Sermon: It's Never Too Late for a New Start

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Sermon: "It's Never Too Late to Be Forgiven"

2nd in the "It's Never Too Late" series.
Delivered August 1, 2010 by Rev. George Antonakos.
Sermon Text: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

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In 354 AD, a man was born to a pagan father and a Christian mother. Father's name was Patricius, the mother's name was Monica. Although raised a Christian, this man left the church to follow the Manichaean religion, much to the despair of his Christian mother.

The man's name was Augustine. To say that in his 20s he lived a wild lifestyle would be putting it mildly. His mother, Monica, prayed constantly for him. After a while, he tired of Manichaeism and embraced skepticism, a philosophical movement of his day. He was a scholar. He was an outstanding scholar. Some believe he was a genius. By 30 he won the most visible academic chair in the Latin world.

In the summer of 386, after all these successes, Augustine underwent a profound personal crisis. The old answers weren't helping him anymore. Nothing from his personal success or philosophy met the needs of his heart, so he turned to the Bible, and he opens to the epistle of the Romans, and it's almost like one of these lucky dip method things, you know.

You open the Bible, Romans 13:13-14 met his eye. If you just think about how this spoke to him, you'll understand why he just lived the way he lived and why this spoke to him. It says this.

"Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature."

He became a Christian right there. He put on Christ right there, the way he says it. His mother's prayers were answered, and then some. He would go on to write many books, one of the famous ones is Confessions, which is a classic of Christian theology and world literature. Probably one of the most important theologians in 2,000 years, if not the most important, John Calvin would claim Augustine as his mentor, even though they lived 1,000 years apart.

It's an ancient story. It's a story that some of you may be able to relate to different characters in the story. Some may relate to Monica who sees somebody in your life who seems to be drifting away from God and your heart is broken and you pray and you wonder if they'll ever be able to make a new start.

You might be like Augustine at different places in his journey. Some may feel kind of self-satisfied and not sure where God fits. Others may feel like they're at a moment of change and crisis and something has to change, but you're not sure that you're not confident that it really can change because changing our behavior is probably one of the toughest things that we can encounter.

Is it too late for a new start? Will it be, even if you try something new, will it be like just a New Year's resolution that failed before? See we need to change really to change, to be the people God wants us to be. We need more than just a new way of dealing with old problems. We need a new life. We need new power. We need a new start that only God can give, and that's precisely what the apostle Paul is talking about in today's text in 2 Corinthians, chapter 5, verses 16-21.

At the bottom of page 1055 in your pew Bible is just a phrase from the first verse, and then it goes on to 1056. I'd like to read this together after we pray, and then just think about the kind of start, the kind of newness that Jesus Christ can bring to a person's life.

Let's pray: Lord, we thank you for your love and for your grace to us in our Lord. We know that as we look at the Scriptures now that apart from your Spirit they will just be words, but with your Spirit they will be light and life, just like to Augustine. And we pray that you would do that work in our hearts, in Christ's name, Amen.

Bottom of page 1055.

"So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them.

And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."

Paul starts out and he says, "We don't regard Christ from a human point of view any longer. We don't think of him just as a great moral teacher. We don't think of him as somebody whose example we're trying to follow. We think of him as very different now. We think of him as someone who can come and change our lives from the inside out."

Then he comes to 17, a very well known verse to many, "Therefore because Jesus is more than just a human being, if anyone is in him, in Christ, the new creation has come. Something has started that is totally different from what it was before. The old has passed away." It says, "See, the new has come."

Just like when God's Spirit brooded over the chaos of the primordial world and brought order and light, and life, something very different from what was before, that's what the image that Paul is drawing to us that Jesus comes and he brings life, order, and light out of chaos in our hearts.

It's what happened to Augustine. His life wasn't just tweaked, it was transformed. It reminds me of a story of a guy watching his friend in real estate negotiate to buy an old dilapidated building in the center of town. He is watching his friend, and his friend is going back and forth, and he decides to buy it for what seems to be an outrageous sum.

So his friend comes along, pulls him aside, and says, "What are you doing? Why are you buying this old building? I mean it's like, is it really worth that much?" His friend looks at him and says, "I'm not interested in the building, I'm interested in the site." You know many of us think the Christian life is like sweeping out an old warehouse and we hope we get it done, when really there is a wrecking ball that is needed.

