Sermon delivered on the Second Sunday of Lent, February 28, 2010 at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH. If you would like to hear the audio version of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is the Human Condition?
Good morning, St. Andrew’s! This morning as we continue our Lenten journey, I want to talk about the importance of the cross. In doing so, we are going to have to talk about some difficult things, like sin and God’s holy wrath toward it. It is not my intention to arouse some sense of morbid guilt in you this morning or to make you feel badly (or at least any worse than you would feel after listening to me preach). Just the opposite. I want us to have a deeper understanding of why the cross of Jesus Christ is so important to us because when that happens, it inevitably helps us grow in our relationship with the Source and Author of all life. This, in turn, can help us observe a holy Lent with its attendant disciplines of self-examination and self-denial.
In this morning’s Epistle lesson, Paul laments over the fate of the “enemies of the cross.” While he does not explicitly identify who he has in mind, Paul was probably talking about the Judaizers, those in the church of Philippi who taught that Christians had to follow the law of Moses to be saved. These folks likely preached a gospel that really wasn’t good news at all because they were apparently denying the exclusive power of the cross to save humans from the consequences of our sins. In other words, they were saying in effect that we had to “help” God in his salvation efforts by following Mosaic law.
Likewise, the cross still has its enemies today. But who are they and why should we, like Paul, lament their fate? I am not interested here in talking about the overt enemies of the cross, e.g., those religions that are openly hostile to Christianity, atheists, and secularists, to name but a few. Rather, in good Lenten fashion, I want us to take a hard look at ourselves this morning. Do we have a sufficient theology of the cross or are we too trying to rob it of its power, as Paul warns in the latter part of 1 Corinthians 1? If we do not understand how grievous sin is to God and what deadly peril we are in without the cross, we, like the Judaizers of Paul’s day, will likely delude ourselves and minimize the awful consequences of our sin by glossing them over or trying to cover them up with rituals or other ineffective solutions to the problem.
Scripture makes it very clear that human sin and rebellion have caused us to be exiled and alienated from God. Because God is holy and just, he is permanently opposed to anything that is contrary to his holy and just nature. He created us to have a proper relationship with him, where we acknowledge that he is God and we are not. But we rebelled against God’s created order. We want to usurp God’s role or at the very least have him see us as equals. All of this arouses what the Bible calls God’s holy wrath, his permanent opposition to anything that is not holy or just.
Talking about God’s wrath has become quite unfashionable today, in large part because of the insufficiency of the language we use to describe it. God’s wrath is not the opposite of God’s love. It is rather a complementary dimension of it. God does not display love in certain situations and wrath in others. Instead, when his love is resisted by human sin and rebellion in any form, it expresses itself as wrath. God is not victimized by conflicting emotions. His nature is unchanging. His love would not be love if it were able to accommodate itself to that which violates its very essence.
Neither is God’s wrath like human wrath in that it is never capricious or filled with malice toward us. God does not desire our destruction but our good. After all, he created us and knows what is best for us. This is not unlike the love parents have for their children, although we have to be careful not to take this analogy too far because human love is always an imperfect reflection of God’s love for us.
What typically happens when we see our children embark on a path that we know will lead to their harm? Perhaps we see them become addicted to something harmful or engage in activities that will harm them physically or psychologically or both. When we see this happening, we typically become both angry and heartbroken and seek to dissuade them from pursuing harmful activities. We are angry with them because we see that their behavior is destructive to them, and we are heartbroken because we love them and want the best for them. Likewise with God. He does not want to see us end up in permanent exile and permanently alienated from him. Instead, he wants to be reconciled to us and us be reconciled to him.
We see this poignantly reflected in today’s Gospel lesson when Jesus openly weeps over the fate of Jerusalem, a fate that would be sealed because of its stubborn refusal to obey God and become his called-out people. Only the hardest of hearts cannot be moved as we watch our Lord desperately pleading to embrace the rebellious old city the way a mother hen would embrace her chicks. But she would have none of it and Jesus knew the consequences for refusing to be the people God had called them to be. God’s holy wrath was inevitable because of their unwillingness to come to their senses and repent of their sin.
And as we think further about God’s relentless opposition to all that is contrary to him and his holy nature, we should ultimately be glad. After all, when we die, who among us wants to have to deal with evil or brokenness of any kind in heaven for all eternity? Is that not part of the appeal of heaven, that there will not be any kind of evil or darkness or sin? Indeed, Paul alludes to that very hope and promise in today’s Epistle when he talks about our mortal bodies being transformed into glorious, immortal, and indestructible bodies. What a wonderful hope and promise, a hope and promise that would not be possible without God’s holy love and wrath. I would like to share a personal experience with you that I hope will help illustrate the nature of God’s holy love and wrath and how it can work. It happened to me exactly six years and six days ago today [personal testimony about my encounter with Christ and the relief I got from it].
So what does all this have to do with being an enemy of the cross? Just this. None of us has the power to save ourselves because as Paul makes quite clear in the first three chapters of Romans (and elsewhere in Scripture), there is no one who is good, not one of us. None of us can turn away the wrath of God because we are all broken and fallen creatures and have stubbornly refused to obey God or submit to his will. Sure, some of us manage to do this some of the time but none of us is able to do it perfectly and all the time, and that is what God desires.
Consequently, without help from somewhere else, we are all subject to God’s holy wrath, which ultimately translates into our permanent exile and separation from God, i.e., our death. It is a chilling and awful thought, and certainly not something any of us likes to contemplate. That, however, does not change the reality of our situation and the utter helplessness and hopelessness in which we find ourselves. No wonder Paul laments the fate of the enemies of the cross because without the cross, their future (and ours) is bleak indeed.
