Head Scratchers, Week 4 — A Sermon On The Unforgiveable Sin

When Jesus says, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven,” that’s a problem.

It runs so contrary to everything we’ve heard about grace, the cross, redemption, and possibility.

Plus, there’s that slight issue:  what is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and how do you know if you have ever done it?

So those were the dilemmas this sermon sought to resolve.  It began, as all of them have in the series, with an extraordinary video courtesy of Chris Macedo:

WORST. HEADSCRATCHER. EVER.  The unforgiveable sin.  The sin that once you have committed it, there is apparently no turning back.  And a lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to figure out and define exactly what that eternal sin is . . . what is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?  And still others have tried to figure out if they have ever done it.  And then still others, sadly, assume they have and that it’s too late for their soul.  I so vividly remember shortly after my own conversion to faith at 17 that time I was speaking with a kid in my grade and trying to get him to consider Christ as well and he said, “Nah, it’s too late.  I’ve already done too much.”  At 17!  Or even the guy in college whose life was headed down a pretty dark path and said to me in honor of an AC-DC song, “well, maybe hell is not such a bad place to be.”  Well, it is, and I always pray that no one hearing my voice will end up there.
            It’s also interesting to me that one of the biggest fears people bring to the notion of the unforgiveable sin is the possibility that they HAVE committed it BUT DON’T KNOW IT.  Almost like they did it unawares, THEN lived a good life of faith, and end up dying and going to hell anyway.  “Gee, if I’d known that was coming I woulda lived it up while I was here!”  So in light of all that, I suppose we ought to figure out what “it” is, determine if we can in any sense “do” it – knowingly or unknowingly – and then explore what all this has to do with our lives anyway.
            And, as usual, the answers to these questions come from pulling back from the verse in question to see what is around it.  And with this one, perhaps more than any other, the answers stem from the build up, the dialog that precedes it.  And that build up and dialog in this case actually involves Jesus’ own family.  Look at Mark 3:20-21: 

 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family[a] heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

The word there for “take charge” is literally seize him.  His family wanted to seize him against his will because in their view he is “out of his mind.”  And if that conjures up in your mind these very sad images of a straight jacket, a psych ward, involuntary commitment & Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, it SHOULD.  That’s what the family wants to do with Jesus here.  He has the wild popularity, this expanding influence that they can’t understand – in fact, it makes them fearful – and so their response is to curse it.  Throw it to the ground.  Mom and brothers don’t have a category for computing this time of power & influence happening to one of their own.  They could only dream of having that influence and so they try to stow it away.  Families are tough!

            And then look at 3:22: 

 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”

So after his family, it’s Jesus’ religion that gets him in trouble.  Maybe his boyhood preachers!  VBS leaders for sure.  And since Jesus is able to do the kind of things they can’t do – like heal people with the sound of his voice and draw crowds to hear his teaching – they cast aspersions on him.  They say he does what he does by the devil’s power.  Even though he is doing things that are inherently good, he is doing them via a power that is truly evil.  Do you see the parallel to the family?  Jesus has more success than they have the ability to comprehend, he has surpassed them professionally! and so they curse him.  Family envies his influence: curse.  Clergy envies his success: curse.

            Which launches Jesus into pointing out the absurdity of those two preceding ideas in 3:23-27: 

 23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house.
You thoughtAbraham Lincoln  said that “house divided against itself cannot stand” first, but no – a bigger, yes, better name came up with it.  And because it was from the mouth of Jesus originally, it carried unusual truth & credibility when Lincoln retweeted it 1800 years later.  