God wants the site to build something completely new in us. Think of it this way. Here is an image that just like a person has a DNA or a heredity, what if we could have a new DNA, a new spiritual DNA that's not just our nature, our human nature that gets tweaked, we actually have a new DNA because of Christ in us.

That's exactly what happened. God paid an outrageous sum on the Cross to bring us back to him. Listen to this quote by Oswald Chambers, "The characteristic of a disciple, a follower, a learner after Jesus Christ is not that he or she does good things, but that he is good in motive because he has been made good by the supernatural grace of God." That's the DNA part.

The only thing that exceeds right doing is right being. And Jesus Christ came to put into any man who would let him, a new heredity. Now that's a concept, that's an image, a metaphor of a new start if I ever heard one. No wonder verse 18 in the text says, "All of this is from God. All of this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ." Just like the world couldn't just create itself, we can't recreate ourselves. Only God can do that and has done that in Jesus Christ.

So he says, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. Everything old has passed away. Everything has become new." But now the question is what does that mean? How does it really work? How does it really happen?

So we're going to look at four areas, some of these are all mentioned on a little fold-out, tear off in your bulletin. There are four things that are real in our daily experience that God is doing, and this may sound like too much theology for you, but stick with me here, and it will help you understand how we can change because of what Christ has done inside of us.

These four things are justification, sanctification, the Holy Spirit within us, and then authority and spiritual conflict.

1. Justification. That's a term that if you just kind of sound it out sounds like just as if I never sinned. It's similar to being declared innocent in a court of law. You get to get up and walk out of the room instead of getting handcuffed. In this theological case, it's not because we're not guilty, we are, but because somebody else paid the penalty for us.

Justification is being treated as if we were sinless. Now think about this. When Jesus came and told his disciples, this is from Matthew 5, he said this, "Unless your righteousness, unless your right way of being exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, the most religious, super, ultra people of the day, religious people, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

I mean they had to be thinking, "We're goners. We cannot possibly be as spiritual and as righteous as these people over here, the Pharisees and these scribes." They had to be thinking and asking themselves, "Who can be that pure? Who can be that holy?" I'm asking, who can? See that's what Jesus was getting them to think about. It's not us. It can't be us.

Look at verse 21. This answers the question, verse 21 of the text, "God made him who had no sin to be sin, or become sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God in him, through him." He is the only pure one! He is the only one.

I need to get some help here. Who was the biggest sinner, I mean the most sinner of greatest magnitude in this room? I need a volunteer. This is not... I see a few hands, but I definitely see this man in the front row. I definitely see, and I see his wife sitting next to him. She can corroborate that he is by far.

Okay, stand behind the table there, please, Neil. Now, just pretend, okay? You have to really pretend here. Okay, I'm God. That's really a lot of pretending to do. The table represents Jesus, and there is sinner Neil, okay? Big sinner. When God looks at Neil and Jesus isn't in the way, he is in trouble. But when God looks now at Neil, he doesn't see... he sees Jesus in Neil.

Neil is righteous not because of what Neil has done or hasn't done, but because he is in Christ. So that's justification. He's saved. He's safe. It's not about his work, it's about what God has done in Jesus Christ. Thank you, Neil.

So Jesus sees the same thing, when God looks at you, when you're in Christ, when Christ is in you, you're justified. Believing and understanding that is an important part of growing into the person we were meant to be, and that brings us to the second point.

2. Sanctification. You're free from the bondage of sin. You're free through the power of Jesus in your life. The old way of being, the old nature doesn't have to rule anymore. Sanctification is a process for growing into the person God designed us to be.

There is a theological term from the ancient church, mirifica commutatio, the wonderful exchange is what they called it, that Christ takes what is ours. And what is ours? Our broken lives and unworthy prayers. He sanctifies them and offers them to the Father as a high priest and then gives them back to us, and they're good. Through Christ our prayers, our worship is all set apart by Jesus.

God is working in us not on the basis of what we do, but what Christ has done and is doing. That's sanctification. I mean really, even when we come here, I don't know how you come to worship sometimes. Sometimes you can probably come in here under a load, under a pile, and maybe nothing gets through.

