It left me stunned. I could hardly believe the whole thing had actually happened. But it had. Five people had all confessed to a terrible crime. Some had even written letters seeking forgiveness from the family for the heinous act. But all of them, all of them, had not done the crime at all. In fact, only one had even known the victim to begin with.
It all happened in the small city of Beatrice, Nebraska over thirty years ago. Somebody attacked an older woman, Helen Wilson in her apartment, and then suffocated her. The police found the intruder’s blood and other body fluids throughout her home. But for years, they never found the person who did the crime. But then, a local farmer turned deputy remembered two peculiar folks who had lived in the town at the time, Ada Taylor and Joseph Wright. He became convinced they had done the crime. So since both had moved away from Beatrice, the Sheriff and two others flew across the country to arrest them, to Alabama for Joseph, and to North Carolina, for Ada.
They did long interviews with Ada, and in those interviews, even though she got the details wrong, Ada became convinced. She had done the deed, and Joe Wright had done it with her. But the authorities had a problem. Ada and Joe’s blood didn’t match the blood type in the apartment. Then Ada thought that maybe her friend, Tom, might have been there. When they brought Tom in, he too became convinced he had helped do the deed, but his blood didn’t match either. Then Tom thought that maybe his friend, Debra, who was the victim’s grandniece, had been there too. Debra then became convinced she had been there, but her blood didn’t match either. So, she had a dream that her husband’s friend, James Dean, had been there. So, they brought James in, and he too became convinced of his guilt, but guess what? He didn’t have the right blood either. So he thought maybe his friend, Kathy had been there, and lo and behold, Kathy had the right blood type. Crime solved.
All of them but Joseph Wright pled guilty, and served years, even decades, in prison. But then, when DNA testing became possible, Joe Wright got his DNA tested. And that test cleared him completely. He then convinced another of the six, Tom to get his DNA tested. That test cleared him too. That led the state of Nebraska to put together a task force to look into this further. That’s when they found the match. The blood belonged to none of the six. It belonged to a juvenile delinquent named Bruce Smith, whose grandmother, had lived in the same apartment building.
As the assistant attorney general put it, not only were these six folks innocent beyond a reasonable doubt. They were innocent beyond all doubt. It became the largest DNA exoneration involving false confessions in the history of the United States. Yet for years, beyond Joe Wright, they all believed that they had done it, that they had done this horrible thing.
Why am I telling you this story? It’s because these five weren’t entirely wrong. In their false guilt, they saw something true about themselves that many folks don’t see but very much need to. In fact in that painful truth, God tells you, lies the way to liberation, to the transformation that God yearns to bring. How can seeing that truth free you when it literally imprisoned them? In these words, God shows the way. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.
Even in the falseness of their guilt, these folks in Nebraska saw something painfully true, something every human being needs to see. That truth, even as it may cause you pain, will liberate you. But it will only liberate you when you see not only that truth, but the whole truth, the whole truth that will
set you free.
What is this painful truth that these folks in Nebraska saw? They saw the acorn inside them.
Over a century ago, the great London preacher, C.H. Spurgeon, first came up with this image. Imagine a single acorn, Spurgeon would ask. Do you realize what lies inside this acorn? Now folks might say, well, an oak tree. But is it really just one oak tree? No. Spurgeon would say. This one oak tree can produce thousands of acorns, and each of those acorns can produce trees with thousands of acorns of their own. In just one acorn, he would say, you have the potential not just for one true, but for millions, for enough oak trees to cover an entire continent.
And, so it is with the evil in every human heart. Every human being has such an acorn inside them. Now for most folks fortunately their acorn falls on hard ground. They grow up in loving families, in safe neighborhoods. They find decent jobs, get good friends, live in decent circumstances, and so their acorn of evil never grows into even one tree much less thousands. But for others, their acorn falls into all too fertile ground. They get born into chaos and trauma, in neighborhoods where crime is a way of life. They get so-called friends that lead them down wrong paths. Their acorn of evil grows and blossoms in awful ways.
Yet often, people, especially, good people, don’t see their acorn for what it is. They refuse to see that the potential for great evil lies inside them, because it lies inside everyone. But these poor wrongly accused folks in Nebraska got that. Deep inside they realized. Inside them lay the potential for awful things, even that horrible crime. And in that, they were right.
