Deformed by the Fall

April 21, 2024 ()

Bible Text: Selected Scriptures |


Deformed by the Fall | Selected Scriptures
Brian Hedges | April 21, 2024

Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles this morning to the book of Romans. We’re going to be looking at several different passages from Romans this morning, as well as a passage in 1 Peter.

While you’re turning there, let me remind you of this wonderful statement from the mathematician scientist philosopher Blaise Pascal. He was a wonderful Christian several centuries ago, and he left behind a series of random thoughts that he planned to organize into a book. These were discovered after he died and were published as his Pensées. He commented a lot on faith and on theology and philosophy, and he had various musings and ponderings about life in the world. He made this statement about human beings, something that I think captures what we’re trying to understand in this series. Blaise Pascal said,

“What sort of freak, then, is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious. Judge of all things, evil earthworm; repository of truth, sink of doubt and error; glory and refuse of the universe.”

You can see the paradoxes there, as he’s putting these different thoughts about man together. He goes on to say,

“Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness.”

I think if we pause and consider for a few minutes we can see both of these things in the world today. We see greatness in human beings. Maybe you watch those videos sometimes—human beings can do amazing things. You see amazing athletic achievements and accomplishments, you see the creativity of people, you see people’s great capacity for compassion and love and philanthropy and creativity and invention. There is a greatness in human beings, and yet at the same time there is a wretchedness in human beings.

That word “wretched” means misery. There is a misery that runs through this world. You think about the incredible capacity that human beings have to inflict suffering upon others, our capacities for sin and for evil and for wickedness in the world.

Pascal said that the true religion has to be able to account for both of these things: the greatness in human beings and the wretchedness, the misery, in human beings. I think Christianity does account for those two things, and we see it in this concept of the imago Dei, the image of God, in which we were formed. We were created for the glory of God, and the reason we see such greatness in human beings is because they are image-bearers of God. Yet that image has been distorted and defaced through sin. That’s why we see such wretchedness and misery and suffering in the world.

Today we’re going to consider that more fully. We are in this four-part series “Imago Dei: Restoring the Divine Image.” Last week we talked about creation and being formed in the image of God and the dignity and the worth that is inherent in human beings because they are made in God’s image. Today we’re going to look at the fall of human beings and the implications of the fall for our lives and the world. It’s the fall that explains the wretchedness, that explains the misery.

Remember, in this series is formed, deformed, and then transformed by God’s grace and conformed to the image of Christ. We’re really looking at human nature from creation all the way to new creation. We’re tracing the storyline of the Bible through this theme of the imago Dei.

I’ll just remind you that this is a thematic series, where we are looking at a theme of Scripture over the course of several weeks. This isn’t exposition through a book, and even today as we read some passages of Scripture I’m not going to explain everything that I read. But I want us to highlight certain themes that are in these passages that help explain this concept of the image of God and how the image of God, human nature, has been affected by the fall.

We’re going to be looking first of all in the book of Romans, and I’m going to read three passages to you, from Romans 5, 6, and 8. You can follow along on the screen, or if you want to follow along in your own copy of God’s word it’s Romans 5:12, 6:23, and 8:18-25. Let’s read God’s word. The apostle Paul is writing, and he says,

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—”

Romans 6:23:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And then Romans 8:18-25.

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”

This is God’s word.

Maybe you noticed all the dark, negative words that were in those three passages of Scripture: sin, death, suffering, frustration, bondage to decay, groaning. I mean, those words describe and reflect for us the wretchedness of human beings in the world in which we live. This is the misery of life in a fallen world.

I want us to try to understand this for a few minutes this morning, to understand what the doctrine of the fall teaches about human nature and what the solution to it is. I have three questions this morning:

1. What Is the Fall?
2. How Has the Fall Affected Us?
3. How Does the Cross Restore Fallen Humanity?

1. What Is the Fall?

We’ll be brief here, but I want to give you a definition and then maybe an illustration or two. Here is a simple definition of the doctrine of the Fall. This is from a little pocket dictionary of theological terms. The definition is this:

“The fall is the event in which Adam and Eve, the first humans, disobeyed the explicit command of God, thereby bringing sin and death onto the human race. As a consequence of the fall, humans have become alienated from God, from one another, and from the created order.”

