We began our Lenten journey this year by going straight to the end, where Jesus, in his dying moments on the cross, uttered a single word “Tetelestai” (no idea if that is the correct spelling but that will have to do). This word translates into English as “It is finished”.
But what is finished? Several things, which we shall unpack over the next several weeks.
Today: Sin is finished.
Most people think of sin as something that makes us bad. In their minds the Christian life is all about learning to be good, or at least better than we are now. Not so. The reality is that sin doesn’t make us bad, it makes us dead.
That’s a problem.
Because dead people can’t do anything to improve themselves. They may think they can, but they can’t.
Jesus did not come down to earth and die on a cross in order to make bad people good or to make good people better. He came to make dead people alive.
Only what is dead can be made alive.
And therein lies the whole point and purpose of Lent.
In many places where Christians observe Lent, they speak of it as a time for getting stronger, more mature, more disciplined, etc. They speak of “adventure”, “journey”, “discipline”, “formation”, “training”, and other such things. They speak of taking on a life of self-discipline, throwing off the sin that so easily entangles, so as to run a good race and finish strong.
Christians who approach Lent in this fashion have completely and totally missed the point.
Lent is not about getting stronger or more mature. It is not about adventure, discipline, journey, formation, or training, even though it is a journey and these things may happen along the way. The end of this journey is not greater strength or discipline or maturity. The end of this journey is death.
Because only what is dead can be made alive.
Forty years in the wilderness did not make Israel stronger. All it did was buy just enough time for all of the old generation to die off before the new generation entered the Promised Land. Was Israel any stronger for it? Read the books of Joshua and Judges to see how well that worked out. (Heads up: Not very.)
And forty days in the wilderness probably didn’t make Jesus any stronger either. We have this picture of Jesus coming off his forty-day fast stronger than ever, brimming with confidence and vitality as he speaks the words of Scripture to shut down the devil at every turn. But it’s probably closer to the truth to imagine Jesus parched, starving, emaciated at the end of his forty-day fast, the words sticking in his throat and him barely able to get them out as the devil comes at him. Mark notes that Jesus was in the desert among the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him. It is probably not too much of a stretch to imagine hyenas and jackals circling, watching and waiting for him to breathe his last, and then at the end, angels coming to lift up his chin and get water into him through his dry and chapped lips, along with perhaps a bite of food. Jesus at the very edge of death, being brought back from the edge one sip of water, one bite of food at a time.
But that was only the beginning. Because Jesus’ entire life and ministry was leading to another day, when he would again be exposed and pushed to the edge of death. But this time there would be no angels to minister from him and bring him back from the edge.
This was the Cross, where Jesus died and was later raised to life.
This is precisely where our Lenten journey leads. To the Cross, where we too die.
Because only what is dead can be raised to life.
Lent has historically been the time when catechumens are prepared for baptism. Forty days of getting ready to drown. Death to the old self by drowning, so that they may be raised to new life in Christ.
It is the same with all of us. Because we are not bad people who need to be made good, or good people who need to be made better. We are dead people who need to be made alive.
Lent is when we die to the illusion that any amount of religious activity on our part will get us into a proper relationship with God (as noted last week), or that any amount of discipline, training, or formation on our part will make us better.
Dead people can’t make themselves better. They may think they can, but they can’t.
Jesus did not come to earth and die on a cross so that bad people might be made good, or that good people might be made better. He came so that dead people might be made alive.
Because only what is dead can be made alive.