Fully Convinced

No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave Glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.                                                Romans 4:20-21

We have quite an honor this morning in participating in another confirmation.  ******, you have finished a course of study, but more than that, you desire to take on the responsibilities of mature Christian life.  Up to this point you have been under the responsibility of your parents, but now you step before God, to be accountable directly to Him for yourself, your actions, and your life.  This is an important step in your walk with the Lord, and we all must support and encourage you in every way that we can.

But there is more that is happening here than merely your progress in faith.  Something is happening from God’s direction as well:  He is bringing to pass the promises that He gave to you on the day of your Baptism.  He has proved Himself faithful in creating and building your faith and knowledge of Him.  He is making you realize more and more the depth and truth of His saving you from the penalty of your sins, and the great joy that awaits you when one day you sit down by His side forever.  You are growing in your appreciation of the specialness of prayer, of the Holy Spirit’s work within you, and of the surprises that God can bless you with.  He stands with you as your wrestle with decisions and problems, as you sort out life, its meaning, and the direction you must take.

Sometimes it is hard to see where He is leading, sometimes it can seem mighty lonely, sometimes it is just plain confusing.  How you may wish that you can see down your life a few years to clue you in on what you should do now to prepare for that eventual day.  Unfortunately, such a possibility doesn’t happen for us.  And so you must take each day, each week, one at a time, usually never even dreaming how things could perhaps turn out, where life may take an abruptly different direction than where it seemed to be heading.

As it is, change swirls all around you, as who you are matures, as you feel pressure to determine your future courses of actions: what will your occupation be, your romantic attachments, where you will make your home, what possibilities will you choose to make you into the kind of person you will be proud of.  So often there can be a sense of how you need to get it all right, or else future happiness can be greatly affected.

And so today is  also FOR you, from God, not just something that you do.  We usually focus on that this is a day in which you pledge and commit yourself to the course of life given to you in your Baptism, but actually today is also a renewal of the Lord’s pledge to you on that important day that you really are His child and that He will walk with you throughout every day to come.

In other words, He is here to remind you of His presence and care, and that as often as you look back over your life, you will be amazed, because you will see that He has always been there, nudging you, using your decisions, even your indecisions to frequently bring you into His blessings.  He is here for you today, to remind you that He keeps a watch over you, just as His eye is on the sparrow, and He will be there, for you, every day of your life.  As Jesus’ life demonstrated an involvement in this real world, He will be with you in all the grit and in all the shine you experience in all the years to come.

You travel the same road as Abraham.  Abraham had had no idea what the future would bring as he traveled from his home to the new land he was promised.  He face a powerful struggle consider God’s promises said one thing, nature said something completely different.  In the Epistle, St Paul reminds us how the Lord had promised to Abraham, that a nation would come from him, out of which would come a blessing for the world, Jesus the Messiah.  As each year passed, the confusion must have built within him: He and his wife Sarah were getting too far from the childbearing years and too close to the end of life for the promise to make sense.  If only he could have looked down the years to find out how it all came together, that would have made it a lot easier in deciding what he should do and how he should react.

But he also couldn’t.  And he made mistakes.  He tried to help out the Lord once, by having a child by Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar.  God replied that this wasn’t His way – however, He would bless this offspring as well, but not in the special way that the son He would send would be blessed.  Then there was the time he laughed when God came with the promise of the son, as well as another time when Sarah also laughed at the promise.

Yet each time, God applied His forgiveness and reaffirmed that He had not deserted them, rather that His promises were being accomplished, but His own time.  And Abraham believed Him.

Abraham’s faith was remarkable.  He was willing to operate His life as though the completed promise were just around the next corner.  Why, he even changed his name at the command of the Lord – changed from “father of many” to ”father of many nations” – when he had nothing but God’s promise to hold to.  How hard that must have been though to hold on the promise when he met some new person and gave his name, and the person in casual conversation would ask the father of Many Nations how many children he had and he would have to reply, “none.”

As the years wore on, the Lord kept coming back to reassure Abraham, to keep his faith going and to not become discouraged.  The Lord kept repeating the promise, repeating the solemn Covenant that He made with Abraham, until finally all came to fulfillment just as God had said it would.

In a sense the Lord is doing the same to you today.  He comes now to remind you of the wonderful benefits of Baptism that He has placed you into, benefits that although you experience some of their blessings now, still their fullness is yet to come.

You are a very child of God – yet you must wait before you can see Him face-to-face.  Still you have the amazing privilege of already calling Him “Father!”, of talking with Him and having Him share in your daily life.  He guides you, as you read His Word, as He makes you realize something, as you talk with fellow children of God.

The greatest benefit of course is that in Jesus you stand before the Lord totally clean and acceptable.  Yes, here again you don’t have the fullness of the promises yet – you still rebel, you still mess up, some of your best intentions go wrong, those times when you fail, and always that worry about being inadequate which we all have.  Just as Paul cries out at the end of chapter 7, yes, you are saved from your sins – yet you yearn and still must wait to be free from their sabotaging the good things you want to do and be.  In repentance we cry out to the Lord along with Paul, laying into Jesus’s hands our failures and frustrations, our rebellions and distrust of God’s way, our self-centeredness and our neglects.

And so God has chosen to come to you today, as He did to Abraham, to reassure you and to build up your faith.  He comes to remind you that all His promises that were made through your Baptism, through your reaffirmation of your Baptism, that He hasn’t forgotten about them and that they will be fulfilled.  This is as sure as the promises He made to Abraham, which seemed more and more impossible with each passing year, yet finally reached fulfillment; which are as sure as the promises about our Savior, which had seemed so impossible, yet these too reached all their fulfillment in Jesus.  Your Father wants you to know that all His promises to you are just as firm and guaranteed.

That guarantee is just as firm as when the promised baby was revealed in flesh and blood to Abraham, so also today the guarantee is revealed in the Flesh and Blood here on the Table of the Lord, as Jesus shares the very core of His being with you.  It is His demonstration that not a week will go by without Him and His Word being very much a part of your world, your life, your reality.

And that can give you the power now to go out and live the intention that you are demonstrating in your confirmation.  You want to be mature, adult-like in your faith and action, and you are being reassured today that this will be most welcomed and blessed, that the significance of what you do will never be lost nor worthless.  God will back up your efforts with His power and promises, and they have eternal significance because of how the Holy Spirit uses them to God’s Glory.  So the Lord bless you as you take a new step, something deeper and more powerful, in your life with the Lord.

And for the rest of us, you are not here merely to observe, then say, “Wasn’t it nice!” and then go home.  The Lord is here today also for you!  He has come back again for YOUR sake as well.  He comes to reassure you, to build up your faith, to let you know that His promises to you (and yours to Him) made years ago have not been forgotten – they still are powerfully effective, and His intent is to carry them out in full.

But then on your side on this day of confirmation, what is YOUR desire, what do you wish to have happen in your faith-life?  This is to be a day of re-confirmation for you as well!  What are your intentions – how are you going to carry those intentions into your life as well?  your faith is no spectator sport, to merely watch OTHERS practice their faith.  God doesn’t allow you to ride the coattails of someone else’s faith.  Isn’t it about time for you too to be revisited by God, to walk more closely with Him, and to rediscover the depths of all His promises to you?

So the Lord also comes for your sake as well, as He does every Sunday, particularly when He comes with His Body and Blood, to prove vividly and visibly that He is utmostly serious about what He wants for you.  There in the bread and wine is His Body broken, His Blood shed for you.  If He didn’t stagger at that promise for your salvation, then He will not stagger at any other promise, since they demand far less from Him than that single one did.

So everybody today, come again before the Lord, and pledge yourself to Him once more, join Abraham as you reaffirm that this faith is what you want for your life.  Come to His altar and experience afresh the presence of the Lord Who would come to reassure you, strengthen you, and prove to you afresh the joy and power, the life and salvation that are yours today, tomorrow, and every day into eternity.

Enemies

For is while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life.          Romans 5:10

Our text is perhaps one of the most important passages in all the Bible.  I’d even tend to rate it above the well-known John 3:16:  “for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Romans 5 actually says MUCH more, because this little passage gives us an insight into the depth of God’s love.   John 3:16 opens the door to the thought that because God loves the whole world, and since I see myself as generally a pretty good person, therefore God has no problem loving me.   On the other hand, Romans 5 bluntly says that God can love me because God loves His enemies.  The whole emphasis changes from me-centered, because I am so lovable, to God-centered, because HE loves even enemies.

St. Paul’s message is so blunt that I’ve seen people reject the thought, saying that this passage couldn’t mean them.  They aren’t that bad.  In fact, there was one comment at one meeting that “but we aren’t God’s enemy” – after all we were a church-sponsored, God-centered group – how could we be His enemy?!  Yet to not understand what that word means is to rob the passage of the tremendous depth of God’s love for every individual one of us.

That one word or idea, “enemy”, rubs people the wrong way.  What does “enemy” mean?  In the Greek, the word for enemy is one who is hostile toward another and who fights against him – to the point that the enemy hates this other person.  The dictionary defines the English word “enemy” as one that seeks the injury, overthrow, or failure of an opponent.  In both languages, the word “enemy” doesn’t come across as anything very favorable.

But the rub comes in when St. Paul attaches the word “we” to the “enemies” – “while we were enemies” – that’s when the hostility really begins!  Just watch the fireworks start!!  That’s because the word is quite harsh, really.  And that’s not really the picture of ourselves that we would like to see.  Truthfully now, how many of you consider yourselves as God’s enemy?  In fact, we find it hard to consider ourselves as even being unfriendly to Him.

No, we like to think of ourselves as being on God’s side, as seekers of God and His Way – oh, perhaps we might be a little misled in this deed or may chase after that belief or may throw in any ideas which we think ought to be there, but certainly not His enemies.  After all, some of us have actually read the Bible!  And above all, aren’t we right here in church – how could we be even possibly considered as God’s enemies??  Paul certainly can’t mean us!!

