Monday, March 27, 2017

A Part of God's Family: Romans 8:14-17

No one gets to choose whether or not to be born.  No one.  Birth is an involuntary event in our lives.  Our parents made that decision for us, and this also means that we didn’t get to choose our family.

We did not get to choose our father.
We did not get to choose our mother.
We did not get to choose our siblings.

Like it or not, we are stuck with our families for better or for worse.  For those of us who were born into relatively stable, happy families, we can consider ourselves blessed.  I was extremely blessed to have a family who loved and supported me–who gave me appropriate discipline but was never abusive; who knocked me down when I became too prideful and built me up when I was feeling down.  After the typical sibling rivalries with my sister, we grew close and still maintain a very good relationship.  I value highly my family.

But not every family is like this.  In fact, there are some families where the exact opposite things happened.  There are some families where people are abused physically and mentally.  There are some families where children are ignored; unloved; and the minimum of care is given to them.  There are some folks who have good relationships with their mothers but horrendous relationships with their fathers and vice-versa.  There are some families where brothers and sisters war with each other for attention and affection and, if the parents die, for whatever monetary gain they can appropriate.  When such things happen, the term family takes on a very, very negative meaning.

And it is with such matters in mind that some well meaning theologians and pastors have commented that the church should do away with any sort of language that talks about our community as a family.  Because some folks have had negative experiences with families, we shouldn’t talk about ourselves as a family.  Because some folks have had negative experiences with abusive fathers, we should not talk about God as the Father.  To a lesser extent, the logic follows that because some folks have had a negative experience with mothers, we shouldn’t refer to God as Mother either.  I know that the intent here is well meaning, but that then means we will have to disregard some very important pieces of scripture that reveal to us the nature of God and our relationship toward Him.

One of those pieces of scripture is in front of us this morning.  It’s a very small paragraph from the eighth chapter of the book of Romans, but these few sentences are profound in what they say about our relationship with God in Jesus Christ.  Paul begins with these words, “14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”  This is not an inclusive statement.  It is an exclusive statement.  If you are not led by the Spirit of God, you are not a child of God.  But if you are led by the Spirit of God; if you have Jesus as your representative; if you trust in Jesus’ actions instead of your own actions when it comes to being right with God; then you are a child of God.

These words hearken back to the story of the Exodus when God was leading the people of Israel by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.  God adopted the Israelites as His children and was leading them to the Promised Land.  They were under His care.  They were under His provision.  However, at this time in biblical history, the family was limited.  Only those who were circumcised and descendants of Abraham were allowed in.  No one else could be added.  Until Jesus. When Jesus came into this world and made us right with God through His death and resurrection, the family of God became open.  No longer was there any physical restrictions to entrance into the family.  Didn’t matter if you were circumcised or not.  There were no longer any blood line restrictions to entrance into the family.  Didn’t matter if you were a Jew or not.  Entrance into God’s family was not by physical birth–it was by spiritual re-birth.  It was by a heart that came to trust in what Jesus accomplished in His life, death and resurrection.  For all of us who here today call ourselves Christian, we became a part of this family because of Jesus; because we place our trust in Him.

What does this mean?  Verse 15, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’   I heard a heart wrenching sermon illustration this week as I listened to a pastor preach on this text.  A family had traveled to Russia to adopt two boys.  When they entered the orphanage and were led to their sons, they were disturbed by what they didn’t hear.  For you see, the orphanage was quiet.  It was full of babies.  Full of infant children laying in their cribs.  But they made no noise.  They rocked themselves back and forth, but there was no crying; no cooing; nothing.  The pastor explained: whenever infants get no attention, they learn not to cry.  They simply stay silent because their cries do no good.  These children had learned that no one cared.

The couple were led to the two boys that they would eventually adopt.  They spent several days with those boys giving them attention and affection.  Finally, the day came that the parents’ dreaded.  They would have to leave these two boys and return to the United States as they awaited the final paperwork to be handled.  They hugged and kissed the boys and told them their goodbye’s.  And as they walked back through the silent orphanage, one of their boys let out a blood curdling cry.  For the first time in his life, their son-to-be knew he was loved; knew he was cared about; and he cried out for his family.

When we receive the Spirit of God, we do not fall back into fear and subdued quiet.  We do not worry about whether or not we are saved.  We do not worry about whether or not we will ever get to heaven.  We have a Father who cares.  We have a Father who loves.  We have a Father who provides.  We have a Father who grants us every right and privilege that comes with being His child.  And so we cry out to Him.  We yearn for Him.  We yearn for His presence.  We yearn for His touch.  We yearn to experience holy time with Him.  And so we cry out, “Daddy!  Father!”  For you see that’s what Abba means.  Abba means Daddy in Aramaic.  We have the privilege and honor to come before the creator of the universe with no need to use majestic language.  We don’t have to pray saying, “Heavenly Father.”  We don’t need to flatter God by saying, “Almighty Creator of the universe.”  We can simply say, “Daddy.”  This is the spirit of adoption that we have received.

Of course, some may ask, “How do you know?  How do you know that this is true?”  Paul answers, “16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”   There is no scientific proof for this occurrence.  There is no legal document that is produced to show that God has adopted us.  The sign and seal of this transaction takes place in the very depths of our hearts.  The Holy Spirit and our own spirit testifies to whether or not we are children of God.  Deep down in the recesses of your heart, you come to sense the Spirit’s presence.  You come to sense the Spirit’s affirmation.  You come to realize your adoption into God’s family as the Spirit of God confirms and affirms you.

Now, you may say, “Pastor, I haven’t felt this.  Am I a part of God’s family?  Am I a Christian?  If I don’t sense the Spirit of God in me, am I doing something wrong?”  There are two things to consider: first, I think we must all ask ourselves what we are trusting in at any given time in our lives.  We must examine deep within our hearts and ask ourselves, “Am I putting my trust and faith in Jesus and His action?  Am I being led down the path to trust the things of this world?  Am I looking to Jesus for my safety, security, and hope, or has money, possessions, the government, or some other such entity clouded my thinking?”  The world will try to pull us away from Jesus, and during these times, we oftentimes lose our conviction that we are indeed children of God.  Secondly, if we have examined ourselves and found that indeed we are trusting in Jesus, we must be patient and be quiet to hear the Spirit’s voice.  Patience is not a virtue that many have these days in this world of instant gratification.  Quiet time and space is a rarity.  Turn off the television.  Take a walk without your phone or MP3 player.  Let your heart and mind turn toward Jesus.  Practice being in Him with quiet, and you will hear the Spirit confirm you as a child of God.

