The Talk of the Town

A Sermon by David Horger

Have you ever wondered if some sins are worse than others? I mean, all sin is bad and leads to death so in that sense they are all equal, but do you think some sins might be more offensive to God than other sins? The text we used for our scripture reading today got me thinking along those lines. And the more I thought about it, more examples in the Bible came to mind that shed light on this topic. I’d like to take you through some passages of scripture that seem to indicate that, while sin is sin, some may be more sinful than others. And it might surprise you which is which.

So let’s start with our scripture text, Genesis 9:18-25.
18 Now the sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. And Ham was the father of Canaan. 19 These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the whole earth was populated.
20 And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. 21 Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.
24 So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. 25 Then he said:
      “ Cursed be Canaan;
      A servant of servants
      He shall be to his brethren.”

Noah got himself drunk, and passed out naked in his tent. Now, the Bible has some pretty strong admonitions about alcohol and getting drunk. What Noah did was wrong, and as the patriarch of the sole remaining handful of humans on earth, it was doubly wrong because of the example that he set. He had a responsibility to uphold the honor and integrity of God’s kingdom, and he slipped up bad.

Then Ham walks in and sees his father in Noah’s most unflattering moment, and tells his brothers about the state dear old dad is in.

Now I suspect that many Christians today would empathize with Ham. The spiritual leader of their people had just been caught in an embarrassing predicament. Wasn’t it Ham’s duty to hold his father accountable? Didn’t Ham have a God-given mandate to renounce the sin? And isn’t this same story played out again and again today? What do you think of when you hear the names John Edwards, Larry Craig, Jimmy Swaggert, Bill Clinton or Jim Baker? Men caught in the act of sin. Shouldn’t they be held accountable? Wasn’t Ham justified in telling his brothers about what he saw? Inquiring minds would want to know!

But Ham’s story takes an unexpected turn. The other brothers, out of respect for their father, cover him up while taking pains to avoid seeing Noah in his embarrassment. They don’t laugh about it, condemn it, or try to seize leadership away from their flawed father. And it’s not Noah, but Ham who is condemned for the actions of that day. No where in scripture could I find where Noah was punished for his sin. But Ham and his descendents were condemned, cursed even. Wait, it wasn’t Ham who got drunk! Ham didn’t pass out naked! For what sin was Ham condemned? For the sin of holding someone else up to ridicule. For the sin of exposing a private sin to the public. For the sin of hurting someone else in order to make himself feel better about his own life.

Of course, the Bible has loads of stories about people pointing out the sins of others.

Numbers 12:1-10
1 Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married; for he had married an Ethiopian woman. 2 So they said, “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” And the LORD heard it. 3 (Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth.)
4 Suddenly the LORD said to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tabernacle of meeting!” So the three came out. 5 Then the LORD came down in the pillar of cloud and stood in the door of the tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam. And they both went forward. 6 Then He said,

      “Hear now My words:
      If there is a prophet among you,
      I, the LORD, make Myself known to him in a vision;
      I speak to him in a dream.

 7 Not so with My servant Moses;
      He is faithful in all My house.

 8 I speak with him face to face,
      Even plainly, and not in dark sayings;
      And he sees the form of the LORD.
      Why then were you not afraid
      To speak against My servant Moses?”
9 So the anger of the LORD was aroused against them, and He departed. 10 And when the cloud departed from above the tabernacle, suddenly Miriam became leprous, as white as snow. Then Aaron turned toward Miriam, and there she was, a leper.

Or how about this one?

John 8:2-11
2 Now early  in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. 3 Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, 4 they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” 6 This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.
7 So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” 8 And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. 10 When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?”
11 She said, “No one, Lord.”
And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

We sure like throwing stones, don’t we? Only today our stones are words. If a politician, even one favored by politically active Christian groups, is caught in sin, what happens? Is he forgiven? Not likely. He’s rejected. Disowned. Abandoned. Practically thrown to the wolves. Some ministers seem to make pointing out the sins of others the cornerstone of their ministry. It’s become something of an unfunny joke about Christians. In an episode of the animated series, “The Simpsons”, a Christian neighbor of Homer and Marge goes off to Bible Camp to learn how to become more judgmental. And behind every joke, there’s usually a bit of truth. As Christians we tend to judge others by a high standard, while often excusing our own failings. That way we can feel better about ourselves, like climbing a ladder by using other people as the rungs. But God isn’t too keen on that practice.

Romans 2:1-3
1 Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. 2 But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. 3 And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God?

I mentioned at the beginning that I thought that some sins are worse than others. So what are the worst sins? I suggest to you today that the worst sins are the ones committed in order to hurt someone else. There are sins of weakness, of depravity, of selfishness, but I don’t think God ranks those as the absolute worst. You see, God “knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.”

