Thursday, March 23, 2017

Samson: God's Unjust Judge: Part 3

When last we left Samson, he had killed 30 men to fulfill his part of a lost bet with 30 guests at his wedding.  These men had manipulated Samson’s wife into telling the answer to his riddle, and after paying his debt, Samson, in anger had returned to his parents’ home for some time.  We don’t know exactly how long Samson stayed with his parents, but his lust for his bride-to-be won out, and he eventually returned to her home to see her once again.

However, this trip was all for naught.  When Samson arrives, he is greeted by her father who tells him, “I was sure that you had rejected her; so I gave her to your companion. Is not her younger sister prettier than she? Why not take her instead?”  Now, this was a perfectly legal custom in those days.  If a groom did not take his bride, she was given to the best man.  Dad did what he was supposed to do given the circumstances around his daughter’s wedding.  And by offering the younger daughter, he is doing what a traditional Philistine would do to satisfy a suitor.

However, Samson isn’t having any of this.  This, in fact, simply makes Samson angrier, and he makes a rather curious statement–especially for a chosen judge of Israel, “This time, when I do mischief to the Philistines, I will be without blame.”  There is no thought of forgiveness.  There is no thought of reconciliation.  There is a definitive break between Samson and the Philistines.  He blames the lot of them for the loss of his bride-to-be, and he commits what he himself calls “mischief.”  Mischief?  This is not exactly a trait that we admire these days.  This is not a trait that we hold up as a virtue.  We rather frown upon mischief makers and believe that God does as well.  But Samson is undeterred from his desire for revenge, and so he burns the Philistines’ crops.

The Philistines, in revenge burn Samson’s bride and her father.

Samson, in revenge, strikes “them down hip and thigh with great slaughter.”
The violence is ratcheting retaliation after retaliation.  Without forgiveness and reconciliation, it is a familiar story to us, both within family structures and on national levels.  Each action prompts a reaction, which brings its own reaction, and the seemingly unbreakable cycle continues.  And so, the Philistines take up arms and make camp in Judah, “to take Samson prisoner...to do to him as he did to us.”  (15:10) Judah is so keen to remain at peace with them that they have no idea that God has raised up a judge to save Israel (v10)!  And when they discover that he has, they send 3000 men to hand the judge over to their enemy!  They may bear the name of God’s people, but they would rather live at peace with the world and worship their idols than be freed to worship God–and they would rather cut down their own rescuer than risk confrontation with the world. 
  So they tie up their own judge and take him to the Philistines.  Again, though, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power.”  Samson breaks his bonds, and “finding the jawbone of a donkey”–a dead animal, though Samson seems to have left his Nazirite vow well behind by now–“he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men”, taunting them as he kills them. 
  Now, for the first time, Samson speaks to the God who has chosen him, and empowered him.  But his prayer is neither humble nor faithful: he basically demands that God help him, and complains that he doesn’t (v18)–which is remarkably clueless of him, since it is God’s Spirit which has rescued him from a lion, from a lost bet, and now from a thousand Philistines.  Samson uses God’s strength, but he doesn’t depend on God except when he is in extreme situations (he won’t speak to him again until 16:28, when he is blind and trapped).  Yet God is at work through Samson, and provides the water he needs.  Thus refreshed, Samson led Israel for twenty years”.  But it is not the leadership of the earlier judges.  He has not saved Israel from spiritual or physical oppression–it is still “the days of the Philistines.”  (Keller, Judges for You)

It is worth taking a little bit of time now to think about how God is at work in all of this process.  It is worth taking a little bit of time to think about what is going on in all of this gratuitous violence, sexuality, selfishness and deceit.  It is worth thinking about God’s role in this cycle of revenge.  From our vantage point, we may recoil at what is going on.  We may shake our heads in bewilderment and God’s seeming blessing on these murderous actions.  We may consider that our wisdom is better than God’s–after all “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”  That may be true, but we need to consider that God’s wisdom is above our wisdom, and God’s work in the world is not like our work in the world.

As we look at this story, we must remember that...in all this, God is at work.  Why can Samson kill the lion?  “The Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power”.  Why is he able to strike down thirty Philistines and steal their clothes?  “The Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power”.  God is giving Samson super human strength–the one thing he needs (other than his own character flaws) for him to cause the division between Israel and the Philistines which God’s people, though they don’t realize it, desperately need it.  God is starting to save his people by divorcing them from their marriage to their idols and to the world around them.  (Keller, Judges for You)

This is important for us to realize as a church.  For we are to be both loved and hated by the world at the same time.  We are to be both loved and hated by our surrounding culture.  We must be, as Jesus said, “be in but not of” the world.  How does this happen?  We are to be loved by the world because we, as a church, should be willing to pour ourselves out for the world.  We are to love the unlovable.  We are to provide for those in need.  We are to look at our surrounding community, and give until it hurts.  When folks think about our congregation, they should think, “Man, the amount of care, compassion, and money they pour out into our community is amazing.  We don’t know what would happen to our community if that church were to close its doors.”  Sadly, most churches are not invested in such a manner in their communities.  If we were, we would be more loved.

But we would not only be loved, because we would also be hated–for our values would not stack up with the values of the world.  We would also have a prophetic voice calling people away from their modern-day idols.  We should be front and center telling the world, “Sports and athletics will not give your children life-long satisfaction and character.”  We should be front and center telling the world, “The idea that sex is simply a physical act with no emotional involvement and that it doesn’t matter who you have it with is fine, ignores its purpose and devalues both the act itself and the people who engage in it.  Sex is reserved for marriage alone as a gift from God.”  We should be front and center condemning rampant materialism and saying, “Money is a false god who will destroy you if you make attaining it your purpose in life.”  None of these messages is popular in our culture and society today.  Folks hate it when you put such boundaries upon them.  Yet, we don’t announce such things because we want to be liked.  We announce them because we are convicted that such truth leads the world away from idols and toward the true God who can satisfy; who can bring fulfillment; who can bring peace.

This is the first lesson we are to learn from Samson’s story.  The church cannot seek to be liked by the world and accommodate the world.  We must be both loved and hated by the world.

The second lesson is the grace of God that is poured out toward flawed people like you and I–how God can even use our mistakes, sinfulness, and rebellion to work His good.

