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Compassioned Boldness August 6, 2017

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Romans 9:1-5

Proper 13

August 6, 2017

 

Focus:  God gave everything in His love for us.

Function:  That the hearers share Christ’s bold compassion with their neighbors.

Structure:  Parallels.

 

Compassioned Boldness

 

Just how far are you willing to go?  How much are you willing to sacrifice for those people you hold dear?  The loved ones, those closest to you.  Your spouse, your children, your best friend, your parents.  How much would you give of yourself to ensure their wellbeing?

What if we change the person, to say, the person sitting a few pews either behind you or in front of you?  How much would give up of yourself for that person?  Would it be difficult to say that you’d give up just as much?

What if we change the person again, but this time, to the person who lives three doors down from you, whether that’s apartments in a hallway, homes on a block, or for you farmers, about a mile, how much would you be willing to give of yourself to care for that person?  For your neighbor?

And if you’ll allow, let me push this one more time.  How much would you be willing to lay down of yourself for the person you despise the most?  The person who has caused you the most harm, or the most embarrassment?  The person who has literally stolen from you, belittled you?  What would you be willing to give that person?

In America, we have a logical worldview on this subject.  What I mean by that is the way we look at others, the way we treat others, makes sense.  We understand.  We understand if you love a good friend who loves you.  We understand if you are angry with the person who’s been gossiping about you.  We understand if you want revenge when someone has done great harm to you.

But the problem is, this logical, American way of thinking isn’t Christian.  This isn’t what Jesus taught.  It isn’t how He instructed His disciples to live.

Instead we get a fascinating text today from the letter Paul wrote to the church in Rome.  “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”

Many of you still remember The Titanic movie, but even more of you still remember the story.  This giant vessel crashing into an iceberg and plunging into the depths of the ocean.  The people flooded to the lifeboats, but there weren’t enough.  So what happened?  Well, in that time in our culture, men sacrificed themselves.  The women and children got the first seats.  The men offered their lives to save others.

That’s an extreme example from our history.  But it pales in comparison.  Paul just said that he would willingly trade places.  That if he could, he’d give up not just his life, but his everlasting life if it meant his Jewish brethren would come to know Christ, and receive everlasting life.

Now, you and I, and Paul, we know this isn’t how it works.  It’s not a seat on a boat, it’s not something Paul could trade, or even sacrifice.  But it’s a powerful statement and illustration.  The Apostle Paul was a Jew.  Born a Jew, raised a Jew.  Studied under the best teachers they had.  He was one of them, and he was in a position to be one of their leaders, if he wasn’t already.

And then it all changed.  On the Road to Damascus, when Christ appears to Paul and strikes him blind, and directs him to go on into the city where he will receive further instructions.  Paul, before losing his sight, saw the resurrected Christ.  Or, at the very least, heard His voice.  And upon reaching Damascus, the Lord sends Ananias, who heals Paul and baptizes him.  And Paul is saved.

Now, this didn’t sit well with his old Jewish friends, teachers, and well, any of them.  And Paul began to suffer at their hands.  His own list in 2 Corinthians 11 is astounding:

“with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”

 

Beaten, and not just with fists.  The lashings, the stonings, the imprisonments and torture that Paul endured at their hands.  And yet, instead of wanting revenge, instead of wanting to see them get what was coming to them, which would have been a very natural reaction, what did Paul want for them?  He wanted nothing more than to see them know Christ and be forgiven for all the pain and all the wretchedness that they had caused.

There was no grudge to be found.  In fact, just the opposite, compassion.  Paul would give up his spot for them if it worked that way.  Praise be to God that it doesn’t work that way.

Because God’s plan is infinitely better.  God’s plan was that His own Son Jesus Christ would step down into this world, taking on flesh, becoming a man, born of the virgin Mary.  That this Jesus, this Son of God would then at the hands of God’s own people endure beatings, and lashings, and even a death by crucifixion.  And that as He hung there upon the cross, rather than free Himself or call down His Father’s wrath, Jesus called out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).

