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Sunday, June 28, 2020

“Once for All...”

A sermon based upon Hebrews 9: 11-15
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday July 5thth, 2020 (10/10. How Jesus Saves.)

During CNN’s democratic debate early this year, Ron Reagan, son of the late president, ran a rather unexpected commercial for The Freedom From Religion Foundation

In a few shocking moments, he made a bold announcement that he was an atheist against the ‘intrusion’ of religion into our secular government. 

Reagan also made it clear that he wholeheartedly agreed with the separation of church and state as our forefathers had intended.  

But it was how he ended that was really the attention-getter.  In a rather brass and bragging way he finished with,, “Please support the Freedom From Religion Foundation.   I’m Ron Reagan, life-long atheist, and not afraid of burning in hell.”

There was a lot of ‘googling’ going on after Reagan made that statement.  It was indeed bold, even for an increasingly secular world like ours.   So, how did Ron, the son of the late President, known to be a person of faith, get to be such an unabashed atheist?

Mark Tooley, writing for the Christian Post, wrote that as a child, “Ron Jr. asked his father why church was necessary if God was everywhere.  His father answered: “Well, you know, God says, wherever two or more shall gather, there shall I be.” Reagan Jr. was unimpressed by the answer. He also had unanswerable questions about the sequence of cavemen versus Adam and Eve. So at age 12 he announced to his father he didn’t believe in God and would no longer attend church. His father was surprised but didn’t argue...”

“Later Reagan Sr. tried “quiet persuasion” at “some length” but failed to persuade his son about God or church.  So he asked Bel Air Pastor Don Moomaw, a formidable former UCLA football player and large personality, to visit the Reagan home and persuade his son, also without success.

Reagan Jr. has ever since been a firm atheist, ostensibly respecting others’ religious beliefs but opposing their political application.  “Religion may indeed inspire acts of great kindness and courage,” he said back in 2009. “But it also trains people to believe things for which there is no evidence ... Reagan Jr. expressed confidence that atheism would eventually prevail over religion:  “Religions may persist, but they come and they go. Where are the old Norse gods today? Where are the worshippers of Amon-Ra today?  A thousand years from now, what will people make of a man tortured to death on a cross, of a prophet who was said to ride a white horse up to a mythical heaven?”

“Faith will fade, religions will flower and vanish, but reason remains,” Reagan Jr. concluded. “Reason is where I put my faith, if you will. Reason is where I stand, and I am happy to stand there with you.”

Did you catch Ron Jr.’s conclusion: ‘Reason is where I put my faith....’?  Doesn’t that sound contradictory?  Even an atheist makes a faith statement when they say there is no God, just like a believer makes a faith statement to express faith in God.  Since human knowledge is always partial, we ALL must have some kind of faith.  Just like you can’t live by ‘bread alone’, human’s can’t live by the facts alone either.  As a song says, ‘You’ve gotta have faith.’

We must have faith, but faith is always on the move too.   This is what people, like Ron Jr., who struggle with religion miss.  He thought you couldn’t have Cave men and the Bible.  He thought that we Christians only read history through the Bible.  But the Bible is not scientific history, it’s ‘Faith’ history.  The Bible tells us about how God works to save throughout history, but the Bible doesn’t tell us how history works.  It tells us about faith, and unlike history, faith is a moving target.  If you aim at it, either to deny or destroy it, you’re normally aiming at what it was, not what it is or will be.  This is why true faith is indestructible.  Our God is a living God who is on the move, just as we are a people who on the move.   

And no book in the Bible shows how God is a loving, living and eternal God, better than the book of Hebrews.   While Hebrews clearly declares that Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, and forever (13:8), it also says that in through the ‘blood’ of Jesus God has opened up a ‘new an living way’ (10:20), making the old way ‘obsolete’ (8:13).  God is the same, Jesus is the same, but how God works can change, and is always on the move, with us, and for us, just as we are on the move.  

In this, the final message about God’s saving work through Jesus Christ, we can see exactly how Israel’s God was moving from an Old Testament way of doing things to a New Testament way.  In Jesus, God was doing a new thing, but what does this mean for us?  How is this God’s saving work in Jesus still the same ‘yesterday, today, and tomorrow’ in our ever-changing world?

For example, looking directly at our text, when was the last time you had a need of a ‘high priest?

Recently in England, the BBC ran a special program about the 10 commandments in England today.  Before the program aired, they polled to ask which of the 10 Commandments people thought were still relevant.  Only 2 made the cut: Don’t Kill.  Don’t steal.    Honor Your father and mother and don’t commit adultery didn’t make it into the top ten, but they were, at least still in the top twenty.  The British poll came up with a whole new set of top ten rules for modern life.

Starting with 10 and counting down, they were: (10) Protect your family.  (9) Don’t be violent.  (8) Look after the vulnerable.  (7) Protect the environment.  (6) Protect and nurture children.  (5) Don’t steal.  (4) Be honest.  (3) Don’t kill.  (2) Take responsibility for your actions.  And number one:  (1)Treat others as you want to be treated.

I don’t think Jesus would have any real problems with this new top 10, except for one thing?   Do you see what’s missing?  There is no mention of the first commandment of Moses:  I am the Lord, your God. Have no other gods before me.   The foundation of faith in God in Moses and Jesus’ commandments, were replaced with another commandment found in the top twenty: ‘Be true to your own god’’ however, or whoever, your god might be.     

So, in a world where we,
         Write our own commandments,
Make our own rules,
Chose our own gods,
Who needs a high priest? 

While people aren’t thinking about High Priests these days, people still need help, and are still going somewhere for help.  Interestingly as fewer and fewer people go to church, require services of a priest, or need a pastor, more and more people are turning to psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, therapists, spiritual guru’s and life coaches.  

And why are people still needing professionals who sound very much like priests?   Maybe it’s because it’s one thing to come up with new commandments and new ways for living, but it’s quite another thing to be able to put these rules into practice.

It’s one thing to have new rules and ways to follow, but it’s quite another thing to handle the frustration, disappointment and pain that comes from when you fail to live up to your own expectations or when you can’t get others to see things like you do.

Might it also be that while it sounds good to have your own god, but what if you discover that deep down inside you are still restless and dissatisfied?

What if, in spite of our own attempts to:
Write our own commandments,
Make our own rules,
Choose our own gods,

We still have this nagging sense that things are not as they should be and people are still looking for someone, some guru or expert, who will tell them how they should live or give them some advise that will make life better.

It was into a world where people were still seeking healing and wholeness, even after Moses, Elijah and John the Baptist,  and even after the apostle Paul too, that the book of Hebrews first announced that Jesus is the one they should still be looking to.    

Hebrews is saying that Jesus is the one who still ‘fits the bill’ of healer, messiah, and Savior.   He’s the one we should still be looking to, as well.  He’s the one we should be looking to because he is ‘the High Priest (11) who has offered the final sacrifice to deal with sin and its terrible consequences.  Through Jesus, God has done a new thing, that is ‘greater’ (11) than what God did before with ‘goats and calves’ (12) and this sacrifice is perfect (11), complete, and obtains ‘eternal redemption’ (12).    Listen to how the writer of Hebrews explains this in his own words, contrasting the way God used to save from sin, and how God saves now: 
For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified,
 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit1 offered himself without blemish to God, purify our2 conscience from dead works to worship the living God!   (Heb. 9:13-14 NRS).

Of course, this may have meant a lot to Jews becoming Christians, but what does all this ‘blood’ sprinkling language mean for us? 

