Monday, February 27, 2017

The Embrace of the Father: Romans 7:14-24

The other night, I had just drifted off to sleep.  It had been a long several days, and my body was craving sleep so badly, that I was asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow.  But I awoke with a start as I heard someone moving in my room.  It was my oldest daughter.  She was breathing heavily, on the verge of tears.  “Daddy, I had a night mare.  I’m scared.  I can’t go back to sleep.”

I reached out and held her for a few moments.  I reassured her.  I sent her back to her room.  She left.  I looked at the clock.  Only thirty minutes had passed since I laid down.  I curled up, hoping to recapture the dreams that had held me captive and in restful sleep.

But sleep did not come because only minutes later, my daughter returned, this time in tears.  “Daddy, I can’t fall asleep.”  This time, there were no reassuring hugs.  I was stern, “Turn on you radio.  Go to sleep!”

She left, and once again, I pursued much needed rest.  It was not to be had.  Just a few minutes later, my other daughter entered the room.  “Daddy, I’m really scared!  I can’t sleep.” I hugged and reassured her. I told her, go back to sleep.”  As she exited the room, she said, “Kiera’s in her bed crying.”

By that time, I had had it.  I was angry.  Not only had my sleep been interrupted, but so had others.  It was time for stern measures.  It was time to force the issue of sleep.  I headed to my eldest’s room.

“Go to sleep!” I said as soon as I entered.

“I can’t go to sleep!” my daughter said through tears.  She had taken all of her stuffed animals off her bed.  She had the bare minimum of sheets and pillows.  I reached for a blanket next to her bed to cover her with, and she cried, “I don’t want that.”  And then, she reached for me.  She stretched out her arms and wrapped them around me, and I did the same with her.  I laid my head next to hers, and I simply held her.  Her crying stopped.  Her breathing slowed.  In moments, her breathing was rhythmic, and she was fast asleep.  Whatever nightmares had haunted her, they had vanished in seconds.  They had vanished because of the embrace of her father.

I arose and walked out of the room, and I looked in my middle daughter’s room.  She had turned on her bathroom light, her closet light, and the light next to her bed.  She was laying in bed with the covers pulled up to her neck and eyes wide open.  I walked to her bathroom saying, “No.  No.  No.”  I turned off the bathroom light, the closet light, and the light by her bed.  “No.  No.  No.”  I sat down next to her.  Embraced her.  Laid my head down next to her and held her tight.  Within moments, she too was sleeping soundly.  The fears and anxieties that had haunted her were gone.  She was at peace all because she had been wrapped in the arms of her father.

I thought to myself at that moment, “That is what it is like to be embraced by the loving power of God.”  Whatever fears, whatever anxieties, whatever nightmares haunt you, they are erased in moments when you find yourself resting in the powerful arms of your heavenly Father–when you understand what grace is all about.

Unfortunately, today, most folks don’t understand grace because either they don’t believe in God or they have no fear of God’s anger toward sin.  There is a message seeping out into society that says, “You may make a few mistakes from time to time, but basically, you are a good person.  You are fine just the way you are.  Don’t get down on yourself at all.”  If you take God seriously, you simply cannot feel that way about yourself.  You can’t think that you are just fine.

The apostle Paul certainly did not feel that way about himself, and he is one of the greatest messengers of the Christian faith that walked the earth.  Last week, in out snippet from Romans Chapter seven, he laid out his case for how the law works–how it confronts us with our sinfulness.  If you were here last week, you were presented with a list of the demands of God.  I don’t think anyone in this room could fulfill even one of those demands.  If we use God’s standard for measurement, we are not simply sinful–we are sinners.

Paul knew this down to the very marrow of his bones.  He knew how he stood in comparison to the law.  He knew where he stood when it came to accomplishing following God, and it scared him.  It literally scared him to death.

Paul knows that there is a power at work within him.  He knows there is a power that is corrupting his body.  He knows that something is very wrong deep within him.  He knows that the law comes from God and is spiritual.  He knows that the law is holy and just and good.  But he also knows that he is fleshy.  He knows he is still under the influence of this world–sold into slavery under sin, as he puts it.  And he is not happy about this.  Because he wants to be good.  He wants to do good.  He wants to do the right thing at all times and in all places.  But he cannot, “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.”

