Not Even Death (A Memorial Service)

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.       Romans 8:38-39

On Canada Day a few years back, we experienced an extraordinary rain storm.  Sure, the sky looked threatening, but no one could ever have imagined the volume of rain that came down within three-quarters of an hour.  Street intersections which normally would have rivers down the street gutters now had knee-high torrents.  It wasn’t as if we weren’t expecting a storm.  Working in my garage, the humidity was such that I welcomed the change a rainstorm would bring.  I just never imagined that it would come with such volume and with such vengeance.

Daily life also has its times when things can be just normal; at other times, we bask in the quietness of a lull.  However, as with the way that the weather was, sometimes we experience an overload of problems.  Oh, we have seen times when we knew that there would be a period of unpleasantness, perhaps an operation, or some sort of discomfort, but then things suddenly twist from bad to worse, and you find yourself in a maelstrom of difficulties, grief and hardship.  It can come with a forcefulness that can knock the wind out of you.

Years ago our family life was going along normally, and then my eight-and-a-half-month pregnant daughter-in-law experienced, as the doctors put it, some “complications.”  Suddenly in one day, although we had a new healthy granddaughter, my daughter-in-law walked very close to the edge of death.  Happily a week later she was released from hospital, but still faced six weeks of recuperation.

Death can hit with a startling swiftness: In my first year of ministry, Saturday night I was at a wedding reception talking with an older gentleman for quite a bit of time.  There was no indication that he was feeling weak or at the edge of death, and yet on Sunday morning his wife called to tell me that he had died.  That was my first funeral.

Death and its destruction intrudes into our lives – no matter how acquainted we may be with it in regard to family and friends, sometimes it can just suddenly and overwhelmingly pile up.  In one small congregation, for about two months I had to inform a weekly women’s Bible Study group of yet another death in the congregation.  The sadness and the darkness seemed almost tangible, settling its weight upon our shoulders, constantly in the background of the mind, creating a dismal atmosphere to our congregational life.  The holes were torn into the fabric of our lives, with an accompanying emptiness and lostness to what had once been routine.  Little incidentals: a greeting here, a conversation there, a shared card game – things which added color to life became missed.

“In the midst of life, we are in death; to whom can we turn but to You, O Lord?” the prayer book asks.  It is good to be here today, to address these feelings; they are real and they won’t just roll over and go to sleep.  Jesus Himself, as perfect as He was on this earth, felt the power of grief when he wept at the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus.  It is good then to be able to turn to this same Lord and there to discover comfort, help, assurance and hope.

How easy it is to feel very alone, with your feet knocked out from under you, even wondering whether God has perhaps forgotten about you.  But in the midst of such dramatic changes of life comes St Paul’s statement in Romans 8, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, …nor things present, nor things to come, … nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  This is a wonderful reassurance for the times of grief!

Paul’s chapter is very remarkable as it expresses so much hope and encouragement, reassuring us of our connection to God, grounding our confidence in His forgiveness toward us; it leapfrogs beyond the frailties of our humanness and it speaks of the extraordinary lengths God has already gone to for our sakes.

And it does not occur in a vacuum.  Paul had just described in the previous chapters such things as how encompassing is the rebellion of our sin against God, how Jesus died even for His enemies, how the Holy Spirit came to live in us so that there would clear and unhindered communication with God the Father, how His presence is concrete evidence of the extraordinary privilege of being adopted as God’s very own children, placed into God’s heart on the same level as His Love for Jesus His only Begotten Son.

Now at the apex of this chapter, Paul, in wonder and also in assurance, declares that all he has talked about is so solid, that he is convinced that nothing that can ever separate us from the Love of God.  Not even death.  Even when you feel so sad and overwhelmed as you unwillingly look death in the eye, even in the extraordinary loneliness that death creates in our lives and in our souls, even at those times when the world seems just so distant when we cry out in our loss, Paul shakes his head and declares that the evidence compels him to realize that there is nothing that can separate us from the ultimate commitment of Love God has for us.

God stands as One Who has experience in the matter of death.  He is One Who understands.  The cross of Jesus stands as more than an event where God released us from the penalty of our sin.  You also have the amazing and unique picture of God the Father watching His dearly beloved Son dying in extreme agony, as well as of the Son Who Himself stood at the graves of those He loved.

Paul is convinced.  The proof is too strong for him to deny.  He has seen what God would do in the utmost worst of conditions, that even there God’s Love did not stumble, that even there God did not withhold His greatest and most costly gift, His own Son, and Paul knows that nothing can compare with that.  There is too much commitment in God’s heart.  Having seen the extent that God has already gone in order to give us life and an eternal future, Paul can speak with absolute certainty that nothing can stand in the way of the deep and steadfast Love described.  That is the comfort, the strength, the reassurance, and the joy that takes us beyond loss toward the morning.

You would think that God would by nature be insulated from such human experiences.  But that is the secret and wonder of Christmas.  In ways we just cannot comprehend, the whole of Jesus life on earth is a declaration of how God made Himself vulnerable.  There is hunger and thirst, there is frustration and discouragement, there is weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, and abhorrence of His coming suffering and death in His Gethsemane prayer.

Even in the terrible loneliness of death, there is One Who will stand by your side, with you and in you.  And there is nothing that will break God’s willingness to do this for your sake.  When death makes you feel so all alone, grief tends to get bottled up inside.  It is like an acid that eats away your insides.  Who can you talk to who is willing to listen for the first time, if not for the tenth or the hundredth time?  There is One Who will hear every word, because there is nothing that can separate us from His Love.

Yes, the grief. the heartache and the loss of death still must be lived through, just as much as the faith and reassurance of Jesus Himself did not take away the pain and emptiness that He felt on the cross.  However, that God would make Himself so vulnerable does fly in the face of our sense of loneliness.  No matter what we may feel, Jesus has proved, as His Name, foretold from of old, is Immanuel, that indeed “God is with us.”  No matter how bleak the situation, no matter how overwhelmed by death, no matter how so alone we may feel, Paul declares that the proof is beyond doubt – it is utterly convincing, that nothing can separate us from God’s Love.

