Letting God Work (Romans 3:21-26)
Igor, what are you working on there? Bring that up here.
(Preplanned: my son Igor brings up on the platform a Lego house he has built. He hands it to me and I look at it. And then I begin the Sermon.)
This is a good Lego house. For at least three years now, Igor’s abilities in Lego-construction have far surpassed my own.
Imagine this house represents a human being, maybe you. Imagine a human created in the image of God – not perfect, but good, very, very good. You and I are God’s image-bearers.
This week in our Ash Wednesday service, we were invited to take up the Spiritual practices of confession and acknowledgement. We confess that we, God’s image-bearers, have sinned. We are sinners. And we acknowledge that sin has a destructive impact on us and on humanity. Sin pollutes God’s good creation and there is nothing you or I can do to overcome it. Sin is more powerful than we are.
Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned” (throw Igor’s Lego house into the air), “and fall short of the glory of God.” All we who are God’s image bearers are nothing more than smashed Lego houses, pathetically small pieces of plastic scattered about without purpose.
(It is important at this point that Igor shows no emotional reaction. He simply begins putting the house back together. His only focus is reconstructing the house. It is as if no one else is present.)
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. This belief about sin is fundamental to the entire Jesus story. God became human because humans, in their sins, were and are cut-off from God. God detests evil. God wipes out that which rebels against Him. Our sins put us in rebellion against God. We are thus in the direct path of God’s fierce wrath. In Genesis the story of Sodom and Gomorrah depicts how God feels about sin. Those cities were full of perverted people and corrupt practices. God annihilated both cities in avalanche of consuming flames. That picture of God’s wrath is also a predictor of the fate of anyone who sins. We all sin.
On Ash Wednesday we heard two things. First our grand spiritual goal is to live in relationship with God. Second, Sin makes the achievement of our goal impossible.
The good news is Jesus came to take care of sin. So, we were invited and I invited every one this morning to spend time in prayer contemplating sin. Think about your own specific sins. And think about the way sin, in the big picture of your life and the even bigger picture of human history, has distorted the beautiful relationship God wants with each one of us.
How you specifically enter this spiritual practice of confession & acknowledgement will surely differ from how your neighbor does it. Maybe you write down mistakes you’ve made, thing you’ve done that fill you with shame. Then, you remember your forgiveness and you light the piece paper and burn it up, knowing you are forgiven.
Maybe, thinking big picture, you read a book about the holocaust. That could be a Lenten discipline. You read and you pray as your read. The reading is informative, filling your mind with knowledge of a very dark chapter of human history, but it also is a call to prayer. You ask the Holy Spirit of God to be at work in the world, healing and redeeming.
The spiritual practice of confession of sin and acknowledgement of the sin problem can take many forms. My prayer is this work of confession and acknowledgement will enter our minds and our hearts and our daily thinking throughout Lent. In raising our consciousness of sin, we become intensely aware of our need for Jesus.
Our spiritual goal is to be in relationship with Jesus – a relationship that is present and real and felt and even tangible in every part of our lives. A new understanding of relationship with God: that’s the Lenten program at HillSong in 2013.
A goal within that goal is to shed the sin. We talked about confessing and acknowledging on Wednesday and I hope you find in the rhythms of your life an intentional process of prayer in which you confess and acknowledge. I strongly encourage you to do this throughout Lent. But it can’t stop there. That would not be good news – ending the story saying, “Yep, we’re sinners, cut off from God.”
We want to be cleared. The problem is we can’t. We cannot on our own power erase our sins or the damages of sin. We cannot make up for sin. We cannot do away with it. We cannot make amends that will make it all better. And worst of all, we cannot stop sinning. We want to, but we don’t have the power. Paul says, “I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:14b-15). Sin gets in the way. We long to walk with God, but we look at our lives and see pain and mistakes repeated and hurt. It is not good.
For the goal of relationship with God to be realized, sin has to be removed. Thus innocence is a spiritual goal. Every one of us needs to be able to stand before God and be declared innocent of sin and cleared of all sin’s damages.
This is where Jesus goes to work. In re-creating us so that we become new creations, sons and daughters of God, Jesus has clean-up work to do. In Romans 3, Paul illustrates this through three metaphors. His writing here, thanks to the influence of people like Martin Luther and John Calvin, is at the very core of what we believe as Christ-followers. For the most part, we aren’t even aware of how much Luther’s thought was shaped by Augustine and Augustine’s thought was formed in his reading of Paul and specifically Romans.
I say that just to point out that the metaphors in Romans 3 are extremely helpful in showing what Jesus has done. But the story is not the terminology. The story is Jesus at work making a way for us sinners to be declared innocent of sin and free of sin. The real spiritual work is accomplished by Jesus. Paul’s metaphors illustrate something Jesus is getting done. McClendon, a theologian I referred to on Ash Wednesday describes Paul’s use of metaphor. “Metaphors are not the furniture of some fairyland of unreal or pretended existence; metaphor is not an alternative to true utterance or a way of avoiding the (literal) truth. [Metaphor is] a native device for speaking the truth in as plain and helpful as way as can be” (Systematic Theology: Doctrine, p.216).
