Your Slate Is Clear

November 12, 2012

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One of my favorite websites is called “Book-a-minute” in which classic literary works are hilariously summarized.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville—“Ishmael: Call me Ishmael.  Captain Ahab: We will seek the white whale and kill it because I am insane.  They find the white whale.  Everybody dies except Ishmael.  The end.”

The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway— “An old man catches a fish that’s too big for his boat.  The fish gets eaten by sharks.  Then he goes home and dies.  The end.”

The collected works of Virginia Woolf—“Life is beautiful and tragic.  Let’s put flowers in a vase.  The end.”

When it comes to the gospel, a Book-a-minute summary could be this—“Christ died for your sins.  The end.”

Christ died for your sins.  This is the main theme of the passage just read from the Letter to the Hebrews in which the writer emphasizes the “once for all” nature of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for your sins.

“(Christ) has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself2” (Hebrews 9:26).

In this letter the writer emphasizes again and again that in Jesus Christ’s death on the cross he fulfilled once for all the entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament.  The Old Testament required the shedding of blood for the forgiveness of sins, and in addition to daily sacrifices for individual sin there was a prescribed annual sacrifice for the collective sin of all Israel that was made on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

On the Day of Atonement the high priest of Israel would enter the inner sanctuary of the temple, known as the Holy of Holies and offer the blood of a sacrifice before the mercy seat (lid) on the Ark of the Covenant (think of the classic 1981 film, Raiders of the Lost Ark).  Only the high priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies and only on the Day of Atonement was he allowed to do so.  The high priest would do this by himself on behalf of the entire nation of Israel.

This had to happen every single year, year after year, as the writer tells us, “the priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own.”  The sacrifices never ended because the need for forgiveness never ended.

Year after year… this short phrase reveals the monotonous drudgery of trying to deal on your own with the burden your sins.  One of my favorite rock albums of the 1970’s is Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here from 1975.  The title track describes such “year after year” monotony:

How I wish
How I wish you were here
We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl
Year after year
Running over the same old ground
What have we found?
The same old fears
Wish you were here

The high priest had to offer the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement year after year—just like year after year you face the same challenges, or year after year you run the emotional gauntlet of family dysfunction during the holidays, or year after year you face “the same old fears.”

And in contrast to this the writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus did not just enter a man-made temple with sacrificial blood on behalf of Israel but entered heaven itself with the scars from shedding his blood on the cross to atone for the collective sin of the entire world.  And this does not need to happen year after year, but rather has already happened once for all—“(Christ) has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself2” (Hebrews 9:26).

In the back of The Book of Common Prayer you can find The Thirty-nine Articles, the classic distillation of the doctrine of the English Reformation.  Listen to what Article 31, entitled “Of the one Oblation of Christ finished upon the Cross,” tells us about the once for all nature of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross:

“The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone” (BCP, 874).

That means in his death on the cross Jesus suffered not only for your original sin—the natural “bentness” or proclivity that we all have to being self-centered and sinful—but also for every single sin, every act, thought, word.  All of it has been covered by the blood Jesus shed in his once for all death on the cross.

Every time we celebrate Holy Communion we are reminded of Jesus’ once for all death on the cross for the sins of the world in the Eucharistic prayers:

“(Jesus Christ) made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world” (BCP 334).

“He made there a full and perfect sacrifice for the whole world” (BCP, 341).

“He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world” (BCP, 362).

Why would Jesus do that?  Because he loves you more than he loves himself.

In 1998 Robin Williams won an Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire in the film Good Will Hunting (1997).  Sean was a middle-aged psychiatrist who had gone to MIT for undergrad, served in Vietnam and encountered much suffering in his life.  Because of this suffering he found himself teaching at a small community college and seeing a few patients on the side while his former MIT colleagues were thriving in their careers.  Matt Damon plays Will Hunting, an orphan who had been abused by his foster parents.  Will was absolutely brilliant, a certifiable genius, incredibly well-read, but he was always getting in trouble with the law and had a long rap sheet.  To avoid going to jail he was given the opportunity to go to mandated counseling with Sean instead.  In an iconic scene the two of them are sitting on a park bench and Sean attempts to connect with Will:

“You’re a tough kid, but if I asked you about war you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right?  ‘Once more into the breach, dear friends…’  But you’ve never been near one.  You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap and watched him gasp his last breath, looking to you for help.  And if I asked you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet, but you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable, known someone who could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you, who could rescue you from the depths of hell.  And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her and be there forever, through anything, through cancer.  And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in a hospital room two months holding her hand because the doctors could see in your eyes that the terms ‘visiting hours’ don’t apply to you.  You don’t know about real loss, because that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself.”

I would guess that each one of you has, like Sean Maguire (and Will Hunting too), suffered, that each of you has experienced real loss, that each one of you carries external or internal scars that remind you of that.

