Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Your Own Personal Jesus


(Note: the podcast on Youtube is a little different from the written text following.)

    Our Gospel lesson today is so rich, it’s so deep that much could be said about it.  Much could be written about it, and it has.  Volumes have been written about taking up one’s cross and following Jesus.  There is not enough time this morning to do justice to this text and its implications for our lives, but never-the-less, we are called to wrestle with it this morning, and we shall.

    This snippet from the Gospel of Matthew follows another very important snippet, and I think we need to visit it for just a moment as well.  Let’s look at the verses directly preceding our appointed text for this morning.  From Matthew 16:

    13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

    Now, immediately after this episode–immediately after Peter’s declaration, Jesus begins telling the disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, endure persecution, be killed, and be raised.  Peter is not happy with this.  Mind you, this is the same Peter who has just had loads of praise heaped upon him by Jesus just a few verses earlier.  I don’t exactly know what was going through Peter’s head.  I don’t’ know if Jesus’ praise earlier emboldened him or gave him the idea he could confront Jesus about what he was saying.  I’m not sure why he suddenly thinks that as the student he could correct the teacher.  But what I do know is that Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.  Now, rebuke is the word used in English, but perhaps it doesn’t quite fit.  The Greek word is epitimao, which has as its basic meaning to properly assign value as fitting the situation.  I want you to think about this because Peter is doing exactly that to Jesus.  Remember, Peter had just said to Jesus, “You are the Messiah.”

    And what was the expectation of the Messiah?  You’ve probably heard me say this more than a few times in preaching here.  The Messiah, according to Jewish tradition, would be God’s representative on earth.  He would be an earthly king who would establish Jerusalem as the city of God.  The Messiah would establish Israel as the kingdom of God and wipe out Israel’s enemies–this particularly meant the Romans at the time.  The Messiah would then issue in a time of peace, prosperity, and justice for Israel.  All nations would look upon Israel as a place of power and prestige and honor.  This was what the Messiah was supposed to do, and yet, Jesus had just said, He would go to Jerusalem, be persecuted, die, and be raised.  This did not fit the Messianic narrative.  This was not what Jews expected of their Messiah, and Peter was taking it upon himself to “properly assign value as fitting the situation.”  Peter was letting Jesus know what He was supposed to do as the Messiah.  Peter wasn’t letting Jesus be Jesus; Peter was trying to make Jesus fit into a particular box.  Jesus isn’t too thrilled with Peter, but we will get to that in a moment.

    Because here we need to recognize something about ourselves.  Here we need to recognize our own desire to put Jesus in a box.  We need to recognize how we oftentimes construct our own, personal Jesus–with apologies to Depesche Mode.  We need to recognize that many times we construct and find a Jesus to suit our needs, our wants, and our desires.  We construct and find a Jesus who makes us feel good–who meets our expectations; who comforts us and makes us feel good about ourselves.  It is not Jesus who impacts and changes us–it is we who make Jesus in our own image to justify ourselves and our wants and expectations.

    As you can imagine, Jesus doesn’t exactly relish this thought.  Jesus doesn’t relish being turned into something to be used by others.  Jesus doesn’t like being told what He has to do and how He has to do it.  I mean, apparently, He doesn’t even let Peter get very far into the argument.  The text says, “Peter began–BEGAN, to rebuke Jesus, and Jesus turned his back on Peter and said, ‘Get behind me Satan.  For you are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  We will come back to this in just a moment because it is important.  But let’s continue for just a moment with Jesus’ teaching because He then turns to His disciples and says, “If anyone wants to be my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.  25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”

    Lots to unpack here.  Lots.  First, let’s start with Jesus’ response to Peter.  “Get behind me Satan!”  This is a harsh word–a very harsh word.  “For you are a stumbling block to me.”  Why is this reaction so harsh?  Do any of you remember the story of when Jesus was tempted by the devil in Matthew chapter four?  Do you remember when the Devil took Jesus to a high mountain, showed Jesus the kingdoms of the world and said, “All these I will give to you if you would bow down and worship me.”?  Do you remember this episode?  You might not, but I am sure Jesus heard those echoes coming through Peter’s voice right here.  I am sure Jesus heard the exact same temptation He faced when the Devil came to Him in the middle of the desert.  Same temptation.  Different voice.  And Jesus responds appropriately.  “I told you once, Satan.  I tell you again.  No.  You are a stumbling block to me because you are setting your mind on earthly things and not on divine things.”  See how that ties together?

    And Jesus nails not only Satan, but He nails Peter–and all of us.  For you see, most of us like to use Jesus as a means to an end.  Most of us like to use Jesus as our ticket to the things we think will make us happy.  I am sure you have heard one or more preachers proclaim that if you believe in Jesus, you will have all that you desire.  You will have health, you will have wealth, you will have victory in your finances, in your life, your relationships will be perfect, and you will be completely happy.  You see, if you adhere to this kind of belief, you really don’t want Jesus.  You want health; you want wealth; you want happiness; you want the perfect family; you want all these things, and you want Jesus to give them to you.  You want your own personal, Jesus.  And Jesus says, “No.”  “Get behind me.”  “You are setting your mind on earthly things, not divine things.”

    Which begs the question, how do we set our mind on divine things?  Jesus says, “If anyone wants to follow me, let them take up their cross and follow me.  For if anyone wants to save their life, they must lose it; and if anyone loses their life for my sake, they will find it.” 

