Monday, September 29, 2014

Sermon on Ezekiel 18:1-32, for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, "Personal Responsibility and God's Justice"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Our OT text from Ezekiel 18 strikes on an issue that we often wrestle with today—our personal responsibility for sin, and the temptation to question God’s justice or fairness in how sin is punished. God spoke through Ezekiel during one of the darkest times for the Jews—when the kingdom of Judah and the city of Jerusalem were facing God’s judgment for their sin, and war and destruction from the armies of Babylon was pressing down on them. A popular saying was going around the nation: “The fathers have eating eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” It meant that the children were suffering for the sins of their parents, not their own sins. In essence, it said God was being unjust because “you’ve got the wrong guy!” It was a victimization mentality that passed off the blame of guilt to someone else, and/or accused God of taking pleasure in punishing those who didn’t deserve it. Ezekiel 18 is God’s answer to these charges, and His determination that they would never again use this proverb, this saying, in Israel. Though God has no need to prove His justice, He voluntarily does so, and shows that they have actually reversed things from reality. So a question we will have to answer, is how is God going to lift this charge they’ve made against Him?

It’s easy for us to fall into the same victim mentality and chalk up our problems to someone else’s mistakes or faults, or to deny our responsibility for a situation. It’s easy for Christians in churches to look at the lamentable state of affairs in our nation, and to point the finger of blame at the “sins of society” while ignoring our own “pet sins,” or forgetting our inaction to help matters. And while there are countless situations where people are legitimately victims of someone else’s violence, malice, jealousy, lust, or something else—we are all too often masters of spinning almost any situation into one where we are the victims and someone else is to blame. Even if that’s far from the truth. Ever since Adam and Eve first sinned and tried to pass the blame, “she made me do it”; “he made me do it”; we’ve fallen into the same habit. In Ezekiel 18, the Israelites were blaming their ancestors for the impending doom that faced their city, and were claiming they weren’t responsible, and therefore God was unfair.

Of course to the believer who knows God’s Ten Commandments, they might even quote Exodus 20 to support their view. Didn’t God say in the commandments, “I, the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,  but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:5-6). The “sour grapes” saying was basically passing the blame to the parents, and claiming the children bore no blame of their own. They might have thought Exodus 20 proved this. But a careful reading of the Exodus passage shows that it’s not innocent children suffering for the sins of guilty fathers, but it’s guilty children who continue in the hatred of God that their fathers showed. But that God is faithful to thousands of generations of those who love Him. Ezekiel 18 goes further to clarify this, by saying that the “soul (or person) that sins shall die.” In verses 5-24, which were not in our reading today, he gives five examples to prove his point.

The first three examples talk about three generations of men. A righteous father who obeys God and does what is right—living faithfully. His wicked son who turns from his father’s righteous ways and falls into terrible sins. And the righteous grandson who turns away from his father’s evil to walk again in the way that is right. In three successive generations, there is good, evil, and good again. Each of these three are presented as living consistently as righteous or as wicked throughout their life. And the righteous live—and do not bear the guilt of their wicked son or wicked father. And the wicked dies—and is not saved by the righteousness of their family member. These examples show our individual responsibility, and that we are not guilty of the sins of our family if we don’t participate in them. The fourth and fifth examples are of a person who changes course in the midst of their life—either turning away from their wickedness to the way of the Lord—and living by their new righteousness; or a righteous person abandoning the right path and turning to evil and dying for it. In these two examples we see that it was not the things that they had previously done in life that condemned or saved them—but the final state of things—whether they returned toward God or turned away from Him.

In every case, we’re judged individually by God and share no one else’s blame or righteousness. And picking up at the end of the chapter, God again drives home His point. It is not God who is unjust, but we are unjust. If we are punished, or if we die, it is for our own sins. But if we turn away from sin; if we put it behind us and do what is just and right, we will live. Though not spelled out in detail in this chapter, as it is elsewhere, it must be understood that it is by God’s mercy and forgiveness that the person’s former sins are forgiven and forgotten by God. God shows the worthlessness of this victimization proverb, the “sour grapes” saying, by proving that He does not delight in the death of the wicked, but rather that a sinner would turn from their ways and live. This expresses to us the incredible heart of God, that is most clearly seen in Jesus, but is prominent also here in the Old Testament. That for all God’s warnings of punishment, and declarations of His wrath against sin—He takes no pleasure in punishing, but rather the purpose of these warnings is to turn us back to Him to find life. Life and salvation is God’s goal and desire for every living person; His heart is for the lost and the wicked, to turn them from their ways to find the Way, the Truth, and the Life in Him.

