Sermon for 1st Advent based on 2 Corinthians 5.16-20 (my favorite scripture).
I used two chairs as props in this sermon to illustrate my point. A white folding chair (God) and a black folding chair (humanity). I’ve included the blocking cues for this to make sense in the text.
On my blog last week I solicited questions that people have about Jesus’ birth. I promised that the best questions- at least as they’re judged by yours truly- would make their way into our sermons during Advent.
I’ve received all sorts of questions.
Some questions were from church members but many were not.
Some questions were anonymous and others were not.
One question- it wasn’t anonymous, not exactly.
The email wasn’t signed. I don’t know who it was from but the email address identified the writer as ‘emmasmommy@.com
The email said:
‘I suppose you can chalk this up to ‘kids ask the darndest questions.’ Tuesday afternoon I was driving home from Target with my daughter who’s a first grader.
We were listening to Christmas music on the Christian radio station when out of the blue my daughter asked me: ‘Why do we celebrate Christmas?’
I was about to say to her ‘Because Christmas is Jesus’ birthday,’ which is true obviously, but I stopped myself because all of a sudden that struck me as a not very meaningful answer. Think about all the Christmas carols there are- seems silly if ‘Happy Birthday to you; Happy Birthday dear Jesus’ will do the job.
So instead I said to her: ‘We celebrate Christmas because Jesus is the one who saves us.’
I should’ve known better because she came right back and asked me: ‘How does Jesus save us?’
And I answered: ‘He dies on the cross.’
That’s when I started wishing I’d just gone with the birthday answer because naturally, being a child, she had more questions.
‘Why does Jesus have to die?’ she asked me.
‘So God can forgive us’ I said, confidently, hoping that would be the end of it.
She must’ve seen me in the rearview mirror and known I was out of my depth because she pressed me: ‘Why does Jesus have to die? Why can’t God just forgive us?’
‘Because that’s just the way it works’ I told her, which by the way is the same answer I gave her when she asked me how gas makes the car go: because that’s just the way it works.
She chewed on that for a while and then she said, like she was tattling on a bully at school: ‘God doesn’t sound very nice.’
Here’s what I did not have the courage to tell her: ‘I agree.’
I should’ve just stuck with the ‘Christmas = Jesus’ Birthday’ bit, because the alternative makes Christmas seem awfully dark and it makes God seem that way too.
So there’s my Christmas question: Why Christmas? Why can’t God just forgive our sins and be done with it? Why is Jesus born just to die?
I don’t know if ‘emmasmommy’ goes to this church or not.
Even if she does, I don’t know if she’s here today.
But emmasmommy’s question is an A+ question.
In fact, I think it gets at the most important question.
But before I can answer emmasmommy’s question I need to unpack two different versions of the Gospel for you.
So what I want to do today is offer you a presentation of the Gospel in two different versions. I want to present to you the Modern, Western, Judicial version of the Gospel- the version that most of us in North America assume is the only version.
Some of you will want to argue with me that there is no other version; and you if you do, you will be wrong and I will be right
And then I want to present to you a version of the Gospel that is more ancient.
It’s the Patristic understanding of Salvation, meaning it comes from the early Church Fathers.
So what I want to do is contrast the Legal-Judicial understanding of Salvation with the Patristic understanding of Salvation, and I want to do it with chairs.
Already I can see some of you tensing up. I got this idea from a colleague who’s an Orthodox priest.
First, the Legal-Judicial understanding of Salvation. It goes like this:
In the beginning, God created man in God’s image to reflect God’s glory and to enjoy fellowship with God [chairs face each other].
But man in the Garden sinned [turn black chair away from white chair].
And as a result, man became sinful, and God, because God is holy and righteous, cannot look upon man in his sin.
And so God turns away from man [turn white chair away from black chair].
But God in his love for humanity sends his Son to occupy our place [bring black chair around to face white chair].
Jesus Christ lives as one of us, lives as we were intended to live, lives in full relationship with the Father, never turns away from the Father, trusts the Father at every juncture of his life, alway does the Father’s will.
And at the end of his life, Jesus is put to death.
