Sermon: “The Same Old Story” (September 7, 2014)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Same Old Story” (Exodus 12:13)
September 7, 2014
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In 1997 the cable TV channel VH1 began airing episodes of the show Behind the Music. Each episode is a documentary about a musician or band. Initially I was hooked—I mean, who doesn’t want to watch documentaries about Fleetwood Mac, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Billy Joel, or Duran Duran?

After watching several episodes I realized that each one told essentially the same old story—a musical act forms and struggles for a season, suddenly makes it big, races to the top of the charts, then crashes or breaks up due to addiction or tragedy or broken relationships, then eventually there is some reconciliation followed by a reunion tour. But I still love watching music documentaries.

It’s the same with romantic comedies. Every rom-com essentially tells the same old story: two people meet but are clueless that they were meant for each other, but eventually they fall in love but then there’s an obstacle that threatens to end the relationship—often with some hilarious hijinks thrown in. But of course at the end of the movie the couple reunites, complete with the climactic kiss, and the credits role. My all-time favorite romantic comedy is The Wedding Singer (1997) with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore—my wife and I have watched it many times over the years, and every time we watch it we like it even more.

Why is that? What is it that attracts us to the same old story?

Because the same old story resonates; the same old story connects with our hearts.

Like famous musicians and bands we too go through seasons of struggle, we too may experience “making it big” somehow, we too struggle with tragedies or addictions or broken relationships, and we too long in our own way for reconciliation and a reunion tour—relationships healed, glory days recaptured.

And when it comes to romantic comedies, well, we all long to be loved like that.

Today’s Old Testament lesson is a story you all know. Moses has been sent by God back to Egypt to lead the Hebrews out of slavery. Every time Pharaoh gives Moses permission to lead them out, his heart is hardened, and he changes his mind. Then God sends a plague, Pharaoh again gives permission, but then his heart is hardened yet again and the cycle repeats itself—ten times.

After nine plagues—water turning into blood; infestations of frogs and lice and flies, diseased livestock, boils, hailstorms, locusts and darkness—the tenth and final plague occurs, the death of every firstborn in Egypt—every firstborn that is except those in houses with lintel and doorposts marked with the blood of a lamb, and not just any lamb, but a lamb “without blemish.”

God told Moses this about the blood of the lamb:

“The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:13).

And this points us to Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), the Lamb of God “without blemish”—that is, without sin.

In my junior year of college I took a class on Paul’s Letter to the Romans—the entire class was focused on just that one letter. It was an amazing class, but unfortunately it was at 1:00 in the afternoon—right after a high-carb, high-fat college dining hall lunch—and the chairs were theater-style, soft and comfortable, and the lights were a little dim, so it took a lot of effort to stay awake.

But by God’s grace one class, while those around me were nodding off, the professor taught about this classic passage in which the Apostle Paul explains what exactly happened when Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, died on the cross for us:

“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:21-26).

This passage is one of the Mt. Everest or K2 peaks of the entire Bible.

And although for the previous ten years I had gone to church and heard about Jesus dying on the cross because he loved us, dying on the cross to forgive our sins, I never grasped the comprehensive nature of God’s love and forgiveness. I was always nagged by a sense that somehow my good deeds had better outweigh my bad deeds and that I had better figure out a way to “make up” for all the sin in my life—have you ever felt that?

As the professor explained in detail what happened on the cross—that God in Christ absorbed the punishment once and for all for all of us for all our sins, period, full-stop, with nothing we can or need to add to Christ’s finished work—that God’s love is indeed unconditional and complete, with no ulterior motives, no catch, no strings attached, that the blood of Christ means that God passes over our sins and we are safe—it overwhelmed me, and I got choked up. The reality of God’s love moved me to tears.

It was the same old story, but it didn’t leave me the same.

One of my heroes is Thomas Cranmer, the leading figure of the English Reformation who was eventually burned at the stake in Oxford on March 21, 1556. (A few months ago I was in Oxford for a day and stood near the spot where this happened—very moving). The Book of Common Prayer includes “The Articles of Religion,” also known as “The Thirty-nine Articles,” which were written by Cranmer and a few fellow scholars. Article XXXI is entitled “Of the one Oblation of Christ finished upon the Cross.” Listen to how the comprehensive nature of God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ is described:

“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).

Again, the blood of Jesus Christ means God passes over us—as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7, KJV).

In his book The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross the late scholar Leon Morris puts it this way:

“We can think of forgiveness as something real only when we hold that sin has betrayed us into a situation where we deserve to have God inflict upon us the most serious consequences. When the logic of the situation demands that He should take action against the sinner, and He yet takes action for him, then and then alone can we speak of grace…The Scripture is clear that the wrath of God is visited upon sinners or else that the Son of God dies for them…Either we die or He dies” (213).

And the good news of the gospel is that Jesus died for our sins so that we don’t have to, that, as Scripture tells us, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

One of the most powerful images of the gospel I have ever seen is in the film Man on Fire (2004), in which Denzel Washington plays John Creasy, a former CIA operative who becomes a bodyguard for a nine year old girl named Pita (played by Dakota Fanning) in Mexico City. One afternoon after her piano lesson Pita is kidnapped as John is shot by the kidnappers. Later John is on the phone with Pita’s captor, who makes an offer to John, “I will give you her life for your life.”

John accepts the offer, and calls Pita’s mom and asks her to meet him at a bridge. When they arrive John tells Pita’s mom to wait there and he walks to the top of the bridge. Pita’s captors are on the other side of the bridge, and when they see John, they take Pita out of their car, remove her blindfold, and let her go. When Pita sees John at the top of the bridge she sprints to him and gives him a huge hug. For a moment they talk at the top of the bridge:

“You alright?” John asks, “They didn’t hurt you?” Pita shakes her head in assurance that she’s alright. John smiles and continues, “Alright, your mother’s waiting for you, she’s right down there at the end of the bridge. Okay? You go home.”

“Okay,” Pita says, “Where are you going?”

“I’m going home too,” John replies.

Pita begins to understand the reality of what is happening— “I love you,” she says, “and you love me, don’t you?”

“Yes I do,” John grins, “Now go, run.”

Pta runs down the bridge and is reunited with her mom, and John walks to the other side of the bridge, holding his hands up, and surrenders himself to Pita’s captors, life for life. Pita is free and safe.

And that’s what Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Lamb of God without sin, did for you. He walked the bridge from heaven to earth and gave himself over to sinners, with his hands up on the cross, so that you can be fully forgiven, and free to return home.

And Jesus’ shed blood has marked the lintel and doorposts of your life, so that the wrath of God passes over you, so that you, like Pita, are free and safe.

And not even death can alter that, as St. Francis of Assisi wrote in his great hymn All Creatures of Our God and King:

And even you, most gentle death
Waiting to hush our final breath
O praise him, Alleluia!
You lead back home the child of God
For Christ our Lord that way has trod
O praise him, O praise him,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

And that is the same old story—you are loved by God, like that; and that in spite of all the sin and pain and struggle in your life, God will reconcile all things in Jesus Christ and there will be an eternal reunion tour.

Amen.