Monday, December 5, 2016

Where is the Evidence?: Romans 4:18-25

One day, an elderly lady went into the grocery store to purchase some dog food.  She went to the counter to pay, and the cashier said to her, every so sweetly, “I’m sorry, ma’am.  I can’t sell you that dog food unless you can show me evidence that you have a dog.”

The lady asked why.

“I hate to inconvenience you, ma’am,” she replied, “But we have discovered that a lot of older people are purchasing the dog food to eat.  That’s not healthy or sanitary.  So to prevent this, we’ve instituted a policy that we will not sell dog food without evidence of a dog.”

The old woman took out her cell phone and showed the cashier a picture of her and her dog.

The next week, the senior citizen returned to purchase some cat food.  The exact same conversation took place, and the cashier was satisfied when the old lady once again produced evidence in the form of a picture of her and her cat on her cell phone.

The next week, the elderly lady returned to the grocery store this time holding a plastic container with a hole in the top.  She walked straight up to the cashier and held up the container.

The cashier asked, “What is this?”

The old grey hair simply said, “Just put your finger in here, dear.”

The cashier did as she said, and then withdrew her finger covered in something smelly and brown.

“Eww!” screamed the cashier.  “What in the world is this?!!”

The old lady retorted, “That’s my poop.  Is that enough evidence for me to buy toilet paper?”

You will probably not remember another word of this sermon after that one, but I’m going to try anyway.

Christians have often been accused of believing in God without evidence or of believing in God despite evidence to the contrary.  The argument generally goes, “You have faith.  Faith means believing without evidence.  Therefore, you might as well believe in the flying spaghetti monster, or Thor, or the Tooth Fairy, or whatever imaginary thing you choose.  You have no basis for your belief.”

That’s not exactly an easy argument to defend if faith means believing without evidence.  However, faith without evidence is not the biblical definition of faith.  In fact, the biblical definition of faith is quite different.  A good definition of biblical faith is trust.  Most dictionaries define trust as, “a firm belief in the character, strength, or truth of someone or something.”  It is this definition that is better suited when we talk about our faith in God.  It’s not believing in God without any form of evidence, but it is a belief in God’s character; God’s strength; and God’s truth.  Faith assumes that we have already encountered God in some fashion, and we trust in what He has revealed to us.  The question that we must answer from skeptics is, “How do you know you have encountered God?”  That’s a bit more difficult to answer, but perhaps we have good guidance before us this morning as we finish up Romans chapter four.

Paul has gone through great pains to show up to this point that Abraham, the founder of the Jewish faith was not justified, or made right with God, by following the Law or by being circumcised.  Rather, Abraham was justified, or made right with God, by putting his trust in God’s promises.  God had promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations–that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seas.  But there were several problems that had arisen.  Would they shatter Abraham’s faith?  Paul takes us through the process as we begin at the end of verse 17:

–in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’, according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’   While most translations tie the end of verse 17 to the preceding verses, I prefer attaching it to the beginning of verse 18 to read as a series of clauses leading up to Abraham’s actions.  I think it would be better read in this fashion, “In the presence of God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist, hoping against hope, Abraham believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations.”  The Greek here definitely allows for this sentence construction, and I think it works better in this fashion to set the stage for what Paul is trying to convey to his audience.

Paul is laying out two important attributes of the God that Abraham trusted.  Now, as we read through the Old Testament, we know that Abraham had an encounter with God.  We do not have the exact details of that encounter.  We don’t know what kind of appearance God made.  We don’t know what Abraham experienced.  We do know that it was enough to change Abraham’s entire life.  He went from someone who worshiped many gods–to one who worshiped only one God.  He left his family fortune and inheritance and headed to a land he had never seen.  Whatever happened in that encounter between God and Abraham had so thoroughly convinced and changed him, that it must have been a marvel to see.

And Abraham had become convinced from his encounter with God that God could give life to the dead and call into existence the things that do not exist.  1. God could give life to the dead and 2. Call into existence the things that do not exist.  Think about these two attributes of God for a moment.  If you had encountered a being of this kind of power; if you had met this being face to face and come to realize His awesomeness; and if this being had made you a promise, what would that do to you?  How would that affect you?  Would you trust that He could do as He said?  This comes into play next as Abraham “hopes against hope” that he would become the father of many nations.  Paul explains this in the next few verses.

19He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’  For now we see the problem.  All the evidence appears to show that God’s promise will not happen.  Abraham was nearing a hundred years old.  Paul says Abraham considered himself as good as dead.  Sarah, his wife, was barren, and she was well past the age of child bearing.  This would have given most anyone pause in trusting the promise that had been handed down to him.  This would have given most people reason to laugh and disregard what had been spoken.  The promise that was made surely would not happen because of advanced age.  Most would have wavered or moved on.

But not Abraham.  The God who could bring the dead to life and call into existence the things that could not exist could certainly bring Abraham’s body to life.  God could certainly bring Sarah’s womb to life.  Abraham held onto that promise. He held onto that trust.  He believed that God would do as God said He would despite all the appearances to the contrary.  When to all appearances, Abraham should have given up and put His trust elsewhere, Abraham doubled down and continued to put his trust in God.  Despite what he was seeing in his body and Sarah’s body, Abraham gave glory to God; he worshiped God; he honored God; he thought about God and the encounter he had with God.  These things strengthened him in his resolve to hold onto the promise.  And Paul reminds us one more time, “Therefore his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

And we do know that God followed through on His promise to Abraham.  We know that Sarah conceived and bore a son.  We know that God was faithful even when all looked lost.  This is important to remember as we consider Paul’s final words of chapter four.

23Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, 24but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.  Paul wraps the entire argument up into his final point.  Genesis 15:6 was not just written for Abraham’s sake.  It was not written just about Abraham.  It was written for our sakes as well.  The biblical history has been written to bring us to our own faith; our own belief; our own trust.  For our righteousness is reckoned when we trust in Him who–brought the dead to life; trust in Him who called into existence the things that didn’t exist; trust in Him who raised Jesus from the dead.

And now, Paul reiterates the Gospel–the reason we put our trust in God; in Jesus–because Jesus was handed over to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.  Jesus secured our justification and our redemption not by any work of our own, but by His work.  Jesus made us right with God through His actions and not our own.  And now we trust His work instead of our own.  We hold onto this promise despite the evidence we may see to the contrary.  We mirror the faith of Abraham and have it reckoned to us as righteousness not because we believe without evidence but because we have had an encounter with God, and we hold onto His promises with an eternal hope.

What does this mean practically?  Let me share an illustration and then a personal story.  First the illustration: My kids used to be terrified when they first went out to my ranch in Rocksprings.  Of course, being where Hill Country meets Brush Country, everything bites, stings, or pokes.  This was not very inviting for my children.  Whenever we walked or climbed the hill on my property, they would become extremely frightened.  It was my job to reassure them.  Over and over again, I would tell them, you will be okay.  Everything is going to be fine.  You will not get hurt.  Even if you get pricked, we will take care of it.  Follow in my footsteps, and everything will be okay.  The kids had to learn from me.  They had to trust me.  They had to get enough confidence in me that all would be well.  Despite the evidence that they saw around them–all the prickly, sticky things, they had to learn that I would not lead them astray.  Now, my kids are all over the place because they have learned to navigate with confidence.  They have learned to trust.

The life of faith is similar with God.  We learn to trust Him and walk in His footsteps and listen to His voice.  We believe we have encountered Him already and that His guidance is secure.  As I said earlier, the question we have to answer from skeptics is, “How do you know you’ve really heard God?”  First off, we must answer that we have a history of God speaking not only to us, but to others.  Paul delves back into scriptures to show God’s consistency–how God spoke to Abraham and justified Abraham by faith.  God will remain consistent, and we can rely on the revelation contained in scripture to guide us.  Therefore, if we “hear” a voice say, “Go kill that person because they are different from you,” we can readily say, “Don’t think that’s God at all.  God’s word in Jesus doesn’t tell us to do that!!”  Consistency.  The second way we know it was God that spoke is when the words come true.  That’s the hard one.