Or can he?  Well, “enemy” has the idea of hostility, of rebellion.  The enemy is one who seeks the overthrow, the failure, the removal of the one he fights.  Can that really describe us – hostile to God, seeking His overthrow, His failure?  Again, it still doesn’t seem to fit does it?

Well, then, let’s take an even deeper look.  Hostility is more than just strongly disagreeing, it goes to the point of fighting.  Rebellion is to utterly reject the way that a leader or master wishes us to go.  We refuse his plan of how things should be – instead we want to take over, we want things to go the way we wish them to go.  We end up ignoring or even downright challenging his authority over our lives – we would rather follow anything instead, even our whims.  Hostility builds when he won’t co-operate with us.

Between two people, how quickly that can happen!  Years of friendship can rapidly deteriorate because one wants to do something and the other doesn’t, one thinks this method is best and the other doesn’t.  Sometimes it is surprising how little it takes for that to happen.  And then the hostility grows.  Ultra-sensitivity, disapproval and snide comments follow; then comes little attempts to sabotage the other person’s goals, along with condemnations about the person himself.  And you think we don’t treat God any differently?

Ever have a week or even much longer of bad fortune?  When does hostility and rebellion toward God erupt in you?  Like with Job losing all his wealth and all his children and losing his health, sometimes it seems as though the Lord knocks you down and then gives you a few extra kicks in the ribs for good measure.  It always seems that long after we feel we’ve had enough, God still gives us a couple more bad breaks.  And at a time like that, the very rare person does not experience times of anger, resentment, even open hostility toward God.  And right there you see the enemy within us erupting through to the surface – maybe just momentarily – but still there, none the less.

The death of a youngster, or perhaps a young parent, or a physically or mentally handicapped person, perhaps severely – and immediately we rebel against the seeming waste of so precious a life – so untimely, so unfortunate.  And our hostility begins to raise its head – if only we were in charge, we certainly wouldn’t let this happen – if God were so loving, so powerful, then why, why??  And that’s the enemy in us showing his face.

How come we don’t always follow God’s commandments?  We can’t claim ignorance – everyone of us knows the commandments to some degree, some even know the enlarged meanings that Luther gave us which not just showed what we shouldn’t do but also what we too often omit.  So how come we don’t follow them?

More often than we care to admit, it is because we don’t want to.  We expect  that God is trying to rob us of pleasure, popularity, comfort and ease, or whatever.  And here, very subtly, but just as strongly, rebellion and hostility is evident.  We are not going to do it God’s way, we are not going to follow His will, and sometimes we feel so strongly that we challenge Him to do something about it, trying to blackmail Him into cooperating.

Depression often is often the realization of how truly helpless we are; how weak and powerless to do or control the things we consider are vital for our lives.  The parent gets depressed about his children, because try as he might, he really can’t control them the way they need to be – he just doesn’t have the physical, much less the spiritual, power which only God has.  The young person gets depressed because he can’t control certain things about himself – he can’t make himself more liked or appealing for others – he can’t even control his own acne.

How weak, powerless and frustrated teachers, bosses, government officials can be when they can’t make people be the way they should be, even for things which can be necessary for their own good.  You know what it is like to be helpless, in regard to a bad habit in yourself – and how frustrated and angry – how hostile you can get about it?

Depression, anger, hostility surface because we don’t have control like God, lacking His command, power, and authority.  We feel like incidental nothings, and we don’t like that feeling.  So we rebel against God, the universe, laws, you name it.  That’s why we are enemies.

It’s surprising, isn’t it, as we go deeper, the more and more that word “enemies” really does fit us.  We aren’t the most pleasing thing that God has ever come across.  We can be ugly, fighting, rebellious, hostile enemies, kicking, biting, scratching at Him, trying to depose Him and take His place for which we are miserably equipped – which gives us all the more reason to resent Him.

This why Romans 5 just floors me – because it is precisely during our being enemies – hostile, fighting God – it is at this point that God died for you and me.  He didn’t wait until we were finally friendly with Him, because without Him first taking action, that would never happen – enemies just don’t suddenly become friendly.

And it isn’t that God’s love is conditional – that God supposedly saw that you would love Him in the future, therefore He died for you.  No, the Bible says that He died for the sins of the whole world – everybody – even those whom He knew would never accept Him, whom He knew would die still fighting, still hostile, still rebellious.  God would pour out His Blood, His life, suffering agony beyond our imagination – not for friends, but for enemies. That’s love beyond understanding.

Can you understand a love that would die for enemies? You know it is hard enough to die for a friend, although there probably are a few good friends you might actually die for – but to die for someone kicking, scratching, biting, who is fanatically intent in removing you forever???  That’s amazing – simply amazing.

It doesn’t even stop there.  Paul says, now look, if this is the kind of love that God has for enemies; the kind of God who would die for hostile, fighting enemies; the God Who care that much about us, even when we could have cared less about Him – just think – with that kind of love God has for enemies, can you possibly imagine the kind of love He must have toward those who have become His own Sons and Daughters who love and obey Him.  That side of His love defies any kind of description – it’s just too great.

You know, we are those Sons and Daughters of God, through Baptism.  Truly we have the enemy part of us still within, something to repent of each day and which will only be permanently removed on the day of our resurrection – yet in spite of this, astoundingly we are His dearly beloved Children, placed on equal par with Jesus.  And realize how eager Jesus is to share the very core of His Being in the Bread and Wine – His Body and Blood – specifically and personally with each of us.

Think of that: we who are responsible for putting God’s Son to death, to do away with Him – His delight is to give us everything He possibly could.   Can you possibly imagine how God must love us?  What a joy this can be for daily life – to know that you walk moment by moment as the child with a very special relationship to a heavenly Father who would die even for an enemy.

What a joy to face even the hardships and the inconveniences of life when you know that this God of tremendous love is by your side – in fact He dwells within you, proved to us by the Holy Spirit and the Sacraments.  And therefore nothing can touch you without this God being totally involved, making things go according to His plan of your life, guided by this wonderful love. This God is ever present, His love is always at work.  That’s God’s secret of making a friend out of an enemy.

God in the Hands of Angry Sinners

While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man – though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die.  But God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.  Since, therefore, we are now justified by His Blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life.  Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom we have now received our reconciliation.                                  Romans 5: 6-11

On Saturday, March 20, 2004’s Lethbridge Herald, Steve Bateman in his column on the Faith page, emphasized how The Passion of the Christ was incomplete.  As he put it:

The current debate over who crucified Christ illustrates the point perfectly.  Finally, the Jews did not crucify Christ; neither did the Romans, neither did all of us….Gibson didn’t crucify Jesus either.  So who did?
John Piper has it right when he reminds us that God the Father did.  We know this because the Christian Scriptures tell us in Romans 8:32: “..(God) did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.”  And really that IS the whole point.

It is very true that the central character in the crucifixion of Jesus is God: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Isaiah was one who really put his finger on it when he prophesied in Chapter 53:

4 Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted…
6  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all…
10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief;…

However it may be a bit difficult convincing anyone that this was an event untouched by human hands.  It is quite obvious that human hands were all over the event, and played very significant roles in what was happening.

To really understand what place humans had, we have to understand what need the crucifixion addresses.  The whole reason for Jesus’ death was because of sin.  But what is sin?  And why does St Paul in Romans 5 claim that “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (v10)?  Enemies sounds strange in our ears, because most of us don’t think of ourselves as being that antagonistic toward God.  Apathetic, perhaps, but certainly not enemies!

Well, first of all, just what is sin?  John, in his first letter (1, 3:4) defines sin, not as some mistake, but as anti-law, or rebellion.  This is reflected when Adam and Eve sinned, obviously fully knowing what was right and wrong, but deliberately going ahead with what they felt was a better idea.  It happens to us too, when so often before we do something wrong the thought comes to mind that “this is wrong, I shouldn’t do it,” but we are determined to go ahead anyway.  Sometimes we resist God in a low key way, where we just make up our minds to do things the way we want to.  Other times we just simply don’t listen – we even go so far as to avoid any contact with God.  Our rebellion can even take a nasty turn as we scream out a challenge of God’s right to tell us what to do.

Listen to ourselves: “Oh, I know I shouldn’t do this, but…..”  “I know I’m supposed to, but…..”  We know when something is wrong, however once we hit the “but” in the sentence, we then turn toward whatever other direction is agreeable to us, as long as it is not God’s way.  Simply it boils down to arrogance and defiance – we are defiant against what God wills, despite how much it is beneficial to us.

And then there are the times when we challenge God’s intelligence, wisdom or love; “if God is so good…” and “If God is so loving…” and “if God really cares…” – about me, about the starving, about those who never heard, about – whatever is the challenge of the day.  This also is rebellion.

In fact there are times when we can really get angry at God, especially if we are very disturbed about some sort of injustice, particularly when it is toward ourselves.  If only we could have God under our thumb, just for once, then we would make Him understand, we would make Him know how it feels, we would make Him pay….

Look at what happens in the political arena.  God’s Word has some definite things to say in regard to morality, but there is such a defiance, almost glee, at making the Biblical viewpoint be ground into the dust.  In fact, many believe it to be a hate-crime to speak God’s Word in regard to homosexuality or to consider that God’s Word only has two genders.  The Scriptures becomes now a symbol of hate, rather than a symbol of God’s power, life and especially His love and forgiveness, which some then believe that they have the perfect right to hold the Bible in contempt..

Look at the way the entertainment industry regards those who speak out in regard to morality, often referring to them in such condescending and disdainful ways.  Female singers openly mock concern for TV nudity.  How dare God make demands on how we are to conduct ourselves!  If it generates more publicity, it is only good.  Obviously people don’t care about anything suggesting responsibility toward God!!  He simply gets in the way when it comes to money, sex, and power.  If only we could just silence that celestial Nag!

