Sunday, July 29, 2018

Mouth and Heart: Sermon on Romans 10:6-13

A man kneels, trembling, tears streaking his cheeks, on the dirty and fragmented stone tiles at the edges of the forum. All around him is silence. Other than torches in the hands of public slaves who stand watch nearby, the world is empty to his eyes – a black abyss. Quivering, he clenches his sword in white-knuckled fists. The fire of the torches glints and gleams off the sharpened tip as it hovers inches from his thundering heart. Would you take a moment to picture the scene? Would you indulge me just a minute or two and imagine with me what's going through this man's mind?

His grandfather, perhaps, was a veteran, who served in one of the legions. As a reward for his service, he was given land here, one of the earlier waves of thusly rewarded military settlers. But the grandson had squandered that all away. Still, he'd gotten married. His father-in-law, too, perhaps, was a veteran. But the son-in-law, the man in the dirt with the sword, wasn't. He'd never been found fit – he could never be good enough, never be man enough. So for years now, he'd pushed himself, asserted himself, overcompensated.

He had become a brutal man. Brutal enough to get into the corrections business. Brutal enough to be good at it, to make his living off torture and confinement and extortion. He made good money off of it all – not like his lost patrimony, but enough to support his family. Financially, at least. He knew he wasn't much for supporting his family emotionally. Brutality is a hard thing to leave on the doorstep. He carried the weight of his work home with him. He knew how often he treated his wife and kids like the hardened criminals he was assigned to guard, like that pair of bleeding charlatans committed the prior morn. He hated seeing his wife flinch whenever he drew close. But in everything, he hardened himself to what he felt had to be done.

At some level, he knew he was no good man. He tried to make a virtue out of his vices, justifying himself to his tattered conscience. But he was lost in life. The daily grind was a storm to erode even the roughest rock. The fictions of law were often all that separated him from the criminals he guarded; what he saw when he glimpsed his reflection in pools and what he saw when he looked at his prisoners – it all blended together. He had no peace in the day, no peace in the night, and labored to convince himself peace was overrated. Now a lifetime of bad choices had caught up with him. He'd been awakened, called back to the job site from a nightmare-troubled slumber. There'd been a disaster. A well-timed tremor had left the roof on the prison, but knocked out every security feature. All on the inside was silent, vacant. He'd surely be found negligent for letting every prisoner get loose. For even one, he could be killed. With a trial, he'd be evicted from his housing, have all assets confiscated, and then die in disgrace. His wife and children would starve in the streets after he was gone.

What could the earthquake be but the wrath of some god? Some obscure deity was vengeful and out for his ruin – and fearsomely efficient. Perhaps the god announced by the most recent arrivals, maybe not charlatans after all, but everything the pint-sized pythoness said, and more. That strange god would now take everything from him, displaying him in public as the failure he always knew he was. That god would cast him into a darker prison than he'd ever overseen. He couldn't bear the shame, couldn't stomach the consequences. But what was left for him to do? Where could he turn for rescue from piercing justice, punishing bosses, and wrathful gods? Where could he run to? What option was left? Everything was too little, too late. He couldn't 'ascend,' couldn't rise out of his situation, couldn't run off and find some last-ditch turnaround. There was only one dignified way he could see now. If not to 'ascend,' then to 'descend' – to the grave, with his sword, and at least spare himself the public humiliation and his family the consequences (Acts 16:27).

Few of us have been in his exact situation. But haven't we, at some time or other, had to admit we were out of ideas and at the end of our rope? That's where all the human condition is lived – at the end of our rope. The only difference is that, every now and then, some disaster piles on, or some awareness clicks in our heads, and makes us admit it for a change. But we come to realize that we're in trouble, that some prison and some wrath are at the door, that we stand at the end of a string of bad choices, that we're on the wrong side of something big, that some radical decision or solution is required.

But where do we go? What do we do? In truth, these days, it's an almost endless buffet of options. People will turn anywhere. A lot of people try the route of descent – going 'down' to look for answers. Maybe we descend into ourselves, turning to deep introspection, to psychological tinkering, to a meditative inner journey to try to ferret out an explanation for why we are who we are. Maybe we pursue the route of materialistic resignation or nihilistic bacchanal – we look for answers, or at least comforting pleasures, in the everyday things of this life and close our minds to any awareness that anything's wrong; we anesthetize ourselves to the wrath to come. Or we try to anesthetize ourselves more literally with drink and drugs, to cloud our minds from the painful reality we're in. Or we try to manage our lives through earthy commonsense wisdom, just like grandpappy used to tell. The avenue of descent. But “who will descend into the abyss” to fetch an answer there (Romans 10:7)?