    Now, it is at this point where those of us who are pastors and preachers usually start talking about what it means to live a Christian life.  We start telling you that taking up your cross means doing all the things listed in our second lesson from the book of Romans.  I will not read this text in its entirety, but I will read a couple of verses, “9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”  That’s four verses.  There’s a lot more.  Let me ask you this: have you managed to do those things listed in those four verses very well?  Have you managed to let love be genuine?  Love one another with mutual affection?  Outdo each other in showing honor?  Probably not.  None of us do–at least to the extent we know we should.  In fact, if we focus on trying to do all of these things.  If we try to follow the Law in order to please God as if this will save our lives, we will actually lose them.  How, you might ask?  Aren’t we supposed to do these things?  Aren’t we supposed to love and honor and be generous?  Yes, we are, but if you place these things as the ultimate things in your life, it will lead to despair and death.  What do I mean by that?

    Just this: you are not trying to get Jesus–you are trying to save yourself.  You are trying to achieve perfection. And when you put anything other than Jesus as your ultimate goal, you will not have life.  You will find death.  And I am not simply talking about hell.  No.  I am talking about this life right here and right now.  You will spend your entire life in frustration becoming angry and bitter and upset and burned out and tired because you will be chasing a rabbit down an endless hole–never catching that rabbit; never feeling like you have accomplished enough.  If you believe in Jesus so that you can get wealth; you will never get enough wealth.  If you believe in Jesus so that you can get health; you will never find yourself healthy enough, and when you start declining, you will become bitter.  If you believe in Jesus so that you can get happiness; you will be miserable when bad things happen to you.  If you think Jesus makes you try to be perfect and do all the works of the Law, you will tire yourself out trying to follow them; you will never think you’ve done enough; and you will become resentful toward God and toward those who aren’t trying hard like you.  In all of these instances, and many more, divine things have been shoved out, and earthly things have consumed your mind.  And you’ve lost your life.  You aren’t really living.

    “If anyone wants to save their life, they will lose their life. And if anyone loses their life for my sake they will find it.”  How is this possible? 

    If we follow Jesus, where will it eventually lead?  If we follow Jesus where does He take us?  To the cross.  Not where we die, but where Jesus died.  Not where we earned our salvation, but where Jesus stretched out His arms and bought it for us.  Not because we lived the perfect life and did all the right things, but precisely the opposite–because we were constantly setting our mind on earthly things and neglecting the things of God. 

    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 not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.

    This was the divine mission of Jesus.  This is what He came into the world to do.  Anything else was a stumbling block.  He came to reconcile the world unto God–to die for you because He loves you.  Set your mind on this.  Let it be at the center of your heart.  It will change you.  You will die to yourself, and you will find abundant life.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

It's a Heart Thing; Or, If you Want to Lose Your Salvation, Make Your Deepest Desire Something Other than God

There are many who struggle with the concept of grace.

I understand--more than one might realize.

For it is only after really starting to get what the Gospel is all about that I can now look back and see where I was and how I preached a modern day type of Pharisaism.

Did I believe Jesus died for our sins?  Absolutely.
Did I believe we were saved by grace through faith in Christ alone?  Yep.
Did I believe that Jesus' death and resurrection were totally and completely sufficient for my salvation?  Nope.  I didn't.  I believed there was still something I had to do.  I had to maintain my salvation by living a life worthy of my justification.  And I thought it my duty to inform others that they had to live such lives as well.

You see, I believed in the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ, but I didn't believe that I was clothed in His righteousness.  I didn't realize that not only did Jesus die the death I deserved, but He lived the life I was supposed to live.  And since He fulfilled the Law, I am no longer under its discipline.

1) How in the world could I say such a thing?  2) Aren't we supposed to do good things?  3) Aren't we supposed to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God?  4) Aren't we supposed to love our neighbor as we love ourselves?  5) Aren't we supposed to strive for moral righteousness?  6) Won't we end up receiving God's wrath if we don't seek such things?

First (1), I didn't say such a thing.  I'm parroting St. Paul.  Galatians 3,

 23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.

Second, (2) yes, (3) yes, (4) yes, (5) yes, and (6) no.

But, you might point out to me, St. Paul says that we will endure God's wrath and will not inherit the Kingdom of God.  He is straight forward in 1 Corinthians 6:

9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. 11And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. 
First off, please note the sequence to which Paul addresses:  These folks will not inherit the kingdom of God.  Period.  Short list.  Followed by, "And this is what you used to be."  Used to be.  But because of God's grace.  Because of Jesus life and death, you ARE NOW WASHED, SANCTIFIED, and JUSTIFIED.  You are now no longer these things because you are looked at differently.

"But," you might say, "What if I still am greedy?  (Anyone out there NOT want more money?  If you want more money to live on, you are exhibiting greed, even if it is slight.)  What if I still am an idolater?  (If you love anything more than God at any point, you are an idolater.  Most of us fit here easily.)  What if I lust after another?  (Most people still do this thereby breaking the Sixth Commandment and the direct teaching of Jesus.)  Will I still inherit the kingdom of God, or am I on the outs?  Do I still have my salvation, or have I lost it?"

Let's read verse 12 because it is vastly important.  "12 ‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me’, but I will not be dominated by anything."

The key word here, I think is dominated, or in the Greek: exousias.   The word connotes power and authority.  St. Paul says, basically, I will not come under the power of or be subject to the rule of anything--anything, that is, except Christ.

Paul is addressing the desire of one's heart, and all the things he lists in verses 9 and 10 have to do with the condition of one's heart.  "You used to be these things," because these were the deepest desires of your heart.  You wanted more money, more sex, more pleasure; these were your idols.  These were your gods.  But now, Christ reigns in your heart.  These things might rear their ugly heads from time to time, but Christ now is your ruler--you are subject to and dominated by Him.