What a confidence that creates!  Every step in life which we take, there is Someone fully in stride with us.  As we reach out to what seems to be such a distant world, we touch a Face that is filled with a deep Love toward us.  As we cry out in loneliness, there is One Who holds not just us but also our hearts close to Himself.

But then also, when the day is done, God doesn’t helplessly shrug His shoulders.  Yes, He has heard our hearts; yes, He has made Himself vulnerable in order to understand our loneliness.  But when the day is over, He turns us to the morning.  There is a day in which He Himself will wipe away every tear forever.  On that day there will be joy like we could never know on this earth.  All who have held on to this Love which refuses to be diminished will gather around you in an extraordinary reunion which will never again have even a shadow of death.

Therefore even in the midst of loss, even when that loss is exceedingly sudden, we know we have an assurance that we can lean on, One Who will always be there, always ready for whatever the moment may bring.  That’s where the Gospel [Matthew 14:13-21] is so important on this day where we contemplate the suddenness of how life can change.  What you don’t see in the reading is how just prior to this account is when Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, had been beheaded.  Upon hearing this, Jesus wanted to be alone – just like you and I might do, and yet when he saw the crowd which had come to Him, He had compassion on them, and reached out to touch, to heal, and to feed.

In the perplexity of life, in our bewilderments, our griefs, our shock, we come to the Lord and find that this is not unfamiliar territory to Him.  But the thing that stands out in the Gospel reading is compassion, and we find that He has not changed over the thousands of years since He walked this earth.  Even now He reaches out to you and to me in His compassion to let us know that He is indeed here among us again, there in Holy Communion.  And there is healing not for the body, but particularly for the soul and the spirit, as He touches us with His resurrection power, as He reassures us that nothing has the last say except for Him.

What hope this gives us!  For us who continue our lives, and for those who are no longer part of our lives, we are reminded that not even the power of death can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus – and through Him we have link that will not fade away, that will not get lost or forgotten.  Those whom we have loved, cherished. and appreciated in Christ Jesus, will not disappear in the heart of God.  Jesus has given us His solemn promise that all of His People will be with Him, ‘seated on the very throne of God’ is how Paul described it in Ephesians [2:4-7].

“I am convinced … that nothing in all creation can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus,” is what Paul wrote.  His message is that in the bewilderment of life, when things happen with great suddenness and forcefulness, when it is not a rain but a deluge, when it is not a wind but a whirlwind, even there we cannot be separated from God’s Love made visible when Jesus reaches out in compassion to touch, to heal and to give life.

Their God, My People

“The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new Covenant…This is the Covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put My law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My People.”        Jeremiah 31:31,33

500 years ago, Pope Leo X realized that something had to be done with Martin Luther.  At first he had tried to dismiss the upstart monk as unimportant.  But the 95 theses had grown in popularity with each day.  It would have been easy to silence the monk by having him come to Rome, where he would never be seen or heard from again, but the Elector, Duke Fredrick the Wise, refused to let him go.

So the Papal Envoy, Cardinal Cajetan, was sent to straighten out this dissenting voice from Germany. [From Ingeborg Stolee, Luther’s Life (Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, Minnesota: 1943), pg 52]

Armed with prayer and confidence, Luther set out to meet the papal legate…. There was much opposition to his going, and someone said to him, “Brother, you will meet with very shrewd opponents against whom it will be almost impossible to defend yourself.  They will burn you at the stake.”  And they had good reason to fear.  They remembered the murder of John Hus who was forced to pay with his life for disagreeing with the Roman Church….
Someone reminded Luther that he could easily live in peace if he would say the two words necessary for the pope’s absolution of his crime: “I retract.”  But it was not that simple.  How could he say what they wanted him to say when he felt compelled and resolved to uphold the truth?…

Later, as Luther approached another dangerous time in his life, as he traveled to the city of Worms, to the Diet (assembly) there: [pp 60-61]

Luther’s friends feared this to be summons of death.  But he admonished them, saying they should pray earnestly that the will of the Lord be done.  Even though his enemies wished to destroy him, Luther assured his friends nothing would happen that was not according to the will of God….
…Most people took it for granted that Luther was going to his doom.  “Since there are so many cardinals and bishops at Worms, they will soon burn him as they did John Hus,”…
Luther’s only answer to such remarks was that he had to go to Worms nevertheless.
Approaching Worms, a messenger from a faithful friend met Luther and his followers.  He warned him that Luther’s enemies had said that they would not respect the letter of safe conduct, because, as a heretic, Luther should be killed anyway.
To those who heard the messenger’s news Luther gave the response, “Were there as many devils in Worms as there are tiles on the roofs of the houses, I should not hesitate to enter.  God will stand by me.”

Rightfully, most often for a Reformation service, the sermon accents the doctrines that Luther had corrected, and how he had returned to us the truth, allowing us to see again the fullness of the mercy, grace, and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ.

These indeed are very important themes to remember because our confidence in God’s eternal life for us hangs upon these things.  It is the freedom that Jesus speaks about in today’s Gospel [John 8:31-36], the freedom from being a slave to sin; and, as St Paul points out in the Epistle [Romans 3:19-28], freedom from slavery to the impossible standards of the law.  What Luther restored to us is the freedom to be alive and to live deeply and fully, to allow the Holy Spirit to lead us into new things, rather than be held by mere rituals.

But it is important to also be mindful of the man, Martin Luther.  No, we don’t want to make a god out of him, yet his life demands of us to pause and look again at our lives. Perhaps most humbling thing about him was his utter willingness to make the Lord the most important thing in his life, that he was willing to be used by God, and that he would go ahead with what he knew was right and necessary.

This was all with the full awareness of how, quite easily, it could cost him his life.  After all, Wycliffe, Hus, and Savonarola, among others, proved that death would be a very close companion when one stood against the might and power of the Roman church.

It wasn’t as if Luther was merely “bull-headed” or irresponsibly a rebel.  His intention was never to make a name for himself.  Many long hours of prayer into the night were spent before giving his famous answer at the Diet of Worms, and even afterwards the doubts assailed him.  “After all, how could this lone monk be right and the whole church after 1500 years be so wrong?” he himself asked.

