Monday, October 17, 2016

Avoiding the Truth at All Cost: Romans 3:1-8

Sometimes people will go out of their way to avoid questions they do not like.  Sometimes, they will argue even the minutest of details if they believe they can escape an argument with their particular point of view completely in tact.  Their attention to the minutia can be infuriating, but we should not be surprised by it.  When facts appear that challenge our viewpoint and shake the foundations of our worldview, we are more apt to push back, make excuses, and raise objections than we are to accept those facts.

Long ago, I shared the story written by Ed Friendman called, “The Power of Belief.”  In this story, a man told everyone that he was dead.  Family and friends first tried to argue with him, but to no avail.  Each time the man came up with some sort of argument as to why he was dead.  If the family actually backed the man into a corner, he would play his trump card, “If I am dead, you do not exist..., since surely the living do not traffic with the dead.”

Finally, his family, believing he had gone nuts, invited a doctor talk to the man. This proved fruitless as the doctor left muttering that the man was hopelessly psychotic.  The family turned to their local clergy person who left the house equally frustrated and saying things no man of God should say.

In desperation, the family called in the doctor who had nursed the man through childhood and young adulthood.  The family doctor came in with his gentle demeanor and the wisdom borne of years of hard work.

In conversation, the doctor asked the man, “Do dead men bleed?”

The man responded, “No.”

The doctor then asked if he could make a small cut on the man’s arm promising to clean it thoroughly to prevent infection.  The man agreed as he said, “Dead men do not get infections, nor do they bleed, doctor.”  The man rolled up his sleeve.

The doctor made a small cut, and immediately the blood flowed.  The family cheered.  The doctor said, “Well, I hope that puts an end to this foolishness.”

The man, however, simply said, “I see that I was wrong.  Dead men, in fact, do bleed.”

There were more than a few who, when confronted with the reality of the wrath of God who did not like what they heard, and they would go to great lengths to justify why they believed God would not nor could not unleash His wrath upon us.  Today, as we turn to chapter three of the book of Romans, we see Paul dealing with some of those arguments–some of those questions that arose from Paul’s contention that all deserved God’s judgment upon them.  And they go to great lengths to try and justify themselves.

Please remember that Paul has just brought devastating news to those who believed their Jewish faith saved them.  Paul has just cut them off at the knees and said, “No.  Neither knowing the Law, nor being circumcised will give you any benefit at the judgment.  Just because you know the Law doesn’t mean you follow it, and if you don’t follow it, you might as well turn in your Jew card because a Gentile that follows the Law without even knowing it is a better Jew than you are.”

This strong critique sets the stage for the series of questions that Paul deals with at the beginning of chapter three.  We being with verses one and two, Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? 2Much, in every way. For in the first place the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.  After what Paul has just written at the end of chapter two, you would expect him to have answered that the Jew had no advantage–that circumcision had zero value.  But Paul does not.  As we will see later in the book of Romans that Paul’s understanding of the Gospel is deeply rooted in the Old Testament–with God’s relationship with the Jews.  For God made promises to the Jews–to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and so on and so forth.  If there is no advantage to being a Jew, these promises are null and void.  But God is faithful!!  It is Paul’s sincere belief that these promises have been fulfilled–not nullified by the Gospel.

Therefore, to understand what has happened in Jesus, you must understand God’s relationship to the people of Israel.  You must understand what God has revealed to Israel.  You must understand God’s self-revelation; His teaching; His Law.  The Jews were trusted with these things and had a special relationship with God because of this.  But it also must be said that being entrusted with God’s Word meant much more than being caretakers; preservers; and recorders of these “oracles” as Paul says.  It meant faithfulness and obedience–and Paul has just shown that the Jews had been neither faithful nor obedient.  Despite having and knowing God’s will, they failed.

It’s not surprising given that we as Christians can claim the same thing.  I know it’s not necessarily chic to claim that anyone knows the Truth, but in a very real way, we as Christians can claim that we know a piece of the Ultimate Truth.  It’s not something we discovered–it is something that God has chosen to reveal to us.  He has revealed His nature; His glory; His forgiveness; His love through Jesus Christ.  He has also revealed His will.  Now, we must make a distinction here because there are many parts of God’s will that remain hidden from us–we don’t know God’s will about who we are supposed to marry; what kind of job we are supposed to have; whether or not it is time to move to another job; how many kids we are supposed to have; what city we should live in; what we should have for lunch today.  These things must be discerned with time, prayer, and effort.  You cannot simply turn to a certain verse in the Bible and discover these things.

But there are certain portions of God’s will that we can unequivocally say, “Yes.  We know this is the will of God!”  Like–the two most important commandments are: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as your love yourself.  We can unequivocally say that it is the will of God that we love one another as Jesus loved us.  We can say that it is the will of God that the hungry are fed; the thirsty are given drink; the sick and imprisoned are visited.  There are many, many more things I could add to this list.  And, the sad part is, we know we have failed to follow the will of God.  We have failed to accomplish what He has intended for us.  So, does that mean God has abandoned us?  Does that mean that when God judges us, He has forsaken His promises to us?

Hence, the next objection to Paul’s teaching arises: 3What if some were unfaithful? Will their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? 4By no means! Although everyone is a liar, let God be proved true, as it is written, ‘So that you may be justified in your words, and prevail in your judging.’ This is actually a nit-picky sort of question that Paul has to address here, but it is quite relevant to the discussion.  It’s similar to those who say, “I can’t imagine a God of overwhelming, inexhaustible love sending anyone to hell. To believe such a thing contradicts the understanding that God is love.”  The objection Paul is basically dealing with is this: if God judges the Jews doesn’t that mean He has rejected them.  And if He has rejected them, doesn’t that mean God is not faithful to the promises He made them?

Paul responds with two quotes from scriptures, both from the Psalms.  First Paul quotes Psalm 116:11 and then turns to Psalm 51:4.  Now, before we put these quotes together, we need to understand what Paul means by the terms of true and liar.  For Paul, the understanding of God being true does not mean honesty–as we understand telling the truth.  For Paul, truth is rooted in the Hebrew concept of being reliable or trustworthy.  And liar, for Paul means unreliable or faithless.   And while humans are unreliable and faithless, God certainly is not.  Psalm 51:4 shows unequivocally that God will judge those who are not faithful.  Therefore, God is faithful when He showers blessings upon the obedient, and God is faithful when He judges those who are disobedient.  God is being consistent with what He said He would do.  If you are faithful and put your trust in God, you have no worries, but if you are not faithful and put your trust in something else, God will give you up to that desire for eternity just like He said He would.  This is not rocket science.

But, again, as I said before, some folks won’t quit.  They will continue to raise objections, and Paul has been hearing them for some time.  He deals with the next one in sequence.  5But if our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God, what should we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) 6By no means! For then how could God judge the world?  This goes back to something I preached on a few years ago in regards to the moon.  When we look into the night sky, we see the moon shining a brilliant white as it reflects the sun’s light back to the earth.  Yet, in reality, the moon is actually the color of asphalt–dark to light gray.  So, why does it appear brilliant white?  Because of the darkness of space.  Space is so dark, that asphalt appears brilliant white up against it.

When we compare God’s justice against our injustice, God stands out brilliant; holy; incomparable.  God is a majestic, snow topped mountain compared to us as a mound of garbage.  The contrast makes God look really, really good!  So, why would God judge us if we make Him look so good?  Doesn’t He stand out more when we are unjust?  Aren’t we helping God look good when we are evil?  And isn’t it unjust of Him to judge us when we make Him look so good?

Paul doesn’t deal with the morality of the argument.  Instead, he simply shuts this one down with the question: well, then how could God judge the world?  You see, everyone agreed that God would judge the world.  That was not in question.  And God isn’t going to judge us on whether or not we made God look good.  It’s impossible to make God any greater than He already is.  We will be judged, as Paul has said before, on whether or not we have followed the Law–if we are Jewish; or by whatever standards we hold another person to–if we are Gentile.  This question is actually a bogus question, but people will grasp at anything to avoid what they don’t like.

