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Online Worship Service — 3-29-20

Service for the Lord’s Day

March 29, 2020






Prelude                                   What Wondrous Love is This                                    arr. Sarah Douglas


Opening Sentences


Gathering Prayer


Hymn                                    Beneath the Cross of Jesus (vs. 1 and 3)                            St. Christopher


Beneath the cross of Jesus, I fain would take my stand, the shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land; a home within the wilderness, a rest upon the way, from the burning of the noontide heat, and the burden of the day.


I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place.  I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of his face; content to let the world go by, to know no gain or loss, my sinful self, my only shame, my glory all the cross.


Confession and Pardon


Response                                Grace Greater Than Our Sin                                   Johnston, Towner


Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that will pardon and cleanse within;

Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that is greater than all our sin.




Prayer for Illumination



Numbers 21:4-9

     John 3:14-21


Sermon     “Lifted UP”


Hymn                                  There Is a Balm in Gilead (vs. 1 and 3)           African-American spiritual


REFRAIN – There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;

There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.


Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain,

but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. (repeat refrain)


If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul,

you can tell the love of Jesus and say “He died for all.” (repeat refrain)





Response                            A Grateful Heart                                            English Folk Melody


A grateful heart is what I bring, a song of praise, my offering.

Among the saints, I lift my voice.  In you, O God, I will rejoice.


Prayers of Intercession



 Lord’s Prayer




Hymn                    When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (vs. 1 and 4)                                  Hamburg


When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died,

My richest gain, I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.


Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small.

Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.



Blessing and Charge



Postlude                What a Friend We Have in Jesus                                   arr. Donatello Noboddi


     Lifted Up

Lately, some things in the Bible that seemed so foreign to us have become disturbingly relevant. Like plagues. The story we read this morning from the Old Testament tells about an epidemic that infected the Hebrews in the wilderness. Their affliction wasn’t carried by a coronavirus but by snakes, yet they felt the same helplessness and vulnerability, the same fear that grips us any time we’re faced with a threat that seems beyond our control.

Moses prayed for his people, and God told Moses to make a replica of a poisonous serpent out of bronze and lift it up on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten by a snake, they were to look up at the bronze serpent and they would live.

Oh, how we wish we had that cure for our generation’s plague. People are working around the clock to find it. And their symbol is two serpents wound around a pole – the caduceus, the symbol of the medical profession and  the doctors and nurses and researchers who are mobilized to find a vaccine and a cure.

The plague that struck the Hebrews was not just a physical affliction. It grew out of the resentment and anger that infected them the longer they had to endure the hardships of the wilderness. As they grew weary of the manna that God provided them day after day, they thought back on what they had in the old days, back in Egypt. They remembered the fish they used to eat, “the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic…” (Num. 11:5) Yes, it had been the fare of slaves, but at least it had flavor, and they weren’t hungry all the time. And they remembered when they could have all the water they wanted. Granted, they drank a lot because of their forced labor in the burning sun, but now they were in the desert, and they didn’t know where their next drink was coming from.

Our pestilence does not grow out of spiritual sickness. It comes from a microscopic virus surrounded by crown-like spikes that jumped from a wild animal to a human being and afflicts good and bad alike, just as the rain falls on the just and the unjust. But in a mirror image of the sickness that afflicted the Hebrews, whose spiritual disorder led to physical sickness, this pandemic can run the opposite direction. We have to make sure that our physical sickness doesn’t lead to spiritual disorder.

David Brooks, in an essay that was published on Friday, observed, “It can all seem so meaningless. Some random biological mutation sweeps across the globe, murdering thousands, lacerating families and pulverizing dreams. Life and death can seem completely arbitrary…. Without the inspiration of a higher meaning, selfishness takes over. This mindset is the temptation of the hour.”[1]

On Tuesday I took part in a conference call for pastors with the Pennsylvania Secretary of Health, Dr. Rachel Levine. During the call, Dr. Levine emphasized several times how important churches are in fighting the pandemic. She reminded us that churches are not included in Gov. Wolf’s order to close all non-essential services. She reiterated that just as doctors and researchers have crucial roles in fighting COVID-19, churches have their essential part to play.

