SUNDAY SERMON: Atonement

By Rev. Stephen Baldwin

OT: Jeremiah 31.31-34

NT: John 12.20-33

         The days are growing longer.  The grass is greening.  The robins have returned. Sunlight floods the windows until after seven in the evening.  Isn’t it glorious!  These can only be signs of one thing: Allergens.  

Soon enough, those of us with allergies will be crying like babies, our pockets full of tissues, stumbling around like zombies because we can’t see where we’re going! Harrison kicked a bush this week, and so much pollen came off of it that it turned his skin yellow! That’s an admittedly pessimistic perspective on spring, and I only half-way mean it.  Jeremiah would be disappointed, because he was the eternal optimist.    

         You see, Jeremiah held his job for longer than most people lived.  For 40 years, he served as a priest and prophet in the hill country of Judah.  His tenure was particularly tumultuous.  Imprisoned on more than a few occasions by Assyrians who conquered the land of the Israelites, destroyed the temple, and sent his people into exile, Jeremiah lived an exceedingly difficult life.  He saw more than his fair share of bad guys and bad breaks.  Yet, his message is not one of doom and gloom.  His message is one of hope. 

         Jeremiah optimistically proclaims that despite the fear and trembling all around them, God would cut a new covenant with his people.  Jeremiah tells them that it will not be like the old covenant found in the law, which they could either keep or break…and most often it was the latter.  Instead, this new covenant would be written on their hearts.  What in the world was Jeremiah talking about?  Had he inhaled too many fumes in prison?  How could a covenant from God be written in people’s hearts without it being taught? 

         This is one of those instances where something is lost in translation on modern Christians like us.  In Judaism, they believe in a divine spark.  This divine spark was placed within every human being by God before our birth, and it is the source of our goodness.  So we do not have to learn right from wrong; we know it instinctively, even if we don’t always choose to act on it.  That is the new covenant written on our hearts of which Jeremiah speaks. 

         With that idea in mind, let’s turn our attention to today’s Scripture from John.  In the story, Jesus speaks openly about his death.  He admits that while his soul is troubled by what he must undergo, he will not be deterred.  He is instead steadfast about doing what God sent him to do.  He says, “Now is the judgment of this world.”  But whose judgment?

         We have come to assume that Jesus “died for our sins.”  So we read this story and assume the judgment he speaks of is ours.  It’s called substitutionary atonement.  He dies for our sins, pays a debt owed either to the devil or to God, and so pardons us from our sin and all its consequences.  The sin that separated us from God before no longer holds weight.  That’s the story we tell this time of year.  Jesus died for our sins. 

         But think about that for a minute.  Why would God need repayment for anything, especially for us failing to keep the law which God already knew we’d break?  And even if God did, why would such a violent transaction be necessary of God’s own son, nonetheless, for God to be able to love us?  Did God not love us just the way we were before Jesus came and died?  Isn’t that the divine spark, the law of God written on our hearts Jeremiah announced?  Weren’t we chosen in Christ before the world was made, as Ephesians says?  Didn’t God know every hair on our head before they grew?  Could God not love us without Jesus dying on a cross? 

         We have come to assume that Jesus died for our sins in order to change God’s mind about us.  To make us clean from sin.  To make us more loveable.  To make us an easier pill for God to swallow.  But Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about humanity; Jesus came to change humanity’s mind about God.  Do you see the difference? 

         God didn’t need Jesus’ atonement.  We did!  Not just as a blood offering for sin, but as a positive example to show the lengths to which God would go…for us.  That idea overwhelms me.  It changes the whole trajectory of Lent.  Let me say more about that.    

         A couple weeks ago we helped a man who lives nearby. He looks rough on the outside. He doesn’t live in a home like most of us live. But I invited him to church.  “I’m in no shape to be seen by good people.  I can’t always shower and don’t have good clothes; I don’t think I can sit by someone in church.”  Because his starting point was shame for the situation he was in, the trajectory of his life followed a certain path.  If people don’t accept me, then I am no good.  If I am no good, I cannot belong.  If I cannot belong, then what point is there in living?  The starting point affects the trajectory. 

         If your starting point for Jesus is that he died for your sins, then the trajectory of your life will take on a certain form.  You will have to continually prove yourself worthy of his atonement.  Guess how far you’ll get that way? 

         That same man was walking by the church one day this week. He noticed that someone left the church lockbox open, so that anyone could get the key and get inside. He closed the lockbox, protecting the church. People might look at him and think he would break in a church to take what wasn’t his, but he actually protected the church. What you see isn’t always what you get. 

Remember, Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us.  He came to change our mind about God.  Namely, that the depth of God’s love is so deep and so wide that God loves us absolutely.         

We all need to know that God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good.  That is the starting point of Lent, which changes the trajectory of our lives from a vicious cycle of sin and success to one of service.  God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good.  Let all God’s beloved people say Amen!   

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