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Sunday, March 5, 2017

Ash Wednesday, 2017

God’s Up to Something (2 Corinthians 5:20-21)
Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

When you’re around the house or hanging with friends by the coffee pot, what’s usually the topic of conversation?  The latest zombie apocalypse movie?  Downton Abby?  Or is that so 2016?  In this town, at this time of year, some people expend energy talking college basketball?  In your circles, what’s the rumpus?  Has anyone approached you lately and asked, ‘Have you heard what God is doing right now?’
That’s what we’re going to get to tonight.  What is God doing?  I’ll tell you one thing God is up to.  God is making things right in the world.  There is enough going wrong that this is not always easy to see. But, there are signs, and tonight we’ll look to those signs.  First, though, we have to acknowledge sin.  Sin is at the heart of what makes it so difficult to see God’s activity. 
If you doubt humanity’s ability to think creatively, just ask someone to explain his sins and then listen to the endless litany of rationalizations.  We don’t want darkness in us.  But, underneath the impatience, the foul language, the judgmental heart, lurking below the prejudice, the grudge-holding, the sloth, down deep, it is there.  We have a sin problem. 
The worst effect of sin is it cuts us off from God.  The solution to this separation is what Jesus accomplishes on our behalf.  The theological term is ‘justification:’ humanity declared innocent of sin before God because of what Jesus did on the cross.  We are justified because of Jesus and justification takes effect for each one of us when we put our faith in Him.  We still sin, but before God we are found innocent because of what Jesus has done.    
Still, even after we are saved, sin continues to vie for mastery in our lives.  The more we give in to temptation, the less developed our relationship with God is and the farther it is from what it could be.  We slip away into waste places.  Relationship with God is not rich, not a daily present reality, not a source of abundant joy, not as full, not as deep as it could be; as it should be; as God wants it to be; as we need it to be. 
How do we get past our sins so that we have a rich life in Christ, a life that is growing in holiness and relationship with God instead of life under sin? 
Theologian James McClendon wrote, “Authentic knowledge of my sin, clear awareness that I am a sinner, comes only when and as I am saved from it” (Systematic Theology: Doctrine, p.122).  McClendon offers two categories which help us see sin beyond simply misdeeds, disobedience, and bad behavior.  He describes sin as refusal and as rupture.
“God is making all things new,” he writes.  And then he refers to 2nd Corinthians 5:17 which says that in Christ, there is a new creation.  Thus for McClendon, sin is whatever “opposes entry” into the new world Jesus creates (130).  We refuse to receive the new life he offers, drink the new wine he produces.  We willfully resist becoming the new creations he desires to make of us. 
We don’t mean to refuse God’s good.  It is just that we turn to other things – relationships, possessions, professional success – for the satisfaction that only God can give.  In this, we sin.  Even people who have confessed and believe in Jesus, in daily life settle for the world’s pleasures while neglecting God’s blessings.  We marginalize the place God has in our lives and thus reduce His influence on our character while at the same maximizing our own vulnerability to sin’s devastating consequences for us. 
Sin as rupture is McClendon’s second category.  This is the refusal to live by Jesus’ second great command to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Divorce; bigotry; verbal abuse; deceit; gossip; refusal to welcome those different from us; dividing people into ‘us’ and ‘them;’ this is not headline-making stuff like terrorism or school shootings.  Here we are talking about everyday relationship failures that 21st century American culture considers normal in the course of human life. 
God is not happy with the state of affairs.  We are called by our Heavenly Father and prompted by the Holy Spirit to be a part of the body of Christ, the church.  To be Christian is to be unified with other Christians.  Yet, as Ron Sider points out in Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience the social ills that make the world a broken place exist in the lives of people in the church almost as frequently as they do in the lives of the unchurched.  Based on divorce rates, spousal abuse statistics, and a number of other categories, it would be hard to tell between two groups of people which was the church and which was a gathering of strangers in a restaurant.  How can the body of Christ show the world the way to the Kingdom of God when our own relationships are so broken?
Sin as refusal is a rejection of God’s blessings, an unwillingness to trust God with our desires and our happiness.  Sin as refusal is violation of the greatest command – to love the Lord our God with all the heart, soul, strength, and mind. 