And now, let us turn to the final verse: 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.  As we look at this verse, let me first make a disclaimer.  We will be dealing with the concept of suffering next week, so I am going to give that part of this verse short shift this week.  My apologies for those of you who may not be here.  I am not ignoring what Paul says.  I just know where he is going.  What I want to focus on here is that Paul says we become heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.

We are so divorced from the ancient world that we don’t grasp the radical nature of this statement.  You see, when it comes to the inheritance of property in our culture, we believe in splitting things evenly with our children.  I have three kids.  When Dawna and I wrote our wills, we gave 1/3 of our property and money to each child.  We believe in the concept of fairness and that each child should receive an equal share.  Most of you probably have done the same thing with your property and money.  This was not the way things were done in the ancient world.  Let me repeat that: the concept of equally splitting an inheritance was not the practice in the ancient world.

In the ancient world, a family’s power was tied to the amount of property and wealth that the family accumulated.  Therefore, when an inheritance was left, one heir was designated–usually, it was a male.  That heir received the vast majority of the family’s property and wealth.  Let’s say a family had six children.  The heir would receive 90-95% of the property, and the rest of the children would divide the remaining 5-10%.  The heir got almost everything.  Period.  In this fashion, the family could retain its power and influence in the ancient world.

Paul says that when we enter into the family of God, we become co-heirs with Christ.  Whatever Christ inherits, we inherit.  Doesn’t matter if you became a part of the family a long time ago or if you just came into it.  Doesn’t matter if you are male or female.  Doesn’t matter whatever kind of status you had in life.  You are an heir.  You have access to the inheritance.  This is how much God loves you and cherishes you as His child.  Eternal love.  Yours.  Eternal provision.  Yours.  Eternal life.  Yours.  And not only do these things happen when you die.  No.  You begin to experience them right here and right now.  When you are made a part of the family of God you can count on God’s love, provision, and fulfillment right now.

Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this family?  Who wouldn’t want to have a Father like this?  We all know that our families in this life are imperfect.  Even if you had the greatest parents in the world, they still die.  I cannot tell you how many times friends of mine on Facebook post a statement that reads, “Post this if you would like to talk to your dad or mom one more time.”  I cannot tell you how many times I have heard children–even spouses–say, “I was so mad at my parents or spouse when they died on me.”  Yes, most of these folks worked through such things, but the point I am trying to make is this: our families at some point will let us down.  They will not bring us the fulfillment that we oftentimes place on them.  They will not always be around to love and care for us.  And so we should not put our ultimate trust in them.  Hear that again because for those of us who have good families, I am not telling anyone to stop trusting their families.  What I am saying is that we should not put our ultimate trust in them.  We should put our ultimate trust in the one family unit that will not disappoint.  We should put our trust in the one Father who will never let us down.  I am saying that we should put our ultimate trust in being a part of the family of God with God as our Father, Christ as our brother, and the Spirit of God who leads us into our daily lives.  It is this family and this family alone who will never disappoint.  Claim your inheritance.  Trust in Jesus.  Be a child of God. Amen.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Samson: God's Unjust Judge: Part 3

When last we left Samson, he had killed 30 men to fulfill his part of a lost bet with 30 guests at his wedding.  These men had manipulated Samson’s wife into telling the answer to his riddle, and after paying his debt, Samson, in anger had returned to his parents’ home for some time.  We don’t know exactly how long Samson stayed with his parents, but his lust for his bride-to-be won out, and he eventually returned to her home to see her once again.

However, this trip was all for naught.  When Samson arrives, he is greeted by her father who tells him, “I was sure that you had rejected her; so I gave her to your companion. Is not her younger sister prettier than she? Why not take her instead?”  Now, this was a perfectly legal custom in those days.  If a groom did not take his bride, she was given to the best man.  Dad did what he was supposed to do given the circumstances around his daughter’s wedding.  And by offering the younger daughter, he is doing what a traditional Philistine would do to satisfy a suitor.

However, Samson isn’t having any of this.  This, in fact, simply makes Samson angrier, and he makes a rather curious statement–especially for a chosen judge of Israel, “This time, when I do mischief to the Philistines, I will be without blame.”  There is no thought of forgiveness.  There is no thought of reconciliation.  There is a definitive break between Samson and the Philistines.  He blames the lot of them for the loss of his bride-to-be, and he commits what he himself calls “mischief.”  Mischief?  This is not exactly a trait that we admire these days.  This is not a trait that we hold up as a virtue.  We rather frown upon mischief makers and believe that God does as well.  But Samson is undeterred from his desire for revenge, and so he burns the Philistines’ crops.

The Philistines, in revenge burn Samson’s bride and her father.

Samson, in revenge, strikes “them down hip and thigh with great slaughter.”
The violence is ratcheting retaliation after retaliation.  Without forgiveness and reconciliation, it is a familiar story to us, both within family structures and on national levels.  Each action prompts a reaction, which brings its own reaction, and the seemingly unbreakable cycle continues.  And so, the Philistines take up arms and make camp in Judah, “to take Samson do to him as he did to us.”  (15:10) Judah is so keen to remain at peace with them that they have no idea that God has raised up a judge to save Israel (v10)!  And when they discover that he has, they send 3000 men to hand the judge over to their enemy!  They may bear the name of God’s people, but they would rather live at peace with the world and worship their idols than be freed to worship God–and they would rather cut down their own rescuer than risk confrontation with the world. 
  So they tie up their own judge and take him to the Philistines.  Again, though, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power.”  Samson breaks his bonds, and “finding the jawbone of a donkey”–a dead animal, though Samson seems to have left his Nazirite vow well behind by now–“he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men”, taunting them as he kills them. 
  Now, for the first time, Samson speaks to the God who has chosen him, and empowered him.  But his prayer is neither humble nor faithful: he basically demands that God help him, and complains that he doesn’t (v18)–which is remarkably clueless of him, since it is God’s Spirit which has rescued him from a lion, from a lost bet, and now from a thousand Philistines.  Samson uses God’s strength, but he doesn’t depend on God except when he is in extreme situations (he won’t speak to him again until 16:28, when he is blind and trapped).  Yet God is at work through Samson, and provides the water he needs.  Thus refreshed, Samson led Israel for twenty years”.  But it is not the leadership of the earlier judges.  He has not saved Israel from spiritual or physical oppression–it is still “the days of the Philistines.”  (Keller, Judges for You)

It is worth taking a little bit of time now to think about how God is at work in all of this process.  It is worth taking a little bit of time to think about what is going on in all of this gratuitous violence, sexuality, selfishness and deceit.  It is worth thinking about God’s role in this cycle of revenge.  From our vantage point, we may recoil at what is going on.  We may shake our heads in bewilderment and God’s seeming blessing on these murderous actions.  We may consider that our wisdom is better than God’s–after all “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”  That may be true, but we need to consider that God’s wisdom is above our wisdom, and God’s work in the world is not like our work in the world.