And so, there is one more that is tried.  7But if through my falsehood God’s truthfulness abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? 8And why not say (as some people slander us by saying that we say), ‘Let us do evil so that good may come’? Their condemnation is deserved!  This is an old objection to Paul’s theology.  It continues to hang around in some circles even today.  It’s basically the old argument, “I like to sin.  God likes to forgive sin.  Therefore, I will sin as much as I can so that God can forgive as much as He can, and He can reveal His love and glory over and over and over because I am sinning.”

Paul responds, “You deserve your condemnation.”  Paul knows this is really, really grasping at straws, and the thought that people have accused him of this train of thought obviously has gotten to him a bit.  Paul again doesn’t bother to argue because he knows this is simply an avoidance question.  I mean, if you think about the reality of what the question suggests, you see just how patently absurd it is.  Let’s press it, shall we.

The person who asks this question would be buying into the following logic: God says don’t murder.  God is also forgiving and His glory shines when He forgives.  Therefore, I will murder so that God can forgive, and His glory will shine because I murder.  If you believe this, you are a special kind of stupid.  As Paul says, “You deserve condemnation.”

But this kind of argument goes to show the lengths that some will go to hold onto their particular ideology–their particular worldview.  It shows just how stubborn some people–well, all people–can be.  Don’t pretend that at some level you aren’t the same way.  Don’t pretend that there are areas in your life that you and I don’t guard even to ridiculous extremes.  Don’t pretend that we are above this kind of action.  Even when the strongest evidence possible is given to us, we are more apt to say, “Dead men do bleed,” instead of admitting that we are alive.  We are more apt to say that we are good, decent, honest people, instead of admitting that we deserve God’s wrath.  We are more apt to dismiss the reality of hell and eternal punishment so that we can live without a holy and reverent fear of the one who created and yes, who will indeed judge each and every one of us.  The stubbornness and hard heartedness of human nature runs very deep to the point where we deserve condemnation.  There is no escaping that fact, and the only question is: is there a way to avoid it?  Is there something that can fundamentally change our human nature and crush our stubborn hearts of stone?

The answer is: Yes.  There is.  Yes. There is.  We will see it shortly. Amen.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Shame of Non-Christians who Are Better Christians: Romans 2:17-29

There is an old story that I have come across on numerous occasions.  It is about a wise Teacher who was once invited to attend a banquet hosted by the King.  The King just happened to be a good friend of the Teacher, and was looking forward to enjoying the company of his old friend.

On the day of the banquet, the Teacher arrived at the gate in his humble teaching attire.  The guard stopped him and said, “No one is allowed into the banquet without a coat.”

The Teacher responded, “I am a good friend of the King, and he is expecting me.  Here is my invitation.”

The guard replied, “My orders are from the King himself.  You may not enter without a coat!”

The Teacher left, went home, and obtained a coat.  The guard permitted him to enter this time, and the Teacher took his place next to his old friend the King.

When the meal was served, the Teacher began pouring his drink on the coat.  He also stuffed all the food into the pockets of the coat.  The other guests were deeply concerned with this behavior.

Finally, the King spoke up in embarrassment.  “Why are you putting your meal all over your coat?”

The Teacher replied, “When I came to the gate the first time to enter the banquet, I was denied because I didn’t have on this coat.  But when I put the coat on, I was allowed in.  I can only deduce from this that I was not the real guest invited to this banquet, this coat was.  Therefore, the coat should enjoy the meal.”

Now, normally, we use such a story to drive home the axiom, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”  Or we try to teach people the reality that a person is actually more than what they wear.  These things are most certainly true, but for today, I want to use this story to lead us toward self-reflection.  I would like for each and every one of us to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves what kind of window dressings do we put on ourselves?  And do those window dressings give us a sense of self-importance that we really do not deserve?

In the previous section of the book of Romans, Paul dealt with Jews who were counting on their knowledge of God’s Law–the Torah–the first five books of the Old Testament for salvation.  They believed that simply knowing the Law was good enough to ensure God’s love and mercy.  Paul showed that it was not knowing the Law that counted but the doing of the Law that was required, and Paul showed how even Gentiles followed the Law that God had instilled deep within them.  Simply knowing the Law was not a mark of salvation.

Today, Paul has to deal with another Jewish myth: the myth that Jews had a particular status before God that would guarantee them salvation.  Let’s turn to the text, and I will try to make things more clear.  Paul writes, “17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God 18and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law, 19and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, 21you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22You that forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You that abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’ 

Paul begins with five assertions that Jews made about themselves based upon their relationship with God and their knowledge about God’s will, and all five of these things can be found in the Jewish literature dating to this time period.  Paul is not putting up a strawman.  The Jews actually believed these five things:

1. They were guides to the blind–to those who didn’t have God’s Law.
2. A light to those who were in darkness–to those who didn’t know God’s will.
3. A corrector of the foolish–using the Law to correct those who didn’t know better.
4. A teacher of children–considering themselves more mature than those who didn’t have God’s Law.
5. Having the embodiment of knowledge and Truth in God’s Law–as opposed the rest of the world who were grasping at straws.

Notice that Paul does not say that any of this is false.  Paul does not criticize the Jewish belief that these things are true.  No.  Not in the least because in a very real way, all of this is indeed true.  This was the responsibility of the Jewish people.  They were to be all of these things, but the point Paul makes is–they have failed.

“You that teach others, will you not teach yourself,” Paul says.  When you look in the mirror, do you find yourself doing the things that you tell others not to do?  Are you the kind of person who says, “Do as I say not as I do?”  This is what is behind all of Paul’s questions about stealing, adultery, robbing temples, and the like He is not accusing EVERYONE of doing such things, but he is using easily understood examples to point out the failure of the Jews to obey the totality of the Torah. And because of their failure to obey the Torah, to keep God first, they have failed in their calling to be a light to the world.  When God made the covenant with Abraham, God specifically said, “You are blessed to be a blessing to the rest of the world.”  The Jews had not been that blessing.  Instead of blessing the world, they had sought to keep that blessing to themselves.  They were abject failures.

And their failure has had dire consequences!!!  Paul quotes Isaiah 52:5 to show the consequences of the Jewish failure to follow the Law, “The name of God is blasphemed amongst the Gentiles because of you!”  Your failure has actually led people away from God!

This is an all too common thing for the church in our society today.  Over and over again, you will hear non-believers pointing out how our behavior does not match our words.  You will hear over and over again how we are hypocrites–how we talk about loving one another and then fail to love.  How we talk about the need to worship and then our constant skipping of church.  How we talk of the sanctity of marriage and then have many, many divorces.  How we talk about the sanctity of life and either support abortion or the death penalty.  How we talk about feeding the hungry and then railing against government policies that do exactly that.

There is even the story of the man who was stopped at a light.  The light turned green, and the car in front of him refused to budge.  The man unleashed a string of curse words that would make a sailor blush.  He made more than a few obscene hand gestures.  He turned beet red with anger and frustration.  All of which caught the attention of a passing police officer.  The officer came up to the vehicle and asked for the driver’s license and registration.  The man willingly gave it to the officer, and then asked, “Is there a problem, officer.  Did I break the law?”  The officer responded, “After looking at your license and registration, no.  You didn’t.”  “The man then asked, “Then why did you stop me?”  The officer replied, “When I saw the way you were acting back there and then I saw the ‘Honk if you love Jesus!’ bumper sticker, I thought the car was stolen.”

It’s a laughable joke, but there is a deep reality to the situation because oftentimes we are hypocritical in our behavior as the church.  We have not been a light on a hill.  We have not followed the command of our leader, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples–if you have love for one another.”  And people have turned away from God because of it.  People have left the church because of our behavior.  People have defamed the name of God because we have failed to be who God has called us to be.

For anyone who claims to be a Christian, this is devastating news.  This is a scathing rebuke.  It should make us hang our heads in shame.

