Samuel Johnson was born on September 18, 1709, and was an English writer who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. He was a devout Anglican and a generous philanthropist. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes Johnson as "arguably the most distinguished man of letters (male scholar) in English history".
When he was a young boy, his father had a vegetable stand at a certain spot called Uttoxeter in Staffordshire. One Saturday he asked Samuel to go there and open it and just stand there and take the money. Samuel said, “Yes,” but he never got there. Because he never got there, they lost money; and they lost some of the vegetables.
Samuel Johnson never got over the guilt of that. Years later when his father was long dead, when he couldn’t deal with what he called his “secret discontent,” one day he walked to the spot, which for years and years had been abandoned, the same spot where his father used to have a vegetable stand, which hadn’t been there for years and years. He walked there one day in the pouring rain and stood there for two hours bareheaded, trying to deal with his guilt, trying to deal with his secret discontent. It didn’t work.
His story made me think of another writer, William Shakespeare, and his play, Macbeth, which I remember reading as part of English Literature when I was in high school. Lady Macbeth, the wife of the title character, has urged her husband to murder the King of Scotland.
One night, as the guilt is weighing heavily on her, she is sleepwalking. And she imagines that a spot of the King’s blood stains her hand—she can see it, but nobody else can. She is constantly rubbing her hands, wringing them, crying out, “Yet here is a spot…out damn spot! Out! I say.” And her guilt over the murder gradually drives her insane.
Our guilt not only has about it an indelibility, but even beyond that it has a vividness, a freshness. Why? Because our guilt is not just a memory. It is as if someone is continually telling us about it. It’s not just we remember it, but somebody is actually bringing it up again and again. That’s the reason why it’s not just indelible but it’s immediate. It is as if we can hear a voice in our heads, reminding us of the wrong we have done, feeling the weight of it, the dread of it.
And none of us can get away from this. For all have sinned. There is no one righteous, no, not one. There is no one free from the stain of sin and wrong. There is no one free from corruption. Yet another writer, the Apostle John was clear about this when he wrote, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us…If we say we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and his truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8,10, ESV). He would write later of that vividness and freshness and immediacy of sin, even past sin, and an internal dialogue, describing it this way: “our heart condemns us” (1 John 3:20, ESV).
I believe it was Judith Shulevitz, upon rediscovering her Jewish faith, and its teaching on sin and guilt, who would speak of “the eternal inner murmur of self-reproach.” That voice inside that will never let us rest, always expressing disapproval and disappointment.
The children of Israel in the days of Haggai and Zechariah had an external voice of reproach. These two men were preacher prophets sent from God to his people who had recently come out of exile and returned to the land of promise. And as we learned last week, they had allowed God to slip from the center of their attention and affections. Other things had taken his place.
So that we find this man, Zechariah, stand among his people, and proclaim,
“Yahweh was very angry with your fathers. Therefore say to them, Thus declares Yahweh of Heaven’s Armies: Return to me….”
I invite you now to watch or listen to the sermon on Zechariah, where we explore how this prophet of God helps the children of God deal with the weight, and seemingly indelible mark, of sin on their lives. And if you’d like to study the book further, I commend the Zechariah page over at the Bible Project.
Finally, I will be at the annual meeting this week of The Evangelical Theological Society. So, we won’t be in the Whole Story series until Sunday, November 25 at Calvary. We will study the book of Malachi that Sunday, and you have two weeks to read and meditate upon it. Be sure to attend the family gathering this coming Sunday, when Pastor Josh will be preaching on outreach and missions.
See you in two weeks!
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