Monday, February 20, 2017

The Law is Good: Romans 7:7-13

I want to begin with two situations in the history of our country that are directly related to today’s text from Romans 7.  The first is prohibition.  Does anyone remember their history in regards to that?  I’ve only read the books, so here is what I have gathered from this period of time in our nation.  A group of folks who had quite a bit of influence and sway managed to get a constitutional amendment passed to ban all things related to alcohol in the U.S.  Now, we know a lot about the effects of alcohol.  We know what it does to people. We know how it kills people.  We know how it breaks up families.  We know how it leads to fights.  We know how it leads to abuse.  We know how it leads to drunk driving and other crimes.  We know this beyond a shadow of a doubt.  So, why is it now legal to drink?  Do you remember why?  Because, interestingly enough, after the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol was banned: IT ACTUALLY INCREASED!!  Think about that for a minute.

Second situation.  This is actually in living memory for many of us.  Not long ago, the U.S. Congress had imposed a 55 mph speed limit maximum on the nation because of a shortage of oil and gas.  Now, that didn’t stop people from speeding, far from it, and that’s not my point. I’ll get to that shortly.  Congress eventually repealed this limit and left it up to the states to impose their own speed limits on highways and thoroughfares.  Montana took an interesting stance.  Because they had so much open highway and so few people traveling on it, they instituted the “reasonable and prudent” speed limit law.  Do you know why it’s no longer in effect and they have posted speed limit signs now?  Because some folks used this as a license to drive over a hundred miles an hour, and the number of traffic fatalities skyrocketed.

In both of these cases, laws that had a particularly noble intent were turned upside down.  They failed.  Why?  Were they bad laws?  I’d argue not necessarily.  The laws in and of themselves were not bad, but the laws could not deal with something that pervades the planet.  The laws were unable to deal with the power of sin, and as a result more harm came about.  So, this begs the question: if the law brings about such things, is the law good?

This is the question that St. Paul now turns his attention to in Romans 7:7-13.  As we turn to this text now, I just want to let you know that I will be focusing on verses 7 through 12, but I have included 13 because it serves as a bridge between this week’s verses and next week’s verses.  Let’s look at what Paul says this week.

He begins asking exactly what I just asked: “7 What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means!”  Last week, Paul made the remark that “the law aroused our sinful passions.”  So, like any good rhetorician, he deals with a question before anyone else can ask it. In this case, the logic would go: if the law arouses sinful passions, then the law must be bad–the law must be sin.  Paul answers with his usual: God forbid!  Or you’ve got to be stupid to believe that!.  Paul will now show how the law is good.

He says, “Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” This is kind of a no brainer.  If I am driving down the road, and there are no posted speed limit signs, I don’t know how fast I am allowed to drive.  I don’t know the rules.  But if someone posts a sign that says, “Speed limit 75,” then I know what is right and what is wrong.  We don’t exactly come into this world knowing all the rules and regulations.  We have some idea deep within us about justice and fairness and the like, but we don’t know all the specifics.  They have to be revealed or taught to us.  Paul says this straightforwardly, but it is interesting that he uses a particular commandment.  If you remember the Ten Commandments, you will note that Paul uses the last one: “You shall not covet.”  Why did he use this commandment and not the first and greatest: “You shall nave no other gods before me.”?  I think there is a reason, but we have to wade through an interesting part of the text to get there.

Beginning in verse 8, “But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. 9I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived 10and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.”  Now, in my past years, I rushed past these verses and jumped to verse 12.  Verse 12 was easy to understand.  These verses were and are not.  In fact, when you read through the scholars, they are all over the place here.  When you dig into these verses, you stumble across several pit-falls, and in order to interpret them, no matter which way you go, you have to make some assumptions that may or may not be right.  All that is to say is, what I am about to say is how I have managed to make sense of these verses.  Others will disagree with me, but here is how this plays out after I have studied and thought about this a lot this week.

Paul says that the power of sin is so great that when a commandment is set forth, sin goes to work to warp things and produce in us that which the commandment forbids.  In prohibition, it produces a desire for alcohol.  With prudent and reasonable, it produces unreasonableness.  With coveting, it produces covetousness.  If we don’t know the law, sin lies dead–dormant.  If there were no prohibition, we wouldn’t have that desire within us.  This is what Paul I believe is saying in verse 8.

At the beginning of verse 9, he makes a rather interesting statement: I was once alive apart from the law.  What in the world does he mean by this?  Paul was a Jew–a devoted Jew at that, so there would never have been a time when he wasn’t exposed to the law.  There would never have been a time when he was apart from the law.  And how can being apart from the law be life?  Early on in the book of Romans, Paul says that even though there are those who don’t have God’s law, they are still under condemnation and death.  What does this mean?  I think Paul is referring to the time when he didn’t quite get the 10th Commandment.  I think he is referring to the time when he believed he was following the commands of God and was, as he reports himself in the book of Philipians, “as to the law, blameless.”  Paul thought he was following the law perfectly, and in the book of Leviticus, it says point blank: if you follow the law, you have life.  Paul thinks he is alive apart from the 10th Commandment.

However, when the commandment came, sin revived, and Paul died.  Again, this is an interesting line of thinking.  I make sense of it in this fashion: the ancient Jew, and many modern ones, believed that sin was a definite act.  Simply thinking about murder was not a sin. If you murdered someone, that was.  Thinking about sleeping with someone who was not your spouse was not adultery.  Actually sleeping with someone who was not your spouse was adultery.  Paul could have gone down the checklist of the Ten Commandments and said that he followed them perfectly–until he finally understood number 10.  For you see, to covet is to lust after something.  To desire it deeply.  To want it more than anything else in the world at the time.  When the commandment came to Paul, he realized that he was a sinner to his core.  The command that once promised life–if he were able to follow it–now killed him.  And it killed him because in verse 11, sin had deceived him.

What exactly does this mean?  Again, I think there is a reason Paul uses “Thou shalt not covet” to illustrate his point.  What was Paul coveting?  If we read his autobiographical statements in the rest of scripture, we see that he desired to be a perfect Jew.  We see that he wanted to be completely and totally righteous.  We see that he wanted to follow the law above everything else.  This was his goal and purpose in life.  It was his god.  Let me say that again, and I think you will see how sin deceived Paul.  In making him coveting being the perfect Jew; a righteous Jew; Paul desired this above everything else.  And if you dedicate your life to something; if that something becomes your obsession; your deepest desire, it becomes your god.  Sin deceived him into thinking that by desiring to be the perfect, righteous Jew, he was actually serving God; however, Paul now saw that he actually had a false god.  And that false god had led him to bear false witness against the church; had led him to kill people within the church; had led him to persecute the church.  Paul suddenly knew the depths of his sin because the law; the commandment showed this to him.

And so Paul then concludes, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.”   The law is holy because it comes from a holy God.  The commandment is holy because it comes from a holy God.  The command is just because it comes from a just God.  The commandment is good because it comes from a good God.  There is nothing wrong with the commandments.  There is something wrong with us.  We are easily corrupted by the power of sin.

And we don’t want to admit that.  We don’t want to admit it in the least.  We want to think that we are basically good–that we are basically just and merciful and kind.  We want to think that we basically follow the law.  We don’t want to see the depths of our corruption.  We oftentimes become self-righteous like Paul was self-righteous.  We look at a select group of commandments and think: oh, I follow those.  I’m good enough.  It’s just those people out there who are the problem, and if we could just get those people to change; if we could just pass the right laws to reign them in, then the world would be such a better place.

News flash: it won’t be.  The power of sin is corrupting how you obey the law.  The power of sin is deceiving you again.  If you want to start changing the world: if you want to see the world improve, you’ve got to start with your own heart.  You’ve got to become convicted just like Paul was convicted.  You’ve got to realize that not only do you sin, but that you are a sinner.  You’ve got to realize your deepest motivations for doing what you do.  You’ve got to see whether or not you are living for God or living for something else.  I will not be closing this sermon out with the Gospel.  I will not be quoting John 3:16 and 17 this week.  Paul leaves us seeking self-reflection.  He leaves us studying the law and its purpose and how it convicts us.  Next week, he will reveal the solution to this problem.  But for now, we’ve got to wrestle with the problem. We’ve got to wrestle with our own hearts.  We’ve got to be convicted of our own sin.