What would have happened had Luther compromised just a little? or that he had gotten “cold feet” and disappeared to some unknown town?  or that he had tried to protect his self-interests?  or that he had not wanted to “rock the boat” in the event that he would be penalized or made to suffer in some way?

Although we can guess at such an outcome, we will never really know, because Luther did not back down.  Even at threat of his life, he was willing to make sure that Jesus and the truth about grace and salvation were proclaimed.

This is important, because today we must decide all over again why we call ourselves Lutheran.  This is more than just the theology, although that is extremely important, but also because that name identifies us with the man.  Do we have more than just his theology, do we have his spirit?

Perhaps that’s what the Lord was indicating through Jeremiah: “I will put My law (Torah) in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My People.”  Notice that God is not saying that He just deals with the minds, but also He looks for the heart; He is not just looking to be their God, but also that they be HIS PEOPLE.

We Lutherans are often very well trained.  The Bible and its doctrines were drilled home to us in Sunday School and confirmation classes.  The passages and the catechism that you had to memorize have made us familiar with the basics that we need to know.  The “law” in the Jeremiah passage is the Hebrew word “’torah,” which really is far broader than merely Law.  Rather it is “teachings” or “lessons.”  Including far more than commandments, this Torah covers what God is and does, His steadfast Love and faithfulness even when confronted with the repeated rebellion of His special People.  The Torah declares that there is a way out from the devastation of mankind’s sin, and points to the perfect solution which will come in the future.

For the New Testament people, this Torah now covers in detail the work of God in Christ Jesus as the culmination and completion of the sum total of the teachings which began in the very beginning of creation.  This now encompasses the full law of salvation which governs our relationship with God.  Truly as we are gathered to worship today, God has indeed “put His Torah into our minds.”

But the Lord goes beyond that — He wants to write this in our hearts.  Do you have the heart for God?  We say that Luther had a lot of heart, by which we mean that he had boldness, courage, inner strength; that his devotion toward the Lord and His truth was such that he would face ridicule, persecution, even death – NOT because of principle, but because of his love for his Lord.  He had “a heart for God.”  Do you?

We come this morning, rightfully acknowledging that this triune God we worship is our God.  But can we say that we are HIS PEOPLE?  Can we say that we are a people where the Lord is the single pivot upon which turns our lives and our existence, not just individuals but as a group?

It is easy to be knowledgeable about God; it is hard to live with God directing your life.  It is easy to have God as your God; it is hard to HIS People.  We want the benefits but not the costs.  In selfishness, we want God at our beck-and-call, but we don’t want to be at His beck-and-call.  We want a God Who would die for us, but we don’t want to be embarrassed, challenged, or even made to suffer for Him.

That’s why we need to celebrate the Reformation and look again at Luther’s theology and also at his commitment to that understanding of God’s involvement with us.   Just what did he discover that would compel him to be so bold, so insistent, so in love with the Lord that he would not trade this relationship for anything, not even his life?

What he discovered was that God really loved him – REALLY loved him, loved him not after he had made himself somehow measure up to God’s standards, but rather God eagerly, desperately, determinedly loved him.  Luther discovered the extraordinary lengths that God would, did, and will go just to have this individual join Him for eternity.  He discovered not merely a Jesus as Judge, but that here was a Jesus with incredible love, Who had no good reason to love us except that He had made up His mind to love us.

Luther discovered a Holy Spirit that was not some “1984 Big-Brother-is-watching-you”, but rather was God’s genuine interest in your life, in your needs, and in your faith.  Here was a God that was not just giving commands and judgments, but one that would come off His high throne and share your life, willing to be there in the messy, dirty, disgusting areas of your life as well as in the proper and proud places as well.

Behind this was God the Father, Who sat not just waiting for one more lousy, rebellious sinner to bash, but rather as One Who literally yearned for us, Who suffered as He saw us suffer, Who was serious enough to have given up the most precious Thing He had for us, the dearest Thing to His heart: His only Son.

This goes beyond merely theology and doctrines.  Luther discovered that God was really forgiving, really loving, really involved, really GOD.  But most of all, that God would really care about even a little person in this vast world called Luther, just like He would care about you.  Come and meet again Luther’s God that He might give you a heart like Luther’s.

Prepared for Tribulation

For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.  Unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened.  So if anyone says, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it.  For counterfeit christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to deceive, if possible, even the elect.  See, I have told you beforehand.                     Matthew 24:21-25

Boy, what a bummer! “Man who is born of a woman is of few days which are full of trouble; He fades away like a flower, he is as fleeting as a shadow” [Job 14:1-2]  Job’s words are pretty familiar – they’ve been used for funerals for decades, perhaps even centuries.  But you didn’t come to church today to particularly hear about a funeral, did you?  THIS is to set the tone for the rest of your day and the rest of your week??

Well, then, let’s turn to the Gospel lesson for today – usually that’s better.  Usually there is some parable to think about, or perhaps Jesus healing someone or doing some other astounding deed, like feeding the five thousand.  Oh, good!  Jesus is speaking – we get to hear the very words of Jesus Himself – that’s good, because I do enjoy Him as well as worship Him – so Jesus, speak on!!

What’s this?? Tribulation??  a tribulation so great that were it not for the sake of the Christians, nothing would survive??  Even then there will be all sorts of counterfeit Messiahs and false prophets trying to grab at my soul with such powerful deceptions that it will be tough to turn away from them??  Oh, great!  I have this to look forward to??

Kinda makes you want to go back to bed and bury your head under the covers, doesn’t it?

For those who come and just want to hear nice things, the lessons today just won’t cut it.  In fact, it would feel good to simply cut such passages out of the Bible totally and then we won’t have to deal with such things ever again.

Why do we have to have such downers as we get close to the end of the Church Year? Why don’t we just talk of heaven, Jesus’ return and the glorious hope that we Christians have through Him?  Life is tough enough – why need to add this dark cloud on top of it?

Well, for one, when these things happen, we will remember that Jesus warned us about them.  Years ago, a political cartoonist depicted then-US President Jimmy Carter’s face reflecting foreign policy — so one panel was “the face of approval,” another was “the face of disappointment,” then “the face of disapproval,” and so on.  The caption on the last panel said, “And each of these faces would be preceded by … the face of surprise.”

