In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Every Christian knows the forgiveness of sins. Jesus’ death and resurrection mean that sin and death themselves are defeated and rendered harmless. And every Christian knows that there will come a time when this creation, including these bodies, will be free of sin and death. The problem for faith, of course, is the in-between time, when what we believe doesn’t match what we see. And so we long for our sins to be removed from us as far as the east is from the west.
That’s sort of a strange expression, if you think about it. It sounds nice, but what does it really mean? What does it mean for God to remove our sins from us as far as the east is from the west? We live on a round world, not a flat one. And no doubt some critic would use just such an expression to demonstrate that the Biblical writers, including the psalmist, believed the world was flat. We know better today, so what else might they have gotten wrong, about which we now know better?
But is that the reference: to the dimensions, directions, and shape of this world on which we walk around? First of all, the Bible is full of phrases like this. They’re called merisms. A merism is a phrase that’s used to include two points and everything in between. “Heaven and earth,” for example, is a merism. When God creates “the heavens and the earth,” it doesn’t mean He made the sky and the ground; it means He created the heavens and the earth and everything that is within the boundaries of heaven and earth.
Another example is when God says in the Revelation that He is “alpha and omega, beginning and end.” Alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. This doesn’t mean only that God made everything and He’ll finish it. But it means that He is everything: first, last, and in between.
At first, “from the east to the west” doesn’t sound like a merism, because the psalmist here is talking about removing sin from us as far as the east is from the west. It sounds like a distance, which creates a problem if we’re talking about a round earth, because eventually, if you keep going east or west from where you are, you’ll end up back where you started. But the prophets make it clear that the merism isn’t in the distance but in the reality of the removal.
To where is God removing your sins? To the other side of the world? To the bottom of the ocean, as Micah pictures it? No. He’s removing your sins and mine from this creation entirely. Because when sin is gone, there will be nothing separating us from the God who made us. This earth is weighed down by the burden of human sin, groaning under the burden of the futility to which it has been subjected since the curse spread from the Garden. Like an ink spot that cannot be erased, but is only spread by every attempt to eradicate it, so sin spreads, infects, undermines, and marks everything from east to west.
The salvation of God in Jesus Christ is not only to remove it from you, like taking the weight from your shoulders; but His salvation is to remove sin from everything and replace it with praise of His Name. So Isaiah prophesies about that day: “So shall they fear the name of Yahweh from the west, and his glorious [name (LXX)] from the [east] rising of the sun” (Isaiah 59:19). And Malachi echoes Isaiah: “From the rising of the sun [the east] to its setting [the west] my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says [Yahweh of the heavenly armies]” (Malachi 1:11). And both are answering the cry and hope of the psalmist: “From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of Yahweh is to be praised!” (Psalm 113:3).
Here is the merism of east and west, sunrise and sunset: the whole earth will be cleansed of sin and death, and there will be nothing in the whole earth but praise of the God who has named us with His own Name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. No longer will each one teach his neighbor, saying, ‘Know Yahweh,’ for they shall all know Me, from—another merism!—the least of them to the greatest, declares Yahweh. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (Jeremiah 31:34). Forgiven means your sin is separated from you because it was taken by Jesus. And it will be removed altogether from His renewed creation. Your sin separated you from God, but now your sin has been separated from you so that you will not be separated from God. That is not a wish, it is a promise of the coming day, and we live in and by that promise.
Heaven and earth, east and west, body and soul, least and greatest: all restored and renewed, as everything harmful and destructive is removed. And so Christians have always waited, even building their churches to face the east, the rising of the sun: the dawn, in God’s Son, of the new and eternal day.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/14/18