Lent 4 (C)

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A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer

First & Spring Creek Lutheran Churches

Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 21, 2004

Text: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Two thousand years ago, Christians believe, God entered into our human story. He came to us in the flesh and blood; he came to us as one of us. He came to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Never before or since has such a thing happened in the world, and in the life, death and resurrection of this Jesus, God…

God what?

What was it that God did through Jesus, his life, death and resurrection?

Most Christians will tell you that God forgave us through these things. Because of Jesus, they say, God now forgives you all your sins. He pardons you. He shows you mercy. It is a good answer, and a Christian one, but the truth is that it’s incomplete. Though God surely forgives us our sins through Jesus Christ, the work of the cross goes deeper than that, if you can believe it.

For God not only forgives, he also reconciles. And that is the heart of the good news today.

Let’s think for a moment what these two words mean: “forgive” and “reconcile.” At first glace they seem to be more or less the same thing. We often use them together, and sometimes almost interchangeably – someone might, for example, urge two warring family members to “seek reconciliation” with each other, and when she says this she means “Come on! Enough is enough. Forgive each other already.”

They are very different words, though. Forgiveness is essentially a legal term. It means “to grant pardon without harboring resentment.” When someone wrongs you, you have a few choices. You might retaliate, returning wrong for wrong. This would probably be fair, but it would be far from honorable. You might choose to press your case in court. This would be a course of action both fair and honorable, allowing your compensation to be set by the law instead of your outrage.

Or you might choose the road of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a fair thing at all, but it is the most honorable choice: in order to forgive, you must set aside your right to both retaliation and compensation for the injury done to you, and you must do so of your own free choice. You even give up the right of resentment when you forgive – if you lord your “forgiveness” over the other person, you haven’t forgiven them at all; you’ve just found a rather sick psychological form of retaliation, that’s all.

No, forgiveness is a choice to set aside your legal rights and to excuse someone who has hurt you, without grudges or axes to grind. And, make no mistake about it, God most certainly forgives us on account of Jesus. Though we have struck out at God again and again, breaking his laws at every turn, hurting him as often and as deeply as we know how, for Jesus’ sake he sets aside his right to punish us, and instead forgives us freely.

But as astonishing as it may be that God chooses to give up his lawful rights when dealing with us and instead chooses to forgive, what we often forget is that God doesn’t stop with forgiveness. God pushes on and actually reconciles us to himself!

What does that mean, “God reconciles us to himself”? Those are Paul’s words for what God was up to in Jesus’ mission – God was reconciling us. We don’t use that word quite as often as we talk about forgiveness, so it’s worth turning to a dictionary to make sure we understand what it means. “Reconcile,” as it turns out, means “to reestablish a close relationship with.” You might say it’s the next step beyond forgiveness, the mending of the heart that goes beyond all the legal talk of rights and pardon and gets to the brokenness of the relationship that lies at the bottom of all sin. If forgiveness is God’s choice to excuse a sin, reconciliation is his act of mending the fence.

God, you see, isn’t content to just leave things at “I choose not to punish you.” As mind-blowingly generous as that is, it doesn’t go far enough for God. What he desires with all his heart is for our broken relationship with him to be healed. He wants us to be able to love him instead of fearing him. He wants us to come running when he calls rather than fleeing. He wants us to know him as “Daddy” rather than as judge, jury and executioner. He wants us to be reconciled to him.

Well, that’s a tall order. If that’s what God’s after, he’s got a lot of work ahead of him, because in order to do all that, he’s going to have to change our hearts. We’re all cons, hardened criminals, and just because God’s chosen to let us off easy doesn’t mean we’re going to see him in a different light. Not with these hearts. Without a new heart, reconciliation with God just isn’t very likely for us.

And that’s what brings us back to that man, that cross, that empty tomb two thousand years ago. Because, as Paul teaches us, everything old died on that cross with Jesus. Everything! Our old hearts, our old habits, our old lusts – all of them died with him that day. And on the very first Easter, God did something we never would have expected: He began making everything that had died new again, starting with his very own Son Jesus. On Good Friday the work of forgiveness was complete; by Easter Sunday the work of reconciliation had begun.

That reconciliation continues to this day, because God is still remaking and renewing all things. He’s not done yet. His new creation won’t be finished until the new heaven and the new earth come, and the risen Lord Jesus rules over them both. Until that day when God’s new creation in Christ is finally completed, we are works in progress. Some days reconciliation will indeed rule our hearts, mending the fences so that we approach God in wonder and love. At other moments our dead and dying criminal hearts will harden us against God’s approaches, and our separation from him will be all the more painful now that we know what it’s like to call him “Daddy” and mean it.

But the die has been cast. The decision has been made. On Calvary the old things, all of them, were put to death along with Jesus in God’s great act of forgiveness. And at the empty tomb, the new creation began – and someday soon God’s great work of reconciliation will be complete.

May our hearts be ever more and more reconciled to God, so that we might be made completely new by the day of Jesus Christ. Amen.

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