The cartoonist was criticizing the intelligence-gathering agencies in the US, because they seemed to do a rather poor job of keeping President Carter informed as to world conditions.  So, every time something major happened in the world, it would frequently come as a surprise, even a shock, to the US government.

But what Jesus was doing was reminding us that that is not the way it is with God.  When Satan goes on his last desperate binge, it will not be as if God turns around and in utter shock discovers how so suddenly the situation has deteriorated.  Rather, Jesus wanted us to know that God has already been prepared for this from the time of Jesus – and even from before that.  Jesus emphasized such things so that we will know that God is all set up, ready, and waiting for when the time comes – it will not catch Him off-guard, it will not catch Him unprepared, it will not catch Him short-handed.

By telling us that such a difficult time will come, ultimately we will find comfort in the confidence and reassurance that God prepared for and is able to handle even a “great” tribulation, even though we may not particularly enjoy hearing about it right now, nor even in having to go through it.

What about you – are you forewarned and ready?  Will you have the resources stored and ready, will you have the spiritual armor-plating in place, the endurance and stamina built up, the lines of communication to the Lord open and well-used, will you be dug-in into the fortress which cannot be moved – or will you be caught out in the open, defenseless and unprotected in the middle of the field, vulnerable on the housetop, unsuspecting in workplace?  God will be ready – will you?

When things go well, we feel we are indeed in charge of our lives – everything will turn out, and we can handle anything that comes along.  What today reminds us of is that if we go on this way, then someday we will find ourselves almost – as the saying goes – “without a prayer of a chance…”  Satan is out to kill and destroy – powerful spiritual weapons are lined up against us and he has been practicing for some 6,000 years.

In fact, although it will not match the time Jesus speaks about we don’t need an historical time called “The Great Tribulation” in order for these weapons to be used against us. Actually, one might call our whole existence as Christians as a tribulation – and I don’t mean that we are to be the tribulation for everyone around us, either!

What I do mean is that we constantly fight Satan’s attacks, his attempts to trap us and trip us up.  Two are out in the field (Matthew 24:40) – like Cain and Abel – and one succumbs to anger, hatred, and rebellion.  One is on the housetop, like King David, when he lusted after another man’s wife, and was taken by adultery, deceit, and murder.  And, like the women grinding out grain, preparing supper for their families [Matthew 24:41], even in daily tasks one can be conquered by selfishness, anger, and self-righteousness.

We need no “Great Tribulation” to be exposed to counterfeit christs and false prophets.  After all, their greatest emphasis is to divert our attention away from the Bible as our ultimate source of faith.  These counterfeit christs and false prophets parade up and down in front of us with “powerful signs and lying wonders” [II Thessalonians 2:9] – each clamoring for us to listen to them as having better information than the Bible.  There are all sorts of gurus and authorities to show how to have peace and serenity, as long as you look within and not to the God of all creation.

Yes, as we look around, we promptly find that this is already going on.  But the most curious thing are the ones who are leading such a parade – look closely, and you will find that they are you and me!!

How willing we are to rewrite the Bible whenever it inconveniences us!  How quickly we modify God’s commandments to suit our lifestyle, to whatever doesn’t offend the morality we practice.  Look at how quickly we will alter our Lord’s will to conform to what we feel like doing, to what is comfortable, and to that which requires minimum effort from us.

No, we don’t need a “Great Tribulation” for us to need the warning which Jesus gives us.  We may not like what Job has to say, but he does describe us uncomfortably well – our days are full of trouble, they are like a shadow, like a fading flower.

But there is something else about that passage from Job.  Notice how it begins: “man that is born of woman” – Isaiah 7:14 also speaks of one “who was born of woman”, particularly one born of a virgin.

What an interesting thing it is, to plug Jesus into Job’s speech:  Jesus was a man of few days – he spent 33 years walking among us – not even half of the Psalmist’s “70, or if by reason of strength, 80 years”.  He was full of trouble – not His own, but as Isaiah 53[:4-5] put it: “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief… Surely he hath borne OUR griefs, and carried OUR sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.”

“Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?” Job asks – we can’t, but God did, as God the Holy Spirit used the womb of a human being, infected by sin by nature, and there created the birthplace for God the Son to became flesh for our sakes.  Even verse 6 fits: “Look away from him” – as Jesus on the cross cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me.”

This is extremely valuable for us who go through “The Great Tribulation” – or at least any tribulation that accompanies our lives; it is valuable because we are reminded that Jesus had become one of us through that virgin, “the man born of woman.”  He also went through tribulation, even a tribulation the likes of which we will never ever see.

It means that not only is God prepared for whatever tribulation His Church and you and I may face, but Jesus has demonstrated that He is not afraid to go through it with us, as One Who is fully experienced in it, and as One willing to lead us through it.

This is where Baptism also comes in, as we are reminded by St Paul that here we have received the Holy Spirit – God’s “earnest” as the King James translators put it, “down payment” in more modern terms – either way, God’s unmistakable indication of His unbreakable commitment to be with us, and to bring us to Himself in the end.  Then here in Holy Communion, that same message is hammered away, as Jesus repeats over and over to each of us, “for YOU… for YOU… for YOU.”

So come, repent of our lack of preparation for the tribulation which we will encounter.  Repent of how we find our selves numbered among the “counterfeit christs and false prophets” which not only lead our own selves astray but also others.  Repent of our fears about a “Great Tribulation” in which we suspect God will not really take care of  us.  But then also rejoice in that Jesus had come to be our Defense and the Rock of our Refuge.  Remember that Jesus is already the preparation we will need for every time of tribulation.

Today actually is a day of comfort, despite what appears to be such “downers” for texts.  True, they do speak of things that are not our most favorite topic of conversation, yet we discover that there is comfort and reassurance to be found even here in these passages, all because of the One “born of woman” – Jesus – Who stands with us and Who does lead us each day, past every tribulation until finally we stand before His throne on the Last Day.

