July 06, 2020
The Proper 10A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 from the Lectionary Gospel; Genesis 25:19-34 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 8:1-11 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 12&13 (Lord’s Day 5)
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Author: Scott Hoezee
In between Jesus’ telling of this famous parable and his own point-by-point explanation of the parable’s meaning and symbolism there comes an eight-verse section that the Lectionary would have us skip but that contains some of the most intriguing material in this part of Matthew 13. Mainly what Jesus says there is that the seemingly confusing nature of parables mirrors the confusion that the people already have. Of course, Jesus also says that the disciples “get it,” they understand and have been given the secret of the kingdom.
Still, I wonder how well those same disciples would have done had Jesus asked them to interpret the parable right then and there on the spot. I have the funny feeling they might not have looked as with it as Jesus indicates they should be! But that’s Matthew for you: he values knowledge so much that he casts the disciples into the best light possible, in contrast to Mark who was content to let them look pretty clueless a lot of the time.
In any event, Jesus says he tells parables because somehow doing his teaching this way matches the spiritual cluelessness of most of his listeners. As Tom Long once pointed out, Matthew presents a kinder and gentler Jesus in his reply to the disciples. Whereas Mark has Jesus saying “I tell parables in order to confuse them,” Matthew tweaks that Isaiah-esque language a bit to have Jesus say that “I tell parables because they are confused.” Mark shows Jesus pumping fog into the sanctuary, Matthew shows Jesus recognizing the fog already in the air.
Either way or both ways, however, Jesus is saying that if his words cause a lot of arched eyebrows and furrowed foreheads, it’s not strictly speaking his fault, as this landmark Parable of the Sower likewise claims. Because the word of the kingdom—that vital seed that Jesus came to sow into people’s hearts—may well be the most important word anyone will ever hear but the fact is that things have fallen into bad enough shape in this old world that the odds are definitely stacked against the success of the gospel seed.
Four soil types are identified but only one has a shot at yielding anything resembling a good and lasting crop. But then, this would be no news at all to actual farmers. You wonder what the people heard when Jesus first told this story. Maybe some of the actual farmers in the crowd chortled to themselves to hear the story. “This guy’s been in the woodshop too long,” some may have mused, “because he doesn’t have a clue as to what farming is all about.”
Today we might have the same reaction if we heard a story about a farmer who hooked up his planter to the back of his John Deere, started up the tractor, but then threw the PTO switch to activate the planter even before he was out of his driveway. There he is putt-putting down the country lane with corn seed scattering everywhere as he goes. It bounces on the road, some flies into the ditch. When he finally gets near his field, he first has to cut through a weedy and thorny patch with corn seed still flying out loosey-goosey from that planter that, by all rights, had been switched on way too early.
In truth, no farmer would be so careless, so profligate in the scattering of valuable seed. It would not even make sense to do this. It would be a waste, a spectacle of great prodigality that a frugal and economically minded farmer would never tolerate. Of course, some experts on the Ancient Near East point out that few fields back then were as pristine as fields you might see in the Iowa countryside today. Ditches, rocky patches, even roads and paths all co-mingled in many “fields” such that inevitably some seed would fall into a variety of soil conditions. Still, the farmer in this parable seems pretty prodigal and none-too-careful in flinging the seeds around.
This farmer has got (apparently) more than enough seed to go around and so throws it anywhere and everywhere, the odds of success notwithstanding. Maybe if the whole world were as God intended, maybe the seeds would find a higher success rate—maybe they’d even sprout 100% of the time as every heart would be fertile ground for the loving words of the Creator.
As it stands, however, people have built roads in their hearts, veritable highways that have gotten too packed down by the busyness of life, by the high-falootin’ claims of science, and by the cynicism and arrogance of the age. We’ve met these people and a few of them have been publishing best-selling books of late to sneer at the very idea of God, religion, faith. The seed of the gospel can just bounce off such a hard heart. Maybe a bird of the air will eat it. Maybe the seed will get smushed under the tires of whatever vehicle whizzes through that heart next. But it won’t grow. Not in this life anyway.
Others are not that bad off but they have nevertheless been made fiercely shallow by a get-rich-quick, instant gratification culture of indulgence and fads. They’ve been trained by the media to always be on the lookout for products touted as “New and Improved” and have come to believe that the next best thing to come along is always just around the corner and it will be theirs for the snagging. Sometimes the seed of the gospel shoots up like a fast-growing kudzu in people’s hearts but then withers just as quickly when the shallow, me-first craving for novelty once more takes over.
