Sunday, October 28, 2018

Priestly Service: Sermon on Romans 15:7-33

Along a pathway in Jerusalem, an old man, his robes hanging loosely around his thinning frame, leans atop his staff while he slowly walks. His mind is on the troubled but hopeful fate of his people. He's seen too much, he thinks. Glimpsed things he ought not know. In time, the kings will run this city into the ground. Enemies will come and lay it waste. Years will pass. And in God's hands, its fortunes will turn. Beyond the darkness will be light. He knows that. He's seen that, in his mind's eye. Beyond all the darkness, light.

As he gets lost in thought, he stumbles. It's happening to him again. The wind picks up, e'er so subtly; his robe flutters around him, and he clutches his staff all the harder. The road ahead fades from view as his mind falls down the rabbit-hole. Unshakeable feelings dance across his bones. Pictures and symbols flash through his head, like a whispered melody whose fullness he can't grasp, only the rhythm and the gist. But that's enough. He calls for a scribe – his scribes can't be far away; he never leaves home without them. As one rushes to his side, he steadies himself and begins turning his visions into poetry. What does old man Isaiah see?

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you! For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes all around, and see; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from afar, and your daughters shall be carried on the hip. They you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and exult, because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD. All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you; the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall come up with acceptance on my altar, and I will beautify my beautiful house. Who are these that fly like a cloud, and like doves to their windows? For the coastlands shall hope for me, the ships of Tarshish first, to bring your children from afar, their silver and gold with them, for the name of the LORD your God, and for the Holy One of Israel, because he has made you beautiful. Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you; for in my wrath I struck you, but in my favor I have had mercy on you. Your gates shall be open continually; day and night they shall not be shut, that people may bring to you the wealth of the nations...” (Isaiah 60:1-11c).

Oh, for the day when the nations would send their wealth to Zion! Oh, for the day they would approach, having learned the good news! Oh, for the day when they would make Zion's heart thrill and exult! Oh, for the day when even distant Tarshish in Spain will know and come!

Hundreds of years pass since old man Isaiah at last rests his weary bones. Another man sits, lost in thought, in a room in Greece – in the Peloponnese, in the grand city of Corinth. He itches to get on the road. He has places to be, and most certainly things to do. All he really has to do before he and his traveling companions set out is polish off this letter for Phoebe, a merchant from the nearby port town of Cenchreae, to take west to the imperial city when she sallies forth on business. And as Phoebe goes to the imperial city, he himself can go to the holy city for one last crowning achievement before this man of Tarsus aims to reach Tarshish.

This man, Paul, finally has the fulfillment of years of work at his fingertips. Ever since he started his second major tour of the Roman world, announcing good news and planting and nurturing local gatherings devoted to Jesus, Israel's Messiah and the world's Lord, there's been a dream he hasn't been able to shake from his head. If he could just convince these churches – populated as heavily as they are by Gentiles, ex-pagans, people from the 'nations,' to share their wealth! So everywhere he's gone, he's been asking them to set aside funds – every week, if they can – so that, little by little, he can gather it from them, from among these nations, and have it carried to Jerusalem for the impoverished church there. He says as much to his own scribe, who writes: “I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. When, therefore, I have completed this and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you” (Romans 15:25-28).

That's Paul's vision, which he's been cultivating side-by-side with his evangelistic and church planting work for years. Coin by coin, the treasury has finally come together. Churches in each place have appointed people to go with him on the journey, so that together they can keep this prized sum safe and secure. This is what he's been hoping for all along. And it hasn't been an easy sell to the churches by any means. Paul knows that, in every place, Gentiles have always tended to resent the Jewish population for a number of things, but one of the key resentments is the fact that Jews scattered among the Greek cities pay an annual religious tax to the temple in Jerusalem. With so many local temples in need of maintenance, and with tax bills pressing down on the city where they live, Jews insist on snatching wealth out of the local economy and shipping it off to a city in Judaea to support some temple there. A drain on the local economy, is how many Gentiles saw it, to take money that could help with local concerns and send it instead to Jerusalem. And as soon as some of these Gentiles accept the news about Jesus, this Paul guy wants them to start doing something like it – setting aside money that could bolster the local economy and instead committing it to help people in a place they've never seen?

So it's been a hard sell for Paul to get them on board. He sees things differently. These Gentiles struggle to get a grasp on what would connect them to this Jerusalem place and the people who live there. For Paul, it's plain as day. His converts aren't unconnected to Jerusalem and its Jewish world. “Salvation is of the Jews,” the Lord Jesus had said (John 4:22). It was there that the disciples were to wait, and there that they began to bear witness to the risen Christ: “You will be my witnesses,” Jesus told them, “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And for as far as Paul himself has traveled with the gospel – all the way to the fringes of what we'd today call Albania – it's a circuit always anchored to the gospel's home in the holy city where Jesus rose from the dead. “From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum,” Paul says, “I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ” (Romans 15:19). It was through ministry emerging out of that Jerusalem church that anyone in Macedonia or Achaia or Asia had heard the good news. And it was because the good news united them to the promises God had long ago made to Israel, that the good news could be good news to them.

They had received the gospel out of Jewish lips, passed along from the Jerusalem church, some of whom had themselves touched the risen Christ with their hands, smelled his very breath with their noses – and now that church was in poverty and in need of material blessings. But the Jerusalem church is no needy stranger; they're the spiritual benefactors of all the world, wherever the good news has spread through Paul's ministry. So it only seems right, to Paul's mind, to answer sharing with sharing. The Jerusalem church wasn't stingy with their spiritual inheritance – at the very least, Paul had made it his life's work to take that spiritual inheritance and spread the wealth around in the heart of pagan nations by discipling them in the Lord's name. How better to answer that than for the churches among the nations to not be stingy with their material goods, the very thing the Jerusalem church most needed? “If the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also be of service to them in material blessings” (Romans 15:27). Made sense to Paul.

He had worked for years to get the churches he'd planted to understand that point clearly and crisply – for the Greeks and others that he led to Christ to understand that they belong to the same family as the poor saints in Jerusalem. And by making this offering, the Gentile churches were saying that they understood that truth. The same sort of truth that Diaspora Jews confessed when they submitted that temple tax: we are one with you. This money Paul was gathering – the very giving of it was a symbol of recognition that it was indeed into a tree growing from the holy root of Abraham that these Gentile converts had been grafted through union with Christ by faith (cf. Romans 11:13-20). Now Paul just hoped that the Jerusalem church would see that the faith of these Gentiles was enough to fully graft them into the same tree – enough, all on its own, to make them real and equal sharers in Israel's spiritual inheritance. If the Jerusalem church accepted this offering, the way the temple would accept the temple tax from Diaspora Jews, then it meant the Jerusalem church was admitting these Gentile churches as outposts of the same body: equal partners, equal sharers of all spiritual blessings, on the terms of the faith that they obeyed.

Paul hoped it went well. That was the big question on his mind. Through his letter, he asked the churches in Rome to pray: “I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that … my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints” (Romans 15:30-31). If it's acceptable, then that clinches it: the churches in the most quintessentially Gentile places, and the church in the most quintessentially Jewish place, will have both admitted their common spiritual blessings on an equal level. A concrete partnership in Christ between the most Jewish Jewish church and the most Gentile Gentile churches.

