The Fourth Sunday in Lent March 30, 2014
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
421, 153, 535, 783 [TLH alt. 48]
May the cross of Christ lead you to grieve over the evil of your sins, but may that same cross fill you with unreserved joy that your own personal sins found full and complete forgiveness there. Amen.
Dear fellow Christians:
Strength is good, weakness is bad, right? Not always. God once told Paul that in his case weakness was better. God pointed out to Paul that when God accomplishes something through a powerful and impressive human being, it is difficult for others to credit God rather than man. The opposite is also true. Great things accomplished through the humble, feeble efforts of a weak and unimpressive human being naturally lead those who witness such events to search out a different target for their praise. Hopefully, such praise gives credit to God where credit is always due.
The concept of power itself is actually rather interesting when you stop to think about it. It is difficult, for example, to come up with any sort of power that does not have God Himself as its source. Military power, political power, electric power, coal power, nuclear power, people power, horse power, man power—there are all sorts of different kinds of power, all of them are connected by some kind of ability to get something done, but all come from only one source. So Jesus once said to Pontius Pilate: “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). Peter wrote: “His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue” (2 Peter 1:3). Paul wrote: “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him” (Colossians 1:16).
This is heady and impressive. So many different kinds of power, yet all are God’s. God the source and to God alone belong the credit and the glory. With this as our background you may find it a bit strange that of all the different powers that belong to God, today we will talk about cleaning power.
I’m guessing you’ve seen ads for products that boast of “cleaning power.” The subtle implication is that the product itself will do most of the work to get something really clean. This is intended to spare the person who uses that product from some of the effort that would otherwise have to be invested.
Today, we seek to give God the glory and credit also for His cleaning power. We will soon discover that this cleaning power is immeasurably more impressive than we might first imagine. In fact, we will focus on God’s ability to do something nearly impossible—to make something—more specifically someone—both new and clean. To learn more we seek to avail ourselves of the power of God’s Word as it is recorded in the book of 2 Corinthians, the 5th chapter:
Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
These are God’s words—the Means of Grace—the means to create and preserve saving faith in our hearts, and the means to instill in us godly wisdom and contentment. Here we also find the power to preserve that good thing that has been created in us, our saving faith. Desiring not only to be filled and preserved in the faith, but also to learn to be fully satisfied with our God’s will for our lives, we pray: “Sanctify us by the truth, O Lord. Your word is truth!” Amen.
Clearly if we are going to talk about “new and clean,” as the sermon title indicates, we need to first establish the need. In other words, we need to come to terms with the fact that, apart from Jesus Christ, we are naturally the exact opposite of new and clean. We are, to put it bluntly, old and dirty.
This is exactly the sort of insight or reality we need to acknowledge if we are to maintain a proper appreciation for the amazing miracle that God has performed in us, especially during this season of Lent when we commemorate Jesus’ Passion and the need for His suffering. This is the sort of honest evaluation that will prevent Jesus from becoming tedious—something less than He should be in our lives. The first thing we need to acknowledge is that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing (cf. Romans 7:18). This is exactly why my God had to cleanse me.
As simple as this sounds, learning to recognize the depth of our depravity and unworthiness, is actually rather difficult to do well. We can say the right things easily enough: “I am unclean and undeserving.” It is infinitely more difficult to fully and honestly embrace what we say. While we disparage the “entitlement mentality” in our culture, an honest evaluation tells us that you and I have more than our fair share of it too. That’s what makes it so difficult to really accept the truth that you and I were once without any redeeming characteristics or attributes in God’s sight. We were totally, completely filthy with sin.
While we sort of get the concept of spiritual filth, what takes a bit more work is the truth that we were also “old” in His sight. A change to “new and clean,” again, implies that our previous condition was both dirty and old. So what exactly does that mean?
The godless imagine that their “cutting edge” thoughts in the areas of morality, spirituality, and human interaction are actually new and different, fresh and avant-garde. They are not. They are retreads, hand-me-downs, recycled trash. Others have had the same perverse thoughts before. Remember how Solomon once wallowed in the sewer of cutting edge immorality? For all of his experimentation, what conclusion did he reach? “That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
Satan, remember, is the ultimate salesman. He loves to dress up sin as something new and exciting—something you really, really need and can’t imagine doing without. He wants us to see it as something clean, fresh, and desirable. The reality is that what he is peddling is just dirty, and old, and disgustingly loathsome. No matter how tantalizing and appealing the presentation, the reality of sin is that it is always and only just old filth, disgusting in every conceivable way.
