Reconciled - Ash Wednesday Sermon 2022
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Reconciled – 03.02.2022
[2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10]
Once upon a time, there was a woodcarver who worked for a lumbar mill. And every day, he and all his coworkers would grabs their axe and head out into the woods to cut down trees. Now this particular woodcarver was the hardest worker on the force. He got there on time, he would work hard all day, and finish with everyone else. But then one day the foreman called him into his office and said, “Woodcarver, you’re great – but you’re falling behind. Everyone else is cutting more trees than you are. I’m going to have to let you go.” And the woodcarver said, “No sir, please – I can improve. Give me another chance and I can prove it to you. I’ll work harder than anyone else, I’ll get here first and I’ll be the last to leave – let me prove I can do this.” Foreman looked at him and said, “well, you’ve always been a good worker – I’ll give you two days.”
So the next day the woodcarver got to work before any of the other lumber jacks, he grabbed his axe and was out in the trees before anybody else even got there, and then he stayed an extra hour after everybody else went home. At the end of the day, the foreman called him into his office. “Woodcarver, you’re still pulling in the worst haul – everyone else is cutting more trees than you. You’ve got to improve tomorrow or you’re out of here.” The woodcarver was baffled and exhausted, but he set his jaw and knew what he had to do. The third day he got there three hours before anybody else, he worked hard all day, he worked straight through his lunch break, and stayed three hours after everyone else had finished chopping. He went into the foreman’s office, burnt out but hopeful. He said, “Today, had to have been my best day yet.” And the foreman looked at the numbers and said, “No, today was your worst effort. I don’t understand it, I know you’re a hard worker – but you’re fired.” The woodcarver cleaned out his locker, grabbed his axe and started heading out towards home. But as he was leaving he noticed the other men were out in the yard, doing something with their axes. He grabbed a friend and said, “What are they doing?” And the friend looked at him and said, “they’re sharpening their axes of course. You’ve got to sharpen it everyday, otherwise the axe will be dull and it won’t work” Tonight I took a break in my paternity leave, because it’s the beginning of Lent and the scriptures have a really important message I want to share with you.
It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how many hours you spend on something – if you never sharpen your axe.
Now, we’re mostly in chapter six of 2 Corinthians, but if we back up two verses it gives us a framework that we really need to see. In chapter five, verse 20 tells us, [read it]. If there was one sentence to describe the Christian project – it’s right there. We are Christ’s ambassadors, as though God was making his appeal THROUGH us. Y’all know what ambassadors are, right? Like a representative. You send them to another country or whatever, and they speak for your whole group of people. So if we are God’s ambassadors – that means that we represent him out there in the world. And I gotta tell you, God’s reputation is hurting because there are so many bad Christians out there. People who claim Jesus Christ’s name – but they don’t live it, they don’t act like it. That pushes people away from God. So if you’re going to go out there and tell people, “I’m a Christian” then you have to ask yourself – Is God going to be proud of the way you behave out in the world? I heard somebody say it this way, “you’re still a Christian when you’re driving.” Ambassadors for Jesus – God is making his appeal THROUGH us. Then it says Be reconciled to God. To figure that out, we need to look at the next verse.
