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The New You
We seem to have a fascination with improvement don’t we? Magazine covers promise us “10 Steps to a Healthier You!” or “Five Steps to Financial Freedom!” Products are often touted as “New and Improved” or “Now with 20% more whitening power” (and I’ve often wondered just how they would measure something like that). We like to be able to measure improvement and we like to know what steps we have to take to improve – to get better. This is what the self-help movement is all about at heart. Improving people’s lives. More specifically helping people to see that the power to improve is within themselves. Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all, and I found the greatest love inside of me.
The problem arises, I think, when we look inside ourselves and find something lacking. We find that we are unable to deal with, or improve, things that we know are not good for ourselves or others. Guilt sets in, maybe even self-hatred. How is the follower of Christ to look at transformation in light of our God who transforms, and what God’s word and our own experience has shown us about transformation, and being made new (and improved)? Let us look at God’s word this morning and see what God has to say to our hearts.
In the chapter on transformation in his book The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryant Smith tells of an encounter he has with a friend of his named Carey. Smith hadn’t seen Carey in a while. He had heard his friend was teaching Sunday School at a new church. Carey was a successful business man who travelled a lot. Carey tells Smith that he feels he’s at the end of his rope in his relationship with God – “To be specific, I’m losing the battle with sin. Big time. I travel a lot and spend a lot of time in hotels. Pornography has become a huge temptation, and I fail every once in a while. I feel really guilty, and I tell God I’m sorry, promising never to do it again. I even confessed to my wife, and she was pretty upset, but also understanding. She knows it isn’t how I am.” Smith asked his friend what being a Christian meant to him in terms of who he is. This was Carey’s answer – “Well, it means that I believe in Jesus and am trying to follow his commands. I go to church, study the Bible and have devotional times when I can find an hour here or there. I try not to sin, you know; I try to be a good person, but I know that deep down I am still a sinner.”
Throughout this series we’ve been talking about the nature of God, what the attributes of God tell us about what God is like, and what God is not like. This morning we’re looking at the transforming nature of God, what it means in terms of who God is, what God has done, is doing and will do. We’ve talked about false ideas of God – how we can never conclude from one’s suffering to sin, for example, or how God’s favour is not something we earn. This morning I’d like to look at what God’s transforming nature says about us who profess to be followers of Christ (and if you don’t consider yourself a follower of Christ, what it might mean to get behind him).
The first thing question that we need to answer is “What is our primary identifier as followers of Christ?” Our primary identifier as followers of Christ is not that we are sinners. There’s a song that goes “I’m just a sinner, saved by grace” and I get the meaning of the song. It’s the same thing Martin Luther meant when he said that a follower of is simultaneously righteous and a sinner. Both the song and Luther’s words are stressing the fact that we are not saved based on any acts of our own, but only through the gracious act of God in the person of his son Jesus. I get that and I agree with that. With apologies to the Gaithers and Luther, however, I don’t think that we should be including the word sinner as our primary identifier. Of course we sin. Of course we feel the struggle that Paul described in Romans 7 where he talks about the good that he wants is not what he does. One of the dangers in this kind of thinking is the one that Smith’s friend Carey fell into – thinking that getting over his use of pornography was up to him. That if he tried harder than all would be well. One of Carey’s methods was to wear a purple bracelet with “WWJD” on it. The problem that I have with this bracelet is that it’s asking the wrong question. We’re not Jesus and there are things that Jesus has done that we could never do. We don’t save anyone, for example. This is good to remember – cuts down on the whole Messiah complex thing. I remember when we were going to Bolivia the second time, one of our drivers on the way to Pearson was asking about the trip. “So you’re going down there to save souls,” he said. We don’t save souls. We’re called to point to the one who does, just like John the Baptist is doing in that painting I mentioned not long ago. The primary question friend is not WWJD, but “What Has Jesus Done?” Or maybe “What Is Jesus Enabling In You?”
Christ In You
The key part of that second question is “In You”. If we want to talk about primary identifiers as followers of Christ, this is key. Christ is in you. You are in Christ. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. New creations. God enabling something new through the person of his son and the person of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. This is our primary identifier my friends. What is Jesus enabling in you? Let us have that discussion! Our God is one of new creation – from Genesis 1 where God creates something out of nothing. Through the prophets where we read in the book of Isaiah “See I am doing a new thing!” Through the life of Jesus where people were amazed and said “We have never heard anyone speak like this before!” Through John’s vision where he hears a voice saying “Look I am making all things new!” This is the God who we serve, and this is the God who lives inside of us. In his book Smith says he believes most Christians haven’t thought about Christ being in them. I’m not sure about this. This is what we mean when we talk about inviting Jesus into our heart, isn’t it? I remember doing this on a regular basis as a child – every Saturday night in fact. I didn’t know what that meant fully. I suppose I might say the same now. The implications of having the living God in all God’s goodness, faithfulness, generosity, love, holiness. Maybe it would be a good thing to invite God to live in us powerfully every night. Every morning too! What might that mean? What does this mean in terms of what Jesus has done?
Paul looks at this question in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians. Paul had a long and close relationship with the church he had founded in Corinth. He spent 18 months there establishing a church (which is probably better described as a collection of house churches). Over 7 years he spent time writing and receiving letters from them, as well as visiting and receiving visits from friends of his in Corinth. One of the things that Paul came under attack for was his apostolic authority. Corinth was a large cosmopolitan city, the capital of the Roman province of Achaea. Status was valued. Pedigree was valued. How good one looked and how well one spoke was valued. Paul came under fire because he lacked these things. We read part of his defense in the passage we heard this morning. While Paul is defending his ministry in these verses, I would say that he paints a picture of what primarily defines any follower of Christ.
“Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord…” is how Paul starts. Knowing awe, knowing reverence for who God is – for how wholly holy God. How wholly other. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom. Not operating out of a fear of what God will do to us if we do something wrong, but seeking to live a life pleasing to God, reflective of God’s ways, because when we consider what God has done for us in the person of his son, we can do no other. This is where Paul starts. Living in the fear of the Lord involves knowing that “his whole life and ministry will come under God’s scrutiny.” We’re talking about matters of life and death, of blessings or curses. This is the choice that is laid out before us, and so we hear and accept the invitation to “Fear God and give him glory.”
We don’t do this out of a fear that God is up there with a lightning bolt ready to hit us if we do something wrong. We do this because God loves us. Because God is good, and he is good all the time. How do we know this? The first Sunday of this series I asked what the was best/worst day in the history of humanity. It always comes back to the cross. Lent is starting this week and we’ll begin a journey along with Christ to the cross. In 1 Corinthians Paul writes to the church “I determined to know nothing among you except Christ crucified.” What does this mean? “Because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.” Why? “And he died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” Do you ever wonder why Baptists perform baptisms the way we do? When you are lowered into the water, part of the symbolism is dying and rising with Christ. The Christ following life is a lifelong process of dying to self – of dying to ourselves and living in Christ. This is what Paul writes to the Romans – “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” This is what we are friends. Being born again or made anew, or remade is not a one time event. For some our initial conversion, our initial turning toward God and crying out to God in our need can be dramatic – a dramatic turnaround. This was the case for Paul, wasn’t it, encountering the risen Jesus while he was travelling to Damascus in order to have followers of the same Jesus put to death. Being made new in Christ was a lifelong process for Paul. “Who are you Lord?” was the question he put to Christ that day. The desire to know Christ and to make him known would consume him the rest of his days. Not simply knowing facts about Christ but a heart knowledge that changed him. May this be the same for us.
If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation, everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. This is a process of course. We once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. This affects the way we see everything. The way we see God’s creation. The way we see people. From a human point of view means from a viewpoint that doesn’t include God. Coming to an ever greater awareness of who God is and how God loves causes us to come to see people the same way God sees them. With love, grace, mercy, compassion. All this is from God. Not from us deciding that our striving is what has to change us. God has reconciled the world to himself through Christ. This process isn’t over of course. It’s begun! It’s not over. One day it will be over. In the meantime we’re caught up in God’s plan. The amazing thing is that God has entrusted this ministry of reconciliation to us. Can you imagine? Who would be up for such a thing? We often have this come up when people are considered for church leadership don’t we? Who feels that they’re able to carry out such a task? It’s not just for church leaders either, it’s for all of us. Ambassador of Christ. God making his appeal through us. God catching us up in his grand salvation plan for the world. This transforming nature of God is not just for us as individuals of course. It’s for all of creation. All of creation groans and awaits that day when that voice will be heard saying “See, I am making all things new!”
In the meantime what do we do? Accept the invitation. Be reconciled to God. Open ourselves up to what that might mean. Being reconciled in our closest relationships. Being reconciled among members of our church family. Being caught up in God’s great reconciliation plan. What might that look like for us? What role do we play in allowing God to transform us? We wait on him. How is your waiting? We don’t like to wait much in our society do we? In order to cultivate relationships we need to spend time. The same thing is true in our relationship with God. In order to allow God to work his transformative power in us we need to be paying attention to him. Praying. Listening for God in his word. We just had our first experience as a church with fasting. Service. Praising God. Gathering together to worship, to pray, to hear God’s word, to gather around the Lord’s table. These are the things that shape us. These are the things that change us and enable in us the reflection of all the things we’ve been discussing with regard to who God is – good, faithful, generous, holy, love. Being reconciled to God will come to ever more mean we reflect God’s ways – God’s love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness.
Miroslav Wolf tells the story of the death of his older brother Daniel in Yugoslavia. Daniel was killed at 5 in an accident on an army base he used to spend time on. One of the soldiers was found negligent and discharged. Wolf’s parents did not want to press charges, and his father would visit the young soldier back in his hometown. This is what Wolf writes about his parents’ forgiveness – “When I asked them why they forgave, they always said, ‘God’s word teaches to forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you (Ephesians 4:32). That’s what we decided to do, each of us on our own and then both together.’ But why has the conviction that they should obey Scripture in this regard gotten hold of their lives so firmly that not even the death of their beloved child could shake it? Because they belonged to a community. They prayed in that community; they listened to preaching about love of enemies; they celebrated Christ’s death for the ungodly as the partook of the Lord’s Supper; they sang together about God’s faithfulness and love; they entrusted children to God’s care and dedicated them to God’s service; they celebrated the baptisms of those whose sins have been washed in the blood of the Lamb; and they mourned the dead in the hope of resurrection. They forgave because they were part of a community that followed Christ and for whom Scripture wasn’t an old religious book, but the life-shaping word of the living God.” The life shaping word of the life transforming Word. Friends as we walk alongside one another in our journey with Christ; as we gather around the Lord’s Table in a few moments; may these things be true for each and every one of us. May this year be one in which we are caught up in a way we never been before in God’s transforming, reconciling work.