March 06, 2017
Author: Scott HoezeeIn John 3 Jesus does something quite unexpected: he reaches back to Numbers 21 from the Old Testament and evokes the image of that bronze serpent Moses lifted over the people as a cure for snakebites. The Israelites had to look at an image of the very thing that was afflicting them, and somehow doing so helped. So also, Jesus says, the Son of Man will be lifted up and if you look at his death, your problem with death will be solved. It is, as Neal Plantinga has said, a striking biblical example of the principle that sometimes like cures like. One of the greatest medical innovations in recent centuries is the development of the vaccine: if a doctor injects your body with a small amount of the disease you want to avoid (either an inert version of the disease or a sufficiently weak amount to prevent you from getting the full blown affliction), then your cells will produce the antibodies that will ward off the disease should you later come into contact with the real deal version of it. So in the gospel: Jesus is raised up on a cross in death. The wages of sin is death, and so death is our problem as sinful people. Somehow when we cast our eyes on Jesus’ death, we receive the gospel vaccine, as it were. But what that means is that the way a person gets “born again,” as Jesus has been describing this to Nicodemus, is precisely by being crucified with Christ. This, then, is the direct set-up for John 3:16. We all love the promise of eternal life, we all are drawn to the promise that we will not perish, and we like the apparent simplicity that all we need to do to get these good things is “believe.” Seen in its proper, wider context, those famous words of verse 16 assume a far more startling, almost chilling, profile. Because a main thing you need to “believe” to be born again is that Jesus’ death helps you. We need to dispense with the idea that we can help ourselves, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, earn salvation, or in any way get by on our own. Nicodemus had to believe this, too. But that may not have been easy for a man like this. To riff on Frederick Buechner’s description of him, Nicodemus was a religious VIP with a list of credentials as long as your arm. He had advanced theological degrees, honorary doctorates, half-a-column in the Jerusalem edition of Who’s Who. If you were a Jew living anywhere near Jerusalem in those days, you knew who Nicodemus was–you’d recognize his face when passing him on the sidewalk. But even Nicodemus had to dump the notion that his high-falootin’ religious credentials cut any ice with God. Nicodemus had to die to all that. But the funny thing about being dead is that the dead person is, by definition, completely unable to do another blessed thing. If you’re dead the way Jesus was dead on the cross, your only hope is that someone will resurrect you, raise you back to new life. As the undertaker and well-known author, Thomas Lynch, often points out: when it comes to dead people, you really just have to do everything for them! They are of no help at all. The way into God’s kingdom leads through death. That’s scary in a way the isolated version of John 3:16 seldom conveys. But if you can follow Jesus to the cross and believe the scandalous idea that somehow his horrible death helps you, then already in this life you get the gospel vaccine–an inoculation that will keep you safe when your own death arrives one day. That’s what Jesus lays out for Nicodemus, and now for us, in John 3. He wraps it all up with a discussion of light and darkness, saying that the main problem with people in this world is they like the dark. People think that living in God’s light might be harmful to their health, like baking in the sun too long on a hot summer day. “People like the dark because they don’t want their deeds to be exposed in the light,” Jesus says. And you have to wonder if Nicodemus, who had used the cover of darkness for his clandestine visit with Jesus, squirmed a bit at Jesus’ words about people loving the darkness! But we don’t know if Nicodemus chaffed under that rhetoric because oddly enough, after verse 9, Nicodemus drops out of the picture altogether. We don’t have a clue as to how he reacted to Jesus’ words. Isn’t that ironic?! We don’t know what happened to the very first person ever to hear John 3:16! Did Nicodemus’ hard Pharisee heart melt right then and there, or did he leave in a huff because of Jesus’ stinging words about loving the darkness? We don’t know. But perhaps that is because John knew that what matters is what John will later write at the end of John 20: John has written all the things he wrote about Jesus so that you, dear reader, might come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Most people are so overly familiar with John 3:16 that we think it’s a simple, straightforward text. But it’s not. It was properly disorienting (and then, hopefully, RE-orienting) to the first person who ever heard these words. Lent is a time of disorientation for all of us who live like we have it all figured out. Lent knocks us sideways to remind us that all our dieting, fitness, and age-defying make-up products will not keep us alive. We are dust and ashes and to dust and ashes we will return. And Lent reminds us that for all our self-help, get-rich-quick schemes and for all the ways we self-aggrandize ourselves for being self-made individuals, we are finally helpless. We need a Savior to do it all for us. We need a Savior to die for us. Sin is that serious. Lent is a time of disorientation. But it is also, thanks be to God, a time of reorientation to a new perspective! Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available here. We are grateful so many hundreds of pastors visit our website every day. CEP’s resources have always been and will always remain free. But if you and your church find this useful, would you consider making a donation to help fund the Center’s work? Or might your church schedule an offering for the Center some Sunday? If interested in donating, please visit this page. Thank You! Textual Points As Scott Black Johnson points out in Volume Three of “The Lectionary Commentary” (Eerdmans, 2001), the well-known question “Are you born again?” comes from John 3. Yet today people ask this as though being born again is a decision WE make. Ironically, however, Johnson points out that almost everything in John 3 conspires to make it clear that this business of getting born again is something with which we have very little to do. This is something that comes from God’s side of things and from the Spirit sovereign operation. Babies don’t decide to get born, they just GET born. Nor can babies decide that all things being equal, they’d prefer to stay in the womb. Nicodemus was right to suggest that this born-again thing sounded tricky, if not downright impossible, from the purely human side of things. We likely over-extend the image of getting born again if and when we make it too much about personal decisions and the like. This is an act of God for which we can but be eternally grateful! Illustration Idea Nicodemus makes two more very brief, cameo appearances in John’s gospel. The first comes in John 7 when the Sanhedrin begins plotting against Jesus. At that juncture, Nicodemus speaks up to ask that they all make certain to follow the letter of the law in investigating Jesus. Nicodemus’ final appearance is in John 19 when he is said to have helped Joseph of Arimathea embalm and then bury the dead body of Jesus. We don’t know, though, if either incident indicates he had become a disciple of Jesus after all. Commentators and preachers across the centuries have been divided on this matter. Some say that Nicodemus’ words in John 7 and his actions in John 19 indicate only that he remained fixated, Pharisee-like, on the finer points of the law: he buried Jesus according to the law’s burial requirements but he was not crucified with Jesus in the way Jesus said was necessary. Others are more hopeful that the first person ever to hear John 3:16 found life in those words. Maybe it did happen that way for old Nicodemus. We should hope it did. And if so, maybe it went something like the way Frederick Buechner fancifully imagined it. Maybe as Nicodemus listened to Jesus in the flicker of the firelight on that long ago night, maybe he found his pulse quickening. Hearing the words of what we now call John 3:16, maybe Nicodemus felt a spasm of joy the likes of which he’d not felt since his first kiss–a thrilling jolt like what you get when the doctor says that you don’t have lung cancer after all but just a touch of the flu. If so, then perhaps some time later when he buried this quirky rabbi, maybe Nicodemus recalled that image of the snake on a pole. And if so, then maybe, two, three days later, when Nicodemus heard the report that this Jesus had risen from the dead, maybe that old senior citizen Nicodemus found himself inexplicably weeping–crying and carrying on like . . . well, like a newborn baby.
Author: Doug BrattThe Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday reminds us that the God whom we worship in Jesus Christ is a God who calls. Yet it also reminds us that God always calls for a purpose. So we listen, not just for God’s call, but also for what purpose God calls us. At the beginning of time God first called the creation and its creatures into existence. Yet people whom God created stubbornly rebelled against their loving Maker’s call. In fact, even after God essentially starts over with Noah, people naturally stubbornly resist God’s call. Yet the God whom we worship in Christ doesn’t let our rebellion stop God from calling people. Long after we’re tempted to give up on people, God keeps calling. After all, the God who creates is a God who also longs to “bless” (2) what God creates. The identity of those through whom God blesses that creation, however, is shocking. After all, while Genesis 11’s genealogy moves along quite predictably, it seems to come to a screeching halt at verse 27. We’d probably call its Abram a success story. He, after all, seems to have it all. But Abram doesn’t have children. His wife Sarah, Genesis 11:27 bluntly reports, is “barren,” unable to bear children. So while Abram has a history, he has no future. Nearly all of us know people who struggle with such