A truth about sin

January 1st, 2020

Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)

One characteristic I notice about children is their complete, and many times unsolicited, honesty, until they are taught some social norms. I can remember walking into the grocery store with my preschool-age son. We had gone through the ritual of “Can I have some of that cereal I saw on TV?” and “If I’m real good, can I have a toy?” dialogue and were walking in relative silence. I was thinking about dinner, and my son was staring at shelves to see what he “needed.”

Suddenly, a man in a wheelchair, with no legs, entered the aisle. Anticipating an outburst from my son, who did not understand the phrase “politically correct,” I glanced down, hoping that he would be so busy checking out the frozen foods that he wouldn’t notice the man wheeling toward us. Maybe the man would be so busy checking out the frozen foods, he wouldn’t notice us! Hope, hope, hope.

Not so. They both looked down the aisle at each other at the same time! Oh, no, I thought, here it comes! Some totally insensitive remark from my four-year-old, which I knew was going to embarrass me and the man.

My son opened his mouth and took a breath, still staring at the man with no legs in the wheelchair. I squeezed and jerked on his hand. Then came the words I knew were going to embarrass us all: “Hey, stop; leggo my hand; you’re hurting me! Mommy!”

The man’s eyes went from my son to me. I was absolutely right in knowing that I would be embarrassed. The words I had feared—“Where are his legs?” or “What is wrong with him?”—were not the words that ultimately caused embarrassment. It was my ineffective, wrong response of avoiding the truth as I tried to control the conversation and the response.

The man had probably been in other situations where he was the first amputee some kid had seen. He handled the whole thing better than I did. I blushed, let go of my son’s hand, and apologized to both of them.

Sometimes the truth is hard to hear, but kids especially don’t have a problem telling people they are fat, or missing their legs, or even that they are nice. It is not that we don’t know the truth; we may not want to acknowledge it. We live in a state of denial. The man knew his legs were gone. The fat person has probably been told before that she is overweight.

In Isaiah 58, the prophet tells the people something they probably already know and don’t want to hear. They are rebellious and do not have the right attitude in their hearts and minds to make their fasts acceptable.

Their worship is unrighteous because the Israelites participate in only the outward actions of worship; they show up at the right times with others to worship and pray. But what about the rest of the week? Do they seek the Lord’s presence and blessing on Tuesday or Thursday? How do they seek God’s face?

Jesus addressed similar problems. In Matthew 6, Jesus gives instructions on how to fast, pray, and give. Don’t bring attention to yourself, that others will praise you and think you are perfect and wonderful, above reproach and judgment.

Now, centuries later, has anything changed? The television tells us that we should look like movie stars—thin and attractive. It is acceptable to be in debt as long as you can make your monthly payments and have the right car in your driveway. If we make sacrifices at all, they should be relatively small so as not to create too much discomfort. It is acceptable to turn away or cross the street in order to avoid the homeless, smelly people. If you are in church on Sunday morning for worship, it is not necessary to go to Sunday school. After all, you plan to be in your pew again next week, unless, of course, you have company.

I fear we are in need of an Isaiah—someone who is bold enough to “shout out” without holding back, to remind us of our sins. I use the word remind because we probably already know we are sinning—we may just hope that, since everyone else is doing it, we are not too bad. We may be pinning our hopes on the fact that we do the right thing most of the time and may even hesitate before breaking any of the ten commandments. That’s ironic, because the first command is to honor the Lord and keep the commandments! I suspect we know in our heart of hearts that we have much in common with those Israelites and first-century believers!

Or perhaps we need a four-year-old. My little boy did not have a clue what he had done to merit a jerked arm and a painfully squeezed hand. The man in the wheelchair did, and I did. I had tried to hide the truth, to control it so that I would not be embarrassed. I was wrong.

So the next question is easy to ask and hard to answer. What are we going to do about it? I believe the first step is to be honest and look at ourselves. In the grocery store, I began with an apology—to my son, to the man, and to God. The issue is not how much we sin; it is when and why. Do we really think that God doesn’t notice, that God allows our standards to be set by the television and popularity contests? Do we really think God can’t handle the truth?

May the Lord, who never abandons us, forgive us through grace and love when we abandon God and God’s ordinances.

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