How many of you have been to the doctor for a ‘blood test’?   I have elevated cholesterol and because of being adopted and not knowing my family history, I’ve had to take cholesterol medicine and I have to have regular blood tests.   No one gets to take much of any kind of new medicine without a blood tests.

When we talk about ‘blood’ in our culture today, it touches a nerve.  Some people even feel faint at seeing blood.  Even today, our culture makes many references to blood.  We talk about ‘cold-blooded murder’.  We talk about paying ‘blood-money’.  We talk about ‘blood brothers’ and ‘blood-relatives’.   We talk about things that make your ‘blood boil’, and people who are ‘hot-blooded’.  

And when we talk about ‘blood’ in these ways, it’s a way of saying that:
This thing is serious.
This this is important, and
This is thing is a matter of life and death.
And when the book of Hebrews talks about ‘the blood of Christ’ (14) it’s pointing to something serious; something that has life and death importance.  

In many churches today, both in the preaching, the music, and the religious conversations have gotten away from language like being ‘washed in the blood of the lamb’.   I recall having a college professor who said that language like this didn’t belong in the church anymore.  It wasn’t that he was against Jesus or didn’t believe that Jesus died for us, but he just didn’t think the Bible’s ‘bloody’ sacrificial language had anything to say to our modern world.  

But before we think that all this ‘blood’ and ‘sacrifice’ language has become irrelevant, we need to understand that this language was indeed the life-and-death language of the ancient world, and it is still a very dramatic way of describing the way and reason Jesus died on the cross in a sacrificial way.

When you scan Hebrews, there’s a lot being described about Jesus.  Jesus is portrayed as the one:
Who has shared our human existence,
Who has faced the full force of temptation,
Who, in the power of the Spirit, has resisted temptation and remained                          obedient to God.
Who has offered himself to God in both life and death through the power                        of theHoly Spirit.
Who is the perfect sacrifice to repair the damage done to us by sin.
Who removes the sin which separates us from God,
And who reunites fallible, flawed, sinful people like us to the living, holy God.

In our text, and in many other places in Hebrews,  we are told that God once provided a system of sacrifices to keep sin under control; but now in Christ, the final, ‘once and for all’, most costly sacrifice has been offered through the eternal Spirit (14).   

And it is by the power of the Spirit that the benefits of Christ’s sacrificial death are applied to our lives today, by grace, through faith, which is the gift of God’s love to us, even while we are still sinners.  This is the language of the Bible that still works.  This is the language of the Bible that points to how God still saves.  This is the language of the Spirit that has changed how faith works, from a temporary form into a final, eternal form that will is the same ‘yesterday, today, and forever’.   

What is it that could ‘change’ your perspective ‘forever’?

Often we receive or hear an advertisement saying that we need to have something new.  We need a new car, a new insurance policy, a new medicine, or we need to try a new fast food?  It’s better than what you have now, so you need it, right?   And you don’t just need it, but when you get this or that, it will change and transform your life FOREVER!   We’re used to that kind of hype, and we’re not easily fooled by it

But here, the letter of Hebrews IS, in fact, making a claim like that.  Should we dare believe it?  We’re heard it so many times before.  We live in a world that is full of ‘snake oil salesmen’ too.   And we all know that religious claims get exaggerated, right?  Some of the things we heard, have even been down right lies.  We think of Earnest Angsley, Jim Baker, or some other ‘false’ healing preacher.   How do we know what Hebrews says is true?    How do we know that Jesus is the ‘High Priest of good things that have come’ that are not of ‘this creation’ (11)?   How do we know that Jesus has acted as our representative, our attorney, counsel before God?   How do we know that through his life, death, and resurrection something distinctive, decisive and pivotal has happened ‘once and for all’?

Can we know that through Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection that:
         We have been set free from the burden of failure?
Our troubled consciences can be cleansed and healed.
We have been released from sin’s power so we can serve the living God.
We can move from ‘dead works’ to worship this God who lives! (9:14).

At a time when so many people are looking for something, and for someone who will bring them hope, healing, and wholeness, the Church is called to point people to this Savior who is the true Savior, and is uniquely qualified to act as a reliable life coach both in this world and in the next.

How we know this is not something that I can make you know, convince you of, or argue you into, but the only way to ‘know’ that this Jesus is for real is in the same way Jesus offered himself, through ‘the eternal Spirit’ (14).  It only through God’s Holy Spirit that you or I can be convinced of what matters most and who makes a the difference. 

And while there is no doubt that Jesus has been preached as a new and living way to offer God’s mercy and hope, whether or not Jesus is the way YOU receive God’s eternal hope in this very temporary life is up to you.   Hebrews clearly says, Jesus is the ‘mediator of a new covenant’ so that ‘those who are called may receive an eternal inheritance’ (15).  The question is not whether Jesus brings the ‘new covenant’ of promise.  He did.  The question is also not whether Jesus offers us an ‘eternal inheritance (gift).  He does.  No, the only question is whether you have been ‘called’ to receive Him.   Many are called, but few are chosen’, Scripture says.   

Mikey Anders compares how God works with people through Jesus Christ like a jeweler who works with gems.  In the natural state, diamonds appear as hard, irregular lumps that shine only with a greasy luster and not at all with their finished brilliance. Their beauty is given them by the skill of the stonecutter, who grinds and polishes their surfaces so that they sparkle.

It is not the size of a diamond, but the light reflected that gives the stone its value. The Tiffany diamond, now valued at $2,000,000, was cut from 287.42 carats to 128.51 carats, with 90 facets. When displayed in the Fifth Avenue store window, it could be seen all the way across the avenue.  The only way the value of a diamond can be increased is by cutting. Experts in Paris studied the Tiffany diamond for one year before a single blow was struck in the cutting.

A diamond is said to be the hardest substance in existence, and all because it has been through the fire. The diamonds that reflect the most light have received the roughest treatment. Yet the greatest care is taken by the jeweler not to damage the stone in any way. Every flaw must be cut out, even a microscopic flaw. ( As quoted Mickey Anders from Lois Hoadley Dick, Amy Carmichael, Let the Little Children Come, Chicago: Moody Press, 1984, p. 149).

We can be compared to diamonds because something or someone must take care of our flaws before we can shine with the brightness God intended.  It is through the perfect sacrifice and example of Jesus Christ that God takes care of our flaws.   

For Jesus is not just a superior life coach who makes us look better or a therapist who makes us feel better.  No, Jesus is the ‘high priest’ of a whole new promise.  Jesus came to directly deal with the mess and muddle of our lives.  He came to offer his life as the perfect sacrifice ‘without blemish’ so that God’s redeeming love can ‘cut out our flaws’ and set us free to shine in freedom and to live by faith.  Jesus came not only to forgive us, but so that God can give his love and live his life through us.   Or to put it as Hebrews does, as the perfect, final, ‘once and for all sacrifice, Jesus ‘offered himself without blemish to God, to purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! (Heb. 9:14 NRS). 

There is no doubt to me, that this is what God was doing in Jesus.  
Why else would we still be talking about Jesus today?  
Jesus offered his life as a sacrifice for sin.  
The only thing that is still left open is this: whether or not we offer ourselves, and our lives to him?  Amen.

**Based upon a sermon by Peter Stevenson in Preaching the Atonement, WJK, 2009, pp. 166-170.

“See...That No One Takes You Captive”

A sermon based upon Colossians 2: 6-20
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday June 28th, 2020 (9/10. How Jesus Saves.)