As we look at this story, we must remember all this, God is at work.  Why can Samson kill the lion?  “The Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power”.  Why is he able to strike down thirty Philistines and steal their clothes?  “The Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power”.  God is giving Samson super human strength–the one thing he needs (other than his own character flaws) for him to cause the division between Israel and the Philistines which God’s people, though they don’t realize it, desperately need it.  God is starting to save his people by divorcing them from their marriage to their idols and to the world around them.  (Keller, Judges for You)

This is important for us to realize as a church.  For we are to be both loved and hated by the world at the same time.  We are to be both loved and hated by our surrounding culture.  We must be, as Jesus said, “be in but not of” the world.  How does this happen?  We are to be loved by the world because we, as a church, should be willing to pour ourselves out for the world.  We are to love the unlovable.  We are to provide for those in need.  We are to look at our surrounding community, and give until it hurts.  When folks think about our congregation, they should think, “Man, the amount of care, compassion, and money they pour out into our community is amazing.  We don’t know what would happen to our community if that church were to close its doors.”  Sadly, most churches are not invested in such a manner in their communities.  If we were, we would be more loved.

But we would not only be loved, because we would also be hated–for our values would not stack up with the values of the world.  We would also have a prophetic voice calling people away from their modern-day idols.  We should be front and center telling the world, “Sports and athletics will not give your children life-long satisfaction and character.”  We should be front and center telling the world, “The idea that sex is simply a physical act with no emotional involvement and that it doesn’t matter who you have it with is fine, ignores its purpose and devalues both the act itself and the people who engage in it.  Sex is reserved for marriage alone as a gift from God.”  We should be front and center condemning rampant materialism and saying, “Money is a false god who will destroy you if you make attaining it your purpose in life.”  None of these messages is popular in our culture and society today.  Folks hate it when you put such boundaries upon them.  Yet, we don’t announce such things because we want to be liked.  We announce them because we are convicted that such truth leads the world away from idols and toward the true God who can satisfy; who can bring fulfillment; who can bring peace.

This is the first lesson we are to learn from Samson’s story.  The church cannot seek to be liked by the world and accommodate the world.  We must be both loved and hated by the world.

The second lesson is the grace of God that is poured out toward flawed people like you and I–how God can even use our mistakes, sinfulness, and rebellion to work His good.

But how can God use such flawed people–people like Samson–to get his work done? Shouldn’t he only work with people who are good, godly men and women?  Shouldn’t he only use the people who have the right beliefs, and the right behavior? 
  The problem with this is that it puts God in a box.  It would mean he is limited by humans, and is only allowed to work when people are being good and making godly choices.  It would mean that God does not work by grace, taking the initiative to save; but that he works in response to good works, waiting for people to help him to save. 
David Jackman describes how Judges “shoots holes through all of that:”  “It is above all a book about grace, undeserved mercy, as is the whole Bible...That is not to play down theological accuracy or to pretend that it doesn’t matter how we behave..[We will still suffer from our sins].  But we can rejoice that he is also in the business of using our failures as the foundations for his success.  Let us never imagine that we have God taped, or that we know how he will work, or when.  As soon as we start to say, ‘God cannot or will not...until...’ we are wrong footed.”  (Judges, Ruth page 22). 
  The amazing truth is that God works through sinners, and through sinful situations.  He keeps his promises to bless his people in the dark and disastrous periods of our lives, as well as through the times when things are going “right.”  Not even our own sin will stop him saving us, or using us.  Mysteriously, often unseen, and usually far beyond our comprehension, God works through the free (and very often flawed) choices people make: “in all things, God works for the good of those who love him.”  (Romans 8:28) Amen.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Samson: God's Unjust Judge: Part 2

The story of Samson is famous for its potent mix of sex, violence, death and power–exactly the stuff of a contemporary summer action film!  But if we read it as part of the whole narrative of the book of Judges, we will find it to be at least perplexing and probably disturbing.  As Israel’s spiritual condition grows worse and worse, the scene seems to be set for a great judge/leader, perhaps the greatest of all.  And chapter 13, with its annunciation, prepares us for a wonderful, powerful deliverer.
  Instead, we find by far the most flawed character in this book: a violent, impulsive, sexually addicted, emotionally immature and selfish man.  Most disturbing of all, the “Spirit of God” seems to anoint and use his fits of pique, pride, and temper.
  Samson is now a grown man, stirred by the Spirit of the Lord.  But at the start of chapter 14–and through the rest of his life–he will be stirred by a much more worldly impulse.  One day, he “went down to Timnah and saw there a young Philistine woman”.  Returning home, he says (literally) to his parents: “Have I seen a woman, in Timnah, of the daughters of the Philistines.  Now get her for me as a wife.”
  His parents no doubt remember the angel’s prediction that Samson would deliver the Israelites from the Philistines.  So imagine their distress when Samson comes home and instead of fighting Israel’s enemies, wants to marry one of them!  They protest that there must be a woman in their wider family, or at least in Israel, whom he could marry: “Must you go to the uncircumcised Philistines to get a wife?”  The word “uncircumcised” is key here.  Circumcision was a sign that a family was in a personal covenant or relationship with God, as part of his people.  Their issue was not a racial one.  It’s about marrying someone who is outside the Lord’s covenant!
  But Samson is not willing to listen.  “Get her for me,” he rudely insists.  He then says (literally): “She is right in my eyes.”  This is the approach to life and morality that we have seen all Israel adopting: doing what is evil in God’s eyes, because it was right in their own.  Samson is a leader who reflects Israel’s real spiritual state, rather than God’s ideal for his people.  Here we are seeing Israel writ small, in one man’s life.
  First, Samson is impulsive.  He is a completely sensual man, in the most basic definition of the term.  His senses control him–he reacts to how he feels about what he sees, without reflection or consideration.  He sees–and so he takes. This general impulsiveness leads to a specific weakness that we will see as the story proceeds; namely a total lack of sexual self-control.
  Second, Samson is unteachable.  He is dismissive of parental counsel and authority.  The book of Proverbs extensively explains how proud and foolish it is to be unwilling to listen to the advice of others.  Put it in its cultural context, Samson’s pride here is even more extreme.  In our day it would be more normal for a son to talk back to his parents, but that was not the case in ancient Israel!  Impulsive and unteachable.  It is a good summary of the state of Israel as a whole.  (Keller: Judges for You)
  We can already see that Samson is not going to be the judge we were hoping for! ...Samson goes among Israel’s enemies in order to marry an unnamed Philistine who does not know God.  It is important that he found her in Timnah–deep in Israelite territory–and that he was free to come and go among the Philistines.  The Philistines were settled and living normal lives inside Israel.  They were “rulers” over Israel, yet their “occupation” seems completely peaceful.  Samson thought nothing of marrying one of them.
  This should prompt us to realize that something has been missing from this Judges cycle.  Israel has not cried out for rescue from oppression.  There is no resistance to their enslavement.  Later in the narrative, the men of Judah simply take it as a fact that “the Philistines are rulers over us.”
  In short, Israel’s capitulation to the Philistines is far more profound and complete than any of their previous enslavements.  In the past, Israel groaned and agonized under their occupations by pagan powers, because their domination was military and political.  But now the people are virtually unconscious of their enslavement, because its nature is that of cultural accommodation.  The Israelites do not groan and resist their “captors” now because they have completely adopted and adapted to the values, mores and idols of the Philistines.  Like Samson himself, the Israelites were eager to marry into Philistine society, probably as a way to “move up” in the culture.  The Israelites no longer had a recognizable culture of their own, one based on service to the Lord.
  We can’t exaggerate the danger to Israel.  The Israelites were on the brink of extinction.  Within a couple of generations, they could have been completely assimilated into the Philistine nation.  (Keller: Judges for You)
What does God do when his people are not just accommodating, but becoming assimilated into the world?  14:4 is the crucial verse in the Samson narrative, the key to understanding the whole story, and the answer to that question.  “His parents did not know that this was from the Lord, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines.”
  God will use the very weakness of Samson–“his fraternization” with the Philistines, his sexual appetite, his vindictiveness and temper–to bring about confrontation between the two nations.  Samson’s weaknesses result in a “blood feud” that leads to more conflict, and finally the division between the two nations that is so desperately needed. 
  As the story goes on, we will see everyone acting out of their own ungodly character.  They are all responsible for what they do.  But we will also see God using it all to ensure that the two nations are alienated, so that his people will not totally lose their distinctiveness.  God remains unconditionally committed to his covenant promises.  He has promised to love them and give them an inheritance and never break his commitment to do so.  Here he is so faithful to his promises that he not only fulfills them in spite of their sin, but even through their sin.  He uses their own sinfulness to bring about deliverance. (Keller: Judges for You)