Eastminster is discovering its part. Deacons have been staying in touch with the members in their care groups. We can all reach out to each other. A phone call doesn’t have to be long to be effective. Just five minutes to let someone know you’re thinking about them reminds them, and you, that we’re still connected and that we matter to each other. We’re learning how to use technology so we can worship together while we’re apart. We’re finding creative ways to continue our mission to the community and the world. This year Easter food baskets to struggling families will consist of gift cards. Thanks to your continuing generosity, we’re maintaining our support for organizations that feed the hungry and comfort the lonely, including the broader church. Donegal Presbytery has approved no interest loans to small churches that can’t meet their bills, and grants to churches that don’t have the resources to record or stream worship to their members.

In the passage we read today from John, Jesus compared himself to the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness to heal the sickness of the people. Jesus said, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” That’s our part in this pandemic. We tell a different story, one that is not about fear and despair, but one of life and hope. We point to the one who was raised up for us.

pointing to the one who has been lifted up for eternal life so that all can see him.

Jesus carries with him to the cross all of our anxiety and our fear. Jesus wept when those he loved were stricken with disease. He trembled when faced with death. He cried out when he felt abandoned. He lifts us up with him and takes us to the Father where we find healing and redemption and life.

But true healing goes deep. It doesn’t treat the symptoms. It gets to the root of what ails us. Jesus shines light on the depths of our souls so we can see ourselves for who we are and come to his healing grace. David Brooks observes, “This particular plague hits us at exactly the spots where we are weakest and exposes exactly those ills we had lazily come to tolerate. We’re already a divided nation, and the plague makes us distance from one another. We define ourselves too much by our careers, and the plague threatens to sweep them away. We’re a morally inarticulate culture, and now the fundamental moral questions apply.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve learned some things about myself over these last two weeks. I tell myself that I care for everyone, but I noticed how tempting it was to horde extra toilet paper when it was available before anyone else could get it. I tell myself that I trust God to provide, but it’s tempting to cut back on my giving to charity, not because I don’t have the money that’s desperately needed for immediate needs but because maybe I won’t have as much later on. I always thought I had sympathy for people whose lives have been upended by circumstances beyond their control, but I’ve gotten a little more empathy for refugees in Syria whose homes were destroyed by somebody else’s war, for people in Puerto Rico living in shelters whose towns were wiped out by a hurricane, for families that are going to be coming to our local foodbanks because the pandemic has wiped out their jobs. Jesus told Nicodemus: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil….But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Again, David Brooks: “We learn more about ourselves in these hard periods. The differences between red and blue don’t seem as acute on the gurneys of the E.R., but the inequality in the world seems more obscene when the difference between rich and poor is life or death.” Lifted up on the cross and shining on us, the Light of the World exposes how much we need healing, and he draws us to himself, for God so loved the world – not just me, not just the people I care about, but the world.

And that light also exposes graces that we would never see, signs of healing that give us hope and draw us to the one who gives life. In the light of Christ, small graces are revealed to us. Our presbytery is holding twice weekly Zoom conferences for pastors to check in with one another, and I’ve learned just how gifted and loving so many of my colleagues are. I’ve been in touch with friends and relatives I haven’t heard from in decades. Many of us have had conversations with loved ones, in person on the phone or through a social medium, where we’ve learned of fears and hopes we never knew they had. Words of love have flowed more freely. We’ve seen the dedication and sacrifice of so many people who are making sure the elderly and those with compromised health conditions have what they need, and our confidence in the human spirit has been boosted.

One day things will get back to normal. And one day we’ll be absorbed in doing whatever absorbs us in that new normal. But the Son of Man will still be lifted high over us, calling us to the light. And we’ll know more surely than ever, from our time in the wilderness, that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

[1] David Brooks, “The Moral Meaning of the Plague,” The New York Times, March 27, 2020, p. A26.

