Spiritual X-rays

Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Psalm 51:1-12 | John 12:20-33

Jeremy Richards

One day in the year 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen, a little known professor of physics at the University of Wurzburg in Germany, was doing some experiments, as scientists tend to do. Roentgen was playing around with electrical currents, passing them through vacuum tubes. He noticed that the currents caused a fluorescent screen across the room to light up, despite the fact that there was a cardboard barrier between them.

Roentgen concluded that there must be unknown, invisible rays present in the tubes that could pass through barriers. He wasn’t sure what to call these rays, so he used the scientific letter associated with the unknown: x, and thus x-rays were discovered. Only two weeks after this initial discovery Roentgen produced the first ever x-ray image. It was of his wife’s hand. [1]

With Roentgen’s discovery the medical world was changed forever. Previously, there was no way to see tumors, bullets, or broken bones from outside the body. Assessments either had to be made from what was visible on the outside or by opening the body up so the doctors could have a look. With the discovery of the x-ray, doctors could see inside patients without cutting them open for the first time. Patients the world over were very excited about this.

Since then, the medical field’s ability to see inside bodies and detect diseases, ailments, and abnormalities has only improved. Now we also have MRI machines, ultrasounds, and many other scans that I don’t know about but surely exist. This past few months I’ve seen our unborn baby a few times thanks to ultrasounds! We have a pretty killer profile shot of our little nugget hanging on our fridge right now.

The medical field understands how important it is to be able to see what isn’t initially visible to the naked eye. When we have unknown aches and pains, or when things just don’t seem right, it’s not uncommon for the doctor to take an x-ray, or do some sort of scan to look for the problem, so that they can get beyond the symptoms to the root of the issue.

While some of us might avoid going to the doctor until it becomes abundantly clear that we need to, few, if any, of us question the usefulness of x-rays, MRIs, ultrasounds, and the like. We understand that these instruments help doctors pinpoint the causes of our pain and discomfort. They give medical professionals exact knowledge, so that they know what to do when the time comes to treat the ailment. If we’re going in for surgery, we don’t want our doctor going in blind. We want her to know exactly what she’s going to do before she cuts us open, am I right? We appreciate these instruments that shed light on our physical bodies, revealing what we cannot see, exposing the ailments that keep us from living full lives.

Strangely, though, we are not so ready to admit the need for the spiritual instrument, the spiritual discipline, of confession, which does something similar. Confession, like a spiritual x-ray or MRI, sheds light on our spiritual bodies, reveals what we often cannot see, and exposes those ailments that keep us from flourishing. In this case I’m talking about confessing our sins to God, as the psalmist does in Psalm 51, not going into a booth and confessing, though there are Scriptures that encourage us to confess our sins to one another.

To have an MRI done, I hear, you enter a skinny little tube, and you have to stay very still, until the MRI is done. You don’t actually do anything yourself. You’re not supposed to heal yourself while you’re in there. You just quiet yourself. If and when the cause of your pain or discomfort is found, the doctor will direct you from there. She’ll give you medicine, or tell you to change your eating habits, or schedule you for surgery or treatment.

Confession is much the same. In confession, we quiet ourselves before the Great Physician, God Almighty, the Creator of Heaven and Earth. We ask God, in the words of Psalm 139, to “search us, O God, and know our hearts; test us and know our thoughts. See if there are any wicked ways in us, and lead us in the way everlasting” (vv. 23-24).

We know, as we go through our lives, that there are parts of us that don’t work quite right. We are impatient and anxious. We judge people. We buy into stereotypes and assumptions. We are selfish when we should show compassion to others. We participate in unjust systems without a second thought.

But, like someone with a compound fracture insisting they don’t need to see a doctor, we insist that we don’t have any need for confession, though we may readily admit that we aren’t perfect. I think we would all readily admit that we could be better family members, better friends, better neighbors, and better disciples of Jesus Christ. And yet many of us cringe at words like sin, confession, and repentance.

We avoid them like the plague, when, in fact, they are the cure for the plague.

This is probably the result of misunderstanding the purpose of confession and repentance. We are the offspring of the Puritans, after all, and we’re constantly rebelling against our parents and their strict rules (which, in the case of the Puritans, is completely understandable and even encouraged). We have been led to believe that the emphasis of these practices of confession and repentance is the sin, as if the point is to make sure we know that we are sinful, as if God is like a doctor who takes a scan and identifies what’s wrong, but does nothing to help us, the only purpose being to point out the disease we have that God doesn’t, when in reality God is like a good doctor, the best doctor, who wants to make us well. Jesus is the great Healer.

