3rd Sunday after Pentecost (A)
June 16, 1996
Peace Through Suffering
Romans 5:1-11 is one of those great passages that contain a systematic theology in one paragraph. It describes our situation outside of salvation (weak, ungodly, sinners, even enemies of God), then it points toward our future hope of sharing the glory of God. The difference is by faith through grace made possible by the death of Christ in our place.
The great doctrines of salvation are mentioned: justification, reconciliation, and righteousness. The great themes of the Bible are mentioned: faith, hope, love, peace, grace, glory. Even all three persons of the Trinity are named. The person who understands this passage truly holds the keys to the Kingdom.
But Paul also addresses a less popular theme: Christian suffering. The point of the passage is, “we have peace with God,” but Paul clearly separates peace with God from peace with the world. Luther notes: “A righteous man has peace with God but distress in the world because he lives in the spirit. An unrighteous man has peace with the world but distress and tribulation with God, because he lives in the flesh.”1 No responsible Christian promises a life without suffering for the faithful. But we can have peace in the midst of suffering.
I. Peace with God.
One of the hardest things for “good” people to understand is they are in reality enemies of God. We think of enemies as someone who tries to hurt us. In all my life I never did anything to intentionally hurt God. I made my mistakes, to be sure, and I did things I knew might hurt me, but I did not consider myself to be an enemy of God.
And I had received enough blessings from God that I did not believe He considered me an enemy either. I did not understand God practiced what He preached; He loved His enemy: me.
It took an act of grace through faith for God to open my eyes to the reality I had separated myself from Him by my sin. I was, in fact, weak, a sinner, ungodly, and an enemy. But because Jesus had died for me in my ungodly state, all my sin could be forgiven, and I could be reconciled to God.
To have peace with God is to be forgiven, to have the hope of sharing His glory in eternity, and to have His comfort supporting you in the midst of worldly suffering.
II. Suffering with God
God allows His people to suffer in this world. John Piper says: “God loves faith in future grace so much that he will test it to the breaking point so as to keep it pure and strong …. (He) will, graciously, take away everything else in the world that we might be tempted to rely on — even life itself. His aim is that we grow deeper and stronger in our confidence that he himself will be all we need.” Piper goes on to say, “The people who are most unwavering in their hope are those who have been tested most deeply.”3
Recently a woman in my church was so tested. Seven years ago her husband had surgery for a brain tumor. The surgeon said he would not live through the night. He not only lived, he sang in the choir for six years. Then the tumor came back. This time the surgeon said, “We got it all. He will fully recover.” He didn’t. After four months of her husband being almost comatose, chaplains could not believe this wife still had faith, hope, and even optimism. But after all she had been through with God, and after all she had seen Him do, her faith was unshaken. “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” she said, “and I ain’t ready to sing!”
We are justified by faith, then our faith is tempered by our suffering. The results are our hope is strengthened, God is glorified, and others see what trusting God produces. (Bill Groover)
1Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, “The Library of Christian Classics,” vol. XV, p. 154.
2John Piper, Future Grace (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah Books, 1995), p. 347.
3Ibid., p 349
Proper 7 (A)
June 23, 1996
Dying to Live
I’ve been thinking a lot about dying for the past few months. It’s not because I can’t go four sets in tennis anymore or run twenty miles in two hours or even get up on time. It’s not because children ask me if Paul McCartney was in another group before Wings or rap music seems here to stay.
It’s just that I’ve been burying a lot of people. As a pastor, that’s not especially unusual. But what is new is that I realize that I’m not getting any younger. And it’s not just because I’m balding. Heaven, that started almost twenty years ago. I’ve just realized that someday everybody will return from the funeral home but me. Sooner or later, all of my chips will be cashed in and they’ll be baking a ham and chopping up some cabbage for me. Or as my buddy Ralph Diggins said before worship last Sunday. “I check the obits every day to see if I’m still alive.”
Back in the roaring twenties, Picasso was asked to paint a portrait of a young poet named Gertrude Stein. When he unveiled his work, people were shocked. While the portrait resembled Stein, it wasn’t the picture of a young poet. It was the picture of an old woman. People exclaimed, “That doesn’t look like her!” Picasso replied, “It will one day.”
Then there’s the story about the fellow who invited a preacher to his bedside at the hospital. “I know I haven’t been a faithful churchgoer,” the man said, “but do you think God will give me more time if I leave $50,000 to your church?” “I don’t know,” the preacher said in a rising voice, “but let’s give it a try!”
No matter how much time you spend with Mary Kay or Broadway Joe, some things can’t be avoided or masked. Birth. Age. Life. Death. A funeral home.
The Psalmist put it bluntly. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong … So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (Psalm 90).
I. Reputations are Left Behind in Death
Woody Allen once said, “I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I’m packing an extra pair of underwear just in case.” And in an interview for Rolling Stone (April 9, 1987), he said, “Someone once asked me if my dream was to live on in the hearts of people, and I said I would prefer to live on in my apartment.” But just as we cannot avoid the reality of dying to this life, we know our reputations are left behind.
My mother gave me a little plaque several years ago:
You got it from your father, it was all he had to give.
So it’s yours to use and cherish, for as long as you may live.
If you lose the watch he gave you, it can always be replaced.
But a black mark on your name, son, can never be erased.
It was clean the day you took it, and a worthy name to bear.
