The story of Isaac and Ishmael is an interesting story. God had promised Abraham a son with his wife Sarah from which would become a great nation – so numerous that no one could count them – like sand on a beach or the stars in the sky.
The problem is that Abraham is nearing 90 and there was still no child – Sarah was nearing 80. So Sarah decided to take matters into her own hands and gives Abraham her maid Hagar to have a child with her. As a result Ishmael was born.
The problem was, that even though Ishmael was the first born of Abraham, he was not the child of Abraham and Sarah as God had promised. 13 years later Abraham is visited by God’s angels to advise that the promised child would be born the following year. Isaac is born. So now Sarah is conflicted. She now becomes jealous of Ishmael who is a constant reminder of her lack of trust in God’s promise and she demands that Abraham get rid of Hagar and Ishmael so she is no longer reminded of her sin against God. Sarah’s lack of trust in God will leave a scar in her – a reminder that she did not put her faith in God’s promise. And that’s what sin does to us also.
Sin leaves a scar that continues to attack our consciences with guilt. And even though we come to God and ask him to forgive us, sometimes the guilt of our sin continues to haunt us, just as the sight of Ishmael continued to haunt Sarah. So Paul directs us to our Baptism where God washes away the guilt of our sin every day – every moment of the day. As St Peter says about Baptism – baptism now saves you –not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. (1 Peter 3:21).
Sin does its worse damage by attacking our faith through guilt. So the real danger of sin is not so much the bad behaviour that we have done but the attack on our guilt that Satan is able to carry out. We know that God forgives our sins but Satan also knows that while God forgives and forgets – we don’t. As the book of Hebrews says: For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8:12). So for Paul, he really sees the spiritual harm that sin does in our lives. He puts the equation before us – if God’s grace comes by his forgiveness, then if we sin more then more grace comes. Paul says – no way! Don’t be so stupid – sin is our number one enemy in our relationship with God. Sin is what breaks down our relationship with God. And because of our human nature we often deal with sin the same way that Sarah dealt with her sin before God. Get it out of sight and problem solved. Or we deny it or we make excuses.
King David dealt with his sin in the same way when he committed adultery with Bathsheba. He believed that if he could trick her husband into believing the child was his there wouldn’t be a problem. When that didn’t work he thought that if he had her husband killed he could then marry her and deal with his sin that way. But he discovered the real power of sin when he wrote Psalm 32:
When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Sin has a power over us that we cannot control. No matter how much good we do – no matter how hard we try not to do the things we shouldn’t do – sin finds its way into our conscience. You can hear that diabolical work of sin in Paul as he struggles to try and control it himself only to find out he can’t: He says: I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Even if we do good 99% of the time, that 1% will attack our conscience with guilt. So Paul directs us back to our Baptism, not to the 99% of good that we do. Our sin can only be dealt with by burying it with Christ and allowing the Holy Spirit to create a new life in us. We need to remember that God loves us so much that he sent Jesus to die for our sins. And God invites us to take our sin and bury it with Jesus. Satan will still try and our response is not – I’m not that bad – or – what about all the good I’ve done. No, our response is, like Luther when he was being tormented by Satan – I am Baptised.
We cannot deal with our sin except by taking it to Christ and letting God bury it with him. Sin, through our guilt can make us question our assurance of going to heaven. Sin can make us believe that God is our enemy as it did to Adam and Eve as they hid from the presence of God. But God is our friend, not our enemy. Despite our sinfulness God loves and cares for us. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
Jesus says; Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
We cannot avoid sin as Paul reminds us – all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – but we can deal with our sin by taking it to God and allowing our Baptism to wash away the guilt that does so much damage. Sin tempts us close to our hearts and sometimes we need to make sacrifices. Sometimes we need to give up friends or careers or personal interests that are not good for our faith, but Jesus promises that whoever loses their life will save it. And sometimes we may come under threat for standing firm on an issue we know is sinful but again Jesus says, Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. And because we are loved by God and he knows the very hair on our heads, that is a fear we will never have. Because we are children of God through our Baptism.
Let us not be like Sarah who lacked trust in God’s promises. Even when it seemed totally impossible in human terms for her – with God everything is possible. Let us not be like Sarah who tried to deal with her sin by herself but let us take it to God and bury with Christ so that we may also rise with Christ to new life.