The rest of this chapter is dedicated to show how God begins using Samson’s failings and frailties to bring about the separation of the Philistine and Israelite cultures.  It begins the horrendous split that will lead to God’s deliverance of his people–a deliverance that they don’t even realize that they need.

It starts with Samson encountering a lion.  The Spirit of the Lord comes upon Samson, and Samson tears the lion apart.  While this may sound like self-defense and self-preservation, it is also important to note that in killing the lion, Samson has touched a dead body.  He has broken his Nazirite vow!  But he doesn’t care.  He is too consumed with the Philistine woman he wishes to marry.  He doesn’t go cleanse himself before the Lord–he continues to head to visit her.

A few days later, he walks back by the carcass of the lion, and once again, Samson breaks his Nazirite vow by scraping honeycomb off the lion’s body.  This time, he goes to see his parent’s and brings impurity upon them!  So consumed with his own self-important, self-satisfaction, and feeding his own hungers, he thinks nothing of his parents’ purity.

And then, his hunger drives him deeper.  Before getting married, a seven day festival held for Samson and his bride-to-be.  On the first day of the festival, Samson’s desire for wealth drives him to boldly make a wager with the guests.  “Tell me the answer to this riddle by the end of the festival, and I will give you each a robe and coat.  Fail, and you each give me a robe and a coat.”  The guests agree, and Samson puts forth his riddle based on his encounter with the lion.

The guests are stumped, but they don’t want to lose the bet.  They don’t want to give up any of their wealth, so they threaten Samson’s bride-to-be.  “Find out,” they demand.  “Or we will kill you and your family.”  The cycle of anger and self-interest is escalating.

Samson’s bride-to-be doesn’t tell Samson about the guests’ dishonorable intentions.  She doesn’t go to him for help.  Instead, she manipulates him.  She turns on her tears.  For three. Whole. Days!  Imagine hearing someone you cared about crying to you for three whole days!  Would you finally give in?  Samson did.  He told his bride-to-be the answer to the riddle.  And she told the other guests.  And they answered the question.

Samson then offers one of those memorable lines in scripture.  Bet you didn’t think you would ever read anything like it in the Bible, did you?  “‘If you had not ploughed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle.”  These are not exactly terms of endearment now, are they?

And then violence ensues.  The Spirit of the Lord wells up on Samson, and Samson kills 30 men to get their robes and coats.  In anger, Samson returns to his parents, and his bride-to-be is given to the best man.

Our text ends here for the night.  Next week, things will go from bad to worse. The violence and hatred will continue to escalate.  And God is a player right in the middle of it.  God is ripping his people out of a bad situation and bringing them into a more wholesome relationship with him.  He is tearing them away from their idolatry and bringing them back to worship Him.  He is saving them even though they have no need of their need of saving.

As this sermon comes to a close, I want to take a moment to hang one application of this text out here.  “Strange though it seems, God in his mercy is using his people’s weakness to make sure there is not peace between them and the surrounding cultures.  God’s people today as then, need to not be at peace with the world–because “friendship with the world is hatred toward God.”–James 4:4 Why?  Because if we are like the world, we will love idols and forsake God; we will, as James puts it, be “adulterous people.”  It is the mercy of God that he does not allow the world to love the church for very long.  It forces his people to recognize that we are not part of the world–that we have a different Lord and Savior–and finally cry out to him to rescue us from ourselves and rule us despite ourselves.”  (Keller: Judges for You) Next week, we will see how God continues to accomplish this.  Amen.

Monday, March 13, 2017

It's Not a New Year's Resolution Kind of Faith: Romans 8:5-13

It’s close enough to the middle of March that I think enough time has sufficiently passed to reflect upon the following question: how are you doing on your New Year’s Resolutions?  Are you continuing to accomplish them, or are you like the vast majority of folks who have already given up?  I would include myself in that last category if I actually made New Year’s Resolutions.  I’ve given up on even making them because of my less than stellar success rate.

And aren’t New Year’s Resolutions an interesting thing?  I mean think about the things that folks usually try to accomplish.  Think about the things they often say that they will work on: losing weight, becoming a kinder person, becoming more generous, removing stress from life, becoming more diligent in prayer and spirituality.  Lofty things.  How come folks don’t say: you know what, for my New Year’s resolution, I am going to become more of a jerk in my daily life.?  I am going to become enraged while I drive.  I am going to work diligently to become as stressed out as I possibly can so that I give myself ulcers and end up on Prozac.  I am going to eat myself silly and gain 100 lbs by the end of the year.  I am going to work hard to stop praying and consume all my time with sitting in front of the television and computer doing nothing.  Why don’t folks make these kinds of resolutions?