God is not unjust, punishing the wicked and the righteous indiscriminately, or punishing innocent children for the sins of their guilty fathers. Rather the soul that sins will die—we bear personal responsibility. And here is the hinge on which God’s refutation of the false proverb swings: God is working for the salvation of the sinner, to keep us from being ruined by our own sin. God is holding out for us, delaying judgment so that He can call us to repentance. The New Testament tells us that “God desires all men to be saved, and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). God wants to give us a new heart and a new spirit. It’s not possible to call God unjust, because He is actively seeking to restore lost sinners to Him.

If we read Ezekiel 18 in isolation from the rest of the book, or even from the rest of the Bible, we could easily fall under another mistaken impression—that we actually have the power to make our own heart and spirit new. Or that salvation is merely a matter of our good works, straightening out a crooked life, or balancing the scales, and that God rewards our change in behavior with eternal life. But if we read the rest of Ezekiel—especially chapters 34 & 36, we see that the Lord is the Good Shepherd who goes out and rescues His lost and endangered sheep. We see that the Holy Spirit is the one who takes our stony heart of sin and replaces it with a living heart of flesh and a new Spirit. We see in Psalm 51 that the sinner cries out to God to create a clean heart and right spirit within him, because he has sinned against God.

And in the fuller light of the New Testament, we see that Jesus Christ is that Good Shepherd who came to seek and to save the lost. We see that there is no one righteous, not one who seeks after God; but God seeks after us. When Jesus made a new covenant with us in His death on the cross, He did it for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus’ extraordinary sacrifice shows how God is at work refuting the claim that He is unjust, or that He delights in the death of the wicked. God could be fully proved as just, if He simply punished us all as our sins deserved—and that would mean hell for all of us. But God has gone far beyond mere justice—He gives extraordinary mercy. While we each rightfully bear the responsibility of our sins—Jesus took upon Himself our guilt and punishment. Jesus suffered Himself to be unjustly accused and condemned to death as a guilty man, while simultaneously undertaking a great exchange. That He took on our guilt in exchange for giving us His righteousness. He took our death, that we might have His life. Our sin in exchange for His perfect life.

God’s Divine Justice went above and beyond the call of duty—we could say that it puts the “nail in the coffin” of the argument that God is unjust, or punishes us for what we don’t deserve. But perhaps it would be better said that Jesus’ empty tomb is the proof of Jesus’ innocence, and of God’s invincible power of life over death. God allowed Himself to be punished for what He did not deserve—that He might give to the undeserving a new heart and new spirit, and everlasting life. God’s true character shines forth in His mercy and love.

God delights in life, and not death! He delights in righteousness, and not wickedness. And life and righteousness only come from Him. It is God who wills and works in us according to His good pleasure. Only He can reorient our life to the right path by His power and guiding. And we don’t have to beg God for help as though God is a stingy and reluctant giver—He is eager and generous to give. That doesn’t mean the walk of a righteous life will be easy or without trial; it doesn’t mean that our sinful nature won’t constantly try to sabotage the Holy Spirit’s work, or that the devil won’t use every trick up his sleeve to make us stumble. But God is eager to give His Holy Spirit, and He is powerful to overcome every sin and struggle we face, as Jesus overcame them Himself in His body. We can put the blame game to rest and take personal responsibility for our sins as we confess them and turn away from them, and then rejoice as Jesus forgives them and gives us life. In His hands we can turn away from sin and onto the path of righteousness. By Jesus’ faithful shepherding, He lifts us up when we stumble on that path. He does it because He delights in life! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

Read past sermons at:

Listen to audio at:


  1. In Ezekiel 18:2, the people of Israel are repeating a saying or proverb, that seems to accuse God of being unjust, and punishing the children for the sins of their parents. Compare to Jeremiah 31:29 and Lamentations 5:1-7. How does God answer what this “proverb” accuses Him of doing? Ezekiel 18:3-4.
  2. Ezekiel 18:5-24, not read during the service, gives several examples that each show individual responsibility for sin. Why is it so common for humans to try to “pass the blame?” Genesis 3:10-13.
  3. Why is continuing on a sinful path so dangerous? Ezekiel 18:4, 30; Romans 2:5-10; Psalm 1. What alternative is there?
  4. Because of God’s impending judgment, for which we are all individually accountable, God calls us to repent and turn away from all our sins, cast them away, and make for yourselves a new heart and spirit (18:30-31). Does this mean that we are actually able to create a new heart and spirit ourselves? Compare what is said in Ezekiel 36:25-27; Psalm 51:10-12. What sins do you personally need to cast away and return to God for forgiveness from them?
  5. According to Ezekiel 18:32 and 33:11, what does God not delight in; and what does He delight in? How does inform our understanding of God? What does God show His will is toward sinners? 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9.
  6. How does God’s sending of Jesus, His only-begotten Son, silence the criticism that God is unjust or delights in punishing sinners? How does it show God’s character and His generosity?
  7. How did Jesus take personal responsibility for all of our guilt? How does this destroy the charge that God is unjust?



Monday, September 22, 2014

50th Wedding Anniversary Litany

Note: It was my great honor and privilege to celebrate the 50th anniversary of my parents and aunt and uncle this summer, at a special worship service and renewal of wedding vows. In putting together the service, I followed the Lutheran Service Book Agenda order  for Anniversary or Affirmation of Holy Matrimony. This volume is available at

The following is a Scriptural Litany (responsive reading) that I assembled, to celebrate the gift of marriage and the blessings that God has given through their marriages. Since this was a gathering of three generations, I wanted to help us to think about passing that legacy of longevity and faithfulness in marriage down to the next generation. The Litany therefore has the following teaching elements from the Bible: God's purposes in creating marriage and the blessings He intended it to give; the importance of faith in house and home, and the blessing of godly children; God's call to the older generations to pass on the faith to future generations; a confession of our sin and failings to be faithful and obedient to God; and the blessings of finding a godly spouse. The inspiration for this litany came from an excellent suggestion by my sister, which leads to the closing passages from Proverbs 31, where the gathered children and husbands enacted the words about the children rising to call her (the mother of honor) blessed, and concluded with our fathers speaking a word of praise to their wives as well. It was very special to be able to live out those words of Proverbs 31, and in a small way express our appreciation for what our parents have done.

If you are celebrating an anniversary for your parents, I am posting this for anyone's consideration and use. There are certainly many more Bible passages that come to mind, like Ephesians 5, and how Christ is at the center of a Christian marriage. These and other passages could be used to enlarge upon these themes of marriage--though if you use the renewal of vows from the Lutheran Service Book, some of those themes are wrapped up in the prayers, or could feature in a homily. If you are planning an anniversary celebration, God's blessings to your family, and Happy Anniversary!

A Litany of Celebration of 50 years of Marriage

 Men: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them.

Women: And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.                                                                       (Genesis 1:27-28)

Women: Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him…” So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.

Men: Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

All: Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.                                                               (Genesis 2:18, 21-24)

Pastor/Leader: Marriage was one of God’s highest and best blessings to Adam and Eve before their fall into sin. They were made in the image of God. They would be blessed with fruitfulness in childbearing, and were to rule over the earth. They were perfectly matched companions and found in one another a profound unity that would be the basis for forming a new family for thousands of generations afterward. The two would become one flesh. Family and home bring many blessings, but that home is most greatly blessed that is built on the Lord.

Men: Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.

Women: Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.

Men: Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame!    (Psalm 127, excerpts)

Women: Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways! Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.

Men: Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord. May you see your children’s children!                                                                                            (Psalm 128, excerpts)
Grandparents: Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth! [God] established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.                                (Psalm 78:1-8, excerpts)

 All: Both we and our fathers have sinned; we have committed iniquity; we have done wickedness. Our fathers, when they were in Egypt, did not consider your wondrous works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea. Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power.. Let us thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! We will not hide them from our children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done! Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things; let them consider the steadfast love of the Lord. (Psalm 106:6-8; 107:8, 43; 78:4)

Pastor/Leader: Scripture also reminds us of the great blessing to find a godly spouse. One who fears the Lord. (following are excerpts of Proverbs 31)

Men: An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.

Women: The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.

Men: Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.

