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.

Monday, October 17, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man responded, “No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 10, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 3, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forrest thinks a moment and says, “Two.”

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

Forrest says, “Today and tomorrow.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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