You think, "I didn't worship God. I didn't do it well enough." We don't come to worship to try harder or to do better. What is our goal in worship? One thing: to express gratitude to Christ who has made our worship acceptable to the Father. When we come around this table today, it's not because we're worthy, it's because Christ has made us worthy, and so we participate in his life through the sacrament.

Sanctification is not about appeasing a contract oriented God who always wants to make sure we're doing our part of the bargain. It's about trusting God to give us a new power where we have failed before.

That brings us to the third point, and none of these points are really linear. They're all, I mean, think of the Cross. Every single point is like one of the arms of the Cross. Justification, sanctification, and now...

3. The Holy Spirit. God knew we couldn't continue to be sustained in spiritual life unless it was from the inside out, and so he sent the Holy Spirit to live inside of us, the one who empowers us for new life.

Ephesians 5:18 commands us and says, "Do not become drunk with wine, for that's a waste, but be filled with the Holy Spirit." That's a command. Don't become drunk with wine. Don't let another source outside of yourself, like wine, don't yield yourself to it so much that it changes your behavior in a way that is embarrassing, instead, be controlled by the Holy Spirit. Let the Holy Spirit, come and yield yourself to the Holy Spirit.

How do you do that? You say, "God, here I am. Fill me with yourself. I'm empty. I'm not trying any other thing. I just need you to come into my life to change me, to make me the kind of person you want me to be."

Let me try to illustrate this. Thankfully, football season is not too far away. Anyone who saw the last two games of the baseball home team understands exactly what I mean. I have to say it, okay. Right now, I don't watch baseball games with the sound on anymore, okay. I have them on. I'm sitting on my couch with my lamp. I'm reading a book, okay.

Every now and then I'll look up and see what the score is. The other night, Friday night, ninth inning, bottom of the ninth inning, home team (we're the home team, right). Or no, they were in Kansas City. This was the bottom of the ninth for the Kansas City team. We're leading three to one.

Ellen unusually says, "Hey, who is winning?" From the kitchen, she says, "Who's winning?" I said, "The Orioles." She says, "That's great!" She goes, "That's great." She knows I'm depressed all the time about this. She goes, "That's great." I said, "Don't get excited. There are still two outs to go and they're only up two runs." I'm telling you, three minutes later they lost four to three. I don't know...

Anyway, on to football! On to football. When I was a kid, I would pretend to be Johnny Unitus. You all know who Johnny Unitus is. Everybody from Baltimore knows who Johnny Unitus is. Greatest quarterback of all time, right?

Later in life, I had the chance to meet and actually speak with Johnny Unitus at a wedding reception. I was nervous talking to him. I thought he was my idol. I used to love to be in the backyard playing, you know I'm Johnny Unitus and throwing to Raymond Berry and all that.

But after I thought about it, I thought, "You know, if I ever really could play like Johnny Unitus, if it was ever even possible, Johnny Unitus would have to come and live inside of me. That's the only way, but I would have to yield to him and listen to what he was saying." So if I'm under center and I drop back three steps, and he says, "No, drop back seven and then come up," and I don't do it, I get sacked.

But then after a while I start thinking, "Oh wait a minute, if I just yield, if I just let him kind of move around in me, go this way, go that way, do this, throw now, many touchdowns later you get to come support me in the hall-of-fame induction, you see." Because I've yielded myself.

It's not a matter of just the Spirit being in there, we have to yield. That's part of what sanctification is all about. So the Holy Spirit is in us to reveal the personality of God through our distinct personalities. We don't become robots. A new creation is yielded in the power of the Holy Spirit, and usually the voice of the Holy Spirit is best heard through the Word of God. Okay, that's the third thing.

4. The final element is authority in spiritual conflict. You are in command. We don't talk about this enough. We don't usually think about the fact we're in a spiritual battle with forces of darkness in this world, but we are.

Those who claim God are going to experience a sort of resistance and challenge that those who do not claim God will. Because of our parents, we get a certain ethnicity, citizenship, an economic place in life. We get a certain sense of who we are.

Think of Henry Clay Ford II, he is who he is because there was a Henry Ford I, right? He has received something in his life. And so we have received, by virtue of our being in Christ, a sense of authority and power because we're in Christ. In fact, Jesus said that very thing, "All authority in heaven and earth is given to me. All authority is given to me."