When he got it from his father; there was no dishonor there.
So make sure you guard it wisely, after all is said and done.
You’ll be glad the name is spotless, when you give it to your son.
Make my day! Can you imagine looking at that every morning after the night before? It’s like the guy who said, “People sow wild oats on Saturday nights and then come to church on Sundays and pray for a crop failure.” Thank God for Jesus! Thank God that, through faith in Jesus, He doesn’t hold some of those Saturday nights against us! Thank God that, through faith in Jesus, there’s an erase button on His VCR.
Fortunately, our Lord is forgiving. Unfortunately, people aren’t as forgiving as our Lord. Our Lord bears our burdens. People pile them on and then talk about them over tea. Our Lord doesn’t hold the past against us. People hold it up in front of us. Our Lord wants to format over the disks labeled sin. People want to remove the tab so they can play it back for us whenever they want to put us in our place. Our Lord is always ready to start over. People tend to call it quits. Our Lord likes to create and preserve. Too many people like to rip up, rip out, and rip on. Our Lord likes to help and heal. Too many people like to hit and hurt. Aren’t you glad Jesus is Lord? Aren’t you glad life with Him lasts longer than life with them?
Though we will live a lot longer with Jesus than anybody else, we’ve still got to live with some less-than-loving people here and now. And like it or not, our reputations are left behind even after we experience our Lord’s loving and everlasting embrace in heaven.
How will people remember you? It’s a sobering thought. Paul said, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:9ff). That’s fine except for the people who don’t want to live peaceably with us. Let’s face it! There are some real dirt-bags out there. There are some real meanies in this world. And no matter how hard we try, they’re up to no good in anybody’s life. As the Psalmist said in exasperating tones, “I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war” (Psalm 120). We have no control or influence over those kind of people and circumstances.
But how will people remember you? It’s a sobering thought. I’m not talking about the nuts. They’re nuts and nobody will pay attention to them anyway. I’m reminded of the man who donated a loudspeaker to the church in memory of his wife. Then there was the woman who was very concerned about another woman who was talking to the guest preacher after a worship service. Fearing she was upsetting him — she was actually complimenting the preacher on his sermon — she went to the preacher and said. “Pay no attention to whatever she said! She’s the village idiot!” I’m not talking about those kind of folks. I’m talking about the good guys. I’m talking about the people who love God and love His people. How will they remember you?
I can’t speak for you, but I want to be remembered for loving my family and friends. I want people to say after I’m gone, “Boy, did he love Leslie, Ben, David, James, Daniel…” (and whoever else may come along). I want people to say. “He was always bragging about them. He was always skipping church meetings to be with them. He was a much better husband and parent than preacher, pastor, presbyter, or writer. And he loved his friends. He’d die for them. And he did on many occasions. He loved his mom, dad, sister, in-laws, out-laws, and all of the rest. He didn’t care who you were or what you had or where you lived. He treated everybody the same.” But most of all, I want to be remembered for loving Jesus and loving my family and friends and everybody else enough to point them to Jesus as Lord and Savior.
I don’t know how I’ll be remembered I’m sure I won’t be remembered for playing golf. But I do want to be remembered for loving Jesus, family, and friends. That’s my prayer. That’s my goal. That’s what and who I want to leave behind.
God forbid that any of us should be remembered as a troublemaker, warmonger, and general pain. God forbid that people should say, “Well, she may have had inner peace, but she sure had outer obnoxiousness.” God forbid that people should say, “Well, he was a dirty old buzzard. She was a gossiping old bag. She made the Wicked Witch of the East look like Barbara Bush.”
How will people remember you and me? What and who will we leave behind? Will people remember us through tears of joy and thanks to God for our time together in this life? Or will they utter a sigh of relief that we’re finally gone?
II. Living to Die
Obviously, we’ve still got some time to work out the funeral arrangements. So here’s some advice. We’ll call it our spiritual Reebok and Nike campaign: “Life is Short! Play Hard! Just Do It!”
First, remember that we’re all living to die. We will die to this life sooner or later and we will leave something and someone behind. A little girl recently said as she looked at the obituaries in the paper, “Look, Mom, they all died in alphabetical order.” But it doesn’t happen that way. Death comes without warning. The only time to get ready for death is before it happens. That thought alone should improve our relationships and reputations. That’s a part of what the Psalmist meant when he prayed, “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” “Life is Short! Play Hard! Just Do It!”
Second, follow our Lord’s heavenly counsel every day of your life. Paul wrote, “Let love be genuine … Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor
… Live in harmony with one another … if it is possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:9ff). Jesus said, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you … Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul … and with all your mind … (and) … Love your neighbor as yourself … Love each other just as much as I love you” (Matthew 7:12; 22-34-40; John 13:31-35). “Life is Short! Play Hard! Just Do It!”
Third, live your life so that the preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral. Here’s how to do that: Love God and be kind to one another. “Life is Short! Play Hard! Just Do It!”
III. Dying to Live
Certainly, the most important truth of Christianity is our eternal life through faith in Jesus. As we confess our faith through The Nicene Creed, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Certainly, we will be resurrected through Him. Certainly, our reservations have been confirmed for the eternal reunion.
But just as certainly, we will be remembered. The truth is we never die. Our souls came from God and were placed into temples called bodies. Our souls will return to God. As Paul explained it, “We will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (I Corinthians 15). And our reputations will live on long after we’ve gone home.
