Welcome to our worship today at Christ Lutheran and welcome if you’re listening with us on the radio.
What’s so special about the cross? That’s the title of our sermon series in this season of Lent. Pastor John has helped us consider 2 aspects of the meaning of the cross in the past 2 weeks—
Substitution---our sin replaced by Christ’s sinlessness---and Satisfaction---God’s wrath against evil satisfied by Jesus’ pure goodness.
Today we talk about Redemption.
How many of you are old enough to remember Green Stamps?
Where I lived most of the grocery stores gave you green stamps with every purchase. For you younger folks out there---you who aren’t chronologically gifted like I am---we collected the green stamps and went through the family ritual of pasting them into booklets.
Then we took the books of stamps to the redemption center and could pick out anything that you had enough Green Stamp books for. In my family it was usually used for a frying pan or something boring like that. But they also had some toys and sporting goods that you could redeem the stamps for.
Redemption---the Biblical concept does not include Green Stamps! But it does include the idea of someone or something being given, to buy back a possession or person.
In Exodus, the Lord says to Moses that he will redeem the Israelites from slavery in Egypt---
Exodus 6:6 ““Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.”
And in the Old Testament, there was a practice where the closest relative was under obligation to redeem an impoverished family member who was sold into slavery for his debts. In the case of Ruth and Naomi, this practice related to the buying back of family land that had been sold for debts. The person who did the buying back was called a kinsman-redeemer.
In the Old Testament there are at least 120 uses of the word redeem or redeemer or redemption. All are related to the idea of a price paid for setting someone free---deliverance from some evil at a cost to the redeemer.
Because it was a well-known concept for the people of Israel, Jesus used it when he described his purpose. In Mark 10, James and John came to Jesus and asked if they could sit next to Jesus in heaven---in other words if they could have positions of honor.
But Jesus said his purpose for coming to earth had nothing to do with glory and honor. It had to do with redemption. Jesus said---
Mark 10:45 “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Ransom has the same root word in Greek as redemption. Jesus came to redeem the world from sin. And the price he paid was his suffering and death. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he puts it this way---
Ephesians 1:7 “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.”
The Biblical concept of redemption includes both the idea of being delivered from sin, but also people and the world being restored to union with God.
That was what Jesus came to earth to do. Early in his ministry, Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth. He went to the synagogue and he began to teach the people. He read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. And when he finished reading he said---“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
It was a section in Isaiah that described what the Messiah would do when he came. So Jesus was saying, “All of that---that’s what I do---I am the Messiah!”
Some were excited to hear that. But others couldn’t accept it.
Let’s look at some of the verses Jesus quoted from Isaiah---
Isaiah 61:1 “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…”
God sent the Messiah to transform things, to save his people and to redeem.
Isaiah 61:2 “…to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn…”
The Messiah would redeem individuals, nations and the world.
Isaiah 61:3 “….and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.”
It’s easy to see, there is a lot wrapped up in this concept of redemption. It literally means to buy back. To free from captivity by payment of ransom. To repair or restore. To free from anything that harms or distresses. To reform or transform.
Isaiah puts it so powerfully. You can understand why Jesus chose these verses to describe his mission.
---To preach good news to the poor---bind up the brokenhearted---proclaim freedom for the captives---to comfort all who mourn---
---And this is the phrase that grabbed my attention as I pondered this---to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes.
18 days ago we observed Ash Wednesday. The beginning of this season of Lent. Ashes are a Biblical symbol of mourning, of the need for repentance and change. Ashes are a sign that we cannot escape death, and so we need to depend on the Lord---to redeem us! To change ashes into beauty.
And the Lord knows---we’re surrounded by a heap of ashes! War, crime, genocide, sickness, poverty, hate, prejudice, murder, immorality. We all moan and complain about the ashes and ugliness around us.
