Sermon delivered on Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Joel 2.1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; St. Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40 day season we call Lent. It is a time for self-examination, penitence, self-denial, study, and preparation for Easter. The season of Lent reminds us that something is terribly amiss in God’s world and our lives, that without the love, mercy, goodness, justice, and power of God, we remain hopelessly alienated from God and each other. Lent therefore is a time for us to focus not so much on ourselves but on the power of God manifested most clearly in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. So tonight I want us to look at what must be done to be reconciled to God and each other because too often we Christians get it wrong at precisely this point. So bear with me and stay with me. This is a long and complex sermon, but the Lord has given it to me to preach and it is critical that we get this right.
In our OT and psalm lessons, we are reminded starkly that we are alienated from God and therefore under God’s just and right judgment. It is here that many of us tune out. We simply don’t want to hear this and if we are honest with ourselves, we must confess we don’t know what we must do to make things right between God and us. To help us think about our dynamic with God and each other, I have found it increasingly helpful to reflect on these issues in light of the overall big picture contained in Scripture. A week ago Sunday you recall that we looked at the creation narratives because they give us insight into God’s original creative intentions for the world and us. We saw that God created everything good, that creation matters to God, especially in light of God’s promise to heal and redeem it, and most importantly we saw that God created humans in his image to be his good and wise stewards who reflected God’s goodness, righteousness, justice, and love out into his world to allow it to flourish and prosper. As God’s image-bearers, we were created to always reflect God’s character and glory. That’s what image-bearers do. Before our rebellion against God, we saw how beautifully things worked. Creation flourished (the garden was paradise that was doubtless beautiful and radiant and healthy) and humans enjoyed continuous intimate and life-giving communion with their Creator. Whether death was part of that picture has been much debated. If death existed prior to the Fall, it was certainly not seen as punitive or juridical. What we can say for certain is that there were no physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual maladies like disease, fear, alienation, rancor and the like. The first humans knew their place as God’s image-bearers and acted wisely to reflect God’s love and goodness out into his world and enjoyed all the benefits of perfect communion with God.
But that all changed with the Fall, when humans rebelled against God and attempted to usurp God’s role as Creator and God. This resulted in the destruction of the life-giving and healthy communion between God and his creatures and resulted in God’s cursing creation. Human rebellion also allowed the outside and hostile forces of Evil to enter into God’s good world to corrupt it and us. Our alienation from God caused us to be hostile to God and introduced all the awful diseases of body, mind, and spirit that afflict so many of us today. In short, God’s image in us became marred, but thankfully not totally destroyed. This resulted in our inability to reflect God’s love and goodness out into the world to sustain it and allow creation to celebrate and flourish like it did before the Fall. This is the overall problem defined in the story of Scripture. God created all things good and created humans in his image to run his good world. As long as God’s image remained complete and whole in humans, paradise resulted. But once humans rebelled and God’s image became distorted in us, all hell broke loose on earth and throughout the cosmos because the powers of Sin and Evil were allowed to gain control to enslave us and corrupt God’s good world and our lives. The story of Scripture is therefore the story of how God intends to right these wrongs, no small or easy task, and Lent invites us to remember this story and what our role in God’s rescue plan might be so that once again, we might become the full image-bearing creatures God created us to be to rule his creation wisely and lovingly. In other words, this is the overall big-picture context for Lent and beyond.
This context hopefully will help us think about our Scripture lessons tonight. In our OT lesson, we hear God calling his people to repent of their sins that have caused them to become alienated from God as his image-bearers. We recall that God had called Israel to be the agents through whom God would heal his sin-sick and corrupted world. But here we see Israel had failed miserably and were in terrible danger of falling under God’s awful judgment on all things evil when God returned to put his creation back together again. Instead of reflecting God’s goodness and justice and righteousness and mercy and love out into God’s world so that God could bring healing to the nations, Israel became ingrown and selfish because they had turned to false gods to worship and as a result developed a false image of those gods. This happened because we always reflect and eventually turn into that which we worship. Sound familiar? The result was chaos and destruction. The nations were not being healed because Israel was not reflecting God’s image properly into their world and lives, and judgment awaited God’s people as a result. And here we must be crystal clear in our thinking about God’s judgment. If we see God as an angry ogre who is bent on punishing us for our sins, we will naturally see God’s judgment as vindictive and restrictive. Eat your veggies! Don’t screw up! Behave yourselves! Make better decisions or I will punish you. That’s why you need to repent! But this thinking gets it so wrong on so many levels and reflects how thoroughly is our enslavement to the power of Sin—Sin defined as that semi-autonomous and alien power that is stronger than we are—because this thinking distorts who God really is and makes repentance all about us. Nothing could be further from the truth because if we think of our sins as misbehaviors or bad choices on our part, we totally misunderstand the nature of sin and God’s judgment on it.