How will we be remembered? We will be remembered. No wonder, it’s a smart idea to prearrange funerals. (Robert R. Kopp)
Proper 8 (A)
June 30, 1996
I am an unabashed, unapologetic cheerleader for Bible Study. Every time that I study a portion of Scripture, no matter how many times I have read it before, it always seems to me as if there is something fresh breaking from that Scripture. There is something that I didn’t see or notice before, or didn’t see in the same way. I know many of you have had the same experience.
This week it really caught up to me. I was reading the sixth chapter of Romans. I’m sure I’ve read it many times. This time I realized there is a verse 17. That verse hadn’t been there ever before. I’m sure of it. It must have gone from 16 to 18. But this time, no words grasped my attention like the words of verse 17.
Remember the context. Paul is writing to Christians in Rome. It is not easy to be a Christian in Rome. Talk about a minority of a minority. So he wants to write to them words that will be encouraging. He says, “Continue in obedience from your hearts to that form of teaching to which you have been entrusted.” Now that’s what caught me off guard. I’ve read it before, I’m sure, but I thought it had said, “The teaching that I have entrusted to you (to keep, to protect).” That’s not what it says. You have been entrusted to the teaching. It is this teaching, this core, kerygma, gospel, proclamation, word of truth, that will shape and form you, the more you allow it to do its work. It’s true.
Some of you noticed that I used the word for this morning’s sermon, “Abecedarian.” Now I know some of you were worried. As a matter of fact, some of you thought we were starting a cult, or that there was a secret society starting to form called the “Abecedarians.” I got a wonderful note from one friend who said, “I have no idea what an ‘Abecedarian’ is, but I’ll be there anyway on Sunday.” What are we talking about?
Abecedarian refers to the ABC’s, the basics. Yet even putting an emphasis on “basic things” can be used as something that is contrary to the gospel. What are we saying? Unless you believe in these five fundamentals, these four spiritual laws, these three points, then you don’t know God? All there is to know of God is in these five, these four, these three? “Yes, you can come to our church, but don’t say ‘trespasses’. You have to say ‘debtors’.” You have to do it our way.
The church has always had this proclivity to be a kind of “Procrustean bed.” You remember the myth of Procrusteus. He was the one in mythology who always invited people to come in, like we hope we do in the church, and they could stay with him. The only problem was you had to make your abode in Procrusteus’ guest bed. If you didn’t fit the bed, you were lopped off accordingly. If your arm hung over, the arm was gone. If the head stuck out, the head was gone. The church has done that sometimes.
There is even a greater danger today than that. The greater danger is that as secular society becomes more and more the norm for all people — including Christians — we are not sure what we believe. If it feels good, do it. If this belief will get you through the night, then it is okay. If that action will work for you now and make you able to stand the rigors of this life for one more day, then do it. Our feelings begin to dictate what we believe and what we count as truth.
There is some good sense in hearing again the essential story, the basics of the faith. Jesus Christ became the one who brings us back to God, and now gives us a sense of our recovered identity so that we can be servants in the world. There is the promise of Life. If we lose those basics, then who are we? Romans 6:23 sums up of the “ABC’s.” Here is the “form of teaching” that is referred to in v. 17, the building blocks of our faith.
You remember when you were a child and you had those blocks that had ABC’s on them? The great thing about them is that you could use them to spell different words, to take new shapes and forms. They were the rudiments, the elements. If you look in your dictionary under “Abecedarian” you will find “a beginner, a person who emphasizes the elements, the rudimentary things.” Is there any Christian who is no longer a beginner? Is there a person who has exhausted all the understanding of God in Christ, and no longer needs to come humbly to God and say “I am yet learning the movements of grace in my own life.”
There is a phrase that for me is “A” — the beginning. It is not the first phrase in verse 23, but it is the first note of the whole story — God’s story, our story. It is “free gift of God.” An even more literal translation would be “the charisma of God.” This is much more than the word we use for sports stars and entertainers. Charisma means “grace gift.” It is — as we sing in the hymn — “God’s good pleasure” to create us in God’s love.
We are created in the image of God. Do you know what that means? Every person is a person of worth. There are people struggling today because they have been taught that unless you achieve a certain thing or get someone’s approval, you are not worthy. The radical message of God’s story is that your value is the free gift of God, you are created in God’s image. If that is true, we cannot exclude any person as beyond the love and grace of God.
This “A” suggests that, even more than being created in God’s image, the free gift of God is being “anointed with delight,” as John Claypool expressed the idea. It conjures up the image of the Old Testament tradition of putting oil on the head and saying, “You are blessed to be a blessing.” “You are anointed for great things.” What if we raised our children to believe that they were anointed for great things? They are God’s children and have unique gifts and abilities to serve and love God. What would happen if we grew up believing that we are anointed with delight? To be children of promise; to be children of destiny is to know that we are created to know and enjoy God forever. Anointed with delight. If we lose that part of the story, we do ourselves and others a great disservice. It is the seed bed of prejudice to say that anyone is not created in the image of God.
But there is more to the story. Paul mucks up a good thing when he mentions sin. Sin is falling short of the glory of God according to Paul. “Missing the mark” is the word the New Testament uses most often to describe sin. The London Times once called it the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine. We have all sinned. We see it all of the time in ourselves and in others. It shows up in places that we do not expect it.