            But do you see what is going on with this back & forth?  First with the family and then with the clergy?  ENVY.  The family envies his influence, doesn’t have category to understand it, and so curses him by trying to have him committed.  The clergy envies his success, that he can do things they’d like to do but can’t, and so they curse him by accusing him of being in league with Evil.  Whatever else this story is about, whatever else the eternal sin is, envy has to be swimming around the center somehow.
            So I’ve got to ask: where’s the source of your envy?  You know what envy is, right?  The art of counting another’s blessings instead of your own.  Even more, envy is not only I want what you have, but once I get it I want you not to have it anymore at all.  So where is it that you have envy about another’s influence?      Because it starts SO YOUNG!  When our 24 year old daughter was three, and used to having the run of the house and of our family, we played the dirtiest trick you can ever play on a three year old: we had another child. And so we brought Riley home and her world turned upside down as the attention and influence was suddenly shared.  And when he was probably two months old, we did an all church retreat with the Monroe church and one morning she wakes him up at the retreat center . . . by biting him on the nose.  Hard.  Envy with teeth marks! People in the church were like, “that preacher is raising cannibal children!”  Still the most infamous event in our little family and envy was at the root.  Starts young.
            You may not be at the biting stage – anymore – but does it have to do with a sibling or a co-worker or a friend. They’ve got a blessing of influence and impact that you don’t have.  Taylor must have come by it honestly, because this is the one that gets me with other preachers for sure.  
            But what about envying the success of someone else?  They have more, have done more, dress more, drive more.  And you’re so busy tallying up all their blessings that you can’t possibly count your own.  Because we end up ridiculing that which we cannot attain.  It is especially dangerous because the ultimate target of our envy is godliness.  I remember working at a Xn camp and even among a Xn camp staff there was one young man who stood out because he was a bit different than everyone else.  And other staffers didn’t always treat him well.  Finally, I asked one of the camp leaders why this one fellow was subject to such Xn Cruelty and he answered:  “I think his holiness intimidates everyone else.”  So true.  He had a level of connection with God that we others didn’t and so our response to that was to lash out.  So where is it that someone has influence or success or godliness and you end up cursing them for it?
            I ask that because all that envy – from family, clergy – and all that curing (Beelzebub!) paves the way for the head scratcher:  

 28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”

 Ah, so the deal is that you curse what you envy, you ridicule that which you cannot attain. TO THE POINT OF ATTRIBUTING THE WORK OF GOD TO THE POWER OF SATAN.  That’s what is going on in this dialog, that’s what’s going on in our lives . . . and that’s what’s bee going on for all time.  Because what was it that the tempter used to trick the man and the woman in the Garden?  Envy!  To be like God, remember.  Man, woman, why are you content just being people when you could be like God, knowing good & evil?  Would you like some apple pie?  CHOMP!  God had something they didn’t and the envy for that all encompassing knowledge made them curse God and disobey.

            But go back even further than the Garden.  What was it that made Satan himself, that former angel, fall into rebellion?  Envy!  He wanted what God had!  The prestige, the acclaim, the praise!  He couldn’t stand to see it going to another & so longed for it for himself.  So now it’s clear: this thing that stretches back before creation, then rears its head in Mark 3, and now lands squarely in our lives . . . it’s what makes you want to play the role of God, to be like God and when you realize you aren’t God you curse God . . . and THAT is unforgiveable.  You curse what you wish you could be and so you ultimately curse and hate God.
            See, the unforgiveable sin is NOT something you do.  It’s an attitude you have.  It’s NOT an act you commit.  It’s a journey you take.  And that takes you.  It’s this all-consuming, uncontrollable envy, starting with people and ending with God, and the effect of that envy is corrosive.  Once your heart becomes sufficiently corroded over (AV car battery) and you are well versed in cursing what you envy you arrive at the state of unforgiveness.  God doesn’t break through a corroded heart.  It’s not an action.  It’s a journey. But a lot of people end up taking it.
            And I don’t want you to take the first step.  It’s so much like I’ve told you before that I heard in an open AA meeting once:  if you get hit by a train, it’s not the caboose that kills you.  It’s the first care.  Same with this.  That corrosive journey of envy starts somewhere – siblings, co-workers, the rich & famous, other preachers – and it ends nowhere: eternal separation from God.  You curse what you envy and that trip lands at an unforgiveable place.
            So where is it that you are so eaten up with what you’re NOT that you don’t develop what you ARE?  I long for me and you not to curse what is beyond us but to delight in what is in others.  Yeah, the success, the blessings, the godliness of others elevates the whole enterprise.  Raises us all.  It takes us all.  You know, a great band doesn’t sound great because they’re all playing the same instrument but because they are all adding their part to the whole sound.  And a great choir doesn’t sound great because they’re all singing the same part; they sound great because each is singing a part of the harmony that makes up the song.
     It’s even like this: AV Neil Armstrong.  And you know what he got to say, right?  One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.  Guess what?  It took 218,000 people to get him there!  Right!  218,000 people worked on that project from beginning to end to make one guy the first one on the moon.  You gotta know that a whole lot of egos were put aside and that there was a whole lot of delight in what is in others.  Don’t curse what is beyond you.  Celebrate what others enjoy.  
            Here’s what you do this week:  when you start counting up the blessings of other people, STOP.  Turn that calculator off.  And then ON the one that is for your own blessings.
            Because wouldn’t it be great, wouldn’t it be marvelous if instead of having the influence and the godliness of other people eat you up from the inside out, you were able to delight in the goodness of God that is within them.  Because who knows?  You might just save your soul.