Monday, January 30, 2017

What do You Live For?: Romans 6:1-14

Whatever you live for will drastically affect how you live.

Let me try and clarify that statement.  Whatever you live for will dramatically affect how you live your life and the things that you do.

In C.S. Lewis’ famous book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund meets the white witch.  Now, the white witch is the enemy of Narnia who has made it perpetual winter.  She asks Edmund if there is anything she can get for him, and he, being cold and hungry, asks for some Turkish Delight.  As you read the story, you can tell that this Turkish Delight isn’t just any ordinary Turkish Delight.  It is bewitched in some fashion, because once Edmund eats it, he cannot stop thinking about it.  He wants more and more, and he knows only the witch can provide it for him.  The desire for the Turkish Delight becomes so severe and consumes him so much, that he betrays his brother and sisters to obtain it.  He doesn’t care that his actions put his brother and sisters in peril.  He doesn’t care that he is helping the white witch maintain her control of Narnia.  He is consumed with Turkish Delight.  He is living for Turkish Delight.  And what he is living for is drastically affecting how he lives.

Now, admittedly, this is a fictional story, but it is not far from the truth.  You yourself probably know what it means to be living for something.  You know how it effects your behavior.  If you can’t see it in yourself, I know you can see it in others.  Parents who live for their children generally helicopter over them trying to protect them from anything that can harm them physically or emotionally–sometimes working even to get them better grades or put in classes they do not deserve to be in; or it causes them to confront coaches and demand playing time–time the kid doesn’t deserve.  Living for their children affects how they behave, and most of us have seen such examples.  Some people live for their paycheck.  They work harder and harder, putting in more and more hours increasing the amount in the box.  Soon, they are getting up before the break of day and staying at work long into the night neglecting housework, children, families and friends.  Living for their pay tremendously affects their lives.  There really is no other need to delve into more examples, is there?  Can you see in our world and in our society how what people live for dramatically affects how they live?  Please keep these thoughts in mind as we turn now to chapter six in the book of Romans.

We need to recap last week’s lesson for just a moment because this book all runs together.  Paul leaps from one point to the next building on the previous point.  If you don’t understand the previous point, you won’t understand the next one.  Last week, Paul left us with representative thought.  In the ancient world, oftentimes one person represented an entire nation, and whatever happened to that one person effected the entire nation.  Therefore, in battle, if a representative lost, then the entire nation lost and was labeled losers.  If the representative won, then the entire nation won and was labeled winners.  Paul argued that there are two representatives for the world–there is Adam who represents sin, death, and condemnation, and there is Jesus who represents forgiveness, life and justification.  Those who choose Adam as their representative continue to find sin, death, and condemnation.  Those who choose Christ as their representative find forgiveness, life, and justification–even to the point where Paul says that when the law made trespasses increase, the grace of God through Jesus Christ super-abounded!

Which leads us straight away to Paul’s question to begin chapter six: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?”  Most scholars believe that Paul is dealing with an early criticism of the Gospel.  What incentive do you have for changing your behavior?  If God just forgives sin and enjoys forgiving sin, shouldn’t I just keep sinning so that God can keep forgiving?  Shouldn’t I keep sinning so that the glory of God’s grace can continue to be revealed?  One modern day critic even coined the phrase, “God likes to forgive.  I like to sin.  Therefore I should continue to sin and God can continue to forgive.  It’s a win/win proposition!”

Paul’s words are very, very strong.  “By no means!” he says.  Perhaps the English translation is a bit weak.  “God forbid!” would be adequate.  “You’ve got to be kidding me!” also would work.  “You must be stupid if you believe that!” is close.  Paul utterly rejects the idea because, as he then says, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?”  In the next verses, Paul lays out his reasoning in the rest of chapter 6.  It takes the form of two arguments, and we will deal with the first one today.  Like last week, the argument is complex and wordy, so I will not be going verse by verse point by point.  Once again, I am going to try and encapsulate the argument and then show why it is important not only for Christians, but for those who might be outside the Christian faith.

Paul returns to his use of representative thought to promote his argument.  Remember, in representative thought, the thought that often dominated the ancient world, whatever happened to the representative happened to you.  If your representative lost.  You lost.  If your representative won, you won.  Paul applies this to the relationship that we have with Jesus Christ as our representative.

Paul essentially says, “Look, when you were baptized, you were joined to Christ.  He became your representative.”  Paul does not go into the details of how this happens.  He does not give us a play by play about how baptism somehow joins us to Christ.  He takes for granted that folks know this.  He takes for granted the fact that they know that somehow, mysteriously, sacramentally, when we are baptized, we are joined to Jesus Christ–He becomes our representative so that what happened to Jesus happens to us.  Let that statement sink in because it is crucial to Paul’s argument–what happened to Jesus happens to us.

I know that this is strange thought.  I know that it is tough for us to get our minds around this. We generally don’t think in this fashion.  It involves a shift in our thinking.  It means giving up power and control of our lives.  It means placing our entire life and being in Jesus.  We generally don’t like that. We generally like to hold onto our own lives and identities.  But Christianity isn’t about self-preservation and self-affirmation.  It’s about dying to self and rising to new life.  And Paul makes this point.

For he lays out what happened to Jesus and how it also affects us.  Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried, and then on the third day, He was resurrected.

