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Sunday, August 31, 2014

“Grace That is Still Amazing”

A Sermon Based Upon Romans 3: 19-25.
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   August  30th, 2014

…..they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, (Rom 3:24 NRS)

When I was in high school, especially during Football season, we had pep rallies.  Often this would take place either last period, or close to the end of the day, and all students were released from class to come to the Football stadium where Cheerleaders, Coaches and Players would encourage us to get ‘fired up’ to support our team. 

I didn’t like pep rallies, although I did like sports.  I just thought pep rallies were a waste of time.  During one particular Game Day, as the class was canceled for the pep rally, a few friends (who also didn’t like pep rallies) and myself decided to skip the rally and leave school early.  No one told us we couldn’t.  People had done it before.  Normally no one check the attendance.  Things were a less structured in those days, so we decided to get into my friend’s car and cut the rally and go home.  

We thought we it didn’t matter, but the next day they told us that after the pep rally, everyone was told to report to their class before loading the bus or going home.   When I heard that, I just knew I was in trouble.  During “Home Room”, the vice principal came on the intercom and read a long list of names of people who were now being invited to come to the office.  He informed us that all these had skipped the rally and were now going to punished for cutting class.   I listened nervously, as all the names were being read.   Both of my friend’s names were read and I expected mine to be next, but surprisingly, it never came. 

When I went to my last period class that afternoon, which was World History, my teacher, Joe Holpp said he wanted to talk to me.  I got nervous all over again.  I figured he was going to ask me where I was.   Mr Holpp came to me and said,  “I know you left school.  I value you as a student, and I don’t like Pep Rallies either.  I let you off this time, but don’t you ever let this happen again.”  

Now, if you want a definition of what amazing grace, there it is.  At least that’s one way that I have experienced it in my life.   I tried to get this same “grace” from a Highway Patrolman once, when I was caught speeding in Lincoln County.   I had the flu and was hurrying home from college.   I was doing 66 in a 55 zone when he stopped me.   We sat in his car and talked a long time.   I hoped that telling him I had the flu and fever, would get his sympathy, but I couldn’t talk him out of it.   It was the last speeding ticket I’ve received and it was over 37 years ago.  I guess you could say there is even some ‘grace’ in fact gained a good lesson for life, but it didn’t feel like grace at the time. 

Grace is cornerstone of Christian living, but just what is ‘grace’?   Last week we learned that the Christian Life is founded upon thankfulness in all things.  As Christians, we are to live in a continual spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving, because life is a gift.  Today, we want to also understand that the gift we should be most thankful for in life is ‘grace’. 

In Bible, ‘grace’ is, for the most part, a Christian word.   Although Israel’s God is revealed as both “gracious” and  full of “mercy” (Ex. 33.19-20), the fullest understanding of grace does not appear we come until Paul begins to interpret the good news of Jesus Christ.   “Grace to you!” Paul writes over and over to begin his letters (Rom. 1.7; 1 Cor. 1.3; Gal 1.3, Eph. 1.2; Phil 1.2).  He wants his readers to know just how important, foundational and amazing grace is.   

Before we can grasp the full impact of Paul’s first detailed description of grace, we need to understand what Paul means when he says that both Greek and Jew (‘there is no distinction’) are captured ‘under’ the ‘power of sin’ so that none are righteous; not one or any of us.  Based on the Hebrew Bible, Paul makes his case unmistakable:  “No one has understanding… No one seeks God.  All have turned aside…. no one shows kindness… there is no fear of God…(3: 11-18).  While Paul is talking specifically about his own world, he could be talking about our world too, made of Jews, Americans, Europeans, Arabs, Asians or Africans.  It doesn’t matter who we are or when or where we live.  Sin is a force of its own, and it has the human race within a powerful grip of deception, destruction, and death.   

But don’t misunderstand what Paul means by ‘the power sin’.  He is talking about much more than our ability to sin or about specific sins we might commit.  Think of this this way: Do you remember that popular ‘junkie’ song from the 70’s which Kenny Rogers used to sing.  It had a catchy line which went, “I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.  Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Oh Yeah.   Being ‘under sin’ or capture by ‘the power of sin, does not mean that everyone is bad, dirty, rotten or unredeemable.   It means: “This is the condition (everyone’s) condition is in.“   We are not all evil people, but it does means that any of us are capable of evil because we can be destructive to ourselves and to others. 

The Biblical teaching about sin not only points to who we might become by being evil (Roms. 1.18), but it also points to who we already are, even if we claim to be right and righteous (Rom. 2.1).  Being ‘under the power of sin’ (3:9) means none of us could ever achieve the goodness or righteousness God has intended for us on our own.   As Paul says, “There is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3.23).  Coming up ‘short’ means that even our best behavior is flawed by the shortsightedness and limits of our human situation.   Although we have God’s image stamped in our soul (Gen. 1: 27) and we are ‘crowned with glory and honor’ (Psalm 8:5) we fail to live up to this image and we are unable to keep the crown rightly placed upon our head. 

Sin’s powerful grip upon all of us, can be aptly illustrated in the life of the recently deceased 97 year old Olympian and war hero, Louis Zamperini.   As an Olympian Track Star, he met Hitler faced to face, and then went on to serve as a Bombardier in the Pacific Ocean that was shot down.   He survived 47 days on a raft in shark-infested waters, but then was captured by the Japanese having to endure 2 years of torture as a Prisoner of War.   His torturer was the infamous Imperial Japanese Army Sergeant Mutsuhiro Watanabe, perhaps the cruelest of all.   Zamperini, along with other prisoners under Watanabe, were beaten daily, starved, made to perform humiliating acts, and left exposed to the bitter cold and untreated for illnesses. 

On outstanding example of what Zamperini suffered, but also of his great strength and determination, was when he was ordered by the sadistic Sergeant to hold an extremely heavy wooden beam above his head.  He could barely raise it.  Watanabe told a guard to strike Zamperine in the face with a gun if he dropped the beam.  No one expected Zamperini, in his weakened state, to hold it up for more than a few minutes.  Watanabe waited for Zamperini’s quick and inevitable failure.  Minutes ticked by.  Then a half hour.  Zamperini recalled the intense pain but also the fierce resolve not to let Watanabe defeat him.  After 37 minutes elapsed, Watanabe grew so frustrated, that he charged Zamperini and slammed his fist into the prisoner’s stomach, sending both to the ground.  Zamperini’s bold act of strength and defiance inspired all those other POW’s who witnessed the event.

After the war was over, Zamperini barely survived, and was released.  Who could blame him for not being able to forgive Watanabe and the Japanese?   He suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, was haunted by nightmares, and he turned to alcohol, having all kinds of revengeful thoughts of returning to Japan to murder Watanabe, the man who ruined his life.   Zamperini also fell in love with Cynthia Applewhite, and they were married in 1946.   But she had no idea what she was getting into, and by 1948, she was ready to divorce this man who had been so strong, but now had so much emotional pain, hate, and anger bottled-up in side of him.   

Cynthia was at her wits-end, but decided to go with a friend to hear a young evangelist, named Billy Graham.   She decided that her last hope to save her marriage was to get her husband to that tent revival.   He agreed to go, though he detested the thought of ‘tent meeting’ preachers, but he quickly realized, this evangelist was different.  He was transfixed to hear what Billy Graham said about forgiveness, but he didn’t like being reminded that he was a sinner, and he vowed not to go back.  But his wife was all over him, and after a 3 hour argument, he agreed to go back, under one condition; “When that fell says every head bowed and every eye closed, we’re getting out of there.”  Cynthia agreed.

