Monday, October 27, 2014

Sermon on Romans 3:19-28, for Reformation Day, "Sin and Grace in the Reformation"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Today on Reformation Day, we conclude our mini-series on some of the things that made the Lutheran Church distinctive. We’re going to look at two core ideas to Lutheranism, from our reading in Romans 3: Sin and Grace. These two teachings of the Bible are at the heart of salvation—they define both our great need before God, and His even greater solution to our predicament. Predicament, or can we say an epidemic?

We have all heard a lot in the news lately about the deadly Ebola virus and the epidemic that has people worried worldwide. An epidemic is when an infectious disease rapidly spreads through a large number of people. Technically, an epidemic is usually temporary, not permanent, and widespread, but not global in reach. The term for something truly universal or worldwide would be “pandemic.” Can the analogy of disease and viruses help us understand something about sin? Sin is really a pandemic—meaning that everybody is infected by it. Our reading tells us “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 6:23 tells us the impact of this disease: “The wages of sin is death.”

We probably consider ourselves pretty familiar with these facts, but do we respond accordingly? Responses to the Ebola scare might range from hysterical to a dangerous lack of concern. A wise response would deliberately take stock of the dangers and take appropriate cautions and measures to protect against them. We are assured, at least, that such measures—protocols or procedures—are being put in place to prevent the spread of this deadly disease.

Well what about sin? Viruses are an interesting analogy to sin because they can express themselves openly and destructively, like the Ebola virus; but they can also operate “underground”, hidden away in the body with no apparent symptoms, only to come out when the right factors trigger it. This second type are fairly common, and are called “latent viruses.” The body or its immune system is often unaware or unable to root them out, and they survive asleep or in hiding, but can cause serious problems or illness when they come out of hiding—like shingles or herpes. Because sin happily assumes either “mode of operation”—we often mistakenly think that only people who have the outward “symptoms” of obvious sin, are really “sinners”—while those who don’t show them, are healthy or righteous. But Romans tells us there is no one righteous, no, not one. Jesus told us that sin likes to hide out in the heart, and breaks out from there into all the familiar sinful behaviors we recognize. Sin hides out like that latent virus inside us. But God already has a bead on it. He alone sees sin in its full measure.

Which do we fear more, the Ebola virus, or sin? Which is more deadly? Sin has a 100% mortality rate, compared to 60-90% for Ebola. So is our response to sin measured and deliberate, or is it oblivious to danger or maybe hysterical fear? What are God’s “protocols” to guard against sin? Quarantine, special suits to prevent contamination? Romans 3 tells us some of God’s protocols or containment procedures. First He needs to clap boastful mouths shut, then hold us accountable for our sin. He does this by showing us our sin through the mirror of the Law. This is necessary because we can’t get by with “self-diagnosis.” Even when we attempt it, we’re not any good at doing so, because we all have blind spots to our own sin. That makes us really lousy at being accountable for our sin, which is why Lutherans make it a point to confess our sins every Sunday service. Otherwise our sinful nature is always happy to slide by with a free pass, to go unnoticed.

Saying confession might feel like the hassle of going through the TSA line at the airport, “Don’t you know me by now? Do I really look dangerous?” Sometimes confessing our sins can feel that way. “I, a poor, miserable sinner…” or “Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean…  Isn’t there a “trustworthy traveler” or “pre check” line? Do I have to go through this every single time? You can probably already guess that our sinful nature is a grumbler. Check the history of the Bible for evidence. But frequent confession holds the law up to our eyes. The law that our reading says “stops every mouth” and holds the whole world accountable to God. That law is like a mirror bright to bring out that inbred sin and shine the light on it. It shows us the reality that no one gets justified before God by the law—our obedience all falls short. No exemptions, no A for effort or P for Passing. It shows us that the virus of sin has infected in us, and we need treatment and a cure. If we won’t submit to treatment, the disease progresses through all stages leading up to death. And it doesn’t even matter if it seems “dormant.” We all still die.

But this “grave news” is meant to keep us from being stuck in the grave. By God’s grace there is a cure. Grace describes God’s generous, loving attitude toward us, His determination to work out the plan which saves us all. Grace is the word for God’s undeserved love—or as some have made it into an acronym: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. Grace means that God was moved to take action to save us, even though He was under no obligation to do so. God had compassion for us under the pandemic of sin, and He will accomplish our the treatment, cure, and recovery. And the heart of His gracious rescue operation is His only Son, Jesus Christ.