In the late 1700s, a key figure in the revival called the Great Awakening in New England was Jonathan Edwards, who’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” moved people to cry out in terror for their souls as he depicted the judgment and penalty of their sins.  Yet 1700 years before that sermon, God did the reverse: on Good Friday, it was God in the hands of angry sinners.

Intuitively mankind knew it had God under its control.  Now what would happen if we sensed that we finally had God under our thumb, and He was as submissive as a lamb to the slaughter?  Finally at long last, after how many thousands of years, finally we have God where we want Him.  Here is the opportunity to take out on God all the felt injustices accumulated over our lifetimes, over the centuries.  If Christians in many places of the world are cruelly treated; even how Christians in this country who stand up for God’s Word are often treated, how would mankind react if they finally got their hands on God Himself?!

True, not everybody was so directly involved in actually nailing the hands to the cross or in creating as much misery as possible for God. There was the apathy of Pilate like the apathy of those who won’t speak out to defend God’s way and Word.  They will succumb to the popular demand rather than stand against it.  They will allow themselves to become de-sensitized rather than be offended by such abuse.  Their rebellion is just as keen, because they are saying that God really just doesn’t matter as much as what humanity around them thinks.  They also want God out of the way, it’s just that they aren’t as vocal about it.

Those kinds of attitudes are all around us.  Sometimes even in us.  God had compelled this confrontation, and truly He is responsible for Jesus being crucified, but indeed it was you and me who nailed Him to the cross, it was indeed human hands that put Him there.  The nature of mankind’s sin stands fully revealed – God and man were involved in crucifying Jesus, He was abandoned by both God and man – God for a different purpose than mankind’s purpose, but both came out with Jesus’ Blood on their hands.

However, the thing that turns the whole event inside out is that God does have Jesus’ Blood on His hands!  That’s what turns this event from the explosive viciousness of human defiance into the wonder-filled drama of God’s salvation.  In fact, it is that very contrast that makes the event so amazing and St Paul’s words so profound: “While we were yet sinners – enemies – Christ died for us.”  Mankind was carrying out the murder of God, and God was using that very event to save His own murderers.

The movie The Passion of the Christ did an excellent job at demonstrating the stark contrast of these two facts. When the sin of mankind was laid bare, God did not reject His murderers, but instead paid their full penalty.  After disgorging themselves of the full venom of sin’s centuries old hatred, the message back was still, “But I have loved you even unto death.”  Mankind wants God to hate them, to truly be the Enemy that they are justified to fight, the Enemy they are entitled to kill; and yet God’s plain message comes back, “I love you; you are precious to Me.”

God the Father’s message was that He was willing to give up His own, only Son so that His murderers could stand free and clear, penalty paid, judgment satisfied.  So yes, God was pounding the nails into Jesus’ hands as Lord High Executioner.  Yet with every pound of the hammer, the message was “I love you, I love you, I love you this much; I want you to be with Me, I want you to have eternal life, I want you to have the riches of my blessings;  I paid this sin, I paid this sin, I paid it for you!”

As we stand there with hammer in hand, breathing heavily, surveying just how we had gotten God back, God was taking an awe-full chance: would the murderer be overwhelmed by the love that is returned?  Was it indeed worth the effort to let defiant humans do their worst so that God could show them the Gory of His love?  Would you have taken that chance and gone through that abuse and agony?  Yet Jesus did not turn away.  At any moment He could have said “STOP!” and yet He didn’t.  He believed that indeed you were worth the effort.

It’s the same attitude that brings Jesus here every time there is a worship service.  Jesus makes the effort to come – even if you don’t, He still makes the effort to be here.  And every time that Holy Communion is celebrated, He comes willing all over again to give Himself totally to you – He has come, He is willing, even if you don’t show up, He will still be here, week after week.  That’s how much He has loved you.  You may abuse and neglect Him, yet He is still willing to make the effort to be available to you.

“God in the hands of angry sinners” – Good Friday shows us what we are capable of when we have God under our thumb – but also what God is capable of in those very same circumstances.  What a demonstration of steadfast love is to be found here – right here – as this same Jesus is here in our midst right now.

Short but Not Anymore

For all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus               Romans 3:23-24

 

“So far today, God, I’ve done all right.  I haven’t gossiped, I haven’t lost my temper.  I haven’t even been grumpy, nasty or selfish.  I’m really glad about that.  But in a few minutes, Lord, I’m going to get out of this bed; and from then on, I’m going to need a lot of help.”

Ouch, but that’s painful!!!  The great triumph was that for a few minutes right at the beginning of the day one hadn’t yet messed up.  We laugh at this because we know that it hits all too close to home.  Sometimes it just doesn’t take much and all this triumph is out the window, and already the day has been tainted by sin.  How frustrating it is to know that we are always so close to the edge of slipping into what is not right and proper before God.

We yearn for something different – partly because we do want to please God, but also because we want to be known as people who are fairly decent.  Each of us has a mental picture of ourselves as basically good people, that really with very little effort — a little touch-up here, and little fine tuning there –, we are basically shoo-ins into heaven.  After all, why should God ever think of not allowing us into heaven?  Certainly He couldn’t be all that picky over some very minor goofs here and there.

And yet we nervously chuckle at that prayer with which I started because all too often it is all too true of each of us.  We walk a fragile thin line between doing what is God-pleasing and what is not, and how easy it is to cross over that line – in anger, in retaliation, in selfishness – you name it.

In fact, even before we get out of bed it can start.  Just have someone not set the alarm clock properly, or someone’s alarm is too loud, or someone gets to the bathroom before you, or takes too long in there, or you are still fighting the fight from the night before, or whatever, and already you find that you can’t even say, “So far today, God, I’ve done all right….”

In fact, this scares us.  If everything can that easily go sour that soon, that early in the morning, then just think what it will be like for the next 16 or so hours.  In fact, the thought scares us so much that we refuse to think about it, because maybe we aren’t as wonderful as we pictured ourselves, and it worries us – not because we are that conceited, but rather because we just might not be good enough like we desperately hoped that we were.

What becomes evident rather quickly is that St Paul was right: we all have fallen short, we are indeed not the irresistible prize that literally DESERVES heaven as we would hope.  Rather than nervously waiting at the door of heaven for God’s decision, how we would rather that God were on His knees pleading with us to enter, while we casually examine our fingernails, awaiting just the right moment before we give in and, yes, we will enter after all.

Instead we find ourselves in the very real danger of God pronouncing us not fit to clutter up His Kingdom forever with our petty sins.  After all, if we aren’t going to let go of our sins here on earth, what makes us think that we will let them go when we reach heaven?  God knows that all too quickly His heaven would be turned into a bloody hell if we aren’t different people by the time we reach there.

However, another fear also drives us with its own special agony.  This fear goes all the way back to Adam and Eve.  The serpent had tempted them with the idea, “You shall become like God…”  and we are intent on trying to outdo God: we try to come up with “better”, or more “realistic”, or more “fair” Ten Commandments than God.  We try to come up with a “better” or more “fair” morality, a “better” or more “fair” definition of relationships, a “better’ or more “fair” judgment on approved behavior, a “better” or more “fair’ ANYTHING OTHER than what GOD says.

Without a thought we will rise up in condemnation of God for His way of handling something so inefficiently compared to our way, our ideas.  We SHOULD be like God, because then we would be ultimately in control of all things – at least over those things that matter, that touch our lives – and we could make some improvements compared to what He has defined in the Bible.

Yet as the prayer emphasizes, we can’t even control ourselves.  How can one be a decent and admirable person – the model of goodness that God is – the model of what the ideal person really ought to be – if from the moment you roll out of bed in the morning it is a battle to keep anger, gossip, grumpiness, selfishness, nastiness and all the rest of those things at bay?  Listen to how we try to trivialize it by claiming that it’s OK to be this way until that first cup of coffee or whatever it takes to “wake us up” in the morning.

What hurts most, and what we are most scared of, is that as much as we don’t want to stand condemned by God, on the other hand we fear standing condemned by our own selves more.  We want to raise our heads and self-righteously condemn God for His morality, His solutions, His commands, His way of doing things and yet we crumble when we look at ourselves and see how far we have fallen even from our own standards.

Paul is right, we have fallen short, terribly short of the Glory of God – from God’s side we have fallen terribly short of reflecting Him to all the world around us, which is what He created us to do; from our side, we have fallen terribly short of having the glory that a god should have, which is what the human nature tainted by the covetousness of Adam and Eve struggles for.

And usually it is about at this place where we begin to shut down.  This is so uncomfortable and scary for us, that we will try to turn our attention elsewhere.  Our self-preservation instincts kick in and we begin to become defensive, combative, distracted, even escapist – anything to take the heat off, because we are scared, scared that when all this is finished, we will indeed have nothing left, no hope left, no encouragement, no relief.

And so we miss the point of Paul’s next statement: “being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.”  You know that picture of God pleading on His knees for us to enter heaven?  Ironically it is true.  God is so desperate to get us into heaven, He didn’t stop at a cross.  As Paul says in II Corinthians 5(:18-21):

Now all these things are from God, Who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.  Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.   He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become GOD’S righteousness in Him.

As Paul had to demonstrate in the first three chapters of Romans, nobody stands before God without having fallen short.  We squirm at the merciless indictment against all sin, even the sins we are comfortable with, even the sins that are supposedly “victimless”.  God is not satisfied with people living beneath what He had created them to be – with people who have fallen short of the Glory of God.

He’s also not satisfied with merely condemning.  He does something most daring in that cross of Jesus.  He gives us His own righteousness, His own holiness.  But this isn’t a righteousness that’s like a suitcase filled with a certain quantity of “goodness”, something that now that you have it, all you have to do is store it in the closet until it is needed.  Nor is the righteousness like a shirt that Jesus might take off and now you get to wear it.