But Paul is not done.  He pushes the rebuke even further.  25 Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. 29Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.

Paul is merciless here.  He is absolutely merciless.  If there was a mark of Judaism that was revered, it was circumcision.  It was personal.  It was the sign of the covenant with Abraham.  It physically marked a person as different from the rest of the world, and there were many Jewish rabbis who blatantly said, “If a person is circumcised, he is guaranteed salvation.”  Paul says, “Um, no.”

In fact, Paul says, if you are circumcised and yet break God’s Law, you have essentially reversed your circumcision!!  You are no longer a Jew!!  This would not have simply raised a few eyebrows, it would have caused great consternation!!  It would have caused an uprising!!  This was sacrilege to a Jew!!

But Paul isn’t finished.  Paul is going to drive the logic to its final conclusion.  Real circumcision, Paul says, is a matter of the heart.  Real circumcision is deep within a person, and if a Gentile follows the Law, then he is actually more of a Jew than a circumcised Jew who doesn’t follow the Law.  And the one who follows the Law, even though he be uncircumcised receives praise from God.

Let me put this in modern terms.  There are some atheists who put some Christians to shame when it comes to living a moral, upright life.  There are some people of other faith traditions who are much more loving, kind, worshipful, and moral than some Christians.  There are many Muslims who attend worship at Mosques much more regularly than Christians.  The average Lutheran Christian in the U.S. considers himself or herself to worship regularly if he or she worships once a month.  But half of all Muslims in the U.S. attend weekly worship.  Think about that!!

Paul would say, “They are acting more Christian than you are!!!”

This is scathing for us to hear.  And shameful.  The idea that there are people of other faiths who worship more regularly than Christians; who treat others with more kindness and compassion; who are more generous; who are working for justice and peace; who have a deeper faith in their god than we do in ours is abhorrent.  It should never, ever happen.  Yet, it does.

I told you as we entered into these chapters that we would get to the point where we were so angry with Paul that we didn’t want anything more to do with God or we would find ourselves broken-hearted ready to hear the Gospel.  In a very real way, this is the deepest rebuke Paul can offer those who believe.  We are forced to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “Do we simply wear the coat of Christianity, or is it something that resides deep within our hearts?  Is our Christian faith simply an external thing–a part of our identity that can be discarded as we choose; or is it who we are–the core of our being?  Is our Christianity something we wear thinking it will get us access to the final party without it really affecting our personhood?”

These are tough questions.  They demand deep, personal reflection.  They can be very humbling indeed.  And they can prepare our hearts to help us hear the Gospel. That Gospel is just around the corner.  Hang in there.  We will hear it before long.  Amen.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Romans 2:12-16: Judged by Your Own Standards

There are two very important issues that St. Paul is dealing with this morning as we continue on through the book of Romans.  First, there is the issue of judgement and justification.  Second, there is the issue of what happens if people do not have God’s revelation.  Both of these issues affect the church in a very real way today, so let’s deal with them one by one as we look at the text for today.

As we turn to the text, let me give a brief review of where we have been.  Paul begins Romans with a greeting to those he is writing to.  He then gives a brief summary of what he is going to cover in the letter.  Then, he offers a scathing condemnation of humanity showing how humankind is fallen because they have refused to worship the Creator of the universe and instead worshiped the creation.  This causes God’s created order to unravel and we therefore experience hell on earth.

Last week, Paul pivots to deal with those who worship God–who think that by following the commands of God that they somehow are worthy of salvation.  Paul shows that they have made an idol out of their goodness and therefore are hypocrites.  They do the exact same thing that non-religious people do and are under the same condemnation of God

Today, Paul continues to cut through the reasons that people would give to justify themselves in his day as he writes: 12 All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.  In these verses, Paul basically says, “It is not what you know that will justify you.  It is what you do.”

I am reminded of a joke at this juncture.  Forrest Gump dies and goes to the Pearly Gates.  St. Peter meets Forrest there and says, “Welcome, Forrest.  We are glad that you are here, but you need to know there is an entrance exam to get into heaven.  You will need to answer three questions.  The first one is, ‘How many days of the week start with the letter T?’

Forrest thinks a moment and says, “Two.”

Peter responds, “That’s right.  Now, which ones?”

Forrest says, “Today and tomorrow.”

Peter is a little taken aback.  He says, “Well, technically, that’s not right, but you did get two right.  I will let that one slide.  Now, the second question is, ‘How many seconds are there in a year?’

Forrest thinks for a while and says, “12.”

Peter is shocked by the answer and says, “Forrest.  That’s completely wrong.  How did you come up with 12?”

Forrest replies, “Well, there’s January 2nd, February 2nd, March 2nd...”

Peter scratches his head and says, “Well, you know.  I never thought of it that way.  You are right in that light there are 12 seconds.  I guess I will have to give you credit.  The final question is this, ‘Tell me God’s name.’”

Forrest quickly says, “That’s an easy one.  His name is Andy.”

Peter stammers, “What?!  How in the world do you think God’s name is Andy?”

Forrest replies, “You know, the song.  Andy walks with me.  Andy talks with me..”

Maybe you’ve heard that one before.  What does it have to do with Paul’s comments?  Nothing at all.  I just wanted to tell the joke.

Well, maybe in a round about way because there were many Jews at the time of the writing of the book of Romans who believed that their knowledge of the Law–or Torah–the first five books of the Old Testament, would grant and guarantee them salvation.  As God’s chosen people–as the people of the book–they believed that as long as they knew the Torah, had studied it, and had heard it, their salvation was guaranteed.

Paul says, “Not so fast.”  It doesn’t matter if you know what law number 432 out of 613 is.  What matters, Paul says, is whether or not you have followed law number 432.  It’s not whether or not you know the law–it’s whether or not you follow the law.

For instance, if a DPS trooper pulls you over for doing 100 on I-10, he is not going to excuse you because you knew that the speed limit was 75.  The point is not that you knew the speed limit–the point is, you didn’t follow it.

Paul unequivocally tells the Jews in his audience, “Your knowledge of the Torah and the Ten Commandments and the Law will not save you.  If you want justification, you have to follow the commands.  You have to do everything required of you.  You have to be blameless before God.”

Is such a thing possible?  Paul has just shown at the end of chapter one and the beginning of chapter two that it is not possible.  He will reiterate this point in chapter three.  “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  The Law cannot be fully fulfilled.   As a Jew, you have no advantage.

The application for those of us who are Christian is this: don’t pride yourself in being able to quote what is right and what is wrong.  Don’t pat yourself on the back because you know what Jesus commands His followers to do.  Don’t get a big head because you can quote all sorts of Bible verses about justice or peace or morality or sexual purity.  It doesn’t matter a flip if you can do that–the important part in the eyes of God is whether or not you have done such things.  And if you haven’t fulfilled them perfectly, you are in trouble.

But, and there’s always a but...what happens to those who don’t have such knowledge?  What happens to those who have never heard the Law read?  What happens to those who have never heard of the teachings of Jesus?  What will happen to them?  This is a big question in all reality.  There are many from outside the church who question the nature and justice of God because of this.  They ask, “Will God condemn a person to hell if they have never heard about Jesus?”  Many cannot accept this and actually walk away from Christianity or refuse to engage it because they see God as vicious because of this.

Paul addresses this question next: 14When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.  Paul says that while not having the revealed Torah–or Law, the Gentiles still have a law.  They still have a set of moral codes.
 They still have an understanding of how to treat one another.  They still have a conscience.

Scholars are actually have three different understandings of what is going on with the Gentiles and the Law here.  Depending upon which scholar you read, you will get three options.  To me, as I place this argument within the context of what Paul has just written and the points he has just made, I think he is returning to the concept of natural law.  I think he is returning to the idea that deep down within each and everyone of us–written deep within our heart (and remember, the heart was considered the source of right and wrong and desire), there are ideas of justice, fairness, and peace.  As we grow the axiom, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” becomes a good guide of what we should and shouldn’t do.  Societies base all sorts of moral codes based upon this, and for the most part all societies share them.  Where they have differed across history is that the laws usually only apply within their own society.  If you are an outsider, you are fair game.  But that is not the point Paul is making.  The point is–Gentiles have a law–a Torah–deep within themselves.  And their conscience helps them understand whether they are right or wrong.

