing or cleansing can get rid of our guilt. By the fifth Act she’s wandering around crying, ‘Out Damned Spot’ as her guilt drives her mad. No matter how often I showered, my guilt wouldn’t go away. Israel, as a nation was guilty before God, and tried to make themselves ritually clean, to deal with their guilt through their offerings. But that did not fool God, so he proclaimed through Jeremiah:
Jer. 2:22 Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, says the Lord GOD.
No, before God there’s only one way to deal with our guilt – and that’s death, just as Paul proclaims in Rom. 6:23 ‘For the wages of sin is death.’ In the Old Testament, the guilt offering required no less than this. If you found yourself guilty of something, you had to bring a lamb to the priests at the temple. They’d then slaughter the animal in your place. Your guilt was washed away through its blood. Something had to die for your guilt to be dealt with. Something still has to die for our guilt to be dealt with.
We might wonder why the price is so high. Why is it that God can’t just declare us innocent? Why must something die, why should we die for our guilt? If God is loving, why doesn’t he just declare us forgiven? If he really is God, if he can do whatever he likes, then why not just pardon all of us? Declare us all innocent just like that?
Or at the very least, why isn’t there a sliding scale? After all in our legal system there are different penalties for different crimes. If I run a red light, I pay a small fine. It’s a little big higher if I steal something, or cheat on my taxes. If I go so far as to kill someone, well, that might see me locked up for life. We try to make the punishment fit the crime. Why can’t God have a similar scale?
It’s true that we have sliding scales for our crimes, but in just about every society, treason is the greatest crime you can commit. Crimes against the crown, against the state are seen as particularly terrible and subject to the harshest penalties. Sin is treason against God. It’s a rebellion against his rule and denial of his authority. So it’s only right that it carries the harshest penalty.
And God could just say it’s OK, don’t sweat it. I forgive you all, unconditionally. But to act this way wouldn’t be consistent with God’s character. He’s not just loving, he’s also holy. And his holiness can’t tolerate sin. Moreover, God is a just God, and it’s not just to make our guilt disappear. Nahum reminds us that God is loving, holy and just:
Nah. 1:3 The LORD is slow to anger but great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty.
Think about our marriages. If a husband was unfaithful to his wife, well she might take him back and pretend that nothing has happened. But pretending like nothing has changed, just saying everything’s OK, really doesn’t honour the relationship does it? The relationship has been damaged and it needs to be dealt with. The Bible tells us that our relationship with God is something like a marriage. But we’ve all been unfaithful, we are all guilty of not honouring our relationship with God. The amazing thing is, the Bible tells us that God, even though he is the injured party, does the work to win us back. Our unfaithfulness has made us guilty, so we deserve the penalty.
The Cross as the Answer to Guilt
But the good news is that God has supplied another answer. He’s done that through the Cross. The Cross becomes the answer to our guilt. On the Cross Jesus took the punishment that we deserved. As we heard last week, he became our substitute. So although we did the crime, he paid the time. As Paul puts it:
2Cor. 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Jesus became human, because we were the ones who were guilty. He took our place on the Cross and paid the price for our sins. And he could only do this because he was God. See, I couldn’t die on the Cross for you. I might be able to pay your speeding fine, take your demerit points, but I cannot wipe out your guilt before God. It’s not possible. For one thing I am guilty myself and I’ve got to answer for my own sins. It’s not possible for me to stand in your place. But Jesus can, because he was sinless. And because he is God.
So the Cross becomes the answer to the fact that we are guilty. There our guilt is wiped away, as Jesus takes it upon himself.
But the Cross is also the answer to the feelings of guilt that we experience. We no longer need to be burdened by our guilt, because we can have complete confidence that our sins are forgiven. There should be no doubt remaining. The Cross shows how far God was willing to go to wipe out our guilt. So when we confess our sins, we can be sure that God is faithful and will forgive us, just as we’ve been reminded over the last few weeks as we’ve looked at 1 John.
We can be confident that in Christ, because of the Cross, we’re no longer guilty. This is something I always struggle with. Taking a shower couldn’t deal with my feelings of guilt. But even when I confessed to God, it seemed to easy. I can’t help but think that my guilt remains. That it’s not quite enough. But the answer to my feeling of guilt is not to pay penance, to subject myself to torture.
The answer is the Cross. It wasn’t easy for God to forgive us, to declare us innocent. It cost him his Son. God laid down his own life on the Cross for us. He died so that we might be forgiven. When we struggle with feelings of guilt, when it eats us up inside, we need to return to the Cross. Not only to be forgiven, but to be reminded of how serious God is about forgiving us, about how far he has gone, is willing to go to deal with our guilt. And to remind ourselves, that ‘It is finished.’ For the Cross is the ultimate symbol of God’s love for us. It shows just how far God was willing to go to win us back. It reminds us that God’s love has provided the answer to our guilt.
Living Guilt Free
The answer to our guilty world, to our guilty life is not to just do away with guilt. Treating it as a wasted emotion, ignoring it is not the answer, it’s no kind of answer. Looking for the good in guilt, seeing it just as a sign post of something we must change in our lives, is not the answer either.
We need to bring our guilt to the Cross, because:
The Cross is the only place that we can be forgiven.
The Cross is where we experience God’s love
The Cross is where we know God’s victory over our sin.