Righteousness is something that goes to the very nature of someone.  It is not a list of deeds, but a description of what one IS.  It is not an attitude, but a definition of the core of being.  True, I may seem to do righteous deeds, but that doesn’t mean that I am righteous. Since Adam and Eve, none of us is righteous, because at the core of our beings there is a genetic disease, a pollution that leaves anything and everything tainted.

So if righteousness isn’t a package, and I can’t have righteousness as a shirt to cover myself with, then how can I be made righteous, how can I cease to fall short of the Glory of God?

The answer lies in the fact that the definition of righteousness centers not in what Jesus did, but in Jesus Himself.  To have righteousness is to have Jesus; without Jesus, there is no righteousness.  There can be no other way – if we need Someone with the righteousness of God, then the conclusion is that we need God Himself.  Jesus must enter into the core of our being with Himself, or else we will never have what we need – we will always fall short.

But Jesus is not like some stone that sits in the bottom of a bucket of water.  You might say He is like a pill that you drop into a glass of water, and suddenly the whole glass is filled with color and fizzing bubbles, which stir the water into roiling and fascinating activity.  No, Jesus isn’t fizzy water, but when He is at the center of our being, at the very core of our hearts, He does stir up in our nature a difference in the way we respond to the world around us..

One day we discover that we watch our language more, since somehow it’s just not comfortable to use certain words as it did before.  We watch our talk now, because we are more and more genuinely concerned about how we may needlessly hurt someone else.  We find ourselves being more helpful, not because we weren’t before, but because it means more than it had before.  We find our mind refusing to be sidetracked down certain thoughts since they just aren’t fitting for Him Who now lives in us.  Certain activities have lost their attraction because Jesus provides far more satisfying consequences as He creates new relationships between people, and repairs old ones.

And gradually the core of righteousness — Jesus at the center of our being — begins to make His presence felt more and more.  We begin to find that even after we get out of bed, that it isn’t such a battle to do what is God-pleasing, we even last longer between episodes where we stumble.  And all this is the evidence that Paul did know what he was talking about – he has led us to Jesus so that we can have a true and lasting hope for our daily lives: despite the fact that we fall short, now that Jesus is at the core of our being, we have God’s righteousness living in us.

And all that without even needing a morning cup of coffee!

How Can We?

How can we who died to sin still live in it?      Romans 6:2

This section of Romans that the Epistle was taken from intrigues me the most.  There are many wonderful passages in Romans, very beautiful, comforting, strengthening passages.  There are also passages of warning as well.  But this section in particular fascinates me.

In the earlier chapters St Paul sets out how we are all sinners.  It doesn’t matter what position, prestige, heritage or possessions you have.  It doesn’t matter how gifted you are or aren’t.  It doesn’t matter if you have God’s revealed will or you have just a code of behavior you have adopted.  No matter what the law, God’s law or man’s, we break it willingly and therefore we are sinners, people whose hearts have the seed of rebellion in them.

This is the path Paul must take to get to what he really wants to talk about.  His delight is not to beat us down, but rather lay the framework which would display the awesome mercy and love of God.  Now that the backdrop is complete, he sets before us that extraordinary grace of God in which Jesus would die for sinners, in fact, as he points out in Chapter 5, Jesus would die for the enemies of God.

This now touches where Paul’s delight is.  God has such grace, mercy, and love toward us!  In chapter 5, his re-occurring phrase is “how much more” – if God could act in such an extraordinary way to save sinners, then “how much more” –   “how much more” will God do once He has so saved us!   Jesus would die even for God’s enemies, then “how much more” will His life be poured out on us now when we believe in Him!   And on top of that, God has mercy and grace to cover everybody’s’ need within an unlimited abundance of His love.

However, now in chapter 6, Paul addresses a logical and inevitable question:  if God has such generous love, mercy, and forgiveness toward sinners, don’t you have the best of both worlds?  After all, you could sin all you want, and won’t God simply show even more grace and mercy towards you?  You can do whatever you want, and God would do what He does.  You could live in the most raunchy way and God will simply run to you to make everything wonderful again – that sure sounds like a win-win situation to me!

Of course, we react in horror at that idea.  God is not interested in perpetuating our sin and the destruction of literally everything it touches.  His desire is that we reflect His Image, not the image of Satan.  He wants hearts where we are  filled with the light of His Glory, not with the darkness of selfishness and self-centeredness.

Paul’s reply is intriguing – he does not react to the idea in the same way as we might.  Our first inclination would be to lay down the law with dire threats – probably not far from the Sunday School teacher who had been driven to pure exasperation by one student, who had constantly fooled around, constantly gotten into trouble.  Absolutely at the end of her rope, she tight-lipped said to little Johnny, “If you do that again, God’s not going to love you anymore.”  Likewise we would expect Paul to vent wrath and condemnation, something in the order of: “If you keep on sinning, God’s going to get tired of this and He’s going to condemn you anyway.”

But that’s not what you find Paul doing – in the passage surrounding the text, there is not one word like that anywhere.  There is no suggestion that God will withdraw either His grace, His mercy, His love, or His forgiveness.  In other words, there is nothing we can do to shut off the flow of His salvation toward us.  Actually that is how it should be.  God doesn’t give us His wealth of redemption based on what we do, not even in how grand is our repentance, not even in how emotional is our faith, but rather it is all based upon His Word and promise, His commitment to save the world.

If somehow it depended on our cooperation, that in some way we cause God to now be gracious, we would be in deep trouble.  We would always be fearful in whether we had enough to motivate God.  Worse is that we can end up believing ourselves to be master of God, subjecting Him to our whimsical ideas of what He should allow.  We would make Him into a half-blind, half-deaf, slightly dementia-affected grandfather who would pat us on the head and cluck, ”It’s OK; it’s OK,” while we go on doing whatever attracts our attention at the moment.

Paul here at the beginning of Chapter 6 pulls a rather neat trick on us: on one hand, God is a consistent Rock – His grace, mercy, forgiveness, steadfast love and all the rest aren’t just available, they are constantly flowing out upon us.  For example, you don’t have to plead for His forgiveness, because everything needed to forgive your every sin and rebellion is already finished, done on the cross, once for all time, two thousand years ago.  It is always surrounding us, always ready at the moment’s notice to act on any and every repentance through Jesus we have.

Instead, Paul places responsibility for our behavior squarely back into our laps  Taking a little liberty with his words, he says in essence, “You dope!  How can you go back to a way of life you know is destructive?! You know what sin does, how it destroys your life, your relationships – how it destroys YOU.  Why then would you ever want to go back to that way again?? – How could you go back to anything which has “death” written all over it, when you know full well that you have Life in all its Glory literally surrounding you??”

That’s a good point.  I no longer remember the particulars of the story, but there was a man who was going to smuggle a small wild animal (a weasel?) somewhere, and so he hid it under his coat in order to avoid being challenged by anyone.  However, as he went along, the animal started to chew on his abdomen.  The man was in great pain, but was determined to not let it show.  Finally the damage to his body and the pain overwhelmed him and he died, while the animal merely ran away;

It is indeed a real question which the text poses for us.  Why would we hold on and hide those things which will eat us out from the inside and destroy us?  When does the pain drive us to finally cry out in rejection of what we are hiding?  When does the life from God, which abundantly swirls around us, finally make us reach out to grab the fullness and pleasure of the freedom from our guilts, our destructive habits, our shattering experiences?  We regard the man with the animal eating at his belly as stupid, and yet how equally stupid can we be when we just will not let go of what devastates our existence.  Why do we insist on hanging on and yet constantly pay the penalty of misery?

It is not as if we don’t have any other alternative.   And it is not as if the alternative is too far away.  The shift that is required does not require intricate gymnastics – neither physical, mental, nor spiritual.   What our Lord requires of us is so simple that we so often reject His way.  A swami, which is a Hindu teacher in India, once asked a missionary about his faith.  The missionary told him about human sin and rebellion, but after describing the salvation available through Jesus, the swami was last seen walking away, shaking his head, and muttering, “too easy, too easy.”

What God requires is that we lay before Him the things which have so ruled our lives, seeking to hide nothing and even exposing to Him those things which are uncomfortable for us.  Then, whatever we placed in God’s hands, we are done with it.  It just is not worth dwelling on it again.  It is of no value to let it occupy the mind and waste our time on it again.  As the angel grabbed Lot and his family by the hand and as they pushed them out of Sodom and Gomorrah, they told them “don’t even look back” [Genesis 19:16-27] – in other words, it’s not worth being pulled back into death – it’s not worth clinging to that which you no longer belong!

When the old style of life is given up, it must be with the realization that Jesus and the Holy Spirit must be a part of this action.  So often in the past old habits have defined what was the usual of our lives.  They were what we were used to; they were what occupied our minds and our hearts, so without them, at first, we feel a bit lost and Satan is quick to pull up memories and even yearnings from that kind of life.

Jesus once told the parable about an unclean spirit who left a man, and wandered around seeking rest and finding only a desert.  It decided to go back to the man and found that the dwelling place (the heart and mind) was swept, orderly, and most importantly, empty.  So the spirit goes and finds seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and the last state of that man is worse than the first [Matthew 12:43-45].  In other words, if we want to truly live differently, we cannot do so with an empty heart and mind – we will only crash and burn in a most devastating way.

With what then do we fill our heart and mind?  In chapter 5, verse 5, Paul says “Hope does not disappoint us, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit Who was given to us” and in chapter 15, verse 13, he writes “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”  This hope has nothing to do with vague wishful thinking, rather it is the guaranteed goal which is held before us, already bought and paid for.  It is so real that it echoes Isaiah, “Behold, I will do a new thing, already it springs forth; do you not glimpse it?” [43:19].

As the Holy Spirit focuses our minds on the promises of God in His inspired Scriptures; as we lift our hearts up with fellow Christians in confession and song; as we begin to realize the greatness of God’s love and action in our worlds for our sakes; as our lifework and preoccupations alter because we see ourselves and others differently, as we discover real joy and wholeness of spirit, our hearts and minds will have no vacancy sign left out for Satan to pull us back into our old life.

