Monday, September 15, 2014

Sermon on Romans 13:11-14:12, 14th Sunday after Pentecost, "Living in Light of Christ's Eternal Rule", Part 13

The 13th and final sermon in a series on Romans 6-14, "God's Greater Story".

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Today is our 13th and final week in the book of Romans—and we’ve been slowly digesting a considerable portion of the book: chapters 6-14. Like any “meal” from God’s Word, the food is rich and filling—filling us with God’s truth, with the knowledge of His love and mercy for us in Christ Jesus, and with His Holy Spirit. And yet the “table” is always far from empty, as there is much more that we could return to. God’s Word is a never-ending feast for the hungry soul—a banquet which never runs out of the well-aged wine of wisdom, nor the nourishing bread of life. And hopefully you’ve gained an appetite to return and dig deeper into Romans yourself. This would be a great opportunity for you to read through the entire book of Romans again on your own, and review its message to you. If you can do it all in one sitting to pick up the overall flow—all the better—it should take less than 1 hour.

Our series has helped us to see our lives in the Light of God’s Greater Story, His plan of salvation for all of our lives, and for all Christians. In the last verses of chapter 13 Paul reminds us of the coming hour of our salvation—the day of judgment, when Christ returns. This brackets the end of our reading as well—that we will be individually accountable to God at the judgment. This great realization—the realization that Jesus is coming again to return in judgment, and that we are all answerable to Him—changes the way that we look at even ordinary, mundane matters, like what’s on our daily menu. What’s on my daily menu? Huh? What does that have to do with spiritual things and the judgment?

Well, Paul was speaking to Romans who were apparently quarrelling in their church—some were exercising their freedom to eat meat, while others were vegetarians. Those who were confident in their faith and freedom were looking down on those with a weaker conscience, who were eating only vegetables. And those who were vegetarian were judging the believers who ate meat. It seems like a petty situation, and we don’t know much more about why this was dividing them. It seems silly. But aren’t there plenty of other matters that have divided Christians in their churches, that were plain silly? Matters that had nothing to do with the doctrine or teaching of the faith. Matters that were not concerned with what is right or wrong, or sinful or not sinful—but matters unrelated to our salvation. Matters over which people took sides and judged each other or treated the others as nothing.

Where do we store this or that? What color the carpet should be? Finding fault with the method that one person uses to get a job done, when you think you have a better way? And if you crossed the country to churches of every denomination, how many people do you think have left one congregation or another over just such petty quarrels? Of course, in the midst of these disagreements, people may feel passionately about something. There may be a long tradition behind what they believe or do, and anything else seems wrong. Or another may have no concern for what other’s think or do, and therefore “despise” their brother. Judgment and criticism spring up, and needlessly divide Christians against one another. That’s not to say that there are never matters that are serious enough to warrant disagreement, or where there’s a clear right and wrong as defined by the Bible. We are to fight for and defend the truth.

But Paul is talking about matters that don’t relate to our salvation. They are nothing that God has commanded that we must do, and nothing He has forbidden or outlawed us from doing. Lutherans call these “adiaphora” or “indifferent things”, because they make no difference for our salvation. But Paul is instructing us that even these ordinary things of daily life, that make no difference for our salvation, can become a stumbling block for someone or create divisions if we make a law out of something that God has not made a law. Or if we judge and criticize someone for exercising their freedom, when they are guilty of no sin.

Paul is warning both “strong” and “weak” Christians—those who have a firm knowledge of the Christian faith and their freedoms, and those who have a tender conscience—that they must be considerate about even these “indifferent matters.” We should never let them become the battleground over which we judge another, or the cause for us to trample on someone’s weak conscience because we have to prove our right to exercise a particular freedom. Take for example the question of alcohol. Drinking in moderation is acceptable for the Christian. Wine was common at the meals in Jesus’ day, and the apostle Paul once told the young pastor Timothy to drink a little wine to help with a stomach ailment (1 Tim. 5:23). However, the Scripture is clear that drunkenness is a vice. Now there are many Christians who abstain from alcohol altogether, for a variety of very good reasons.

Some may wrestle with alcoholism, and know that it is wisest to avoid altogether. Others may have seen the detrimental effects that drinking has had on friends or family, and wish to have no part in it, or be tempted by it. Or as Paul says, someone may do a certain thing as their own way to honor God. There may be still other reasons. Some groups of Christians believe the temptation so great, that they forbid alcohol altogether. But if a Christian who has self-control and knows their freedom, then exalts themselves in this freedom and disregards the sensitivity or tenderness of another Christian’s conscience—they are abusing their freedom and may be tempting their brother or sister in Christ. It’s no longer a matter of what am I free to do or not do, but a matter of whether I am looking out for the needs and best interest of the other. Paul reminds us that no one lives to themselves or dies to themselves. Attitudes of radical individualism are not fitting for the Christian—and we should avoid creating a stumbling block for our brother. And on the flip side, one who is uncertain in their own conscience, should not do something that they are unsure about—nor should they judge others for doing so.

This extra consideration and avoiding of judgment flows from the realization that we are one body in Christ, and that if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. We are a community of believers in Christ that have a bigger end in sight—eternal life. We need to keep our perspective on even the most ordinary matters of life that might become the grounds for quarreling and disagreement. There are certain matters that God has made clear in His Word are a matter of truth, on which we cannot budge. But beyond those, we have freedom. Freedom that ought to be used responsibly, and not to trample on the consciences of others. Christ died and rose from the dead so that we might belong to Him. He set us free from the terrible weight of our sins, so that the dread of judgment might not hang over our heads. He did not die for us so that we might judge one another or quarrel over mere opinions.

We will all stand before God’s judgment seat, and have to give an account of ourselves before God. We each bear personal responsibility, and we answer to God—not to any other master. And so we are not to judge—God alone is judge. So how does anyone stand to face this judgment? Paul says the Lord is able to make a person stand. If we believe in Christ Jesus, we stand in Him—God has already passed judgment on Jesus and found Him innocent. He bore our guilt on the cross, but God raised Him from the dead—innocent because death had no claim on Him. And so the only way a Christian can stand in the judgment is to live by repentance—turning away from our sins—and faith—turning to Jesus for our forgiveness and hope.

Paul would write to the Corinthians that he did not fear the judgment of any man—nor did he even judge himself—because he knew that God alone was judge. He lived and worked in good conscience—and knew this didn’t mean he was free from blame—but that the Lord alone would be judge (1 Cor. 4). His trust was wholly located in Jesus. And so should yours. No one will be able to stand in the judgment on their own, but the Lord makes His servants to stand. Alone with our sins, we could do nothing but fall before our master. But coming to Him for His mercy, and living by repentance and faith, the Christian is made to stand by the mercy of Jesus.

Mercy is not our personal possession, but it is God’s gift to all who will not despise it. Christ’s death on the cross fully answers for all the sins of the world—so that no one need face judgment alone with their sins. So why would anyone turn aside from so great a gift? There is an urgency to our faith. Remember Paul said, salvation is nearer now than when we first believed! The day is coming when every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Christ has already accomplished this salvation for all people—so now is the day of salvation—now is the day to turn from sin and call upon His Name to be saved. So live with Christ’s mercy—the mercy that God extends to the world—live with His mercy extended toward others. And with God’s mercy extended toward others, we will be compassionate in dealing with sin, when it is sin. We will keep God’s judgment in view and not make mountains out of molehills—or turn indifferent things about which God has made no law, into laws that create unnecessary divisions among us.

