Good News for Hypocrites
Scriptures: Isaiah 1:10-20; Luke 3:7-18
The children’s message this morning reminds me of a story about a preacher who finished the service one week saying, “Next Sunday, I am going to preach on the subject of liars. In preparation I would like you to read Mark, chapter 17.” On the next Sunday he asked how many people had read the scripture. Almost everyone’s hand went up. Then he said, “Okay, you’re the people I want to talk to. Mark has only 16 chapters.”
It is not just politicians who sometimes stretch the truth to make themselves look better. We all do it. I recently read a sociology study from the 1990s. In most surveys when American adults are asked if they attended church during the previous week, about 40% say yes. To test this in 1993 a group of sociologist surveyed the population of a medium-sized county in Ohio: Ashtabula County. First they did a random phone survey—which was easier to do in 1993 than it would be today—asking people about their religious identification and how often they attended church or their place of worship. They found that 36% of self-identified Protestants claimed to attend church almost every week. Then they went through the entire county to collect average weekly attendance figures for every single Protestant church in the county, not just those listed in a phone directory but every building in the county they hosted a weekly Protestant worship service. They found that the total average attendance of every Protestant house of worship in the whole county was only 20% of the Protestant population. (Kirk Hadaway, Penny Marler, and Mark Chaves, “What the Polls Don’t Dhow: A Closer Look at U. S. Church Attendance,” American Sociological Review, Dec., 1993; 741). In other words, 36% said they were in church, but only 20% actually showed up. And all this time we thought they were going to other churches. But they weren’t going to any church. Their walk didn’t match their talk.
Which, in a way, is the problem with all of us, even those of us who do go to church.
Isaiah points this out in our scripture reading this morning. Isaiah chapter 1 begins with a scathing denunciation of the people of Israel. Verse 4:
Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!
It sounds like he is talking to a bunch of drug dealers and child abusers or at least the kind of people who go skiing on Sundays. But he is not. If you read further you discover he is talking to church-goers. In verses 12-14 the Lord says,
When you come to appear before me, who asked this [offerings and sacrifices] from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
The Lord is talking here to church-goers: people who attend worship, pay their pledge, give to mission, make pies for the bake sale, sing in the choir, do work projects, and serve on the session or deacons. And pastors—don’t forget pastors. He says to them all, “You are all people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly.” In other words, we are all hypocrites, people whose lives do not match their faith.
John the Baptist makes the same point in our first scripture reading. He says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to feel from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
John is not preaching here to people at the Dead End Tavern or the Déjà Vu strip club. He is talking to people who walked miles into the desert to attend a revival meeting. He is talking to people who came for baptism. He is talking to church goers, and in essence he calls them all hypocrites.
I have mentioned before a book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called The Gulag Archipelago. In the book he describes a friendship he had with another Russian army officer during the World War II, how they had so much in common, so many of the same hopes, dreams, and beliefs. But after the war their lives took completely different directions. Solzhenitsyn became a Soviet prisoner for standing up against Stalin’s reign of terror. His friend became one of Stalin’s interrogators, torturing people into false confessions. Solzhenitsyn wondered how he and his friend could have turned out so differently when they both had such similar values and beliefs. But then he made an important discovery. He writes,
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood (p. 168).
Isn’t that a definition of hypocrisy: acting like one kind of person in certain situation, and a totally different person somewhere else? The line between hypocrisy and authenticity runs through the middle of every human being. It goes to our very core, where only God can dealt with it.
But here is the Good News: God can bring new life even to hypocrites. Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord.” Let’s deal with this! “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”
God does not simply ignore our sin. God does not simply look the other way. But nor does God cut us down and throw us out. Rather God accepts us, despite our sin, and then works on us to make us new people.
Recall what Isaiah said in verses 16-17: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” The good news for hypocrites is that God accepts you just as you are. But the even better news is that God will not leave you that way. God wants us to become not only forgiven people but just people, people who defend the lives and rights of those who do not have the power to defend themselves.
John the Baptist preaches the same kind of message. While baptizing people for the forgiveness of sin he tells them,
- “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
- To tax collectors: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Don’t be dishonest!
- To soldiers: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation.” Don’t use your power to exploit people.
The Good News for hypocrites is that God accepts us as we are. The even better news is that God refuses to leave us that way. God is determined to work on us: to replace deceit with honesty, greed with generosity, self-centeredness with compassion, pride with a sense of community, and gloom with the hope of God’s blessing and peace for all nations. God is determined to make us new people, slowly and imperfectly perhaps, but steadily and relentlessly, until we discover what it means to be part of God’s family.
So friends, do not be surprised that the church is full of hypocrites. The church has always been full of hypocrites. Just like the halls of government. Just like the corridors of Hollywood. Just like the board rooms of businesses and the club houses of sports teams. The church has always been full of hypocrites. The difference is that the church was designed for hypocrites. Jesus came to give his life for hypocrites—hypocrites who will never be the same for having encountered him here in this place.