That’s pretty simple. That’s a pretty simple definition. You can see that truth reflected in Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—”

But we know there’s a story behind that. I’m not going to turn there this morning, but just recall for a minute the story, the narrative of the fall, recorded for us in Genesis 3. You remember that God had created the world, he had created everything good, he had created the human beings very good. He had created a man and a woman, the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, and he had placed them in this garden, the Garden of Eden. He had given them all of this abundance. He had given them a mandate that they were to multiply, they were to fill the earth, and they were to subdue the earth. They were to be God’s kingly rulers on earth, extending the reign of God throughout the earth.

There was only one prohibition: there was one tree that they were not to eat of, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This helped define the limits of their humanity, that they were not God. They were not the Lord. The Lord is the Lord; they were his creatures, they were not the creator. They were to obey him.

You remember that they are seduced, they are deceived and tempted, and then succumb to this temptation to evil. They eat the fruit, and immediately they experience this disruption in their fellowship with God and their relationship with one another, and a curse falls on the human race. That curse is recorded for us in all of its detail in Genesis 3. Then the man and the woman are kicked out of the garden. They are expelled from the Garden of Eden, and they have lost paradise.

That’s the story of the fall. That’s how it all started, the fall of human beings. And ever since then the world has been characterized by sin and death.

We might illustrate this with this common nursery rhyme—we probably all heard this growing up—the story of Humpty Dumpty. Do you remember this?

“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall;
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.”

That’s been around, actually, for several hundred years, and people debate what this is actually talking about. Is this talking about the fall of some great king in England or the fall of the monarchy? What’s this talking about?

Regardless, I think it serves as a good illustration for what’s happened to the human race. There’s been a fall, and no matter how hard we try, we can’t fix ourselves. We can’t put ourselves together again. We try, don’t we? We try with moral reform, we try with education, we try with politics, we try with philosophy, we try with psychology, we try with medicine. Listen, all of those things are good things. They are good things that help push back against the tide of suffering in the world. But they’re not a fix. The best we can do is maybe hold things at bay for a little while, but there’s not a fix, because sin and death and suffering are still in the world. We can’t fix ourselves. We can’t fix the problems that are in the fallen world.

Some of you maybe are fans of that great folk singer of the twentieth century (who’s still living today) Bob Dylan. Maybe you will recall these words if you’ve ever heard Bob Dylan’s music.

“Broken lines, broken strings,
Broken threads, broken springs,
Broken idols, broken heads,
People sleeping in broken beds;
Ain't no use jiving, ain't no use joking:
Everything is broken.”

He just goes on and on and on and on: everything is broken. Well, Bob Dylan’s right. We live in a broken world, and we see the evidence of that all around us. All you have to do is read the news and you see the evidence of living in a broken, fallen world. All you have to do is look in the mirror and reflect with just a little bit of self-awareness about your own life, your own relationships with God and with other people, and you’ll see that you are a broken person as well. This is what it means to live in a fallen world. We are broken, and things are not as they should be. We need a fix, but we’re not able to fix ourselves. That’s the doctrine of the fall.

2. How Has the Fall Affected Us?

This is where I want to spend most of the time this morning, because I just want us to try to understand how the fall has affected us in our human nature. We were created in the image of God, meant to bear the divine image, but that image has somehow been distorted and defaced and marred and disfigured. While it’s there, in its traces, in its remnants, we don’t fully bear the image. There are really three ways in which we can see the distortion of the image of God in human lives. These are three aspects of fallen human nature, and I’m drawing here from the psychologist, professor, and author Eric Johnson in his book God and Soul Care. He’s really just summarizing—I think very helpfully—what the Scriptures teach about fallen human nature. There are three things.

(1) Number one, sin. One aspect of fallen human nature is sin. Of course, this is a word we’re familiar with if we’re church people. If we’ve been in church for a while, if we’re Christians, if we are familiar with the Bible, we know the concept of sin. Romans says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This is a universal human problem.

We already read it in Romans 5:12: “Sin entered the world through one man and death through sin.” “The wages of sin is death.” This is the fundamental problem, the problem of sin in the world.

