Sunday, November 11, 2012

Peace with God

[This was the sermon prepared for today's 10:15 worship service with the people and friends of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio. Today was Friend Day at Saint Matthew.]

I once heard a man named Bill Hybels say that every human being, without exception, is looking for the same thing. Hybels called the thing we’re all looking for, “it.”

The ways human beings look for “it” vary.

Some think they can find “it” by living a life in which they stock up pleasure, committing themselves to, in the words of our Declaration of Independence, “the pursuit of happiness.” But “it” can’t be found by that route.

Some people look for “it” by working hard for money or power or knowledge.

Others are sure that the way to “it” is by being a good person, giving to charities, or living a lifestyle of love.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with happiness, knowledge, hard work, giving, success, money, or even love. These are all good things in themselves.

But if we look to them as the means by which we find “it,” we will be disappointed.

And if we aren’t disappointed, then we are settling for much less than we were made for as human beings.

None of us should do that!

So, what is this “it”?

A man named Augustine, who lived in the fourth century, was the preeminent scholar of his day, at a time when scholars were treated like rock stars. Augustine partook of every sinful pleasure the world had to offer.

But it wasn’t enough.

In the summer of 386, deeply unhappy, Augustine threw himself down under a fig tree in desperation. There he sensed a voice, like that of a child, repeating to him over and over, “Pick up and read. Pick up and read.”

The voice was so real to Augustine that, at first, he thought it was that of a real nearby child playing some game. Then he understood that the voice had some other source.

At that time, Augustine was staying with some monks on a retreat where he hoped he could get things together. He wasn’t interested in being a Christian, mind you. His mother was a Christian and he had no interest in becoming a religious kook!

But, weeping under the fig tree, Augustine kept hearing that voice: “Pick up and read. Pick up and read.”

He later said that he could only interpret the repeated phrase to mean that he had to run into the house where he was staying, pick up a Bible from a shelf there, and read the first words he laid eyes on. He followed his instructions.

The first passage he read was in the book of Romans, chapter 13, verses 13 to 14: “Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ...”

It was then that Augustine, to that point no believer in God, surrendered his life and will to the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

He later said in a prayer, “Almighty God, You have made us for  Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”

Not by any effort of His own, but solely by the effort of the God Who reached out to him and Who still reaches out to you and me today, Augustine received “it": peace with God.

You may say, “We might as well close up shop right now, preacher. I’m not at war with God. I may not pay much attention to God, but I’m not at war with God.”

Look! We are born at war with God!

We’re born wanting our own ways.

In the Old Testament, King David, a man the Bible later describes as “a man after God’s own heart,” had to admit, “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”

Sin is in the human gene pool. We inherit it from our parents and grandparents.

Sin is the condition of enmity toward God and of willfulness to do our own thing that caused me, when I wasn’t yet three years old, to ignore my mother when she told me not to pick up my baby sister and with Mom no more than five steps away, to pick her up and promptly drop her on her head, my very first childhood memory. Nobody had to teach me how to sin; I came equipped with that knowledge!

The condition of sin is a wall between God and us, between God and others.

It’s what makes it impossible for us, by our own reason or strength or effort, to love God or to love others as we love ourselves, even though the law of God written on our hearts tells us that living like that is what it means to be human!

Even people who have never heard of God have a sense that they were made to experience "it," what we know to be the peace of God, whether they can articulate that or not.

And some people are so desperate for peace with God that they fall for humanly-created religions like Islam, Mormonism, or Scientology.

U2 gave expression to our common desire for “it,” when they sang, “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

I want to be honest with you. I don’t always live in the peace of God. I let “it” slip out of my hands.

Usually without realizing it, I go on the warpath against God.

Feelings of bitterness toward those who have hurt me get my attention. Instead of asking God to bless others, I find myself praying that God would “fix them” and make them over in an image more convenient and convivial to me.

The desire to do what I want to do instead of what God wants me to do takes first place in my life.

My sinful self, along with the sin of the world and the sinful things that Satan tempts us all to do, conspire to take over my life and rob me of peace with God.

So I come to God many times a day, to ask God to tear down the wall of sin, to help me live in peace with Him, with others, and with myself, to remember that there is no peace when we’re looking out for ourselves.

But how does peace with God come to us?

I want to share with you what’s called “the Roman road,” the way peace comes to us as described in the New Testament book of Romans, the book of the Bible from which Augustine read on that summer day when he found his rest in God. I’ll also mention a few other passages in other parts of the Bible.

How do we have peace with God? First: To have peace with God, we must realize that God loves us and He wants to have everlasting peace with Him, along with a life made new by Him, a life He wants to give to us for all eternity.

When we have bad things come into our lives, as they do in all lives, we’re tempted to think that God has it in for us. A month or so ago, when I learned I had Celiac Disease, two years after I had a heart attack that took out 40% of my heart and one year after I'd learned that my heart was so weak I needed a pacemaker and defibrillator and also had to have a small melanoma cancer removed from my leg, I confess to you that I asked God why He was piling things on.