Clayton Lord tells about a man who decided that he wanted to live a good life.
        He set his mind to developing healthy habits.
He read every book he could find that laid out the path to a long and productive life.
He never smoked, drank, or overindulged at the table.
He ate fresh fruit and vegetables and stayed away from preservatives.
He exercised every day and got his eight hours of sleep each night.
He lived in the country and avoided going into the city with its smog and high incidence of crime and disease.
He visited his doctor regularly and he was set to live to be 100 years old.

But, he was only 53 when he died.  He is survived by eighteen specialists, four health institutions, six gymnasiums, and numerous manufacturers of health foods and drugs.

If only the secret to a long and happy life was that easy.  The truth is that we can follow all the rules and still come up short.  No one has all the answers. Yet we keep looking for them. And people keep telling us that they have just the answer we need.


A.  Many claim to have answers to life’s challenges...
Haven’t you received a letter or email like this? 

Dr. Mr. Tomlin.  It’s not a pleasant thought, but if you died would your family face financial difficulties?  
Would your partner be able to take care of all the bills and expenses your income now provides? 
Could they earn enough?  Could they take care of the home and the children?   Would your savings provide enough security? 
...Never fear, the letter concludes, we have the answer.   
If you sign up before your next birthday, you get a discount.
Wouldn’t the security of your family be worth just pennies a day.

Now, I’m certainly not against insurance, but the somber truth is: 
Life is fragile.  We do live in an unpredictable world.  We are all going to die...  There are no guarantees.  There are no easy answers.  But there are a lot of claims for answers out there.

I’ve heard recently that with Christianity on the decline, Astrology is making a comeback.  Astrologers say all the answers are in the stars.  All you have to do his read and follow your daily Horoscope.   It’s all about fate, not faith.   If everything in the heavens lines up for you, then you’re in luck.  But what if everything doesn’t add up?   Well, maybe you need to consult a card reader?  Maybe you need to call this number?  You can even do this on your computer.  Pick a card, scratch three numbers.  Listen to the interpretation and you can better navigate your life.  You only have to pay $1.00 a minute, for 4 ½ minutes.

Or if that’s too challenging and daunting, what about consulting a Psychic?   
 You can also find Psychic Readings Online; 10 minutes for only $1.99.   That’s a steal of a deal.  Here are the top 10 websites.  They’ve been tested for accuracy.  You can chat with an advisor right now.   You don’t have to wait.  Their good advice and guidance is going to blow your mind.  Advisors are available to you 24/7.    We have a special Promo going on now.   It’s $4.99 cents a minute or 30 minutes for $20,  20 minutes for $15, or 10 minutes for $10.  Remember, every reading comes with a money back satisfaction guarantee. 

Yes, life is fragile.   We don’t live in a predictable world.  We’re never certain what tomorrow will bring.   And after death...?  Well, it’s a matter of faith, not fact.   All this uncertainty makes us uncertain and sometimes afraid.  But there are plenty of Psychics, Astrologers, Life-Guides and religious gurus out there, who are saying, never fear—WE HAVE JUST THE ANSWER YOU NEED.

B.  There were many claims to answers in Paul’s day too.
Even in Paul's day human ‘answers’ were constantly being suggested, either through sophisticated philosophy or human traditions (v.8).   It’s difficult to reconstruct exactly what this was.  Paul insists that it was a shallow, elemental (v.8) way of thinking---where may have had some merit, but were only a ‘shadow of things to come’.  This included a ‘false humility’ (NIV), the worship of angels, ‘visions’ leading only to an even more self-centered life-style.  No one knows whether this was a perverted kind of Judaism or a perverted Christianity, but it was filled with ‘regulations’ (v.20, 22) which were supposed to give spiritual answers for life only through human ways of thinking (v. 18).  And these ‘answers’ were not just given as suggestions or arguments (v.4), but they were also being promoted (v. 23) and commanded (v.22) for people to follow.   

Now, in our time, we think we are far beyond such elemental thinking.   I recall being in Brazil, sharing my faith and meeting a woman who worshipped ‘trees’.  We call it ‘animism’.  It’s a form of religion that goes back to ancient times and primitive cultures, which believed that every part of nature was filled with a divine spirit.  Now, don’t get me wrong, there is certainly something to appreciating nature and believing that God created nature and that we should respect nature.  That is perhaps what animism was getting at, but there was much more to life and to God than worshipping the ‘powers’ of nature.    Now, of course we are beyond all that, right?

Just the other day, I saw a new Lincoln Aviator commercial with Matthew McConaughey.  Did you see it?  I like Matthew McConaughey as an actor.  I’m not knocking advertising Lincoln Aviator’s either.  But what struck me about this commercial is how not a single word was spoken, but it’s preaching a way of life.  McConaughey simply drives his Lincoln Aviator to a very remote spot in the Rocky Mountains, he turns up his air-conditioning to 78 degrees, opens the rear hatch, leaves his vehicle to drill a hole for ice fishing, then returns to his Aviator to sit down to enjoy the freezing while he waits for something to bite.  As the camera pulls away and shows the Aviator with the rugged but beautiful natural snowy mountain backdrop, the caption simply reads, “Lincoln:  The Power of Sanctuary”. 

It’s beautiful, but its really not simply selling a car or SUV, but it’s selling a way of life, and a car as a way of ‘sanctuary’ away from life—real, responsible life.  Again, nothing wrong with vacationing, or getting away from for a while, but we all know what is really on display to be sold here.  It’s not the view of the mountains, but it’s the high-priced way to prove you have finally found peace and sanctuary away from the world.  

The world around is filled with these kinds of advertisements and promotions, isn’t it?  Some much of it is still ‘snake-oil’, too.   But most of the time, we think nothing of it.  We’re used to it.  We ignore it.   We don’t think we’re trapped by it.  But our world, the world we all live in, not only survives but also thrives off selling and promoting ideas like this---that the ultimate goal of life is to get rich, to have everything you want, and to work so hard you can finally get away from everything.  This is what you work for, no matter what it ends up costing you.   This is still the promoting of ‘elemental spirits’ in our world; it’s not a world without religion, but it’s a different kind of secular ‘religion’ that continues to spawn new traditions and release continual currents of greed, selfishness and false worship.   

As I was preparing this message, news came out that the World Series Champs, the Houston Astros, were accused of cheating.   They reported used hidden cameras to send view hand signals of the opposition, and then signaled hitters on what kind of pitch was coming.  Will this result in them losing their Trophy?  Probably not.  But it might cause them to lose their integrity, the reported said.  But who cares about that?  Did cheating cause the other team to hit the ball less?  How do you hold a Baseball Team accountable for something that can’t be proved? 

This is the kind of world we live in; a world too often ruled by ‘elemental spirits’ that take people captive and rule their lives by ‘empty deceit’ (v. 8).   What can people do to resist these negative powers (1:13) and traditions?  So much of life is beyond our control.   The people in Colosse felt stuck and helpless too.  Some of them even felt condemned (v. 16) or disqualified (v. 18) from following Jesus, feeling they had to submit (v. 20) to these human ways and expectations, but were no better off (v. 23).  

In a world filled both false worship and deceitful thinking, Paul challenges the Church in Colosse to stay with Christ.  Even the best of the world’s ideas and traditions are but a ‘shadow of things to come’ he says, but ‘the substance belongs to Christ’ (v. 17). 