 All: Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:

 (At this time all the children and grandchildren stand, and those who wish to speak a short blessing or thanksgiving upon our mothers or parents can do so. When those who speak are finished, the Grandfathers will continue…)

Grandfathers: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

(At this time the grandfather(s)will speak some words of praise to their wives)


Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16, for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Children's Sunday, "God's Generosity"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. One of Jesus’ favorite ways to teach was through parables, which are little stories about ordinary life that He used to teach us about God and His ways. Parables show the surprising differences between God’s kingdom, values and priorities, and those of the world. The parables often are unexpected, and they move us to reevaluate and change the way we think. Today’s parable about a master who goes out to hire workers for his vineyard, is no different.

The story begins at an “unemployment line” of the ancient world—day laborers waiting at the market to be hired for the day. Some of you may have actually been on the unemployment lines before—worried and stressed about how you would provide for your family or pay your bills. No matter how many mouths you have to feed—the unemployment line is a picture of basic human needs. So out goes the master, personally, to hire workers early in the morning, to work in his vineyard. An unusually persistent master, who returns not once more, but 4 more times to the marketplace, to hire more workers. A total of 5 trips to the unemployment line, to bring workers in, even up to the last hour of the day.

Now what could be the reason for this strange behavior? Certainly the master had enough workers to finish the job after his third or fourth trip. Certainly it wasn’t a matter of the work not getting done at the 11th hour, with only one hour left in the day. So why did he keep going back? And more unusual behavior follows when he pays the workers in reverse, and gives them all the same wage—one denarius—the normal day’s wage of Jesus’ time. When the workers who had actually agreed to work for one denarius, see the latecomers getting one denarius also, they begin to get greedy, and think to themselves, “Oh! This means we will get more!” But their attitude quickly changes when they get the same pay as all the rest. They grumble until the master turns and addresses them, and pulls together the meaning of the parable for us.

Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” So the last will be first, and the first last. Adding together all these unexpected elements of the story, what does this parable teach us about God and His kingdom? The parable explains itself—it’s about the generosity of the master. His generosity explains the strange behavior. And why was He generous? It’s no stretch to see that He was compassionate towards the human need of the workers. The point of the parable is to paint a picture of our generous and compassionate God, who cares for the need of humanity.

So what’s the crisis in the parable? The workers were not cheated or paid any less than they had agreed to work for. In fact only the first group of workers agreed to the wage—all the others went to work simply on the promise that “whatever is right, I will give you”. But our gut reaction is right there with the workers who pulled the full 12 hour shift. Certainly it stands to reason that the ones who worked longest should get more, or that the ones who worked less should get less, right? Isn’t that fair? But the master answers that he’s free to do what he chooses, and asks why we resent his generosity. This is the heart of the matter. Our problem is with who God is—and at our core, we find His generosity hard to accept. Perhaps not hard to accept for ourselves, but we do find it hard to accept His generosity toward others, or to show the same ourselves. We always seem to feel we deserve a bigger or better slice of the pie than someone else—and just like in the parable, the first group even becomes blind to the generosity they received from the master in the first place. They even try to put the master in their debt.

We are trained in almost every aspect of our life to live by a merit-based system. School is no exception. Students earn their grades by hard study and effort, they receive perfect attendance awards only if they are present, on time, every day. In sports it’s usually the athletes who put the most effort into their sports and practice, who will be most successful in competition. Job promotions are supposed to come by demonstrating hard work and achievement. Awards in science, writing, or entertainment come to those who show excellence and hard work. We’re programmed to think this way about nearly everything in life. And it’s natural that these things should work that way, and the lesson of Jesus’ parable is not about how to set your payroll—it’s about the kingdom of heaven and God’s ways.

This parable shows that when God came to meet our human need in Jesus Christ, He did not give out His gifts by the merit system. Jesus did not come to earth to reward those who were proud or boastful of their upright lives, or thought they’d earned God’s favor or put God in their debt. Rather, Jesus came to the needy, the suffering, the low and humble. Those who seemed most undeserving and unworthy. He made the last to be first, and the first last. He came for sinners and those in darkness.