And then some try the route of ascent – going 'up' or 'around' to look for answers. Maybe we ascend a literal mountain, searching out some great guru whose proverbs can crack open the puzzle that puzzles us. Maybe we go on a spiritual trek, relocate, shake up our lives in hopes that enough disturbance will help things settle into a stable place somehow. Maybe we come up with some pattern, some program, some political agitation that has the offer of a 'heaven on earth' that we can bring down right here: If only we do this, everything will work out fine, we say. Or we invent a self-help program to raise ourselves up by our own bootstraps all the way to heaven's height. But “who will ascend into heaven” to fetch an answer from up there (Romans 10:6)? All these schemes of descent or ascent – in our rare honest hours, doesn't history showcase them all as empty efforts?

As that man knelt long ago, sword in hand, ready to 'descend' to the grave as a last-ditch attempt to escape his problem in a way that's clearly no solution at all – in the moment of distress, as his fingers twitched sweatily on the hilt in the witching hour, he heard a voice from inside the prison he thought vacant, assuring him that there was another way. He doesn't have to ascend to come up with a solution from somewhere 'out there.' He doesn't have to descend to fetch a solution from death. 'Ascending' and 'descending' – those were Israel's questions of old, which they muttered in their deepest selves, in thinking they earned the promised land through their own great triumphs (Deuteronomy 9:4; 30:12-13). No, the real answer, this voice says, is in fact “near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Romans 10:8; cf. Deuteronomy 30:14). Already near. Already open. Already wide. And so the man with the sword dropped it. Let it clang in the dead of night. Ran in and fell down to beg with a burning thirst to know – just as we should – “What must I do to be saved?” – What way is this that's so near, so accessible, so available to even me, even here, even now (Acts 16:30)?

It starts with the heart. Your heart is the center of your self – everything that makes you you. We think today of the heart as where the emotions are, where you feel. Not so much back then when these words were written. It had some of that, but mainly the heart was where you did your deciding, where you committed to what kind of person you would be, where you managed the attachments that define your life. It can soften or harden, turn this way or that, be guarded or forsaken; everything that matters is what comes out of the heart (cf. Mark 7:20-21). Your heart is where you're attached to what matters most to you, and where you decide accordingly; and the rest of your life, so far as it depends on you, is downstream of your heart.

And so the answer we're given is that the first step involves “believing with your heart.” It's just the verb form of having faith. And another way of saying 'faith' is 'trust,' and still another way of saying 'faith' is 'loyalty.' It's about a whole-life disposition – a reliance on and attachment to someone or something, the sort where we anchor the center of our self in it. This is deciding the direction your heart will gush in, the channels its outflow will flow through; and more than that, it gets to what the wellspring is pumping up at the source. To believe in something with your heart begins with deciding that it's the most important thing, your core attachment; it means trusting in it, relying on it, being glued to it at the very control center of you.

So what are we supposed to believe in with our hearts? One word says it above all, here: “Jesus.” Believe in Jesus. Have faith in Jesus. Trust in Jesus, rely on Jesus. Be attached to Jesus, united to Jesus, loyal to Jesus. “Believe in God; believe also in me,” he says (John 14:1). To believe in him changes the heart's output, and he himself said it: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, 'Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water'” (John 7:38).

So what should we believe about Jesus, if we're to believe in him? Well, the key thing is this: “believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead” (Romans 10:9b). Of course, that implies that he was dead. It implies the message of the cross. It implies the story we know: that Jesus was charged, convicted, put to death like a common criminal; that he bore shame and disgrace, that he endured pain and agony, that he suffered and gasped and ultimately his synapses stopped firing, his muscle fibers stopped twitching, his blood drained away through the puncture in his side. And he claimed to do it to carry the weight of all our failure and strain and evil away from us. But then that wasn't the final chapter.

To believe “that God raised him from the dead” is a whole new episode. It implies that after his execution at the hands of the authorized powers of the land, God singled him out as somebody worth keeping. A whole host of teachers, philosophers, prophets, you name it, had come on the earth and gone under the earth – like Shakespeare said, “All the world's a stage, / and all the men and women merely players; / they have their exits and their entrances.” But God refused to budge the spotlight, refused to have Jesus surrender the stage without an encore eternal. He lifted him up, raised him back on, restored him to life. Which implies that God's identity is now fully fleshed-out: he is the 'Jesus-Raiser.' To know who the real God is, to pick him out of a lineup, that's all you need. 'Jesus-Raiser' is a unique and sufficient description, it's all you need to look for on God's ID. God is the sort of God whose defining act is resurrection and who thinks Jesus deserves the spotlight.