God has called us into a greater story, a bigger picture than we can sometimes see from our elevation of 3-6 feet off the ground. God has written our lives into the story of salvation that infuses all of our daily lives and activities with meaning and purpose. He has wrapped us up into the story of His mercy and love for a people who so easily go astray, who hurt each other, who tumble into trouble or propel ourselves into rebellion. While we often muddle our way through the maze of life, God’s Word in Romans invites us to view things from His perspective, from above—and to see that all this is so much greater than we imagined. And the reach of God’s redeeming love is greater than we have imagined—and that it reaches all the way down to us. And back in the daily stories of our life, our gaze will now be upturned—upturned to Christ our Savior in whom we trust, and for whom we wait. And our ears will be upturned also—to listen attentively to what the story of His incredible, eternal love means for us and how we are to live. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. Romans 13:11-14 reminds us of God’s coming judgment and the urgency to be watchful for Christ’s coming, and to put away sin and believe in Jesus. How does this mindset change our perspective when dealing with mere “opinions” (Rom. 14:1) that people might argue over? “Opinions” includes anything that is neither commanded by God, nor forbidden by Him as sin. Matters that are explicitly commanded or forbidden by God are a matter of truth, not opinion. What are some “opinions” that people might quarrel over today?
  2. Lutherans call these matters that are not commanded nor forbidden, “adiaphora”, meaning “indifferent.” Christians have freedom in these matters, because they don’t make a difference in our salvation. But how does Paul warn that they can become harmful, in how we treat others? Romans 14:1-4, 10; 1 Corinthians 10:23-32; Galatians 5:1, 13-15; Colossians 2:16-23.
  3. What is the greater reality that we live for, and that should be our focus? Romans 14:7-9. How does this focus affect both the “horizontal dimension” of our relationships with our neighbor, but also the “vertical dimension” of our relationship to God?
  4. Read 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 for a parallel description of how Paul anticipates standing before God’s judgment seat. Why does he have a clear conscience? Why is continual repentance and trust in Jesus the only way to maintain a clear conscience? Who makes the believer to stand or be upheld before God? Romans 14:4

Monday, September 08, 2014

Sermon on Romans 13:1-10, for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, "Dual Citizenship and Debts of Love", Part 12

Part 12 of a 13 part series, "God's Greater Story" on the Book of Romans. 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Like many other chapters in Romans, chapter 13 is so full of content and application, it will be impossible to explore it all in one sermon. Paul sets before us the reality, also taught elsewhere, that Christians maintain a “dual citizenship” of sorts. On the one hand, like all people, we are citizens of a “kingdom” or nation here on earth. There are nearly 200 independent nations in our world today. On the other hand, Christians also hold citizenship in the one kingdom of heaven, and as the book of Hebrews says, (13:14) “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” Therefore, I am a Christian first, and an American second. And hopefully you understand that means if ever the two come into conflict, I must obey God, rather than men.
As soon as the presence of Christians was felt by the Roman empire, they had to make the case that they were neither revolutionaries, nor subversives, but lawful citizens who were submissive to just laws and rule. That goes all the way back to Jesus Christ Himself, who was challenged by both Jews or Romans about whether He was a threat to the existing powers. On one occasion Jesus affirmed the necessity to pay taxes: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”, but emphasized our higher calling to “render to God what is God’s.” Before Pontius Pilate Jesus affirmed that He was a King, though His “kingdom is not of this world.” Early Christians faced repercussions when they refused to sacrifice to the Caesars as to gods, but they maintained their willingness to obey laws that did not violate their faith. Christians in every country today face the very same challenges. Acknowledging God as the highest authority in our lives neither frees us from responsibility to our earthly leaders and governments, nor does it make us unpatriotic.
When I say that Christians are “dual citizens” of sorts, do not think that earthly kingdoms or governments are outside of God’s rule. All authority is from (or under) God, and governing authorities are instituted by God to rule over us. So earthly kingdoms ruled by men, and the spiritual, heavenly kingdom ruled by God—are both under His authority alone. Lutherans often call the government the “kingdom of the left hand”, and the church, the “kingdom of the right hand” to acknowledge that God rules both by His power. But also to recognize that God works out His rule differently in each kingdom or “realm.” Government is appointed by God to “bear the sword”—to carry out punishments against evildoers, to enforce laws, to uphold justice and good conduct, to collect taxes, etc. The church does not execute earthly punishments or bear the sword, but is instead the place where we hear the living voice of God’s Word. It proclaims to us the law that condemns our sins (both individual sins and collective injustices that are ingrained in our society or government). The church also proclaims the living voice of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that forgives us our sins because of what Christ has done for us. Church on the right hand and government on the left hand, are both authorized by God for varying, and sometimes overlapping tasks, but the way that they operate is necessarily different.
A Christian lives at this busy intersection between church and state, which raises a multitude of questions about how we are to live. Most times, the two will not conflict—but sometimes they do. Fortunately Scripture lays out some clear boundaries to guide us. First, our conduct should be blameless, or else we’ll be rightfully punished for breaking the law. The forgiveness of sins, which we receive before God, does not free us from civil penalties or punishments that we may deserve if we have committed crimes or broken the law. The normal obligations and privileges of citizens apply equally to Christians as to non-Christians. If we’re called upon to serve in the military, or fight as a soldier in a just war, we can in good conscience do so, in obedience to the government. If we owe taxes, we should pay them responsibly. If we are obligated to certain debts, we must pay them. These are not unchristian things to do, but civil duties we are commanded to do as Christians. But if ever we are commanded to do something that violates God’s law, or enticed to do something that might be legal in our nation, but sinful according to God’s Word—we are bound to the higher authority of God, not to do it. When told not to preach in the name of Jesus, the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than men”—and they prepared to face whatever consequences they might face from earthly authorities. The same holds true for Christians today—we must obey God above all.
As a Roman citizen, Paul’s hearers had a different set of privileges than Americans citizens; but we can and should participate in good conscience in our unique privileges. That includes voting, participating in the political process to make and reform laws, and running for and serving in public offices. Being a Christian does not exclude us from any of these forms of participation, and neither does it mean that we are required to “check our beliefs at the door”, or the voting booth, or upon taking public office. At the same time, the Christian recognizes that many non-Christians  hold citizenship in our nations, and that they are not held to a specifically Christian morality. But a nation must uphold basic morals and justice. The Bible never proposes a new code or plan of government, but commands our obedience to the governments that exist.