A.  So,  what about Jesus?   Is he and his way any different?
Recently, I was given a book written by a college of mine, who went through Missionary Training with me, and now is pastor of First Baptist Church, Huntsville, Alabama.   Huntsville is nicknamed ‘rocket city’ because it was here that the race to the moon was administrated.  The leader of that effort was a German Scientist, named Wernher Von Braun. 

My college, Travis Collins, recently wrote a brief book about him, not so much to tell Von Braun’s story alone, but to point to Von Braun’s tremendous drive and great intellect, accompanied by a deep faith in God.  Von Braun never saw any type of conflict between Faith and Science.  He saw them as complementary, not contradictory.   Faith tells us how to subdue our hearts, while Science helps us subdue the forces of nature for human good.  “Both of them, he told a friend on a fishing trip, “are ‘windows’ through which we find the truth to see both the reality our creator and the reality of God’s creation.  

In particular, Wernher Von Braun had some profound things to say about God becoming a human being in Jesus Christ.  In response to people living only to please themselves,” Von Braun wrote, “the whole world has become infected and has become ‘sinful’, but in response to our desperate condition, God ‘reduced himself’ to the stature of humanity in order to visit the earth”...not to remain ‘seated on a heavenly throne, but to enter the battlefield of life’ and to call us to change our ways.  But what did we do, but ‘nail him to a cross’?    I find it fascinating that the person most instrumental in one of America’s greatest scientific achievements, also believed in what Paul called, ‘the substance that belongs to Christ’ (2:17).

In a related story, in the most recent Netflix series, The Crown, one show in the series included a very captivating story about America’s Moon Landing, which particularly impressed the Queen’s royal husband, prince Philip.  When the Queen invited the Apollo Eleven crew to her home, Prince Philip requested a special moment alone with the crew.  He was under the impression that these guys were super heroes, but during the interview came to learn they were just men, like him, who were doing their job. 

Through the experience, Prince Philip started to face the fact that he had not been doing his job very well.  He had also lost in faith in God.  He had been looking in space, but he hadn’t been looking deep enough into the space in his own heart.   After the visit from the Astronauts, Prince Philip renewed his faith and was instrumental in started a Christian ministry to help ‘burned out ministers’.  He said that participating in this ministry of renewal became his most rewarding achievement.

B.  Paul claims that Jesus is different---the full truth of God.
The ‘substance that belongs to Christ’ (v. 17) is much more than a philosophy of life, a spirit, a tradition or just another human way of thinking, but Paul says that ‘in him the fullness of divine nature dwells in a bodily form (v. 9).  

Now, Paul is not trying to speak in a complicated way, but he is using the language of philosophers of his day to preach the truth of Jesus Christ.  What he means is that while on earth, Jesus was God with a human body, just as he was a human with the heart of God.  As the great scholars of the church came to explain, there was nothing in Jesus that wasn’t fully God, and there wasn’t anything in Jesus that wasn’t fully human.  He was both at the same time.   This is what orthodox, true Christian faith has always said,, but what does it mean?   What does this mean to say that Jesus was the fullness of God in a human body.   How does this help us to face the negative powers that are still in this world today?  

C.  Through Christ’s Sacrifice, He alone wipes the slate clean...nails sins to the cross.   I really like what Paul says next, almost in the same breath or stroke of a pen.  He not only says that Jesus is the fullness of God, but he then tells the Colossians that by receiving Christ, and by continuing to live their lives in him (v.6), they have ‘come to fulness in him who is the head of every ruler and authority...’ (v. 10).   Here, Paul is not talking merely about earthly rulers or authorities, but he is talking about ‘powers’ that are both ‘visible and invisible’ (1:16), which includes the negative powers that put him on the cross (v. 15) and the negative powers in the world that are out to destroy humanity and God’s good creation, either through negative religion or negative thinking.  

How does Jesus ‘disarm’ (NRSV, NIV) or ‘spoil’ (KJV) the work of the evil powers that stand over against us?  Interestingly, Paul says Jesus does this through His death on the cross, where our sins are forgiven, (13), where the record against us is erased (v. 14) , and figuratively, where they God ‘nailed all our sins to the cross’ (14).   What Paul means is that when Jesus died because of our sins, he also died ‘for us’ to release us from the negative power our sins have over us.  Jesus not only forgave us, he bears our sins, he defeats the negative powers against us, and he releases us to live victoriously and triumphantly.   Jesus does this because he loves us, rather than condemns us.

This love is the ‘victory’ we mean when we sing the song, ‘Victory In Jesus’, the Baptist National Anthem, I like to call it.   We can’t win the victory over sin alone, nor can we triumph over the negative of life, which is like a deck of cards stacked against us.   But we can ‘win’ against these powers, through the power of forgiving love in Jesus Christ.   We can win over all the major negative powers in life;  sin, the law, and death itself, because Jesus himself was victorious over these powers.   As the great Charles Wesley wrote, in what I’d call the Methodist national anthem, “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing, in verses 4 and 5:   His love my heart has captive made, His captive would I be, For He was bound, and scourged and died,  My captive soul to free.
He breaks the power of canceled sin,  He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean;  His blood availed for me.

One of the most important ways to understand the cross of Jesus is that Jesus by dying on the cross, Jesus defeats not just the evil that was against him, but he also the enslaving, negative evil powers that still work against us.  Notice, it does not say that Jesus takes the evil powers out of the world, but it does say that the makes ‘spoil’ of them, he ‘disarms’ them, and ‘makes a public example of them’ triumphant over them through his resurrection, but also robbing these them of the enslaving power they once had over us.   

In the history of the church, there have been at least three major ways to understand what Jesus accomplished on the cross.  Jesus died on the cross as a ‘sacrifice’ for sin, because by substituting himself he took the penalty of our sins upon himself and sets us free.   This was the major way the great reformers understood the cross, and it is still the most dominate today. 

But another way the cross has been understood is that Jesus died on the cross as an example of how a righteous person should live and die.  By giving us this example, Jesus not only shows us how to live, he gives us the promise that if we live and die for what is right, we have God’s promise of hope in Christ’s resurrection.  That’s another way to understand the cross. 

The third major way to understand the cross, is what is going on right here.  It was just as important in the world Paul lived in, to understand that on the cross, a bigger battle was going on than just between Jesus and the Roman authorities.  This was a larger, cosmic, struggle against evil, against the devil, of good against evil, and it was the struggle against what sin, the law and what death can do to us, which is probably the most important reason of all.   On the cross, Jesus was not only dying for us, he was also in the spiritual battle with us, and he won this battle against all that seeks to destroy us in life.

One of the oldest ways this reality was explained in the early church, after the time of the Bible, was that when the Devil came to destroy God’s work in Jesus, Jesus took the humble way of weakness and dying.  In fact,  in Jesus, God allowed Satan to win, drawing him in just like drawing a fish with a lure.   But just when it looked like Satan could take the bait and run, through the resurrection of Jesus, God reeled Satan in, and won the victory over sin, the law, and death itself.   This is kind of the ‘Road Runner’ Cartoon way of explaining the cross.   I don’t mean this in a silly way either.   In a very serious way,  God disarms Satan’s power over us, because like the Road Runner, Jesus and us look weak compared to a Coyote.  And we are.  But even though we are weak, God takes all Satan’s weapons against us away.  There is no more sin against us, because we are forgiven.  There is no more law against us, because we have grace.  And there is no more death against us, because we have the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ.   That’s how quick, God went ‘beep, beep’ and the whole world changed.  There is still sin.  There is still law.  And there is still death too, but ‘beep, beep’, God does not use it against us.   Jesus has revealed God’s righteousness as forgiving, redeeming, and resurrecting love.