childlessness. It’s deeply painful. Yet in Abram and Sarai’s day infertility meant something even more than it usually means today. Their contemporaries married largely in order to have children who helped out at home and in the fields. But children also cared for their parents and grandparents when they could no longer care for themselves. In that way children were a kind of pension plan or life insurance policy. If Abram and Sarai’s contemporaries had no children, they had no retirement savings. So childless parents’ futures were bleak. Both literal and figurative “barrenness” remains all too common. It’s the kind of dead end you and I may run into at home, on the job or at the doctor’s office. Barrenness is dead relationships and underwater mortgages. Barrenness is what poverty, joblessness and a poor education produce. Barrenness is the stubborn resistance to peace of Palestine, sub-Saharan Africa and some of our city streets. Yet Sarai’s infertility isn’t just a symbol of the kind of dead-end that sometimes plagues humanity. It’s also precisely the kind of place where God loves to work. After all, God doesn’t depend on the potential or power of the one whom God calls. The God who creates the world out of barrenness repeatedly also creates new possibilities out of humanity’s barrenness. So in the face of verse 27’s “Sarai was barren” we have verse 1’s “The Lord … said.” Right next to Abram’s dead end we have God’s lively, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Those to whom we preach and whom we teach may not long to start a great nation or have a great name. Yet all of us do long for the kind of clear sense of God’s calling that Abraham receives. You and I want to know what God wants us to do. But sometimes it’s hard to know what that call is because it’s hard to discern that call. God reveals God’s will clearly in both the Scriptures and in the life, death and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus Christ. Yet while both offer good general principles, neither often speaks to things like our choices of friends, a spouse or vocation. Maybe, suggests Craig Barnes, that’s because our most important calling doesn’t involve whom we marry, what work we do or where we live. Our most important calling is to be followers of Jesus Christ who are, like our text’s Abram and Sarai, open to going wherever God sends us. Yet God’s call to Abram is far more specific than just being willing to be used by God. God calls him to sever his ties with his extended family and even most of his immediate family. So it seems like God is calling Abram to do something painful. Why, then, does God call Abram to sever cherished ties? Earlier Abram’s father Terah had started a journey to “Canaan.” Yet for some reason he stopped and settled outside of that land of promise. So Terah left it up to his elderly son Abram to complete that journey. Yet it’s precisely the kind of journey Abram’s contemporaries feared. In fact, some even believed that if you died away from your ancestral home, you would be lost in the afterlife. So we can almost hear the conversation at the Haran McDonald’s: “You’re doing what, old Abe? You’re leaving? Why? Because God told you? Okay. Well, where’d God tell you to go? To a land God will show you. Uh-huh, sure.” God longs to make Abram’s wife and him into a great nation, as well as make Abram’s name great. Yet Abram and Sarai’s culture’s goal was to accumulate enough stuff so that people would never have to move again. So Abram and Sarai in that sense have arrived. They have everything they need to stay right where they are. So perhaps God calls them to move, to strike out on a new and dangerous adventure because Abram can’t experience all the blessings God has for him unless he disentangles himself from what he has settled for. Maybe God understands that for Abram to recognize the blessings God will give him, he must give up many of the “blessings” he has accumulated. Jesus understood that. He constantly invited his followers to leave what they’d piled up. Jesus always invited them to abandon their sin, guilt and self-righteousness in order to follow him. God has great plans for barren humanity, as well as the Sarai and Abram whom God calls to serve God. Yet more than anything, God plans to bless Abram. “I will bless you,” God tells him in verse 2. There’s a lot of chatter about that concept of blessing. Some Christians claim it’s wrong to think of things like strong families, good health and safe travels as blessings. They suggest such claims infer those who don’t enjoy them are somehow not blessed. The Hebrew word for blessing is barak that at its most basic level refers to God’s favor. At least in the Old Testament, it usually contains elements of prosperity, fertility and victory. Yet that favor also always has a strong flavor of grace. God’s blessing is something that’s neither created nor deserved by the person whom God blesses. It’s always a gift. Yet at our best we recognize that such blessing sometimes comes in the form of what seem like difficult things. God, after all, often uses relational, health and other struggles to make us more and more like Jesus Christ. So perhaps