One pastor whose sermon I listened to had a pretty good answer, I thought.  We don’t need any help doing most of those things.  They come rather naturally.  It’s easy to become enraged in traffic.  It’s easy to eat the things that are not healthy for us.  It’s easy to get stressed out over everything.  It’s easy to stop praying and seeking God on a regular basis.  It’s easy to sit in front of the television or computer and simply veg out instead of actively engage the world.  Such things are almost our default settings.  It’s a struggle to break out of them.

For the longest time, I thought Christianity was a lot like making those New Year’s Resolutions.  Promise to do the right things.  Promise to do what Jesus says.  Promise to love one’s neighbor and love one’s enemies.  Focus on such matters with great intensity, and accomplish them.  If you were failing to accomplish them, you simply weren’t working hard enough.  If your life was falling apart, you simply weren’t practicing your faith in the appropriate manner.  If you wanted to live a good, healthy life, you needed to do what the Bible said.  You might run into a few road blocks from time to time, but everything would eventually work out.  Everything would end up rosy and peachy if you simply focused on doing what God wanted you to do.

I no longer believe this.  Something happened along the way that made me reevaluate what I believed and preached and taught.  It started with getting stressed out and burned out because of circumstances that were well beyond my control–things that shouldn’t have happened because I thought I was doing the right things!  And then it was a revelation of exactly what my mind was set on.  God showed me the depths of my heart and what I was truly trying to get.  And that can be summed up in a repeat of this statement: If you wanted to live a good, healthy life, you needed to do what the Bible says.  Think about that sentence very carefully.  What is the end goal?  What is the deepest desire?  What is wanted above all else?  A good, healthy life.  You may ask: what’s wrong with deeply wanting a good, healthy life?

Here is what St. Paul has to say about such matters as we turn to our biblical text from Romans chapter 8: 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. Paul here is not offering up condemnation.  He is not pointing fingers at anyone and name calling.  He is simply recognizing that there are two types of people in the world: there are those who live their lives completely and totally oriented toward the “things of the flesh”, and there are those who live their lives completely and totally oriented toward the “things of the Spirit.”  Please know that when Paul says the “things of the flesh”, he is not simply talking about the natural desires of our bodies–he’s not simply talking about food, drink, sex, sleep, and rest.  He is talking about all of the things of the world that demand our attention–that seek to influence us into believing that they can provide us with a deep sense of safety, satisfaction, and fulfillment.  He’s talking about the lure of status and wealth. He’s talking about the lure of achievement and knowledge.  He’s talking about the lure of possessions and acceptance by others.  Paul says that there are people who believe that these things are the ultimate goals in life, and their lives are oriented toward these things.  Everything they think; everything they do; everything they say is geared toward getting the things of the flesh–to living the good life.

But Paul also points out the problem with this life orientation: it is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law–indeed it cannot submit to God’s law; and it is not pleasing to God.  He says that such an orientation of one’s life leads to death.  We actually covered most of the reasons why such a life orientation leads to death in earlier portions of the book of Romans.  In a very real way, Paul is simply reminding the congregation of Rome of what he covered earlier, and he does so to remind them of what comes next.

Verse 9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.  Paul’s writing here is not a command.  It’s not a “Turn your lives around from the flesh and get into the Spirit.”  That’s not what Paul says.  He is being descriptive.  He is looking at the congregation in Rome–and to us–and saying, “You are not like that.  You don’t have that kind of life orientation.  You see things in a different way; your entire being has come under the influence of a different power–a different entity.”  Paul says, you/we are in the Spirit because the Spirit of God dwells in us.  Why is this important?

At the end of Romans 7, Paul declared that sin dwelt within the members of his body.  The word he used in Greek was that sin had established a military base within him to influence his members.  Here in Romans 8, Paul uses the exact same word in describing the Spirit’s indwelling–that the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ has established a base of operations deep within us–not in our members, but in our hearts.  The Spirit of God is working within us to reorient our lives so that we find life and peace.  The Spirit of Christ is bringing life to our bodies, not only after we experience our physical deaths, but right here and right now in this life.

How does this come about?  Let’s finish out Paul’s thought with verse 12 So then, brothers and 
sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.  Paul says here that because the Spirit dwells in us, we no longer owe the world anything.  We are no longer in debt to the world for anything.  We know that the world cannot bring us fulfillment or peace or ultimate joy and happiness.  We know that the world only brings us temporary satisfaction; temporary joy; temporary happiness.  You know this.  You know this deep within even if you don’t want to admit it.  You know that whenever you achieve that business goal, there is another one that takes its place.  You know that whenever you work and buy your dream home, there’s always another thing to add to it.  You know that whenever you finally reach Friday, Monday morning is just around the corner.  There is always something more to buy; always something more to try; always something more to vie, always one more question why; and in the end you will die with something more to satisfy–if you live according to the flesh.

But if you live according to the Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body, and you will live.  What does this mean?  This means, that as Christians, we are in a constant state of putting to death our fleshy desires.  We are in a constant state of battle as the world tries to encroach upon us.  We are in a constant state of vigilance as we seek to squash anything that would lead us away from a life that is in the Spirit and pleasing to God.

And on the surface level, this sounds a lot like making New Year’s Resolutions. This sounds a lot like making rules for ourselves.  It sounds a lot like, “I’m going to follow what the Bible says so that I can live a good life.”  But that’s not it.  That’s not it at all.  That’s not how we fight that kind of battle.  If we try to fight the battle this way, we will lose, and we will not have abundant life.

Let me try and tie it all together with this example.  It’s pertinent to me since my family has joined the ranks of those playing Little League Baseball.  The world says, “Get your kids involved in sports because they will learn character.  They will learn how to work on a team.  They will learn life lessons that will give them a leg up throughout the rest of their lives.  Sacrifice in all other areas of life to make this happen.  Cut your family time.  Cut your church time.  Maximize your desire for winning.  Do everything that you can to avoid losing.  Your life–and more importantly, your child’s life–will be better for it.”

A New Year’s Resolution response would be: I am not going to let sports dominate my life, and because of this, baseball will be the enemy.  We will shun it and avoid it at all costs because it is cutting into other parts of our lives.  That’s not exactly easy or fun.  I mean, baseball is a game.  It’s fun!  Life can have enjoyment, you know?

Therefore, I think a Christian response would be this: Baseball, you are promising things that you cannot meet.  Ultimately, you cannot bring fulfillment.  Ultimately, you cannot change a heart.  Ultimately, you cannot turn either me or my child into a good person.  There is only one who can do that.  There is only one who can change a heart and make a person good from within.  There is only one who died for me and for the world.  There is only one who can bring the things that you are promising, and that is Jesus.  You, baseball, are a game.  Jesus is the Son of the living God.  I will engage with you because you are fun, but stop promising me the good life.  You can’t deliver.  Jesus already has.

