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“Lent allows us the space to dwell on what it means to sin against a holy God, and therefore what it must mean that God would send His only Son to die in our place on a cross.”
Last week we saw that the Christian calendar, which revolves around the story of the Bible, can focus our entire year on God and the gospel. Many years ago, Christians put together a set of readings called a “lectionary” to help us along. Each Sunday, new readings are given to highlight an element of the season we are in. (For more on the Revised Common Lectionary, click here)
The readings assigned for the second week of Lent are: Genesis 12:1-4, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, and John 3:1-17. As always, we get a selection from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a New Testament letter, and a Gospel account.
The season of Lent is a time to focus in on our sinfulness—to see it clearly and find ourselves led to repentance and forgiveness in Jesus. Far from “making up” for our sins, Lent allows us the space to dwell on what it means to sin against a holy God, and therefore what it must mean that God would send His only Son to die in our place on a cross.
When we reflect on sin, we quickly realize that it is not something we can blame on the world around us. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it this way:
“If only there were evil people somewhere, insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
When we read the ten commandments, Jesus’ sermon on the mount, or hear the greatest commandment, we see that sin cuts through our own hearts. And it runs deep.
This makes our readings for this week so powerful. Genesis 12 reminds us that, even after our sinful rebellion, God refused to leave us cursed. He would make a promise to Abraham that one day the promised rescuer would come. Psalm 121 doubles down on this theme: it is God who is our help, it is God who will keep our life forevermore. When we ask, “Where will our help come from?” we must not answer, “Our dedication. Our commitment. Our obedience.” Our sin will not be dealt with by our own hand. God promised Abraham that when we lift our eyes up, we will find Him as our help.
Romans 4 continues: was Abraham justified by his obedience? In other words, did he earn God’s blessing? Far from it, Paul writes. Abraham cast himself on God’s promise through faith. How could it be any other way? Abraham didn’t earn God’s favor like you earn wages with hard work. No, God’s promise “rests on grace.” Abraham didn’t look to himself for help, but looked in faith on a God who “justifies the ungodly.”
Finally, John 3 shows us how God’s promise would come true. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, and calls him back to a famous story in the Old Testament. The people had sinned and were bitten by poisonous snakes. They were going to die, unless someone intervened. God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, and lift it up before all the people. Whoever looked on it would be healed. God intervened to save his people, whose sin had poisoned them, and who could not save themselves.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Son of Man must be lifted up just like the serpent. And here we see the beautiful way our readings come together. The Son of Man would be lifted up, on a cross, bearing on his back the sins of the world—the ones that cut through your heart and mine. Didn’t God promise Abraham that a rescuer would come? Now, when faced with the poison of our own sin, where do we look for help? Not to our own efforts. We lift our eyes up to Jesus, who was lifted up to pay for our sins. When we look to him for our help (in other words, when we have faith), we find ourselves healed. Or, in the words of John: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Solzhenitsyn asked, “Who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Jesus came so that our hearts might not be destroyed, but reborn. This week of Lent, lift your eyes up to where your help comes from: Jesus Christ, Son of God, lifted up for you and me.
Brian serves the church by overseeing preaching and Sunday morning services at Cornerstone.
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