But how can God use such flawed people–people like Samson–to get his work done? Shouldn’t he only work with people who are good, godly men and women?  Shouldn’t he only use the people who have the right beliefs, and the right behavior? 
  The problem with this is that it puts God in a box.  It would mean he is limited by humans, and is only allowed to work when people are being good and making godly choices.  It would mean that God does not work by grace, taking the initiative to save; but that he works in response to good works, waiting for people to help him to save. 
David Jackman describes how Judges “shoots holes through all of that:”  “It is above all a book about grace, undeserved mercy, as is the whole Bible...That is not to play down theological accuracy or to pretend that it doesn’t matter how we behave..[We will still suffer from our sins].  But we can rejoice that he is also in the business of using our failures as the foundations for his success.  Let us never imagine that we have God taped, or that we know how he will work, or when.  As soon as we start to say, ‘God cannot or will not...until...’ we are wrong footed.”  (Judges, Ruth page 22). 
  The amazing truth is that God works through sinners, and through sinful situations.  He keeps his promises to bless his people in the dark and disastrous periods of our lives, as well as through the times when things are going “right.”  Not even our own sin will stop him saving us, or using us.  Mysteriously, often unseen, and usually far beyond our comprehension, God works through the free (and very often flawed) choices people make: “in all things, God works for the good of those who love him.”  (Romans 8:28) Amen.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Samson: God's Unjust Judge: Part 2

The story of Samson is famous for its potent mix of sex, violence, death and power–exactly the stuff of a contemporary summer action film!  But if we read it as part of the whole narrative of the book of Judges, we will find it to be at least perplexing and probably disturbing.  As Israel’s spiritual condition grows worse and worse, the scene seems to be set for a great judge/leader, perhaps the greatest of all.  And chapter 13, with its annunciation, prepares us for a wonderful, powerful deliverer.
  Instead, we find by far the most flawed character in this book: a violent, impulsive, sexually addicted, emotionally immature and selfish man.  Most disturbing of all, the “Spirit of God” seems to anoint and use his fits of pique, pride, and temper.
  Samson is now a grown man, stirred by the Spirit of the Lord.  But at the start of chapter 14–and through the rest of his life–he will be stirred by a much more worldly impulse.  One day, he “went down to Timnah and saw there a young Philistine woman”.  Returning home, he says (literally) to his parents: “Have I seen a woman, in Timnah, of the daughters of the Philistines.  Now get her for me as a wife.”
  His parents no doubt remember the angel’s prediction that Samson would deliver the Israelites from the Philistines.  So imagine their distress when Samson comes home and instead of fighting Israel’s enemies, wants to marry one of them!  They protest that there must be a woman in their wider family, or at least in Israel, whom he could marry: “Must you go to the uncircumcised Philistines to get a wife?”  The word “uncircumcised” is key here.  Circumcision was a sign that a family was in a personal covenant or relationship with God, as part of his people.  Their issue was not a racial one.  It’s about marrying someone who is outside the Lord’s covenant!
  But Samson is not willing to listen.  “Get her for me,” he rudely insists.  He then says (literally): “She is right in my eyes.”  This is the approach to life and morality that we have seen all Israel adopting: doing what is evil in God’s eyes, because it was right in their own.  Samson is a leader who reflects Israel’s real spiritual state, rather than God’s ideal for his people.  Here we are seeing Israel writ small, in one man’s life.
  First, Samson is impulsive.  He is a completely sensual man, in the most basic definition of the term.  His senses control him–he reacts to how he feels about what he sees, without reflection or consideration.  He sees–and so he takes. This general impulsiveness leads to a specific weakness that we will see as the story proceeds; namely a total lack of sexual self-control.
  Second, Samson is unteachable.  He is dismissive of parental counsel and authority.  The book of Proverbs extensively explains how proud and foolish it is to be unwilling to listen to the advice of others.  Put it in its cultural context, Samson’s pride here is even more extreme.  In our day it would be more normal for a son to talk back to his parents, but that was not the case in ancient Israel!  Impulsive and unteachable.  It is a good summary of the state of Israel as a whole.  (Keller: Judges for You)
  We can already see that Samson is not going to be the judge we were hoping for! ...Samson goes among Israel’s enemies in order to marry an unnamed Philistine who does not know God.  It is important that he found her in Timnah–deep in Israelite territory–and that he was free to come and go among the Philistines.  The Philistines were settled and living normal lives inside Israel.  They were “rulers” over Israel, yet their “occupation” seems completely peaceful.  Samson thought nothing of marrying one of them.
  This should prompt us to realize that something has been missing from this Judges cycle.  Israel has not cried out for rescue from oppression.  There is no resistance to their enslavement.  Later in the narrative, the men of Judah simply take it as a fact that “the Philistines are rulers over us.”
  In short, Israel’s capitulation to the Philistines is far more profound and complete than any of their previous enslavements.  In the past, Israel groaned and agonized under their occupations by pagan powers, because their domination was military and political.  But now the people are virtually unconscious of their enslavement, because its nature is that of cultural accommodation.  The Israelites do not groan and resist their “captors” now because they have completely adopted and adapted to the values, mores and idols of the Philistines.  Like Samson himself, the Israelites were eager to marry into Philistine society, probably as a way to “move up” in the culture.  The Israelites no longer had a recognizable culture of their own, one based on service to the Lord.
  We can’t exaggerate the danger to Israel.  The Israelites were on the brink of extinction.  Within a couple of generations, they could have been completely assimilated into the Philistine nation.  (Keller: Judges for You)
What does God do when his people are not just accommodating, but becoming assimilated into the world?  14:4 is the crucial verse in the Samson narrative, the key to understanding the whole story, and the answer to that question.  “His parents did not know that this was from the Lord, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines.”
  God will use the very weakness of Samson–“his fraternization” with the Philistines, his sexual appetite, his vindictiveness and temper–to bring about confrontation between the two nations.  Samson’s weaknesses result in a “blood feud” that leads to more conflict, and finally the division between the two nations that is so desperately needed. 
  As the story goes on, we will see everyone acting out of their own ungodly character.  They are all responsible for what they do.  But we will also see God using it all to ensure that the two nations are alienated, so that his people will not totally lose their distinctiveness.  God remains unconditionally committed to his covenant promises.  He has promised to love them and give them an inheritance and never break his commitment to do so.  Here he is so faithful to his promises that he not only fulfills them in spite of their sin, but even through their sin.  He uses their own sinfulness to bring about deliverance. (Keller: Judges for You)

The rest of this chapter is dedicated to show how God begins using Samson’s failings and frailties to bring about the separation of the Philistine and Israelite cultures.  It begins the horrendous split that will lead to God’s deliverance of his people–a deliverance that they don’t even realize that they need.

It starts with Samson encountering a lion.  The Spirit of the Lord comes upon Samson, and Samson tears the lion apart.  While this may sound like self-defense and self-preservation, it is also important to note that in killing the lion, Samson has touched a dead body.  He has broken his Nazirite vow!  But he doesn’t care.  He is too consumed with the Philistine woman he wishes to marry.  He doesn’t go cleanse himself before the Lord–he continues to head to visit her.