Sin, biblically defined, is missing the mark. And what is the mark? Being God’s image-bearers who reflect God’s love and goodness out into the world. But we have been enslaved by that outside power of Sin so that we are compelled to act in ways that emphatically do not bear the image of God. We have unhappy marriages so we cheat on our spouse. Our sex lives are not fulfilling so we turn to pornography. We disagree with others about politics or religion (or whatever) and we resort to name calling and ad hominem attacks or back-biting and evil speaking about them. Others do us wrong and we seek revenge. We worry if we’ll have enough resources to live so we cheat, steal, and deceive. Worse yet, we hoard our resources and don’t share them with those in need. You get the point. We turn inward and miss the mark. How do these behaviors and attitudes reflect the goodness, love, mercy, and justice of God to heal his broken and hurting world? How do they reflect God’s character and glory? We cease to become God’s image-bearers and become Sin and Evil’s image-bearers instead. Every time we act selfishly or cruelly or deceitfully, every time we speak or think in hostile ways about God and others, God’s image in us is marred a bit more and the result is chaos, anger, rancor, hostility, anxiety, and alienation to name a few. How can a loving and just God allow this kind of stuff to go on indefinitely? What kind of loving parent would stand by idly and watch his or her children being corrupted by outside forces? How can God not judge murder, rape, rapacity, cruelty, and the like? A good, just, and loving God must judge this kind of evil and those who perpetrate it. We all get this. But our enslavement to the power of Sin also corrupts our concept of God so that we mistake the nature of God’s judgment, projecting onto God our own anger and distorted motives for behaving in the ways we do. But if we learn to see God’s judgment as liberating us from our enslavement to Sin’s power and restoring us to be his image-bearing creatures again, we learn to see, if not lament, the necessity of God’s judgment on Evil and sin.
One more note about sin before we move on to look at repentance. Sin is a theological concept. For those who do not know or believe in God, there is no such thing as sin. That’s because there is no standard by which to judge behavior. If one doesn’t know God, one cannot possibly discern what it means to be God’s image-bearer. Such people will scoff at the notion of sin and the need for repentance because they are happy to march to the tune of their own moral drummer, and that drummer will usually be anything or anyone but God. They will also scoff at the cross, seeing it as unnecessary and barbaric (cf. 1 Cor 1.18-25). This explains why St. Paul put forth all the apparent contradictions about himself in our epistle lesson. Those who didn’t know God skewered him (as they will us). But he was well known, loved, and protected because of his faith in the power of God made known in suffering love. I remind us of this because it points us to the Good News of our redemption. For us to be aware of sin is to be aware of God and God’s will for us as his image-bearers, and to be aware of this means that we have already come under God’s loving care for us. The question is, what will we do with that knowledge?
We hear God through his prophet Joel call for God’s people to repent, to turn back to God and God’s ways so that God’s image can be restored in them (and us) so that we can once again be the humans God created us to be. But because we are so thoroughly enslaved to the power of Sin, God’s call to us to repent gets corrupted and we make repentance about us. It’s not. To believe repentance will end our alienation from God and God’s judgment on our sins is to believe that we actually have the power to free ourselves from our enslavement to the power of Sin. That is a lie and a delusion and we as Christians must be very careful to understand what God’s call to repentance is really all about. Think about it. If we really had complete control over our thinking, speaking, behaving, and decision-making then of course repentance would remove God’s judgment of those sins. We just right the wrong. But that’s not how it works, does it? How many times have you resolved to repent of a behavior, only to keep on doing the same thing over and over despite your sincere desire to change your ways? It happens to me all the time and it happens to every one of you (how many of you, e.g., are still keeping your new year’s resolutions?). It is analogous to a drug addict who resolves to get off the juice without any outside help only to find himself relapsing time and again. He cannot fix himself. To be sure, we have the freedom to choose and make decisions and that makes us responsible for our thinking/doing/speaking, whether for good or ill. But because we are so thoroughly enslaved by Sin’s power, our decision making is often corrupted. We often want the wrong without even realizing it. This is what is going on in our gospel lesson where Jesus condemned the motives for doing good and holy acts like giving to the poor, praying, and fasting. There’s nothing wrong with these things. In fact, they all are designed to help us focus on God rather than ourselves so that we can be better image-bearers. But our slavery to Sin’s power corrupts our motives for doing these acts (we want others to see how good we are when we are actually Sin’s slaves) and this results in further sin and alienation from God, the very opposite result for which these acts were intended. Our sins are simply symptoms of our slavery to Sin’s power, not the root cause. Until our slavery to Sin’s power is dealt with and we are freed from its grip, the problem of our alienation to God will not and cannot be fixed because God’s image cannot be fully restored in us.