In that moment, the Father does the unthinkable. He takes our sin- our personal and collective sin- and he puts it on Jesus; so that, Jesus becomes sinful and guilty [turn black chair away from white chair].
As Paul writes, ‘God made him to be sin who no sin.’
And God, because God is holy and righteous, cannot look upon sin, and so God turns away from his Son [turn white chair away from black chair].
When Jesus cries out on the cross: ‘My God, why have you forsaken me,’ in this understanding of salvation, that’s Jesus experiencing the full wrath of God.
Now, if we sinners believe that God has done this and that Jesus has born the wrath of God that we deserve then we’re protected from the wrath of God. It’s like we’re born all over again and we receive the righteousness of Christ as our own [move black chair to face white chair].
As Martin Luther said: ‘We are like snow-covered crap,’ which maybe sounds better in German I don’t know.
Or, as modern preachers have put it: ‘Christ becomes our asbestos suit to protect us from the white, hot wrath of God against sinners.
Now that’s if we believe this.
If we don’t believe that Jesus has done this for us, then we remain in our sin [turn black chair away from white chair].
And God’s wrath remains against us and we remain alienated from God and eventually the sinner is condemned to everlasting Hell [turn white chair away from black chair].
That’s the Legal or Judicial understanding of salvation.
And it’s the version assumed in the question from emmasmommy because emmasmommy assumed the problem Jesus is born to solve is our guilt and the punishment required for God to forgive us.
It’s a modern understanding in the sense that it only became a common way of thinking about salvation more than a thousand years after Jesus.
It’s sometimes called the Satisfaction understanding of salvation because it’s Jesus’ suffering and death that ‘satisfies’ God’s wrath towards us.
[turn chairs back to face listeners]
Now the Patristic version is the more ancient understanding; it’s how the early Christians understood salvation.
It’s also how John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Movement, thought about salvation.
It goes like this:
In the beginning, God created man in his image [turn black chair to face white chair].
To reflect his love and to share in the fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit. But in the Garden man sinned and turned away from God [turn black chair away from white chair].
As a result- pay attention, this is important- having turned away from God, we’re no longer fully who God created us to be.
Genesis says, literally, God created Adam and Eve to be ‘eikons’ of God, and when we turn away from God, it’s like those ‘eikons’ get cracked.
So the problem Jesus comes to solve is not our guilt and God’s wrath towards us.
Because sin isn’t so much something we’re guilty of and need to be punished for.
Sin is primarily something we’re afflicted with. By.
John Wesley said that sin is like a disease that impairs every part of our lives and only a restored relationship with God can heal us.
That’s the problem the Gospel addresses.
Now, because God loves humanity and refuses to turn his back on the creatures that turned their backs on him, God takes takes flesh. God becomes one of us.
[move white chair to face black chair].
God comes as Jesus not to judge but to restore.
And so, imagine a woman who, because she’s cracked ‘eikon’ of God, she’s gone from man to man, marriage to marriage [turn black chair away].
She’s been married five times and now she’s living with a sixth and still doesn’t have the love that she longs for.
And what happens?
[move white chair to face black chair]
God comes and sits down beside her at a well and says ‘I am the Water of Life. I will love you.’
Picture a man [gesture to black chair].
Because he’s a cracked ‘eikon’ of God, for the sake of greed and ambition has become a tax collector, that is, he colludes with the Roman occupation. He articipates in the oppression of his own people [turn black chair away from white chair].
As a result, he’s ostracized by his people. He’s alienated from society. No one will have anything to do with him.
But what happens?
God comes [turn white around to face black chair].
God comes and sees this tax collector up in a tree and God says ‘Zaccheus, I’ll eat with you. I’ll come to your house.’
And in that moment, God says: ‘Salvation has come to this house.’
Imagine a woman [gesture to black chair].
She’s been caught in adultery. She’s guilty. She’s another cracked ‘eikon’ of God [turn black chair away from white chair].
The religious establishment has condemned her and now they want to stone her.
But what happens?
God comes [bring white chair around to face black chair].
God comes and when this woman is brought before God and thrown down at his feet, God kneels down beside her and says: ‘Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.’
And then he says to the woman: ‘I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.’