it’s okay to talk about good things as blessings from God as long as we’re open to blessings also coming in the shape of challenges. But does God promises to bless Abram in order to make his life fulfilled or empty of hardships? Does God promise to bless him so that Abram can finally settle down with the big brood of kids that God has promised him? Does God promise to bless him so that he can travel a little, pay for his kids’ college educations and save enough to retire well? No, God promises to bless Abram so that can be what verse 2 calls a “blessing.” You and I can disagree about the particular shape God’s blessings take in our lives. But we can’t disagree about why God blesses you and me. God blesses us so that we can be a blessing to other people. God designs every blessing, each gift God graciously gives us to equip you and me to graciously show favor to the people around us. Yet God promises that it isn’t only in the land toward which God points him that Abram will be such a blessing. It isn’t just the people who bless him that God will bless. It isn’t just the people close to Abram whom God promised to bless through him. No, the scope of God’s blessing through Abram is worldwide. God promises to graciously bless “all peoples on earth” (3) through Abram. Those who preach and teach Genesis 12 as those who listen to use are, by God’s grace, among those whom God has blessed through Abraham. Yet before God can bless the whole world through him, Abram must leave his own country. We don’t read about either questions for God or even arguments between Abram and Sarai. Abram simply gets up leaves because he trusts God’s promise to bless him. God has promised his family and him a blessed future. So Abram leans into that future by traveling toward the land God promises to show him. Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available here. We are grateful so many hundreds of pastors visit our website every day. CEP’s resources have always been and will always remain free. But if you and your church find this useful, would you consider making a donation to help fund the Center’s work? Or might your church schedule an offering for the Center some Sunday? If interested in donating, please visit this page. Thank You! Illustration In the chapter, “God and a Grateful Old Man,” in his book, My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir, Lewis Smedes writes about God’s blessings: ‘I remember how Doris and I, on three different trips to an adoption agency, came home with three very different children who now, after “many a conflict and many a doubt,” nurture a warm affection for the aging parents who made so many mistakes in bringing them up. With memories like these, gratitude comes as easily as my next breath. I remember magnificent things and I remember little things, and I feel grateful for them both. I remember that Jesus died to do whatever needed doing to let the river of God’s love sweep me to himself, and I also remember the Velcro that makes it easy to put on my sandals. I remember my mother’s weary weeping after a long week’s labor, and I remember the pleasure Doris and I had with our first garage-door opener. Big things, little things, it matters little as long as they were gifts with a person attached. But, then, when I thank God for being so very generous to me, I seem to imply that he must be a stingy crank to many others. When I remember that a thousand times ten thousand are living out a thousand varieties of hell on earth, my joy feels self-centered and obscene to me. This is why, on my little island of blessing in this vast ocean of pain, my “thank you” always has the blues.’
Author: Stan MastIf Psalm 32 was the perfect Psalm for the beginning of our Lenten journey because of its classic description of “the way we should go” to move from guilty silence to joyful song, then Psalm 121 is the perfect Psalm for the next leg of the journey, because of its profound assurance that God will keep us safe all the way to our destination. Psalm 121 is the quintessential traveler’s song, probably sung by the Jewish pilgrims as they made their way up to Jerusalem where they would meet their God in one of their festivals. I say “probably” because there is some question about the exact meaning of the superscription above each of the “songs of ascent (Psalm 120-134).” But if the order of the Psalms means anything, we can be reasonably certain that Psalm 121 is a song for that pilgrimage, because Psalm 120 is spoken outside of Jerusalem and Psalm 122 is firmly within Jerusalem. But regardless of that interpretive question, it is certainly the case that many believers have taken comfort from the words of Psalm 121 as they embark on any arduous trip. And the trip to Golgotha is surely filled with difficulty and danger. The idea of danger is suggested by the image of “the hills.” Of course, it is true that some scholars take that as a reference to God as the rock who provides us security. That interpretation depends on the old KJV translation of verse 1: “I lift up my eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help.” But most modern translations read the Hebrew of that verse not as a