Even our natural ideas on how to be saved were old. All of them amount to nothing more than some sort of “cleaned up” work-righteousness and a rejection of Jesus Christ. Far from new, everything that comes from mankind always points back to self and our own imagined goodness for salvation.
All of this old perverseness is the sum and substance of you and me and every other human being ever born. Such as we are, we are the ones whom Christ came to save. All of this gives us a new appreciation for the miraculous power He demonstrated to make us new and clean.
Our text describes a whole different state of heart and mind that has been given to us—a whole different world, separate and distinct from that of the godless. A state that is infinitely more lofty and noble. Our text not only pictures this sinful world accurately, it also seeks to reawaken in us the accurate recognition and appreciation of what is truly valuable on this earth. Our text offers us a renewed appreciation for the true power of God that has been placed at our disposal—the power of God to cleanse sinful human beings like us and to transform us into something noble and holy in his sight.
Our text uses these words to teach us of God’s transforming power: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” [v.17] Again, these words cannot mean all that they should to us until we come to understand what the Holy Spirit means here by the “old things” that “have passed away.”
You will have to do some work on your own here to gain the full import of this incredible message. It is as if God has opened a huge dumpster right there in front of you and has invited you to dump in anything and everything from your past that is evil and tainted, everything that causes you shame or guilt; and you will have to find your own dumpster, by the way, because mine is full.
Consider the reality of just what is here offered to us. “Old things passed away” and “all things have become new”—these words formulate an incredibly powerful and comforting message. All of the horrible decisions of your past, all of the lust, the bad language, the materialism, the infidelity and inconsistency, the lies, the greed, the pride—it all gets dumped in and hauled off to the cross where Jesus took all of that filth upon Himself. Understand that God the Father did not just write all this sin off as some sort of bad debt for which payment would never, could never, be received. All of our filth was poured into Jesus Christ. When God the Father looked at his Son hanging on the cross He turned away from him. Why? Because at that moment Jesus was filthy with our sin. Our text revealed the true nature of what happened there with these amazing words: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” [v.21]
Think on those words for a bit. God isn’t talking to others here, He is talking to you. You have become new and clean. You have become, in the words of our text, “the righteousness of God” through faith in Jesus Christ. You—the righteousness of God! That’s the miracle that has been performed in you. That’s how God has made you clean and pure and new in His sight. He put it all on his Son.
You and I, also, now have a new job description. We are now more than just new and clean in His sight; we are “ambassadors for Christ.” [v.20] Don’t think of this as some new set of rules or laws that God has now placed on us. Think of it as it truly is—a priceless honor and privilege.
Unfortunately Satan has enjoyed tremendous success in turning this new and good thing back into old and dirty and ugly. He has convinced a staggering number of Christians to make the circle from Law to Gospel and then right back to Law again. He does so with seductive reasoning. You’ve heard it before: “Jesus did this for you, so what are you now going to do for Him? How are you going to prove that you really love and deserve Him? How are you now going to do your part to complete the circle of your salvation? Jesus did his part, will you now do yours?”
Do you see the problem? That’s not Gospel, its Law which is the old, failed way. The “ministry of reconciliation” [v.19] about which our text talks is not a new tyrant that has to be obeyed. It is who and what we are. It is our great and high calling.
Our new job description is no more oppressive than if we were called to inform folks that a long-lost relative has left them a fortune in his will, or deliver to cancer patients a full and immediate cure for their disease. New and clean ambassadors for Christ means that we get to tell others how they can have exactly what we’ve been given. More than that, it means that we can tell them that their sins too have already been paid for. What a great job!
God’s cleansing power—not so insignificant as it first appears, is it? It is, in fact, arguably the greatest and most intimate connection we will have with our God this side of eternity. God help each of us to fully grasp the facts of exactly what has been done for and in us by our Triune God—the incredible miracle of our cleansing—and fill us with joy at the positions of honor and importance that are now ours. You are God’s child and an ambassador for Christ Himself. Remind yourself daily, therefore, that as God’s holy representative and beloved child, He has not only favored you with His love, He has placed His own divine power at your disposal. Amen.
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