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ruleBackground

Gospels

John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

March 29 , 2005

Outside Intervention

I could barely move. I was burning with fever. My mind was not functioning. And things were uncontrollably coming out of my body at irregular intervals.

Now I'm not going to go into detail about what kinds of things these were, or where they were exiting my body, but you get my drift.

I had the flu. If there is a more helpless feeling of bodily betrayal than the flu, I don't know what it is. Nothing works. You have the fever; at the same time you have the chills. Everything hurts, so that you don't want to move, yet you thrash around on your sickbed. You lose control of the workings of your GI tract. You get so you can actually feel the infection inside you. And when your brain refuses to work, when even thinking shuts down, you know you are in serious trouble.

Is there any more helpless feeling than being at the mercy of an illness? You cannot control one thing about it. Little microbes are doing things to your body-little microbes you can't see, or keep from invading you or fight once they get in. You are completely at their mercy. And they show no mercy.

*****

It's times like these that give us perspective and humility on the limitations of our physical bodies. Unlike the common cold, many of the illnesses we contract will not run their course. They cannot be cured without medical intervention-whether it's something as simple as a fever reducer like aspirin, something more complex like antibiotics, or something dramatic like chemotherapy. Without treatment, we may die. There are reasons we get our children immunized.

What's worse are the diseases we do not yet have treatment for. I watched my dad die slowly over several decades from Sclerodema, a disease that hardens organs within the body so they gradually lose their functionality. With him, the disease attacked the elasticity of his lungs, and he slowly suffocated to death. There was nothing doctors could do for him except make him more comfortable until the inevitable happened.

What may be even worse are the illnesses like tuberculosis that can be, and routinely are cured in the West, but from which millions die in developing countries, where medicine is either scarce, too expensive, or where there is no access to health care.

As humans, illness reminds us that certain things can happen to us that are beyond our control, and that we are powerless to change. We cannot do anything to help ourselves. No matter what we do, getting better is beyond us and our abilities. The cure must come from the outside, from an agent other than ourselves. Our only hope comes from the intervention of medicines and doctors outside ourselves.

The apostle Paul has a similar message for us in the Scripture passage above, only he's referring to our relationship to God as human beings. We humans are powerless against the sin that grips our lives, and we need a cure from a source outside ourselves.

*****

All of us have the uneasy feeling there's something wrong.

Somewhere, deep down inside, everyone knows there is something wrong with humanity. You can see it on TV when you watch the news. Whether it's genocide in the Sudan, or insurgents in Iraq or the widespread corruption inherent in so many different systems of government around the world, we know something is wrong. Here in this country we look at our culture of violence, of shootings, of child abuse, of the high incidence of love gone wrong that we see in our divorce statistics, of the current environment that promotes casual sex without meaning, and we know something is deeply wrong with human beings.

And when we are alone, when we turn out the lights at night and lay in our beds, sometimes, just before we go to sleep, we admit the truth about ourselves to ourselves. "I have no peace in my life." "I am very unhappy with how things have turned out." "I am doing things I don't really want to do, but I can't stop myself."

And when we are very, very honest with ourselves, sometimes those thoughts become, "What will happen to me when I die?" "What if there really is a Judgment Day?" "And if there is, what's the grading system?"

*****

Paul agrees. Something is wrong. And he knows what it is.

In this Romans 5:6-11 passage, Paul uses four different words to describe the truth of what humans are like. These are the things we bring to the table in our relationship with God.

We are godless, wise in our own eyes, failing to make contact with the one true God and his holy purposes, either by worshiping him or in living as he commands in our relationships with each other.

We are sinners, in the grip of a power that acts through us to do things opposed to God. It doesn't matter whether we purposely shake our fists at him, or whether we sin against other people without giving God a thought. All of our sin is ultimately sin against God.

We are God's enemies. This rebellion in our thinking and actions, this sin that we do, puts us in such opposition to God that we have become his enemies. There is hostility between us.

Worst of all, we are weak, powerless, utterly incapable of getting ourselves out of this mess of sin and changing our relationship with God.

*****

We bring nothing of merit to the table in our relationship with God. To the contrary, what we bring are relationship killers.

This Scripture is from chapter 5 of Romans, a very weighty book Paul wrote to a mixed church of Jewish and Gentile Christians he had never met, but hoped to someday. In the book of Romans, some say as a way of introducing himself to these Christians, Paul very carefully explains his understanding of the gospel. By the time we get to chapter 5, Paul has told his readers that everyone in the world-whether or not they have been exposed to God's revelation of himself to the Jews or whether or not they have heard of Christ- everyone in the world has sinned and is under God's judgment. He has spoken specifically to the Jews and told them that what they hold most dear, what they think sets them apart from everyone else for God's favor-striving to obey God's laws-still leaves them under judgment because they cannot obey them perfectly.