If we're in him, it's all his authority working through us to challenge the spiritual realities of this world. We're in a war. We're in a battle. It's a hidden battle. It's a spiritual battle. It's not a battle that allows us to do violence with others, but the weapons of our warfare are spiritual, not physical.

Here's a passage in the Scripture that underscores this point, Ephesians 6:11-12, look at what it says, "Put on the full armor of God." What is that? Jesus. "So that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."

If we are on God's side, we will run up against temptations, slander, persecution, accusation, and not only are we called in Jesus Christ to just kind of stand firm, we're called to take the offensive. One of the key ways to take the offensive is through prayer. Jesus made it very plain there are some things that just will not move unless prayer and fasting in the church makes it happen.

Prayer is our main weapon, and one of the reasons that we don't pray so much is that we're many times tempted away from the very thing that's going to give us the kind of authority in Christ that we need.

All these four things: justification, sanctification, the Holy Spirit within, authority and power in conflict... all of that is something we receive in Jesus Christ. Now the question is, again, how do we experience it? We experience it by faith. That's the blank on the bottom line there.

All of these things are experienced by believing, trusting, and relying on the unseen God. Think about it. We're justified because we believe that Jesus died for our sins and rose again, and now is empowering us. So now we can stop trying to impress God and other people. We don't have to try to get people to understand and think how good we are. We can admit who we are to ourselves. We make progress in becoming more like Christ, sanctification. Why? Because we believe we now have the power that God has given us through the Holy Spirit to change.

We experience the guiding and leading of the Holy Spirit. Why? Because we believe he actually comes into us. Jesus said, "I'll send you another comforter who has been with you and will be in you." We believe it by faith. And then we experience the breaking of spiritual opposition because we believe not because of our power, but because Christ has conquered evil and has given us authority as a church.

Having a conversation with God in an empty room can make huge changes when we yield all of ourselves to God. That's what Augustine's mother prayed for, and that's what happened to Augustine 1,600 years ago in his 30s.

Forty years ago, I experienced a similar change when I was 19 years old. I want to share one more story about a guy by the name of McKenzie who was 27 years old whose friend told him to find God. I got this from a small, little magazine. I'm a Campus Crusade alum, and they send this little paper every month, and here's a story from a lady by the name of Marilyn Adamson. She is a Campus Crusade staff person, and this is true.

This guy named McKenzie is 27 years old in the United Kingdom, his Christian friend there encourages him to simply find God. "You just need to find God." So how would you try to find God if somebody told you that? You'd go to Google, right? That's what he did. He went to Google, and he found this article, www.everystudent.com, Is There a God?

He reads the article. He sees the author's name, who is writing this little article, named Marilyn. So he goes to Facebook. He wants to see if he can find Marilyn on Facebook, and he does. He writes to her, and you know, he sends a message. She sends him back on Facebook a link to her story about God and a few more reasons to believe in God on this www.everystudent.com website.

Later the same day, he listens to some sermons online. He hears the gospel. He receives Christ, same day. He writes back to Marilyn saying now he is a Christian, do you have anything else that can help him grow? She writes back and says, "Here's a spiritual starter kit on www.startingwithgod.com, it's an email follow-up series, and you can also study the Gospel of John online."

Think about this. McKenzie searched for God, received Christ, and began follow up in two days using Google, everystudent.com, Facebook, and online sermons, and an email follow-up series. He didn't have to buy anything. He didn't have to order anything. Everything he needed was right there, and when he was ready, God was ready to give him a new start immediately. He was also able to ask questions and dialogue.

I don't know there is something here that maybe we need to be thinking about in terms of mentoring other people, perhaps. It's never too late to make a new start. If anyone is in Christ, a new creation has come. Everything old has passed away from God's perspective in our lives. Behold, everything has become new.

So now we're called to trust in God again as we gather around this table, and the realization again that we don't come because of our worth, because of his worth, and participate in the very life of the triune God, as we celebrate Christ's work in us by the power of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father.

Let us pray: Lord, seal this word to our hearts. Help us as we move toward this table to understand the word preached through the Word made visible so that we might understand how you have claimed us for yourself and given us new life as we humbly yield to you through Christ our Lord, Amen.

© 2010, Rev. George Antonakos
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145
www.centralpc.org