Even in His dying breaths, Jesus was accomplishing what He came to do.  To forgive all people.  To forgive every man of every time and every place.  To forgive every sin committed past, present, and future.  That Christ did not hold a grudge against the wickedness of mankind, but gave His life in our place.  Spilled His blood so that we would not have to.

This is the gospel!  That you and me, in spite of our sins, in spite of our brokenness, in spite of our open and obstinate rebellion against God: you are forgiven, you are saved!  The compassion that Jesus had for His people led Him to be so bold that He would even willingly die for us.

The compassion that the Apostle Paul had for the people around him, even those we would consider his enemies, enabled him to be so bold that he would continue to preach the good news of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting in His name.  Paul didn’t cower, he didn’t step back and wait for God’s wrath.  He went to the people who needed forgiveness, who needed love, who needed a Savior, and He gave them the good news.

We are forever grateful that this good news has been proclaimed to us.  And to 2 billion other people alive today who have heard the good news and believed in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  And it’s not just those living, but the countless men and women that heard and shared this same gospel proclamation in the generations from Paul to us.

And so it is that this same good news overflows in us.  We share the love of Christ with our neighbor.  We look upon them, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, with compassion.  And it is this compassion for them, as it did for Paul, that leads us to be bold.  To proclaim the truth, to proclaim forgiveness and life in the name of Christ.  To our spouses and children.  To our best friends and parents.  To the people in the pews around us or the neighbors down the way.  To the very people who have done us harm.  We give of ourselves, we sacrifice of ourselves to give these people the opportunity to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.  To hear of the forgiveness of their sins and our sins.  To hear of the gift of life that is for all people.

What I Want to Do I Do Not Do July 9, 2017

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Romans 7:14-25a

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

July 9, 2017

 

Focus:  God does it all.

Function:  That the hearers confess their wretchedness unto the Lord.

Structure:  This is the problem…this is the response of the gospel, with thanks to Rev. Dr. Joel Biermann.

 

What I Want to Do I Do Not Do

 

Our epistle reading today has to be one of the clunkiest sections in all of Scripture.  It’s a tongue-twister.  Give it a try yourself, read the text aloud as quickly as you can and see how you do.

When some people read Paul’s writings here, they say this can’t possibly be him.  The person being discussed is a wretched failure of a disciple.  He knows what he should do, but he doesn’t do it.  He knows what he shouldn’t do, and those are the things he does!

Others read this as a good excuse.  “See, even Paul couldn’t do it, so why should I bother?  I might as well just do whatever I want.”  Paul’s failures here are used as an excuse to sluff off, to stop trying.

But while this text most certainly is about Paul, it’s not just Paul, is it?  We develop habits in our lives.  I want to get up at this time, go to sleep at this time.  This is the week where I finally kick that bad habit that’s been nagging me for years.

We set goals for our marriages, for our families.  I will love my spouse always.  Without hesitation, I will forgive them when they fall short, as I pray they will do for me.  You look to milestones in your relationship with your children, confirmations, graduations, grandchildren.  You plot out goals in your career, goals in your friendships, goals in your hobbies.

And all of these goals are meant to push you.  To push you forward, to make you stronger, wiser, more faithful, whatever it may be.  And so you attack.  You work and you work, and you work.  You put in the extra hours, you sacrifice.  The goal is right there before you, and yet, you can’t quite reach it.

In fact, you fall flat on your face miles short of the prize.  The average New Year’s resolution is a bust fifteen minutes after we wake up on January 1st.  Okay, maybe that’s made up, but you know exactly what I mean.

Failure is our common lot.  It’s what we do.  We put solid, good, faithful things in front of ourselves, and we want to do them.  But no matter how hard we fight, no matter how hard we try to achieve them, we don’t.  This isn’t just Paul, is it?  It’s each and every one of us.

So, how is it that the person who wishes to be faithful, who earnestly seeks to serve God and to serve his neighbor ends up in such a train wreck?  Haven’t we been called to be disciples?  In our baptisms, haven’t we been cleansed, our sins washed away, the Old Adam drowned?  Weren’t we made new?

