The Solution Only God Can Provide – Romans 3:21-26

Romans 3:21-26

We like a good challenge, don’t we?  Think about it.  Almost every movie ever created involves a storyline that has the characters encountering and overcoming some type of problem.  Perhaps the problem is a person.  Maybe it’s a situation they find themselves in.  Shoot, for that matter, every person’s life is filled with problems that need to be solved and challenges that need to be overcome.

As you’re aware, the headlines have been full of stories surrounding the launch of the SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board the Dragon spacecraft.  And that reminded me of the Apollo 13 mission from April 11, 1970.

Most anyone born prior to (say) 1965, can probably recall the event from first-hand knowledge and experience.  Those born later find their orientation of the event in newsreels, documentaries or, more likely, the 1995 movie by the same name.  (An interesting little side note, in case you weren’t aware, this year marks the 50th anniversary of that mission, and many of the celebrations were cancelled and/or postponed due to COVID-19.)

But regardless of how you recall the Apollo 13 mission, there’s no doubt that that 5½ (almost 6) days was a real test of man’s ingenuity and problem-solving skills.  And the flight crew, mission control, and all the engineers did it!  They were able to find a solution to the problem and bring Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise home safely.

When you remember that event or watch that movie it makes you feel like we can overcome almost anything – that we can solve any problem or dilemma that we face.  And yet, the Apostle Paul, via the inspiration of the Holy Spirit has thus far painted a picture for us that displays humanity in a situation with no human solution.

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Romans 3:21ff.  You might recall that when Paul began his letter to the Romans, tucked away at the conclusion of his introduction was this wonderful announcement of good news, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.  For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16-17)

But for the last two weeks and since chapter 1:18 – the last 66 verses – Paul has argued that neither the Jew (who had the Law) or the Gentile (who didn’t) was innocent or blameless or righteous before a holy God.  So, the question that needs to be answered, the problem that needs to be solved is this: how can anyone be made right in God’s eyes?  How can sinful man please God?  How can MY/YOUR sinful thoughts, words, and deeds be justified before a holy God?

On the one hand we have fallen, sinful, immoral, ungodly man, and on the other we have a completely and utterly holy, righteous, just, and perfect God.  How can the two be reconciled to one another?  Do you see the monumental problem?  Can you appreciate the colossal issue?  It’s the reality of this dilemma that is the heartbeat of the epistle.

Listen, commentators are unanimous in their ascriptions of the importance of these next few verses.  Douglas Moo says, “Rarely does the Bible bring together in so few verses so many important theological ideas…  Here, more than anywhere else in Romans, Paul explains why Christ’s coming means “good news” for needy, sinful people.”  Robert Mounce elevates it to another level, saying it is “generally acknowledged to be the most theologically important segment of the entire New Testament.”  But it’s Leon Morris who takes the cake in his description, suggesting that it may be “possibly the most important single paragraph ever written.”

Are you there?  Have you found your spot in Romans 3:21?  I’m going to read down to verse 26.  Follow along, with me, as we hear God’s answer to this most impossible problem.

“But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.  There is no difference, 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 [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in His blood.  [God] did this to demonstrate His justice, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – He did it to demonstrate His justice at the present time, so as to be just and the One who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

He who has ears to hear, let him hear the veritable Word of God.

Now, before we go further, I want to try to help you understand the massive challenge in preaching this text.  I want you to imagine (for a moment) that you’re listening to a song or a piece of music that is so heart-stirring that every time you hear it, it brings you to tears.  Maybe it’s a favorite hymn.  Maybe it’s Amazing Grace.  Maybe it’s How Great Thou Art.  Maybe it’s a secular song.  Perhaps it’s a patriotic song: The Star-Spangled Banner, or God Bless America.  Maybe it’s just an instrumental song – an orchestral piece or a jazz number.  Whatever it is, you’re listening to that song and you have headphones on so that there’s nothing that can distract you from listening to the song.

The song begins and you close your eyes and the music – sometimes soft and other times loud, sometimes slow and other times fast, sometimes harmonious and other times strained – takes you on this emotional journey.  As the singer soars or the orchestra reaches its height tears well up in your eyes and you hold your breath – you don’t even want your heartbeat to interrupt the moment.  When the song ends a single tear drops from your eye and you take a deep breath and say, “WOW!” or “Thank you, God.”  We’ve all had that experience, right.

Now, with that same emotional scene still fresh in your mind, I want you to imagine that you decide to listen to the song again.  But this time, you decide that as you listen you’re going to isolate certain instruments or special words and phrases that “speak to you.”  Perhaps there’s a string of measures or lyrics that just gets you every time and you want to get to that point in the song and just soak it up again.  Only this time, when you get to the end – because you started and stopped, rewound and listened, isolated and started again – you didn’t have that same tear in your eye or lose your breath.

It’s not because it wasn’t the same song.  It was exactly the same song.  The same performers, the same arrangement, the same sound system.  Everything was the same except we isolated certain lyrics or concentrated on particular measures, and the song didn’t quite flow together like it was intended.  This section of Romans is like that.  It’s so dense.  It’s so packed full of rich, beautify truth that it’s hard to squeeze out this truth without ruining the whole thing.

It’s like dissecting a butterfly.  There’s something of the beauty and majesty of it that you just ruin it the moment that you pluck it from the air.  I want us to understand Romans 3:21ff.  I want us to get what it’s saying.  But I also want it to keep flying.  There’s nothing wrong with musical notes and individual parts and phrases in a song, but it’s together that it moves us and compels us to sing.

That’s the difficulty in preaching this text.  I want us to linger.  I want us to understand certain measures, certain lyrics.  I want us to hear particular instruments in the orchestra and get strung out as we wait for the soloist to finish her last note, but I also want the passage to move us.  I want the Holy Spirit to drive the truth of this text so deep into our hearts that we leave forever changed.

The first thing I want us to notice is…

God’s Righteousness Is Rooted In The Old Testament

Notice verse 21, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”  Why is that so important?  Well, it’s important because it proves He’s faithful.  It proves God is indeed righteous.  It demonstrates God’s faithfulness as the promise maker.

As far back as Genesis 3:15 – right after the introduction of sin into the world – we get the first notice of the gospel.  You remember, back there in the garden, God is speaking to the serpent (Satan) and He says, “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers; [H]e will crush your head, and you will strike [H]is heel.”  The “he” that’s mentioned there is a reference to Jesus.

Later on, in Genesis 15, God calls Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans and makes this mega-promise that He will make Abraham the father of many nations and that the promise God is making with him will continue through Abraham’s descendants.  And that promise, that covenant is confirmed with Isaac and Jacob and ultimately preserved through the 12 tribes of Israel.  And we continue to follow that promise all the way up to the birth of Jesus.

Why?  Because it proves to us that God is trustworthy.  If God made a promise that was supposed to culminate in sending forth His only Son as the Jewish messiah, but then that didn’t happen, God would be impugning His own righteousness.  He would be breaking His own promise.  He would be lying.  He would be sinning.  In essence, God would not be God.  And if God can’t keep His promises from the past, then how can we be sure that He’ll keep His promises to us in the present, much less the future.

In fact, all of chapter 4 (which we won’t cover), is nothing more than Paul using the story of Abraham (the one I just paraphrased for you) as an illustration to prove that God’s answer, God’s solution, God’s righteousness is NOT new.  This isn’t plan B.  This is NOT some new doctrine.  This is rooted and grounded in the testimony of the Old Testament.  The very same way that you and I are saved from our sin today is the very same way that Abraham was saved – by faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul is showing us conclusively that God is vindicating His own character.  God is vindicating His own righteousness.  This means of salvation is rooted in the Old Testament.  It’s proof that God is faithful to keep His Word.  He’s the supreme promise maker.

God’s Righteousness Is Through Faith In Jesus Christ

Look at verses 22-24 again, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ, to all who believe.  There is no difference, for all have sinned and all fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

What Paul introduces here is something so contrary to Jewish AND Gentile sensibilities that it’s scandalous.  Acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty was the norm in Israel.  If the guilty party was acquitted, it was often because an official had been bribed.  The iron-booted authority of Rome did the same thing.  In fact, in Rome, they not only condemned the guilty they sometimes condemned the innocent just to be sure.

But the gospel of Jesus Christ introduced an entirely new way of administering justice.  Since everyone is guilty, everyone deserves to be condemned.  That’s what verse 23 says, “all have sinned and all fall short of the glory of God.”  But in order for God to continue to be just, He has to punish sin.  See, God would be as unrighteous as the guilty if He overlooked our sins.  But what you and I didn’t count on was a God who was both just AND justifier of the guilty.

I have to pause for just a second a get a little technical.  When God justifies a guilty sinner, two things happen:

  • You and I are declared no longer guilty and,
  • You and I are declared righteous.

Now those two things sound like the same thing, but they aren’t.  Let me illustrate it like this.

Suppose we go to the bank to get a loan (say $10,000); we say, “I’m in debt” and we are.  Let’s suppose we go to the bank and level was the banker, “Listen man, I can’t pay you back – not now, not ever.”  Suppose the banker pulls up our account on his computer and there we see it – in arrears, default, late – and he says, “I tell you what, I’ll just erase the entire thing.”  We’d be over the moon.  We’d probably start crying.  We didn’t deserve that.  We just received mercy – that’s what mercy is, by the way, not getting what we deserve.  That’s the first thing that happens.  You and I are declared no longer guilty.  That’s the first thing that happens when God justifies a guilty sinner – our debt is removed and we’re declared no longer guilty.

But suppose we were just about to walk out the door and the banker says, “Hey, before you go, come here.  I want to show you something.”  And we walk over to his desk and he points at that same line, which just a second before was filled with $10,000 worth of late fees and charges and big red numbers, and he enters a 10, followed by 12 zeros (that’s $10T, by the way).  We’d probably pass out, right.  That’s the second thing that happens.  You and I are declared righteous.  God, of His own free gift of grace, credits that account – the same one that just seconds ago was defaulted – He puts into our account the perfect righteousness of Christ.

Folks, that’s what Paul means when he says that we’re justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ (v. 24).

God’s Righteousness Is Demonstration Of God’s Justice

Look at verses 25-26 one more time, “God presented [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in His blood.  [God] did this to demonstrate His justice, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – [God] did it to demonstrate His justice at the present time, so as to be just and the One who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

So far so good.  Most of us understand what Paul is talking about here.  God’s plan of salvation, His righteousness is rooted in the Old Testament.  I get it.  If God didn’t keep His promises, then He’d be guilty of sin and impugn His own character.  No problem.  Second, we understand grace.  We sing about grace.  We love the free gift of God’s grace in Jesus.  We’ve all said it, “But for the grace of God, there go I.”  We love us some grace.

But see, here’s where most of us stop.  As soon as we hear the words “not guilty” and we receive the free gift of grace we’re gone.  We’re out the door.  We dust our hands off and call it a day.  We punch the time clock and go home.  But there’s one final aspect of this transaction that we miss if that’s our attitude.

Our sin has to be atoned for.  Somebody has to pay for our sin.  See, we just watched the banker clear our slate and give us more money than we could use in a million lifetimes, and we never gave it a moment’s thought about who paid the $10,000 debt.  All we cared about was the fact that it wasn’t on our ledger any more.

One of the greatest lessons I learned in high school came from my economics and history teacher.  It was the principle that many of you know, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”  It might seem free to you and me, but somewhere, somehow, somebody paid for that lunch.  The same is true for our salvation.  It might seem free to you and me – which it is – but somewhere, somehow, somebody paid for that salvation.  It was Jesus.

There are two old churchy words that we used to use years ago.  They’ve fallen out of use in our day, but we really need to hang on to them.  They’re the words propitiation and expiation.

Some of you come from church denominations where the church building itself was part of the worship experience.  The architecture itself was part of the praise and adoration.  I’m talking about churches built in the cruciform shape – churches built in the shape of a cross with a long center aisle and two transepts on either side.  Outside of my visits to Europe, the church that comes to my mind is the Summerall Chapel on the campus of my Alma mater – The Citadel.