The brilliant contemporary poet Christian Wiman, is no stranger to suffering.  He was diagnosed with cancer several years ago on his 39th birthday.  In an interview with Bill Moyers earlier this year he read the following excerpt from a piece he had written for the Harvard Divinity Bulletin:

“I have been in and out of treatment, in and out of the hospital.  I have had bones die; joints lock in my face and arms and legs so that I could not eat, could not walk; cancer pack[ed] my marrow to the point that it began to expand excruciatingly inside my bones…  I have passed through pain I could never have imagined, pain that seemed to incinerate all my thoughts of God and leave me sitting there in the ashes, alone.  I have been islanded even from my wife, though her love was constant, as was mine.  I have come back, for now, even hungrier for God, for Christ, for all the difficult bliss of this life I have been given.  But there is great weariness too.  And fear.  And fury” (from an interview with Bill Moyers on 2/23/2012).

Jesus suffered.  Jesus experienced real loss.  On the cross he suffered and lost everything for your sake because he loves you more than he loves himself.  On the cross Jesus suffered pain he never could have imagined and was left hanging there alone in the ashes of human sin.  Jesus is able to sympathize with your weakness, and he understands and cares about the suffering in your life.

And when it comes to suffering for sin, Jesus has already done it, once for all.

There is a common notion even among Christians that the suffering in our lives is punishment from God for our sins.  Several years ago when I was serving at another church, a member of the congregation asked if he could talk with me.  He was in his fifties, one of the kindest and funniest people I knew, the kind of person who is the life of the party.  But in my office he began describing how miserable his marriage was, and how bad it had been for a long time.  Then he began telling me about his wild past as a young man in his twenties and that he was convinced that his miserable marriage was punishment from God for the sins of his youth.

But it wasn’t. Yes, sin has consequences, and yes, we have to deal with the consequences and collateral damage of our mistakes.  Everyone in this room knows the reality of that.  But the suffering in our lives is not God’s punishment for our sins.  Jesus suffered for sins once for all.  When it comes to suffering punishment for sin, Jesus has already done it.  The late biblical scholar Raymond Brown puts it this way:

“When Christ took our sins to his cross, he took upon himself the penalty and punishment due to us because of them…All this has already been achieved for us in the unrepeatable sacrifice of Christ at his cross…It is his finished work.  We cannot add to it by our works; we can only trust in it by his grace” (Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews, p. 173).

In other words, Christ died for your sins.  The end.

This means that when it comes to God, you have been completely forgiven, you have a clear slate.  In his Grammy-nominated song, “Square One” (from the 2005 film Elizabethtown) Tom Petty sings:

Square one, my slate is clear
Rest your head on me my dear
It took a world of trouble

It took a world of tears
It took a long time to get back here

When Jesus suffered on the cross he took both the “world of trouble” and the “world of tears” upon himself; and because of his once for all death, your slate is clear, you can rest your head.

And you can forgive yourself too… of course this is easier said than done, as the Sons of Bill sing, “God forgives you for all that you’ve done but it’s forgiving yourself that’s the hardest of all” (from the song “Metaphysical Gingham Gown” on the album A Far Cry from Freedom, 2006).

In his book Tuesdays with Morrie (1997), Mitch Albom recounts the life-changing conversations he had with Morrie Schwartz, his sociology professor at Brandeis University who had had a major impact on his life, who at age 78 was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease.  On fourteen different Tuesday’s Mitch flew from Michigan to Massachusetts to spend time with Morrie.  As Morrie neared the end of his life he spoke to Mitch about the importance of forgiving yourself:

“Forgive yourself before you die…It’s not just other people we need to forgive, Mitch.  We also need to forgive ourselves.”  Ourselves?  “Yes.  For all the things we didn’t do.  All the things we should have done.  You can’t get stuck on the regrets of what should have happened.  That doesn’t help you when you get to where I am… I always wished I had done more with my work; I wished I had written more books.  I used to beat myself up over it.  Now I see that never did any good…Forgive yourself.  Forgive others.  Don’t wait, Mitch.  Not everyone gets the time I’m getting.  Not everyone is as lucky” (164-167)

So what about you today?

Perhaps you are overwhelmed with some monotonous “year after year” struggle in your life, running over the same old ground, finding the same old fears.

Or perhaps you’re in the midst of some kind of intense suffering and you wonder if it’s God punishing you for your sins.

Or perhaps you believe God has forgiven you, but you’ve never forgiven yourself.

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus suffered for your sins, once for all.  You are forgiven—as Jesus uttered upon his death on the cross: “It is finished.”

You can trust in it by his grace.  Your slate is clear.

Christ died for your sins.  The end.

Amen.

Bible References

  • Hebrews 9:24 - 28