Let’s work through this trying to get our heads around it.  Jesus was crucified and he died.  Paul says this means we have died as well.  Now, this is not a literal death for us.  Obviously, we are still walking, living, breathing, and moving.  So, this must mean we have died in some other fashion, and Paul lays this out by saying, “When you have died, you are freed from sin.”  Now, be careful here.  Last week, I reminded you that sin is not just the things we do.  Sin is also a power that moves and corrupts the world.  Everything is under its influence.  When you die, this power no longer has a hold over you. This power can no longer corrupt you.  This power can no longer influence you because, well, you are dead.  Nothing can actually harm you or otherwise.  Yes, you are dead, but you are free.  If Christ as your representative has died, then somehow you have died as well.  Therefore, you are freed from the power of sin.

Of course, this does not mean that you don’t sin.  You are not under the power of sin, but that power is still around.  It is still trying to exercise authority over you.  It is still trying to corrupt and warp you, but Paul asserts that it cannot dominate you if you don’t let it.  This is why Paul says in verse 11, “Consider yourselves dead to sin...”  The Greek is better translated, “Reckon yourselves dead to sin...”  This is an accounting term.  It means to add things up.  “If you are joined to Jesus, add it up.  See that he died.  See that you died.  See that death renders sin powerless.  Know that sin has no power over you unless you allow it.”   This is now why Paul also says, “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 13No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness.”  Paul says you are no longer blindly under sin’s influence.  You can see it coming.  You can resist it.  But the key to resisting it also has to do with what you now live for.

This is the second part of Paul’s assertion here because not only have we been crucified, died, and buried with Christ. We have also been resurrected with Him.  Again, we need to see that Paul’s words have a dual function here.  They do not only point to the future.  They do not only tell us what will happen to us on that day when God the Father makes everything new.  They do not only point towards a future resurrection.  They also indicate that we experience resurrection life right now!  Just as Christ was raised–we are raised.  And Paul is very clear about what kind of resurrection life Christ lives.  “The life he lives, he lives to God.”  Paul is saying unequivocally that the resurrected life is concerned with God–adoring God, seeking God, growing in God, striving for the things of God, living for God.  And, with Christ as our representative, what happened to Him, happens to us.  We share in the resurrection life of living for God.  We strive to adore God, seek God, grow in God, strive for the things of God, and live for God!

Now, let me ask you this question: if you live for God, do you intentionally seek to sin?  If you live for God do you intentionally seek to do the things that He hates?  If you live for God, do you want to break His commands and statutes? Of course, you don’t.  You want to serve God.  You want to please God.  You want to do anything and everything in your power to promote Him and His kingdom.  This is what is at the heart of Paul’s final admonitions, “Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.”  Why?  Because in doing so, you are living for God!  And if you are living for God, you don’t seek to sin so that grace may abound.  You seek to avoid sin because you know God abhors it.  If you are living for God, the last thing you want to do is sin because that dishonors the One you live for!

Before I go into why this is important, let me make a brief comment about verse 14.  Paul makes a bit of a shift here as he says, “14For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”  One would expect that Paul would have continued his representative thought here and said, “since you are not under Adam but under grace.”  But he doesn’t.  There is a reason for this, and much of that reason will be outlined and dealt with in chapter 7.  We will wait until then to address it.  For the time being, let’s return to living for God, because this is crucial.

When you live for God, it means much more than simply that you no longer desire to sin.  Remember, what you live for drastically affects your behavior.  And when you live for anything else besides God, you will eventually find yourself in dire straights.  Now, I know that some of you would readily agree that there are certain things that if we were to live for then, that would lead to destructive behavior.  We have plenty of examples of such things: people who live for arguing; people who live for drugs; people who live for filling every selfish thought and desire.  But what about living for things we consider to be good?  What’s wrong with living for them?

Early on in this sermon, I talked about living for children and living for a paycheck.  Now, neither one of these things are bad.  In fact, kids are great.  I love mine dearly and would die for them.  I also love earning a paycheck.  I like being able to buy things.  I also love justice. I love peace.  I love people.  I love food and drink.  These are all good things.  But what happens when you make them the ultimate things?  What happens if you elevate them to the status of an idol?  I talked about that earlier.  When you live for your children, you can actually do more harm than good, and then when they go off to live their own lives, you will be empty, purposeless, and have no meaning in your life.  If your paycheck dominates your thoughts, you will become a workaholic and all other aspects of your life will suffer.  If you live for justice, you will be a tireless advocate for the poor and disenfranchised, and you will burn out having achieved very little to change the structures of the world.  You will also demonize those who you believe to be the oppressors and hold them in contempt.  If you live for people, you will constantly try to please them and make them happy until they suck every ounce of energy out of you.  Every single good thing that you try to live for will eventually do this to you.  Everything.  It may not be right away, but I guarantee you, it will happen.  Sin will corrupt even good things and lead to destruction if you live for them.

There is only one thing that will not be corrupted by sin. There is only one thing that will not suck the life and energy out of you.  There is only one thing to live for that will fill you with abundant life, joy, peace, and energy, and that is God.  He alone will not let you down. He alone will give you the proper perspective and view so that nothing else will consume you. He alone will pour Himself into you so that you will not burn out or be overwhelmed by the things of life.  He has already poured out His life for you on the cross and loved you with an amazing love.  He has already 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 you but to save you.  When you live for Him, He will not allow you to perish, but He will continue to pour Himself back into you so that you may know the fullness of His love.  And your life will be drastically affected–in a very good way.  Amen.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Who is Your Representative?: Romans 5:12-21

This morning’s text from the book of Romans is probably the hardest text I have ever tried to preach on.  I mean, last Sunday afternoon, I sat down and read it, and I scratched my head.  I read it again, and I was just as confused.  I thought, “I’ll wait until Monday when I start reading my commentaries.”