Sin as rupture is a violation of the second great command, the command to love our neighbor as ourselves.  We treat people with contempt, not grace, and the world is marked by hatred and death.  We have a sin problem.
Of course, when we look to the cross, we know Jesus has conquered God and humanity’s enemies – sin, death, and Satan.  The question we face daily is do we live in God’s victory or in the old life, the life of sin, the life that has been nailed to the cross.  Which life do we live?
The first steps to move from death to life are confession and forgiveness.  We come before God in complete honesty.  We do not hide anything from our heavenly Father.  We stand before God exposed in our mistakes.  Doing that, we discover how much God loves us.  We receive the complete forgiveness God offers in Christ.  We know we sin, but we also know what God sees when God looks at us: the innocence of Jesus.  We come to trust that we have been made new in Christ.
After that, how do we live in the new life we’ve been given and are being given daily?  Here is the spiritual practice I propose for Lent 2017 for the HillSong Church family.  First, participate in worship.  Don’t miss it.  If you can be with us, be here.  Note the worship songs that lead to confession and the pronouncement of forgiveness.  Take communion – the body and bread of Christ.  As you participate in the story of the Gospel in this act of worship see that Jesus on the cross means God loves you and you are made new – one who is forgiven and pure.  Participate in the church’s worship of God.
Second, focus on the good things God is doing in the world. Second Corinthians 5:21 is a curious verse.  The first half of the verse says, “for our sake, [God] made him (Jesus) to be sin.”  Jesus is sin and on the cross, sin died.  That makes our confession and full forgiveness possible.  Sin cannot cling to us and cannot kill us, not when we have been born again in Christ.
The latter half of the verse says, “In Christ we become the righteousness of God.”  In other words, we are made right.  I hear that phrase – so and so needs to ‘get right with God.’  Well guess what?  Jesus has done it.  You and I, the church, as a forgiven people, are signs of God making things right in the world.
The spiritual practice I propose for us this season of Lent is to list specific examples of ways God is making the world right.  We’re going to put poster board up in the sanctuary and keep a running list.  Starting tonight and then every Sunday during the mission moment, we will invite the church to come and write down things you see that are indicators that God is at work, making things right in the world.  
There is plenty wrong too.  Jesus won the final victory on the cross, but though the outcome is certain, it won’t be complete until He returns.  As the world waits for the fulfillment of His salvation, sin and death clamor to claim us all.  The culture wars that are dividing America are but one example of the ways the world is fallen.  Another example is how our news media feeds on bad news, selling destruction. 
The spiritual discipline I propose is that we as a church body name the good that is happening in the world so that our focus is on God and what God is doing.  The first example I write down is something I see every time our church gathers – the little children who run the halls of our church.  Four-year-olds, 3-year-olds, toddlers; these children are little active witnesses to the goodness and presence of God at work among us.
What are other examples?  Do you know of someone who’s been forgiven and is experiencing new life in Christ?  That’s worth writing down and celebrating.  Has one of your prayers been answered?  That’s worth writing down and celebrating.  Did you see all the food our church collected for the Yates Association food drive?  That’s worth writing down and celebrating.  Did you have a great discussion in your small group this week?
You get the idea.
This Lent, if fasting is a spiritual discipline that will help you grow close to the Lord?  Do it!  Confession in worship is something we all need to do.  So do it.  And along with these and other disciplines, participate with us in the discipline of noting the work of God, making us his righteousness.  See God at work, write down what you see, and join the church as we celebrate together. 
I know Ash Wednesday is not traditionally a celebration service.  We do mourn sin and tonight we have some contemplative worship activities like the prayer labyrinth and the imposition of ashes.  We are reminded of how much we need God.  We are reminded that in sin, we die, we return to dust, and we are cut off from the Lord.  But along with our mourning and our acknowledgment, we are also called to tell God’s story.  God is making things right in the world.  That includes God’s work in our hearts, making each one of us a sign of his righteousness.


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