Remember that Paul wrote this letter while Nero was emperor of Rome. While persecution had not yet broken out in its full intensity, Nero would soon become one of the most violent persecutors of Christians. So that is to say, Paul was not writing about submitting to a church-friendly, or even a perfectly just government. And obeying earthly governments, even hostile ones, does not mean that individual Christians cannot be agents for good, even if they are entirely alone as a believer, or without political influence. We need only turn to Biblical examples like Joseph, Esther, Nathan, Daniel, or others to see how God can bless a single person speaking the truth or acting justly, and they can have profound influence as a result. Greatest of all is Jesus our Lord, whose unjust trial and crucifixion at the hands of tyrannical powers, proved that there is a greater King and kingdom that rules over the petty powers of men. Jesus’ insistent voice of truth and His rising from the dead exposed the injustice of rulers and proved His higher authority. And because Jesus distinguished between the spiritual kingdom He came to rule, and the kingdoms of men—we make the same distinction today. “My kingdom is not of this world.”
So back at that intersection of these two kingdoms, Christians can be a positive force for change in our own nation in many ways that are legally open to them. We can oppose unjust laws, and try to improve on them, for the sake of the common good. We can come to the aid of the poor, the abandoned and neglected, and the unborn, whether through organizations run by the church, or the state. There may be aspiring young people in our congregation who should grow up to serve as leaders with moral courage and integrity, to serve as leaders in the church, or as politicians! Both are callings from God, and should be done faithfully to His glory. And both are called ministers or servants of God!
In our individual lives, Christians must show the highest regard for God’s commandments and care for our neighbor, which will give glory to God. Christians must not shrink back from speaking the truth, loudly if necessary, to condemn unjust laws or actions on the part of the government, and to seek justice for those who cannot speak for or defend themselves. In other words, Christians are to live out the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” in all the ways described in the Ten Commandments, not only in churches and Christian communities, but among all we meet. Pastors must teach and preach on moral and ethical concerns, whether they are perceived as “political” or not. But that does not mean that pastors or the church are policy makers, or that they choose which candidates we should vote for, or that the church presumes to dictate the strategies and solutions that government must pursue.
Our role is to speak out against injustice, to encourage Christians and all citizens to do their duty and make use of their rights as such, and to pray earnestly for our leaders. They have an unimaginably difficult job. The crises that our leaders face are dizzying, and we must pray for our leaders, whether Republican, Democrat, Independent, or whatever—praying that they would be given wisdom to lead and pursue justice. We respect and obey our leaders not for how far they agree or disagree with our own ideas, nor for how good or bad their life is, but for the sake of the office and responsibility they hold. The office is greater than the woman or man who holds it, because these offices of leadership are ministers and servants of God, for our good. They reward good, lawful citizenship, and punish the wrongdoers, as authorized by God.
Whenever we speak of authority, we always need to remember that no one has authority unless it is given to them from above. Jesus reminded Pontius Pilate of this, when Pilate threatened Jesus, that he had the power to free Him or crucify Him. “You would have no authority over me at all, unless it had been given you from above”, Jesus answered (John 19:10-11). Government may claim the highest authority in the land, but it’s not the highest authority on earth—as all nations, all governments, are answerable to God. We should especially remember this when governments and leaders stray from the rule of justice and order that God has assigned.
But even greater than Paul’s message about the Christian’s dual citizenship, is the overarching truth that we owe one another a debt of love, to love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s the basic rule and motivation of our involvement in both spheres of our life—the spiritual, and the earthly. Because Christ died for us, rescued us from our sins—we face no condemnation before God, and we owe a debt of love. Many debts are negative. The debt of a mortgage—is often a 30 year grind. The debt of our sin—impossible for us to pay, but paid in full by Christ. Nothing could ever repay Christ’s love and sacrifice, and the countless riches that God has given. But this is a positive debt. A debt of love. A debt in which Jesus Himself supplies the love by which we pay it. A debt that never puts us at a loss, but ever increases our gain. As we love, we receive love in return. And even when love doesn’t return to us, we continue to love, as we heard last week, even toward enemies. Against love, there is no law.
The many ways that a Christian can and should be involved in their life as a citizen in this earthly kingdom, should all be counted as the product and result of our debt of love to God and neighbor. Politics can easily be misused to seek power for its own sake, or for personal gain. But this must never be so for the Christian. As Jesus reminded His disciples, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42–45). In the whole of our Christian life, in both kingdoms that we live, we are to live by this servant love. A debt of love and gratitude for Jesus’ ransoming us from our sins. A debt of love that we pay in Christian conduct and service in all that we do, in both church and state. In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Romans 13 is a key passage helping Christians to understand their roles as citizens of two kingdoms—of an earthly kingdom (the government) and the heavenly kingdom (the Church—leading toward heavenly glory). Hebrews 11:10, 16; 12:22; 13:14. Where is the Christian’s greater loyalty?
  2. What does it mean to be “subject to” or “submit” to authority? What are some examples of “submission” in the Bible? Luke 2:51; 10:17; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13; 1 Corinthians 15:27-28; Ephesians 5:21-24. Why is submission different from inferiority or blind obedience? Acts 5:29
  3. What are the implications of the fact that all authority is under God’s higher authority? The implications for leaders? The implication for citizens, regarding our obedience? What does God authorize governments to do? Romans 13:2-7
  4. Pick a person from Bible history, such as Joseph in the book of Genesis, the prophet Daniel, Queen Esther, the apostle Paul, or another. Describe how they served as an agent for good and to do God’s will, even within unfriendly governments. What made their influence or impact so great, even while they were exiles, or outnumbered, or of little or no rank at all?
  5. How can you, a Christian, be a “dual citizen”, and an agent for good here in this earthly kingdom? What responsibilities do you have to your government and to your neighbor? What truth are you called to speak? What duty of love must you put into action for your neighbor? Why do we owe a debt of love? How did Christ set the example for us? John 18:33-37; 19:10-11; Matthew 22:21. 

