New - Week One: "At One Time"

I was watching a reality TV show the other day that really fascinated me.  It's called Bad Ink.  The show is set in Las Vegas and is essentially about two friends--one of whom is a tattoo artist--who comb the Vegas strip looking for people with really bad tattoos.  Since it's Vegas, they don't have to look that hard, to be honest.  Lots of people in Vegas have bad tattoos.  

But what these guys do that is so fascinating is they offer these people with really bad tattoos the chance to fix them.  It's kind of their specialty, you see: redeeming the bad choices people made.  According to the artist on Bad Ink, most bad tattoos happen when people are either young and impulsive or drunk, or all three.  

Here's a quick sample of some  "bad ink" that artists have been able to fix: 

This woman took a very bad infinity/love tattoo and
had it turned into a rose firefly with infinity wings. 

Okay, this one is just brilliant.  Take some weird star tattoo that is
instantly regrettable and turn it into Hendix?  Winning. 

Yes, the Party Dog tattoo was probably done one night after a party
by some random guy at the party named Raul.  The fix is better
and it keeps the spirit of Party Dog alive. 

This one is just awesome. I. Am. Batman. 

The fact this one went from a really bad rose with someone's name
on it to Darth Vader is just brilliant. Always avoid putting
your girlfriend/boyfriend's name on your body. Rule of thumb. 
So why are we talking about tattoos, exactly?  Well, it's probably the best kind of metaphor for the sermon series that we are beginning today.  A lot of people walk around feeling like they've got "bad ink," when it comes to the way their life is going.  I know how this feels.  Maybe you do, too. 

But we read in the Bible that when you decide to follow Jesus, to embrace a life that is lived as closely to Jesus' example as possible--you can be made new. 

For the next few weeks we are going to be focusing on one passage of Scripture:  2 Corinthians 5:16-17, which reads: 

…At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! 17 This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

Maybe you made bad choices at some point and it feels like you are always paying for them.  Or maybe something happened to you that you couldn't help, and you can't shake the feeling that you are damaged goods. Perhaps you feel like there is no way that God could ever really love you--because of the things you've done, mistakes you've made--sins you've committed.  

And for a lot you who are gathered here today, when a pastor gets up  in front of you and says something to you like, "It doesn't matter what you've done, who you've been, what's been done to you--you can be a new person if you follow Jesus," you feel like nothing could be further from the truth.  

I get it.  I've been there.  I'm a master in the Art of Not Having It All Together.  

Almost every day of my life, I do things that make me dissatisfied in myself.  I yell at my kids sometimes.  I get impatient when I am driving around slow people, when I'm waiting in line at Chipotle, when I can't do all of the things I need to in a day, with other people...  the list is pretty long.  I can be overly critical at times, focusing on the negative rather than the positive aspects of life, the universe and everything.  I'm completely hard on myself when I make mistakes or stumble.  So yeah, I understand how it can be hard to hear the words, "You can be made new." 

We've all been there, if we are being honest. 

And what we tend to hear most of the time from other Christians is that we can get it all together, we can overcome our feelings of inadequacy by just being a better person, or reading that next Christian self-help book about 13 ways to be a better parent/wife/husband/child/church member/American... or going to church more often, being more religious, trying harder, keeping more rules...  

But here's the thing.  Religious behavior can make you nice, but it won't make you new.  

As Christians we say we believe that following Jesus makes you new.  You can be a new creation.  Like the Apostle Paul said, "the old has gone, the new has come."  

But what does that even mean?  Do we really stop to think about it? And do we really believe it--I mean deep down inside? 

Let's go back to 2 Corinthians 5:16-17 for a bit.  

…At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! 17 This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

The Apostle Paul is speaking to a group of people here who are struggling with their identity.  They are trying to understand more fully what it means to be a Christ-follower.  They've had all kinds of people telling them different things, plus on top of that they have serious cultural pressures from their pagan neighbors who don't understand this new faith they've embraced.  

So Paul connects them to the Story of God's redemption of Creation through the Resurrection of Jesus.  "At one time," he tells them, we didn't fully understand who Jesus was.  