A few days later, he walks back by the carcass of the lion, and once again, Samson breaks his Nazirite vow by scraping honeycomb off the lion’s body.  This time, he goes to see his parent’s and brings impurity upon them!  So consumed with his own self-important, self-satisfaction, and feeding his own hungers, he thinks nothing of his parents’ purity.

And then, his hunger drives him deeper.  Before getting married, a seven day festival held for Samson and his bride-to-be.  On the first day of the festival, Samson’s desire for wealth drives him to boldly make a wager with the guests.  “Tell me the answer to this riddle by the end of the festival, and I will give you each a robe and coat.  Fail, and you each give me a robe and a coat.”  The guests agree, and Samson puts forth his riddle based on his encounter with the lion.

The guests are stumped, but they don’t want to lose the bet.  They don’t want to give up any of their wealth, so they threaten Samson’s bride-to-be.  “Find out,” they demand.  “Or we will kill you and your family.”  The cycle of anger and self-interest is escalating.

Samson’s bride-to-be doesn’t tell Samson about the guests’ dishonorable intentions.  She doesn’t go to him for help.  Instead, she manipulates him.  She turns on her tears.  For three. Whole. Days!  Imagine hearing someone you cared about crying to you for three whole days!  Would you finally give in?  Samson did.  He told his bride-to-be the answer to the riddle.  And she told the other guests.  And they answered the question.

Samson then offers one of those memorable lines in scripture.  Bet you didn’t think you would ever read anything like it in the Bible, did you?  “‘If you had not ploughed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle.”  These are not exactly terms of endearment now, are they?

And then violence ensues.  The Spirit of the Lord wells up on Samson, and Samson kills 30 men to get their robes and coats.  In anger, Samson returns to his parents, and his bride-to-be is given to the best man.

Our text ends here for the night.  Next week, things will go from bad to worse. The violence and hatred will continue to escalate.  And God is a player right in the middle of it.  God is ripping his people out of a bad situation and bringing them into a more wholesome relationship with him.  He is tearing them away from their idolatry and bringing them back to worship Him.  He is saving them even though they have no need of their need of saving.

As this sermon comes to a close, I want to take a moment to hang one application of this text out here.  “Strange though it seems, God in his mercy is using his people’s weakness to make sure there is not peace between them and the surrounding cultures.  God’s people today as then, need to not be at peace with the world–because “friendship with the world is hatred toward God.”–James 4:4 Why?  Because if we are like the world, we will love idols and forsake God; we will, as James puts it, be “adulterous people.”  It is the mercy of God that he does not allow the world to love the church for very long.  It forces his people to recognize that we are not part of the world–that we have a different Lord and Savior–and finally cry out to him to rescue us from ourselves and rule us despite ourselves.”  (Keller: Judges for You) Next week, we will see how God continues to accomplish this.  Amen.

Monday, March 13, 2017

It's Not a New Year's Resolution Kind of Faith: Romans 8:5-13

It’s close enough to the middle of March that I think enough time has sufficiently passed to reflect upon the following question: how are you doing on your New Year’s Resolutions?  Are you continuing to accomplish them, or are you like the vast majority of folks who have already given up?  I would include myself in that last category if I actually made New Year’s Resolutions.  I’ve given up on even making them because of my less than stellar success rate.

And aren’t New Year’s Resolutions an interesting thing?  I mean think about the things that folks usually try to accomplish.  Think about the things they often say that they will work on: losing weight, becoming a kinder person, becoming more generous, removing stress from life, becoming more diligent in prayer and spirituality.  Lofty things.  How come folks don’t say: you know what, for my New Year’s resolution, I am going to become more of a jerk in my daily life.?  I am going to become enraged while I drive.  I am going to work diligently to become as stressed out as I possibly can so that I give myself ulcers and end up on Prozac.  I am going to eat myself silly and gain 100 lbs by the end of the year.  I am going to work hard to stop praying and consume all my time with sitting in front of the television and computer doing nothing.  Why don’t folks make these kinds of resolutions?

One pastor whose sermon I listened to had a pretty good answer, I thought.  We don’t need any help doing most of those things.  They come rather naturally.  It’s easy to become enraged in traffic.  It’s easy to eat the things that are not healthy for us.  It’s easy to get stressed out over everything.  It’s easy to stop praying and seeking God on a regular basis.  It’s easy to sit in front of the television or computer and simply veg out instead of actively engage the world.  Such things are almost our default settings.  It’s a struggle to break out of them.

For the longest time, I thought Christianity was a lot like making those New Year’s Resolutions.  Promise to do the right things.  Promise to do what Jesus says.  Promise to love one’s neighbor and love one’s enemies.  Focus on such matters with great intensity, and accomplish them.  If you were failing to accomplish them, you simply weren’t working hard enough.  If your life was falling apart, you simply weren’t practicing your faith in the appropriate manner.  If you wanted to live a good, healthy life, you needed to do what the Bible said.  You might run into a few road blocks from time to time, but everything would eventually work out.  Everything would end up rosy and peachy if you simply focused on doing what God wanted you to do.

I no longer believe this.  Something happened along the way that made me reevaluate what I believed and preached and taught.  It started with getting stressed out and burned out because of circumstances that were well beyond my control–things that shouldn’t have happened because I thought I was doing the right things!  And then it was a revelation of exactly what my mind was set on.  God showed me the depths of my heart and what I was truly trying to get.  And that can be summed up in a repeat of this statement: If you wanted to live a good, healthy life, you needed to do what the Bible says.  Think about that sentence very carefully.  What is the end goal?  What is the deepest desire?  What is wanted above all else?  A good, healthy life.  You may ask: what’s wrong with deeply wanting a good, healthy life?

Here is what St. Paul has to say about such matters as we turn to our biblical text from Romans chapter 8: 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. Paul here is not offering up condemnation.  He is not pointing fingers at anyone and name calling.  He is simply recognizing that there are two types of people in the world: there are those who live their lives completely and totally oriented toward the “things of the flesh”, and there are those who live their lives completely and totally oriented toward the “things of the Spirit.”  Please know that when Paul says the “things of the flesh”, he is not simply talking about the natural desires of our bodies–he’s not simply talking about food, drink, sex, sleep, and rest.  He is talking about all of the things of the world that demand our attention–that seek to influence us into believing that they can provide us with a deep sense of safety, satisfaction, and fulfillment.  He’s talking about the lure of status and wealth. He’s talking about the lure of achievement and knowledge.  He’s talking about the lure of possessions and acceptance by others.  Paul says that there are people who believe that these things are the ultimate goals in life, and their lives are oriented toward these things.  Everything they think; everything they do; everything they say is geared toward getting the things of the flesh–to living the good life.