And, of course, as Jesus comes personally to make Himself at home in our hearts and minds in Holy Communion, biding us by the Holy Body and Blood to “do this in remembrance of Me” – to remember Who He is, what He was like as He walked our world, what He has said, and what He has done; to remember His patience, forgiveness, healing, suffering, death, resurrection, and all the rest – these are more than enough to fill our hearts, giving Satan not even a toehold from which to work.

How true it is when Paul challenges how we could ever want to go back to what has so destroyed us in the past, when by contrast we have so much to now discover and delight in, so much more real and solid life, so much more  glorious discovery of the hope which touches our lives right now and which will never end at all.  Come, let’s us grasp the power this has for a wonderfully different life compared to what we have come out of!

Am I in the Place of God?

Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.  Now therefore, do not be afraid;                    Genesis 50:19-21

It had been forty years since the crime had been committed.  Imagine — forty years of constantly having that in the background of the mind, constantly there, constantly on the run.  Forty years of constant fear that the full weight of the crime will descend and crush you.  Forty years of looking over your shoulder, wondering when the finger will point at you.  Forty years of making plans that always had a large unspoken “IF” right in the middle of them.

It had been forty years since the brothers of Joseph had sold him into slavery.  Eight chapters earlier, when the brothers had come to Egypt to buy grain and it hadn’t yet been revealed to them who this high Egyptian official really was, already they indicated their guilty consciences.  Even after twenty-three years, Joseph, at that time, overheard these brothers talking about how their present trouble was payback for how they had sold Joseph and deceived their father.

Imagine living with guilt the way that they had: every little trouble, every large catastrophe, every hardship, every tragedy would burn in their minds the question whether now THIS would be the disaster that they deserved for that foolish stupidity they had done decades earlier.

How true it is that once something is done, once said, that no matter how much you regret it, it cannot be recalled.  Something foolish, or well-meaning; something intentionally bad, or casually done, or done without thinking – no matter what it was, it now looms in history like some monolithic fortress; that no matter what you do now, as you look back on your life, right smack in the middle of your field of vision is that event.

Already in chapter 45 of Genesis, Joseph had spoken of forgiveness and of his realization of God’s greater plan behind even their crime.  Yet in spite of his assurances of forgiveness and of no grudge kept, seventeen years later the brothers are still looking over their shoulders, still waiting for when Joseph might get even with them.

Truly, the hardest person in the world to forgive is yourself.

This is why I disagree with Joseph.  No, I don’t mean that Joseph should have gotten back at his brothers after all, so that now they could feel better, so that their guilt would now be satisfied.

What I mean is that when Joseph said, “Am I in the place of God?”, I beg to differ with what he meant.  Oh, I know he actually meant that “who was he to take vengeance on anybody — that’s God’s business,” and yes, I agree that we do not, as individuals, have the right to take the law in our own hands and pound someone down because he has offended us.

Yet, it is also true that we ARE in the place of God!  As we walk this earth, as people look at us, they HOPE to be looking at God.  No, not that we are little gods of our own running around, but that we are the ambassadors, the representatives of God Himself.  Whether it is in church or out in the parking lot, whether in the home or on the playing field, whether in your business or shopping, the people who know you expect to see a reflection of God standing before them.

This is not an unreasonable expectation, because even God expects to see Himself in us as well.  What an awesome privilege we have!  We get to reveal to the world the characteristics of God, especially in one important area: the area of forgiveness.

You see, that’s where Joseph definitely WAS in God’s place: He got to demonstrate the full, total forgiveness that God has – a forgiveness so extraordinary that it is hard to believe.  Even after seventeen years, Joseph’s brothers couldn’t believe that it would be that total, that final.  Somewhere in these seventeen years, something should surface where they will be hauled into accountability all over again.  After all hadn’t they destroyed thirteen years of Joseph’s life and held him only a hair-breadth away from death?

You wonder whether Joseph ever got flashbacks from those days of terror and hardship.  Satan is very good at resurrecting all sorts of memories!  After all, when God forgives, these things no longer exist to Him.  So it must be Satan working away at the brothers, and perhaps even at Joseph.  And with the brothers almost NEEDING something to finally satisfy their guilt, how easy it would be to just cave in and do what they were expecting for the last forty years.

Joseph seems almost non-human in his forgiveness.  Every indication is that he truly did put the brothers’ brutality, the threat of death and his years of hardship behind himself and was therefore completely free to give them total forgiveness – free to show them the depth, breadth, length, and height of the forgiveness and love of God – he was free to show them God.

But our curiosity is aroused – how could Joseph do that?  Thirteen years is a big chunk of life – more than a tenth of his total one hundred and ten years!  Time and again, coming so close to death, destroyed in every other way, not just being sold as a slave, but then later being thrown into prison, and all the rest, is not easy to discard as if of little consequence!

In both places where Joseph speaks forgiveness to his brothers, he reveals the “how”:  He was given a perspective which radically changed the meaning of everything.  He realized that the situation was not between him and his brothers, not between him and Potipher and his wife, not between him and the Pharaoh – it was between him and God.

And it wasn’t based on guilt, but on love.  I am very sure that as Joseph went through the furnace of slavery and imprisonment, he was made aware how he had been no innocent victim in his brothers’ hatred toward him.  He had thrived on his father’s special attention, and made no secret of his distinctive position in the family.  How he too could have wrapped his whole existence around guilt, just like his brothers were doing.

Yet he also came to realize that the route that God took was meant to prepare him and to maneuver him into the place where he would be most valuable not only in saving the lives of many others, but also of his own brothers.  He was by no means robbed, but instead was given a most dignified honor before the world and in the eyes of God – and he got there fully prepared by God for the position and honor.

What a privilege Joseph had to reveal such forgiveness.  How much more necessary that that forgiveness is revealed even today.  People haven’t changed much over the thousands of years since Joseph’s brothers.  There are still many all around us who have a hard time just wrapping their minds around the idea of forgiveness.  They just cannot understand how anybody would forgive them that totally, that fully, that finally.

It is even worse when it comes to the Lord, because as their sensitivity to sin increases, so also their awareness of some key things that they have done which affected not just the earthly life of someone, but also his and maybe even their own eternal life.  Far more powerful is the sense of guilt and of deserved punishment in such a case.

As when I often say in our worship’s Absolution, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” – so also what a powerful thing is it to be “in the place of God” and to not just pronounce but also demonstrate God’s forgiveness to the people you know, who need this forgiveness!  What a treasure it is to see them catch the glimmer of the amazing removal sins which God offers to all!  It is a power which can encourage someone to cast their sins on the Lord and receive the confidence that there is no sin, no guilt, no condemnation anymore forever.

Yet we come today, realizing that before we can give and demonstrate to others God’s forgiveness, we need to have experienced it first.  How can we make others see the power and the perspective on life which God can give, unless we have seen it in action dealing with our own guilty conscience and incidents in our own past?

That’s why we come today before the cross, that’s why we come to the Lord’s Table!  With wonder and amazement we hear again the words of forgiveness spoken to US.  Perhaps the thought has occurred to you that as I pronounce forgiveness, if only I knew what you were holding inside, how could I ever speak so confidently?

Because the forgiveness is not mine.  It is the forgiveness of Jesus – all I can do is relay HIS message to you.  And the thing is that when we realize that HE DOES KNOW EXACTLY what you hold inside, even then he didn’t pronounce mere words – He went so far as to DIE especially for you, taking upon himself that destruction and separation which your sins, your stupid foolishness had created.

Did you ever forgive someone, but then you never really wanted to have much to do with that person, probably because you didn’t trust him anymore?  And yet in Holy Communion, here comes Jesus, trusting us all over again, coming back for yet another week with us, coming back with joy, eagerness, and love.  He comes back to be with us.  There’s no doubt on His part: whenever we have Communion, He will be here, every time.

All this will describe Nata Allison (whom we baptize today) for her life.  Becoming a Child of God, she now will become someone to whom others will look to get a glimpse of God’s heart.  Her forgiveness will be God’s forgiveness, first shown to her and then shown through her.  She will have the awesome privilege of speaking for Jesus in releasing another human being from the devastating weight of guilt which so often burdens their life with a special kind of misery.  She will be able to give them a freedom which can only be described as a precious gift from God.  And she will be able to do this because today God enfolds her into a special place in His family.

What a powerful thing has been given to us, what a powerful thing we have for others – this forgiveness from God.  But even more, what a privilege that we have that we are “in the place of God,” so that as people encounter us, they get to experience a tremendous love of God through the forgiveness of Jesus that can release them from the guilt that so easily hangs on throughout life.  What joy it is to be privileged that way!

Water Streams and Umbrellas

For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, even so they also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy.  For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all.                                      Romans 11:30-32

The lessons for this morning are built around a two-point theme: first is the dominant theme of mercy, because when God gives His Word it is irrevocable despite anyone’s rejection; the second is to consider the power of this mercy in our lives.

St Paul virtually shoves our noses into God’s mercy in the Epistle.  But before we get to his presentation, it is essential to understand what Paul means when he speaks of “disobedience.”

If you deliberately do something that’s wrong, that’s rebellion, and that’s what is at the heart of sin.  “Disobedience” is never merely an “oops!” — there is a sense of defiance about it, of trying to deliberately get away with something which has been forbidden.  So when Paul refers to us as “disobedient,” this is more than that we make mistakes, but that a basic attitude in our nature is to reject God, His will, His way, His purposes – simply put, it is rebellion.

With that in mind, we turn to Paul’s argument and find that indeed he begins out by reminding us, who represent the non-Israel people of the world, that we were disobedient and therefore deserved nothing but the penalty of God’s Law.  However, Israel, even though so specially privileged by God, also was disobedient by rejecting God’s way, His marvelous offer of life and salvation through Jesus Christ.