Yesterday, I was driving past Glendale Baptist Church. I always look at church signs to see what the other pastors are preaching. They may have a better idea. But this sign was announcing an event that said, “Sin Evening.” I thought they must have one evening for sin. “Sin evening.” That’s all it said. I drove by again. I had to see that. Somebody was up to mischief, because on the other side of the sign it said, “Sin evening, A capella too.”
The truth is, we can sin without accompaniment. We can do it all by ourselves! Just the time you are pointing out that wretched sin in someone else, that lurid detail that you love to repeat, you are engaging in falling short of the mark. We are missing the love of God that grieves over the sin of another and prays for reinstatement.
I believe that the word spoken here in Romans 6:23 is a basic part of our condition. All have sinned and the wages, the outcome, is death. It is being deadened to even the prodding that we are falling short. Sin is that which cuts us off from other people, from God, and ourselves. “B” is beguiled by sin. It is subtle, it separates, it deadens.
That would be an awful prospect if we had to end there. But there is more. For the other phrase that leaps from the 23rd verse is “eternal life in Jesus Christ.” Eternal life is a new quality of life. This life is not bound by the power of sin; we confess our sin and claim Christ’s great sacrifice to be sufficient. We are able to turn only by the power of God. To face God as forgiven sinners, renewed in life is to be “C” — “converted through Christ.”
The word in the Hebrew that is used the most for converted means “to return.” In the New Testament, it means to change one’s mind; to have a new direction of thinking. We own up to who we are and allow God’s great gift, the free gift of eternal life, to be received and to flow through our lives. This is the promise. This is the basic story that becomes our story. So our story is not one of futility, or hopelessness, but hope and renewal.
But there is one more part of the story. If not, you would be called Abecerians and not Abecedarians. I always thought it should be the ABCD’s. The “D” is the one we would like to forget. It is to be “discipled through community.”
Look at this phrase, the last phrase in v. 23: “Our Lord.” Lord assumes one is a master. A disciple is one who learns and a learner needs a good teacher, a good master. Jesus Christ is the one who teaches. “Learn of me,” He says.
To be converted is to be a life-long learner; to learn more of what it means to stand in the freedom of Christ, to learn to pray, to learn to serve, to learn to sacrifice is learning that Jesus is Lord. But notice the word “our.” It is a community. The part of the story we are losing most today is the “our.” There is a rampant individualism, even in the church, that says only “me, mine.” Jesus Christ always reminds us where two or three are gathered together, “I am in the midst.”
We are the beloved community. When you suffer, I suffer. When you rejoice, I rejoice. We cannot know what it means to grow in grace if we separate ourselves from worship and service through the church. We are in this together. If any part of the body suffers, we suffer. The more we come together to be God’s beloved community, the more we are able to know what it means to be disciples, eternal learners.
These ABC’s cannot be exhausted. We are anointed with delight. God has created us in God’s image. We are beguiled by sin all of our days, but we are converted to Christ and have a way of escape. We are discipled in community. We are the church of Jesus Christ. (Gary D. Stratman)
6th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
July 7, 1996
Between Two Worlds
In Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the good doctor embarks on a journey of split personality and twisted fate. He invents a concoction that transforms himself into the villainous Edward Hyde. As Mr. Hyde, he engages in every sort of undignified pleasure and selfish desire. But once the drug wears off, he reappears as the model citizen of Dr. Jekyll.
However, Hyde’s frivolity turns to tragedy when he murders another man. Dr. Jekyll is forced to choose between the two personalities. Preferring the good nature of his normal self, Jekyll vows never again to drink the formula that awakens Mr. Hyde. But on a clear January morning while sitting on a park bench, Dr. Jekyll spontaneously reverts into that wretched creature. Despite his intentions to remain pure, the depravity within his soul was unleashed, never to be tamed again.
Many Christians relate to the perplexing story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde because they find themselves trapped between two worlds. On the one hand, they love their Lord with all their heart and seek to follow His will for their lives. Yet on the other hand, they consistently stumble into sin and fall victim to the temptations of their worldly desires. Like the good doctor, some believers remain locked in a struggle between virtuous intentions and distorted actions, never able to overcome the enemy within.
Have you ever felt powerless in your Christianity? Do you feel caught in a continuous cycle of failure? Before you conquer the sin in your life, you must understand the true nature of your faith. In Romans 7, the apostle Paul illuminates three fallacies of our faith; understanding them will help equip you as a Christian for victory in the ever-present battle over sin.
I. Fallacy #1: Becoming a Christian Automatically Delivers You From the Battle With Sin
When was the last time you sinned? Yesterday? Today? In the last few minutes? Every Christian knows that accepting Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord does not stop the reality of sin in one’s life. Yet, we still talk as if it does. In doing so, we disillusion new Christians into thinking that their newfound faith will automatically halt the activity of sin.
Listen to the anxiety in Paul’s voice as he articulates the struggle within his own life. He states, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (v. 15). In other words, he wants to know why he keeps on sinning despite his desire to be like Christ. We have all witnessed the demise of immature Christians who enter their child-like faith full of enthusiasm and joy, but who fall off the mountain top back into the pattern of disobedience. What went wrong? They were not prepared for the continuing battle with sin.
