Monday, October 24, 2011

God's Power: Declaring Us "Not Guilty'

Preached on Sunday October 23, 2011

Scripture readings: Genesis 15:1-6; Luke 18:9-14; Romans 3:19-31

I have friends who are great listeners. There are times when, more than anything else, I need someone to listen. So I try to be a listener too.

Only there are the times I get caught red-handed and ashamed, because someone was talking to me and it was my job to listen. They stopped to hear some sign or some encouragement from me, and I had no idea what they just said. I was too busy thinking of what I wanted to say next to listen to them.

This is one of the ways we know we live in a fallen world; a world that is separated from the love, the harmony, the peace, the goodness, and the faithfulness that comes from God. We belong to a human race that makes far too much noise.

We find it easier to talk than to listen. Even when we are not talking out loud, our minds and hearts are full of jabbering and noise.

It isn’t just the kids who walk around with earphones blasting away with their own play list. Human beings have done this all along. We walk around with our own soundtrack. We listen to the music of our pride, our anger, our complaints, our desire to make an impression on others. We listen to our drive to justify ourselves, or prove ourselves, or defend ourselves.

This is why Paul says such a strange thing about our need to be quiet and listen to God. He says that the most important purpose of God’s laws (which are God’s principles and ways for us to live as his creatures) is to make us quiet and listen. He says: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” (3:19)

We have the same problem when God wants to speak to us through his creation. We hear, but we are very selective about what we hear.

Paul says that we humans suppress God’s truth and drown it out through the ways we have developed of thinking and living, even when we claim to be filled with wonder by the world around us. He says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20) We have let ourselves be moved by God’s creation but not changed by it.

The world and everyone in it is in a lot of trouble because our hearts, our minds, and our lives are so full of the noise of our selves. In the Book of Job it says, “For God speaks in one way and in two though man does not perceive it.” (Job 33:14) In the Psalms, the Lord says, “Be still (be quiet), and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

We are a rebel race. We try to maintain our authority over our own lives. We try to drown out God, using our inner noise as a weapon, even when we claim to have given our lives to God.

Some people say there is too much harm done in the world by people claiming to listen to God instead of listening to reason. But we have spent our lives learning how to disguise our own desires and make them sound like other voices; whether God, or reason. James, in his letter, recognizes the danger of substituting our own desires for other voices. ‘Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.’ (James 1:13-15) Yes, religious people have done great harm in this world by claiming to follow the voice of God when, all along, they were only acting from their desire to play God.

This is like the temptation in the Garden of Eden. The voice of the serpent (the voice of the Devil) said that eating the forbidden fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil would make us as wise as God. It would give us control over our lives.

We wouldn’t have to only listen to God. We would have a voice of our own, and we wouldn’t have to live by simple faith.

In our present time, more than ever before, everyone is claiming for themselves the right to follow their own inner voices. It is all another round of the same chorus taught to us by Adam and Eve. The voice within them agreed with the voice of the serpent. They followed their own inner voices, and we have had hell to pay for it ever since.

We live in a confusion of voices and our own voice is loudest of all. In the confusion of voices, we don’t know the meaning of anything. We don’t know what anything is, or what it is for. We don’t know what men and women are for, or what family is for. We don’t know what nations or communities are for. We don’t know what laws and governments are for, or what freedom and liberty are for. We don’t even know what religion and faith are for.

And we are afraid to find out. We are afraid of not having our own way.

During the fourteen hundreds, in the wealthy Republic of Florence (which was an independent city-state in northern Italy, in those days), there was a monk and preacher named Savonarola.

Savonarola saw the rule of law being broken down by a clique of families who wanted to use the power of the government for their own personal gain. He tried to re-establish the old republic, but he lost the struggle and got burned at the stake.

The Christian writer G. K. Chesterton wrote this about Savonarola and what he tried to accomplish: “Democracy, of which Savonarola was so fiery an exponent, is the hardest of gospels; there is nothing that so terrifies men as the decree that they are all kings. Christianity, in Savonarola’s mind, identical with democracy, is the hardest of gospels; there is nothing that so strikes men with fear as the saying that they are all the sons of God.” (“Savonarola” in “Varied Types” p. 151)

The word “gospel” means “good news”. It is a kind of message; a kind of voice that tells us we are, or can be, sons and daughters of God. It is the good news of God, the good news of Jesus Christ, taking the form of a voice and telling us how we can be changed and filled with “the righteousness of God”.