The Value in Being Connected (All Saints’ Day)

Thy dead shall live, their bodies shall rise.  O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!  For thy dew is a dew of light, and on the land of the shades thou wilt let it fall.    Isaiah 26:19

An American tourist in Paris, who purchased an inexpensive amber necklace in a street bazaar, was shocked when he had to pay quite a high duty on it to clear customs in New York.  This aroused his curiosity, so he had it appraised.  After looking at the object under a powerful magnifying glass, the jeweler said, “I’ll give you $25,000 for it.”  Greatly surprised, the owner decided to have another expert examine it.  He was offered $35,000!
“What is so valuable about this old necklace?”  asked the astonished owner.
“Look through this glass,” replied the jeweler.  There before his eyes was an inscription: “From Napoleon Bonaparte to Josephine.”  Identification with a famous person was what made the necklace enormously valuable.
20th Cent Christian, June 1981, quoted in Pulpit Helps

Something so very ordinary, very inexpensive suddenly is given extraordinary value, simply because it bears the inscription of a key world leader.  Yet really isn’t that what happens so often in our world, something like a piece of paper or a dress suddenly becomes extremely valuable simply because of its connection to someone important.  Sometimes we marvel in amazement at how much value something can have literally overnight.

Yet that is exactly what we are celebrating today as we observe “All Saints’ Day”:  We are discovering all over again the tremendous value something has because of its connection to Someone important.

Really, what else would make us set aside a day in which to honor an 86-year-old grandfather, and a simple housewife, and a fugitive slave boy, and a poor shoemaker, and thousands of other ordinary people who have lived down throughout the many thousands of years that this world has existed?  The key is that each one is connected with a very important Person, and now each individual person’s value take on extraordinary worth, not just in importance here on earth, but in eternal value.

120 years after Christ, the Roman proconsul demanded that the elderly man, Polycarp, must renounce the Lord Jesus, under threat of death by being burned at the stake.  Polycarp’s reply was simple: “Eighty and six years I have served my King who has saved me, and He has never done me wrong; how can I now blaspheme my King?”  The martyrdom of this gentle man served to open the door of heaven to many unbelieving onlookers.   There are people now in heaven because of the connection of this ordinary grandfather to Jesus Christ.

A very obscure housewife in another part of the Roman empire turned to Christ, and attempted to live for Christ in her service to her husband.  She did not try to convert him.  Rather she simply tried to live as if to please her Lord and Savior, but her husband dragged her before the Roman authorities.  Perpetua would not let go of her faith in Christ, and she ended up in the arena, pinned by the horns of a bull.  But this ordinary housewife, connected by faith to Jesus has not been forgotten, not here on earth nor before our Father in heaven.

A 16-year-old boy was captured by pirates and sold to an Irish sheepherder, six years later he escaped back to England, vowing never to set foot on Irish soil again.  Twenty years later, St Patrick mounted a spiritual offensive on the Irish homeland that would literally convert a nation, instilling such a bold faith that many missionaries that reached out into the world were of Irish stock.   An ordinary escaped slave was responsible for generations after generations of believers because of his connection to Jesus Christ.

A poor shoemaker in England, in the 1700’s, felt God calling him into the ministry.  But God didn’t stop there, drawing William Carey further into a greater concern for the whole world.  After speaking to an annual pastors’ meeting on the mission of God’s people, he took hold of the leader of the meeting and asked, “Is there going to be nothing done again, sir?”

That simple concern compelled the group to establish the Baptist Missionary Society, and his continued efforts earned him the title of “the father of modern mission work,” as he himself felt the call to witness in the difficult territory of India.   A simple ordinary man was connected to Someone important and now had a value that just could not be measured.

Brutal death awaited Christians in China during the Boxer rebellion – missionaries, pastors, and ordinary Chinese believers.  But out of that came conversions in the six years that followed, to the tune of 20,000 in one missionary’s area alone.  Korean Christians were terribly tortured by their Japanese conquerors during the Second World War, and Communists virtually wiped out Christianity in North Korea.  Yet in South Korea, even today, many churches have 4 AM prayer meetings for the sake of God’s presence in the continent of Asia.

Ordinary people, whose value has phenomenally been increased because each one bears the mark of the King of the Universe, the cross of Jesus given to them in Baptism.  Ordinary people: husbands, wives, children, parents, store clerks, business executives, housewives, friends; each one used by God to accomplish His purpose on this earth, therefore each one having eternal value. Perhaps the best description of who these people are was given by a little girl, whose only exposure to saints was seeing them portrayed in the stained-glass windows of her church.  One day she was asked by her priest, “What is a saint?”  She answered, “They are people the light shines through.”  That is likely as good a description as we’ll ever get, or need.
[Dorothy Day, as told to Roy Bonisteel, in In Search of Man Alive]

What a thrill it is to realize that we are a part of this great train of believers that stretches down through the centuries.  Today we especially realize how even the people we have known in our lifetimes, especially those who have died, be they a parent or spouse or child, a friend or a spiritual teacher, how they too have taken their place before the throne of God and have added their voice to the hymn of praise that will extend throughout eternity; how because of their connection the Lord and Master of the universe, our Savior, that they also now have immeasurable value in all eternity.

But it is hard sometimes to think on such a grand scale.  After all, we seem to be such common, ordinary people, here in a not-very-famous spot on the map of Canada.  How can we, and the people we have known in our lives, be fellow saints in the presence of such powerfully used people as the great saints of old?

And yet the reply comes back is that it is not measured by OUR worth.  GK Chesterton  [Charles Dickens, quoted in Christianity Today, 2/3/89] once emphasized, “It is true that all men are equal, as all [paper] is equal, but [the paper that becomes money gains in tremendous value] when it bears the image of the king.”

That is the thing that makes us distinctive!  In Baptism, God has placed His image on us, we are being recreated in the image of God, we have been marked by the cross of Jesus, these common human elements have been filled by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

That is the essence of the value that any and all Christians have.  An unknown farmer sold a cow to finance a series of revival meetings that produced only one convert.  But that convert was Dwight L. Moody, responsible for many thousands having their place in that great throng around the throne of Jesus Christ in heaven.