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Sermon on Romans 12:9-21, for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, "Living in Love," Part 11

Part 11 of a sermon series based on Romans 6-14, "God's Greater Story". 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Last week in the first half of Romans 12, we reflected on how Paul is looking at the church through the lens of Christ Jesus—that is, conscious of our sins and guilt that put Jesus on the cross, but also conscious of the new life that Jesus gives us by faith. Not surprisingly, the verses you heard today, Romans 12:9-21, are a perfect description of Jesus—sincere in love, blessing and not cursing those who persecuted Him, living peaceably, and not overcoming evil by evil, but by good. My Bible has the heading “Marks of the True Christian” over the section. So let’s check off which marks fit you—right? If we have any honesty about ourselves, we’ll find that checklist embarrassingly incomplete, when we measure ourselves by it. But instead of reading this as further proof of our unworthiness and failures (of which there’s more than enough evidence in the 10 Commandments), Paul is here opening our eyes to the reality of Christ working in and through His church, and showing you where Christ will lead your life if you follow Him. A vision of what the church looks and acts like when the Gospel has thoroughly worked itself through our lives, and Christians are Living in Christ’s Love.
A few verses before, in last weeks’ sermon, we paused to remember that we shouldn’t think more highly of ourselves than we ought, but to think humbly. Often we are eager for immediate results, or discouraged by lack of progress. But we’re not in a game of measuring ourselves against someone else, feeling insecure that we’re not as good as them, feeling boastful that we’re better than them, or feeling jealous that we don’t have the gifts someone else has. That’s not a good game to play, because you can’t win, and everyone loses when pride, rivalry, jealousy, or despair take hold. The competition Paul urges us to instead is a positive one—a joyful game of outdoing one another in showing honor! That’s the way to compete! By outdoing each other in doing good, and encouraging and building one another up! There is no loser in that scenario, and honor is not something we give to ourselves, but to others.
Was Paul onto a self-esteem trip, to artificially boost everyone’s egos? No, because he says “Let love be genuine”. Flattery and false praise is not genuine. But real encouragement, appreciation, and honoring our brothers and sisters in Christ is genuine and God pleasing. Being eager and ready to excel at doing good for others is pleasing to God.
Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. To abhor is to hate or detest something. If we are living in love, we cannot delight or have pleasure in what is evil, but only what is good. Have you ever heard the analogy (as I recall) about the little boy who was sent by his grandfather to fill up a little coal basket with water, and bring it back to him? The boy is frustrated that the water always leaks out before he gets back, and complains after the third time that the work was wasted—until the kindly old man shows him that the water had washed the basket clean. The analogy, then, is that we often read the Bible, or hear the Word of God—perhaps in a sermon—and almost as quickly as we’ve stopped, we’ve forgotten—like water leaking from a basket. But in the process we are getting washed clean. So if our hearts and minds are sometimes like a sieve—what are we pouring into them?
If we apply this command to abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good to our lives, what are we loading up with? Are we cleansing our minds and hearts with the pure Word of God, and setting our mind on noble and praiseworthy things? Or are we filling up that sieve with junk and bad stuff? What if we’re constantly downloading bad images and ideas into our minds, through phones, computers, televisions, and video games—fed on the entertainment diet of violence, greed, revenge, distortions of God’s good gift of sex, etc? Instead of cleansing our mind, we are clumping it up with evil, to grow more and more desensitized. True, it’s not what goes into a person that defiles them, but what comes out of their mouth and heart. But if all we “input” is bad stuff, what will we expect the “output” to be?
On the contrary, to constantly hold Jesus Christ before our eyes, to witness His love, to hear His Word, shapes our lives more and more into His image. Paul talks in Philippians about “having this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5), that we remember how He humbled Himself and became a servant to others. Having the mind of Christ among us, is to say that the life and mind of Christ will begin to permeate our thinking. Even if we have a “leaky basket” up here, it will “trickle down” to wash over our lives and actions. Daily I fall short of having a fervent spirit, rejoicing in hope, having patience in tribulation, and showing constancy in prayer. Especially patience. Daily I pray for God’s strength to walk in Christ’s love. Daily the Christian battles sin, confesses it to God, and rises in our new baptismal life in Christ. The Holy Spirit is going to be sanctifying and cleansing you all the way to your grave—and it won’t be till after you’ve gotten there that you arrive at the perfection in glory that God intends. That’s no excuse for being “slothful in zeal” or simply being “lazy”—but we should be fervently striving for the life that God is shaping in us.
You have seen videos of first time skydivers jumping out of an airplane? How they have to do their first number of dives attached by the body to another instructor? It must be greatly reassuring to the newbie that they are with someone experienced. Wouldn’t it be humorous if we had to follow that same tandem approach in other more complicated tasks in life? It’s amusing to imagine the awkward struggle. Not so easy to perform a task on the ground, strapped to someone else. But in Christ Jesus, we have the benefit of a more perfect union than those “tandem divers.” Christ Jesus is perfectly joined to us in baptism, and you live in and through Him. In all your struggles against sin, in your walk in the new life, Christ is attached to you. Our Christian life is not lived under the law, with the dread of not having God’s approval because of our repeated failures. Rather, we’re sure of God’s approval only because of the mercies and forgiveness of Christ Jesus. Based on that mercy of Christ, we walk (even with stumbles and ungainly stride) in His commandments. And He doesn’t leave us to fall solo after the 3rd or 4th try. Jesus is with us through everything, even when we feel most greatly oppressed by our sufferings and challenges. Train your eyes on Christ, and not yourself, and know that He is faithful to work in your life, however much you face your own discouragement, disappointment, or setbacks. Final victory is certain in Him, not because of you.
Much of this section in Romans 12:9-21 describes our corporate life together as Christians, our mutual love and concern for one another—material assistance, compassion, godly affection for each other, making peace with each other and living in harmony. But verses 14-21 especially focus on our response to enemies and persecution, and how we respond to evil.
I just read a touching story about some homeless teenage boys in Tanzania, Africa, who were used to the rough and tumble life of living on the street and stealing to get enough food to survive. Two young boys, James and Samwel, had spent the afternoon with a church outreach program listening to an audio recording of the New Testament. Later, when James seized an opportunity to steal, and was named by his friend, he struck him viciously with an iron pipe, creating a great gash on his head. But when Samwel’s friends urged him to take revenge, or they would do it themselves, he answered, "We've been listening to the radio [Proclaimer], and it said we must forgive. It would be wrong to hurt James because he hurt me. I choose to forgive him…it is wrong to seek revenge…the right thing to do is forgive him." James had been hiding nearby, but the words of forgiveness touched his heart so much that he risked making his presence known. He walked past the other teens, stopped, knelt down and hugged Samwel. "Thank you for forgiving me," he said humbly. "I forgive you too!"
The Word of God broke what could have quickly become a cycle of violence and revenge. It disarmed the tactic of repaying evil for evil, and overcame the evil with good. And in the end, forgiveness and peace was restored among friends. Christ’s death on the cross is the perfect example of the unrelenting evil and cruelty of men facing up against the unrelenting goodness, longsuffering, and love of Jesus. And which won out? Jesus blessed those who persecuted Him and prayed for their forgiveness. His sacrificial death, and His glorious rising from the dead are proof of the victory of good. And it is only by His love living in you, living in Samwel, or anyone else who has been wronged—that we find the love of Christ to forgive them and do them no wrong in return. Forgiving not only friends who have deeply wronged us, but even a love that forgives strangers and enemies, as Christ did from the cross.
Daily Christians are confronted with sin and evil, from the petty annoyances that make us angry to grievances up to and including injury to ourselves or even the death of a loved ones, as in places like Iraq and Syria. Whether it’s a small matter of patience, or whether we’re talking about Christians who have suffered deep grief through unspeakable persecutions against themselves or loved ones—the question is not how great or small the evil, but how we respond to it. To repay evil with evil adds fuel to the fire. James talks about how just our tongue can spark a fire into a raging blaze. Whenever cursing, slander, or gossip leave our mouths, we escalate the crisis, and do nothing to help it. On the other hand, when we repay wounds and wrongs against us with unexpected love and kindness—as Paul describes feeding your enemy or giving him a drink—we “heap burning coals on his head.” This simply means that the enemy will be ashamed by their own conduct when they see that it’s not repaid with evil, but with good. It upsets the way we are programmed to think. Our sinful nature wants to egg on a fight by returning tit for tat—but getting even rarely satisfies us. Sin wants worse than getting even. But throwing God’s love into the situation completely changes the equation.
This is why there are countless stories of the persecutors of Christians being won over to Christ by the love and forgiveness of those whom they persecuted or even executed. And I pray that more lives would be changed like this in the Middle East and around the world. Revenge and other acts of evil should never be seen as tools that lie at our disposal to combat evil, small or great. Vengeance is the Lord’s prerogative alone, and only good has the power to win genuine victory over evil. Living in genuine love, in each of the ways described in Romans 12—through patience, prayer, blessing and not cursing, showing solidarity through a shoulder to weep on or sharing in one another’s joys; being humble and at peace with everyone—this kind of genuine love is not our work, but it is the work of Christ in us. And Christ’s love is the greatest good that shatters through even the darkest evil, turning darkness into light, turning sorrow into joy, and turning our sin and death into a glorious resurrection and the hope of everlasting life. Look nowhere else for that goodness and love than in God and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He is in your life to make you a Christian, a little reflection of Him and His love for others. “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24) Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
Read past sermons at:
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  1. In v. 9, “Let love be genuine”—the word “genuine” is literally, unhypocritical. What is hypocrisy, and why must love be free of it? Where does this pure love come from? 1 Peter 1:22. How do we get a “pure heart?” Psalm 51:10; Ezekiel 36:26-27.
  2. Why must the Christian abhor or detest evil? Who also does this? Psalm 5:4-6; 101:3-4. Why do they hold fast to what is good? Psalm 147:10-11.
  3. What healthy competition does Paul encourage in Romans 12:10? How can we do this? Hebrews 10:24-25
  4. Why is hospitality to be a characteristic of Christians? For what situations was it a qualification? 1 Timothy 3:2; 5:10; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 4:9.
  5. How does Jesus model for us vs. 14? How does the Christian church share in its joys and sorrows, with all its members? 1 Corinthians 12:24-26; Galatians 6:1-2.
  6. Vs. 16 speaks of living in “harmony.” Harmony is the pleasant musical blending of different notes played or sung at the same time. How is this a description of how Christians should live together? What is the cause of disharmony?
  7. Vs. 17-21 continues to discuss the response to enemies and persecution. It outlines how evil can never be a “means to a good end” and that the Christian must never take revenge or consider evil as a tool that we can wield against evil for good. What happens to us when we try to use evil for good? How does it change us? What is so much harder (but right!) about using good?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Sermon on Romans 11:33-12:8, for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, "Transformed for Service" Part 10