Because of such rejection, quite understandably, God could have simply packed up his bags and gone home, leaving both Jew and Gentile to stew in their rebellions.  But, of course, that’s not what the Lord did.

To understand what God has done, for the moment think of a water fight.  One boy has the hose and he aims it at his friend.  The friend on the other hand has brought along an umbrella, which he opens and protects himself.  Now the umbrella doesn’t stop the flow of water – it merely diverts it away from the one holding the umbrella.  The water keeps coming but now get showered on the grass and the flower garden, which gratefully drink up the moisture and flourish because of it.

Eventually though, if the force of the water is great enough, perhaps it begins tearing the fabric, or maybe it begins to bend one of the ribs of the umbrella – slowly the constant stream of water can wear away at the barrier, until finally it breaks through.

According to Paul, that stream of water is God’s amazing mercy and grace in Jesus Christ – the waters of Life, a stream which constantly flows in full torrent.  What the Jews have done in their “disobedience” is to put up an umbrella, a barrier to protect them from getting all “wet.”

In a sense, we are mystified, because why would you want to protect yourself from God’s mercy and grace??  And yet this has always been the problem of the “disobedience” of both Israel and non-Israel alike.  The sin in us so often assumes that if God wants to give us anything, then it will be something that it will hurt us, cheat us or kill us.

But just because the Jews have put up a barrier doesn’t mean that the torrent of God grace and mercy has been shut down!  No, it keeps coming in full strength, and like the grass and the flower garden drinking in the diverted water, God’s mercy and grace now showers upon all of us as well – now we get to experience these remarkable qualities which are to be found in Jesus.  And so HERE WE ARE! drinking deeply of the great “Water of Life”, the water that flows from the spiritual Rock, which is Jesus.

So now we get all the benefits of adoption through Baptism, we get the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit, the presence of Jesus in Holy Communion, the reality of the resurrection, the promises of the Ascension, and the power of Pentecost.  And just look at how Christ Jesus’ Church has thrived down through the centuries, around the world — all because the Jews could not turn off the flow of mercy, they would only divert it.

But like the umbrella unable to stand against the constant barrage of water, so also the defenses of the Jews will not stand against the constant barrage of God’s mercy and grace.  One day the barrier of rejection will have eroded enough, that finally it will collapse and they too will experience the mercy and grace of God’s extraordinary gift of life in Jesus.

Paul emphasizes that because of all of our rebellions, no one deserves anything from our Lord, and yet that cannot stop the flow of His mercy.  All we can do is divert it.  The Jews have set up their umbrella in rejection of Jesus.  But what’s even worse to see is how many umbrellas are out in the grass and flower garden!  Just like the Jews, we too can reject God’s way of doing things and thereby prevent ourselves from receiving any benefits which Jesus did by dying in our place and giving us His own Life and righteousness.

Yet even if we do that, it still will not weaken or stop the flow of God’s mercy!  Whether people would follow Him or not did not prevent Jesus from coming as a human being, living a perfect human life for us, and dying on the cross.  He still would have come, even if nobody in all the world’s history ever believed in Him.  That’s because umbrellas, no matter how many there are, cannot stop the flow of God’s mercy and grace.

In chapter 8, Paul says that all nature is waiting for the revealing of God’s sons, the final adoption on the Last Day.  Creation has been kept in bondage, not because of its fault but so that we sinful human beings could have a home. Had God not done that, creation probably would have spewed us out into space long ago.  But the promise back in chapter 8 is that even if grace and mercy goes from umbrella to umbrella until finally it falls to the ground – even that mercy will have its effect on the rest of creation, it will never fall to the ground uselessly.

But then when the grace and mercy DOES fall upon us, what effect it has, what power and confidence it gives!  This is where the Gospel (Matthew 15:21-28) comes into play.  Here was a Canaanite woman – not only was she not of God’s specially chosen People, but she was of the ancestry whom God had commanded should be utterly removed from the Promised Land because their sins were so repugnant to Him.  Yet here she is, drinking deeply of the shower sprayed off the umbrella of the Jews.

What particularly caught my eye was the problem her daughter had.  I am very familiar with the dialog between this woman and Jesus, but I never paid attention to the problem the daughter had.  I always thought that she was just very sick.  Finally I discovered that the daughter was “severely possessed by a demon.”  This set me back on my heels.

Remember when Jesus came down from the Mountain of the Transfiguration, that the disciples who were left behind had been trying release a boy from a demon that was particularly deadly?  They failed so miserably, so that Jesus had to personally step in, because this was a powerful demon.  Even back in Matthew 8, Jesus is spoken of casting out demons “with a WORD” – there was a personal presence and verbal command in order to cast out a demon – or so it looked.

Yet here, Jesus merely said, “It shall be done as you wish.”  No big splashy exorcism – Jesus didn’t even show up at the house!  All He did was to exert His will.

But the thing is, here was a woman, who by rights had no rights, yet who drank deeply of the grace and mercy that was bouncing off the Israelite umbrella of rejection – and look at the power she had access to!

Yes, Jesus gave her a hard time, but not because she had to prove her faith or worthiness!  If that were true, then that would be saying the umbrella can turn on or turn off the flow of God’s mercy and grace.  No, Jesus did this to expose to her and especially to you and me and the disciples, the fact that she had faith, drinking deeply of God’s mercy, and she had as much access to God’s power as did any believing Jew.

Look at the power to which she had access.  She, a Gentile (non-Jew), interceded for another Gentile, her daughter, which unleashed God’s will to a proportion not often matched in the rest of the Gospels.  Now that is truly an experience of mercy!

Imagine God’s will and power unleashed before us here today, as we come to partake of all of the Glory of God wrapped up in Jesus’ own Body and Blood, here at His table!  St Peter tells us, “His divine power has granted to us all things that belong to Life (which is Jesus) and godliness, through the knowledge of Him Who called us to His own Glory and excellence, through which He has given to us His precious and very great promises, that through these you might be partakers (koinonia – Communion)) of the Divine Nature” [II Peter 1:3-4].

So, now tell me, what’s that umbrella that you’ve got open?  What are the ways you have been trying to divert God’s grace and mercy from drenching your life?  Perhaps it has been in neglecting the study of God’s Word, or in avoiding the fellowship of Christ Jesus’ Church, or in evading the presence of Jesus, even when you might intercede for someone else.  Yet look at what you are missing.  Is your umbrella really worth it?

Jesus calls to you now, because His flow of mercy and grace has not diminished – He is pouring it out richly upon you right now.  His love, His promises, His power cannot be turned off.  “once you were no people but now you are God’s People; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy!” [ I Peter 2:10].

Freedom to Forgive

Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.     Romans 5:5

For  me, one of the most powerful stories about forgiveness is about Corrie Ten Boom, author of the “Hiding Place”, when she told of a time in which this text played an important role.  Corrie Ten Boom was a young girl of a Christian family in Holland during the Second World War.  When the Nazis took over Corrie’s country, they maintained their persecutions of Jews – killing Jews, sending them to concentration camps, torturing them, and so forth.  The Ten Boom family believed it to be their Christian duty to help protect these innocent people, and would hide the Jews until they could escape.

But the Ten Boom family was caught, and the punishment for their non-cooperation was that they were shipped off to concentration camps along with the Jews.  The family was split up; Corrie would never see her mother and father again.  She watched her sister slowly die from hunger and malnutrition.  She watched others being herded into gas chambers – their only crime was simply being of a group of people that the Nazis didn’t like.  She would witness and experience extreme cruelty and humiliation at the hands of these Nazis.

But through it all she had a firm anchor on her Lord Jesus, and the whole experience, instead of driving her away from her Lord, rather taught her some wonderful things about the love of Jesus.  She came out of this time of suffering with a faith and a hope that she just wanted to share with everyone, about a God Who could even be found in the midst of horrors and hatred, a God Who still came through powerfully with love and forgiveness.

She called herself a “Tramp for the Lord,” because she wandered from continent to continent, sharing her story, and sharing her Lord wherever she could.  It is an astounding story of faith as she would cross perhaps the Atlantic Ocean, not knowing anything about what would happen on the other side, where she would stay and how she would eat.  Yet the Lord would extraordinarily take care of her.

But one day it happened.  After speaking to a particular group of people in Germany, a man came up to her and said, “Do you remember me?”  No, she could not, so he explained that he was one of the guards, a particularly cruel guard, who was in charge at the concentration camp where Corrie had watched her sister die.  The man had become a Christian since then, and now had come forward to ask for Corrie’s forgiveness.  As Corrie thought back to those days and nights of horror, she just could not forgive.

Her anguished heart cried out, “Oh, Lord, You not only forgave Your enemies, You died for them – and You commanded us to do likewise.  But I cannot do this, I just do not have the power to turn back the surge of hatred and anger at this man.  I cannot, but You can.  Give me this love that can do it, this love that caused You to die even for Your enemies, to forgive them.  You have promised In Romans 5:5 that Your love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit – therefore I claim this promise, I claim this love for myself, just as You have promised.  Make me love this man and able to forgive him also, just as You have done.”

She herself was just a little amazed when she found that, in the next moment, she could look the man in the eye and honestly tell him that she forgave him.

“And hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”  God’s love – a love that would forgive – even die for enemies.  How’s your love been doing these past few days – anything close to that?

How easy it is to have enemies!  and so hard to love and forgive them!  It’s so easy to get angry at people around you, because of how they mistreat you or someone you love.  It  is so easy to ridicule and make fun of, to make a fool out of someone you don’t like.

But what can be worse, is that we can have hidden enemies, even ones you would not recognize as enemies, or feel comfortable calling as an enemy.  Sometimes this enemy is pretty close to you, going by the name of husband or wife, or child, or sister or brother.  You wouldn’t call them an enemy, yet the anger, the fighting, the disgust can be just as real.