How important was that little farmer?  Who even knows his name?  Yet his name is great in the presence of the King.  In the Lord’s hands, look at how powerful was his effect, his importance in the work of Jesus Christ’s People here on this earth!  Again and again, the royal train of the saints who have gone before us, God demonstrates just how much each of us is filled with an importance that reaches out into eternity.

What a confidence is expressed today!  As we think of the great saints of old, the great saints of recent years, and even the unknown saints that have lived all around us, some of whom we have known and enjoyed, many of whom are unknown to us, however each one bearing the mark of Jesus, of His cross and resurrection.

Each one who now stands before the Lord has realized the truth that whatever was done in the Name of the Lord was never done in vain.  Each one has discovered that his whole life, every moment has had eternal significance.  Each one who has died in faith in Jesus Christ stands in the marvelous presence of Jesus and this will never be taken away from him and her.

Does this not give us pause to think again about our lives, about how indeed we live our lives for the Lord?  Just what are we doing with our every moments?  Just what are we doing for the sake of furthering God’s kingdom here in our midst?  Have we realized that we also have such importance because we also bear the image of the King?

Each Communion Sunday, just before the communion, as we join in with the many voices around the throne of Jesus, in the hymn, “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of pow’r and might…” stand in awe as you hear the voices of all the loved ones who have gone before you, who stand among the great and small saints of old, each one washed in the Blood of the Lamb of God, each one who has handed sins and self over to our Lord in repentance, each one singing with us the praises of our Savior.

And then also stand in awe, as they and every one of us has been filled with such eternal value through the forgiveness and resurrection of Jesus, each one having an honored place within the grand design of the Lord, whether one is a janitor or an executive, whether one has a small circle of friends and family or speaks before thousands, each one part of the great throng which no man can number worshipping our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier in the joy and  pleasure of His presence.

And now, with the help of the Holy Spirit that fills our human elements with God’s power, then let us determine to go into our lives realizing that everything we also do is something that has the stamp of the King, a value because of its connection to Him, with untold significance for this world and for all eternity.

Truly, in the household of God, there are no such things as ordinary Christians.

No Condemnation

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.     Romans 8:1

In his youth, Dan Rather got a job working weekends for a pastor named Ted Lott, who ran a one-man radio station in Huntsville, Texas.  Since Rather was there alone from 5 PM to midnight, he prevailed on Pastor Lott to allow him to put on a long-playing record at 6 PM, hop into the mobile unit, drive to a dairy bar for a take-out supper and be back at the station before the record was over.  Rather recalls:
The first time we tried the plan, the record featured Lott’s itinerant preacher brother, who did a little guitar plucking and quoted a little Scripture.
I put the record on, hopped into the truck and raced down to the dairy bar, where there was a new girl working I hadn’t had the opportunity to get acquainted with.  So I said to myself, it doesn’t matter whether I eat here or at the station, as long as I get back before the half-hour is up.
I’d been there 20 minutes when the phone rang.  It was Pastor Lott.  He said, “Rather, have you heard our station any time in the last twenty minutes?”  I told a little white lie and said that there was a long line at the hamburger stand.   He said, “You get back to the mobile unit and listen to the station.  Then get back to the station and fix it.  And then you’re fired!”
I went out to the truck, turned on the station, and there was Pastor Lott’s brother saying, “Go to hell … go to hell … go to hell ….”
Merv Griffin with Peter Barsocchini, From Where I Sit, quoted in “All in a Day’s Work”, Reader’s Digest

As one looks at the background to today’s text, one is rapidly impressed that St Paul was having quite a struggle.  You might say that he was downright frustrated.  It just didn’t seem to work. He wanted to do what was right. He wanted to be God pleasing. He recognized what would be the most God-pleasing thing to do and he really wanted to please God.

Instead, he was disillusioned.  He just seemed to end up doing exactly what the opposite of what he wanted.  He would make a mistake. Or he would have the best of intentions and they would just collapse into a mess.  Or perhaps as he was attempting to change a bad habit, but as time would drag into weeks, he would lose heart and give up.

Or maybe he tried to say something nice to someone, and the words just didn’t come out right, and he offended the person or made himself look very foolish.  Or like what happened to Dan Rather in the story I opened with, what would have been harmless, normally it would have worked, it just so happened on that day, the needle would skip, and would skip at such a place.

As St Paul himself put it, “when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.”  Perhaps you know what it is like.  You end up looking foolish, or embarrassed, or humiliated, or guilty.

And the thing is, is that some of these little incidents can be quite serious.  Over and over again, comes the message, “you failed … you failed … you failed …” just like that needle stuck on a record.  And when it is a habitual sin that you are trying to get rid of, or it was something that ended up quite a mess because you really did something that was quite wrong, even though your intentions were well-meaning, and now you have a burden of guilt that slams you in the head every time you think about it – the stuck needle on Dan Rather’s record can sound all too familiar echoing through your conscience, “go to hell … go to hell … go to hell …”

That’s what Paul is talking about near the end of Romans chapter 7, just moments before he swings into chapter 8, verse 1.  But before he gets there, he has one more bridge to cross: All his built-up frustration tears a cry from his throat, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  Hear the desperation from the depths of his being! Hear the plea from a man at the end of his rope! Hear the cry of a man burdened down with the frustrations, the guilt, the failures of trying so hard and still not making it!

But Paul has an answer, one that literally blows the top off the pressure cooker and releases all that pent-up emotion, “THANKS BE TO GOD THROUGH JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD!”  Can you understand what makes this little exclamation so important to Paul??

That’s what Romans 8:1-10 is all about.  As a matter of fact, that’s what ALL of Romans 8 is all about!  This singular chapter is one of the most wonderful chapters that the Bible has – you really ought to be acquainted with it – in fact, you really ought to know it by memory, it is such a powerful and such an important collection of promises by God through His apostle.  And that chapter begins with:

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  What is the “therefore” all about?  It’s the result of something – the result of what?  This one verse is built on something that has gone on before – in fact, all seven previous chapters.  And THEY are the result of what this season of Lent is all about:  for God so loved the World that He sent His Son [John 3:16] – God made Him to be sin Who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God [II Corinthians 5:21] – God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners – enemies! – Christ died for us [Romans 5:8-11].