Now, what is sin? What are we talking about? I think the most simple definition I can give is that sin is rebellion against God. That’s what sin is. Sin is not just a character defect, a character flaw. It’s not simply criminal activity, it’s not simply doing something that’s immoral or impolite. It’s not simply a flaw in our character, it is a disruption in our relationship with God and then with other people, because we have disobeyed the creator. We’ve all done this. We have all been guilty of rebellion against God.

Here’s a more extensive definition. This is from Johnson’s book God and Soul Care. Johnson says,

“Humans were created to be in harmonious relationship with God, others, and themselves. As a relational disorder, sin has three aspects: number one, rebellion against God; two, enmity with one’s neighbor; and three, sin against oneself.”

You can see right there that there’s a vertical dimension to sin, and that’s our rebellion against God, but there are also horizontal dimensions, when we sin against others, and we can even sin against ourselves. Johnson goes on and says,

“Each of these is characterized by falsehood: first, idolatry in our relationship with God; then the misrepresentation and misuse of others; and then self-deception, defenses and false selves.”

Listen, friend. Before we talk about anything else related to the fall this morning, you need to reckon with this, that your most fundamental problem as a human being is that you have broken fellowship with God, that you have rebelled against your creator, that you have transgressed the laws of the Most High God, the Lord of the universe, and you are accountable to him. This is our problem. Our problem is that we were not made to live for ourselves and to ourselves, we were made to live for God. We were made to live for his glory and in obedience to him. But instead, we live independently of him and we cut ourselves off from him.

I’ve mentioned here many times before that my favorite film is this artsy film The Tree of Life. Some of you have watched it at my recommendation. A few of you love it and a lot of you probably don’t really enjoy the film, because it is nonlinear and there’s a lot of symbolism. It can be difficult to follow and understand.

But I continue to love this film; I watched it again about a week ago with our family. I’m still growing in my understanding of this film.

In the central part of the film, it all centers around this boy named Jack O’Brian. He’s about twelve years old, and something begins to change in Jack’s heart. He begins to make bad choices and his heart grows hard. You see it in his disregard for his parents, his disobedience of his mother, when he says, “I don’t have to do what you tell me,” and his hatred of his father, the bitterness he has toward his father. You see it in his cruelty towards his brother and towards animals. You see it in an unchecked curiosity and lust.

It’s like there’s a wildness in him that just seems to be unleashed, and he’s going down this dark path. There’s a place where there’s a voiceover and he’s speaking, and he asks this questions—I think he’s speaking to himself and to God—and he asks the question, “What have I started? What have I done? How can I get back?”

I think for every one of us there has been some point in our lives when we asked those kinds of questions. When we know that we’ve crossed a line, we’ve gone to a place we shouldn’t have gone, we have said or done something we shouldn’t have done, we’ve irreversibly hurt someone in our lives, then we cut ourselves off from God, and we know that feeling of alienation. “What have I done? How can I get back?” It’s the experience of a fallen human being who’s wrestling with sin in the world. There’s the problem of sin.

(2) Here’s the second aspect of fallen human nature: there is the problem of suffering. You can of course see this mentioned in Romans 8:18, where Paul writes about the sufferings of this present world. We’re all familiar with suffering, we all experience suffering in some degree. Here’s Johnson’s definition of suffering. He says,

“Suffering is commonly understood to be a state of conscious pain or distress, usually involving negative emotion stemming from adversity. However, suffering varies considerably in a number of ways. It exists on a continuum from mild to severe. When severe enough to damage the individual, it is called trauma; when long-term, it is called chronic; when severe but episodic it could be called catastrophic.”

Suffering, just like sin, is an index of the brokenness of our world. Again, this is something we all face. We all suffer to some degree or another, some more and some less, but by the end of our lives, if we live long enough, we’re going to experience suffering in some way, either psychologically and emotionally or spiritually or physically or in relationships. We experience it through loss, we experience it through the fragility of human life and our health, and we can experience it through disease or through injury, and eventually through death itself.

It’s important for us to understand in summary what the Bible teaches about suffering. This is worth a whole sermon, or even a whole series of sermons, but let me give you a thumbnail sketch really quickly.

We need to understand that the Bible teaches very clearly that suffering is the result of the fall, that suffering is the result of sin. The fact that there is suffering in the world is an indication that something has gone wrong.