So to “believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,” here, means that the center of your self can't be anchored in what you do, what you like, where you come from, where you're going – that's not what anchors, what holds, what glues to your heart. It means that the center of who you are will be anchored in the Jesus who gives God definition as the God of Resurrection, a God to whom crosses are no disqualifier but a qualification.

So what then? What after you believe in your heart? The next organ you'll need is your mouth – your organ of expression, of speech – literally the mouth for most of us, but whatever does the function the mouth signifies, be it hands making signs or fingers clenching pen or hitting keys, or indeed the mouth forming syllables to string together. And what does the mouth have to do? “Confess with your mouth.” It means to align yourself with, to endorse, to declare publicly, to commit yourself publicly, to announce in a binding way.

A lot comes out of our mouths, don't we know it. What are they for, though? What should they be confessing? What should we announce in public, what should we commit ourselves to? Once again: “Jesus.” What about Jesus? We're told elsewhere that “whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:15). Here, we're given the same truth in other words: “Confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9a). But what are we really saying when that confession comes out of our mouth?

A 'lord' has authority to command. A 'lord' has authority to lead, to guide and direct. A 'lord' cannot be traded or amended. A servant can't just swap lords – it doesn't work like that. A servant has no right to just walk away from one lord's service, scot-free, and go to another one. A servant is bound to his or her lord – bound, committed, owned. Nor can a servant ignore with impunity the directions that his or her lord gives, or the way his or her lord wants things done. That's what it means to have a lord: the lord runs the show.

In Roman society, within an extended household of a man and his wife and his children and their servants and their hired help and their animals, it wasn't uncommon for the paterfamilias, the man of the house, to be spoken of as the family's 'lord.' Legally, if not always in practice, he had absolute power there, even over life and death. The family lord runs the house, takes charge, determines the direction of the family business, decides the overall commitments that the household is to have, and enforces their cooperation in the goals he's chosen. And to confess that Jesus is Lord is to yield that role to Jesus – to admit him as the real faultline of all business and all family – to see Jesus as the one who runs our house and determines its direction; Jesus as the one deciding our commitments, both as the overall household of God and as our households at home; to admit that Jesus will enforce our families' cooperation with his goals; to see that our family life, our business life, is centered on him and subject to his jurisdiction.

But in Roman society, there was another big use for the word 'lord.' And it was royal, it was imperial. “Caesar is Lord” was the imperial slogan. The emperor Caligula insisted on being called dominus, 'Lord,' even by Romans, and he tortured and whipped nobles and made senators kiss his feet and ordered even free Romans to act as his slaves. And while most emperors didn't go so far, many were called 'Lord' in common speech; one inscription calls Nero “the Lord of all the world.” The emperor, standing at the political and societal head of the empire, played a role for the empire not unlike a man in his own household. A 'Lord' like the emperor was the defining political figure, and the key member of society. To Roman eyes, society and politics had their center in the emperor, the 'lord,' the first citizen. And to that, we say, in confessing that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus – not Trump, not Clinton, not the donkey or the elephant, not Putin or Kim or Assad or any world leader, not any judge or any senator or any president or potentate – no, Jesus is the real faultline of all politics and all society. Any political discussion that doesn't turn around Jesus, is provincial and irrelevant. Any society not organized around this Lord Jesus must be converted or be consigned to history's wastebin. Any agenda, any nationhood, any activism is judged in light of the Lord Jesus and his methods and his ideals and his Spirit – and all else falls. To confess Jesus is Lord is to put all our political opinions at his feet, to put all of society at his feet, to turn our ballots over to him, to see him as the President and Governor and Judge to whom we must answer above all.