Have you ever found yourself there?  Have you ever found yourself thinking, “I know what I should do...”  I know I should be more generous, but the economy looks shaking.  I know I should give my new neighbors a chance, but they have some weird ideas and don’t do things like I do them.  I know I should be forgiving, but the pain that person has caused me is so great.  I know I should talk about my faith in Christ to others, but I don’t think I know enough and people might get upset with me.  Can any of you relate?  Can any of you understand what it means to know what is right and yet fail to do it?

So, what is the problem?  Why is it that we know there is a standard that is good but fail to do it?  Why is it that we know that the law is good, but we fail to implement it?  Because, Paul now says, that deep within us–deep within him–is a power that is at war with the good.  There is a power that is moving deep within our members that is corrupting us and leading us astray.  There is a power that won’t release its hold on us.  A power that is subtle when it needs to be subtle; brutal when it needs to be brutal.  It is a power that will do whatever it takes to lead us away from what we know deep down in the innermost part of our being to be right.  That power, Paul says, is sin.  And it continues to corrupt us.  It continues to influence us.  It continues to work on us toward its purpose so that we do not become what God intends us to be.  “I can will what is right,” Paul says, “but I cannot do it.”  Sin dwells in me.  It corrupts me.

And so, I find myself at war, Paul says.  Deep within my heart, I love God and His law.  I love the commandments because I know that they are for my good.  I want to please God and honor Him.  I want to implement these things because they are given to me by God Himself.  Deep down, I know this.  Deep down, to the core of my being, I want to do this.  But, outside the core of my being, sin holds the rest of me captive.  I cannot escape it.  I cannot avoid it.  I cannot overcome it.  I am wretched!

What a horrible thing to say about one’s self.  What an absolutely horrendous thing to say.  When you call yourself wretched, you are saying that you are worthless, of no value, miserable, devastated, heartbroken.  None of us want to feel this way.  None of us want to go down this path.  But if we hold ourselves to the standard of God’s law and take God’s law in its entirety seriously, then this is exactly where we cannot help but end up.  Wretched.  Paul, when he gets to this point cries out, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  Paul is having a nightmare.  Paul is unable to sleep.  Paul is scared to death.

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Who rescues us from this nightmare?  Who wraps His arms around us so that we can sleep?  Who brings us peace in the midst of this conflict?  Jesus.  Only Jesus.

“Not the labors of my hands can fulfill thy law’s demands”
Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone, thou must save, and thou alone”
Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.
Naked come to the for dress; Helpless, look to the for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me Savior, or I die.
Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”

This hymn speaks deeply to what God has done in Jesus Christ.  It speaks of how Christ gave Himself up for us to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  It speaks of how in the midst of our sin, Christ washes us clean and clothes us with His righteousness.  We are indeed wretched, but we are cleansed.  We deserve God’s righteous anger, and we have received His marvelous love.  We are sinners who deserve just condemnation, and we are saints who have received salvation.

I wish I could convey to you better what this means.  I wish I had the ability to help you see this just like I had the ability to wrap my arms around my daughters in the midst of their fear and anxiety and bring them rest.  I wish I could convey to you the deep love of God for you–to show you the depths that He has gone to redeem you.  I wish I could make it tangible–to make it come alive within you so that each and everyday you might cry out, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  I wish I had the ability to have this settle deep within your hearts because it was this Gospel that changed the world so long ago.  It was this gospel that inspired a small group of disciples to take this message throughout the world.  It was this gospel that transformed individuals and then societies.  It was this gospel that brought people to a place where they didn’t fear to die; they didn’t fear loving those who were different than they were.  They didn’t fear the future.  They were consumed with loving God and loving their neighbor.  They offered forgiveness.  They offered hope.  They were at peace.

This is desperately needed in our world right now.  The anger, fear, and anxiety in our society are palpable.  You need only to read the news and see how people are treating one another today.  You need only to turn on the television to see how the seeds of distrust have been sown–how we tend to walk on eggshells because we don’t want to cause someone to erupt with anger and hatred.   How we have to measure every single word that we say or type because of how it can be misconstrued and used against us.  How we cluster into our various groups: conservative, liberal, democrat, republican, men, women, race, color, creed and look at others as a threat to us.  How we worry about threat after threat after threat.  Sin is using these things to divide.  To scare.  To breed hatred.   Sin is still very much a disease that infects not only us, but the world.

