Anyone who has done a home rennovation project knows that you have to do destruction before you can do construction. Demo before renno. Sledgehammer before paint brush. Most projects begin with a lot of dust and destruction, leaving a big mess that often makes you wonder whether this was a good idea in the first place. So it is with the new creation in Christ. There must be death before resurrection. We must decrease; Christ must increase, and that doesn’t suit old Adam one bit. He would prefer a superficial paint job, a coat of religious shellac over teardown and rebuild.
The prophet Jeremiah spent his entire career delivering a very unpopular message, one he received straight from the mouth of the Lord: Exile and return. Israel’s death and resurrection. Jerusalem would be invaded, the temple ransacked and dessecrated. The city left in ruins, the survivors taken into Babylonian exile for seventy years. Then a return of a faithful remnant, a rebuilding of the temple, and a restoration of the land.
The people didn’t buy it. How could God let that happen to His people? His temple? His Israel? How could He let the city be destroyed and the temple fall into enemy hands? The temple was God’s footstool, the place where He planted His foot to reign upon the earth from His throne in the highest heavens. Israel was His people, His holy, chosen, and elect nation, a people he had taken out of slavery and brought into freedom through the Sea and the wilderness. God was their King. How could God let such a thing happen?
They tried to silence Jeremiah. They had him arrested. They burned his books. They threw him into a dry well. They shut their ears. They hired prophets who would preach a message they wanted to hear: “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace. “Follow your heart, do as you please, indulge yourselves, all will be well, no disaster will come near you.” That’s the message the people wanted to hear.
Don’t you and I prefer that sort of message too? A soothing, positive, uplifting, inspiring message that tells us how good we are and how everything is going to be great? Don’t we prefer to hear the positive to the negative? Don’t we prefer to slather a little religion over our sinfulness and call it a Sunday? Why bother with demo when you can just paint over the problem? We’d rather rather hide in the bushes than deal with God face to face. We’d rather blame everyone around us than deal with what we’re doing. We’d rather drown out the Word with pretty little lies, the false narratives that say, “You don’t need God. You can be god in His place and do a lot better job of running things than He does.”
We know deep down that will do us no good. Sin runs much deeper and a thin veneer of religion won’t cover it. Veneers and coats of paint are superficial. It’ll look good for a while, long enough to sell the place, but sooner or later the cracks will show and the truth will be known.
The message from Jeremiah to Jerusalem was that Israel was beyond rehab. Death and resurrection were the only way. Seventy years of exile without a homeland, without a temple and priesthood. Seventy years of living as aliens and foreigners in the land of their enemies, the land of confusion, chaos and idolatry with nothing more that the Word of God and prayer. And then return of a remnant.
Death and resurrection is theme of the entire Scriptures from the beginning. Garden to wilderness to promised land. From Jordan to wilderness to Calvary. From Baptism to death to resurrection. Exile and return. Scattering and gathering. Dying and rising.
“Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” Fire destroys, but it also refines. It burns away dross to reveal fine gold. A hammer breaks to bits but it also opens possibilities. It clears away what gets in the way, what doesn’t belong. We need to be refined, not rehabbed. We need demo and construction not a coat of paint. Sin isn’t a handicap of our humanity, a blemish on our holidness. It’s a corruption, a deep spiritual corruption that obscures the image of God that we are created to be. We must be put through the refining fire of the Word. We must be broken to bits before we can be built up. We must die before we reise.
If all humanity needed was a touch up, a coat of paint, God could’ve stopped with Moses and the prophets. There was more than enough in the ten commandments to set the world straight, but it doesn’t work. Sin multiplies under the law. We get worse not better under the Law. When we focus on our sin or our self-improvment, we lose sight of Christ at the center of our being and Self takes center stage. We’re back to the same curved-inward-on-self state that is our original sin. All the commandments can do is hammer away at what doesn’t belong to God’s image, burn away the dross from the gold, the chaff from the wheat, the sinner from the saint.
God’s purpose is not destruction but construction, new creation, resurrection. That’s why He didn’t send a bunch of commandments to the world but sent His Son in the Flesh. God had to take humanity into His own hands to rescue us. We can’t do it we’re dead – dead to God and dead to ourselves. Christ takes up our humanity, conceived and born of a Virgin. He does our humanity without Sin. He is baptized into our Sin. He joins us in the mire, not to participate in it, but to absorb it and take it all into Himself. This is the Baptism with which He is baptized. The Sinless One becomes our Sin. He takes our humanity to the cross and dies bearing the Sin of the world in His flesh. And we die in Him. “Christ died for all, and therefore all died.” The fire, the hammer, the wrath of God all come crashing down upon Him, and He takes it for all of humanity, every single one of Adam’s children. For you. He buries our Sin and Death in His tomb and rises from the dead. Resurrection. A new humanity, the first fruits of a new creation. Death followed by resurrection. Death swallowed up in Life and victory. Darkness overcome by Light.