But Paul also points out the problem with this life orientation: it is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law–indeed it cannot submit to God’s law; and it is not pleasing to God.  He says that such an orientation of one’s life leads to death.  We actually covered most of the reasons why such a life orientation leads to death in earlier portions of the book of Romans.  In a very real way, Paul is simply reminding the congregation of Rome of what he covered earlier, and he does so to remind them of what comes next.

Verse 9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.  Paul’s writing here is not a command.  It’s not a “Turn your lives around from the flesh and get into the Spirit.”  That’s not what Paul says.  He is being descriptive.  He is looking at the congregation in Rome–and to us–and saying, “You are not like that.  You don’t have that kind of life orientation.  You see things in a different way; your entire being has come under the influence of a different power–a different entity.”  Paul says, you/we are in the Spirit because the Spirit of God dwells in us.  Why is this important?

At the end of Romans 7, Paul declared that sin dwelt within the members of his body.  The word he used in Greek was that sin had established a military base within him to influence his members.  Here in Romans 8, Paul uses the exact same word in describing the Spirit’s indwelling–that the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ has established a base of operations deep within us–not in our members, but in our hearts.  The Spirit of God is working within us to reorient our lives so that we find life and peace.  The Spirit of Christ is bringing life to our bodies, not only after we experience our physical deaths, but right here and right now in this life.

How does this come about?  Let’s finish out Paul’s thought with verse 12 So then, brothers and 
sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.  Paul says here that because the Spirit dwells in us, we no longer owe the world anything.  We are no longer in debt to the world for anything.  We know that the world cannot bring us fulfillment or peace or ultimate joy and happiness.  We know that the world only brings us temporary satisfaction; temporary joy; temporary happiness.  You know this.  You know this deep within even if you don’t want to admit it.  You know that whenever you achieve that business goal, there is another one that takes its place.  You know that whenever you work and buy your dream home, there’s always another thing to add to it.  You know that whenever you finally reach Friday, Monday morning is just around the corner.  There is always something more to buy; always something more to try; always something more to vie, always one more question why; and in the end you will die with something more to satisfy–if you live according to the flesh.

But if you live according to the Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body, and you will live.  What does this mean?  This means, that as Christians, we are in a constant state of putting to death our fleshy desires.  We are in a constant state of battle as the world tries to encroach upon us.  We are in a constant state of vigilance as we seek to squash anything that would lead us away from a life that is in the Spirit and pleasing to God.

And on the surface level, this sounds a lot like making New Year’s Resolutions. This sounds a lot like making rules for ourselves.  It sounds a lot like, “I’m going to follow what the Bible says so that I can live a good life.”  But that’s not it.  That’s not it at all.  That’s not how we fight that kind of battle.  If we try to fight the battle this way, we will lose, and we will not have abundant life.

Let me try and tie it all together with this example.  It’s pertinent to me since my family has joined the ranks of those playing Little League Baseball.  The world says, “Get your kids involved in sports because they will learn character.  They will learn how to work on a team.  They will learn life lessons that will give them a leg up throughout the rest of their lives.  Sacrifice in all other areas of life to make this happen.  Cut your family time.  Cut your church time.  Maximize your desire for winning.  Do everything that you can to avoid losing.  Your life–and more importantly, your child’s life–will be better for it.”

A New Year’s Resolution response would be: I am not going to let sports dominate my life, and because of this, baseball will be the enemy.  We will shun it and avoid it at all costs because it is cutting into other parts of our lives.  That’s not exactly easy or fun.  I mean, baseball is a game.  It’s fun!  Life can have enjoyment, you know?

Therefore, I think a Christian response would be this: Baseball, you are promising things that you cannot meet.  Ultimately, you cannot bring fulfillment.  Ultimately, you cannot change a heart.  Ultimately, you cannot turn either me or my child into a good person.  There is only one who can do that.  There is only one who can change a heart and make a person good from within.  There is only one who died for me and for the world.  There is only one who can bring the things that you are promising, and that is Jesus.  You, baseball, are a game.  Jesus is the Son of the living God.  I will engage with you because you are fun, but stop promising me the good life.  You can’t deliver.  Jesus already has.

And that, my brothers and sisters, is the key.  This is what Paul is trying to stress to the church at Rome and to us: when you are in Christ; when you are in the Spirit, Christ is in you; the Spirit is in you.  Trust in their work!  Trust in what they did and promised they would do.  Trust that Jesus has already died to save you.  Trust that the Spirit is working within you to overcome sin and put to death the desires of the flesh.  Turn your eyes upon Jesus.  Look to the cross.  Concentrate on Him and the redemption that you have in Him.  Focus your heart and mind on the fact that He died for you when you least deserved it.  Focus on His willingness to sacrifice Himself for you and take your place, and your heart will begin to fill with the love of God.  Your heart will begin to fill with a great love for Jesus.  You will desire Him.  You will want to please Him.  Nothing else will bring you the joy that He brings.  Nothing else will bring you the peace that He brings.  Nothing else will bring you the fulfillment that He brings.  The answer to your quest to be a better person is not to make more resolutions; it’s not to try harder–it’s to orient your entire life toward the One who died and rose again.  It’s to think about Him.  Think about what He did for you.  Long to walk daily with Him.

My brothers and sisters, we have Jesus in us.  We have the Spirit of God in us.  We are walking in Jesus.  We are walking in the Spirit.  Don’t let the world lure you away.  Don’t let the world trick you into going into its path.  Stand firm in Jesus.  Focus on the cross.  Let Jesus be your vision.  Amen.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Samson: God's Unjust Judge--Part 1

When I was young, I was fascinated by the story of Samson for one reason and one reason alone: the incredible strength that he had.  I marveled at how he killed a lion with his bare hands; how he killed 1000 men with the jawbone of a donkey; how he ripped city gates off their hinges and carried them from the city.  I was in awe.  Of course, I didn’t know much about all the other details of this Israelite judge.  I frankly didn’t care.  I didn’t care about his marital issues.  I didn’t care about his anger issues.  I didn’t care about his sexual appetite and want of prostitutes.  I didn’t care about his arrogance.  I didn’t care about his constant disobeying of God.  I just realized something, I’m assuming that you knew all of that.  I’m assuming you knew all of those other things about Samson as well.  Did you?  Did you know just how flawed a character Samson was?  I mean, when you realize just how flawed he was, you scratch your head in wonder that God chose him to be a judge of Israel.  And yet, God did exactly that.  God chose Samson to be a judge and begin the deliverance of God’s people from the Philistines.  Tonight, we begin Samson’s story and hear how God worked through a very flawed, very complex character.