Part 10 of a sermon series based on Romans 6-14, "God's Greater Story". 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. As we enter Romans 12, a quick recap of where we have been so far in the book of Romans is in order. Chapter 12 marks a significant transition in the topic of the book, marked by a “Therefore.” And as we said before, a good rule when reading, is when you see a “therefore”…ask what is it there for? It connects what follows, with what came before. Starting from Romans 6, we talked about how we’ve been baptized into God’s Greater Story. In chapters 7-8 We heard how that Greater Story unfolds to us through Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In chapters 9-11 we’ve learned about God’s Greater People, the community of His church. And in these final weeks we’ll see God’s Greater Plan for our lives—the way He desires us to be people of mercy in response to His mercy toward us in Christ Jesus. The “therefore” tells us that the Christian life that Paul will describe and urge us to follow, in chapters 12-16, is all circles in and out of God’s merciful work toward us in Christ. Our salvation is the sole accomplishment of Jesus Christ—but the working out of that salvation and its effects, takes place in your life, by the working of the Holy Spirit.
I can safely assume that probably all of you have watched a beautiful sunset before, living on Maui. Though we all know it’s not good to stare right at the sun, I’m sure many of us have also done this and had the experience of the bright “afterimage” of the sun momentarily burned into our eyes, so that when we looked away, we still saw the bright spot of the sun, and everything around us glowed until the light faded away. If you think about it, that can be a metaphor for the way that the apostle Paul saw the church. In the previous chapters he detailed in many different ways the depth of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus. He was staring at the Son—the Son of God. And now awed with the brilliance of His Light, and the unfathomable depths of God’s plan and His mercy, Paul bursts out in praise of God, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
God’s ways are mysterious, they are beyond our understanding. Sometimes they fill us with simultaneous fear and awe. Sometimes they leave us grasping for answers; sometimes we mistakenly presume to know better. But God has revealed enough of His will and His heart to us in Christ Jesus, that we can know for a certainty that God is holy, just, and loving. We can see that sin, evil, and death were not His will for creation, but that He has countered sin, evil, and death, in the most unlikely way, through Jesus’ death and resurrection. While we cannot understand the how and why of individual circumstances and sufferings in this life, we can understand that Jesus’ cross is the key to God’s defeat of evil, and it’s His participation in our sufferings. By atoning for our sins, and rising from death, we can praise Him and have respect for all that we don’t understand, because He is God, and we are not.
So with eyes still aglow from staring at the Son—the Son of God, and all that he’s told us of salvation in Romans 1-11—Paul turns his gaze to the church, and the life God anticipates for us and gives us in Christ Jesus. And with the brilliant afterimage of Jesus Christ casting its glow on the church, Paul sees the church as it should be, and as God desires. Earlier in the year, in a series on the Beatitudes, I reflected on how we aren’t to look at the church through “rose-colored glasses”, but “Christ-colored glasses.” If you take what I mean by that, we don’t have an artificially rosy view or expectation of the church—we don’t see a perfect church free of real people, sinners, hypocrites, people wrestling with their sins. But rather we see sinners who are sanctified—forgiven and made holy in Jesus Christ. We see sinners who are struggling against their old sinful flesh, and striving to live in the new life of the Spirit that they have received in Christ Jesus. In Christ Jesus, we can see the Christian church made up of people who are at the same time saints and sinners, or simply forgiven sinners. And the glow that Paul sees lingering over the church is not artificial, it’s not a trick of the eye, but it’s genuine spiritual sight, that sees truly that Jesus is at work in the lives of His people the church—even when at times, things appear less than impressive. Christ’s work is often hidden, as at the cross, under things that the world sees as foolish, weak, low and despised, and the things that are not. Humble lives and humble people. But by God’s Spirit we can recognize that God’s power is made perfect in weakness, and this is most often where His glory is shown.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” By the mercies of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice. God’s mercy encircles our whole Christian life from start to finish. Your bodies are a living sacrifice. What does this simple phrase teach us? First of all, your body and how you use it matters! We’re in this world, in this body for a reason, and we don’t live our lives out on some “higher plane of consciousness” disconnected from the material world. Body matters. Spiritual is not “up here” and material “down here”, with nothing to join them, but all of our actions have spiritual significance, whether we see it or not.
Before we dig into what “living sacrifice” means, though, let’s first define “spiritual.” The word “spiritual” is given such a wide variety of definitions (or no definition at all) today, that it’s hard to know what people mean when they use it. Romans 12:1 says that presenting your bodies to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, is your spiritual act of worship. But the word “spiritual” there, is not the usual one found in the New Testament. The common word is “pneumatikos” like the word “pneumatic.” Breath, wind, or spirit. Spiritual—from the working of the Holy Spirit. But the word here in Romans 12:1 is “logikos”, like the word “logical”. Logikos can mean rational, reasonable, and here, can also be translated as “spiritual”. Now wait a minute. If we are working from the vague, fuzzy definitions of “spiritual” that are so common today, we probably think that words like “spiritual” and “rational or logical” should never cross paths. But if we are working from the words of the Holy Spirit, could Paul really mean that presenting our bodies to God as a living sacrifice, is both spiritual and reasonable?
Definitely! For Christians, the spiritual is not the realm of fiction or fantasy or superstition, it is the firm confidence that the material world is not the end all and be all of existence. We’re not just atoms and molecules sparked into motion by nothingness, but we are the creation of the rational, thinking, all powerful God of all creation. His order and design is written all over creation, if we do not blind our eyes to see it. And so what is “spiritual” is to acknowledge that we are not mere animals, but living souls made by God to dwell with Him and know Him. It is to know that living out this life on earth is not the only purpose of our existence, but to know that God wants us to live in an eternal destiny with Him—not as disembodied spirits or angels, but in physical bodies made new to enjoy His new creation. So it is “spiritual” to receive the work of the Holy Spirit in us, that directs us to Jesus Christ, God’s Son. To see Him as the One and only Door to Eternal Life, the One who died for our sins and gives us new life. What is “spiritual” for the Christian, therefore, is completely interested in both what we do now with our bodies, and what will happen to our bodies in the future.
So Paul tells us that committing our bodies to serve God and obey Him, is a rational, it is a spiritual act of worship. It is our logical response to the mercy of God, for what could be more appropriate for us to do in response to Jesus’ selfless life for us, than to try to imitate His love toward others? For we owe our very lives to Him, and there is nothing we can do to repay it—but there is everywhere the need for Christian love and compassion and service to be poured out on the world. Luther once wrote that the world is filled to overflowing with suffering and need, but that this is the very thing that makes our service to “Christ in His needy ones” so necessary. Using our lives, our bodies, in the service of others, is worship rendered to God. It is an act of praise in itself. Instead of God repaying us for something we have first done to Him, we are offering back to Him what He first gave to us. We surrender our lives to His calling and direction.
That’s a “living sacrifice”. Sacrifice, is by definition, something costly. In the Old Testament, a sacrifice of an animal was surrendering a costly part of your livelihood. The animal’s death served as a costly reminder that your sin left you in constant debt with God, and that it was only by His offering a substitute sacrifice, that you were spared the judgment your sins deserved. The value of that animal for work, for food, for income, was lost to you. You didn’t get to keep it. And sacrifice was the work of priests, in the Temple in Jerusalem. But when God in His mercy, atoned for our constant debt of sin by offering Jesus as the once for all, perfect sacrifice—the worldwide debt was forgiven. God paid in full, payable on the death of Jesus Christ. Like that, animal sacrifice was over. Unnecessary. A shadow that gave way to the reality that came in Christ Jesus.
But there still is a place for sacrifice. Not a dying sacrifice; not because there is any debt still to be paid. But a living sacrifice—of a life transformed after the image of Jesus Christ. Your life, given back to God—lost to yourself, but found in Christ Jesus. For a new and living purpose. Sacrifices made everywhere and by every Christian—man, woman, or child. Costly sacrifices of living not to yourself—to maximize the value your life can generate in income or material goods for you—but living for others, as Christ did. Devoting your time, talent, and treasure to others in need of your help. And this “spiritual” worship doesn’t take place only through impressive or dramatic acts of “super saints”—but it happens through the mundane, the ordinary, an often unnoticed or unappreciated acts of serving your neighbor.
The tired hands of a mother who washes her baby’s bottom and tucks her warmly into bed. The aching hands of a machinist who devotes his skill and craft to making reliable parts. The wounded hands of a soldier, carrying his friend off the battlefield. The tender hands of a child, comforting a friend who is hurting. There is no counting the acts or ways in which a Christian might show the kindness of Christ to their neighbor. But all of those opportunities surround you daily. Wherever your workplace is, your neighborhood, your church, even the narrow confines of a bed, where an elderly or suffering Christian calls on God in prayer. These are all the places, in our bodies, where God has given us a place to serve and praise Him in love. And whenever we do so, it’s not by our strength, which is so fickle and likely to fail. But it is by the strength of His constant mercies, which are new day by day, and which echo in every act of love done in this body. This is your spiritual worship. This is your living sacrifice. God at work in your life—transforming and renovating His people for His purposes.
And we will be tempted to reflect on our own progress—whether we are convinced of our success, onward and upward—or discouraged by our failures—setback after setback. And if so, we are reminded by Paul’s words, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3). Don’t think too highly of yourself, don’t measure yourself over, against, or under anyone else—God alone is judge; He who distributed the measure of faith to each person as He assigns. We have nothing to prove, but only to think wisely and humbly, and our failures should only make it more obvious day by day that we are totally dependent on the grace of God that is given to us. To Him be all the glory, forever and ever, Amen.  