The truth of becoming a Christian is that we have won the war against sin and Satan. Our faith in Christ gives us victory over the penalty of sin and promises eternal relationship with God. Yet while we are still in this flesh, we must be ready to fight against the persistence of Satan and our human weaknesses. The outcome of the war may be determined but many battles are yet to come. Rather than prolonging the victory party, we should enter boot camp to begin the disciplined training of discipleship that will empower us to overcome the battles with sin.
II. Fallacy #2: Mature Christians Do Not Struggle With Sin
Another misunderstanding about our faith centers upon the notion that mature Christians do not struggle with sin; at least not as much as the rest of us. Some scholars have debated the mature of the person Paul talks about in Romans 7. How could the great apostle admit a sin problem like the one he describes? Surely he is impersonating an unsaved sinner, a “carnal Christian,” or someone under the conviction of the Holy Spirit but not yet born again. Yet theologians like Augustine, Luther and Calvin agree that Paul is writing about himself.
He summarizes the internal conflict indicative of all Christians with the following: “in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (vv. 22-23).
Obviously, delighting in God’s law classifies Paul as one who is saved. You cannot celebrate the truth of God’s word unless you have been transformed by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit. But Paul goes on to say “evil is right there with me.” The bottom line is that Christians live between two worlds: the kingdom of God and the domain of human flesh. Though we are citizens of God’s kingdom through Christ, we remain captive to the influence of these weak and imperfect bodies. Delivered from hell and the penalty of sin, believers in Christ continue to fall short of the standard of God’s righteousness.
Mature Christians recognize this truth and attempt to handle it by acknowledging their liabilities up front. Thus, Paul readily admits his shortcomings and his need for Jesus. Like Paul, the more one perceives the holiness of God, the more one’s offenses become conspicuous. For “if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). Never be lulled into thinking that Christian maturity means freedom from sin. Though the severity of our sins decreases with obedience to God, we will not be perfected until Christ returns.
III. Fallacy #3: Only You Can Overcome the Power of Sin
Americans love rugged individualism. We applaud those who single-handedly overcome difficult circumstances to achieve great success. If someone needs to lose weight, quit smoking or find a job, we tell them to try harder and everything will work out all right.
What is the problem with this way of thinking? Those who genuinely succeed in these areas will tell you that they could not have done so on their own. Only with the support and encouragement of loved ones could they surpass those obstacles that prevented them from accomplishing their goals.
Paul knew that he could never overcome the defeat of sin on his own. Confronted with the reality of his weakness, he cries aloud, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (v. 24). The answer for Paul and the answer for you and me is the same: “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!” After recognizing his insufficiency, Paul turned to Jesus as the only one who could deliver him.
Some Christians forget the need for strict dependence upon the Lord. They drop out of Bible study, cease communication with God and eventually neglect their role in the body of Christ, the church. Then they wonder why they are so depressed and unable to recover the joy of their salvation.
More mature Christians seek to follow Christ in humility and loyalty. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the support of fellow believers, they confidently embrace the challenges of this world. Failures will occur, but so will spiritual growth and the peace of knowing the presence of God.
As God’s children, we should understand the truth of our faith. The call to Christian discipleship represents a call to a lifelong battle against sin. Understanding this truth and the necessity to depend upon Christ equips the believer for war. We are trapped between two worlds — for now. But thanks be to God who has won the ultimate victory through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Craig Christina)
7th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
July 14, 1996
Does Christ Make a Difference?
Can you tell the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian simply by observing their lifestyles? You might say, “Sure, just look at who goes to church and who does not.” After all, one finds two types of people on Sunday morning: those who sleep in, and those who go to church. Although church attendance appears to be solid criteria, can you honestly admit that you have never stayed home? On the other hand, how many times have you reluctantly dragged yourself out of bed, sat in the pew and found your mind wandering from the lunch menu to the afternoon ball game?
The traditional lines separating Christians and non-Christians have become blurred because many of those who claim to follow Christ exhibit no change in behavior. Recent statistics agree that little difference exists in the rate of divorce, abortion, alcoholism or AIDS among those who do and do not attend church. The end result is that people question the validity of scripture and the value of the church. People want to know: does Christ make a difference?
In Romans 8:1-11, Paul affirms at least four changes in the life of believers that distinguish them from everyone else. By comparing our lifestyles with each change, we can know whether or not Christ has made a difference for us.
I. Our Condition
Paul begins this passage by stating the most beautiful words known to Christianity, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (v. 1). This statement affirms the forgiveness of sins for those who have trusted in Christ and made Him Lord of their lives.
Earlier in the book of Romans, Paul reminds us that all people have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Everyone starts in the same condition because we all have disobeyed the absolute perfection of God’s righteousness. If you have ever had an unclean thought or spoken a white lie, you have violated this standard. You are a sinner.
But God sent His Son to be a sin offering (v. 3). Jesus, who never sinned, received the penalty that you and I deserved. He died in our place that we might live.
When God judges the world, God will see two types of people: those in Christ and those apart from Christ. Call them sheep and goats, saved and lost, saints and sinners; the result is the same. Everyone who has placed their faith in Christ has eternal life, for their condition has changed. Everyone else is eternally lost because they remain in sin, short of the glory of God.
II. Our Character
A second indication of the difference Christ makes in our lives involves a change in the Christian’s character. Paul claims this truth when he states “through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (v. 2). When Paul uses the word “law” in this instance, he refers to the controlling power of the Holy Spirit versus the power of sin and death.