Monday morning, I went into the office, and I read the text two times before I picked up my first commentary.  Things still didn’t make sense.  Perhaps I am just dense.  Perhaps when you heard those words from chapter five read to you earlier in this worship, everything was absolutely clear to you.  I will admit that if they were clear to you, you should be preaching this morning instead of me.  I had to pour through the commentaries very carefully in order for this text to clear up somewhat, and even though I think I understand it pretty well now, I am not sure whether or not I can even come close to conveying to you what is in St. Paul’s words to us.  But I hope I can.  Because what Paul is saying helps us make sense of what Martin Luther wrote so long ago in the hymn “A Mighty Fortress.”

The old Satanic foe, has sworn to work us woe
with craft and dreadful might, he arms himself to fight
on earth he has no equal.
No strength of ours can match his might, we would be lost rejected.
But now a champion comes to fight, whom God himself elected.
You ask who this may be?  The Lord of Hosts is He.
Christ Jesus mighty Lord, God’s only Son adored.
He holds the field victorious.

I want you to hold this battle imagery in your head because I think it gives us the mind-set that St. Paul is writing under.  And once you understand this mind-set, Romans 5:12-21 becomes much, much clearer.

The best way I can describe this mind-set is this: in the ancient world, oftentimes a representative would stand in place for an entire nation.  That’s kind of hard for us to get our heads around, but let me explain using the terms of battle that I asked you to keep in mind.  Let’s say two countries were about to engage in battle.  Rather than risk the lives of every soldier on the battle field, each army would elect a champion–their best warrior.  These two warriors would square off in battle. Whichever warrior won, won for the entire nation.  Whichever warrior lost, lost for the entire nation.  A nation was declared either a winner or a looser based on the actions of only one person–their representative in battle.  The entire nation’s fate was decided by the actions of one person: win or lose.

For us, in the world in which we live, this thought is preposterous!  We don’t like the idea of our fate, our status resting on the actions of another person.  We believe that we are to be held accountable for our own actions!  The actions of another person don’t reflect upon us!!  Well, at least we hold this position in theory.  But in another way, we do this all the time.  For instance, I am quite sure you have heard people say, “If you voted for Trump, you are a racist.”  What is behind that statement is this train of thought: The person who says this thinks that Donald Trump is a racist; Donald Trump represents those who voted for him; therefore anyone who voted for Trump is racist as well.  That’s the logic.  Such logic also affects the church.  A person may say: I don’t go to that church because I disagree with what that pastor teaches; you continue to go to that church; therefore, you agree with what that pastor teaches and believe like he does.  Hence, I cannot associate with you either.  Even though we like to say that we are accountable for only our own actions, it becomes all to convenient to use guilt by association when it suits our purposes.

What I am trying to show you is that the mind-set that St. Paul is using is not so foreign to us.  We use representative thought from time to time, and this section of Romans can only be understood using representative thought.  Let’s try and get our heads around it and then see why it is important, but I’m going to handle this text a little differently because it is so dense.  Instead of trying to go through verse by verse and explain verse by verse what is going on, I am going to try and offer a broad explanation that captures most of what is in these 10 verses.

Paul begins by telling us that sin came into the world by one may, and death came through sin, and death spread to all because all have sinned.  Again, we have to think representatively.  Adam is the first representative of human kind.  He is the first one who is called to stand before God and obey God’s commands.  And there was only one, “You shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”  Now, the objections to this train of thought are that we didn’t elect Adam.  We had no choice in the matter, and we should not be held accountable for something that Adam did.  To answer the first objection we must realize that none of us could even come close to Adam because, first off, God chose Adam to be our representative, and God didn’t just choose Adam, God created Adam.

 God formed Adam and molded Adam.  God breathed His very breath into Adam and placed Adam in a place where Adam had every chance to succeed.  Adam didn’t have to worry about anything: about food, water, shelter, clothing.  All the conditions were provided for Adam’s success.  He had every advantage as our representative.  And he still failed.  He still disobeyed God because the temptation to stand on his own feet, call his own shots, be his own god was too great.  Adam didn’t want to be dependent upon God, he wanted to be completely responsible for himself; completely autonomous; completely independent.  Adam frankly wanted to be just like we hold ourselves to be.

And when Adam rebelled against God to be completely independent, that unleashed the power of sin into the world.  Now, we have to understand that sin is not simply the things we do in scripture.  Sin can also be seen as a power that moves and corrupts and destroys.  It is this sense of sin that Paul is talking about in this passage.  Adam’s failure unleashed this power in the world, and this power is so strong; so corrupting; that everyone is under its influence: every person; every group; every institution; every government.  And such corruption inevitably leads to death.  Under the corruption of sin, we die.  With Adam as our representative, we die.

This is where Paul stops with his opening statement, but then he has another thought.  He has another rabbit hole he figures he needs to go down to keep things together.  And that rabbit hole is so important to Paul that he doesn’t finish his train of thought.  He doesn’t finish his sentence.  That’s why in your reading, you will see a dash right after verse 12.  See, Paul knows that from the time of Adam until the time of Moses–this is biblical history–there was no law.  There were no explicit commands from God, so people didn’t know exactly what it meant to live in right relationship with God and with one another.  Therefore God couldn’t hold peoples’ sins against them.  God couldn’t mark that in their account, so to speak.  Their sin was not like Adam’s sin because Adam had an explicit command from God.  However, these folks were still under the power of sin.  They were still in Adam; Adam was still their representative.  This was obvious because they too died.

