Below you will find the sermon manuscript from this past Sunday's message,
Let's love like Jesus,
Megan and Dave
Confirmation for Everyone, Week 6
The Rev. David Collins
Today we’ll be looking at the Atonement, which is the theological word we use to encapsulate the suffering, pain, and death of Jesus Christ on the cross for us. This is the part of Christianity that explains why the death of Jesus over two thousand years ago changes your life today. But before we can talk about it, we need to talk about the wrath of God.
The wrath of God sounds scary, and it is. It also sounds like the name of either a really awesome heavy metal band, or a really lame one. But it encapsulates what God has revealed about Godself throughout the Bible about just how serious God is about us, and about our world. You may have heard part of Ezekiel 25:17 before…
I will execute great vengeance on them with wrathful punishments. Then they shall know that I am the Lord, when I lay my vengeance on them. Ezekiel 25:17
That's the only line of Samuel L Jackson's famous monologue from Pulp Fiction that's actually in the Bible. (Please don't take this as an endorsement of that movie. It didn't age well). But that scene worked because of SLJ tapped into something about God's wrath, something that we tend to shy away from as people in the same denomination as Mr. Rogers, but something that is true, that we need to know in order to understand the atonement.
Psalm 7:11 puts it like this:
God is a righteous judge, and a God who has indignation every day.
Indignation isn’t just anger. It’s anger when something has happened that is unfair or unjust, when someone has been mistreated. And it isn’t just something you acknowledge. It's something you feel.
God has feelings. Our God is a God of great feeling, of conviction. God is passionate about right and wrong. Sometimes, though, religious people get a hold of this truth about God’s anger and separate it from grace. They make it it's own thing, and they make God start to sound like a scold, you know, just like them. Religious people have always given God a bad rap. They make God seem like a busybody who has nothing better to do than peer out the window and judge the neighbors. Or worse they make people feel unlovable or broken beyond repair.
That’s what happens when you separate the wrath of God from the atonement. The atonement is God’s answer to wrath, to the anger at sin, which means God must feel strongly about it. So people ask:
Why does God care about sin? If God is this infinite being, with no limits or limitations, why does this God care if a shaved ape like me takes a short cut, or misses the mark, or is selfish?
The truth is that God cares because God loves. God loves without limits or limitations. God cares about everything that you do, because God loves you, and loves everyone, more than any person could ever love.
Romans 5:6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.
5:8 ... God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
Jesus died to atone for sin because Jesus loves. Now, we didn't ask God to do this. Despite what you may have heard, God didn't HAVE to do this. But, God did it. And we believe that this act wasn't incidental in the life of God. God isn't like "Oh yeah! I did do that once didn't I?" No, the cross of Jesus Christ is a persisting reality in the life of God. On the cross, God showed us once and for all who God is, and how much God loves us. It doesn't have to make sense to us. It only has to make sense to God. And it does. It fully makes sense to God, and is the reason that God forgives us for our sins. It's the reason that we can live in a reconciled relationship with God. And through it, God changes us from the way we were, lost in pride and hiding, and into the very likeness and character of Jesus.
But still, we want to understand. We want to know why and how this horrific event saves us. Because if God wanted to forgive us, why couldn't God just....do it?
Shouldn't forgiveness be easy for God? It sure is easy for us, right? Someone hurts us or betrays us, and we say, "Don't worry about it. It's fine." Easy, right? And then the next time we see them, we somehow work into conversation that horrible thing they did, but then tell them, "But don't worry about it, I forgive you." But then you forget to invite them to the party you have every year that you always used to invite them to. But it's just because there's too many people coming already. That's forgiveness right?
Maybe we don't know what forgiveness is like after all. Guthrie writes:
"Good-natured indulgence and casual acceptance are not forgiveness and love but an expression of indifference and sometimes hostility. Real love and forgiveness mean caring enough to be hurt, caring enough to put ourselves in others' shoes and sharing their guilt as if it were our own. ...God cares for us too much to dismiss our sin and guilt with a flippant "It doesn't matter."
We do that because our ability to love and forgive is conditioned by our fear, and our need to protect ourselves from more hurt and disappointment.
But imagine for a minute that, like God, you could love without limitations. Without self protection, or fear. That like God, you would never tire, or get distracted. You would never succumb to resignation or rationalization.
Imagine you could see clearly, and act with decisiveness, in order to save the people you love from their own self-destruction. That there was nothing you couldn't do. Then these images of the atonement start to make more sense. So what happened on the cross? How were we saved from our sin by Jesus' crucifixion and death? In addition to describing the event itself, the Bible uses four images to help us understand what God did there and then, for us.
But before we get to them, I need to say this. We’re not saved by our understanding. We’re not saved by the experience of feeling saved. I love those experiences. I’ve had one or two myself, but they aren’t what saves us. They aren’t what takes us from darkness to light, from sin to righteousness. God does. What God did through Jesus Christ’s cross, death and resurrection…that’s what saves us.
