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.