And so, I am going to leave you with a series of questions.  All of these questions deal with the commands of Christ.  All of these questions deal with how we should live.  If you fail at these questions, you can join Paul and me.  You can join us in admitting that not only do we commit sin, but that we are sinners.  You can join us in awaiting the remedy to our corruption.  You can join us in waiting to hear the gospel.

__ I always love God with all my heart, mind, and soul.  (Matthew 22:37

__ I always love my neighbor as much as I love myself. (Matthew 22:39)

__ I have given up everything I have to follow Jesus.  (Matthew 19:21)

__ I never get angry with my neighbor or call him a good-for-nothing.  (Matthew 5:22)

__ I never look at a person of the opposite sex with thoughts about having sexual intercourse. (Matthew 5:28)

__ I always do good to others when they do things to hurt me. (Matthew 5:38)

__ I love my enemies and pray that God will bless them. (Matthew 5:43)

__ I never judge others, but always put the best construction on their behavior. (Matthew 7:1)

__ Whenever I do something good for someone else, I keep it a secret and do not let others know about it.  (Matthew 6:2)

__ I am happy when someone makes fun of my being a Christian. (Matthew 5:10)

__ I always forgive others when they do me wrong. (Matthew 6:2)

__ I never worry about food or clothing. (Matthew 6:31)

__ I love God more than my family, my friends or myself.  (Matthew 10:37)

__ Whenever I see someone in need, I always help them. (Matthew 10:42)

__ I regularly feed the poor, visit prisoners, put strangers up for the night, give clothes to the needy and visit those who are sick.  (Matthew 25:35-36)

__I never hold anyone to a standard that I, myself do not follow.

If you did as well as I did on this series of questions, then I look forward to seeing you next week as we hear the remedy to sin’s power.  Amen.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Dead to the Law: Romans 7:1-6

Three older guys were sitting around talking about what would happen on the day of their funerals.  They were contemplating the question: what would you like to have someone say while standing over your casket.  The first thought for a bit and said, “I would like to have people say that I was such a devoted husband and father and that I left a lasting legacy of love of family with my kids.”  The second thought a moment and said, “I want folks to talk about how kind and generous I was–how I was willing to remember those who were less fortunate and care for them with dignity.”  The third man thought a moment and said, “That all sounds well and good.  I want someone to stand over my casket and say, ‘Look!  He’s moving!’”

The underlying message of course is, “I don’t want to die!”  Death is not something we look forward to especially in our younger years, but I have known more than a hand full of people who have been ready to die–who wanted to die.  I remember my grandfather who died of cancer one day coming home from radiation, feeling the effects of it burning his insides, and crying out, “Why is it so hard for a man to die?”  Death would be a release for him.  My other grandfather who lived to be 97 also was more than ready for death as his body no longer cooperated with him and he found it difficult to get around.  Death once again would be a release.  Whenever we have a birthday at our Senior Service, I usually joke and say, “I refuse to sing ‘and many more’ at the end of Happy Birthday, and believe it or not, more than a few are glad that I don’t.  As bodies age and become more weary, some welcome death as freedom from what haunts and hurts them in life.

If you have experienced this with others or experience it with yourself, then you can grasp what St. Paul says as he begins chapter 7 of the book of Romans, “Do you not know, brothers and sisters—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only during that person’s lifetime?”  Paul may be referencing  a well known saying in ancient Judaism that is very, very similar, “If a person is dead he is free from the Torah and the fulfilling of the Commandments.”  When you die, the Law no longer has authority over you because, well, you are dead.  Just like at the end of chapter six when Paul was saying that sin no longer has any power over you, he is now saying, neither does the law have any power over you.  You are no longer bound by it.

Paul then uses an analogy from marriage to enhance his point.  He says in verse 2, “Thus a married woman is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies, she is discharged from the law concerning the husband. 3Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man, she is not an adulteress.”   Paul is helping us see how the law works and then how it is removed by death.  A woman or man who is married is bound by the law, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”  If a woman or man sees someone outside of the marriage, then he or she is committing adultery.  However, if a spouse dies, then that person’s husband or wife is now free to meet and marry another person.  They will not be considered an adulterer if they did that because death ended the marriage and the law no longer applied.

Paul then shows how this applies to his point regarding the life we have in Jesus Christ.  Verse 4 In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God.   Now, the analogy isn’t perfect.  The law didn’t die.  We did.  In the last chapter, Paul showed how that through our baptism, we mystically became linked to Jesus Christ so that whatever happened to him happens to us.  Because Christ died on the cross, we also died.  If we have died, then we are no longer under the law.  The law has no effect on us.  However, Paul also pointed out that just as Christ was raised, we too have been raised.  We now live a resurrection life, and in that resurrection life, we have been freed so that we can bind ourselves to Jesus and bear fruit for God.  This means we live for God.  We seek God.  We seek to honor and please God by doing His will.

And, of course, we find what God wants and desires when we read the law.  We see that God wants us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We see that God wants us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with Him.  We see that God wants us to follow the Ten Commandments.  But why did we have to die to them.  Why did we have to be free from being under them?  This is the part that to many doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  So, Paul tries to explain that.

Verse 5  While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 6But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.  I don’t know how many of you have watched the movie Finding Nemo, but I thought of a scene in that movie when I read Paul’s words here.  If you are a parent, this will resonate very deeply with you.  There is a scene where Nemo, a young fish, goes to school, and his teacher takes the class to what is known as the drop off.  Now, Nemo’s dad, Marlin hears about this and is none too thrilled.    For Marlin, the drop off is where predators can easily come and take fish.  Nemo’s mom was eaten near the drop off.  Therefore, Marlin swims out to the drop off and tells Nemo that he's going to take him home from school. Nemo of course rebells and gets very, very upset.  Nemo refuses to go with Marlin. So Marlin keeps giving him order after order after order. Nemo refuses to obey. Nemo even swims towards a boat. Marlin keeps saying get back here right now. Nemo refuses. Then Marlon says don't touch the boat. Nemo pauses a second, just a second, gives his dad that look every kid has given his or her parent, and then touches the boat. There was something deep within Nemo that was rebelling against the commands of his dad.  There was something deep within Nemo that was refusing to do what he knew was right.

Paul says that the law actually generates this within us.  The power of sin works so deeply that we come to desire the things we know we shouldn’t.  The power of sin works so deeply that when we hear “Thou shalt not!” something in us says, “You can’t tell me what to do!”  And so, our rebelliousness bears rotten fruit.

Ah, but if we are dead, then we are no longer under this influence.  If we are dead, the law no longer can hold us captive.  If we are dead we no longer bear this kind of fruit.  And if we have been joined to Jesus, we are no longer slaves to the written code–the written law, but instead, we are now resurrected to new life in the Spirit.  We are dead to the law and alive in Christ!  Bound to Christ!  Serving Christ!

And we fall in love with Him and what He has done.  We remember how He poured out His life for us on the cross of Calvary.  We remember that He served His Father who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.  Our heart is touched to the very core by this news of what God has done for us, so that we seek to please Him in all that we do.  We live for Him.  When you love someone, that’s what you do.  Period.

Now, why is this important?  Let me take a few minutes to show you why.  In our culture today, there is a line of thinking when it comes to marriage that says, “You must find your soul mate.”  What is encapsulated in that thought is that there is one person out there who will love you and cherish you–who will complete you and bring you happiness and joy.  People search for such a person, and when you begin dating someone and falling in love with that other person, you actually experience such feelings.  It’s a wonderful sensation, but those of us who have been married for quite some time know, it eventually fails.  It disappears.  When the realities of life catch up, and people discover that each person has wants, needs and desires that the other person can’t fulfill, oftentimes people get disappointed, angry, frustrated, and down on their marriages.  When I don’t get the same kind of fulfillment I got early on in my marriage, I start thinking that I’ve missed my soul mate, and maybe I should look for another–so goes the thinking.  Divorce attorneys make a killing off of this line of thought because it is inherently self-centered and selfish.  It’s about getting what I want out of marriage, and if I don’t get it, I go find someplace else where I will.