declaration, but as a question. As I lift up my eyes to the hills that are filled with danger, where will my help come from? The most obvious danger would be bandits; think of Jesus parable of the Good Samaritan. But a careful reading of Psalm 121 suggests other, more spiritual, dangers. As we journey up to Jerusalem to meet with Yahweh, we will pass through territory where smaller regional gods are worshipped. Could it be that those words about Yahweh neither “slumbering nor sleeping” are a sly reference to the fact that the nature gods of the Canaanites, most notably Baal, were thought to sleep during the winter? Elijah alluded to this in his challenge to the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18:27). Unlike that god of thunder and rain and fertility who needed to be awakened before he would come to the assistance of its adherents, Yahweh is always wide awake. There is no danger that he would nod off, leaving his pilgrims unprotected. And could it be that the reference to the sun and moon in verse 6 is an allusion to the celestial deities who were worshiped at hilltop shrines? Nearly all of the surrounding nations worshiped the great lights in the sky. Who’s to say that those gods aren’t more powerful than the God of this little nation of Israel? Their presence up there on the hills was a clear and present danger to the pilgrims on their way to Mt. Zion. Their journey was filled danger, both physical and spiritual, as it is for us on our way to Golgotha. With a little imagination, the culturally savvy preacher should be able to show her congregation that we are surrounded by the modern day equivalent of those ancient dangers. We are in harm’s way. So as we trudge along, marching to Zion (as the old hymn put it), we lift up our eyes and we ask, “where does our help come from?” The Psalmist gives a wonderfully complete answer. Of course, our help comes from Yahweh—not just God, not a generic deity, but Yahweh, the God who has entered into an unbreakable covenant with Israel. Our help comes from the God who has said, “I will be your God and the God of your descendants after you,” the God who has demonstrated his faithfulness in the mighty acts that have shaped the lives of his people. The next words in verse 2 underline the power of Yahweh. He is not a regional god or a nature god; he is, in fact, the creator of all regions and all nature, “the Maker of heaven and earth.” Not only does he care about us as we journey into his presence, but he has the power to guard and keep us from all evils, including the mighty sun that scorches us by day and the mysterious moon that drives us crazy at night (“lunacy” from luna, moon). There is nothing up there in those hills that can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I know, I know, that’s a big jump—from the covenant God who powerfully watches over Israel to the Man of Sorrows who died in weakness and shame. But it is Lent, after all. We are on a journey to see the living God, and we see him most clearly in his dying Son. Psalm 121 assures us that when we set our feet on the path home, God in Christ will get us safely there. The multiple assurances of safety in Psalm 121 do raise troubling questions though. Is there a pilgrim among us who has not had his foot slip? Yet the central promise of this Psalm is this clear declaration: “He will not let your foot slip.” And who in this pilgrim throng has had a life devoid of harm? And yet the Psalmist assures us that “the Lord will keep you from all harm.” For a careful examination of those promises see my previous comments on this Psalm in the October 10, 2016 Sermon Starter Archive on this Center for Excellence in Preaching website. Let me try another tack on this Second Sunday of Lent. Comments by Patrick Henry Reardon in his Christ in the Psalms jogged my thinking about what it means that Yahweh “watches over” us. He gives an almost allegorical interpretation of “the hills” in verse 1. He wants to think not of the hills filled with danger for us pilgrims, but of the hills on which Yahweh has done mighty acts of redemption for his people. Think of the various mountains that have loomed large in the history of redemption: Moriah, on which Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac and received a redoubled covenant promise; Sinai, on which Moses was given the covenantal Law; Nebo, where Moses was able to see the entire Promised Land; Carmel, where Yahweh defeated the apparently dominant Baal; the mount on which Jesus gave his famous sermon outlining Kingdom living; the Mount of Transfiguration, where the glory of the Lord Jesus burst through the veil of his flesh just once; Golgotha, where our redemption was finished; the Mount from which Jesus ascended after giving his disciples the commission that would bring the Gospel to the nations. Let us lift up our eyes to those mountains, suggests Reardon, and we will know where our help comes from. That way of reading Psalm 121 might seem a bit fanciful, but what happened on those hills does give us a more profound sense of what “watches over” really means. Rather than merely keeping his eyes on us, those peaks of redemption remind us