Hebrews 4:15
For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.

No, I think the worst sins are ones of cruelty, ones intended to hurt someone else. Our weakness God understands… it is a product of our fallen nature. But cruelty is straight from the Devil.

When a married man in the public eye is caught in adultery or worse, leading a double life as a homosexual, what is more offensive to God? The weakness of his flesh? The giving in to temptation? Or the clamor of every self-imposed judge to out-scorn one another as they parade his sin around the internet, on radio and on TV? There are pictures, interviews, details into the whole sordid affair presented to millions of people who, prior to this, had no idea who this man even was. But now they know him. And their whole concept of this man is framed by the sin he committed. Every good thing he ever did is forgotten. His name becomes the punch line to a dirty joke.

What’s worse? Whose sin is the more offensive? What the man did, or what people said about him? Is it possible that in the publicizing of the first sin they are committing an even worse one?

Don’t get me wrong, we are having a crisis in our Western culture regarding morality. It seems our standards of behavior are like a limbo bar getting lower and lower all the time. But I want to suggest that maybe the best way to counteract this trend is not to condemn from the rooftops. That only widens the divide between us and those we should be trying to reach. I was speaking to a young Christian lady recently who told me that she is currently sharing an apartment with her sister… and her sister’s girlfriend. Yes, girlfriend. This makes my friend uncomfortable, but she told me that the worst part is that she really wants to take her sister to church with her, but is afraid to because of the comments people there make regarding homosexuals. She knows that if some saint in the pew, ignorant of the girl’s lifestyle, started to say negative things about gays in front of her, that this would only turn her sister away from church, possibly for good.

I think a much better way to interact with our culture is to model Christ-like behavior.

Think how Jesus interacted with sinners in His time on earth. In direct contrast to the disapproving, scowling, condemning rants of the Pharisees, Jesus showed love, acceptance, forgiveness and gentleness.

Matthew 12:14-21
14 Then the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him.

15 But when Jesus knew it, He withdrew from there. And great multitudes[c] followed Him, and He healed them all. 16 Yet He warned them not to make Him known, 17 that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:
       18 “ Behold! My Servant whom I have chosen,
      My Beloved in whom My soul is well pleased!
      I will put My Spirit upon Him,
      And He will declare justice to the Gentiles.
       19 He will not quarrel nor cry out,
      Nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets.
       20 A bruised reed He will not break,
      And smoking flax He will not quench,
      Till He sends forth justice to victory;
       21 And in His name Gentiles will trust.”[d]

Indeed, I’m convinced that the best solution to our culture crisis is not to hold outsiders at arms length, but to hold them in our arms.

The toughest part of putting this sermon together was not in researching texts to prove my point, but in selecting a title. My first choice was, “The Worst Sinners in the World”. But then I thought about how that might look on the marquee: “Shingle Springs Seventh-day Adventist Church / The Worst Sinners in the World”! For a similar reason I rejected “Pointing out the Sins of Others” because it sounded too much like a mission statement. The wrong mission statement. Our mission should not be to point out sin, but rather to point the way to Jesus.

James 5:19-20
19 Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul[f] from death and cover a multitude of sins.

Perhaps you think I’m going soft on sin. I think I’m going soft on sinners. In dealing with the inmates at the county jail, I’m getting a peek at what I thought was another world. A world of crime, drug use and violence. I’m beginning to understand that it’s not another world, it’s my world. Yours, too. What, you’ve never been speeding, or run a red light? That’s a crime. Drugs? I’ve been there. Violence? I get angry too, sometimes. Maybe the difference between me and the guys I study with isn’t as big as I used to think. Maybe it’s only a difference in degree.

Ken Ham, creationist evangelist, said something that made me really think. He said that people often ask him, if there is a God, why did He let 9/11 happen? Why did He let those innocent people die? Ken had an intriguing answer. “Who said they were innocent?” he asks. We’re all guilty of sin and sentenced to death. People die every day. What makes 9/11 a test of whether or not there’s a God, when people die in earthquakes, fires, tornados, crime and combat all year long all around the world?

On the other hand, some have said, even from the pulpit, that Hurricane Katrina was a divine judgment against the people of New Orleans for their sinfulness. How terribly cruel, to add to the misfortune of these people… who lost their homes, jobs, were stranded without clean water or sanitation for days, then herded up to wait out the cleanup effort in a stadium and still to this day are waiting for their city to be rebuilt… by telling them it’s all their fault. God was mad at them for their sins. They got what they deserved.

