Romans 8:18-30 – Anticipating Hope

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hopethat the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope, we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (New Revised Standard Version)

Christians everywhere are presently anticipating the Nativity of the Lord, the birth of the Christ child. Not only Christians, but all people anticipate better days, hoping that during this season of goodwill that basic human kindness will be prolific and extend into the new year.

The brokenness of the world is dominated by disease and dissent. As of this writing, well over five million people have died worldwide due to COVID-19. I myself have attended dozens of those deaths. The grief, not only of losing a loved one, but many of them dying alone, is palpable.

If that weren’t bad enough, disease has become a political game. While there are currently two-hundred fifty million people infected with some strain of the coronavirus, far too many without the disease are using it to posture and position for their shortsighted rights.

And I haven’t even mentioned the hundreds of other world and national problems, beset with such a cacophony of dissenting voices bickering at one another, that innocent lives get ruined or lost. Who will rescue us from this body of death?

“The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Thanks be to God. There is an intervention. Hope is imminent. A star rises in the east. A leader is to be born – one who is deeply concerned for the common good of all people – one who will rule with equity and justice.

The believer’s salvation, in a gestation period of anticipation, is nearly full term. Expectation, patience, joy, and pain are part of the experience while we wait. Meanwhile, we must remain encouraged and healthy, keeping our future hope always in front of us so that we will not lose heart.

When injustice runs amok, and we are limited in what we can do about it, we pray. And then, there are times when we are flat on our backs, overwhelmed with our circumstances, not even able to utter any words in prayer.

Christians are awaiting their redemption. So, perseverance is needed. While waiting, it does no good to be like Eeyore and feel sorry for ourselves. Yet, on the other hand, it also does no good to always be smiling, positive, and upbeat as if nothing is worth grieving over. 

Grief and lament, hope and joy, must all be held together at the same time. Without the simultaneous embrace, we will live in abject denial – tightly gripping one hand while ignoring the other, as if we don’t have two of them.

Indeed, we live in an awkward time. Nothing is as it was, and nothing is as it should be… yet. This time of spiritual pregnancy, in which we possess salvation but do not yet possess it in all its fullness, is a weird liminal space in which we often don’t quite know what to do.

There is so much groaning going on because we realize there is such a large gap between where we are and where we want to be. If women could have babies without nine months of struggle, limitation, and pain I think they would opt for that instead of the way it is now. There is a time coming when every tear will be wiped away and unending joy will rule. No more disease. No more dissent. No more death.

All of creation groans because where it is now and where it will be seems like such a long time in coming.  Every creature and every living thing will experience decay and death. The world is not yet redeemed from its cursed bondage. So, the earth vomits disasters and diseases because we live in this fallen world that is not yet redeemed.

Humanity groans because we fall victim to circumstances beyond our control. We also groan because of our own poor choices that give us grief. Although we have been delivered from sin, death, and hell and experience spiritual power… we still must wait eagerly for the redemption of our bodies.

Yes, we are keenly aware of the terrible disconnect between where we are as people and where we want to be. It is something of feeling like Pinocchio, not yet a real boy who has to deal with strings and other puppeteers who do not care about him; and, who feels the need to lie because of his situation and pays the consequence of his nose growing.

Yet, a deeper thing is happening under the surface: Our frustrations, longings, lusts, jealousies, and escapist daydreams, things we might be ashamed of to take to prayer, are in fact already lifting our hearts and minds to God in more honest ways than we ever do consciously.

Take courage. The time is at hand.

“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11, NRSV)

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward humanity.

Romans 5:6-11 – Christ Died For Us

“Golgotha” by Edvard Munch, 1900

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (New International Version)

In Christianity, there is only one way of approaching God: Through the death of Jesus Christ. That means we cannot approach God by our good works, doing things right, or by our spiritual pedigree. We are justified and declared righteous by grace alone through faith in the cross of Christ.

Back when my youngest daughter was still living at home, sometimes I needed to go into her room to get something. More often than not, it ended up becoming an archaeological dig. I had to wade through layers of stuff. I didn’t always find what I was looking for, and other times I discovered things I didn’t know I had even lost. 