And if that works, then... could this, just maybe, be what we've all been waiting for? Paul wonders that. After all, centuries ago, Isaiah the prophet saw... what? Saw glory begin to overtake Israel as wealth from the nations flooded toward Zion, toward Jerusalem. Might it start here? Might it start now? Might this collection be the opening salvo of Isaiah's prophecy? At one time, early in the process, Paul hadn't been sure if he himself would even accompany the funds on their way to Jerusalem (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:4). But now, after thinking about it over and over... how could he not? If this really could be the opening of what Isaiah saw, an offering for God's true temple, the Church, in Jerusalem... How could Paul pass up the chance to himself be the priest mediating that great sacrifice? To be the priest offering the firstfruits of the prophesied 'wealth of the nations' in Zion?

That's how Paul is coming to think of himself, by this stage. He announces in his letter that God had given him grace “to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:16). That's priestly talk. Paul finds himself with a priestly calling to offer up the converted Gentiles as a living sacrifice, which he hopes will be made acceptable through the Holy Spirit's sanctifying power; but not just that, he also imagines himself a priest who brings the financial offering from the Gentiles, a sacrifice consisting of 'the wealth of the nations,' to Jerusalem to present it before God there. He likely hopes to be the priest who offers up the global sacrifice Isaiah saw, or at least the firstfruits of it. And he then hopes to travel to Spain, where he likely believed Isaiah's “Tarshish” was, so that he could reap a gospel harvest among the Gentiles there, too.

Sadly, we don't know for certain if Paul ever reached Spain. Nor do we know, on the way, how the offering was received when Paul finally got to Jerusalem. Paul's later letters have no reason to belabor it, and Luke doesn't talk about this project at all, other than maybe one contested reference. Some scholars conclude that it was rejected. Others think it was accepted and a success, but that Luke just has other reasons not to mention it in his history. What became of Paul's priestly service? At least we know that, however the Jerusalem church reacted to his collection, God received his Gentile converts as an acceptable living sacrifice.

Again, years passed. Twice as many years as separated Isaiah and Paul. That's how much time separated Paul and Martin. Martin Luther. A German monk and professor turned reforming firebrand, five hundred years ago. An imperfect vessel, still, he recovered some needful truths and staked his life for them. Among those truths was the realization of the priesthood of all believers. Priesthood isn't reserved for apostles like Paul or pastors like me, much less to the bishops or the pope in Rome. Priestly service is the calling of every believer, and the priesthood that makes priestly service possible is therefore shared with every believer.

Seeing this, Luther insisted that “we are all consecrated priests by baptism.” It's because the whole church is united by faith to Christ the way a wife is to a husband: that's what baptism is about. “As Christ by his birthright has obtained” the dignities of priesthood and kingship, “so he imparts and communicates them to every believer in him, according to that law of matrimony … by which all that is the husband's is also the wife's. Hence all we who believe on Christ are kings and priests in Christ...” That was one of Luther's keenest insights, right up there with the recovery of justification by faith alone. As we celebrate the anniversary of Luther's Reformation breakthrough this week, this is part of what we're celebrating: the Apostle Paul isn't the only one whose ministry is a priestly service; so is mine, and so also is yours.

When Martin Luther wrote those things, some of those he had in mind were noblemen. Some were soldiers. Some were traveling merchants. Some were cobblers. Some were carpenters. And some were farmers. Luther said that his dream was to work toward a day when a young farmhand would know the scriptures better than all the popes and bishops. He believed that it was possible for a farm boy to not just be a priest, right there amidst his vocation, but to be both a farmer and a well-trained priest, learned in God's word and serving God as a priest right there in the fields among his crops.

Today, here, not too many of us in this congregation are farmers. Some of us have pursued occupations that Luther wouldn't be familiar with. And yet, like our farming ancestors, we set aside a day toward the end of the harvest season, and we celebrate a good harvest. We ourselves may not be the ones out in the field, harvesting crops. But God has provided some level of material blessings to us. In that sense, the 'harvest' has been a good one – sufficient to sustain us. And as a token of thanks, we've brought some 'produce' into the sanctuary this morning. In our case, it isn't fresh fruits and vegetables; it's canned goods and assorted non-perishables. This is the form of our Harvest Home.

Unlike Paul's collection, the goods we've collected here won't go especially far – not in the geographic sense. The food pantry is in our own broad community. The material needs aren't distant from us. And this Harvest Home offering doesn't have the same kind of rich theological significance, the same prophetic import, as Paul's attempts with the collection for Jerusalem. That's true. But Luther would remind us that we're still priests. We offer up a sacrifice, and with it, we minister to the needs around us. And it's only fitting that we share our material blessings, because we've received spiritual blessings from Christ, who bids us give to him by giving to the poor, with whom he identifies: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. … As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:40, 45).

The work Paul was talking about is still going on. He summed up his mission as being “what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience” (Romans 15:18). His gospel was all about Jesus as the risen Lord “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” (Romans 1:5). This gospel revealed long-sealed mysteries that were now to be “made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26).

And we live among those nations. We ourselves, most of us, are 'Gentiles' – 'nationals,' 'ethnics' – descendants of pagan idolaters however far back – and so are the people Paul was given grace and apostleship to reach. To what end? So that, through him, Christ might bring us to obedience – the obedience of faith – by announcing among us the good news that makes it possible. This gospel, spread from that earliest Jerusalem church through Paul's ministry to the churches he founded, and through later generations of priestly believers to the ancient Germanic and Nordic and Anglo-Saxon and Celtic tribes and beyond, have gotten that same good news down to us – so that we, too, might be brought to the obedience of faith as dutiful priests. And part of that priestly obedience is to raise up the priestly service of generous hearts, and to make a priestly offering of material blessings “for the sake of his name among all the nations.”

What we have before us today is such an offering. But not the only one we're to make. We are always priests, making offerings from our wallets as we earn and give, and the sacrifice of praise from our lips as we speak and sing, and the living sacrifice of our bodies as we serve. All of it is a holy calling. May this Harvest Home be acceptable and sanctified. And may the offering of ourselves and of those we can serve and reach also be acceptable and sanctified (cf. Romans 15:16). “May the God of peace be with you all. Amen” (Romans 15:33).

Sunday, October 21, 2018

For Our Instruction: Sermon on Romans 15:1-6

A few years after the close the Second World War, a young Egyptian pharmacist made a drastic decision. He'd graduated from the University of Cairo four years earlier. In those opening years of his career, he'd done quite well for himself. Two pharmacies. Two houses. Two cars. All property of Dr. Youssef Eskander. Seemed like he had all he could want. But he felt a call. There was something more in life. He knew it. He just wasn't ready, wanted to hide from the choice that could cost him everything. Finally, some friends persuaded him to join them in visiting the monastery on the side of a nearby mountain. A famous mountain. Mt. Sinai. Youssef got in the car, and in the early hours of darkness they began to drive up the mountain road. Slowly, Youssef felt an increasing discomfort, and when he yelled for the driver to stop, and he got out and looked, he found that his discomfort had been from God: they were just seconds from driving off a cliff.

Shaken and stirred, it wasn't long before Youssef confirmed his decision. He wanted to know this God who had been such a rescuer to him. But Youssef was so easily distracted by long hours of work, by money's enslaving influence and all the cares of the world. Tormented in his soul, he'd thought about becoming a sailor or a camel-driver. But Youssef resolved for even more simplicity. After consulting an Ethiopian bishop, he committed himself to become a monk. It was August 1948 when he left everything behind – his pharmacies, his houses, his cars – and traded the name 'Youssef Eskander' for a simpler one: 'Matta.' He moved out to the desert to a solitary life. Him, a few other monks, and most importantly, his Bible.