Thus Paul offers a legal metaphor. “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift” (Rom. 3:24). Thousands of pages of ink have been spilled by some of the greatest thinkers in Christian history debating what ‘justification’ means. I find value in the conversation, but for our purposes, striving after relationship with God, the key truth is that justification renders us innocent even though we are sinners. In this courtroom metaphor, we stand trial, accused of sin. God sees what Jesus has done on the cross for us, God looks at us, and declares, “Innocent.” Remember all the awful things said about sin? They’re all true. But we are innocent because of Jesus.
Paul also offers a crass economic metaphor. We are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Redemption refers to slavery. A slave is freed when his freedom, his manumission, is purchased. We’ve already referred to Romans 7. Slavery is the master and we are in chains forever. But Jesus has crushed the cruel taskmaster. Jesus has redeemed us. We are slaves no more because what he has done.
We are innocent. We are free. The third metaphor is a worship metaphor. We are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (3:24-25b). I am severely limited in explaining this third metaphor. For me personally, this sacrifice metaphor – the blood atonement – does not unveil truth in native speech in a “plain and helpful way,” to use McClendon’s terms.
But it was very much in common vernacular when Paul wrote it. In first century Rome, pagan worship involved shedding of animal blood to cover human sins. In Jewish worship in the temple, the same thing happened. There is a scene in the movie the Nativity, about the birth of Jesus. Herod is in the temple and the priest says, “Transfer your sins to the animal.” Herod leans over and touches his forehead to the cow’s head. Then the cow is slaughtered. Paul is saying that when Jesus’ blood was shed, that was the last blood sacrifice ever needed for the sins of all people of all time. And his first century readers might be surprised by such an audacious claim. They certainly understood it.
Is there literally a courtroom where we stand accused and God sits at the judge’s bench? Are we literally in chains on the auction block and Jesus comes along and buys our freedom? Is Jesus literally the perfect blood sacrifice? I am not even trying to answer these question and I am not Paul was either. Paul was saying, we humans have this serious sin problem. Jesus’ death on the cross eliminates it completely, forever. We believe in him and what he did become effective for us. Paul uses the legal, economic, and worship metaphors to point to Jesus, his death on the cross, and our status before God. That which would prevent us from being sons and daughters of God is gone. The path is clear.
In the debates about what exactly justification means, one things is agreed upon. Jesus is the one who accomplishes it, not us. So what then do we do? If the spiritual goal is innocence and the means of achieving that goal are entirely in Jesus’ hands and he’s already done it, where does that leave us?
A spiritual practice for us in Lent in 2013 is to receive. Receive the grace God gives. He’s working. We need to receive what he’s doing for us and giving to us.
What I mentioned Wednesday related to sin, confess and acknowledge, sounded a bit less than specific. It’s not a guided discipline like fasting every Wednesday throughout Lent. Maybe fasting helps us acknowledge and confess, but I wasn’t suggesting fasting. I was prescribing the work of acknowledging and confessing. Now I am prescribing even more strongly the work of receiving, paradoxical as they may sound. I had a brief conversation with someone this week. She said she needed something more concrete. I understand, but this is where each of us has to take responsibility in our personal Lenten practice.
To receive the grace God is giving in Jesus Christ sounds vague. It is not vague. It is abstract to an extent, and it might be general, but not vague. Receiving demands that we slow down. We take in less input, less stimuli. We spend time in quiet and solitude joyfully contemplating that no matter what has happened or what will happen, we are innocent, free, and sin is covered forever. Jesus has done this and is doing this for us and in us constantly.
I find it helpful to walk and pray. Prayer walking is a way to set ourselves to receive God’s grace. Perhaps praying in the early morning, before the world is awake when all else is quiet will help us be quiet and hear from and receive from God. Maybe in the middle of Lent a silent retreat is in order. These are a few suggestions. The key is recognizing that Jesus is the one working. And God is at work. As Paul says, “He justifies the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). This is hard for highly successful, determined people to grasp. It you have accomplished a lot in your life, you surely hear the faith story at church and think, ‘what do I have to do.’ What you and I have to do is quiet down and slow down and let God be at work in us, cleansing us, remaking us.
(Call Igor up and hold up the repaired house). In his hands, with Him working on us, we become the new creations God wants us to. So, we are in Lent. Find a way that works in your life that is affective for you, to slow down and quiet down. Set yourself to receive what God is giving. When it comes to sin, don’t strive to overcome it. Rather we turn to God and in faith, let Him be about His work in our lives.