I want you to picture that church in your mind, as I give you this illustration.  Propitiation is the center aisle that leads up to the intersection of the horizontal crossbar.  The word “propitiation” means to satisfy God’s wrath against our sin.  In the Old Testament, the image of propitiation was the mercy seat, the lid to the Ark of the Covenant.  That’s where the blood of the sacrificed lamb would be sprinkled on behalf of the people, in order to atone for their sin.  That’s why the altars in our churches are located where they are.  They aren’t out in the foyer or the fellowship hall or the back of the church.  It’s where the vertical and horizontal meet.

But, then, you have the horizontal transepts of the church.  That’s the part that represents expiation.  The word “expiation” refers to the removal of our sin.  Some of you have gone through or are going through cancer treatments.  Occasionally, you’ll hear someone say they’re in remission – the cancer is gone.  Psalm 103 tells us “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is [God’s] love for those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”

That’s why I don’t want to lose these words.  Propitiation is the satisfaction of God’s wrath.  How?  By putting Jesus in my place, in your place.  He was a substitute.  He took the punishment.  Expiation is the removal of our sin.  Big words.  Big concepts.  Now do you see why this little segment of scripture is considered so monumentally important to our faith?

Let me close with this story.  Many of you will recall the name, Cliff Barrows.  For those of you that don’t, he was the long-time Minister of Music for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.  He used to tell a story about how his children learned to appreciate the price that Jesus paid for their sins.

When they were small, like most kids, they persisted in doing something that they had been forbidden to do.  Mr. Barrows told the kids that if they broke the rules again, they would be punished.  One day Cliff came home and discovered that, indeed, his kids had yet again disobeyed him.  But he just couldn’t bring himself to spank them.

“Bobbie and Betty Ruth were very small.  I called them into my room, took off my belt and then my shirt, and with a bare back I knelt down at the bed.  I made them both strap me with the belt 10 times each.  You should’ve heard the crying – from them, I mean.  They didn’t want to do it.  But I told them the penalty had to be paid and, so, through their sobs and tears they did what I told them…  I must admit, I wasn’t much of a hero.  It hurt.  I haven’t offered to do that again.  It was a once-for-all sacrifice, I guess you could say, but I never had to spank those two children again.  They got the point.  We kissed each other, and when it was over we prayed together.”

Romans 3:21-26 shows how God can remain righteous even while He declares guilty sinners righteous, and how He can be just and the justifier of the wicked.  God, in Christ, has done this for you and for me.

I don’t know where you are today – physically or spiritually.  But regardless, I want you to know that the God of the universe loves you so much that He sent His one and only Son to die in your place.  Jesus took the punishment for your sin.  He stands ready to give you the free gift of His grace and remove your sin, if you’re willing to accept it by faith.  Don’t be fooled today.  Nobody – I don’t care how much money you give, how many good deeds you do, how long you’ve attended church – nobody will hear those words that we all long to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” unless you repent of your sins and accept God’s free gift of grace through Jesus Christ.

The Human Condition (Part 2) – Romans 2:1-3:20

Romans 2:1-3:20

Commissioned in 1936, the R.M.S. Queen Mary was the most awe-inspiring ocean-going vessel in the world.  She was 1,019 feet long.  She weighed in at 81,237 tons (nearly twice the gross weight of the Titanic).  She had 12 decks and carried 1,957 passengers, attended by a crew of 1,174.

At the outbreak of WWII she was transformed from a luxury liner to a troop transport, carrying 765,429 members of the military to/from the European theatre of war.  After the war, she was re-converted into a passenger liner and served alongside her sister ship the R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth until her retirement in 1967.

In all, she completed over 1,000 Atlantic Ocean crossings and is, today, harbored in the port of Long Beach, California.  Even today, her magnificent and gleaming exterior cuts a beautiful profile against the blue waters of the Long Beach harbor.  But when she was retired, it was discovered that part of her gleaming exterior was hiding something far less attractive and substantial.

The Queen Mary’s three elliptical smokestacks – 36 feet long, 23 feet wide, and ranging from 70 feet tall down to 62 feet tall – were made of sheets of steel over an inch thick.  During her decades of service, at least 30 coats of paint had been applied, forming a shell around the steel interior.  But when the smokestacks were removed for maintenance after her decommissioning, it was discovered that they were nothing but shells.  When they were lifted off and placed on the docks, they crumbled.

Over the years, the thick steel had turned to rust from the long exposure to heat and moisture.  The beautiful exteriors of the smokestacks revealed a rusty, crumbly interior that spoke not of beauty and elegance but of deterioration and decay.

Today, as we continue in our sermon series in Paul’s letter to the Romans we’re going to see that this is the same indictment that’s leveled against the Jews.  So, if you have your copy of God’s Word, let me invite you to turn with me to Romans 2.  For the past three weeks we’ve been in chapter 1 and today we’re going to continue what Paul began last week when he spoke about God’s wrath.

As a quick review, last week we heard and saw Paul speak about the:

  • Revelation of God’s Wrath (against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men)
  • Reasons for God’s Wrath (primarily for suppressing the truth, which then leads to idolatry)
  • Results of God’s Wrath (ending chapter 1 with a long list of behaviors and lifestyles subject to God’s wrath)

Now, all of the verses that we looked at last week were directed primarily against the Gentiles.  Paul was making the argument that God has given enough evidence and proof of His existence in His created world that not even the Gentiles, the pagans, people that haven’t heard of Jesus and the gospel, are still guilty of sin and God’s wrath.

And, if you remember back to our first week, one of the purposes for Paul’s writing this epistle was to connect the church in Rome.  It had started out as primarily a Jewish congregation and then they were expelled from Rome, and the church became more Gentile-based.  After some time, the Jews were allowed to return to Rome and when they did they found their church was not the same as before.

So, as Paul is making this case about the wrath of God against ungodliness and unrighteousness, there’s probably some Jews in the congregation that are thinking, “Look at what you guys have done.  If you (Gentiles) would just stop worshipping other gods, then everything would be fine.”  Others are probably sitting in their pews saying, “Amen!  Go get ‘em, Paul!”  Because the problem is always them, right?  The problem is always somebody else, right?  The problem is never with us – it’s always somebody else’s fault, right?  So, Paul begins chapter 2 by saying, “Not so fast.”

Now, our text range this morning is really long (chapter 2:1-3:20) and I’m not going to read it, as I typically do, although we will break it down into sections.  And the first section is chapter 2:1-16.  In this opening section here’s Paul’s position:

Judge Lightly Because God Will Judge Fairly

Slow down with the finger-pointing, because God is an impartial judge.  Sticking with the nautical introduction, I’m reminded of a sermon illustration that pastor and theologian Harry Ironside offered in his little book, Illustrations of Bible Truth.  He related an incident in the life of a man called Bishop Potter.

He was sailing for Europe on one of the great transatlantic ocean liners.  When he went on board, he found that another passenger was to share the cabin with him.  After going to see the accommodations, he came up to the purser’s desk and inquired if he could leave his gold watch and other valuables in the ship’s safe.  Bishop Potter explained that ordinarily he never availed himself of that privilege, but he had been to his cabin and had met the man who was to occupy the other berth.  Judging from his appearance, he was afraid that he might not be a very trustworthy person.  The purser accepted the responsibility for the valuables and remarked, “It’s all right, bishop, I’ll be very glad to take care of them for you.  The other man has been up here and left his valuables for the same reason!”

Paul says, “Slow down.  Judge lightly because God will judge fairly.”  Look with me at verses 1-3, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges.  For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.  We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.  Do you suppose, O man – you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself – that you will escape the judgment of God?”

Now you may say, “I don’t do those things.  I don’t celebrate evil like most of the other people in the world.  I’ve not done any of the things on the list (chapter 1:29-32).  I don’t invent ways of doing bad things to other people.  In fact, pastor, when I read that list I come out pretty clean.”  What you and I have to understand is that nobody comes out clean.  No individual has kept all of the law.  No person has been able to keep from breaking at least one of the rules – even if you only broke one rule, then you’re guilty.  And no group is free from any of the sins.

So, no person is free from all sin.  No group is free from any of the sins.  You could look at different ethnic groups, parts of this country or that country, different denominations, different faiths, different sports groups.  I don’t care how you slice it, none of us can say, “We’ve figured it out.  If you look at us, we’re perfect.”  And so, Paul starts out by saying judge lightly.

But then he moves into the next part of verses 1-16 and says, “Oh, yeah, don’t forget, God will judge fairly.”  Look at verses 11-12, “For God shows no partiality.  For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who  have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.”

The Gentiles in the room are saying to the Jews, “Listen, you guys had the Law of God, if we would’ve had the Law of God we’d be fine.”  And Paul says no you wouldn’t, because you have your conscience and you break it.  And the Jews in the room are saying to the Gentiles, “You guys do all kinds of bad things.  At least we had the Law.”  And Paul says not so fast, because you have the Law but you don’t keep it.

So, in this first section, Paul says “Slow down!” to anyone that wants to point fingers.  Judge lightly because God will judge fairly.  But that’s not all that he says.  Sometimes we assume that’s his whole point in chapter 2 – the Jews are just as bad as the Gentiles – but he actually puts a finer point on his argument that becomes clear in the next section.  And here’s Paul’s next position:

The Solution Has Become Part Of The Problem

Do you know that old phrase “someone poisoned the well?”  That’s kind of what Paul is talking about in chapter 2:17-29.  Why is it a big problem if the well is poisoned?  Because the well is where we’re supposed to go for clean water.  So, if our source for clean water has become polluted, then we’re in double trouble.  And double trouble is what Paul is talking about next.

God set apart one particular group in order to solve what was going on with the whole, but that particular group has not done such a good job.  Look at verse 17-24, “But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know His will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth – you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself?  While you preach against stealing, do you steal?  You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?  You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?  You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law.  For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’”

The Jews were supposed to be the Light to the world, and yet, if you know the Old Testament story the light got contaminated by darkness.  God called Abraham and said that through him He would bless the entire world.  And God finds Abraham’s descendants in bondage in Egypt and so He liberates them from their slavery and gives them the Law and says, “Here’s the Law.  Follow this so that the rest of the world will look at you and see Me, see how they are to live their lives in obedience and worship Me.”

But, if you know the Old Testament, this chosen people didn’t always like the fact that they were chosen and they wanted to be like everybody else.  They wanted a king.  They wanted to live without the Law.  They wanted to do their own thing, and so God led them into captivity.  And the Old Testament story kind of ends badly.

I like to think about the story of Jonah as a microcosm of the larger Old Testament story.  Sometimes the macro story of Israel and all of the journeys and trials and events and people can get a bit confusing.  Well, if you know the story of Jonah, God calls this one guy – Jonah – to be His prophet and take a message of repentance to the city of Ninevah.  So, Jonah is kind of a representation of the nation of Israel.  Both were chosen by God to be used for His purposes.  Ninevah – this evil city – was kind of a representative of the pagan nations (all the nations surrounding Israel).  And yet Jonah runs the other way.  Now we have a double problem.

The problem was bad enough to begin with, but now, the one guy that God calls to be the Light, to be the preacher, to be the solution, became part of the very problem that God sent him to correct.  That’s the Old Testament story.  And I sometimes wonder if it’s not also our story.

The Romans in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day didn’t take God seriously because they didn’t see anything in God’s people to take seriously.  Do the “Romans” of our day, do the people in your neighborhood and my neighborhood, do the people at the office, do the people at the Club, do the people at school look at us the same way?  “There’s nothing to see there.  There’s no light there.  Why should I consider being a Christian when you’re part of the problem?”

Is there any way out of this?  Should we give up?  Should we give in to despair?  Not when God is the major player in the story.  And that leads us to the final section (chapter 3:1-20) and Paul’s position is:

God Has An Answer But It’s Not The Law

Now listen to me.  You’re going to have to follow me closely here.  If you try to understand this out of its context, then you’re going to get frustrated and it’s going to be weird.  But if you keep the flow of Paul’s argument intact, then it makes sense.

Look at chapter 3:1-4, “Then what advantage has the Jew?  Or what is the value of circumcision?  Much in every way.  To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.  What if some were unfaithful?  Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?  By no means!  Let God be true though every one were a liar.”  And then Paul quotes Psalm 51:4.