Matta later said that he'd withdrawn from society with his face set resolutely toward his dream, which was the Bible itself and nothing less. The Bible and prayer. He would spend the day reading the Bible, over and over again – sometimes fifty chapters a day. He felt overwhelmed by it, even so – wondering if he could ever come to plumb the depths of the Old and New Testaments in all their splendor, even if he lived the years of Methuselah. And every time he opened it, he would say a prayer. And the prayer went something like this:

O Lord, this Bible was written for me, and it has lasted all this time – close to two thousand years – till I arrived and found it. I thank you, God, that you have brought the Bible all the way to me, and even in printed form! This Bible is mine. All of its books, beginning with Genesis, were written for me. Does it make sense that I die while having not read one of these books? No, Lord. I must read the entirety of both the New and Old Testaments. Abraham is my own father.

Reflecting years later on his journey through the Bible, Matta said that it shook him tremendously – that it was for him, that it revealed his faults and his sins and his soul and his Savior. Looking back years later, Matta said, “In the beginning, the Bible began to open itself to me little by little, and how happy I felt when I found Christ speaking to me through those words! … I sensed that the words were pointed at me; and for the first time, my life began to take shape. My mind took focus; my spirit awakened; and it dawned on me that my salvation and the rectification of my life, its renewal and empowerment, would only come by way of the Bible.”

In those early years, he says, he “made [his] way from book to book,” – that he “passed through the entire Bible, event by event, verse by verse, name by name – and found that it all belonged to me. I also found,” he said, “that I bore a personal relationship to each father and saint in the Bible, even were it only a small one, even if it were only the privilege of loosening his sandal-strap.” Using the only notepad and the only pen in the whole monastery, he underlined verse after verse and took careful notes. What he discovered was that “the only thing that could satisfy was God's Word.” He realized daily “the absolute necessity of reading the Bible.”

The Apostle Paul would've seen eye-to-eye with Matta on this one. In fact, Paul said something not so unlike it himself. In today's passage, listen to what Paul says: “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through encouragement from the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). When Paul opens his Bible, what does he see? What does he want the believers in first-century Rome – this diverse and divided church network, filled with division and condemnation – what does Paul want them to see when they take out their Bibles? What does he want us to see when we grab ours?

The entire Old Testament is covered by that phrase, “Whatever was written in former days,” “As much as was written in the past.” Any passage out of the Old Testament – Paul doesn't want to leave any of it out. And the first thing he sees, no matter where he turns, is this: “instruction.” Teaching, learning, doctrine. It furnishes us with knowledge, with information, that brightens up what's in our heads and filters down through how we live. It's meant to change how the hearer thinks, to give the hearer new pieces of the puzzle or retrieve some that have fallen by the wayside. What sorts of things do we need to learn in life? We need to learn who God is. We need to learn what he's like. We need to learn what he does and what he's done. We need to learn what he wants, and how to do it. We need to learn who he says we are and where he says we went wrong and what he says will fix us and where he says we're going. We need to learn how to respond to the hazards of life, and how to navigate our way through a tricky world. We need to learn about that world, and about the world we're made for. We need to learn how to get where God wants us to go, and how to be what God wants us to be.

To learn all of that, we can't just make it up as we go along. We can't piece together a patchwork of ideas that just instinctively appeal to us. Do that, and madness that way lies. Today in America, there's an epidemic of efforts to each found our own private cult – make up a god who suits our tastes, who reinforces all of our own opinions, themselves swallowed up from popular culture or stewed in the dented pots of our own self-flattery; and by the sputtering flickers of light we generate, we propose to chart our own course deep into the midnight desert that we fancy we can redesign at will. And it's no wonder we get so lost. What we need is to humble ourselves and give attention to the guidebook and survival manual and toolkit, written by an experienced companion who will go with us. This guidebook references timeless features of the terrain; it may require thoughtfulness to observe how other aspects shift, and how to apply its survival techniques in the situations we face. But the guidebook is far more trustworthy than venturing off into the midnight desert blindly. We cannot afford to make it up as we go along. We need to be instructed.

And so Paul explains that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.” Not just to instruct the people of former days, mind you, but “for our instruction.” For Paul and Priscilla and Aquila and Urbanus and Stachys and Junia and Julia and Olympas and all the other Christ-followers in Rome – Paul opens his Bible, and no matter what page it falls to, he's convinced it's there to instruct him and them. And as years pass and generations rise and fall, each can lay claim to that 'our.' Whatever was written way back then, it was written to instruct Justin Martyr and Irenaeus and Athanasius and Augustine; it was written to instruct Patrick and Benedict and Dominic and Francis; it was written to instruct Bonaventure and Aquinas and Palamas; it was written to instruct Luther and Calvin and Zwingli, Cranmer and Wesley and Albright. It was written to instruct believers in Uganda and India and Norway and Brazil and Japan and right here in this sanctuary. That isn't just a side effect; God had one eye on you when he breathed his Spirit into the situation that produced the writing. As the prophet spoke, as the scribe wrote, as the Spirit carried them downstream in the flow of words that were entrusted to scrolls and handed down through thousands of years, God had us right here in mind. We may not be the original audience; we may need to get a grasp on the context they lived in, if we want to really appreciate what's being said, because it's said to us by means of them; but God always meant for it to be passed along to us, because he intended all along to reach us through it – we are why he went to all the trouble.

That means that whatever we open the Bible to, it has some sort of enduring relevance. It may not always be easy to see how. We have to be retrained how to read, retaught how to think. We need the gift of new eyes. Yet it's true. If you open your Bible to Leviticus, which was “written in former days,” Paul will tell you that, yes, Leviticus was written for our instruction – my instruction and your instruction. Open your Bible to Obadiah, and Paul says yes, that too: Obadiah was written for my instruction and your instruction. Same thing holds if your Bible falls open to 1 Chronicles – it's not just that we can get something out of it, but as God inspired it, he purposely made sure that it would be a suitable vessel for carrying his doctrine, his teaching, to you where you are. “For our instruction” (Romans 15:4).

That's a tough pill to swallow, when you really think about it! But Paul wants to give us an illustration himself. To address a situation in first-century Rome, a community made up of almost entirely Gentiles who aren't sold that any part of the Jewish heritage is relevant any more, Paul quotes from a Jewish poem written centuries earlier: Psalm 69. Whenever and wherever exactly it came from, it would have surely been popular during the days of Zerubbabel, the generation freed from exile in Babylon who returned to the ruins of their land. And the first problem they noticed was that Jerusalem was in ruins, the temple of God was in ruins, and something had to be done. So they got to work on rebuilding, but met opposition from the Samaritans. And this psalm was no doubt prayed by some frustrated Jews who were being persecuted for their devotion.

It fits. The singer prays for God to save him from his trouble. He laments, “More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause” (Psalm 69:4). And then he turns to God and says that all the insults he's received, all the shame and dishonor he's bearing under – “It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that dishonor has covered my face. I have become a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my mother's sons. For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me. When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting, it became my reproach. When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them. I am the talk of those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards made songs about me” (Psalm 69:7-12). He's saying that, out of love for God and out of love for his temple, he's stepped in to act like a human shield, to stand before God's glory and absorb all the staining insults and mockery that the godless are shooting out against God and against his 'house,' the temple. All this devotion, acts of love for God, puts the target on the psalmist's chest – but while it greatly distresses him, and he wants God to rescue him, he'd rather absorb those insults, that dishonor, that shame, rather than let it fall on God's glory on on God's temple.