We begin in Judges 13 where an angel of the Lord comes to a woman in the field. This is Samson’s mother–whose name is never mentioned.  Samson’s mother is barren–a source of shame upon her and in her community, and the angel has tremendous news for her: she will conceive and bear a son.  But there is a bit of a catch. Her son will be considered a Nazirite.
“The Nazirite vow to which the angel refers is found in Numbers 6:1-21, and contained three basic stipulations.  A Nazirite was not to cut hair during the period of the vow; was not to drink any produce from vines, alcoholic or non-alcoholic; and was not to have contact with any dead body. The purpose of the Nazirite vow was to ask for God’s special help during a crucial time.  It was a sign that you were looking to God with great intensity and focus.  Keeping one’s hair uncut and refraining from the fruit of the vine were ways of showing that you were “in training” toward a goal.  By refraining from touching a dead body, you were adopting the stringent rules of ceremonial cleanliness for priests, who were not allowed to touch anything dead because they worked in God’s house every day.  So the Nazarite was living before the presence of God every day.
As it clear from Numbers 6, the Nazirite vow was made voluntarily and for a definite period of time.  But Samson was being born into the Nazarite state involuntarily (his parents were taking the vow for him), and he was to stay a Nazirite all his life.  His mother was not to drink wine or eat unclean foods, because the Nazirite vow started immediately–when Samson was in her womb!  What she ate and drank, Samson-in-utero also would eat and drink.  God put Samson under this “rule” even when he was still unborn.  He was truly to be “set apart to God from [and before] birth.”  (Keller: Judges for You)
This was very exciting for Samson’s mother, so she immediately went and told her husband Manoah.  Manoah’s reaction is quite interesting.  He accepts his wife’s account of the facts, but he seems to want confirmation.  He craves additional information.  So he prays, “O Lord, I pray, let the man of God whom you sent come to us again and teach us what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born.”  I find this prayer interesting.  In one way, the angel of the Lord has already taught them what they were supposed to do: raise their son as a Nazirite.  What more did Manoah want?  Did he want every jot and tittle to be handed down from above?  Did he want the angel to tell them how many times a week they were supposed to take their son to worship?  Did he want the angel to tell them how many hours a week they needed to spend telling him about the Lord?  We honestly don’t know for sure.  But we know Manoah wanted more information; more data; more instruction.

Manoah would have fit in well with our society today.  We crave information.  In some ways, it’s like a drug that we get addicted to.  You walk into restaurants that have televisions, and 24 hour news stations are streaming.  We turn on our computers and pull up the news several times a day.  We scroll through our Facebook feeds seeing what our friends and family are doing and clicking on the links that they find interesting or important or infuriating.  We are overwhelmed by data!

And to an extent, this has trickled into our churches and congregations.  We want to know: how can we make our church grow.  What are the latest techniques; the latest resources; the latest magic bullets that will cause a congregation to attract others–or at the very least get people to open up their wallets and keep the lights on.  What is the latest interpretation of a particular biblical text?  What radically new idea has hit the market?  Who is the next famous preacher who will make Christianity easy to understand?  We crave more information.

You know what is interesting?  The angel of the Lord returns to Manoah and his wife, but–and here is the rub–there is no new information.  There is nothing.  Now, there is an interesting exchange between Manoah and the angel, and I won’t go into the specifics, but in that exchange, Manoah is trying to manipulate the angel and get more information.  Manoah is working to put the angel into a position where the angel will be forced to give extra data.  But the angel refuses.  The angel won’t be manipulated.  There’s a reason for that–in all likelihood, this angel is actually God’s Son.  I don’t have time to get into that whole scholarly argument right now, but it’s a good one.  In all likelihood, Manoah is meeting up with Jesus, and Jesus won’t be manipulated.  He also won’t give any more information than is necessary.

And that begs the question:
 “...why would the angel of the Lord have returned if he had no new information to give?  Manoah prayed for help, and that help was apparently refused.  But in fact, Manoah did get the help he needed, but not in the form he was asking for.  He wanted to know “what is to be the rule for the boy’s life and work?”–to have more regulations.  Instead, God gives Manoah a revelation of who he is.  As we have seen, the angel of the Lord is likely the Son of God.  And his name, he says, “is beyond understanding”–it is too wonderful for a human to grasp.  This points Manoah to his glory.  Then “the Lord” himself “did an amazing thing...as the flame blazed up from the altar toward heaven, the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame”.  He indelibly prints in their minds his greatness.
At last, Manoah “realized that it was the angel of the Lord. ‘We are doomed to die!’ he said to his wife. ‘We have seen God!’” He knows enough of his people’s history to understand that no one can see God’s face and live.  But while he panics, his wife remains calm.  “If the Lord had meant to kill us, he woudl not have accepted” their sacrifices; nor would he have “shown us all these things”.   Evidently, they have not died!  Interestingly, this reminds us that faith is not the absence of thinking, but it is thinking and acting on the basis of the word and promises of God.
      So in reply to being asked about how to bring up their God-given son as part of the outworking of God’s plan–how to live his way and please him–the Lord says: You need to know me and my character far more than you need more information.  All the rules in the world would not be able to give you direction in the innumerable decisions and choices you will have to make with your son.  Only a deep understanding of who I am can give you the guidance you need.
As we will see, Samson’s own life story...indicates that his parents fell quite short in their child-rearing, and failed to show and explain God’s character to their son.  Yet God’s message to them is a message to all of us.  We think we need rules, but we need to know God.  God does not, and will not, give us a guidebook for every twist and turn, every doubt and decision in our lives.  He gives us something much better–he gives us himself.
It is worth pausing on this point a little longer.  In general, a parent gives a child fewer details as he or she gets older.  When your child is very little, you must virtually follow them around and say: Don’t touch this and Don’t go here every step of the way!  A child doesn’t know not to put his finger in a wall socket, and doesn’t know not to eat dirt.  They need to conform to your commands.
The older a child gets, the more you expect them to incorporate the parent’s values and thinking and wisdom into their own heart so that they don’t need detailed instructions all the time.  In order to guide children into maturity, parents must increasingly move from lots of external rules to internal motives and principles of wisdom.
In the same way, Christians in the New Testament receive far fewer rules and regulations than believers in the Old Testament.  In the Old Testament, so much of what you could wear and eat and do was prescribed...What a huge amount of guidance and therefore certainty they could have!  Many Christians consider this a more advanced level of guidance than we have today.  Like Minoah, we would like to have considerably more regulations.
But that is to mistake external rules for a mature relationship.  Paul says that the Christian is not to be “conformed” but rather “transformed by the renewing of your mind”.  We don’t get lots of prescriptions; we do, through the Holy Spirit, get God, and enjoy knowing “the mind of Christ”.  We can look at his rescue on the cross, and his resurrection in triumph, and see the character of God much more clearly than even the greatest heroes in the Old Testament could.  We don’t need to know about God through his external standards when we can know God through his Spirit.  We need to remember the lesson Manoah was taught!  (Keller: Judges for You)  
 We don’t need extra information and data.  We need Jesus.