I have heard God speak to me unambiguously twice in my life.  The first was when I was called to be a pastor.  The second time was shortly after we moved here to Cat Spring.  I remember taking a shower late one evening getting ready for bed.  I heard clearly the words, “You will have a child before the end of the year.”  Dawna and I had been in the adoption process for nearly two years.  We had had our hopes dashed a couple of times.  The administrator of the adoption agency told us time and again that birth-mothers would see the picture of me as a pastor and close our book.  We contemplated taking that picture out to increase our chances.  We weren’t sure what to do.  “You will have a child before the end of the year.”  I still remember the day we got the call from the agency.  “A birth mother has picked you.”  We got the news in December–before the end of the year, we had a child.  Now, Kiera was delivered in January, but she was ours before the end of the year.  God’s voice.  I’ve learned to trust it despite other appearances.

I know I cannot convince anyone that I heard that voice.  I know I don’t have an audio recording or anything like that.  I know I can’t produce any evidence that this happened.  You’ve got to trust my witness to you.  You’ve got to trust me.  And that can be a complicated thing because I’m human.  I’m sinful.  I can easily hurt you or say something that you don’t agree with.

And so we must realize something about our God–that He calls us into a new existence; He gives us a new status.  God justifies sinners like me.  Like you.  God makes us right with Him through His Son because He loves us.  And He sends us out to tell others what He has done–to tell others to put their trust in Him–to tell others to listen for His voice because His promises are certain; Will do as He said He will do.  And the final evidence for this is the cross.  The final evidence for this is the knowledge that God took on flesh to die for us despite our weakness; despite our flaws; despite our sin.  He loved us; He loved the world enough to die for it.  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 to save it.

When it looks like all hope is lost.  When it looks like the world around is falling apart.  When it looks like good cannot win.  The person of faith looks at the cross; looks at the God who died for the world; remembers He was raised, and then like Abraham, hopes against hope.  We remember who God is, and we put our trust in Him.  Amen.

Monday, November 28, 2016

God's Integrity: Romans 4:13-17

Don’t you hate it when people change the rules on you?

How’s this one for you. The phone rings.  It’s a number that you don’t quite recognize, but it seems to have some similar numbers in it, so you answer.  An excited voice on the other end of the line says, “You’ve won a free cruise!!!”  Now, admittedly, I hang up right there.  Nothing in this life is truly free.  There’s always a catch, and in this case, if you hang in there, the catch becomes clear.  After spending several minutes talking about white sandy beaches and glorious sunshine, you are asked to participate in a survey.  You take the survey, and then, they ask you for your credit card number.

“Wait a second,” you think to yourself. “I thought this was supposed to be free?”

“It’s for taxes and port fees,” is the answer.

“So, it’s really not free, is it?”

No. It’s not.  It’s a scam, but they wait until they get you on the hook before changing the rules.  And, of course, when they change the rules, their initial promise is null and void.  Free turns into some sort of payment on your behalf.  Most of us consider such a practice to be just wrong.

And it is.  It flies in the face of something most of us value: integrity and consistency.  If you do not have integrity as a person or institution, people dismiss you; walk away from you; tune you out.  If you are not consistent in what you produce or how you act, people will dismiss you; walk away from you; tune you out.  It happens over and over and over again–in business, in politics, and in religion.

In fact, one of the greatest struggles that we in the church face is our inability to have integrity and consistency.  We talk a good talk about loving our neighbor, serving everyone, being generous, believing in God and worshiping Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.  And yet, we don’t hesitate to demonize those who are on the other “side” of the political fence.  We do hesitate in serving those we deem to be taking advantage of others.  We tend to give God the leftovers in our budgets, and worship is something we tend to when we have nothing else to do on Sunday morning IF we are not too worn out from the week we just had.  See how this demeans our integrity?

And those who are outside the church look at us, they see our lack of integrity and consistency, and they think, “Well, this faith stuff isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  There’s not much change in their lives, is there?”  And they dismiss us; walk away from us; and tune us out.

But, here is the thing, while it would be fantastic if we all suddenly became “Super Christians” and changed our behavior completely and totally so that we automatically worshiped every single Sunday, gave 10% of our income as offering without reservation, helped every single person we encountered, and accepted and loved everyone no matter what differences we had with them, that’s not going to happen.  We are still a group of sinful people.  We are still a group that embodies imperfection.  We are still a group who will never have full integrity or consistency.  Therefore, we need to realize this about ourselves.  We need to be honest about ourselves.  We need to have enough integrity to tell others about our imperfections and our inability to be consistent, and instead of pointing to ourselves–point to our God who is consistent and who does have the ultimate in integrity.

This is Paul’s point in this segment of chapter four of the book of Romans.  It is an important point for him as he shows how it has always been God’s intention to save by grace through faith and not works of the law.  God has integrity.  God has consistency even when we don’t.  Let’s delve into Paul’s argument.

Verse 13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.  Paul hearkens back to Genesis 15:6 with these words.  Here is a refresher on that, “Abraham believed the Lord, and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  Paul points out once again that when God made Abraham righteous, it was centuries before the law was handed to Moses–430 years according to most Jewish rabbis at the time.  Abraham’s righteousness was not dependent upon him following the Law.  Abraham’s trust–his faith–in the promise of God made Abraham righteous.  There was nothing else that accomplished that.  Nothing.  And Paul wants to make that abundantly clear.  For if the rules have changed, then there are horrible implications

That is why Paul says, “If it is the adherents to the law who are to be heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.”  Remember the free cruise story I began the sermon with?  If suddenly you have to pay fees, the cruise isn’t free anymore.  The promise of a free cruise is null and void.  If righteousness is not tied to faith but is tied now to the following the law, then there is no need to trust in God–there is no need for faith.  We now trust in ourselves to do what is needed to make ourselves right with God.  We put our faith in our actions instead of God’s actions.  Righteousness is no longer bestowed upon us, it is something earned.  And the promise is void.  How so?  Well, if you don’t pay–if you don’t live up to the expectations, the promise evaporates.  Again, returning to the “free cruise”, if you don’t pay the taxes and port fees, you don’t get the cruise.  If you don’t follow God’s law, you don’t receive the inheritance.  Plain and simple.  And Paul has just dedicated most of chapters one, two, and three showing how people don’t and can’t follow God’s law!!  If that is the case, the promise is void and God is proved to be inconsistent!!  God is proved to have no integrity!!  And this is a horrible thought to Paul–and it should be to us!!

Paul includes a little excursus next.  It’s one verse that talks about the role of the Law.  Many scholars wonder exactly why Paul included it because it breaks the train of his argument.  I confess, I don’t know why it’s in there either, but it is something we should consider because it raises an interesting point.  Verse 15For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.  The Greek carries a little more nuance than the translation we have before us.  It should probably read “For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there transgression.”  Like in chapter three, Paul points out the role of the Law–it reveals our sin.  The Law shows us those things that bring God’s blood to boil.  The Law cannot save us–it can only condemn us.  The Law cannot make us right with God–it can only show us where we have gone wrong with Him.  But what if there is no law?  What if God has not been explicit in what is right and wrong?  Well, if there is no Law, there is no transgression.  We might have sinned.  We might have done something wrong, but we didn’t know it or realize that it was against God’s will.  A transgression is an act that goes against God’s written or expressed command.  If we know the Law; if we have God’s commands, and we break them, we are in much worse trouble than if we didn’t have the commands and we went wrong.  I think that’s what Paul is probably getting at as he brings the argument back to Abraham and faith.

16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.  If our righteousness depended upon following the Law, and we break the Law, then we have doomed ourselves and the promise is broken. However, if our righteousness rests on faith–on our trust in God and His integrity and consistency–then the promise does not come by our earning it; it does not come by our actions; it comes by grace–it comes as a gift from God and by God.  And since it comes by grace, as a gift, then not only do the adherents of the Law who share the faith of Abraham claim the promise, then so do those who are outside the Law who have come to trust in God.  They both have the faith–the trust of Abraham.  They are both his decedents, and the promise God made–that He would make Abraham the father of many nations–is fulfilled!!!  It is indeed free!!  The rules haven’t changed.  God indeed is consistent and full of integrity.

Now, before I delve into some of the implications, let me say that I am intentionally skipping the last part of verse 17 for this Sunday.  As I studied this text and read through the commentaries, I think the last part of verse 17 actually is an introduction to what is happening in verse 18.  We will see that next week.  I am not going to neglect what Paul says about God at the end of that verse.

So, with that being said, let’s turn to the implications of what it means to say that God is consistent and that God has integrity.