Here’s what Paul is saying.  God’s going to keep His promise.  God can’t just throw out the Law, because then God is inconsistent.  But at the same time, the solution isn’t going to be the Law.  In fact, that’s why Paul quotes a whole bunch of texts from the Old Testament.  He wants to kind of imagine the Law as giving testimony of itself: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

It’s like the Law is looking left and right trying to find somebody that will obey, but there’s nobody around.  And then the Law stops and looks everybody up and down: “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.  The venom of asps is under their lips.  Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.  Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.  There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

This is where having an active imagination helps.  If you’ve watched cartoons with your children or grandchildren, then you can almost see the Law, the Torah, the 10 Commandments, becoming an animated thing and looking to the left and the right and up and down and being unable to find someone that can obey it.  It’s clear that people need help and the Law isn’t the solution.

Our spouse, our friends, our loved ones know we have sinned.  We see it in their faces.  And we would see it in the face of God if we would look into His Word – that mirror that reflects not only who we are but who He is, and who we can become in Him.  And it all starts with agreeing with Paul, agreeing with the Old Testament, agreeing with the Law of God that we’ve all sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  That’s all that we need to do in order to become a partner with Paul in the power of the gospel.

Helen Lemmel wrote a hymn in 1922 where she reflected upon the reality of sin, and of a face that we can look at and find glory and grace, a face in which our sin fades away – not because we deny our sin, but because we accept the reality of it and the reality of the grace that forgives it.  The refrain of that hymn goes like this:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus

Look full in His wonderful face

And the things of earth with grow strangely dim

In the light of His glory and grace.

God has an answer, but it’s not the Law.  It’s a good thing that Romans keeps going.  We’ll do the same next week.

The Human Condition (Part 1) – Romans 1:18-32

Romans 1:18-32

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Romans 1.  This is our third (and final) week in this opening chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.  And so far, we’ve considered Paul’s reasons for writing; he wanted to clarify the gospel, connect the church, and confirm God’s righteousness.  Last week we considered Paul’s call, his concern, and his commitment.  Hopefully you thought about your own calling.  If you consider yourself a Christian, if you’ve confessed Jesus as the Lord of your life, then you have a calling to be a servant of Christ, to be used for His purposes.

In recent weeks, some of you have discovered your calling.  There are families and individuals in our community that are struggling with all sorts of issues, and you’ve found yourself being in a place to speak into their lives.  You’re showing great concern for them – and not just for their physical wellbeing, but for their spiritual wellbeing too.  Why?  What compels us to do that?  Paul says that it’s the Good New of Jesus Christ – it’s His love, His forgiveness, His righteousness – that has so transformed us that we should desire to share it with others.

So, that’s how Paul begins.  And we think, “Great, let’s get our minds right, let’s open our hearts, let’s study Romans.”  And from that point, Paul goes dark and he goes dark pretty quickly.  In fact, from Romans 1:18-3:20, the only thing that Paul talks about is our sinful, broken, evil, human condition.  And frankly, that’s diametrically opposed to our normal evangelistic technique.  Most of our witnessing and sharing the gospel (assuming we’re doing that) avoids the topic of God’s judgment.

We talk about God’s love, and we talk about happiness, and we talk about abundant living, and we talk about forgiveness, and we talk about joy, and we talk about peace.  And we offer people all of those things, and we ask them if they wouldn’t like to have all of those things.  But we rarely talk about the wrath of God.  And I’m not just pointing the finger at you.  I’m guilty of avoiding the topic too.  We’re in such a hurry to win friends and impress people that sometimes we bypass the starting point.  And yet, Paul says that’s the beginning of the gospel and the proper place from which to introduce the grace of God.

The other day, curiosity got the better of me and so I googled the phrase “pure evil” and this is what I got:

  • a board game,
  • an arcade game,
  • a song,
  • a book,
  • a clothing line,
  • a music album,
  • a sound system company,
  • a movie, and
  • an art gallery.

All of the people that made those things chose the description “pure evil” as the way in which they would market their product.  So, we live in a world that’s jacked up and messed up and twisted and perverted and downright broken and sinful.  But that’s not all.  Not only is that what our world looks like, but we celebrate all of that brokenness.

And so, Paul introduce us to the fact that God reveals His righteousness to us through Jesus Christ (v. 17), and then immediately Paul turns and introduces us to the fact that God also reveals His wrath against ungodliness and unrighteousness.

Revelation of the Wrath of God

Listen to how Paul begins, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”  Now, I want us to camp out on verse 18 for a moment, because I suspect that we need some help understanding and appreciating God’s anger, God’s wrath.

See, most of the time, when you talk about God being a God of wrath, people get disturbed.  They don’t understand how God can be a God of anger, and a God of wrath, and a God of fury, and a God of terror.  And that’s because, quite frankly, our churches and our pulpits don’t preach a balanced view of God.  We love to hear sermons about God’s love and grace and mercy and forgiveness.  In fact, for some ministers, that’s the ONLY preaching they do.  So, it’s not hard to see why we get a little disturbed when we read or hear someone talking about God’s wrath, because we’ve been conditioned to think that’s not who God is.

Listen, I’m getting ready to say something that’s going to hit some of you like a ton of bricks.  If God did not have wrath, and God did not have anger, then He would not be God.  Now, the reason that doesn’t sit well with us is because we hear it and picture it through human eyes/ears.  J.I. Packer, in his book Knowing God, would summarize it this way: “God’s wrath in the Bible is never the capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, morally ignoble thing that human anger so often is.  It is, instead, a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil.”

God is perfect in love, on the one hand, and He is equally perfect in judgment, on the other hand.  Just as totally as He loves, so totally does He hate.  The writer of Hebrews, speaking of Jesus, says, “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness” (1:9).  And there is that perfect balance in the nature of God.  Charles Cranfield, a British theologian and minister who served as a chaplain during WWII and died at the age of 99 back in 2015, put it like this: “His wrath is not something which is inconsistent with His love: on the contrary, it’s an expression of His love.  It’s precisely because He loves us truly and seriously and faithfully that He is angry with us in our sinfulness.”

So, if you’re looking for a definition of God’s wrath, of God’s judgment, of God’s anger and fury, here it is: God’s wrath is His love in action against sin.  God must act justly and judge sin, otherwise God would not be God.  If sin is anything that misses the mark of God’s standard of perfection, which is the Bible’s definition of sin.  If sin is anything that’s said, thought, or done outside of the perfect will of God, and God doesn’t respond to that in anger, wrath, and judgment, then God is not God.

Maybe you’ve heard the name Jonathan Edwards.  Maybe you know he preached a famous sermon titled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God back in 1741, but chances are pretty good that you’ve never read it.  So, listen to this brief excerpt: “The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string; and justice directs the bow to your heart, and strains at the bow: and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.”

You and I may not like to hear that kind of preaching, but that’s what makes the Gospel such good news!  The judgment and anger that my sin stirred up in God…  The judgment and anger that your sin stirred up…  The wrath that was due to me because of my sin…  The wrath that was yours because of your sin was poured out on the precious Son of God at the cross of Calvary.  And if you are not under the blood of Jesus today, then you are fully exposed and in full view of God’s wrath.

So, Paul begins by directing our attention to God’s wrath.  But then he turns and provides several reasons for it.

Reasons for the Wrath of God

Starting again with verse 18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” 

Paul begins by saying that God’s wrath is revealed against ungodliness and unrighteousness, and to most of us those sound like the same things.  In reality, what Paul is doing here is using a grammatical construction that we find from time to time throughout the Bible called a hendiadys, which is a “twofer.”  It’s where two words that basically mean the same thing are actually emphasizing something else, thus the “two for one” idea.

So, what Paul is saying here is that God is furious with a particular sin, which when we examine it is seen to be both ungodly (irreverent) and unrighteous (immoral).  And the sin that Paul says God is most angry about is the suppression of the truth, the forceful restraint of the truth, the pressing down and holding back of truth, which is committed by every human being.  Make no mistake about it, friends; this is a universal sin.  And what Paul is saying is that every person takes the truth of God and presses it down into their subconscious in order to get it out of their mind.

But we’re still left with the question: What “truth” is being suppressed?  And that’s what Paul answers in the following verses.  Look at verses 19-20, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.  So they [i.e. mankind] are without excuse.”   The truth that we’re all guilty of suppressing is the existence of God as He’s revealed to us in/by the created world.  That’s what we call general revelation.  God, as He’s revealed in the created world.

During this period of quarantine, I’ve been using a little prayer book by pastor, author and seminary professor, Dr. Kenneth Boa called Handbook to Prayer: Praying Scriptures back to God.  Listen to how Dr. Boa describes these verses:

“In the most elementary of human terms, this is not a case of a father who chastens his teenager for something that he never even told him to do.  Rather, this is a case of a teenager leaving school, and all the way home seeing billboards, street signs, flashing marquees, signs on buses, bumper stickers, airplanes pulling message banners “Billy, don’t forget to set the garbage out for the trash truck!”  Then, when he gets home, there are phone messages, e-mail messages, and television commercials reminding him of the same thing.  That’s how plainly God has made Himself known to you and me.”

Psalm 19:1-4 comes to mind: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork.  Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.  There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.  Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

There is no excuse.  Look at verses 21-23, “For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”  Suppressing the truth of God leads to idolatry.  All of us have looked up to the heavens and have recognized that there’s Someone out there who’s responsible for us being here.  And there’s this inbuilt sense of what this cosmic governor, this Lord wants from us, and yet we all say, “I’d rather go another way.”

We’ve looked at this all-loving, all-knowing, all-wise, all-powerful Maker and said, “No thanks, I’d rather give myself to something or someone else instead.”  Idolatry breeds immorality.  Replace God and reap the consequences.  And we see these consequences everywhere.  We see them in the daily news.  We see them in our own homes.  We see them in the mirror.

Please don’t be fooled.  Idolatry is not some ancient problem.  Listen, I remember getting an e-mail not too long ago and the subject line said: You Are The Smartest Man Alive (ha).  And I left it in my inbox for a while.  I told myself that I thought it was funny, which I did, but truth be told I’d like for that to be true.  You know what I mean?  On the other hand, if I got an e-mail and the subject line said: You Are An Idol Worshipper (delete).  That’s not how I like to think about myself.  I don’t bow the knee to some strange statue.

But I am an idolater…  If idolatry means that you give some thing that you should give to God to something or somebody else.  If it means that you allow anyone or anything (and it’s usually good things) to take what should be the rightful place of God in your life.  Anything we serve…  Anything we love…  Anything we give our time and energy to…  Anything we’ll sweat for, bleed for, die for, kill for, could be an idol.

G.K. Chesterton said, “When you stop worshipping God, you’re not worshipping nothing.  You’ll worship anything.”  John Calvin said that our hearts are like idol factories.  I like to think of it like a squeaky cart at the grocery store.  You ever had one of these?  You get a cart and you’re making your way through the store and it’s got a bent wheel.  You know what I’m talking about?  Like, no matter what you do the thing just bends and curves to the left.  Like, you’re running into the shelves and babies (well maybe not babies), but kids and elderly folks – “I’m sorry.  I’m trying to keep it straight, but it’s just not working.”  And no matter what you do that cart just curves in one direction.  That’s our hearts.  We’re bent toward idolatry.  We’re curved away from God, because we’ve looked at Him and said, “I’d kind of like to do things on my own.”  So now we find ourselves sick with this disease and we’re consistently pulled away from God.

And that finally leads us to the results of God’s wrath.

Results of the Wrath of God

Let’s quickly read verses 24-32:

Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

 For this reason, God gave them up to dishonorable passions.  For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.  They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice.  They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness.  They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Wheew…  Now, there’s a lot that could be said and probably should be said about these verses, but for the sake of the time we have remaining let me just offer a few thoughts.  And I’m going to work backwards from verse 32 back up to verse 24.

I don’t know about you, but I like the sin lists in the Bible that I can look through and say, “Can’t find me there – all you bad people doing your bad things.”  But the thing about this list is it’s thorough.  That’s the first result of God’s wrath.  It’s thorough.  What Paul is saying is this: people celebrate evil because people do evil.  But it still begs the question: Why?  Why do people do these things?  Why do people act in such destructive ways?  Why do we?  Why do I?  Why do you?  Why do we do things that we know are going to hurt ourselves and other people?