But the Bible teaches that all suffering is not necessarily the direct result of personal sins. It’s possible that someone suffers, and suffers greatly, and it’s not a punishment to them for their personal, individual sins; instead, it’s just part of living in a fallen world. I think Scripture’s really clear on this, that blessings and trials fall on both the wicked and the righteous. This is the common experience of all human beings.

All you have to do is read the book of Job. Here is this man, and he is a righteous man. That doesn’t mean he’s sinlessly perfect, but he’s a righteous man, he’s a good man, he’s a man who fears God and worships God, and yet he begins to suffer tragedy after tragedy as he loses his children, he loses his wealth, he loses his health. Of course, people are suspicious. “Job, what have you done? What is the secret sin behind all of this calamity in your life? Why is God punishing you?” And Job insists, “I haven’t done anything! There’s no reason for this. I’ve lived a life of integrity.” And yet he suffers.

Jesus teaches this as well in John 9, when he heals the man born blind, and his disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be afflicted in this way?” Jesus says, “This wasn’t because of anyone’s sin; this was so that the glory of God could be displayed.”

It’s important for us to understand this, because there will come points in your life when you’re going to suffer. I know the question, because I’ve been asked the question in pastoral ministry over the years. People begin to suffer, they begin to be diagnosed with problems, health problems, they enter into old age and things are beginning to fail in their bodies, and they ask the question, “Why is God doing this to me?”

The answer is not that God is punishing you, the answer is that this is part of what it means to live as a fallen human being in a fallen world.

The Scriptures discourage us from thinking that the sufferings we experience are always the direct consequence of our personal sins. Instead, they invite us to view our sufferings as normal life in a fallen world. Secondly, if you’re a believer, if you’re in Christ, the Scriptures invite you to view your sufferings as instruments that the Lord can use for your ultimate good.

(3) Sin, suffering, and there’s one more category. It’s the category that Johnson called weakness. He’s using a biblical word here. The word “weakness” is the word asthenia in Greek. It’s a word that can be translated as weakness or disability or infirmity, and Johnson says that it is the most common term in the New Testament for physical illness, but it can also be used to refer to all kinds of limitations—psychological, moral, and spiritual.

In fact, he uses a big technical term for this. He calls this biopsychosocial damage. That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? Biopsychosocial damage. That’s biological, psychological, social damage.

There are many biblical examples of where this world is used, including Romans 8:26, right after the passage I read earlier, where Paul says the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses. This has to do with something that maybe is a subset of suffering, but not something that is a direct sin, yet it’s a limitation that we experience as human beings in some way—maybe biologically, maybe psychologically, maybe socially. Maybe it’s a result of things that have happened to us.

Let me give you Johnson’s more thorough definition or summary. He says,

“Weakness is a rather comprehensive term in the Bible, used to denote a variety of physical and psychological conditions that were less than whole or that involved the lack of some competence or ability to accomplish something that most other humans are able to do. So weakness in the Bible refers to the state of being less than in some respects; either less than some ideal, less than complete and whole, or less than what is typical for human beings and so deficient in some respect to most people.”

There are many different examples of this. You might think, for example, of genetic abnormalities that manifest in some kind of physical or mental problem. You might think of brain damage or a mental impairment or a learning disability. You might think of sleep disorders or all of the conditions on the autism spectrum. You might think of severe trauma and the result of that trauma, such as memory loss or sleep problems or flashbacks. You might think of bipolar disorder with its attendant mood swings, or the problem of hallucinations and illusions in those who are lacking in mental health, or neurological and physical effects of chronic childhood abuse or neglect which continue on into adulthood. All of these would be weaknesses, they would be limitations in our lives that were not at fault for them, yet they’re part of what we wrestle with living in a fallen world.

I came face to face with this about twenty years ago when my mom began to exhibit strange behaviors and we eventually learned that she had dementia, she had early onset Alzheimer’s. It was like this brilliant, creative, really funny, cheerful woman, her personality changed. And there were aspects to her personality that were so different to what they had been before. She became much more irritable and much more forgetful. She became confused and disoriented and anxious and worried. It was like, “What happened to Mom? This doesn’t seem like the same person.” And this wasn’t something that was her fault. She didn’t do something that resulted in this, that she deserved this—this was a weakness. It was a suffering, a limitation, because of something in her brain that she couldn’t help. We all had to learn to live with it and cope with it. Eventually, of course, it took her life.