I have had numerous encounters with people who have stopped going to church because they have had a falling out with a church member.  “I used to go to church until so and so said this to me, and so I don’t go anymore.”  “I won’t set foot in that church because so and so will be there.  They broke a promise to me, and I don’t want to associate with them.”  “I’ve stopped going to church because the pastor said something I disagree with.”  What is at the heart of each of these statements?  Here’s what: the people who were making these statements were putting their trust–their faith in people instead of in God.  They believed that people should not let them down–especially church people.

And in a real way, they are right.  We, of all people, shouldn’t let others down.  We shouldn’t break promises.  We shouldn’t harm others with our words and our deeds.  We need to admit that we shouldn’t do those things.  However, we should also admit and tell people that we will do those things because we are sinners.  We should admit to people that they should not put their trust and hope in us.  We should admit our limitations and our inability to live up to the people we are called to be.  Too often, in our self-righteousness, we come across as goody-two-shoes; holier-than-thou instead of humble servants of Christ, and we need to own this and remember that we are sinners in need of redemption.  We are sinners who too often fail to keep our promises.

But there is One who didn’t fail to keep His promises.  There is One who set about to bring redemption to the world.  There is One in whom we can trust in whom we should put our faith in and urge others to put their faith in as well.  We should freely tell people, “Don’t put your trust in me.  Don’t put your trust in the church.  We will let you down because we are imperfect.  We will let you down because we aren’t willing to die for you.  There is only One who was willing to do that.  There is only One who was willing to love us when we were unlovable and who loves you when you are unlovable. There is only One who gave Himself for the sake of the world.  His name is Jesus.”

And rather than change the game; rather than change the rules, He remained consistent.  Instead of making you pay the cost for redemption; instead of making you earn your way; He paid everything for you.  He bore the entire payment on the cross as He poured out His life for you because He loved 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 to save it.”  This is the lengths God will go to remain consistent and have integrity.  It truly is worthy of our trust.  Amen.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Making the Cut: Romans 4:9-12

I had a seminary professor who one day spoke to us about an experience he had in a small town where he served a small, Lutheran congregation.  Right across the street from his church was another small, Lutheran congregation.  By this time, each congregation was in the same synod.  My professor thought it was pretty stupid that these two little congregations remained separate especially since they worshiped with the same hymnals; at the same time; with the same liturgy; and were with the same denomination.

One day, my professor asked one of the matriarchs of his congregation, “Why don’t we try to work to become one congregation?”

The matriarch looked at him and said, “Oh, pastor, that will never work out.  We use cards to register for communion.  They tell their pastor directly.”

That, my friends, is worthy of a major face palm!!  Some of the boundaries that we draw to distinguish ourselves from others are truly stupid.

Now, before I go too further, I want to make something very clear, this is not a sermon about bashing boundaries.  There are some well intentioned pastors, professors, and Christians who proclaim that Christianity is all about destroying the boundaries that exist between each other.  They say, “Jesus was a boundary breaker, and we should be too.”  As respectfully as possible, I would like to say that these folks are absolutely, completely, totally, wrong.  Christianity is not about abolishing boundaries.  Jesus did not come to eradicate them.  He came to redraw them.

God knows we need boundaries.  Boundaries help us know what is right and what is wrong.  “Do not steal” sets up a boundary between what you do not have and what someone else has and says, “Don’t take stuff that doesn’t belong to you.”  A marriage is a boundary that is formed between a couple and the rest of humanity that says, “We have committed to one another in a special relationship–no one else is allowed this intimacy.”  Property lines are drawn and sometimes solidified with fences to show–this belongs to one person and that belongs to another.

When it comes to the human aspect of boundaries, they help us know where one person stops and another person starts.  Boundaries say, “This is me.  This is not me.”  They give us a sense of identity, and they differentiate us from the environment and other creatures.  Boundaries help us distinguish ourselves from other animals.  What is the difference between us and apes?  What is the difference between us and chimpanzees?  What is the difference between us and stubborn, hard headed mules?  A few of you are looking around and saying, “Not much.  Not much at all.”

To eradicate all boundaries would leave us with a sense of chaos.  If everything is permitted, you have anarchy, and eventually, the law of the jungle will prevail.  The biggest and strongest will rule over everyone else, and everyone else would have to survive by hook, crook or subservience.  We need boundaries, but we must be careful with those boundaries.

If we draw the boundaries incorrectly or if the boundaries have no wiggle room or play, there can be drastic consequences.  For instance, we have a boundary called the speed limit.  Not too many really pay attention to it, but it is a boundary none-the-less.  If your child has an accident and you need to get them to the hospital as quickly as possible, is it okay to break the speed limit?  Most judges would be lenient because they realize that there are some circumstances where boundaries need to be a little flexible.  If boundaries are drawn incorrectly, conflict ensues.  Property owners go to court.  Nations go to war.  People resort to harsh words or even fists.  Boundaries must be drawn sometimes with the utmost of care.

As we work through the book of Romans we have come to a place where Paul is indeed carefully re-drawing the boundaries of what it means to be a child of Abraham and a part of the family of God.  To recap where we have gone so far, Paul began his letter by showing how all have failed to live up to the expectation of God.  All have missed the mark tremendously and are deserving of God’s wrath.  Yet, instead of unleashing His wrath against us, God worked a mighty act through His Son, Jesus Christ who became a sacrifice of atonement for all sin.  We have been made right with God not by any action of our own but through sheer grace–a gift of God’s gracious giving.  And we receive this righteousness–this being made right–when we trust in Jesus’ actions instead of our own.  As Paul says, it is “effective through faith.”

Paul now has to deal with several issues in light of God’s action through Jesus Christ.  The first is: if we are saved by grace and not by any work of the Law, does that mean that the law is meaningless?  Paul quickly answers: NO, but H-E-double hockey sticks NO!  We uphold the Law.  Paul will get into this later in the book of Romans and explain what this means.  There are still boundaries, but they have drastically shifted.

Last week, Paul worked through one of those shifts digging into the history of Judaism.  He showed how Abraham was not justified or made right with God through his following of the Law.  Abraham, according to Genesis 15 verse 6 was justified when he trusted that God’s promises would come true.  This was before the giving of the Law.  Now, Paul will show how the boundary regarding circumcision has been redrawn.

Let’s take a look at the text: 9 Is this blessedness, then, pronounced only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised? We say, ‘Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.’ 10How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. Again, Paul digs through the scriptural history to prove his point.  Revisiting Genesis chapter 15 verse 6, Paul asks, “When did God say Abraham was made right?  Was it before or after Abraham was circumcised.”  The Jewish rabbis generally agreed that Abraham was circumcised 29 years after the events of Genesis 15:6.  Hence, it logically follows that it was not the circumcision that made Abraham right with God; it was not the circumcision that made Abraham the founder of the Jewish nation; it was Abraham’s trust in God.  Period.  If it was the only the circumcision that counted, well, then Abraham spent 29 years outside of the covenant with God.  Abraham spent 29 years without God’s blessing and promise.  Abraham spent 29 years as just Abraham and not the patriarch of the Jewish people.  No respected rabbi would dare to suggest that.  None at all.  So, Paul has this logic all sewed up.  Abraham was made a part of God’s family before he was circumcised not after.  So, what does circumcision mean, then?

Verse 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, 12and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised.  Paul says that circumcision is a SIGN and a SEAL.  It is a sign that Abraham has put his trust in God–it is a response; an indelible mark that shows unequivocally that he is a Jew–a child of God.  It is also a seal of that same covenant.  It is a stamp over a signature that cannot be removed permanently holding that signature in place.  It is not a saving action.  It is a physical reminder of the promises that are made.  It is like a wedding ring.  The ring does not bind a couple together.  Their promises do.

And Paul wants to emphasize this because it has some important implications.  First off, since Abraham entered into the covenant and became the first of God’s family through the promise–and not through circumcision, then he can be seen as the father of the Gentiles who become Christians.  They are uncircumcised yet made right with God just as Abraham was uncircumcised when he was first made right with God.  Secondly, because Abraham was the first of the circumcised, he is also the father of all Jewish people.  It is extremely important for Paul to show this because Paul unequivocally wants to show that God was faithful in His promise to Abraham.  God indeed has ensured that Abraham’s descendants can be counted in the number of stars in the sky and grains of sand in the sea.  The boundary has been redrawn to do this.  The boundary of who is allowed into God’s family is not whether or not the follow the Law.  Paul’s answer is no one does, and all would be excluded.  Paul also now says that the boundary as to whether or not someone is in God’s family is also not circumcision lest some don’t quite make the cut.  (Thank you for your recognition of the brilliance of that pun.)