And that leads to the second thing I want us to notice in these concluding verses.  Look back at the end of verse 28, “…God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.”  The second result of God’s wrath is that people’s minds don’t work.  We don’t think well, and that’s why we don’t live well.  Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that sin is smart and sophisticated.  But that’s backwards.  Sin doesn’t make us smarter.  Sin makes us dumber.  That’s what verses 21 and 22 say, “…they became futile in their thinking…  Claiming to be wise, they became fools…”

And the third and final result of God’s wrath is that He gives us over to our hearts desire.  Now you might think that’s a good thing: “Hey, we finally get what we want.”  But just remember, this all started with suppression of the truth of God.  And when God doesn’t have a place at the table with the thoughts of our minds or the desires of our hearts, then the result is only evil all the time.  Again, verse 22 supports this, “…their foolish hearts were darkened…”

Maybe you remember Jesus speaking to the crowd and His disciples in Mark 7.  He was talking to them about the things that defile a person.  And the Pharisees and the people were under the impression that one’s level of defilement was associated with what they ate, what they consumed, what went into them.  But Jesus corrected that way of thinking and said, “‘Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’  And He said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him.  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’”

The results of God’s wrath are that our minds don’t work and we’re given over to our heart’s desires, which leads to all kinds of evil.  Ultimately, we exchange the truth of God for a lie.  A difficult message, indeed, yet, that’s where the gospel begins.  But remember, there’s Good News, and the good news is Christ has taken the full fury of God’s wrath if you’ll accept His gracious substitution for you.

Paul’s Call, Concern and Commitment – Romans 1:1-17

Romans 1:1-17

The year was 1492.  Christopher Columbus had labored for seven years to convince European monarchs to finance his seaborne explorations.  Finally, on August 3rd, having won the support of Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon, he set sail for India only to “discover” the new world.

Columbus wrote a book later in life; actually, it was more of a journal that he kept (El Libro de las Profecias), and in it he recorded a remarkable set of perspectives concerning his voyage.  See, in his mind, he wasn’t sailing or exploring for himself; he was sailing by the will of God.  Listen to what he wrote:

I prayed to the most merciful Lord about my heart’s great desire, and He gave me the spirit and the intelligence for the task: seafaring, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, skill in drafting spherical maps and placing correctly the cities, rivers, mountains and ports.  I also studied cosmology, history, chronology and philosophy.  It was the Lord who put it into my mind (I could feel His hand upon me) the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies.  All who heard of my project rejected it with laughter, ridiculing me.  There is no question that the inspiration was from the Holy Spirit, because He comforted me with the Holy Scriptures, encouraging me continually to press forward, and without ceasing for a moment they [the Scriptures] now encourage me to make haste.

His continued remarks give evidence of an unshakable confidence in the purposefulness of his “calling,” when he writes:

All things must come to pass that have been written by the prophets…  I am a most unworthy sinner, but I have cried out to the Lord for grace and mercy…  I have found the sweetest consolations since I made it my whole purpose to enjoy His marvelous presence…  No one should fear to undertake any task in the name of our Savior…  The working out of all things has been assigned to each person by our Lord…  The fact that the gospel must still be preached to so many lands in such a short time, this is what convinces me.

Now, if I hadn’t told you that was Christopher Columbus, you might expect it to be from the Apostle Paul or some other biblical writer, yet he had a remarkably similar outlook on life:

  • God is the ruler of all things;
  • We are His servants;
  • He communicates His will to us;
  • We are responsible to fulfill it;
  • The Scriptures are our guide;
  • The Holy Spirit is our strength;
  • Courage is our banner, and
  • The gospel is our message.

Now, I’m not proposing that Christopher Columbus was a perfect Christian or that he had apostolic credentials, but one thing can be said for sure – his identity as a faithful servant of God is clear.  And that’s the question that I want us to consider today.  Are you identified with Christ?  Do you consider yourself His servant, His slave, His ambassador?  Am I?  Are we doing what He’s called us to do, which is to show (in our living) and share (with our lips) the love of God through Jesus Christ?  As my dear friend, Dr. Don Wilton, pastor of First Baptist Spartanburg, always says, “How are you doing, brother?  How are you doing, sister?”

With that as our challenge, let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Romans 1 (again).  Last week, we began a new series on this monumental epistle.  I mentioned my great hesitance and excitement in undertaking this journey with you, and last week we focused our attention on verses 14-17 as we considered Paul’s purposes for writing:

  1. Clarify the Gospel
  2. Connect the Church
  3. Confirm God’s Righteousness

Today, I want us to give attention to verses 1-17 and see Paul’s call from God, his concern for Rome, and his commitment to the gospel.  Would you follow along as I read the Word of God this morning:

1 Paul, a servant [slave] of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning His Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of His name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

 7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:

 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I have to pause for just a second and tell you that those seven verses in your English translation are all one long verse in the Greek.  There are 93 Greek words in that single sentence in the original text.  And for all of you English and Grammar teachers out there, see, I’m not the only one that struggled with run-on sentences.  That’s just a bit of free trivia.  But let’s pick back up with verse 8.

8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.  9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son, that without ceasing I mention you 10 always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you.  11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – 12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.  13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, [and sisters] that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.  14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, [non-Greeks] both to the wise and to the foolish.  15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

The Word of God for the people of God; thanks be to God.

The first thing I want us to see is Paul’s…

Call from God

The common opening for a letter in Paul’s day was “Party A to Party B, greetings…”  In fact, Paul used this pattern in almost all of his letters, with only slight variations, but here the “Party A” portion runs from verse 1 through verse 6.  We don’t get the “Party B” part until verse 7.  In other words, Paul takes six verses to introduce himself.  Now, some of that is to be expected.  After all, Paul had never been to Rome and he hadn’t met any of the people that he’s writing to.  So, he felt compelled to share a little bit more with this crowd than with others.  And that’s understandable.

On the other hand, it’s very informative for us today because Paul identifies himself as a servant/slave, an apostle, and one who’s been set apart.  And if you consider yourself a Christ-follower today, if you’ve genuinely confessed Jesus as your Lord and Savior, then you ought to have the same understanding of yourself.  You and I – we should honestly and with full sincerity think of ourselves in each of these ways.

You say, “Wait a minute.  It’s easy for Paul to say these things.  He was an apostle.  He’d been knocked off his horse on the Damascus Road.  He literally saw and heard the resurrected Jesus.  He was smart; he was goal-oriented; he was committed; he wasn’t married; he didn’t have a family and children to look after; he was this, he was that…” and on and on we go.  We respond that way, or at least we think those things, as if to excuse ourselves.  Yet, if we stop and think about it for a minute, when Paul had his spiritual eyes opened to the reality of who Jesus was and what He has done for him, he was the same as you and me.

Paul was an enemy of Christ when he was saved.  Isn’t that exactly what we were?  Sure, it is.  Therefore, the potential exists for our identity to be the same as Paul’s – a servant of Christ who’s committed to calling every man, woman, boy, and girl to faith in Jesus.  After all, we’ve inherited the same Great Commission that was entrusted to the original disciples.  Yes?  Sure, we have.

Real quickly, let’s look at those three terms.  First, he refers to himself as a “servant.”  The Greek word is doulos and its everyday meaning was “slave.”  Now I know it’s hard for us to think of ourselves as slaves, especially when the world that we live in has such a negative understanding of that word.  But the fact of the matter is this, there were some slaves in the Old and New Testament that voluntarily chose to remain with their masters.  Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15, both describe the process for those slaves that have been set free but who choose to remain with their masters.

Can you and I say with integrity that we don’t want to leave?  That we love God and the family of God (the church) that much?  That we are better off with Him – regardless of the trials and problems that we face – than we would be anywhere else in the world?  Christian apologist and theologian, Francis Schaeffer, put it like this, “Paul had [a slave’s] iron band around his neck, not because it had to be there but because he held it there by the fingers of his own will.”

Second, he says he’s “called to be an apostle.”  In the strictest sense, one could only consider themselves an apostle if they had ministered alongside Jesus in His earthly ministry.  Paul, though he couldn’t claim that in the strictest sense, certainly saw the resurrected Christ and received a commission, of sorts, to be one of His apostles.  After all, the word apostle means a “sent one.”  And that’s who Paul was.

Even before his conversion, he had been sent by the Jewish authorities to capture and incarcerate believers in Damascus.  And after his conversion he was sent by Christ to release the captives and set the prisoners free.  Which camp do you belong to?  You say, “Now Pastor, that’s kind of odd.  Aren’t you preaching to Christians?  Are you saying there are people in the church who are trying to imprison believers?”  Well, maybe not civilly or socially, but spiritually, yes.

Listen, there are plenty of people in our churches today that want to burden believers with guilt and obligation and hoops of all kinds to keep them from growing in their relationship with God.  In that sense, yes, there are those that want to imprison other Christians.  But there are also many who have a desire to come alongside brothers and sisters in the body of Christ and help them to be set free and nurture a growing, vibrant relationship with Jesus.

Are you, as best as you’re able to determine, going and doing according to the will of God?  Or is anything standing in the way of you going where Jesus is sending you?

Finally, Paul refers to himself as one who was “set apart for the gospel of God.”  It’s unfortunate, but this is where many of us get off the train.  Being set apart for the gospel sounds too much like the pastor’s job.  Being set apart for the gospel sounds too much like the missionary’s job.  Being set apart for the gospel sounds too much like the evangelist’s job.  Much like being a “sent one,” if we consider ourselves Christians, then we’ve been set apart for the gospel.  It should be a joy to proclaim the death and resurrection of God’s Son and the forgiveness and reconciliation that people can enjoy through faith in Jesus.

Paul had been called as a servant, an apostle, and one who was set apart, and we have to as well, beloved.  May the Holy Spirit empower us to take up that calling and live it out for His glory.

Concern for Rome

Verses 7-15 turn from Paul’s introduction of himself to them – to the people of Rome, who, by the way, Paul calls “saints.”  Listen, at the end of the day, whether you’re a preacher or a banker, a missionary or a mechanic, sharing the gospel has its ultimate application in the lives of people.  You and I and the apostle Paul weren’t called to share the gospel with rocks and trees, and birds and bees.  Our targets are the hearts and souls of real, live, flesh and blood people.  The gospel changes people.  The title of Steve Green’s song from back in the 80’s is People Need the Lord, and Paul was eager to tell the people of Rome and anyone else that would listen the story that could and would change their lives.

Also notice, while he was eager to preach the gospel (v. 15), he also desired to fellowship (vss. 11-12).  He desired to be an encouragement and also receive encouragement himself.  Listen to how John Stott captured the heart of what Paul was saying:

Paul knows about the reciprocal blessings of Christian fellowship and, although he’s an apostle, he’s not too proud to acknowledge his need of it.  Happy is the modern missionary who goes to another country and culture in the same spirit of receptivity, anxious to receive as well as give, to learn as well as teach, to be encouraged as well as to encourage!  And happy is the congregation who has a pastor of the same humble mind!

You might recognize the names William and Catherine Booth.  They founded the Salvation Army.  Their daughter, Evangeline, characterized her parents this way: “Very early I saw my parents working for their people, bearing their burdens.  Day and night.  They did not have to say a word to me about Christianity.  I saw it in action.”

Are you concerned for the eternal souls of the people around you?  Am I?  Do we shed tears over them?  Are we praying for them?  Do we have their best interests at heart?  And if the answer is “Yes,” then we need to ask ourselves whether we’ve verbally shared the gospel with them.  If not, then we’ve just lied to ourselves because it’s in their best interests (eternally) to receive Jesus Christ.

Think about your family.  Are there some who haven’t heard the Good News about Jesus?  If we love them, then we must be concerned about their eternal destinies.

Think about your friends, your work colleagues, your neighbors.  If we want the very best for them, then why wouldn’t we nurture relationships that allow us to gracefully and lovingly share the Good News.  Are we concerned about people?

There should never be a question about the identity of those called by God and concerned for people, and finally…

Commitment to the Gospel

I spoke about this last week, but it’s just too hard to leave this first chapter without hitting it one more time.  It’s the theme of this letter and the theme of Paul’s entire life and ministry.

Scottish theologian, James Stewart, once commented on verse 16 when he said, “There’s no sense in declaring that you’re not ashamed of something unless you’ve been tempted to feel ashamed of it.”  Think about that for a minute (repeat).  We think of Paul as invincible, yet he was human.  Peter – that solid rock – boldly claimed that he would never deny Christ and then he did (3 times).  When you read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians you hear him say, “I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3).

