Monday, April 20, 2009

Sermon on 1 John 1:1-2:2, for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, "Propitiation for our Sins"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. I have to admit that as a pastor, when I see a big, unfamiliar, theological word in our readings, like “propitiation,” it’s just too juicy to resist. These words grab our attention if for no other reason than they are so uncommon and strange. But this word is pregnant with meaning, and has a rich and personal meaning to tell us about the significance of Christ’s death on the cross. I owe special credit to Pastor Steven Starke, a brother in the ministry whom I haven’t met, but who’s a prolific hymn-writer for our new hymnal, and whose excellent sermon on this topic did much to motivate my message today. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Propitiation. Not the word you want to get stuck with in the spelling bee. Probably a word we don’t run across in our average reading, and one that none of us use in our everyday conversation. Archaic? Irrelevant? But let’s not rush to relegate this word to the bookshelf and the dusty dictionaries. Perhaps some of you heard it recently in our Good Friday liturgy in the Lenten response that quotes this verse: “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus is the propitiation for our sins. He was delivered up to death, He was delivered for the sins of the people.” From the context, you may already figure out that it has something to do with Jesus being delivered up to death; or you may be familiar with this verse in the NIV translation, which reads, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” But “atoning sacrifice” is still a weaker substitute for the archaic old word, “propitiation.” But what does it mean already?

Propitiation means, “to turn away God’s wrath over sin.” You’re probably primed for this definition if you remember a month or so ago, when the sermon was about the “cup of wrath” that Jesus was going to drink, when He died on the cross. Remember that the disciples wanted to share in His glory, but He said first they had to share in His cup? A bitter cup that He would have to drink before receiving His glory? How that cup was the Old Testament image of all God’s wrath filled up to overflowing against sin, and that this cup of wrath would make the one who drank it stagger and stumble? Remember that Jesus drank this cup of wrath for us, so that we would be spared from God’s wrath? This is what it means that Jesus is the propitiation for our sins. “The death of Jesus Christ on the cross was the way in which God’s anger was stilled, the way of removing divine wrath from sinners.” In a very personal way, He turned away God’s wrath from you and I, by drinking that cup of wrath that we deserved. So the word “propitiation” really has everything to do with the cross.

The reason we ought to hang on to and keep this peculiar “cross-word” in our vocabulary, is so that we’ll know and understand how God has responded to sin. The fact that our sins need to be propitiated means that we really were estranged from God, and that the rebellion of sin has shattered our relationship with Him. His wrath against sin is entirely righteous and just, because there is no excuse or defense for evil and wrongdoing. It’s never defensible, even if it’s done in response to some other evil. So God’s righteous wrath against sin is a terror to sinners. We know that we have justly deserved His present and eternal punishment. So knowing this wrath, we must now face our sinfulness, and know what our response will be. Do we desire to have joy and fellowship with our heavenly Father, by having His wrath turned away from us? Do we desire to walk in the light as He is in the light, and have fellowship with one another, and have our sin cleansed by Jesus’ blood?

If this is our desire, and we do desire to be in fellowship with God, and walk in His light, then we must come clean with our sins. We must admit our sin through confession and repentance. And why Jesus’ propitiation is so important, is that because we know that Jesus has turned away God’s wrath forever, we are free to “turn ourselves in” for what we have done, and repent of all our wrong. We can turn ourselves in to God because we know that since Christ has propitiated God’s wrath, it’s safe to approach His throne of mercy through Jesus’ shed blood. There is no danger involved in turning ourselves in, at least not with God, because “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” To do this is to be truthful to God about ourselves, and to practice the truth by walking in the light. When we practice the truth in this way, then we have fellowship with Him.

But there’s another response that we can choose to have to God’s wrath or to the knowledge of our sin. That response is to be false with God, and to lie to ourselves and make Him out to be a liar. This response bars us from having fellowship with Him, for it is to choose walking in the darkness over walking in the light. That is when we “say we have no sin” and “deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” “If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” It is remarkably easy to deceive yourself. A Greek philosopher wrote, “Nothing is so easy as to deceive oneself; for what we wish, we readily believe” (Demosthenes, 384-322 BC). If we wish to believe that we are without sin, we will readily deceive ourselves into thinking that this is true. But we’re usually sly enough to make it seem like we’re really not entirely sinless—we’ll readily admit we aren’t perfect, or we’ll cough-up some of the sins we don’t particularly care for ourselves. But it’s those pet sins, the ones that we so love to do—the ones that are most difficult to change—that we won’t let go of and confess.