Friends, this is something all of us will come up against in some way or another. We’ll come up against it in our families, in our relationships with others, and many times in our own lives—our weakness, our infirmities, our disabilities.

Let me give you one example. How many of you have seen this classic film, The Elephant Man? Have you ever seen this film? A few of you have. There’s not too many of you who’ve seen this. This is a really powerful movie. I just watched it recently, actually, at Andy’s recommendation. And it’s a very moving story about a man who was named Joseph Merrick. His name is John in the film, but in real life his name was Joseph Merrick. He was one of the most deformed individuals who ever lived. Born in England in 1862, he was just two years old when he began to develop tumors all over this face. The condition rapidly worsened over the years as these large growths spread over his head and body. By the time he was an adult, his head was probably three times the size of a normal person and these tumors looked like spongy, fungus, cauliflower looking skin that covered his body.

And very tragically, he lived in poverty for much of his life and was subjected to all kinds of mistreatment and abuse, including being exhibited in carnivals and freak shows where he was known as the Elephant Man. He was kept in a cage. People would come in to view him and to see him, completely disregarding his humanity, treating him like an animal.

One day this man named Dr. Frederick Treves, who specialized in these different kinds of abnormalities, learned about this man and he went to see him. He invited him to come to the London Hospital. He eventually discovered through his kindness to Merrick, that the Merrick who everyone thought was mute—they thought he was dumb, they thought he couldn’t communicate—they discovered that this was a very sensitive soul who had tremendous capacity for human kindness.

There’s a moving scene in the film where he quotes from memory the 23rd Psalm. And it’s the first time he’s actually spoken in many years to another person besides Treves. But he quotes from this Psalm as he remembers it, having been exposed to the Bible years before. Treves, through his kindness to this man, begins to help him experience his dignity and his worth as a human being again in spite of his deformity.

There’s another moving scene in the film where a crowd has been chasing him. They’ve been chasing him through these alleyways through London and they finally corner him—they are about to attack him again with such savagery—and he stands up to them and says, “I am not an animal! I am a human being. I’m a man.”

It’s a dramatic story where you see all three aspects of the fall in full display. You see weakness. You see the biological and psychological and social damage of a man who was born with this abnormality and these deformities that led to all kinds of abuse in his life. You see the sins of other people against him. You see the inevitable suffering that this caused. And yet, you also see the greatness of this man, in spite of his physical features, a man who has a tender heart and a love for God and for others.

And friends, it’s a reminder to us that every single person we encounter, regardless of their limitations, is a person who bears the divine image and who is worthy of our love and our compassion and of dignity. Life in a fallen world is characterized by these three things: sin, and suffering, and weakness.

3. How Does the Cross Restore Fallen Humanity?

One more question now—how does the cross restore fallen humanity? We’ll talk more about this in the coming weeks as we consider what it means to be transformed by God’s grace and then conformed to the glorious image of the Son, Jesus Christ. But I want to just go to one passage, 1 Peter 2, for this last segment of the message. I chose this passage because it perfectly captures the dimensions of both sin and suffering in relationship to the cross. I just want to read 1 Peter 2:21-25 to you and then consider briefly how, through the cross, God begins to restore fallen human beings. Peter says,
“To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
‘He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.’
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. ‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’ For ‘you were like sheep going astray,’ but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
How does the cross restore fallen human beings? Notice three things briefly.
(1) First of all, on the cross Jesus bore our sins. You see that in 1 Peter 2:24-25. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, and by his wounds you have been healed.” Peter’s quoting there from Isaiah 53, the picture of the suffering servant who is bruised for our iniquities and through whose wounds we are healed. And friends, this is the heart of the gospel, that on the cross Jesus took our sins. We sang it this morning, didn’t we?
“My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”

“He took my sins and my sorrows
He made them his very own,
He bore the burden to Calvary
And suffered and died alone.”

I just want to say to you this morning, that if you are carrying the burdens of sin and guilt, if you are asking that question—what have I done? How can I get back? This is the way. This is the way to be restored in relationship with God. This is how the alienation is healed. This is how you get reconciliation with God. You get it through the cross of Jesus Christ. It’s through trusting in what Jesus has done, that he took your sins. “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost,” as Paul says. If you’ve never embraced Christ as Savior, if you’ve never trusted him for the forgiveness of your sin, let me urge you and exhort you to do so this morning. This is the only way to find healing for this most fundamental problem in our humanity and we find it in the cross of Christ.
On the cross Jesus bore our sins.