The purpose of confession and repentance isn’t the sin, but the possibility of a life free from sin – the sin that impedes our life with God and one another. One of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time, Augustine, knew this. Augustine’s Confessions are beautiful, profound, and over 300 pages long! He says early in the Confessions, “Look with mercy upon these follies, Lord, and set us free who already call upon you. Set free those also who do not yet call upon you, so that they may invoke you and you may give them freedom.”[2] The purpose of confession is to be set free from the sins that enslave us, something Paul talks about in Romans 6.

It is true that confession and repentance involve identifying our sins, but only so that they can be named and removed, like a disease in the body, or like barriers on a path. It’s the psalmist, not God, who has a hard time forgiving himself. In our psalm from today, he says,  “My sin is ever before me” (51:3), but God responds through the prophet Jeremiah, “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more” (31:34). Our sin isn’t something God wants to focus on, it’s something God wants to remove. But it’s hard to remove something we deny the existence of. It’s hard to be cured if we won’t go to the doctor.

Both the psalmist and the prophet Jeremiah understand that the problem of sin isn’t a problem of breaking arbitrary rules or offending a strict parent who’s just waiting for us to mess up. Sin is, instead, something that has infiltrated our lives, and corrupted the way we see the world, ourselves, and others. But it’s become so much a part of our lives, we usually can’t see it.

We are born into a world built upon stories. The fancy word for these stories is “metanarratives.” Metanarratives are stories that help us make sense of the world. How we live within the world, how we understand others, and how we react to events are all shaped by our metanarrative – the overarching story or stories through which we interpret life.

The problem is that our metanarratives have all been infiltrated by sin. Sin gives us a false understanding of the world. The stories we’re told and the stories we tell ourselves are pocked with lies that sow distrust, enmity, and strife between us and our neighbors and our God. That’s why Jesus calls Satan “the father of lies” (John 8:44). Lies are at the heart of sin. These lies not only influence us externally, but have also been internalized by us, since the time we were born. The psalmist understands this and says, “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (51:5).

To only treat the outward manifestations of sin, to simply pray something like, “God forgive me for losing my temper with my partner this morning,” is like only treating the symptoms and not the cause of an illness. What we so often call “sins” are really only the symptoms of sin, just as a cough is only the symptom of a cold, it’s not the cold itself.

The psalmist understands this, and so he prays for the cure, not the cure for the symptoms, but a cure for the disease itself, and the only cure for lies is truth:“You desire truth in the inward being,” he says, “therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (51:6-7). He goes on to say, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (51:10).

What the psalmist wants isn’t forgiveness for a sin or two – or, isn’t just forgiveness for a sin or two – he wants a new heart altogether. He doesn’t say clean the heart I have, he says create in me a clean heart. Put a new and right Spirit within me. The psalmist is asking God to do a transformative work within him, a work that he cannot do on his own, a work that only God can do in him.

This is the work God promises to do not just for one person but for all of Israel in Jeremiah. God says God will make a new covenant with the house of Israel. Unlike the one before that was based primarily on outward actions – the symptoms – in this new covenant God will treat the inward cause. God says through the prophet, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD” (31:33-34).

Both the psalmist and Jeremiah understand that there’s a limit to what we can do on our own. Just as we place our bodies at the mercy of medical professionals, so we must place our souls in the hands of the God who created us. One commentator on this passage from Jeremiah says, “Jeremiah realizes that humanity simply does not have the capacity to heal itself…there is always a need for help from without, indeed, a need of resources that only the Creator can provide. The limits of human moral capacity become the beginning of divine provision.”[3] We might hear in this quote the echo of Paul’s words, that Christ’s “power is made perfect in (our) weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

This is nothing to be ashamed of, but is, instead, something that makes complete sense in light of what we believe. We believe that we were made to be in relationship with God, that we need God, that entering the waters of baptism represents entering the life of the Triune God. We are “in Christ,” and at the same time we’re indwelled by the Holy Spirit. We don’t just say that because it sounds nice. We say it because we believe it to be true: our lives have been joined to the life of our Creator. If we have joined our lives to the life of God, then surely God is working in us and through us to do something we could not do on our own. In the words of Ephesians 3:20, Christ, working within us, is able to “accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Christ is able to do a new thing in us. Christ is able to fulfill the prayer of the psalmist. He is able to create in us a clean heart, and put a new and right spirit within us.

The new covenant God speaks of through the prophet Jeremiah is one in which the law of God does not command from outside but manifests itself from the inside out. The law will be written on our hearts by a God we will know, not a God we simply hear about.