When the magisterial Reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546) went digging into the Bible, he found he was wading through layers of church tradition and came upon something that was lost. Luther rediscovered that God justifies sinners by grace through faith apart from any good works done by us. Luther found in the Scriptures that we are completely and totally at the mercy of God in Christ.

The cross of Jesus Christ is the means of salvation from what ails us because the cross is an attack on human sin. Luther discovered we all have layers of stuff that has grown around our hearts to the degree that we no longer see the sheer grace of God in Christ alone to meet the most pressing needs of our lives. 

The Reformation has taught believers that apart from Christ, we are addicted to ourselves. The cross is the intervention we need to help us confront our constant me-ism.

We might justify ourselves with the fact we do good works. However, one of the legacies of the Reformation, coming from the book of Romans, is that good works do not earn us deliverance from sin. In fact, Luther said that our good deeds are the greatest hindrance to our salvation because we have the tendency to trust in those good deeds instead of the death of Christ. 

So, Luther actually called our good works a mortal sin that sets off God’s wrath and leads straight to hell. In other words, good deeds can be deadly, if they are done as a means of approaching and appeasing God. 

It is through the suffering of Jesus on the cross, his death for us while we were still sinners, not when we were lovely and looking fine with all our pious actions, that we are saved. 

“He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore, he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people who are under God’s wrath! God can only be found in suffering and the cross. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.”

Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation

God does not come to us in our beauty and goodness but in our ugliness and sin.

While we were still sinners, ungodly, enemies of God, powerless to save ourselves, Christ died on the cross for us. We spend too much time and effort concerned about looking good and doing good things in order to present ourselves acceptable to each other and even to God. 

But that is the very sin that sends people to a hellish existence. The hottest places of damnation are actually reserved for outwardly pious persons who trusted all their lives in themselves and how they looked to others without a thought, at all, about justification, reconciliation, and being restored to God through Christ.

Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout, is a person who has good deeds but knows nothing of God’s grace.

It is a totally human tendency to decide which sinful actions are trivial and which are the biggie sins. The Apostle Paul was really hard on his fellow Jews in the book of Romans because they tended to place their trust in who they were and what they did – being the covenant people and practicing all the good things a good person does. And Paul says the wrath of God is reserved for them. 

The way of approaching God is by seeing our true ugliness, our rebellious hearts, and that the hope of salvation is through the cross of Christ. We are justified by and reconciled to God because of Jesus, and not for any other reason. A new relationship is established based solely in God’s grace.

“Jesus Carrying The Cross” by Olga Bakhtina, 2017

When Christians grasp this truth, even a little bit, it should cause us to repent of our sinful good works (yes, sinful good works). Wherever there is humility that leads to a complete turning to Jesus, there is revival to new life in God, and a personal reformation around the doctrine of grace instead of the doctrine of my glorious works that I perform.

We, then, as Christians, saved and justified through the blood of Jesus, ought to be the most joyful and grateful people on the planet. We have deliverance from the deception of our hearts to life in Christ. Apathy and lethargy to the things of God are the twin evils that reign in the place of awe and appreciation for what God has done for us in Christ.

There is nothing more God can do to show us that he loves us than by actually dying for us, and by doing so, satisfying God’s own wrath against the sin which seeks to destroy us. The late Brennan Manning once told the story about how he got the name “Brennan.”

While growing up, his best friend was Ray. The two of them did everything together: bought a car together as teenagers, double-dated together, and went to school together. They even enlisted in the Army together, went to boot camp together and fought on the frontlines together.

One night while sitting in a foxhole, Brennan was reminiscing about the old days in Brooklyn while Ray listened and ate a chocolate bar. Suddenly, a live grenade came into the foxhole. Ray looked at Brennan, smiled, dropped his chocolate bar and threw himself on the live grenade. It exploded, killing Ray, but Brennan’s life was spared.

Later in life, when Brennan became a priest, he was instructed to take on the name of a saint. He thought of his friend, Ray Brennan. So, he took on the name “Brennan.”

