Tough Texts Part 6: The Unpardonable Sin

Sermon Text: Mark 3:19b-30

Every once in a while on the TV show “The Office,” an I.T. guy from corporate visits the Scranton branch. If you’ll recall, this young man is of the Sikh religion, and he wears a turban on his head. In one episode, Michael calls one of his many time-wasting meetings in the conference room. The I.T. guy is there. The subject of religion comes up. Michael asks everyone to say what their religion is. He turns to the I.T. guy: “What are you?” The I.T. guy says, “Well, if you’re going to reduce my identity to my religion, then I’m Sikh. But I also like hip-hop and NPR. And I’m restoring 1967 Corvette in my spare time.” Michael says, “O.K. One Sikh, and…”

So it didn’t matter what other interests or activities defined this person—that he liked hip-hop and NPR and restoring vintage sports cars—in Michael’s mind, the only thing you needed to know about him, the only fact that mattered, was that he was a practitioner of this religion. Judging people, making generalizations about people, stereotyping people is a problem for us today, but it was even a bigger problem in Jesus’ day. You were defined not by the content of your character, but by the family you were born into and where you came from. We can infer from the gospels that being from Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, did not place you very high up on the social ladder. When Philip tells Nathanael about Jesus in John Chapter 1, Nathanael says, in disbelief, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Early in Jesus’ ministry, when he returns to his hometown to preach, many people have a hard time reconciling this charismatic, authoritative teacher, prophet, and miracle-worker with the person they thought they knew: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary? Don’t we know his brothers and sisters?”

In today’s scripture, some important religious authorities are having the same problem. Some scribes have heard about Jesus, and they’ve come from Jerusalem to check him out. The scribes are lawyers of their day, schooled in the law of Israel. They can’t wrap their minds around what Jesus is doing. They know his family; they know where he’s from. He lacks the proper credentials to be a prophet, a Messiah, not to mention God’s Son. Notice that they don’t dispute the fact that Jesus performed these miracles of healing, only the authority by which he did so. This question of authority is the heart of the conflict. Through Jesus’ words and actions, Jesus is making a claim about his authority: that he has come from God; that God has given him great power; that he can forgive sins; and that through him God’s kingdom is breaking into time. But, the scribes reasoned, we know this can’t be true. So his power must be coming from somewhere else—not from God but from Beelzebul, Satan.

Notice Jesus’ response. If Jesus were in league with Satan and the forces of evil, why would he then be defeating those forces everywhere he went? He would be undermining the master he is accused of serving—and thus, Jesus says, “Satan has risen up against himself and is divided.” He won’t stand. His end has come. This is very clever because, Jesus implies, even if what the scribes were saying were true—and Jesus’ power came from Satan—then Jesus’ actions still had the effect of defeating Satan—in which case, Jesus’ own actions were still a sign that God’s kingdom had come near. But of course, Jesus says, he’s not in league with Satan. Jesus is instead the stronger one who ties up the strong man and robs his house. In fact, he’s not robbing at all; Jesus Christ is simply taking back what rightly belongs to God—this good Creation that has too often been captive to sin and evil.

Then Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.” That’s a remarkable statement of grace, isn’t it? “But,” he continues, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Is Jesus, who is otherwise so full of love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness, really saying that there’s a sin that cannot be forgiven? Yes… I’m afraid so, but yes! Some of you visitors are like, “I could’ve sworn it said Methodist Church on the outside, but…” But I am deadly serious. This isn’t the only place in scripture that mentions an unpardonable sin, either. Not only do Matthew and Luke include versions of this same teaching but this teaching is found in Hebrews 6:4-8 and 1 John 5:16. Wesley describes this sin as “quenching the Spirit.” Once that happens, you’re done for!