God doesn’t grade on a curve or scale His gifts or blessings according to how much we deserve. He doesn’t reduce the gift of eternal life, for those who believe in the last hour of life. Do you know what Jesus promised to the thief on the cross, who saw Jesus as King in his dying hour? Jesus told him, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” No period of probation, no waiting period or second rate gift. He received his “denarius”—his reward of eternal life—even though he hadn’t earned it. God’s goodness and generosity were on full display even as Jesus was breathing out His dying breath. In God’s kingdom, comparing ourselves and looking down on others is completely out of order. Helping and caring for the lowly and the needy—that’s the order of God’s kingdom. Keeping a humble attitude about yourself, and being content with what God gives you—this is how to live in His kingdom. Dependency on God, and not claiming self-reliance in things spiritual—this is what God desires.

The proud and self-important soul will not listen to God; but the humble heart is open to God’s Word and His call. God has done His share of cracking through the tough shell of stubborn hearts, and opening them to hear His Word. But pride cannot stand before Him. But He lifts up the lowly, taking them from the dust and giving them honor. This is what God is pleased to do in His kingdom, where the first will be last, and the last will be first. This is what Christians mean by the “Gospel” or the good news. It’s a message totally unlike our knee-jerk way of thinking about what is fair; what we’ve earned or deserved.

The hard truth is that if we push God to treat us and others by what we think we deserve—what is fair—we just might get what we’ve asked for. The Bible tells us what “wages”  we’ve earned or deserved. Sin earns us death. All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. That means we haven’t “scored” rewards and commendations from Him, no matter how self-convinced we are of our own good life. Instead we’ve earned death. The Bible tells us this is the source of our human need. This is the equivalent of the “unemployment line” of the parable. What we need from God is not a job, but a restored relationship with Him. The forgiveness of our sins and a place of belonging in His family. And an eternal home with Him in heaven. But we have no means to provide this for ourselves (or our family or anyone else). We can’t meet our own human needs before God. We need His generosity—His undeserved goodness.

And God is willing—no He is eager!!—to give us what we don’t deserve! Do you see the urgency and eagerness of God in the parable? He doesn’t send His employee, but goes Himself to find workers. At the last hour He certainly had no more need for workers—as if the work would be unfinished without them. But He has compassion on them and wants to give them each a day’s wage. What dignity He gives to the lowly! What generosity to even the last and the least! God doesn’t make a “cost-benefit analysis” to see whether it’s a good investment of His “money” to hire at the last hour—He wants those workers in the vineyard, and He’s got generosity to spare! This how God is generous to us and to all people. He’s not measuring how long you’ve been in His “vineyard”—but He is sure eager to get you in there before the day is over and the darkness sets in.

If the master in the parable doesn’t want even the last worker to miss out on His generosity, and to get their “living wage”—how much more does God, whom the master represents—how much more does God want every last person to receive His generosity? And how eagerly and persistently Jesus calls for us to come to Him! So don’t delay! He’s calling you! There is no greater blessing than to receive God’s generosity and the gifts that He freely brings us. There is no better way to provide for yourself and your family than to receive God’s free gifts. He went to great lengths to give them to us—even to death on the cross and rising from the dead for us. The gifts that Jesus brings are the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, and eternal life. Nothing that we earned and better than we deserve. But God is free to do what He chooses with what belongs to Him—and He chooses to give us life! Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. To Him be our worship and praise, Amen!

Sermon Talking Points

Read past sermons at:

Listen to audio at:


  1. What was the wage the first workers agreed to accept from the master for a day’s work? When the master returned four more times to the marketplace, why were there still workers there? (v.7)
  2. What is surprising about the master’s trips to the marketplace, in light of the fact that he had an employee (v.8)? What about the order in which he made payment? How much he paid to each?
  3. What does this parable teach us about the compassion and generosity of our God? What was the protest of the first workers? Were they underpaid? How and when do we show a similar jealousy or resentment? What must we do with sinful feelings of “entitlement?”
  4. The end of verse 15 could literally be translated as “Or is your eye evil because I am good?” What does Jesus say about having an “evil eye?” Matthew 6:22-24. How should we look on one another instead?
  5. God commanded this same kind of mercy of His people in Deuteronomy 15:7-11 and 24:14-15. This parable shows how God would (and does!!) keep those same commands. How does the parable show that God became man in Jesus Christ, and how He made atonement for the world?
  6. How can we look out for and help the “11th hour” unemployed? What is significant about the fact that this was the “last call” for workers to come into the vineyard? What is the “equal reward” for all who trust in Jesus? It’s not a “reward” in the sense of something we earned, but given how? Romans 6:23

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
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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?