I am a sinner. When AA was set up and started encouraging its members to introduce themselves by acknowledging the particular addiction from which they suffered, they were following a confessional tradition that has spanned the ages. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that Christians started it and initiated it and have a patent on it, but it is a crucial part of the confessional element of the faith. The first step of humility is this acknowledgement. Knowing who you are in the eyes of God begins with knowing who you are in the reflection of His holiness and purity and that is way off the mark ... or a sinner as the bible helpfully defines it.
Now you’ll notice that I never started this segment off with I was a sinner. Neither did I allude to being a former sinner. I quite clearly and deliberately stated that I am a sinner. It is not something I revel in, but something that keeps me ever in mind of the fact that I am in need of a Saviour, Redeemer and Guide. A Saviour to rescue me from my sinful nature, a Redeemer to take me from the sinful state to the state where I truly belong and a Guide to draw me ever closer to the source of my existence who helps me realise who I was always created to be.
These things I am in need to be mindful of constantly because it is just my way to slip out of that and get ahead of myself. It is just my way to consider myself as sorted and alright where others have not reached that point of spiritual and intellectual clarity and enlightenment. I catch myself in this state whenever I’m being critical of someone else whether my children, my siblings, my wife, my friends or the other vast cast of characters that comes in my life however fleetingly and for whatever reason. There I am pontificating even albeit internally on just how misguided and ignorant the person in question is from that which is true and how far they have missed the mark. Only to be graciously reminded of how I have been in that position myself and how my natural disposition would keep me there were it not for the love of God.
That’s why I love being a Christian. That dose of humility that you need to keep going and that realisation that it comes from a loving God whose mercy is without end saves us from the extremes of self-pity and despair as well as complacency and self-reliance. I love being a follower of Christ, because I’m invited into a relationship where my Creator seeks me out to lead me back to Him and to straighten me out and in that place I realise how good it is to love because you’ve been loved and how then spiritually it is possible to love without strings attached. Not easy, I said, but possible.
So I’m always perturbed when I read in the Bible the first chapter of the book of Isaiah and how the prophet outlines the charge against Judah for the first 15 verses. I’m perturbed because the allegations strikes every part of a nation’s life – political, economic, social as well as religious and spiritual. Especially the indictment of the religious hypocrisy that rampant throughout the country that made the people of Judah believe they could carry on with their rituals whilst beyond that their relationships were a mess. Now saying relationships are a mess is today translated as cultural breakdown, anti-social behaviour and the kind of circumstances that leads to pensioners bemoaning the fact that whereas back in the day you could leave your front door open, now you need an alarm, CCTV and several locks to keep you safe.
What’s worse about all this is that the charge that God makes in this chapter is against His own people. Not to strangers, not to people who don’t know, but those who have been engrafted in a relationship with Him by his saving power as seen in the Exodus. As seen in repeated episodes of His grace in action as time after time the spiritual adultery, deceit and outright rebellion has always been followed by His return to help whenever they call on Him.
To have similar complaints about the moral decay of countries like America and Britain actually neglects the fact that although there was the concept of Christendom these countries were never in the truest sense Christian – after all no such nation-state was ever due to arise since Jesus ascended. Instead God’s people would be a people out of a people who would come from all people and were not a people but became the people that Christ will return for as His Bride.
In the meantime concepts of a ‘Christian’ country have been misleading, whilst the called out people have slumbered on their ill-gotten political and social influence that has compromised their witness to the world of being called out of sin to be like their Saviour, Redeemer and Guide. So the very same charge that God levels at the people of Judah can often be levelled at the called out people. We make a song and dance of the ritual of church-stuff but the quality of our real relationships is shambolic to be a shame and bring disrepute to the name of our Saviour, Redeemer and Guide. This all comes because of a lack of recognition of that first step of humility. Remembering that first step and that first encounter with the amazing grace and yet startling holiness of God should convict us of the need to remain ever close to the One who has saved, redeemed and guided us.
I don’t say that in accusation to people out there. I say that because I get perturbed when I then read Isaiah 1:18-20.
Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Now why get perturbed at that, you may ask, surely it’s the good news of a God giving a second chance. Well the reason I get perturbed is because here we see that whenever God says let us reason it is not to sit and converse over things as equals, it’s actually to have the riot act read to us and giving a severe warning that unless we do what was always designed for us for our good then there are dire consequences. Oh come on, don’t be so pessimistic, Chris, I hear you remark. Yet I’m an optimistic guy by nature – in the context of where this text goes and what happens to the people, God’s request for reasoning is almost a last saloon time for His people. Reasoning with God is always a time for stiff reminder of how this walk is meant to go and how it’s not about self-pity or self-reliance, but about being like the publican who went away justified because his prayerful approach was to ask God for mercy.
That posture of the contrite spirit and broken heart doesn’t lead to miserable looking people forever condemning themselves for sinning yet again. On the contrary, it leads to compassionate, joyful, thankful people only to aware of being sinners saved by grace and so only too ready to help out wherever possible, but never compromising the call with which they have been called by Christ.
(It’s rather apt that I should be inspired to write this piece towards the end of the year as it bookends nicely with this piece at the beginning of the year about what we are like and why that should determine how we live.)
For His Name’s Sake