Baptism is your demo day and your reconstruction. Sin, death, self are drowned in the water. You are crucified with Christ. You no longer live; now Christ lives in you. You are raised with Christ and glorified in Him. Your life, free from Sin, is hidden with Christ in God. Your life is in Him and His life is in you. As we come to re-cognize that in repentance – repentance is re-cognition – we see ourselves in a different light, and we see each other differently too.
The devil, the world, our own flesh are constantly feeding us false narratives about ourselves, giving us false identities and false ways of being. We don’t love our neighbor as ourselves, because we don’t love ourselves. We don’t love ourselves because we don’t know who we are, and the false prophets are all around us defining us, promising us identity and meaning in our work, our desires, our sexuality, our status, our intelligence, our influence, our looks, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the homes we own. The din of lies blares from the noise outside and the endless thoughts and feelings within, constantly judging, defining, comparing.
We don’t hear God, and we don’t listen to each other. We hear through the voice in our own heads. We see the world through a cloudy lens of “good vs evil.” Someone tells us about being sick, and we think, “Oh, I’ve been sicker than that. You have nothing to complain about.” Or someone confesses a sin, and we think, “Wow, I’ve never sunk to that level.” That’s what Sin does to us. It makes everything about us. We hear others through the self-static in our own heads. We see others through the self-lens of our own biases, prejudices, expectations, and whatever else we lay on ourselves and others. It means we’re never at peace within ourselves or with one another.
The cross of Jesus is the turmoil that brings eternal peace, the division that brings eternal unity. The division Jesus brings is like that of a surgical knife that cuts away a tumor. The Word of God is sharp and accurate, dividing joint and marrow, sinner and saint. It divides us from Sin that dwells in us. Christ’s division is a necessary healing cut. He cuts away the old in order to raise up the new. The only way you can have your self back is to die to self and rise in Jesus.
The only way to have your relationships whole and ordered is to die to them and rise to them in Christ. That means to recognize yourself in Christ and Christ in you. And to recognize Christ in those around you – son and daughter, father and mother, daughter-in-law and son-in-law. He divides even blood relationships to restore them to a greater union in Him. We are more than fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives. That is temporal. We are baptismal brothers and sisters in union with Christ. That is eternal.
You sometimes hear people speak of the beauty that lies within. We, good Lutherans that we are, quickly point out that nothing good is in us, only Sin and Death, forgetting that little phrase from Romans 7, “that is, in my Flesh.” In my adamic flesh, there is no good thing. But Christ dwells in you and me. And the Father and the Spirit dwell in us. The Word dwells in us. The Body and Blood of Christ dwell in us, His death and His life are in us. Those are good, and they are doing a good – transforming you and me from the inside out to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, chiseling away what doesn’t belong to reveal who we are as children of God.
Michaelangelo’s David, his most famous sculpture, is on display in all of David’s glory in the Accademia Galleria in Florence, Italy. Karen and I saw David on our vacation in Italy a couple of years ago. It was very impressive, and tourists flock to see it. Off to one side of David, is a hall with a lesser known group of four partially-completed statues by Michaelangelo in what is called the “Hall of Prisoners.” These were four statues Michaelangelo never finished. The figures seem to be emerging from their marble slabs.
These incomplete works show how Michaelangelo conceived of his art. He said he could look at a slab of marble and see the completed figure inside the stone. That’s how he picked the slab for each work. You and I would see only a big chunk of rock, but Michaelangelo saw the completed figure already there, within the stone, before he ever set hammer to chisel. He said that his job as a sculptor was to use his hammer and chisel to chip away what didn’t belong. He wasn’t shaping the stone so much as chiseling away what didn’t belong to the image.
There is an inner beauty that is you in Christ. Only God can see it. You can’t; I can’t. We see the exterior, the outer man that is wasting away. Only God can see the beauty within that is you in Christ, the image of God. And like the Master sculptor, He is using that hammer that breaks the rock to pieces, not to destroy you or even to refashion you into something else, but to chip away what doesn’t belong the image of Christ, what gets in the way of you being who you are in Christ. He wants to reveal the beauty of His handiwork, and He will, on the last Day, when we will appear for who we are in the light of Christ.
For now, He calls you to believe what He sees, to see through faith eyes, and image yourself and world through the lens of the cross of Jesus, to see Christ in you and Christ in those around you.
Is not my word like a fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock to pieces? A refining fire, a sculpting hammer, a Baptism that kills and makes alive. Dying and rising. It’s the way of life in Jesus.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.