that God has always gotten deeply, passionately, even painfully involved with our lives as we journey through this barren land. While God’s watching does not mean we will never slip and get hurt, it does mean that God is literally with us each step of the way, experiencing our pain, and giving us the directions and the strength to complete the journey. Let me put it starkly. The God who told Abraham to sacrifice his own son, surely the most awful demand ever made of a child of God, is the God who sacrificed his own Son, surely the most awesome thing God could do for his children. Whatever else we make of “watching over,” we can be sure that it involves God incomprehensible sacrificial love for his wandering children. Because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, we can be sure that “the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forever more.” So as we continue our Lenten journey, let us “lift high the cross.” “Come, Christian, follow where our Savior led, our King victorious, Jesus Christ our head. So shall our song of triumph ever be: praise to the Crucified for victory!” (“Lift High the Cross,” by George Kitchen) Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available here. We are grateful so many hundreds of pastors visit our website every day. CEP’s resources have always been and will always remain free. But if you and your church find this useful, would you consider making a donation to help fund the Center’s work? Or might your church schedule an offering for the Center some Sunday? If interested in donating, please visit this page. Thank You! Illustration Idea Here’s another way to think about the Lord’s “watching over.” In Jonathan Safron Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Oskar Schell is a nine year old boy whose father has been killed in the 9/11 terrorist attack in the Twin Towers. Understandably, Oskar is deeply disturbed by that terrible loss. So when he finds a key in his father’s closet, hidden in an envelope marked “Black,” he is more than interested. He sets out to find the lock that the key will open, convinced that it will tell him something important about his dead father. So, all by himself, at nine years of age, he sets out to visit every “Black” in New York City. Consulting his telephone book and a map of the city, he goes out to meet total strangers in search of that lock. As we read the book, we are worried for him, wondering how he can do such a thing all alone. And we wonder with more than a little disgust where on earth his mother is in the whole thing. Finally, by a convoluted set of circumstances Oskar learns that it wasn’t his father’s key after all. It was simply a key hidden in a vase that Oskar’s father had bought at a rummage sale. Angry that his search was in vain, Oskar destroys everything associated with his search. But that’s when he discovered that his mother knew about his activities all the time. In fact, she had contacted everyone in New York with the name Black, telling them what Oskar was doing. All of them knew ahead of time that he was coming and, thus, gave him generally friendly receptions. She gave him the freedom to conduct his search alone, but she was watching over him all along by going ahead of him and setting up his appointments. Oskar had to go alone to accomplish his mission, but she prepared the way so he was safe.
Romans 4:1-5; 13-17
Author: Scott HoezeeConsidering that we all love gripping courtroom dramas at the movies or on TV, it’s a wonder people don’t find parts of Romans more engaging. When you read Romans 4, for instance, it’s not the least bit difficult in your mind’s eye to picture Paul as an attorney, pacing furiously in a courtroom as he makes his compelling closing argument by mustering all the best evidence he has presented throughout the trial. The prosecution has been trying to make the case that Paul’s gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone is bogus and that salvation comes as a reward for moral adherence to the law. The witnesses have all been called and so now it’s time to wrap it up. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let us stipulate that the spiritual forefather whom we have identified as Abraham was declared to have the status of ‘righteous’ before he had ever had a chance to perform a single deed. Let it further be pointed out and considered our Exhibit A that the God who so made that declaration was clearly presenting this status as a gift, which itself was a byproduct of a prior gift presented by this same said Deity in the form of faith. “By way of analogy, if you get a job working for my law firm and I give you a paycheck at the end of the first two-week pay period, you do not gush over my kindness or regard this money as an out-of-the-blue gift. Indeed, were I to deny you your paycheck, you would have legal cause to file a complaint against me for breach of contract. The mutually agreed upon contract between employer and employee obligates me by the letter of the law to pay you for your work at the agreed-upon sum. It is that simple. You would have no need to thank me for the fulfillment of my legal and contractual obligation. “But