This righteousness is a kind of rightness in all our relationships. It means a right relationship with God; the peace and love of God restored in us. It spills over into right relationships with others; so that we know how to be a husband, a wife, a single person, a parent, a child, a member of the kingdom of God, a citizen, an agent for God’s purpose in the world. The righteousness of God enables us to live the life we were created for. It enables us to live the life that Jesus came to give us through his own life, and his death on the cross, and his resurrection.

There is a voice in this world that is the voice of God speaking among the many voices that we use to drown out our fears, and the sounds of our own sins, and the sounds of our own cooperation with the ways of this world. Among all our fond and confusing voices, faith appears to sort them out and let us hear God’s voice rising above them all, so that we can listen to God and respond.

Faith enables us to hear the message of how far we have fallen from a lost glory. The glory is that life of right relationships. It was a glory we had in Eden, and the message says that we have all sinned and fallen short of it. We are all just as involved in falling from that glory as the first humans were so long ago in Eden.

The word “sin” (in the Greek language) is an archery word that describes missing the mark. But this kind of missing the mark goes beyond anything that can be corrected by discipline and skill. This kind of missing is a part of us. It would be like shooting a crooked arrow from a warped bow: only you are not just the archer; you are the crooked arrow, and you are the warped bow. They are extensions of your self.

It would be like having dyslexia in your spiritual vision. Here you see what is before you, but it is jumbled, and you don’t know how to put it together because it will always be jumbled in a way you do not expect.

What if our self-centered soul (because of our spiritual rebellion) has made us all severely near-sighted? Teddy Roosevelt was deeply nearsighted; even from early childhood. His family was always into sports and hunting, and he would go hunting for ducks and geese with his cousins. He could never understand how they could simply point their guns in the air and fire, and ducks and geese would come down. He would fire into the air, and nothing came down. He couldn’t understand this until he realized that they could see the ducks and geese, and he couldn’t. Of course he would miss the mark.

John Calvin spoke of the spectacles of faith, the eye glasses of faith. He meant that faith enables us to see what we cannot see otherwise.

I got my first glasses when I was about ten and, when I put them on, I cried, not for the joy of seeing, but for the sorrow of seeing how blind I was. I couldn’t see how blind I was till I got my glasses. Just so we cannot see how fallen short we are until we put on the spectacles of faith.

I never boast about my glasses, just as I never boast about my faith. My glasses are a gift, even though I have bought them my self. Glasses are just a remedy for my level of blindness.

So Paul says that faith never allows us to boast. (3:27-28) Faith is a gift, no matter how experienced we become in living by faith. I am always interested in comparing my spectacles with those of other people, but I would never dream of criticizing other people’s glasses or boasting about my own. We need God’s gifts to see God’s truth, and to see the good news.

There is a very brief statement that Paul made about what Jesus has done for us. It is like a text message; a huge thought spelled out in just a few letters. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as the sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.” (3:23-25)

Paul is usually very wordy, and we complain when he is. Here Paul is very condensed and brief, and I wish he would explain what he says here. Reading these few verses is like sucking on a bullion cube instead of making it into broth.

The phrase “sacrifice of atonement” is sometimes translated by other single words because it is just one word in the Greek (and it would be just one word in Hebrew), too. But this one word is shorthand for the whole process of God working in our life.

It was the name of a piece of furniture in the tabernacle and in the Temple in Jerusalem that King Solomon built. The blood of sacrifices was sprinkled on this piece of furniture, to represent the forgiveness of the worshiper who offered that sacrifice for the forgiveness of his or her sins.

This piece of furniture was the Ark of the Covenant that contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. It held the treasures from the exodus, when God led his people out of slavery in Egypt and into the freedom of the Promised Land.

The Ark of the Covenant was built to look like a golden throne. No human was allowed to sit there, because it was God’s throne. God’s invisible presence was thought to hover there in a concentrated way. When a sacrifice was made for forgiveness the blood was brought to the throne of God to represent that sin was costly, and that the cost came home to God.

It represented that sin was deadly. The death of the sacrifice represented the death of the person who had sinned. The sinner offered his death to God, by substitution.

The sacrifice also represented that the sinner needed life from somewhere else, in order to go on living by the love and the freedom of God. But the death given for sin, and the life given for new life, represented something that those who offered the sacrifice could never really give for themselves. The fact that such a sacrifice could be made in the Temple, and brought into the presence of God, meant that God himself had to provide a way to die to sin and live a new life. Only God could devise and provide such a new life for his people.

In the end, when Jesus came, he claimed to be the sacrifice and the ransom for sin. Jesus is God come to earth as a human, in order to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.

It turned out that God himself provided the sacrifice. God was and is the sacrifice: God himself is the gift of the righteousness of God.