Paul echoes Jesus here.  For Jesus explicitly talked about the nature of one's heart in regards to sin and salvation:

Matthew 5: 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

Now, we know an eye does not cause a person to sin.  Neither does a hand.  What causes the eye to look and the hand to grab?  The condition of one's heart.  If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.  If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  But it is not the hand.  It is not the eye.  It is the heart.  And lest you think I am simply explaining Jesus' words away, please note, He says so Himself a little later in the book of Matthew.

Matthew 15:18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’ 
The deepest desire of your heart is that which dominates you.  It is that which rules you.  It is that which keeps you hungering after more and more and more.  And, unless that deepest desire is Jesus, it will never, ever be satisfied.  Never.  For all eternity.

For this is the kicker to the whole deal.  God loves you so much, He will allow you to pursue your deepest, heart's desire for eternity.  If your desire is to be separated from Him, He will grant it.  If your desire is to pursue sex for eternity, He will grant it.  If your deepest desire is for money, He will grant it.  Here's a frightening one: if your desire is to perfectly follow God's Laws so that you will not lose your salvation; God will grant this too.  If you build your identity upon these things, God will see to it that these things are yours forever.  And you will never, ever be satisfied.  You will always be hungry.  You will always need more and more and more.  Forever.

This, my readers, is hell.  Absolute hell.  Read Dante's Inferno to get a little more insight if you choose.

And speaking of choice, this is how you can ultimately lose your salvation.  Not by committing sins.  Everyone sins.  Day after day after day.   No one perfectly follows the commands of Jesus or the Old Testament Laws.  No one fulfills them.  This why we are saved by grace.  This is why our salvation is maintained by grace.  Not by our own doing, but by Jesus' doing.  And this is why we pursue Him; not the Law.  For when He is our deepest heart's desire, our salvation is absolutely assured.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Peace in the Storm


Gospel Lesson: Matthew 14:22-33

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’  28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

    O.K.  I know this is going to sound a bit strange, but I want you to forget everything you’ve ever heard about our Gospel lesson for just a few minutes.  Really, I do.  I mean, I know some of you have heard this lesson preached on more than a few times.  In my time here with you, this is actually the fourth time I’ve preached on it because of the three year lectionary cycle.  And there is a reason I want you to forget about what has been preached.  That reason is, nearly every time I have preached on this text, I’ve made it about what we are supposed to do.  Nearly every sermon I have heard preached on this text does exactly that–it focuses on what we should do. 

    “Keep your eyes on Jesus even in the midst of the storms.”

    “If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.”

    “Don’t doubt, just believe.”

    Did you hear the focus of all these points?  Did you hear what is lifted up?  It’s all about me and what I need to be doing.  Forget that stuff for a few minutes.  Forget those points as ends, and let’s look at this text and work our way through it.  Let’s turn the focus away from ourselves and put the focus squarely where it needs to be: on Jesus.

    Jesus had just fed the multitude on the hillside, and He was finally going to get some rest and recovery time to pray with His Heavenly Father.  Jesus sent His disciples across the lake while He prayed.  The disciples did exactly as Jesus commanded.  They headed out, but they faced a rough night on the lake.  The wind was against them, and they were struggling.  Here’s where things get interesting.

    Jesus walked across the lake and came upon them during the early morning hours.  Now, for those of you who are skeptical about the laws of physics being broken, I want to point out two things.  First off, do some reading about quantum physics and try to understand that there are no set laws which govern every situation anymore.  Science works in terms of probability–not certainty.  It is highly improbable that anyone can walk on water, but it is not impossible.  Secondly, as C.S. Lewis would point out, if you are interested in Christianity, it’s important to work backward.  Start with the resurrection and then work backward.  I will be happy to point out why I believe the resurrection is an actual, historical event where Jesus truly was raised from the dead, but now is not the time for that.  What can be said is this: if God can raise Jesus from the dead, then it is certainly possible for Jesus to walk on water.  Which is exactly what the story says He does as He comes to the disciples.

    As we would expect, the disciples are scared out of their wits.  They are not idiots.  They are familiar enough with the way the world works to know that no normal human being can walk on water in the middle of great wind and waves.  They believe it is a ghost coming toward them, and when confronted with the paranormal, they cry out in fear.  Don’t tell me you wouldn’t do the same if a ghost suddenly appeared right here this morning!  (Ooh, that reminds me of a joke...)  The disciples are trembling in that little boat not sure of what to expect.

    And Jesus speaks words of reassurance.  “Take heart, have courage, it is me.”

    In the midst of their fear, Jesus offers words of assurance.  He offers words of comfort.  He offers words of calm.  Think about this for a moment as you reflect upon those times in your life when you have been fearful; when you have trembled at the thought of something you are facing; when you are uncertain or facing trials.  How often have you heard the voice of Jesus, through the words of the Bible or through someone else tell you, “Take heart.  Be courageous.  I am here.”  How often, in the midst of such things, does Jesus still remind us He is with us?  Quite often, I believe.  Quite often.  Jesus continually offers us words of comfort in the midst of our storms. 

    However, how many of us are actually calmed by those words?  Be honest.  How many of you when you hear, “Everything is going to be okay.  Jesus is with you,” immediately take a deep breath, lose all your fear, and find yourself at peace?  I’m not seeing many hands, and if your hand is up, I’m tempted to call you out on that because the reality is hardly any of us lose our fear.  Hardly any of us are totally at peace.  I’m pointing the finger at myself here as well.  I mean, classic example, when Dawna was pregnant with Kevin six years ago, outside I seemed pretty normal, but inside, I was a nervous wreck.  I knew of all the things that could go wrong with a pregnancy, and I was worried about all of them.  I gained quite a bit of weight during that time because of nervous eating.  Did I know Jesus was with me?  Sure.  Did I know the pregnancy was an absolute gift from God?  Yep to that one too.  Did it stop me from being fearful?  Not a chance.  It was there.  It’s there for most of us.