Jesus is the cure.  Jesus can bring healing.  And it starts right here.  With us.  With our hearts being captured by His love.  With our being a community of people focused on Him.  I pray this day that we all may know the depths of His love for us, that we too might find peace and rest in Him; that we may be a community that lives in Him; that we feel His presence with us and that our fears and anxieties may cease.  May we all know the love of Jesus.  Amen.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Law is Good: Romans 7:7-13

I want to begin with two situations in the history of our country that are directly related to today’s text from Romans 7.  The first is prohibition.  Does anyone remember their history in regards to that?  I’ve only read the books, so here is what I have gathered from this period of time in our nation.  A group of folks who had quite a bit of influence and sway managed to get a constitutional amendment passed to ban all things related to alcohol in the U.S.  Now, we know a lot about the effects of alcohol.  We know what it does to people. We know how it kills people.  We know how it breaks up families.  We know how it leads to fights.  We know how it leads to abuse.  We know how it leads to drunk driving and other crimes.  We know this beyond a shadow of a doubt.  So, why is it now legal to drink?  Do you remember why?  Because, interestingly enough, after the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol was banned: IT ACTUALLY INCREASED!!  Think about that for a minute.

Second situation.  This is actually in living memory for many of us.  Not long ago, the U.S. Congress had imposed a 55 mph speed limit maximum on the nation because of a shortage of oil and gas.  Now, that didn’t stop people from speeding, far from it, and that’s not my point. I’ll get to that shortly.  Congress eventually repealed this limit and left it up to the states to impose their own speed limits on highways and thoroughfares.  Montana took an interesting stance.  Because they had so much open highway and so few people traveling on it, they instituted the “reasonable and prudent” speed limit law.  Do you know why it’s no longer in effect and they have posted speed limit signs now?  Because some folks used this as a license to drive over a hundred miles an hour, and the number of traffic fatalities skyrocketed.

In both of these cases, laws that had a particularly noble intent were turned upside down.  They failed.  Why?  Were they bad laws?  I’d argue not necessarily.  The laws in and of themselves were not bad, but the laws could not deal with something that pervades the planet.  The laws were unable to deal with the power of sin, and as a result more harm came about.  So, this begs the question: if the law brings about such things, is the law good?

This is the question that St. Paul now turns his attention to in Romans 7:7-13.  As we turn to this text now, I just want to let you know that I will be focusing on verses 7 through 12, but I have included 13 because it serves as a bridge between this week’s verses and next week’s verses.  Let’s look at what Paul says this week.

He begins asking exactly what I just asked: “7 What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means!”  Last week, Paul made the remark that “the law aroused our sinful passions.”  So, like any good rhetorician, he deals with a question before anyone else can ask it. In this case, the logic would go: if the law arouses sinful passions, then the law must be bad–the law must be sin.  Paul answers with his usual: God forbid!  Or you’ve got to be stupid to believe that!.  Paul will now show how the law is good.

He says, “Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” This is kind of a no brainer.  If I am driving down the road, and there are no posted speed limit signs, I don’t know how fast I am allowed to drive.  I don’t know the rules.  But if someone posts a sign that says, “Speed limit 75,” then I know what is right and what is wrong.  We don’t exactly come into this world knowing all the rules and regulations.  We have some idea deep within us about justice and fairness and the like, but we don’t know all the specifics.  They have to be revealed or taught to us.  Paul says this straightforwardly, but it is interesting that he uses a particular commandment.  If you remember the Ten Commandments, you will note that Paul uses the last one: “You shall not covet.”  Why did he use this commandment and not the first and greatest: “You shall nave no other gods before me.”?  I think there is a reason, but we have to wade through an interesting part of the text to get there.

Beginning in verse 8, “But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. 9I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived 10and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.”  Now, in my past years, I rushed past these verses and jumped to verse 12.  Verse 12 was easy to understand.  These verses were and are not.  In fact, when you read through the scholars, they are all over the place here.  When you dig into these verses, you stumble across several pit-falls, and in order to interpret them, no matter which way you go, you have to make some assumptions that may or may not be right.  All that is to say is, what I am about to say is how I have managed to make sense of these verses.  Others will disagree with me, but here is how this plays out after I have studied and thought about this a lot this week.

Paul says that the power of sin is so great that when a commandment is set forth, sin goes to work to warp things and produce in us that which the commandment forbids.  In prohibition, it produces a desire for alcohol.  With prudent and reasonable, it produces unreasonableness.  With coveting, it produces covetousness.  If we don’t know the law, sin lies dead–dormant.  If there were no prohibition, we wouldn’t have that desire within us.  This is what Paul I believe is saying in verse 8.