There is a similar thing that happens when we seek salvation through following the law and its demands.  Because, once again, we are seeking our own self-interest and our own desires.  I want to go to heaven, so therefore, I’d better do the right things, be a good person, and stay out of trouble.  But a couple of things happen.  First off, we don’t reckon the power of sin, and even though we know what is right, even though we know the law says, “Thou shalt not...” we find ourselves wanting to do those things the law tells us not to do.  We find ourselves slipping into breaking the law time and again.  And so we do one of three things: one: we just stop trying and give in.  This removes any sort of guilt from us.  Two: we become depressed and anxious, knowing we never can do enough.  Three: we convince ourselves that we are indeed following the law and it is only those people out there who have the problem, not us.  In each of these things, we fail at accomplishing what was intended because we are acting with self-interest.

But, if we have died to our self; if we have experienced death with Jesus on the cross; if we find that we are saved by sheer grace–by nothing that we do but by all that Christ has done–then we approach things differently.  We know that Jesus has poured Himself out for us.  We know that He has loved us with an unimaginable love.  We know that love will never fail us, so we fall in love with Him.  We no longer live for ourselves, but we live for Him.  We seek to please Him.  And we know that He revealed to us the things that he delights in.  We know that it brings Him joy when we love one another as He loved us.  We know it brings Him joy.  And this now affects all our other relationships.

For we no longer simply live for what we want and expect in those relationships.  We no longer expect fulfillment from our spouse; or our government; or our church; or our friends; or our job.  We know we get those things from Jesus.  Therefore, we begin to delight in loving our friends and family to bring them joy; to bring them happiness; to bring them comfort and peace.  Our delight comes from serving instead of getting.  And we don’t get frustrated when our love is not given back to us like we think we deserve.  Because we know that no one is perfect.  We aren’t perfect.  Our spouses aren’t perfect; our governments aren’t perfect; our jobs aren’t perfect; our churches aren’t perfect; our families aren’t perfect.  The only perfect one is Jesus, and it is in Him that we live and move.  And so we become forgiving because He forgave us. We become caring because He cared for us.  We become loving because He loved us.  This is what happens when we die to our selves with Jesus and then are raised to new life with Him and are joined to Him.  This is what happens when you fall in love with Jesus.  May our hearts do just that.  Amen.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Choosing the Right Master: Romans 6:15-23

When last we left off at Romans chapter 6 verse 14, Paul made this statement, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”  Paul will define what he means in chapter seven, but before he does so, he know he has just introduced a can of worms-a can he will deal with immediately because it is one of those criticisms of grace that is still thrown around today.

Basically, the question raised is this: if we are not under the law, then what incentive do we have for doing good?  If we are saved completely and totally by what God has done and by nothing that we do, is there any obligation to live a holy and upright life?  The law is supposed to keep us in check. It’s supposed to be a deterrent for behavior.  What if you knew you never had to worry about getting another traffic ticket?  Does that give you licence to drive all over the road, run over pedestrians, and cause general mayhem?

Paul’s response is swift, “God forbid that you think this!”

Paul then goes into his next argument to show why a Christian is still obligated to live a holy and just life seeking to please God by following His will as it is revealed in the law. He begins with these words in verse 16, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”

Now, what I am about to say, you are not going to like.  You are going to kind of be like the woman in this joke:

For months Bill had been Lynn’s devoted admirer.  Now, at long last, he had collected up sufficient courage to ask her the most momentous of all questions.

“There are quite a lot of advantages to being a bachelor,” Bill began, “but there comes a time when one longs for the companionship of another being, a being who will regard one as perfect, as an idol; whom one can treat as one’s absolute own; who will be kind and faithful when times are hard; who will share one’s delights and sorrows.”

To his delight, Bill saw a sympathetic gleam in Lynn’s eyes.  Then she nodded in agreement.  Finally, Lynn responded, “I think it’s a great idea!  Can I help you choose which puppy to buy?”

I know it’s funny, but Lynn saw something in Bill’s comments that were not thrilling to her.  She saw in Bill’s comments a form of slavery.  She was not happy with that, and it captures what St. Paul is actually saying here.  He is saying that when we commit to something, we become a slave to it.

As I said before, this is not something we like to hear. We like to think of ourselves as being free; without constraint.  And to an extent we are.  We do have freedom to choose who we will serve.  You may tell me, “But I don’t serve anyone or anything.”  That’s not true.  I can prove it.  You are a citizen of the United States of America.  You are also a citizen of the state of Texas.  By virtue of becoming a citizen of the U.S. and of the state of Texas, you have submitted yourself to their authority and have agreed to follow their laws.  You serve them both.  If you want to say that you are free within both of these entities, I encourage you not to file your federal income taxes or refuse to pay your property taxes.  See?  You are not totally free.  You have submitted to their rule.

The same can be said for whatever you choose to be involved in.  I am somewhat dreading the day when my kids want to participate in sports.  Of course, Dawna and I will agree to support them, but then we will be enslaved to them.  We will have to make sure we get the kids to practice. We will have to make sure we get them to their games and to cheer them on.  Our schedules will no longer be our own.  We will be enslaved to our choice to support our children.  Do you see how this works?  Whatever you commit to will become your master.

Reflecting upon what he has just written about our representatives, Paul then says our choice basically boils down to two things: sin or God.  Either one of these things will ultimately be our master.  I will show you how in just a moment, but let me point out that Paul recognizes that this is not a perfect analogy.  He says, “I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations.”  It’s tough to get our heads around God, God’s grace, how we are free from the demands of the law and yet called to be obedient to it all at the same time.  It’s quite head spinning.

Add this to how loaded the term slavery has become in the U.S., and you have another problem.  When we hear the word slavery, we think back to the times before the Civil War.  We think back to the times before the Civil Right’s Movement.  If I had been born back then, my family would not look like it does right now.  Slavery connotes racism; human ownership; thinking of people as less than human.  We abhor it.  Folks in biblical times didn’t like it either, but it wasn’t quite as ugly as it was in America’s history.  Oftentimes people would sell themselves into slavery to pay off their debts.  Through working, they could earn their freedom.  Paul’s audience would have known this.  Those who were slaves would understand what he was saying.  Those who had been slaves would understand as well.  They wouldn’t necessarily be happy about it, but they would get it.  I think many of us can also relate–even though it is an imperfect analogy.

Now, let’s return to Paul’s argument.  Again, Paul says that we are slaves to either sin or to God.  There’s no in between ground.  You may scratch your head and think, “Sure there is.  There is plenty of gray areas in life.”  Let me try and show you why in this case, there isn’t, and I will use some of what Paul says to show it.

Paul makes an intriguing comment, “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death.”  What does this mean?  First off, Paul says there is a sense of freedom when we reject God’s mastery over our lives.  You no longer feel obligated to live a holy life.  You no longer feel obligated to try and follow the Ten Commandments.  You feel as though a burden is lifted.  But, you are not truly free.

Remember what I said before: you are free to choose what you serve.  You are free to choose your commitments.  Let’s say you choose to attend a football game on Sunday instead of going to church.  Why?  Let’s not kid ourselves.  “Because I enjoy the football game much more than I enjoy church.”  Whose interests are you looking out for?  Your own.  If you decide to become a health nut and exercise; get in shape; eat the right foods; drink the right drinks, why are you doing this?  For the benefit of your health.  Whose interests are you looking out for?  Again, your own.

At this point, you may say, “I see your point, but what about working for justice in the world?  What about feeding the hungry?  What about caring for those in need?  Those are not about my self interest.  I am working for the sake of others.”  Indeed, you are, but here is a critical test for you to see if you are indeed working for others or for your own desire: how do you feel toward those who do not share your passion for justice; feeding the hungry; and caring for others?  Do you become angry and upset with them?  Do you hold them in contempt?  If you do, your self is still wrapped up in the process, and you are not working for the pure joy of doing what is right in helping others.  You are still serving your self-interest.

