Ash Wednesday|2 Corinthians 5:20-21| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| February 5, 6, & 7, 2008
“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 5:20 – 21)
I cannot think of anything more offensive than this assertion that God made Jesus to be sin. You see crosses adorning altars and worn as jewelry. You see crucifixes depicting the death of Jesus on the cross. Despite these symbols that remind us of Christ’s death, rarely is that death seen as God teaches us to see it. That’s because it is offensive to people.
When Jesus told his disciples that he would have to suffer and die, they couldn’t understand him. Even today, two millennia later, great theologians and religious teachers cannot understand the suffering and death of Jesus. It is as if something covers the eyes of their minds so that they cannot see what is plainly set before them. Yet this is the central event of all history. This is the defining moment for the human race. This is when and where you must be if you are ever to know God and rest secure in his love.
God made him who knew no sin to be sin. Jesus knew no sin because he had no experience of it. It never entered into his heart, soul, or mind. This is because he loved the Lord His God with all his heart or and mind. There was no room for sin in him. He was filled to overflowing with love, and everything he said and did bore witness to that fact.
Look at his life and see if you can find a single loveless act. Even when he speaks harshly, he does so only to protect the weak and poor from those who would tyrannize their souls. Never did Jesus attack sinners who were sorry for their sins. He rather attacked false teachers who falsely claimed that following their man-made rules would bring people into fellowship with God. Jesus knew no sin. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and was preserved from any taint of original sin. He had no human father to pass on the sin of Adam to him. He was born of a pure virgin. And he was pure.
He was innocent. He was love. And he was made to be sin. God did it. God made the only one ever born without sin to be sin. God imputed to him our sin so that it became his sin. He took it, received it, experienced it so totally, so fully, that he is called sin. Jesus is sin! What an offense! What a terrible thought! Why it sounds positively blasphemous!
Consider this well, take this to heart, and don’t let anyone ever take this away from you. God made him to be sin. Now I cannot conceive of there being anything more outrageous than this. The pure, holy, God of love becomes the pure, holy, man of love, and this Lamb of God pure and holy, now becomes sin.
Look at him and see sin! See idolatry, blasphemy, lawless defiance of all authority, murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and every sort of lust and covetousness. Look at Jesus and see these wicked things. Look at the innocent man and see how guilty he has become!
What could have possessed God to do such a thing? This is his dear Son! Surely this must be the worst miscarriage of justice imaginable! How could God do this?
He could and he did do this for us. God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us. That is, for us sinners. This sin that was reckoned to him did not come from nowhere. It’s not as if God is playing some kind of strange game here, pretending that his innocent Son is guilty in order to impress a certain lesson on us. No, this is deadly serious business. He was made to be sin. And it was our sin that was imputed to him. This is what it means when we say that Jesus died for us. It means that he received our sin as if it were his own.
The innocent man becomes sin for us. And there is another side to this. That we might become God’s righteousness in him. Just as he is made to be sin, we are made to be righteous in him. There is a double imputation. Our sin is imputed to him and his righteousness is imputed to us. This double imputation is also called the blessed exchange. Everything bad that we did became his. Everything good that he did became ours. Everything in us that cried out to heaven for judgment and punishment was poured out on him. Everything in him that cried out to heaven for praise and blessing was showered upon us. He became sin so that we would become God’s righteousness in him. It is God’s righteousness. He is not just an innocent man. He is the holy God. The obedience that he does he does as the true God incarnate, man divine. This is the righteousness that God demands of us. And what God demands of us, God becomes a man to provide for us.
Everything God required of us, God did for us. Everything God threatened to do to us he became a man to suffer in our stead. All this he did so that in Christ Jesus we might become righteous once more – righteous with a righteousness that shines brighter than the most pious deeds of the holiest saints. You, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, you have this righteousness in Christ.
In Christ. Not in you. Not in me. In Christ. There is nothing but sin outside of Christ. The righteousness is always and only in Christ.
And so where is Christ? Listen to the apostle once more. “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.” Where is Christ? He is speaking, he is pleading, he is calling us through the words spoken by his ambassadors. He is wherever his gospel is preached. And he is giving out what he alone has to give; he is giving out his forgiveness. It is his and so he can give it.
Consider him who became sin. He was like a magnet, drawing all of the sin of all of the sinners of all time into himself so that he, as it were, personifies all sin there on the cross where he is cursed for us. And now this One who knew no sin and yet absorbed all sin in himself speaks words of forgiveness to us and gives us what we need. He sends the Holy Spirit who washes us clean of all our sin in Holy Baptism. He gives us the Supper of his body and blood. This evening, here in this place as we gather at his Altar, God transcends time and space and joins us to that sacrifice. As we eat and drink Christ’s body and blood, we are made God’s righteousness in Christ who became sin for us. The blessed exchange that occurred in space/time history some two thousand years ago is brought to us today, on February (5, 6, 7) 2008. What are your sins? What are your failures? What are your secret and bothersome and guilty acts? What is it that keeps you from resting confident in God’s grace? In the Supper the Lord God of heaven and earth makes his home with you, in you, and he saves you.
Ash Wednesday is a time for ashes. It is a time for sadness. The customs go back centuries. Folks deprive themselves of whatever they need in life to teach themselves that they don’t really need it. They need Christ. The Lenten fast was a good idea, I think, but it was hijacked by church politicians parading as ministers who imposed it as law. Leave it up to religious busy bodies to make up new laws! In the process, a practice designed as a means of focusing on Christ and his suffering for us became the occasion for idolatry as folks looked more to their own self-denial than to the suffering of Jesus.
Consider the hearty partying that has become a tradition for Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday in such places as New Orleans, Louisiana. People would party on Tuesday because they’d have to give up certain pleasures for the next forty days. It reminds me of an episode at Concordia College in St. Paul when I was a student there. The student Senate came up with the bright idea that we all go without food for a day and that the money saved by not serving meals in the cafeteria go to the poor folks in the community. So the cafeteria was closed and no food was available for any of us to eat. Afterward, the do-gooders congratulated themselves on their compassion for the poor as they pigged out on pizza. And so it goes. Religion is always an occasion for idolatry.
So we look to him who was made to be sin for us. We look to him, we listen to him, we submit to his washing, and we take into our own bodies his body and his blood so that he dwells in us, and we in him. We lose ourselves and we gain him. That is the real meaning of Lent. That is the real meaning of the cross. And we won’t take offense at this, because this is our salvation.
Rev. Rolf Preus