April Pew Points

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Online Worship Service — 3/22/20


Service for the Lord’s Day

March 22, 2020







PRELUDE – My Jesus, i Love Thee


Opening Sentences                                                                                                                       


Gathering Prayer


Hymn – Our God, Our Help in Ages Past


Confession and Pardon

     Gloria Patri




Prayer for Illumination



     Old Testament Lesson – Ezekiel 37:1-14

     New Testament Lesson – Romans 8:6-11


Sermon     Hope in the Bones (Sermon text provided below)


Hymn – Breathe on me breath of god



Response – “Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart”


Prayers of Intercession

     Lord’s Prayer




Hymn – To God Be the Glory


Blessing and Charge


Postlude – He’s Got the Whole World in his hands


Hope In The Bones

Israel had been riding high. They had been among the most powerful and prosperous people in the world. They had plenty. They gathered with their friends as they pleased. They could do whatever they wanted. Then all of a sudden they couldn’t. The world as they knew it came to a screeching halt. Babylon had conquered them, carried them away. The world as they knew it was gone. And now here they were – the valley of dry bones.

Most of us have at least gotten a glimpse of the valley of the dry bones.  It’s that place where the future looks bleak, where we feel helpless and hopeless. It’s where we might find ourselves after a loved one dies or we get laid off or something we thought was secure gives way. We’ve certainly gotten a glimpse of that valley over the last week. Who could have imagined a month ago that we could not even go to church? We’re reminded just how precarious life is, how easy it is to slip into the valley of the dry bones. If we forgot just how fragile life is, how fleeting is our prosperity, the coronavirus has given us a cold hard dose of reality. The Psalmist was right: “All flesh is grass.  The grass withers, the flower fades…”

Paul sums it up in the 8th chapter of Romans: “To set the mind on flesh is death.”  That doesn’t mean that our bodies are bad.  Elsewhere in the New Testament Paul affirms that our bodies are temples of the Spirit.  We should treat them with respect and honor.  But to live by the flesh means we define ourselves by our limitations. We don’t hope for much beyond the obvious.  And if we set our minds on the flesh, where can that lead us but to the valley of dry bones?

God offers us an alternative to the flesh, but we’re reluctant to take it.  You can understand why.  We’re afraid.  Afraid to let go of a mindset, a way of living that most of the world relies on and that we’ve been taught from birth. It’s only natural.  As I was writing this sermon, I was sitting at my desk and a movement outside my window caught my attention.  It was two bright red cardinals flitting from branch to branch in a tree not ten feet from where I sat.  They were fighting, establishing dominance.  The stakes were huge: mating rights, territory, food, survival.  They fluttered and pecked each other until one of them gave up and flew away.  That’s the way our flesh protects and provides for itself.  We fight those things that threaten us.  We hoard. We blame. We despair. And the valley of bones grows fuller and fuller. Flesh upon flesh upon flesh.

That’s why fear is such a common reaction whenever God comes to a person and offers another way.  The way of the Spirit is so different from the way we are taught to live. When God called to Moses from the burning bush, Moses’ first reaction was fear.  When Gabriel came to Mary to tell her she would be the mother of the Savior whom God was sending to show us another way, the first thing the angel had to say to her was, “Fear not.” When Jesus appeared to his disciples after he had conquered the power of death on Easter, he had to tell them not to be afraid.  We fear to give up those things that have served us for a lifetime.  We’re genetically programmed to stay out of the valley as long as we can.  To let go of what we know, what we’re familiar with, what’s tried and true even if it’s not ultimately effective, that is terrifying.  The risk is too great.  So we cling to the flesh that promises protection, the flesh that is headed for the valley just as surely as the flower fades.

But there is another way.  It’s not hidden or secret.  Everyone has experienced it, if even for a fleeting moment. Death and evil can’t squelch it. We see evidence of it even in these threatening times. We see it in those who are working so hard to provide food for the needy, care for the stricken, those who pray for the anxious. The way of flesh is not the only way.  There’s something else going on.

Ezekiel saw it in his vision.  He spoke the word of the Lord to the dry bones.  He saw the power of that word to join the bones together, to connect them with sinews, to cover them with flesh, to restore their skin. And then the Spirit came into the valley.  It came from the four winds, from every corner of the sky, as mysterious and as powerful as it came into the clay that God had fashioned into a human body on the sixth day of creation and gave life to Adam. And God told Ezekiel, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live… then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and will act, says the Lord.”

