Breaking the Cycle
Jennifer Needham • A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 11, 2018
Through the Bible in a Year • Deuteronomy 32:36-43, Psalm 7:11-18, Ephesians 2:11-16
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I want to tell you a story about a man named Rudy. He lives in New York City, in a rough neighborhood in Harlem, and he’s lived there his whole life. Well, except for the many years he spent in prison for armed robbery and two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. When he finally got out, he was determined, more than most, not to go back. Recidivism is a big problem for those who serve their sentences but then go back to the same bad neighborhoods, the same bad friends, and the same bad habits when they’re released. Some of Rudy’s childhood friends were already dead, or were themselves still in prison, when he got out.
People like Rudy struggle with finding jobs, fighting off addictions, getting an education, and just surviving in crime-ridden areas where they see their former partners in crime on a daily basis. Often the victims of their crimes live in the same vicinity too, which serves as a constant reminder to them of the wrongs they’ve committed, and a constant challenge of forgiveness for everyone else.
Temptation looms everywhere. Even if they’re determined to get their lives together, the odds are stacked against them and the enemy is constantly reminding them of that, of all the things they’ve done wrong with their lives, and how hard it is to change their ways. It’s often a lifelong cycle of doing wrong, getting caught, being punished, and then being set free. But they so often find themselves unable to stop this cycle, so they break the conditions of parole, or they commit more crimes, and the cycle repeats.
Let us pray. Merciful God, By the faith given to us through your grace, we believe. When we are enticed by sin, and the world beckons, and our own passions want to yield, help our unbelief, and give us the strength and will to resist. Help us to see the depth of our own sin, and teach us to turn to you alone for help in our struggles. Allow us to see others through your eyes, and to love our neighbors in spite of their sin as you, Lord, love us. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
What comes around goes around, right? If you continue doing wrong, it will eventually catch up to you. So many things are cyclical in this world. Just like children, we behave for a while. We follow God’s law for a while. But inevitably, we mess up. We break the commandments. We don’t all go to prison, but we all sin. And even when we’re forgiven, it’s our human nature that we’ll sin again.
The Israelites in today’s reading from Deuteronomy did too, and also in a cyclical way. It’s a recurring theme in the Old Testament, as we watch the Israelites sin against God, then suffer God’s punishment, repent of their sin, and finally enjoy deliverance. Once they’re set right again, the cycle repeats with fresh sin affecting the people and provoking God’s judgment anew.
One of the main emphases of Deuteronomy is God’s covenant love for his people. That is, how God loves us through his covenant, and keeps his promises. There is certain covenant language here, and indeed throughout the Old Testament, that tips us off as to what’s going on. So for example, there are laws for us to follow, or stipulations of what we must do. If we do them, we enjoy God’s blessings. If we don’t, we suffer from God’s curses, or wrath. This covenant was given to Moses, but the covenant and its stipulations, blessings, and curses, is then restated several times, one of them being here in Deuteronomy.
Many times in the Bible we’re reminded of the covenant and how we are to follow it. The first commandment, and the one the Israelites so often broke, seems easy enough to follow. Through Moses, God told them, “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” And yet, time and again, the people worshiped and offered sacrifices to other gods, and with each passing day, they turned further away from the Lord.
In fact, as Deuteronomy chapter 32 says,
“They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods; with abominations they provoked him to anger. They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently, whom your fathers had never dreaded. You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth” (Deut 32:16-18).
Let me illustrate the folly in their idolatry. If the god of fire insisted he was superior, he should be worshiped. But water puts out fire, so perhaps we should worship water. Then again, the clouds hold water, so maybe we really ought to be worshiping the clouds. But wait…the wind moves the clouds, so yes, wind is what we should worship. But as anyone familiar with forest fires knows, a large and strong fire can, in fact, cause the circulation of air around it, and create its own wind. And as anyone who’s blown out a candle knows, blowing air can quench fire with just a single breath.
So what should we worship? All the gods of this world just waste our time or cancel each other out. There is only one true God, and he does not tolerate worship of any other. So what are the idols in our lives with which we waste our time? What detracts our attention away from God? In Christianity today, our idols are not graven images, or statues made from wood or stone. We find our modern idols in money, property, power, or even attention from the opposite sex. When we elevate something to a higher status in our lives than what God has, it becomes an idol, and distracts us from depending on him alone.