Here is a young man, who because he’s a broken ‘eikon,’ out of greed and resentment, wishes his father dead [turn black chair away from white chair].
He demands his inheritance. And the young man takes the money and leaves to spend his father’s fortune.
But what happens?
When that man’s broke and desperate and returns home, his father does what no fathers in the ancient world ever did [bring white chair around to face black chair].
His father runs up to him and embraces him and throws a feast to welcome him home.
And God says: ‘That’s what I’m like.’
And when humanity [turn black chair away from white chair] is driven by fear and power, takes God and betrays him and spits upon him and scourges him and mocks him and condemns him and crucifies him, what does God say?
[bring white chair around to face black chair]
‘I forgive you.’
And when humanity falls away into death to be forever separated from God [lay black chair down on the floor].
God says: ‘Love is greater than the grave and stronger than Death and, though you make your bed in Sheol, I am there.’
And God joins humanity in Death [lay white chair down on the floor beside black chair].
In his pursuit of restoring relationship with us, God is willing to go all the way down in to Death.
But God also says ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life. I died and am alive for evermore and I hold the keys of Hell and Death. Because I live so shall you live.’
[pick up both chairs so that they’re facing each other]
To those who respond to God’s love with love then God’s love is experienced as a radiant Light and over time as we live in God’s grace we’re restored to who God intended us to be from the very beginning.
We’re saved, healed.
That’s what the word ‘salvation’ means in Greek: healing.
John Wesley said that as our relationship with God is restored and we grow in grace we really do recover the image God intended for us; we can become perfect in love- as Jesus was.
St Athanasius put it this way: God became like us so that we might become like God.
But to those who reject God’s love, who refuse fellowship with God, then that same Light feels unbearable and is experienced as wrath [turn black chair away from white chair].
You see, it’s not that God is angry and wrathful.
Rather that’s what we experience and perceive when we turn our backs on God.
As Paul said, to someone who rejects God’s love, God’s love feels like burning coals upon his head, but it doesn’t mean God’s love is not upon him.
All he ever has to do is turn to God and say: ‘I will love you’ and what had felt like a torment will feel like grace.
That’s the Patristic understanding of salvation.
That’s what you need to have in mind for my reply to emmasmommy to make sense.
Dear Emma’s Mommy,
Thanks for your questions.
As far as answers go, first, keep in mind two core convictions of Christianity:
1) God is immutable, which means God doesn’t change. Ever.
2) God is perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ.
That’s the incarnation. That’s Christmas.
Jesus does not come at Christmas in order to change how the Father feels about us.
God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus.
There’s never been a time when God wasn’t like Jesus.
That’s what’s revealed to us at Christmas.
The Apostle Paul says: ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.’
He doesn’t say: God was in Christ reconciling himself to the world.
It’s not the Father who needed to be reconciled to the world; it’s the world that needed to be restored to the Father.
And so the problem isn’t how God feels about us.
The problem is how we feel about God. We turn our backs on God. All the time.
And that can be like an illness that impairs everything about our lives.
That’s what we call sin.
To your second question, forgiveness doesn’t just begin with the cross.
It begins at Christmas.
In fact, you could say it starts the second Adam and Eve step out of the Garden. Because God never turns away from us.
Like I said, God is perfectly revealed in Jesus.
When do you ever see Jesus turning away from a sinner and saying ‘I am too holy to have anything to do with you?’
Jesus never did anything like that. The Pharisees did.
And maybe it sounds simple and obvious, but I think we can get confused at Christmastime and so I’ll just say it: God is like Jesus not like a Pharisee.
The Pharisees weren’t very nice. But tell your daughter that God is nice because Jesus is.
Lastly, I have no idea how to explain this to a first-grader so that parts up to you, but here goes:
‘Salvation’ isn’t just something that happens on the cross.
And it definitely isn’t just something that happened once upon a time.
In the Gospels, salvation means ‘healing.’
To be saved means to be healed, restored to who God created us to be.
And our relationship with God- that’s the medicine that makes that healing possible.
And that’s why its such a big deal, it’s such good news, that at Christmas we realize that even though we are determined to live our lives without God, God is determined not to be God with out us.