Still other hearts—and we’ve met these people, too—are just plain busy and crowded. These hearts are neither calloused nor shallow. In fact, there is some real depth to them. Lots of stuff grows here. But in the end, it’s too much. The seed of the gospel comes in and sprouts just fine but faces stiff competition for light and warmth and nutrients. Because just over there the plants of commerce and business are growing. Concerns about the 401k fund, the Roth IRA, the kids’ college funds, and the growth of their stock market portfolio absorb a lot of nutrients from the soil of the heart (isn’t it interesting how financial firms in their advertising always use the horticultural images of growth?).
And also in the garden of this heart are the plants of community involvement, of the PTA at school, of politics and social justice and ecological activism and . . . and it’s all good stuff (or a lot of it is) but it sure makes one busy. And so when the pastor calls looking to recruit some new elders and deacons for the church, well, what can one say? “Sorry, pastor, but I just don’t have time for everything.” (A funny reply seeing as, faith tells us, the Gospel IS everything . . .)
There is, of course, that fourth and final heart/soil and the seed of the gospel does splendidly well there, thanks be to God (literally). Because given the apparently long odds for gospel success, you have to assume that the hearts whose soil is deep, wide, and unencumbered with other things is a field cleared by the Holy Spirit himself. Only the power of Almighty God could overcome the obstacles thrown up by this world: the obstacles of cynicism and despair, of media hype and incessant novelty, of sheer busyness and greed.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear. She who has ears to hear, let her hear. The coming of the seed and its success—when that happens—is all grace. Maybe that’s why the farmer keeps lobbing seeds at even the unlikeliest of targets. It’s not that the farmer doesn’t understand the long odds. It’s just that when you’re talking about salvation by grace, it’s not finally about the odds but about the persistence of the Holy One who won’t stop.
Matthew 13 opens by telling us that on the day when Jesus told this set of parables, starting with the Sower, the crowds following Jesus and hanging on his every word had grown very large—so large that Jesus had to invent his own shoreline amphitheater to be heard. So maybe it’s no wonder that Jesus tumbled to tell this parable first. Looking out over that big crowd and scanning not only the shining faces turned his way but scanning also the hearts of those people with a kind of spiritual MRI, Jesus could see the hard hearts, the shallow hearts, the thorny hearts, the pure and unencumbered hearts. And so Jesus as much as said to that wild assemblage of hearts, “Have I got a story for you . . .”
In preaching on Mark’s version of the Parable of the Sower (hear the sermon here), Tom Long claimed that Jesus preached in these confusing parables in order to make people deeper thinkers about what the gospel is all about. Jesus did not want to have people grab the gospel too quickly because such a quick grab almost always resulted in bad faith or shallow faith that did not last long (a point made within the Parable of the Sower itself, of course). In that connection of wanting people to grow deeper, Long told this story:
The great preacher George Buttrick was once flying on an airplane. As he sat there, he had a legal pad out on which he was furiously scribbling some notes for his sermon the coming Sunday. The man next to Buttrick inquired, “Say, what are you working on there, sir.” “My sermon for Sunday–I’m a Christian preacher.” “Oh,” the other man replied. “Well, I don’t like to get caught up in the complexities of religion. I like to keep it simple. You know, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ The Golden Rule. That’s my religion!” “I see,” Rev. Buttrick replied, “and what do you do for a living?” “I’m an astronomer. I teach astrophysics at a university.” “Ah, yes, astronomy,” Buttrick shot back. “Well, I don’t like to get caught up in the complexities of science. ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.’ That’s my astronomy. Who could ever need more than that, eh?”
Author: Stan Mast
Here we are, stuck in Ordinary Time. We’ve spent half the church year celebrating the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ our Lord, but now the fireworks are over. Now we are plodding along through ordinary time. Except this time is extraordinary, too, because God is walking with us each step of the way.
That’s the focus of our Old Testament readings which take us through these fascinating stories of our predecessors on this journey, the Patriarchs of ancient Israel. These sad words from Milton’s Paradise Lost set the stage for these stories. Here are Adam and Eve forced to leave Paradise because of their sin:
“The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way.”