 Now, we have reached verse 15, and here is where Paul begins a definite shift.  He begins to lay out the fact that there is a new representative in town.  A new man–a God-man has entered the picture to be a new representative.  This is Jesus Christ, and  Paul outlines how these two are different all the way through verse 20.

First off, they are different because their actions are polar opposite. Adam’s transgression was an intentional act of self-aggrandizement; of rebellion against God.  Jesus’ act was an act of self-sacrifice in obedience to God.

Second, the consequences of the acts are very, very different.  Adam’s actions resulted in death.  Jesus’ actions resulted in life.  Adam’s actions resulted in condemnation.  Jesus’ actions resulted in justification.  Adam’s actions led to death having power and dominion over us–we are enslaved to death as we work to defeat death, postpone death, do everything in our power to keep us safe and preserved and extend our lives because of our fear of death.  Jesus’ actions led to us receiving freedom as death no longer has power over us, and Paul’s words are chosen very carefully hear as he says that we “who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life.”  Because we do not fear death, we rule in life.  We can live life to the fullest!

Finally, Paul shows how Jesus’ action is more powerful than Adam’s.  For Adam’s action brought condemnation to all, but Christ’s actions brought justification to all.  Grace abounds!   Adam’s disobedience made everyone sinners, but Christ’s obedience made the many righteous.  Grace overwhelms sin!

After Paul lays these differences out, he addresses one more issue that was sure to be raised by those who were Jews.  What about the Law?  What about the commandments that God gave Moses and Israel?  Weren’t these commands and rules  supposed to transform people and the world?  Paul says, no.  Not at all.  The Law has no capability to reform a person.  The Law has no capability to transform a heart.  The Law only has the capability of revealing sin.  It only has the capability of showing us where we go wrong.  Therefore, when the Law came alongside, it increased the amount of trespass–it increased our ability to see when we’ve messed up.

But, as the trespass increased; as we learned more about our sin, grace increased all the more.  In the Greek, Paul uses a made up word.  Grace super-abounded.  Such is what happens when Jesus is your representative.  Grace overflows and abounds.  Forgiveness overflows and abounds.  And this is now where we cut to the heart of the Christian faith.

For you see, if you want to be held responsible for your own actions; if you want to be judged on your own merit on what you do and what you don’t do, then you are acting just like Adam.  You are still in Adam.  Without choosing a representative, you have chosen a representative–if that makes any sense.  You are still striving to make yourself in the right–to justify yourself.  And if there is anything that Paul has worked to show us up to this point it is this: we simply cannot justify ourselves.  We cannot make ourselves right.  When we strive to make ourselves right, we are in a constant, losing battle that will eventually lead to our death.

However, if we choose to trust another representative...if we choose to trust in the God-man...if we choose to trust in Jesus’ actions instead of our own, everything changes.  Everything becomes different.  No longer are we in a constant struggle to justify ourselves and our actions.  No longer are we in a constant worry about whether or not we have done enough.  No longer are we dominated by worry stress and anxiety over death.  We know that grace super abounds. We know the depths of God’s love that Christ died for us while we were and are still sinners.  We know that 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 to be our representative–not to bring us condemnation but to bring us salvation!!!

When you surrender to Christ’s representation, your life changes, and you have sure and certain confidence.  You know God’s love.  You know God’s hope.  Nothing can rattle you.  The final stanza of “A Mighty Fortress” rings clear and true when Christ becomes the object of your trust: your representative whom you find yourself in:

God’s Word forever will abide, no thanks to foes who fear it
For God Himself fights by our side, with weapons of the Spirit.
Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child or spouse,
Though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day.
The Kingdom’s ours...Forever!  Amen.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Do You Know the Depths of God's Love?: Romans 5:6-11

Last week, we St. Paul revealed that one of the consequences of us being justified by grace through faith is that we can boast in our suffering.  This was quite an unheard of bit of news as Paul explained: suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us or put us to shame because of the love of God that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.  Paul was showing how suffering reveals the things we can truly count on, and when all is cut away from us, our true character is revealed.  And, if our ultimate trust is in Jesus–is in God, then we have a sure and certain hope that God will transform our sufferings into something good.  We may not see that this side of eternity, but in the long run, God will take suffering and make good come out of it.

This week, Paul is responding to an unspoken question, and that unspoken question is: how do you know?  How do you know God will do such a thing?  How can you count on Him to make good come out of suffering?  How can you have such a hope.  Paul’s response is essentially this: Let me show you the depths of God’s love.

When I was in junior high, I played football.  Our seventh grade team went undefeated and was district champions.  It was frankly awesome, and I had high hopes going into my eighth grade year.  And that year started off very well.  We won our opening games, but then something happened.  We began to lose.  We lost several in a row, and I knew why.

Our practice times had turned into times of goofing off.  I am a big, huge proponent of the idea that the way you practice is the way you play.  My dad instilled that in me at an early age, and we weren’t practicing well.  Every time we’d try to practice plays, there was laughing and cutting up.  There was joking around and going through the motions instead of seriously running the plays and drills.  And I pegged the ringleader of the disruptions and messing around.  I set him directly in my sights.

Frankly, I didn’t like this teammate at all.  Not only was he screwing up on the practice field and inciting the goofing off; I didn’t like him as a person during school either.  In class, he would do just enough to get by oftentimes cracking stupid answers to questions and mockingly reading class assignments.  Between classes, he would take a few drinks from a thermos in his locker, and that thermos didn’t have Coke, or tea, or water in it either.  In eighth grade, he was constantly trying to lure girls into sleeping with him.  Whenever we stopped after a football game and bought snacks at a convenience store, he loaded his pockets–without paying.  I hated him.  Yes, that’s the way I felt.  And I felt powerless to do anything about his antics on or off the field.