I'm ashamed of those feelings, frankly, because the Bible teaches us that, in this fallen world, bad things happen to everyone, no exceptions.

But we can have peace with God even in hard times. Romans 5:1 says: “...having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

What does this mean? Just this: The rightful fate for everyone who has sin is death. Another passage of Romans puts it this way: “the wages of sin is death.”

Think of it like this: We are all guilty of sin. If we were tried for our sin, the evidence would be overwhelming. To be justified though, is to have the verdict of “not guilty” declared over our lives.

Anyone who is declared “not guilty” of sin is at peace with God.

It was this “not guilty” verdict that changed Augustine’s life.

God wants us all to experience that.

God loves us and wants us to enjoy peace with Him. That’s why God in the flesh, Jesus, said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God wants to give us:
  • Peace with God now in this imperfect world
  • Peace with God forever in a perfect eternity.
Second: To have peace with God, we need to understand, as we mentioned earlier, that, in our natural state of being, we are separated from God. We’re at war with God. Romans 3:23 says: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

You and I aren’t machines. God didn’t program us to do whatever He wanted. God gives us the power to make choices in our lives. We can choose to return His love to Him or not.

The problem, of course, is that the condition of sin has us bound so tightly that even if we resolve to return God’s love or to be at peace with God, we can’t make the decision stick.

We’re like kids peering into a shop filled with candy that’s off-limits to us because our hands and feet are manacled, in this case by our sin.

We can’t get to peace with God by our own efforts, no matter how hard we try. As Romans 7:19 says, “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.” That's why we Lutherans say in the Order for Confession and Forgiveness: "We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves." Even when we want to choose peace with God and obedience to His commands, we are incapable of making that choice.

Third: To have peace with God, we need to know that God intervenes on our behalf. Romans 5:8 says: “...God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

The Old Testament sacrificial law held that an unblemished lamb could represent people on the altar in the temple in Jerusalem. There, the lamb was sacrificed and the repentant believers were spattered with the blood of the lamb. The lamb took the sinners‘ rightful wages, death, and the repentant were forgiven, for that moment.

But as our second lesson for today, from Hebrews, reminds us, Jesus, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world, bears the sins of all the world, once and for all. 

Fourth: We must receive, by faith, Christ, the One Who has died and risen for us. Romans 10:9 says: “...if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” What an incredible promise!

Because of God's charitable love for us, what the Bible calls "grace," all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ are saved from the condition of sin and its consequence--death and futility.

When you entrust your life to Jesus Christ, you will have forgiveness, life, purpose, and peace with God.

Now, I don’t want to simplify things. Having peace and eternity with God are free gifts God grants to all who turn from sin and trust in Jesus Christ. But they are gifts we find it easy to let go of.

Faith itself, the Bible teaches, isn’t something we can talk ourselves into, but only receive just as we receive any other gift.

And as long as we live in this world, our genetic predisposition to sin will haunt us.

Jesus was and is God in the flesh, perfect and sinless, conceived not by a sinful man and a sinful woman, but by the Holy Spirit. But if Jesus was tempted and tested, we can expect to be tempted and tested too!

Jesus says though, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."

Jesus also promises that “the one who endures to the end” in surrender to Him “will be saved.” They will have a peace that only the God Who became one of us, died for us, and then rose from death for all eternity can guarantee.

The God we know in Jesus Christ can be your very best friend. He can give you a peace that passes all understanding.

If you would like to claim that peace for the first time or claim it again this morning, I want to invite you to pray with me right now:
Lord Jesus, I am a sinner in need of the forgiveness only You can give. I believe that You died for my sins. I believe that You rose from the dead to open up eternity to all who will turn from their sins and let You be their God and King. I ask You to come into my life. Rule over me today and forever. Send Your Holy Spirit to me daily so that I can trust and follow You and live in Your peace. In Your Name I pray. Amen 
If you're like me, you may find yourself needing to pray that prayer about twenty-five times a day.

That's okay: As Martin Luther said, the problem with some "born-again Christians" is that they're not born again enough. We need to keep coming back to Christ so that our old sinful self can be crucified and the new child of God can keep rising from the ashes of our sin!

But if you prayed that prayer with sincerity, know this: The war is over!

You have the "it" you’ve wanted your whole life: Peace with God!


[The four points of "the Roman Road," found in many places, and the version of "the sinner's prayer" as presented here, are based on a helpful book that has helped me share my faith many times over the past decade: Steps to Peace with God, published by the publications arm of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, World Wide Publications. I don't know if it's still in print. A link to it at can be found above.]

[These passages of Scripture are mentioned in the sermon (most are hyperlinked above): Acts 13:22, Psalm 51:5, Romans 2:14-15, Matthew 22:36-40, Romans 5:1, Romans 6:23, John 3:16, John 1:1-14, Romans 3:23, Romans 7:19, Hebrews 9:24-28, John 1:29, Romans 10:9, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Matthew 1:18, Hebrews 4:15, and Mark 1:12-13]

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