And then, in Roman society, there was still another big use for words like 'lord.' And it was divine. Religious celebrants in the Greek and Roman world could call Zeus “the lord of all” (Pindar, Isthmian Odes 5.53). For one of their gods to be 'lord' meant a mastery and ownership of their whole cosmic domain; it was a claim to be deserving of the devotion and sacrifices of the people. To call a divine figure a 'lord' is to claim them as the proper object of devotion, whom it would be wrong not to worship, give sacrifice, render loyalty and trust for blessings in this world and beyond. Paul dismisses the pantheon of the Greeks and Romans as merely “so-called 'gods' and so-called 'lords'” (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:5), but he insists on announcing that “Jesus is Lord.” In confessing that, we say that Jesus is the real faultline of all religion and all culture. The worth of any religious idea, any religious act, any religious practice, any religious tradition, is how Jesus sees it and how it submits to him. Any religious opinion that doesn't mesh with the Lordship of Jesus is mere profanity. To confess that Jesus is Lord is to put all our religious opinions at his feet, to see all religion and all culture in light of him, to dethrone all celebrities and the other gods of this age in his presence, to render him devoted worship.

And more than that, 'Lord' was the word Greek-speaking Jews used to gloss God's name in the Old Testament. Where Moses and Isaiah and Joel and all the rest had written the mysterious consonants of Yahweh, Hellenized scribes wrote Kurios, 'LORD' – we see it in all-caps in our Old Testament texts. And in context, that's exactly what Paul is applying to Jesus. He ain't just 'Lord' in little letters; he deserves the all-caps treatment. He is the LORD God we meet from Genesis on – not divorced from the Father, but one LORD God with him. To really confess that Jesus is LORD is to reject every theology that carves the Old Testament away or demotes Jesus too low. He is the God of creation, the God who thundered from the mount, the God Isaiah saw encircled by six-winged angels, the God Ezekiel glimpsed on the blazing chariot. That's what we admit when we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord: he's the unmasked face of God's eternal self. And to say all this about a man with crucifixion scars, to say that an executed death-row inmate is not only alive again but is the Lord in all these ways, is to say that the world works nothing like we ever thought it did before.

When did an early believer first start calling on Jesus as Lord, confessing him as Lord in all these ways? In the early church, this was the confession people made at their baptism, and that's what Paul has an eye on here. To be baptized was how believers received the touch and presence of Jesus into their lives – how they were united with him in a death like his, down in the abyss, so that they could rise into a life like his, reserved in the heavens for us, all through a word already near (cf. Romans 6:4). Baptism was no private affair, in the main; it was how believers publicly became part of Jesus' body, publicly became part of his fellowship – by publicly confessing Jesus as Lord and joining him through the water. Baptism is, we're told, a wet and embodied prayer, “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). In baptism is where we who believe get to “call on the name of the Lord” for the new life we could never get on our own.

And Paul writes that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). He says that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart, one believes and is justified, and with the mouth, one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:9-10). And accordingly, when the man who dropped the sword – the Philippian jailer – heard the voice of Paul and Silas from inside the inner cell of his prison, and when he asked them what he had to do to find the way of salvation they said was near, together they answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31) – and so he believed and, to confess, “was baptized at once, he and all his family” (Acts 16:33).

He surely wondered if it could be that simple – if it could be for the likes of a hardened warden like him, for a foreigner like him, for a pagan and an abuser and torturer and killer like him. But Paul says that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). He says that everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” (Romans 10:11). He says that “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same one is the Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (Romans 10:12). For “God is one, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (Romans 3:30). There is here a “righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe; for there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:22-25). Equal terms – to Gandhi and to Dahmer, to Mr. Manson and Mr. Rogers, to Clinton and to Trump, to me and to you, the same terms are open and equidistant, take them or not. This faithful word, this message, this salvation, is “near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Romans 10:8).

Believing, confessing, calling on his name – you can do that as a Jew, and you can do that as a Greek; you can do that on a mountain high, or you can do that in a valley low. The only cure for wrath, the only cure for disgrace, the only cure for missing out and falling short, the only avenue to rescue, is to trust in the Risen One and confess this same Jesus as Lord and to call on him – wherever you are in the world, wherever you are in life, wherever or whoever you've been. And he makes all the saving difference for all what ails you.

If you're here this morning, and you've heard this word, and you realize you haven't believed in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, or you haven't confessed with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, or you haven't offered up that baptismal prayer and so called on the name of this Lord – if you realize you're still missing out – then let's talk it through and get things straightened out. Don't leave, don't balk, don't hesitate. There's rescue for you. And if you're here this morning, and you've heard this word, and you've believed and confessed and called, but you're coming to see what that means in a new light now, then I'd invite you to really explore that – to find out how to believe in the resurrection more fully, how to confess Jesus as Lord more fully, how to call on his name with greater gusto. Be made righteous, and live righteous; be saved, and live saved. “Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). Thanks be to the God of Salvation, the Jesus-Raiser, with his Son and his Spirit – one God, one Lord, world without end. Amen.

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