At the beginning of verse 9, he makes a rather interesting statement: I was once alive apart from the law.  What in the world does he mean by this?  Paul was a Jew–a devoted Jew at that, so there would never have been a time when he wasn’t exposed to the law.  There would never have been a time when he was apart from the law.  And how can being apart from the law be life?  Early on in the book of Romans, Paul says that even though there are those who don’t have God’s law, they are still under condemnation and death.  What does this mean?  I think Paul is referring to the time when he didn’t quite get the 10th Commandment.  I think he is referring to the time when he believed he was following the commands of God and was, as he reports himself in the book of Philipians, “as to the law, blameless.”  Paul thought he was following the law perfectly, and in the book of Leviticus, it says point blank: if you follow the law, you have life.  Paul thinks he is alive apart from the 10th Commandment.

However, when the commandment came, sin revived, and Paul died.  Again, this is an interesting line of thinking.  I make sense of it in this fashion: the ancient Jew, and many modern ones, believed that sin was a definite act.  Simply thinking about murder was not a sin. If you murdered someone, that was.  Thinking about sleeping with someone who was not your spouse was not adultery.  Actually sleeping with someone who was not your spouse was adultery.  Paul could have gone down the checklist of the Ten Commandments and said that he followed them perfectly–until he finally understood number 10.  For you see, to covet is to lust after something.  To desire it deeply.  To want it more than anything else in the world at the time.  When the commandment came to Paul, he realized that he was a sinner to his core.  The command that once promised life–if he were able to follow it–now killed him.  And it killed him because in verse 11, sin had deceived him.

What exactly does this mean?  Again, I think there is a reason Paul uses “Thou shalt not covet” to illustrate his point.  What was Paul coveting?  If we read his autobiographical statements in the rest of scripture, we see that he desired to be a perfect Jew.  We see that he wanted to be completely and totally righteous.  We see that he wanted to follow the law above everything else.  This was his goal and purpose in life.  It was his god.  Let me say that again, and I think you will see how sin deceived Paul.  In making him coveting being the perfect Jew; a righteous Jew; Paul desired this above everything else.  And if you dedicate your life to something; if that something becomes your obsession; your deepest desire, it becomes your god.  Sin deceived him into thinking that by desiring to be the perfect, righteous Jew, he was actually serving God; however, Paul now saw that he actually had a false god.  And that false god had led him to bear false witness against the church; had led him to kill people within the church; had led him to persecute the church.  Paul suddenly knew the depths of his sin because the law; the commandment showed this to him.

And so Paul then concludes, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.”   The law is holy because it comes from a holy God.  The commandment is holy because it comes from a holy God.  The command is just because it comes from a just God.  The commandment is good because it comes from a good God.  There is nothing wrong with the commandments.  There is something wrong with us.  We are easily corrupted by the power of sin.

And we don’t want to admit that.  We don’t want to admit it in the least.  We want to think that we are basically good–that we are basically just and merciful and kind.  We want to think that we basically follow the law.  We don’t want to see the depths of our corruption.  We oftentimes become self-righteous like Paul was self-righteous.  We look at a select group of commandments and think: oh, I follow those.  I’m good enough.  It’s just those people out there who are the problem, and if we could just get those people to change; if we could just pass the right laws to reign them in, then the world would be such a better place.

News flash: it won’t be.  The power of sin is corrupting how you obey the law.  The power of sin is deceiving you again.  If you want to start changing the world: if you want to see the world improve, you’ve got to start with your own heart.  You’ve got to become convicted just like Paul was convicted.  You’ve got to realize that not only do you sin, but that you are a sinner.  You’ve got to realize your deepest motivations for doing what you do.  You’ve got to see whether or not you are living for God or living for something else.  I will not be closing this sermon out with the Gospel.  I will not be quoting John 3:16 and 17 this week.  Paul leaves us seeking self-reflection.  He leaves us studying the law and its purpose and how it convicts us.  Next week, he will reveal the solution to this problem.  But for now, we’ve got to wrestle with the problem. We’ve got to wrestle with our own hearts.  We’ve got to be convicted of our own sin.

And so, I am going to leave you with a series of questions.  All of these questions deal with the commands of Christ.  All of these questions deal with how we should live.  If you fail at these questions, you can join Paul and me.  You can join us in admitting that not only do we commit sin, but that we are sinners.  You can join us in awaiting the remedy to our corruption.  You can join us in waiting to hear the gospel.