I mean, why is Christianity so demanding?!? Why do we always have to say “no” to our sinful desires, and put to death the sinful nature through repentance and return to baptism? Doesn’t God want us to have any “fun?” But this reaction mistakes “walking in the light” for a joyless, legalistic existence. That is a caricature of what God wants for us. God is not a “killjoy” who wants us to spend our lives perpetually somber and without laughter and amusement. We come up with this caricature as a way of trying to excuse or justify our sin, which again is our easy deception. On the contrary, God wants our joy to be full, and to experience His richest peace, joy, and blessing. And living according to God’s 10 Commandments is not to keep us from joy, but to help us to walk in the light, so that we may truly experience God’s blessing. For living according to the good design of His law, we will have joy and even “fun,” but not in a way that is selfish, or comes at the expense of others, as happens when we violate His commands.

So…to be truthful with God and ourselves, and confess our sins? Or to deceive ourselves and make God to be a liar? I think the choice is an obvious one, though it’s never easy to own up to our sin, turn ourselves in to God, and seek His strength to change our sinful ways. But there’s joy in knowing that there’s no uncertainty in God’s response to us, if we speak what’s true and confess our sins. He’ll always be faithful and just to forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. John tells us that the reason he’s writing about these things to us, is so that we won’t sin. “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One. He’s the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” Luther said that this part about “not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world,” is added so that our hearts can never deceive us to think: “The Lord died for Peter and Paul, but not for me.” Since we too are part of the world, this means that Jesus has also turned away God’s wrath from our sin as well.

This is what makes the eyewitness testimony to Jesus’ resurrection so important in this reading and in the Gospel. Why is John so emphatic in describing the disciples’ eyewitness of the Resurrected Christ? He starts, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands concerning the word of life”—this “we proclaim to you also that you may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” John hammers it home in such stark, physical terms. It wasn’t just hearsay that Jesus had risen. It was no dream or vision. They saw Him with their own eyes. Their skepticism and doubt was conquered by His face to face appearance with them, on multiple occasions. And should their eyes have deceived them, they not only heard and saw Him, but they looked upon Him and touched Him with their own hands! Thomas stuck his fingers in the wounds of Jesus’ hands and side in holy awe at what he’d refused to believe. They ate and drank with Him in the most basic, physical, human experience—removing any shadow of a doubt that He was no ghost or phantom. But why is this eyewitness testimony of the resurrection so crucially related to Jesus’ propitiation for our sins??

Because the Resurrection of Jesus is proof that God really accepted Jesus’ propitiation, that He truly has turned away His wrath against our sins, and that Jesus has ended our estrangement with Himself. Had Jesus not risen, we’d have no way of knowing whether God was still angry over our sins, or whether we were next in line or not, to face His wrath. We couldn’t know if God was a God of Love or of vengeance. But the way we know, the way we have assurance that God accepted this propitiation for our sins, that Jesus has turned away His anger against sin, is that He raised Jesus from the dead. This is Jesus’ vindication, God’s approval of His sacrifice and approval of His innocence. Jesus Christ our blessed Savior, turned away God’s Wrath forever (LSB 627). Now our joy can be complete, for we know that God’s wrath has personally been taken away from us.

With this knowledge of Jesus’ resurrection, confirmed and eye-witnessed by the company of the apostles, we can truly share in the joy and peace that Christ spoke to the apostles. “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” We are truly at peace with God, because Christ has been faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. We are assured of His propitiation by His bodily resurrection from the dead. Our joy is complete because He has given this message to His church to proclaim and distribute to all who seek God’s mercy for their sin, and this message extends not only to us, but also to the whole world. Jesus has turned away God’s wrath; He is the Propitiation for our sins. Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
1. What does propitiation mean, and why is this “cross-word” worth adding to or keeping in our vocabulary? How did Jesus “propitiate” our sins?
2. How does sin estrange us from God? (read Psalm 5)
3. What is the truthful response to the knowledge of our sin and God’s wrath against sin? How does this response bring us into light and fellowship with Him? (reread 1 John 1)
4. What is the false response to knowledge of sin? How does this make God out to be a liar?
5. What sins or sinful patterns of life are you hanging on to that you refuse to surrender? What are some deceptions that we tell ourselves to justify sin?
6. Why was the eyewitness testimony of the Resurrection so vitally important, in relation to Jesus’ propitiation for our sins?
7. How does this knowledge enable our joy and fellowship with God to be complete?

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