You wouldn’t call it hatred, but the pointed little barbs, the snide comments, the little remarks meant to hurt – or – on the other hand, the silence that can be deafening, the cold shoulder and ignoring of each other.  Have you known times of such little love, times when you seek to really put the other person into his “place” or else to ignore her out of existence if you could?

This can happen outside the family as well.  A schoolmate acts as if you are invisible, and that goads you into anger and fury.  A co-worker oversteps his boundary into your territory, and gets away with it, and that can just make you steam with anger.  A woman that you know said or did something inappropriate to or about you, and the wrath just builds within you.  How easily a friendship can be destroyed or never even started because of jealousy or contempt.  Do you know how It is – how it is to be loveless from a spiraling disgust and hostility?

And knowing that this Is sin, that it Is contrary to God’s will doesn’t help much.  Yes, indeed, this runs cross grain to God’s way of doing things, and it has only one result, destruction: destruction of our relationships with each other, destruction of our relationship with God, even destruction of ourselves – that’s what hell is all about, destruction of all relationships, with the misery of hatred, anger, cruelty, disgust, and jealousy.  Sometimes we can almost taste that hell on earth.

And the hardest thing about it all is that we are helpless – sometimes it just seems that we are out of control, that there Is no way out, no way we are going to change – no way we are going to love and forgive the way God demands of us.

It is no mistake then, that this verse about the love of God poured into our hearts should be followed with a verse that says, “When we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for us the ungodly.”  Look at how much hope plays a role in our text, “Hope does not disappoint us,” and now “When we were yet hopeless,” Christ dies for us.  Think about that!  God proclaims Himself in the business of helping the helpless, of pouring love into a heart that has none, of giving hope when we seem to have noting left, of creating out of nothing.

What a thought – God knows exactly what you are like – He knows that inside of you is a swamp of hatreds, angers, contempt for others and for yourself.  He knows that you are helpless, often frustrated, never seeming to win, so often losing and making a mess of things.  And now He enters to do something which you can’t seem to do.

To begin with, you cannot change unless you know for absolute surety that you are forgiven.  If you don’t have a grasp on forgiveness, you will be too busy hiding and protecting yourself, or attempting to compensate for errors and failures.  It isn’t until you experience forgiveness that you discover what love is about, the kind of love that could even love you in spite of all that is locked away inside of you.  And that is why we have to be constantly drawn back to the cross of Jesus.

How true it is that we are in reality so helpless.  The only answer is that we be connected to something which is bigger, more powerful and far more able that we are – and there is that something, that Someone!  It is Someone Who, seeing how helpless we are, would willingly die for us; Someone Who, seeing how helpless we are, would willingly pour out His love and forgiveness for us; Someone Who would pour into our hearts His very own love.  No, it was not a wonderful man who did that.  It wasn’t even an angel who was moved to such sympathy and empathy for our condition.  It was the Creator God Himself.

What a hope we have been given!  He opens the door to us, first with a fantastic message of His forgiveness.  He comes to wash us clean, with a forgiveness that makes past sin, past errors, past failures no longer exist.  The anger and self-hatred that we can feel in our frustration toward ourselves, the punishment and wrath that we aim at ourselves for mistakes and foolish stupidities of the past, Jesus now takes upon Himself.  He stands there not to debate whether these things deserve such a harsh penalty – He agrees that they indeed deserve the verdict of death – and then He takes that very death upon Himself.

Satan doesn’t want us to let go of the negative, simply because he wants nothing else except to toy with our emotions, and that we should suffer and lose hope.  But in Holy Communion Jesus steps into our personal lives, into the world our bodies inhabit.  He sets His deeds in front of our eyes, in order that we “shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” [John 8:32] – His Body and Blood confront us here in this present moment with all which was done to guarantee our confidence, a base from which we can boldly try a different life, confirming that when “the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed’ [John 8:36]

We who are so helpless about ourselves stand in utter amazement.  Who would ever want to die for the likes of us?!  And yet the evidence is on the cross.  Jesus would .  Even for sinners like we are?  Even for sinners that are so helpless to change as we can be?  The evidence is on the cross.  Jesus would.

That kind of forgiveness has power; that kind of love has power.  In this way God can reach down into the depths and touch the very nerve-centers of our being, releasing us, freeing us.  Suddenly we see just how much a new life and new chance we can have – not some one-time new chance, but something that is free and new as each day is fresh and new.  Now we have the freedom to be different – to be forgiving of each other and of ourselves.

Come to the cross and discover that indeed we have a wonderful hope to be found there; see all the many wonderful blessings, promises and benefits that God is pouring out into our hearts because of Jesus.  Come and see, come and experience such a forgiveness and a love from God which can indeed change our lives.

Victorious Wrenched Man

Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord!     Romans 7:24-25

 

I love Thy Church, O God,
Her walls before Thee stand.
But please excuse my absence, Lord
This bed is simply grand.

A charge to keep I have,
A God to glorify,
But Lord, expect no cash from me,
Thy Glory comes too high!

Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follower of the Lamb?
Yes, though I seldom pray,
I still insist I am.

Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
And all the world go free?
No! Others, Lord, should do their part,
but please don’t count on me.

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him all creatures here below.
Loud my hymns of praise I bring,
Because it doesn’t cost to sing.

Too often this poem really does reflect the kind of battle that goes on within us – and it is the thought expressed in today’s Epistle as well.

Romans 7 is a chapter which I am most grateful for.  Here is St Paul, writer of half the New Testament, a tremendous worker and witness for Christ, who knew our Lord most intimately (he apparently had visions and such encounters with Jesus besides his Damascus Road experience) – here St Paul sits down across the table, shakes his head, and says, You know, being a Christian is tough stuff.  I really get bogged down.  I’ve got some of my own hang-ups that just won’t lie down and die.  I can have such plans on what I will do and should do for the Lord, and they fall apart on me.  I try to avoid the things I shouldn’t be doing, when suddenly I realize I’m already right in the middle of doing them.

How I appreciate Paul saying that!  One of Satan’s greatest tools is to make us think that we are alone in the world, and that no one could ever possibly understand what we are going through.  How effective this ploy is!  How often my faith is defeated, my resolve shattered, how I feel like such a failure – and since no one else seems to be as bad as I, I guess I must be the worst Christian ever.  How disappointed God must be with me!  Christianity no longer holds any joy, and the godly life becomes an elusive mirage on the horizon.

Now here comes Paul, who sits down beside me and says, Boy, do I have trouble living a Christian life!  Suddenly I realize I’m not alone, and a terrible burden lifts from me.  It’s reassuring to hear that one of the greatest Christians of all time had problems.

This doesn’t excuse me – if I do something wrong, it’s wrong.  And if I don’t do what is right, I stand equally as condemned.  But this gives me perspective – I’m not weird; I’m not strange; I’m just merely, but significantly, human, just like Paul, just like everybody else.  I realize that whatever happens in life can be dealt with – God has been handling all this since Adam and Eve, dealing with all sorts of humans like me, and forgiven them all – I will never send Him screaming out the door in shock because of what I am like.  In fact, I am reminded that I am just TOO human, too much like the world around me, not showing enough that I am distinct and separate from the world.

Having gotten me this far, Paul doesn’t merely drop me.  This is where I argue with the psychological philosophies of today.  God doesn’t just want to make me feel better – He wants to HEAL me.  I feel better that I now realize that I am not weird, or strange, or terrible, but that I am capable of being understood, and being accepted, and being forgiven, in spite of all my failings and shortcomings.  But the Lord wants me to grow and go beyond, because even here Satan wants me to think that I need not try to be more Christlike; to think that this human condition even Paul complained about is therefore obviously OK to be this way, so I can relax, sit back and not bother.

Jesus leans real hard on that attitude in the Sermon on the Mount, that I must constantly monitor my actions, my way of life, my way of thinking.  Paul didn’t end today’s Epistle with a resigned, “Oh, well, isn’t that tough luck!” – no, it is the cry of frustration that should escape from our lips as well – the cry that earnestly desires the best for the Lord and frustration that much too often we just aren’t where we ought to be.

But even here, Paul isn’t beating us down to achieve what Satan would so desire, that is, disillusioned, disheartened and despairing Christians.  Paul has purpose throughout this whole confession, and that is to get our eyes off of our failing, our own efforts, our own abilities and intentions, and get our eye on where the answer must lie.  “O wretched man that I am.  Who will deliver me from this Body of Death?  Thanks be to God Who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

THERE IS AN ANSWER! – an answer to all our failings, to our intentions that went wrong, to all our hopes and plans that never seem to materialize in our Christian walk.  There is a victory – as sure as the victory of Good Friday, as sure as the victory of Easter morning.  There is an answer, every time Jesus, the God of the universe, comes in Person, in the flesh, in the bread and the wine.  THERE IS A VICTORY.

You see, God has such power and such life within His forgiveness, that every time you have contact with Him and His promises, every time in repentance you are willing that He will touch you and your life, you just have to go away changed and different.  True, you may not understand or even recognize the difference yet – but it is there – it has to be, because the touch of God’s hand cannot be ignored.

He will open doors of blessing, He will open treasures of His power and His love within your life, He will open your abilities and strengths to new heights and depths, He will give you new understandings and perspectives, He will give you new values and consciousness of what is important, because He will now be right in the middle of your life.  Yes, there is victory, and therein lies the joy and hope and excitement of the Christian.

Wouldn’t you like to have that victory?  However, it is important to realize that our Lord, for His own reasons, chose not to make us instantly totally righteous, holy, and perfect the moment of our baptism.  Instead He intends to use our whole lifetime to grow a Christian out of each one of us – it sure isn’t the easiest way, to which we all can attest.  In fact, it can be downright frustrating at times when we end up with messes we have created.