[read v.21] Now it sounds a little bit like an Abbot and Costello routine, you know – who’s on first? But if you walk through it slow, it’s really easy. “God made him who had no sin” – obviously that Jesus. Jesus never sinned, not even once in his whole life – sinless. God made him who had no sin to BE sin for us. Now, if you don’t know, they’re talking about what happened on the cross. Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice. We have sinned in our life. No point in denying it, we have all sinned. And the punishment for sin is death and hell. But Jesus took on our punishment FOR us. He said, “hey, I don’t deserve death and separation from God, I don’t deserve that – and you do, but because I love you so much I’m going to take your punishment of death and separation from God FOR you – so you can be reconciled with God. Jesus, with what he did on the cross, Jesus reconciles you with God. Your sin pushes you away from God, Jesus pushes you back together. Hear the sentence again, “God made him who had no sin (Jesus) to be sin for us (talking about the cross), so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Now, real quick, before we move on let me ask this question, “how much do I gotta do, to activate the Jesus power?” Like, okay – I know that’s not like proper terminology – but how many Sundays do I need to go to church to earn that gift, can I get a ballpark number on that? I once met a woman who literally said “I went to church for the first thirty years of my life, I figure that covers me for the rest” I mean, we’re heading into lent, right? And a lot of people give something up for lent. How much stuff do I have to give up for Jesus to, you know, do his thing so that I can go to the better place instead of the not-quite-as good place. How much do I need to do to be considered a good person – to get that “righteousness of God” they’re talking about. How much do I need to volunteer, or sacrifice or earn to get God’s love?
But there’s something I want you to realize about verse 21. Verse 21 describes the way that you will be reconciled with God – right? And what I want you to notice tonight is that you’re not in the verse. You are not in verse 21 at all, it does not mention you, except to say that Jesus is doing the work FOR you. Read it back, [read v.21 again]. There is no action for us at all! Reconciliation is Jesus’ work – not yours. To update an old Jon Edwards quote, “the only thing you can contribute to your salvation is the sin that makes it necessary.” Reconciliation is Jesus’ work, not yours. Let go of the burden of trying to earn God’s love. Okay, and let me own this for a second. I grew up in the church, my dad’s a pastor, he’s a phenomenal preacher – I had a fantastic Christian upbringing – and he only ever preached grace as a gift. And yet still I got this legalism in my heart. I followed religion instead of Jesus. Okay, let’s just talk about this for a second – part of the reason I became a pastor was because I thought that’s what the best Christians did. Underneath it all, I had this sinister, prideful belief that – well, you know, Pastor’s are closer to God than those normies in the pews. I thought I could get God to love me if I was the best church goer, and when that wasn’t enough – I thought I could get God to love me if I was the best church volunteer, and when that wasn’t enough – I thought I could get God to love me if I was the best church LEADER, the best pastor. And I’m here to admit to you tonight – it was never enough. Even being one of those successful, up and coming, bright star pastors – it’s not enough to get God to love me. Because God never needed any encouragement to love me. God doesn’t need bribing so that he will love you. He already loves you. I’m not in verse 21 either. There is nothing I can contribute to my salvation except the sin that makes it necessary. My only contribution to the saving of my life was the part where I messed it up – everything else is Jesus. Reconciliation is Jesus’ work – not mine.
So then Paul gets to his main point, he says, [read v.1-2]. Now is the time of God’s favor, NOW is the day of salvation. Alright, now I know my sermons can be a little dense and I get excited about dorky stuff and people sort of phase out a bit – but I really need you to snap into this – this is my last big point that comes out of the text. Right now is the day of salvation. Right now is the day of God’s favor. And I wish I could dial up Paul up in heaven and be like, “Bro, are you sure? Cuz I’m checking my twitter feed (cuz that’s how nerdy millennials get their news) and it doesn’t look like the day of God’s favor. It looks like a dumpster fire.” Actually, that’s not fair to dumpster fires – the news cycle recently looks more like the dumpster outside a baby factory was lit on fire and then a tornado came along and just threw flaming diapers everywhere across the world. That’s my professional pastoral description of the media cycle right now. THIS is the day of salvation? Paul, come on man – well wait, maybe it was better for him. Maybe Paul was living in a situation where everything was totally awesome and so he’s thinking – yeah, this is God’s favor. So let’s finish out the scripture passage and see what Paul’s situation looks like, because THIS is the time of God’s favor. [read v.3-10]. Does it feel like the day of God’s favor is sort of a mixed bag? Like, some of that stuff was really nice – understanding and patience, that’s good stuff. But then they were talking about beatings and riots and sleepless nights. My point with all this is that Paul seems to be under the impression that God’s love and God’s favor is active – no matter what happens in the world. You see, a lot of us we try to earn God’s love – and like we just talked about, that’s not how it works. But the other side of that is that a lot of us seem to feel that when life is good God is happy with us, and when life is bad, God is mad at us, or God is punishing us. But look at Paul’s life, and he was one of the greatest followers of Jesus who ever lived. God’s love does not depend on you. God’s love is steadfast and true no matter what trials come in your life. If you’re struggling, if you’re going through something right now and you’re overwhelmed and you feel like God’s far away – I want you to take comfort in this simple truth: God’s love is steadfast. God’s favor and salvation is with you, no matter what storms the world may throw at you.