When Billy Graham started quoting Scripture again Zamperini grabbed his wife and said, ‘We’re getting out of hear.”   They started out, but then he began to reflect and remember all those prayers he prayed for God to save him on the life raft, in the prison dungeon, and during all those days for two-and-a-half years, making thousands of promises—but then return home and turning his back on all those promises.   Then he heard Billy Graham quote Jesus, saying, “Cast all your cares on me for I care for you.”  Zamperini then thought to himself, “If I can get that kind of help, there might be a chance for me.”  So, he said,  “I went forward to the prayer room and first of all I asked God to forgive me for not having kept not even one of the thousands of promises I made Him on the life raft.  I then acknowledged to God that I was a sinner and invited Christ in my life.”  “Then the most remarkable thing took place”,  Zamperini concluded, “True to His promise.  He came into my heart and into my life…. It was the most realistic thing that ever happened to me…not because there was any kind of emotional experience…. God simply made a statement:  Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.  I took him at his word and I believed.”

What I think is most amazing about this story is what came afterward.  Louis Zamperini, this “unbroken”, strong, determined, and gifted man, was also weakened under the power of sin so that he could not heal, he became an alcoholic, and nearly succumbed to his own vices.  But then, when he heard the good news of God’s forgiveness and turned his life over to God,  and then even was so filled with God’s grace, he was able to forgive his Japanese captors, even traveling back to Japan to communicate this forgiveness to those former prison guards.   The only way to correctly describe his life, is not as much “unbroken”,  as the book written about him and the movie, about to be released about him.   It should be amazing grace received  by Zamperini and now amazing grace given by Zamperini, which enabled him to overcome the ‘power’ that was in the Japanese, and had also been at work within him.

We are held captive by and ‘under sin’, but we don’t have to stay there.  Through Jesus Christ, the possibility of human redemption is made probable for all humanity.   “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul writes, “they are now justified by his grace as a gift” (3.24).   This ‘gift’ of amazing grace can be realized in any and everyone ‘through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood….”  (3.25).

When you read the word ‘gift’ (3.24) you might immediately think that grace is “easy” or mistakenly think that God is a ‘pushover’.  But look how this word ‘gift’ is also accompanied with the words ‘sacrifice’ and ‘blood’ (3.25) and you realize that God’s grace isn’t easy or cheap.  While grace is rightly understood as the unearned, undeserved, and unmerited favor of God, it must never be misunderstood as easy, cheap, or worthless.  

The term ‘cheap grace’ came from another prisoner of war named Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  While Hitler was on the rise in Germany, Pastor Bonhoeffer opposed Hitler, opposed his own country for supporting him, and he even opposed the national churches not willing to stand up against Hitler.   He made his greatest appeal to live the Christian Life, to follow Jesus, and to take a public stand as a Christian, in his greatest work, “The Cost of Discipleship”.   His words still resonate, reminding us of the difference between ‘cheap grace’ and ‘costly grace’.   Bonhoeffer writes,  “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church….”     It is: ‘justification of sin without the justification of the sinner… the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, or baptism without church discipline, communion without confession…   Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, the living and incarnate…” who is alive in us.  

On the other hand, costly grace, reminds us of what grace really means: Costly grace confronts us to follow Jesus and compels us to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him…. Costly grace the treasure hidden in the field that we must sell everything to obtain.  Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift that must be asked for, the door at which we must knock….  It is the grace which calls us to follow Jesus so that it costs us our life, while it also gives us our only true life.  It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it forgives and justifies the sinner through the cost of God’s own son.   It is costly grace because “We are bought with a price” as God did not consider the cost of his own Son too high of a price to pay to pay for our sins!  (Quoted and adapted from The Cost of Discipleship, D. Bonhoeffer,  Macmillian Pub. Co., 1963).   

Today we can cheapen God’s grace if we take it as a free gift, but are not willing to give ourselves to God in return with love, trust and obedience.   As Christians, our lives are ‘bought with a price’ and that ‘price’ was the sacrifice of God’s own innocent and sinless son.   This is exactly how Paul explains the price of our ‘redemption….’put forward as a sacrifice’ and accomplished ‘by his own blood…’ (3.25).  

This word ‘redemption’ comes directly out of the ‘slave-market’, where humans were once bought and sold as property.  To be ‘redeemed’ implies that a loving master has bought and paid for us, to set us free and give us our life back.   Since most of us are descendants of the slave owners and not the slaves, we will have a difficult time fully appreciating what it means to have a price on our heads or to have a price paid to free us.  What you could do to better understand the cost of grace, is to rent and pay attention to that recent movie, 12 Years A Slave, based on a true story of how a free, intelligent, and talented African-American named Solomon Northup was kidnapped and enslaved during the pre-civil war south.   The movie is based upon Northup own memoir, written back in 1853, and you will learn just what terrible fear, humiliation, and terror he and others endured.   (     But don’t watch that film to rehash the awful sins of the old south, but watch the film to understand again, just what it might mean to be released from the kind of oppression that can rob you of your own life, when you live life under the power of sin, which can become a very unjust, unfair and unreasonable master.   This is the kind of terrible master the world, the flesh, and the devil could be in our own lives, if it were not for the righteous life and the precious ‘blood’ of Jesus, whom God gave to free us from sin’s enslavement, so we can have our lives back.

The ‘undoing’ of the enslaving effects of the sin, the world, the flesh, and the devil, are clearly seen in that great literary classic entitled, “All’s Quiet on the Western Front”.   The author Erich Remarque, tells about those terrible trenches on the front lines in France during World War I.   In one confusing moment of war, a German soldier dives into a shell hole where he finds a wounded enemy, either a Frenchman or Englishman, we are not told.  The sight of the man’s fatal wounds moves the German soldier so much, that he gives him a drink from his canteen.  Through this act of kindness, a brotherly bond springs up between them.  The bond becomes deeper as the dying man wants to tell the German about his wife and children, pointing to his shirt pocket where family pictures are stored.  By looking at the pictures, the German soldier is so touched, realizing that only minutes ago he would have stabbed this enemy with his bayonet, but now this dying man is seen no longer as his enemy, but as a man, a father, a husband, one who loves and is loved, but is now dying for the sake of his country.

What happened in that trench is more than a foe being transformed into a friend, but it is picture of how the reality of our humanness, mortality, dying and death, should transform us all.   In the same way, through the dying man on the cross, we can all be redeemed and have our lives transformed by God’s costly grace.   Of course, there are many ways to interpret what happened on the cross, but there is only one right way to take it into our hearts.  On the cross, the dying Jesus is proven to be the man in the right, while we are proven to be people in the wrong.   But in spite of what the facts are, we also quickly discover that this dying man is dying to prove God’s love for us, loving us even while we are his enemies, so that now we can become both friends of God and brothers and sisters to each other.   

Why this ‘sacrifice’ of death happens is ultimately because of God’s great love and his ability to pay the cost.  But how this costly grace redeems and remakes our lives is the most amazing thing of all.   Paul names it “a sacrifice of atonement by his blood….” (3.24-25)   Jesus’ blood  becomes ‘atonement’ being made ‘effective (or received, ESV) through faith’ (3.25).   Faith is what makes is all work.  It is ‘through faith for faith’ that ‘the righteousness of God’ is ‘revealed, ’ says Paul.   Here, the final lesson of what makes grace amazing is not only what God does for us, but now, if grace is true, it is also about how we respond to God’s love because ‘the one who is righteous will live by faith.’  (Rom. 1.17).  This willingness to respond and live by grace is what happened in Louis Zamperini’s life, it is what also happened in Bonnhoeffer’s life,  and it is transformed those soldiers’ in the trench.  Though grace is never achieved by us, it must be received by faith, so that it will become effective and real in our own lives.  The gift of amazing grace must be unwrapped by living our life ‘by faith’.