Now, we need to understand that the concept of a conscience in St. Paul’s day was not like our understanding of conscience.  We understand conscience as the source of our moral norms–whether or not we feel bad about something we do or don’t do.  Paul is using the word differently.  He is using it as a mechanism that we have deep within our hearts that helps us reflect upon whether or not we meet a certain norm.  For instance, if I see that it is normal for people to refrain from stealing, my conscience helps me to see whether or not I meet that norm.  If I am consistently stealing and no one else is, then I am not meeting that norm in the least.  I am breaking the law.  Paul says that this conscience accuses them when they do not measure up, or it excuses them when they do, and this will be the basis that God uses to judge them.

What does that mean?  Just this: the Jew who is under the Torah, will be judged by the Torah.  But the Gentile will be judged by the standards that he or she judges everyone else.  Let that sink in a moment.  The Jews will be judged by the standard of the Torah.  Everyone else will be judged by the standard that they judge everyone else.  None of us are Jews here this morning as far as I can tell, so I think this question is pertinent to each of us: think about the moral standard that you have for everyone else.  Think about the moral standard that you have for young people; for older people; for fellow Christians; for those who work; for those who don’t work; for those who drive in their cars; for those who live a certain lifestyle; for those who are gay; for those who are straight; for those who are Republican; for those who are Democrat; think about the standard you hold for politicians; for police officers; for teachers; for preachers; for day laborers.  Think about all those standards and then ask yourself: do you live up to those standards yourself?

The most blatant example of this that I have run across in my life came when I was serving in my last congregation.  A gentleman who at one time was a bank president was chiding the senior pastor because the senior pastor felt like he didn’t get the raise he deserved.  The former bank president said straight up, “You work for God.  You are not supposed to want money.”  To which, the senior pastor responded, “Well that works for you too.”  The former bank president said, “No.  It’s different for me.”

Paul would say, “No.  No, it is not.  To the standards you hold everyone else, you will be judged!”  I think, if you are being honest with yourself, this is a terrifying thought.  None of us live up to the standards we hold for other people.  None of us fulfill the law that we have unto ourselves.  If indeed we are judged by this standard, we are all in deep trouble.  We are in need of a savior.

Fortunately, there is good news, but we will have to wait once more to hear it.  Reflect upon your own nature for the time being.  Reflect and ask yourself: are you content simply to know what God demands; what Jesus asks.  Are you satisfied with knowing instead of doing?  And, then wrestle with your heart.  Ask yourself if you live up to the standards you hold for others.  If you find yourself a bit uncomfortable with the answers to these questions, hold on–when you see what God has done, you will know why grace is truly amazing.  Amen.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Religious Hypocrites: Romans 2:1-11

Growing up, my dad often warned me with these words, “Be careful of pointing your finger at someone because you will have three pointing right back at you.”

Being the little smart-alec that I was, I started pointing with an open hand.

Others have offered these words of wisdom, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw rocks.”

Being the smart-alec that I am, I’d respond, “I’ll live in a brick house.”

Excuses can come easy if you really want them to, but if you live long enough, take time to reflect on life long enough, and if you probe the depths of your own heart at some station in life, then you will come to see these anecdotes as a description of reality.  You will come to see the hypocrisy in your judgment.  You will find yourself condemned by your own moral standards.  Oh, some of you may readily disagree.  Some of you may believe that you not only talk the talk but you walk the walk, but the hard, cold fact of the matter is: we generally are hypocrites without even knowing it, and in the eyes of God, we bring condemnation upon ourselves.

We have just finished a scathing portion of the book of Romans.  In chapter one verses 18-32, Paul has laid out a horrid condemnation of humanity beginning with the premise that there are those who have traded the worship of the Creator for the created.  These folks’ hearts have been corrupted, and they chase after idols–false gods.  They seek their security, safety, worth, value, meaning, and purpose in goods and ideas that can never satisfy–and, in fact, instead of giving freedom and value, they actually end up destroying a person.  Hence, God “gave them up” to follow their desires so that the very fabric of God’s created order unravels and they find themselves in hell long before they die.  Chapter one ends in this fashion.

But what about people who do believe in God and worship God?  What about people who strive to follow God’s commands?  What about people who agree that all those things Paul listed at the end of chapter one are wrong and abhorrent?  I mean, most of us would agree that the following are indeed wrong: “wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossips 30slander, God-hating, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, inventing evil, rebellious towards parents, 31foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness, ruthlessness.  Paul says that all of these things flow from a heart which is not seeking God–a heart that does not worship God.

This leaves the door wide open for someone to say, “Well, I do worship God.  I do honor God.  I am not like all those other people.  I do not stand condemned.  They are the ones with the problem–not me.”  Paul now turns his attention to such a one as Romans chapter 2 begins.

The apostle writes, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 2You say, ‘We know that God’s judgement on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ 3Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgement of God?”  This must have seemed a bit confusing to those who heard it.  They might have thought, “What do you mean, Paul?  I strive to avoid such matters.  I don’t engage in homosexual acts.  I am worshiping God.  I work hard to love my neighbor and avoid all those things you listed.  How am I condemning myself when I point out the ugly things that people are doing?  How am I being hypocritical?  How am I doing those things you are talking about?”

Paul continues, “4Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgement will be revealed.”  The clue to this dilemma can be found right here in verse five, “but by your hard and impenitent heart.”  These words are the lynch pin of this whole diatribe.

Paul points out that it is in God’s nature to be very forgiving; to be patient; to be kind.  This kindness, forgiveness, and patience is meant to melt our hearts–to turn us away from idolatry and toward Him.  This is what repentance is.  Repentance isn’t just turning away from doing bad things and then doing good things.  Repentance is a total change of heart–a change from worshiping idols and worshiping God.  Paul is pointing out that this change of heart has not occurred.  Paul is pointing out that even these religious folks are committing idolatry, and odds are, they have no idea they are doing it.  I will explain what is going on in just a moment.  We need to add the next couple of verses to get there.

6For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: 7to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. 9There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.  Now we come to a very interesting point because Paul says that God will repay each of us according to our deeds.  If we misunderstand what Paul is saying here, we will come to the conclusion that we’d better get our act together and do as many nice things as we possibly can.  We’d better worship regularly. We’d better give to charity and the church.  We’d better treat others with respect and kindness.  We’d better balance the scales in the favor of doing good because if we haven’t done enough, we will end up in the fires of hell!

But wait a minute.  Paul began this chapter addressing people who believed they were doing just this thing.  Paul began this chapter by addressing people who thought they were worshiping God who were not committing all the acts laid out in chapter one.  He said they were building up wrath for themselves.  He said that they had a hardness of heart.  How can that be?

Well, let’s return to how Paul defines what it means to do good–to seek for glory and honor and immortality.  Paul also defines what it means to do evil–to be self-seeking and obey wickedness or injustice.  Hold those two definitions beside each other for just a moment.  Doing evil is to be self-seeking.  Doing evil is to be consumed with self.  And if that is the case, does doing good mean that I am seeking my own glory; my own honor; my own immortality?  It cannot!!  Hence, doing good means I must be seeking the glory, honor, and immortality of something else.  It must mean that I must be seeking the glory, honor, and immortality of God.  It means my heart must be tuned to and I must be living for God.

Here is where I hope to clear things up.  Here is where I hope to show you how this all comes together.  For you see, Paul is telling us that you can do good deeds for the wrong reason.  Let me say that again, you can do good deeds for the wrong reason.  You can do good deeds and be completely and totally self-serving!

How so?  Let me show you by this imaginary dialogue.