The boundary is whether or not a person trusts in Jesus Christ.  The boundary is whether or not someone trusts in Jesus’ redeeming action instead of their own actions.  The boundary is whether or not someone trusts in Jesus’ death and resurrection instead of any physical trait they have.  Trust in Jesus equals admission into the family of God.  Faith in Jesus Christ makes you a child of Abraham.  That’s it.  Period.  End of story.

What does this mean?

In today’s terms, the message is stark because there are those who still try to draw the boundaries hard and fast in other terms.  How so?  Tell me if you have heard these things or something like them:

You can’t be a Christian and vote for Donald Trump.
You can’t be a Christian and vote for Hillary Clinton.
You can’t be a Christian and vote Democrat.
You can’t be a Christian and vote Republican.
You can’t be a Christian and drink alcohol.
You can’t be a Christian and be homosexual.
You can’t be a Christian and support our military.

Oh, I could go on and list many, many more–including the fact that there are some Christians who believe that only their particular denomination is the family of God.  There’s an old joke about a guy who dies and goes to heaven.  St. Peter meets him at the gate and starts showing him around.  Peter says, “Well, I noticed that you didn’t attend any particular church, so I am going to show you around up here and let you see all the different denominations.  After looking them over, you can decide which one you want to hang out with.  St. Peter points out the Lutherans, and they are all drinking beer and dancing having a great time.  The guy looks at them and thinks, “Well, that looks like fun.”  Next, Peter points out the Baptists many of whom are drinking beer and dancing for the first time while shouting out Amen! with great frequency.  The guy, thinks, “Well that’s cool too.”  And so Peter goes about continuing to point out each group.  Finally, Peter comes to a big wall.  The guy asks, “What’s up with the wall?”  Peter replies, “Shh.  Keep your voice down.  That’s the Missouri Synod.  They think they’re the only ones up here.”

These boundaries are not the correct boundaries.  It is in our nature to draw them and say who is in and who is out.  But we must remember something–God’s boundaries are the most important boundaries, and He has gone to great lengths to admit as many people into His family as possible.  He has gone through great pains and sufferings to welcome as many to the table as He possibly can.  He has done this because He loves the world and the people in it.  He does not want to see them perish.  We know this because Jesus unequivocally said, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.”

And that God justified the ungodly.  That God justified you and I when we were ungodly.  God justified us when we were most to be pitied.  And so we seek to proclaim that justification to others.  We seek to help them trust in Jesus and His action.  For God wants all to be in His family.  All.  We do not seek to condemn people for their differences–for their different boundaries.  We seek to help them to see how God has rewritten them to make a place for them.  After all, God has redrawn the boundaries, for you.  Amen.

Monday, November 14, 2016

You're Not Getting Paid--Romans 4:1-9

There was an elderly gentleman who lived just down the road from a junior high school.  Everyday, two young boys would walk by his house and bang on his garbage cans.  No amount of yelling, cussing, or threatening would stop them.  So, one day, the old man changed tactics.

When the young boys came by and banged on his trash cans, the old man spoke, “Hey boys.  Stop what you are doing and come here for a moment.  I have a deal I want to make with you.”

The two boys cautiously approached the old man who had yelled at them countless times.

The old man spoke, “Gentlemen, I have had a change of heart.  I used to hate you banging on my trash cans, but I have discovered that it is now music to my ears.  Here’s what I’m going to do.  I’m going to pay you each a dollar a day to bang on my trash cans to your heart’s content. Is that a deal?”

The boys couldn’t believe their luck, and they readily shook.  Everyday the following week, they banged on the trash cans with reckless abandon.

After a week, the old man called the boys to his porch. “Boys,” he said, “I hate to tell you this, but the landlord went up on my rent.  I’m only going to be able to pay you seventy-five cents a day next week.”

The boys said, “That’s okay,” and then proceeded to bang on the trash cans another week.

After that week, the old man called the boys up once again.  “I’m sorry, boys,” the old man said.  “Cable t.v. went up.  I’m only going to be able to pay you fifty cents a day next week.”

The boys looked a little forlorn, but they said, “Well, I guess that’s okay.”  And they proceeded to bang on the trash cans every day the following week.

The next week (you know where this is going, right?), the old man called the boys once more.  “Boys, I hate to break it to you,” he said, “but the old lady had to have dental work, and I’m out quite a bit.  Next week, I’m only going to be able to pay you a quarter each day.”

The boys then said in disgust, “There’s no way we’re going to bang your trash cans for only a quarter.  We quit!”

And the old man has enjoyed his afternoons of quiet ever since.

Now, we can talk about all kinds of things with this joke: the wisdom of the elders, how to trick folks, even the foolishness of living in a home near a junior high school, but what I would like to spend a bit of time on is being paid for your labor.  This joke effectively highlights that if we don’t feel like we are getting paid for our labor–even if we are tricked into it; then we get angry.  We have been taught that our time and our efforts are extremely valuable.  We have invented a system of commerce–capitalism–that hinges on the idea that our time, energy, and efforts are valuable and worth compensation.  We believe that if we work hard enough, our efforts should pay off.

Get a good education, and you will receive a good job.
Work hard at your job, and you will be paid, appreciated, and get a raise.
Dedicate yourself to improving your abilities, and you will climb the corporate ladder.
Practice hard enough in a sport, and you will excel.
And the list goes on.

This is so deeply ingrained in our being that those who believe in God oftentimes apply it to their life of faith.  We are basically taught that if you are good enough, then you will receive God’s blessings.  If you do wrong, God will bring curses.  More than a few have a deeper belief in karma than anything else.  If you do ill, then eventually, the universe will pay you back.  And we generally believe we are on the good side of the equation.  I mean, if you think about it, what is at the heart of that age old question, “What did I do to deserve this?”  Have you asked that question?  I’ve heard it numerous times.  I used to say it.  What did I do to deserve losing my job?  What did I do to deserve getting sick?  What did I do to deserve my family breaking up?  What did I do to deserve my car breaking down?  At the heart of that question is the idea that you don’t think you deserve this to be happening to you.  At the heart of that question is the thought that you’ve been doing enough good to deserve good in return.  Basically, you are thinking that you are owed a good life because you are working to be good.

There are many preachers and pastors who actually preach this kind of thing and grow large churches by this preaching.  Just believe enough.  Just pray enough.  Just put enough in the offering plate.  Just attend worship enough.  Sing loud enough.  Say the right words in prayer.  Do all the right things, and God will rain blessing down upon you.  This message resonates deeply because it gives us control–control over our lives and control over God.

St. Paul would have gone ballistic against this kind of thinking!!  First off, he would have argued vehemently that you don’t deserve any sort of blessing in your life.  From Romans chapter one verse 18 through chapter three verse 20, Paul has laid out his case that all have fallen far short of God’s required ways of living, and the only thing we deserve is God’s wrath.  But in a shocking twist, Paul says we have been made right with God–not by any action that we undertook, but by God’s action through Jesus Christ.  “We have been saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus whom God set forth as a sacrifice of atonement.”  When we deserved death, God gave us life–as a gift, Paul says.

And now, Paul is going to go through great pains to show that this was how God sought to make people right all along.  Not through their work.  Not through some sort of quid pro quo.  But through sheer grace–effective when we trust in God.  And Paul will use the example of Abraham to show this.

We begin in Romans chapter 4 verse 1: What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’   Paul reaches back into the deep history of Judaism to start with Abraham.  Abraham is considered the patriarch of the Jewish faith–the one to whom God made the covenant to start the Jewish people.  If Paul can show that Abraham was justified by faith and not by works, Paul gives Christianity a very, very strong footing.

Paul revisits the argument we dealt with last week about boasting.  If Abraham were justified by his works, then indeed he would have something to boast about; but Paul says Abraham does not–especially before God.  Why is this important?