    Perhaps, just perhaps this is why Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to walk toward you.”  Now, Peter isn’t a fool.  Peter knows very well the rabbinical tradition of early Judaism.  Peter knows that a rabbi expects his students to imitate him, and Peter is throwing out a perfectly good challenge to Jesus.  Peter is asking for a sign.  We are not all that different.  I mean, how many of us when we think we understand what we are supposed to do say, “O.K., Lord, if you really want me to do this, give me a sign.  Show me in some sort of way that this is the right thing for me.”  When I was in the midst of discerning whether or not to come to Cat Spring years ago, I did exactly this. I was like, “O.K. God, if this is where you need me to be, I’ve got to have a fenced in yard on that parsonage.  Will the folks do it?”  Y’all did.  “O.K. God, if this is where you want me to be, I need to make at least this much money.”  That’s what it was.  And it all kept falling into place.  Each time I tested the Lord, He gave me the sign.  Through it, I was reassured.  Perhaps this is exactly why Peter speaks up.  He needs that reassurance.  Jesus says, “Come.”

    Now, here is where things get interesting because Peter steps out of the boat.  By all indications, he is actually able to walk on the water for several steps.  But then things go haywire.  With the wind and the waves making their presence known, Peter starts to sink.

    How many times does this happen to us?  I mean, really.  If you claim to follow Jesus, how many times have you heard His commands and tried to follow it?  How many times have you ventured out and found some success?  How many times have you said, “Well, this following Jesus stuff is okay. I can manage it.”?  Only after a few steps you suddenly find yourself overwhelmed? 

•    Oh, I know I am supposed to love my neighbor, but he is spreading rumors about me.

•    Oh, I know I am supposed to give to everyone who begs, but they are taking advantage of my good nature.

•    Oh, I know I am supposed to stop looking at another person with lust, but that woman is very attractive.

•    Oh, I know I am supposed to love God more than money, but I keep thinking about all the stuff I can now buy.

And it continues.  If we are honest with ourselves, we know that even though Jesus commands it, we know we will not be able to fully follow it.  We know we fall short of doing what Jesus wants us to do.  And when we truly confront this about ourselves, the words of that old Gospel Hymn hit us right where we live:
I was sinking deep in sin, far from that peaceful shore
Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more

    Yes.  If we had to follow Jesus commands, we couldn’t do it.  We can’t do it.  If we are supposed to get out of the boat, we will sink.  If we try to do what Jesus tells us to do and work out our own salvation, we will flounder.  The wind and the waves are too great.  But it’s not about us.  That’s the good news.  It’s not about us.  It’s about Jesus.  Let me finish off the words to that hymn: Love Lifted Me:
But the Master of the sea, heard my despairing cry
From the waters lifted me, now safe, safe am I

    You see, it’s all about Jesus.  It’s all about Him and what He does.  When I am terrified, He offers His voice of calm.  When I don’t heed that voice and I try to make it on my own; when I try to follow His commands and I flounder knowing I cannot accomplish them, Jesus reaches out to me and pulls me up.

    And this incident with Peter and the disciples on that boat is just a foretaste of the ultimate saving power of Jesus Christ.  Jesus lifting Peter out of the water is just a foretaste of the time when Jesus would face the ultimate storm; face the ultimate time of despair; face the ultimate penalty for sin so that He could lift the world out of darkness and despair and bring them to safety.

            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 may be saved through Him.

    On the cross, Jesus faced the separation from God that we deserved.  On the cross, Jesus faced that ultimate storm brought about by our failure to do what God called us to do.  On the cross, Jesus said, “You can’t be completely courageous; you can’t completely follow my commands.  If you venture out onto the water, you will sink.  You cannot save yourself, so I will save you.  I will put you back in the boat.  I will reconcile you unto my Father.  You are a failure, but by my actions, you are accepted.”

    You see, it’s all about Jesus.  It’s all about His actions.  We are constantly afraid.  We are constantly trying to test God and justify ourselves.  We are constantly sinking, and Jesus is constantly reaching out, lifting us up, and reassuring us.  He is constantly telling us, “Stop trying to justify yourself.  Stop trying to find your assurance in what people say about you or your accomplishments.  I’ve already taken care of it all.  You might never accomplish much in the eyes of the world, but because of what I have done, you are on good terms with your Heavenly Father.  We love you.  Do not doubt this.  Trust it.  Trust it with your entire being.  And you will know peace in the midst of the storm.”  Amen.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Pentecostals in the Park

Sunday evening, my wife and I took our kids out to eat, and after dinner, we went to the Sealy Park.  My kids are old enough to enjoy the playgrounds on their own, so my wife and I decided to walk as the kids played.  We knew we were in for a rather different sort of walk when we pulled up to the park.

Under the pavilion, a group had gathered with musical instruments, microphones, and plenty of chairs.  As we exited our car, we heard them singing praise songs.  Obviously, a local congregation had gathered this evening to worship. 

I observed a few intriguing things as I walked:

1. The congregation was essentially oblivious to everyone else in the park.  They simply did their thing perhaps hoping doing their thing would rub off on the rest of the people in the park that afternoon.

2. The rest of the folks in the park were basically oblivious to the congregation which was worshiping.  Several groups continued to play volleyball.  A father and his sons threw a football.  Numerous kids played in the splash pad--all with no concern for this group gathered to worship.

