Topic: Biblical Verse: 1 Timothy 1:12–1:17
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Rally Day)
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
1 Timothy 1:12-17 (Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-10; Luke 15:1-10)
“Absolution” is a great word. I really like it. This isn’t a word that you hear all that often in today’s English. It’s got something of a mysterious sound – somewhat scientific, somewhat mystical. Just saying it out loud reminds me of something fluid, like water streaming through a brook. Our word “absolution” comes from the Latin term that means “to loosen.”
Maybe you’ve got some experience doing the dishes at home. In a lot of families, doing the dishes is one of the chores that get parceled out, like taking out the trash. Since I’m single, I don’t really get to task anyone else with cleaning dirty dishes – so I’m very thankful for my dishwasher! Dishwashers have come a long way, so much so that you don’t usually have to pre-scrub all your dirty dishes: just load them in the dishwasher with some detergent, set the rinse cycle, then walk away. Once the dishwasher has finished its work, you can come back to find your glasses and plates and utensils sparkling clean. All the grime and gunk has been loosened and washed away. Your once-dirty dishes have been cleaned – absolved.
That’s kind of like what we’re talking about when we use the word “absolution” in the Church. So today, we’re exploring all four of our Scripture readings to hear more about what absolution is for us, why we need it, and how it comes to us.
In the reading from Exodus, we find ourselves mid-narrative. The people of Israel, who have been camped at the base of Mount Sinai, start to think that Moses isn’t going to be coming back from his trip up the mountain. Restless, they go to Aaron, Moses’ brother, the high priest, and he makes them an idol: a golden calf, a god of their own creation. This does not sit well with Yahweh, the one true God. Why should it? The people that He made, the people that He just brought out from a miserable life of slavery in Egypt, have collectively turned their backs on Him. They didn’t like how God was doing things, so they decided to do things their own way. That’s what we still do today. We set up our own idols, those parts of our lives that we worship with our time and our choices. Our idols probably don’t look anything like a golden calf, but every single one of us is tempted each day to worship something other than the one true God. That’s reality. We might not think about it that way – after all, does it matter how we live? Despite whatever notions we might have running around in our heads to justify the choices we make, you and I aren’t God. When we live in a way that disrespects our Creator and prioritizes other aspects of life before our relationship with Him, the Lord is fully justified in whatever course of action that He chooses, just as He was justified in His anger against Israel when they worshipped idols. Thankfully, God does not leave us to His anger.
In the passage we heard read from Psalm 51, God’s Law was at work. The Law is part of God’s creation: it’s integrated into all of life. When we go off putting other things ahead of God, the Law confronts us; we can’t avoid it. We can’t run away from our sin. It’s not often a pleasant thing. You might have experienced this in reading Scripture, or maybe a friend or family member came to you to help you see the hurt that you’d caused in someone’s life – even your own – or you heard God calling you out in a sermon one day. King David, who wrote this psalm, had just been confronted by the prophet Nathan over his sin: his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband. David admits his guilt. Psalm 51 is a confession of sin and a plea for forgiveness. When God’s Law confronts us with the reality of what we’ve done, we can pray this psalm along with David. We do, in fact, when we pray and sing “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” But when we call out, acknowledging our faults and failures before our Creator, why should we think that He cares about our confession? He does care – He’s been the one who has been calling us back, all the time.
In the Gospel text today, Jesus describes God’s love for us through two illustrations of people who go out looking for the lost: a shepherd searches for one missing sheep, a woman seeks a single missing coin. I recently heard someone share part of a conversation they’d had with someone who knew a lot about sheep. That person had quipped, “You know how sheep get lost? One nibble at a time.” Sheep focus on the grass that’s right in front of them. They follow it as they feed, even ignoring their surroundings. It doesn’t happen all at once, but still they end up lost out there in the wilderness, strayed away from the rest of the flock. It can’t find its way back. Similarly, a coin that rolls off into a dark corner or falls into the deep cushions of a couch has no hope of returning to its owner. That coin is stuck until someone comes looking for it. Jesus is that someone. God Himself came into the wilderness of our world, the dark corners of our lives, all to find us.
St. Paul sums it up when writing this in his first letter to Timothy: The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. God’s grace overflowed for us with the faith and love that are in Jesus, the Messiah. This is the grace, the gift of all that good which we do not deserve, that makes absolution a real thing for us today. God’s grace comes to you and to me, even though we have worshiped idols and prioritized other things before our Creator, even though we were lost from following our own way of doing things. God’s grace comes to us through Jesus’ cross. On the cross, Jesus takes the place of Moses in that second half of our reading from Exodus, calling his Father and our Father to look on us in love, not in anger – to forgive us and give us absolution.
A young brother and sister in our congregation came up to me to share some highlights from their recent end-of-summer-vacation trip to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg. Out of all the rides that they went on, it sounded like the ones that they enjoyed the most were the water rides. One was that kind with the massive raft that takes you spinning across rapids and alongside waterfalls; another was the more-classic log flume ride, a water-based sort of roller coaster through pipes and chutes. The kids gleefully spoke of the water pouring in on them – and their parents – during these rides. But I remember from time spent at similar parks that you could get even wetter after the log ride. On the way out, you’d have to walk across a bridge that went over the ride at the bottom of its final, climatic drop. And if you stood there to watch the boats come down, you’d get to experience the massive wall of water that the landing boat would kick up, drenching everyone who was foolish or adventurous enough to be caught on the bridge. The water seemed to permeate clothes, shoes, and even underwear – you stayed wet for a long time.
Absolution is kind of like that wave. As you kneel before God, confessing your sin and asking for His forgiveness, His grace overflows, coming to you like a massive wall of water that loosens and washes away all the grime and grit that you’ve accumulated in your life. Absolution leaves you drenched in God’s love. It sticks with you as you go out into the world.
This weekend, we’re celebrating our congregation’s Rally Day, or “back to church” Sunday. It marks the beginning of a new year of Christian education at St. John’s, in our Sunday Morning Youth Ministry and Adult Education, as well as our Confirmation and other midweek classes. Even our choirs are starting back into rehearsal after a summer break. As a congregation, it’s only appropriate that we begin this new educational year in our life together with absolution, a clean start in God’s grace. I invite you to join us as we learn together what it means that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and how, as God’s forgiven people, we live in His grace.
“Absolution” – it is a great word.