Anyone remember high school gym class? Anyone block it out of their memory because it scarred them for life?
When I was in high school, I was what I liked to call “selectively athletic”. I probably still am. I was really good at some sports. I was a fast runner so I could run a 7 minute mile (which apparently isn’t that fast, but was fast enough for the track team wanting to recruit me), I was decent at tennis, and even though I couldn’t guard someone too well, I was pretty good at shooting hoops. And I could even throw a football due to my Dad’s teaching me when I was young, so playing flag football with the other young women in class meant I was always the quarterback. But as far as most other sports go I was pretty dismal.
Every year in high school gym class, we had a unit on archery. You know, bow and arrow, shoot the target stuff. And every year I would memorize the ten steps of archery, in the hopes that it would actually make me good at it. Stance, finger placement, hand placement, bow arm, draw string, anchoring, holding, aiming, release, and follow through.
But no matter how much I memorized these steps, no matter how much I practiced and went through them in my head as I did them, I was still terrible. Katniss I was not. Most of the time, I missed the target completely. And if I did hit the target, it would be outside of the very outside circle of the 5 circle bullseye. I was aiming for the center of the bullseye, but I kept missing the mark.
In our reading from the Gospel of Mark, we hear about the religious leaders, the Pharisees, getting upset because the followers of Jesus weren’t following the traditions of washing their hands before eating. They are worried about the act of eating becoming impure within the religious tradition, unclean, or as Jesus says, defiled.
And Jesus says to all of the people who are there: “Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
So basically, Jesus is saying that things aren’t messed up because evil things are coming into us via our inability to follow the religious rules of the time properly. Things are messed up because we have evil intentions in our hearts. We end up doing the wrong things because we have the urge to do them, from inside of us.
As the old cartoon strip Pogo so famously put it, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Jesus is talking about our struggle with sin. Sin is when in thought, word, or deed, we fail to be or do what God wants us to be or do—OR when we do what God doesn’t want us to be or do. Sin causes a separation between us and God, and a separation between us and those we sin against.
In Greek, the language the New Testament was written in, the word used for sin is hamartia. That word literally translated means “to miss the mark.” Sin is missing the mark, not hitting the middle of that bullseye where God wants us to be.
Because here’s the thing. We want to hit that mark. We want to do the right thing. We want to do what God wants us to do.
But just like how no matter how hard I tried in archery to hit the middle of that target, no matter how much I practiced and memorized what I had to do, I still couldn’t do it. I think I did it maybe once or twice the whole four years of high school. And no matter how much we practice and memorize what God wants us to do, we still can’t always hit that bullseye. We still miss the mark.
Paul, the writer of many of the letters to people in the New Testament in our Bible, recognized this problem. He gets up close and personal with his struggle with sin and his missing the mark.
He says in his Letter to the Romans, chapter 7: “5 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
He says, “I do not do the thing I want, but I do the very thing I hate….sin dwells within me.”
Paul is saying exactly what Jesus is telling everyone in our reading today. Our urge to sin comes from deep inside of us. We know what we have to do. And sometimes we do it. But we do the opposite a lot of times, because sin is so deep within us that we miss the mark we are aiming for.
So if the urge to sin is inside of us, now what? We know we stink at life sometimes. We know that no matter how much we aim to do what God wants us to do, we will frequently miss the mark.
Well, Paul actually answers that for us. After Paul laments a bit more about doing the opposite of what he and God wants him to do, he says: “24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
So who is the one who saves us from this vicious cycle of sinning….? Jesus. When we see ourselves missing the mark constantly, it makes us realize that we need Jesus.
Only through Jesus are our sins forgiven. Only through Jesus are our sins put to death on the cross where he died and took our sins on himself. Only through Jesus do we realize that we are loved despite the fact that we continue to sin. Only Jesus, our Lord and Savior, does all this for us. Only Jesus.
Our missing the mark means that we are totally dependent on the only one who can handle our sin. We can’t do this ourselves. Jesus is the one who did it and does it for us.
And when Satan and our own minds try to tell us that even Jesus won’t want us, that we are damaged goods, that we are beyond help, we can say NO WAY. We know that Jesus died for us so that we can be saved from our own awfulness. Martin Luther put it this way in one of his sermons in 1532:
“Here shall a Christian learn how to grasp and use the Gospel message, when the time of battle is come and the Law attacks and accuses him, and his own conscience tells him: this wrong you have done, and you are a sinner, and what you deserve is death, and so on, that at such a time he may with true confidence reply: Alas, I am a sinner and I have well deserved death. You are right, but condemn and kill me on that account you shall not. There is One who will hinder you, who is called my Lord Christ, whom you have accused and murdered, although He was innocent.
But do you not know how you were burnt and bruised by Him, thus losing all your rights over me and all other Christians? For he bore sin and death, not for His own sake, but for me. Therefore I grant you no right over me, rather I have a right over you, because you attack me although I am innocent, you who were before conquered and condemned by Him, so that you should leave me in peace. For I am no longer merely a child of man; I have become the child of God; for I have been baptized in His blood and His victory, and arrayed in all the riches of His bounty.
Behold, in such a manner must all Christians arm themselves with the victory of Christ and repel the devil with it.”
We have the victory over sin and death and the devil because of Jesus Christ. He doesn’t leave us to fend for ourselves. He is with us, fighting with us, helping us.
There is an old story about a man who was walking on a road, that was very slick from the rain. He lost his footing and fell into a ditch filled with mud. He kept sinking deeper and deeper in the mud. The more he struggled to get out of the ditch, the deeper he sank.
As he was sinking in the mud a man came by. The man looked at him and said, "My, what a predicament you are in. Here is a paper that tells you ten ways to get out of ditches." The man started reading and he tried all ten ways to get out of the ditch, only to discover that the harder he tried the deeper he sank.
Then a woman came along and looked at him, and said, "You are in a terrible situation, but I have good news for you. If you’ll take 5 steps toward me, I’ll take 5 steps down to meet you, and then together we will walk out of the ditch."
But the man said, "I couldn’t even take the 5 steps. The more I struggle the deeper I sink in the mud."
Then Jesus came by. Jesus looked at him. Jesus got down in the ditch with him and he pulled him until his feet were on solid ground once again.
No matter how much we try ourselves, we cannot get out of the ditch of sin. Only Jesus can pull us out and get us to solid ground. Only Jesus gets into the ditch with us and pulls us out. We have an amazing savior, and amazing God, who gets into the muddiness, the dirtiness of our lives and helps us.
So when you are down, when you keep messing up and sinning and missing that mark no matter how hard you try, look to the one who pulls you out and saves you and forgives you and helps you. Look to Jesus. Amen.