A moment the life of the biblical patriarch Jacob serves as a great example of what grace means and how it calls us to live by faith.   If you recall, Jacob had a dream where he awoke, saying, “Surely, the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it! (Gen. 28:16).  That sounds like grace, but how did Jacob know it was true?    If you recall Jacob’s dream of God’s grace came not long after Jacob had deceived his Father, cheated his brother out of his inheritance, and his made a fortune at the expense of his uncle.   But instead of striking Jacob dead in the desert, God gave him a blessing.  Kathleen Norris rightly says this blessing was much like looking into the face of a baby who similes at you, no matter who you are.  That’s what God’s grace looks like, and do you know what it does?   Well look at the difference it made in Jacob’s life as he wrestles with God, loses the match, now walks with a limp, but is enabled to move beyond his past, and move forward and overcome all his fears of the future.  This starts, right now, when he must meet his brother he has deceived face to face.   Jacob must go forth, and receive this gift as a life of faith, and as a blessing of a life to be lived without fear. (From K. Norris, Amazing Grace which can be read at:

I don’t know of a better definition of what still makes grace amazing.  Like Jacob, because of God’s forgiving love, we too, can become people who are able to let go of the past and only have a future.  In the French Drama, “Traveller Without Luggage,” Jean Anouilh, tells of another young soldier who received a head wound in battle that robs him of his memory.   When he tries to find his family, he learns that they are not the kind of family anyone would want to be  a part of.   They prove to him that they are his family, but he pretends not to recognize them because he sees so much baggage he must pick up and  carry.  Instead,  the young soldier is drawn to another family.  He knows that he does not belong to him, but for some strange reason, they are willing to take him in and make him their son.   He decides to become their son.  Why?  So that he can again be a person without a past, a “traveler without luggage.”  (Based Helmut Thielicke’s mention, in “Being a Christian”, Fortress Press, 1981, pp. 36-37).

While God does not remove our past, he is willing to forgive and forget it and he can give us the power to  overcome our past, and release ourselves of all our baggage.  This is how grace begins, but the most amazing thing about God’s grace is that it can give us a new life and a new future that can be lived in God’s grace.   Amazing grace is a gift of a new life given to a deceiving Jacob, given to a murderous Saul, and it was given to an angry and unbreakable, Louis Zamperini.   But God’s grace is even more amazing still, because it is that keeps on giving and is still available and receivable anyone who will have faith.   Amen.  

Sunday, August 24, 2014

“A Life That Makes Sense”

A Sermon Based Upon Romans 1: 18-25.
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   August  24th, 2014

“…For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (Rom 1:21 NAU).  

Back in 2009, on YOU TUBE, there was a segment from Conan O'Brien's show entitled "Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy," which featured with guest comedian Louis C.K.   In it, Louis talks about how he was on a plane that offered in flight Wi-Fi access to the Internet, one of the first planes to do so.  But when it broke down in a few minutes, the man sitting next to him swore in disgust.  Louis was amazed, and said to O'Brien, "How quickly the world owes him something that he didn't know existed 10 seconds ago."

Louis then talked about how many of us describe less-than perfect airline flights as if they were experiences from a horror film: "It was the worst day of my life. First of all, we didn't board for 20 minutes! And then we get on the plane and they made us sit there in the runway for 40 minutes!"    Then he said mockingly, "Oh really. Did you fly through the air incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight? … Everybody on every plane should be going, 'O my God, wow!' … You're sitting in a chair in the sky!" And then he mocks a passenger who, trying to push his seat back, complains, "It doesn't go back a lot!" (

That segment is humorous because we recognize ourselves in it.   It’s human nature to take things granted so quickly, and easily fall out of a state of gratefulness.

Before we get into today’s Scripture text,  we need to understand something most of us take for granted most every day, and probably took for granted as recently as this morning.   Your life is a gift.   You did not bring yourself into the world.  Everything about being born and being alive today is mostly out of your control.   Whether your believe in God, or not, your life is, for the most part, is something you received as a gift to be valued, treasured, made use of, and appreciated.

Along that same line, your good health, if you have it, is a gift too.  Last week I walked into the hospital room of a good man, a neighbor from my childhood, who has been healthy most of his life.   He has been a farmer.  He probably owns and farms more land than any other farmer I know.    Now, at age 65 he has cancer that has invaded his body.   It is inoperable.  He is undergoing radiation, but it is only to ease his pain and give him a day or two extra.   When I walked into his room to see him, I told him how sorry I was to hear the news about his illness.  Do you know what where the first words out of his mouth?  He told me,  “The Lord has blessed me.    I can’t complain.   It’s good to see you, Joey,” he continued.  “You are more like your Father every day.”   To me that man understood something.   In spite of his illness, in spite of his misfortune, and in spite of his pain, suffering, and even his obvious death sentence, he had a sense of perspective.  He understood that life is a gift. 

Do you realize that how many have died at birth, died too young, died on battle fields, or had illness all their life long?   You shouldn’t take your life or your health for granted, but most of us do, don’t we?    We mistakenly think that we are entitled to have the life we have, but there is no guarantee.   We mistakenly take for granted the good health that we have, but there is no promise for tomorrow.   Life has been and will always be, for us, and for everyone, a gift we are not, as Scripture says, able to add a single inch nor a single moment.   And because our life is a gift, we ought to have a continual attitude of gratitude or spirit of thankfulness.

While you do not have to be a Christian to be thankful, you cannot be a true Christian without being thankful to God for the gift of your own life.  

Do you recall that powerful story the gospels tell about the 10 lepers who were cured of their leprosy by Jesus.   The story goes that 10 were told to go and to show themselves as cured and to be called “clean” by the priests.  Only one out of the ten, returned back to give praise to God and thank Jesus for being cured.   The Scripture goes on to say that only this one leper, who returned with thankfulness, was fully made ‘whole’ (KJV) or ‘well’ (NRSV, Luke 17: 11-19).  

Thankfulness is part of what it means to be well adjusted, healthy human being.   We can be human without being thankful, but we are not ‘whole’.   Without such a ‘sense’ or practice of thankfulness there is no such thing as a true Christian faith nor a real Christian life.   Christianity is founded upon a people who are thankful for the ‘salvation’ (Rom. 1.16) God has made available Jesus Christ.   The apostle Paul opens his letter to the Romans saying, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world…..(1.8), and he continues by saying, “I am (in the debt) of both Greeks and barbarians, the wise and to the foolish….” (1.14)  because he is “eager to preach the good news” (1.15).   Like any true Christian, Paul is thankful for all God has done for him and is doing through him.  Thankfulness is at the center of his life, work and faith.