They hold each other’s hands because they have let go of God’s hands. Now they wandered alone, on “their solitary way,” without God.
But then, God reached down and took the hand of Abram in covenantal faithfulness. Yahweh promised to walk with him and his descendants throughout their generations. On their part, they must “walk before me and be blameless.” (Genesis 12) Now, in Ordinary Time we are following their covenantal journey to the Promised Land, so that we may learn how to “walk before me and be blameless” in our journey.
Having followed Abraham and Sarah from his ancestral home in Haran to their grave in Canaan, and having just watched their son Isaac take a wife from that ancestral home, we now meet the sons of Isaac and Rebekah. We will focus on the second one, Jacob.
Jacob was one of the great figures in the early history of God’s plan to save the world. He was one of the chosen, chosen by God to be saved and to be the source of salvation for the world. He would become Israel, the father of twelve sons who would become the twelve tribes of Israel. And, most significantly, out of his lineage would come the Christ who would save the world. He was called a prince of God. He was one of the great saints, a hero of the faith.
But he was not a nice man. Indeed, he was a great sinner—a scoundrel, a cheat, a deceiver, a schemer, as we see in this story and in the partner story in Genesis 27. Rather than walk hand in hand with his covenant God, resting in the promises of the covenant, he engaged God in hand to hand combat, wrestling with God and with the people in his life.
It is fruitful to study him, because he is me, and you. Perhaps in understanding God’s way with him, we will gain some insight into the meaning of God’s way with us. We’re often mystified by God’s involvement in our lives. Why did God do this in my life? Why did he allow that? Where has God gone? Why is my life so hard if I am God’s covenant child? Perhaps as we watch Jacob in action, we’ll have one of those “aha” moments, when we suddenly see what God is doing in our lives.
The first time we hear of Jacob, he is jostling with his older brother in Rebekah’s womb. Mothers know all about that—the squirming and stretching, all elbows and kneecaps and buttocks and head, wrestling for room in the womb. Then this smooth little rascal comes into the world holding onto his hairy brother’s heel, which prompted his parents to name him Jacob, which means literally, “he grasps the hell,” or more figuratively, he deceives or he supplants.
His birth name reveals his character, for the next two times we hear of him, he is scheming and supplanting, taking his big brother’s place in the world by deceit. Most of your listeners will know the stories, but I wonder how many of them understand what a birthright is and why the blessing of Genesis 27 matters.
The birthright was simply the eldest son’s right to have at least twice as much of the inheritance as his younger brothers, and maybe more. Isaac, for example, got all Abraham’s stuff. But more than that, the birthright gave the one who had it the right to be the ruler of the family clan. He was the teacher, judge, general, police, doctor, and priest of the whole family. OK, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. Numero Uno!
The blessing was the powerful final wish of the dying father on the one who had the birthright. The ancient peoples believed that such a blessing had real power, an almost magical ability to make good things happen. It was a virtual guarantee of success and prosperity.
If you had both the birthright and the blessing, you had it made. Your position and your future were solid and secure. Without those twin benefits, you were more or less on your own, out in the cold, doomed to a life of hard struggle. And Jacob wouldn’t stand for that.
So, he decided to steal the birthright from Esau. It wasn’t really all that hard. His brother was a down-to-earth fellow, a live in the moment kind of guy, a “what’s for dinner” man of powerful appetites. When he came in out of the fields after a day of hunting and absolutely famished, his cool-headed, manipulating little brother saw his chance. “I’ll trade you a bowl of chunky vegetable soup for your birthright.” Esau may have been stupid and weak and impulsive. But Jacob was selfish and ruthless, a truly wicked little man, to take advantage of his brother like that.
His mother wasn’t much better, maybe worse, when she took advantage of her own husband’s age to cheat her elder son out Isaac’s final blessing. Jacob had some initial qualms, stemming not from his concern about the morality of his mother’s scheme, but from the fear of getting caught. But then he got right into it. It was his character to deceive and lie and cheat.
His smooth skin covered with the hide of a goat, wearing his brother’s clothes, carrying a tasty dish of barbequed goat made to taste like venison, Jacob went in to his blind, doddering old father. “I am Esau your firstborn.” “Back so soon? How did you get game so quickly?” “The Lord your God gave me success.” “Are you really my son, Esau?” “I am.” And so he stole the blessing—“an abundance of grain and new wine… [and] be lord over your brothers….”