Sermon Talking Points
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Listen to audio at:

  1. At the end of Romans 11, Paul bursts into praise of God, alluding to several Old Testament passages. Isaiah 40:13; 55:8-9; Job 36:22-23; 41:11. Why in the end, is the best and only final response to the mysteries of God to raise our voices in praise? What does it help us to realize about who we are in relation to Him?
  2. Romans 12:1 opens with another “Therefore.” This therefore marks a major turning point in Romans, from all the rich story of salvation in Christ Jesus that has been explained in chapters 1-11, to the implications of how we live that out, in chapters 12-16. What is the first description he gives of this new Christian life?
  3. Compare the sacrifices of the Old Testament, to what Paul means by “living sacrifices” in 12:1-2. Where are each performed? Who performs either? What is the goal of each? How did Jesus’ once for all sacrifice both end the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, and transform “sacrifice” into a new reality? Hebrews 9:11-10:18, especially 9:14, 24-26; 10:8-10. What New Testament sacrifices do we make? Hebrews 13:15-16; 1 Peter 2:5, 9.
  4. In verse 2, compare the words, “conformed” and “transformed.” If we are “conformed to the pattern of this age”—what image are we taking on? Is this good or bad? What does it look like? If we are transformed, whose image are we taking on? Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 11:1; 15:49; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 3:10. Whose work is this in us? Philippians 2:13; Romans 15:16.
  5. Why are Christians to strive to do the will of God in their lives? 1 John 2:17; 1 Peter 2:15; 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; 5:18. Our frequent failures and sins turn us continually back to repentance and the “throne of grace.” Hebrews 4:15-16. Why is it necessary that the Christian life always circle back to the mercy of God in Christ Jesus? Romans 12:1. What comfort does it bring to know that Jesus is our complete salvation?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Sermon on Romans 11:1-2a, 13-32, for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, "People of Faith and Mercy", Part 9