We can read about this Christian sense of thankfulness through the rest of Paul’s letters and throughout the entire New Testament.  The call to Christian thankfulness is rooted in Israel’s worship as stated repeatedly in the Psalms  (especially Psalm 100, 105; 107 and 136), but it comes to it’s highest crescendo in the Christian response to God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.  As in the letter to the Ephesians,  Paul writes,  “Do not get drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5.18-20).   This encouragement to live lives of Thanksgiving is encourage in most all of Paul letters, including the in his letter to the Thessalonians, where Paul adds,  Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ for you.  Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5: 18-19).    Perhaps the most beloved encouragement for living a thankful life comes in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, as Paul writes,  “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.   And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
(Phil. 4: 6-7).    For the apostle Paul, the attitude of gratitude, that is, having a continual spirit of thankfulness toward God is not merely one of the many virtues of the Christian life, but it is the primary characteristic of the Christian life.   As Mark Galli writes: “Paul is a thanksgiving junkie”.   For Paul the life a Christian finds its sole motivation because the Christian is grateful to God and expresses that thanks through song, worship, prayer and through a life of obedience to doing God’s will.   In other words, the Christian Life is a life that is lived to give thanks to God in both word and deed.

But what is a life of giving thanks, and what does that look like?   Let me tell you a true and funny story.   When I was a working in Germany among youth back in the 1990s, most of those youth had been raised communist and atheistic.  One of my brightest youth was the son of a surgeon, named Benjamin.  Benjamin developed a relationship with one of the young Christian boys from America, who had come to Germany on a mission trip from Georgia.   Benjamin was excited that he had been invited to come to America to visit his new friend and to experience the so called, “Christian” American culture first hand.  He told me he would get to spend the Thanksgiving Holiday weekend with his host family and that would let me know what he experienced when he returned.

Upon returning to Germany,  the first week in December,  I ask Benjamin how things went.  He loved it.  He thought the family he visited was wonderful and he enjoyed America very much.  But he did have one question for me.  He wondered why that family called it Thanks GIVING, when all they did on that day was get up, hang around house, eat a Turkey Dinner, and watch American Football on Television.   They didn’t even go to church, he said.  How was that an act of “giving” thanks?    It took me a moment to think of some kind of ‘good’ answer.

I think Benjamin was right to question why we call it Thanksgiving, when it’s much more like “Turkey Day”?   But in all fairness to that family, or the way we ourselves might spend our own ‘thanksgiving’,  I told Benjamin that giving thanks is not merely an activity for one day a year, as much as it should be the attitude and perspective we take each and every day of our lives.   As Christians, we are to live our lives each day, in the spirit of thankfulness.  Paul told the Colossians: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col 3:17 NRS).   In other words, we are to measure our thankfulness, not simply on what we do one day a year on “Thanksgiving”, but we are to measure our thankfulness in how we live our lives each day, and how we should do ‘everything’ we do ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus….”   Giving thanks is about the perspective of our whole lives.  Thanksgiving ought to be the motivation for being a Christian---that is, being a follower of Jesus Christ.  Our whole posture of life should be ‘thanks’, because both our life and our salvation is a ‘gift’ of God’s grace; not something we could ever do for ourselves.   

But of course, in our text today, Paul reminds us that some people, possibly even many people, (too many) don’t see life this way.   What happens to a world that does not worship or ‘give thanks’ to God and becomes so ungrateful that it feels nothing but entitlement and greed?   Do you really want to know?   Paul writes in our text today:  “….for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.   Claiming to be wise, they became fools; (Rom 1:21-22 NRS).

This is certainly not a pretty picture, but it gets worse.   Ungrateful people end up useless in their thinking and clueless in their minds, so that they live dark, foolish lives.  This happens because, because they are ungrateful, they follow the ‘lusts of their hearts’,  ‘degrading their bodies’,  and they end up “worshipping and serving the creature rather than their Creator….”   And it even gets worse than this, as Paul says,  “Women and Men commit shameless acts” because they are consumed with ‘un-natural passion’ so that as a result,  “God gives them up to a debased (depraved) mind that does ‘things that should not be done’. 

Can you follow Paul’s logic?   All of this downward spiral of wickedness, the darkening of the mind, the degrading of the body and debasing passions, is all because ‘though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him….” (1.21).   Everything Paul goes on to list and categorize as ‘wicked’ and ‘evil’---the foolish, the faithless, the heartless, and the ruthless (1.31); it all stems from an ungrateful and unappreciative heart.

Can you remember the time when you left your doors unlocked and had never imagined anything like a home invasion?   Can you remember the time when children could play in the streets, walk to school, even talk to a stranger and parents would never worry about their child being abducted?   Can you recall a time when families were close together and came together often to share stories of their life and bear each other’s burdens?   Can you recall a time when almost everyone came to church, the sanctuaries were full and the Sunday School classes and worship were filled with excitement?   Even today, it should be clear to us, that when the culture fails to ‘honor God as God’ or ‘give thanks’ to him, that we become ‘foolish’ and ‘senseless’ and the greatest problem, is that we don’t even realize just how far and how quick we have fallen.

A few years ago, a pastor friend and myself, used to design Bible Studies around some of the Old Andy Griffith TV shows.  You could take those shows, and the moral values they taught, and relate them to good, practical, biblical morality.  When I was doing research, I read how the Andy Griffith Show was not based on the morals of the 1950’s, when the Show was Broadcasted, but in reality the values of the show went further back, to the 1920’s and 30’s, a times that was already lost, and had already become nostalgic for its viewers.  My point is this:  It doesn’t take long for a culture to decline when it starts exchanging ‘its worship of the Creator for worshipping the creature and the creation.’   Do you see how this could happen, and how dark, degrading and debased the world can become when life becomes more about entitlements than obligations, about privileges than obedience, and about rights than righteousness?  

The way to stop the downward spiral begins with reminding ourselves and our children to simply say ‘thanks’.   Thankfulness is how you stop the decay of a culture.    You start by saying thanks to God by worshipping him.   You start by thinking pure thoughts and respecting your body.   You start by appreciating the body you have, the person you are, the gender you are, and the way you are created.   You start by getting rid of every kind of wickedness from your life, like coveting, envy, slander, selfish pride and rebellion.  And you start by trying to be sensible, to be faithful, caring and kind.   This is where you start, but this is not where you end.

The best way to intercept the problems of our culture, or of any culture for that matter, is for a group of people to begin to not just ‘give’ thanks, but to begin to ‘live’ their thanks.   I like the analogy Mark Galli gave when he wrote:  “Most of us remember what it was like as children to look under the Christmas tree, and see our first bicycle—shiny, new, sparkling with possibilities. We were so excited we didn't even want to unwrap our other gifts. We rushed up to our parents and said, "Can I go ride it now? Can I? Please, please?" Even it was 10 below, and snow was piled on the streets—"Can I go ride it now, Can I? Can I?"

Sometimes we Christians get the bicycle of grace under the Christmas tree of the Cross, and we too marvel at how it shines and sparkles. But rather than jump on it and enjoy the ride of new life, we sometimes just marvel at it and take pictures of it. We write books about this bicycle, how it's mean and wild, and great and terrible, and yet so beautiful! We create special services and conferences to discuss its wonders! But God gave us the bicycle with a note saying, "Enjoy; there's more where this came from."

Or it's like some of us rush up to our parents and thank them for the bicycle and then say, "What can I do to thank you for this wonderful gift?" Can I do the dishes every day for a month? Can I take out the garbage? Can I tithe back my allowance to you? Can I do something righteous, moral, good, and religious to show that I'm thankful?" When all the time the parents are saying, "No, the way to be thankful is to get on the bike and enjoy it!" (

The gift of life in Christ is a grace which we are called to live and enjoy 24/7/365 days a year.   Thankgiving is not merely a matter of verbally saying thanks to God, but of thanks-living---living and breathing gratefulness to God in how we live our faith and our thanks.   As the Scripture says, “We love because Christ first loved us.”  And as Christians, followers of Jesus, we are to live in a spirit of gratefulness because, “there's so much more where that came from.”   Amen.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

What Right About Christian Living?

