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.

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