And it was done. Jacob had the birthright and the blessing. By bald-faced deceit Jacob had secured the rest of his life. He had it made—his authority and his prosperity were now guaranteed. His life would be as smooth and easy as he was. I can picture him laying back on his easy chair, a big cigar in one hand, a martini in the other hand, as he sang, “I did it my way.”
The irony of these opening episodes of Jacob’s life is that he would have gotten all those things anyway. All the things he tried to get by deceit, he would have gotten from God. Jacob didn’t need Esau’s birthright or Isaac’s blessing, because he already had God’s promise. Remember? When Jacob and Esau were jostling in Rebekah’s womb, she was so troubled that she asked God, “Why is this happening to me?” God said, “The older will serve the younger.” God had promised Rebekah that Jacob would have the first place, and she had surely repeated that promise to Jacob often as he grew up. He was, after all, her favorite. God will give you first place. He promised.
The problem was that Jacob, and Rebekah, couldn’t see how God could do that. Everyone knew that you had to have the birthright and the blessing to be first. That’s the nature of life, the way society works. So, if God is going to make me first, I’m going to have to take matters into my own hands. I can’t wait for God to do this thing. Surely, he expects me to do something for myself. So rather than trusting that God could do what he had promised, Jacob had to do it his way, even though it meant lying and cheating and deceiving.
Thus, Jacob’s wrestling match with God. Rather than walking hand in hand with his covenant Lord, trusting the Lord to work things out in his own time and way, Jacob took matters into his own hand and did it his way, engaging in hand to hand combat with the Lord of the Universe. And it worked. He got what he wanted—the birthright and the blessing, authority and prosperity, first place and security. A smooth and easy life.
No, not that last thing, not a smooth and easy life. In fact, he got exactly the opposite. Though he got the birthright and the blessing, the very things he thought would make his life smooth and easy, he soon discovered that it doesn’t work that way. He discovered that the human means of success and security are no guarantee of happiness.
As soon as Esau found out about the theft of the blessing, he vowed to murder Jacob as soon as Isaac died. He meant it and he could do it. He could crush his mama’s boy brother with one great hairy fist. So, Jacob had to run and for the next 21 years of his life, he paid the price for his victory. In fact, right up to the end, his life was harder than it had to be. Time and again, he might have sung, “I did it my way, and look what it got me.”
When you wrestle with God, you lose, even when you think you win. As a matter of fact, it was precisely the fact that he did it his way, rather than trusting God, that made his life so difficult. Once he began to wrestle with God, there was a lifetime of wrestling to come, so that, at the end, he said, “My days have been few and difficult (Genesis 47:9).”
Here is the surprising Gospel in the story of this slippery scoundrel. God did not let go of Jacob’s hand, ever. God did not break his promise to save Jacob or make him the source of salvation for the world. In Jesus Christ, all of God’s promises come true for his children, even if they are Jacob. God is faithful even when we are faithless. Indeed, at the very moment of Jacob’s greatest failure, God began a process that would transform Jacob into a prince with God.
Here’s how one scholar put it. “Jacob got the power and status he was seeking, but in so doing he became a marked man in God’s eyes, and as a result he would be forced to undergo great changes in his character. A process of development would be forced upon the unsuspecting Jacob which would compel him to become a conscious, moral, and whole person.” It would be harder than it needed to be, because he insisted on doing it his way and wrestling with God. But God will finish his work.
Apply that to Christians today and it sounds like this. God does not love his children because we are good, but to make us so. In that is our hope. If God could shape such rough material as Jacob into a prince, he can surely finish his work in us. And he will, as Paul said in Philippians 1:6. “I am confident that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
The only issue is, how much will we fight him? We’re free to do that, and he won’t throw us out of the ring. But it only makes life harder, much harder than it needs to be. So, what will it be? Will we wrestle with God in hand to hand combat or walk with God hand in hand in covenantal love and faithfulness?
In this message I’ve alluded to Frank Sinatra’s famous anthem of rugged, self-reliant, almost arrogant individualism, “I Did It My Way.” It makes a powerful modern connection with the way Jacob conducted himself in the text for today. Those with good sound systems and an audience that appreciates the use of AV in a message might want to play it before or during the message.