Sermon on Romans 11:1-2a, 13-32, part 9 of a 13 part series in Romans, "God's Greater Story." This sermon is not adapted from the series.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today in Romans chapter 11, we come to another challenging and often misused Bible passage, which is partly why I expanded the verses included in the reading, from what you find in the bulletin insert. Paul renews his discussion from Romans 9 about the make-up and identity of the church, the relation of Jews and Gentiles (non-Jewish peoples) in the church, and the mysteries of God’s eternal choosing or predestination of His people. Part of Paul’s aim in Ch. 11 is to reign in a dangerous attitude of pride or arrogance. From any Gentile Christians who might look down on or even ignore the Jews who had fallen away from God through unbelief in Jesus, and so were under the present “partial hardening” that Paul describes. Paul wants to teach us Gentiles of our place in God’s plan, but to keep us humble, and fill us with eager concern for the lost Jews as God’s chosen people, for whom God still has a plan.
Today it might seem as a forgotten issue to most Christians—the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Tension between Jews and Gentiles in the Christian church is not a problem today like it was in the first century. Most churches, like ours, are overwhelmingly made up of Gentile believers, and you might not even personally know any Jews. Even though there are prominent Jews in politics, business, and entertainment, they make up a very small slice of the population, and it’s easy to be completely unaware of their presence among us. Few stand out as practicing Jews. Among those who are more conscious of the Jewish people, a lot of interest centers around the political concerns over Israel, and its status as a political state in the Middle East. Romans chapter 11 has often been used to promote political support for the nation of Israel.
However, in chapter 11 Paul both stirs up our concern for the Jewish people, as heirs of God’s promises and the object of His special concern, but also directs that attention to the spiritual state or should I say status, of Israel—not the political state. Paul’s concerned with their salvation, their spiritual condition—not political goals. Of course millions of Jews live in the political state of Israel, which is presently in the midst of deadly conflict with Gaza, and facing regional threats. As Christians we should be deeply concerned and engaged in prayer for Jews and Gentiles on both sides of the conflict, that bloodshed and war would cease, and that the peace of Jesus Christ would have room to capture the hearts of all. We pray that the hearts of men would be turned from warring and the quest for power, to seeking first God’s kingdom and His righteousness. Wars and political conquests can accumulate power, wealth, or land—but these are fleeting, temporary possessions. Jesus, however, calls us to live under His eternal kingdom and power, and to receive His riches that are never destroyed or fade away.
Paul makes an analogy about Jews and Gentiles in the church. In the Mediterranean, olives and olive oil are a staple in everyone’s diet. Olives grow on small trees, and there are both a wild variety of the tree, and the cultivated variety. He compares the people of Israel, to a cultivated olive tree. This pictures God’s tending and caring for His chosen people, and His desire for their fruitfulness. In the practice of growing olive trees, there is a technique called grafting, where either the branches or root of a more desirable tree are joined to another, either to increase the olive production, to invigorate the plant, or to increase its disease resistance. Paul describes that this is what has happened to God’s people Israel. They are the root and the tree—cultivated and tended for, as in a garden. But some of their branches have been broken off. Paul tells us that this was because of unbelief. After the coming of Jesus, many Jews did not believe in Him as their promised Messiah. This is the breaking off of those branches.
But at the same time that they were being rejected for unbelief, Jesus was accomplishing the reconciliation of the world. By dying on the cross for our sins Jesus paid the debt of sin for Jews and Gentiles alike. So God began grafting in the “wild olive shoot”—the Gentiles. Paul himself was glorifying that ministry that God had sent him to do, to be an apostle or missionary to the Gentiles, to bring them into the church, the people of God. Apparently, from what I’ve read about olive cultivation, grafting in a wild olive branch would be unusual, because it would not be expected to improve fruit production—unless it was done to reinvigorate a dying or failing tree. Ordinarily, a cultivated branch would be inserted in a cultivated tree, or a wild tree would begin to be cultivated by inserting cultivated branches that would bear good fruit.
The Gentiles too were unlikely candidates for grafting into the tree of Israel. Our ancestry was not as the people of God, but originated in worship of many pagan gods and idols. The moral life of the Gentiles was a far cry from the upright lives of the Jews, who adhered to God’s commandment. As Gentiles, we would not be likely candidates as fruitful members of the cultivated tree. But Paul’s point is to highlight over and over, the incredible mercy and love of God, and how He calls undeserving sinners into fruitfulness and purpose in His kingdom. And by God’s grace to the Gentiles, the early church already began to see the marvelous fruit of the Gospel in the lives of these new Christians.
But Paul warns us against arrogance over the Jews or forgetfulness that we are rooted in them, and not the other way around. And who is it but Jesus Christ, the very descendant of Abraham and a Jew by birth, who is the nourishing root and life of the olive tree? Paul’s language makes it hard not to think of Jesus’ similar description of Himself as the Vine, and we are the branches, who must abide in Him to have life. Our Christian faith is not separate from, but organically connected to our Jewish roots and indeed our Jewish Messiah, Jesus.
Don’t forget, Paul urges, that despite the fact that some Jews have been broken out of the tree by their unbelief, this does not prevent God from grafting them back in again. This gets into something that has no agricultural parallel. Branches don’t get broken out to later be reinserted to the tree! But of course God is not limited by the analogy! Paul’s point is the remarkable mercy and continued faithfulness to the Jews, and that perpetual desire to graft them back into the people of God, the spiritual Israel.
Faced with human disobedience, whether from Gentiles or Jews, does God’s mercy end? No! Rather God displays His continued faithfulness to show mercy on all. Paul cited himself as a first example of God’s faithfulness to the Jews. He must have had in mind his own stubborn resistance to God and his violent persecution of Christians, before God stopped him in his tracks and made him do a spiritual “about-face” in Damascus. Paul held out the same hopes for the Jews, that even if just by jealousy for the ministry to the Gentiles, that they might be persuaded to believe in Jesus and come back to God. God always reserves a place in the olive tree for those natural branches, that they can be grafted back in.
God’s vision for the church is a fruitful olive tree composed of Jews and Gentiles, rooted in the Jewish faith, the promises made to Abraham, and the Messiah born from his ancestry. And that vision culminates in the full number of the Gentiles coming to be saved, and that all Israel will be saved. This He accomplishes, as promised, by the Deliverer—that’s Jesus!—who turns us from ungodliness and takes away our sins. Jesus is the hope of Jew and Gentile alike, or as Paul opened the letter to the Romans by saying, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, for the Jew first, and then the Gentile.”
That verse that “all Israel will be saved” is often the cause for confusion—especially about who is meant by “Israel,” and how they will be saved. Nothing else in Paul’s letter hints that he considers there to be any other way of salvation than believing in Jesus as Savior. In this very chapter he says that they can be grafted in again except if they continue in their unbelief, and also as just quoted, that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. So however the phrase is understood, salvation must still come through Jesus Christ. But what about the question of what “all Israel” means? Does it mean in this context, only the people of Jewish ancestry, or does it mean the spiritual descendants of Abraham, both Jew and Gentile, that believe in Jesus Christ? The second seems to fit better with Romans 9, which tells us that not all descended from Israel belong to Israel, but that it is the children of promise that are counted. There Israel means not just the blood ancestors of Abraham, but as the spiritual community that inherits Abraham’s faith—both Jew and Gentile. In the church, those distinctions of blood and ancestry are erased, and all are one in Christ Jesus.
So if “all Israel will be saved” means that salvation must come through faith in Jesus Christ, what does that mean for the end? Clearly God intends to restore many of the Jewish people to faith in Him. Will it be only those who are “spiritual Israelites?” Or will it be all ethnic Jews, through a miraculous mass conversion? I suppose some questions must remain unanswered—and remain part of the mystery to which Paul refers. But until we come to the day of perfect knowledge and face to face sight with God, we can be fervent in prayer and hope for the Jewish people, and earnestly desire that they come to know the Savior who was first promised to them, and through whom we have this most precious access to God our heavenly Father. And we can remain humble in our place and our calling, knowing that we were not saved through any goodness or merit of our own, but that we are above all a people of faith and mercy—recipients of God’s undeserved and out-poured gifts in Jesus Christ. And one day when we stand in heaven with Jew and Gentile and people of every language and nation, we will all be standing there together as a people of faith and mercy—people who can and will attest to God’s unbreakable faithfulness and promises, and praise His great and unending love, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Reread Romans 11. What reasons or examples does Paul provide, to demonstrate that God has not and will not permanently reject His people Israel? What, by God’s wisdom, has He accomplished by the present “partial hardening” (v. 25) of Israel? See vs. 5-6, 11-12, 14-15, 25-27, 32
  2. In vs. 13-14 Paul seems proud of his ministry, and desires to create jealousy out of the Jews. How should we understand this? In other places, what did Paul say were the only things he could boast about? 1 Corinthians 1:31; 9:15-16; 2 Corinthians 12:9; Galatians 6:14.
  3. In v. 17-24, Paul uses a farming metaphor of cultivating an olive tree, and grafting branches into it—a practice of inserting branches from one tree into another to improve fruit/olive production. What points does Paul make with this image? About the place of the Gentiles? About the reasons for being grafted in or broken out? About God’s mercy?
  4. Paul refers to a mystery in v. 25-26, that a “partial hardening” of Israel would occur till the full number of Gentiles came in (to the church)—and that “in this way all Israel will be saved.” What end time hope is there for the Jewish people, who have not yet believed? How does this parallel the conclusion of the olive tree metaphor in v. 23-24? What condition would be the only reason that would prevent their grafting in again? (v. 23).
  5. Whether for Jew or Gentile, salvation is always through Jesus Christ, and what factors are not the basis for our salvation? Romans 9:6-8, 11, 16; Romans 11:6.
  6. How does the fact that God imprisoned all people under disobedience (cf. Rom. 3:23) accent His great mercy on all? How does this reemphasize that no obstacle is too great for God’s love to reach us?

Monday, August 11, 2014

Sermon on Romans 10:5-17, 9th Sunday after Pentecost, "People with a Purpose", Part 8

Sermon on Romans 10:5-17, part 8 of a 13 part series in Romans, "God's Greater Story." This sermon is not adapted from the series.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Last week in Romans 9 we heard St. Paul’s impassioned love for his people the Jews, many who had hardened their hearts against believing in Jesus as Savior. Chapter 9 went on into the mystery of God’s eternal election—or choosing the people of His promise. While we did not delve into those mysteries of election, or how God chooses—we did hear loud and clear from Paul that God’s choice is not based on works, either good or bad, it is not based on our human will or exertion, but only based on Him who calls, in His mercy. We cannot earn our way into God’s favor, but rather it is entirely up to God and His undeserved love, who He calls to believe in Him and be saved.

It’s God’s sovereign right to do this, Paul argues, against any claims that it would be unfair. God’s gift is pure and undeserved, and it also included and brought salvation to the Gentiles (non-Jewish people). But this made it a stumbling block or offense to the Jews. Paul explains that this is because they tried to earn righteousness by the law and works. So in today’s reading, Paul contrasts the way of the law, and the way of faith—and that only faith can lead us to true righteousness. Even though the law offered righteousness—none gained it because none obeyed. Anyone determined to try that route, and earn God’s favor by even the smallest shred of their own worthiness or participation, still stumbles against this offense. On the other hand, when we swallow our pride and admit our total unworthiness before God, and receive His free gift in Christ—we’ll never be put to shame. And further, by abandoning our attempts to secure righteousness on our own—God give it to us freely and perfectly in Christ Jesus.