Yes, YOU, St. Paul, who was so frustrated as you attempted to do what was right; yes, YOU, who sit out there in the pews, who feel that you are failures because all your good intentions get blown apart; yes, YOU, Jim Lindemann, who carries the burden of guilt of never quite measuring up to what you would really like to be.  Jesus really died, for Paul, for YOU, for ME – for US.  God really does want us!!

And with what Jesus has done, He really does forgive us – forgive us to such an extent that it no longer exists.  His forgiveness is echoed in that marvelous woman, the famous nurse, Clara Barton.  Clara Barton was never known to hold resentment against anyone.  One time a friend recalled to her a cruel thing that had happened to her some years previously, but Clara seemed not to remember the incident.  “Don’t you remember the wrong that was done to you?”  the friend asked Clara.  “No,” Clara answered calmly, “I distinctly remember forgetting that.”

Imagine the wonder in Paul’s voice as he says, “There is therefore, now, no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus!”  It is the kind of realization that can make you feel positively giddy and light headed.  It is such a release from that burden of failure and the fear of failure, of guilt and humiliation.

What a joy it is to be able to hold your head up again.  To hold it up with a confidence that is backed-up by Baptism.  Because of what Jesus did on that cross, you actually become a child of God!  When you and I with Paul lay before the Lord every heartbreak, every rebellion, every failure, every selfishness, every craving, every greed, every passion, every guilt, and all the rest, and Jesus stamps across every single one, “canceled in full,” it can become bewildering.  To have carried around these things for so long, you almost feel obligated to carry them still, and yet when you finally discover just how complete is Jesus’ forgiveness, what an absolute freedom that brings.

And then you discover the difference between just merely saying that God forgives you of your sin, and that God makes you His very own child.  God has literally put away your rebellion and sin, you are no longer under condemnation literally to the point where He just can find no reason why YOU shouldn’t be – couldn’t be – his child!

At this point you might rightfully say that, man, that is far and away more than you could ever hope for!  It just seems too good to be true!  And you know what?  Even God isn’t satisfied with that either!  So here, Jesus sets His table, because there is no greater way that God could prove that “There is therefore now no condemnation” than for Jesus Himself to come right here in person, in His Body and His Blood, for you – for YOU.

Had even the slightest condemnation be still left over, then God would have to come here in judgment, because He is the holy God Who visits wrath upon rebellion and sin.  You wouldn’t survive even one communion, when God – God the Son, God pure and absolutely righteous – personally touches you and your life.  The very fact that communion CAN happen bears witness to the fact, that “there is therefore now no condemnation.”

Now you understand the tremendous sense of relief that Paul rejoices in, in this opening verse of Romans 8.  But that is still not enough.  “Therefore now no condemnation” is merely the doorway to all that Romans chapter 8 is talking about.  Because when you have no condemnation, then you now have God Who has the freedom to do all kinds of things in your life, strengthening and empowering, bringing blessing and joy, filling you with hope and a future, letting you discover how He shapes your whole life into a marvelous tool to touch other people’s lives, sharing with them the awesome release available in Jesus.

Why else do you come to Communion, except that Jesus enters you with His very being, so that you know that He is a part of you, just as much as that bread and wine become part of you; and YOU are part of Him.  You come here, so that you realize all over again, just how much Jesus really does go with you.  This simple bread and wine joined to your own body declares that Jesus will participate in your life, involved in every thing that you do, every thing that happens to you – EVERYTHING!

In Baptism, it’s the same thing, except this time it is with the Holy Spirit entering you.  This is powerful stuff!  With God this involved in your life, you just aren’t the same any more – no way!  No one can have God personally touch him in such dramatic ways without something happening – God is just too powerful.

But what a joy all is!  That’s why today is traditionally called “JOY” Sunday – because we have so much to simply rejoice about, especially as we prepare to enter the last weeks of Lent and review all that Jesus really did for you – and me.  All because it is there on that cross that God formed the foundation of why “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

The Self-Made god or the Real One (Addiction)

For even if there are so–called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is one God, the Father, of Whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom are all things, and through Whom we live.    I Corinthians 8:5-6

I was talking with an addict recently who was avidly saying that she believed in “God,” but that she wasn’t a Christian, or a Buddhist, or anything like that.  I suggested that what she really believed was that she could beat the addiction on her own, and that the god that she “believed” in was only there to merely help a little here and there, to do a little fine tuning here, and perhaps do a fill-in there where she needed a little help.  After a bit of thought, she replied that that was pretty much the way she felt.

So basically she built her own god, built from something which she likes here, something that she thinks it ought to be like there, in a way a sort of hodge-podge of hopeful ideas.

Then I asked how then does she know that this god is real?  Indeed you can build a god the way you want it to be, but how do you know that this god is really what is there?  What evidence is there that it really is paying attention to you and cares what goes on in your life?

My dad referred to a passage from Isaiah 44 as “The Oriental Woodsman.”  It’s the story of a woodsman who goes out and fells a tree, then sets about using the lumber to warm himself, to bake his bread, and to roast his food.  With the leftover he makes himself a god, falling down and worshipping it, praying to it, pleading for deliverance from his problems.  God sums it up, “No one considers in his heart, nor is there knowledge nor understanding to say, ‘I have burned half of it in the fire; Yes, I have also baked bread on its coals; I have roasted meat and eaten it; and shall I make of the residue what is repulsive? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?’ ” [v 19].

Then in Jeremiah 10:3  “one cuts a tree from the forest with the ax, the work of the workman’s hands …. They must fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple. … it cannot speak; it must be carried because it cannot go by itself.  Do not fear it – it cannot do evil, nor can it do any good.”

The sarcasm of these two passages is that how often the “gods” of humans have been the leftovers of what doesn’t work anywhere else.  In Jeremiah, God calls out the foolishness of worshiping something which has to be propped up and carried around because it is so helpless on its own – and yet is looked to as savior during times of fear and stress.

