Whenever I take a vacation and attend worship, I never have wanted to preach. I have always been content to sit in the pew, worship, and listen to the sermon without any desire to proclaim myself. Sure, I've been a bit critical of sermons I have heard. I don't think there is a pastor who doesn't listen to a sermon and think, "Well, I'd have done things just a little different." It's a natural thing for us to do that, I think.
But until this past Sunday, I had never sat in the pew and said to myself, "I wish I were preaching today!!!" I had always simply enjoyed my break.
But not last Sunday. Not at all. It was a terrible struggle. As I listened to the texts read in worship, I desired tremendously to proclaim them. I wanted to expound upon them because they shouted the Gospel! And I love proclaiming the Gospel.
For this blog's sake, I will only cover the Epistle taken from the 10th Chapter of the book of Romans. In a week or so, I will actually be changing the Gospel text for the day so that I can preach on Jesus' walking on the water--that was the Gospel text assigned for this past Sunday.
But onto Romans. Onto why I wanted desperately to preach! St. Paul writes:
5 Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that ‘the person who does these things will live by them.’ 6But the righteousness that comes from faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ down) 7‘or “Who will descend into the abyss?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.
Paul's words struck me like they had never struck me before. "Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that 'the person who does these things will live by them.'
The person who does the works of the law will live by them. The person who obeys the law lives. The person who does not obey the law dies. It's a rather simple concept. One that many are all too familiar with. In fact, they are familiar with it because it is very prevalent in Christianity today.
"Unless you live correctly, you will suffer God's wrath!"
This is the basic proclamation of many Christian churches today. Whether they believe it to be so or not.
Unless you adhere to the correct teachings of sexuality, you are doomed.
Unless you are committed to doing justice and serving the poor, God will frown upon you.
Unless you are pro-life, God views you as a murderer.
Unless you advocate for health care and welfare for the poor, God views you as a law breaker.
Oh, I could go on and on and on.
Sure, most churches and preachers will throw in a little nugget about how Jesus died to save us from sin--maybe--but in a heartbeat, they turn around and make salvation totally dependent upon our actions.
That's not the Gospel. That's the Law. Paul is making that distinction gloriously in these few verses from Romans 10. Notice that Paul makes a clean break from this line of thought beginning in verse 6:
6BUT (emphasis mine) the righteousness that comes from faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ down) 7‘or “Who will descend into the abyss?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
The righteousness that comes from faith doesn't focus on saying "Who will ascend into heaven?" or "Who will descend into the abyss?" Read that verse again. And again. And again. And then ponder why it is that so much of the stuff we hear coming from pulpits does this very thing. (Hey, I was pretty good at doing it myself in bygone years!!!)
For when we say in our heart "Who will ascend into heaven?" we bring Christ down. What?
For when we say in our heart "Who will descend into the abyss?" we bring Christ up from the dead. What?
Think about this. When we ask ourselves such questions, how do we normally judge another?
By their works. By the things we view them doing or saying. By their actions.
If a person gets to go to heaven because of their works, this brings Christ down. He is no longer the exalted Savior. He is simply a good teacher--an ethicist who revealed a form of morality. His cross is not needed for salvation.
If a person is assigned to hell/the abyss because of their actions, we bring Christ up from the dead. I think Paul is referring to the teaching that Christ descended to the dead to proclaim the Gospel to those who had died. (Ephesians 4) There was no need for Christ to descend if we are judged according to our works for it is impossible to attain salvation through works. There is no need for the Gospel to be proclaimed to those who were dead. Their fate is sealed--as is ours. If salvation comes through works.
The righteousness that comes from the Law might ask "Who ascends to heaven?" and "Who descends to the abyss?" But the righteousness that comes from faith does not. It says something quite different.
‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’
The Word has convicted you.
The Word has changed you.
The Word has infused you and become a part of you.
The Gospel makes you see that you are incapable of following the Law. The Gospel makes you see that you stand condemned by the Law. The Gospel makes you see that if your salvation is up to you at any given point and time, you will never, ever attain it. Never. You know you cannot "ascend into heaven." You know you would "descend into the abyss" were it not for God's saving action through Jesus Christ. You know you are justified--looked at differently by God--in your heart, and so you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord!
It is the Gospel which brings you to this place. Plain and simple. It is only the Gospel.
And that Gospel leads you to ask different questions. You leave the judging up to God. The former questions are irrelevant. New ones are needed.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God send the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.
That news begs a different question: not who is ascending or descending, but rather who has heard? Who hasn't heard? Who needs to hear this wonderful news? Who needs to hear that God's wrath has been satisfied? Who needs to hear that their salvation is procured and that we are free from attaining our salvation through works of the Law?
Is it any wonder Paul concludes this snippet with the following words:
14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ 16But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ 17So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.
Proclamation is at the heart of Christianity. Proclamation about what God has done--not what we are supposed to do. Those things naturally flow from a heart transformed by the Gospel--a Gospel which begs to be proclaimed to a world desperate to hear it.
And I struggled to sit and simply listen.