Years later he went to visit Ray’s mother in Brooklyn. They sat up late one night having tea when Brennan asked her, “Do you think Ray loved me?” Mrs. Brennan got up off the couch, shook her finger in front of Brennan’s face and shouted, “What more could he have done for you?” Brennan said that at that moment he experienced an epiphany. He imagined himself standing before the cross of Jesus wondering, Does God really love me? And Jesus’ mother Mary pointing to her son, saying, “What more could he have done for you?”

The cross of Jesus is God’s way of doing all he could do for us. And yet we often wonder: Does God really love me? Am I important to God? Does God care about me? We tend to ask those questions when we are trusting in ourselves, because we never really know where we stand with God.

No matter how bad or how good you are, the path of suffering of our Lord Jesus has taken care of the sin issue once for all.

Week after week for the past two-thousand years, God’s people have gathered together to worship this same Lord Jesus who died on the cross. The only thing left for us to do, since Jesus has done it all for us, is to offer our lives to him.

While we were still sinners, enemies, estranged, hopeless, lost, despondent, proud, and stained by sin, Jesus died a cruel death on a cross to wash away your sins with his blood. It is my hope and prayer that today you are rediscovering the great Reformation truth that we are justified by grace alone through faith in Jesus alone, and the life of unbounded joy in knowing that we have now received reconciliation with God in Christ.

Lord God Almighty, the ground is level at the foot of the cross. We need you, Lord Jesus, and come to you on the basis of nothing else but your shed blood. I pray for all those who are wrestling with you right now. Oh, that you would revive those that need new life, that you would renew those who have become cold, and that you would reform all of our hearts so that our lives would completely be devoted around the person and work of Jesus Christ! 

Thank you, Lord Jesus, for dying for us while we were still powerless, sinful, and ungodly. Thank you for saving us from God’s wrath. Thank you, God Almighty, for reconciling us back to yourself through the cross. There are those needing you to break through their stubborn hearts; and those who need peace to their troubled hearts. O God, save us from ourselves, whether it is from our trust in our own perceived goodness, or our sense of shame and guilt. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Romans 2:1-11 – Connection, not Criticism

Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in your own crimes and misdemeanors. But God isn’t so easily diverted. He sees right through all such smoke screens and holds you to what you’ve done.

You didn’t think, did you, that just by pointing your finger at others you would distract God from seeing all your misdoings and from coming down on you hard? Or did you think that because he’s such a nice God, he’d let you off the hook? Better think this one through from the beginning. God is kind, but he’s not soft. In kindness he takes us firmly by the hand and leads us into a radical life-change.

You’re not getting by with anything. Every refusal and avoidance of God adds fuel to the fire. The day is coming when it’s going to blaze hot and high, God’s fiery and righteous judgment. Make no mistake: In the end you get what’s coming to you—Real Life for those who work on God’s side, but to those who insist on getting their own way and take the path of least resistance, Fire!

If you go against the grain, you get splinters, regardless of which neighborhood you’re from, what your parents taught you, what schools you attended. But if you embrace the way God does things, there are wonderful payoffs, again without regard to where you are from or how you were brought up. Being a Jew won’t give you an automatic stamp of approval. God pays no attention to what others say (or what you think) about you. He makes up his own mind. (The Message)

Claiming the moniker of self-appointed Judge will only get you, well, judged! There is only one true Judge. And Judge Jesus renders decisions which are always right, just, and fair, with no favoritism, cronyism, or malice.

A critical spirit is an evil spirit. It vaults oneself over and above others who are viewed as inferior, unworthy of love and belonging. It is the very antithesis of Christ’s way of being in the world with others.

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Church at Rome, merely upheld the teaching of his Lord Jesus, who said:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make, you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1-2, NRSV)

Although most people would affirm that showing favoritism is a bad thing, in practice we have a difficult time avoiding it – especially in polarizing times such as ours. Political mudslinging is (unfortunately) a time-honored American tradition. And so is religious judgmentalism.

Some of the most emotionally laden vitriol comes from folks who are so heavily entrenched in their religious convictions that they believe any deviation from their way of belief is worthy of scathing criticism.