The word translated as “sacrifice of atonement” refers to the throne of God but really it is the name of the special title of that throne where the blood was sprinkled. The title is “mercy seat”. The mercy seat was the place where the mercy of God was found. Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase translation “The Message” translates it this way: “God put Jesus forth as the place of mercy, though his faithfulness, by means of his blood.” (3:25)

God, in Christ, is the place of mercy. Mercy has not been gotten by our faithfulness to God but by means of God’s faithfulness to us in Christ. We have all been died for, and the blood of God, from the cross, has marked us as the children of God, the people of God. This is an act of God in the fullest and best sense of the word.

Paul said that we have received “redemption”. Redemption means the freeing of a slave. Sin is a kind of self-seeking that is, by its very nature. It deforms every relationship. Sin cuts us off from God who is our very source of life, and without God we are not fully alive.

Without a right relationship with God, which spills over to all our other relations, we no longer know how to live. We have lost our selves in our ambition to rule our selves. We are slaves.

But, through the atoning sacrifice of God in Christ, we are in the place of mercy. We are made one with God and we are set free to live the life we were created for.

Paul said that we are “justified”. We have two words in English where the Greek language has only one. The words “just”, and “justice”, and “right”, and “righteous” are represented by one root word in Greek.

“Justify” is a verb form of the same word. It means the action of making right, or making righteous, or making just. In New Testament Greek the word “justify” also means to give someone the status of being just, or right, or righteous. It is a verb of legal status. It is like the verdict of a judge who declares a defendant innocent.

In this case, however, we have God, our ultimate judge, declaring us (the guilty) to be innocent. This is a miscarriage of justice. In fact, in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs, we read that this miscarriage of justice is specifically condemned. The proverb says: “Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent – the Lord detests them both.” (Proverbs 17:15)

The truth is that we live in an in-between time. In Christ, God has given us a new life and a new nature. It is our status. It is our new identity. But the substance of our new identity hasn’t, in terms of how we think and live every day, hasn’t come home to us. We don’t see it very clearly as yet.

Something has happened. We can be aware, sometimes, of an enormous change in our lives; and others may see it too. But there are other times when we fail miserably to be what God has made us, and declared us to be, in Christ.

At such times we are like old Abraham who was given God’s promise. He and his wife Sarah would become the parents of a nation with a purpose that would be a blessing to the whole world. (Genesis 12:1-3) But the years passed and nothing seemed to happen. Over and over the Lord renewed his promise and, year after year, nothing happened. It was as if the promises of God were only a joke.

The fact is that, for Abraham, God was real even when the promises seemed unreal. Abraham held onto the promise because he trusted the God who spoke the promise. Abraham chose the voice of God above all the other voices that discouraged him.

That was the faith of Abraham. It is like that with our faith in the good news of God in Christ. It is the news that God, our judge, has acquitted the guilty through the cross of Jesus. God declares us innocent, even though we wear the evidence of our guilt.

The righteousness that comes by faith is nothing to boast of. But the God who declares the guilty innocent is a God worth boasting of. And that is the sort of news that can be shared with anyone.

Dick Cochran was a mentor of mine for a number of years. When I was first ordained, Dick was the senior pastor of a very fine church in a neighboring town. I met with him every week share what was going on in my life and my ministry.

He had a story he often told of a time when he was playing tennis with his teenage son. Dick has always been extremely competitive and taught his kids to be the same.

Well, in this story, Dick hit the ball over the net to his son and it bounced very near the line. His son missed it and said it was out. Dick said it was in. And Dick said, “If I said it was in, it was in. I’m your father and I’m your pastor. If you can’t trust me, whom can you trust?” And his son answered, “That’s what I’m afraid of!”

That was classic Dick Cochran, standing up for him self. But in Jesus, God stands up for you and says, “Innocent! Free! Redeemed! Atoned! You are the receiver of my mercy!”

This is what it means to be justified by grace. It means that a voice has spoken up in your favor and this voice has been designed for faith. It means a message for you to trust by faith. “Innocent! Child of God!”

Many voices will tell you otherwise. Many voices will try to wear you down, or discourage you, or distract you. Those voices will tell you to live as something different than a child of God. Even your own voice will try to do this. You have to choose to hear the voice of the one who loves you more than you love your self. This is faith.

It is true because God says so. If you can’t trust God, whom can you trust? Whom will you, trust? You must listen. Through faith you can go forth and live by the promise of God.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for visiting my blog.
    Yes, those poems and fotos are mine.
    I felt Blessed when I was reading your sermon: we do no listen. We are ego-centric…and we Fail.
    Jesus came to die for us…because we are sinners.

    But we do not listen…
    For how long?