Fr. Kevin is on vacation today (isn’t he always?). Sermon delivered on Sunday, July 3, 2011 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: Zechariah 9.9-12; Psalm 145.8-15; Romans 7.12-25a; Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last week we looked at an early story in the biblical account of God’s rescue plan for his broken and fallen people and creation. In the story of Abraham’s testing, we saw that not only did Abraham pass the test, but so did God. God provided an extreme opportunity for Abraham to trust God and we saw that God did indeed demonstrate his trustworthiness by staying Abraham’s hand right before he was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac.
Today, I want to look briefly at another component of the story of God’s unfolding rescue plan. It’s a significant component and critical if we want to understand God’s overall plan. Like the testing of Abraham it requires our faith and trust in God’s great love and mercy toward us. It is the account of how God has rescued us from the clutches of the sin that enslaves us and will ultimately destroy us without God’s gracious intervention on our behalf in Jesus.
In today’s Epistle lesson, the apostle Paul lays out a pretty nasty picture of the human condition and I suspect everyone in this room can relate to what Paul is saying. Has anybody besides me ever gotten extremely frustrated when you end up having to confess the same sins over and over to God? Have you ever resolved to make improvements in your life and conduct only to find yourself falling back into old and unwanted patterns? If you are like me, you may look at your repeated failures and start to wonder if you really do love God. I mean after all, if we really love God as we profess, why do we keep falling back into our old patterns of disobedience? Why do we continue to do the bad when we really want to do good? And what is all this stuff about God’s law actually exposing the problem of human sin and the evil it causes to be worse than we ever imagined? If we care at all about our relationship with God, about our present standing and future destiny with him, and if we care at all about being a faithful witness for Jesus, this is more than a little worrisome. In fact, it can make us fall into despair and just plain wear us out. It seems that Paul has just delivered a devastating critique of the human condition that leaves us perplexed and weighed down without offering us any real solutions.
But it is precisely when we fall into this state of consternation and despair that we need to pay closer attention to what Paul is really telling us because he is letting us in on the essential strategy of God’s rescue plan that reaches its climax in Jesus Christ. We’ll have to wait until we get into Romans 8 to look at this more fully but for now it will help us to look carefully at what Paul is really saying about the human condition and how God plans to deal with sin and evil.
There have been oceans of ink spilled over who this miserable “I” is in today’s passage from Romans. Was Paul really talking about himself? If so, it isn’t exactly a resounding endorsement of his apostleship. How can anybody as badly flawed as Paul possibly be an apostle of Christ? Or was Paul talking about his pre-Christian experience? I don’t have time (and you likely don’t have the patience for me) to unpack all the arguments. Suffice it to say here that I am persuaded that Paul is really talking about Israel when he is talking about the miserable “I”.
Beginning in Romans 4, Paul has talked about how God’s rescue plan has unfolded and reached its climax in Jesus. In today’s lesson it is critical for us to hear what Paul is and is not saying about the human condition and the root problem of sin, and how God deals with it. Paul is not blaming Israel for being part of the problem. Neither is he is blaming the Torah, God’s Law given to his people Israel. He is blaming the sin that is in us. As Adam and Eve discovered when they rebelled against God in the garden and as every one of us have discovered ever since, it is sin that is the problem, not human beings. It is sin that has spoiled God’s good creation. It is sin that makes us want to put ourselves over God (or at least make ourselves equal to God), and it is sin that has caused our terrible alienation from God and threatens to land us in permanent exile from him if something radical is not done about it. And of course when we find ourselves exiled from the Source and Author of all life we can expect nothing but death.
The issue, then, is what God is doing about sin and the evil it causes so that our relationship with God can be restored and his creation properly healed. Paul hints at the solution here by telling us that through the Law, God has drawn out sin in his people. In Romans 8 Paul reveals the rest of God’s strategy. God does this so that he can take on the drawn-out sin fully in Israel’s chosen representative, Jesus the Messiah, and condemn sin in the flesh (our fallen nature, not our skin) once and for all. If sin has been condemned fully in Jesus’ death on the cross, there is now no condemnation for those of us in Christ as Paul will argue in Romans 8.