I think of the man on the subway who was approached by another man holding a Bible tract. The other man said, “Brother, when were you saved?” And the man replied, “On Good Friday, and so were you.”
Now, I hope you’ve experienced the truth of that in your own life. I hope it’s become real for you as it has for me. But it’s not real because you experienced it. It’s not real because you understand it. It is real. Full stop. It is real, and so you try hard to understand it. It is real, and so you do what you can to experience it. The images we’re going to look at can help us to do just that.
The first image of the atonement is the military image
Raise your hand if you've seen Taken with Liam Neeson. If you're not raising your hand, in Taken, Liam Neeson plays a retired special forces type soldier. And his daughter is kidnapped, and trafficked and he goes to work to rescue her by any means necessary. It's a great movie. The first one is at least. By Taken 4, I mean, he's just irresponsible. Just keep track of your family members.
But that's the military image of what happened on the cross.
Colossians 1:13 says He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,
But instead of with very particular set of skills. Skills he has acquired over a very long career. Jesus saved us by being defeated on the battlefield, dying a bloody death, with the enemy believing itself to have won, and his comrades knowing in the pit of their stomachs that all was lost. But on Easter morning, he "triumphs over them and frees the captives"
Colossians 2:15 says
He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.
Jesus goes to war for us, and he doesn’t even get to wear plot armor. His victory for us is won through pain and suffering, through defeat and death. But it worked. He rescued us. That’s the first image of what the atonement means.
The second we’ll call financial ransom.
"Picture a slave market or a prison camp. It's filled with captives who have lost their freedom. But a man steps up and pays the price to purchase their freedom, to redeem them. We are the slaves or prisoners. Jesus is our Redeemer. The price is high- his life for ours” (Guthrie). But he pays it, and he is happy to pay it, for us.
Jesus himself described his mission like this in Mark 10:45
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. It's a powerful image. It's an amazing analogy.
But like all analogies, it breaks down. It doesn't mean that there is someone Jesus paid the ransom to. Many sermons have said Jesus paid it to the devil, but those are wrong. The devil doesn't have that kind of power. Others have said that Jesus the Son paid it to God the Father, but those are wrong too. Jesus said that he and the Father were one. And we see God's gracious will for our salvation from Genesis to Maps. We should never ask more of a metaphor then it's willing to give. But at the same time, we should hear it for what it is.
Both the ransom image and the military image also break down in the fact that rescuing people, moving them from one camp to another, doesn't necessary change their minds. Salvation does come to us from the outside, but it doesn't stay there. It's not just a change of allegiance...it's a change of heart.
That change of heart comes to fruition in what Megan is going to teach about next week: Justification and Sanctification, but it starts right here, in how we experience Jesus’ death for us. One image that the Bible paints is of his Sacrifice.
Romans 3:23-25 puts it like this:
Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.
When Jesus was traveling around Israel, teaching and healing, the Temple was busy as the center of religious life. And all day, the priests offered animal sacrifice on behalf of the people. The people then would have been just as at ease watching the priest break the neck of a bird as you are watching your pastor break a loaf of bread at the table.
The priest was the mediator between God and the people. He made sacrifices to atone for the people's sin. Blood was shed. A life offered up. It was a sign of the people's sorrow for their disobedience, their offering of their own lives to God, and cleansing from the stain of their sin.
But the book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus, instead of offering the life of an animal, offers his own life. He lets his own blood be shed to make peace between the people and God. He is himself the "lamb that is slain.” It doesn’t make as much sense to us, because we live in the world Jesus transformed. Instead of killing bird after bird, lamb after lamb, Jesus offered himself as the one sacrifice for all people, in all times. It was once, for all. It was sufficient. It was enough.
But much like how in the Old Testament, the prophets tell the people over and over again that it doesn’t matter how many sacrifices they offer if they refuse to do justice, and treat the poor with fairness and care, there are Christians today who think that “Christ's sacrificial death for us is permission to settle down in personal and social sinfulness, confident that God will automatically forgive because "Jesus paid it all.””
This is an image of the atonement that is meant not just to move us from one status to another, but to change our hearts. As is the image of the Courtroom.
If you can imagine a courtroom and all of us stand there, convicted and guilty. The sentence is death. But before we can be taken away in handcuffs a man runs into the room who has committed no crime and stands next to us, volunteers to take the sentence given to us, and takes the consequences of our sin as his own. We, the guilty, are acquitted and leave the courtroom as free people with a fresh start.
Wouldn’t you leave that courtroom different than you came in? 2 Corinthians 5:18–21 says it like this:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
All of these images help us try to understand something we will never fully comprehend, that a perfect God saw how lost you are in your sin and knew the only way to truly free you from its grip on your life was the cross.
That God loved you too much to shrug his shoulders and leave you alone.
That to God, you are worth it. You are worth it all, even when it meant death on a cross.