Let’s do a bit of biblical history.  As you read through the Old Testament, you will see that God gave the Law to Moses hundreds of years AFTER Abraham lived.  Abraham did not have the Law.  He was actually outside of the Law.  The Jewish rabbis knew this, so they came up with the idea that Abraham managed to follow the Law unconsciously; instinctively.  Because Abraham was able to do this, he was considered righteous before God.

But Paul knows better.  He knows that Abraham didn’t follow the Law.  Abraham was a polytheist before God called him.  This means Abraham worshiped many gods.  Abraham also lied and said that Sarah, his wife was actually his sister during a trip to Egypt.  That caused a whole lot of problems according to the Bible.  Even after God promised Abraham an heir, Abraham worried that God was acting too slowly, and he took a slave of his, Hagar, and had a child with her to be his heir.  This was not trusting God, and Abraham certainly cannot boast about this.  Then, when Abraham’s wife Sarah actually had a son, she became jealous of Hagar’s son and demanded Abraham drive him off.  Abraham gave in to Sarah’s jealousy and drove Hagar and her son off.  Does this sound like following the Law?  Certainly, it does not.  Abraham was not righteous because he followed the Law, and Paul points to the scriptures to show this as he quotes Genesis 15 verse 6, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

Now, I want to point out here, as did the commentaries, that the Bible does not say, “Abraham believed IN God.”  The words are, “Abraham believed God.”  Abraham trusted God.  Abraham believed that what God had said was true.  Abraham trusted in the promises of God, and this is what made Abraham righteous.  It was not any action that Abraham took.  It was not any following of the rules.  It was a trust that God would do what God said He would do.  It was not something earned.  It was something given.

This is the point that Paul follows up with beginning in verse 4Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.  This goes back to my opening comments about being paid.  If you work for something, you expect to be paid.  You have a claim against the one who you worked for.  You can demand your rights.  You can demand your wages.  If God justifies by works, then you can demand that God pay you.  But, Paul says, you don’t work for God’s justification.  He gives it to you as a gift.  God even makes the ungodly righteous when the ungodly trust that He will do so.

This claim, that God would justify the ungodly, flew in the face of what the Law said.  For the Law unequivocally said that God would punish the ungodly.  There were many texts that could be cited.  Of course, the problem with this is that all are ungodly.  All would be punished.  The only way they can be justified is by a gracious act of God.

And Paul points that such gracious acts have not only been done to Abraham, they were done to David as well.  Paul ends by quoting Psalm 32 which is attributed to David: ‘Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.’  David knew that such sins are covered by God and not by works of the Law.  The Psalm points this out.

Now, Paul is actually not trying to emphasize David. He is trying to emphasize what God did in making Abraham righteous.  He will continue this argument throughout the rest of the chapter.  He wants to make it abundantly clear that when God began the Jewish religion, He did so outside the Law, and the founding Father was made righteous not by works of the Law, but by grace–sheer, undeserved grace.

This is a frightening thing for some.  This is a frightening thing for religious belief because it means that we are not in control of God in the least.  What do I mean?

Timothy Keller once shared an illustration of a lady whom he was trying to convert to Christianity.  He told her the Gospel and that we are not saved by our works but by sheer grace.  The lady to whom he was talking responded that this was a scary idea.  Keller pressed her to say why.  She responded, “Well, if I am saved by my works, then I can make a claim on God.  I have my rights.  I can say, ‘I’ve done this, God owes me.’  But, if I am saved by sheer grace, then there is nothing God can’t ask of me.”

Abraham knew was made righteous by God and not his actions, so when God asked Abraham to leave his family, his safety, his security, and go to a land that he knew nothing about, Abraham left.  That’s scary to think about.  That puts us into a world where we have no control.  We are totally dependent upon God.  Where we can’t know the future or plan for it.  How many of us want that kind of life?

My guess is none.  We like safety.  We like security.  We like having some control.  We like to
think that we can bargain with God and obtain rights for doing the right things.  But it doesn’t work that way.  It works in a totally different way.  We can’t claim anything from God.  Instead, God claims us.  God claims us.  And He says, “Trust me.  Above everything else, trust me.”

It would be a scary prospect to simply trust God in such a fashion.  It would be terrifying–IF WE DIDN’T ALREADY KNOW HOW MUCH GOD LOVED US.  For that is the piece of the puzzle that we must focus on.  We must remember the cost God paid for us.  It cost Him the Son.  It cost death on the cross.  God sacrificed Himself for us because He loved us.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. You were bought with great price.  God doesn’t owe you anything.  He has already given everything for you.  The only question remains: will you trust Him?  Amen.

Monday, November 7, 2016

No Bragging Rights--Romans 3:27-31

Three boys were talking and bragging about their fathers.  The first boy said, “My dad owns his own business and he works over ten people!”  The second boy retorted, “My dad is the bank president, and he works over a hundred people!”  The third boy said, “That’s nothing, my dad works over thousands of people!”  The other two boys were in awe, and they asked, “What does your dad do?”  The third boy replied, “He’s the groundskeeper at Woodlawn cemetery in Houston.

There is something in human nature that leads us toward boasting.  That little joke is a joke, but how many of us in our youth played the “my dad can beat up your dad” card?  How many of us bragged about our grades?  How many bragged about our athletic accomplishments?  How many of us bragged about the kind of cars our parents drove?

And boasting doesn’t stop when we get to be adults. Perhaps it becomes more subtle for most of us, but for politicians–geez, the bragging becomes over the top.  “I will make America great again!”  Does anybody really believe that one person can do that?  Eight years ago a particular politician promised all kinds of change for the better.  That didn’t quite work out either.  But that doesn’t stop folks from bragging that they can.  It doesn’t stop them from showing how much better than they are than the person they are running against.  Our current two politicians vying for commander and chief both excel at pointing out the flaws of the other candidate and boasting in their own accomplishments.  And most folks are sick of it.

Boasting comes from a heart that is self-inflated.  It comes from an ego that believes it has accomplished things on its own with no help from anyone else.  Boasting comes from a heart that believes it is superior to others along the lines of race, color, creed, accomplishments, and the like.  And it is easy to fall into the trap of boasting.

I know this very, very well.  A few sermons ago, I spoke about burning out because I was seeking my own desires above God’s desires.  I wanted this congregation to grow, not because we were getting people to Christ but because I wanted to be recognized as a pastor who could make a congregation grow.  I wanted status.  I wanted people to call me for advice.  I wanted to write books on how to grow a church.  I wanted to be important.  I wanted to be able to boast in my accomplishments.  Even those of us who are pastors are not immune to boasting.

And so it is quite interesting that after St. Paul reveals to us the glorious Gospel: that the righteousness of God has been revealed in Jesus Christ for all who believe; that we have been justified by grace as a gift through the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ; effective by faith alone; after revealing this good news, He writes 27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. 

Paul says, “You can’t boast.  You can’t brag.”  Boasting is excluded.  “By what law?” Paul asks in rhetorical style.  I think what Paul is asking here is this: “Is there a law that says, ‘Thou shall not boast?”  Is there a work that says, ‘Do not boast?’”

No, Paul asserts.  It is not a law of works that says, “You shall not boast.”  It is a law of faith.  That sounds kind of goofy, but please let me explain.

Paul reasserts the Gospel in a condensed form, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”

Think about it in this way.  I used the illustration a couple of weeks ago about three swimmers who were swimming to Japan.  The first couldn’t swim.  The second was a marginal swimmer.  The third was an Olympian.  The first immediately drowned in his attempt.  The second swam 100 yards in his attempt before drowning.  The Olympian swam 30 miles before perishing.  All were dead.  All were far from Japan.

Being justified by grace through faith is tantamount to God reaching down and carrying all three swimmers across the Pacific Ocean to Japan and setting them down.  Can anyone boast in their achievement after that?  Can any of those swimmers claim superiority over the other?  Can anyone at that moment brag on his achievements in swimming?  Not in the least.  God carried them across the ocean when even the efforts of the best one would have ended in failure.

It is not a law that says, “You shall not boast.”  Because if it were a law in the sense of works, then someone could boast and say, “Look how I am not boasting!!!”  That sort of defeats the purpose.  The “law of faith” simply says, you were saved by sheer grace; by God’s action alone; there was nothing you did to achieve your salvation.  Therefore, you cannot boast in any action that you take or took.  None of that came even close in getting you right with God.  You cannot say that you are better in the eyes of God than anyone else.   This has some extremely important implications, and we will get to those in a moment. But first let us finish Paul’s argument.

