Have you ever noticed around certain holidays that people often express surprise at how fast it came around again? You’ve heard people say things like,
- Man I can’t believe Christmas is here again.
- Seems like I just paid off my bills for last Christmas.
- Is it our anniversary already honey?
- I can’t believe it’s Easter again.
People look forward to Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. Women look forward to Valentine’s Day. Men look forward to Super Bowl Sunday. We make sure birthdays and anniversaries are on the calendar.
Here is the point: Do you have Lent marked on your calendar? Have ever counted down the days to Lent? Have you ever heard someone say, “Man, I can’t believe it’s already Ash Wednesday again! I love this holiday! What am I going to give up this year?”
Let’s be honest, Lent is not a time or season we look forward to. It’s a time many of us are prone to forget.
I remember a few years back when I was working in corporate America and I would look up and see some one walk by my cubical with a dirty smudge on his forehead. “What’s that?” I would wonder to myself. Then I would see another person walk by with a similar smudge, and then another, and another. “Oh, it must be Ash Wednesday!” It took me that long to figure it out, and I had two graduate degrees in biblical and theological studies!
I think the reason is easy enough to explain. Lent does not lend its self to retail promotion and hype. You don’t send cards. You don’t give gifts. You don’t have big family dinners.
Lent is not a time of celebration. It is a time of reflection. Lent is not a time when we celebrate what we are and what we have, it is a time when we admit what we are and what we don’t have: that we are sinners in need of grace.
Sin is serious. It’s like cancer or AIDS. It does to the soul what those diseases do to the body: it kills it. Sin ruins our relationships, breaks up our families, it drives us to despair, causes war, poverty, and hunger. But sin does something worse than all that it separates us from God’s love. It blinds us to Him. The prophet Isaiah gives a very humbling and accurate picture of what sin does in Isaiah 59:1-21 (NIV).
1Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. 2But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.
3For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken lies, and your tongue mutters wicked things. 4No one calls for justice; no one pleads his case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments and speak lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil. 5They hatch the eggs of vipers and spin a spider’s web. Whoever eats their eggs will die, and when one is broken, an adder is hatched. 6Their cobwebs are useless for clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make.
Their deeds are evil deeds, and acts of violence are in their hands. 7Their feet rush into sin; they are swift to shed innocent blood. Their thoughts are evil thoughts; ruin and destruction mark their ways.
8The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths. They have turned them into crooked roads; no one who walks in them will know peace. 9So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us.
We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. 10Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like men without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead.
11We all growl like bears; we moan mournfully like doves. We look for justice, but find none; for deliverance, but it is far away. 12For our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offenses are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities: 13rebellion and treachery against the LORD, turning our backs on our God, fomenting oppression and revolt, uttering lies our hearts have conceived. 14So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. 15Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.
The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. 16He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him.
17He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak. 18According to what they have done, so will he repay wrath to his enemies and retribution to his foes; he will repay the islands their due. 19From the west, men will fear the name of the LORD, and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory. For he will come like a pent-up flood that the breath of the LORD drives along.
20“The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the LORD. 21“As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the LORD. “My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever,” says the LORD.
These people are in trouble. God has withheld His hand from saving them. Not because He is not strong enough to save them but because their sin has separated them from Him. They are not concerned about their sin. No one cares about doing the right thing. No one cares about helping their neighbor. Their sin does not bother them. They not only don’t care that they are sinning, but they actually prefer it. They run to it. It is what they love to do. It is what they love to produce. So God has withdrawn His graces and protection from them. In fact He is coming against them in judgment for their sin against Him, and for not defending or helping their neighbors. Yet for any who repent, for any who turn from their sin and look to God for forgiveness, He promises to come for them and save them.
God is not here addressing some pagan nation or power. He is addressing His own. He is addressing Israel, He is addressing His Church. He is addressing us. Apart from Christ’s rescuing us, we are the people He is warning in this passage. He is talking to you and to me.
If you want the salvation and grace that Easter brings, you need to own the necessity of the cross. The cancer of sin is so serious that the only way to deal with it is to irradiate it under the full power of the justice of God. To own the necessity of the cross, you need to understand three things.
- We are born broken. We are born with the ability to do varying degrees of wrong. Sin is not something you pick up once you live among people for a while. You are born with it. You are born sinful. We have to teach people to do good. No one has to teach their kids to do evil. They do that naturally. It’s their nature. It’s your nature too.
- Our sin separates us from God. What does that mean? Separation from God is a very misunderstood idea. It is not like sin builds a wall around you that hides you from God. As if you are cloaked in some kind of fog that hides you from Him. In fact, nowhere in the Bible does it say that sin separates us from God. What sin does, is it separates us from knowing and experiencing God’s love, goodness, comfort, and blessings. Our sin does not hide us from God, it accuses us before God. It marks us as His adversaries. That is what we mean when we say that sin separates us from God; it separates us from those who are His friends. It marks us as His enemies.
- God is obligated to punish His enemies. He must judge them. He wants to judge them. He will get the full price from them His justice requires. God never lets sin go unpunished.
How do you know you are in the group that Jesus is coming to rescue and save? It is most clearly seen in how you act. Do you only renounce sin with your lips or do you renounce it in your convictions, commitments, relationships, words, actions, and deeds? Let’s limit ourselves to what God is looking for in His people in Isaiah 59.
- Do your actions bring life or do they take it?
- Do you lie or are you honest?
- Do you care about being fair?
- Do you plan how you can manipulate people and events so that you will end up on top or do you work to serve and help the people around you?
- Do the people who spend time with you end up in trouble or do they find a helping hand?
- Are you prone to violence or are you kind and tenderhearted?
- Is your mind constantly on sinful desires or is it fixed on God and godly things?
- Do you make war or look for peace?
- Do you routinely turn your back on God and His ways or do you turn your back on the ways of the world?
- Do you ignore and oppress the helpless or do you fight for them that they might get justice?
God’s forgiveness comes with His Spirit. His Spirit changes us.
It produces those spiritual fruits in us. The Bible is very clear on this. Take Galatians 5:17-5:26 (NLTSE) for example:
The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires…
When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.
But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there.
Have you nailed your sinful passions and desires to the cross? That is what those who belong to Jesus have done. Sin is serious. God takes it seriously. Therefore, we need to take our sin seriously.
And when we take our sin seriously, when we own up to it. When we realize how much our sin hurts God and what price He requires for it, God says,
“The Redeemer will come to Jerusalem to buy back those in Israel who have turned from their sins,” says the LORD. “And this is my covenant with them,” says the LORD. “My Spirit will not leave them, and neither will these words I have given you. They will be on your lips and on the lips of your children and your children’s children forever. I, the LORD, have spoken!”
God never turns away anyone who repents. God never withholds even the smallest bit of grace from the vast storehouses of heaven from a person who owns the necessity of the cross of Christ but will give it all on that person’s behalf.
He will not be angry with you. On the contrary, He will run to you with open arms, and kiss you and clothe you in the righteousness of Christ and slip the ring of sonship on your finger. You will be counted a friend and not an enemy. And when that happens Jesus says that the angels in heaven rejoice when a single sinner repents.
What a bargain we are offered! What grace God offers us! All it takes is owning the necessity of the cross.