Saturday, August 29, 2009

All Things In Jesus

I had knee replacement surgery this past Monday, so these days are rough. The following is sermon #5 from my series on First Corinthians which I preached almost twenty years ago.

1 Corinthians 1:30,31


Yesterday I looked at a philosophy text I had when I was a college freshman. Philosophy means "lover of wisdom," and its name comes straight from two Greek words: “phileo” for love, and “sophia” for wisdom. Much of Western philosophy comes out of the Greek world which pre-dated the Corinthian church, and so it's not surprising that "wisdom" was a great concern.

I understand why philosophy seems so esoteric and people think it is only something for academics to ponder and argue. In concept, it can be rather "heady," but philosophy is practical, too. Philosophy tries to give an answer to things we are all concerned about, like, what makes life good and worth living?

The answers the Greeks gave were not all that different from answers people still give today. There was hedonism, which today says "if it feels good do it." There was stoicism, which today says, "grin and bear it" or perhaps, "keep a stiff upper lip." There were several "spiritual" approaches to life, but most of them also said "material" (anything from possessions to our physical bodies) was either evil or irrelevant. All of them were mostly focused on the here and now.

Our world is all too much like the Greek world in which the Corinthians lived. We each must answer a question which has driven all the philosophers in their pursuit of wisdom and purpose, only we answer much more simply and practically: For what reason can I feel good about my life?

The wisdom of the world gives many different particular answers, but all with the same focus –– the here and now.... the seeable and touchable and attainable. For some it is possessions. For others it is influence or social standing. Some settle for such paltry things as alcohol or trying to look good at another's expense through negative criticism. There are people who live for little more than entertainment and recreation. Many try to reach the elusive goal of financial security. A few try more noble means, maybe education or successful children or good relationships.

But all of those things are limited. They are based on what we ourselves can do to make the here and now a bit more pleasant. It is an attempt to control our environment externally, and in doing so, hope that it will fulfill the gnawing we have inside for significance and permanence. We want our lives to mean something and to last (and we all feel that because God made us that way). The hard thing is that there is this so-called wisdom in our world which tries to convince us we can get what we want apart from who God is.

God has shown a different kind of wisdom in the cross of his Son, and it is a wisdom the world cannot recognize or handle. Paul's point is that wisdom based on the world's point of view is not wisdom at all, and Christians should know better than to get caught up in it. Christians are people who have realized the wisdom of the cross –– a wisdom with a different understanding of what is important.

In these two verses Paul turns to a positive statement of what wisdom really is. It is a statement that fully embraces who God is, what Christ has done, and what we truly need.

We are back to the basic question: For what reason can I feel good about my life? There is only one real reason for us to feel good about our lives, and it is because of what God has done. Anything else cannot last. Anything else denies the reality of a world which will not last. Anything else denies what we most need.

And what do we need? We need what Jesus Christ has done. What has Jesus done? He has become the wisdom we need. We do not need the prestige of expansive educations or upper social standing. We do not need the power of wealth or influence. We do not need most of what the world says we surely need. We might have some of that, and we can even use it (if we do so loosely and for service to our Lord), but we do not need it. We only need the wisdom that God has provided for us in Jesus.

But Paul does not stop there; he defines what that wisdom is. He is not saying that Jesus has given us four things. Instead, he is explicitly saying that wisdom is only one thing: wisdom is what Jesus Christ has done for us. Wisdom is recognizing our need of salvation, and that God has provided it in his Son. And then Paul spells out some of what that salvation means. He specifically names three things: righteousness, holiness and redemption.

Do you ever think about your sins and wonder how God could forgive you? Do you ever look at other people in the church and wonder how such ones could be in a church? If God is so righteous, how can he bear the unrighteousness we so flagrantly exhibit? The answer is that Jesus has become our righteousness.

The word Paul uses here is “dikaiosuna,” and it is also frequently translated justification. Jesus is our righteousness; he is our justification. The thought here is one of substitution.

God is righteous. His standard is righteousness. He created us to live righteously. When we sin –– when we fall short of God's standard of righteousness –– we violate God's character and our calling as special beings created in his image. The penalty for that is death. God cannot tolerate sin and remain true to his own character of righteousness.

And yet he loves us. He wants us to be what he created us to be. But there's our sin. He could not ignore it, so he punished it once for all in the death of his Son. Jesus had no sin. He was righteous. He had done nothing to deserve death. He died in our place. When Jesus died he took all the unrighteousness of the world with him. And for those who truly recognize Jesus' death as their own, God declares them justified. God looks at me, and because of Jesus, it is "just as if I'd" never sinned –– justified. The slate against us had been wiped clean. True wisdom is knowing and trusting that.

