Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent.
Just a few short weeks ago, we were singing with gusto, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” We celebrated the fulfillment of Old Testament promises with the coming of the Messiah, the birth of Jesus two thousand years ago.
But our text today, this excerpt from one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, turns our hearts and minds in a different direction. The pure joy and celebration of Christmas has given way to the realities of a still-fallen world. The overwhelming message is joy in spite of…
Joy in spite of sorrow, living in spite of dying, enduring in spite of afflictions, calamities, and hardships.
The movement from the Christmas season to the season of Lent is a movement from celebrating the light that comes in the darkness to a recognition that there is still darkness. Darkness in our world and darkness in our own hearts. The Messiah came, we saw him, we listened to him, we witnessed him heal and forgive people, and then we killed him. The light came into the darkness, but the darkness did not understand it.
Paul warned the Corinthians not to “accept the grace of God in vain.” When the Messiah comes, how do we accept him?
I think the answer to that may depend on what we were expecting of the Messiah. What do we expect our lives will be like when we become Christians?
That we will suddenly cruise through life to our goals and dreams with no obstacles because God cleared our path for us?
That the difficulties living in a fallen world will bounce off the “faith bubble” that now surrounds us?
That our marriages will be healthier and our kids will be happier because of our weekly dose of Jesus?
What do we expect when Messiah comes?
Paul’s word to the Corinthians are jarring. If God was going to bless anyone, it would be the apostle Paul! And yet he experienced afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger.
This is going to be a tough sell! Imagine the infomercial: “Call this number and not only will you receive this amazing grace and forgiveness, but for free we’ll throw in more afflictions and hardships than you can imagine!” I’m going to go ahead and not pick up the phone on that one…
On Ash Wednesday, we stand face to face with the sinfulness in our lives. We recognize that today is the day of salvation. And that tomorrow we will need salvation yet again. But somehow, there is hope.
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
In his commentary on 2 Corinthians, J. Paul Sampley described verse 21 as a succinct restatement of the pattern that shows up elsewhere in Paul’s letters—the pattern of Jesus’ move from glory to humanity to death to resurrection (Phil. 2:5-11; 2 Cor. 8:9)—but here the emphasis is different. Jesus knew no sin (from glory) but was made to be sin (to humanity) so that we might become the righteousness of God.
There is hope of transformation. There is hope that we might somehow be pulled out of our faulty expectations of Messiah—expectations of wealth and power, safety and security. That we—sinful, frail, human beings though we are—might actually become the righteousness of God.
On Ash Wednesday, we recognize that though we thought we would receive the Messiah when he came with open arms, we have in fact participated in his crucifixion. We find ourselves to be sinful and broken. We come before God with empty hands and penitent hearts, ready to receive the ashes. We enter into the season of Lent praying for God’s grace.
When we accept our poverty, Paul’s words begin to offer us wonderful hope. That though we are poor, we might make many rich. That though we are unknown, we might be known by God. That though we are treated as impostors, we might still be true. That though we may be punished, we will not be killed. That though we may have nothing, we might yet have everything. That though we may be sorrowful, we might yet rejoice.
To all who read Paul’s words, may we, along with the Corinthians, not accept the grace of God in vain. May today be the day of our salvation, the day when we humbly confess our arrogant expectations of Messiah, and therefore offer our lives that we may become the righteousness of God in a lost and dying world.
 J.Paul Sampley et al., New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI: 2 Corinthians/Galatians/Ephesians/Philippians/Colossians/1 & 2 Thessalonians/1 & 2 Timothy/Titus/Philemon, ed. er E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000).