My frequent negative references to Jacob wrestling with God might irritate some members of your church who are fans of WWE or who are involved in high school and college wrestling. It might be worthwhile to compare and contrast the wrestling that is done for entertainment or for healthy competition with Jacob’s wrestling that aimed to take control of his own destiny.
Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-13
Author: Scott Hoezee
For every psalm that stands out in some way or that is well-known for some reason, there are probably three or four psalms that are not very familiar and that frankly kind of all blend into one another. Most Jews and Christians know Psalms 23 and 100 well. Psalm 46 is a regular go-to poem during times of tumult. Psalm 51 is the classic prayer of confession even as Psalms 136 and 150 are great anthems of worship and praise. And there are a smattering of other familiar psalms (or at least portions of some psalms are well known) like Psalm 137 or Psalms 27 and 42.
But there are a lot of psalms that few even devout believers would know if you just fired off a random psalm number to them (Quick: What’s in Psalm 17?) even as there are many psalms whose words of praise or lament sound an awful lot like any number of other psalms with which we are also only casually familiar. A lot of them more or less run together in our minds.
Psalm 65 seems mostly like that. It’s a lovely song and prayer. But it is definitely one of those psalms that could almost be interchangeable with a few others. What may make this psalm stand out just a bit, however, is the lyric poetry of its closing verses. Here the psalmist veers in the Gerard Manley Hopkins direction with depictions of God’s taking care to dot meadows with sheep even as God uses the divine fingers to trace out nice straight furrows in the soil, tenderly leveling the ridges of each row and then “softening” them with just the right amount of moisture. Here God is Farmer as Artisan, giving the kind of detail to each furrow in the field that a potter in her studio might give to sculpting the handle and spout just so on a clay water jug, using her fingers to pinch the clay exactly into the shape she desires. (When my Dad sees fields in springtime after the farmer had traced out all the rows in straight lines that stretched to the horizon, he says “There’s nothing like seeing a finely fitted field!”)
Of course, the portrait at the end of Psalm 65 represents a good year. But in this time of global climate change where some regions are receiving way too much moisture and other, once-lush regions are drying out into desert-scapes of cracked earth and withered crops, one realizes that Psalm 65 is aspirational as much as it represents someone’s rhapsody at the conclusion of a truly verdant year. In our world right now, Psalm 65 would need only a nudge or two in a certain direction to morph rather suddenly into a psalm of lament, a pleading with God to bring those softening rain showers onto parched furrows that are hardening up by the hour under a blazing sun in the sky.
There are many in this world who could not plausibly take Psalm 65 to their lips just now and then really mean it when they recite these words. Such lyric sentiments of overflowing wagons of produce might just stick in some people’s throats right now like some errant chicken bone. So how might one try to preach on a singularly happy and sunny psalms like this one given the dynamics we know of in the wider world if not also the dynamics right inside any given congregation as well?
Very pastorally is the short answer. But as we have noted of late with some of the other psalms assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary, the pastoral recognition that Psalm 65’s upbeat conclusion may not describe everyone’s life right now need not eclipse the other way to preach these words in a difficult season: with hope.
The poetic imagery of God as agrarian artisan that we just noted from Psalm 65’s closing verses sometimes accurately describes what happens in this world. But more than that, this depiction represents also God’s dearest desires for this world. This IS how God wants it to go every season and in all places. Who knows why it does not always happen. Who knows why some years it seems to happen less often in fewer places than it actually does happen anywhere. There is cause for lament and holy puzzlement in all that. Yes, but with good reason we also know God wants something else.
In some religions—including not a few faiths from the Ancient Near East from which the Israelite faith also emerged—when things went south in life, people would shrug and as much as say, “Well, what did you expect? The gods are angry. That’s just the way they are wired. Zeus has always got fresh lightning bolts in his quiver, ready to hurl them down on our heads. Marduk is just capricious, fickle. If the sun god Re has not shined well on us, it’s because we hacked him off, did not appease his native anger enough with this or that sacrifice of one of our children or something. So goes. As flies to wanton boys . . .”
But not so with Israel’s God Yahweh. Anger is not this God’s default mood. And though the Bible is not shy to show God doling out punishments when it’s warranted, the sense of it is mostly that old line some of our parents uttered when punishing us children: This hurts me more than it hurts you. Granted, when you are the one being grounded for a month, it does not seem like the hurt is flowing mostly to the parent imposing the restriction but except for monster parents who delight in abuse, good parents do feel wounded when they have to make a child unhappy.