And that, my brothers and sisters, is the key.  This is what Paul is trying to stress to the church at Rome and to us: when you are in Christ; when you are in the Spirit, Christ is in you; the Spirit is in you.  Trust in their work!  Trust in what they did and promised they would do.  Trust that Jesus has already died to save you.  Trust that the Spirit is working within you to overcome sin and put to death the desires of the flesh.  Turn your eyes upon Jesus.  Look to the cross.  Concentrate on Him and the redemption that you have in Him.  Focus your heart and mind on the fact that He died for you when you least deserved it.  Focus on His willingness to sacrifice Himself for you and take your place, and your heart will begin to fill with the love of God.  Your heart will begin to fill with a great love for Jesus.  You will desire Him.  You will want to please Him.  Nothing else will bring you the joy that He brings.  Nothing else will bring you the peace that He brings.  Nothing else will bring you the fulfillment that He brings.  The answer to your quest to be a better person is not to make more resolutions; it’s not to try harder–it’s to orient your entire life toward the One who died and rose again.  It’s to think about Him.  Think about what He did for you.  Long to walk daily with Him.

My brothers and sisters, we have Jesus in us.  We have the Spirit of God in us.  We are walking in Jesus.  We are walking in the Spirit.  Don’t let the world lure you away.  Don’t let the world trick you into going into its path.  Stand firm in Jesus.  Focus on the cross.  Let Jesus be your vision.  Amen.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Samson: God's Unjust Judge--Part 1

When I was young, I was fascinated by the story of Samson for one reason and one reason alone: the incredible strength that he had.  I marveled at how he killed a lion with his bare hands; how he killed 1000 men with the jawbone of a donkey; how he ripped city gates off their hinges and carried them from the city.  I was in awe.  Of course, I didn’t know much about all the other details of this Israelite judge.  I frankly didn’t care.  I didn’t care about his marital issues.  I didn’t care about his anger issues.  I didn’t care about his sexual appetite and want of prostitutes.  I didn’t care about his arrogance.  I didn’t care about his constant disobeying of God.  I just realized something, I’m assuming that you knew all of that.  I’m assuming you knew all of those other things about Samson as well.  Did you?  Did you know just how flawed a character Samson was?  I mean, when you realize just how flawed he was, you scratch your head in wonder that God chose him to be a judge of Israel.  And yet, God did exactly that.  God chose Samson to be a judge and begin the deliverance of God’s people from the Philistines.  Tonight, we begin Samson’s story and hear how God worked through a very flawed, very complex character.

We begin in Judges 13 where an angel of the Lord comes to a woman in the field. This is Samson’s mother–whose name is never mentioned.  Samson’s mother is barren–a source of shame upon her and in her community, and the angel has tremendous news for her: she will conceive and bear a son.  But there is a bit of a catch. Her son will be considered a Nazirite.
“The Nazirite vow to which the angel refers is found in Numbers 6:1-21, and contained three basic stipulations.  A Nazirite was not to cut hair during the period of the vow; was not to drink any produce from vines, alcoholic or non-alcoholic; and was not to have contact with any dead body. The purpose of the Nazirite vow was to ask for God’s special help during a crucial time.  It was a sign that you were looking to God with great intensity and focus.  Keeping one’s hair uncut and refraining from the fruit of the vine were ways of showing that you were “in training” toward a goal.  By refraining from touching a dead body, you were adopting the stringent rules of ceremonial cleanliness for priests, who were not allowed to touch anything dead because they worked in God’s house every day.  So the Nazarite was living before the presence of God every day.
As it clear from Numbers 6, the Nazirite vow was made voluntarily and for a definite period of time.  But Samson was being born into the Nazarite state involuntarily (his parents were taking the vow for him), and he was to stay a Nazirite all his life.  His mother was not to drink wine or eat unclean foods, because the Nazirite vow started immediately–when Samson was in her womb!  What she ate and drank, Samson-in-utero also would eat and drink.  God put Samson under this “rule” even when he was still unborn.  He was truly to be “set apart to God from [and before] birth.”  (Keller: Judges for You)
This was very exciting for Samson’s mother, so she immediately went and told her husband Manoah.  Manoah’s reaction is quite interesting.  He accepts his wife’s account of the facts, but he seems to want confirmation.  He craves additional information.  So he prays, “O Lord, I pray, let the man of God whom you sent come to us again and teach us what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born.”  I find this prayer interesting.  In one way, the angel of the Lord has already taught them what they were supposed to do: raise their son as a Nazirite.  What more did Manoah want?  Did he want every jot and tittle to be handed down from above?  Did he want the angel to tell them how many times a week they were supposed to take their son to worship?  Did he want the angel to tell them how many hours a week they needed to spend telling him about the Lord?  We honestly don’t know for sure.  But we know Manoah wanted more information; more data; more instruction.

Manoah would have fit in well with our society today.  We crave information.  In some ways, it’s like a drug that we get addicted to.  You walk into restaurants that have televisions, and 24 hour news stations are streaming.  We turn on our computers and pull up the news several times a day.  We scroll through our Facebook feeds seeing what our friends and family are doing and clicking on the links that they find interesting or important or infuriating.  We are overwhelmed by data!

And to an extent, this has trickled into our churches and congregations.  We want to know: how can we make our church grow.  What are the latest techniques; the latest resources; the latest magic bullets that will cause a congregation to attract others–or at the very least get people to open up their wallets and keep the lights on.  What is the latest interpretation of a particular biblical text?  What radically new idea has hit the market?  Who is the next famous preacher who will make Christianity easy to understand?  We crave more information.

You know what is interesting?  The angel of the Lord returns to Manoah and his wife, but–and here is the rub–there is no new information.  There is nothing.  Now, there is an interesting exchange between Manoah and the angel, and I won’t go into the specifics, but in that exchange, Manoah is trying to manipulate the angel and get more information.  Manoah is working to put the angel into a position where the angel will be forced to give extra data.  But the angel refuses.  The angel won’t be manipulated.  There’s a reason for that–in all likelihood, this angel is actually God’s Son.  I don’t have time to get into that whole scholarly argument right now, but it’s a good one.  In all likelihood, Manoah is meeting up with Jesus, and Jesus won’t be manipulated.  He also won’t give any more information than is necessary.

