However one wants to interpret the story of humanity’s fall in the opening chapters of Genesis, the major premise of that narrative is clear. The fundamental problem in the story of humanity is our rebellion again God, and our word for that rebellion is ‘sin.’ God created us to dwell with him forever. He created us to share life together forever. He created us with bodies that would never die because we had access to the tree of life. Ever since that moment, when the serpent deceived Adam and Eve in the Garden-Temple, humanity has been cut off from God, separated from its creator, and separated from the source of eternal life. We began to die that day, and all of this is because of sin, because we rebelled against God, because we thought we knew better than his instructions for our lives.
The season of Lent, which begins today, is all about sin. Or to be more specific: Lent is all about the appropriate human response to sin, which is repentance. And here, we see one of the most beautiful facets of the Christian Gospel. Repentance isn’t arbitrary. Repentance takes place or means what it means as part of a story, and it’s a crucial part of our role in that story. A long time after Adam and Eve sinned, God called a man named Abram and made a promise to him that God would fix the world through him and his offspring. And God’s faithfulness to this promise is what Paul calls “the righteousness of God.” The Scriptures aren’t concerned about the attributes of God as if they were concepts or ideas that could be understood and defined independently of how God had revealed himself in salvation history. The Scriptures are concerned with what God does, with his role in this story that we call human history, and with his faithfulness to the promise that he made to Abram. His faithfulness to that promise is his righteousness.
And so, if God is going to be righteous, if God is going to fix the world through Abram’s offspring as he promised, then the sin which had always plagued humanity from the beginning must be dealt with. And not in a “coming to the Temple once a day, once a week, and on appointed festivals” kind of way, but in a once for all, final, never again to be repeated kind of way. And this God did, by taking a faithful descendant of Abraham and nailing him to the cross. Paul puts it this way. He says in short that God “made him who knew no sin to be sin.”
Today isn’t Good Friday, but repentance and the cross go hand in hand because, on the cross, God dealt with sin once and for all. How he did that is part of the mystery. I can’t tell you with absolute certainty and clarity what it means that God made Jesus sin. I can only tell you that Paul is adamant that God nailed to the cross the problem that has plagued humanity since the beginning and that sin died as Jesus died. And so when we repent, we aren’t repenting in the hope that God will find some way to forgive our sins, nor are we trying to find some action or emotion or sacrifice that will bring the forgiveness for which we long. The forgiveness for which we hope is already secured in the past. Sin, my sin, your sin, the world’s sin, past, present, and future, has already been dealt with once and for all on the cross of Jesus Christ. And our part in this story is to repent. To come to God, to recognize our sinfulness, to recognize our brokenness, to recognize our failures, our faults, and the futile desires of the flesh, and to say, “God, I’m sorry. There is no good in me apart from you. There is no way for me to make myself right. But you’ve already dealt with my sin. You’ve already nailed it to the cross. But still, Father, this world is broken. I’m broken. Make it right. Make me right.”
And that moment right there, when we recognize our own brokenness as part of the world’s brokenness, is where the words that Paul says next in our reading come to their full force. Paul says that God made him who knew no sin to be sin “so that in him [in Christ, in the sinless one who became sin and put sin to death on the cross], we might become the righteousness of God.” But remember. God’s righteousness isn’t a quality or attribute. God’s righteousness is his faithfulness to the promise he made to Abram to set the world to rights. Paul isn’t saying that we get God’s righteousness as some kind of independent attribute. He is saying that just as Christ became sin, we become God’s agents for renewing and restoring creation.
On the cross, sin has been dealt with, but the world has not yet been made right. So, the same God who made the sinless one to be sin on our behalf now makes us his righteousness, his covenantal faithfulness, on behalf of the world; he makes us the agents through which his plan to set the world to rights will continue and flourish until the day when our Lord comes again. This is why the fast that God chooses isn’t a fast that focuses on me. The fast that God chooses is a fast that focuses on the other, on our neighbor. He says through the prophet Isaiah, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to under the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
That’s the logic of this day and the logic of Lent. The reason we gather together for a day of confession, the reason that we spend an entire season focusing on our need for repentance, is because we too are part of the same old story. From the beginning, sin is what has derailed this world. It’s wrecked lives, communities, families, friendships, and the list goes on and on. And repentance is us coming to God and saying, “God, the world is broken, and so am I, but in Christ, you can fix me. You can fix me, and you can send me back to a broken and hurting world. You can give me a purpose. You can send me back out through those doors into a world that’s broken just like me, and through your work in my life, you can continue to renew and restore this world. You can do this, Father, and I repent of all the sin that keeps me from it.”
If this part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then unlike so much of the world around us but like the Apostle, we must celebrate our weakness and brokenness. That is not to say that we celebrate that we are sinful, but that we are sinners in whom God is at work to renew and restore our lives. Paul is consistently celebrating his weakness and his brokenness throughout his letters, but nowhere more so than 2 Corinthians. Because Paul knows that if we go to the world pretending that we are perfect and have figured out how they can be perfect too, we are selling them a lie like the serpent in the garden. None of us are perfect people. We’re all, every one of us, broken people, broken deep down, broken just like the world around us. And if you’re somehow deceived into thinking that those of us who wear a collar are excluded from this, I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. I am as broken as every single person in this room and probably more so. Don’t be fooled by a collar. But I’m here for the same reason that all of you are here—because I need a savior. Because I know that the world is broken and that I’m broken too, and so I have to come to God and say, “I’m sorry. Here’s my brokenness. Please fix this because I can’t do it. But you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you can. You can fix me and send me. You can heal me and heal others through me.” But you can’t heal others by pretending you’re perfect because perfect people don’t need healing and they sure don’t need a savior. But since that day in the Garden, we’re all broken, and we’re all dying because of Adam’s sin and because of ours. On our own, we are nothing but sin-ridden dust, but in Christ, we can be so much more. We can be forgiven. We can be healed. We can be the righteousness of God if we repent.