When Paul reads that, he knows who it's really trying to reveal. Whoever wrote the psalm, they wrote it – no matter if they even knew it or not – to give voice to the heart of Jesus. If the psalm was popular in the days of Zerubbabel, it's nonetheless the song of Jesus right here. It's no surprise that later lines from the same psalm are applied to the crucifixion: “I looked for pity, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none. They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink” (Psalm 69:20-21; cf. Mark 15:36). This is a song of the Messiah, who steps in between God and sinners to absorb every insult against God or against the temple that the Messiah is building for God: the church. Every reproach against God's glory, every indirect reproach against God's glory via demeaning his temple – Jesus is so full of zeal for the temple, his Father's house, the church, that he steps in and can say to his Father, “The reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me” (Psalm 69:9). And reproaches against the temple are reproaches against its God. Which means that the reproaches we turn against each other, the times we condemn and insult and judge and despise each other – those, in taking aim against parts of God's temple, are insults that the Messiah intercepts, a burden of shame he takes up and bears through his cross, and one we ought not to keep piling higher.

So Paul quotes that half-verse – “The reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me” – and knowing how to read the psalm rightly, he's found it just dripping with Christ. And the lesson he takes is wonderfully understated. If the Messiah dedicates himself to the painful and agonizing task of being a human shield for God and his temple, and intercepting all the insults, and bearing reproach and dishonor and shame for God's sake – if that's what the Messiah does, the very least you can say is that “the Messiah did not please himself” (Romans 15:3). That's an understatement! The Messiah we meet in Psalm 69, the Jesus who prays this prayer, is not one who's trying to satisfy all his cravings. He's not chasing worldly prosperity. He's not flattering himself. He's not putting his own desires first. He's not out to 'live life to the fullest,' in anything like a twenty-first-century American sense, or even a first-century Roman sense, for that matter. For the sake of his Father, and for the sake of the temple he's built for his Father's Spirit to indwell, he's dedicated himself to carrying shame – and that is definitely not a self-pleasing lifestyle.

If the Messiah's going to live that way, what does that say to the arrogant Romans, who occupy themselves in judging or despising or resenting their fellow believers who follow different customs? “We who are 'strong,'” Paul says, “have an obligation to bear with the failings of the 'weak,' and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, for upbuilding” (Romans 15:1-2). They should be shocked that all their strife, all their efforts to puff themselves up as better than one another, has amounted to a messy war amidst which Jesus has placed himself as a human shield. The reproaches fell on him, since he didn't please himself. And neither should we be focused on pleasing ourselves. Instead of reinforcing our opinions, instead of patting ourselves on the back, instead of surging ahead and leaving the rest behind or casting them aside as disposable, we're supposed to help build their house – to support them, to carry some of the weight, to lend a helping hand, to do good to them in a way they can receive and approve and be pleased by. In building them up, we build up God's temple. That's a different kind of church atmosphere. That looks a lot more like the Jesus of Psalm 69.

And isn't it amazing where Paul gets this? Here's a church network in his day that's dealing with a specific sort of situation totally unique among all churches in the world at the time. Nowhere else is there such a thing as a Gentile-majority church. No other city has this many local church gatherings – dozens of them, even when Paul writes. In no other place is there so much diversity among Christians as in the Rome Paul's writing to. It's a weird new world for Paul. And yet he dives into the pages of his Bible, into writings from the distant past before Paul's great-great-grandparents were born, and he surfaces with just the instruction that can change everything. Because Psalm 69 was written long in advance to teach the first-century Roman Christians what the Messiah would be like, and how to be like him. And that's the heart of everything we need to learn in life.

In that psalm, a song probably sung in the sixth century BC and maybe even older still, what we meet is nothing less than the vivid, life-changing, church-building spirituality of Jesus Christ today – his living and active presence here and now among us, vibrant and sorrowful and zealous for us as his Father's house. The living Christ abides in Psalm 69, which is written for our instruction. Go anywhere in Paul's Bible, and you'll find that Paul was right, and Matta was right: it's written for our instruction now. So how could we not yearn to read it all, again and again, and learn for today and tomorrow?

Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.” To what effect? What help can biblical instruction give us? “That through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). Through the Bible, God will equip us with endurance. Patience. The ability to last in trying circumstances, to persevere and make it through. Faced with the cross, faced with the mocking reproach of the crowd, Jesus needed to endure. And Paul says Jesus got that endurance out of Scripture, out of Psalm 69. When we're put in a bind, when we're tested and stretched thin by the challenges of life in the world, when we're in need of some training to hold out longer and resist the pressure and keep our head above the floodwaters – Paul says God has endurance to give you, and it comes through the Bible.

Learn how to read the Bible the right way – not just pecking kernels along the surface, but digging for the reservoirs of Christ in each page – and you wouldn't believe how much raw strength can surround you and defend you and equip you to endure. Because all these things, written over two thousand years ago, are finely tuned and specified to train you with exactly what you need to know to outlast whatever trial you're facing right now, and whatever challenge will surface tomorrow.

And then, through the Bible, God will offer us encouragement. Consolation. Comfort. The soothing message of a personal advocate and close companion. When we're downtrodden, when we're discouraged, when we're hurting and wounded and traumatized, when we're tempted and confused and in need of advice, when we're in the cold midnight of life and shivering and need a warm embrace and a kindly word, God reaches out from the Bible. That's what Paul's saying. The aid, the comfort, the exhortation you need – God will give it to you, and it comes through the Bible. In your struggling hour, God offers you comfort and reassurance through scripture. In your grieving hour, God offers you comfort and reassurance through scripture. In your lonely hour, God offers you comfort and reassurance through scripture. In even your dying hour, God offers you comfort and reassurance through scripture.

The function of all this endurance and encouragement is to give fresh birth to hope in us. That's what Paul says. Hope is a major theme of Romans. Abraham isn't offered just the father of all the faithful; he's the example of hope, a radical hope that God's wildest promises are true: “In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, 'So shall your offspring be'” (Romans 4:18). Hope is what will outlast all our reproaches and dishonor: “Endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:4-5). Hope stretches beyond the borders of Israel, and takes formerly hopeless pagans and writes them a new future in Christ: “In him will the Gentiles hope” (Romans 15:12). Hope points us to a new creation filled with freedom and light: Paul speaks of a “hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:20-21). Hope points us to our new selves in the new creation: “We wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies, for in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we don't see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:23-25). What we hope for is nothing less, Paul says, than God's own glory: “we rejoice in hope of the glory of God,” based on a Christ-given “access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:2). God commands us to “rejoice in hope” (Romans 12:12), and this very “God of hope” aims to “fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13). All that, God aims to do in you through all the things that are already written in the Bible.

You have a new future in Christ to look forward to, a new creation waiting at the door, a new freedom you can't even imagine. That's hope. All you have to do is outlast this short night. That's endurance. And for every cold and chilling breeze that chatters your teeth in grief or loneliness or trial, there's the warmth of encouragement and comfort to surround you. To get all this, you don't need to journey to some far-flung mountain, or meditate on foreign mysticism, or leap through rings of fire. It's buried in your Bible in endless abundance. Swing your pick-axe anywhere, do some digging, and it'll come bubbling up and gushing out.