Before becoming a Christian, one exists within the dominion of disobedience. This individual knows right from wrong and can resist evil for a period of time. Yet some temptations are too strong, and the unbeliever falls into sin.
When people come to Christ in faith and obedience, the Holy Spirit delivers them from sin’s controlling influence. Does this mean that a new believer will never sin again? Of course not, but it does mean that she has a new strength to defy temptation. Over time, a character transformation occurs as the Christian experiences the effects of the Holy Spirit’s authority.
III. Our Concentration
A third area by which Christians are distinguishable from others includes the realm of our minds. What thoughts compete for your attention? According to Paul, believers “have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” and are characterized by “life and peace” (v. 5, 6). On the contrary, those without Christ are “hostile to God” and “cannot please God” because their mind is “controlled by the sinful nature” that “does not submit to God’s law” (vv. 6-8).
Common sense says that your actions will not change unless your thoughts change first. So the power of the Holy Spirit not only transforms our character, it also converts our concentration. Before Christ enters the picture, our every thought focused on satisfying selfish desires. Pride, greed, ambition all reflect the concerns of one who does not know the Lord.
Once Jesus comes into your life, He rearranges your priorities. Consumed by an overwhelming desire to please Him, we endeavor to enact His will by meditating on scripture night and day. Studying and discussing the Bible becomes a joy that feeds our hunger for knowledge and search for truth. Christians eagerly await the preached word and desire to have its precepts applied to their lives. If these sentiments depict your concerns, you should affirm the change in your concentration.
IV. Our Confidence
Finally, Paul offers a word of encouragement and a promise of God. He summarizes the persistent hope of all believers by concluding, “he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you” (v. 11).
What is the basis of your hope? In what source of authority do you place your confidence in the life to come? Those without Christ have one and only one hope: that the Bible and 2,000 years of Christian witness are wrong. Their authority rests in the imagination of their minds like so many religions of the world.
The beliefs of Buddhism, Islam and Mormonism all conflict with the claims of Christianity. Their founders spoke of another truth different from the revelation of God in Christ Jesus. Of course, their founders are dead and in the grave. But God, who sent Jesus into the world to die for our sins, raised Him back to life. God’s promise and our hope is that He who raised Christ from the dead will also raise us from the dead on that great resurrection day. Christians face this life and the life to come with a new confidence that faith in Christ means an assurance of tomorrow. Non-Christians face tomorrow with a fading hope in themselves.
In a nation that claims to be a melting pot, Christians must stand apart from those who would dissolve our differences. Biblical absolutes oppose the relativism of our culture, and authentic Christians reflect the veracity of that faith. The next time someone seeks to distinguish those who accept Christ from those who reject Him, you can know in which group you fall. In Christ, we experience a genuine change that is visible td all. (Craig Christina)
8th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
July 21, 1996
The Action of the Holy Spirit
Virgil Hurley tells about Richard Bolling, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, who in 1951 proposed a dam to be constructed in his district. He watched as it was defeated in a committee hearing on the bill, but Bolling was determined to see that dam built.
The next time, he bypassed the committee and took the proposal straight to the floor of Congress. And it passed — even though Bolling knew before he began speaking that the bill didn’t have enough support to be adopted, How did Bolling succeed? He had befriended Sam Rayburn, the powerful Speaker of the House. When Bolling rose to present his proposal, Rayburn stood up from his chair and went to stand beside Bolling. Rayburn didn’t say a word — he simply stood there — but his act of standing made a statement to the House: “I want this bill passed.” And it was!
If we are to have any confidence in this life or the next, our confidence must come through the Spirit of God. God gives us the Holy Spirit to stand beside us throughout our lives, guiding and empowering those who have committed their lives to Christ.
Observe what Paul says here about the action of the Holy Spirit on our behalf.
I. The Action of the Spirit Produces Life (v. 13)
Life in the Spirit means death to the power of sin over us. No longer can the Christian allow sin to dominate life. Since we are incapable in our own power to live victoriously, it is the action of the Spirit which helps us live triumphantly.
God’s Spirit dwells inside the yielded Christian to strengthen and develop a holy lifestyle. He opens the mind to understand the Father’s moral will as revealed in Scripture. He convicts in specific areas of right and wrong. The Holy Spirit acts affirmatively to produce a unique quality of life for God’s children.
II. The Action of the Spirit Witnesses Adoption (v. 16)
The Spirit dwells within the believer from the moment we accept Jesus as Savior. The Spirit witnesses to the joy of adoption of the believer into the family of God.
William Barclay points out the significance of adoption to Paul’s audience in Rome. There the father’s power was absolute. When a person was to be adopted, two steps were necessary. The first step was manipattio, which was accomplished by a symbolic sale of the person. The adopting father put copper coins on the scale for a purchase price. Twice the biological father symbolically sells his son, and twice he buys him back. The third time he does not repurchase the child; thus, his legal hold on the child is broken. After this sale, there is a ceremony called vindicattio in which the adopting father went to a magistrate to present a legal case for transference of this child to his permanent care. When the ceremony concludes, the adoption is complete.
This process occurred before seven witnesses. If any questions later arose about the legitimacy of the adoption, one of the witnesses could testify on behalf of the adopted. Paul emphasizes that the Holy Spirit himself is the perfect witness of the adoption of each Christian. He is our security that we are secure within the family of God.
