Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Keeping It Real

A rancher asked a veterinarian for some free advice. "I have a horse," he said, "that walks normally one week and limps the next. What shall I do?" 
The veterinarian replied, "The next week he walks normally, sell him."[1]

What’s the problem with the veterinarian’s advice? It encourages dishonesty.

I have an honest confession – I seriously considered skipping this part of Romans.  We are discussing Romans in our Bible study and I wanted to connect our worship time with our study by using the same text in sermons, but this is a challenging text, so I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle it in a sermon.  But then I remembered my friend Julie.  She went with us to visit a church one Sunday when we first moved to South Carolina.  The worship that day included a drama about the gospel, with a bridge to represent Jesus and how he connects us to God.  After church I commented that I thought it was creative and engaging and I liked it.  Julie did not.  She was quite troubled about how they had presented the gospel.  So I asked, “Why?”  She said, “They left out such an important part.  They left out sin.”  … They left out sin. She was right.  They had talked all about the positive – God’s love, Jesus’ sacrifice, our relationship with God – but they had said nothing about why we needed Jesus to die for us.  The gospel is incomplete without both sides of the equation – both the blessings of faith AND the consequences of sin.  If I were to skip this part of Romans, I would be guilty of the same error.  This is certainly not one of my favorite parts of the Bible, but it is nevertheless an important part.

In the verses that come just before this part of Romans Paul makes a bold statement, “I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…for in it the righteousness of God is revealed.”  Now here in verse 18 Paul reminds us that in the righteousness of God we see not only goodness, but also wrath.

It’s a good news/bad news thing.

A farmer went into his banker and announced that he had bad news and good news. "First, the bad news...""Well," said the farmer, "I can't make my mortgage payments. And that crop loan I've taken out for the past 10 years -- I can't pay that off, either. Not only that, I won't be able to pay you the couple of hundred thousand I still have outstanding on my tractors and other equipment. So I'm going to have to give up the farm and turn it all over to you for whatever you can salvage out of it. "Silence prevailed for a minute and then the banker said ,"What's the good news?" "The good news is that I'm going to keep on banking with you," said the farmer.[2]

This section of Romans is bad news and good news.  The bad news is that God is righteous and holy and therefore cannot tolerate sin.  Sin has consequences.  We see this in Genesis 3.  God had told Adam and Eve they could eat anything in the Garden of Eden, but not the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil.  Adam and Eve disobeyed God and had to live with the consequences.  They were banished from the Garden of Eden forever.  We live with their consequences.

We see consequences for disobeying God in many of the stories of the Bible.  For example, when Lot and his family are told as they are escaping not to look back, but Lot's wife does and becomes a pillar of salt.

We disobey God, too.  Paul tells us quite a bit about sin in these verses from Romans.  He describes sin as:

  •  Suppressing the truth, exchanging the truth about God for a lie (1:18,25)
  • Failing to honor God or give thanks to him (1:21)
  • Serving the creature rather than the creator (1:25)
  • Letting our passions rule us (1:26-27)
  • Having “wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice.” Being “full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness” Being “gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (1:29-31)
I wouldn’t blame you if you checked out and didn’t hear all that when we read the scripture earlier, because Paul keeps using the third person pronouns – they and them.  But we could change those to us and we.  Paul is building his case in support of the theme he began in verses 16-17 of the power of the gospel for salvation, and the zinger that is coming in chapter 3, the point that drives home his argument about our need for salvation in Jesus Christ, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (3:23) 
The very first humans, living in the perfect setting with the perfect conditions, couldn’t keep from disobeying God, and neither can we.  If we are honest, we too are guilty of some of the sins on Paul’s list.

The good news. . .yes, there is good news. . . is that God is patient and loving and offers us another way – faith in Jesus Christ.  Through faith in Jesus, we are reconciled with God.  We are righteous in God’s sight.  We are forgiven.  Without it we are subject to God’s wrath, to the consequences of sin, to spiritual death.