With all of these choices, your self-interest and desires are dominating.  You are serving them.  And going all the way back to chapter five, we see that such selfishness is rooted and grounded with our first representative–Adam.  We are simply following in the footsteps of the one who wanted his own desires met and didn’t want to be dependent upon God.  We are in our sin, and Paul says, this will lead to death.  Most scholars believe that when Paul uses this term, he means eternal separation from God.  It’s not a pleasant thought.

However, Paul says, when you have a change of heart, things change drastically.  Verse 17, “Thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves to sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you having been set free from sin have become slaves of righteousness.”  Verse 22, “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage that you get is sanctification.  The end is eternal life.  For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life.”

What Paul says is that when we shift allegiances, when we choose God as our master, we find a different kind of freedom.  We do not find a demanding master who tries to whip us into submission.  We do not find a master who sucks the life out of us with giving nothing in return.  No.  Instead, we find a master who is willing to die for us.  We find a master who is willing to pour his life into us.  We find a master who is willing to go the extra mile to shower us with love and every thing that we need for life.  This is the heart of the Gospel that says, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him; all those who trust Him; all those who submit to Him will not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.

And when you have a Master who is willing to do this for you; when you have a Master who has already died for you and loved you when you were unlovable, you seek to please that Master.  You seek to love that Master.  You seek to offer yourself to God and do the things that He loves.  You seek to love your neighbor because you know that pleases God.  You seek to do justice because you know that pleases God.  You seek to be kind because you know that pleases God.  You seek to live honest and upright because you know that pleases God.  You know that you do not have to follow the law to be saved, but you know that in following the law, you are pleasing the Master who was willing to die for you.

Let’s go back to Lynn and Bill for a moment.  Let’s pretend that the conversation went this way.  Bill, looks into Lynn’s eyes and says, “You know, there comes a time in a person’s life when one finds another who he is willing to die for; one whom he will cherish, love, honor and care for until he has no breath left.  You are that one for me.  I would gladly die for you, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”  What do you think Lynn would have said to that?  What about you?

Paul shows us this today: we are free to choose our Master.  We are free to choose who we will become enslaved to.  Only one Master will lead not only to eternal life but a life filled with joy, peace, understanding, and hope.  The other masters will ensnare you, bring you grief, anger, frustration, and sadness.  By grace, you are now free to choose sin or God.  Choose wisely.  Amen.

Monday, January 30, 2017

What do You Live For?: Romans 6:1-14

Whatever you live for will drastically affect how you live.

Let me try and clarify that statement.  Whatever you live for will dramatically affect how you live your life and the things that you do.

In C.S. Lewis’ famous book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund meets the white witch.  Now, the white witch is the enemy of Narnia who has made it perpetual winter.  She asks Edmund if there is anything she can get for him, and he, being cold and hungry, asks for some Turkish Delight.  As you read the story, you can tell that this Turkish Delight isn’t just any ordinary Turkish Delight.  It is bewitched in some fashion, because once Edmund eats it, he cannot stop thinking about it.  He wants more and more, and he knows only the witch can provide it for him.  The desire for the Turkish Delight becomes so severe and consumes him so much, that he betrays his brother and sisters to obtain it.  He doesn’t care that his actions put his brother and sisters in peril.  He doesn’t care that he is helping the white witch maintain her control of Narnia.  He is consumed with Turkish Delight.  He is living for Turkish Delight.  And what he is living for is drastically affecting how he lives.

Now, admittedly, this is a fictional story, but it is not far from the truth.  You yourself probably know what it means to be living for something.  You know how it effects your behavior.  If you can’t see it in yourself, I know you can see it in others.  Parents who live for their children generally helicopter over them trying to protect them from anything that can harm them physically or emotionally–sometimes working even to get them better grades or put in classes they do not deserve to be in; or it causes them to confront coaches and demand playing time–time the kid doesn’t deserve.  Living for their children affects how they behave, and most of us have seen such examples.  Some people live for their paycheck.  They work harder and harder, putting in more and more hours increasing the amount in the box.  Soon, they are getting up before the break of day and staying at work long into the night neglecting housework, children, families and friends.  Living for their pay tremendously affects their lives.  There really is no other need to delve into more examples, is there?  Can you see in our world and in our society how what people live for dramatically affects how they live?  Please keep these thoughts in mind as we turn now to chapter six in the book of Romans.

We need to recap last week’s lesson for just a moment because this book all runs together.  Paul leaps from one point to the next building on the previous point.  If you don’t understand the previous point, you won’t understand the next one.  Last week, Paul left us with representative thought.  In the ancient world, oftentimes one person represented an entire nation, and whatever happened to that one person effected the entire nation.  Therefore, in battle, if a representative lost, then the entire nation lost and was labeled losers.  If the representative won, then the entire nation won and was labeled winners.  Paul argued that there are two representatives for the world–there is Adam who represents sin, death, and condemnation, and there is Jesus who represents forgiveness, life and justification.  Those who choose Adam as their representative continue to find sin, death, and condemnation.  Those who choose Christ as their representative find forgiveness, life, and justification–even to the point where Paul says that when the law made trespasses increase, the grace of God through Jesus Christ super-abounded!

Which leads us straight away to Paul’s question to begin chapter six: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?”  Most scholars believe that Paul is dealing with an early criticism of the Gospel.  What incentive do you have for changing your behavior?  If God just forgives sin and enjoys forgiving sin, shouldn’t I just keep sinning so that God can keep forgiving?  Shouldn’t I keep sinning so that the glory of God’s grace can continue to be revealed?  One modern day critic even coined the phrase, “God likes to forgive.  I like to sin.  Therefore I should continue to sin and God can continue to forgive.  It’s a win/win proposition!”

Paul’s words are very, very strong.  “By no means!” he says.  Perhaps the English translation is a bit weak.  “God forbid!” would be adequate.  “You’ve got to be kidding me!” also would work.  “You must be stupid if you believe that!” is close.  Paul utterly rejects the idea because, as he then says, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?”  In the next verses, Paul lays out his reasoning in the rest of chapter 6.  It takes the form of two arguments, and we will deal with the first one today.  Like last week, the argument is complex and wordy, so I will not be going verse by verse point by point.  Once again, I am going to try and encapsulate the argument and then show why it is important not only for Christians, but for those who might be outside the Christian faith.

Paul returns to his use of representative thought to promote his argument.  Remember, in representative thought, the thought that often dominated the ancient world, whatever happened to the representative happened to you.  If your representative lost.  You lost.  If your representative won, you won.  Paul applies this to the relationship that we have with Jesus Christ as our representative.

Paul essentially says, “Look, when you were baptized, you were joined to Christ.  He became your representative.”  Paul does not go into the details of how this happens.  He does not give us a play by play about how baptism somehow joins us to Christ.  He takes for granted that folks know this.  He takes for granted the fact that they know that somehow, mysteriously, sacramentally, when we are baptized, we are joined to Jesus Christ–He becomes our representative so that what happened to Jesus happens to us.  Let that statement sink in because it is crucial to Paul’s argument–what happened to Jesus happens to us.

I know that this is strange thought.  I know that it is tough for us to get our minds around this. We generally don’t think in this fashion.  It involves a shift in our thinking.  It means giving up power and control of our lives.  It means placing our entire life and being in Jesus.  We generally don’t like that. We generally like to hold onto our own lives and identities.  But Christianity isn’t about self-preservation and self-affirmation.  It’s about dying to self and rising to new life.  And Paul makes this point.

For he lays out what happened to Jesus and how it also affects us.  Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried, and then on the third day, He was resurrected.

Let’s work through this trying to get our heads around it.  Jesus was crucified and he died.  Paul says this means we have died as well.  Now, this is not a literal death for us.  Obviously, we are still walking, living, breathing, and moving.  So, this must mean we have died in some other fashion, and Paul lays this out by saying, “When you have died, you are freed from sin.”  Now, be careful here.  Last week, I reminded you that sin is not just the things we do.  Sin is also a power that moves and corrupts the world.  Everything is under its influence.  When you die, this power no longer has a hold over you. This power can no longer corrupt you.  This power can no longer influence you because, well, you are dead.  Nothing can actually harm you or otherwise.  Yes, you are dead, but you are free.  If Christ as your representative has died, then somehow you have died as well.  Therefore, you are freed from the power of sin.