Where you and I stand/sit at the moment, it’s quite comfortable to say that we’re not ashamed of the gospel.  But might I ask you to think back over the last 7 days, or even the last 48-hours, and see if there wasn’t an opportunity for us to share a word of hope and encouragement in the name of Jesus, or perhaps even utter the words “God bless you” in place of “Thank you,” and we didn’t?

If you’re a Christian today, then there was a moment in time when someone was not ashamed to share the gospel with you.  Maybe it was your pastor.  Maybe it was your mother, father, grandmother, grandfather.  Maybe it was a teacher or a coach.  Perhaps it was a boss or co-worker.  Maybe it was a friend.  But somebody, at some point in your life, was not ashamed of the gospel and shared it with you, with me.  And in that moment, it was the power of God for salvation – and in that instant we went from being consigned to eternal damnation in hell to eternal exaltation in heaven.  There’s no news and no moment in our lives that remotely comes close to comparing with that.

Folks, there’s someone out there that will cross our paths this week that will be like we used to be – headed to hell and not even aware of it.  Will we be ashamed of the gospel, or will we (maybe, just maybe) give this verse a try – scared as we may be, nervous as we may be, unsure of ourselves as we may be – and just see if it isn’t the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.

  • Paul was called by God. You and I have been called by God.
  • Paul was concerned for people. We should be concerned for people.
  • Paul was committed to the gospel. We should be committed to the gospel.

Paul’s Three Purposes – Romans 1

Romans 1:14-17

Well, let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to the Book of Romans.  I’m excited and nervous, both at the same time, because we’re going to begin a new sermon series that will take us through this monumental epistle.  It’s a book of the Bible that will change us, if we’ll listen carefully.  When we finish this series (sometime in late July or August) we should know Jesus more clearly, understand the gospel more thoroughly, pursue grace more passionately, feel it more deeply, hate sin more completely, and understand more fully God’s gift of salvation to a spiritually lost and dying world.

I say that it can change us, because that’s what it’s been doing for hundreds of years.  On the first page of my Greek testament of Romans, I have scribbled at the top of the page a few significant dates.  The first one is the year 386 A.D.  There, in the latter part of the 4th century, was this young man, whose father was a pagan and whose mother was a devout Christian.  And yet, this man had devoted his youthful years to immorality.  He had already fathered one son out of wedlock, and yet his mother continued to pray for his soul as she sought the counsel of her pastor, Bishop Ambrose, of Milan.

One day, this young man was walking in a courtyard garden when he overhead some children playing.  They were singing the refrain from one of their childhood games, and the words went like this: “Tolle Lege!  Tolle Lege!”, which literally means “take up, and read.”  And so, this young man, whose name was Aurelius Augustine, better known as Augustine of Hippo or St. Augustine, believing the words to be a message from God, found a copy of the Scriptures and read the first passage that his eyes came upon.

By the sovereign providence of Almighty God, the Bible opened to Romans 13:11-14 and these were the words that he read, “And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.  The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.  So, let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in quarreling and jealousy.  Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”

As Augustine read these words, the Spirit of God took these words and pierced between joint and sinew, bone and marrow, to the very depths of this young man’s soul, and by the power of the Word of God, with the Spirit attending it, Augustine became a passionate follower of Christ.

Later on, in Church History, in the year 1515, an Augustinian monk who had diligently pursued his doctoral studies in the works of St. Augustine, was consigned to the university to be the professor of biblical studies.  He had already delivered his first series of lectures on the Book of Psalms, and now his task was to teach his students the Book of Romans.

But he was tormented, because he believed that his sin was the only true thing about him and that God was only and always judging him.  In fact, if he was honest, he hated God and he hated reading books like Romans because he’s read about the justice and righteousness of God.  And he understood those things to only mean that he was being punished.

Yet, as he prepared his lectures and continued to study Romans in those years, he came to realize that he had been wrong.  He found that God’s righteousness was not just God judging him, but it was also God saving him.  Martin Luther wrote these words in his own commentary on the Book of Romans, “For the first time, I understood the gospel of Christ and the doors of paradise were swung open and I walked through.”

It was from Paul’s teaching on the doctrine of justification by faith alone, that Luther stood against the entire world and sparked the Protestant Reformation.

The final date that I have is 1738, when a man, who was already ordained to the gospel ministry in the Anglican Church of England, heard a reading of Martin Luther’s commentary preface to Romans at Aldersgate Street in London and said that he “felt his heart strangely warmed.”  He said that was the moment of his authentic conversion – the conversion that defined the life and ministry of one John Wesley.

I could go on and tell you about the life of Jonathan Edwards and countless others who had their lives changed as a result of this book.  It’s the book that John Chrysostom, one of the great preachers of the early church, would have read to him twice a week.  This is why Martin Luther says, in his commentary on Romans, that not only should all followers of Jesus know Romans by heart, but should deal with it daily as with daily bread of the soul.

John Calvin said that if you understand this epistle, then “you have a light and a window into all of the Scriptures.”  And these types of comments aren’t just limited to theologians and preachers.  The great poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, said, “I think Paul’s letter to the Romans is the most profound book in existence.”  People say these things about Romans because it changes people.  That’s why I’m excited and nervous, all at the same time.  Excited for what God can do, and nervous because of who I am in light of who God is.

Now, with that as our introduction, let me say just a little something about the approach I’m going to try to take.  We’re going to look at all 16 chapters, but we’re not going verse-by-verse.  We don’t have time for all of those details.  So, my goal is to say enough.  I can’t say everything, and that’s fine.  I want to say enough – enough to spark your thought and help you think things through, enough, if you’re reading this with your family and friends, to generate conversation and discussion.

Really, my goal is to say enough to send you back to the text of Romans, back to your open Bibles knowing more than you did before so that you can open up the Scriptures and – with the help of the Holy Spirit – find what God has for you in this amazing epistle.

In the time that we have left this morning, however, I want to offer us three purposes for why Paul (via the Holy Spirit) wrote this letter.  And to do that I want us to look at the middle of chapter 1.  We’ll come back to chapter 1 next week, and perhaps even the following week, but this morning let’s give our attention to verses 14-17.  Paul writes,

“I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish.  That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.  For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is from faith to faith just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”

And when we begin to unpack this, we find the first purpose is to clarify the gospel.

Clarify the Gospel

No matter what you’re doing in life or where you find yourself on the road of life, there are certain things that you just need to have in place, you just need to know.  For example, if you’re going to wait tables, you kind of need to understand that your job is to get the right food to the right people at the right tables.  Or, if you’re going skydiving, you kind of need to know ahead of time which one of these cables releases the parachute (unless you’re on a static line: stand up, hook up, shuffle to the door, jump right out and shout “Marine Corps!” but that’s a sermon for another day and another audience).

See, if you want to be a Christian, you kind of need to know what the gospel is.  If we want to be a real, true, faithful church this is 101.  We gotta get the gospel, and we gotta get it right.  And one of the reasons that Paul is writing this great letter is to clarify and communicate clearly what the gospel is.  And if you look at the words that he uses, he says he’s not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.

So, let’s consider a few words.  First, he uses the word “gospel,” then he says it’s the “power for salvation,” and lastly, he says it’s for everyone who “believes.”  Now this is just a quick overview.  We’re going to see Paul unpack these things in more detail later, and if, as we walk through this, you feel like this is just a little overwhelming that’s okay.

It’s kind of like going on a field trip or taking a vacation and visiting a historical site.  Often, before you actually see the place or thing that you came to see, you’ll watch a little primer video.  When I’m watching those videos, sometimes I feel like, “Okay, I don’t really understand what you’re talking about because I haven’t seen the thing yet.  Let’s just get started.”  This is kind of like Paul’s pre-tour video.  Let’s look closer at these words.

The word “gospel” in Greek is euaggelion.  It literally means “good news.”  Good things have happened.  Events have taken place that mean good news for you.  Paul’s understanding of this “good news,” this gospel, is found in the Old Testament book of Isaiah, where God promised that good news would be preached when He took back over control of this world and righted the wrongs and delivered His people.

So, it’s a word that looks backward in time, but it also looks forward to the Roman media.  They would use this word a lot.  It was kind of a political word.  They would use this word to describe the glory of Rome, and the greatness of Augustus and other great leaders.  Rome is now running the world and this is “good news” for you.  That’s the secular meaning.  That’s the word “gospel.”

And Paul says that in the gospel he’s proclaiming, the gospel he’s clarifying, the gospel he’s communicating, it’s the power of God for salvation.  This gospel does something, and what it does is it saves people.  The word “salvation” in Greek is sótéria.  You might have been around church long enough to here pastors and theologians and teachers use the word soteriology.  That’s just a fancy short-hand way of talking about the doctrine of salvation.  It comes from the root word sṓzō, which means “to save, rescue.”  So, the gospel (Good News) that Paul is clarifying has the power to rescue you or save you.

Finally, Paul says that it’s for everyone who believes.  And that word “believe” is the Greek word pístis, which is the word for faith.  Again, some of you have been around church circles long enough to hear the word epistemology.  That’s a fancy word that refers to the doctrine or study of belief or faith.  So, to put all of this together – the Good News (gospel) that Paul is proclaiming has the power to save/rescue, and it’s available to everyone who believes.

But that’s not Paul’s only purpose in writing this letter.  It’s possibly his greatest purpose, but there are two more and the second is to connect the church.

Connect the Church

This is kind of easy to skate past, but you don’t want to.  Notice how verse 16 ends.  Paul says that the Good News (gospel) he’s preaching is “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes; first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.”  If you’ve ever read Romans you’ve noticed this, and if you read it you’ll see it.  Over and over again you read Jews/Gentiles… Gentiles/Jews.  Why?

Well, back in the late 30’s A.D., Christianity makes its way to Rome almost exclusively because of the Jews that have heard about it elsewhere and have moved into the city.  The church begins to grow – mostly Jews, but also some Gentiles – but predominately Jews, and therefore the church has a Jewish style to it, a Jewish flavor.

Then, in 49 A.D. the emperor expels the Jews, probably because of some tenson and conflict between the Jews and the non-Jews.  And although we don’t know if all the Jews left, we do know that enough of them left that the remaining church looked less Jewish and more Gentile.  They didn’t change the message, but they undoubtedly changed the color of the carpet and introduced some contemporary music and let the minister wear blue jeans with his shirt untucked.

Five years later, in 54 A.D. there’s a new emperor in town and he lets the Jews return.  They’re glad to come back, but when they get back to their home church it doesn’t look like it used to.  Now, you have one style following Jesus and another style following Jesus (and you just thought denominationalism was a modern issue) and they have to find a way to make the two styles mesh.  I don’t think they were divided, but there was definitely some tension.  And Paul writes this letter in 56-57 A.D. to try and connect the church.  He’s clarifying the gospel with a practical purpose in mind.

And that leads us to the last purpose, which is to confirm God’s righteousness.

Confirm God’s Righteousness

That’s what verse 17 is focused on, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is from faith to faith just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”  In that single verse the word “righteous” or “righteousness” is used three times.  So, what does it mean?  Well, it’s basically a legal term.  It’s attorney language.  It’s courtroom jargon.  Literally speaking it means “judicial approval,” or the “approval of God.”  And Paul is interested in confirming two aspects of God’s righteousness – His integrity (as judge) and His faithfulness (as promise keeper).

Since God is the judge, He has to have integrity in order to punish wrongdoing and reward good.  That’s a judge’s job.  But He’s also a promise keeper.  So, if God promises to save the world through the nation of Israel, which He did through Abraham’s family (this one particular nation), if God promises this then He has to do it.  And if He doesn’t do it, then He’s not righteous.  So, Paul is talking about the legal aspect and the covenant aspect, because Jesus was something of a surprise.

On the surface, it kind of looks like Jesus is letting people off the hook.  On the surface, it kind of looks like God is going outside of the Old Testament and doing something different, and that’s why Paul writes to demonstrate the consistency of God’s character and His plan from Old Testament to New Testament, from beginning to end.