Until one day at practice, that is.  We just so happened to be doing a drill where there was one offensive player who was supposed to run the ball and score.  There was one defensive player who was supposed to tackle the ball carrier.  My teammate was on offense.  I ended up across from him on defense.  For me, the opportunity to exact justice had arrived.  I knew this guy was going to loaf it.  I knew he would clown around and go half speed even though we were supposed to be trying our best.  I wouldn’t be holding back.  I would be going full speed, and I would be hitting him as hard as I possibly could.

The results were predictable.  It took the coaches between five and ten minutes to get the guy up off the ground.  I stood there watching with no regret.  No remorse.  He was okay.  Nothing broken or badly hurt.  Just really, really bruised.  In my mind, justice was served.

And that’s the way we generally feel.  If someone has hurt us or has prevented us from getting something we desire...If we feel like someone has harmed us or those we love...if someone has done wrong to us, we generally want revenge. We want justice. We want the wrongs righted.  This is what we do to our enemies!!!  Revenge.  Retribution.  Justice.  It’s what we clamor for!!

And we see such tit for tat taking place all over our society–all over our world.  From the politics just down the road in Sealy and Bellville to the politics on the national scene, if decisions are made that go against our party or our organization, we pull out all the stops to get retribution; to cause the other party grief; to make them look foolish.  It is the default setting of humanity.

And we usually believe very strongly that we are in the right.  I was absolutely convinced of my stance and my role as the enforcer of justice.  I wasn’t clowning around.  I wasn’t stealing.  I wasn’t luring girls to my bedroom.  I was an all ‘A’ student who took my learning as seriously as my football.  I was the good guy.  We generally think that we are.

But looking back at these events that took place nearly 30 years ago, I have to wonder.  Sure, my teammate was screwing up a whole lot of things, but after 30 years, who really cares about the won/loss record of an eighth grade football team in a town with a population of only 2300?  What does it really matter in the big picture?  And what would have happened if I had really hurt my teammate.  What if he would have had to have surgery?  He would be bearing the scars and the pain to this day.  Does screwing up on the football field deserve 30 years or more of pain and scars?  And yet, I happily inflicted bodily injury for my slights.  I can imagine standing before the Almighty God and accounting for this act in my life, and frankly, I’m pretty sure my teammate would get off easier than I would.  Put in proper perspective, I’m not as innocent as I seem, and my actions are quite filled with guilt–all because I wanted, demanded, and took justice into my own hands.

Put into proper perspective.  That is the key.  We need to put ourselves in proper perspective, and I think that if we do, if we look deep into that mirror; if we set aside all of the lies that society tells us–you know those lies.  You deeply want to believe them.  You want them to be true.  The lies that say that you are perfect just the way you are.  That there is nothing wrong with you.  That you are owed respect and love and honor.  When you believe those lies, then you start believing that you bear no responsibility for what is wrong in the world–it is the world that is messed up, not you.  But those are lies.  Everyone of us knows that we are not perfect.  Deep down, every one of us knows that we are broken, and that the problems of the world are not out there alone.  They are also in here–in the very recesses of our hearts.  If we are honest with ourselves, we will see it.  Just as when I am honest with myself now, I know the wrongness of my actions so long ago.

You may wonder why I am making you confront the reality of yourself.  You may wonder why I am making you delve into the depths of your heart to confront your brokenness–your sinfulness, for that is the term we use in the Christian faith.  And I am doing so for one reason and one reason alone.  You have to know your brokenness so that you too can know the depths of God’s love.

Hear now St. Paul’s words again from Romans chapter five: 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 

Paul uses three words to describe us in this passage: ungodly, sinners, and enemies of God.  These are not flattering words.  These are not words that we like to hear as descriptors of ourselves.  This is something we rebel against.  We want to think that we are just.  We want to think that we are good.  We want to think that we are imperfect, but we’re not all that bad.  Perspective.  Stop looking from your perspective.  Look from God’s perspective, and from that perspective, we stand condemned.  Paul spent almost three chapters of this book showing us this very thing.  Paul spent three chapters showing us that we seek out our own desires, our own ways, our own false gods.  We do not seek God’s way?  We rebel against God’s Law.  We rebel against God’s commands.  We thumb our nose at Him and refuse to worship Him as we should.  We refuse to care for His creation as we should.  We refuse to love our neighbor as we should.  We think we are so good and holy and just, but we are seeing from our own perspective.  We refuse to look at us from God’s perspective because we are ashamed of what we will see.  We don’t want to see such a thing, because from God’s perspective we deserve His wrath; divine punishment.

“But God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Let that statement sink in.  “But God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

While we were enemies to God, Christ died for us.

While we were ungodly, Christ died for us.

When we didn’t deserve it, Christ died for us.

Who does that?  I mean it.  Really, who does that kind of thing?

Who dies for their enemies?  Who dies for someone who has hurt them deeply?  Who goes the second, third, fourth mile to show kindness for someone who has wronged them?  This is not human nature in the least.  This is not how we act at all.

But it is how God acts!  This is how God operates!  This is what God did at the cross when Jesus became the atoning sacrifice for our sins!  Christ died for us while we were still sinners.  This kind of love was never heard of in the ancient world.  No one died for their enemies.  No one.  For a good person, that was rare, as Paul points out.  But no one died for their enemies.

