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Matta later said that he'd withdrawn from society with his face set resolutely toward his dream, which was the Bible itself and nothing less.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.

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