__ I always love God with all my heart, mind, and soul.  (Matthew 22:37

__ I always love my neighbor as much as I love myself. (Matthew 22:39)

__ I have given up everything I have to follow Jesus.  (Matthew 19:21)

__ I never get angry with my neighbor or call him a good-for-nothing.  (Matthew 5:22)

__ I never look at a person of the opposite sex with thoughts about having sexual intercourse. (Matthew 5:28)

__ I always do good to others when they do things to hurt me. (Matthew 5:38)

__ I love my enemies and pray that God will bless them. (Matthew 5:43)

__ I never judge others, but always put the best construction on their behavior. (Matthew 7:1)

__ Whenever I do something good for someone else, I keep it a secret and do not let others know about it.  (Matthew 6:2)

__ I am happy when someone makes fun of my being a Christian. (Matthew 5:10)

__ I always forgive others when they do me wrong. (Matthew 6:2)

__ I never worry about food or clothing. (Matthew 6:31)

__ I love God more than my family, my friends or myself.  (Matthew 10:37)

__ Whenever I see someone in need, I always help them. (Matthew 10:42)

__ I regularly feed the poor, visit prisoners, put strangers up for the night, give clothes to the needy and visit those who are sick.  (Matthew 25:35-36)

__I never hold anyone to a standard that I, myself do not follow.

If you did as well as I did on this series of questions, then I look forward to seeing you next week as we hear the remedy to sin’s power.  Amen.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Dead to the Law: Romans 7:1-6

Three older guys were sitting around talking about what would happen on the day of their funerals.  They were contemplating the question: what would you like to have someone say while standing over your casket.  The first thought for a bit and said, “I would like to have people say that I was such a devoted husband and father and that I left a lasting legacy of love of family with my kids.”  The second thought a moment and said, “I want folks to talk about how kind and generous I was–how I was willing to remember those who were less fortunate and care for them with dignity.”  The third man thought a moment and said, “That all sounds well and good.  I want someone to stand over my casket and say, ‘Look!  He’s moving!’”

The underlying message of course is, “I don’t want to die!”  Death is not something we look forward to especially in our younger years, but I have known more than a hand full of people who have been ready to die–who wanted to die.  I remember my grandfather who died of cancer one day coming home from radiation, feeling the effects of it burning his insides, and crying out, “Why is it so hard for a man to die?”  Death would be a release for him.  My other grandfather who lived to be 97 also was more than ready for death as his body no longer cooperated with him and he found it difficult to get around.  Death once again would be a release.  Whenever we have a birthday at our Senior Service, I usually joke and say, “I refuse to sing ‘and many more’ at the end of Happy Birthday, and believe it or not, more than a few are glad that I don’t.  As bodies age and become more weary, some welcome death as freedom from what haunts and hurts them in life.

If you have experienced this with others or experience it with yourself, then you can grasp what St. Paul says as he begins chapter 7 of the book of Romans, “Do you not know, brothers and sisters—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only during that person’s lifetime?”  Paul may be referencing  a well known saying in ancient Judaism that is very, very similar, “If a person is dead he is free from the Torah and the fulfilling of the Commandments.”  When you die, the Law no longer has authority over you because, well, you are dead.  Just like at the end of chapter six when Paul was saying that sin no longer has any power over you, he is now saying, neither does the law have any power over you.  You are no longer bound by it.

Paul then uses an analogy from marriage to enhance his point.  He says in verse 2, “Thus a married woman is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies, she is discharged from the law concerning the husband. 3Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man, she is not an adulteress.”   Paul is helping us see how the law works and then how it is removed by death.  A woman or man who is married is bound by the law, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”  If a woman or man sees someone outside of the marriage, then he or she is committing adultery.  However, if a spouse dies, then that person’s husband or wife is now free to meet and marry another person.  They will not be considered an adulterer if they did that because death ended the marriage and the law no longer applied.

Paul then shows how this applies to his point regarding the life we have in Jesus Christ.  Verse 4 In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God.   Now, the analogy isn’t perfect.  The law didn’t die.  We did.  In the last chapter, Paul showed how that through our baptism, we mystically became linked to Jesus Christ so that whatever happened to him happens to us.  Because Christ died on the cross, we also died.  If we have died, then we are no longer under the law.  The law has no effect on us.  However, Paul also pointed out that just as Christ was raised, we too have been raised.  We now live a resurrection life, and in that resurrection life, we have been freed so that we can bind ourselves to Jesus and bear fruit for God.  This means we live for God.  We seek God.  We seek to honor and please God by doing His will.

And, of course, we find what God wants and desires when we read the law.  We see that God wants us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We see that God wants us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with Him.  We see that God wants us to follow the Ten Commandments.  But why did we have to die to them.  Why did we have to be free from being under them?  This is the part that to many doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  So, Paul tries to explain that.