And that begs the question:
 “...why would the angel of the Lord have returned if he had no new information to give?  Manoah prayed for help, and that help was apparently refused.  But in fact, Manoah did get the help he needed, but not in the form he was asking for.  He wanted to know “what is to be the rule for the boy’s life and work?”–to have more regulations.  Instead, God gives Manoah a revelation of who he is.  As we have seen, the angel of the Lord is likely the Son of God.  And his name, he says, “is beyond understanding”–it is too wonderful for a human to grasp.  This points Manoah to his glory.  Then “the Lord” himself “did an amazing the flame blazed up from the altar toward heaven, the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame”.  He indelibly prints in their minds his greatness.
At last, Manoah “realized that it was the angel of the Lord. ‘We are doomed to die!’ he said to his wife. ‘We have seen God!’” He knows enough of his people’s history to understand that no one can see God’s face and live.  But while he panics, his wife remains calm.  “If the Lord had meant to kill us, he woudl not have accepted” their sacrifices; nor would he have “shown us all these things”.   Evidently, they have not died!  Interestingly, this reminds us that faith is not the absence of thinking, but it is thinking and acting on the basis of the word and promises of God.
      So in reply to being asked about how to bring up their God-given son as part of the outworking of God’s plan–how to live his way and please him–the Lord says: You need to know me and my character far more than you need more information.  All the rules in the world would not be able to give you direction in the innumerable decisions and choices you will have to make with your son.  Only a deep understanding of who I am can give you the guidance you need.
As we will see, Samson’s own life story...indicates that his parents fell quite short in their child-rearing, and failed to show and explain God’s character to their son.  Yet God’s message to them is a message to all of us.  We think we need rules, but we need to know God.  God does not, and will not, give us a guidebook for every twist and turn, every doubt and decision in our lives.  He gives us something much better–he gives us himself.
It is worth pausing on this point a little longer.  In general, a parent gives a child fewer details as he or she gets older.  When your child is very little, you must virtually follow them around and say: Don’t touch this and Don’t go here every step of the way!  A child doesn’t know not to put his finger in a wall socket, and doesn’t know not to eat dirt.  They need to conform to your commands.
The older a child gets, the more you expect them to incorporate the parent’s values and thinking and wisdom into their own heart so that they don’t need detailed instructions all the time.  In order to guide children into maturity, parents must increasingly move from lots of external rules to internal motives and principles of wisdom.
In the same way, Christians in the New Testament receive far fewer rules and regulations than believers in the Old Testament.  In the Old Testament, so much of what you could wear and eat and do was prescribed...What a huge amount of guidance and therefore certainty they could have!  Many Christians consider this a more advanced level of guidance than we have today.  Like Minoah, we would like to have considerably more regulations.
But that is to mistake external rules for a mature relationship.  Paul says that the Christian is not to be “conformed” but rather “transformed by the renewing of your mind”.  We don’t get lots of prescriptions; we do, through the Holy Spirit, get God, and enjoy knowing “the mind of Christ”.  We can look at his rescue on the cross, and his resurrection in triumph, and see the character of God much more clearly than even the greatest heroes in the Old Testament could.  We don’t need to know about God through his external standards when we can know God through his Spirit.  We need to remember the lesson Manoah was taught!  (Keller: Judges for You)  
 We don’t need extra information and data.  We need Jesus.

This will become even more clear as we go through the rest of Samson’s story...”The salvation Samson would bring would be incomplete.  He would only “begin the deliverance of Israel from the...Philistines”.  Samson is the last judge, but he points beyond himself–beyond the book of Judges–to the one who would complete the victory over the Philistines: to King David, God’s king anointed by Samuel.  And David’s salvation was also incomplete, because he provided rest from enemies but could not bring victory over the sin of his own heart, far less his people’s.  Only Jesus’ salvation is a complete salvation–in this sense, only he finished the job.  As an angel told Mary’s finance, Joseph: “he will save his people from their sins”.  Samson points us to David, and beyond him to the greater David–Jesus.” (Keller: Judges for You) Amen.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Radiating Jesus: Romans 8:1-4

This past week I did a wedding on Wednesday, and it was a very unique  wedding, at least for me. This couple had been trying to get married for a couple years. However each time they tried to get married something would happen. Twice, the groom was arrested.  I kid you not.  And the last time he was arrested, they had already gotten the marriage license. They still wanted to get married, so the bride’s brother was going to stand in for the groom.  I did some checking on that and found that such a practice was illegal unless one of the parties was in the military.  We had to reschedule once again.  The bride in this ceremony had her own set of issues.  We had helped this woman several times through our community care fund by giving her food and paying for her electric bill a couple of times.  But the last time she asked us for assistance, we called the light company and found out that she hadn’t paid her own light bill in over a year.  Someone else had always paid it for her.  We didn’t help her that time, and we haven’t since.   But, she does have a relationship with me, and she wanted me to do her wedding.

And so, Wednesday afternoon, out in Raccoon Bend, I stood at the porch of a dilapidated shack with two people.  One with a long criminal record.  One who had been playing the system for years, and with flea bitten dogs and puppies running around my feet, I presided at their wedding.  It was indeed a unique wedding, but I noticed something at that moment which is generally universal at all weddings.  I looked at the bride and groom as they stood gazing into each other’s eyes.  I looked at them as they made their vows and as they kissed afterward.  And they radiated love for one another.  No matter their past.  No matter the uncertainty of the future, the love that these two people had for one another was undeniable.  You could see it.

Perhaps you have seen such glimpses of this at times.  Perhaps you have seen someone who radiates love and life.  Perhaps you have glimpsed someone who is filled with an otherworldly spirit of hope, and it radiates into all that they say and do.  I have known several people like this, and I marvel at them. It’s one thing to get a glimpse of such a thing at a wedding or some other sort of function, but it is another thing to see someone who lives their life in such a fashion.  I want to spend time with people like that because when I do, I too feel full of hope.  I too feel full of joy.  I too feel full of peace.  And here is the question I want to pose to you this morning: shouldn’t our churches be full of such people?  Shouldn’t we radiate this kind of love, joy, and peace to others?  When folks walk into our buildings and meet us, shouldn’t they come away thinking, “Man, those folks are full of something otherworldly.  They are just different--in a good sort of way.”?

Folks who are like this; churches that are like this are because the Gospel has sunk in.  The Gospel has weaseled its way deep into their hearts and changed them from deep within.  The joy, love, and peace these individuals and churches have are not fleeting moments; they are lasting manifestations because folks have come to know the great love that God has poured out to them when they least deserved it.

Today, we begin Romans Chapter 8.  As I have begun my study of this chapter, one continuing commentary has been front and center.  Over and over I have heard, “Romans 8 is one of the greatest chapters in the entire Bible.”  If verses one through four are any indication, then indeed, the next few weeks will be a thrill ride.