A Sermon Based Upon Romans 1: 14-17.
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   August  17th, 2014

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith…, (Rom 1:16 NRS).

Back in September of 2009, the firebrand Jewish Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, slammed the United Nations for giving Iranian leader, Ahmadinejad, a public forum to speak because he had called the Holocaust a lie.   Netanyahu pleaded: “In behalf of my people, the Jewish people, Have you no shame?  Have you no sense of decency?

Shame is an interesting human emotion.  It points to our moral nature, our human responsibility, perhaps even the image of God within in us.  Having a “sense of shame” gives us the ability to develop integrity, dignity, honor, self-respect and an inner moral compass.  When as a child, I did something I shouldn’t have my mother would sometimes say to me, “Joey, I’d be ashamed.”   She was not only trying to give me to develop a sense of shame, but she was also trying to get me to admit my guilt.   There is a big difference between guilt and shame.   Guilt is how we should feel about what we do wrong or haven’t done right.  Shame, on the other hand, is more about who we are, who we aren’t, and who we should be.   When Benjamin Netanyahu appealed to shame, he was appealing to what the UN should be.

If we have no shame it could mean that we are missing something.   If you recall, the Bible opens with Adam and Eve being ‘naked’ and ‘not ashamed’.    Shame did not come into the picture until Adam and Eve found themselves hiding from God.  Again, shame was not simply about what they did wrong as much as it was about how who they were and how their relationship with God and with each other had negatively changed.   Their sense of shamed made them feel naked, uncovered and exposed.   This is what still happens when people do stupid things and should know better.   Shame may point us back to being who we should be.

Shame is an interesting word Paul choose to use as he opens his letter to the Romans.  He says: “I’m not ashamed of the gospel of Christ!” (1.16).   Paul is saying there is no shame in being a follower of Jesus, nor is there any shame in the good news Jesus brings.  We can surely understand what Paul is saying, but why does he have to say like this?  Who would ever consider it ‘shameful’ to be a Christian?

Recently, I read an article by Tom Fate, about losing his Father to Alzheimer’s.  Tom’s father was a pastor, and it was difficult to watch how his Father’s memories faded away, even though his Father was still present, he was also becoming absent.   Spending some final days with his father reminded him of many stories.  One of them was in 1974, when as a teenager, Tom was going through Confirmation classes taught by his Father.   (Confirmation is how those churches who baptize infants, confirm that that they are true Christians, after they put the youth through several months of studying and learning the Christian Faith).   At the conclusion of the classes, the youth are to stand before the church and acknowledge that they are confirmed, believing Christians.   Tom says he went through his Father’s confirmation class at age 14, just at the time when his hormones were ragging.   After several months of classes, the day before Confirmation on a Sunday morning, Tom told his father, “I can’t go through with it.”  His Father ‘hit the roof!’  “Why not?”   Tom told his Father, “I don’t know, I guess I’m one of those ‘Egg-nostics’.  I just can’t answer “yes” to the require questions: Do you believe in God, the maker of heaven and earth.  Do you accept Jesus as your personal savior?  Do you believe Jesus to be the Son of God?....  I’m like that doubting Thomas guy, Tom concluded.”  Can you imagine what that father/pastor must have felt when out of all those children, his own child was ashamed of becoming a Christian?    (From, The Christian Century, June 25, 2014, p 31.).  

What would make a person ‘ashamed’ of being Christian?   What makes the Christian Faith and the Christian Life so offensive that someone would be ashamed of it?    Maybe we can understand a little bit of why Paul chose this world ‘shame’ when we consider how he spoke about ‘shame’ elsewhere.  Speaking about the ‘offense” of the gospel for certain Jews and Greeks, Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians,  “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.  He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus….. (1 Cor. 1: 27-29).    Is it any wonder some might be ashamed of becoming Christians?   Being Christian can be about being what some might call foolish, weak, despised, or nothing.   No wonder the Christian faith or the Christian Life doesn’t have a lot going for in a world that likes to be smart, strong, popular, or have something everyone else wants.   We might even wonder how in the world Christianity ever got as far as it did, and became as widespread as it has, even though today, it is dying in Europe, North America, and all the world we call the west.   If it is about foolish, weak, despised, and an unwanted life that someone might be ashamed of, how did it get this far?  

When I was a missionary in eastern Europe, I worked among German Baptists in a small city where there were also two Lutheran churches, one of which had survived in the that city over 700 years, also surviving both the evils of Hilter and Stalin.  When I was there in the early 1990’s, they had just put a new roof on the building which was bombed in World War II, but the church, though now a small congregation, still survived, barely.  The pastor told he that it was difficult have much attendance on Sunday.  Recently, he had gone into his neighborhood taken church bulletins to invite his members to church.  The ‘welcome’ they gave him as pastor was either to lock their door when they saw him coming, or to slam the door in his face.  And that was people who had their names on the church rolls!  

Are we headed in the same direction, as our own neighborhoods are increasingly unchurched, secularized and negative toward local churches?  Are even church folks, so called Christians, becoming more ‘ashamed’ of the gospel or more ignorant of what it means to live a Christian Life?   Once upon a time, the apostle Paul said that he was ‘not ashamed of the gospel of Christ’, but what about us?   Have people forgotten, even Christians forgotten what it means and why it is still important for us to live a faithful Christian life?  What is going on with the decline of churches and Christianity in our own ‘religious’ America or in the Christian west as a whole.  Churches, for the most part, are emptying and the morale and excitement is waning?   Why are we not ashamed of being ashamed of living a faithful Christian life?

I want us to try to recover why Paul said he was ‘not ashamed’ and furthermore, perhaps discover the more positive reason, Paul was glad, if not proud to be a Christian.  Do you hear what Paul gives as his own reason in our text?  Paul says that he is ‘not ashamed’ of the gospel of Christ, because IT IS THE POWER OF GOD FOR SALVATION …”   (Rom. 1.16).  But  just what kind of “power” and what kind of “salvation” excites and motivates Paul?   There are still people excited about Christianity in our world, but it’s not always the right reasons.  I hear people say they are Christians because they want their children to have a good, positive foundation.   I hear others say they go to church because they like to go Wednesday Family Dinner night?   I’ve also heard that people will even put with dysfunctional church, if they have a good youth program.   What excites you about Christianity?   Are you excited about the right thing or are you just excited about your own thing?  

Paul says God’s saving power excites and motives his life of faith.   How do you imagine this?  We need to be clear about what Paul means, because there is a lot of misunderstanding about what it means to experience God’s saving power.   Some might think it as having a big congregation, a large attendance, great music, or even good preaching that results in decisions being made, like a Billy Graham Crusade.   What does Paul means by God’s power and could it also excite us into living the Christian life?   As I have already shown, when Paul spoke about the ‘power’ of the gospel, he is speaking of a very different kind of power than most of us think about.   It is not the power of the smart, the strong, or the popular; but it is the power of things that might be considered foolish, weak, despised, and, to quote Shakespeare, “Much ado About Nothing.”  What kind of power is this?

Since it is summer time, one of the greatest evidences of power see on display in nature this time of year, is lightning storms.   One evening this summer, there was a video on the news of a pickup truck in the Midwest being struck by lightning, as it was driven down the road.   If you saw that clip, that was certainly a display of unmistakable power.   (A Van filled with Youth in a Greensboro Church where I was pastor in the late 1990’s also had lightning strike right beside it and it knocked burned out the electrical wiring and blew all four tires.  Now, that’s power).  