We may not like to think about God having wrath.  We much prefer to focus on God’s goodness and kindness and love. But that is an incomplete picture of God.  God cannot just let sin go, but God’s wrath is not like human anger.  God’s wrath is an expression of his love.  Without wrath, God would not be righteous with complete integrity.  God’s wrath means:
  • ·        God cares about us,
  • ·        God refuses to let us stay in our self-destructive behavior,
  • ·        and by becoming flesh in the person of Jesus, God himself bears the consequences for our sin.[3]

King David knew that God is merciful, even in his anger.  In 2 Samuel 24 we read that David did something God had told him not to do, and God gave David a choice of three punishments:

  • ·        three years of famine,
  • ·        three months of enemy attacks, or
  • ·        three days of infectious disease spreading through the kingdom. 

David chose the last one, not because it was shorter, but because God is a God of justice.  David said, “let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into human hands.” (24:14)

God is merciful to us beyond our understanding.

So what are we to do in response to these challenging words from Paul?

1.     Admit our need for salvation.  If we think we have no sin, we fool ourselves and the truth is not in us.  (1 John 1:8) But it’s not always easy to see our sin.  We get comfortable with it.  We’re used to it.  If you’d like to ask God for some help with this, there’s an exercise, a spiritual inventory available.[4 below]  I first went through this inventory many years ago.  It’s challenging but helpful.

One of the sins that’s easy to fall into is arrogance.  I’m as guilty as anyone.  I can remember listening to a sermon in which the pastor was talking about big sins like murder, adultery, and I remember thinking, well, at least I don’t have to worry about any of those.  I’ve never done anything really bad like that.  Almost immediately it was as if someone had smacked me, like in those V8 commercials.  Duh!  Thinking I had no sin was in itself a sin.

Jesus even tells a parable about this in Luke 18.  Luke says Jesus told this parable to make a point to people who trusted too much in their own righteousness and looked on others with contempt.

Jesus said, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (9-14)

The Pharisee was being self-righteous and arrogant thinking he was better than the tax collector.  We need to admit our sin and our need for salvation, and we need to acknowledge and honor God and give God thanks continually. Be thankful.

One summer a 13-year-old boy was having a tough week getting along with his parents.  By Saturday, the boy was tired, so when his mother scolded him for missing a chore, he snuck out of the house and rode his bike to his friend’s house.  He knew his parents would be looking for him, but he spent almost the entire day at his friend’s house playing board games and building model cars.  Around five o’clock, he mustered the courage to get on his bike and ride home and face the inevitable grounding.  He headed down the street weaving in between parked cars.

Then he heard his father’s voice from a passing car. “Randy, let’s load your bike in the back of the car and I’ll drive you home.”  The boy jumped in surprise, and looking around he saw his father leaning his head out the car window with a kind look on his face.  Randy knew his father had been driving around looking for him, and he held his breath waiting for his dad to get angry.  After the bike was loaded and both of them were sitting in the car, his father said, “Son, your mom and I had two tickets to see The Sound of Music downtown.  We thought maybe you’d like to go with me tonight.  Would you like that?”

“Uh, sure,” the boy squeaked, still uncertain whether he was going to be in trouble.

“Ok.  We’ve got to hurry.  Let’s get home and get changed.”

The father didn’t say a word about the boy having disappeared all day.  By the time they’d changed and were headed downtown, the boy began to feel reassured that his father’s intentions were entirely benevolent.

The boy had expected punishment, but his parents had realized that their relationship with him needed restoration.  The boy was relieved, and also deeply grateful.  So the next time it was his turn to do the dishes, he did them without being asked.  He had been unable to get the chores done out of a sense of duty, but gratefulness moved him to action.[i]

We too can be grateful.  We fully deserve to be punished for our sins, but instead God sent us reprieve.  Instead of tickets to a musical, God gave us Jesus, and forgiveness, and grace.

May our gratitude also move us to action.

[1] Al Schock, Jokes for All Occasions. http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/h/honesty.htm
[2] Bits & Pieces, April 30, 1992. http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/g/good_news_bad_news.htm
[3] Shirley Guthrie Jr., Christian Doctrine (Westminster John Knox Press), 260-1.
[4] Adapted from http://www.antiocha2.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Rick-Warren-Spiritual-Inventory.pdf 

[i] Adapted from Randall Working, From Rebellion to Redemption

The above was preached in worship at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Galveston on Sunday, February 21, 2016.

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