(2) On the cross Jesus suffered as an example. You see that in 1 Peter 2:21, 23. Peter says it, and it’s here in the context of facing persecution. They’re suffering at the hands of other people and Peter reminds them of Jesus and says that Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps. Here’s the man who’s nailed to the cross, and what does he do? He prays for his tormentors, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus shows us how to suffer well. He shows us how to suffer without bitterness, without vengeance, without retaliation—instead entrusting ourselves to a just and a good God.

And friends, this is one of the most unique things about Christianity. Christianity gives us a theology of a God who understands suffering, and he doesn’t just understand it the way an omniscient God knows everything. He understands it because of personal experience, because of the incarnation and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. A theologian, Alister McGrath, said, “The picture of God that is given to us by the cross is that of a deserted, bruised, bleeding, and dying God, who gave new meaning and dignity to human suffering by passing through its shadow himself.”

I want to say to you this morning that whatever you are facing, whatever suffering you have experienced or are experiencing in your life, you are not alone. I hope you don’t feel alone, humanly speaking, but you are surrounded by family and friends and by a church family who loves you and prays for you and cares for you. But even if you don’t have that, you’re not alone because there is a God who understands and he sympathizes with us in our weaknesses. He has suffered with us. He has suffered as one of us. And Jesus Christ, the incarnate, crucified one knows your pain and he is able to help you through it. Jesus Christ on the cross bore our sins. He suffered as an example for us.