Verse 29:  Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.  Most scholars believe that Paul is ensuring that Jews, who once thought of themselves as exclusively privileged, now understood that Gentiles have equal access to God.  The Jewish literature at this time shows very clearly that Jews believed they had exclusive access to God–that God was the God of the Jews alone.

But Paul is using Jewish faith against itself here.  One of the central proclamations of Judaism is the Shema, “Here O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”  Jews proclaim that there is only one God.  Period.  There are no other Gods.  Therefore, if there is only one God, that God cannot exclusively be God of the Jews.  He must be God over all!  And if the God who justifies the Jews–the circumcised–does so by faith and not works of the law, then that God will also justify the Gentiles in the same fashion.  Paul wants to make it very, very clear that the Jews and Gentiles who stood alike in their condemnation also stand alike in their justification.  There is no distinction!

Paul then turns his attention to an objection that could be raised to this in verse 31: Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.  This question could be interpreted several ways.  Do we overthrow the covenant that God made with Israel because of this faith?  Do we not have to worry about God’s commands and statutes because of this faith?  If we are justified by faith and not works of the Law, does God’s covenant still stand, do God’s statutes and commands still stand?

One might be tempted to conclude, “No.”  There is no need to worry about these things because they do not justify anyone.  But Paul strongly answers the opposite.  Paul basically says–in no way, shape or form is the law nullified!  It is still upheld!  Paul will wrestle with these issues later in the book of Romans, and we shall develop his arguments a little later.  But for the time being, it is enough for us to now here that the Law remains the standard for human behavior.  It remains the measuring stick for how we are to interact with God and with each other.  “Loving your neighbor as yourself,” is still the standard by which we live.  The Ten Commandments are still the standard of how we are to govern our lives.  These things have not been eradicated!

But they do not become our focus because if they do become our focus, then that would lead us right back to boasting.

It is unfortunate that Christianity has oftentimes been seen as a religion that seeks to impose its morality upon everyone else.  It’s unfortunate that many Christians have been seen as people who walk around with their noses up in the air thinking, “I’m better than you are.”  It’s unfortunate that we carry the stigma of being hypocrites because we like to tell others what to do but fail to follow it ourselves.

This comes from self-righteousness.  It comes from our hearts which tend to get over-inflated because at some level we still think our works set us apart and make us better than others.  In God’s eyes, this is patently false, but in the world in which we live, it is difficult to “sell yourself” without boasting.

What do I mean by that?  Several years ago, I attended a synod assembly where the presiding bishop asked us to turn to the people next to us and answer the question, “Why should I come to your church?”  I had an interesting conversation with the person next to me.  She started off by saying, “Well, our congregation is warm and welcoming and we love to have new people come in.”  I took a very different tact and said, “Our congregation is a congregation that seeks to live out the message of Jesus by caring for our community.  We even built a house for someone who was in need.”  I felt pretty smug with my reply because it seemed “better.”

The presiding bishop then invited us to come back to the table and he began his remarks with these words, “Odds are 90% of you began your conversation with, ‘Our congregation is warm and inviting.’” I really felt smug at that moment.  I didn’t say that. I talked about what we were doing.  Boy, did I feel good about my answer and our congregation.

I don’t remember much of what the bishop said afterward, but here is how I would have continued.  “90% of you would have said your congregation was warm and welcoming.  The rest of you probably talked about the activities your church was doing.  How you were loving your neighbors or had great programming.  How many of you talked about Jesus?  How many of you spoke of your congregation leading people to the God who came and died for the world?  Odds are you are trying to get people to like you and join your group.  It is the job of the church to get people to Jesus.  I would hope that your response in the future would be, ‘Our congregation pulls out all the stops to show others how much God so loved the world.’”

If the presiding bishop would have said that, I would have had my toes stomped on for sure.  I would have realized that I was putting how we follow the law above how we proclaim the Gospel.  I might have recognized that I was boasting, and boy did I love boasting.  Why?

Because I was also taking credit for what you were doing.  As your leader, I was thinking that my leadership was the cause of all that you were doing.  I believed that our congregation was well on its way to exploding with growth, and I was sure to be recognized as a fantastic pastor.  Honors and rewards were right around the corner.  I would be able to put all the rest of the clergy around to shame because I was doing things right!  If the bishop would have said those words, it might have gave me severe pause.  For I was not working to get people to Jesus.  I was more interested in my self.  And when your self and your works take precedence, you boast.

But if your work is meaningless?  What then?  If you are not saved by your actions, what then?  If you are shown to be in the same boat as everyone else who you once considered beneath you, what happens?  If you see that you are as sinful as everyone else, what can you say?

Nothing.  You can say absolutely nothing.

Because it’s all about sheer grace.  It’s all about what God has accomplished through Jesus Christ.  It’s all about the God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.  It’s all about Jesus.  The Gospel is all about Jesus.  He’s accomplished everything for us.  Everything.  And when we place our trust in Him, our hearts no longer become inflated.  Our egos stay the appropriate size.  We do not proclaim ourselves, but we joyfully point to Jesus with reckless abandon.  We fall down on our knees in thankfulness for what He has done for us.  And we lay aside our contempt for others.  These are not laws that we follow.  These are natural responses of humility.  And if you are like me and you believe that humility is a sorely needed corrective to what is going on in society today, then I invite you to join me in proclaiming Jesus and emphasizing what He has done.  Amen.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Romans 3:21-16: The Gospel

We spend an inordinate amount of time in our lives justifying ourselves.  You may be scratching your head about that statement, but please hear me out.  To justify one’s self means to argue why you are in the right.  Nowhere is this better illustrated than in an election year.  We are being bombarded right now with candidates who are arguing why you should vote for them–why they are the right person for the job.  Put in other terms, they are justifying why they deserve to be in office.

Furthermore, as people pick their particular candidate, they work to justify the reasons they chose a particular candidate.  For instance, a person voting for Hillary Clinton might say, “I’m voting for her because she has a lot of political experience.”  A person voting for Donald Trump might say, “I’m voting for him because he is not part of the political establishment.”  The person voting for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein might say, “I’m voting for him or her because he/she is not Clinton or Trump.”  The person who is saying these things is justifying their position on their vote.

But we don’t just justify ourselves when it comes to our votes.  No.  Far from it. We justify ourselves in almost every arena of our lives.  We submit our resumes and interview for particular positions justifying–or proving–why we deserve that position.  Then we justify why we deserve to keep that position or merit a raise.  We argue our particular ideology and justify as to why it is correct.  We submit reasons that we don’t attend church regularly justifying our lack of attendance on a given Sunday or series of Sundays.  We even have to justify ourselves to our children.  Some parents might be wondering at that statement, but here’s the reality.  I know you are like me because there are times when you tell your kid to do something or tell them they cannot do something, and they look at you and ask the dreaded question, “Why?”  Essentially, the why is asking for a justification as to your command–even if that justification becomes, “Because I told you so!”  Any time you argue your stance or give reasons for your words or behavior, you are striving to justify yourself.

And perhaps one of the greatest questions we face as humanity is this: given the vastness of our universe and the extreme rarity of life in that universe, why are we here?  What is the purpose of our existence?  Why do we even exist?

There has been much ink spilled over this question, and the answers are far reaching.  I do not have near enough time to cover them in such a short period of time–so I will only speak from the perspective of one who believes in God.  I choose this path because the vast majority of the world’s population believe in some sort of deity, and there is a common belief that God created the world, and God created us.  Each religion has different reasons why God created us, but all of those religions are also in agreement that humanity has failed to live up to the expectations of the deity.

Again, every religion believes that the God who created this world and created us has some sort of expectations for how we live our lives.  Every religion has as part of its code of conduct to treat others as we would wish to be treated, and every religion realizes the failure of humanity to do exactly that.

And so every religion wrestles with the question–how do we justify ourselves before our Creator?  How do we make things right when we go wrong?  If our Creator is just, then how do we account for the injustice we have done?

Paul has wrestled with this question from Romans chapter 1 verse 18 until chapter 3 verse 20.  Paul’s answer is: there is no way that we can possibly account for our injustice.  There is no way we can justify ourselves.  At the end of our lesson last week, Paul left us standing in the cosmic court room without any defense; speechless, condemned before a just and holy God.  The only thing that we could look forward to at this moment was experiencing God’s wrath against our sin.  The outlook was very, very bleak.

