Friday, September 18, 2020

Casting Off

      If you, LORD, kept a record of sins,

Lord, who could stand? 

But with you there is forgiveness, 

so that we can, with reverence, serve you. 

I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, 

and in his word I put my hope.

I wait for the Lord 

more than watchmen wait for the morning,

more than watchmen wait for the morning. 

Israel, put your hope in the LORD,

for with the LORD is unfailing love 

and with him is full redemption. 

-Psalm 130:3-7 (NIV)

This weekend, Jewish people the world over are celebrating Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah begins the “High Holy Days” of the Jewish calendar. It’s considered New Year’s Day for civil purposes (the name literally means “head of the year”). 

    The way 2020 has gone, between you and me I’m thinking that celebrating the beginning of a new year beside our Jewish cousins might not be a bad idea. Maybe it’s time for a hard reset.

     I discovered this week that one of the customs of Rosh Hashanah, at least in some Jewish communities, is a ritual called Tashlikh, or “casting off.” The custom comes from Micah 7, in which the prophet promises that God will “cast your sins into the depths of the sea.” Jews that practice Tashlikh usually do so on the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. They gather by a natural body of flowing water to pray and symbolically throw the sins of the previous year into the water. Some symbolize this by tossing in small pebbles or pieces of bread. 

     The psalm above, 130, is one of the readings from Scripture that are often recited at Tashlikh. The psalm reminds us that, though none of us could “stand”  before God if he demanded an accounting of our sins, “with the LORD is unfailing love and…full redemption.” We remember from this psalm that God offers forgiveness.

     Notice, though, that there’s a purpose for this forgiveness. The NIV says, “so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” That’s actually a stretch of a translation: more literally, it says “that you may be feared.” The psalmist wants God’s generous forgiveness to awaken in us, not a sense of entitlement or a casualness about sin, but a sense of reverence, awe, and, yes, fear. “In his word I put my hope,” the psalmist says, because God is the most terrifying thing on the block. There’s nothing that ought to be quite as awe-inspiring as a holy God who knows our sins and yet doesn’t keep track of them, who could rightly visit judgement on every one of us and who instead disposes of our sins forever and comes to us with forgiveness, love and redemption that never fail.

     The fact that we’ve kind of forgotten this might have something to do with the reasons we struggle with the same sins new year after new year. We put our hope in many things. There are a lot of things, quite frankly, that most of us fear more than we fear God. We turn our attention to trying to stave off those things we fear, and to do so we put our hope in politicians and political parties, or money, or career, or education, or the numbing effect of any number of addictions and obsessions. Instead of beginning our years by remembering God’s love, forgiveness, and redemption, we begin them by manufacturing joy and resolving that this year is going to be so much better than last because we’re finally going to stop this thing or start that one.

     For the psalmist, though, the only hope is to “wait for the LORD.” God promises that forgiveness, love, and redemption are the default settings for his dealing with human beings. It may not always look that way, but that’s why we have to wait. Not with fingers crossed, though, hoping against reasonable hope for a miracle — we wait knowing that God will keep his word and intervene on our behalf. We wait with expectation. We wait with awe and faith and, sure, a healthy dash of fear. 

     Paul writes in Ephesians that believers in Jesus have been taught a new way of seeing themselves, others, and the world around them. He reminds the church in Ephesus that they have learned in Christ to “cast off the old person” and to “put on” the new by the work of Jesus in our lives. Paul argues that Jesus is our tashlikh, our “casting off.” It’s in Jesus, uniquely, that the psalmist’s hopes for God’s forgiveness and redemption have been fulfilled. It’s in Jesus, uniquely, that his promise of God’s unfailing love is kept. It’s in him that our sins are disposed of, once and for all, but it’s also in him that we can see that our only valid response is to fear God above everything else and serve him with all our hearts.

     Traditionally, Rosh Hashanah commemorates God’s creation of human beings. That is, on the first days of their year, Jews remember that human beings have a special place in God’s work in the world. We all know, of course, that human beings didn’t exactly live up to the high aspirations God had for us. But, as Christians, we believe that through Jesus God is making us fit for the place in the world he has created us for. He’s making us new people, “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”

     Whatever this current year has done to us, and whatever it has in store for us, we know that God is faithful. In Christ he is creating new men and women every day, new men and women who are able to walk in the world and do God’s work with faith, courage, conviction, and love. In Christ, through his death and resurrection, he has “cast off” everything that makes us afraid, everything that compromises our witness to the gospel, and everything that makes us hope in what will inevitably disappoint. He asks us just to trust him, to do some “casting off” of our own, to get rid of those last scraps and rags of our old lives so that we can live as the new people he has created us to be in Jesus. 

     We don’t need a new year to do that, to be those new people. We have what we need for that in Jesus. We can’t control what 2020 has brought us, and we won’t be able to control whatever may happen when we do cross into 2021. That doesn’t matter, though. What matters is that, in Christ, God has cast away our sins and is making us into human beings who will fill our world — whatever may come — with the knowledge of God’s glory.

     So maybe we should join our Jewish kin by the water this weekend, or by the water of our own baptism, as we recall that God has cast away our sins in Jesus. Let’s consider what we may need still to cast off from our old life in order to be the people he has made us to be.

     And may our lives be a new year, a new dawn full of hope in the Lord.

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