While Paul doesn’t go into great detail about how Jesus accomplishes, other parts of the Bible do.   We are told in Hebrews, that Jesus won this ‘victory’ because of his obedience.  We are also told in Ephesians, that Jesus invites us to fight life’s battle in a way we can win over evil too.   “Put on the whole armour of God!”  But right here in this text we are told the how where the victory was first won, by God for us, so that we can now win the victory through God in Jesus Christ.   Jesus wins the victory through the cross---by nailing our sins to the cross (14).

The terrible horror and humility of the cross is the most unlikely place to find anyone being saved, let alone Jesus saving us all.  But that’s exactly what God had in mind.  It was on the cross, in the most unlikely place, in the greatest weakness and in the most humiliated defeat, that God reveals that the power is not a human power that saves, but it is only God’s power that saves.   The ‘power’ that saves us eternally, can’t be a human power, and it’s certainly not.  It’s only God’s power that reveals the true nature of God’s love on the cross, and it’s only God’s power that raises Jesus from the dead, and it’s also only God’s power that can save us from the negatives of this world; from sin, the condemnation of the law, and from death itself.

After Rosa Parks sat on that bus, and was condemned by the white racist laws of that existed in the deep south and was put in jail,  a couple of wealthy white women went to that jail and bailed Rosa out.  Rosa remained friends with those women the rest of their lives, and they remained friends with Rosa.  In fact, in a letter to them, Rosa called them both ‘battle partners’.   They were in a battle against sin, the condemnation of the law and were all living under the threat of death, but love drew the evil powers out in the open and love triumph over all.   That’s how love works.  That’s how God works.  That’s another way Jesus saves, by ‘erasing the record’ of what stand against us, making a public example of what’s wrong, and by nail it all to God’s ultimate power of love on the cross.   And this is not a power that immediately triumphs out there in the world, but it’s a power that always starts in the human heart.  That’s why Jesus told his disciples, “Don’t rejoice because the demons are subject to you, but rejoice because your name is written in heaven!”   The power Jesus gives starts in you, winning in you, and then God gives you, the Victory and Power of Jesus over the whole world.   Amen.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Reconciling the World...”

A sermon based upon 2 Corinthians 5: 11-6:2
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership,
Sunday June 21th, 2020 (8/10. How Jesus Saves.)

Happy Father’s Day!  Today we continue our series of messages about our salvation through Jesus Christ.  But let me begin with a Fatherhood story that points us in that direction.

Bob Stamps was once on the faculty at Oral Roberts University. Bob was a delightful man with a good sense of humor. He was also bald.   One night he and his wife decided to go out to dinner and hired a babysitter to take care of their little children. While they were gone, the babysitter got interested in a television program and wasn't watching the children very carefully. Their little boy Peter Andrew, got into his father's electric shaver and shaved a big landing strip right down the middle of his head.

When his father came home, he was furious. He said, "Peter Andrew! I told you never to play with my shaver. Now you are going to have to be punished!"  He was just about to announce the punishment when Peter Andrew looked up at him and said, "Wait until you see sister!"

Bob Stamps said they were horrified. They went into the next room and there was their little four-year-old daughter with hair shaved off of her head. She looked like a little skinned rabbit. By this time Bob Stamps was really furious. He grabbed up Peter Andrew and said, "Now you are really going to get it." Just as he started to display his wrath in full when Peter Andrew looked up at him with tears in his eyes and said, "But Daddy! WE WERE JUST TRYING TO LOOK LIKE YOU!"   There was one little boy who didn't get punished that night. Instead he got an explanation and a hug.

On this Father’s Day we are looking at our salvation in Jesus Christ and what God has done to make us new people, better people and better parents too.  In this text Paul announces clearly, ‘If any one is in Christ, they are a new creation (v. 17).  Paul also tells us what our Heavenly Father has specifically done to make us new, better, people.  Paul explains that in Jesus Christ, God has reconciled us (v. 18) and has also reconciled the (whole) world unto himself (v. 19).  Or, as one Christian has put it, through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, instead of punishing the world for sin and wrong, our heavenly Father reconciles himself by giving the world a hug and makes a way to bring us back together with him and with others.

ONE HAS DIED FOR ALL... (14).  The Source of Reconciliation
It’s no accident that this very conciliatory language appears in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.  Perhaps Paul needed a hug too.  If you read this very personal letter closely, you can feel the tension.  Paul was having to write this letter to defend his ministry.   Even though Paul founded the church in Corinth with blood, sweat, and tears, at the risk of his own life, now everything he has done and is, as an apostle of Jesus Christ, has come under attack.

How did this happen?  Well, from the very opening lines of 1st Corinthians, Paul speaks of divisions and differences between members of the congregation based upon different styles of preachers.   Instead of rejoicing in how God works through differences, people started comparing their former preachers, Paul, Peter, to their current very gifted preacher named Apollos.  Some were even ranking them and taking sides.  Their natural differences had become a point of contention and conflict.

It’s sad when people have to measure themselves or others over against each other.  It’s even sadder when our natural differences become sharp divisions in church or life.  Very naturally we are all different, having differing viewpoints, different gifts, different strengths and different weaknesses.   But the human tendency to pick winners over losers and to choose a ‘top dog’ among us doesn’t do anything to help create a sense of unity or purpose in our lives.

What Paul is trying to help the people see in this letter, is how God had worked through each of them and how these differences, and even the weaknesses were all part of God’s plan.  Paul encouraged the people in Corinth to focus on glorifying God for what God had done through them all and for them all.  He wants to invite them to reconcile themselves to God and each other, and he wants them
join in God’s work of reconciliation, through Jesus’s death on the cross.  “And he died for ALL,” Paul says, “so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” (2 COR. 5: 15).  These are powerful words under any circumstance, but particularly in light of the divisiveness taking place at Corinth.  Jesus ‘died for us ALL!

Paul words remind me of those difficult and very divisive times that were taking place between Baptist’s back in the 1980’s.  I was in a State Baptist meeting when there was a lot of divisive discussion taking place.  In the heat of all that was happening, Mr. Harris, an 81 year old elderly layman from Charlotte, one of the founders of Harris and Teeter Supermarket chain, stood up and made a motion.  The motion was not directly related to all the discussion, but all the divisiveness had made every thing difficult.  Perhaps this was why after this elderly Christian made his emotional appeal, Mr. Harris went home that night and had a heart attack and died.

Paul wants the Corinthians to know that Jesus died too.  This must not be in vain, he says.  Jesus came to earth to make God’s appeal of love for us all, all the same.  As Paul said later to another church, speaking of Christ’s reconciling work, Jesus died to ‘reconcile all things to himself,...  ‘making peace through the blood of his cross’ (Col. 1:19-20).   At the cross our reconciliation begins.  It begins in the heart of God. ‘All this is from God!’ (18).  

FROM NOW ON... (16)   The Significance of Reconciliation
With all this conciliatory language around the cross of Jesus, we find that reconciliation has much more than a religious purpose, but it’s practical, intentional, and relational.  By revealing God’s love through Christ’s love ‘for our sakes’, Paul says God aims to change our hearts, to make us a new creation (17) and to urge us (14), or compel us into the righteousness of God (v. 21).