This will become even more clear as we go through the rest of Samson’s story...”The salvation Samson would bring would be incomplete.  He would only “begin the deliverance of Israel from the...Philistines”.  Samson is the last judge, but he points beyond himself–beyond the book of Judges–to the one who would complete the victory over the Philistines: to King David, God’s king anointed by Samuel.  And David’s salvation was also incomplete, because he provided rest from enemies but could not bring victory over the sin of his own heart, far less his people’s.  Only Jesus’ salvation is a complete salvation–in this sense, only he finished the job.  As an angel told Mary’s finance, Joseph: “he will save his people from their sins”.  Samson points us to David, and beyond him to the greater David–Jesus.” (Keller: Judges for You) Amen.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Radiating Jesus: Romans 8:1-4

This past week I did a wedding on Wednesday, and it was a very unique  wedding, at least for me. This couple had been trying to get married for a couple years. However each time they tried to get married something would happen. Twice, the groom was arrested.  I kid you not.  And the last time he was arrested, they had already gotten the marriage license. They still wanted to get married, so the bride’s brother was going to stand in for the groom.  I did some checking on that and found that such a practice was illegal unless one of the parties was in the military.  We had to reschedule once again.  The bride in this ceremony had her own set of issues.  We had helped this woman several times through our community care fund by giving her food and paying for her electric bill a couple of times.  But the last time she asked us for assistance, we called the light company and found out that she hadn’t paid her own light bill in over a year.  Someone else had always paid it for her.  We didn’t help her that time, and we haven’t since.   But, she does have a relationship with me, and she wanted me to do her wedding.

And so, Wednesday afternoon, out in Raccoon Bend, I stood at the porch of a dilapidated shack with two people.  One with a long criminal record.  One who had been playing the system for years, and with flea bitten dogs and puppies running around my feet, I presided at their wedding.  It was indeed a unique wedding, but I noticed something at that moment which is generally universal at all weddings.  I looked at the bride and groom as they stood gazing into each other’s eyes.  I looked at them as they made their vows and as they kissed afterward.  And they radiated love for one another.  No matter their past.  No matter the uncertainty of the future, the love that these two people had for one another was undeniable.  You could see it.

Perhaps you have seen such glimpses of this at times.  Perhaps you have seen someone who radiates love and life.  Perhaps you have glimpsed someone who is filled with an otherworldly spirit of hope, and it radiates into all that they say and do.  I have known several people like this, and I marvel at them. It’s one thing to get a glimpse of such a thing at a wedding or some other sort of function, but it is another thing to see someone who lives their life in such a fashion.  I want to spend time with people like that because when I do, I too feel full of hope.  I too feel full of joy.  I too feel full of peace.  And here is the question I want to pose to you this morning: shouldn’t our churches be full of such people?  Shouldn’t we radiate this kind of love, joy, and peace to others?  When folks walk into our buildings and meet us, shouldn’t they come away thinking, “Man, those folks are full of something otherworldly.  They are just different--in a good sort of way.”?

Folks who are like this; churches that are like this are because the Gospel has sunk in.  The Gospel has weaseled its way deep into their hearts and changed them from deep within.  The joy, love, and peace these individuals and churches have are not fleeting moments; they are lasting manifestations because folks have come to know the great love that God has poured out to them when they least deserved it.

Today, we begin Romans Chapter 8.  As I have begun my study of this chapter, one continuing commentary has been front and center.  Over and over I have heard, “Romans 8 is one of the greatest chapters in the entire Bible.”  If verses one through four are any indication, then indeed, the next few weeks will be a thrill ride.

The chapter begins with these words, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Stop a moment and think about those words.  Know that in the Greek, St. Paul uses some of the strongest possible language in this sentence.  Paul says, if you have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; if you have Him as your representative; if you are joined to Him, then you do not stand condemned.  Nothing you have ever done; nothing you are currently doing; nothing you will ever do will bring condemnation down upon you.  Nothing.  As long as Jesus is your representative; as long as you are in Him, you are right with God.  Those times when you took that extra drink?  No condemnation.  Those times when you lusted after someone who is not your spouse?  No condemnation.  Those people who took their own lives by suicide?  No condemnation.  Those times when you gossiped and lied about others?  No condemnation.  Those times when you thought you were doing everything right only to find that all that you had done was wrong?  No condemnation.  Those times when you held another person in contempt because they didn’t believe the way you believed?  No condemnation.  You are in Jesus Christ.  You are right with God.

Because, as Paul now says, “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”  Paul means here that because of all those things you once did, and will do, mind you, you deserve condemnation.  You deserve God’s wrath and anger.  If you break a law, you deserve punishment.  If you sin, you deserve to die.  That’s just the cold, hard facts.  But, when you are in Christ Jesus, there is another law that prevails.  There is another court of justice.  There is the law of the Spirit of life.  That doesn’t seem to make much sense until we go onto the next verse.

“Because God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh…”  Now, let’s try and wrap our heads around this for a moment.  What Paul is saying here is that the law could not turn us into good people.  The law could not make us behave.  The law could not change our hearts and make us say, “I’m going to do the right thing because the law told me to do so.”  No.  We saw earlier that whenever the law is given to us, there is something that rebels within us--the power of sin.  That power causes us to do the exact opposite of what we know to be right.  This is how the law was weakened by sinful flesh.  There is nothing wrong with the law, there is something wrong deep within us.  And here is the part that gets fascinating.  At least it’s fascinating to me.  God did what the law could not do by sending Jesus in the likeness of sinful flesh--mind you, Paul does not say that Jesus’ flesh was sinful or that Jesus was sinful.  Jesus came to earth in the flesh.  This is noteworthy because Paul says that Jesus condemned sin in the flesh.  What does that mean?  