How did God treat this worldwide infection of sin? Our reading tells us that in former times, He had patiently passed over sin. He delayed punishment. Why would He do that? It goes on to explain that this was to “show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” God was waiting till the right time, to justify those who have faith in Jesus. God the Father put forward Jesus “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith”. Propitiation? What does this mean? Simply, it means that Jesus turned away God’s wrath against sin. Jesus suffered for what our sins deserve, so that God’s justice would be completely satisfied. Propitiation means that Jesus’ blood stands in our defense, just as all the animal sacrifices were put forward in the Old Testament as substitutes, so that the innocent would take the place of the guilty.

God’s intervention against the pandemic of sin was for Jesus to take all of sin upon Himself. Though God had been patient in former years, delaying judgment for sin; when Jesus came, it’s almost as though He stirred things up to an outbreak—an outbreak against Himself. He brought sin out of hiding, shined the full light of truth and righteousness on it, and forced sin to become visible. Sin arose with deadly force, and He swallowed up the infection, and with great pain, it wracked His body and He died on the cross. But the Bible keeps us from understanding Jesus’ death as a sad victim story, for Jesus tells us instead that He voluntarily laid down His life for us. He is the rescue worker who’s the only One in the world who is resistant to the deadly virus of sin, became infected, died, and rose again, with the virus eliminated, and His innocence and wholeness of life to share with all who will receive it. He is the remedy, announced in His Word, the Good News of Life. He’s washing you with water in Holy Baptism to cleanse you of sin, and to give you that baptismal garment to suppress the sinful nature that lies latent in your system. Finally, you too will have to die to rid your body of the sin—but He has promised that those who undergo the spiritual death and resurrection with Him in baptism, will also undergo a physical death and physical resurrection to be raised up to eternal life with Him. Your body that will one day rise from the grave when Jesus returns, will be a new, living, purified body, with no death or disease.

God has done all of this for us in Christ Jesus—He’s justified and forgiven us by grace, as a gift. And our good works are left out of the equation, so that we have no room to boast. All the glory, the credit, and praise goes to Him.

One thing we should be careful of, is understanding God’s grace like a shot or vaccine that we can get once, go on our way, and be protected, or maybe get an occasional “booster shot.” God’s grace isn’t an injection of something that we take from Him—it is a standing in God’s favor—a right relationship with Him. It is to be in the shelter of His protection. And the life and the righteousness that we have as the cure from sin is Jesus Christ Himself. If we have Jesus, we have life. No Jesus, no life. We are safe from sin because Jesus is ours—as Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20). We know that Jesus is our shelter and protection, we live by faith in Him who gave Himself up for us.

What an amazing God we have, who spared nothing to make us His own! What an amazing grace, that saved a wretch like me! You see, taking the full stock of our sin and its deadly danger, though a crushing blow to our pride, only magnifies for us the greatness of the lengths to which God went to save us from sin. Jesus stood in the way of the deadly disease of sin, absorbing all its deadly poison into Himself—becoming the propitiation for our sin. And now that God is fully satisfied in Christ Jesus, we are declared innocent—cured, clean, able to come into His presence again. This Reformation Day, celebrate the joy of living forgiven and healthy in God’s presence, by the free gift that God has given you in Christ Jesus. In His name, Amen!


Sermon Talking Points

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  1. What is sin? 1 John 3:4. What is the original source of sin? Romans 5:12-13. When does sin begin in us? Psalm 51:5. Where does sin “reside” or arise from within us? Matthew 15:18-19; Jeremiah 17:9; James 1:14-15. Why should we consider sin so deadly?
  2. How does sin show up both in visible, outward forms, and in hidden, “underground” forms? Why should we not be confused by this to think that only certain people are sinners? Romans 3:23
  3. What are some of God’s “sin containment procedures” or “protocols”? Romans 3:19-20, 27; Galatians 2:20; 3:21-24; 5:24; Mark 1:4-5. Why do we naturally want to avoid confessing our sins and admitting our faults?
  4. What is different about “grace” than earning something? Romans 3:24; 5:17; 11:6. Grace is God’s undeserved favor for us in Christ Jesus, or as some people have made an acronym: G.R.A.C.E.—God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.
  5. The result of God’s grace is that we are justified or declared innocent by Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are “justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” How do we receive this gift? Romans 3:25; Hebrews 4:2. Faith also is a gift (Ephesians 2:8-9), proving all the more that GRACE is completely undeserved. How does this direct all glory to God and away from us?
  6. God’s whole plan of salvation revolves around and is completed in Christ Jesus, with nothing for us to add or complete. How does that change your life? How does it change your worship and praise? How does it affect your thanksgiving; the way you treat others?

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