God’s reconciling work in the heart (12) can already be seen in Paul himself, when he reflects on how God’s saving work in him has changed how he sees people, after he came to see and understand Jesus differently.  ‘From now on,’ Paul says, ‘therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  (2 Corinthians 5:15–16, NRSV).   The love that Christ has for Paul is also the same love Christ has for all, which is the very same inclusive, reconciling love a God has for the world.  You can’t fully understand the love of God for you until you realize it includes God’s love for the whole world.

This kind of reconciling work is still the most needed and necessary human work, isn’t it?  With constant tensions between peoples, nations, and religions in the world, we still need changes of heart toward each other, not just for our own sakes, but for the sake of the world’s future.

Do you recall that Nursery Rhyme we learned that describes our human condition so simply that even a child can understand?    Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,  Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses   And all the king’s men  Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.

Humpty Dumpty was an egg.  As a very vulnerable, fragile egg, he’s how easily represented humans might ‘fall off of the wagon’ in life.  Humpty Dumpty depicts even to children, the the reality of human brokenness.  And nowhere are humans more vulnerable to break that when we ‘break up’ in our relationships with each other.  Think about it:
When Churches split, they almost never come back together again.
When marriages break, they normally end in divorce court.
When businesses get swallowed up by larger conglomerates, they’re never the same.
We live in a world where the ways of living are always dangerous, where we can still break and not be put back together again.

In his book, The Shaking of the Foundations, Paul Tillich, the great religion teacher from Chicago, said that in every soul there is a sense of aloneness and separation.  He named our greatest human problem: alienation.   This idea wasn’t original with him.  He got it from what other social thinkers were seeing in the early 20th century.  They were watching closely what was happening as we moved from agricultural to industrial life, and it wasn’t good.  They saw how people could even be neighbors, or part of the same family and become alienated from each other (Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, Charles Scribner’s & Sons, NY, p. 156, 1955).

This was part of what was happening almost everywhere, and in some way, to almost everyone.   As we continue to grow up, get richer, get wealthier, and get smarter too; we also tend to lose touch with each other.  We don’t stay in the same neighborhoods.  We move from place to place.   And even when we do settle, there’s so little to connect us together.  When we should be friends, we instead become competitors, if not enemies.  People who even live on the same street and sometimes in the same house, become strangers and estranged from each other.

Most of us recall that video recently of the two toddlers one black, the other white running toward each other and then embracing.  That’s not just the way these two children were, that’s how most all children are.  Then we grow up.  We notice our differences.  We become very different people.  We have our own careers and cares in life.   It becomes harder and harder to find the feelings of togetherness we once knew in kindergarten, in elementary school, in high school, and even in college.  We move on.  We gain so much and have so much, but sometimes we lose more than we gain, especially when it comes to human relationships.

My point is that alienation is not just a modern problem, a money problem, or a political problem, but it’s a human problem.  It’s been here ever since the beginning.  Remember Cain and Abel.   These brothers were already alienated from each other ‘way back when’.  And what was the problem?  It wasn’t that one was a Republican and the other a Democrat.  It wasn’t that one was a Communist and the other a Capitalist.  It wasn’t that one was a Liberal and the other a Conservative. No, one of them was a simple farmer.  The other was a simple Shepherd.  But there very different ways of living life had driven them apart.  Maybe the Sheep got into the Cabbage patch.   Maybe the Shepherd made more money.   Whatever the reason, even though there was plenty of room for both of them, one day the friction between them became so great that Cain the farmer killed his own brother, Abel the Sheep herder.

How do we see alienation showing up in our own lives?   We still see it don’t we?  We see in the struggle of rich nations verses poor nations.   We see it in the immigrants who move to try to find a better, safer life for them and their families.  We see it in the struggle between the haves and the have nots.  We also see this growing alienation in political movements based on fears of who and what is different rather than trying to understand, accept or show compassion.

An Irish pastor, writing in the Irish Times had recently suggested that in the west we ‘have undergone a cultural tsunami in our lifetime.’  ‘For better or for worse’, he says, ‘we have moved from a culture of authority to a culture of choice.’   The only expectation on us today is that we make our own way, live by our own rules, and we get to decide who we love and who we hate.  Love is no longer a moral duty, but a matter of choice.  

Way back in 2000, Robert D Putman, wrote a book entitled, Bowling Alone.  In that book, Putnam pointed to an increase of aloneness and loneliness in western societies.   In other words, to live our own way, we live more alone, by ourselves, and mostly without community.  Then, eight years later, another book by Bill Bishop, entitled The Big Sort, noted the growth of groups with narrow cultural, political or religious views. These new groups are not motivated by anything like love but rather by aggressive opposition to other groups. They have no connection whatsoever in an inclusive, loving God.  These new forms of fundamentalism are displacing love and faith  (From an editorial by Fr Desmond O’ Donnell, in The Irish Times, Tues, Dec. 19th, 2017).

‘GOD IS MAKING HIS APPEAL THROUGH US’ (20)  The Service of Reconciliation
Our overly divided, fragmented, and increasingly alienated world is why the most important ministry of the church today is a ministry of reconciliation.  While God appeared in human flesh to reconcile himself with the world, our ministry is to reconcile ourselves to God and to each other.   In Christ, we have been given a ministry of reconciliation because the world still must be reconciled to God.  

Once on a Japanese Subway, a young pastor (Richard Gribble), heard and saw a very disorderly drunk, disturbing passengers.  He was young and strong and decided it was up to him to save the day, as he attempted to lure the drunk to himself and throw him off the train.  But as he started to move toward the Drunk, an elderly Japanese man, invited the drunk to come sit with him.  They started talking about life, and the drunk started to weep and tell about how his wife had just died.  All this made the young pastor regret his harsh feelings toward the man.  When it should have been him, it was the elderly Japanese man who had accepted the ministry of reconciliation  (As told by Richard Gribble in a sermon at

There are many important results of God’s saving work through Jesus Christ and many of them are not always directly visible to us.   We can’t always see that God justifies or declares us righteous.  We are still sinners saved by grace.  We can’t always so easily see that we are redeemed from sin.  We still live in a fallen, sinful world.  We might feel these things deep in our heart, and believe them by faith, and trust our lives to them, but they are spiritual truths and mostly invisible to us.  We also can’t very obviously see that God has reconciled us to himself in Jesus Christ.   People can still misuse the Bible and make it look like a wrathful God is angry at us.   Of course, we believe in God’s saving work for us, and we have the witness of God’s Spirit within us, but this is still invisible and only made clear to us by faith.  BUT THE ONE THING WE CAN ALWAYS SEE, TOUCH, AND KNOW visibly and clearly is, whether or not,we are taking part, sharing in, and participating in god’s ministry of reconciliation.   As I heard someone put it in very vivid radio interview many years ago, which was discussing a matter of social and racial unrest in America:  You are either a ‘love’ person or a ‘hate’ person.  You are either part of the problem or part of the solution.  You have to chose which kind of person we are going to be.

This is similar, if not the same kind of choice Paul means his letter to the Corinthians.  He’s putting a choice before the Corinthians.   If you are with Jesus and when Jesus is in you, you have been given a ministry of reconciliation.  Just as God has reconciled himself to us, we must now be reconciled to God, which of course includes being reconciled to others and leadings to be reconciled to God.