If evangelism and getting folks to worship with them was a goal, it failed.  My wife and I walked around the park about 10 times or so passing this pavilion each time.  No one asked us to join.  No one invited us to sing and be a part of the gathering.  Apparently, this Pentecostal group and most Lutherans have at least this in common...

Now, at this juncture, I would like to make it absolutely clear that I admired this church for taking its proclamation public.  I admire them stepping outside of their four walls and gathering in the open air where others gathered.  I admire them leaving the safety of their sanctuary to risk ridicule in a culture that has become more than a few voices saying, "You can have faith; just keep it private."  Too often, we kowtow to those voices instead of allowing our deep trust in God filter into our everyday lives.

I needed to put all of that out and admire their courage because as I heard their proclamation--their articulation of "the gospel"--I cringed.

Not that I had any right to cringe.  I mean, two or three years ago, I might well have been saying the same basic things just in a different manner.  But that was before my conversion.  Now, I see things in a totally different light.  I see how I was a modern-day Pharisee, and I heard modern-day Pharisaism plain as a bell.

The preacher lifted his voice in that perfect Pentecostal rhythm, cadence, and accent, and each time I cringed.  Several times, I responded out loud. (My responses will be in italics.)

"Gawd wants to bless yuh, today-ah."

He already has.

"Gawd wants to heal yuh, today-ah."

He already is.

"Gawd wants to bring yuh peace, today-ah."

He already does.

"Yuh just have to follow Him and give your life to Him, today-ah."

He's already claimed it.

"Gawd wants to bless our nation, but we must turn to Him first and repent-ah."

Didn't I just preach about this today?

From yesterday's post:

The Pharisees taught over and over and over that the people of Israel should purify themselves.  And if the people of Israel would purify themselves, God would look down upon their purity; their holiness, and be moved to action.  What sort of action?  Well, to establish the Kingdom of God–that kingdom where all of Israel’s enemies were overthrown, a new king who was a king of justice and wisdom would ascend the thrown and lead the people in righteousness, and the Israelites would become another world power growing in wealth and prosperity and power.  The Pharisees believed that if they followed the holiness code contained in the Torah–the first five books of the Old Testament–then God would be forced to act in such a fashion. 

How was the proclamation I was hearing in the park different from the proclamation of the Pharisees so long ago?

It wasn't.  And it isn't.

And there's an awful lot of this proclamation going around.

There's an awful lot of folks preaching that we've got to get our collective acts together for unless we do, God will not bless or God will punish.  Many folks say this is the Gospel, but there is one problem.

It's not the Gospel. 

The Gospel is about what God has ALREADY accomplished through Jesus Christ.  The Gospel is about how God has ALREADY blessed us, forgiven us, justified us, and prepared our salvation for us WHILE WE WERE STILL SINNERS.  There is no "repent and God will bless you."  It's "God has blessed you, no repent." 

Just this past Sunday, I took my adult Sunday School class through this--through the wonder of the Gospel.  A class that usually had lots to say--that raises many comments and questions--sat in almost stunned silence.  I asked why.

"This is deep.  It's tough to get your head around."

I agree.  I told them, "Don't feel bad.  I've been preaching for 14 years.  I have eight years of formal theological training.  Before that, I was born and raised in the church, and I am only now beginning to get it."

It's not surprising the response out of those adults.  It's not surprising the proclamation I heard in the park.  For every philosophy and religion teaches the exact opposite of the Gospel.  We are immersed in a culture and in a world which tells us--do the right thing, and you will be rewarded.  Work hard in school, and you will get good grades.  Do your job correctly, and you will be compensated fairly.  Follow the rules, and you will be treated well.  This is pounded into our being from day one.  Theologically, this train of thought is put forth in this manner, "Do what God says; be obedient to Him, and He will love you; you will attain salvation; you will be blessed; etc."

And the Gospel turns it upside down.  The Gospel says, "You are loved; you are cherished; you are saved by Jesus' actions, now be obedient to God." 

It's radically different, and I couldn't help but wonder--would the proclamation of the Gospel have reached across that park and touched those playing volleyball, throwing the football, and splashing in the water?  Would the proclamation of what God has ALREADY done receive a welcome in their ears and in their hearts?

I don't know.

I just don't know.

But perhaps a lesson can be learned from those Pentecostals in the park.  Perhaps the Gospel needs to find public proclamation.  Only when it is taken outside the four walls of a church will we find out.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Blind Leading the Blind

    No one likes to be told they are wrong.  I mean, really, I don’t think I have run across anyone who when confronted with wrongdoing says, “Well, geez, I am so happy that you told me I am wrong.  Thank you so much for correcting me and pointing out my flaws.  I just don’t know how I could have missed being so wrong about this stuff.”

    Anyone ever heard such commentary?  Anyone ever said such a thing?  Perhaps you have at some point, but most of us don’t really react in such a fashion.  Most of us become defensive.  Most of us become more entrenched in our points of view.  Most of us, when confronted with someone who points out a flaw or tells us we are wrong, seek out someone else who will give us confirmation of our own particular beliefs and understandings. 

    I thought about this a lot this week in light of the events in Ferguson, MO.  As this story unfolds, there has been much finger pointing and blame.  There have been many accusations of wrongdoing.  Each side says the others is wrong, and each side seems to have difficulty understanding why the other side is so worked up.  There seems to be an endless cycle of anger because of the mounting accusations.  It's a problem which is not new to our time.  It was around even in Jesus' day.  There were just different groups.  The Pharisees are the classic example which appear in our Gospel lesson.
 