(3) And then he was crucified in weakness, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 13:4. Crucified in weakness—that’s one reason he has compassion on us in our weaknesses. But I want to end by reading you a short story. Some of you may have heard or read this before. It’s a story by Walter Wangerin, Jr. called “The Ragman.” I think it’s a moving story that illustrates for us the truth of the gospel.
I saw a strange sight. I stumbled upon a story most strange, like nothing in my life, my street sense, my sly tongue had ever prepared me for. Hush, child. hush now, and I will tell it to you.
Even before the dawn one Friday morning I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking the alleys of our City. He was pulling an old cart filled with clothes both bright and new, and he was calling in a clear tenor voice: 'Rags!' Ah, the air was foul and the first light filthy to be crossed by such sweet music.
'Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!'
'Now this is a wonder,' I thought to myself, for the man stood six-feet-four, and his arms were like tree limbs, hard and muscular, and his eyes flashed intelligence. Could he find no better job than this, to be a ragman in the inner city?
I followed him. My curiosity drove me. And I wasn't disappointed.
Soon the ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into a handkerchief, signing, and shedding a thousand tears. Her knees and elbows made a sad X. Her shoulders shook. Her heart was breaking.
The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly, he walked to the woman, stepping round tin cans, dead toys, and Pampers.
'Give me your rag,' he said gently, 'and I'll give you another.'
He slipped the handkerchief from her eyes. She looked up, and he laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined. She blinked from the gift to the giver.
Then, as he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing: he put her stained handkerchief to his own face; and then he began to weep, to sob as grievously as she had done, his shoulders shaking. Yet she was left without a tear.
'This is a wonder,' I breathed to myself, and I followed the sobbing Ragman like a child who cannot turn away from mystery.
'Rags! Rags! New rags for old!"
In a little while, when the sky showed grey behind the rooftops and I could see the shredded curtains hanging out black windows, the Ragman came upon a girl whose head was wrapped in a bandage, whose eyes were empty. Blood soaked her bandage. A single line of blood ran down her cheek.
Now the tall Ragman looked upon this child with pity, and he drew a lovely yellow bonnet from his cart.
'Give me your rag,' he said, tracing his own line on her cheek, 'and I'll give you mine.'
The child could only gaze at him while he loosened the bandage, removed it, and tied it to his own head. The bonnet he set on hers. And I gasped at what I saw: for with the bandage went the wound! Against his brow it ran a darker, more substantial blood—his own!
'Rags! Rags! I take old rags!' cried the sobbing, bleeding, strong, intelligent Ragman.
The sun hurt both the sky, now, and my eyes; the Ragman seemed more and more to hurry.
'Are you going to work?' he asked a man who leaned against a telephone pole. The man shook his head. The Ragman pressed him: 'Do you have a job?"
'Are you crazy?' sneered the other. He pulled away from the pole, revealing the right sleeve of his jacket—flat, the cuff stuffed into the pocket. He had no arm.
'So,' said the Ragman. 'Give me your jacket, and I'll give you mine.'
So much quiet authority in his voice!
The one-armed man took off his jacket. So did the Ragman—and I trembled at what I saw: for the Ragman's arm stayed in its sleeve, and when the other put it on, he had two good arms, thick as tree limbs; but the Ragman had only one.
'Go to work,' he said.
After that he found a drunk, lying unconscious beneath an army blanket, an old man, hunched, wizened, and sick. He took that blanket and wrapped it round himself, but for the drunk he left new clothes.
And now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. Though he was weeping uncontrollably, and bleeding freely at the forehead, pulling his cart with one arm, stumbling for drunkenness, falling again and again, exhausted, old, old, and sick, yet he went with terrible speed. On spider's legs he skittered through the alleys of the City, this mile and the next, until he came to its limits, and then he rushed beyond.
I wept to see the change in this man. I hurt to see his sorrow. And yet I needed to see where he was going in such haste, perhaps to know what drove him so.
The little old Ragman—he came to a landfill. He came to the garbage pits. And I waited to help him in what he did but I hung back, hiding. He climbed a hill. With tormented labor he cleared a little space on that hill. Then he signed. He lay down. He pillowed his head on a handkerchief and a jacket. He covered his bones with an army blanket. And he died.
Oh how I cried to witness that death! I slumped in a junked car and wailed and mourned as one who has no hope—because I had come to love the Ragman. Every other face had faded in the wonder of this man, and I cherished him; but he died. I sobbed myself to sleep.
I did not know—how could I know?—that I slept through Friday night and Saturday and its night too.
But then, on Sunday morning, I was wakened by a violence.
Light—pure, hard, demanding light—slammed against my sour face, and I blinked, and I looked, and I saw the first wonder of all. There was the Ragman, folding the blanket most carefully, a scar on his forehead, but alive! And, besides that, healthy! There was no sign of sorrow or age, and all the rags that he had gathered shined for cleanliness.
Well, then I lowered my head and, trembling for all that I had seen, I myself walked up to the Ragman. I told him my name with shame, for I was a sorry figure next to him. Then I took off all my clothes in that place, and I said to him with dear yearning in my voice: 'Dress me."
He dressed me. My Lord, he put new rags on me, and I am a wonder beside him. The Ragman, the Ragman, the Christ!
Brothers, sisters, friends—have you traded your rags for Christ’s? Have you entrusted your sins, your sorrows, your suffering, and your weakness to him? The answer to fallen humanity is in the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“He took our sins and our sorrows,
He made them his very own.
He bore the burden to Calvary,
He suffered and died alone.”

And through his work on the cross and in the resurrection he has begun to heal us of our deformities. He has begun to restore us to our humanity. He has begun to make all things new, and the day is coming when that work will be complete for we will be like the Son. I hope you’ve trusted him, and if you never have that you will today. Let’s pray.

God, our Father, we thank you this morning for the good news of the gospel, that there is hope for lost and fallen human beings, wretched and miserable in our sin and suffering and shame; that we’ve not been left alone, but you have sent your Son into the world to be our substitute, our Savior, and our Redeemer; that through his incarnation, his crucifixion, and his resurrection, our lives can be redeemed—through his wounds we can be healed.

Lord, we experience that healing in some measure now—in fullness, in the age to come. It’s in that hope this morning that we come to you today, some of us perhaps for the ten thousandth time, embracing Christ afresh with hopeful expectation and faith. Perhaps there are some this morning who for the very first time are coming to the foot of the cross to exchange their sins and their weaknesses for the forgiveness and the hope and the restoration that is found in Jesus Christ. Lord, I pray that each one of us today would know that hope and would live and walk in that hope.

As we come to the table this morning to receive the sacred emblems of the body and blood of Jesus Christ in the bread and the juice, I pray that we would receive it with faith, looking beyond the symbol to the reality of what Jesus Christ has done for us. We draw near to you, Lord, and we ask you to draw near to us. We pray this in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.