The time that Paul is referring to is a place in the past before the resurrection.  Nothing about that time matters--except to contrast with now.  Now, Paul says, we see Jesus risen and glorified.  The resurrection changed everything.  "At one time" was a place of unknowing a place of shadow.  

"How differently we know him now," Paul writes.  Now is a time of light and clarity. Eternal life--the life Jesus came to bring to us all--is happening now.  Everything that was in the past, is in the past.  Now everything is being made new.  And anyone who embraces this--is made new along with it.    

So what does this mean for you and me?  

It means that God doesn't hold our past against us, and neither should we. 

It also means that because of Jesus, we have the choice to live differently. Because we aren't defined by our past, we can look to future with incredible hope.  

I kind of summed it up like this:  Who you were is in the past, who you aren't isn't interesting and who you become is a choice.  

First, who you were is in the past. 

What mistakes are haunting you today?  Did you make some poor choices?  Bad decisions?  Maybe you've been letting those poor choices dictate the way you live the rest of your life. 

I remember years ago meeting a woman who came to a group counseling session I was helping to facilitate.  She came into the room looking like she was carrying a huge weight on her shoulders.  Her demeanor was defeated.  She did everything she could to sink into the background and not participate in the session.  

When we finally learned what was troubling her, it all made sense.  The woman confessed that she had been seeing a married man for over a year.  She hated herself for it.  She would try to break it off, and then would find herself going right back to him.   She told us that she felt like a slut.  She couldn't stand the way she looked.  She hated her job.  Every part of her life had been affected by the mistakes that she had made.  

Just like the Apostle Paul wrote, those feelings about your mistakes and bad decisions belong in the place of the shadow.  They have no place in the new life you have when you decide to follow in Jesus' footsteps.  Those are so yesterday. 

Listen to me---stop being a victim.  You are not your mistakes.  You are not your bad decisions.  You are not your sins and weaknesses.  When you embrace a life lived following Jesus, you are defined by the love he has for you--love that sacrificed everything in order to rescue you from what is in your past. 

Second, who you aren't isn't interesting. 

Far too many Christians spend their time and energy defining their faith by what it isn't or by declaring repeatedly what they are against.  I believe that this has created a culture of negativity among most Christians.  When your faith and life are defined in negative terms--by constantly comparing yourself to what you aren't, it bleeds over into your life.  Before you know it, you can only define yourself in the same way.  You never seem to measure up.  Highlighting what you don't do, won't do or can't do isn't at all inspiring.  Who you aren't isn't interesting.   

Your story is bigger than that.  Stop defining yourself by what you aren't.  Live into who you are becoming in Christ.  Jesus came to give you abundant life--to give you the kind of life that is big, expansive, beautiful, meaningful and fulfilling.  Live into that story.  It's time to leave the negative definitions behind. 

Finally, who you become is a choice. 

Just like a bad tattoo, you may have made some choices in the past that have left a mark.  But that mark doesn't have to define you.  It's time to re-design it. 

I have a friend who made a mistake several years ago--a mistake that almost cost him his marriage and family, and did cost him his job.  There have been lots of Christians who treated my friend like garbage after they found out what happened.  They didn't want to give him another chance.  And for a long time he kind of stayed in the same faith community that had roundly condemned him when he erred--almost like he was paying penance.  Because these awesome grace-filled folk never let him forget that he had stumbled.  

It took a while but he finally woke up and realized that the only way he was going to ever live into hope was by leaving that faith community behind, and starting over somewhere else.  True, he made a bad choice, and it left a mark.  But when he decided to finally re-design it, it's transformed his life and given him a new joy for Jesus.  

I don't care what you've done or what's been done to you in the past--you can take that mark that it's left on you and make it into a badge of honor.  You can re-design it into something beautiful that reminds you not of your mistake, but the grace that redeemed it. 

Brothers and sisters, following Jesus means that you choose to live into the hope of a new world, a new life, a new day--every day.  The old is gone.  The new has come.  Who you were is in the past, who you aren't isn't interesting and who you become is a choice.  If you haven't made that choice to embrace a life lived following Jesus, I would encourage you without hesitation to make it now.  I have never regretted that choice.  I know you won't either.    


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