It’s why John says here, “If we say that we have no sin, then we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” But hold on a second, didn’t that truth, so to speak, get them imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit? No, it didn’t.
They suffered unjust imprisonment because too many good folks who had power and authority couldn’t see their acorn. All of these folks accused didn’t fit in. They fell in love with the wrong type of folks. They lived on the wrong side of town. They came from messed up families. So, the good people thought. Well, they must have done it. After all, they’re not like us. So even when those accused got all the details wrong, when none of them fit the evidence, these good people became so convinced they had done the crime, they even got them to believe it. And the whole time what were these good people in authority thinking? We are the good guys. We couldn’t have this wrong. It couldn’t be that our self-righteous certainties are leading us to commit a terrible injustice, to steal decades of life from innocent people. No, not us, we have no sin.
Here’s a painful truth. In the world, it’s usually not the folks who know they’re in the wrong that do the worst things. It’s the folks who have convinced themselves that they’re in the right, that they are the righteous, who do the greatest evil. That man who shot Steve Scalise and so many others this week, thought he was in the right. So do the folks from ISIS. Heck, so did the good and righteous folks who killed Jesus. The philosopher Pascal had it right. Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.
And in your own life, do you know when you are most susceptible to do and say the worst things to the people you love? It’s in those times when you have convinced yourself that they are so in the wrong, and you are so in the right. It’s stunning what self-righteousness can justify.
That’s why John makes it so clear that until you face up to your acorn, so to speak, you are deceiving yourself. The truth cannot be in you.
But if that is the only part of the truth that you see, then freedom will never come either. Instead that part of the truth will deceive you in a different way. It will lead you to believe that the wrongness inside you defines you, that it and it alone determines who you are.
These folks falsely accused became convinced of their guilt because they thought just that. They had to believe their brokenness alone defined them. They could not see past it. So, when someone came along and said you did this. It only confirmed a belief that they had, one that was not the whole truth. The partial truth will never give you life. It will lead you instead into a death that will destroy your soul. Only the whole truth frees you. Only the whole truth brings you life.
So, if you ever hear a voice inside you that condemns you, that says you are broken beyond repair, it can never be the voice of Jesus. It can only be the voice of the one that the Bible calls the accuser. It is the voice of evil, which loves to take one part of the truth, and deceives you into thinking it is the whole truth.
So, what is that whole truth? Your acorn doesn’t define you. Your champion does that. That’s how John can be so confident here. After all, John says that God will not only forgive us our sins. God will cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Do you see what John is saying? John is saying when you acknowledge the wrongness inside of you, your acorn so to speak, then God not only forgives that wrongness, he takes it away from you, like it was never there.
How can God do that? John tells you that too. God can do it because you have a champion. When John talks about an advocate that’s what he means. Too often, people get an image here that Jesus is their defense attorney trying to get mercy from the stern divine father. But advocate here doesn’t mean that at all. It means that in Jesus you have a champion.
In certain ancient cultures, if you found yourself in trouble with the law, a champion could represent you. He would fight for you and if he won, then you won. His victory became your victory. His righteousness became your righteousness. And your trouble with the law went away forever.
In Jesus, that’s what God did. God became your champion, the champion who fought through death and beyond to set you free. When John says that Jesus is your champion with the Father, Jesus is not opposing the Father. No John is saying exactly what he means. Jesus, the righteous one, stands with the Father to together bring you victory, to bring you the very righteousness you need.
That means, even as you face the brokenness inside you, you have an even greater truth. Your brokenness doesn’t have the last word. Your champion does. And your champion has overcome your brokenness. Even now, his righteousness is making whole those broken places, until that brokenness is no more.
So, Jesus will show you when your self-righteousness is blinding you. He will show you when you are lying to yourself. Jesus will call you to live into the victory he has won for you, to grow in the goodness and love that he has planted in you. And above all, Jesus will remind you of who you are.
You are the one whom God so loved that God gave up everything to bring you home. You are the one who God valued so ultimately that in Jesus, God himself became your champion. You are the one who will never be defined by your brokenness. No, you are the one defined by the love of the God who died to make you whole.
And when you know that, you can face up to your acorn without fear. You can see even the most broken and flawed with compassion. After all, you know you carry the same seed within. But that doesn’t scare you. You know. Your brokenness will never have the last word. Why? Your champion has that. And His victory has become yours.