There’s another way, the way of the Spirit, and that’s how we know the Lord. Some see hope and joy as exceptions to the hard and fast ways of the flesh.  They see acts of love and grace and mercy and justice as oases along the way to the valley of the dry bones, as resting spots to revive us for a short while on our weary way.  That’s goodness looks through the eyes of the flesh.  But for those who live in the Spirit, those signs of love and compassion show us another destination.  They’re not exceptions to the rule of the flesh, but alternatives to it.  Yes, we acknowledge the flesh and its weakness, but we see that it’s not the flesh that holds our destiny.  It’s the Spirit that transforms the flesh, just as it transformed the flesh of Jesus on the day of his resurrection.

Jesus took on the flesh with all its weakness and limitation, with its viruses and even its death.  But Jesus, as human as you and I, did not set his mind on the flesh.  He did not live by the flesh.  He set his mind on the Spirit. With his mind set on the Spirit, he could entrust his body completely to God. On the cross he experienced death as complete and final as those bones in Ezekiel’s valley.  But that same Spirit that breathed life into Adam, that breathed over the valley of death, that same Spirit breathed life into the body of Jesus who is our risen Lord.

Romans 8:9 says, “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you…. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”  Christ changes our destination.  It’s not the valley of dry bones.  It’s the mountain of the living Lord.  We see that goodness and love and courage are not exceptions to the rule of death but evidence that the Spirit is at work overcoming everything that can separate us from God, even death.

I have a friend named Genuta who runs a ministry for orphans in Romania. Genuta is a lawyer who one cold October day was looking out the window of her law office and saw some girls lying on a blanket on the ground.  She thought they were just playing around, but then discovered that the blanket was the girls’ home.  They had grown up in a local orphanage, but once they got too old to stay there, they had no place to go.  Over the next few years, Genuta felt God’s Spirit shaping and preparing her to minister with the orphans. Eventually Genuta saw what she was to do.  She took six teenage girls under her care and opened a transition home for them where they learn how to live on their own, how to shop and cook and find jobs – their alternative to living on a blanket in the cold.  Had Genuta seen those girls living on a blanket through the eyes of the flesh, she would have thought, “What a shame.”  But through the eyes of the Spirit she saw God calling her to do something about it.

We see evidence of the power of the Spirit all around us.  It takes courage to give our lives to it, to give up the convictions of the flesh with which we’re so familiar. The power of the flesh, of hatred and violence and self-interest is easy to see.  But Christ gives us the power of the Spirit.  We know where the real power is. That power is with us even when we’re separated from one another in “social distancing.” In Christ life wins.  Always.  There is hope for those bones.


3-8-20 — An Eye For God — Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3:1-17 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

When I was a boy I would go raccoon hunting with my cousins and uncles in the briar-covered woods of Robeson County, North Carolina.  Sometimes we’d take with us a wizened man in his fifties named Charlie.  Charlie was a Lumbee Indian.  The Lumbees make up about a third of the population of Robeson County.  Their origin is shrouded in mystery.  Some say they are descendants of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony.  Legend has it that the colonists thought they had been abandoned by the mother country.  When their ship failed to return from England with supplies – it was delayed due to the Spanish Armada of 1588 – the colonists mingled with the local Indian tribe and migrated 150 miles south to what is now Robeson County.  Whatever their origin, the Lumbees have lived for centuries at the margins of that county.  Their ancestors were neither landowners like the whites nor slaves like the African-Americans.  Their generations survived by farming small patches of land and living off the bounty of the forests and swamps that cover the landscape.  So it was good to have a Lumbee like Charlie along when you went ‘coon hunting in Robeson County.

In case you don’t know, ‘coon hunting is a nighttime sport.  We’d leave my grandfather’s house about 8:00 on a winter night with my uncle’s dogs loaded in the back of the pickup truck.  We’d drive to the ramshackle Lumbee settlement and pick up Charlie.  Then we’d drive a little further and pull off to the side of the road where we would release the dogs into the woods.  Then we’d follow a path to a clearing and build a fire.  We’d sit around the fire and listen to the dogs barking in the distance.  I was a city boy, and all I heard was a bunch of dogs barking.  But Charlie heard a story.  He could tell from the sound of their bark when they picked up the trail of an animal – and he could tell if they were tracking a raccoon or a ‘possum or a fox.  He knew just where the dogs were.  “Ole Sally’s working over there by the branch.  That Tom’s gotten sidetracked over by the McCrimmon place.”  When the pitch of their barking changed, he knew they’d treed a ‘coon, and that’s when we got up, doused the fire, and followed him through the pitch- black woods, fighting off brambles, until we came to the tree where the dogs were barking at their prey.