Which is why Paul’s opening words in verse 21 are so sweet.  “But now...”  “But now...”  These words signify a break in what would normally be expected.  They signify that something out of the ordinary is taking place.  “You would expect that God would unleash His wrath upon you who stand condemned by your sin, BUT...”  What a sweet word “but” becomes.  Let’s turn to the text.

Verse 21, “21 But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, Remember that Paul has made an important distinction between Jews and Gentiles.  Jews are under God’s Law and are condemned because they don’t follow it.  Gentiles are outside of God’s law and condemned because they don’t meet the standards they hold for each other.  If God is going to save ALL, then His saving power must come from outside the Law, or Gentiles will be excluded.  Since God cares about ALL of His creation, He must act irrespective of the Law–this is what Paul is getting at with these words.  But, this does not nullify God’s Law.  This does not nullify God’s covenant with Israel because the Law and the Prophets testify or point toward’s God’s saving and just action toward the world.

And that saving action, God’s justice is revealed in verse 22: the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. The righteousness of God; the justice of God is revealed–not in following the Law; not in obeying the commands of God; not by being a perfect individual; not by trying to do more good than bad; but it is manifest through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

Now, we need to take just a moment here to talk about faith.  Oftentimes, you will hear people define faith as belief without evidence.  You will hear people define faith as some sort of intellectual assent.  This is summed up in the statement, “I don’t see any evidence of God, yet I believe that He exists.”  This is not what Paul means by the word faith–not at all.  Paul means trust.  There is a big difference between intellectually believing something and actually trusting in that something.

I have illustrated this with a joke in previous sermons.  An atheist skips church on Sunday morning to hike in a remote area of a state park.  While walking along the trail, the trail gives way and he falls.  He just happens to grab a branch sticking out of the cliff side.  It is too steep to climb up.  It is too far to simply drop.

The atheist yells and yells, but to no avail.  Where he is, is too remote. There is no one around.  His arms are growing weary, and he has no options available.  In a last ditch effort, he turns his eyes skyward and says, “You know, I’ve never believed in you, but if you really do exist, I could use a little help.”

The atheist is shocked to hear a voice reply, “I do exist, and I will help you.”

A huge sigh of relief escapes the former atheist as he asks, “What should I do.”

The voice replies, “Let go.”

The former atheist then says, “Is there anyone else up there?”

That, my friends illustrates perfectly the difference between belief and trust.  The person who simply believes in God will still hang on despite the voice.  The person who trusts God, lets go.  That is the meaning of faith.

This is important considering what follows next.  For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.  Paul reiterates what he has just outlined in Chapters 1, 2, and part of 3.  We stand condemned and guilty.  We don’t even come close to reflecting the glory of God, but God has changed our standing.  God has rendered a not guilty verdict.  God has said, “You who deserve my wrath now receive my love.”  Period.  End of story.

Of course, that should make us celebrate–particularly if we know the depths of our sin; particularly if we have had the mirror held up to ourselves in Romans chapters 1, 2, and 3.  But how can God do this?  Sure, it’s good news for us, but what about all of the people we have hurt by our sins?  What about the people we spread gossip about and whose reputations have been ruined?  What about the times we took things that didn’t belong to us?  What about the angry words we spoke that cut like a knife?  And remember, God does not simply change your status–anyone who trusts in Jesus’ action–their status is changed as well.  The murderer–what about his victims?  The racist–what about those toward whom he has spewed hate?  The white collar thief who stole millions–what about those who lost their retirement?  How can God forgive like this and still call Himself just?  How can He claim that justice will be served if our sins are completely forgiven?

Here is how: Christ Jesus has become the sacrifice of atonement.  Whenever a sin is committed, some sort of restitution must be paid.  If you crash into another’s car, you must pay for the damages in order for things to be made right.  If you hurt someone’s reputation, telling everyone you were wrong makes amends.  And if you forgive someone, instead of making that other person pay for what he or she did, you pay for it yourself.  And if you pay for another’s damages, you have taken on their guilt.  There are those who might argue that this isn’t true justice, but think about this for a moment.  If your kid breaks a window at school and the school threatens to kick your child out if damages aren’t paid for; what parent will allow their kid to be kicked out?  What parent wouldn’t jump in and pay the price for their kid?  And if a kid is running in the street, what parent wouldn’t swoop in to push them out of the way of an approaching car and being hit themselves?  Love pushes you to accept and take punishment for others–to pay the price for those who cannot pay themselves.  Examples of this abound–AND GOD HAS DONE THIS ON A COSMIC SCALE.  God has paid the price for all sin through the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross.  For your sins, for my sins, FOR ALL WHO HAVE SINNED.  And the promise that all will be made well stands for those who trust in what God has done in Jesus.  This becomes effective when you trust in Jesus and not yourself.

Let’s press on before we talk about the implications of this finishing up verse 25, He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.  The question for Jews at this moment would be, “Well what about all of those who came before Jesus?  What about the Jewish people and the promises God made to them?  What about the forgiveness of their sins?”  Paul touches on this here.  Most scholars agree that Paul is saying that God never fully punished those sins.  God never gave folks what they deserved and reserved judgement until this time.  He passed over their sins until this present time.

“But they never had the opportunity to believe in Jesus?” is the obvious retort.  Here is where I would like to make a bit of an adjustment in the translation from the Greek.  For the Greek text literally reads, “it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has the faith OF Jesus.”  Now remember what I said earlier: faith equals trust.  The faith of Jesus means relying totally and completely upon God.  Jesus exhibited this faith, and Paul will show what this means in regards to those who have come before in the next couple of chapters.  People before Jesus didn’t have the opportunity to trust in Jesus, but they did have the opportunity to trust in God, and Paul will show that Abraham did–as did others in the Jewish faith.  Hence, because they trusted God, they too have been justified.

Now, what is the significance of this?  It means you are right with God.  You don’t have to prove yourself with God.  You don’t have to trust in yourself to try and do as much good as you can to balance out the cosmic scales of karma.  God has already handled that for you.  You are in right standing with Him–not because of your own work but because of the work accomplished on your behalf–the work of Jesus.  Can you trust in the work of someone else on your behalf?  Can you trust in the work that He has accomplished for you?

This isn’t easy to do because we are taught to justify ourselves.  We are taught to think that everything is up to us when we argue; seek a job; work at school; make a decision; cast our vote.  “Justify yourself!!” society screams.  But Christianity says, “You are already justified.  In the greatest court of all, you are already made right.  There is nothing more you need to do because 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 so that the world might be saved through Him.”  When you trust those words, when you believe down deep that you are already justified despite not deserving it, there is a peace that invades your entire being.  You no longer feel like you have to prove yourself to anyone and everyone.  For the God of this universe has said that you are right.  And if you are right with God, what more do you have to prove?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  In fact, because you have nothing more to prove, you are free.  Gloriously free.  By God’s gracious act through the sacrificial atonement of Jesus you are set free when you place your trust in Him.  This is most certainly good news.  It is the Gospel.  Amen.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Mirror, Mirror...--Romans 3:9-20

I would like to begin this morning by asking you to engage in a thought experiment.  I would like you to imagine looking into a mirror, but this is not just any mirror.  This mirror is a rather nasty mirror.  It takes every flaw that you have and multiplies it 1,000 times..

Every wrinkle looks like a canyon.
Every pimple looks like a mountain.
Every mole looks like a grizzly bear.
If your nose is a little long, it will look like an elephant’s trunk.
If your eyes are a little small, they will appear like pin holes.
If your lips are a little swollen, they will appear like bananas.
If you are beginning to bald, your head will look like a balloon.
If you have a bit of flabbiness, it will look like a sheet blowing in the wind.
If you have a bit of a belly, it will look like you weigh 600 pounds.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.  You would like to avoid this mirror, but each and every day, you are forced to walk past it.  Each and every day you are forced to look at what stares back at you.

How do you handle it?  How do you deal with what the mirror shows?  Several avenues are open for consideration.

First, you can pretend as if the mirror doesn’t exist.  You can pretend that it isn’t there.  You could try to hide it behind something so that you are not confronted by the ugliness it presents to you.  You could say, “There really isn’t such a mirror, and since I stopped believing in the mirror, I am free from the horrors it showed me.”  This might prove effective, but the mirror is still lurking in the background even if you are trying to deny its existence.