So, I notice you go to church.  Why?
It makes me feel good, and I know I won’t end up in hell.
I also notice that you give to the church.  Why?
It makes me feel good, and I know I won’t end up in hell.
I notice that you are kind to others.  Why?
It makes me feel good, and I know I won’t end up in hell.
I notice that you give to charity.  Why?
It makes me feel good and I know I won’t end up in hell.
I noticed that you try and follow the Ten Commandments all the time.  Why?
I don’t want to make God angry and feel bad about myself.

Let’s stop the dialogue right there, and let me ask you: for whose sake is the imaginary person acting?  Who is the imaginary religious person actually serving?  Me.  Myself.  And I.  The person is not doing these deeds for God’s sake.  This person is actually self-serving.  This person is actually seeking his or her own good.  This person is not getting their sense of value, self-worth, safety and security from God–this person is getting their sense of value, self-worth, safety and security FROM THEIR GOOD WORKS.  This person has made an idol out of their good works.

And if I feel like I am successful in doing good...

If I feel like I can accomplish living a good and upright moral life...

If I feel like such a life can be lived with making just a few life choices and sacrifices...

Then I can be very, very contemptuous of others who do not live the same kind of life I live.  I can look down my nose at them and sneer.  I can say they are the ones with the problem, not me.  I’m doing good.  I’m living right.  I’m following God’s commands and worshiping Him.  They are the ones with the idols, not me.

WRONG.  You have an idol.  You just can’t see it.  Your self-righteousness blinds you to it.  Your idol is your self.  Hence every time you think you are doing good, you are simply storing God’s wrath up against yourself.  You are not working and doing such things for God, you are doing them for you.  While others are flat out rejecting God and turning to false forms of worship knowingly; you are rejecting God and serving yourself.

I have shared my testimony before you in the past, but it bears repeating now, for I do not want you to think that I am pointing fingers again.  I learned my lesson from my father and from the brutal reality of my own life.  For the bulk of my ministry, I now know that I was serving myself.  If you would have told me this five years ago, I would have denied it vehemently!!  I was a pastor.  I was preaching God’s Word.  I was helping a church to grow and do ministry!  There was no way I was serving myself.

But after getting burned out, God revealed to me the deepest desires of my heart.  I had to confront what I was living for–what I desperately wanted.  I wanted to take a church and make it grow from very small to very big.  I wanted this to happen because I wanted people to ask me how I did it in the mist of a culture that is more and more reluctant to embrace Christianity.  I wanted people to take notice of my preaching and teaching.  I wanted to write several books and become a popular author and public speaker.  I wanted fame in the church and the obligatory fortune that would come with it.  These were the deepest desires of my heart, and when this congregation didn’t grow as expected–when I felt like you weren’t holding up your end of what I thought you should do, then I became contemptuous of you.  I became angry with you.  You were why the church wasn’t growing.  It just couldn’t be me.  I was pouring my heart out to make you that I could reap the rewards.  Selfish.  Selfish.  Selfish.  I deserve your contempt and hatred.  It is only just.  Even in the midst of preaching God’s word and working in the church, I was not serving Him.

This is why Paul pens verse 11, “For God shows no partiality.”  It doesn’t matter if you are doing wrong because you flat out reject God or doing right because you are serving yourself.  In neither fashion are you worshiping the true God.  In neither case are you seeking His glory, honor, or immortality.  In both cases you are serving yourself.  In both cases, there is a hardness of heart.  In both cases sin is abounding, and in both cases, God’s wrath burns hot.

Paul unequivocally shows with these words that both the religious person and the irreligious person are under the condemnation of God.  Both the religious person and the irreligious person are pursuing idols.  It’s a hard, hard pill to swallow.

But the good news is that there is a cure.  We will not hear that cure today.  Not yet.  There is still more preparatory work to be done on our hearts.  There is still more groundwork that needs to be laid, but hang in there.  Walk through this time.  Feel the anger of God mounting as you realize the depths of your sin.  When the gospel is announced–when Paul reveals what God has done, you will understand why it is called amazing grace.  Amen.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Romans 1:24-32: The World Unravels

I remember vividly an episode from my teenage years.  Like all teenagers, I had a rebellious streak.  I didn’t want to abide by all of the rules and impositions my parents had instituted.  I wanted to stretch my wings.  Do the things that I wanted to do.  I was very much like most teens in the world.  And on one such occasion, I lost my temper.  I wanted to do a particular thing–I don’t remember what it was–and I was denied.  I threw  a fit.

And my dad responded, “Whenever you think you are grown enough to do what you want to do, just pack your suitcase and leave.”

I went to my room and pulled out my suitcase.  And then I began to plan.  I had exactly $274 in my wallet.  I would go to my friend Kevin’s house.  It was a long walk, but I could make it.  I would ask to stay there.  But what then?  Would they let me stay long term?  Would they feed me?  Would they buy me clothes?  What would happen if I spent all my money and had nothing left?  What would happen then?  Where would I find myself.  Visions of standing at the end of a sidewalk with no place to go, no place to stay, broke and alone filled my head.

I put my suitcase up.

Maybe you can relate, but I want to intentionally shift the focus of this story, because I don’t want us to think about us for the time being.  I want to shift the focus of this story to my dad.  Because it is only in hindsight that I can see what my dad was doing.  He was giving me up.  I worded that last sentence very carefully.  My dad was not giving up on me.  He was giving me up.  Essentially he was saying, “If you want your freedom, take it!  There is the door.  Go!”

Even though I didn’t know what my dad was doing at the time, when I began thinking about it, it scared the hell out of me.  I realized I still needed my parents.  Freedom wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

What would happen if God granted us that freedom?  What if God gave us up?  We don’t have to wonder what would happen.  We know.  We have a biblical history of what that looks like, and that biblical history informs St. Paul as he continues laying out his condemnation of humankind in the book of Romans.  Once again, I warn you, this journey is a dark journey for a while.  We will travel in darkness before we see the light.  And once again–like last week–I offer my apologies in advance.  We will not get to Jesus’ saving action today.  We will not hear John 3:16-17.  Our hearts must be prepared to hear the Gospel.  As I said last week, by the time we are done with the next two chapters either our hearts will be hardened so that we no longer want anything to do with God, or they will be crushed to the point that we rediscover just how amazing God’s love through Jesus is.  We will rediscover amazing grace.

Last week, I ended my sermon revealing how we are deserving of God’s wrath because we do not honor or worship Him as God.  We chase our idols of family, wealth, status, free time, government, and the like.  We chase them because we believe they will bring us fulfillment.  We believe they will bring us safety and security.  We believe they will bring us true life.  But they do not.  They lead us down a path of destruction.  Deep down, there is a part of us that knows this, but as Paul said last week, we deceive ourselves.  We tell ourselves that we are just fine–that there is nothing wrong with what we do or what we live for.  Stubbornly, we cling to our idols.

And this is where Paul continues today.  Verse 24, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.”  God said, “If you want your freedom to follow your heart’s desire, you have it.  Go get it!”  One commentator said it best.  God did not simply give us freedom.  No, that would mean we would be without desire and free to choose whatever we wanted.  God gave us the freedom to pursue the lusts of our hearts.  Not only did God say, “Go pack your suitcase.”  Essentially God said, “Here, let’s pack.  And then after helping you pack, He shoved you out the door.”  Sometimes there is no reasoning.  Sometimes there is no begging and pleading.  Sometimes there is no sitting down in a rational, loveable manner and showing another the consequences of his or her actions.  Sometimes a heart is hell bent on trying to get what it wants, and no matter what you say; no matter what you do; you will not prevent a person from trying to get it.

Have you ever tried to keep an alcoholic from getting another drink?

Have you ever tried to keep an addict from taking another hit?

Have you ever tried to keep a sexual pervert away from porn?

Have you ever tried to keep a Cowboy’s fan from reliving the 90's?  Okay, perhaps that last one wasn’t fair.

But you know the futility.  You know the impossibility.  And if you have ever reached your wits end, you know what it is to give a person up.  You know what it is to let that person go on in his or her self-destructive behavior.  And if you are angry enough, you push them toward rock bottom.  

