Sunday, March 22, 2015

Preparing for Easter (I)

Each December we spend some time as a church preparing to celebrate Jesus' birth. And that is time well invested. It's good to think about what happened when Jesus showed up. Recently, I thought that it would be good to do the same sort of thing for Jesus' resurrection, to spend a little time preparing to celebrate what happened when Jesus was raised from the dead. To do that well, to celebrate the good news of the resurrection well, you need to understand the bad news. So, while on Easter Sunday I'll look at the good news of Jesus' resurrection, this Sunday and the next one I'm going to look at the bad news that Jesus came to deal with in His resurrection. We're going to look at the bad news so that the good news of the Gospel will make a little more sense.

This isn't going to be anything very complicated. After all, the bad news is quickly summarized with one word: sin. Jesus came to deal with sin. What I'd like to do is to take a closer look at this thing called sin so that, understanding that better, you can understand better and appreciate more what Jesus has done for you.

Before I start I want to be clear about something. As I describe what is going on with someone who is a sinner I am not talking about 'them'. At times it may sound like that. But that's not what's going on. I'm talking about you. As I describe sin, I'm talking about who you would be without Jesus. 

Let's start with the familiar. Sin makes you guilty. You have broken the law, God's Law. And the long arm of the Law has caught up with you. Now, this is where it's easy to quickly jump to the Good News: Jesus has dealt with all of that so that you are no longer guilty. But instead of doing that let's linger a bit here and consider this guilt of yours.

If you are guilty then you stand condemned. God's court has convened. Your sins have been displayed. You are tried, and you are convicted. Guilty as charged. What happens next is the penalty phase of your trial. How should you be punished for your guilt?

The punishment is clear. God curses you. And understanding God's curse is not complicated. It's just like His blessing, except that it aims at the opposite result. That is, when God blesses He acts. He actually does something. And the something that He does has consequences. It results in some really good thing happening to the person He has blessed. It's the same with God's curse. He actually does something. And the something that He does has consequences. It results in some really bad thing happening to the person He has cursed. And again just as with His blessing, the effects of His curse happen now. The penalty for guilt isn't reserved just for later. It starts now.

You can boil down the different aspects of God's curse to this simple idea. He is against you. Try to imagine that. The Almighty God is opposed to you. He wants to frustrate any good that you might be working for, any effort you put forth to enjoy life.

Now, I know that the Bible also says that God loves the world. And He does. He really is for people. But He is also against the world. The Bible says both. We'll leave for another time how He can be for and against the same people at the same time. For now, we'll just look at how He is against people.

So, where does it say that God is against people? Here's just one example.

​The face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth.

God is against sinners. They have broken His Law, are found guilty and are being condemned. God has cursed them. As a result, He is against them all. And that would include you.

Actually, the Scriptures go further. God is angry at those who have broken His Law. So there's this.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

God is angry, very angry. And did you notice that this anger happens in the present? It 'is revealed' now. So, it's not something reserved for later, though it will certainly express itself then, too.

But don't be fooled into thinking of anger as a tantrum. God doesn't have to fuss and throw lightning bolts to express His anger. Scripture, in the same passage I just quoted from, explains how this anger expresses itself.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. 

God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.

Three times it says, 'God gave them up'. What's this? Simply put, it's as if God said, 'So, you want to sin? Fine. I won't hold you back. Go ahead, and sin it up.' The text gives three examples (There are lots more!) of things God gives people up to: lusts of their hearts, dishonorable passions, a debased mind. And letting people go so that they can sin in these ways is the punishment. This is one way God expresses His anger, His curse, against sin.

Understand that a person given over to his sin does not stay the same. His sin changes him. And that gets us to another consequence of sin. Sin corrupts. It takes what is good and beautiful, and twists it all up until it becomes horribly ugly and evil. So, just to pick one of those three, what do you suppose happens to someone who has been given up to the lusts of his heart? Remember, to lust is to want what is not yours to have. It can apply to anything. So, what happens to a person whose lusts are given full rein? He chases after something, looking to be satisfied by having that something that he yearns for so much. It might be success or wealth or pleasure or fame or something else. But what happens is that though he might gain what he lusts after, it does not satisfy. How could it? None of God's good gifts will satisfy if they are separated from the God who gives them. And so, he chases after a different lust, yearning to be satisfied by that something. And this continues on and on. But in all of this chasing after some lust, he never achieves the goal of being satisfied. And so, life becomes one big frustration. 

I hope that you can see that God's punishment of sin, His curse, doesn't have to express itself like a volcano exploding. He can punish quite well by simply allowing someone to freely pursue being the sinner that he longs to be.

Another result of this corrupting influence of sin is that people who have sinned do not want to come to know God who is the only solution to their plight.

For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot.

'The mind set on the flesh' is simply another way of labeling someone who is afflicted with sin. Such a person is against God. He is 'hostile to God'. He might be a really nice person, socially. You know, a good husband and father, or a good wife and mother. Active in the community. Doing all sorts of really nice things. But behind it all there is warfare in this person's heart. Hostility to God. And who can win a war against God? This goes a long way to explain why God is against them. Warfare wasn't His idea. And how can life be good if you're in a war that you absolutely cannot win? What looks like victories in this or that battle with God are simply God 'giving you up' to another sin that you want.

And that gets us to this last thought. Sin makes someone a slave, a slave to Satan. Paul expresses his desire for hostile sinners with these words.

God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

And that explains what was going on back in the Garden of Eden. When Satan tempted Adam and Eve he was looking for recruits. He had already rebelled against the God who had made him. He was already hostile toward Him. And now he wanted humanity to join him and his fallen angels in their war against God. As a result of listening to Satan, Adam and Eve broke the law, God's Law, about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In this they joined the rebellion. They became members of Satan's army that was at war with God. They were hostile to God. But this was not a volunteer army where you could finish your tour and then become a civilian again, no longer a part of the fighting. Joining this army was becoming a slave, a slave of Satan, someone who has been 'captured by him to do his will'. This is another aspect of the problem of your sin.

Now, all of that gives you a little bit of a feel of what the bad news is. This is only a part of the picture. I've only pointed out a few of the ways that your sin has ruined your life. I've also limited myself to what God's curse does in this life. There is also the next life to consider. The plan is for me to look at that next week. This is the bad news, and it is really bad.

Now, it is so very important that you understand that I've described you. You are the sinner who is guilty, condemned and cursed. Except you're not. And the only reason that you are not that sinner is because of what Jesus has done for you. But try to imagine what it would be like to be a sinner without Jesus. Think about the curse of God. Think about the corruption of sin and the slavery to Satan that it leads to. Think about what those things would look like in your life. That would be you, except for Jesus. When we get to Easter I'll explain how this is not you. But you have some sense of that already. Jesus has come and rescued you from all of that. That is something to enjoy and something to give thanks for. And that is what we are going to do right now by singing a hymn that considers what Jesus has done for us: 'Man of Sorrows! What a Name' (#246)

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While this hymn is quite familiar to our congregation it may not be with some of you who are reading this sermon online. Here are the words.

Man of Sorrows! what a name
For the Son of God, who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim:
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned he stood,
Sealed my pardon with his blood:
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

Guilty, vile, and helpless, we;
Spotless Lamb of God was he;
Full atonement! can it be?
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

Lifted up was he to die,
"It is finished!" was his cry:
Now in heav'n exalted high:
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

When he comes, our glorious King,
All his ransomed home to bring,
Then anew this song we'll sing:
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!