Of course, this does not mean that you don’t sin.  You are not under the power of sin, but that power is still around.  It is still trying to exercise authority over you.  It is still trying to corrupt and warp you, but Paul asserts that it cannot dominate you if you don’t let it.  This is why Paul says in verse 11, “Consider yourselves dead to sin...”  The Greek is better translated, “Reckon yourselves dead to sin...”  This is an accounting term.  It means to add things up.  “If you are joined to Jesus, add it up.  See that he died.  See that you died.  See that death renders sin powerless.  Know that sin has no power over you unless you allow it.”   This is now why Paul also says, “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 13No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness.”  Paul says you are no longer blindly under sin’s influence.  You can see it coming.  You can resist it.  But the key to resisting it also has to do with what you now live for.

This is the second part of Paul’s assertion here because not only have we been crucified, died, and buried with Christ. We have also been resurrected with Him.  Again, we need to see that Paul’s words have a dual function here.  They do not only point to the future.  They do not only tell us what will happen to us on that day when God the Father makes everything new.  They do not only point towards a future resurrection.  They also indicate that we experience resurrection life right now!  Just as Christ was raised–we are raised.  And Paul is very clear about what kind of resurrection life Christ lives.  “The life he lives, he lives to God.”  Paul is saying unequivocally that the resurrected life is concerned with God–adoring God, seeking God, growing in God, striving for the things of God, living for God.  And, with Christ as our representative, what happened to Him, happens to us.  We share in the resurrection life of living for God.  We strive to adore God, seek God, grow in God, strive for the things of God, and live for God!

Now, let me ask you this question: if you live for God, do you intentionally seek to sin?  If you live for God do you intentionally seek to do the things that He hates?  If you live for God, do you want to break His commands and statutes? Of course, you don’t.  You want to serve God.  You want to please God.  You want to do anything and everything in your power to promote Him and His kingdom.  This is what is at the heart of Paul’s final admonitions, “Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.”  Why?  Because in doing so, you are living for God!  And if you are living for God, you don’t seek to sin so that grace may abound.  You seek to avoid sin because you know God abhors it.  If you are living for God, the last thing you want to do is sin because that dishonors the One you live for!

Before I go into why this is important, let me make a brief comment about verse 14.  Paul makes a bit of a shift here as he says, “14For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”  One would expect that Paul would have continued his representative thought here and said, “since you are not under Adam but under grace.”  But he doesn’t.  There is a reason for this, and much of that reason will be outlined and dealt with in chapter 7.  We will wait until then to address it.  For the time being, let’s return to living for God, because this is crucial.

When you live for God, it means much more than simply that you no longer desire to sin.  Remember, what you live for drastically affects your behavior.  And when you live for anything else besides God, you will eventually find yourself in dire straights.  Now, I know that some of you would readily agree that there are certain things that if we were to live for then, that would lead to destructive behavior.  We have plenty of examples of such things: people who live for arguing; people who live for drugs; people who live for filling every selfish thought and desire.  But what about living for things we consider to be good?  What’s wrong with living for them?

Early on in this sermon, I talked about living for children and living for a paycheck.  Now, neither one of these things are bad.  In fact, kids are great.  I love mine dearly and would die for them.  I also love earning a paycheck.  I like being able to buy things.  I also love justice. I love peace.  I love people.  I love food and drink.  These are all good things.  But what happens when you make them the ultimate things?  What happens if you elevate them to the status of an idol?  I talked about that earlier.  When you live for your children, you can actually do more harm than good, and then when they go off to live their own lives, you will be empty, purposeless, and have no meaning in your life.  If your paycheck dominates your thoughts, you will become a workaholic and all other aspects of your life will suffer.  If you live for justice, you will be a tireless advocate for the poor and disenfranchised, and you will burn out having achieved very little to change the structures of the world.  You will also demonize those who you believe to be the oppressors and hold them in contempt.  If you live for people, you will constantly try to please them and make them happy until they suck every ounce of energy out of you.  Every single good thing that you try to live for will eventually do this to you.  Everything.  It may not be right away, but I guarantee you, it will happen.  Sin will corrupt even good things and lead to destruction if you live for them.

There is only one thing that will not be corrupted by sin. There is only one thing that will not suck the life and energy out of you.  There is only one thing to live for that will fill you with abundant life, joy, peace, and energy, and that is God.  He alone will not let you down. He alone will give you the proper perspective and view so that nothing else will consume you. He alone will pour Himself into you so that you will not burn out or be overwhelmed by the things of life.  He has already poured out His life for you on the cross and loved you with an amazing love.  He has already so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn you but to save you.  When you live for Him, He will not allow you to perish, but He will continue to pour Himself back into you so that you may know the fullness of His love.  And your life will be drastically affected–in a very good way.  Amen.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Who is Your Representative?: Romans 5:12-21

This morning’s text from the book of Romans is probably the hardest text I have ever tried to preach on.  I mean, last Sunday afternoon, I sat down and read it, and I scratched my head.  I read it again, and I was just as confused.  I thought, “I’ll wait until Monday when I start reading my commentaries.”

Monday morning, I went into the office, and I read the text two times before I picked up my first commentary.  Things still didn’t make sense.  Perhaps I am just dense.  Perhaps when you heard those words from chapter five read to you earlier in this worship, everything was absolutely clear to you.  I will admit that if they were clear to you, you should be preaching this morning instead of me.  I had to pour through the commentaries very carefully in order for this text to clear up somewhat, and even though I think I understand it pretty well now, I am not sure whether or not I can even come close to conveying to you what is in St. Paul’s words to us.  But I hope I can.  Because what Paul is saying helps us make sense of what Martin Luther wrote so long ago in the hymn “A Mighty Fortress.”

The old Satanic foe, has sworn to work us woe
with craft and dreadful might, he arms himself to fight
on earth he has no equal.
No strength of ours can match his might, we would be lost rejected.
But now a champion comes to fight, whom God himself elected.
You ask who this may be?  The Lord of Hosts is He.
Christ Jesus mighty Lord, God’s only Son adored.
He holds the field victorious.

I want you to hold this battle imagery in your head because I think it gives us the mind-set that St. Paul is writing under.  And once you understand this mind-set, Romans 5:12-21 becomes much, much clearer.

The best way I can describe this mind-set is this: in the ancient world, oftentimes a representative would stand in place for an entire nation.  That’s kind of hard for us to get our heads around, but let me explain using the terms of battle that I asked you to keep in mind.  Let’s say two countries were about to engage in battle.  Rather than risk the lives of every soldier on the battle field, each army would elect a champion–their best warrior.  These two warriors would square off in battle. Whichever warrior won, won for the entire nation.  Whichever warrior lost, lost for the entire nation.  A nation was declared either a winner or a looser based on the actions of only one person–their representative in battle.  The entire nation’s fate was decided by the actions of one person: win or lose.

For us, in the world in which we live, this thought is preposterous!  We don’t like the idea of our fate, our status resting on the actions of another person.  We believe that we are to be held accountable for our own actions!  The actions of another person don’t reflect upon us!!  Well, at least we hold this position in theory.  But in another way, we do this all the time.  For instance, I am quite sure you have heard people say, “If you voted for Trump, you are a racist.”  What is behind that statement is this train of thought: The person who says this thinks that Donald Trump is a racist; Donald Trump represents those who voted for him; therefore anyone who voted for Trump is racist as well.  That’s the logic.  Such logic also affects the church.  A person may say: I don’t go to that church because I disagree with what that pastor teaches; you continue to go to that church; therefore, you agree with what that pastor teaches and believe like he does.  Hence, I cannot associate with you either.  Even though we like to say that we are accountable for only our own actions, it becomes all to convenient to use guilt by association when it suits our purposes.