Luke 13:1-5
1 There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? 3 I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”

We’re still throwing stones. You’d think we’d learn. As sinners, we are all in the same boat… not quite innocent, but not yet condemned. What happens if, after we’ve discerned God’s wrath in the calamities of others, we suffer a calamity of our own? If we declare the judgment of God as the reason for the tragedy of someone else, what will we say about our own tragedy? If we proclaim from the rooftops the sins of others, what would we choose to have happen when our own sins are discovered?

Don’t forget this: Job’s friends were wrong. They assumed that Job was being punished for his sin despite the fact that they knew this guy as the most decent, honest and devoted follower of the true God in their experience. Bad things happen to the good and the bad alike. And we’re more alike than we like to admit.

Dealing with sin

So how do we deal with the sins of others? I think we’ve established that full page ads in the Mountain Democrat are not the right way. But what is? The Bible provides the guidelines for this in Matthew 18.

Matthew 18:15-17
15 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’[b] 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.

This is very important guidance. Notice the progression: first, you go to the offender alone, and if that doesn’t work, take only one or two more with you and try again. Only if all that fails do you take it to the church. So many times people want to bypass this plan! They become aware of a sin in the congregation, and they tell someone else. Or they go to the pastor or an elder. Or they e-mail a group of friends. Or they bring it up in a church board or business meeting. But they don’t talk to the person responsible because that might be too uncomfortable.

But don’t you see the purpose of God’s plan? It is to win back a sinning brother. Telling others in the church about the sin makes that harder to do. In jail, I prefer not to know what crimes the men I’m studying with have committed, because I’m afraid that will make me not treat them the way Christ would treat them. If I found out Gary was there because of rape or child molestation, it would be harder for me to show him the love and forgiveness that Jesus would want me to show. God’s plan in Matthew 18 was designed to limit knowledge of the sin to the smallest circle of people possible while it’s being dealt with. The only time that it becomes public knowledge is if all other avenues have been exhausted. And also notice that there is no next step beyond taking it to the church. There is no take it to people outside the church step. Obviously, if the sin is a crime we have an obligation to take it to the authorities. But short of that, we must respect the privacy of the brother or sister by not publicizing their sins outside the bounds of the church.

When a brother or a sister has fallen, that’s not the time to say, “Tough luck, bub. No more love for you.” When they are on the ground, it is not our job to grind them into the dirt. Our job is to lift them back up. To let them know that we all struggle. That despite our church faces we put on Sabbath morning, each one of us faces temptation every day. Perhaps you’ve felt that your church family are the last people you’d want to share your failings with. Maybe you’ve felt self-conscious when there is an alter call because that would be admitting to the rest that everything is not hunky-dory in your life. Possibly this group right here scares you… you don’t want to talk about what shows you’ve recently watched on TV or what kinds of music you listen to because you think they will judge you. Their opinion of you will change. Isn’t it a tragedy that the people you call brother and sister are prevented from seeing the real you? That they aren’t given the chance to pray for you in your very real needs because you choose to keep them in the dark?

Conclusion

Recently in a Reader’s Digest interview, actor Dustin Hoffman was asked his opinion about the celebrity and persistent tabloid target Paris Hilton. This is his response:

"My family knows her. We used to vacation in Maui at Christmastime, and she hung out with my kids there.
I've seen her recently, and she's just as sweet and polite as she was then. My kids say there's not a bad bone in her body.
I don't know what crimes she's committed. The problem doesn't lie with her; it lies with us."

As God’s people, why aren’t we more interested in defending the reputations of people and less interested in tearing them down?

Why are we here? As a church, as Christians… why are we here? What is it we’re supposed to do? Badger our society to conform to our ideals? Criticize our critics? Hound those who operate using different standards than we do? I know it’s not that. We are here to finish the work Christ Himself started. What was that work? Go into all the world. Make disciples. Baptize them. Teach them. What should our methods be? We must use the methods Christ used. We must help and heal, listen and teach. Our tools must be love, respect, kindness and courtesy. Christ said of himself,

John 12:32
And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.”

That is our mission: to lift up Jesus before people and show them what God is like. And to do that we must be like Jesus. Jesus encountered many people who had lives every bit as sensational as those on the covers of the supermarket tabloids. Think of Zachaeus, the sell-out to the Romans who taxed his own people so that he might live comfortably. Think of Mary Magdalene, the prostitute harassed by demons. Even Judas Iscariot, the one who secretly sold out Jesus to His enemies for a handful of silver coins. Think of their sins. Now imagine if they were members of our church today… how would you treat them? Would you sit next to them in church? Invite them to potluck? Now think of how Jesus treated each one of them. That’s how we should treat people. Let us not break the reed that has been bruised by sin, or snuff out the candle that has so little flame of hope left. We must encourage, not condemn. Provide hope where helplessness now has control. And give forgiveness and redemption to those who have stumbled.

Time is too short and lives are too precious to turn them away.