Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. It can get ahold of a person and turn him all the way in on himself. What seemed a brief reflection lingers for hours, days, weeks, even years. Why did we break up? What if I’d stayed? How could I have been so stupid? Where did it all go wrong? “Nostalgia" is often just the Old Adam replaying old tapes. He lingers over, covets even, the “what ifs” and the “could-have-beens.” Maybe if he can solve the riddle of his past successes and failures he can go to work building a better, brighter future for himself today.
Another word for this is “sin.” Original sin causes Old Adam to turn away from God and curves him all the way in on himself. He gets all balled up. Sin makes him the sun at the center of his own little universe. Everything else orbits him. Everyone depends on his light to enlighten them. Encourage him and his light is gentle and warm. Anger Old Adam and he goes super-nova. And afterward, he’ll go to work to figure out how to do it all better the next time. Old Adam doesn’t see himself as a rebel, or prophet, or entrepreneur, or beggar. He sees himself as the master of past, present, and future. He wants to be God in God’s place. But he’s a miserable failure at it. He may be like God knowing good and evil, but he’s not God. He has no power to change anything for the worse or the better. Old Adam is just a man. An ordinary, sinful man. And that makes him boring.
It makes his sin boring. He never changes. He repeats the same behavior, says the same words, imagines the same outcomes over and over again. Worse yet, whatever he does, he believes he’s the only man in history to do it just this way. No one has ever expressed this idea quite like him. Nobody has done it this way before. He’s special. He’s unique. But take off the mask, strip off the fancy clothes, erase the self-appointed titles that lend an air of respectability to Old Adam, and what’s left? A man like any other man. Maybe he’s a bit taller than his dad. Maybe his mind gets to the solution a little quicker than his wife can answer. Maybe his paycheck is that much more than what his neighbor brings home come payday. He’s still just a man. A creature. And for all his attempts at playing the God game, whether repelling down into his past or rocketing into his future, he's a miserable failure. What he discovers in the past that could have been and the future that could be is that God is God and Old Adam isn’t.
This means Old Adam’s sin is boring. He wants to be God. Pick a religion. Do you prefer an old religion or a young one? Do you prefer incense and chanting or smoke machines and a catchy chorus? He doesn’t respect God’s Name. The Irish have already compiled a lexicon of colorful and amusing epithets that use God’s Name. We’re sure Old Adam can find several to suit his needs. Loathes his mom and dad? Who doesn’t? Freud made a cottage industry out of it. Shacks up with his brother’s wife? No surprise there. We’ve got instructional videos and online manuals that can help. Lies, cheats, and schemes to get his heart’s desire? Around here, we just refer to it as “capitalism.”
No matter how you come at it the Old Adam’s sin is boring. The same sins repeated over and over again until he dies. Then someone else is born and carries on the tradition of telling God and neighbor, “I got this. You ain’t seen nothing yet!” This is also why it’s impossible for Old Adam to receive as gift the Good News that One has already paid the bill for his failures. A Savior has already come. He canceled all Old Adam’s future plans for reform and success. By Jesus’ one bloody suffering and death, he has defined for all time Old Adam’s past, present, and future. All he has to do is believe it. But he can’t. How can Old Adam accept as true, as fact, that a God who isn’t him, who lives outside him, independent of him, has done it all for Old Adam? That Old Adam’s failures and successes are piled onto this Messiah? This would mean not just his failures but even his successes, his reflections about the past and his future hopes, are gathered together under one word that God uses to define them all: ”sin.”
Old Adam rejects the suggestion outright. How pedestrian. How scandalous. How can anyone with a stitch of common sense believe shacking up with my brother’s wife is the same as worrying about whether I’m a good enough husband to my own wife? Who is dumb enough to believe Jesus’ blood was shed for a murderer as much as for a life coach? He died for people who are unwilling to believe he died for the sins they don’t believe are sins? Who’s the idiot who imagined this qualifies as “Good News”? You want to throw away everything that gives my life its meaning, everything that distinguishes me from all of the nose-pickers and navel-gazers, because the worst and best parts of my life are nothing but sin? Am I supposed to believe I’m nobody special? Am I not unique? Am I just ordinary? Boring? Impossible!
This is the scandal of the cross. The big trip-up for Old Adam. Jesus’ death for all his sins reveals he’s just another pretender in a long, long history of sinners who like to play make-believe. He’s offended at the announcement God has taken his past, present, and future away from him, piled them onto Jesus, and buried them. Worse yet for Old Adam, all that’s left is a risen Jesus who grounds everybody’s identity in Him. “Do you believe Jesus died for your sins and rose for your justification,” His preachers ask? “Are you baptized into Jesus’ Name?” “Have you eaten His flesh and drunk His blood?” Old Adam rejects the questions outright. They’re too particular. Too limiting for him. How can less freedom to choose be “Good News”? I have faith already. I consider myself a spiritual person. How can my religiosity, my heart-felt belief, be sin?
The Old Adam doesn’t want to hear that his sin is boring. That every day he re-enacts the sin of his grandparents, and their great-grandparents, and so on back to the first family in Eden. What would be left for Old Adam to do? What will happen if he accepts as “Good News” the proclamation that Jesus died for the sins of the whole universe. All that he’d be left with is Jesus and his gifts in word, water, bread and wine. Old Adam would just be another dead-beat sinner. No one special. Nobody of importance. Just a boring old sinner in need of a Savior. One who will rescue Old Adam from all his sin. A Savior like Jesus, whose blood covers all his sins yesterday, today, and forever.
Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.