The most remarkable thing I remember about Charlie was one night at the end of the hunt.  We were walking down a narrow path back to the pickup truck, and he stopped dead in his tracks.  He lifted his head, sniffed the air and said, “There’s a possum in that tree.”  We boys shined our lights up into the tree, and sure enough, cowering on an upper branch, was a fat opossum.  We caught it, and it was supper for Charlie’s family the next night.

For me the woods were a dark, foreboding place.  Set me loose in them at night, and I’d be lost before I could turn around.  But Charlie knew every contour and could interpret every sound.  The swamps that were dangerous and threatening to me were the source of food and life for him and his people.  He was born on the edge of those thickets, and they were home for him.

One night a man named Nicodemus came to Jesus.  Nicodemus was a learned man.  He was a teacher and a respected scholar.  He wanted to know more about Jesus.  He had heard about the things Jesus had done.  “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God,” Nicodemus observed.  Jesus replied, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Nicodemus didn’t find that very helpful.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he asked Jesus.  “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  It would be as if I said to Charlie, “Explain to me the ways of the forest and the swamps, the secrets of the ‘coons and the ‘possums and the foxes,” and he said, “You can’t see what I see unless you’re born a Lumbee.”  A lot of good that would do me.  I’m born who I am, and there’s no going back.

There are some things about ourselves we have to live with.  I’ll never be a Lumbee Indian.  Even if I study the ways of the forest, it can never be home for me the way it was for Charlie. But I don’t have to remain a stranger to the ways of God or to the kingdom of heaven.

Awhile back I was in a buffet line at a reception following a funeral.  A woman about my age was across the table from me.  We were both picking at the salad.  She said, “That was a comforting service, even for an agnostic like me.”  “Thank you,” I said.  I explained how our friend, the deceased, had put a lot of thought into it.  “I admired her faith,” the woman said.  “It gave her something solid to stand on.  There’s a God out there, but I’ve got so many questions.”  “Our friend had lots of questions, too,” I said.  “For her faith wasn’t having all the answers but trusting in God even with the questions.”  “That’s very comforting,” the woman said, and she moved along to the beverage table.

That woman was so much like Nicodemus.  She saw the signs of heaven’s kingdom.  She saw them in the life of our friend whom we’d just buried.  She saw them in the service we’d just celebrated.  She saw them, but they were not hers.  She was not born again.

That phrase “born again” is a tricky one.  The louder and more aggressive of our sisters and brothers in Christ have defined it to mean a conversion experience, a moment of spiritual rebirth you can identify and document the way you can document the time and place of your physical birth.  For some people it happens that way.  You can pinpoint the time and the place where your life was changed forever by a spiritual rebirth that ushered you into the realm of God.  For others it’s different.  The Greek word for “born again” is also translated “born from above.”  Some of us are born from above as we’re nurtured in our homes and in Sunday school.  We come to know the kingdom of God from childhood, like Charlie came to know the forest from the generations of his ancestors.  Some, like the writer C.S. Lewis, are born from above as the result of an intellectual quest, studying and examining literature and finding God in the midst of ideas.  For some it’s a matter of progressing through the stages of life, acquiring wisdom each step of the way, a process of maturing into the fullness of Christ.  Jesus told Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Those who are born of the Spirit see what others miss.  The signs of the kingdom confirm what they already know.  When the sick are healed, when the grieving are comforted, when the poor are fed, when the elderly are respected – those who are born of the Spirit see signs of God’s kingdom that is all around.  And when there are no signs, when the world is as dark and close and foreboding as a December night in the swamps of eastern North Carolina, they know that the Spirit is there.  They are at home in God’s everlasting dwelling place, and they have nothing to fear.