What's more, the hope that springs out of this endurance and encouragement has its own purpose. By looking ahead to a new future in Christ in a new creation with a new freedom, by focusing our attention on the Messiah, God will enable us to “live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5-6). We will learn to all sing the same song in harmony. Whether our background is Gentile or Jewish, whether our customs mark us as 'strong' or 'weak,' whether we sing baritone or soprano, Paul envisions a harmony, a unity, as we sing a chorus with Jesus, as we match our voices to his. Where do we find his voice? Scripture. And what does our song with Jesus do? It glorifies God his Father.

How often do we think of the Bible as a unifying force? In today's age, we're almost accustomed to mistaking the Bible for an agent of division. We can so easily split hairs over different interpretations of this theme or that theme, this verse or that verse, and the proliferation of opinions threatens to throw us off the hermeneutical cliff and render us paralyzed to find meaning. Paul doesn't see it that way. Certainly, there will be differences in some matters of application. There will be a variety of opinions on an assortment of details. As we heard last week, Paul stresses charity for the diversity of customs and opinions on some of those matters. But, he says, if you really read the Bible for endurance and encouragement and hope, if your desire is to praise God and glorify him forever, then when you go digging in the scriptures, you won't get sidetracked by analyzing soil samples endlessly or throwing rocks at each other; you'll just be digging 'til you hit Christ.

And if you aim for all things to be in harmony with the multifaceted Jesus revealed by each chapter, our chorus of many tones will glorify God with one voice. After all, like Psalm 69 says: “I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving. … Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them. For God will save Zion...” (Psalm 69:30, 34-35). That's the goal: for universal glory to God to overflow the temple for which the Messiah was filled with zeal. And all the sweep of all scripture was given for our instruction to provide the endurance and encouragement that fixes in us a common hope for which we can sing together. May you be able to say, like Matta – Fr. Matthew the Poorthese words: “My joy in the Word is that it was to me a parent, a guide, an instructor, and a reliable physician. It has truly penetrated me like a sword and excised the cancers. The Word is living and powerful! If you receive it, you will be filled with grace upon grace. But if you live without it, you will ever live in blindness. … Never in my life have I found such a helper and guide as the Bible. One must bow one's head before it in utter submission, just as one bows before a celestial king.” Abba Matta was right. Whatever was written before, was written for him – and you.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

To the Lord, Not You: Sermon on Romans 14:1-12

Hey, get a load of this. You all know CNH, right? Case New Holland? Remind me – raise your hand if you ever worked there. Yep, okay, so picture this. Let's say there's this fellow named George. And he's a business systems analyst. Where's his office? (CNH Technical Center.) Alright, so George is in the office. He's minding his own business. He's doing his work. All of a sudden, this other guy walks over to him. That guy's name is Hank. George doesn't really know Hank. Hank doesn't even work in the same building. Hank's from the maintenance department. He spends a lot of his time over at the plant, doing everything from to servicing the machines to cleaning the bathrooms from time to time. But here Hank is, bumping shoulders with one of the business systems analysts. And Hank asks if George has a moment to talk.

So the two of them find a place nearby with a couple chairs to sit down. Got a picture of the scene? Oh, and Hank's carrying a briefcase, which doesn't seem quite in character. But he opens the briefcase and pulls out some forms. Where he got them is anybody's guess. And Hank says to George something like this: “Now George, I've had my eye on you, and I've been a bit concerned about how things have been operating around here. So I think it's high time I sat you down for a thorough performance evaluation; it really is overdue. I hope you'll be cooperative, because I'm facing a difficult decision whether to keep you on.” That's what Hank says to George. Okay, now let me ask you: That scenario I'm describing – can you see anything wrong with that? It's a serious question; let's hear some answers. (George doesn't work for Hank.)

Exactly right: George doesn't even work for Hank! There is nothing about Hank's job, there's nothing in Hank's role at the company, that would authorize him to carry out a performance evaluation of another employee or to exercising hiring or firing power; much less an employee who works in a different department. George is a fellow employee, not an underling. And now let's take it a step further. Imagine that Hank launches into his line of questioning, and starts evaluating George as if he were a maintenance worker. Now, there are a lot of things that CNH probably expects of employees in general, regardless of department. But when you get down to the details, those are two pretty different jobs for the company. Measure George like a maintenance worker, and he's going to come off not looking so swell. If the tables were turned and George tried to evaluate Hank like an analyst, Hank wouldn't look too great, either. Their jobs come with different sorts of customs, even if both are trying their best to make the company a success. But neither's got authority to treat the other like an underling. George's response here to Hank would be to say, “Excuse me, buddy, but I don't work for you.”

The picture Paul paints of the situation in Rome isn't so different from that crazy scenario. We've heard already about some issues in the Roman churches because of Gentile Christians looking down on Jewish Christians who had been exiled for five years and only back in the city for maybe three. And now we find out that there's a big divide laid over top of that one, which is similar but not quite the same. Move around among the Roman church meetings, and you'll find that not everybody agrees, even in the same church, on a few things. Rome's a diverse place for Christians. And I'm not talking about disagreement on the fundamentals – they're all on board with that. I'm not talking about any significant doctrines, or even major questions of Christian ethics. But there are some other customs and other matters of conscience where they're not seeing eye to eye, and they're forming factions over it.

Take, for example, what to eat. There are some believers in Rome who look at themselves as 'strong.' And they don't bother with the old dietary restrictions you'd find in Leviticus. They have the confidence to eat foods that used to be considered unclean as well as foods that used to be considered clean – the typical Roman menu is no obstacle to them. But then there are other believers in Rome – the ones the strong look down on as 'weak.' And they aren't ready to move beyond those dietary restrictions yet. For them, there's something unsafe about it – and they don't know where to get good kosher meat, so they stick to a vegetarian diet just to be sure (Romans 14:2). When Roman Christians get together for a fellowship meal, the 'strong' are rolling their eyes when they see the 'weak' heading to the salad bar again and again, and the 'weak' are muttering under their breath at the compromises the 'strong' have made to justify eating the meat available in the market.

What's more, they can't even agree on how their calendars should work. Some folks in the Roman church – the 'weak' – want to keep observing the rhythm they grew up with – sabbaths every week, and assorted Jewish holidays here and there. Or, maybe, a few of the Gentile believers still think in terms of the lucky or unlucky days of Roman astrology, and instinctively treat them different. Whereas those who think of themselves as 'strong' say, “What's the big deal? A day is a day – just treat each day like the one before it” (cf. Romans 14:5a). So they aren't seeing eye-to-eye; and what's worse, the 'strong' are dismissive of those they see as 'weak,' making fun of them for their extra scruples, while those same so-called 'weaker' ones are judging the 'strong' for all the stuff they see no problem with. Without even realizing what they're doing, Paul sees them trying to administer performance evaluations to each other (cf. Romans 14:3).