By the time we get to chapter 5, Paul has told us that everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and that no one , not even one person, meets God's righteous standards (3:10).

Paul has told us that sin is what separates us from a holy God and what makes us enemies in God's eyes. And the news gets even worse. Paul also has told us what God's consequences are for sin: it must be punished by death. This sin business is deadly serious.

So. We are people who give no thought to God. We are slaves to committing sins. And we are completely powerless to change these things about ourselves. We are God's enemies, and we are creatures who he created and can do with as he pleases. It appears that we are in trouble. And it appears we are at his mercy.

*****

Now, let's stop here for a moment. Because this is NOT what we humans want to think about ourselves.

We want to think something else. And for the most part, we do.

We want to believe that people are basically good. The Greeks believed that people could, on their own, do virtuous things and avoid vices. We hear this a lot today, too, that given a choice, most people would choose to do the right thing. We are good at heart. There is a basic goodness in us. It's the foundation on which many secular people base their world view. The world is gradually getting better, and as you give people more education, better health care and living standards, they will learn to make the good choices that are inherent in them.

It's what Anne Frank thought. She wrote in her diary, "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are basically good at heart." She thought it even after all she had experienced and written about in her diary, and she may have kept on thinking it after she was discovered and sent to Auschwitz, where she died of starvation and typhoid.

Christians, however, believe people are basically bad. We believe that only as we submit to God and his desires can goodness come out of our lives.

We want to believe that living a righteous life is possible if you work hard enough at it. In Jesus' and Paul's day, the scribes and Pharisees taught the Jewish people that they could become righteous by keeping God's law as perfectly as possible. If they did more good things than bad, or they did certain good things a lot, they could earn their way into God's favor.

Many people believe this today. They think that God's up there with a scorecard on their lives, and that as long as they can bat .501, keep one more in the win column than they have losses, they will "get in" with God and be considered good enough for heaven.

But Christians disagree. They respond with Paul that we are unable to please God through keeping the law or being good because all of us have sinned and deserve punishment.

*****

God knows this is how people think. It's what they've always thought. But it's wrong.

Throughout Scripture God has taught us that we have a tendency to turn to things that we can generate like good deeds, money, or powerful allies to save us. It's what he tried to teach King Jehoiakim through the prophet Jeremiah in the last days of Judah before it fell to Babylon-not to trust Egypt for Judah's defense, but to trust him instead. Throughout Scripture, God confronts humans with the truth that they are sinful and that only by turning to him and trusting in him, not in their own devices, can they be saved.

No wonder the gospel is offensive! As much as we do not want it to be so, as much as we want there to be another way to God, this is what Christianity teaches. This is the heart of the gospel, and if we are honest with ourselves, we will not try to sugarcoat it or look away from it. The truth is that we really do need a savior.

*****

People wonder whether God loves or cares about them.

So, humans are powerless to change our condition, we are enslaved to sin, we are godless, we are God's enemies. We cannot save ourselves. We need a God who will reach out to us first, in the state that we are in. We are at God's mercy.

As it turns out, that's a pretty good place to be.

What kind of love would reach out to an enemy while the enemy was actively engaged against them? What kind of wronged party would make a further sacrifice for the chance to help the person from whom they are estranged-without that estranged person acknowledging their wrongdoing or making any kind of effort to reconcile?

This is exactly the kind of God we have. He is a God who reached out to save his enemies by sending his son Jesus to die in their place. He is a God who made an unfathomable sacrifice to help those who were actively working against him. The Christian commentator Doug Moo put it very bluntly: "God sent his son to die for people who hated him."

It is only through the work of Christ Jesus that all of this takes place.

In our Scripture, Paul tells us that while we were his enemies, God took the initiative to give us Jesus and his sacrificial death as the solution to our dilemma. God did this without us repenting or moving towards him first.

Paul tells us God is the one who, despite being completely wronged by us, because of his great compassion and mercy , takes the further action of placing our sin upon himself to make a way out.

Paul shows us that God, despite being the one to whom reconciliation needs to be directed is the one who initiates reconciliation.

*****

Paul uses four words to describe the effects of what God's actions in Christ give to us.

Through God's action in Jesus, and not through anything we do ourselves, God changes our status. Because of what Jesus has done, instead of being sinners who are enemies of God and powerless to change ourselves, we become to God righteous, justified, reconciled to him and saved from his wrath, both here and on the coming Day of Judgment.