What I am trying to show you is that the mind-set that St. Paul is using is not so foreign to us.  We use representative thought from time to time, and this section of Romans can only be understood using representative thought.  Let’s try and get our heads around it and then see why it is important, but I’m going to handle this text a little differently because it is so dense.  Instead of trying to go through verse by verse and explain verse by verse what is going on, I am going to try and offer a broad explanation that captures most of what is in these 10 verses.

Paul begins by telling us that sin came into the world by one may, and death came through sin, and death spread to all because all have sinned.  Again, we have to think representatively.  Adam is the first representative of human kind.  He is the first one who is called to stand before God and obey God’s commands.  And there was only one, “You shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”  Now, the objections to this train of thought are that we didn’t elect Adam.  We had no choice in the matter, and we should not be held accountable for something that Adam did.  To answer the first objection we must realize that none of us could even come close to Adam because, first off, God chose Adam to be our representative, and God didn’t just choose Adam, God created Adam.

 God formed Adam and molded Adam.  God breathed His very breath into Adam and placed Adam in a place where Adam had every chance to succeed.  Adam didn’t have to worry about anything: about food, water, shelter, clothing.  All the conditions were provided for Adam’s success.  He had every advantage as our representative.  And he still failed.  He still disobeyed God because the temptation to stand on his own feet, call his own shots, be his own god was too great.  Adam didn’t want to be dependent upon God, he wanted to be completely responsible for himself; completely autonomous; completely independent.  Adam frankly wanted to be just like we hold ourselves to be.

And when Adam rebelled against God to be completely independent, that unleashed the power of sin into the world.  Now, we have to understand that sin is not simply the things we do in scripture.  Sin can also be seen as a power that moves and corrupts and destroys.  It is this sense of sin that Paul is talking about in this passage.  Adam’s failure unleashed this power in the world, and this power is so strong; so corrupting; that everyone is under its influence: every person; every group; every institution; every government.  And such corruption inevitably leads to death.  Under the corruption of sin, we die.  With Adam as our representative, we die.

This is where Paul stops with his opening statement, but then he has another thought.  He has another rabbit hole he figures he needs to go down to keep things together.  And that rabbit hole is so important to Paul that he doesn’t finish his train of thought.  He doesn’t finish his sentence.  That’s why in your reading, you will see a dash right after verse 12.  See, Paul knows that from the time of Adam until the time of Moses–this is biblical history–there was no law.  There were no explicit commands from God, so people didn’t know exactly what it meant to live in right relationship with God and with one another.  Therefore God couldn’t hold peoples’ sins against them.  God couldn’t mark that in their account, so to speak.  Their sin was not like Adam’s sin because Adam had an explicit command from God.  However, these folks were still under the power of sin.  They were still in Adam; Adam was still their representative.  This was obvious because they too died.

 Now, we have reached verse 15, and here is where Paul begins a definite shift.  He begins to lay out the fact that there is a new representative in town.  A new man–a God-man has entered the picture to be a new representative.  This is Jesus Christ, and  Paul outlines how these two are different all the way through verse 20.

First off, they are different because their actions are polar opposite. Adam’s transgression was an intentional act of self-aggrandizement; of rebellion against God.  Jesus’ act was an act of self-sacrifice in obedience to God.

Second, the consequences of the acts are very, very different.  Adam’s actions resulted in death.  Jesus’ actions resulted in life.  Adam’s actions resulted in condemnation.  Jesus’ actions resulted in justification.  Adam’s actions led to death having power and dominion over us–we are enslaved to death as we work to defeat death, postpone death, do everything in our power to keep us safe and preserved and extend our lives because of our fear of death.  Jesus’ actions led to us receiving freedom as death no longer has power over us, and Paul’s words are chosen very carefully hear as he says that we “who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life.”  Because we do not fear death, we rule in life.  We can live life to the fullest!

Finally, Paul shows how Jesus’ action is more powerful than Adam’s.  For Adam’s action brought condemnation to all, but Christ’s actions brought justification to all.  Grace abounds!   Adam’s disobedience made everyone sinners, but Christ’s obedience made the many righteous.  Grace overwhelms sin!

After Paul lays these differences out, he addresses one more issue that was sure to be raised by those who were Jews.  What about the Law?  What about the commandments that God gave Moses and Israel?  Weren’t these commands and rules  supposed to transform people and the world?  Paul says, no.  Not at all.  The Law has no capability to reform a person.  The Law has no capability to transform a heart.  The Law only has the capability of revealing sin.  It only has the capability of showing us where we go wrong.  Therefore, when the Law came alongside, it increased the amount of trespass–it increased our ability to see when we’ve messed up.

But, as the trespass increased; as we learned more about our sin, grace increased all the more.  In the Greek, Paul uses a made up word.  Grace super-abounded.  Such is what happens when Jesus is your representative.  Grace overflows and abounds.  Forgiveness overflows and abounds.  And this is now where we cut to the heart of the Christian faith.

For you see, if you want to be held responsible for your own actions; if you want to be judged on your own merit on what you do and what you don’t do, then you are acting just like Adam.  You are still in Adam.  Without choosing a representative, you have chosen a representative–if that makes any sense.  You are still striving to make yourself in the right–to justify yourself.  And if there is anything that Paul has worked to show us up to this point it is this: we simply cannot justify ourselves.  We cannot make ourselves right.  When we strive to make ourselves right, we are in a constant, losing battle that will eventually lead to our death.

However, if we choose to trust another representative...if we choose to trust in the God-man...if we choose to trust in Jesus’ actions instead of our own, everything changes.  Everything becomes different.  No longer are we in a constant struggle to justify ourselves and our actions.  No longer are we in a constant worry about whether or not we have done enough.  No longer are we dominated by worry stress and anxiety over death.  We know that grace super abounds. We know the depths of God’s love that Christ died for us while we were and are still sinners.  We know that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world to be our representative–not to bring us condemnation but to bring us salvation!!!

When you surrender to Christ’s representation, your life changes, and you have sure and certain confidence.  You know God’s love.  You know God’s hope.  Nothing can rattle you.  The final stanza of “A Mighty Fortress” rings clear and true when Christ becomes the object of your trust: your representative whom you find yourself in:

God’s Word forever will abide, no thanks to foes who fear it
For God Himself fights by our side, with weapons of the Spirit.
Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child or spouse,
Though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day.
The Kingdom’s ours...Forever!  Amen.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Do You Know the Depths of God's Love?: Romans 5:6-11

Last week, we St. Paul revealed that one of the consequences of us being justified by grace through faith is that we can boast in our suffering.  This was quite an unheard of bit of news as Paul explained: suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us or put us to shame because of the love of God that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.  Paul was showing how suffering reveals the things we can truly count on, and when all is cut away from us, our true character is revealed.  And, if our ultimate trust is in Jesus–is in God, then we have a sure and certain hope that God will transform our sufferings into something good.  We may not see that this side of eternity, but in the long run, God will take suffering and make good come out of it.

This week, Paul is responding to an unspoken question, and that unspoken question is: how do you know?  How do you know God will do such a thing?  How can you count on Him to make good come out of suffering?  How can you have such a hope.  Paul’s response is essentially this: Let me show you the depths of God’s love.

When I was in junior high, I played football.  Our seventh grade team went undefeated and was district champions.  It was frankly awesome, and I had high hopes going into my eighth grade year.  And that year started off very well.  We won our opening games, but then something happened.  We began to lose.  We lost several in a row, and I knew why.

Our practice times had turned into times of goofing off.  I am a big, huge proponent of the idea that the way you practice is the way you play.  My dad instilled that in me at an early age, and we weren’t practicing well.  Every time we’d try to practice plays, there was laughing and cutting up.  There was joking around and going through the motions instead of seriously running the plays and drills.  And I pegged the ringleader of the disruptions and messing around.  I set him directly in my sights.

Frankly, I didn’t like this teammate at all.  Not only was he screwing up on the practice field and inciting the goofing off; I didn’t like him as a person during school either.  In class, he would do just enough to get by oftentimes cracking stupid answers to questions and mockingly reading class assignments.  Between classes, he would take a few drinks from a thermos in his locker, and that thermos didn’t have Coke, or tea, or water in it either.  In eighth grade, he was constantly trying to lure girls into sleeping with him.  Whenever we stopped after a football game and bought snacks at a convenience store, he loaded his pockets–without paying.  I hated him.  Yes, that’s the way I felt.  And I felt powerless to do anything about his antics on or off the field.