And Paul sees a huge problem with that. As usual, his case turns around the gospel. Paul reminds the Roman believers of the story they should all know by heart: “Christ died and lived again” (Romans 14:9a). On behalf of the God who aimed to welcome sinners and show life-changing hospitality to them, Jesus Christ – the Word of God spoken in human flesh – allowed himself to be taken to a hill outside Jerusalem, having been beaten and mistreated and abused, and let himself be nailed to a cross between a pair of terrorists. He let himself be classed with and treated like a criminal, and ultimately put to death. Christ has died. But that wasn't the end of the story the Roman believers, whether Jew or Gentile, whether 'strong' or 'weak,' had come to hear about Jesus. So far from being the end, it was scarcely the start. Because on the third day, the tomb was empty. And it was because Jesus had stopped being dead. He'd left the world of the dead behind and broken through to a new kind of life – real, bodily life, resurrection life, life in the fullest sense the word has ever carried, life like this world doesn't even know yet! Christ is risen.

Why? Why did he die and live again? We know one answer Paul gives: that Jesus was “delivered up for our trespasses” – that's his death – “and raised for our justification” – that's his new life (Romans 4:25). It was for our benefit, to deal with our trespasses and to justify us. But in today's passage, Paul gives a different answer: “For to this end Christ died and lived again: that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Romans 14:9). Because Jesus has taken charge in both places, the world of the dead and the world of the living, he's got a total Lordship over both. And those are really the only two options, aren't they? Jesus is Lord if you're alive, and he's just as much Lord if you're dead or dying! Neither is outside his purview. Got a question about how you should be living? You'd better consult Jesus – he's Lord of the living. Got a question about what comes after death? Better consult Jesus – he's Lord of the dead, too. Life and death are completely in his hands. So Paul can say that “if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's” (Romans 14:8). If you're alive, you're living in light of Jesus Christ being Lord over the living. If you're not alive, or soon not to be alive, you're not leaving Jesus' jurisdiction one bit, and you'll answer to him in death or dying just as much as in life or living. Nothing we do in life or in death is self-defined: “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself” (Romans 14:7). Life and death aren't self-employment gigs. Jesus is Lord.

Paul lays that foundation so we'll get this point: If Jesus is Lord over the whole realm of the living and over the whole realm of the dead, if Jesus is the reference point of life and death itself, how much more must Jesus be the reference point for petty things like what we eat and what we drink and what kinds of calendars we use and whatever else we can come up with?

So in Rome, people labeling themselves as 'strong' have been lording it over those they call 'weak,' and these others 'weak in faith' have been judging the liberties seemingly taken by the 'strong' who aren't troubled by so many bonus scruples. And Paul says, “Y'all cut that out right now! Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother?”, Paul asks. They're equals. “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10). “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls” (Romans 14:3-4). See, he says, the folks with dietary restrictions or special holidays or whatever other custom – they don't work for the 'strong,' they work for Jesus and his Father. And God has welcomed them. And the others, the folks who feel free to eat anything and treat all days the same – they don't work for the 'weak,' they work for Jesus and his Father. And God has welcomed them, too.

It's like George and Hank. Hank's got no business giving George a performance review – George doesn't work for Hank, he works for someone else! And if the tables were turned, it'd be just as wrong. Who is Hank to pass judgment on somebody else's employee? Hank's take on George's performance is irrelevant; what matters is how George's boss sees his work – that's what decides if George stands or falls. And just the same, Mr. Strong and Mr. Weak are fellow employees of the same Heavenly Boss. They're on the same level. And none has any business trying to despise or judge or boss around the other. It doesn't matter what Mr. Weak thinks of Mr. Strong, or what Mr. Strong thinks of Mr. Weak; it matters what the Boss thinks about each. Performance review is not our purview.

That blows the whole thing wide open. The 'weak' don't answer to the 'strong'; they answer to Jesus. And then the 'strong' don't answer to the 'weak'; they answer to Jesus. What matters is the performance evaluation Jesus gives. “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, 'As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.' So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:10-12). And you know what that Boss may take into consideration? Trying to meddle in the work of his office by carrying out unauthorized performance reviews. Hence why Paul tells each group to knock it off. The Heavenly Boss is the host of the company dinner, and whomever he welcomes, the other guests have no right to try to kick out.

So Paul tells the believers to keep gathering together for fellowship – but to quit badgering each other, mocking each other, judging each other, interrogating each other, when they gather (Romans 14:1). Instead of rejecting each other, they should take a charitable view toward the other side's customs: maybe, even though they do something different, they've got the same motive: to glorify God. “The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Romans 14:6). The meat-eater in the Roman churches gives thanks to God for the food; he's trying to glorify God in what he's eating; and that's all the vegetarian at the next place setting needs to know. And the vegetarian who couldn't eat that meat in good conscience without thinking where it comes from – well, he gives thanks for his salad greens, he wants to glorify God, and that's all the carnivore chowing down on a steak needs to know. Recognizing that, both can move forward in love to try to make things easier for each other to stomach (Romans 14:13-23).

These days, in today's churches, we've got plenty of diversities in our customs – and again, I'm not talking about key doctrines of the faith, I'm not talking about the clear spots of biblical morality, I'm talking customs and opinions. Some, like in Rome, revolve around what's for lunch. Some Christians eat all kinds of stuff; some are pescatarians who leave out all meat but fish; some are vegetarians; some are even vegans. Some Christians go with a gluten-free diet. Some Christians have assorted food allergies. (I used to go to a church in Kentucky where so many people had food allergies of one kind or another that at church potlucks, each dish was clearly labeled with any possible allergen so nobody took the wrong thing for them.) And then different cultures bring different kinds of cuisine – some I like, some I don't, and your tastes may be different from mine. Paul would just tell us that whichever diet we've got, be thankful to God and honor him with every bite on your plate.

And then, not unlike Rome, we have different customs in our calendars. There are some churches who follow the Puritans in rejecting holidays like Christmas and Easter. Remember those Pilgrims way back when? The Thanksgiving guys? Yeah, they not only refused to celebrate Easter, they actually passed laws fining people for celebrating Christmas. Years ago I talked with one pastor who tried to imitate them; he said that in his church, they celebrated the resurrection of Jesus every day and saw no need for Easter. Our church, needless to say, follows a different practice. But that pastor's goal was to honor the Lord without special holidays; and if God welcomes him, my input isn't needed. Just the same, our goal is to honor the Lord with special holidays like Christmas and Easter; and if God welcomes us, the Puritan's input isn't needed.

Or think of this one: In some churches, the Christian calendar is basically reduced to Christmas and Easter; other seasons need not apply. But in other churches, they make a bigger deal out of practices like Advent and Lent. And the closer you get to the Catholics or the Orthodox, the more other kinds of holy days will start cropping up – feasts and fasts of every kind, commemorating saints and biblical events and everything you could dream of. Some of those things, we in this church celebrate; some, we don't. Other churches may vary. And even in this church, how I observe it and how you observe it may look different. But our job isn't to nitpick each other's customs. It's to honor the Lord in whichever approach we're convinced is good.

Let's take it further. One of those extra celebrations in Western Christianity has been All Saints' Day, which long ago got pinned to November 1 as a general celebration of all the saints and martyrs and confessors. The night before it was celebrated with a vigil: All Hallow's Eve. Today, with its popular celebration being derived from the Christian vigil and various Irish and German practices, we call it Halloween. And boy are we Christians good at fighting over whether we can or can't celebrate Halloween, and how! Paul might stress to do nothing you can't do in honor of the Lord, and then to think through your own convictions and follow them, and to leave the performance review of those who differ to God. Because those whose customs differ from yours – well, they answer to the Lord, not to you.