In other words, a god which you have patched together, whether of wood and stone or whether it is simply in the mind, really is even less powerful than you are.  You turn to it for help and since it is only a construct of your mind, there is no external power to supply where you are lacking.  It cannot help you at all.  You need more than what you have inside, because you know that has never been enough.  Obviously you cannot overcome the addiction already – so how can something you construct in your mind have anything more than what you already have?

What a dilemma!  You want help, but only on your own terms.  And how has that worked for you?  That attitude has failed time and again.  Yet you keep going back to that mentally-patched-together god, and all you have for your efforts is another failure, another discouragement, another depression.

This has been the problem with false gods throughout history.  They cannot be better than we are, they cannot give us hope for something different, because all they are is simply what lies within us already, merely juggled around under a different name – but no more powerful, no more helpful, and not providing any new resource in our battle against that which has made us victims already.

You go to treatment, and for a while it works because finally here is something outside you which steps in to supply what you lack.  And yet that doesn’t really work because what is inside you seeks to rebel against any self-discipline which is encouraged, avoiding any determined commitment on your part, rejoicing in even the smallest sabotage of the treatment’s intent – the inner nature wants to escape the help and it looks forward to when the treatment is over, so that it can go back to what it has been all along.

You want a god which makes no demands of importance and consequence on you, and yet on the other hand, you cannot demand anything from it either, since it can make no concrete commitment or promises of its own.  You want change without cost or responsibility, which requires no active participation from you – and yet since this god’s help is only imagined, you can expect nothing different from it, neither its responsibility nor its active participation.

The god of your own mind isn’t helping, but you don’t want to face the real God.  You’re afraid of Him.  In your mind, your self-created god is nice, loving and forgiving, but you expect the real God is most likely a fun-killer, angry, demanding, condemning, and intent on punishing you – because if He were so kind and loving, then you wouldn’t need the patched-together god.  The ironic thing is that both are imagined gods and reflect only what are inside of you.  The anger, demands, and condemnations come out of yourself, and so also does powerful yearning for peace, forgiveness, and esteem which the wished-for fabricated god cannot provide.

The frustration is having no place to take the judgment and condemnation except to the god within your own mind, and therefore it never gets outside of you.  You want forgiveness, but you can’t get it from inside yourself because inside you knows all too well what has been destroyed and ruined in your own life, in the life of the people who love you, and in how the world around you has been affected.  You want to be approved and lifted up, but how can the god of your mind do that when it rises out of the desperate fear at the bottom of your self image?

That’s why you return to the addiction and why the god of your mind is helpless against it: because its forgiveness merely hangs in the air, it has no strength and no solid shape – it has no real power to address any of the driving forces of your habit.  And all the addiction does is to merely add more and more to the huge dark mass of what sits in your mind.  No, a patched-together-god in your mind cannot help.

It is time, then, to look at something which is real – so real that it is actually historical dealing with actual physical places and times.  It is a God so real that He is written about by actual eyewitnesses, and actual events are recorded concerning Him.  He is a God Who can be challenged in regard to His promises, because they are written for any and all to read.  It is a God whose forgiveness is attached not to an imagined or a romanticized wishful thinking but to as a concrete a reality as a cross and empty tomb.

In the recent shootings in Las Vegas, we speak about the husband who died while shielding his wife with his body. We are overcome by how strong his love was which would go that far for the sake of his beloved  The god of your mind cannot prove how much it loves you by dying for you, because we immediately recognize that such an action by this god can only be a romantic daydream.

But the real God can do and did that very thing.  He said He would, and wrote it all down from the time when Adam and Eve first rebelled in the Garden of Eden and then down through the Psalms and the prophets, identifying detail after detail of the what, when, where, and how of what He would actually do in Person for the sake of His beloved – for you.  You can’t make it casual by saying He knew He would rise in three days – not when He struggled in the Garden of Gesthemane to the point of sweating Blood, and crying out how He wished there could be some other way.

This is not a god romantically manufactured in the mind – this is a God Who has given us as concrete a proof as is possible of your significance to Him and His intentions toward you.  If He is going to give Himself like that, then you know He is not all about condemning and punishing you.  Instead He proves that He wants you to have Life, in fact far beyond what life that that husband in Las Vegas could give to his wife.

This reveals something about the dark mass which sits in your mind.  You can actually be rid of it.  It can be loaded on the cross and be trucked away “as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our sins (rebellions, transgressions) from us” [Psalm 103:12].  But how can that be done?  How can it be done in such a way as to finally silence the accusing part of your memory – the self-condemnation regarding how you have destroyed and ruined so much in yourself and for others in your world?  How can you do it so as to receive freedom from the powers which drive your addiction?

This revolves around “repentance.”  Repentance is more than feeling sorry countless times about how much you have messed up.  Rather it is to lay out everything – everything – on the table before the Lord, but more!  It is to also turn away, to turn your back on what created the dark mass.  It is to renounce actions, speech, thoughts, and memories which only encourage this darkness, as you instead focus on the Love, Life, and promises which the true God sets before you, desiring what is in store for you not just for this moment, but for tomorrow and forever.

You now have freedom to tell your nagging conscience that every single piece of the negative past is in the hands of the Lord and you will have nothing to do with it any more – “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” [Romans 8:1].

God is very concerned about being concrete and real, so much so He has definite physical proofs for your constant reassurance that everything He does and promises are not just imagined.  He uses real water for Baptism so that you can go back to a specific time and place as proof of His placing you into the closest relationship of Love that earth and heaven can offer – you are His child whom He has forgiven.  In Holy Communion He gives a constantly repeating strengthening for you to know that in your struggle against addiction you need never be alone, that He is attacking the very roots of this habit, to remove the darkness and replace it with a freedom which lasts forever.

His works and promises in His unbreakable Word are always there to demonstrate again and again His unyielding commitment to You.  And then He surrounds you with His People, a People who in their own experience have traveled the same road to the cross and to the life of the resurrection, so that they are equipped to encourage your commitment as you come closer to the real God.

The hodge-podge god of your mind clearly cannot compete with the real God when it comes to solid, powerful and real effect against those things which have enslaved you.  If you really want something to happen in your life, then this outside real God must enter in to clean out the darkness and bring the Glory of His Love and promises into you.

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!