    It is little wonder the Pharisees took offense to what Jesus said regarding what defiles a person.  Let’s set the scene for a moment.  Jesus tells the crowds following Him, “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

    The disciples come up to Jesus and say, “You know, what you said just ticked off the Pharisees.”  I’m not exactly sure why the disciples came up to Jesus and said this to Him.  Maybe they thought Jesus needed sensitivity training.  I mean, maybe even at that time you were supposed to be tolerant of others’ beliefs.  You didn’t want to go around insinuating someone might be wrong in what they taught.  I mean, what works for you works for you, but what works for someone else works for that person.  You shouldn’t try and impose your beliefs on anyone else.  Oh, wait, that’s the way many folks think today, and we’ll discuss such matters in a minute or two.  But for the time being, let’s move away from why the disciples might have brought this to Jesus attention and think about why the Pharisees were offended.

    Jesus had just stepped on their toes in a major way.  The Pharisees taught over and over and over that the people of Israel should purify themselves.  And if the people of Israel would purify themselves, God would look down upon their purity; their holiness, and be moved to action.  What sort of action?  Well, to establish the Kingdom of God–that kingdom where all of Israel’s enemies were overthrown, a new king who was a king of justice and wisdom would ascend the thrown and lead the people in righteousness, and the Israelites would become another world power growing in wealth and prosperity and power.  The Pharisees believed that if they followed the holiness code contained in the Torah–the first five books of the Old Testament–then God would be forced to act in such a fashion. 

    And so, the Pharisees lived and breathed and taught the holiness code.  They ritually washed their hands according to what the Law proscribed.  They only ate certain kinds of food.  They abstained from associating with certain types of people.  They very much became Biblical literalists according to the Laws of Moses.   They were trying to do all the right things.  That’s important to hear, so let me say that again, they were trying to do all the right things according to the Laws and Commands of God written in the Bible.  And those commands were intended to make a person holy and pure before that person came before God.

    So, do you find it as interesting as I do that when Jesus receives word from His disciples that the Pharisees are offended, Jesus isn’t contrite?  He isn’t understanding?  He isn’t tolerant?  He doesn’t say, “Oh, the Pharisees have their way of doing things and believing things, I have my way.  They are both different paths to the same place.”  Jesus doesn’t apologize.  Instead, Jesus blasts the Pharisees.  I mean, read what Jesus says, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”

    If Jesus was around today to say such a thing, He’d be sent to sensitivity training!  How dare Jesus be so closed minded and offensive!  Why would Jesus say such a thing?  Why would He be so confrontational?

    We get an indication as Jesus explains to Peter the meaning of what He said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

    Here is the point Jesus is making in regards to the Pharisees: they are doing all the right things externally.  They are following the Law to a tee.  They are following the holiness codes and being good examples of people who follow the Law.  Externally, they are clean, but internally, they are filthy!  Externally, they follow God’s commands, but internally, they are sinful and broken.  And they don’t even realize it.  How is this the case?

    Let me pull another story from scripture to illustrate the point.  The story comes from Luke chapter 7.  36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ 41‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ 44Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’

    Do you see what is going on in this story?  Do you see why the Pharisees were considered the “blind leading the blind?”  With all of their attention paid to purity and the holiness code, with all their attention given toward following the Law to perfection, they became self-righteous.  They thought they were spiritually and morally better than other people.  They felt like they could look down their noses at others and judge them as inferior; loved less by God; as sinners.  They felt like they could hold others in contempt and say, “I am following the Law, and with effort this person could too.  They should work harder to be as holy as I am.”  In their hearts, the Pharisees had no compassion; no love.  They held many of their neighbors in contempt.  They were breaking God’s Law by doing so, for as Jesus pointed out, the two greatest commandments were loving God and then loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.  You cannot hold your neighbor in contempt and love them.  The two are antithetical.  And because the Pharisees were contemptuous, out of them flowed spite and anger and division.  And they were absolutely blind to this.  They thought they were being holy.

    Let’s return for a moment and talk about sensitivity and Jesus’ lack of it.  You see, Jesus was insensitive because He refused to kowtow to hypocrisy, and the Pharisees were full of it.  While trying to be holy on the outside, they were sinful on the inside.  Jesus points this out.  And while many cry for sensitivity and tolerance today, it turns out such folks are oftentimes just as hypocritical.  How so?  Ever known a person who preaches tolerance to freely embrace a bigot?  You see a “tolerant” person oftentimes cannot stand someone who is “intolerant” and thus by refusing to be tolerant of the intolerant, the tolerant become intolerant.  I’ll pause for just a moment because that can be a little tricky to wrap your head around.  The reality is, we are all intolerant at some level.  We all are a bit blind.  And we don't like it.  Can you see why there is such trouble in Ferguson? 

    Now.  Hopefully, you’ve gotten your head around this, and hopefully you understand why Jesus was so hard on the Pharisees.  Hopefully you see why He says they are the blind leading the blind.  Hopefully you see why Jesus says it’s not what you put into a person that defiles, but it is what comes out of a person that defiles a person.  For if someone is broken and sinful inside, they will produce broken and sinful fruit.  If a person is holy inside, they will produce good fruit.

    But that begs the question: how can I make sure I am good inside?  How can I make sure I do not hold my neighbors in contempt?  How do I avoid falling into hypocrisy?   How can I love my neighbor when I don’t agree with them about religion, politics, or whether to root for Bellville or Sealy?  How can I make sure that I am producing the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, generosity, and self-control? 