What we have talked about gets us ready to have a greater appreciation and understanding for all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It is not fun but it is necessary. To have a healthy appreciation and theology of the cross, we must first realize that left to our own devices, we are in terrible dire straights.
Where is God’s Grace?
But, of course, this is not the end of the story, thanks be to God! No, we are not left to our own devices. God has done something about our desperate situation. He has taken on our flesh. He has allowed himself to be nailed to a tree and die for us so that his wrath could be propitiated or satisfied and turned away from us. We have to be careful here because in talking about propitiation (it is another one of those words that I like pronouncing because it allows me to spit everywhere without being self-conscious) we are not talking about some kind of bloodthirsty, vengeful God roaring around looking for someone to murder to satisfy his anger. There has been all kinds of screwball theology written about this grotesque idea, a theology that is likely a projection of our fallen human nature on God, and we must be quick to reject any semblance of it.
No, in dying for us, God himself bore the punishment we deserve for our sin and rebellion. None of us can adequately comprehend the terrible cost that was involved, but we can begin to get a glimpse of this when we consider Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross, a cry that surely came from the dreadful alienation Jesus felt when he bore the punishment for the sins of the entire world.
When we begin to adequately grasp the reality of the terrible cost of Christ’s atonement for our sins on the cross, we can do nothing but fall to our knees in praise and thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Christ. For it helps us see God’s wrath and love in a whole new light. We realize that God’s wrath is ultimately manifested in the cross of Christ and not in our destruction. We realize that Christ is our only hope to escape the terrible punishment of God’s wrath. We give thanks that God desires life for us, not death, and loves us enough to die for us so that we could live with him forever. When all this starts percolating in us, we lessen the chances that we will become enemies of the cross because we realize just how helpless we are to save ourselves and just how great and wondrous is God’s love for us. No wonder Paul told the Corinthians that he was determined not to do anything that would rob the cross of its power. Paul knew that he did not have a snowball’s chance—nor do any of us—without the cross of Jesus Christ and the love of God that was crucified on it for our sake.
Where is the Application?
So what does this mean for us as we observe a holy Lent? First, it means that we stop being delusional about our salvation, thinking that by our actions we have to somehow help God secure it. This means that perhaps we need to work on putting to death our sinful pride, a pride that might not be totally willing to acknowledge that only God can save us and that we have nothing to offer him in that regard. As long as we harbor any such delusion to the contrary, we are potential enemies of the cross.
Second, if we are to understand the costliness of the cross as well as God’s trustworthiness, we need to become thoroughly acquainted with the biblical story of salvation. This Lenten season get a good study Bible like the NIV or TNIV and start reading Scripture to better understand the nature of God’s holy love and wrath. In Genesis, read how God responded to human sin in the Garden of Eden. Notice that although God’s wrath was aroused he did not destroy humans and start over from scratch. No, God loved humans and provided for us. He gives us countless (but not endless) chances. Then read the books of Kings and some of the prophets to see how and why God’s love and wrath are made manifest. Ask the Lord in prayer to give you a fuller understanding of these things so that you will be blessed by it. Then read Romans and Hebrews in the NT to get a better understanding of God’s great love for us in Christ and why the cross is necessary in God’s salvation story. Better yet, do this with some trusted Christian friends and ask God to work in and through you to help you all grow in grace and faith.
Last, as you grow in your understanding and appreciation of the atoning power of the cross, let your thanksgiving and gratitude power your quest to kill those things inside you that don’t want to let God be God, keeping in mind always that God has already done what is necessary for you to live with him forever. If the experience of countless Christians is any indication, this will help you become more like Christ. You will not be so eager to insist on having your own way. You will become more tolerant of others’ foibles and less eager to judge them. You will want to learn how to give your entire life and being to Christ. Whatever it is you are working on this Lenten season, let your love and gratitude for all that God has done for you in Christ power and motivate your efforts. Approached in this manner, you will find that your Lenten disciplines do not have to be perfunctory or dismal and it will be remarkably freeing.
At the outset of this sermon, I told you I did not desire or intend to evoke in you some morbid sense of guilt. Nor did I have any interest in trying to make you feel bad. Rather, I wanted all of us to have a better appreciation for the seriousness of sin and the God’s wondrous solution to end our exile and alienation from him. How did I do? Did the Good News of Jesus Christ shine through or did you perceive that I focused more on the darkness and despair of sin?
Sin is serious business and it has deadly consequences. But that is why we have a Savior—because we so desperately need one. If you missed the Good News in this sermon, let me reiterate it for you. We have a God who has created us in his Image and called us to be in relationship with him forever. He loves us so much that he took on our flesh, died a terrible death for us, bore the just punishment for our sins, and gave us our one and only hope to live with him forever. He has promised to return again in power and glory to finish his redemptive work and to bless us with new bodies in a New Creation, never again to be subject to evil, sin, sickness, or death.
Like a loving parent, he keeps inviting us to have a new and deeper relationship with him and has promised to pour out his Spirit on us to help us become all he created us to be, now and forever. We don’t have to worry about trying to do the impossible. He knows we cannot and has done the impossible for us. Our job is to respond to his fantastic love for us in love, worship, praise, adoration, and obedience. The cross of Jesus Christ is God’s eternal symbol of justice. Have you ever thought of that? It isn’t the scales of justice, but the cross, God’s very love poured out for us in Jesus Christ our Lord, which results in real life for us and reconciliation between God and us. And if that’s not good news, folks, now and for all eternity, I don’t know what is.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.