God did.  And Paul implicitly shows this as he talks about Jesus.  As N.T. Wright says, “What Paul says here makes no sense unless Jesus, in his life and death, was the very incarnation, the ‘enfleshment’ (that is what incarnation means) of the living, loving God.  After all, it doesn’t make sense if I say to you, ‘I see you’re in a real mess!  Now, I love you so much that I’m going send someone else to help you out of it.’”
Yes, Jesus is God.  God died for us while we were still enemies.  God showed us this kind of love.

And if he shows us this kind of love while we are enemies, what kind of love will God show us now that we have been added to His family?  What kind of love will God show us now that we are no longer His enemies but now His friends?  What kind of love will God give to us now that we are justified–put in good standing with him; and also reconciled–put in a right relationship?  The answer for Paul is clear–if God has done so much when we were estranged from Him, God will easily take care of us now that we have been brought near.

This is the reason Paul says we can count on God transforming our suffering into good.  This is the reason Paul says we can trust in God above all things.  He died for us when we didn’t deserve it.  His love goes beyond anything that we can imagine.  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 that the world might be saved through Him.

God did not condemn you when you were His enemy.  He died for you.  He poured out His love for you.  Will you now put your trust in Him?  Will you now put your hope in Him?  Will you long for His presence and His purpose in your life?  Will you love Him as He has loved you?  May the Spirit lead us all to respond, “Yes!” with loud and reckless abandon.  Amen.

Monday, January 9, 2017

When You Suffer, Do You Boast?: Romans 5:1-5

When I was about eleven, my family and I had gone over to a great aunt’s house on a Sunday after church.  We bar-b-qued hamburgers and sat around watching football.  Of course, my Dallas Cowboys were playing.  I remember this stuff vividly.  They were playing the late game, and they played the Los Angeles Rams.  I was rooting whole-heartedly for my ‘boys, and I was convinced they were going to win.  How convinced?  My dad told me, “The Cowboys are going to lose.”  I said, “No way.  They are going to win!”

Dad said, “I’ll bet you.”

I rose to the challenge, “Deal.”

Dad said, “How much?”

I thought for a moment before responding, “A quarter.”

Now, before you laugh too much, you have to realize just how much a quarter meant to me.  You see, I loved playing video games.  That quarter wasn’t just a quarter.  It was a game of Pac-Man or whatever arcade game I could come across the next time my family and I went out.  I took great joy and pleasure in playing those games–even though I wasn’t particularly good at them.  To bet a quarter was a big deal.

And my ‘boys lost!!!  I still remember going into my room and digging around for a quarter to hand to my dad.  –No, he didn’t let me off.  I had to pay up!!

Do you know, to this day, I have never bet on another football game or sporting event?  Lesson learned.  There is a risk on betting on an unknown future.  You can easily lose.

But, let’s turn the tables for just a moment.  What if you knew the future?  What if you knew what was going to happen at a particular game–who was going to win?  What if you knew it beyond the shadow of a doubt?  I tell you what I would do.  I’d be booking it to Las Vegas, and I would be a whole lot wealthier, that’s for sure!  Knowing the future gives you confidence in the present.

But there is a problem.  We don’t know the future.  We have the capability to think about the future.  We have the capability of figuring out what will probably happen in the next few moments; hours; or even days.  But all it takes is one little surprise; one little change in some variable, and all our preparations are null and void.  Therefore, we always seem to be a bit concerned about what will happen next.  We always seem to be a bit antsy about what might be just around the corner.  What will the future hold?  Sometimes we are excited about it.  Oftentimes we are fearful of it.  And in our culture today, fear dominates.  We tend to be afraid to bet; to risk; to take that chance lest we lose.

Christians take a bit of a different view toward the future.  In fact, we face the future with confidence–with hope.  St. Paul begins laying this out in the book of Romans chapter 5.  Just a quick recap from before we took our break from this book because of Christmas: Romans chapters one through most of three were spent laying out humanity’s failure to live up to God’s expectations and the reasons we were under the wrath of God.  At the end of chapter 3, Paul shared the good news that God’s justice and God’s mercy had combined in the work of Jesus who became the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Christ’s actions have justified us, and we are now right with God.  We are saved when we trust in Jesus’ actions instead of our own.  Paul then used chapter four to show how this justification by grace through faith was consistent with God’s action toward the founder of the Jewish faith: Abraham.  Paul now moves forward to share the consequences of God’s action in Jesus Christ.

We begin with verse one: Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.   We must read this carefully because Paul says here that we have peace WITH God–not the peace OF God.  The peace of God is a sense of calm that comes over us in the midst of various situations in life.  Sometimes we sense that peace.  Other times, we don’t.  Such peace is an important part of the Christian life and deserves its just due, but this is not what Paul is talking about here.  Paul is speaking of the peace that comes after two sides are reconciled.  No longer is there animosity.  No longer is there anger that divides.  No longer is there separation.  There is peace because our sins are no longer a cause of hostility.  God no longer bears his righteous anger against us.  We are at peace.

Secondly, verse two begins with these words: 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.  Through Jesus we now have access–the way is opened with no obstacles to the grace of God.  Think of it this way: in ancient times, in order to have access to a king, you first needed grace–worthiness imparted to you by the king so that he would meet with you.  Through Jesus, we have such access with God.  No longer are there any barriers between you and God.  Folks sometimes ask me to pray for them with the words, “Because you have a direct line to the big Guy up stairs.”  I humorously try to say, “Well, you do too.  We share the same access.”  Through Christ this has been given to ALL of us.  No one has any advantage.