Second, you could be overwhelmed by what you see in the mirror.  You could become depressed and angry about what is there.  You could try and fix the flaws–achieve perfection–prove the mirror wrong.  But soon you discover even deeper flaws that the mirror enhances.  You discover it is a never-ending battle.  You become angry and spiteful at the mirror as well as loathsome of yourself.  You delight in bringing other people before the mirror so that they can be as horrified about themselves as you are about yourself.  Anger and bitterness fill your heart and your life.

Third, you can convince yourself that the mirror is a liar.  You can work very hard to deny what the mirror shows–that what is there is not really what is there.  You can work to convince yourself that the flaws are actually marks of beauty.  That there is nothing wrong with you–that you are perfect in every way.  And you want others to know that they are perfect too–no matter what the mirror says.  After all, you are a better judge of beauty than that stupid mirror.

Perhaps there are other ways of dealing with this mirror, but in some way, you must come to grips with it.  What do you choose?  Keep this thought in the back of your head as we turn now to this segment of the book of Romans.  Paul is finishing up his scathing condemnation of humankind with these verses.

Beginning in chapter one verse 18, Paul has unequivocally shown that Gentiles do not obey the natural law they see all around.  They exchange worship of the Creator for worship of the created, and everything falls apart.  They become deserving of God’s wrath.

Jews, thought they fared better because they had heard God’s Law, had a special relationship with God, and bore the marks of the covenant with God.  But Paul has devastated these arguments by showing that it is not hearing the Law that counts but doing it.  God not only has promised blessing upon the Jews but also punishment if they fail to keep the covenant–hence God is faithful in His blessing and in His wrath.  And, Paul has said that if you are circumcised–bearing the mark of the covenant–and break the Law you have actually reversed your circumcision.  Despite the fact that God indeed has a special relationship with the Jews, there is no escaping that Jews share the same condemnation as Gentiles.  Both are under God’s wrath.

And up until this point, Paul has made very few appeals to the authority of Jewish scripture to prove his point.  But now, after all the philosophical and rhetorical commentary, Paul brings the words of scripture to bear on his argument.

Verse 9 What then? Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, 10as it is written: ‘There is no one who is righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.’ 13 ‘Their throats are opened graves; they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of vipers is under their lips.’ 14 ‘Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.’  15 ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery are in their paths, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.’  18 ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’

Before we get to the direct biblical quotations, it is important to note Paul’s comment that Jews and Greeks are “under the power of sin.”  People are not just sinners.  People are under sin’s power–they are under sin’s influence.  Sin is not simply something we commit and do–it is a power that enslaves us!  It is a power we cannot escape on our own.  And the proof?  Here is the scripture:

Ecclesiastes 7:20: ‘There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
Psalm 14:1-3: there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God.  All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.’
Psalm 5:9: ‘Their throats are opened graves;
Psalm 140:3:  they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of vipers is under their lips.’
Psalm 10:7: ‘Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.’
Isaiah 59:7-8a: ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery are in their paths, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.’
Psalm 36:1b: ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’

Scripture is clear.  The Jew has no advantage under the Law because the Jew has failed to keep the Law.

It is at this point that Paul shifts to a courtroom setting.  His early audience would have recognize the terminology and the language as indicative of this.  19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.  Paul unequivocally says that the Law speaks to those under the law.  A few sermons ago, I stated that whenever Paul referred to those “under the Law” he was referring to the Jews.  This is the case here as the Law is condemning the Jews.  They have the Law, but they have failed to follow it.  They have failed to keep the covenant.  Therefore, Paul draws the conclusion that every mouth should be silenced.

This might seem confusing to some folks especially since Gentiles are “not under the Law.”  And it also rubs us the wrong way as we generally do not condemn one group based upon the actions of another.  Each person or group is responsible for only that person or group’s behavior.  Why would Paul extrapolate this to everyone instead of just sticking with the Jews?  The answer given by most scholars is that if the Jews who were recipients of God’s special revelation; of God’s commands; of God’s will and favor have failed, then there is no way the Gentiles who had none of these benefits could succeed.  All stand defenseless.

Let me put it the way one of my commentaries did.  Let’s say you have three swimmers trying to swim to Japan.  One doesn’t know how to swim.  One can swim but isn’t trained.  The final swimmer is an Olympian caliber swimmer.  The first swimmer drowns immediately.  The second swimmer swims 100 yards and then drowns.  The Olympian swims 30 miles but then drowns as well.  Despite the clear advantage of the Olympian, he shared the same fate as the others–AND if the Olympian drowned given all his training, there was no possible way the other two could have made it.  Hence, Paul says neither Jew or Gentile has any room to make a defense.  All fall far short of the ultimate goal.

This is the meaning of “every mouth may be silenced” by the way.  There is no defense that you can give.  There is no excuse you can come up with.  Every time you open your mouth, you dig the hole deeper and deeper.  In fact, in the ancient courts, if you tried to do such a thing, someone literally would stand over you and slap you across the mouth to shut you up.  The language here is that strong.  No one in the whole earth has any excuse.  All have failed, and all are accountable to God.

After saying this, Paul puts the final nail in the coffin.  20For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.  This statement actually seems to contradict a statement Paul made earlier when he said, “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.”  Did Paul suddenly go senile?  Hardly.  Paul was making two separate points.  The first point was that simply hearing the Law doesn't justify a person--doing it does.  And can anyone truly fulfill the Law?  Can anyone truly do it?  No.  And simply doing things that the Law requires will not erase the times that you missed the mark.

I’d like to return to an analogy that I made in a previous sermon regarding if you ran into your neighbor’s car and left a dent.  It was just a small one, so you drove away leaving your neighbor to pay for the damages.  Later, upon reflection and some bit of guilt, you gave some money to a homeless person.  Your good deed evened things out, right?  Your good deed made everything right, correct?

No.  It didn’t.  The car still needs to be fixed.  You are still liable for that misdeed.  No action that you complete somewhere else will account for your wrongdoing right here.  No amount of feeding the hungry will overcome the hurtful words you spoke about another person.  No amount of doing justice and working for peace will overcome the lies you told to get out of a speeding ticket.  No amount of time you spend with aging grandparents will atone for ignoring your kids when you felt like you needed a break.  You cannot make a wrong into a right by doing other right things.  The only way you can make a wrong a right is by correcting the wrong that you performed.  The only way you can make a wrong a right is by paying for the damage you caused.  You cannot justify yourself by doing good things.

Partially because–the Law tells you to do those things anyway.  AND the Law also shows you where you have gone wrong.  The Law brings you knowledge of what is right and wrong.  The Law reveals to you your sin–your flaws.  And against the holiness of God, your flaws are magnified, exaggerated, and multiplied.  Against the holiness of God, your sins make you look horrible.  Do you see why I started this sermon with the mirror thought experiment?  Do you see now that the Laws and commands of God are the mirror that reveals what you look like when you stand in the presence of God?  Do you see now that the Law makes you look horribly small and horribly ugly when you stand in the presence of God ready for His judgment?

Oh, and it would be easy to dismiss the mirror of the Law and pretend that it doesn’t exist.  It would be easy to try and say there is no authority out there to condemn you or hold you accountable.  But no one lives that way.  Everyone subscribes to some form of justice and law.

It might be tempting to say that the Law isn’t a true revelation of who we are.  We can convince ourselves that we haven’t broken any of those laws and that we are blameless and beautiful.  We can slough off the Law’s condemnation by telling ourselves over and over again that we are perfect just the way we are and in need of no critique.  God knows there are more than a few folks like this around, and everyone but them know how arrogant and selfish they are.  Do you want to be like them?

Or, we can acknowledge just how fallen we are.  We can acknowledge that there isn’t a single part of our lives–a single part of our being that isn’t touched by sin.  We can admit our fallenness before God and before one another.  We can sit in silence as we await the judgment of God to be rendered.  And at this point, it might seem hopeless.  It might seem like the only thing awaiting us is divine, holy wrath and punishment.  We deserve it, but we will see next week that the end is not bleak.  The end is not tragic for us.  The end is, quite wonderful.  For next week, we get to hear the Gospel!  Amen.