The most important way Paul underscores this ministry call to every Christian by becoming ambassadors for Christ.  Just like an Ambassador in foreign service is representing their country to the world, we are called to be ambassadors of Christ’s love for God’s world to come and to the parts of this world still foreign to God’s compassion and love.  “God is making his appeal through us... (20), Paul says, “we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

A ministry of reconciliation is the most visible, obvious result of understanding Jesus’ death on a cross.  There is a mystery to the cross we may never fully fathom, but this we can know; This we must do and proclaim: Be reconciled to God!  We must participate in this ministry of reconciliation, not just for God’s sake, but for the world’s, and for our own sake.   As Paul says near the end of this text: “FOR OUR SAKE he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. “

Early this year, when the U.S. responded to threats to one or more Embassies in the Middle East, by taking out an Iranian General who was said to have planned and was planning more attacks,  there was a immediate response by Iran who fired ballistic missiles toward several U.S. military bases in Iraq.  But what was most tragic is that Iran also accidently fired upon a Ukranian airliners, killing 176 innocent people; with 136 of them connecting to Canada.  Most of those Canadian were students and professors, over one-third of the passengers under 30 years of age.

This why reconciliation, which means bringing people together, is the most important work of the church in today’s world.  As Clarence Jordan, the great Southern Baptist Greek scholar once said, reconciliation means that God has put his arms around the world (the sinful world) and given it a great, big hug.  Now, we must do the same.
We in the church have been given the ministry to bring people together because God has brought us together with himself.   Don’t ‘accept the grace of God in vain’, Paul says.  Be reconciled to God and join in this ministry of reconciliation.  AMEN.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

“Justified By His Grace...”

A sermon based upon Romans 3: 21-26
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday June 07th,  2020 (7/10. How Jesus Saves.)

Florence Littauer, a popular Christian writer on Behavior and Personality, was speaking at a Church Growth Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.  Florence was winning the crowd with her great sense of humor.  After she told a delightful story about our human need for God's grace, she spontaneously asked the crowd, “Does anyone here know what grace means?"  A 7 year old girl on the front row, all decked out in a white dress, stood up and raised her hand. "I know, Miss Littauer, I know," she said. "Grace is unmerited favor from God!"

Mrs Littauer was amazed at the little girl’s wisdom and then asked the 2nd grader to step up to the platform with her. "Great answer," Florence said, "now tell the audience what that means.".   The little girl folded her hands and shrugged, "I don't have a clue!" (Stan Toler, God Has Never Failed Me, But He Sure Has Scared Me to Death a Few Times! Tulsa: Honor Books, 1995) 29).

In our text, right after the apostle Paul says ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ he quickly says ‘they are now justified by his grace as a gift.   
Sinners are now ‘justified’?  What does this mean?  Do you have a clue?

Most of you, as I was, were probably taught a very simplified definition of justification to mean ‘just as if I have never sinned’.   It’s catchy phrase and easy to remember too, but this oversimplification could lead to a dangerously mistaken idea that since Jesus died for us, now God ‘let’s us off the hook’ and we aren’t held responsible for our sins anymore.  But that’s not what justification means.

Even after grace is given to us, we still suffer sin’s consequences.  Scripture teaches that ‘the person who sins will die’ (Eze. 18:20).  Death IS the consequence every person must undergo because we are still sinners.  And death is only one of many other possible consequences of sin we will experience in life; like guilt, shame, jealousy, lying, deception, alienation, disunity, ignorance and many, many more.

We all live with the consequences of human sinfulness.  In fact, most of the demands, difficulties, and common struggles of everyday life are due to ‘human nature’ which falls ‘short’ of God’s glory.  Think about it, why are there so many crazy, obsessive laws and rules in everyday life?  Why are there so many oppressive regulations in governmental bureaucracies around the world?  Why can’t we just live anyway we wish?  Why is life so complicated, when it really should be quite simple?  And ‘why can’t people just get along’, as Truck Driver Rodney King once asked. 

Most of the reasons for the complicated structures and systems we must live with in life are based upon who we are as humans.  We are sinners.  We fall short God’s glorious intentions for our lives.  We all do.  The line of human brokenness and evil runs down the middle of every human soul.  The best among us can do horrible things, while the worst among us can do good things.  The single, most indisputable Christian truth is that we are sinners. 

Have you ever tried to open a ‘tricky’, almost oppressive, tamper-proof medicine bottle?  It’s not just children who are being protected.  Some of you remember the Tylenol poisonings in Chicago in 1982.   All the trouble we have getting into those sealed, tamper-proof containers goes back to 7 murders committed when someone laced Tylenol with very lethal Potassium Cyanide.  No one was ever convicted of these crimes, however one person demanded 1 million dollars in an extortion scheme.  That person was caught and convicted but no link was ever established with the original crimes.  It was believed the extortioner was trying to get rich off the fear and misery of others.   One sin leads to another.

More recently, a Paramedic in Gaston County NC recently killed his wife by giving her Visine eye drops.  Yes, you heard me right: Death by Visine.  If you give a person too much Visine it can stop their heart.  This man, a paramedic used Visine to poison his wife because it was readily accessible and wasn’t a controlled substance.  After her death was ruled accidental, he quickly had her body cremated and did not request an autopsy.   But since she was an Organ Donor, a blood sample revealed excessively high levels of a chemical in Visine within her blood cells. 

Why did he do it, especially since they were high school sweethearts?  It looks like he killed her so that he could collect her life-insurance money of $ 250,000 and move in with his secret girlfriend.  

When left to our own devices, we humans can become destructive and self-destructive too.   Paul observed this same kind of human degradation and depravity within his own culture when he said there is ‘anguish and distress for everyone who does evil’ (Rom.  2:9).  Paul also quotes the Old Testament, charging ‘there is no one who is righteous, no not one.’ (3:10), because he explains, both Jew and Gentile (Greek) live under the power of sin (3:9). 

Even though our society does talk much about sin today, we have little problem understanding that something is wrong with us.   We have an almost innate sense that the way things are isn’t the way things should be.

Things aren’t the way they should be because ‘the power of sin’ is an enslaving, corrupting, and destructive power loose in the world.   We can see that, can’t we?   God sees it too.   Paul has already explained, that ‘The wrath of God has been revealed ... against all ungodliness and wickedness’ (1:18). This doesn’t mean God is angry or mad at us, but it means that God’s anger has been and is still being revealed to be against all that sin and evil can do to undo us.  

God is angry, but it’s not at us.  God is angry at what sin does to us; our lives, our relationships and most of all, to our relationship with him.   God’s has given us moral law to give us the knowledge of sin (3:21) to prove how close to all of us sin and evil always is (7:21).

But at the same God’s wrath is being revealed in God’s judgment against sin (2:1-5) Paul says the righteousness of God has also been revealed to be ‘for us’ and not ‘against us’ (5: 8; 8:31).  This is exactly what Paul means when right after announcing that we are all sinners, he says they (all) are now justified by his grace as a gift.  This means that we don’t really know how lost we are until we already learn what God has done to save us.  The true knowledge of sin is only given to those who have begun to understand the mercy and grace of the Lord.

The free gift of God’s mercy is what Martin Luther came to understand as he sat in his study way back in 1515.  Luther had been on the brink of complete despair.   He was in a religious crisis because became acutely aware of his own sinfulness.  He tried everything to remedy this crisis; confession, penance, mysticism, self-mortification, and spiritual counsel of every kind.  Nothing kept him from feeling utterly condemned before God.  He was at an impasse.  For sins to be forgiven, they needed to be confessed.  But if they are not recognized or remembered, they could not be confessed.  He felt sinful, and lost, pronounced guilty before God.