III. The Action of the Spirit Offers Hope (vv. 18-25)
The Spirit of God offers a foretaste of what we will experience through Christ: hope. The world in which we live is desperately seeking hope — and we have received it through the presence of the Spirit.
King Duncan relates a story about a woman who worked exhausting hours but barely made ends meet in supporting herself and her children. She often bought a lottery ticket, and a friend once asked her why she was willing to part with a hard-earned dollar like that. Her answer was, “A dollar is not too much to pay for 24 hours of hope.”
Unlike the futile methods the world offers, as Christians we can share the only authentic hope to be found in this world — the hope of new life in Christ, made possible through the Holy Spirit actions in our lives. (Derl G. Keefer)
9th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
July 28, 1996
Real prayer is never easy. I am not talking about those little formalities of religion that are quickly said and just as quickly forgotten. Prayer at the dinner table is often more of an exercise of getting everyone to the table than real communication with God.
Even prayers in worship sometimes fall into the area of formalities. Such prayers are often more transitions from one thing to another rather than authentic presence with the Living God. These prayer formalities demand little of us. They are quickly said and quickly forgotten. They do us little good.
Real Prayer Can be Difficult
What about real prayer? Can we experience soul searching prayer? Someone has noted that if you cannot remember what you prayed for just two weeks ago, then you are not taking prayer seriously.1 How long has it been since you prayed like that? How long has it been since you really spent time in the presence of the Living God?
Jesus was a person of prayer. Luke especially remembered His prayer life. More than the other Gospel writers, Luke noted how often Jesus prayed. It is remarkable that, given the amount of material the Gospel writer had to include about our Lord, Luke gave so much room to Jesus’ prayer life. His praying must have impacted His disciples a great deal. In fact, the disciples once asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:2). As the New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias has noted, this request is even more remarkable once you consider that the Jews were a people of prayer.2 Every Jewish male was taught from childhood that they were to pray three times each day. The disciples knew how to pray, yet the prayers of Jesus must have been different. When He prayed, He really prayed. The disciples wanted to know how to pray like Jesus did.
Even the apostle Paul once confessed, “We do not know how to pray” (Romans 8:26f). This was from the great apostle that included a prayer in every one of his letters. So prayers have inspired Christians for centuries. Yet this same Paul feels that he and the rest of us really do not know how to pray.
Foolishly, I once let a group of Christians talk me into teaching a study course on prayer. I tried to teach them how to say better prayers. Somewhere during that study, it dawned on me that real prayer is not learned. It is experienced. You cannot teach praying as you would teach a foreign language. We need not to learn how to open our lips but rather how to open our hearts. Real prayer is the language of the soul, not the language of the tongue. That is real prayer. That is prayer that does you some good.
Why then is real prayer so difficult? Paul suggests that it is because of our weaknesses and ignorance. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses, for we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom. 8:26). Weaknesses come from sin. There is a great distance between a holy God and us. Sin twists and distorts everything about us. No wonder our prayers are not as they ought to be.
Our ignorance is manifest in our inability to see the future and to understand God’s ways. In First Corinthians, Paul compares our limited perspective to seeing in a mirror, dimly (I Cor 13:12). Such is the case. Finite minds cannot conceive of the infinite. Prayer, therefore, often is made without understanding what God is doing or desires. I sometimes ask for things that later I am glad God never granted. I thought they would be good for me, but the future proved me wrong. I had prayed in ignorance.
Does the difficulty of prayer then mean that real prayer is impossible? Is it hopeless to even try?
The Spirit Makes Real Prayer Possible
Real prayer is only possible through the Holy Spirit. “… That very Spirit intercedes with signs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). This means intercessory prayer is a hallmark of the Spirit. Intercession is serious for the Spirit and for us. Through intercession our energy is freed for another. It is asking God to take our energy and strength and in some way use it to aid another human being.
Several years ago Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote a significant work entitled The Meaning of Prayer. That book made a major impact on me at a time when I was beginning to question my own faith and beliefs as a college student. Fosdick viewed prayer as a kind of spiritual message. One could summarize Fosdick’s perspective with the words “pray, it will do you some good.” Through intercession, your prayer will do the other person some good, too. It will take your strength in faith and strengthen the other person.
That is intercessory prayer, and that is the kind of praying the Spirit does. In some divine way, the Spirit offers His strength for us. God can take the power made available by the Holy Spirit and use it to our benefit. It is great to have your fellow saints praying for you, but how much greater it is to have the Holy Spirit as your prayer partner!
Prayer in God’s Will
Real prayer is “according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:27). It is speaking with God truthfully and honestly. It is a lesson we can learn from the Psalmist. In many ways the Psalms are unique in religious literature. They speak with such openness and honesty. They give words to what we are often afraid of saying to ourselves, let alone to God. For example, the Psalmist can declare “I hate them with perfect hatred.” Then immediately the Psalmist turns around and says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart” (Ps. 139:22f). What a confession! How easily he opens his heart to God’s searchlight. However, isn’t the Psalmist right? How could anyone hide anything from God anyway? God knows our hearts better than we know ourselves.. The Psalmist simply faces himself and admits what he felt to the Almighty.
The Psalmist was able to “let his hair down” with God. Play has gone. Hiding is impossible. The Psalmist is alone first with himself and then alone with God. This is real prayer. This is prayer that does you some good.