    The answer is believe in the Gospel.  Believe in what God has done for you.  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 may be saved through Him.  And God did this not when you were perfect; not when you were following His commands; not when you were holy, but precisely when you were none of these things.  Jesus died for you while you were sinful.  He clothed you with His righteousness when you were wearing the rags of sin.  He covered you when you were least deserving of it.

    And when you understand this deep in your heart, you are humbled.  You know you can’t hold someone in contempt because they don’t follow God’s commands.  You weren’t and still don’t follow them completely either.  You can’t blame them for being intolerant because you know you are intolerant too.  You can’t say they should try harder at being a better person because you know you can’t be a better person without the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  Your salvation and redemption was not achieved by you.  It was achieved by Jesus on the cross.  You have no reason to boast in your efforts, but you have every reason to boast in Jesus’ work.  And that work changes you.  It changes your heart.  People were head over heels this last year about the Disney movie Frozen, and the classic line from the story is, “An act of true love melts a frozen heart.”  Christ’s act of true love on the cross not only melts our hearts, but it changes them–it makes them good, so that out of us flows that which is good.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Russell Brand, Robin Williams, and the Gospel

I was not going to comment about Robin Williams' suicide.  Many have, and I have nothing to add to their commentary.  Much of what has been shown to me on my Facebook feed has been relatively well thought out, but none of it truly made me think deeply.

Leave it to the Drudge Report to link an article in The Guardian written by Russell Brand.  This article truly drew me in and made me wrestle because it links Williams' death with some of the big questions in life.

I didn't know much about Brand until I read his Wikipedia page--assuming Wikipedia is reliable here.  I found out he and Williams shared much in common.  Both are/were very much tortured souls.  Both, I think, struggle/d with some very tough questions regarding life.  From the article:

It seems that Robin Williams could not find a context. Is that what drug use is? An attempt to anaesthetise against a reality that constantly knocks against your nerves, like tinfoil on an old school filling, the pang an urgent message to a dormant, truer you.

Is it melancholy to think that a world that Robin Williams can’t live in must be broken? To tie this sad event to the overarching misery of our times? No academic would co-sign a theory in which the tumult of our fractured and unhappy planet is causing the inherently hilarious to end their lives, though I did read that suicide among the middle-aged increased inexplicably in 1999 and has been rising ever since. Is it a condition of our era?

...


What platitudes then can we fling along with the listless, insufficient wreaths at the stillness that was once so animated and wired, the silence where the laughter was? That fame and accolades are no defence against mental illness and addiction? That we live in a world that has become so negligent of human values that our brightest lights are extinguishing themselves? That we must be more vigilant, more aware, more grateful, more mindful? That we can’t tarnish this tiny slice of awareness that we share on this sphere amidst the infinite blackness with conflict and hate?

That we must reach inward and outward to the light that is inside all of us? That all around us people are suffering behind masks less interesting than the one Robin Williams wore? Do you have time to tune in to Fox News, to cement your angry views to calcify the certain misery?

What I might do is watch Mrs Doubtfire. Or Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting and I might be nice to people, mindful today how fragile we all are, how delicate we are, even when fizzing with divine madness that seems like it will never expire.
I found an echo of this thinking in his stand up show "God Complex" (warning: raunchy and quite blasphemous) when Brand said the following:

Why are they doing this to us?  Why are they positioning our heroes in these meaningless landscapes?  Why are they creating a cultural malaise in which nothing has nutrition; where our food lacks nutrition; where there's an emptiness in my stomach that can't be filled by drugs or fame or money?  Who is it that benefits from this system?  Who benefits from us having a void within ourselves that can never be filled?  Who is it that claims they can fill this void?

It is quite intriguing that Brand answers such questions in three ways: two in his article and one in his show.  1. Escaping by watching movies which have messages.  To enter stories.  2. To be nice to people mindful of our fragility and delicate nature.  3. Worshiping sexuality.

Unfortunately, none of these things satisfy.  None of them.  Show me one person who has had their hunger filled by entering into story after story after story and/or watching movie after movie after movie.

Show me one person who has become satisfied with being nice to people.

Show me one person who has become satisfied with having as many sexual encounters as possible.

They do not exist.  None of these things brings satisfaction, and they all lead to hopelessness.  There is always another story; another person who needs to receive some niceness; another encounter to be had.  There is always a desire which finds temporary fulfillment, but defies satisfaction.  If you place your self-worth in such things, you will only find disappointment.

But such things are the default setting for humankind.  These are the things we automatically search for.  Brand asks who benefits from this system?  (I'd not call it a system; I'd call it our selfish-nature.)  We all do.  We all seek our own benefit.  We all seek our own will to power as Nietzsche called it.  Our selfish gene dominates as Richard Dawkins would say.  And our selfish gene does not become satisfied.  Our will to power is never quenched.  And if that will to power is threatened; if our selfish gene becomes thwarted as our false idols crumble, what happens?

Despair.
Anger.
Frustration.
Hopelessness.
Escapism.
Depression.

What can bring satisfaction?  What can lead us away from the desires for our own will to power?  What can pound the selfish gene into submission so that it cannot dominate others or be easily exploited?

Only the Gospel.
Only God's action through Jesus Christ.

I have gone through this train of thought numerous times in this blog and in my more recent sermons.  I never realized just how the Gospel truly is the hope of humanity as I was caught up in my own will to power; my own selfishness.  I know I was on the path to despair and even hit a bit of depression.  The Gospel changed all that.

I know Robin Williams was a Christian, but I don't know if he grasped the power of the Gospel.  In his comedic routines, I'm not sure he did.  I think he saw Christianity as a set of rules and regulations.  I think Russell Brand does too.  In my estimation, this isn't good.  It shows a failure on the part of the Church to articulate what God has already done.  It shows the Church has been more concerned with advice instead of proclamation.