            So where chapter 9 left us wondering about the mysteries of God’s sovereign choice of His people—chapter 10 answers the practical question of how God’s election or choice “lands on the ground” so to speak. Chapter 10 displays the “toolkit” of the Holy Spirit, or the way that God’s calling or election reaches people here on earth. And instead of being mysterious, lofty, and uncertain, it’s surprisingly ordinary, and it’s completely accessible. And we don’t have to climb up to heaven to get it, but God brings it down to us in Christ Jesus. God’s eternal calling for His people comes through the humble, rejectable means of preaching and hearing. God sends preachers to tell the good news of His Son—people hear the word of Christ, and by hearing and the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, they believe and call on the name of the Lord.

            So the righteousness of faith that we can attain, is not something we climbed up to heaven to bring Christ down, it’s not something we raised Christ up from the dead to get—Jesus Christ is already here for us, God incarnate, in human flesh and blood, who walked the earth and suffered death on the cross for us. And Christ is here for us risen and alive, because death could not restrain the power of His immortal life. And that Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven to rule over all things, does not place Him once again out of reach and inaccessible to us, that we would have to figure out a way to reach Him, but Paul tells us how near and close He is to us. “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”

            How near is Christ? He is in the Word that is in our mouth and our heart. The same Word which preaches Jesus Christ crucified, and the same Word we believe in our hearts. This is what I meant earlier, that God’s election or predestination doesn’t unfold in some mysterious or incomprehensible way—but it comes into hearts by hearing the Word of Christ. The Word is the primary “tool” of the Holy Spirit, to create faith in our hearts. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ. And once created and given, faith comes alive and answers by confessing Jesus Christ as Lord. If you think of the Holy Spirit as breathing faith into us, our confession is like breathing out. One of the ways to tell whether a body is living or not is when they are breathing—in and out. The word “Spirit” also means breath, or wind—just like God breathed into Adam and “he became a living soul”. So also, one measure of our spiritual life is that we believe in our hearts and are justified, and confess with our mouths, and saved.

            And when we believe and confess, we also call on the name of the Lord, and are saved. We are promised—promised—that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will not be put to shame. Putting all your trust in Jesus—banking everything by faith in His death on the cross for your sin and rising up to life again—this is no gamble, no risky uncertainty, in which you might lose out. You won’t be put to shame. Trust in Jesus Christ our Lord is always well-placed, and He delivers as promised. His promised deliverance is not, however, a promise of earthly wealth or security. It is, however, a promise of God “bestowing His riches on all who call on Him.”

            What if we think, for just a moment, about the persecuted Christians in the Middle East, who in some cases are suffering dreadful and frightening atrocities, simply because they have believed in Jesus Christ? They certainly have not received earthly wealth or security. Hundreds of thousands, have been driven from their homes in Iraq (at least double the population of Maui from what I’ve read), and have been robbed of their few remaining possessions along the way. And this is for those who are able to escape with their lives. So how does God bestow His riches on these Christians who call on Him? I quote Jesus: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10–12).

            Those words and blessings of Christ are very near for the persecuted. They are gaining an eternal reward, an inheritance in heaven—not because they have done anything to deserve it, but because they have shared in the sufferings of Christ Jesus, who won for us the Great Reversal of forgiveness over guilt, of life over death. Truly no earthly, material reward could repay what some have lost in this life, or soothe the wounds that have been recklessly and hatefully inflicted. But God in Christ Jesus has promised that He is the refuge of all who call on Him.

            Hatred and opposition to the Gospel seem like such formidable obstacles to the kingdom of God and the good news that we are to bring. Even far weaker forms of opposition or ridicule, tempt us to hide like a turtle in a shell. But it is the very Word of Christ that goes out into all the world to break through stony hearts of unbelief and to create faith. In fact, one of our own pastors in the LCMS, by the name of Hicham Chehab, was once a Muslim extremist, determined to carry out revenge against Christians for the death of his brother, but through hearing the Words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, he eventually converted to the Christian faith and now has a ministry to Muslims based in Illinois. Hatred and opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ are no match for the Lord of all who hung on the cross, bearing all our hatred and sin in His body. They are no match for the eternal love that spoke forgiveness to His tormentors and continues to speak words of forgiveness to us—unworthy though we are.

            The Word of Christ might seem small and weak in the eyes of the world—preaching a word of life, of forgiveness, of love—it might seem impossible that this could conquer men’s hearts that so quickly turn to evil and bloodshed, or so easily extinguish a human life. But God has promised that His Word endures forever, and that His Word will not fail. So God continues to send preachers to go and speak the good news—to tell what Jesus has done—so that hearing, they might believe, and believing they might also call on the name of Jesus and be saved. Through humble and ordinary means—through the human voice and human messengers and our eardrums and hearts—God sends out the extraordinary message of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus. A love that went to all lengths to come down to us, to redeem us, and to rescue us from our sin—no matter the depths of our blindness or the height of our sin. And there is no difference between Jew and Greek—the same Lord is Lord of all. So there are no two ways about it—there is no different path of salvation than the One Way, Jesus Christ.

            God has chosen to clothe the extraordinary power of the Holy Spirit in the ordinary form of speaking, and in the ordinary lives of Christians. This power of the Holy Spirit changes lives and creates faith, making believers and confessors out of us. Whether we are a full-time pastor and preacher or whether we are a Christian layperson, child or adult, God gives us the name and the Lordship of Jesus to confess in our lives. He has given us that Word to speak, and this Word of Christ has the power to bring others to faith in Christ as well. We don’t have to be an eloquent preacher like Paul, but can simply tell the love of Jesus—to a child, to a brother, a sister, another family member, or a friend. And for some who are under persecution, it may finally be the word that disarms their enemies, and overcomes and turns their hearts to Christ.

            So we are a people of God’s calling, by His undeserved grace and mercy—but we are also therefore a people of His purpose—called to speak His Word to others. God has included us in His plan of salvation, both by bringing His Word to our hearts and mouths, but also giving it to us to speak, to participate in bringing that salvation to others. Once again we find that we live not only to ourselves, but to Jesus Christ our Lord—in whose name we have redemption—the forgiveness of our sins. Amen!

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. In Romans 10:5-17, Paul quotes several Old Testament passages to illustrate the difference between the way the law of God and faith function. In verse 5 he quotes Leviticus 18:5. What is the promise given by the law? Is it a conditional or unconditional promise? Are we able to attain what is promised? Why or why not? James 2:10
  2. In verse 6 and following, he begins to quote Deuteronomy 30:12ff, but introduces some new applications of the passage (specifically to Christ, and including a phrase from Psalm 107:26). Both passages speak of the total “accessibility” of, in the first case, God’s law, and in the second case, the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ. What is important about the fact that God has made His will and His plan of salvation so accessible to us? That it does not depend on some soaring, elusive knowledge or on great and impossible deeds?
  3. If we believe in Christ as Lord, and risen from the dead, what will this lead us to do? Romans 10:9-10. What is the relationship between faith and confession? To confess is to speak or publicly declare that we believe. When do we confess our faith? When might it be challenging or difficult? What comfort and encouragement do we have in doing this? Matthew 10:16-24.
  4. “Jesus is Lord” is probably the first and simplest confession of faith. 1 Corinthians 12:3; Philippians 2:11. What does it mean to call Jesus, “Lord”? Who is called by this title over 6,000 times in the Old Testament? So what does that mean about Jesus?
  5. What is the promise for all who call on the name of the Lord? Isaiah 28:16; Joel 2:32. The fact that God does not have “alternate plans of salvation” depending on who you are or where you come from, flows out of the same truth that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. How does Jesus’ universal Lordship extend its reach over all people whom the Lord God has called? Romans 10:14-17; Isaiah 52:7; 53:1.