The other story on the news was about a man in his backyard in Atlanta, who, while he was doing some cleanup work, was struck by lightning and it blew a hole in his shoes.   The video showed his tennis shoes still smoking, with the toes blown out.  That too was a great display of raw power.   But do you know what was the greatest display of power in these three stories?  It was even greater power that diffused, absorbed or insulated all that energy so that both passengers in that pickup, and the person in the yard, (or all the youth on that van) where able to live to tell about their ordeals and survival.  Now that’s and even greater power, than both of those lightning bolts, isn’t it?   But who would ever call 4 rubber tires or rubber soled tennis shoes a real display of power?  But it was, and it was a power even greater than one of the greatest forces known in the natural world.

Maybe this kind of story can help us begin to understand what Paul means by the ‘’power of the gospel.”  It is certainly not the same kind of ‘power’ that we can visibly see, as Paul himself defined it.  It a ‘power of God’ which is most often displayed in ways that might go unnoticed, unseen, disregarded, or unappreciated, except to the most perceptive and discerning.   Paul took notice of that power and it saved him.  He came to believed beyond any doubt that this same kind of saving power is available to ‘Everyone…who calls upon the name of the LORD’ (Roms 10.13).  Paul became certain about that and that is why he lived the life of a Christian.  Are we that ‘certain’?

To understand more we need also look into Paul’s own story.  If you recall, Paul was not always a Christian, nor was he always an advocate for the Christian way or the Christian life.  Once Paul was named Saul, and in his own words, Paul said that he had “persecuted this Way up to the point of death …… (Act 22:4 NRS).   The books of Acts, also tells us how Paul monitored and approved the stoning of one of the very first Christian martyrs named Stephen (Acts 7:57-8: 1).   This is who Paul was before.  He was against the Christian way and the Christian faith in Jesus until he experienced a powerful, spiritual, and saving encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road.   Even at that time Saul was still threatening to murder.  But one day, while traveling on the road to Damascus, a flash of light (was it lightning) knocked him to the ground, but did not kill him.   Whatever it was, it was in that moment, as he fell to the ground, that Saul also heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When Saul inquired about this voice, the voice said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting!”   Such power saved many lives, changed the course of history, and it also gave Saul to power to become Paul, a new person (9: 1-5). 

There is no dispute that something happened to Saul persecuted that made him into Paul, the one was willing to follow Jesus and be persecuted for the following and living THE WAY.   But what about us?   What kind of real ‘power’ of God is in it for us, or for the world today?  Can we even relate what happened then to what happens now?

This brings us to the final way Paul speaks of Christianity and the Christian gospel.  He speaks of the gospel of Jesus as a power that can save anyone and everyone who has faith, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”  (1.16).  Here’s the catch, do you see it?   If God’s power is to become real in you, like it did in Saul who became Paul, you’ve got to start with faith.    You’ve got to get over your fear or your shame about what might seem foolish, weak, despised or like a lot of nothing.   You have to take a leap of ‘faith’ beyond  what you think works.   And if you do make this ‘leap of faith’, it does not matter who you are, what race, nationality, religion, non-religion nor anything else, there is a power that you and I still need, and need not be ashamed of.  The key to understanding the value, the purpose and the power of the Christian life, means you must have the faith to follow and to try it.   As the song say,  “You’ve got to have faith!” and the faith you’ve got to have it the faith to believe that God’s power can have a positive impact in your own life and in our own world.

Earlier in this message, I stated that one might wonder how a religion that is about what people might call foolishness, weak, despicable, or nothing, would ever grow and last for 2,000 years, as it has.  The Christian faith, in spite of human failure, flaw, sins and weaknesses, has endured, but only since the 1960’s has begun to fade before our eyes.  But again, the question is, what kind of power is this that saves, that made people, even skeptical people willing to take that ‘leap’ to follow Jesus and try to live a Christian life?   What made it such a powerful movement in the first place?  

No major popular study had examined this, until a Social Scientist named Rodney Stark took on the challenge a few years ago.  Dr. Stark did a lot of social research about the early Christian movement and he studied many historical statistics about when and how Christianity grew, going from a small, local group of churches, to become a regional, national and then global phenomenon.   Do you know what kind of ‘power’ pushed Christianity into the limelight, making kings and major population areas take note and accept the Christian faith as a true and viable way of life.   Stark says the major thrust of exponential growth took place during major outbreak of infectious and deadly diseases and plagues hit the Mediterranean region and especially Asia Minor and Southern Europe.  Historical documents and testimony say that while city officials, physicians and even family members fled the area to leave the dying to die alone, it was Christians, that is real Christians, those who took up the cross of compassion, while taking no thought of the dangers, remained alongside the suffering, and some even rushing in, to care, show compassion, and bring help and healing.   It was such daring, selfless, and self-denying acts of compassion and care, that made people take notice, that Christianity had something the world didn’t, but desperately needed.  These Christians were not ashamed of their faith, and they truly believed, that even if they died while caring like Jesus did, that Jesus was preparing a place for them,  and would welcome them into his eternal kingdom.  Those Christians lived their life on an entirely set of values, and there was not only no law against them (as Paul says),  there was great need for such values in this world. (

What would make Christianity valued and appreciated like that again?  What would make people take notice and not be ashamed of the Christian faith?   What would make people willing and eager to live a Christian kind of life?   Would it not also be that people actually see other Christians taking risks to live and care about people who are at risk?   Would it not be Christians who truly lived as Jesus taught them, and showed them to live?   One of the major descriptions of Jesus in the New Testament is that Jesus ‘went about doing good’ and the greatest good Jesus was doing, according to Acts, was that had a helping and ‘healing’ ministry among the poor, the outcast and the despised so they could overcome oppression and domination by the evil forces in the world (Acts 10.38).  

The powers of evil are still with us.  Few would dispute that.  Then why might someone dispute that God’s power is not also still with us and needed to help us overcome?   What good are we empowered by God to do?   Will we do it?  Will we live it?  Will we have the faith and take the risk?   When we truly live the Christian life, we become the voice, hands, and feet of Jesus Christ in this world, so that we too can tap into the power of God that heals, cares, and brings ‘good news’ to those who need to recover  and be redeemed from both the sins of a society like ours and from our own sins.   The question is not is there a power to help or heal, but the question is will we have enough faith to tap into it?   

Just the other day, NBC News ended with a story of disabled veterans having a sports camp along with disabled children.   Most of the veterans has lost limbs while serving their country in Iraq or Afghanistan.  The children has lost their limbs due to birth defects,  disease, or accidents.  What they all had in common was a love to play baseball or softball and to be with others and not be judged or oppressed as lesser people.   I loved the final quote from a young girl.  She was around 11 or 12.  She said,  “I came to camp to learn about playing ball, but I’ve learned a lot more.  I’ve learned about living my life with others like me, and to be happy with who I am. “   I don’t think you can explain the power of the life of a Christian any differently.  The true faith teaches us how to live a life that is full, free and beautiful, no matter what we are up against. 