Until one day at practice, that is.  We just so happened to be doing a drill where there was one offensive player who was supposed to run the ball and score.  There was one defensive player who was supposed to tackle the ball carrier.  My teammate was on offense.  I ended up across from him on defense.  For me, the opportunity to exact justice had arrived.  I knew this guy was going to loaf it.  I knew he would clown around and go half speed even though we were supposed to be trying our best.  I wouldn’t be holding back.  I would be going full speed, and I would be hitting him as hard as I possibly could.

The results were predictable.  It took the coaches between five and ten minutes to get the guy up off the ground.  I stood there watching with no regret.  No remorse.  He was okay.  Nothing broken or badly hurt.  Just really, really bruised.  In my mind, justice was served.

And that’s the way we generally feel.  If someone has hurt us or has prevented us from getting something we desire...If we feel like someone has harmed us or those we love...if someone has done wrong to us, we generally want revenge. We want justice. We want the wrongs righted.  This is what we do to our enemies!!!  Revenge.  Retribution.  Justice.  It’s what we clamor for!!

And we see such tit for tat taking place all over our society–all over our world.  From the politics just down the road in Sealy and Bellville to the politics on the national scene, if decisions are made that go against our party or our organization, we pull out all the stops to get retribution; to cause the other party grief; to make them look foolish.  It is the default setting of humanity.

And we usually believe very strongly that we are in the right.  I was absolutely convinced of my stance and my role as the enforcer of justice.  I wasn’t clowning around.  I wasn’t stealing.  I wasn’t luring girls to my bedroom.  I was an all ‘A’ student who took my learning as seriously as my football.  I was the good guy.  We generally think that we are.

But looking back at these events that took place nearly 30 years ago, I have to wonder.  Sure, my teammate was screwing up a whole lot of things, but after 30 years, who really cares about the won/loss record of an eighth grade football team in a town with a population of only 2300?  What does it really matter in the big picture?  And what would have happened if I had really hurt my teammate.  What if he would have had to have surgery?  He would be bearing the scars and the pain to this day.  Does screwing up on the football field deserve 30 years or more of pain and scars?  And yet, I happily inflicted bodily injury for my slights.  I can imagine standing before the Almighty God and accounting for this act in my life, and frankly, I’m pretty sure my teammate would get off easier than I would.  Put in proper perspective, I’m not as innocent as I seem, and my actions are quite filled with guilt–all because I wanted, demanded, and took justice into my own hands.

Put into proper perspective.  That is the key.  We need to put ourselves in proper perspective, and I think that if we do, if we look deep into that mirror; if we set aside all of the lies that society tells us–you know those lies.  You deeply want to believe them.  You want them to be true.  The lies that say that you are perfect just the way you are.  That there is nothing wrong with you.  That you are owed respect and love and honor.  When you believe those lies, then you start believing that you bear no responsibility for what is wrong in the world–it is the world that is messed up, not you.  But those are lies.  Everyone of us knows that we are not perfect.  Deep down, every one of us knows that we are broken, and that the problems of the world are not out there alone.  They are also in here–in the very recesses of our hearts.  If we are honest with ourselves, we will see it.  Just as when I am honest with myself now, I know the wrongness of my actions so long ago.

You may wonder why I am making you confront the reality of yourself.  You may wonder why I am making you delve into the depths of your heart to confront your brokenness–your sinfulness, for that is the term we use in the Christian faith.  And I am doing so for one reason and one reason alone.  You have to know your brokenness so that you too can know the depths of God’s love.

Hear now St. Paul’s words again from Romans chapter five: 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 

Paul uses three words to describe us in this passage: ungodly, sinners, and enemies of God.  These are not flattering words.  These are not words that we like to hear as descriptors of ourselves.  This is something we rebel against.  We want to think that we are just.  We want to think that we are good.  We want to think that we are imperfect, but we’re not all that bad.  Perspective.  Stop looking from your perspective.  Look from God’s perspective, and from that perspective, we stand condemned.  Paul spent almost three chapters of this book showing us this very thing.  Paul spent three chapters showing us that we seek out our own desires, our own ways, our own false gods.  We do not seek God’s way?  We rebel against God’s Law.  We rebel against God’s commands.  We thumb our nose at Him and refuse to worship Him as we should.  We refuse to care for His creation as we should.  We refuse to love our neighbor as we should.  We think we are so good and holy and just, but we are seeing from our own perspective.  We refuse to look at us from God’s perspective because we are ashamed of what we will see.  We don’t want to see such a thing, because from God’s perspective we deserve His wrath; divine punishment.

“But God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Let that statement sink in.  “But God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

While we were enemies to God, Christ died for us.

While we were ungodly, Christ died for us.

When we didn’t deserve it, Christ died for us.

Who does that?  I mean it.  Really, who does that kind of thing?

Who dies for their enemies?  Who dies for someone who has hurt them deeply?  Who goes the second, third, fourth mile to show kindness for someone who has wronged them?  This is not human nature in the least.  This is not how we act at all.

But it is how God acts!  This is how God operates!  This is what God did at the cross when Jesus became the atoning sacrifice for our sins!  Christ died for us while we were still sinners.  This kind of love was never heard of in the ancient world.  No one died for their enemies.  No one.  For a good person, that was rare, as Paul points out.  But no one died for their enemies.

God did.  And Paul implicitly shows this as he talks about Jesus.  As N.T. Wright says, “What Paul says here makes no sense unless Jesus, in his life and death, was the very incarnation, the ‘enfleshment’ (that is what incarnation means) of the living, loving God.  After all, it doesn’t make sense if I say to you, ‘I see you’re in a real mess!  Now, I love you so much that I’m going send someone else to help you out of it.’”
Yes, Jesus is God.  God died for us while we were still enemies.  God showed us this kind of love.

And if he shows us this kind of love while we are enemies, what kind of love will God show us now that we have been added to His family?  What kind of love will God show us now that we are no longer His enemies but now His friends?  What kind of love will God give to us now that we are justified–put in good standing with him; and also reconciled–put in a right relationship?  The answer for Paul is clear–if God has done so much when we were estranged from Him, God will easily take care of us now that we have been brought near.

This is the reason Paul says we can count on God transforming our suffering into good.  This is the reason Paul says we can trust in God above all things.  He died for us when we didn’t deserve it.  His love goes beyond anything that we can imagine.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

God did not condemn you when you were His enemy.  He died for you.  He poured out His love for you.  Will you now put your trust in Him?  Will you now put your hope in Him?  Will you long for His presence and His purpose in your life?  Will you love Him as He has loved you?  May the Spirit lead us all to respond, “Yes!” with loud and reckless abandon.  Amen.

Monday, January 9, 2017

When You Suffer, Do You Boast?: Romans 5:1-5

When I was about eleven, my family and I had gone over to a great aunt’s house on a Sunday after church.  We bar-b-qued hamburgers and sat around watching football.  Of course, my Dallas Cowboys were playing.  I remember this stuff vividly.  They were playing the late game, and they played the Los Angeles Rams.  I was rooting whole-heartedly for my ‘boys, and I was convinced they were going to win.  How convinced?  My dad told me, “The Cowboys are going to lose.”  I said, “No way.  They are going to win!”

Dad said, “I’ll bet you.”

I rose to the challenge, “Deal.”

Dad said, “How much?”

I thought for a moment before responding, “A quarter.”

Now, before you laugh too much, you have to realize just how much a quarter meant to me.  You see, I loved playing video games.  That quarter wasn’t just a quarter.  It was a game of Pac-Man or whatever arcade game I could come across the next time my family and I went out.  I took great joy and pleasure in playing those games–even though I wasn’t particularly good at them.  To bet a quarter was a big deal.

And my ‘boys lost!!!  I still remember going into my room and digging around for a quarter to hand to my dad.  –No, he didn’t let me off.  I had to pay up!!