Finally, Paul says, “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”  Earlier in chapter 3, Paul spoke about how boasting was excluded by the grace of God; however, it is important to note that Paul wants us to realize that we cannot boast in ourselves and what we do.  Boasting in what God has done, is doing, and will do is certainly allowed.  In fact, it’s sort of what we do as a church when we worship!  We loudly and boldly proclaim our God!  We loudly and boldly speak of what God does!  We loudly and boldly tell others that God has saved us; that God provides for us; and that God will secure our future.  We boldly boast of how God has prepared a place for those who trust Him and how He will raise us to eternal life–just like He raised Jesus to eternal life.  We boast in God’s goodness!!!

However, Paul suddenly broaches a different subject.  Right after saying that we boast in the glory of God–we boast in God’s goodness, Paul says, “3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings.”  Some scholars believe that Paul is heading off a criticism that is often brought forth.  A criticism that says: you boast about the goodness of God, but look at the trials and tribulations you go through.  Look at all the evil that is still in the world.  Look at the sickness that some of you have.  Look at the persecution that others are bringing upon you.  Why would you boast in God with all of these things happening?  Paul does not shy away from this question, and rather than offer excuses for such matters, Paul says something that many of us frankly have a difficult time doing.  Paul says that we boast in our sufferings.  I mean, really, think about this.  How many of us say, "Hey, I got diagnosed with cancer, woo hoo!"?  How many of us brag about having frozen pipes this morning?  How many of us jump up and down when we lose a job?  No.  We don't do this at all.  We become despondent.  We want sympathy.  We want compassion.  We never boast.  Yet, Paul says, "We boast in our sufferings."

Now, let me be quick to point out that this does not mean that we celebrate the fact that we suffer.  As Timothy Keller said, “That would be masochism.”  We aren’t sadistic.  We don’t rejoice that we suffer.  But we can boast in the midst of it.  How?  How in the world can we boast in our sufferings?

Paul continues:  knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.  Let’s go through these step by step.  Paul first says that suffering produces endurance.  The word endurance here carries a sense of steadfastness–meaning you don’t waver.  You are focused.  Suffering strips away all of the unnecessary distractions so that we know where and what to stand on.  Suffering helps us to see what we can really count on–what is lasting.  And when we find what we can stand upon–what is strong; what endures, then character is formed.  The Greek here gives us a sense of “testedness” or “genuineness”.  When all is stripped away, and you are left with what is lasting, you are tested–genuine.  Your true nature is revealed.  And what is a Christian’s true nature?  If we know we are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ–what does our heart show?  It shows that we are full of hope.

How does this happen?  I have dealt with such matters repeatedly with folks who go through suffering. By the time all is said and done, you can tell the difference between folks who put their trust in God and those who have trusted other things.  Let me use the scenario of someone who was diagnosed with cancer.  The folks who have trusted other things go through having their endurance tested, and their character is revealed.  When money did not bring about a cure; when doctors failed to stem the cancer; when family and friends could not make them better; when all of these things were stripped away and there was nothing left, folks who had no trust in God generally became bitter and angry and depressed.  They were defeated.  However, when the same things happened to those whose trust was in God, they too found that money couldn’t cure; doctors couldn’t stem the tide; that family and friends couldn’t make them better, but instead of becoming bitter and angry and depressed–they trusted that God would care for them.  They trusted that even though they might die, that God would bring them unto Himself.  They had hope.  It radiated from them.

Paul finishes with these words, “5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  A better translation would be “and hope does not shame us.”  Hope does not shame us.  This is important on two counts.  First, as I hinted at in my example above, if you put your hope in anything except God, it will disappoint you.  It will bring you shame.  Only God will not disappoint you.  Only God will not shame you.  If your hope is in God you will never be let down.  You can be confident.  And that is the second point of what Paul leads us to.  We can have absolute confidence in what God will accomplish.  This is the meaning of hope in Christian terms.  Most of us when we talk about hope, we think about wish fulfillment.  “I hope I win the lottery.”  “I hope it rains.”  “I hope gas prices don’t go up.”  We can’t be confident of any of these things.  Hope is a guessing game, and if what we hope for doesn’t come to pass–we are disappointed.  In fact, my mother-in-law is fond of saying, "Spit in one hand, wish in the other, and see which one fills up faster."

       Christian hope doesn’t say that.  Christian hope says, “I believe that God will provide exactly what I need when I need it.”  And that is not a hope that will disappoint.  That is not a hope that will bring us shame.  That is a hope rooted and grounded in who God has shown Himself to be.  It is a hope rooted and grounded in the love that He Himself has poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.  It is a hope rooted and grounded in the fact that God did not withhold His own Son, but sent Him into the world to die for us.  It is a hope rooted in 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.

This is the promise that we hold in our hearts.  This is the work of God that we stay focused upon.  We know that He loved us enough to die for us.  We know that He raised Jesus from the dead giving us a vision of what we will experience when we trust in Him.  We know that the future rests in His hands.  Our future is taken care of.  We know what to expect.  And if you know what the future entails, then you can live with confidence.  You can face suffering with confidence.  For suffering produces endurance–it helps you see what you can count on.  When you see what you can truly count on, your character is revealed–everyone can see what is truly in your heart.  And if you understand what God has done–hope reigns supreme.  And that is something to boast in!! Amen.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Looking Up to My Grandfather; A Tribute to Roy Grote

I'll never forget the day of my ordination, kneeling before the altar at St. John Lutheran Church in Robstown, TX.

It was time for the presentation of the stole--the time where the burden of becoming a pastor is laid upon an ordinand's shoulders.

I was privileged on this day to have my grandfather, Roy Grote, do the honors.