When humanity decided to worship the creature instead of the creator because of the stubbornness and warping of their hearts, God gave them up.

Verse 26, For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.  I can hear the thoughts of some of you.  “Oh, here we go.  Time for some gay bashing.”  I can hear the thoughts of others, “Now, it’s time to bring the hammer on the gay agenda and show them what God really feels toward those sinners.  Time to tell them to repent of their sinfulness or end up in hell.”

First off, there will be no gay bashing–unless you call explaining what Paul says here gay bashing.  And a Christian is not allowed to bash anyone–much less condemn a person to hell, so don’t expect me to do that either.  These verses have been used as clobber verses toward gay people, and when used in such a fashion, they drive people away from the Good News.  They drive people away from Jesus.  This must never be our purpose.  But we must not shy away from what Paul is conveying in these words either.  He is making a very salient point.

More than a few scholars find it odd that Paul begins with homosexual acts for aren’t there other commands–other revelations of God which are seemingly more important?  I mean, Paul himself argues later in Romans and in the book of Galatians that the entire law can be summed up in one great command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Why not begin with that command?  Why begin with homosexual, sexual relations?

In this section of the book of Romans, Paul is showing us what happens when God gives us up.  Paul is showing us what happens when God gives us the freedom to pursue the warped desires of our hearts.  Paul is showing us the consequences of what happens when we replace God with idols.  Nearly every scholar I consulted for this sermon agreed that the finely woven fabric of what God created begins to fray and come unraveled when we don’t have God in His proper place.  Nearly every scholar said that when God is not the center of our lives and worship, then our lives begin to descend into chaos.  God’s created order unravels.  This is important.  Let me say it again. God’s created order unravels.

So why start with homosexual behavior?  Let me ask you a question: what is the first recorded command in the Bible?  What is the first thing that God told humankind after He created them?  Do you remember?

Let’s take a look.  Please pick up the Bibles in your pews and turn to Genesis chapter one.  For those of you who have forgotten the books of the Bible, knock the dust off, and turn to page one...  Skip down to verse 27, and let’s read verses 27 and 28 together, “27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  28God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

So, what is God’s initial command to humanity?  “Be fruitful and multiply and have stewardship over the earth.”  Can a man and a man be fruitful and multiply?  Can a woman and a woman be fruitful and multiply?  You know the answer to that question.  And before anyone starts in on me: yes, I am aware that there are couples who cannot have children, and no one thinks they are sinning.  I am aware there are people who actively work to make sure they have no more children, including myself and no one causes a stir.  But this isn’t about having children or not having children.  It’s about how God ordered creation and how that order is maintained.  Homosexuality is against that created order, and it contradicts the very first command given to humanity–a command which was issued BEFORE the giving of the Law to the Jewish people–a command woven into the very fabric of creation.

Paul begins with homosexuality for these reasons.  Not that it is above other sins.  Not that it is because homosexuality condemns a person to hell.  I mean, as Timothy Keller says, “I know very well that heterosexuality doesn’t get you to heaven.”  Not that it is to be the focus of the church’s activity in the world.  Paul shows that when the Creator is replaced, even the most basic order of creation begins to be violated.

And then, it gets really, really bad.  Verse 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. God gave them up to pursue the desires of their hearts, and in doing so, their minds became debased; warped; unhinged.  The created order began to suffer even more.  Take another look at that list of vices that St. Paul puts forward.  Tell me that you have managed to escape every one of those vices.  Tell me you have been able to avoid such things your whole life through.  Tell me that to this day, you never boast, become greedy, spread gossip, or get upset at what someone else has.  Tell me that you are not under the power of sin.  Even you are corrupt and violate God’s natural order of things.  God has given you over to the freedom to pursue the desires of your heart.

And the picture of reality isn’t pretty.  Think about a world full of those vices.  Think about a world full of people who are greedy, selfish, envious, foolish, faithless, heartless, and ruthless.  Think about a world full of strife, deceit, murder, slander, and gossip.  Think about a world where people applaud you for getting away with evil–where people encourage you to give into your every desire; where people affirm every decision you make whether it seem good or bad; where people call you a prude for doing good.  Where people long for the hero to fall and gleefully laugh when he does.  Would you like to live in that world?  Do you believe that we thrive in such a world?  Would you agree that a world like that could be described as hell?

When God gives us up to the freedom to pursue the desires of our hearts, then that’s exactly where we end up.  Hell is not simply a reality after we die.  It’s already here.  It takes place when we replace God with idols.  It takes place when we demand our freedom from God’s rule.  God says, “Okay.  Let me help you pack your bags.  Let me walk you out the door.  Good luck.”  Continue down the path, and sooner rather than later, we will find ourselves at the end of some God-forsaken sidewalk with nowhere to go; nothing to do; alone; abandoned–in hell.  Amen.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Grace that no Longer Amazes: Romans 1:18-23

Our foray into the book of Romans begins to take a dark turn.  I say this because in the next two chapters, Paul lays out a scathing condemnation of humanity.  Paul reveals to his audience just how sinful they are–how sinful we are.  There are many who will not like what I have to say in the coming weeks.  Many would like to pretend that they are generally good, decent people who commit a few mistakes, sure.  Everyone commits mistakes.  But tell a person he or she is deserving of God’s wrath, then you are likely to receive a tongue lashing.  We are a culture that has become desensitized to God’s wrath.  We have been so exposed to a loving, gracious God, that the thought of grace no longer even amazes us.

I watched a lecture this week by Dr. R.C. Sproul, and he told a very interesting story.  He said that he began teaching an introduction to the Old Testament course in theology at a particular college to all 250 students. He laid out how students would be graded for the class.  There would be a series of papers turned in throughout the semester due on a certain date.  If the paper were not turned in, the students would receive a failing grade.  Sproul said that at the first due date 225 students came with their papers and 25 did not.  The 25 pleaded with Sproul saying that they were making the transition from high school to college; they had made bad time management choices and needed more time.  Sproul granted them more time, much to their delight.  The next due date came, and this time 200 students came with their papers, and fifty did not.  Once again the begging and pleading ensued.  Once again, Sproul offered an extension.  At this point, Dr. Sproul became very, very popular on campus.  All the students loved him.  According to Sproul’s story, they even sang a song to him!

But then, the final due date arrived.  This time, 150 students handed in their papers.  100 did not.  Sproul approached a young man and asked, “Do you have your paper to turn in?”  The young man replied, “Hey, don’t worry about it prof.  I’ll have it for you in a couple of days.”  Sproul picked up his grade book, looked at the young man again and said, “You don’t have your paper?”  The guy replied, “No.”  Sproul marked in his grade book and said, “F.”

Sproul continues, “There was this gasp in the room.  And I looked and said, ‘Johnson, where’s your paper?’  ‘I don’t have it, sir.’ I said, ‘F. Reynolds, where’s your paper? F.’ And as if it were orchestrated...they call cried out with one voice, ‘THAT’S NOT FAIR!’

“I said, ‘What did you say?’  ‘We said that’s not fair.’ I said, ‘Beech, weren’t you late with your paper last time?’  He said, ‘Yes sir.’  ‘And you are late this morning?’  He said, ‘Yes sir.’

“So, I gave you an F for today, and it’s justice that you want?  I’m going to give you justice.  I’m going to change your grade for the last one, the one you were late for, and I’m going to give you an F for that one.  O.K.?  Now, who else wants justice.  You people be careful about ever asking for justice because you just might get it?”

Sproul continues, “But what happened?  They became accustomed to my grace.  First they appreciated it.  Then, they expected it.  Finally, they demanded it, and that’s who we are.”

That’s who we are.  When it comes to God’s grace; His love; His mercy in this day and age–we no longer appreciate it.  Most of us expect it.  And many demand it.  This is why there is a severe lack of humility in many churches today.  This is why many Christians come across as arrogant and self-righteous.  They believe they deserve grace–they deserve God’s love.  And a Christian who is not afraid of God’s wrath or a person who is not afraid of God’s wrath, will not hear the Gospel as good news; will not ever have a change of heart; and will never experience the fullness of peace that the Gospel delivers.