People, however, do not change because someone criticizes or judges them. They experience transformation through basic divine and human kindness.

As a hospital chaplain in a behavioral health unit, I wholeheartedly affirm this to be true. Many patients have been told repeatedly by family or friends to stop their destructive behavior or thinking, get their lives together, move on, wake up, etc. – all with the condescending edge of criticizing judgment.

Yet, when someone takes notice, is curious about them, treats them like a fellow person, offers helpful encouragement, and a listening ear without trying to fix, souls become open to receiving the healing grace of love and truth.

God shows no partiality, and neither should we, period.

God is right, just, and fair in all dealings with everyone. The Lord judges according to divine standards of righteousness and mercy – no matter one’s race, ethnicity, gender, economic status, or social standing. And it is all laced with the love and compassion of Christ.

Christians are not exempt or given a pass on being judgmental, as if owning multiple Bibles or giving lots of money exempts one from a wagging tongue and an insensitive spirit.

Our own unhealthy practices, bad habits, and angry outbursts will be treated just like any non-Christian by God. In a time when decrying the moral condition of our world is nearly a spectator sport, the New Testament lesson for today reminds us that we must first be concerned for the condition of our own hearts before we can point the finger at another.

We all equally stand in need of God’s grace in Jesus.  There is a symbiotic relationship between our actions and the state of our hearts.  A soft and tender heart toward God leads to obedience; disobedience hardens the heart and leads to God’s wrath, no matter the individual.

So, it will help if we all faithfully engage in daily spiritual practices which keep our hearts attentive and alert to God’s will and way. 

No matter how busy we are, or how we feel, to forego or ignore the Word of God and prayer on a regular basis will slowly calcify our hearts and render them unable to respond rightly to grace. Instead, we can drink deeply of the gospel throughout every day so that we may experience peace.

A critical spirit begins to melt away when the tools of empathy, compassion, understanding, and acceptance are used to forge connections and provide support.

It takes little to no practice to bludgeon someone with condemning criticism. However, it takes repeated practice to speak and act with grace, mercy, and peace, especially when we are stressed and/or anxious about our surrounding circumstances.

Instead of judgment, observe and be curious. Seek more information. Ask clarifying questions. Expand the gap between observation and conclusion.

The ability to have an awareness of one’s own emotions, to be mindful of self and surroundings, and to do it all with neither criticism nor judgment is perhaps the highest form of intelligence and spirituality.

It is kindness which leads others to repentance, not condemnation. Grace has the final word, not judgment. So, let us be blessed through a gentle spirit which spreads the goodness of God throughout the world.

O God, thank you for the gift of prayer and the grace of your Word.  May it seep deep down into my heart so that I am compassionate and kind, just like Jesus.  Amen.

Romans 15:1-6 – The Responsibility of the Powerful

We who are powerful need to be patient with the weakness of those who don’t have power, and not please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good in order to build them up. Christ didn’t please himself, but, as it is written, The insults of those who insulted you fell on me. Whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction so that we could have hope through endurance and through the encouragement of the scriptures. May the God of endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude toward each other, similar to Christ Jesus’ attitude. That way you can glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ together with one voice. (Common English Bible)

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Stan Lee

Within the ancient church in Rome there existed people of Jewish descent as well as non-Jews (Gentiles) who had come to embrace Christ. These two groups had vastly different backgrounds and experiences. Now they found themselves within one church, with only their shared commitment to Jesus.

Getting along was downright hard. It took a great deal of work for them to understand one another. Throughout the Apostle Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome, he consistently went back and forth, addressing both groups.

Frankly, Paul was most difficult on his fellow Jews. He took them to task. In his view, the Jewish believers had a responsibility to set a tone of Christian equality and fairness. Since the Jewish people have such a rich spiritual history as God’s people, it was Paul’s admonition they use their power on behalf of the non-Jewish Gentiles.

There were some Jewish believers who believed it best that the non-Jewish believers become religiously Jewish. They thought that Gentiles, with no background whatsoever in Old Testament belief and practice, would need to be like them in order to become good Christians.