While God may not have called each of us to be the apostle to the Gentiles, or to lead a reformation that transforms Western civilization, He has called us to something.  The question is: Has our conversion to Christ made us new creatures for the sake of the kingdom of God?  Do we identify with Christ, His people, and the gospel so much that it’s as if our old self no longer exists?  Do those who know us become more aflame for the fulfillment of the Great Commission of Christ?  Do they sense that (for us) the Bible is not just some book on a shelf, or a fancy accessory to our outfit, but a means to an end – a way to connect with the heartbeat of God?

May our hearts grasp afresh the vision that consumed the Apostle Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.  May we sense our love for God and each other and the gospel grow in such a fashion that our friends and family and strangers would hunger – maybe for the first time – for the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.

Essential Business – Psalm 117

Psalm 117:1-2

There’s been a lot of talk about a lot of different things over the last several months.  For example, we’ve heard discussions on everything from the economy, healthcare, and politics to conversations about education, recreation, and faith.  And one of the topics that caught my attention this past week was the language we’ve all been using.

I’m not talking about those 3, 4, and 5-letter words, which, as Christians, shouldn’t be a part of our regular vocabulary in the first place (but often are).  I’m talking about terms like:

  • Social Distancing
  • Epidemic, Pandemic & Outbreak
  • “Flattening the curve”
  • Contact Tracing
  • Quarantine & Self-quarantine
  • Contagious, Infectious, Virus AND
  • Fomite

Okay, I’ll admit, that “fomite” isn’t quite as common, but you get the point.  By the way, a “fomite” is any object (a dish, a doorknob, a piece of furniture, etc.) that may be contaminated with an infectious organism and serve in its transmission.  For you students out there – maybe you could use the word in an assignment this week and see if you get some extra credit.

Anyway, there are two more terms that aren’t new but have certainly taken on new meaning and those are the words “essential” and “non-essential.”  If you’re a business owner or an employee – and most of us are – there’s no denying that you’ve scratched your head at some point over the past several weeks and wondered “Who gets to define that?”  Right?

Essential business versus non-essential business…  Most of us have been told that “essential business” is any business that the public relies on in their day-to-day living.  So, things like hospitals, grocery stores, banks, and gas stations would fall into that category.  And businesses that tend to be related to recreation and social gathering – things like restaurants, bars, sports, concert venues, and so forth – are considered non-essential.

And, on one level, most of us can follow that line of reasoning.  But what if your job or occupation falls into one of the non-essential categories?  I bet if you had a personal conversation with one of those folks (and some of you have), then you’d discover pretty quickly that they tend to think their job is essential – especially if they’re single or their spouse’s job was considered non-essential too.

As we conclude the month of April and this little foray in the Book of Psalms, I want to invite you to take your copy of God’s Word (if you haven’t already) and turn with me to Psalm 117.  This is the shortest psalm in the Psalter.  It’s also the shortest chapter in the entire Bible (only 2 verses and 17 words in Hebrew).  Another little bit of trivia is the fact that Psalm 117 is the middle of the Bible (by chapter, not by verse count).  It’s the 595th chapter, with 594 chapters before and 594 chapters after.

Psalm 117 may be the shortest chapter in the Bible, but it’s big on worship.  Psalm 117 admonishes us to praise the Lord because of His great love and His ever-enduring faithfulness.  Are you read?  Have you found Psalm 117?  Here we go, “Praise the LORD, all you nations; extol Him, all you peoples.  For great is His love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever.  Praise the LORD (Psalm 117:1–2).

That’s it.  Now, I know what some of you are thinking.  In fact, some of you husbands (and Music Ministers) out there are already getting a little excited because you’re thinking this is going to be a short sermon.  Well, quoting the words of Jesus to Philip in John 14:9, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you still do not know me?”

Dr. Steve Lawson, in his two-volume commentary on Psalms said this, “It has been called a mighty midget of a psalm, the Tom Thumb of the Psalter.  Nevertheless, this brief song is played in a major key as it contains towering truth on a grand scale.”

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, that British minister known as the Prince of Preachers, wrote, “This psalm, which is very little in its letter, is exceedingly large in its spirit…  The same divine Spirit which [expounds] the 119th psalm, here condenses His utterances into two short verses, but yet the same infinite fullness is present and perceptible.”

And Old Testament scholar, Derek Kidner, said this, “The shortest psalm proves, in fact, to be one of the most potent and one of the most seminal.  It’s great in its faith and its reach is enormous.”

Some of us grew up in and around churches that sang a song written in 1924 by Kittie Suffield titled Little Is Much When God Is in It.  This is certainly true of Psalm 117.  It’s little in length but much in truth, because God is in it.  The author is anonymous, the setting is unknown, but the message is loud and clear: Let all the nations praise God.

There’s another reality that many of us have re-discovered during this season of pandemic, and that’s that those issues we once thought important have been re-prioritized.  That’s one of the characteristics of crisis.  Non-essential matters get put on the back burner.  Now, I’m not suggesting that you (personally) or that your business or job are not essential.  But what I am saying is that crisis has a way of peeling back the outer layers of decoration and ornamentation and exposing our core.

Listen; when a tornado is bearing down on your home, you don’t look in the mirror and ask yourself whether or not what you’re wearing will look good on TV after the storm passes by.  You grab your children and any pets you can put your hands on and find a safe place to shelter.  When the doctor calls the family in because there’s only a few moments left, you don’t stand around discussing the color of the walls.  You utter those three simple words that are at your core: I LOVE YOU.

If you grew up in the Catholic Church or the Anglican Church or were a Lutheran, Methodist or Presbyterian, then you probably remember memorizing the catechism of your particular denomination – whether it was based on the Augsburg Confession, the Heidelberg Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Confession, or what have you.  Although I was raised in the Baptist Church, my father’s side of the family was thoroughly Presbyterian and I can still hear Question 1 from the Westminster Shorter Catechism in my ears:

Q: What is the chief end of man?

A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.

That’s what Psalm 117 does.  It seeks to get at one of the core essentials of the Christian faith, which is a call for all mankind to praise the LORD.  In keeping with my usual custom, I want to offer us three lessons, three truths, three principles that we can take away from this passage and apply in our lives this week.  And perhaps, just maybe we could share this chapter and these truths with someone else this week, as we seek to be obedient to the call of God to make disciples of all nations.

The Call to Praise

That’s what verse one is.  It’s a call.  It’s an invitation.  It’s an imperative statement.  Some of you have gotten reacquainted with grammar and English and academic things these past several weeks.  An imperative statement is one that issues a command: Do this!  Praise the LORD.  It’s a call to magnify the greatness of God.  It’s a call to extol His greatness, and to give glory and honor to God.

The first word is “praise.”  That word in the Hebrew is the word hallel.  It means “to shine” or “to boast.”  We’re called to point the spotlight on God, to boast in God.  Our lives ought to shine forth God’s goodness and grace and mercy and love.  Interesting little side note here; Psalms 113-118 are collectively referred to as the Hallel Psalms.  They were recited as a complete unit on joyous occasions, most specifically on Jewish holy days.

You might even recall that when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper in the Upper Room, both Matthew 26 and Mark 14 say that “When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”  Scholars are quite certain that the hymn they sang would have been one of these.  And one more note to consider.  When you put this word hallel next to the word LORD, that’s what gives us the English word “hallelujah.”  Hallel (praise) and Yah (shortened version of Yahweh).  So, in a very real way, when you say or sing the word Hallelujah, you’re actually saying the phrase “Praise the Lord.”  That’s what the word hallelujah means.

And notice that this isn’t just for the Israelites.  This wasn’t just a command given to the Jews.  It goes out to the ends of the earth.  It’s a call to all mankind, to all nations, to all peoples, to bring their praise to God.  Every living person on the planet is instructed and directed to give adoration, words of exaltation, glory and praise to the one true God.  In fact, the Hebrew word for “nations” here is the word goyim, which is the word that is translated as Gentiles.  If you’re reading the old King James Version that’s how it translates this verse.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, in chapter 15, he’s making the argument that Jesus – who is Himself, God – came not only to confirm the promises given to the people of the Old Testament, but that through Him (that is, through Jesus) the Gentiles might give glory to God as well.  And Paul actually uses this psalm, along with other Old Testament texts to makes his argument.

So, this call, this command, this invitation is given that all nations and all people groups would praise and extol the Lord.  This is the Great Commission of the New Testament tucked into the words of the Old Testament.  May this be a reminder to us today.  May this be a challenge to us in this unique season of history to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with everyone we know.  May we invite family and friends, neighbors and strangers to join us as we “Praise the LORD

The Causes for Praise

Praise has its reasons.  We don’t simply praise God because we’re told to (although that would be and probably should be sufficient).  We have good reason to praise God.  And this psalm gives us two of them: His steadfast love and faithfulness, or perhaps your translation has merciful kindness and truth.

When you consider all of the attributes of God (and there are many): His holiness, His sovereignty, His grace, His mercy, His justice, His righteousness, that He’s omniscient, that He’s omnipresent, that He’s omnipotent, and on and on we could go.  Of all God’s attributes, of all the characteristics that describe God’s nature, these two are most often coupled together.

The Hebrew words are hesed and emeth, respectively.  Both of these words are what theologians call “loaded” or “rich” terms.  There’s more nuance and meaning and significance in these original Hebrew words than can be captured in a single English word.  The word hesed is used 247 times in the Old Testament.  It speaks of God’s covenant loyalty, His goodness, His favor, His affection for His own.  The word emeth is used 127 times and refers to God’s reliability, His sureness, His stability, His truth and faithfulness.

Once again, the Apostle Paul picked up on this and wrote about it in Romans 8:38-39 when he said, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  God’s faithful love towards His chosen ones will never come to an end.

Therefore, these two attributes of God should always stimulate and provoke the hearts of God’s people to praise Him.

The Crescendo of Praise

This miniature psalm ends the way it began; “Praise the LORD.”  Now, some of you are wondering what makes this declaration any different from the first one.  And the truth of the matter is that grammatically-speaking there’s absolutely no difference.  The meaning, the force, the emphasis is just as it was when the psalmist started.  There’s no hidden Hebrew meaning in this verbal praise that wasn’t present earlier.  So why did I label this last point The Crescendo of Praise (besides the fact that I’m a sucker for alliteration)?  Well, there’s something to be said for repetition.

Think about it for a second.  Wives, how many of you, when you call for your husbands to help you in the kitchen or in the bedroom have a man like your pastor who immediately drops what he’s doing and runs to your aid?  (Melissa probably just spit out her morning coffee in laughter…)  Come on, I know the answer to that question.  You probably have to call him several times before he pauses that ballgame on TV and gets out of the recliner, right?  You have to repeat yourself in order to actually get his attention.

Guys, how many of you have taken your wives out for a night on the town and told your sweethearts how pretty they looked only for them to say, “No I don’t.  This dress just doesn’t suit me.”  Don’t you find that you sometimes have to tell her multiple times before she really believes you.

Think about the music we listen to.  Almost every song that’s ever been written – whether sung or just instrumental – includes repeated phrases and measures as part of its composition.  It’s that repetition that helps us learn the music.

The important thing to remember, whether large or small, is that Scripture isn’t repeated by accident.  It didn’t come about because God had a lazy streak as a writer.  No, the Bible contains repeated text because repetition serves a purpose.

In this case, repeating the words “Praise the LORD isn’t there because we have to get God’s attention (ladies), or because He doesn’t believe it the first time (guys).  It’s not even there as a learning tool.  Rather, it’s much like uttering those other three words: I LOVE YOU.  Whether we express it using “Praise the LORD or we prefer the Hebrew Hallelujah, the fact remains; it’s essential business in our worship of God.  Would we raise a hallelujah today?

A Holy House – Psalm 84:1-12

Psalm 84:1-12

As we begin this morning, let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and open with me to Psalm 84.  When all of this COVID-19 stuff started and looked like it would become a reality, I took us to the Psalms.  You might recall that the weeks, prior to Holy Week and Easter, we considered Psalm 46, Psalm 91, and Psalm 63, and today I want us to give our attention to Psalm 84.

Now, despite our inability to worship together these past four weeks, I’ve still been able to speak with several of you over the phone, or via e-mail, or interact with you using video-conferencing.  Some of you have even briefly stopped by the church to drop of your tithes/offerings, or to attend to some other quick business, and I’ve been able to see and speak with you there.  And one of the constants, one of the things that comes up again and again in our conversations is how we all long to be back in church together.