Today, we begin a journey towards humility.  Today we will begin to have our toes stomped on unmercifully.  When Paul is done with us, our hearts will either be hardened to the point that we want nothing to do with God, or our hearts will be crushed and ready to hear what God has done when we least deserved it.

Paul begins, “18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.”  There was a time in recent Christian history when theologians wanted to get as far away from God’s wrath as possible.  They believed this painted God as arbitrary, judgmental, liable to blow up at a whim and punish whoever He wanted whenever He wanted without regard.  The idea that God could get angry to the point of dealing death toward His creation was shoved as far back as possible in favor of a God who simply loved and wanted to be loved.  The majority of theologians today have repented from this because the horrid events of the 20th century: the Holocaust; the killing fields; the murder of millions of people in Russian pogroms woke them up to the reality of evil.  And if God is a just God; if God cares even a smidgen for His creation, then He cannot stand such evil acts.  God’s anger must burn hot at sin or God is not good!!  Let me say that again: God’s anger must burn hot at sin and injustice, or God is not good!  This is what is behind Paul’s words here.  Ungodliness is sin against God.  Wickedness is injustice or sin from one human against another.  God hates these sins with a passion.  They bring about His wrath.

But one might argue, how can someone who has never known God or known God’s commands stir God’s anger?  Isn’t that injustice on God’s part?  Paul says unequivocally that God’s anger is stirred against ungodliness and injustice–of those who suppress the truth.  Can EVERYONE know the truth?

Paul anticipates this argument as he continues, “19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse;”   Paul probably has Psalm 19 verses 1-4 ringing in his head as he dictates these words.  This Psalm reads:

The heavens declare the glory of God
the skies proclaim the works of his hands
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
No sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

Paul believes in what we call today, natural revelation–that we can come to know God–His power and His divinity–through the natural world.  This is not anything new for most people.  Most people believe that we can come to know some sense of right and wrong; some sense of justice; some sense of God through looking around the world.  Hence, every single culture around the world has some form of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Babies have a sense of fairness and justice.  It is innate within each and every person who is in his or her right mind.  No one is without excuse.  And if there is a universal law, where did that law come from?  Paul argues that those who suppress the truth are those who claim it comes from anywhere and everywhere but God.

21for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.  There is a blatant mistranslation in this text in verse 21.  It should read “for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless hearts were darkened.”  The importance of this translation will become clear in a moment.

Paul continues in his argument saying that even though people knew God–even though they knew of His revelation through creation–they did not honor Him or give thanks to Him.  They refused to worship God.  This led them to become futile in their thinking; have darkened hearts; and to become foolish.  How does this happen?

This happens because everyone worships.  Yes, everyone worships.  I don’t care if you are an atheist, a staunch believer, or even a Christian in name only.  Everyone worships something.  Some may disagree with me greatly, but here is the argument laid out for you:

We as human beings don’t just live–we all live for something.  Something in this life gives us meaning; gives us direction; gives us purpose; gives us hope; gives us a sense of value.  Timothy Keller puts it best when he says, “There has to be something which captures our imagination and our allegiance, which is the resting place of our deepest hopes and which we look to to calm our deepest fears. Whatever that thing is, we worship it, and so we serve it.  It becomes our bottom line, the thing we cannot live without, defining and validating everything we do.”  In days of old those things were literally idols–images made from wood and metal, but in our days, such idols have been changed but are still none-the-less idols: money, sex, justice, peace, prosperity, work, family, friends, busyness, power, climbing the corporate ladder, science, technology, free time, the government and a host of other things capture our hearts’ imagination and lead us to become foolish.

How does this happen?  Let me read to you the comments of atheist David Foster Wallace in his commencement speech at Kenyon College:

Everybody worships.  The only choice we get is what to worship, and the compelling reason to maybe choosing some sort of God or spiritual type thing to worship is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.  If you choose to worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.  Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age starts showing you will die a thousand million deaths before they finally grieve you.  Worship power and you will end up feeling weak and afraid and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect being seen as smart and you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud always on the verge of being found out.  But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is they are unconscious.  They are default settings.

When your heart’s imagination is captured by anything other than the Creator, you will become enslaved.  It will demand your time; your money; your energy; your entire being, and then you will delude yourself into thinking you are just fine.  You will justify what you are doing over and over and over again.  You will make excuses for your behavior and your thoughts.  When others confront you with your behavior, you will get angry and frustrated, and you will say, “I can stop this at any minute,” knowing full well you cannot and will not–until your heart changes.  Your stubborn, darkened heart makes you a fool.  Your worship of things other than the Creator turns you into a fool.

And now we must all ask ourselves: what do we worship?  What consumes our heart and mind and our thoughts day in and day out.  What do we think about in our spare time?  What does our life revolve around?  Odds are, it is not God.  None of us, and I mean none of us are focused with all our being upon Him.  We have traded worship for our Creator for things that are created.  Therefore, we stand under God’s wrath.  We deserve God’s wrath.  God’s anger is kindled against us.

And now, I must end with an apology.  I apologize for ending this sermon right here and right now.  For years, I have included in my preaching the Gospel.  I have brought you time and again to the point where you hear the soothing message of what God has done for you through Jesus Christ.  I have pronounced the Gospel in a nutshell: John 3:16-17 with reckless abandon.  But I cannot do this today.  This book is forcing us to reflect upon the state of our hearts; upon the state of our sinfulness.  We must continue through the darkness so that when the Gospel is announced at the end of chapter 3, we will once again discover just how amazing grace is.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Romans 1:8-17 "God on Trial"

Today, I have titled my sermon, “God on trial.”  I have done so for a couple of reasons.  First, there are many people in the U.S. who are walking away from organized religion.  Half of those who walk away say that they no longer believe in God for various reasons.  In a very real way, they have looked at the evidence for God and about God and have found it lacking.  They have put the idea of God on trial and convicted Him of absence.  The second reason is related to the first–God’s seeming absence in the face of injustice and evil.  This has been a major problem for those who believe in God for many, many years.  The logical argument is thus: if God is all powerful and if God is all good, then why does God allow bad things to happen?  Why doesn’t God cure illness and disease?  Why doesn’t God correct the many wrongs that go on throughout the world where people in power abuse those are weak.  Why doesn’t God do something about the hatred and anger and abuse and violence that goes on in the world?  Does God care and if He does, can’t He act?  In a very real way, folks who ask these questions are putting God on trial.  In effect, they are asking the question: is God just?  Is God righteous?

As we turn to our next installment of the book of Romans, I want to begin with a little bit of a study of the Koine Greek–the language in which the New Testament is written.  Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be too detailed, but the detail I am going to reveal here is important.  The Greek word for righteousness and justice is the same word.  Therefore, whenever you read through the book of Romans or any other New Testament book, if you see the word justice, you can interchange it with righteousness, and vice versa.  This will come into play in just a little while as we talk about Paul’s words to the church in Rome.

After Paul’s initial greeting, he follows the traditional customs of letter writing in the first century Roman empire.  He offers some gracious words of thanksgiving to the people he writes to.  In one way, you could say that he was buttering them up.

Paul begins: First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.  Paul is using some exaggeration here most likely.  Most scholars believe that the church in Rome was not large by any extent.  In fact, our membership very likely exceeds the number of Christians in Rome at the time Paul writes this letter.  At a maximum, the church in Rome may have numbered 200 people in a city of over a million.  But this is no small thing.  Rome is the center of the Roman empire–the most powerful empire in the world at the time.  It is where the emperor: Caesar, sits enthroned.  To profess “Jesus is Lord” right under the nose of those who demanded all Roman subjects profess “Caesar is Lord,” is an act of extreme bravery–something we know little about in our present situation.  But the Roman Christians’ trust in God empowered them to hold fast to their proclamation despite the threat–truly something to proclaim throughout the world.