Many years ago I spent the summer as a hospital chaplain in Oklahoma City.  Every few weeks it was my turn to be on call.  I slept in a small room on the top floor of the hospital where the on-call residents stayed.  One night about 1:30 a.m. the phone rang.  It was the hospital operator saying I was needed in the Emergency Room immediately.  I threw on my clothes and hurried downstairs.  When I entered the Emergency Room I saw about 20 people wailing and wringing their hands.  The head nurse pulled me aside and explained there had been a motorcycle accident.  Two young men in their early twenties had been injured.  One was not going to make it.  The other would probably live, but his left leg was 95% severed.  These were their families in the waiting room.

I went to the families and introduced myself as the chaplain on call.  They asked me to read the 23rd Psalm and lead them in the Lord’s Prayer.  I did, and a calm settled over the room.  When we opened our eyes, you could see courage.  There was still fear, but along with it was confidence and hope that there was more going on there than tragedy and loss and pain.  The nurse then asked me to go into the room where the young man with the severed leg was.  It was a gruesome sight, one I’ll never forget.  We were there alone.  The entire medical staff was in an adjoining room trying valiantly to save his friend’s life.  He asked me to pray with him.  He held my hand and squeezed so tightly it hurt.  We prayed, and a feeling of peace enveloped us.  Then the orderlies came to wheel him to surgery.  He gave me a look of confidence.

He lost his leg, and his friend died.  I won’t lie to you and tell you any of it was easy for anyone.  But we were upheld by something not of this world.  We remembered that the Lord is our shepherd.  In the valley of the shadow of death we feared no evil.  Even in the deepest darkness, you can see the one who is already there – you have an eye for God.

3-8-20 Bulletin

3-8-20 bulletin

3-1-20 Bulletin

3-1-20 bulletin

3-1-20 — What’s So Original About Sin? — Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

There was a sticker in a phone booth that read, “If you’re tired of sin, read John 3:16.”  Scribbled underneath it was this: “If you’re not tired of sin, call 555-2363.”

One thing about preaching on sin, you don’t have to make a case for its existence.  All you have to do is check out the news – violence, dishonesty, corruption, it’s all there. In fact, sin is so prevalent, we’re so used to it, that it can be hard to recognize it for what it is – especially when it shows up in ourselves.

Hardly anyone ever sets out intentionally to sin.  It usually has a way of appearing good.  The story in Genesis 3 is a masterful description. The serpent didn’t tempt the woman with riches or pleasures or all those things that we usually associate with temptation.  In the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve didn’t need any of those things because they trusted in God completely.  What the serpent tempted her with was the possibility of being like God. The serpent insinuated to Eve that God just didn’t want them to be like God.  But wouldn’t it be wonderful if she were like God? The serpent assured her that if she did eat from that forbidden fruit, she wouldn’t need to rely on God to know right from wrong.  She could get by on her own, independent from her maker. And that was something she and Adam couldn’t resist.

That’s what gives sin its power.  It disguises itself as good.  The movie The Lord of the Rings is about a ring that gives its wearer absolute power, but that power leads to evil and self-destruction.  The only way the power of the ring can be overcome is if it is thrown into the fiery pit in the distant mountains where it was forged.  The good wizard Gandalf tries to convince the young hobbit Frodo to take the ring back to the mountain and destroy it before it falls into the hands of someone who would use it to destroy the world.  Frodo asks Gandalf why he doesn’t hold on to the ring and take it to the mountain.   Gandalf replies that he would be tempted to use the ring’s power to do good, but the power of the ring was such that it would use his very desire to do good as a way to do evil.

Think of terrorist networks.  Those young people who get caught up in them are convinced their cause is good and just.  They see themselves as avengers for righteousness.  They’re willing to die because they believe that a reward is waiting for them in paradise.  They’re convinced that it’s their victims who are evil and they are good.

And which of us hasn’t done the same thing, if on a smaller scale?  Who hasn’t done something you were convinced was right only to find out too late that it was wrong? Think of the things you’ve done that you are sorry for or ashamed you did.  Was there one of them that you didn’t justify at the time that you had good reason to do it?

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that trying to see our own sin is like trying to see our own eyeballs.  We’re incapable by ourselves of recognizing all the wrongs we do.  We’ve got too much invested in it.  God gave us God’s law to help us know right from wrong. The Ten Commandments tell us it’s a sin to steal or to murder or to dishonor God or to covet something that belongs to someone else.  We have no excuse for not knowing what is good and what is evil.  God has given us a conscience and God has told us what is good.