So the issue is not about making better decisions or strengthening our resolve. These things are all self-help delusions and non-starters. That’s why repentance will not turn away God’s severe judgment on the evil we all commit, whether or not we recognize the evil. Again, what needs to be done is to break our enslavement to the power of Sin so that we are freed once again to make the good and wise and healthy decisions God originally gave us the ability to make that allow us to function as God’s image-bearers. The Good News of course is that God has done exactly this for us in the cross of Jesus Christ. Without the cross, we can repent till the cows come home and nothing good will come of it, at least not over the long haul.
God knows all this, of course, and God loves us and wants to restore his image in us so that we can once again function as healthy and wise human beings who freely choose to act in the manner of God. To do that, our slavery to Sin has to end. In our epistle lesson tonight, St. Paul makes the enigmatic statement that God made Christ to be sin even though Christ was sinless. What on earth did St. Paul mean? A sea of ink has been spilt over this, but one thing we can say with certainty is that on the cross, God broke Sin’s power over us so that we are no longer enslaved by it (cf. Col 2.13-15) and freed with the help of the Spirit to act and choose wisely after the manner of Christ (to repent). In other words, in the cross of Christ, God set the conditions needed for him to restore his image in us once again so that we can be fully reconciled to God. We don’t know how all this works, but we do know this. On the cross, God condemned our sin in the flesh and absorbed his own terrible but right judgment so that he could spare us (Romans 8.3-5). Jesus, the Son of God, did this willingly and in complete cooperation with the Father to free us from our bondage to Sin’s power. To be sure, Evil still exists in us and the world and will continue to exist until Christ returns to judge and put an end to all of it at the resurrection of the dead, but we believe that our slavery to Sin’s power has been broken by an even greater power: the goodness, love, and mercy of God the Father through the sacrifice of God the Son. There is no self-help here. There is nothing but God’s help. Self-help is doomed to fail always. God’s help never does. This is Good News at its finest. God did for us what we cannot do for ourselves and all that he requires from us is to believe that he has taken care of the problem of Sin and our alienation from God. We call this putting our faith in Jesus Christ and him crucified.
This changes how we view repentance. As we have seen, God has acted on our behalf to free us from Sin’s power to enslave us before we ever became aware of the notion of sin. We no longer have to fear God’s judgment on our sins because God has already condemned our sin in the flesh and our fallen nature, and taken his condemnation on himself to spare us. We repent, then, in sorrow but also with great joy and thanksgiving. We realize we are no longer slaves to Sin but to God, all made possible in Christ’s death and the presence of God’s Holy Spirit living in us. Our repentance is therefore not about avoiding God’s judgment as much as it is about allowing God to restore his image in us so that we can begin to bring God’s goodness and health and life back into God’s world. Being mortal and fallen creatures, despite God’s great act of mercy and grace on our behalf on the cross, we will sin from time to time, but we turn to God for forgiveness and resolve to repent out of joyous gratitude for God’s great grace toward us, however imperfectly that might look in our lives, because we believe we are freed to act as God’s image-bearers again, people who will love instead of hate, who will have mercy rather than condemn, who will work hard to reflect the goodness of Christ, the only true image-bearer of God. Put another way, we know repentance won’t and can’t save us for reasons we have already seen. That’s not a problem because we are already spared God’s condemnation on our sins before we ever repented or were even aware of the danger in which our sins put us! Instead, having been freed from our slavery to the power of Sin, repentance is about doing what we need to do to allow God to continue his saving work in and through the cross of Christ to heal us and restore his image in us until that day when it is fully restored in the new creation so that we can do the work and be the people God created us to do and be. A good self-check question regarding how well we are repenting would be as follows: How accurately am I reflecting God’s image out into his world, i.e., how closely does my thinking/speaking/acting reflect Jesus Christ? We look to Jesus as our standard of measurement.
That is why even as we repent and feel great sorrow over our sins we have committed against God and others as David did in our psalm lesson, we can also rejoice that we have a God who loved us and gave himself for us so that his image in us might once again be restored. As we’ve seen, that won’t happen fully until Christ returns to raise the dead and usher in God’s new creation. But as St. Paul tells us in the verses preceding our epistle lesson tonight, we are already new creations, i.e., God is restoring his image in us, because of the cross of Christ and the work of the Spirit. This is a God worthy of our love and adoration. This is what the season of Lent asks us to reflect on. When we see that our repentance and prayer and fasting are all responses to God’s love and mercy and have nothing to do with turning away his severe decree on our wickedness because the Father has already rescued us through the Son, we are ready to enter Lent with the proper mindset and spirit. During this season of Lent let us resolve to repent of our false and corrupt gospel of self-help and self-righteousness, acknowledging our helplessness to free ourselves from our slavery to Sin and thanking God for doing that on our behalf out of his great love for us. Let us resolve to rely on the power of God to restore his image in us and let us act accordingly in the power of the Spirit. Doing so will truly give honor, power and glory to the One who loved us and gave himself to us from all eternity to do what it takes to restore his life-giving image in us. May the name of the Holy Trinity be praised and blessed forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.