A Word to Lent 2016
We enter Lent confessing to God in the words of Psalm 51: “I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”
Also, we begin our Lenten journey to the cross, and from the cross to the empty tomb, with these ominous words: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
There we have them: sin and death – the big two. If our religion cannot adequately address sin and death, it is trivial at best and ultimately worthless. This is why Lent’s laser focus on them is such a blessing. The thematic thread running through Lent is that Jesus Christ went to the cross to free us from sin, to break the power of death.
Fleming Rutledge is one of my favorite writers. I highly recommend her most recent (and most weighty) work, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2015). In an earlier work, she has this reflection on Romans 7:
Sin is too strong for us. Sin is not just a misdeed here and a mistake there. Sin is a Power that holds all human beings in its grip. Why don’t we have peace instead of war? Because of Sin. Why don’t we have racial harmony instead of racial animosity? Because of sin. Why are children poor, abused, neglected, malnourished, sick from drinking bad water? Because of sin. Because we go round and round in a cycle of selfishness, rapacity, indifference, greed, and vengefulness…We are profoundly, incurably, irrevocably unable to cure the human race from within. Then she turns to the gospel:
That is why the news that God has entered history from outside history must be preserved at the very heart of the Christian message…[God in Christ Jesus] has entered our condition to substitute his capacity for our incapacity, his righteousness for our unrighteousness, his deserving for our undeserving. (The Undoing of Death, 212-213)
Christ substituting his righteousness for our unrighteousness is what Martin Luther called “the happy exchange.” Luther drew this from the apostle Paul, “God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that we might become the righteousness of
God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Often our basic Lenten message is that in his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus brings you and me forgiveness of sin and gives you and me resurrection life. And this is true – very true. Still, sin and death are larger than you and me; they are cosmic.
And so is the cross of Christ.
An often overlooked larger picture of Jesus’ suffering and death is the apocalyptic character of the crucifixion. The word “apocalyptic” means “to make known” or “to reveal” and expresses a worldview that encompasses both the reality that we see and the larger reality that we do not see. Effects of sin and struggles against sin play out in the reality we see; however, the larger reality that we do not see is where the decisive victory over Sin and Death is won or lost. On the grand scale, Christ’s crucifixion ushers out the old age and ushers in the new age.
Oh, yes, this apocalyptic imagery of a cosmic battle between the Lord of Hosts and the powers and principalities of the evil one has been misused to instill fear of “the end times” and to whip up Christian militarism against Muslims and bigotry against Jews. Such misuse of biblical apocalypticism diminishes all of us and discredits our Christian witness.
But we miss the world-changing import of the Christian gospel if we turn away from the cross’s apocalyptic length and breadth. It is precisely the apocalyptic length and breadth of the gospel that has the power to meet Sin and Death in all their length and breadth.
I quote now from Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion:
[The apocalyptic view of the victory of Christ over Sin and Death] is deeply embedded in the Scripture and the tradition, and it speaks with new force and relevance for today because it grants evil its due. The theme emphasizes the infernal intelligence, the annihilating force, the lethal fury of demonic Powers. In our contemporary world we know too much about this kind of evil.
Anyone following the news as the twenty-first century continues to unfold must know the feeling that our globe is inhabited by truly unbearable wickedness, and that this wickedness is out of our control… In this situation, Christians live and bear witness with two images before them; one is the crucifixion, a scene of utter horror and apparent defeat, and the other is the Christus Rex [Christ the King], crowned, victorious, triumphant, risen…
Any tendency to interpret the victory of Christ on the cross without reference to Sin as one of the Powers has an ill effect on ethics. It encourages an unhealthy separation of personal piety from social action. It permits groups within the church to stand over against other groups… Above all, [the apostle] Paul is concerned to show that the Christian life does not go on as if the world has remained unchanged. The church is not a redeemed boat floating in an unredeemed sea. It is not as if the only thing that has changed is that our sins are forgiven and we, person by person, come to believe in Jesus. Rather, there has been a transfer of aeons, an exchange of one kosmos for another.
By God’s grace, we participate in Christ’s victory. In faith, regardless of the size of our church, regardless of the size of our bank account, regardless of our frailty or our strength, we are liberated from forces too strong for us: we are in Christ a new creation.
Christ’s rich grace be yours in this season of repentance and renewal!