Psalm 65 does not represent every person’s life at every moment. Things do not always end up as lyric as the poetry of the closing verses would indicate. Then again, all of us in romantic relationships and marriages know that the same love poetry that so nicely captures many of our moments together as lovers sometimes fits other circumstances in certain other seasons not one little bit. But if the true love and commitment of romance really is accurately expressed by such poetry a lot of the time, then that love is still the core foundation that endures during other more touchy and stressful seasons when we cannot quite get ourselves to recite our favorite love poem.
The God of Israel is like that. God so wants the end of Psalm 65 to be true. All the time. And that means that at the end of the cosmic day, that’s the way it’s going to be too. And that is hope.
I compared the poet of Psalm 65 to Gerard Manley Hopkins, especially images of plotted landscapes and such:
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Author: Doug Bratt
Few cinematic images are more powerful than that of a courtroom as a verdict is announced. In classic movies, the judge often verbally polls each individual member of the jury. Each offers crushing repetition. It’s especially poignant when the verdict is “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!”
The fear of having some great power or person pronounce us guilty shadows nearly our entire lives. Few of us are free of that fear, no matter how innocent or powerful we may think we are.
This is part of what makes racial profiling such a terrible scourge. In a country that at least claims people are innocent until proven guilty, some American authorities perpetually suspect some people are guilty just because of the color of our skin.
This too makes the kinds of racially imbalanced sentencing so troubling. We’re all guilty in one sense of the word or another. But to listen to the American judicial system all too often tell it, people of color are often guiltier than most.
It isn’t, however, just the prospect of being pronounced legally guilty that haunts us. Some of us also worry about having people tell us that we’re guilty of being somehow unable to measure up.
As long as I have memory, I’ll never forget the first time someone told me I didn’t measure up. I’d tried out for the seventh-grade basketball team at my middle school. I wasn’t a particularly skilled basketball player. Yet about the only thing I couldn’t do that others could was make a right-handed lay-up. Never mind that I was left-handed.
When the coach posted the final roster, my name wasn’t on it. I’ll never forget feeling nearly crushed as I unsuccessfully tried to fight back tears. My pain only deepened as I watched my classmates who’d made the team proudly parade around in their new uniforms.
Paul’s consistent message in his letter to the Roman Christians may at least initially haunt those who worry that we don’t spiritually measure up. We perhaps cringe as we hear him repeatedly say, “Not innocent!” “Not good enough!” “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!”
Paul calls it “the law of sin and death.” What he refers to as “law” here is what Fleming Rutledge calls a kind of process, like the law of gravity or the laws of thermodynamics that no one can escape. It’s a kind of force that unconditionally shapes some part of us.
When our first parents sinned, all people fell under the power of sin from which we can no more free ourselves than we can free ourselves from, for example, the law of gravity. So we have reason to fear condemnation to eternal separation from God and each other that comes from that.
That’s why Paul’s message of God’s pardon for Christians is such gospel. This good news is, in fact, what may still draw people to church despite all of Christ’s Body’s foibles and demands.
We who fear God’s guilty verdict long for what is at the heart of the gospel message the Church proclaims every Sunday. We long to hear something like what Paul celebrates in Romans 5:18: “Just as the result of one’s trespass was condemnation for all men, so the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.”
Because of what we’ve done, we naturally hear God’s, “Guilty! “Guilty!” “Guilty!” verdict. Reformed Christians profess that even Christians’ own “conscience” accuses us of “having … sinned against all of God’s commandments and of never having kept any of thm.”
Yet because of what Jesus did, Jesus’ followers also hear God’s gracious, “Not guilty! Not guilty! “Not guilty!” After all, the only One who has the power to overturn our guilty verdict has, in fact, reversed the verdict. What’s more, as Reformed Christians also profess, we “await as judge the very One who has already stood trial in” our place before God.
So there is now no condemnation for those who have received God’s grace with our faith. By God’s grace, there’s no reason for God’s beloved people to any longer fear not “measuring up.” Christians don’t have to worry that God will tell us that we’re not good enough.
When, after all, Jesus gave himself up to death he became what Fleming Rutledge calls “the Judge judged in our place.” When the only perfect person let the Romans crucify him, he submitted himself to the judgment God’s dearly beloved people deserve.