Do you know, to this day, I have never bet on another football game or sporting event?  Lesson learned.  There is a risk on betting on an unknown future.  You can easily lose.

But, let’s turn the tables for just a moment.  What if you knew the future?  What if you knew what was going to happen at a particular game–who was going to win?  What if you knew it beyond the shadow of a doubt?  I tell you what I would do.  I’d be booking it to Las Vegas, and I would be a whole lot wealthier, that’s for sure!  Knowing the future gives you confidence in the present.

But there is a problem.  We don’t know the future.  We have the capability to think about the future.  We have the capability of figuring out what will probably happen in the next few moments; hours; or even days.  But all it takes is one little surprise; one little change in some variable, and all our preparations are null and void.  Therefore, we always seem to be a bit concerned about what will happen next.  We always seem to be a bit antsy about what might be just around the corner.  What will the future hold?  Sometimes we are excited about it.  Oftentimes we are fearful of it.  And in our culture today, fear dominates.  We tend to be afraid to bet; to risk; to take that chance lest we lose.

Christians take a bit of a different view toward the future.  In fact, we face the future with confidence–with hope.  St. Paul begins laying this out in the book of Romans chapter 5.  Just a quick recap from before we took our break from this book because of Christmas: Romans chapters one through most of three were spent laying out humanity’s failure to live up to God’s expectations and the reasons we were under the wrath of God.  At the end of chapter 3, Paul shared the good news that God’s justice and God’s mercy had combined in the work of Jesus who became the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Christ’s actions have justified us, and we are now right with God.  We are saved when we trust in Jesus’ actions instead of our own.  Paul then used chapter four to show how this justification by grace through faith was consistent with God’s action toward the founder of the Jewish faith: Abraham.  Paul now moves forward to share the consequences of God’s action in Jesus Christ.

We begin with verse one: Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.   We must read this carefully because Paul says here that we have peace WITH God–not the peace OF God.  The peace of God is a sense of calm that comes over us in the midst of various situations in life.  Sometimes we sense that peace.  Other times, we don’t.  Such peace is an important part of the Christian life and deserves its just due, but this is not what Paul is talking about here.  Paul is speaking of the peace that comes after two sides are reconciled.  No longer is there animosity.  No longer is there anger that divides.  No longer is there separation.  There is peace because our sins are no longer a cause of hostility.  God no longer bears his righteous anger against us.  We are at peace.

Secondly, verse two begins with these words: 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.  Through Jesus we now have access–the way is opened with no obstacles to the grace of God.  Think of it this way: in ancient times, in order to have access to a king, you first needed grace–worthiness imparted to you by the king so that he would meet with you.  Through Jesus, we have such access with God.  No longer are there any barriers between you and God.  Folks sometimes ask me to pray for them with the words, “Because you have a direct line to the big Guy up stairs.”  I humorously try to say, “Well, you do too.  We share the same access.”  Through Christ this has been given to ALL of us.  No one has any advantage.

Finally, Paul says, “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”  Earlier in chapter 3, Paul spoke about how boasting was excluded by the grace of God; however, it is important to note that Paul wants us to realize that we cannot boast in ourselves and what we do.  Boasting in what God has done, is doing, and will do is certainly allowed.  In fact, it’s sort of what we do as a church when we worship!  We loudly and boldly proclaim our God!  We loudly and boldly speak of what God does!  We loudly and boldly tell others that God has saved us; that God provides for us; and that God will secure our future.  We boldly boast of how God has prepared a place for those who trust Him and how He will raise us to eternal life–just like He raised Jesus to eternal life.  We boast in God’s goodness!!!

However, Paul suddenly broaches a different subject.  Right after saying that we boast in the glory of God–we boast in God’s goodness, Paul says, “3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings.”  Some scholars believe that Paul is heading off a criticism that is often brought forth.  A criticism that says: you boast about the goodness of God, but look at the trials and tribulations you go through.  Look at all the evil that is still in the world.  Look at the sickness that some of you have.  Look at the persecution that others are bringing upon you.  Why would you boast in God with all of these things happening?  Paul does not shy away from this question, and rather than offer excuses for such matters, Paul says something that many of us frankly have a difficult time doing.  Paul says that we boast in our sufferings.  I mean, really, think about this.  How many of us say, "Hey, I got diagnosed with cancer, woo hoo!"?  How many of us brag about having frozen pipes this morning?  How many of us jump up and down when we lose a job?  No.  We don't do this at all.  We become despondent.  We want sympathy.  We want compassion.  We never boast.  Yet, Paul says, "We boast in our sufferings."

Now, let me be quick to point out that this does not mean that we celebrate the fact that we suffer.  As Timothy Keller said, “That would be masochism.”  We aren’t sadistic.  We don’t rejoice that we suffer.  But we can boast in the midst of it.  How?  How in the world can we boast in our sufferings?

Paul continues:  knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.  Let’s go through these step by step.  Paul first says that suffering produces endurance.  The word endurance here carries a sense of steadfastness–meaning you don’t waver.  You are focused.  Suffering strips away all of the unnecessary distractions so that we know where and what to stand on.  Suffering helps us to see what we can really count on–what is lasting.  And when we find what we can stand upon–what is strong; what endures, then character is formed.  The Greek here gives us a sense of “testedness” or “genuineness”.  When all is stripped away, and you are left with what is lasting, you are tested–genuine.  Your true nature is revealed.  And what is a Christian’s true nature?  If we know we are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ–what does our heart show?  It shows that we are full of hope.

How does this happen?  I have dealt with such matters repeatedly with folks who go through suffering. By the time all is said and done, you can tell the difference between folks who put their trust in God and those who have trusted other things.  Let me use the scenario of someone who was diagnosed with cancer.  The folks who have trusted other things go through having their endurance tested, and their character is revealed.  When money did not bring about a cure; when doctors failed to stem the cancer; when family and friends could not make them better; when all of these things were stripped away and there was nothing left, folks who had no trust in God generally became bitter and angry and depressed.  They were defeated.  However, when the same things happened to those whose trust was in God, they too found that money couldn’t cure; doctors couldn’t stem the tide; that family and friends couldn’t make them better, but instead of becoming bitter and angry and depressed–they trusted that God would care for them.  They trusted that even though they might die, that God would bring them unto Himself.  They had hope.  It radiated from them.

Paul finishes with these words, “5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  A better translation would be “and hope does not shame us.”  Hope does not shame us.  This is important on two counts.  First, as I hinted at in my example above, if you put your hope in anything except God, it will disappoint you.  It will bring you shame.  Only God will not disappoint you.  Only God will not shame you.  If your hope is in God you will never be let down.  You can be confident.  And that is the second point of what Paul leads us to.  We can have absolute confidence in what God will accomplish.  This is the meaning of hope in Christian terms.  Most of us when we talk about hope, we think about wish fulfillment.  “I hope I win the lottery.”  “I hope it rains.”  “I hope gas prices don’t go up.”  We can’t be confident of any of these things.  Hope is a guessing game, and if what we hope for doesn’t come to pass–we are disappointed.  In fact, my mother-in-law is fond of saying, "Spit in one hand, wish in the other, and see which one fills up faster."

       Christian hope doesn’t say that.  Christian hope says, “I believe that God will provide exactly what I need when I need it.”  And that is not a hope that will disappoint.  That is not a hope that will bring us shame.  That is a hope rooted and grounded in who God has shown Himself to be.  It is a hope rooted and grounded in the love that He Himself has poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.  It is a hope rooted and grounded in the fact that God did not withhold His own Son, but sent Him into the world to die for us.  It is a hope rooted in the God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

This is the promise that we hold in our hearts.  This is the work of God that we stay focused upon.  We know that He loved us enough to die for us.  We know that He raised Jesus from the dead giving us a vision of what we will experience when we trust in Him.  We know that the future rests in His hands.  Our future is taken care of.  We know what to expect.  And if you know what the future entails, then you can live with confidence.  You can face suffering with confidence.  For suffering produces endurance–it helps you see what you can count on.  When you see what you can truly count on, your character is revealed–everyone can see what is truly in your heart.  And if you understand what God has done–hope reigns supreme.  And that is something to boast in!! Amen.