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.

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