Why is it then that the Old Adam remains?  Why can’t I do the things that God wants me to do?  Martin Luther in his Preface to the New Testament explained it this way:

“Then he [Paul] shows how spirit and flesh struggle with one another in a man.  He uses himself as an example, in order that we may learn how properly to understand the work of slaying sin within us.  He calls both the spirit and the flesh ‘laws’; for just as it is in the nature of the divine law to drive men and make demands of them, so the flesh drives men and makes demands.  It rages against the spirit, and will have its own way.  The spirit, in turn drives men to make demands.  It rages against the spirit, and will have its own way.  The spirit, in turn, drives men and makes demands contrary to the flesh, and will have its own way.  This tension lasts in us as long as we live; though in one person it is greater, in another less, according as the spirit or the flesh, and he fights with himself until he becomes wholly spiritual.” – Luther’s Works (Fortress Press, 1960), 376-377

 

It’s a back and forth.  A battle between the old and the new. The new man, the new creature is here.  Through the work of the Holy Spirit in His Word and the water at your baptism, God made you new. He freed you from your slavery to sin, rescued you from the pits of death and despair.  You are His.

And yet, the old man remains.  He is your nagging shadow, the thorn in your flesh that just simply won’t leave you alone.  Sometimes he gets the upper hand and convinces us that we want our sin.  Other times, daily drowning our old Adam by remembering our baptism is an easy task.

You are simultaneously a fallen sinner, and justified in Christ.  We are both broken, and restored.  Paul was both chief of sinners and the lead apostle of the church to the Gentiles.  This is the reality that you live in each and every day.

This section from Paul rebukes two extremes which I highlighted at the start of the sermon.  The first is the idea on the one end that we can achieve perfection in this life.  Because we have been set free, because the old Adam is drowned, because we are a new creation in our baptism, we can do the works of God.  And if we can do them, then we must be able to reach the point where we can do them without failure.

Despite the fact that Paul already was teaching against it, and the Lutheran reformers taught against it, this idea is still prevalent among Christians today.  The Catholics call it the consecrated life.  The Methodists talk about it as full salvation, entire sanctification, or being perfected in love.  These teachings lead Christians to despair.  “You should be able to be perfect, so why aren’t you?  What’s wrong with you?  Don’t you have faith?”  “Why can’t I do this?”  This idea simply isn’t what the Scriptures teach.

But neither is opposite end, the idea that we, as Christians, are free from the law and can do whatever we want.  You may hear people talk about their “Christian liberty.”  The Reformers called these people “antinomians.”  People without a law.   In this case, you end up with, at best, mediocre discipleship.  There is no striving any more to do what God has laid before you to do.  This too, isn’t what the Scriptures teach.

Again, let’s hear from Luther as he wrote his commentary on Romans:

In this way, then, you should understand chapter 7, where St. Paul portrays himself as still a sinner, while in chapter 8 he says that, because of the incomplete gifts and because of the Spirit, there is nothing damnable in those who are in Christ. Because our flesh has not been killed, we are still sinners, but because we believe in Christ and have the beginnings of the Spirit, God so shows us his favor and mercy, that he neither notices nor judges such sins. Rather he deals with us according to our belief in Christ until sin is killed.

 

As we cry out together with the Apostle Paul, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” we have an answer: “Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

God looks not on our sin, but on His Son.  This is the gospel, the good news to you and to me.  Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, paid for your sins in full.  Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the tomb rescues you from the old Adam within you that seeks to drag you down into the pit of hell.

God does it all! Forgiveness and life are His gifts to you, each and every day. This text that strikes us as so confusing is actually very simple. The Law of God is good. We’re thoroughly evil.  God is supremely gracious to us.  Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, strive to keep the Law, remember your baptism, and cling to the promise that it isn’t up to you.  But no matter how well or poorly you do these things, know that salvation is yours already in Christ alone.