Besides food and calendar, there are other customs where we might differ. Paul hints another difference in Rome was that some folks refused to “drink wine” and others didn't (cf. Romans 14:21). How to deal with the question of alcohol is a longstanding debate in the church. When I was in seminary, the school's president told a story about how, when he was young, he came from a tradition that avoided alcohol, but he was studying in Scotland and staying with this staunch Scottish Presbyterian woman. In her tradition, there was a big taboo against music in church – that was a big no-no. But she had a shot of whiskey every night before bed, because that wasn't a taboo in her church circles. The EC Church has long had that taboo. Up until just the other year, if you were an EC Church member and you drank even a sip of alcohol, you were violating the oath you swore before God when you became a member. We took a totally hardline stance. Now our Discipline has eased off a bit: it recommends total abstinence from alcohol, but doesn't command it. We know the Bible forbids drunkenness (Isaiah 5:22; Romans 13:13), and we also know that Jesus turned water into wine and that beer was one of the required offerings the Israelites gave to God (John 2:1-11; Numbers 28:7). How we reason through the issue may differ, and our customs may differ. What matters is that we honor the Lord and that we love each other too much to make each other stumble (Romans 14:20-21).

On plenty of other customs and opinions, believers differ. For instance, tattoos. Some Christians are against tattoos; others bear one or more themselves, and we have such in the church today. A century ago, I bet you'd be hard pressed to find any tattooed believers in this church. Now, things are different. Some believers will still consider tattoos something they just couldn't settle their conscience with; others see no problem. We may well differ. What matters is that we honor the Lord and welcome each other in love. We may prefer different styles of music – I doubt what you listen to is something your great-grandparents would've been comfortable listening to, and maybe some of your grandkids like styles of music you think is just noise. My own playlists tend to be filled with a mix of old hymns and heavy metal. Our customs may differ. What matters is that we each honor the Lord in the music we listen to, and that we welcome each other in love. We may have different ideas of how certain things ought to be done. The list could really go on and on. But you know by now what matters: that we honor the Lord and welcome each other in love.

Because, in the end, if the person next to you in the pew is vegetarian or a meat-eater, if they observe Lent or Halloween or none of the above, if they have beer in their fridge or tattoos on their biceps or not, if they listen to country or metal, if they like traditional hymns or more contemporary music – they're accountable to the Lord about it, not to you. We hold each other accountable where God has clearly and definitively spoken – which is a lot of things – but when it comes to matters of inference and deduction, of custom and opinion, our job is not to review each other's performance, but to get ready for our own review at God's judgment seat. So whatever it is you do, think carefully about it. Think reflectively about it. Act out of firm conviction; like Paul says, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5b).

Remember who the Lord is you answer to. It's the Lord who was born in Bethlehem, a guest in a local common home, undecorated and unadorned. It's the Lord who submitted to baptism by his cousin John, not because he had any particular love of the river or any particular need for it himself, but because he wanted to fulfill all righteousness for you. It's the Lord who preached the Sermon on the Mount, and who taught in parables, and who worked wonders. It's the Lord who challenged the Pharisees and the scribes and the chief priests for the countless burdensome rules they loaded on people's backs, but who also cherished the deep wisdom underlying the Law he himself gave to Moses long before. It's the Lord who accomplished his victory, not by bending other people to his will, but by taking on the form of a servant and becoming obedient all the way up the road to Calvary. It's the Lord who's Lord both of the dead and of the living, and who himself, once dead, now is living evermore.

He's the judge of life and death; he's the judge of each custom and each opinion. It's to him that you and your neighbor will have to explain why you stuck with a custom or opinion, adopted a custom or opinion, or rejected a custom or opinion. He'll tell you whether you made a fair call. But most of all, he'll judge whether you treated your fellow servants, your brothers and sisters, well; whether you welcomed them as he welcomed them; whether you loved them as he loved them. He's the one you'll think of as you do all things “in honor of the Lord” (Romans 14:6). So when it comes to what's clear and central, encourage and exhort each other in love; but when it comes to customs and opinions, think carefully, follow your conviction, and leave others to God's verdict (Romans 14:4a). And remember that God takes an interest in seeing you – and them – stand, and not fall (Romans 14:4b). He doesn't want to see anybody flunk – not George, not Hank, not me, not you. Honor him, follow him, focus on him, and he'll make sure you stand. Because Jesus is Lord. Amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Nearer and Nearer: Sermon on Romans 13:11-14

It was a fairly typical night in the midst of first-century Rome. In one of the crowded tenement districts, the local popina – the wine bar – was doing thoroughly good business. A bustling place, customers were drinking freely their cares away after a long day's thankless work. Not a few were utterly inebriated, now that the night was so far gone. The sounds of dice cracked through the establishment; gamblers yelled and wept and raged. Drunks cursed each other out, threw punches, staggered into the streets. One led a barmaid out back as her shift ended; others were similarly enticed by the lures of the brothel down the street, which certainly sent its representatives to solicit in the bar. Over there, a couple men scrawled obscene graffiti, leaving reviews of the salacious services they'd received. Back in the popina, those less occupied with lust let greed or anger rule the roost. Even the emperor in disguise slipped in and out of the popina that night, stirring up a fight for his amusement and moving on to some petty burglary elsewhere. Like I said: a typical night in ancient Rome. Gambling, drinking, fighting, cursing, adultery, lewdness, crime – nightlife.

Across the city, in one of the more upscale districts, slaves, clients, and friends gathered at a larger estate to attend a banquet in honor of their patron's birthday. The friends reclined in the triclinium, the room of three couches, while the clients ate in the atrium and the slaves served. Entertainment abounded: flute-girls, dancers, hired women. After the dessert course, the tables had been taken away; the wine that had been consumed all through supper now became the central focus. Guests traded barbed jests as they drank themselves more and more toward oblivion; they played drinking games, like flinging the dregs of a cup of wine toward a target in the middle of the room; they talked, they laughed, they sang, they squabbled; they enlisted the services of the entertainers and slaves, grown women and younger boys, in assorted lewd ways best left undescribed. Such was a not untypical convivium, the drinking-party that ended any good banquet – nightlife in the comforts of home for the Roman upper-class.

All that, in the poorer districts and the wealthier districts, was normal nightlife, accepted practice, in ancient Rome during the night. As the dozens of small Roman churches met to read Paul's letter during their Sunday evening communion and fellowship meals, not a few of the believers attending were newer converts whose nights had, until quite recently, included just such things. Some had frequented the bars and brothels. Others, the richer sort, had perhaps thrown banquets and drinking parties in their own home. Still others, clients of pagan patrons, were obligated to attend such parties; and still others, Christian slaves, may have not only had to work at such parties, but were expected to make themselves available for certain kinds of services. For those in any of these situations, all this sort of nightlife was normal; it was what they were used to; it continued to be a temptation, and maybe some sought to replicate it as they gathered with other believers for bread and wine.

So it isn't much surprise that the various things characteristic of Roman nightlife are the very things Paul takes pains to list. He gives three pairs of habits to break free from: literally, “carousings and drunkennesses; beddings and debaucheries; strife and zealotry” (Romans 13:13). Paul names the drinking habits, the sexual habits, the honor-seeking and rivalry and abusive habits endemic to Roman nightlife for rich and poor alike. He calls them out as examples of “the deeds of darkness” (Romans 13:12) – behavior typical of the night. Paul says in another one of his letters, “Those who sleep, sleep at night; and those who get drunk, are drunk at night” (1 Thessalonians 5:7).