Finally, we need to remember that Jesus did not come to make us all Christians, but Jesus himself said, “I came that they might have life, and have it more fully (and abundantly, John 10:10).    Can you imagine yourself having a fuller, more empowered and more passionate and compassionate life?  The great power of God is not as much like a lightning bolt that strikes you like a bolt out of the blue, but it could be more like the rubber soles of your shoes that can neutralize the greatest negative forces of this world, so that these shoes on your feet, are able to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, go to a new place, give you a new vision and a new mission, and enable you to have a bigger heart that makes a difference.   Now , that’s power.   Amen.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Malachi: “People With A Future”

A Sermon Based Upon Malachi 3: 1-3; 6-18.
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   August 3rd, 2014

They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, …”  (Mal 3:17 NRS)

The prophet Malachi, stands at the end of the Hebrew Bible (at least the Christian version of it), and he also stands on the threshold of a whole new world---the future that is still to come.  “See, the day is coming….”  (4.1).   That’s how the prophecy concludes its final chapter.  It is a prophecy full of expectancy, anticipation, and possibility about what is going to come next.   No wonder early Christians made Malachi the final book of the Old Testament.  It is a book that believes in the future and that the future belongs to God.  

Today, it’s getting much harder to find Jews or Christians who believe in the future.   It’s much easier to find people who tell us, 'the sky is falling', like Chicken Little did in the children’s story.   TV preachers loved to get us all excited by telling us, showing us, and proving to us, that end is near and the signs of it are everywhere.    Perhaps you’ve heard the story about what happen in Texas.   A knock comes at the door.   The man of the house answers.   “Brother,” the visitor asks, “Are you ready for the judgment day? “   The uniformed man retorts with a question, “When is it?”  The visitor responds, “It could be today, or it could be tomorrow!”  Well, the uniformed man replies, “When you find out when it is going to be, just let me know, because I know my wife will want to be there for on either day!”

We laugh, because predictions about what is going to happen next needs to be laughable.   If you want to make God laugh, the old adage says, “Tell him your plans”.  Human wisdom, human predictions, human understanding of the future is bound to be unreliable.  As the eternally skeptical preacher of Ecclesiastes writes,  “fools talk on and on. No one knows what is to happen, and who can tell anyone what the future holds? (Ecc 10:14 NRS).   No one knows the future, except for God, and neither prophet, nor Jesus knows the exact hour when the future will come.   It could be that even God hasn’t set the date for it yet.  “I have plans for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”   The future is “coming”,  and there are a lot of conjectures, speculations, and predictions about it.  The calendar certainly keeps moving forward and you can’t go back, but exactly what the future holds, belongs to God.  

So which is it?   Does the world have a future?  Do we?  Are we only destined a final day of judgment that is coming sooner than we think?   What does God have in store for this world?  Whatever it is, it’s been a long time coming, hasn’t it?  Or maybe it hasn’t.  Maybe the world is moving along right on schedule.   I say that because of how the book of Malachi begins.  Malachi speaks of the unfolding of history, how Israel survives, but Edom is a wasteland (1: 2-4).  We know that story from Genesis, don’t we?  Esau traded his birthright for a cup of soup.  Therefore, Jacob received the blessing and he became Israel.  Malachi reminds, God does not stand still when he is rejected, and that is why “God loved Jacob”, but ‘hated Esau’  (Mal. 1.2).  But now, Malachi tells us, God on the move again. He says: “Great is the LORD beyond the borders of Israel.”  Do you grasp what he’s saying?  God is on the move toward the future.  He’s already moved beyond Esau and the land of Edom; and now, God’s about to go global, moving beyond the “borders of Israel”.  That’s a very interesting way to end the Old Testament, isn’t it?  God is still moving toward the future.  Time doesn’t stand still, and neither its maker.  As the song says, “He has loosed his fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword, HIS TRUTH IS MARCHING ON….”

But where is God’s truth marching?  One of the most interesting images in the book of Malachi comes at the end, in his concluding promise that ‘before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes,” God says, through the prophet, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah….” (4:5).  When Elijah comes, God adds,  “He will turn the heart of the parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse”  (4.6).  It is no accident that these are the final words of the Old Testament.   They point us to where God is going next.  But where exactly is that?   Elijah is the first of the prophets and God says he will also be the last.   Biblical stories suggest Elijah never died, but was taken to heaven in a whirlwind on a fiery chariot  (2 Kings 2.11).  In New Testament times people identified John the Baptist or even Jesus, as the coming of Elijah.   On the mount of Transfiguration,  both Moses and Elijah appear alongside Jesus, and then God speaks from heaven, singling out Jesus and saying,  “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” (Mark 9.7).   “Elijah has come…” Jesus says, but they still didn’t understand.  Still today, when faithful Jews observe the Passover Meal, they leave a chair open for Elijah.   The Passover meal remembers the blessing of the past, but it also looks toward the future; a future that belong to God.

When we consider the thrust of Malachi’s words in our text, from chapter 3, we find a text that is quoted in the gospel’s concerning the message of John the Baptist, who was God’s messenger who ‘prepared the way’ for where God was moving.  God was moving forward toward the future in the coming of Jesus Christ, but can we go with him?  “Who can endure the day of his coming?”  Malachi rightly asks (3:2).  The future is coming, but it is in no way automatic and it does not mean that you will be there.   Can you endure?

Malachi’s words strong words about what the coming of God’s future means.  When the future comes, God’s messenger and God’s message is like a ‘refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap.’ (3:2).  In other words, only those who are ‘purified’ by God’s message can move forward with God and they can only seize that future with righteous living and righteous lives as “offerings to the LORD in righteousness” (3.3)…..  Only those who ‘return to me’ will God turn to them and give them a future (3.7).   Those who persist in turning away from God’s moral laws and live immorally, will be judged to have no future.    The future is coming, Malachi says, but you have to choose to be a part of that future.   You have to choose take part in God’s future, because the future belongs only to a holy and righteous God.   God is expanding his borders, but he still controls them.   God kept his covenant with Jacob because Jacob “walked with (God) in integrity and uprightness and turned many from (sin)…” (2.7).    God’s people have a future with God, when they live obediently in him.  

This is what the ‘refiner’s fire’ and ‘fullers soap’ are about.   They are symbols of people preparing the way and turning to live in obedience to God’s truth so they can march on toward the future with God.  Without obedience there is no future.   Malachi calls the people to obedience in how they give their best to God, not their least (1.8).  He calls people to obedience to God in how they give reverence and respect to God’s name (2.4).   He calls the people to obedience in how they keep their own marriage vows and hate divorce, as much as God does. “Do not be faithless” (2.13-16)!   Finally, God calls the people to obey him so that their religion does not ‘weary him with words’, but ‘delights’ in goodness and in deeds of justice. (2.17).    The point is, clean up your life, obey God now, get your priorities straight, and bring glory to God by being who you were created and called to be.  If you obey him, you will have part in God’s future.  

A woman asked her pastor, "Will you please tell me what your idea of obedience is?"  Holding out a blank sheet of paper, the pastor replied, "Obedience is to sign your name at the bottom of the blank sheet, and let God fill it in as God wills."   As the great pastor Kierkegaard once said,  "To be fully obedient we must hold onto nothing, and surrender ourselves totally to the promptings of God's Spirit." 

Not only does hope in the future require obedience, but hope for the future springs up out of lives that are obedient to God and his truth.   When we obey God, we release hope in the world and we create hope for ourselves.   

The future belongs to God, but we are challenged to seize it, lay hold of it, an appropriate it into our lives.   We also need to leave Elijah’s chair empty at our own table and make room in our hearts for what God can do through us.   Recall that powerful word from Christmas in Luke which says, “She (Mary) laid him in a manager, because There was no place (room) in the Inn” (Lk. 2.7), or that text in John which says, “He came unto his own, but his now did not accept him, but to all who did receive him, he gave them power to become children of God”(Jn. 1.11-12).   Now, that’s hope, but notice again, that God does not make them his children automatically, but ‘he gave them power to become God’s children’.   God holds the power and he holds the future, but we must appropriate that power and that future through obedient, responsive, and responsible hearts.   Hope requires obedience and obedience brings us hope.  