If you really understand and believe this, there inevitably comes a sense of release, relief, and thanksgiving, often immediately. God has condemned the sin in each of us by becoming human, taking it on himself, and bearing the just punishment of his own holy wrath. This means that we no longer have to worry about or fear God’s punishment and wrath because he has already dealt with the problem of sin himself. No wonder Jesus invites us in today’s Gospel lesson to come to him when we are weary and take on his yoke! He has done the impossible for us. He has suffered and died for us so that our exile from God might be ended forever. In doing so, Jesus has shown us the very heart of God. How can we not love and adore a God like this who has infinite mercy and compassion for his fallen and beleaguered creatures?
Yes it’s true that Jesus demands our all if we choose to follow him but that doesn’t make his yoke heavy because in Jesus we see the tender compassion and mercy of God for his sinful and wayward people. We didn’t ask God to act on our behalf to deal decisively with the root problem of sin and the evil it causes. We didn’t even want him to act on our behalf because many of us don’t think that sin’s a problem in the first place. That’s what makes the cross such a scandalous thing for unbelievers because the cross stands as God’s powerful and eternal testimony to the hopelessness and futility of self-help and self-improvement (cf. 1 Corinthians 1.18-26).
But sin is a problem and it’s a deadly one. And here again we remember that God’s symbol of justice is the cross. He has condemned sin and dealt with it himself, taking us off the hook. This doesn’t mean we have a license to sin. Quite the opposite in fact. But our new life in Christ is powered by God’s Spirit and he will help us deal with the sin that remains in all of us. This is a lifelong process and is often quite gradual and messy. In fact, sin will not be entirely done with us until our bodies die (cf. Romans 6.7; 1 Corinthians 15).
But that is not the point that Paul is making here. Neither is that the point of the Gospel. We no longer have to worry about God’s condemnation or wrath when we put our whole hope and trust in Jesus because in Jesus, God has dealt decisively with the evil that has the potential to keep us separated from God and lead to our permanent death. The only possible response to this massive love demonstrated for us in Jesus is to show God our profound thanks by living changed lives, lives animated and powered by God’s Spirit living in us.
This is God’s rescue plan reaching its climax in Jesus. This is what God has done about sin and death for us. This is why we should be eager and willing to put on Christ’s yoke because when we do, we can be sure that there is now no condemnation for those who are in him. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done. You can enjoy immediate reconciliation and peace with God because what God has done for you in Jesus.
So what difference does this all make besides the obvious that I’ve just talked about? This wonderful gift with which God has blessed us will immediately turn us outward and help us focus on our relationship with God and other people. We are painfully aware that those who have not given their lives to Jesus remain under God’s wrath and this knowledge more than anything else should be a compelling reason for us to want to share the Good News of Jesus with others. I’m not talking about standing on street corners and warning people that they are going to hell if they don’t repent and believe in Jesus. Neither am I suggesting that we focus on calling people miserable sinners, especially because we are right there amongst them with our own individual baggage of sin. If my experience is representative, people don’t like to be told the obvious and most folks can relate to the miserable “I” that we read about in Paul’s letter today.
Instead we go out in the context of our daily lives and ask the Spirit to help us bring Christ’s love to bear on folks in ways that he can use to get those whom he calls to ask us why we do what we do. Praise and thanksgiving are always best offered through action and when we really understand what God has done for us, it will show in our very being. As folks get to know us (and we them), some will want to know our secret. That is how (and when) we share our faith and our love—by living changed lives, by patiently developing real relationships with folks in our lives, and through loving service to everyone, especially to the least, the lost, and the most undeserving. Our actions in and for Christ will always speak louder than our words.
In sum, we have looked at God’s strategy for dealing with the vexing problem of sin and evil. God has used the Law to draw out sin entirely and expose it so that he can condemn it in himself and bring healing to his fallen creatures and creation. This is Good News because it means there is now no condemnation for those who are in Jesus. And this cannot help but change you if you really understand and believe what God has done for you. This, in turn, will open you up to the power and Presence of God’s Spirit so that you will be equipped to bring the amazing love of Christ to bear on his broken people and world. And that, folks, is a complete package for living your life with meaning, purpose, and power. It also means having a sure and certain hope that our future is secured by this awesome God of ours, which is Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.