Night has always, throughout history, been a time of mystery and danger when people did the things they'd never dare do in the light of day. I read a social history of night in pre-industrial Europe once, and not only was the night filled with tragedy as people struck their heads on signs and fell into holes, but the same sorts of drinking and adultery and fighting ran rampant; vandals and thieves and rioters and burglars were commonplace, sometimes disguising themselves as ghosts or demons, invoking dark magic to aid their wicked quests; and plenty more. “Deeds of darkness” – if you were here last week, you remember the story of a pair of serial arsonists in Virginia just a few years ago – and those fires were always set at night, under cover of darkness, because they were “deeds of darkness.” Perhaps most of us aren't tempted by drunkenness or debauchery, burglary or arson. But even in 2018, even in the church, there may be things we'd do under cover of night when we think no one's watching that we'd never dare do in the light of day and if we thought ourselves to be in plain view. Such are “the deeds of darkness.” What behaviors do we reserve for the times when darkness gives us cover from public scrutiny?

Whatever it is, Paul tells his churches, cast it aside, like you throw aside your blankets when you get up in the morning: “Let us cast aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). Not only should we not let it infect our gatherings as a church, our fellowship, our communion, but we should throw off all the typical nightlife behaviors entirely. Why? Because, Paul says, just look at God's clock! The alarm is sounding; it's well past time to wake up; so throw off those sheets and get dressed! “Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thessalonians 5:8).

In Paul's world, people typically went to bed earlier and then awoke with the first rays of light, before the sun had truly dawned over the horizon. People still in bed, wrapped up under the covers, when the sun fully rose were considered lazy layabouts. And Paul is saying, “Hey, look at God's clock! Glance out the window! The first rays are already shining – have been since that first Easter morning. The full dawn is approaching, nearer and nearer. Night is a fading and obsolete thing, succumbing to the daylight. So it's time to put away night-time things and begin acting appropriately for the day.” Like Paul says, “You know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. … The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So, then, let us cast aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime...” (Romans 13:11-13).

The inaugural rays are already beaming, brightening the sky, shedding light on the world. Night is coming to an end, and to keep clinging to the night is a fool's errand. Which means all those nightlife behaviors – their time is over and done. The time for drunkenness – over and done. The time for abusive jokes and mockery – over and done. The time for adultery and promiscuity and lewdness and all sexual immorality – over and done. The time for gambling and brawling – over and done. The time for rivalry and competition, for self-serving and fight-picking – over and done. The time for anything you wouldn't want to be caught doing – over and done. It no longer finds a place, because the darkness is succumbing to daylight. No more nightlife. There's no longer any time to “make … provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14). That's the sort of thing nightlife has always been about – to claim the carnal satisfactions we restrain when people are watching. But no more. “Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires,” Paul says.

Instead, “let us walk properly as in the daytime” (Romans 13:13). Walk properly, walk appropriately, walk decently, walk respectably, live in the ways you aren't ashamed to live when you're in broad daylight and public view. All those things that belong under cover of darkness – toss them aside, and get up and get dressed. Get dressed up like an actor assigned to portray Jesus – “put on,” or 'clothe yourself with,' “the Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul writes (Romans 13:14). It's time to get into your role. Which you can't play in your pajamas. Or curled up in bed, trying to push snooze and cling to the things of night.

No more trying to push snooze. No more nightlife. That time is past. God's clock never stopped. That's what Paul wants these Roman believers to know. God's clock didn't stop the moment in the middle of the darkness, to let the night of the world go on forever. God's clock didn't stop right after Easter, so that the first rays of light say nothing of a coming dawn and its day. God's clock didn't stop. Time keeps ticking on. The dawn grows nearer and nearer. So nightlife gets more irrelevant by the moment. Drunkenness gets more inappropriate by the moment; sexual immorality of every stripe gets more inappropriate by the moment; abusive jokes get more inappropriate by the moment; fights and squabbles and quarrels get more inappropriate by the moment; so does rivalry and competition and partisanship and all the other “deeds of darkness.” The closer dawn gets, the more they stop making sense for us to cling to. You have to “know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11).

When we first believed, the light was still dimmer. But God's clock keeps ticking. When we first believed, midnight was still more recent. But God's clock keeps ticking. When we first believed, dawn was still a more distant hope. But God's clock keeps ticking. Dawn keeps getting nearer and nearer. There's a day coming, and it'll bring a new creation. There's a day coming, and it'll end all pain and all tears. There's a day coming, and on it Jesus will return, and we'll see him face-to-face and know him just like he knows us, and will see him for just who he is (1 Corinthians 13:2; 1 John 3:2). There's a day coming, and fruit from the tree of life is on the lunch menu (Revelation 22:2). There's a day coming, and the wolf and the lamb will lie down together, and even little children will lead them around (Isaiah 11:6). There's a day coming with the dawn, and everything belonging to the night will finally be swept away, for “night will be no more,” and “the Lord God will be [our] light, and [we] will reign forever and ever” in the bright daylight of the Almighty (Revelation 22:5)!

There's such a day coming with the dawn – and so Paul calls the dawn 'our salvation.' And he tells us that “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11). That dawn, which rescues us from all the night, is closer than ever before – because God's clock keeps ticking. The beams of Easter are a promise that dawn is coming, no matter how long it may seem to take before we see the sun pop over the horizon. And so it really is “the hour … to wake from sleep,” the time to “cast aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:11-12). That's just what time it is: time to ready ourselves for the day that's at hand, time to act like daylight people who've made a clean break with nightlife and all its shaded secrets that feed the flesh. For you are not in darkness … you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:4-5). Those who don't know what time it is will keep clinging to nightlife; but “let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:6). We should know what time it is, and act accordingly.

There's a day coming, and its dawn is nearer and nearer. So we have to soberly get up and keep awake to God. We may not want to wake up. We may want to cling to the night and all its bad dreams. We may want to cling to the deeds of darkness that cover us like a blanket. We may wish we could push snooze and enjoy the nightlife a while longer. But we've already overslept. The hour has long since come to get up and get dressed. Don't sleep until the last minute and let the productive early hours slip away. Don't lounge around in pajamas of unrighteousness when there are places to go and things to do. Don't keep acting like it's still night-time. Don't miss breakfast.

See, after the dawn, after the day is well on its way, the tree of life will yield our lunch. But if we want to be productive now, in the early moments as full daylight draws near, we need to wake up, cast aside the covers, get dressed, and eat breakfast. And spread out before us this morning is the breakfast of the kingdom of God. We call it by many names. Eucharist. Communion. Medicine of Immortality. The Lord's Table. Today, I call it Breakfast of the Kingdom. It's the meal we need as we wait the dawn. And in this breakfast, we announce the good news 'til the dawn comes – “for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).

In a few moments, we'll gather for breakfast. I urge you not to slip back into bed to sleep the early morning away after you've eaten. Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. The dawn of our salvation grows nearer and nearer – nearer now already than when we first believed (Romans 13:11). So don't slip back into nightlife. Don't aim to snooze your life away when there's work to be done. Don't wrap yourselves again under deeds of darkness after you've tasted the breakfast. It's not the hour for such things any longer. Instead, get up, get dressed, and come to the table. By this we tell the world what time it is. Full daylight is coming nearer and nearer. So breakfast is now served. Hallelujah!