Tuesday, April 08, 2008


Isaiah 6:1-12; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17[1]

Isaiah’s vision of the holy God is unusual in comparison to other prophetic visions. Isaiah does not calmly negotiate the fate of the city, like Abraham did with God over Sodom and Gomorrah. He doesn’t offer a heartfelt plea to God to forgive the people, like Moses did on Mt. Sinai. And he doesn’t simply call down curses on a sinful people as Hosea or Amos did. No, when Isaiah has a vision of the holy God exalted in the temple, he becomes keenly aware not only that his people are unclean but that he himself is unclean as well. Isaiah’s vision reminds us that a genuine encounter with God makes us aware, among other things, that we are all unclean.[2] The word that the prophets of these latter days use for that awareness is “fallen.” When we recognize God’s holiness, we must also recognize that we are fallen—all of us.

That reality is powerfully portrayed in the 2003 film The Human Stain. It’s a story about three people who are irrevocably stained by their past. Coleman Silk is the powerful dean of Athena College who was forced out over an alleged racial slur. But he has carried a secret with him for his entire adult life—though he has passed himself off as a white man, he was in fact born to black parents. His “stain” is his shame over his identity and his fear at being discovered. Faunia Farley is a beautiful young woman half his age with whom the dean enters into an affair. She is bitter over her own past and she masks it by flirting with and seducing older men. Her secret is that she fled from her wealthy home as a teenager to escape the sexual abuse of her step-father. And her “stain” is that she blames herself for the death of her children in a fire. Lester Farley is a Vietnam Vet who is Faunia’s estranged husband. His secret is that he did what he was told to do in the war, things that were too horrible for him to mention even years later. His “stain” is the uncontrollable anger he carries with him from that experience and that makes him still a vicious killer.

All three of these people are fallen. They are irrevocably wounded. They all carry a “stain” that leads them to choices and actions that have tragic consequences.[3] The one ray of hope in this dark film is that in the end, Coleman and Faunia bare their soles and share their secret stains with each other. And as a result, despite all that separates them—age, education, culture—they experience a moment in which they accept one another unconditionally. For both of them it is probably the first time in their lives that they have known the unconditional love and acceptance of another human being. And the tragedy of the film is that it will be the only time. There isn’t much hope in this story. It is a story about how the sinfulness that affects us all leads us into moral dead ends and also tragically undermines even our best efforts at finding meaning and happiness in life.

But then that’s part of the tragedy of human life. When we look only at ourselves to solve the problem of our existence, there really isn’t much hope. The liberators become oppressors; the fortunate become callous; the powerful become corrupt; and the influential sell out. Why is it that despite our best efforts, humanity seems tragically incapable of escaping this dismal fate? It is because we are all fallen.[4] There is something broken at the core of our being. In fact, some of the most famous philosophers of our time have declared in no uncertain terms that our lives are pathetically meaningless, and the best we can do is accept that and go on to find whatever shreds of happiness we can!

But the good news of the gospel is that God is not willing to leave us in the quagmire of our sin! In fact, the Apostle Paul elaborates the lengths to which God is willing to go in order to reclaim us and restore us to life the way God intended for it to be! And the underlying conviction that serves as the foundation for the hope of the gospel that Paul preaches is that at heart, God is essentially “the one who justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5). That is not something God does just because God has no other choice. It’s not a last resort or a half-hearted stepping out of God’s “comfort zone” to do what God would really rather not do. No, according to Paul this is God’s essential character. God is by definition the one who “declares the guilty to be innocent” (Romans 4:5, TEV) and who “accepts sinners” (CEV).

The good news of the gospel is that there is no stain so deep that God cannot cleanse it. There is no uncleanness that God cannot purge. There is no sin that God cannot forgive and no guilt that God cannot amend. And it’s not a matter of God making an exception—that’s who God is.[5] God is the one who sent his son into the world not “to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

The season of Lent is a time for us to come to terms with our fallenness. It is a time to come to terms with the stains that we bear personally. But we face these uncomfortable realities not to somehow diminish our worth or our dignity. We face the truth that we are all unclean so that we may bring it to “the one who justifies the ungodly,” and there we find mercy and wholeness and life.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/17/2008 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Brevard Childs, Isaiah, 55-56.

[3] See the review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat at http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/films.php?id=6736 .

[4] Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 211-14; see also Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, II: 38-41, 44-47.

[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:70-71 reminds us that God demonstrates this through the free act of loving “the world” even when it stood in hostility toward God.

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