Martin Luther explains the First Commandment in his Large Catechism, saying that “You are to have no other gods” means,
“See to it that you let me alone be your God, never search for another.” In other words: “Whatever good thing you lack, look to me for it and seek it from me, and whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, crawl to me and cling to me. I, I myself, will give you what you need and help you out of every danger. Only do not let your heart cling to or rest in anyone else.”
And yet, we do. A modern courtroom is one place to look for people following idols. There are always bibles in courtrooms, right? People are required to put their hand on one and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. Where I live, in Randolph County, the courtroom bibles are embossed in beautiful gold lettering on the front cover, not only with the words “Holy Bible” but, in smaller lettering with, “Randolph County Justice Department.”
And I wonder…Why? Are they afraid someone might steal one and take it home? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing indeed, if someone didn’t just swear on the Bible to tell the truth, but wanted to open it and read God’s Word? What if someone learned to lean on God, to depend on him completely, to trust in the Lord with all their heart? What if it caused them to turn away from their own idols…whatever they were depending on to get them through whatever brought them to court in the first place?
According to research by the Pew Center of the States, of the 7 million Americans who are incarcerated, or on probation or parole, more than 4 in 10 can be expected to return to prison within three years. That means a whopping 40% will soon be heading right back to jail, as the cycle of sin continues (“Recidivism Hard To Shake For Ex-Offenders Returning Home To Dim Prospects” by Trymaine Lee. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/09/recidivism-harlem-convicts_n_1578935.html).
Thanks be to God, that our brother Rudy from my earlier example beat those odds. His dad was a minister, and as a kid Rudy even sang with the famed Boys Choir of Harlem. By 10 years old, Rudy was also a musician who played during worship at his church. And although he’d made some pretty big mistakes in life, when he’d done his time in prison and was released, he turned to God to help him start over. He knew that only God could give him a fresh start.
If we go back to our reading from the 32nd chapter of Deuteronomy, we see that verse 43 says that God repays those who hate him and he cleanses his people’s land. But different translations of the Bible render this statement differently. For example, the Revised Standard Version says God will “make atonement for his land and people” and rather than atonement, several other versions use the word “expiation.” These words all have different shades of meaning that can help us understand their true intent.
So often when we think of the word “atonement,” we consider it something we must do. In the days of the Old Testament, God’s people sacrificed to him, to make amends, to make reparation for their sin, to pay the price required for committing that sin. They atoned for their sin through sacrifice.
But here God is the subject of the sentence, not man. God is the one doing the atoning. God is the one who “makes expiation for the land of his people.” God is clearing the land and releasing all his people from their guilt. Remarkably, he is not merely forgiving, but purging their guilt…removing it from them.
This is significant because of the parallel we see in the New Testament. Namely, we see God’s perfect lamb, our Lord Jesus Christ. His sacrificial death on the cross is the atonement for our sins. He is the expiation by which we have forgiveness. He removes our guilt and cleanses us, making us clean and new. In the book of Colossians we read, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (Colossians 1:19-20).” No other god, no idol of this world, can do that.
But make no mistake, we are condemned for what we’ve done, and what we have not done. We are sinners, and the penalty is death. The promise of the gospel does not change the harshness of the law. When we see Jesus on that cross we can rejoice because, although condemned, God himself suffered that awful death. God himself did this, for you. Is there any greater love than that? Not for some nameless, faceless person in a faraway land, not for some anonymous but pious, Christian, not for those who are rich, or famous, or handsome, and not for the ones who only sin “a little”….Jesus died for you.
When he got out of prison, Rudy decided not to depend on the things he used to depend on, the things that led him down the path to prison in the first place…things like his friends, his old habits, power, and the high he got from drugs and a life of violence. This time, he turned to God and walked away from his old life. And just as Martin Luther advised, Rudy crawled and clung to God in his misfortune and distress. In his words, ““I went into prison a brash teenager, but I came out a humble man.” He now works for a company that aims to reduce recidivism by helping ex-cons reenter society. Rudy is one of their most dedicated employees, and has helped countless others break the cycle they’ve been stuck in. Look at what God can do with a repentant heart that loves him alone!
There are only two kinds of gods in this world: one is an idol, a god unable to stand on its own (Isa 46:1-4), that you have to carry; the other is the God whose Word stands forever (Isaiah 40:8), and carries you.
In the name of Christ. Amen.