Verse 5  While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 6But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.  I don’t know how many of you have watched the movie Finding Nemo, but I thought of a scene in that movie when I read Paul’s words here.  If you are a parent, this will resonate very deeply with you.  There is a scene where Nemo, a young fish, goes to school, and his teacher takes the class to what is known as the drop off.  Now, Nemo’s dad, Marlin hears about this and is none too thrilled.    For Marlin, the drop off is where predators can easily come and take fish.  Nemo’s mom was eaten near the drop off.  Therefore, Marlin swims out to the drop off and tells Nemo that he's going to take him home from school. Nemo of course rebells and gets very, very upset.  Nemo refuses to go with Marlin. So Marlin keeps giving him order after order after order. Nemo refuses to obey. Nemo even swims towards a boat. Marlin keeps saying get back here right now. Nemo refuses. Then Marlon says don't touch the boat. Nemo pauses a second, just a second, gives his dad that look every kid has given his or her parent, and then touches the boat. There was something deep within Nemo that was rebelling against the commands of his dad.  There was something deep within Nemo that was refusing to do what he knew was right.

Paul says that the law actually generates this within us.  The power of sin works so deeply that we come to desire the things we know we shouldn’t.  The power of sin works so deeply that when we hear “Thou shalt not!” something in us says, “You can’t tell me what to do!”  And so, our rebelliousness bears rotten fruit.

Ah, but if we are dead, then we are no longer under this influence.  If we are dead, the law no longer can hold us captive.  If we are dead we no longer bear this kind of fruit.  And if we have been joined to Jesus, we are no longer slaves to the written code–the written law, but instead, we are now resurrected to new life in the Spirit.  We are dead to the law and alive in Christ!  Bound to Christ!  Serving Christ!

And we fall in love with Him and what He has done.  We remember how He poured out His life for us on the cross of Calvary.  We remember that He served His Father 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.  Our heart is touched to the very core by this news of what God has done for us, so that we seek to please Him in all that we do.  We live for Him.  When you love someone, that’s what you do.  Period.

Now, why is this important?  Let me take a few minutes to show you why.  In our culture today, there is a line of thinking when it comes to marriage that says, “You must find your soul mate.”  What is encapsulated in that thought is that there is one person out there who will love you and cherish you–who will complete you and bring you happiness and joy.  People search for such a person, and when you begin dating someone and falling in love with that other person, you actually experience such feelings.  It’s a wonderful sensation, but those of us who have been married for quite some time know, it eventually fails.  It disappears.  When the realities of life catch up, and people discover that each person has wants, needs and desires that the other person can’t fulfill, oftentimes people get disappointed, angry, frustrated, and down on their marriages.  When I don’t get the same kind of fulfillment I got early on in my marriage, I start thinking that I’ve missed my soul mate, and maybe I should look for another–so goes the thinking.  Divorce attorneys make a killing off of this line of thought because it is inherently self-centered and selfish.  It’s about getting what I want out of marriage, and if I don’t get it, I go find someplace else where I will.

There is a similar thing that happens when we seek salvation through following the law and its demands.  Because, once again, we are seeking our own self-interest and our own desires.  I want to go to heaven, so therefore, I’d better do the right things, be a good person, and stay out of trouble.  But a couple of things happen.  First off, we don’t reckon the power of sin, and even though we know what is right, even though we know the law says, “Thou shalt not...” we find ourselves wanting to do those things the law tells us not to do.  We find ourselves slipping into breaking the law time and again.  And so we do one of three things: one: we just stop trying and give in.  This removes any sort of guilt from us.  Two: we become depressed and anxious, knowing we never can do enough.  Three: we convince ourselves that we are indeed following the law and it is only those people out there who have the problem, not us.  In each of these things, we fail at accomplishing what was intended because we are acting with self-interest.

But, if we have died to our self; if we have experienced death with Jesus on the cross; if we find that we are saved by sheer grace–by nothing that we do but by all that Christ has done–then we approach things differently.  We know that Jesus has poured Himself out for us.  We know that He has loved us with an unimaginable love.  We know that love will never fail us, so we fall in love with Him.  We no longer live for ourselves, but we live for Him.  We seek to please Him.  And we know that He revealed to us the things that he delights in.  We know that it brings Him joy when we love one another as He loved us.  We know it brings Him joy.  And this now affects all our other relationships.