Paul passionately believed otherwise. The Jewish position of privilege was to be used to encourage and help, not criticize and make things more difficult for non-Jewish persons. Jesus, a Jew himself, did this during his life and ministry on earth.

It came down to a belief of whether Jews ought to hold positions of power within the church, or that power should be shared. As it still is today, it was then with the Jewish people: They have carried an inordinate burden of the world’s sin upon their shoulders. Paul wanted them to continue this special calling – not taking advantage of an opportunity to be on top – but embracing their call for the sake of Christ’s gospel.

Whether Jew or Gentile, all together were to make every effort to do what leads to peace and the encouragement of one another. Those with power were to make room at the table (and Table!) for those without power.

The ideal which Paul so adamantly struggled for was unity – to have both Jew and Gentile together as sisters and brothers in the faith. There was never to be two churches – one Jewish and one Gentile. Christ’s death had abolished all barriers to unity. Now, everyone must come together and re-orient their lives around the good news of new life in Christ. (Ephesians 2:11-22)

Since Jesus closely identified with others, now we, his followers, are to demonstrate a genuine spirit of care and welfare for all people. This is a new family relationship which did not exist before Christ. God, however, has adopted all kinds of non-Jewish people into the family. So, we have responsibilities to get along with each other.

It must always begin with those who possess the power and privilege. They have the first responsibility to initiate an egalitarian society. The onus is on the powerful to ensure that a fully inclusive Christian ethic is established and maintained. We are to welcome others just as Christ welcomed us.

The Christian ethic of welcoming, encouraging, and including is helped by being mindful of the following:

  • Listen more. Talk less. A particular temptation for those with power is to make decisions without consulting or collaborating. Basic human respect comes from listening – neither interrupting nor overtalking. The less powerful folks need to be heard. Give them a seat at the table and honor them with your ears.

People who listen when they are corrected will live, but those who will not admit that they are wrong are in danger. (Proverbs 10:17, GNT)

  • Be curious. Respect another’s contribution. Be welcoming and open, whether or not you agree. Seek understanding rather than always trying to be understood. “Tell me more.” “Help me understand.” And “I’d like some clarification…” are all simple phrases of healthy curiosity which invites others to talk.

The people in Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica. They were so glad to hear the message Paul told them. They studied the Scriptures every day to make sure that what they heard was really true. (Acts 17:11, ERV)

  • Don’t assume. Not everyone has had the same experiences. We don’t all know the same things. Take the posture of a learner. Be something of an anthropologist, seeking to discover rather than superimpose what you already believe on a different group of people.

Don’t fool yourselves! If any of you think you are wise in the things of this world, you will have to become foolish before you can be truly wise. (1 Corinthians 3:18, CEV)

  • Be aware of your own biases. We all have them. It takes some work to uncover our prejudices as well as our privileges.

I solemnly command you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus and the highest angels to obey these instructions without taking sides or showing favoritism to anyone. (1 Timothy 5:21, NLT)

  • Embrace empathy. We all know how it feels to be excluded, left out, and even shamed about something. Let’s use our own experiences to realize what others might be going through. Looking down on another, or dismissing them in some way, is not the way of our Lord.

Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. (Romans 12:15-16, MSG)

  • Focus on connection, not fear. In many groups and in many places, the “other,” the one who is different, is looked upon with suspicion as someone who might upset existing societal norms or steal something we have. Seeking to establish connection with others mitigates fear and anxious feelings.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28, NRSV)

  • Be patient with others. People need our gentleness and our humble help, not our judgment and exasperation. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.

Be humble and gentle in every way. Be patient with each other and lovingly accept each other. (Ephesians 4:2, GW)

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus (Matthew 7:12, NIV)

That about sums up exactly what Paul intended to say. Now go and do likewise.

O God, in accepting one another wholeheartedly, fully, and completely, we accept you. Fill us then with love and let us be bound together with love as we live our lives, united in this one spirit which makes you present in the world, and which makes you witness to the ultimate reality that is love. Love has overcome. Love is victorious. You are Love. Amen.