We miss being together in corporate worship.  We miss catching up.  We miss taking the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper together.  We miss studying and discussing the Bible together.  We miss praying over one another and having others pray over us.  We miss hearing other people’s voices joined with ours in praise and worship.  (Or perhaps you just miss all those voices drowning out your spouse when he/she attempts to sing.)  Either way, we miss the atmosphere.  We miss the architecture.  We missing being in God’s house together.  Or at least I hope we do.

It’s a great inspiration to any pastor to hear the people of God say that they miss being together on the Lord’s Day.  And as I was thinking about our longing to be together, and reading all the articles and news stories pondering when things might open back up, God led me to this Psalm.

Now, I’m not going to ask you to awkwardly stand up at your kitchen table, or climb out of bed and stand, or get out of that recliner to hear the Bible being read, but I do want to earnestly ask you to give your attention (now) to the reading of God’s holy Word.

To the choirmaster: according to the Gittith.  A Psalm of the Sons of Korah.

1 How lovely is Your dwelling place,

     O LORD of hosts!

2 My soul longs, yes, faints

    for the courts of the LORD;

my heart and flesh sing for joy

    to the living God.

3 Even the sparrow finds a home,

    and the swallow a nest for herself,

    where she may lay her young,

at Your altars, O LORD of hosts,

    my King and my God.

4 Blessed are those who dwell in Your house,

    ever singing Your praise! Selah

5 Blessed are those whose strength is in You,

    in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

6 As they go through the Valley of Baca

    they make it a place of springs;

    the early rain also covers it with pools.

7 They go from strength to strength;

    each one appears before God in Zion.

8 O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer;

    give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah

9 Behold our shield, O God;

    look on the face of Your anointed!

10 For a day in Your courts is better

    than a thousand elsewhere.

I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God

    than dwell in the tents of wickedness.

11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield;

    the Lord bestows favor and honor.

No good thing does He withhold

    from those who walk uprightly.

12 O LORD of hosts,

    blessed is the one who trusts in You!

(The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)

You can tell a lot about a person by where they spend their time.  For example, if some fellow claims to be a “family man” but then he spends every free weekend out with his buddies and away from his wife and children, well then, as my boys say, “Hold up…wait a minute…something ain’t right.”

Many of you have been asking how my family is holding up, and we’re doing like many of you – just taking it one day at a time.  But for those of you that have asked, I’ve told you that Parker is the one that seems to be the saddest.  While Melissa, Jordan and I are all working, Parker’s life prior to COVID-19 was basketball and school.  That’s where he lived.  If he wasn’t at school, then he was on the basketball court.  He lived in the gym and slept on the hardwood.  But ever since this virus he’s been stuck at home.

And when Jordan isn’t working, all I have to do is ride around and check the local lakes because that child loves to fish.  Listen, a few weeks ago, when Gov. McMaster closed all the public boat ramps in S.C. I thought we were going to have to call Byron Elmore for some counseling.  I got on the phone to some of you that have private lake access looking for a favor because it was going to get ugly at the pastor’s house.

Thankfully, John and Patty Walker and Wayne and Sue Elmore offered to let him fish their farm ponds.  And within about 48-hours I received a praise report: Gov. McMaster didn’t have authority to close any boat ramp controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers.  “Thank you, Jesus.”

Now we laugh about that, but the truth of the matter is that all of us should have a passion for God’s house.

Passion for God’s House 

If you have your Bibles open, look at verses 1-4 again and especially verse 2.  “My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.”

Guys, when was the last time you said your soul longed for anything?  (I know, it’s been a while.  What’s even worse is that if we did long for something it was probably food, football, or both, right?)  This man’s soul yearned passionately to come into the temple.  Just the thought of entering the temple courts caused him to faint.  His entire body – his heart and his flesh – cried out for God.  This is more than merely desiring a building.  This man earnestly sought the holy presence of God.

Let me ask you; during this pandemic, at some point or another, haven’t wondered, if not openly asked someone, what they thought God might be trying to say?  Have you thought about that?  “God, I’m not real sure what’s going on with this whole COVID-19 thing, but what do you want me to be learning?  Is there are lesson buried beneath all this self-distancing and quarantining?”

Now, there’s certainly no shortage of opinions floating around out there.  And I’m not suggesting that I have the answer, but I know for me one of the lessons I’ve learned is that we really take for granted the things we have in life until we don’t have them anymore.  Right?

How many of us, if we were completely honest with ourselves and God (He’s gonna know), would say that on Sunday morning we’re as ecstatic as a 3-year old on Christmas at the thought of going to Church?  Show of hands…  (I know that some of you put your hands up just because you knew I couldn’t see you.)  No, the truth is, many of us had lost our passion for God’s house and it’s taken this abrupt interruption from our Sunday routine to remind us that we ought to be overjoyed at the thought of going to the house of the Lord.

In verse 3 the psalmist pointed to the birds that flew into the temple, building their nests there, and who were able to live in the courts of God.  “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at Your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.”  He envied these birds.

And notice where he says they nest . . . near the altar.  The altar is one of those places where spiritual business is conducted.  Depending on your particular church background, you might have an image of a high altar where the liturgy of the mass is carried out, or it might simply be the steps or raised platform leading to the pulpit.  Either way, when people come to the altar they’re signifying to themselves and others that they’re trying to get as close to God as possible.

These birds enjoyed a close proximity to where the psalmist’s own heart was.  This guy envied the privilege the birds had of being close to the LORD Almighty, his King and God.  If the birds who live in God’s house are to be admired, how much more, then, are we who dwell there.

And if a renewed passion for God’s house wasn’t enough of a wake-up call for you, listen to this.  All who travel to the temple are blessed even as they anticipate worshipping God there.  Verses 5-7, describe for us what it looked like and felt like to make the journey to God’s house.

Pilgrimage to God’s House 

The psalmist begins by declaring a blessing on all who travel to Jerusalem to be in God’s house.  “Blessed are those whose strength is in You.”  Those who find their strength, those who find their power, those who find their might in God are truly blessed.  It’s their faith in God that actually transforms their human weakness into a God-given strength.

Verse 6 says that on their way to the temple, they pass through the Valley of Baca.  This is the only place in the Bible that you’ll encounter that name, and the fact of the matter is this: we’re not exactly sure where it is, or if it’s even a real place.  It’s possible – since many of the psalms were written using poetic language – that this is simply figurative or metaphorical speech.  What we do know is that the word Baca literally means “the place of weeping.”

Some of you wives and mothers out there are thinking, “who knew that Psalm 84 so accurately described our Sunday morning commute.”  Listen, ladies, if your husband is crying on your way to church in the morning, then you need to send him to my office as soon as you get here.  On the other hand, if the kids are crying, well, that’s just life.  The idea that the psalmist is trying to convey here is that prior to setting off on the journey the pilgrim was in a sorrowful spiritual state.  But it’s in the process of actually making the trip that their broken, barren souls are transformed into blessed hearts.

Not only does worshipping God in Zion (another name for Jerusalem) strengthen hearts, but so does the anticipation of doing so.  Would it be true that we could say the same for our faith community, our family of believers when we gather?

And when they arrived at the temple, prayer was offered.

Prayer in God’s House 

As a child, I remember taking summer vacations with my entire family down to the S.C. coast.  We had a family beach house in a community just south of Pawley’s Island and just north of Georgetown.  It was usually my grandparents on my mother’s side, my family, my uncle James and aunt Melissa and their two children, and my uncle Harold and aunt Susan and their two children.  If you’re keeping count that’s 14 people, not counting a friend or two that were smuggled into our luggage before leaving town.

And every time we started the trip down or the trip back we would always gather after all the bags were put in the cars, and we’d say a prayer.  And then when we arrived home safely there would always be a quick prayer of thanksgiving.  When you got to the temple, the journey to Zion was complete and deserved a prayer of thanksgiving, but also a prayer for Israel’s king – God’s anointed one who was supposed to rule and reign with godly wisdom, power and courage.

Of course, it was rare for Israel’s kings to govern correctly, and thankfully heaven’s true King – Jesus Christ – came to redeem us and provide the basis for true worship.  A true house of worship is a place where God is exalted, magnified, and adored.  It’s a place where people worship God in spirit and in truth.  It’s a place where a high view of God is championed and a sense of His presence is conveyed.

That brings us to the ultimate reality, the ultimate hope, to prize God’s house above any and all alternatives.

Prizing of God’s House 

Look at verse 10.  Some of you recognize the words of this verse, not because they’re found here in Psalm 84, but because you’ve heard a song by Christian singer-songwriter, Matt Redman, called Better Is One Day, which is taken directly from this Psalm.  “For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.  I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.”

If you could visit any place in the world, where would you go?  That’s a common question we’ve all likely asked or been asked ourselves.   Again, truth be told, how many of us said God’s house?  (Stop raising your hands.  I know you.  You’re just like me.  You’ve never said that.)

Listen, I know that beach lovers pick the white sands of the Bahamas or Bora Bora.  European history buffs choose England or France.  Those who are really adventurous might opt for the Himalayas, the Alps, or the Rockies, but I’ve never heard anybody answer that question by saying Church.  And yet that’s exactly how the psalmist answers.  There’s no place he’d rather be than with the Lord – in the place where God’s people can enjoy His presence.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, he goes on to say that he’d rather be a doorkeeper in the LORD’s house than dwell in the tents of wickedness.  Now for my dad and Buzz Cleveland, both of whom are Citadel grads, and really anybody else that has any knowledge of my college alma mater, you might know that freshman of that esteemed institution of higher education are referred to as “knobs.”  The nickname originating from our shaved heads, which we were required to keep for 9 months until we became upperclassmen.  And one of the jobs that was often assigned to “knobs” during their freshman year was to attend doors of buildings (opening/closing).  And sense we were known as “knobs,” in those cases where we were holding doors we were called “doorknobs.”

The author of Psalm 84 says given the choice between lounging on a yacht in the Mediterranean and being served or being a “doorknob” and holding the doors to the temple open for all eternity, he’d rather be the doorkeeper.  He’d rather be God’s bellhop than this world’s greatest billionaire.

There was a fellow in the mid-late 1600’s named Nicholas Herman.  He’s actually best known for a book that was published after he died called, The Practice of the Presence of God.  You might know him by his religious name, Brother Lawrence.  This is what he had to say regarding being near God and in His holy house.

“Touched with deep regret, I declare to Him all my evil deeds, ask His forgiveness for them, and abandon myself into His hands to do with me according to His will.  This good and merciful King, very far from chastising me, embraces me lovingly, makes me eat at His table, serves me with His own hands, gives me the keys to His treasures, and treats me in everything as His favorite.  He converses and takes endless pleasure in my company in countless ways…  The more I see my weakness and wretchedness, the more I am caressed by God.  This is how I consider myself from time to time to be in His holy presence.  My most normal habit is to simply keep my attention on God, and to be generally and lovingly aware of Him.  I often feel myself attached to God with sweetness and satisfaction greater than that experienced by a nursing child.”

On this Sunday and during this time of temporary separation, would we re-evaluate our appreciation and appropriation of God’s holy house in our lives?  Would we pray that God re-kindle in us a fire, a passion, a desire for worship in His sanctuary with His people.  Would we find that our anger and bitterness, our anxiety and weariness, be transformed into blessings on the way to worship.  Would we pray that the churches of America return to simple expressions of true and genuine worship – proclaiming God’s Word, magnifying God’s name, and pursuing God’s will.  And might we remember that the greatness of a church isn’t measured by how many visitors come to admire the building, but how many worshippers come to a full knowledge of God through Jesus Christ.

The Hope of Easter – Luke 24:13-24

Luke 24:13-24

I heard a story about a man who went on vacation to Israel with his wife, and his very difficult-to-deal-with and ever-nagging mother-in-law, and while they were there sadly the mother-in-law passed away.  So, the man was trying to figure out what to do with the body, where to bury her, and he went to a local undertaker and asked about it.  The man said, “Sir, it will cost you $5,000 to ship her back to the States, but you can actually bury her right here in the Holy Land for $150.”

So, the man thought about it for a few moments and said, “Alright, I’m going to go ahead and ship her back to America.”

And the undertaker said, “Sir, did you hear what I said?  You can bury her here in the Holy Land for $150, why would you want to spend $5,000 to ship her back?”