In the new covenant, by which God has made God’s home within us through the Holy Spirit, God walks alongside us, as Jesus walked alongside the disciples, confronting the metanarratives, the stories, we’ve been told, shining a light on the lies we could not see, showing us a new way. This is what Jesus was talking about last week in our reading from John 3, when he said, “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light so that their deeds may not be exposed. 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” (John 3:19-21). Once again, truth is key.

Through confession we put on that big heavy apron and let Jesus take an x-ray of our lives. Like all those unknown currents Wilhelm Roetgen discovered, we let truth penetrate our being. We let Christ shine a light on those beliefs, fears, and desires that are making us sick with sin.

But many people would rather believe they’re not sick. They’ve grown accustom to their sickness. They know how to make due and recovery takes hard work, perseverance, and time. And it often hurts. Just ask Alison about the physical therapy she has to do every day! Recovery means learning to walk differently, to live more holistically, to cut out harmful vices. Some people don’t want to do this work because they “love darkness rather than the light,” and they “do not come to the light so that their deeds may not be exposed.”       

Confession and repentance aren’t only for individuals, though. They are for communities and societies as well. Currently, there’s a great deal of light being shone on the sins of our society. And just as Jesus said, there are some “who do what is true” and “come to the light,” and there are there are others who “do evil” and “hate the light and do not come to the light so that their deeds may not be exposed.”

In the last year or so, the United States has come face to face with some of its sins, sins it didn’t want to believe were there. Sins that have been making us sick for a long, long time.

Through videos taken with phones we’ve seen the repeated killings of unarmed black people, and we’ve seen the murderers acquitted time and time again. This has given rise to movements like Black Lives Matter and others, through which People of Color have revealed to us something that many white Americans didn’t know, and didn’t want to know: that racism is still alive and well in our country, in our towns, in our communities, including here in Portland, Oregon.

Through the brave women behind the #MeToo movement, the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and abuse by men in power has been exposed as well.

And, most recently, through the voices and actions of our country’s youth, we are being confronted with the United States’ long love affair with violence and weapons of violence, beginning with the sin of colonialism and weaving its way through our history to today, where people care more about their right to own automatic weapons than the lives that have been lost as a result of them.

None of these things are new. Racism, sexual harassment and assault, and the love of violence are as old as our society. What’s long been there is simply being revealed. This is what the truth does, and truth is at the heart of Jesus’ mission. The Gospel of John says that the law came through Moses but grace and truth come through Jesus. To follow Jesus is to pursue the truth.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints recently wrote an article for the Washington Post about the #Metoo movement, but what she says applies to all sins that are exposed by the truth. She says, “There has not been a sudden uptick in sexual misconduct and assault in our country, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are simply exposing what was already there. [It’s] finally being brought out of the dark ubiquity of women’s personal experience and into the light of public discourse.”[4]

Will we let the light expose our collective sins? Or will we hide from the light? Will we love the darkness more? We don’t like having our sins exposed, as individuals or as a society. But Jesus is clear: discipleship always begins with repentance. To be healed we must see our wounds, and let the Great Physician clean and dress them. We must quiet ourselves and allow the light of Christ’s love to shine on us and through us.

We need to reframe our understanding of repentance and confession. They aren’t instruments of shame but instruments of freedom and healing. Through them we turn our hearts to a God who is love, a God who longs to know us and to be known by us, until no one has to say, “know the Lord,” because we all will know the Lord.

I would like to end this morning by praying a popular prayer of confession. Try to hear it with new ears. Hear it as an invitation. Hear it as a plea that God would reveal and remove those barriers that stand between us and God, that God would heal us, make us more whole, that God would transform us and make us more Christ-like, that we would internalize a new story that is actually the “old, old story of Jesus and his love.”

Most merciful God,

We confess that we have sinned against you

in thought, word, and deed,

by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart;

we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,

have mercy on us and forgive us;

that we may delight in your will,

and walk in your ways,

to the glory of your name. Amen.


[1] https://theconversation.com/on-the-120th-anniversary-of-the-x-ray-a-look-at-how-it-changed-our-view-of-the-world-50154, https://classroom.synonym.com/did-invention-xray-machine-change-society-9785.html

[2] Augustine, The Confessions, “Book I: Infancy and Boyhood,” 14.

[3] Samuel K. Roberts, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2, “Jeremiah 31:31-34,” 124, 126.

[4] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “We’re in the Midst of an Apocalypse. And That’s a Good Thing,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/03/14/were-in-the-midst-of-an-apocalypse-and-thats-a-good-thing/?utm_term=.e998dc92ba55