9For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, 10asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you.  Paul then offers an intriguing oath, swearing before God that he prays regularly for the Roman church–desperately wanting to come and visit them.  Speculation is that Paul may have included this heart-felt prayer because some of the members in the Roman church felt slighted that the self-described “apostle to the Gentiles” hadn’t visited them in the heart of the Gentile world.  Paul wants to soothe their soreness as he pens some very important words to them.

11For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.  Paul obviously feels that he has something very important to share with the church in Rome.  The jury is still out as to what he wants to share with the Christians there, but Paul quickly points out that he does not want to come simply to impart knowledge on his own behalf.  There is a mutual sharing and growth that will occur.  This is quite revolutionary for us to think about because oftentimes, our thoughts tend to trend toward the idea that “I go to church to get something.”  Certainly, when we come to church, we should receive encouragement as we face our daily lives, but the encouragement also flows from us into others.  In other words, I am not simply giving you encouragement when you come through those doors, you are giving me encouragement as well.  We mutually build one another up.  This is ideally the way the church works.

13I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. 14I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish 15— hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.  Paul now closes out his reasons for wanting to come to Rome as he wants to reap a harvest–meaning make converts to Christianity because he is a debtor to both Greeks and to barbarians–to the wise and to the foolish.  What does Paul mean by this?  Tim Keller offered up a very interesting way to understand what Paul is saying here.  There are two ways of becoming indebted to a person.  First, if I borrow $100 from you, then I am indebted to you until I pay you back.  Secondly, if you give me $100 and say, “Please give this to my friend.”  Then I am indebted to your friend until I pass on that $100.  Paul believes he has received something that is not his–the Gospel.  Paul believes he is indebted to the world–to Greeks and barbarians; to the wise and foolish–and he must pass the Gospel onto them.  He must pass the Gospel onto everyone.  Why?

Here is where we begin to return to my original statement about God being on trial.  Paul lays in the next two verses what he will be arguing about in the rest of the letter: 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’  If you just read through these words quickly, you can gloss over it and not think much about them. However, if you read through these words slowly and try to understand them, you will find yourself scratching your head.  What in the world is Paul actually saying?  Why does he have to state that he is not ashamed of the Gospel?  What and how is the righteousness or justice of God revealed?  What does through faith for faith mean?

Let me begin by reminding you that the Gospel hinges upon the person of Jesus.  Jesus would have been considered a failure from a Jewish perspective because he failed to bring about the promises surrounding the Messiah.  He did not free the Jews from oppression.  He did not usher in world peace.  He did not cleanse the Temple system.  Everything continued to run as before despite what Jesus said.  AND, Jesus was also hung on a tree–which meant, according to Jewish scripture–he was cursed.  All of this amounts to tremendous failure from the standpoint of Jews.  From the standpoint of Rome, he was also a failure.  Jesus was considered a criminal who was seditious.  He was crucified because He challenged the power of Rome and proclaimed allegiance to another kingdom–God’s kingdom.  No Roman citizen was happy about knowing someone who was crucified.  It was a source of shame.  But Paul was not ashamed of any of this.  Not in the least.  In fact, Paul saw the Gospel as power. Paul had traveled throughout the Roman empire and preached Jesus.  Whenever he preached Jesus, hearts were changed; minds were changed; lives were changed; people acted and spoke differently–all because of the story of Jesus.  A story.  Mere words changed people deep within.  One commentary even said that some must have thought this to be magical.  But Paul saw it as power because of what it revealed about God.

For the Gospel showed that God is indeed just.  God is indeed righteous.  Now, we will be spending a lot of time on this in the coming weeks, so I will try to summarize and keep things as brief as possible in the limited time we have.  First, Paul will show that humanity has rebelled against God.  No one has an excuse when it comes to knowing what God would have us do.  Deeply embedded in creation is the knowledge of right and wrong.  Deeply imbedded in our being is the idea of fairness and justice.  Deeply imbedded in the core of our being is the knowledge of the way things should be.  We know what we should do, but we do not do it.  Justice; righteousness demands that such rebellion must be punished.  Justice; righteousness demands that wrongs be made right.  Justice; righteousness demands that evil be reversed and dealt with.

Every one of us knows this deeply.  Every one of us knows what it is like to be wronged by someone else.  Every one of us knows that for the wrong to be righted, some payment must be offered up–an acknowledgment of wrong; repayment of that which was lost; the repairing of what was broken.  Until we feel satisfied with repayment; restitution; apology; we do not feel as though justice has been served–we do not feel as though all is right.

But now we run into a problem.  Two problems in fact.  First, we run into the problem of our own inability to right the wrongs.  We are incapable of righting the wrongs that we do.  You may disagree with me here.  You may say, “Yes, I do some bad things, but I also do a lot of good things.”  I understand what you are saying, but let me get you to think about this a little bit.  Let’s say that one day you are careless and you back into anther person’s car.  You are embarrassed, and the damage isn’t too terrible, so you leave the scene.  “It was just a little ding,” you say to yourself.  You know it’s wrong.  So, later that day, you see a homeless person with a sign asking for donations to get food.  You put a $20 bill in the guy’s cup.  You instantly feel better about doing some good.  Things have evened out right?  Wrong.  They other person’s car still isn’t fixed.  Until you right the wrong you committed, you are still in debt to the other person.  Until you right the specific wrong, you haven’t made things just.  And if you break God’s commands...can you become completely right?  Can you become completely just with God.  The answer, we will see is no.  We cannot become right with God.  That’s problem one, and it is certainly not Gospel–good news.

Problem number two is the amount of injustice that permeates the world.  Very, very few of the world’s people ever get justice.  Very few of the world’s people ever have the wrongs committed against them righted.  People who died as slaves never received freedom.  There are people who were murdered whose killer were never found.  There are people who have been swindled out of money who never received a dime back from it.  People who try to do the right things end up having terrible diseases are killed by natural disasters and suffer terrible loss.  The powerful take advantage of the powerless, and not much ever happens.  Things are not right.  They are not just.

What is God’s answer to both of these problems?  Jesus.

First, God’s righteousness/justice is revealed on the cross. God pays your debt that you have accumulated with Him.  Revisiting the car analogy: the owner of the car fixed the ding without asking you to pay damages.  What became free to you, cost him time and money.  And if he decides not to press charges, you have a lot to be thankful for.  When it comes to sin, God changes our status before Him.  He reveals our righteousness and our justice by paying the price for our sins.  He does this out of His great love: for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all of those who believe in Him will not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

Secondly, God’s righteousness/justice is revealed in how Jesus lived as He announced the breaking in of the kingdom of God.  When the news of the Gospel takes root in your heart and mind, you are changed.  You are transformed.  You want to live and move differently.  You want to participate in a world where there is no more hunger, thirst, or poverty.  You want to participate in a world where all people are treated as children of God with dignity and respect.  You want to see reconciliation take place, and so you seek out others who share this view.  You seek out others who want to be a part of such a kingdom and you form a culture within a culture.  You form a church–a church which seeks to be the kingdom of God in the world; engaging the world; without becoming a part of the world.  In the church, justice/righteousness is practiced because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross.

Finally, God’s justice/righteousness is revealed in the resurrection.  For in the resurrection all the evil that had been done was undone.  All the darkness was transformed into light.  All the sadness was transformed into joy.  The promise of the resurrection is the promise that all evil will one day be overcome.  Death will be defeated.  God will reign supreme.  The resurrection says that God will have the final word, and so we live in hope.

And we put our trust in God.  We put our faith in the one who died to make us right with Him.  We put our faith in the one who has established His kingdom on earth and made us a part of it.  We put our faith in the one who will make all things new.  When you focus on God revealed in Jesus, you too can say as St. Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.”  You can see that God is indeed just.  You can see that He is indeed righteous.  You can see that there is no need to bring God to trial.  There is simply a need to trust in what God has, is, and will accomplish.  For He transforms you through the Gospel.  He transforms the world through the church, and He will transform heaven and earth in His good time.  Amen.