It means that Jesus went to war with the power of sin, and he was not corrupted by it.  Whereas we become corrupted by the power of sin, Jesus was not.  Whereas we lose the battle and do what we know we shouldn’t do, Jesus won the battle and did what He was supposed to do.  In so doing, Jesus cornered the power of sin in His flesh; He took sin into His very being, and He condemned it.  He gave it a death blow.  He overcame it.  And he became a sin offering in the process.  I know you didn’t read that in the text that is in your bulletin, but the phrase “and to deal with sin” should probably be translated “became a sin offering.”  This means Jesus offered up himself to atone for our sins--to ensure that justice is served, and, here is where things get really, really cool…

Verse 4, “so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”  Now, if you just read this superficially, you might get the idea that all of a sudden, we will be able to fulfill God’s law perfectly.  We will be able to be perfect people who do everything correctly.  This is a wrong reading.  That’s not what Paul is getting at at all.  No.  In the Greek, the verb be fulfilled is a passive verb.  It is not an active verb.  This means, the fulfillment is not done by us.  The fulfilling of the law is not done by us.  We are powerless to fulfill the law.  There is only one who has fulfilled it.  There is only one who has accomplished it, and that is Jesus.  So, how can Paul then say that it might be fulfilled in us?  How in the world can it be fulfilled in us?  Here’s the cool part.  When we walk by the Spirit; when we have Jesus as our representative; when we are joined to Jesus: there is an interchange that takes place.  One of my commentaries put it this way, “Christ becomes what we are so that we might become what Christ is.”

Listen to that statement again because it sums up what happens when we are in Christ Jesus.  “Christ becomes what we are so that we might become what Christ is.”  Jesus takes on the likeness of sinful flesh, has the power of sin enter into him and try to corrupt Him--in this fashion, He becomes just like us.  But, He defeats sin.  He stays uncorrupted, and then offers Himself up for us as a sin offering.  In so doing, He covers all of our sins.  He makes us right before God, and then He places Himself on and in us through the power of the Spirit.  Jesus puts Himself on you and in you through the power of the Spirit.  

You may say at this point, “Well, that’s all well and good, but how come I don’t feel like Jesus?  How come I don’t have peace and joy and radiate love?  How come I can’t make those things happen in my life when I want them so badly?  I want to be peaceful.  I want to be joyful.  I want to radiate love.  How come I don’t?”

I think the answer is: you are trying to accomplish it yourself.  You are focusing on your actions and what you think you have to do to become joyful; peaceful; and radiate love.  What Paul is trying to convey to us here, I think is this: the answer to living a holy life full of love, peace, and joy is not to try harder.  It’s not to focus on my actions and what I do.  It’s to trust Jesus more; to turn my heart and my head toward Him and what He has done by His death and resurrection; to realize that He fulfilled the law for me; to realize He defeated sin for me; to realize that He won eternal life for me when I least deserved it.  And the more you turn to Him; the more you think about what He did on the cross for you; the more you reflect upon being joined to Him in His death and resurrection; the more and more you will become like Him.  And oftentimes you won’t even realize it because He is the one transforming you from the inside out!  

I have also come to believe what can be said about individuals can also be said about churches.  For years, I was told that a more business model of churches was what was needed to help our congregations grow.  Get a good, solid mission statement.  Implement long range planning.  Make a plan of how to welcome guests and visitors.  Implement a plan for programming so that it will grow along with your congregation.  I’ve seen a lot of congregations implement these things.  I’ve seen a lot of congregations who have the perfect plan for welcoming visitors and guests.  I’ve seen congregations with wonderful long range plans and fantastic mission statements.  And I’ve seen a few of these congregations grow.  Many more remain stagnant and even decline.  Why?  Where is the focus? What are these congregations emphasizing?  They are emphasizing and focusing on what they are supposed to do.  They are trusting in themselves to grow their churches--and for a time it might work.  It did at my previous congregation right up until the time disagreements broke out.  Right up until the time folks began arguing about what programs were right and what programs were wrong.  That is what inevitably happens whenever you focus on what you are supposed to do.  Folks can and do disagree about such things, and oftentimes with just cause.

However, there really is no argument about what God has done for us.  There really is no argument about what Jesus has accomplished for us on the cross.  There really is no argument about how He poured Himself out for us while we were still sinners.  When a church focuses on Jesus and what Jesus has done; when He becomes the full sum and substance of why a church worships, fellowships, teaches, programs, and the like; when Jesus dominates everything and the Gospel permeates the thoughts and minds of a church’s members, the doing comes naturally--because Jesus is transforming us into His image and likeness.  How do we become people who radiate love, peace and joy for more than just a few moments?  How do we become a church that radiates love, peace and joy for more than just a few Sundays?  The answer isn’t do more--it’s remembering that in Christ there is no condemnation because He has become like us and defeated sin and death so that we can become like Him.  Amen.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Embrace of the Father: Romans 7:14-24

The other night, I had just drifted off to sleep.  It had been a long several days, and my body was craving sleep so badly, that I was asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow.  But I awoke with a start as I heard someone moving in my room.  It was my oldest daughter.  She was breathing heavily, on the verge of tears.  “Daddy, I had a night mare.  I’m scared.  I can’t go back to sleep.”

I reached out and held her for a few moments.  I reassured her.  I sent her back to her room.  She left.  I looked at the clock.  Only thirty minutes had passed since I laid down.  I curled up, hoping to recapture the dreams that had held me captive and in restful sleep.

But sleep did not come because only minutes later, my daughter returned, this time in tears.  “Daddy, I can’t fall asleep.”  This time, there were no reassuring hugs.  I was stern, “Turn on you radio.  Go to sleep!”

She left, and once again, I pursued much needed rest.  It was not to be had.  Just a few minutes later, my other daughter entered the room.  “Daddy, I’m really scared!  I can’t sleep.” I hugged and reassured her. I told her, go back to sleep.”  As she exited the room, she said, “Kiera’s in her bed crying.”

By that time, I had had it.  I was angry.  Not only had my sleep been interrupted, but so had others.  It was time for stern measures.  It was time to force the issue of sleep.  I headed to my eldest’s room.

“Go to sleep!” I said as soon as I entered.

“I can’t go to sleep!” my daughter said through tears.  She had taken all of her stuffed animals off her bed.  She had the bare minimum of sheets and pillows.  I reached for a blanket next to her bed to cover her with, and she cried, “I don’t want that.”  And then, she reached for me.  She stretched out her arms and wrapped them around me, and I did the same with her.  I laid my head next to hers, and I simply held her.  Her crying stopped.  Her breathing slowed.  In moments, her breathing was rhythmic, and she was fast asleep.  Whatever nightmares had haunted her, they had vanished in seconds.  They had vanished because of the embrace of her father.

I arose and walked out of the room, and I looked in my middle daughter’s room.  She had turned on her bathroom light, her closet light, and the light next to her bed.  She was laying in bed with the covers pulled up to her neck and eyes wide open.  I walked to her bathroom saying, “No.  No.  No.”  I turned off the bathroom light, the closet light, and the light by her bed.  “No.  No.  No.”  I sat down next to her.  Embraced her.  Laid my head down next to her and held her tight.  Within moments, she too was sleeping soundly.  The fears and anxieties that had haunted her were gone.  She was at peace all because she had been wrapped in the arms of her father.