For we no longer simply live for what we want and expect in those relationships.  We no longer expect fulfillment from our spouse; or our government; or our church; or our friends; or our job.  We know we get those things from Jesus.  Therefore, we begin to delight in loving our friends and family to bring them joy; to bring them happiness; to bring them comfort and peace.  Our delight comes from serving instead of getting.  And we don’t get frustrated when our love is not given back to us like we think we deserve.  Because we know that no one is perfect.  We aren’t perfect.  Our spouses aren’t perfect; our governments aren’t perfect; our jobs aren’t perfect; our churches aren’t perfect; our families aren’t perfect.  The only perfect one is Jesus, and it is in Him that we live and move.  And so we become forgiving because He forgave us. We become caring because He cared for us.  We become loving because He loved us.  This is what happens when we die to our selves with Jesus and then are raised to new life with Him and are joined to Him.  This is what happens when you fall in love with Jesus.  May our hearts do just that.  Amen.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Choosing the Right Master: Romans 6:15-23

When last we left off at Romans chapter 6 verse 14, Paul made this statement, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”  Paul will define what he means in chapter seven, but before he does so, he know he has just introduced a can of worms-a can he will deal with immediately because it is one of those criticisms of grace that is still thrown around today.

Basically, the question raised is this: if we are not under the law, then what incentive do we have for doing good?  If we are saved completely and totally by what God has done and by nothing that we do, is there any obligation to live a holy and upright life?  The law is supposed to keep us in check. It’s supposed to be a deterrent for behavior.  What if you knew you never had to worry about getting another traffic ticket?  Does that give you licence to drive all over the road, run over pedestrians, and cause general mayhem?

Paul’s response is swift, “God forbid that you think this!”

Paul then goes into his next argument to show why a Christian is still obligated to live a holy and just life seeking to please God by following His will as it is revealed in the law. He begins with these words in verse 16, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”

Now, what I am about to say, you are not going to like.  You are going to kind of be like the woman in this joke:

For months Bill had been Lynn’s devoted admirer.  Now, at long last, he had collected up sufficient courage to ask her the most momentous of all questions.

“There are quite a lot of advantages to being a bachelor,” Bill began, “but there comes a time when one longs for the companionship of another being, a being who will regard one as perfect, as an idol; whom one can treat as one’s absolute own; who will be kind and faithful when times are hard; who will share one’s delights and sorrows.”

To his delight, Bill saw a sympathetic gleam in Lynn’s eyes.  Then she nodded in agreement.  Finally, Lynn responded, “I think it’s a great idea!  Can I help you choose which puppy to buy?”

I know it’s funny, but Lynn saw something in Bill’s comments that were not thrilling to her.  She saw in Bill’s comments a form of slavery.  She was not happy with that, and it captures what St. Paul is actually saying here.  He is saying that when we commit to something, we become a slave to it.

As I said before, this is not something we like to hear. We like to think of ourselves as being free; without constraint.  And to an extent we are.  We do have freedom to choose who we will serve.  You may tell me, “But I don’t serve anyone or anything.”  That’s not true.  I can prove it.  You are a citizen of the United States of America.  You are also a citizen of the state of Texas.  By virtue of becoming a citizen of the U.S. and of the state of Texas, you have submitted yourself to their authority and have agreed to follow their laws.  You serve them both.  If you want to say that you are free within both of these entities, I encourage you not to file your federal income taxes or refuse to pay your property taxes.  See?  You are not totally free.  You have submitted to their rule.

The same can be said for whatever you choose to be involved in.  I am somewhat dreading the day when my kids want to participate in sports.  Of course, Dawna and I will agree to support them, but then we will be enslaved to them.  We will have to make sure we get the kids to practice. We will have to make sure we get them to their games and to cheer them on.  Our schedules will no longer be our own.  We will be enslaved to our choice to support our children.  Do you see how this works?  Whatever you commit to will become your master.

Reflecting upon what he has just written about our representatives, Paul then says our choice basically boils down to two things: sin or God.  Either one of these things will ultimately be our master.  I will show you how in just a moment, but let me point out that Paul recognizes that this is not a perfect analogy.  He says, “I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations.”  It’s tough to get our heads around God, God’s grace, how we are free from the demands of the law and yet called to be obedient to it all at the same time.  It’s quite head spinning.

