The First Sunday in Lent
February 26, 2012
“The Time Is Now”
2 Corinthians 6, 1-2
We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says: “In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation. 2 Corinthians 6, 1-2
When I was a boy in high school, a rock band called the Byrds popularized the words of Solomon from Ecclesiastes, “For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Solomon’s wisdom is proven by time. If you want to enjoy life you must know that the joys of life are interspersed with sadness. Laughter gives way to tears and tears give way to laughter. What we save can be lost. The devastation of the fire leads to beautiful new growth. We are not masters of time or circumstance. We must humble ourselves under the mighty hand of him who holds time in his hands.
Events cause events. Humanly speaking, all of history is contingent. That is to say, this depends on that and if that never happened this wouldn’t happen either. So we could look at life as one event leading into another. But that’s if we looked at life from a purely human perspective. That’s no way to look at life. God governs history. Whatever happens happens by God’s good and gracious will. The Lord of history has entered history and changed the destiny of this world.
Deceit, lies, and thievery confronted honesty, truth, and faithfulness in the cosmic battle of the ages. Honesty, truth, and faithfulness won. This is no mythical battle conjured up in an artist’s mind. This is history. Its historicity is confirmed by God himself who inspired Matthew, Mark, and Luke to record Christ’s temptation by the devil. Matthew and Luke describe it in some detail. The Gospels tell us that this temptation took place at the very beginning of Christ’s ministry, immediately following his baptism.
We speak of historicity to distinguish history from myth or legend. A myth or a legend can teach us a moral lesson, but our Christian faith is about more than moral lessons. Our faith is about salvation. Salvation means rescue or deliverance from all evil of body and soul. It is God delivering us out of all troubles and bringing us to where we are safe under his fatherly care. Salvation means living under God’s grace here on earth and then, when we leave this world in death, entering into the glory of God in heaven. We cannot save ourselves. Salvation requires a Savior and Jesus is the Savior.
Our salvation and our faith are grounded in facts of history. The facts are that when the tempter tried to get Jesus to disobey God he failed. Jesus obeyed. Adam disobeyed but Jesus obeyed. St. Paul explains what this history means. He writes:
Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous. (Romans 5, 18-19)
The obedience of Jesus Christ was vicarious. He took the place of all those who fell in Adam’s fall. Adam’s disobedience made the whole world sinful and subject to death. Christ’s obedience made the whole world righteous and worthy of life. It all depends on Christ.
In the verses right before our text for today, St. Paul writes:
Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5, 18-21)
Christ’s obedience all the way to the death of the cross has reconciled this world to God. A world under judgment and death has been delivered by Christ’s perfect obedience. He who had never experienced any sinful act, spoken a sinful word, or thought a sinful thought, was made to be sin for us. He, who drove away the devil and the devil’s lies by means of the word of God, suffered the consequences of sin in the place of all sinners.
Christ’s obedience is our salvation. His obedience is twofold: active and passive. He actively obeyed, doing what God required us to do, putting God and his word before his bodily needs. He honored his Father and refused to put him to the test or rob him of his honor. He did what the human race was created to do and in so doing he restored the human race to its lost innocence.
But more than that, he suffered what the human race deserved to suffer. This we call his passive obedience, as he passively endured, without complaint and without threat, the taunts of wicked people and the very wrath of the holy God poured out upon him on the cross. The active and passive obedience of Christ is what saves us sinners from our sins, from death, and from hell and sets us before God as saints, restored to the image in which we were created.
This is salvation. It is God forgiving us all our sins for Christ’s sake. It is God rescuing us from the consequences of our sins. It is God covering us with his grace and making us heirs of eternal life in heaven. It is in Christ and it is now.
It is not tomorrow because tomorrow will be too late. It is not yesterday, because yesterday is gone. It is now. It is today. It is this very moment. “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
Salvation is in the present. It’s not something you get settled, as if you make a decision for Jesus and that's that. If we want to talk about salvation as being in the past, let us talk about what our Lord Jesus did for us. That’s in the past. He became our brother and offered his obedience, both active and passive, to God as our substitute. That is past. It is finished. It is accomplished. There is nothing more that needs to be done that what Jesus has already done.
But our faith is now. That means that salvation is now. Today is the day of our salvation. Today is when our faith is threatened by the lies with which Satan tempted our Lord Jesus. Today is when the deceiver’s cunning is directed against our faith to undermine it and challenge it in every conceivable way. The apostle urges us not to receive God’s grace in vain. God knows that not everyone who receives his grace and trusts in Jesus remains in the grace he received. People can and do fall from grace.
Lent is a time of repentance. For some reason, repentance has a negative connotation. It is as if calling someone to repentance is to show disrespect. The false gospel of self-esteem has been passed off as if it is Christian teaching, conning countless Christians into thinking that we must learn to love ourselves. No, we must not. We must learn to recognize that we have failed to love God and our neighbor. A lack of self-esteem is not our problem. Our problem is a lack of esteeming Christ and his merits and mediation. Christ is not esteemed on account of our own stubborn, sinful, obstinate refusal to acknowledge our many sins of thought, word, and deed.
The apostle cites words of God spoken through the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. “For He says: ‘In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.’” God was talking to the Christ, whom he would send to the Gentiles to give them light, hope, and eternal life.
The Christ would take upon himself the cause of all humanity. In an acceptable time God heard Christ. In the day of salvation God helped Christ. As God accepts and helps Christ he accepts and helps those who trust in Christ. It is all about Christ. It is all about Christ’s obedience. It is all about the salvation God provides us in Christ.
The prophet and the apostle refer to it as the “acceptable time.” It is the time of grace. This we should contrast with the time of judgment. It is the same God in either case. The gracious God is the God who judges. Grace is for now. The time of grace will end. Then will come the judgment. Since the time of grace will end and since we do not know when it will end we take to heart the plea and the warning implicit in it: “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
Those who deny God’s judgment deny God’s grace as well, though perhaps they aren’t aware of it. If there is no judgment; if God will not hold the human race accountable for what it has done; if God will not hold every individual sinner accountable for what he has done; there is no need for grace. Without any need for God’s grace there is no need for salvation. This is why talk of salvation has changed from talk about the forgiveness of sins and deliverance from God’s anger to talk about human empowerment, better health, and various political solutions to vexing human problems such as poverty, disease, and injustice. The very idea that a sinner could face divine retribution against him on account of his sins is far removed from the religious consciousness of so many nominal Christians today. Perhaps folks think there is a contradiction between the God of grace and the God of judgment so they’ve decided to deny the latter in order to hold on to the former.
But a God who doesn’t judge sinners doesn’t forgive them either. The God who decrees that sin pays off in death is the God who invites all sinners to repent and be forgiven of all their sins. God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel:
‘As I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?’ Ezekiel 33, 11
God takes no pleasure in punishing. He takes pleasure in forgiving. This is why Jesus went up against Satan and withstood his temptations. You could say he is teaching us how to do battle with the devil – with God’s word. That’s true enough. But what is really taking place is much more profound and far reaching than what a mere example provides. God didn’t need to become a man to provide a human example. But God did need to become a man to deliver mankind from their sin. The obedience that God requires of you is the obedience that Jesus offered to God. This is why you need Jesus. This is why you need to hold on to him and trust in him as your Savior. He is the only one who can deliver you from the sins that condemn you. The acceptable time, that is, the time when God accepts you, is now. Today is the day of grace. The time of your salvation is now. Amen