Abraham did not receive from God what God was obligated to give such that Abraham was relieved of all responsibility to say ‘Thank you’ or register no more than the simple completion of the quid pro quo between employer and employee. Abraham regarded his righteous status as a gift that issued in the kind of profound thankfulness that all unexpected gifts elicit. “Indeed, let us stipulate further that there was nothing contractual in Abraham’s relationship with God in the first place because a contract requires a law to govern that contract but at the time Abraham received his righteous status from God, there was no law in effect. There was no law to break but this implies there was likewise no law to keep. Therefore the transaction carried out between God and Abraham was in the nature of sheer gift and this would remain the case for all who thereafter were declared righteous—this is and has always been a gift even after there did come a time in subsequent history when God revealed laws for how best to live in this world. “In summation, then, the prosecution has failed to make the case that living aright before God and in a state of righteousness is a law-based reward for moral behavior. In the first place we have established the reception of this righteous state prior to Abraham’s even having had a chance to perform any deed good or bad and in the second place we have established there existed no law at that time that could have rendered this exchange as reward or obligation, leaving the reception of righteousness to be precisely what we claimed it to be at the outset of this trial: a gift of pure grace through the gift of faith that results in a profound gratitude. I humbly rest my case.” No need to wait for the verdict—Paul has made his case to his Roman Christian friends. And if reading Romans 4 really does come across as about this cut and dried and legal and such, we know that behind all this logical rhetoric from Paul is the passion that burns in his own heart. Paul knows better and more personally than most how salvation comes as a gift from out of a clear blue sky. It happened to him one day on the Road to Damascus. It’s actually a shame the Lectionary would have us stop at verse 17 because before this passage is ended, Paul brings the Good News of the Gospel home once again by pointing out that this righteousness apart from the law was not just a happy occurrence for Abraham thousands of years ago. No, no. “The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” This was never about somebody else’s story but your story and my story and our story. And in that there is profound joy! This is all finally a miracle, as we can pick up in the final verses of the assigned Lectionary reading where Paul says this is finally resurrection, the bringing of life where there had been only death. The logic of Paul’s argument and of Paul’s case is pretty air tight. But logic can leave one cold. Not so the Gospel that is at the heart of all this! It fills the universe with warmth and light. In Lent we follow Jesus on that perilous path to his cross. It is a hard road, a dark road. But it leads to a joy and a glory without end. And Paul would use any means at his disposal—from exuberant shouting to well-reasoned arguments in a court of law—to get that message across. We preachers today can but try to catch the fire of this passion! Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available here. We are grateful so many hundreds of pastors visit our website every day. CEP’s resources have always been and will always remain free. But if you and your church find this useful, would you consider making a donation to help fund the Center’s work? Or might your church schedule an offering for the Center some Sunday? If interested in donating, please visit this page. Thank You! Illustration Idea In his Romans 4 argument, Paul points out that when you work for a paycheck, your receiving that check is not a gift to elicit joy but an obligation you receive as what is only your due. Of course, sometimes receiving a paycheck can elicit joy when, as a matter of fact, you were not thinking about your job in terms of getting much money for it. When you really were not expecting anything, what you get feels like a gift after all. In the wonderful comedy film Big a thirteen-year-old boy named Josh Baskin somehow transforms overnight into a 35-year-old adult (played by Tom Hanks). While he waits to figure out a way to transform back into a boy again so he can go back home, he hides out in New York City and takes a job for a toy company in data processing. It never occurs to him, though, that he’d get a paycheck much less a check that—to a thirteen year old—would seem like a small fortune. While his coworker in the next cubicle looks at what he gets with disgust because he thinks his work is worth so much more, Tom Hanks as the boy-turned-adult expresses joyful surprise and glee. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66V9m1EikEU Truth is, we are not surprised by our paychecks but we should be just that blown away by God’s grace. And maybe if we are, lots of other things in life might start feeling like a gift too!