But the struggle is the best way – the way our Father has chosen.  He thinks the struggle is worthwhile.  Perhaps in this way the lessons we learned become engraved deeply into our soul.  There are hard-won realizations we will value and treasure and oftentimes share with others who struggle.  Many times we will come to the point of seeing how His uncovering what we have tried to hide now makes us use His tools to handle such memories within His mercy, forgiveness, and steadfastness.  Ultimately the struggle will have brought us farther in our growth and closer to Him as we seek Him out, learn to depend on Him, and discover the richness of His fellowship.     .

On the other hand, our struggles are a great benefit to our fellow human beings.  When we are honest about ourselves, others recognize that we are not insulated from very human experiences, but rather along with Paul, we also wrestle with common frailties.  In very realistic terms others have the chance to see how we deal with God and how He deals with us.  They have the opportunity to see how we bring before the Lord a single problem, yet when He is done how wide and far-reaching are His solutions.  Most of all, they can observe the steadfast love, life and forgiveness which God makes available to each human who is willing to submit to His way.

How can we experience this victory?  If the victory comes through the touch of God in our lives, then logically we should seek that touch as often as possible.  The more contact, the more He will pour in His power, His love, and therefore His joy and His hope.  It means to make use of every way possible for Jesus to be part of your life – to crack open that Bible, read it, study it, get together with fellow Christians as often as possible to let God touch you through each other.  It means to gather in worship and to discover the uplift and even the mind change which can happen as we give the Lord His due praise.  More and more often come also to His Table with such a thirst and desire, craving the very personal and physical touch found in His Body and Blood.

Then read Paul’s following chapter, Romans 8, and find the amazing relationship and confidence which awaits you within this new spiritual environment.  Discover the wonder and hope into which you have been set; the freedom for you as you pass on by the temptations and hardships which surround you; the growing desire to answer the spiritual need in others for which you have a most wonderful solution; and the excitement of increasingly discovering how powerfully the Lord is involved in your life and using you as a necessary co-worker in His great plan of salvation.

As an experiment, take a waterglass and an eyedropper, put 168 drops of water into the glass.  Now add a drop of food coloring.  This represents how each hour of the week (168) are influenced by the one drop of Holy Communion and worship each week.  The mixture is quite pale.  Add another drop for every time you have contact with your Lord and Savior, whether in Prayer, reading the His Word, Bible study, or are in discussions with fellow Christians (after all, Jesus did say that where two or three are gathered in His Name, He is in their midst) – from the color of the water, now how much victory is likely to occur in your life?  Let’s do something about  it!

After all, God WANTS us to have victory – the cross demonstrates His eagerness for us to share in that victory, the force of His desire is that we experience all the richness for all the life He could possibly give us.  Come, give Him a chance – as He said, “Come to Me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” [Matthew 11:29-30]. Just think, you have already started today – here we are before the Lord and linked with each other as the People of God!!   Now give Him more time – add more color to your hours each week – and see that victory Paul declares is in store for us in the Name of Jesus.

Life Living in You

If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, He Who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit, Who lives in you.         Romans 8:11

The text does not fall within the Epistle that was read before, which is kind of sad, since it has quite a lot to say about the lessons for this morning.  When I finally realized that what we call chapter 8 was intended to answer the question that ended chapter 7, this beginning section of chapter 8 gained a whole new depth of meaning.

The end of chapter 7 is a cry of anguish from St Paul: “That which I DON’T want to do – that’s what I so often end up doing.  That which I DO want to do – that’s what I so often never get around to doing… So it seems to be a law of human nature, that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand – I may delight in God’s law in my inner self, but by the time it comes out to what I DO – well, let’s just say that there is something in me that pollutes, twists and ruins even my best of intentions – it’s like a war between the inner me and the outer me.

O, wretched man that I am!  Who can deliver me from this body of death??  THANKS BE TO GOD, through Jesus Christ our Lord!  So I will keep on serving the Lord in my mind, even though this outer nature of me will continue to thwart and sabotage what I want to do for the Lord.   Romans 7:24-25

Paul has said something very reassuring – and yet it isn’t!  It IS reassuring because he has acknowledged something that we all know is very real: despite how we may want to change, many times we just don’t.  We can try again and again, and yet we seem to be resisted time and again from something in us.

So it is comforting to know that we aren’t the only ones, that someone as godly and God-used as St Paul can describe himself as having this problem, and in so doing describe us so very accurately.  How good it is to know that our struggle is not an isolated experience, but one that even a great saint has shared.

Yet this still isn’t all that reassuring, because we just know that we are not pleasing God when we mess up so thoroughly.  We recognize that judged against GOD’s standard of perfection, we fail and fail miserably.  How could God ever accept us??

Paul sort of did answer that already in chapter 7, when he came to the conclusion that he could serve the Lord in his inner self, even though his outer self is still resisting and fighting.  In other words, that God is pleased and accepts us if – as the saying goes – if, in our dependence on Jesus, “our heart is in the right place.”

So he starts Romans 8 with the conclusion which all this MUST come to: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  That is a wonderful statement, something that allows us to relax and rest easy.  God will not be dealing with us in the condemned judgment we deserve, but indeed comes with an enormous and unparalleled forgiveness.   Whew!!

No wonder Paul can talk about being set free!  That gives us a most wonderful release from the worry and fear that when we make mistakes, when we do things that kinda-are-deliberate-and-kinda-aren’t-deliberate, that God will not come sailing out of heaven with a baseball bat and angrily tell us to go to hell.

But there is still something not very satisfying about all this, because if our innermost heart and mind are “in the right place,” then we still cannot be happy with a lifestyle that does not and will not please the God and Savior we have come to love.

It is true, Paul gives us the excuse to get away almost with murder.  We could go around saying we are serving God with our minds, and yet do some of the most raunchy things with our bodies, and then use the excuse, “It’s the heart that counts, it’s the thought that counts, not what we do.”

But if we really do love the Lord like we claim to, then this excuse will annoy us, it will enrage us against this human body of ours which sabotages our intentions and destroys our Lord’s happiness; this excuse will torment us as we see still around in our bodies the sins which pull down hard on the nails in the hands and feet of Jesus on the cross.

Actually, if indeed our hearts are really in the right place, then this excuse lends itself to hopelessness – after all, what comfort does this give those people who are the slaves to addictions, whether it be to gambling or to being misers, whether it be to overeating or to starving yourself, whether it be to alcohol, or to drugs, or to pride, or to anger, or to gossip, or to homosexuality, or to slavery to any of the vast variety of ways by which our lives can be torn apart by slavery to these things?

After all, we want our religion to be more than something that will happen only after we die!  We need help now!  We want strength and victory and courage and especially hope for TODAY and TOMORROW, not just for the Last Day!  If our hearts really are “in the right place,” then a life that is not pleasing to the Lord will be a private agony for us – not because we are afraid of being condemned, but because we know that the Lord deserves better from us.

But Paul just got through saying that we can’t please God because our outer human nature seems to have a mind of its own.  So then, are we to resign ourselves to a life of pure frustration and despair of ever doing things that will please God?

This is where verse 11, the text, comes in: “if the Spirit of Him Who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, He Who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit, Who lives in you.”

I don’t think Paul is talking about the Last Day as much as he is saying that this body, right now, that is so filled with death and sin – the Holy Spirit, Who is living in us, is going to make this body come alive with GOD’s Life.  No, it won’t be as total and as revolutionary as the Last Day’s total change into new life, when every last trace of death and sin is forever removed.  No, it won’t be like that.

But on the other hand, through the Holy Spirit this body will be unmistakably infected with Life.  And, by golly, we find that we CAN and DO conquer some of the persistent and powerful sins which are so entwined in our human nature.  Perhaps even to our own surprise, we find that not only can we turn away from these things that enslave us, but that it actually gets easier and easier.

We discover that the overwhelming power that had so thwarted our best of intentions and garbled our attempts to be God-pleasing, now as the Spirit works on our hearts and minds, becomes something that even for a little while can be brushed aside surprisingly easily – for a longer and longer time.  Perhaps we really did control ourselves; like never before we gain control over our anger, over our fears, over what enslaved us.  And then we discover that there are more and more opportunities where we can conquer more and more what lies in our human nature.

What begins to stand out is that we have discovered that there is Life – not physical life, but spiritual alive-ness that we had never experienced before, places where the old antagonist body had so steadfast resisted before, suddenly – even if only for a while – has become an ally.  Those are the times when you can say to yourself, “I actually did something that was right, I actually beat this addiction for this length of time, I actually did not give in when I was so strongly tempted!”

At first the times may be brief, but what is so encouraging is the fact that the times had occurred at all, when this would never have happened before.  Yes, we can be disappointed when we lose the progress and slip back, but the weapon against discouragement is to realize that our insides have already begun the process of changing for these things to have surfaced at all.   There is life in these old bones after all!

Now the rest of Romans 8 takes on a new and special depth.  For instance, verse 15: “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship, by Whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father.'” Or verse 26, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

Or how about verses 31-32, “What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all – how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?”  Or especially verse 37, “no, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him Who loved us.”  I think we have all understood this chapter not merely speaks of some far off future Last Day, but that it is a source of comfort and hope for right now.

Of course, for added reality, we come to the Table of the Lord, where our bodies have a physical experience, as well as our spirits, where Jesus enters into us is a very concrete way.  Here is constant proof that St Paul was not merely talking idealism, but that Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Father Himself is very much at the center and involved in the Life which enters into us.  Here is an unmistakable seal and guarantee that every word of this precious chapter is meant and real.  Indeed, nothing “can separate us from the Love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

So then let this part of Romans 8 be exactly that as well!  As the Lenten Season draws to the climax of both Good Friday and Easter and we talk about the New Life that we receive, let these verses stand reminding us that this New Life is indeed something more than just for the Last Day.  Oh, what we miss, when we fail to realize what this gives life to our mortal bodies right now.  And now what a hope we have, because we see the changes which come as the Holy Spirit makes us alive, not just in the spirit, not just in the soul – but also in the body.