The chapter begins with these words, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Stop a moment and think about those words.  Know that in the Greek, St. Paul uses some of the strongest possible language in this sentence.  Paul says, if you have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; if you have Him as your representative; if you are joined to Him, then you do not stand condemned.  Nothing you have ever done; nothing you are currently doing; nothing you will ever do will bring condemnation down upon you.  Nothing.  As long as Jesus is your representative; as long as you are in Him, you are right with God.  Those times when you took that extra drink?  No condemnation.  Those times when you lusted after someone who is not your spouse?  No condemnation.  Those people who took their own lives by suicide?  No condemnation.  Those times when you gossiped and lied about others?  No condemnation.  Those times when you thought you were doing everything right only to find that all that you had done was wrong?  No condemnation.  Those times when you held another person in contempt because they didn’t believe the way you believed?  No condemnation.  You are in Jesus Christ.  You are right with God.

Because, as Paul now says, “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”  Paul means here that because of all those things you once did, and will do, mind you, you deserve condemnation.  You deserve God’s wrath and anger.  If you break a law, you deserve punishment.  If you sin, you deserve to die.  That’s just the cold, hard facts.  But, when you are in Christ Jesus, there is another law that prevails.  There is another court of justice.  There is the law of the Spirit of life.  That doesn’t seem to make much sense until we go onto the next verse.

“Because God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh…”  Now, let’s try and wrap our heads around this for a moment.  What Paul is saying here is that the law could not turn us into good people.  The law could not make us behave.  The law could not change our hearts and make us say, “I’m going to do the right thing because the law told me to do so.”  No.  We saw earlier that whenever the law is given to us, there is something that rebels within us--the power of sin.  That power causes us to do the exact opposite of what we know to be right.  This is how the law was weakened by sinful flesh.  There is nothing wrong with the law, there is something wrong deep within us.  And here is the part that gets fascinating.  At least it’s fascinating to me.  God did what the law could not do by sending Jesus in the likeness of sinful flesh--mind you, Paul does not say that Jesus’ flesh was sinful or that Jesus was sinful.  Jesus came to earth in the flesh.  This is noteworthy because Paul says that Jesus condemned sin in the flesh.  What does that mean?  

It means that Jesus went to war with the power of sin, and he was not corrupted by it.  Whereas we become corrupted by the power of sin, Jesus was not.  Whereas we lose the battle and do what we know we shouldn’t do, Jesus won the battle and did what He was supposed to do.  In so doing, Jesus cornered the power of sin in His flesh; He took sin into His very being, and He condemned it.  He gave it a death blow.  He overcame it.  And he became a sin offering in the process.  I know you didn’t read that in the text that is in your bulletin, but the phrase “and to deal with sin” should probably be translated “became a sin offering.”  This means Jesus offered up himself to atone for our sins--to ensure that justice is served, and, here is where things get really, really cool…

Verse 4, “so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”  Now, if you just read this superficially, you might get the idea that all of a sudden, we will be able to fulfill God’s law perfectly.  We will be able to be perfect people who do everything correctly.  This is a wrong reading.  That’s not what Paul is getting at at all.  No.  In the Greek, the verb be fulfilled is a passive verb.  It is not an active verb.  This means, the fulfillment is not done by us.  The fulfilling of the law is not done by us.  We are powerless to fulfill the law.  There is only one who has fulfilled it.  There is only one who has accomplished it, and that is Jesus.  So, how can Paul then say that it might be fulfilled in us?  How in the world can it be fulfilled in us?  Here’s the cool part.  When we walk by the Spirit; when we have Jesus as our representative; when we are joined to Jesus: there is an interchange that takes place.  One of my commentaries put it this way, “Christ becomes what we are so that we might become what Christ is.”

Listen to that statement again because it sums up what happens when we are in Christ Jesus.  “Christ becomes what we are so that we might become what Christ is.”  Jesus takes on the likeness of sinful flesh, has the power of sin enter into him and try to corrupt Him--in this fashion, He becomes just like us.  But, He defeats sin.  He stays uncorrupted, and then offers Himself up for us as a sin offering.  In so doing, He covers all of our sins.  He makes us right before God, and then He places Himself on and in us through the power of the Spirit.  Jesus puts Himself on you and in you through the power of the Spirit.  

You may say at this point, “Well, that’s all well and good, but how come I don’t feel like Jesus?  How come I don’t have peace and joy and radiate love?  How come I can’t make those things happen in my life when I want them so badly?  I want to be peaceful.  I want to be joyful.  I want to radiate love.  How come I don’t?”

I think the answer is: you are trying to accomplish it yourself.  You are focusing on your actions and what you think you have to do to become joyful; peaceful; and radiate love.  What Paul is trying to convey to us here, I think is this: the answer to living a holy life full of love, peace, and joy is not to try harder.  It’s not to focus on my actions and what I do.  It’s to trust Jesus more; to turn my heart and my head toward Him and what He has done by His death and resurrection; to realize that He fulfilled the law for me; to realize He defeated sin for me; to realize that He won eternal life for me when I least deserved it.  And the more you turn to Him; the more you think about what He did on the cross for you; the more you reflect upon being joined to Him in His death and resurrection; the more and more you will become like Him.  And oftentimes you won’t even realize it because He is the one transforming you from the inside out!  

I have also come to believe what can be said about individuals can also be said about churches.  For years, I was told that a more business model of churches was what was needed to help our congregations grow.  Get a good, solid mission statement.  Implement long range planning.  Make a plan of how to welcome guests and visitors.  Implement a plan for programming so that it will grow along with your congregation.  I’ve seen a lot of congregations implement these things.  I’ve seen a lot of congregations who have the perfect plan for welcoming visitors and guests.  I’ve seen congregations with wonderful long range plans and fantastic mission statements.  And I’ve seen a few of these congregations grow.  Many more remain stagnant and even decline.  Why?  Where is the focus? What are these congregations emphasizing?  They are emphasizing and focusing on what they are supposed to do.  They are trusting in themselves to grow their churches--and for a time it might work.  It did at my previous congregation right up until the time disagreements broke out.  Right up until the time folks began arguing about what programs were right and what programs were wrong.  That is what inevitably happens whenever you focus on what you are supposed to do.  Folks can and do disagree about such things, and oftentimes with just cause.

However, there really is no argument about what God has done for us.  There really is no argument about what Jesus has accomplished for us on the cross.  There really is no argument about how He poured Himself out for us while we were still sinners.  When a church focuses on Jesus and what Jesus has done; when He becomes the full sum and substance of why a church worships, fellowships, teaches, programs, and the like; when Jesus dominates everything and the Gospel permeates the thoughts and minds of a church’s members, the doing comes naturally--because Jesus is transforming us into His image and likeness.  How do we become people who radiate love, peace and joy for more than just a few moments?  How do we become a church that radiates love, peace and joy for more than just a few Sundays?  The answer isn’t do more--it’s remembering that in Christ there is no condemnation because He has become like us and defeated sin and death so that we can become like Him.  Amen.