O.K., so if there is such a sin, let’s make sure we understand what it is. But first things first: Jesus does not say that the scribes had committed it… yet. But clearly they are moving in the direction of a very steep precipice, and they need to change course because they are in grave spiritual danger. If their values have become so twisted around that they would attribute the good, healing, and forgiving work of God to Satan, then they may be approaching a point of no return: confusing good for evil and evil for good. One writer says that these scribes are like modern-day conspiracy theorists. I love conspiracy theorists. When my daughter, Elisa, was a baby, I would often give her a bottle in the middle of the night. I would often turn on the radio and listen to Art Bell and his “Coast to Coast” show. It was great fun. But here’s the problem: Once you become convinced of a conspiracy—whether it’s JFK, or what happened in Roswell, New Mexico, or President Obama’s birth status—no amount of evidence to the contrary will convince you. In fact, the very absence of evidence is, to the conspiracy theorist, evidence of a conspiracy—evidence of a successful cover-up. So, for these scribes, the more successful Jesus’ ministry becomes, the more powerful are the evil forces working within him. The more people respond positively to Jesus’ message, the clearer it is that they’ve been duped by the Evil One.

To be clear, the inability to find forgiveness from Jesus Christ is not because God has been especially angered in some way by a person’s sin; it’s because their own thoughts and actions have cut themselves off from the forgiveness that’s available in Christ. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase captures a sense of this in The Message: “But if you persist in your slanders against God’s Holy Spirit, you are repudiating the very One who forgives, sawing off the branch on which you’re sitting, severing by your own perversity all connection with the One who forgives.” Think of it this way: If you believe that the only doctor who has the skill to perform a life-saving surgery is really a cold-blooded murderer, you will not avail yourself of that doctor’s services, and you will die. That isn’t because the doctor is unwilling to perform the surgery, but because you’re unwilling to let him. This unpardonable sin is not a one-time event in our lives, after which we are forever cut off from forgiveness. It’s a willful, deliberate, persistent turning away from the grace that God offers, until we are no longer able to receive it. Just as our muscles grow weak and atrophy if we never exercise them, so our capacity to respond to God diminishes if we repeatedly fail to do so.

If, like some people I have known, you worry that you’ve committed this sin, hear this word of grace: “Truly I tell you, people”—and that means you—“will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.” If you care enough to worry about whether you’ve committed an unpardonable sin, you haven’t committed it. If you still have the desire to repent—to turn around and seek God’s forgiveness—you can be sure that God will graciously forgive you.

There is grace, but there is also a challenge for everyone here. Jesus said, “For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” It is very possible that we have loved ones—friends, family, neighbors, co-workers—who are headed through this gate, down this road. And they don’t even know it. This scipture reminds us that the danger they’re in is real. But it’s not too late to reach them. Our mission is urgent. This is why we spent hundreds of volunteer hours last Saturday working on Fall Fest. It’s why, starting next week, we’re going to begin emphasizing stewardship—financial giving to support the ministries of this church. It’s in part why next month we’re sponsoring our Vinebranch Coffee House: We believe that this gospel that the Church offers the world is the very key to real life, happiness, contentment, peace, freedom from fear. But there are people outside the church who are afraid of us: we’re going to judge them, insult them, make them feel guilty, act self-righteously toward them. Let’s welcome them in and show them it’s not so. We need to help them hear this message of good news.

And there’s a challenge for those of us who have already given our lives to Christ, and have experienced this saving grace. We can cut ourselves off from this source of life, love, peace, and happiness through our sin. Sin is not wrong simply because God says so. Because Moses wrote it down on tablets a long time ago. When we sin, we are acting against our own best selves, our own best interest. We are hurting ourselves—we’re not hurting God. We don’t have the power to do that. God stands ready to heal us, forgive us, and restore us to a right relationship when we do sin, but our sin hurts us—it prevents us from getting the most out of this gift of life God has given us.

With that in mind, are there sins God is asking you to repent of this morning? Do you need to ask forgiveness? Do you need to reconcile with someone you’ve hurt? Do you need to make changes in your life, with God’s help, so that you can be the person God created you to be? Don’t wait. Do it today.

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