But is that all salvation is? Has God judged our sins in the death of Jesus, but at the same time left us to continue to live as before? Is the only difference between a Christian and a non-Christian a matter of sin not being held against one as opposed to the other? Over and over the New Testament gives a resounding "No!" to that question. The reason is in Paul's second word here: Jesus is our holiness.

Paul's word is actually “hagiasmos,” and it is sometimes translated sanctification rather than holiness. Both mean the same thing. The issue is purity and separation. Christians are different from other people. Jesus is our holiness, and people who know Jesus want to take holiness seriously.

How do we take holiness seriously? By taking things like purity and separation seriously. If we as Christians have a different wisdom than the world –– if our values are different–– then it will show. If Jesus is our holiness, then we will find ourselves identifying with the cross instead of the power and prestige and indulgence the world offers. And when we do that, we are living a practical separation.

Many church movements in the past have gotten sidetracked on what separation and holiness mean. Certain kinds of clothes and hairstyles were equated with holiness, and others with sinfulness. Such emphasis on the outward form progressed more and more into rules and judging one another –– things which certainly do not speak of true holiness. So it seems today we are afraid of the very idea of separation, and as that happens we lose this crucial call to holiness. The thing I hardly hear about biblical holiness is that in Christ we are holy. Just as Jesus is our justification, so he is our holiness.

"But," someone asks, "If I'm already holy, then why the call to sanctification? If I'm already holy, then why don't I always feel and act like it? If Jesus is already our holiness, then why do we all sometimes see other Christians in acts and dispositions that witness more to sin than to holiness?"

Think about this: Just what is it about you that God has saved? Is it your body? No. Is it the thought processes of your brain? No. Is it anything tangible which can be readily identified? No. It's the real “you” ––something that is greater than the sum of your physical, earthly existence. That is what God has saved, and that is what is already established in holiness because of Jesus.

Do you know what else? Your body still lives in this temporal world. Your thought processes still bear the formative effects of your whole life. If addiction has been part of your past, that tendency is still there. If bad relational patterns were instilled in your life they will not go away just because you made a decision for Jesus. The core of who you are has been changed, but the Spirit wants to “extend” that into the way you live from day to day. The basis for that happening is the holiness you have in Jesus; the way that happens is through separation from the old worldly way of doing things. Instead of holding onto worldly wisdom –– the mindset of power and prestige and security, people of the cross live with a wisdom which exalts human weakness, humility, and even death. That is holiness. (No wonder some people had rather it be merely clothes and hair and other rules –– that is not nearly as threatening; one can even maintain a bit of security by retreating with others whose "belonging" is based on outward conformities.) The wisdom Jesus gives goes to the heart of our being.

There is a legitimate sense of belonging, but our belonging does not lie in outward conformity –– whether it is obviously sinful or shrouded in religiosity. Our sense of belonging is explicitly tied to the one to whom we belong. The third way Jesus is our wisdom is in being our redemption. This is market terminology. It has to do with buying and selling. If you leave something at a pawn shop, you only get it back when you pay to redeem it.

This is another theme which is worthy of its own treatment another time, but I hope it is enough to remind you that the Bible teaches that the world is for now under the control of the evil one (1 Jn 5:19). There are two masters asking for our heart's allegiance, and we must choose one or the other. Actually, Satan has the prior claim because we have all chosen sin, but Jesus has paid the price for our redemption –– we are free to switch masters.

But in switching masters –– in leaving the master whose wages are death and going to the master who said his yoke was easy and his burden light –– we need to understand the true wisdom of what we are doing. We are leaving the master who can make things appear to be so great –– the wealth, the power, the sex, the fun, the prestige, the comfort.... and we are going to a master who says we must come by the way of the cross and be people of the cross.

Still, if Jesus has truly become our wisdom, we know there is no other choice to make. We know that we have nothing anyway, so what is there to lose? And there is everything to gain. That is why Paul says if there is boasting, then it's for Jesus.

Let's go back to our philosophical –– and yet very practical –– question: For what reason can I feel good about my life? To answer it, honestly think of how you present yourself. Do you want people to know you for your attainments, your possessions, your position or any such thing? If you do, you are still living in the wisdom of the world.

But if you know above everything else that Jesus Christ is your righteousness, your holiness and your redemption, then you can also know that he is your wisdom in a way that the world will never understand –– although you should not be surprised when some recognize you are “different.”

Before we are anything else, we are people who need the righteousness, holiness and redemption of Jesus Christ. Let's live each day with that realization. Let's live so that everyone who truly knows us will not see a person trying to exalt him/herself, but instead see someone who is totally in love with and committed to Jesus. Jesus Christ is what we Christians are all about. Our calling is to let Jesus increase in us the fullness of who he is: wisdom, righteousness, holiness and redemption.

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