We become righteous in God's eyes and are justified in his court of law. Jesus was offered as the sacrifice God would accept. God declares that all who trust this is true are declared without sin-righteous. Moreover, this is a legal action God takes in a court where he himself is the judge and prosecutor. God himself says we are "not guilty," justified. What God has done for us has changed our status with him from enemies to children.

God has reconciled us to him. God's work through Jesus has eliminated the animosity between us and given us the promise of a new relationship where we can work with, not against him.

God, through Jesus, has saved us. God's action through Jesus 2,000 years in the past is effective in saving our lives in the present as we trust in his work. We can live a different kind of life in partnership with God. But even more, this saving work has a component for the future . Scripture teaches us that there will be a Day of Judgment when all will have to answer to God for their lives. God's work in Christ also saves us on that day. We have nothing to fear when we die, or when that day comes. Everything is covered by Jesus and his death on our behalf.

*****

We have hope because God acted.

Paul believes that we have reason to hope-but that all of our hope lies exclusively in Christ and his work for us. Because of Christ's work.

.We go from no hope to hope.

.We go from being powerless to change things about ourselves to being able to overcome sin.

.We go from feeling no peace in our lives to having peace with God ( see v. 5:1 ).

.We go from wondering whether God loves and cares about us to being certain this is so.

.We go from unease about our future standing with God to assurance that we are right with him for all time.

All of this is a gift from God. How do we take advantage of it? By doing what God has been asking people to do all along- trust him to be the one to save us . We acknowledge who we really are, and we accept his treatment for our condition that will change everything.

We need outside intervention. God gives it to us, with a 100-percent cure rate.

*****

Still, there's something else we want to know.

We want to know, "If I entrust my life to what God has done through Jesus Christ, will things actually be any different for me afterwards?"

"Yes!" says Paul in our passage. Paul assures us a new kind of life is possible for those who trust Christ. That's because the reconciliation that God offers us through his son Jesus is the starting place that opens up the possibilities for our lives-possibilities that were not previously available.

God's Holy Spirit now comes to live in us, giving us the ability to do good and work with, not against him. Because of God's Spirit at work in our lives, we have the ability to conquer the parts of ourselves that have been in sin's grip.

Plus, God's work in Christ gives us hope, joy, confidence and purpose for our future. We can be certain that we have peace with God, and that this status will not change on the Day of Judgment. Because our standing relies on what God has done, and not on ourselves, all our confidence lies outside ourselves. As Paul says in our passage, this is cause to "boast" in what God, through Christ, has done.

*****

In the end, we are left with a big question. What are we going to believe about ourselves and about God?

Now many people today, including some people I am very close to, would tell you that there are many paths to God. They would say that "your truth is your truth and my truth is my truth" and there is no absolute truth. That it's nice if you believe in Jesus for your salvation, but as for me, I'm going with Hinduism over here, and we'll all wind up the same.

They get offended by Bible passages such as the one we have considered here today. These passages make us uncomfortable. They make it look like we can't pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and come to God on our own. They make Christianity seem like "an exclusivist religion"-and that's a pretty harsh criticism in our times.

Well here's the truth. The New Testament does present Christianity as an exclusivist religion. If the first Christians were here to speak to us today, they'd be clear that there is absolute truth. They'd say that God has revealed it through his son Jesus Christ. They'd insist that trusting in God's work through Christ is the only way we can be saved. And they'd add that the benefits we receive when we trust in Christ will change our lives.

Our passage today says this is the way things are. No apologies, no backpedaling.

My son just finished reading a biography of the famous movie star Humphrey Bogart. Now Bogie made a lot of great pictures and was paid handsomely for them in both wealth and fame. He lived a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, partying Hollywood life. But there was one thing that Bogie feared-the medical establishment. And so, when he developed a persistent cough, he refused to be seen for it. And he kept refusing to be examined as it developed week by week into throat cancer. Still, he refused any kind of treatment. His coughing became uncontrollable, he lost his appetite, and he wasted away. All the while he refused any outside medical intervention that possibly could have saved his life. Then he died.

That's how it is with too many of us. God's gift to us in Christ Jesus-Jesus' sacrifice of his life-is the outside intervention that we need to be reconciled with God and released from slavery to sin. Yet many of us refuse to believe that we are sick and in need of a cure.

What are we going to believe about ourselves and about God?

.

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 man, though for a good man 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, when 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 rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

—Romans 5:6-11