But we still fall short.  In the seventh chapter of Romans Paul describes that dilemma we all feel: “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate….  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” All parents who have resolved to be more kind and loving to their children only to find themselves the next day losing their temper with them can understand what Paul means.  There’s something in us, what the Bible calls sin, that keeps us from living up to the standards we truly want to live by. We find that sin is as inevitable as death.

The Bible draws a close connection between sin and death.  In fact, they’re interrelated and dependent on one another.  In the passage that we read today from Romans it says that death came into the world through Adam.  That doesn’t mean that if he hadn’t eaten the forbidden fruit we would all live forever.  After a few generations the planet would get pretty crowded.  But there’s something about death as we experience it that is at odds with the way God created us.

The power death has over us is that it stands as a black hole before us, and on our own we’re incapable of seeing beyond it.  The way we experience death is as the complete break in a relationship. When a loved one dies, there’s an empty place in our lives. Even though we’re left with precious memories and strong values, death puts an end to relationships as we know them, and so we fear death because it robs us of what’s so precious.

Genesis traces death’s power over us back to the break in our relationship with God.  Adam and Eve, instead of trusting God, tried to be in control. They wanted to tear away all the mystery and put themselves in the place of God.  So, they overreached. But they could not be God. They saw how helpless they were in the face of death, so right away they started to protect themselves instead of relying on God. And in trying to hide from their mortality, they hid from each other and from God.  They sewed fig leaves to cover themselves from each other.  Then they hid themselves among the trees so God wouldn’t notice them. Fear of death replaced trust in God.

Whether you believe that Adam and Eve were historical figures or metaphors for the human condition, their story is true.  It’s the story of you and me.  It’s borne out by our experience.  We don’t trust the power of truth so we find ourselves telling lies. We don’t trust that God will give us enough, so we grab for ourselves first and put others second.  And even if we do tell the truth and care for others, even if we follow the law of God to the letter, lurking right there waiting for us is the sin of self-righteousness and moral superiority that sets us above others and makes us think we’re as good as God.

Just as the power of the ring in The Lord of the Rings could only be destroyed by taking it back to the place where it was forged, the power of sin can only be overcome back at the source where it began. We can only become the people we long to be in our heart of hearts by restoring our relationship with God, by trusting God enough that we pursue truth and live in God’s ways, unafraid of the consequences, without trying to reach out on our own to protect ourselves from the power of sin and death.  When we try to do it on our own, we can’t help but fall prey to the very things we try to overcome.

That’s why we need someone to bring us back to God.  Our fear of death, the power of sin and its craftiness, make it too hard for us.  It takes someone whose love and grace and obedience to God are stronger than death and sin.

So, God sent Jesus to restore that broken relationship with God.  Jesus is like each of us, a human being.  He understands temptation. Hebrews 2:18 says, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”  Jesus is completely human yet he is completely God.  His life was characterized by perfect obedience and trust, even in the face of death.  He trusted God so completely that he never compromised what was right. He trusted enough that he was obedient even to death on a cross, knowing that even in death God would be faithful.

Jesus is an example for us to follow, yes, but we need more than an example.  In his death he actually freed us from the power of sin.  In his resurrection he opened the way to that perfect relationship with God that existed in the Garden of Eden.  And because he is alive and active today, and because we know him by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can trust him with our lives.

Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re no longer tempted or that we no longer sin.  It doesn’t mean that death is nothing to us.  It’s still something we do our best to avoid and it’s something that tears us apart when those we love die.  But because of Jesus’ perfect trust in God, because of his death and his resurrection, we know for certain that death doesn’t have the final word for us.  And because death, the worst that can happen to us, has been overcome in Jesus, we don’t have to fear anything else.  We don’t have to be afraid to tell the truth.  We don’t have to be afraid to put others above ourselves.  We don’t have to be afraid to live the way God wants us to live because we know through Jesus that we can trust God.  We don’t have to grasp and grab because we know God cares for us.  No matter what life throws at us, God is faithful.  Even when we walk in the darkest valley, we know God is there.  So we have confidence.  We have hope. Jesus has broken the power of sin.  We don’t have to hide, we don’t have to fear because in Christ we are free.