On Ash Wednesday we talked about the Biblical idea of lament. When we lament we take an honest look at our situation---we don’t make believe everything is just fine. But we also don’t wallow in our guilt and failure. We turn to the one who has the power to transform things. The Lord’s power can take us far beyond just moaning about our mess---to the place where he can restore and redeem all that needs to change in us and around us.
We shouldn’t ignore the ashes. We should pray for the Lord to bestow on us a crown of beauty instead of ashes. But we can’t keep burning things down and wonder why we’re still sitting in a pile of ashes.
How do we deal with the ashes and ugliness around us? There are those who try to be Pollyanna and make like everything in this life will always be fine---as if sin and evil don’t exist and there was no reason for the cross. There are even some churches that think the cross is too negative a symbol.
Then there are those on the other extreme who give up and call life pointless. What’s the use, they ask? It’s doom and destruction all around and there’s nothing we can do.
But neither of those extremes is Biblical or consistent with Christ’s message. Sin and evil are real, but they are not the end of the story. Jesus has come to give us a crown of beauty instead of ashes.
How does he do that? ---He preaches good news to the poor---binds up the brokenhearted---proclaims freedom for the captives---He comforts all who mourn.
Jesus transforms ashes into the beauty of God’s love and forgiveness and way of life.
Sometimes though the Christian life is seen as too restrictive. And God is clear in his word that some thoughts and actions aren’t good for us and some are. Some will lead us to a pile of ashes. Some will lead us to a crown of beauty. You see, God’s way of life is not meant to restrict but to save---not to enslave, but to redeem.
In Christ, we can be redeemed through his cross---his suffering and death for us---because he rose beyond the ashes of death, to new life, eternal life.
That is the power of God’s Kingdom that Jesus came to establish. Jesus defeated the ultimate power of sin, death and the devil through his cross and resurrection. But because God’s kingdom is not yet complete---and because he gives us freedom to live our lives as we choose, sin and evil are still the source of much pain for us---Some of that is our own doing---some isn’t.
There are many things that we can’t control. Much of the ugliness is not our doing. We can’t avoid seeing some of it.
But there is much we can do. We can control what enters our homes and our eyes and our minds.
Movies, TV, books, art, music, online content---there is much of it these days that is dark, bleak, violent, vulgar, no more than a pile of ashes with no redeeming value.
Some of the artists and creators say that they are only showing life as it really is. And that can be true. But why stop at showing what is? What not show what can be? A crown of beauty instead of ashes.
Art and music and books and TV and movies can be worthless violence and pornography that leave people and relationships in ashes. Do we want to surround our children and ourselves with ugly mugshots of life that damage young minds and drain old minds of hope? Or should we be immersed in the beauty that God has created for us?
Art and music and books and TV and movies can be uplifting, even transforming when they show what is possible and beautiful in life. That is redemption.
We’ve all seen the result of forest fires. Beauty is reduced to ashes.
Even after things have cooled off, what’s left is stark and bleak and lifeless.
But our God is a God of redemption---He likes to create a crown of beauty wherever there are ashes.
Many of you know that fireweed is one of the first things that grows in burned over areas.
It’s been made by God to grow in open areas with little other growth, such as the sites of forest fires. It spreads quickly because a single plant can produce as many as 80,000 seeds that float on the wind and can lie dormant in the ground for years. Fireweed grows and flowers as long as there is open space and plenty of light. As trees and brush grow larger the plants die out, but the seeds remain viable in the soil for many years. When a new fire occurs that opens up the ground to light again, the seeds germinate.
And the ashes become covered with dense stands of color---a crown of beauty instead of ashes.
Fireweed is a sign of redemption. A sign of what’s so special about the cross. We can’t avoid the ashes of life. We crash and burn all too often. But we shouldn’t make believe it doesn’t happen. And on the other extreme we don’t need to just curl up and die.
Because of Jesus’ redemption for us on the cross, the worst is never the end. He has already paid the price to redeem and transform whatever threatens us. So that instead of ashes, we may be crowned with the beauty of new life in Christ.