Though Jesus was perfectly “good enough,” he let God pronounce him not good enough in our place. He let God somehow abandon him so that God would never abandon his adopted brothers and sisters. By doing so, Jesus “set us free from the law of sin and death” so that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Yet Romans 8’s proclaimers want to do all we can to help our hearers understand for what purpose God has freed us from the threat of condemnation. God has not pronounced us “not guilty” in order to let us go back to our old ways of living.
When God, as Paul writes in verse 3b, “condemned sin in sinful man,” God also completely changed our situation. Jesus Christ graciously frees Christians who had been slaves to sin and death from that captivity. However, he also given us, through the Holy Spirit, the freedom to serve the Lord and each other.
So Paul doesn’t just speak of “Christ for us,” but also “Christ in us” or Jesus’ adopted siblings being “in Christ.” Christ’s Spirit, after all, frees his followers to live according to that Spirit.
A friend visited one of my acquaintances as she was recovering from foot surgery. This visitor had become a Christian only a few months earlier. Dorothy and my friend had a delightful conversation about the things of their newly common faith.
Dorothy told her that she’d read in her Bible that the way of anger was not the Christian way. So she reported that she was asking God to make her more patient and less irritated with her co-workers. Dorothy also reported, however, that her friend, who had been a Christian far longer, had rejected this. She insisted that to be angry is to simply be human.
Yet Dorothy, with the kind of 20/20 spiritual eyesight new converts sometimes have, recognizes a new power at work in her life. She recognizes the “law of the Spirit of life.” So she told my friend, “Shouldn’t I expect Jesus to be working in me to help me change my anger?”
Some Christians live in a kind of uneasy limbo between thinking about condemnation and not thinking about it. Our fear of not being good enough for God bubbles to the surface only periodically. As long as things are going pretty well, we keep our fear buried most of the time.
Others have convinced others and ourselves that we’re superheroes. We don’t, as Rutledge notes, “Get ulcers.” Even Jesus’ followers sometimes “give them.” We judge others instead of worrying about them judging us.
Still others live in a kind of perpetual spiritual panic. We join Paul in knowing, after all, all too that “nothing good lives in” us.” We want to do what is good, but we don’t actually do it. For us, the cry of “Guilty!” rings in our ears almost constantly, making our lives, but especially the prospect of our deaths, terrifying.
Only individual Christians can decide into which of these categories we fall. Yet in whichever group we think we find ourselves, we’re actually all in the same group. After all, as Paul writes in Romans 3, “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin … There is no one righteous, not even one … There is no difference, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
So to every single one of Romans 8’s proclaimers and hearers, the great gospel word comes. To those who have ears to hear and hearts to believe, God pronounces a new verdict and creates a new world.
Yes, God’s adopted children remain guilty of sinning against God and each other by what we do and fail to do, by what we say and neglect to say. Yet “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit has set me free from the law of sin and death.”
Albert Camus’ novel, The Fall, introduces its readers to a successful man named Jean-Baptiste. He says, “I was altogether in harmony with life; my company was in demand … to tell the truth, I looked upon myself as something of a superman.”
A walk home through Paris’ streets one night, however, rattles his conceit. Just after Jean-Baptiste passes a young woman standing on a bridge, he hears her fall into the water. However, he doesn’t stop, even when he hears her call out for help. He simply returns to his home and refuses to report the incident to anyone.
Afterwards, Jean-Baptiste wrestles with his failure to try to save the drowning woman. He admits, “I couldn’t deceive myself as to the truth of my nature … It was not love or generosity that awakened me [towards others], but merely a desire to be loved and to receive what was in my opinion due me.” After he recognizes this about himself, he becomes a sort of social fugitive, saying, “Above all, the question is to elude judgment.”
The process of “eluding judgment” teaches Jean-Baptiste, “People hasten to judge in order not to be judged themselves. The idea that comes most naturally to man … is the idea of his innocence.
From this point of view God’s adopted children are like that Frenchman at the Buchenwald concentration camp who insisted on registering a complaint with the clerk, himself a prisoner. The clerk said, “Useless, old man. You don’t lodge a complaint here.” ‘But you see, sir,” said the Frenchman, “My case is exceptional. I am innocent.”
“We are all exceptional cases,” Jean Baptiste concludes. “Each of us insists on being innocent at all costs, even if he has to accuse the whole human race and heaven itself… The essential thing is that [we] should be innocent.”