When we can pray like the Psalmist, then maybe we can discover God’s will for our own lives. We open up ourselves to the Living God, and He opens Himself up to us that we might live. Jesus prayed like that. Jesus took the disciples to the garden to pray, then He left the group. Taking only a few with Him, He goes deeper into the garden to spend time in communication with God. There He left even these few disciples so that He could be alone with the Father. It was only then that we find our Lord praying, really praying, soul searching prayer to the extent that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:46).
In the silence of deep spiritual communication with the Almighty, Jesus prayed, “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Here is the turning point in prayer. Our wills, our desires, are turned over to the will of God. Here is prayer that really does us some good.
But enough of this talking about prayer! Maybe we need less talk about prayer and more prayer talk. Would you like to go to the Lord in real prayer?
Gracious father, here we are. We come to you with our weaknesses and our ignorance. We do not even know how to phrase our feelings, nor do we know exactly what to ask. We ask that the Holy Spirit can somehow take our thoughts, our feelings, even our weaknesses and lift them to you, and that you take them, energizing them with the Spirit’s power. Most of all we want to be in your presence and in your will. Amen. (Gilbert Sanders)
1Observed by Peter Rhea Jones, “Hang in There!” The Ministers Manual (Dorans), 1985 Edition, edited by James Cox (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), p. 243.
2Joachim Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus, “Studies in Biblical Theology: Second Series,” (London: SCM Press, 1967), pp. 66f.
10th Sunday after Pentecost (A)
August 4, 1996
Don’t Slam the Door
Doing “cold turkey” calling can be a difficult experience. Sometimes people who don’t appreciate the visit make it known by shutting the door in your face. This action conveys that they have no desire to talk about God, the church, or their salvation — or at least that they don’t want to talk with you!
Paul rejoices that the Romans had openly and enthusiastically received God’s offer of salvation but he grieves over the door that his fellow Jews have slammed in the face of Jesus. He aches so badly for them that he says he would even give up his own salvation if it meant that his people would accept Christ as Messiah.
Suppose someone knocking at that door wasn’t there to sell something but to give you something of great value. By refusing to receive them, you would also be losing the opportunity to receive that precious gift.
By rejecting Jesus, certain privileges are also rejected. Please don’t make the same mistake of slamming the door on eternal life by slamming the door on Jesus!
I. Refusing Christ is Rejecting Membership in God’s Family
God wants to adopt us into His family so that we can become His children. When you reject Christ, you are also refusing adoption into God’s Kingdom family.
A New York Daily News story of February 16,1985, told about Alice Shedrick. She wrote an essay for her fourth grade public school class about her best friend, God. The essay read:
“My best friend is God, he is my father. Without him I wouldn’t be born. Everybody has something to thank God for, their hands, nose, legs, and life. God is always there when I need someone to talk to. When something is going wrong for me, God will help me out and he will show me the right way. I thank God for giving the life he has given me. I think everybody who has had troubles should ask God for forgiveness and we should all love him. And I want to go in his big house in the sky.”
Two days after presenting her essay, Alice died in a tragic fire that took her life and the lives of seven members of her family. But Alice knew a heavenly Father who had already included her in His family, and made sure her essay was not a tragic fluke but became a glorious hope.
Wouldn’t you like to have the same Father that Alice wrote about in her essay? God wants you to be part of His forever family; don’t slam the door on Him!
II. Refusing Christ is Rejecting God’s Glory
God chose to send His divinity to dwell among us in the form of His Son, Jesus. He offered His holy mercy, unmerited grace, unconditional love, His crowning glory in Christ. Slamming the door on Christ means rejecting all of God’s riches and glory for the useless trinkets of this temporal world. Cars will rust; beautiful faces wrinkle; money spends out; fame passes; worldly success comes to an end. Only God’s glory lasts!
William Barclay comments, “It is a terrible thing to see the glory of God and then to choose the ways of the earth.” Don’t slam the door on God’s eternal glory by refusing Christ!
III. Refusing Christ is Rejecting God’s Promises
Paul notes that the Israelites could never claim that they did not know God’s promises or their destiny. God had offered His people a divine mission to be a light to the nations through Christ — and they had rejected His invitation.
People must have hope if life is to have any meaning. If deprived of hope, the spirit withers and dies. If we reject God’s promises, we are left only with human promises that fail, crumble, and die. Greed, faulty economics, political and social collapse can annihilate even the best-intentioned assurances. God’s promises, however, will not fail, for they are founded in the truthfulness of His divine nature.
So when Christ says, “Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7), that is an assurance grounded in the very character of God. It is a promise on which you can stake your life — and your soul.
Open the door today to the wonderful promises of God! Jesus says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20).
Today is the perfect day to open your heart’s door and discover what God has in store for you! (Derl G. Reefer)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Bill Groover, Pastor, Bethany Baptist Church, Louisville, KY; Robert R. Kopp, Pastor, Logans Ferry Presbyterian Church, New Kensington, PA; Gary D. Stratman, Pastor, First & Calvary Presbyterian Church, Springfield, MO; Craig Christina, Ph.D. candidate in Preaching, Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, KY; Derl G. Keefer, Pastor, Three Rivers (MI) Church of the Nazarene; and Gilbert Sanders, Pastor, Livonia (MI) Baptist Church.
3rd Sunday after Pentecost (A)