Sunday, February 25, 2018

In Christ, You Can Hold Your Head High!

[This message was prepared for worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier today. I developed a cough that erupts every time I take a deep breath. It's a cold both my wife and me have right now. So, I thank Mark Brennan, our worship director, for pinch-hitting for me.]

Romans 5:1-11
A Christian scholar writes of listening to a radio interview with a film star. The star said it was “ think that, if there is a God, he might actually be concerned with every single human creature at every single moment.” As the scholar, N.T. Wright says: “Put like that, of course, it seems absurd; and yet absurdity lies in the attempt to picture God as just like us only a bit bigger and more well-seeing.” [Italics are mine.]

People unfamiliar with the God first worshiped by ancient Israel and then disclosed to the rest of us through Jesus Christ don’t understand the enormity of God.

Nor do they understand the depths of His love for us.

As Wright says: “...his very nature is love, it is...completely natural for him to establish personal, one-to-one relations with every single one of us.”

That’s exactly what God has set out to do in Jesus Christ.

And it’s precisely through such a relationship with Christ that God can save us, give us strength for each day, and supply us with a hope that will never disappoint us.

All of this is what the apostle Paul writes about in our second lesson for this morning, Romans 5:1-11.

The New Testament book of Romans, you’ll remember, is a letter written by the apostle Paul to first-century house churches in Rome. It’s Paul’s masterpiece, an exhaustive presentation of the gospel that can bring eternal life to all who bet their lives on it.

In the chapters before our lesson appears, Paul has talked about the fundamental human problem, sin, which leads to death, among other things. Because sin is universal to every human being, Paul says, quoting a psalm: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

But, Paul says that’s not the end of the story. God is unwilling to see you and me die in our sin, forever separated from Him. So God acts.

God the Father sends God the Son Jesus to receive the punishment we deserve for our sin. Jesus dies, although He committed no sin. Jesus experiences separation from God the Father, the Maker of life, which is why Jesus cries from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) It’s also part of the reason Jesus descended into hell (1 Peter 3:19); He bore the full weight of sin and its fatal consequences.

God the Father then raises Jesus from death. As Paul explains elsewhere: “...Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

All who renounce sin and trust in Christ have reconciliation with God and have life with God, an intimate and enduring personal relationship with the One Who loves us more than anyone in this world ever has or ever will.

Jesus tells us: “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25). Even more than that, Paul goes on to tell us at the beginning of today’s lesson, we have peace with God even when the sin, darkness, and imperfection of this present world makes war on us.

Take a look at what Paul says, Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…”

In other words, we who are born wrong and who have lived wrong are made right with God through our faith in Jesus.

Although we deserve death, God gives peace to those who trust in Christ.

A man saw me, deeply disturbed because he thought that his sins would forever separate him from God. A woman spoke with me, her conscience thunderstruck for some horror she had perpetrated. These are real people whose consciences convicted them.

They thought that they were too sinful to receive the promise of God given to us through the crucified and risen Jesus: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13; Acts 2:21). There is nobody beyond the scope of God's "everyone."

“You are stained red with sin,” God says in Isaiah 1:18, “but I will wash you as clean as snow.”

If you trust Christ with your sins, along with the rest of your life, you are made clean.

You have peace with God.

And you can keep having peace with God through faith in Jesus even when you, as is true of each of us every single day, sin again or experience life’s pressures and need to repent or take refuge in Christ.

That’s why Paul says what he does next. Verses 2 and 3: “...through [Jesus] we [believers] have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God…”

The word translated as stand is histemi. We get the word histamine from it. Histamines get released naturally by our immune systems to help our bodies to function properly, to help us to stand strong. (The New Testament Greek word for resurrection is rooted in this word and literally means to stand again.)

The idea here is that because of the charitable forgiveness--the grace--that God bears for sinners like you and me who open ourselves to trusting in Christ, we stand in God’s kingdom.

By this grace given to those who trust in Christ, God will always give us life, always give us hope.

The psalmist spoke of what it means to stand in God’s grace when he wrote: “I will not fear though tens of thousands assail me on every side…” (Psalm 3:6)

Paul says that we who stand and keep standing in the gracious kingdom of God can brag, not of ourselves, but “of the hope of the glory of God.”

When God’s full glory is revealed to all the world at Jesus’ return, everyone who has believed in Him, will experience the fullness of God’s promises. You have been saved by God’s grace through your faith in the crucified and risen Jesus. So, hold your head high, stand tall, not from arrogance, but knowing that by the grace of God, you’re eternally free from sin and death.

Paul says that’s not the only thing in which we can glory. Verses 3-5: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

As believers we can glory in our sufferings.

Does that seem strange? It shouldn’t. Why?

Because in the person who stands in God’s grace, suffering produces endurance, the capacity to keep on believing as we meet the crucified Jesus at our crosses. And we can glory in our sufferings because through persevering faith in the midst of suffering, God forges our characters. We become more dependent on God the Father, as Jesus was as He bore His cross. We become more sympathetic to the suffering of others. We understand the depths of Christ’s love that reaches us even when we suffer. We’re humbled by the realization of our own limitations; we can no longer worship ourselves or our desires with straight faces or clear consciences. 

And a character forged through reliance on Christ’s grace in the midst of our suffering will be filled with hope in the Savior Who pours Himself into us. 

If you have experienced or are experiencing now the sustaining grace of Christ as you have suffered, you have a God-given rendezvous with an eternity about which you can boast, a story of grace to share, a track record with the Lord that can give you hope even “in the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). When you have a hope like that, you “fear no evil” (Psalm 23:4).

Paul then gives the reason for our hope as Jesus people. At the time set aside by God, Jesus died for sinners like us. Paul says that this happened “when we were still powerless” (Romans 5:6).

The word powerless translates the Greek word asthenon, which means weak, unable to stand.

Paul is saying that those who once were so weakened by sin that they couldn’t stand in the presence of a holy God nor have any hope of standing beyond their graves, now stand in God’s kingdom of grace because of what Christ has accomplished for them...for us, you and me! 

Jesus lifts dead and dying believers out of everlasting separation from God and makes it possible for us to stand in the life-giving presence of God forever, even now!

In the last section of today’s lesson, Paul says that if by His shed blood on the cross, Jesus can save us from death, how much more as the One Who stood alive again and stands forever alive and forever first, can He give us life with God that nothing can destroy?

In Christ, we meet a God big enough to save us from sin and death.

He’s also loving enough to care about each of us, to die and rise for everyone, to hear our prayers, to stand with us in defeat, death, and darkness, and to give us the hope of living fully in His glory forever. This God cares about you as an individual person.

This week, I invite you to soak that reality up by reading the Gospel of Mark. Take a week to read this one gospel in the New Testament. Mark is just sixteen chapters long. That comes to 2.28 chapters a day. That’s doable. As you read, whether on your own or with your family or a friend--and this is key, ask God to help you see His love for you and show you too how you might respond to that love, His grace, that day or the next. Let Christ love you in every part of your life. There's nothing He wants to do more than that. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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