Add this to how loaded the term slavery has become in the U.S., and you have another problem.  When we hear the word slavery, we think back to the times before the Civil War.  We think back to the times before the Civil Right’s Movement.  If I had been born back then, my family would not look like it does right now.  Slavery connotes racism; human ownership; thinking of people as less than human.  We abhor it.  Folks in biblical times didn’t like it either, but it wasn’t quite as ugly as it was in America’s history.  Oftentimes people would sell themselves into slavery to pay off their debts.  Through working, they could earn their freedom.  Paul’s audience would have known this.  Those who were slaves would understand what he was saying.  Those who had been slaves would understand as well.  They wouldn’t necessarily be happy about it, but they would get it.  I think many of us can also relate–even though it is an imperfect analogy.

Now, let’s return to Paul’s argument.  Again, Paul says that we are slaves to either sin or to God.  There’s no in between ground.  You may scratch your head and think, “Sure there is.  There is plenty of gray areas in life.”  Let me try and show you why in this case, there isn’t, and I will use some of what Paul says to show it.

Paul makes an intriguing comment, “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death.”  What does this mean?  First off, Paul says there is a sense of freedom when we reject God’s mastery over our lives.  You no longer feel obligated to live a holy life.  You no longer feel obligated to try and follow the Ten Commandments.  You feel as though a burden is lifted.  But, you are not truly free.

Remember what I said before: you are free to choose what you serve.  You are free to choose your commitments.  Let’s say you choose to attend a football game on Sunday instead of going to church.  Why?  Let’s not kid ourselves.  “Because I enjoy the football game much more than I enjoy church.”  Whose interests are you looking out for?  Your own.  If you decide to become a health nut and exercise; get in shape; eat the right foods; drink the right drinks, why are you doing this?  For the benefit of your health.  Whose interests are you looking out for?  Again, your own.

At this point, you may say, “I see your point, but what about working for justice in the world?  What about feeding the hungry?  What about caring for those in need?  Those are not about my self interest.  I am working for the sake of others.”  Indeed, you are, but here is a critical test for you to see if you are indeed working for others or for your own desire: how do you feel toward those who do not share your passion for justice; feeding the hungry; and caring for others?  Do you become angry and upset with them?  Do you hold them in contempt?  If you do, your self is still wrapped up in the process, and you are not working for the pure joy of doing what is right in helping others.  You are still serving your self-interest.

With all of these choices, your self-interest and desires are dominating.  You are serving them.  And going all the way back to chapter five, we see that such selfishness is rooted and grounded with our first representative–Adam.  We are simply following in the footsteps of the one who wanted his own desires met and didn’t want to be dependent upon God.  We are in our sin, and Paul says, this will lead to death.  Most scholars believe that when Paul uses this term, he means eternal separation from God.  It’s not a pleasant thought.

However, Paul says, when you have a change of heart, things change drastically.  Verse 17, “Thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves to sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you having been set free from sin have become slaves of righteousness.”  Verse 22, “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage that you get is sanctification.  The end is eternal life.  For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life.”

What Paul says is that when we shift allegiances, when we choose God as our master, we find a different kind of freedom.  We do not find a demanding master who tries to whip us into submission.  We do not find a master who sucks the life out of us with giving nothing in return.  No.  Instead, we find a master who is willing to die for us.  We find a master who is willing to pour his life into us.  We find a master who is willing to go the extra mile to shower us with love and every thing that we need for life.  This is the heart of the Gospel that says, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him; all those who trust Him; all those who submit to Him will 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 when you have a Master who is willing to do this for you; when you have a Master who has already died for you and loved you when you were unlovable, you seek to please that Master.  You seek to love that Master.  You seek to offer yourself to God and do the things that He loves.  You seek to love your neighbor because you know that pleases God.  You seek to do justice because you know that pleases God.  You seek to be kind because you know that pleases God.  You seek to live honest and upright because you know that pleases God.  You know that you do not have to follow the law to be saved, but you know that in following the law, you are pleasing the Master who was willing to die for you.

Let’s go back to Lynn and Bill for a moment.  Let’s pretend that the conversation went this way.  Bill, looks into Lynn’s eyes and says, “You know, there comes a time in a person’s life when one finds another who he is willing to die for; one whom he will cherish, love, honor and care for until he has no breath left.  You are that one for me.  I would gladly die for you, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”  What do you think Lynn would have said to that?  What about you?

Paul shows us this today: we are free to choose our Master.  We are free to choose who we will become enslaved to.  Only one Master will lead not only to eternal life but a life filled with joy, peace, understanding, and hope.  The other masters will ensnare you, bring you grief, anger, frustration, and sadness.  By grace, you are now free to choose sin or God.  Choose wisely.  Amen.