The good news this evening – honestly this is the whole point of the sermon tonight, the good news is that God reconciles us to himself. Your salvation does not depend on you. Your salvation does not depend on your life being perfect or looking a certain way. Your salvation depends on Jesus. God reconciles us to himself – we are not in the equation. Ash Wednesday, the reason they created this service, we put it in the Christian calendar as a reminder that we are dust. There’s a latin phrase people throw around, “memento mori” and it means “remember your death” or “remember that you have to die.” Ash Wednesday is designed to help us remember that we are mere mortals. Memento Mori. Tonight is an opportunity for us to admit that we are dust and ashes. We can do nothing without the life giving breath of God.
Now, wait a minute – hold up. I can already hear the objections. If it’s all God’s actions, well then awesome – I don’t have to do anything! Uh, no. the application that comes out of this teaching is not – do nothing. What I’m trying to tell you is that you can’t save yourself, but Jesus can. Don’t chase salvation, chase Jesus. Like, if you’re drowning in the ocean and I’m on the boat yelling at you, “it’s too far for you to swim, you can’t save yourself!” And you say, “oh, okay, I guess I’ll just sink.” And it’s like, “No, I’m saying grab the little life preserver thingy, the orange donut on a rope. You can’t save yourself, so cling to the thing that can save you.” And if you’re not following the metaphor Jesus is orange donut thing. You’re getting tossed around on the ocean of life, and trying to save yourself looks an awful lot like a flaming diaper tornado – it doesn’t work. If you can’t save yourself, cling to the one who can save you. Cling to Jesus.
That’s what lent’s all about. Clinging to Jesus. We remember our limitations, we highlight that we are nothing but dust and ashes – so that we will remember to cling to Jesus. You, in your life, you don’t have to try and save yourself. You don’t have to come with some clever new religious earning. You don’t have to put all that pressure on your shoulders of trying to fix everything before God will love you. God doesn’t need a bribe to love his creation. He loves you so much. And I know that because God says I’m your Father and you are my children. And I just had another kid. And that little mushy potato has done nothing but poop on me and keep me from getting a full nights sleep, and yet I already love him more than he could ever earn. (I’m realizing now that there are entirely too many references to fecal matter in this sermon. I’m thinking I might need one more Sunday before I’m ready to be back in the pulpit). *laugh*
You can’t save yourself, because you are dust and ashes, so cling to Jesus. That’s our job as Christians, to cling to the one who does all the work – cling to Jesus. But let’s get really practical – how do you cling to Jesus? Lent is all about preparing us for Easter. How do you prepare yourself? How do you cling to Jesus? the answer is super easy – pray, read your bible, fast – give up food or something to focus on God, worship weekly with gathered Christians. I’m not saying that you have to give something up for lent. But my challenge for you tonight and for all of lent is to find some way to cling to Jesus. Be intentional – set a goal, tell people for accountability – do something to cling to the one who does everything.
There once was a lumberjack who got fired because no matter how hard he worked it wasn’t good enough, because he never sharpened his axe. You can’t work your way into heaven, but you can accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior and live your life clinging to him. And so I’ll leave you with this. May you remember that you are dust and ashes. May you remember God reconciles us to himself. And finally may you do anything and everything in your power to cling to Jesus. Amen.