And the man replied, “Well, a long time ago, a man was buried here and three days later he rose again from the dead.  And I can’t take that chance.”

You know, you just can’t ignore the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  It changed human history.  It’s changed most of our lives.  And because Jesus died and rose again, we have HOPE.  If Jesus had never risen from the dead, then we’d have no hope.  But He did.  And because of that we have hope.

Where Is Your Hope

Our hope is in God, through Christ Jesus.  Our hope isn’t in technology, which is changing all the time.  Our hope isn’t in human solutions.  Our hope certainly isn’t in politicians and governments, because they’ll disappoint.  Don’t even put your hope in preachers because we’ll disappoint you too.

Listen, if you knew me as well as I know myself you wouldn’t even sit there and listen to me preach today.  But before you turn off your computer or flip the channel think about this, if I knew you as well as you know yourself I wouldn’t talk to you.  So, we’re a good match, aren’t we?  No, our hope is in God.

It’s been said that man can live 40 days without food, 3 days without water, about 8 minutes without air, but not 1 second without hope. 

So, let me ask you; have you lost hope?  Has this whole COVID-19 thing caused you to be sort of like a rudderless ship without any real purpose or hope in life?  Maybe you’ve tuned in today and secretly you’re a little discouraged.  Maybe your life hasn’t gone the way you’d hoped it would go.

Think about it.  Perhaps you were hoping you’d be married by now but you’re still single.  Or maybe you were hoping that your marriage would be stronger, but the fact of the matter is that it’s unraveling.  It might even be falling apart.  Some of you were hoping your business would’ve succeeded, but it just went belly up.  In recent weeks many people across our nation (even our world) have lost loved ones to this virus.  There are some who are watching today that are simply without hope.  If that’s you (even a little bit), I just want to say I’m glad you here.  You’ve come to the right place.

If you have your Bibles, I want to invite you to turn with me to Luke 24.  We’re going to read about two disciples that had lost hope on the first Easter.  Like some of you, they were “down in the dumps.”  They’d lost hope.  They were burned out.  In their minds, Jesus somehow failed in His mission to be the Messiah.

See, they held the view that when the Messiah came He was going to establish His kingdom and rule as King of kings and Lord of lords, which, in their case, meant the overthrow of Rome (the power that occupied Israel at that time).  And though that’s true – Scripture speaks of the Messiah coming to rule and reign – they failed to understand that He must first suffer and die.  So, when Jesus, their friend, their hero, their Messiah, their Lord, was suddenly arrested on false charges and beaten and then murdered in cold blood before their eyes, it seemed as though something had gone horribly wrong.

It was like the train was off the tracks, and so these guys were so down-hearted, so discouraged, so hopeless that they said, “We’ve got to get out of town.”  So, they left Jerusalem.  They wanted to put as much distance between themselves and that bloody cross as possible.  And they headed to a town called Emmaus.  And as they were on their way somebody joined them.  Turns out to be Jesus Himself, but they didn’t know it at the time.  So, let’s read what happens here in Luke 24:13-24:

13That same day two of Jesus’ followers were walking to the village of Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem.  14As they walked along they were talking about everything that had happened.  15As they talked and discussed these things, Jesus himself suddenly came and began walking with them.  16But God kept them from recognizing Him.

17He asked them, “What are you discussing so intently as you walk along?”

They stopped short, sadness written across their faces.  18Then one of them, Cleopas, replied, “You must be the only person in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard about all the things that have happened there the last few days.”

19“What things?” Jesus asked.

“The things that happened to Jesus, the man from Nazareth,” they said.  “He was a prophet who did powerful miracles, and He was a mighty teacher in the eyes of God and all the people.  20But our leading priests and other religious leaders handed Him over to be condemned to death, and they crucified Him.  21We had hoped He was the Messiah who had come to rescue Israel.  This all happened three days ago.

22“Then some women from our group of His followers were at His tomb early this morning, and they came back with an amazing report.  23They said His body was missing, and they had seen angels who told them Jesus is alive!  24Some of our men ran out to see, and sure enough, His body was gone, just as the women had said.”

Hope For Ordinary People

Our story begins with two people; Cleopas, whose name is a derivative from Cleopatra (who ruled over Egypt), and another person.  Some commentators suggest that it was perhaps a woman, since “Mary the wife of Clopas” (different spelling) is mentioned as one of the women at the foot of the cross in John’s gospel.  So maybe this was a man and his wife, or maybe it was just two men.  The point is this: these weren’t front-line disciples.  We’re not reading about Peter, James, or John.  Why did Jesus appear to these two people?

Isn’t it interesting to note who Jesus made His post-resurrection appearances to?  If I was Christ, after I arose, the first person I would have appeared to would’ve been Caesar.  He thought of himself as a god.  And I would’ve said, “Hey Caesar, you think you’re a god?  Check this out.  Years from now, all they’ll remember you for is a salad.”  (A good one, but a salad nonetheless.)  Or He could’ve appeared to Pilate: “Hey Pilate, remember me?  Ever heard the saying ‘you can’t keep a good man down?’  Listen, you can’t keep the God-man down.”

But no, Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene – not even Peter, James or John.  Maybe it’s because she was the last at the cross and the first at the empty tomb, and now here He is appearing to these two folks, one of which isn’t even important enough to have their name mentioned.  Cleopas, the one who is mentioned, is only mentioned in this one place in the entire Bible.

Quick poll.  How many of you were the top student in your class?  Raise your hands.  Always got the best grades, honor roll, etc.?  (Wow, we’ve got a lot of losers out there.)  How many of you got mediocre or bad grades?  Raise your hands.  (Yeah, houses full of losers.)  Guess what?  I’m with you.  When you were in school, did you ever get picked last.  At the office, do others slip out to lunch without inviting you?

Jesus went out of His way to reach out to ordinary people, to obscure people; to people that were often forgotten by others.

Hope Not Recognized

And it’s interesting to note that as they’re walking along, these two people don’t recognize Jesus.  Mark’s gospel includes this interesting little detail, the Bible says, “Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country” (Mark 16:12).  I don’t know what that means exactly but it’s clear that they didn’t know it was Jesus walking along with them.  And you know what, sometimes we miss that Jesus is walking along with us too.

He’s with us all the time.  He’s with us on the sunny days and He’s with us on the cloudy days.  He’s with us on the mountain tops and He’s with us in the valleys.  He’s with us in our fiery furnaces as He was with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.  He’s with us in the lion’s den as He was with Daniel.

Isaiah 43:2 says, “When you go through deep waters, I will be with you.  When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown.  When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you.”

Are you in the rivers of difficulty right now?  Are you in a fire of oppression?  Listen, Jesus is here with you.  If you’re a Christian, He’ll never leave you alone.  Deuteronomy 31:6 says that “He’ll never leave us or forsake us.”  But the problem with these two chaps is that they’re headed in the wrong direction.

They should have stayed in Jerusalem or returned to Galilee with the others, as Jesus had instructed, but instead, these two people wanted to put as much distance between themselves and the cross of Jesus as they could.  When you’re down-hearted.  When you’re discouraged.  When you’ve sinned.  The last thing you want to do is run from God; you should run to God.

I urge you . . . go to God with your troubles – go to God with your questions – go to God with your pain – go to God with your complaints – the main thing is to go to God.

Hope When You’re Lost

But the Devil, he’s a clever one, isn’t he?  He’ll come and whisper in our ear, “Hey you, happy Christian, come here a second.  Hi.  I’m the Devil.  I hate your guts.  I want to kill and destroy you.  Anyway, I’m just kind of thinking . . . you’re living this Christian life and you’re doing so well but I figured you might want to have a little fun.  You know, you deserve a little break today.  You work so hard.  Why don’t you just do whatever pleases you today, and I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.”

So, we foolishly take the bait and as soon as we’ve fallen victim to sin the Devil comes back to us and says, “Hey you, miserable hypocrite, who do you think you are?  You think you’re a Christian?  Don’t even think about showing your ugly face in church again.  Don’t even consider opening the Bible and you should never pray.  You’re not worthy.”  And we listen to this.

Yet, that’s when we should be running to God.  Listen, you can go to God and find forgiveness.  These guys were running away from the cross when they should’ve been running to the cross.

Satan’s objective is to always get you further from the cross, while the Holy Spirit’s objective is to bring you to it.

I heard a story about a little boy in northern England who got lost.  The policeman found him crying in the shadows and he asked the little fellow where he lived.  But the little guy said he didn’t know where he lived.  “You don’t know you’re address son?”  “No, I don’t.”  So the constable started listing restaurants and stores and hotels but the boy didn’t recognize any of them.  Then the officer looked toward town and in the distance, there was a church that had a large steeple with a cross that was lit up.  And he said, “Son, do you live anywhere near that?”  And the little boy’s face lit up and he said, “Yes, lead me to the cross.  I can find my way home from there.”

Folks, listen to me today.  Because of the events of that first Easter, we have the hope of everlasting life and an eternal dwelling and relationship with God, but we have to come to the Cross of Calvary.

The Apostle Paul, writing about the Hope of Easter, says this, “Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through Him we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.  And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2).  And if you’re an inquisitive person you’re thinking, “Yeah, but what’s the glory of God?  Paul said we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God?  What’s the glory of God that we hope in?”

If you continue reading Chapter 5 of Romans you’ll discover that the glory of God is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  That’s the glory of God for Paul, and that’s where our hope lies today – in the resurrection of that first Easter Sunday.

Hope Found In The Scripture

But although these guys were going the wrong direction on that first Easter, notice that Jesus doesn’t give up on them.  Verse 17, Jesus says, “What are you guys talking about?  Why the long faces?”  (Jesus is trying to draw them out, open them up a little.)  And Cleopas responds and says, “You must be the only person in Jerusalem that hasn’t heard about all the things that have happened in the last few days.”  And to add insult to injury notice what verse 21 says, “We had hoped (past tense) He was the Messiah who had come to rescue Israel.  This all happened three days ago.”

I wonder if Jesus was thinking, “Oui Vay!  Three days!  Hello, don’t you guys remember how many times I said ‘three days?’”  And of course, we tend to criticize these characters because we know that this is Jesus and we know the rest of the story, but seriously, how many times do we forget what Jesus says to us?  How often do we forget the promises and the assurances and the comfort that He gives to us through His Word?  We worry when we should pray.  We panic when we should trust.  We turn away when we should cling.

But what did Jesus do to restore HOPE?  He took them to the Scripture.  He opened God’s Word and explained it to them.  Romans 15:4 says, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

So, what did Jesus share with them?  Look at verses 25-27; “He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’  And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

We have some pretty cool and interesting times of Bible study here at Mountain Hill.  Some unique opportunities for worship, praying and sharing . . .  But can you imagine hearing Jesus teach you the Scriptures?  And how did they respond?  Verse 32 says, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

That’s what we all need – a good case of heartburn.  Have you ever experienced that when reading God’s Word?  (Not indigestion, but a burning heart?)  You heard a sermon or read a devotion or ran across a passage in the Bible and it just resonated in your heart?  “Yeah, that’s what I needed to hear!”  That’s what happened to these two people as they walked with Jesus – He gave them a personal tour of the Bible and their hope began to return.

The Scriptures remind us of the HOPE of Easter.  As Paul writes in his letter to Titus, “[w]e wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us . . .” (Titus 2:13-14b).  Or as Peter writes in the opening pages of his epistles, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead . . .” (1 Peter 1:3).

Author Willard Aldrich, in his book, When God Was Taken Captive, writes, “I am not a connoisseur of great art, but from time to time a painting or picture will really speak a clear, strong message to me.  Some time ago I saw a picture of an old burned-out mountain shack.  All that remained was the chimney . . . the charred debris of what had been that family’s sole possession.  In front of this destroyed home stood an old grandfather-looking man dressed only in his underclothes with a small boy clutching a pair of patched overalls.  It was evident that the child was crying.  Beneath the picture were the words which the artist felt the old man was speaking to the boy.  They were simple words, yet they presented a profound theology and philosophy of life.  Those words were, ‘Hush child, God ain’t dead!’” 

Folks, let me remind us all – on this gloriously odd Easter Sunday – God ain’t dead.  He’s Alive!  And because of that we have HOPE this Easter.