I thought to myself at that moment, “That is what it is like to be embraced by the loving power of God.”  Whatever fears, whatever anxieties, whatever nightmares haunt you, they are erased in moments when you find yourself resting in the powerful arms of your heavenly Father–when you understand what grace is all about.

Unfortunately, today, most folks don’t understand grace because either they don’t believe in God or they have no fear of God’s anger toward sin.  There is a message seeping out into society that says, “You may make a few mistakes from time to time, but basically, you are a good person.  You are fine just the way you are.  Don’t get down on yourself at all.”  If you take God seriously, you simply cannot feel that way about yourself.  You can’t think that you are just fine.

The apostle Paul certainly did not feel that way about himself, and he is one of the greatest messengers of the Christian faith that walked the earth.  Last week, in out snippet from Romans Chapter seven, he laid out his case for how the law works–how it confronts us with our sinfulness.  If you were here last week, you were presented with a list of the demands of God.  I don’t think anyone in this room could fulfill even one of those demands.  If we use God’s standard for measurement, we are not simply sinful–we are sinners.

Paul knew this down to the very marrow of his bones.  He knew how he stood in comparison to the law.  He knew where he stood when it came to accomplishing following God, and it scared him.  It literally scared him to death.

Paul knows that there is a power at work within him.  He knows there is a power that is corrupting his body.  He knows that something is very wrong deep within him.  He knows that the law comes from God and is spiritual.  He knows that the law is holy and just and good.  But he also knows that he is fleshy.  He knows he is still under the influence of this world–sold into slavery under sin, as he puts it.  And he is not happy about this.  Because he wants to be good.  He wants to do good.  He wants to do the right thing at all times and in all places.  But he cannot, “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.”

Have you ever found yourself there?  Have you ever found yourself thinking, “I know what I should do...”  I know I should be more generous, but the economy looks shaking.  I know I should give my new neighbors a chance, but they have some weird ideas and don’t do things like I do them.  I know I should be forgiving, but the pain that person has caused me is so great.  I know I should talk about my faith in Christ to others, but I don’t think I know enough and people might get upset with me.  Can any of you relate?  Can any of you understand what it means to know what is right and yet fail to do it?

So, what is the problem?  Why is it that we know there is a standard that is good but fail to do it?  Why is it that we know that the law is good, but we fail to implement it?  Because, Paul now says, that deep within us–deep within him–is a power that is at war with the good.  There is a power that is moving deep within our members that is corrupting us and leading us astray.  There is a power that won’t release its hold on us.  A power that is subtle when it needs to be subtle; brutal when it needs to be brutal.  It is a power that will do whatever it takes to lead us away from what we know deep down in the innermost part of our being to be right.  That power, Paul says, is sin.  And it continues to corrupt us.  It continues to influence us.  It continues to work on us toward its purpose so that we do not become what God intends us to be.  “I can will what is right,” Paul says, “but I cannot do it.”  Sin dwells in me.  It corrupts me.

And so, I find myself at war, Paul says.  Deep within my heart, I love God and His law.  I love the commandments because I know that they are for my good.  I want to please God and honor Him.  I want to implement these things because they are given to me by God Himself.  Deep down, I know this.  Deep down, to the core of my being, I want to do this.  But, outside the core of my being, sin holds the rest of me captive.  I cannot escape it.  I cannot avoid it.  I cannot overcome it.  I am wretched!

What a horrible thing to say about one’s self.  What an absolutely horrendous thing to say.  When you call yourself wretched, you are saying that you are worthless, of no value, miserable, devastated, heartbroken.  None of us want to feel this way.  None of us want to go down this path.  But if we hold ourselves to the standard of God’s law and take God’s law in its entirety seriously, then this is exactly where we cannot help but end up.  Wretched.  Paul, when he gets to this point cries out, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  Paul is having a nightmare.  Paul is unable to sleep.  Paul is scared to death.

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Who rescues us from this nightmare?  Who wraps His arms around us so that we can sleep?  Who brings us peace in the midst of this conflict?  Jesus.  Only Jesus.

“Not the labors of my hands can fulfill thy law’s demands”
Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone, thou must save, and thou alone”
Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.
Naked come to the for dress; Helpless, look to the for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me Savior, or I die.
Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”

This hymn speaks deeply to what God has done in Jesus Christ.  It speaks of how Christ gave Himself up for us to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  It speaks of how in the midst of our sin, Christ washes us clean and clothes us with His righteousness.  We are indeed wretched, but we are cleansed.  We deserve God’s righteous anger, and we have received His marvelous love.  We are sinners who deserve just condemnation, and we are saints who have received salvation.

I wish I could convey to you better what this means.  I wish I had the ability to help you see this just like I had the ability to wrap my arms around my daughters in the midst of their fear and anxiety and bring them rest.  I wish I could convey to you the deep love of God for you–to show you the depths that He has gone to redeem you.  I wish I could make it tangible–to make it come alive within you so that each and everyday you might cry out, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  I wish I had the ability to have this settle deep within your hearts because it was this Gospel that changed the world so long ago.  It was this gospel that inspired a small group of disciples to take this message throughout the world.  It was this gospel that transformed individuals and then societies.  It was this gospel that brought people to a place where they didn’t fear to die; they didn’t fear loving those who were different than they were.  They didn’t fear the future.  They were consumed with loving God and loving their neighbor.  They offered forgiveness.  They offered hope.  They were at peace.

This is desperately needed in our world right now.  The anger, fear, and anxiety in our society are palpable.  You need only to read the news and see how people are treating one another today.  You need only to turn on the television to see how the seeds of distrust have been sown–how we tend to walk on eggshells because we don’t want to cause someone to erupt with anger and hatred.   How we have to measure every single word that we say or type because of how it can be misconstrued and used against us.  How we cluster into our various groups: conservative, liberal, democrat, republican, men, women, race, color, creed and look at others as a threat to us.  How we worry about threat after threat after threat.  Sin is using these things to divide.  To scare.  To breed hatred.   Sin is still very much a disease that infects not only us, but the world.

Jesus is the cure.  Jesus can bring healing.  And it starts right here.  With us.  With our hearts being captured by His love.  With our being a community of people focused on Him.  I pray this day that we all may know the depths of His love for us, that we too might find peace and rest in Him; that we may be a community that lives in Him; that we feel His presence with us and that our fears and anxieties may cease.  May we all know the love of Jesus.  Amen.

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.