But as he did not give up reading his Bible, especially in the book of Romans, Luther came across something.   He noticed that at the same time the wrath and judgment of God was revealed from heaven, so was God’s righteousness.   At first this made him tremble in fear of God even more.  But as he continued to wrestle with the text in Romans, he saw something in Greek that you can’t see in English.   The word ‘righteousness of God’ and the word meaning ‘justify’ or justification both come from the same word.   And while you can’t see this so well in English, it’s there in both the Greek and Luther’s German.  Right after it the text says  all have sinned’, the very next thing the text says is that ‘they’ (sinners), are now justified, meaning they are ‘made righteous by his grace as a free gift.   Again, the righteousness of God being revealed is not God’s righteousness only to prove us guilty, but it’s a righteousness that makes sinners righteous through faith in Jesus Christ’s and his atoning death on the cross.  

This justification of sinners by a righteous God was not only the biggest surprise of the gospel, it was also a big surprise to Luther; and it can be for us.    If you look back over the gospel story itself, you’ll also see that it was because of Jesus’ welcoming attitude toward sinners that he continually got into trouble with religious authorities.  Even in  one of Jesus’ most shocking stories, it is the humble sinner who leaves the temple justified rather than the proud and self-righteous person. 

It was precisely because Jesus justified and made sinners righteous, more righteous than those who were perceived to be righteous, that Jesus was hated, rejected, accused and crucified as a criminal by both the religious and secular establishment.   This was no accident, as the gospels claim.  It all happened on purpose.  What happened at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry goes back to the very beginning when John baptized him. This was to fulfill all righteousness.  Jesus was fulfilling God’s righteousness by identifying with sinners in his and by justifying and making sinners righteous by his death on the cross.  

God both proves He is righteous and that he can make sinners righteous.   This is what ‘justification’ means in the heart of God, but what does it mean for us, who are still sinners?  Yes, in Christ, while we were still sinners, Paul says, Christ died for us...He died as the godly for the ungodly (Rom. 5:8-9), but what difference does it make in our world still dominated by sin?   

Here, in this text Paul uses another word to help us see what effect this should have for us.  The word ‘justify’ comes out of a law court, where a person could be declared in the right and be made right to get on with life.   But the result of God’s grace is even more than this, so Paul uses another powerful word picture, with the word redemption.

“To redeem” someone means to ‘buy them back’ which comes straight out of a world like Paul’s where humans were still bought and sold like animals.  We no longer live in that world, but we’re still not that far from it.   There are still powers in this world that can ‘enslave’ human life, and there are people who still treat others without dignity and respect.   What Paul wants us to know is that God’s grace and Christ’s blood pays the price to free us from having to live like this.   Jesus’ died not only to reveal how much God loves us,  but God’s love can ‘break the power of canceled sin’ and set us free to be a new people.   When understand what God’s love frees us from, it will make a difference not just in how we live, but in who we are.   We are purchased out of sin and death, and we are made a new people in Christ.

One of my favorite stories about God’s redeeming grace comes from the late, great Swiss Theologian, Karl Barth.  During his academic, teaching ministry,  Barth used to make weekly trips down to the local prison in Basel and preach to the prisoners.  I don’t guess you can have a more captive audience, nor better example of people who need hope.   Those people had been officially judged and condemned as guilty.  

In one of his sermons, Barth was preaching about God’s redeeming, saving grace, as being fully and completely, as Paul says here, a gift of God’s grace; something we can’t earn, but must claim by faith in Jesus Christ.  Barth illustrated by retelling a well-known Swiss legend about a horse rider who is said to have crossed frozen lake Constance by night without knowing it.  For your information, Lake Constance borders Germany and Switzerland and is a lake about the size of Lake Tahoe, but it also has some narrow, but very deep sections.  Often the lake partially freezes over in the cold European winters, but this fellow did not realize the danger he was in.  When he was told, he broke down horrified at what could have happened.  

Telling this story to the prisoners Barth explained.  When we hear the word “By Grace have you been saved” we are like that terrified rider.  When you look back at your life, you may come to realize what you did was the most foolish thing!  The path you took put you in mortal danger.  In fact, on that path you were doomed, but now you are safe.  We all live in the mortal danger of sin.  Yes, we live on the brink of death.  BUT WE HAVE BEEN SAVED.  Look at the Savior!  Look at our salvation!  Look at the cross!  Do you know who he died for?  Do you realize it was for your sake—our sake—for our sin and because of our sin?   

Again, like in this story, it is the person who is truly saved who realizes the danger they were in.  On the cross, Jesus was burdened with our sin!  Because of sin, a righteous God had to deal with us.  But through a righteous Jesus, God has saved us from that darkness and from this danger.   This Jesus, who was God in the flesh, took ALL OUR SIN upon himself.   God himself bore the cost of sin on the cross.  This is how God justifies, and this is how God redeems through Jesus Christ.  When you look at the path you’ve been on and at the path this world is still on, God has spared you from this danger.  God has provided a way of safe passage and a way of escape.  God has redeemed you, and give you new life and new hope.  Hallelujah!

We are sinners, but we have been justified by grace as a gift.   This gift of grace called justification comes to us through the redemption---the price of buying us back and setting us free from sin---through Jesus who is the Christ.   And this justification and this redemption comes to us because, Paul concludes, God put forward a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, made effective by faith (25).

What Paul means here is that, just like God allowed once allowed animals to be sacrifices for sin, now God has given us his Son, as the ‘lamb of God’ who takes away the sin of the whole world.   What this means is what it always meant, except now everything is turned around.  When animals were sacrificed, that was a way a sinner acknowledged their sin and asked God to make things right.   Now, however, through Jesus Christ, God is the one who puts forward a sacrifice; God is the one who acknowledges what sin is, what sin does, and then God himself is the one who bears our sin and pours out his own love for us in the blood of his own Son.  This is how a holy and righteous God declared and makes us righteous through his son.

This is what the sacrifice of Jesus’ blood on the cross means; justification, redemption, and atonement.   But everything that God has put forward, and everything Jesus accomplished by this blood still means nothing for us, unless it means everything to us.  You must never make God’s justification of us, to mean ‘just as if we’d never sinned’, but it means that we are made ‘just and right only by God because we have sinned. 

There was an amazing story in the New York Times about 20 years ago.  It told of a march from Charleston S.C. to Columbia, where marchers were protesting the Confederate Battle Flag.  Since then, of course, after the terrible shootings at the Immanuel Church in Charleston, then governor Nikki Hailey was instrumental in having the flag removed from government grounds.  But about 15 years before that, as marchers were assembling to march, at the starting point, a white man identified as Carter Sabo of Charleston stood alone on the sidelines holding the battle flag.  The Times reported,  “He stood briefly by Sandra and Tommie Gordon, an African-American couple from Mauldin, S.C.   When they came by him,  Mrs. Gorden gave Mr. Sabo a hug  (From Fleming Rutledge, p. 104,  Not Ashamed of the Gospel 2007).

Mrs. Gordon’s action must remind us of God.  For only God can reach out to sinners like us, and make things right.  And in God, this process begins and ends, by faith and through faith in Jesus Christ.  By trusting our lives into God’s hands, we are declared and made righteous by becoming ‘living sacrifices’ for him; which is the only reasonable, respectable, and proper response to what God has put forward for us.     

What about you?  How do you respond to God’s outreached arms in Jesus Christ?  Amen.