Grandpa was retired at this point.  No longer gracing the pulpit week after week, he was still active in leading Bible Study weekly.  He and my grandmother had traveled down to South Texas to be a part of this momentous event in my life.  I was very happy to have them there.  I was thrilled that my grandfather would place the stole on my shoulders.

As I knelt there, I looked up to my grandfather.  He took the stole from my bishop.  He moved in front of me.  And he spoke.  Shunning a microphone and speaking as he had preached for many years he spoke of how honored he was to be placing this stole on his grandson.  It was the passing of a torch in many regards.  There have been several clergy in my family.  God willing, there will be another after me.

I wish I could say that this moment was the highlight of my grandfather's career as a pastor, but that would probably be a lie.  Well, maybe it was in one fashion, but he has never spoken to me about the day of my ordination.  There was another event in his career that he spoke of many, many times, however.

It seems when he was starting out in his ministry, a community member had passed away, and my grandfather had been called upon to preach at the man's funeral.  The man was an avowed atheist and no member of any congregation.  A rather large crowd had showed up to see what this young preacher would do in this situation--how would he handle it.

Grandpa said, "I wondered what I should preach, so I prayed and God led me to the Gospel.  I read John 3:16, 'For God so loved the world that God gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.'  I sat down my Bible, and I said, 'I am sorry your loved one did not believe that promise.'"

According to my grandfather, the family wasn't exactly happy with him, but within a few years, many of them had joined his congregation and were worshiping regularly.  Grandpa would always begin this story with the question: Do you know the most influential sermon that you've ever preached?

I'm still waiting on that sermon.  I don't know if I will ever get that opportunity or see that kind of fruit.  But interestingly enough, John 3:16 (and 17 for good measure) appear in nearly every sermon I preach these days.  Every.  Single.  One.

I can't say exactly that it was this story that influenced me in preaching in such a fashion.  It would be another piece of wisdom that Grandpa imparted unto me.

That wisdom came several years ago after I had gone through a bit of burn out.  My family and I had traveled to visit him, and I was very much in need of healing.  I spent several afternoons just talking to Grandpa, and I asked him if he had ever gone through burn out while he was preaching.  He began going through his memories.

They were long and fruitful, and I came to realize just how alike the two of us were as clergy.  I would not have thought it considering that there were times when I found Grandpa utterly frustrating in his single-mindedness and hard headedness.  (On second thought, I guess I shouldn't be too surprised at our likeness...)  But he, like me, had an aversion to getting involved in all the church hierarchy.  He, like me, refused to attend local clergy gatherings.  He, like me, avoided synodical gatherings and the like.  He, like me, was a simple, country preacher.

And he realized this about himself.  He knew that he had never pastored anything close to a mega-church.  He knew that he had never risen the ranks of the church, corporate ladder.  But he had been a faithful pastor and preacher.  He had followed the Lord's calling.

Reflecting on those things, he spoke a sentence that is forever ingrained into my heart and soul, "I didn't accomplish much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on very good terms."

Aside from the good news of Jesus Christ, there hasn't been a statement that has affected my life as much as that statement.  For right after Grandpa uttered those words, I understood why I had burned out, and I also knew the solution to avoiding burn out for the rest of my life.  I had been living my life focusing on that first clause.  Grandpa was living his life in the second.  And that's where I needed to be.

And I knew that I could spend a lifetime trying to accomplish that first clause.  I also knew that the second clause had already been accomplished--not by anything that I had done, but by everything Christ had done.  "For God so loved the world..."  The first part of my grandfather's statement convicted me, the second helped bring me to healing.  Feet firmly planted in the reality that the Lord and I are on very good terms, I no  longer worry about how I am seen in the eyes of the world, and I know beyond a doubt that it is now my job; my calling; my duty; my joy to bring others to the One who brought them to good terms with their Creator.

I understand now why Grandpa was so unwavering in his commitment to faith.  I understand why he didn't care what others thought about his stances.  It wasn't because he was trying to be difficult or that he thought he was better than anyone else.  It was because he focused on his relationship with the Lord.  It was because he trusted the Lord.  It was because he knew what he was called to do--what he was called to be.  Nothing could pry him away from that.  He didn't fear much of anything because he knew that he and the Lord were on very good terms.

I find myself still looking up to my grandfather and wondering if I will have that kind of resolve as well?  Perhaps others already see that I do although I am not as confident in myself.  Maybe one day, I will get there.

In these last few years, Grandpa has longed for release.  He was not afraid of death--not at all.  One could say that he was ready to embrace it.  He had a long, fruitful and faithful life.  There is no way I can encapsulate all the things he has done in this post.  All the places he has lived.  All the lessons he has taught.  All the stories he has shared.  A man who grew up in the horse and buggy days marveled at my dad showing him how to use an iPad.  Things had changed greatly during his lifetime.

But his trust in Jesus never changed.  His desire to speak of the things of God never changed.  His generosity never changed.  His understanding of God's goodness and grace never changed.  Many in the church he once served would consider him a dinosaur; unenlightened; out-dated.  I don't think so.  Not in the least.  In fact, I am proud to carry on his legacy.  He was the original country preacher.  I'm 2.0.  If I am lucky, I will one day pass along his wisdom and understanding to my own children and grandchildren.  If I am granted the opportunity, I will share with them my most influential sermon.  If God allows, I will share with them what is most important in life--not a list of accomplishments that the world revels over--but the love of the God who died for them and with whom they are on very good terms.

Rest in peace, Grandpa.  I told you how influential you were in my life before you left.  I am still not sure you realize just how influential and what our conversations meant before you died.  But I know that you know now.  Until we meet again.