What kind of ‘obedience’ brings us hope?  Malachi does not leave us guessing.  He spells it out beginning with a question:  “Will a person rob God? ….  Bring the full tithe into the storehouse…put be to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for your and pour down for you an overflowing blessing….”   Hear we see it spelled out once and for all, not just in spiritual terms, but in the most materialistic terms we can imagine.   If you obey God by bringing him what he requires as a tithe of all you have, then you can expect heaven to be opened, and hope to pour down.   

Here we can add that Jesus too, spoke about money more than he did about Heaven or Hell combined.   Why does the Bible talk so much about money?  Why does Malachi make the ‘full tithe’ the test of true obedience and the key to unlocking a future of hope?   Interestingly, Malachi talks about the tithe, and the Bible talks about money because God wants to get right to the heart of everything.   For you see, where your ‘treasure is’, is also where your heart is (Matt. 6.21).   If you are holding back your money from God, you are holding back your heart also.   When you refuse to give God your heart, you short-change your future too.   There is a Scottish story about a fellow who thought he was putting in a penny into the offering plate, but realized that he had put in a Crown (like our dollar).  When he remarked to the usher that he meant it to be a penny, he then asked for his money back, but the usher refused.    The man looked at the usher and responded, “No matter, I’ll get credit in heaven for the Crown!”    The usher quipped, “No, you’ll only get credit for a penny!”

Obedient living is connected to obedient giving, not because God needs the money, but because you need to give.   You need to give because when you give your heart to God you gain hope from God.   You gain hope because obedience brings hope.   When you obey God, beginning with your whole heart made obvious by your tithe, you will bring hope to yourself and to will give hope to others because they ‘count you’ already living in the ‘land of delight’ (3: 12).   Giving can bring you a big heart just like that.

Does it really pay to serve and give to God what he is due?   According to Malachi, the people still had room to make a complaint.  This is how chapter 3 of Malachi ends, with their   question, which might just also be our question, “Is it vain to serve God?”  

Before they are willing to “bring the full tithe into the storehouse”, these folks wonder and ask, “What do we profit by keeping his command or by going about as mourners before the LORD” (3.14)?   I guess you could say that they fear that “tithing” or being “obedient” to God might not bring them hope, or it might not make them happy, so before they turn loose of God’s tithe, they want to know just what good it will do them, here and now, not just hereafter.   They want to know, what difference it makes to give their tithe, to give their talents, to give their treasures and to give their time to the LORD.   When they look at the way the world is and how ‘the arrogant’ seem “happy”, and how ‘evildoers prosper’, and they ‘escape’ God’s judgment, why should they give their hearts to a God who doesn’t prove himself any clearer than this?  Do you get their point?   Before they will serve, believe, and hope in God’s future, they want God to put his mouth where their money is.  I guess you could say, these are respectable, smart, calculating people, good business types, practical and pragmatic people, who, before they give, want an advance, or a down payment on their hope? It just makes good business sense, doesn’t it?   They want to ‘put (God) to the test’ (3. 10) before they give him the money.  

That’s just good business, but it’s not good faith.   And hope is based upon faith, not cold, calculating, business.  Malachi says the people who respected and ‘revered’ the LORD got together, and did not agree with this ‘test’.   Do you know why?  In their hearts, they saw how “the LORD took note and listened” and that “a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the LORD and thought on his name.”   The point is, it’s one thing when you are taking notes on God, checking up to figure whether he’s keeping up his end of the bargain, but you’d better beware that God might be the one who’s taking ‘notes’ about you.   You might forget what you wrote down, but God never forgets.  God remembers. 

And the ‘memory’ of God is not just what judgment is about, but this is also what hope is about.   Those who are evildoers or are arrogant, they might be happy now, but God remembers.  Those who are upright, obedient, and righteous, might suffer loss now, but God remembers.  God takes note.  God is not stuck with only what is happening right now, God keeps a ‘book of remembrance’ because he knows that we are all moving toward the future.  This future is where God is going.   It’s where those who are obedient to God are going to.  But guess who’s not going?  It is only those who are written in the ‘book of remembrance’, who ‘thought on his name’ who will move toward the future of what will happen next.

What will happen next on God’s calendar, according to Malachi?   “They shall be mine, say the LORD of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them…..”  Malachi concludes, that when that ‘day’ comes:  “Then you will see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between the one who serves God and one who does not serve him.”  (3.17-18).   You may not always see that difference now, God says.  You may not away see the difference between the obedient and the disobedient; you may not always see the difference between the person who is giving, and the one who does not, and you may not always see the difference between the people who serve God, and those who don’t.   You will not always see the difference now, but you will then.

When Bernie Madoff, made off with all the hard-earned investments of thousands of innocent people,  you did not see what was going to happen immediately.  Bernie Madoff lived high.  Bernie Madoff avoided the law.  Bernie Madoff and his family lived better than most people in the United States.  That was how Madoff lived for a while, but then came ‘the day’.   Now, Bernie Madoff is living in a cell in a North Carolina prison.   Now, Bernie Madoff has a family who are ashamed of him.   Now, Bernie Madoff has only one son, because the other committed suicide, rather than live with what his father did.   Now, Bernie Madoff doesn’t have a present existence as a real person, nor will he ever have a future, unless he find forgiveness from this God who remembers.  

Unless Madoff, and we, have faith and invite God’s forgiveness into our lives, not just with words, but by living an obedient life, none of us have any kind of real future.   I’ve been to the Graveyard, I’ve looked in the tomb.   I used to work at a cemetery, in Greensboro.   I used to sell plots and mausoleums, and I would sell caskets, vaults, and funeral services.   I used to try to sell the cheapest plans to people, and I would advise them to spend as little money on all that stuff as they could.  I would try to get them to buy the rubber vault, not the concrete one; and the cheaper casket, and not the mausoleums.  But people just wouldn’t do it.  They would think that when you spend all that money on a fancy casket and a large vault that their body would not rot as fast.   The big concrete ones costs over a thousand dollars, and I could sell them a rubber one for $400 dollars.   Did you know the cheap ones worked better?   I would also try to keep them in the cemetery, but some wanted to have their body above ground, in a mausoleums, for they thought the body would keep better.   I would walk into that mausoleum during a hot summer day and smell the bodies melting, liquefying, almost as soon as they were placed inside.   Their big money didn’t buy them anything, but only made matters worse.  

I know what I’m talking about, and Science knows it too.   You’ve heard it said, “When you’re dead, you’re dead!”   They are right!   For without God there is no future, no matter what you now have.  Will a man Rob God?  How can any person rob God?   It is God who ‘remembers’ and holds the key to the future.   Without God no one has a future.   Without God there is nothing to have and nothing to hold on to.  But with God, there is a future that is coming.    With God there will be a big difference between what we know now, and what we will come to know.  “See, the day is coming….”  Malachi concludes.  “For you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in his wings” (4.2). When that day comes, “you will go like calves leaping from the stall” (4.2b).   “They” on the other hand, those who are arrogant, evil and disobey,  Malachi says, “will be like ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when (God) act(s), says the LORD of hosts” (4:3)  

Will a person rob God!   You can’t really rob God, because God is the future.  When you try to rob God, you are only robbing yourself of what only God can give.   Amen.