That proclamation brings lasting change and satisfaction.  It brings hope and peace and joy.

These are things much needed by the world.  Williams and Brand show us that unequivocally.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Terrible Struggle (for Yours Truly)

Never has it happened to me.

Never.

Whenever I take a vacation and attend worship, I never have wanted to preach.  I have always been content to sit in the pew, worship, and listen to the sermon without any desire to proclaim myself.  Sure, I've been a bit critical of sermons I have heard.  I don't think there is a pastor who doesn't listen to a sermon and think, "Well, I'd have done things just a little different."  It's a natural thing for us to do that, I think.

But until this past Sunday, I had never sat in the pew and said to myself, "I wish I were preaching today!!!"  I had always simply enjoyed my break.

But not last Sunday.  Not at all.  It was a  terrible struggle.  As I listened to the texts read in worship, I desired tremendously to proclaim them.  I wanted to expound upon them because they shouted the Gospel!  And I love proclaiming the Gospel.

For this blog's sake, I will only cover the Epistle taken from the 10th Chapter of the book of Romans.  In a week or so, I will actually be changing the Gospel text for the day so that I can preach on Jesus' walking on the water--that was the Gospel text assigned for this past Sunday.

But onto Romans.  Onto why I wanted desperately to preach!  St. Paul writes:

5 Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that ‘the person who does these things will live by them.’ 6But the righteousness that comes from faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ down) 7‘or “Who will descend into the abyss?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8But what does it say?  ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.

Paul's words struck me like they had never struck me before.  "Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that 'the person who does these things will live by them.'

The person who does the works of the law will live by them.  The person who obeys the law lives.  The person who does not obey the law dies.  It's a rather simple concept.  One that many are all too familiar with.  In fact, they are familiar with it because it is very prevalent in Christianity today. 

"Unless you live correctly, you will suffer God's wrath!"

This is the basic proclamation of many Christian churches today.  Whether they believe it to be so or not. 

Unless you adhere to the correct teachings of sexuality, you are doomed.
Unless you are committed to doing justice and serving the poor, God will frown upon you.
Unless you are pro-life, God views you as a murderer.
Unless you advocate for health care and welfare for the poor, God views you as a law breaker.

Oh, I could go on and on and on. 

Sure, most churches and preachers will throw in a little nugget about how Jesus died to save us from sin--maybe--but in a heartbeat, they turn around and make salvation totally dependent upon our actions.

That's not the Gospel.  That's the Law.  Paul is making that distinction gloriously in these few verses from Romans 10.  Notice that Paul makes a clean break from this line of thought beginning in verse 6:

6BUT (emphasis mine) the righteousness that comes from faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ down) 7‘or “Who will descend into the abyss?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

The righteousness that comes from faith doesn't focus on saying "Who will ascend into heaven?"  or "Who will descend into the abyss?"   Read that verse again.  And again.  And again.  And then ponder why it is that so much of the stuff we hear coming from pulpits does this very thing.  (Hey, I was pretty good at doing it myself in bygone years!!!)

For when we say in our heart "Who will ascend into heaven?" we bring Christ down.  What?
For when we say in our heart "Who will descend into the abyss?" we bring Christ up from the dead.  What?

Think about this.  When we ask ourselves such questions, how do we normally judge another? 

By their works.  By the things we view them doing or saying.  By their actions.

If a person gets to go to heaven because of their works, this brings Christ down.  He is no longer the exalted Savior.  He is simply a good teacher--an ethicist who revealed a form of morality.  His cross is not needed for salvation. 

If a person is assigned to hell/the abyss because of their actions, we bring Christ up from the dead.  I think Paul is referring to the teaching that Christ descended to the dead to proclaim the Gospel to those who had died.  (Ephesians 4)  There was no need for Christ to descend if we are judged according to our works for it is impossible to attain salvation through works.  There is no need for the Gospel to be proclaimed to those who were dead.  Their fate is sealed--as is ours.  If salvation comes through works.

The righteousness that comes from the Law might ask "Who ascends to heaven?" and "Who descends to the abyss?"  But the righteousness that comes from faith does not.  It says something quite different.

‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ 

The Word has convicted you.
The Word has changed you.
The Word has infused you and become a part of you.

The Gospel makes you see that you are incapable of following the Law.  The Gospel makes you see that you stand condemned by the Law.  The Gospel makes you see that if your salvation is up to you at any given point and time, you will never, ever attain it.  Never.  You know you cannot "ascend into heaven."  You know you would "descend into the abyss" were it not for God's saving action through Jesus Christ.  You know you are justified--looked at differently by God--in your heart, and so you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord!

It is the Gospel which brings you to this place.  Plain and simple. It is only the Gospel.

And that Gospel leads you to ask different questions.  You leave the judging up to God.  The former questions are irrelevant.  New ones are needed.

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 send the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.

That news begs a different question: not who is ascending or descending, but rather who has heard?  Who hasn't heard?  Who needs to hear this wonderful news?  Who needs to hear that God's wrath has been satisfied?  Who needs to hear that their salvation is procured and that we are free from attaining our salvation through works of the Law?

Is it any wonder Paul concludes this snippet with the following words:

14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ 16But not all have obeyed the good news;  for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ 17So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.

Proclamation is at the heart of Christianity.  Proclamation about what God has done--not what we are supposed to do.  Those things naturally flow from a heart transformed by the Gospel--a Gospel which begs to be proclaimed to a world desperate to hear it.

And I struggled to sit and simply listen.