This is today’s sermon (Revised Common Lectionary: Proper 19, Year C) at Grace Anglican Church.
The grievous nature of sin cannot be understated. You all may be familiar with the words of St. Paul in Romans 6: “the wages of sin is death.” Yet in 1 Corinthians 15 he tells us just the opposite: “the sting of death is sin.” The fact is, the two are inextricably linked; where one is, there other is there also. They form a vicious cycle: the more sin reigns, death and destruction cause more devastation. The more death and destruction occurs, the more sin comes out. It’s a bleak picture, but that’s the reality of this world. The reality of this world.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, however, proclaims a kingdom that is not from this world, but is coming into this world. In his new world breaking into this one, the vicious cycle of sin and death is gone, and replaced with light and life. But before we can properly appreciate this new world of Jesus, we need to understand what this world of sin and death is really like. The words of the Prophet Jeremiah that we heard this morning are a brilliant explanation of the reality of this world.
As with much of the early chapters of the book of Jeremiah, this morning’s reading is part of a series of prophecies declaring the punishment of the city of Jerusalem and the whole remaining kingdom of Judah. They haven’t necessarily reached the point of no return yet, but they’re getting close. The preaching of Jeremiah is an earnest call to repentance lest they experience painful wrath of God that their sinful ways bring them to.
In verses 11 & 12 we see a description of God’s judgment. A “hot wind” or a “spirit of wandering” will sweep across the land. This wind or spirit will be “too full,” meaning it’s so powerful that it won’t just “winnow or cleanse” the sin from the land, but it will sweep everyone away, the good and the bad. In our 21st century concept of fairness we may be tempted to object – why shouldn’t God spare the righteous few who remain? Remember Abraham in his travels: he asked God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if only a few righteous people could be found in the city. He brought that number down smaller and smaller, all the way down to ten. And ten still could not be found, so Abraham and his family all had to leave in order to escape the judgment of God. That is very much like what Jeremiah is preaching here: the people have gone astray so grievously that God’s judgment is coming upon the whole land.
The lamentations, mournings, and warnings continue, but we skip to verse 22 to narrow in on a particular theme upon which Jeremiah dwells. Verse 22 itself describes the folly of those who would be God’s people: all their ‘wisdom’ is of this world: they’re good at being evil, but they don’t know how to do good. Or as other translations put it, they don’t know God. Some ancient manuscripts specify that it’s the leaders who have this twisted sense of wisdom, while others just say all the people. Either way the result is the same, for as we’ve seen in some of the previous readings this summer, when all the leaders go bad, the rest of the people tend to follow suit.
Next, verses 23 through 26 form a bit of a poem. And look again at what is being described: the earth is “formless and void;” the heavens have no more light; the hills are moving, no longer fixed; the sky has no birds; vegetation has given way to desert; cities have become ruins – all before the fierce anger of God, fierce anger that only results from one thing: sin in the world. Who can read this and not see the creation story of Genesis 1? Or rather, who can read this and not see the creation story in reverse? Creation is undone by sin.
There is a glimmer of hope, though. Verses 27 and 28 reassure that God “will not make a full end,” or “will not completely destroy” his people. Yes, there will be mourning and destruction, and God will remain perfect in who he is and thus never turn back nor repent of his opposition against sin. But something good will come out of all this. There is still room for redemption.
The New Creation
The biblical witness teaches us that sin is inescapable for the human race; so death really does reign on the earth. What we need, then, is not just a Savior from sin & death, but someone who can actually jump-start and reboot the universe. Destruction and death became “natural” along with sin, so a new nature has to be introduced which is strong enough to overpower the old nature now ruled by sin & death. Such power can only come from God himself – he is the very definition of life and existence. So it is vitally important that we have not just forgiveness of sins but also the founding of a new creation. Consider these words from St. Paul:
What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.
It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory.
It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.
It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.
But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.
This is exactly, although more eloquently, what I said at the beginning: Jesus proclaims a kingdom that is not from this world, but is coming into this world. As his new world breaks into this one, the vicious cycle of sin and death is undone, and replaced with the perpetual cycle of light and life. And this image of a new creation made manifest in the old, or a heavenly kingdom coming into this world, is very important. We are not sitting around waiting for God to snatch us out of the burning wreckage of a failed creation and plop us down in a spiritual realm free from the trappings of physical existence. That is heresy of a high order! We believe in the resurrection of the body and we look for the world to come: a new heavens and a new earth, no longer separated, but together. As I just quoted above, “If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” We are not trading one for the other, we are adding the other to the one! We do not seek to escape the shell of this body, we seek its redemption to perfection by ‘putting on’ the spiritual body of Christ.
So this new creation is not just some invisible spiritual thing, but it makes itself manifest, if in subtle ways. When you were baptized, your body came into contact not only with water but the life-giving presence of the Holy Spirit as well. When you are anointed with oil for healing, you come into contact not only with spiced olive oil, but with the healing touch of God. When you receive the bread & wine of Holy Communion, you take into yourself not only a taste of bread and wine, but a taste of the sacrificial meal of Christ’s Body including his ‘life in the Blood,’ as the Scriptures put it. These, and moments like them, are real manifestations of the New Creation breaking into this world. Every Baptism and every Eucharist is both a celebration and a realization of the victory of Christ. His victory was that he founded a new kingdom at Satan’s expense. By subjecting this world to sin and death, Satan had become its king. But Jesus, by moving his heavenly kingdom into this physical universe, is toppling Satan’s claim to the throne, and ultimately will destroy him forever.
So as you come forward to the Eucharist this morning, truly and really taste and see the goodness of God. And may his praise be ever on your lips, in this world of sin and in the completed world of perfection. Amen.