I’m back from my cruise vacation. Thanks to my awesome friends Nancy, Geoff, and Paul for filling in for me in my absence.
Have you ever been on a cruise? It’s like the Golden Corral combined with Disney World—if Disney World’s only ride were the spinning tea cups. And the lines were longer. I meant to post this sermon before I left, but wi-fi at the Holiday Inn Express was down, and wi-fi on the boat was prohibitively expensive. So here goes…
This sermon is Part 5 of our Vinebranch series, “Roman Road,” which takes us through Paul’s letter to the Romans. In today’s scripture, Romans 5:1-8, Paul talks about the end result of God’s atoning work of Jesus Christ through the cross: Justification (God’s verdict of “not guilty” directed toward us sinners through faith) and peace with God. And “peace with God” isn’t simply a “peaceful, easy feeling.” It’s solid and permanent like a peace treaty.
We also talk about what it means to “boast in our sufferings,” and how God uses hard times to make us better people. (Sadly, my best illustration at the end gets cut off because of a technical problem. You can read it in the manuscript that follows the video.)
The following is my original manuscript.
So, did anything interesting happen in the news last week? I got back from vacation, and everywhere I went, everywhere I looked, everything I turned on and watched or read or listened to, people were talking about the verdict. I thought I had been living under a rock, because I actually had no idea what they were talking about at first. In a highly publicized trial, a young woman named Casey Anthony, who certainly seems to be guilty of murdering her child, was found “not guilty,” and as a result she avoided the death penalty.
People who followed the trial closely told me this was the most shocking “not guilty” verdict since the O.J. trial. And I’m sure it was. For those of you who followed the trial, think of the shock and surprise you felt when you heard the verdict.
In many ways—like it or not—when it comes to our relationship with God, we’re all a little bit like Casey Anthony. We’re sinners, and there is a mountain of evidence against us that says we’re guilty. And we’re facing the death penalty. But because of God’s saving plan for humanity—put into motion thousands of years before Christ when God called Abraham to start a family to be the people of God and finally and fully realized in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—all of us who place our faith in Jesus have now heard God the Judge read the surprising verdict. And we are shocked and amazed that the verdict is “not guilty.”
We can argue all we want about whether Casey Anthony did it, whether she murdered her child, but we’re not really arguing about her guilt. That’s been settled once and for all. She was found not guilty on the basis of the jury’s verdict—whether she did it or not is a separate question. This is exactly what Paul means in chapter 5, verse 1, when he uses the word “justified.” To be justified is court language meaning that the judge has in our favor—God the Judge has found in our favor. And as with Anthony, it has nothing to do with our character, our holiness, our goodness. On the contrary, as Paul writes in verse 8, “while we were yet sinners”—before any kind of change to our hearts or our character could take place—“Christ died for us.” And through that death, we’re justified.
There’s a mnemonic device to help us remember what “justification” means, and it’s this: “justified” means just as if we had never sinned.
But here’s where the similarity to Casey Anthony ends. We look at the Anthony verdict of “not guilty” and say, “That’s not fair!” Justice has not been served. But do you suppose that God’s “not guilty” is going to be unfair, unjust? No. God’s verdict of “not guilty” is perfectly fair because of the cross. To be sure, from the world’s perspective, Jesus’ being sentenced to die on the cross was the worst miscarriage of justice in human history. But from God’s perspective, it was in the interest of justice that Jesus died. Out of God’s love and grace and mercy for us, God provided a way for justice to be done—through the death of God’s Son Jesus—who took upon himself all our sin, and suffered and died the God-forsaken death that we deserved. God didn’t have to do it. God could have left us in our sins to suffer the consequences of death and hell, but he chose to do something to save us—out of love.
There was a corny song that we used to sing in youth group when I was a teenager. It’s not theologically sophisticated. It doesn’t capture all the nuances of what the cross means. It isn’t the last word on atonement—which describes how we’re reconciled to God… And yet, in spite of all my theological training, I can’t find anything wrong with it. It goes like this: “He paid a debt he did not owe/ I owed a debt I could not pay/ I needed someone to wash my sins away/ And now I sing a brand new song/ Amazing grace all day long/ Christ Jesus paid a debt that I could never pay.”
I know it sounds corny, but the truth behind the song isn’t. In some ways, it summarizes what Paul has been talking about in the first four chapters of Romans. And he’s going to keep coming back to the themes of forgiveness, grace, and reconciliation because it’s just so incredible what God has done for us! One theologian who reflects on Romans said: “Forgiveness remains one of the most astonishing gifts, and the church should be the place where people are regularly astonished by it.”†
Are you “regularly astonished by it,” or do you, like me, sometimes take it for granted. Show of hands if you take the gift for granted. I agree that it’s easy to do! You know what it’s like? It’s like what happened after 9/11. For about a year or so after 9/11, we as Americans were vigilant, paying close attention to color-coded threat-level warnings, eyeing people with suspicion at the ballgames or the airport, happily opening our backpacks and purses at ballgames and concerts. Always mindful about the possibility of a new attack.
I hardly ever give it a thought now. For better or worse, I feel pretty safe again. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t keep the threat of a terrorist attack near the forefront of my thoughts anymore. Now… Suppose we gathered every week somewhere and talked about 9/11, reminded ourselves of what it meant and how we felt that day, encouraged one another be vigilant and to warn others, and supported one another to be on the lookout for the next attack. I don’t really think we should do that. I hope you see my point: When it comes to what God has accomplished through Christ on the cross, this is what Church is all about. When we break bread of Holy Communion, what does Christ tell us? “Do this in remembrance of me.” Remember the cross. Remember the sacrifice. Remember you’ve been bought with a price. Remember who you are. Remember whose you are. Remember the privilege of being God’s child. Remember the responsibility. Remember the love… Remember!
Remember, Paul writes, that what it all means is this: “Peace with God through Jesus Christ.” This kind of peace, Paul wants us to know, isn’t just a “peaceful, easy feeling,” because feelings come and go. It’s something more solid, more substantial, more permanent. It’s more like a peace treaty.
Think for a moment of the terrible mess that the Middle East always seems to be in. Whenever there’s a gathering of Middle Eastern diplomats, diplomats from Israel will always be on one side of the room; and diplomats from the other Middle Eastern countries will be on the other. These countries are always at odds, politically, militarily. They don’t acknowledge one another. Except… at any such gathering, Israeli and Egyptian diplomats will walk across the room and shake hands with one another. They’re not smiling and laughing and making jokes, and they may not feel like being friendly, and they will immediately turn around and walk back to their respective sides. But they’re required by a treaty signed in the late-’70s to get along with one another at least well enough not to harm one another. And in spite of their major differences, for 40 years these two countries have done that. Not bad!
If human peace treaties between sworn enemies work at least that well, imagine how well God’s peace treaty with us humans works! God doesn’t merely shake our hands and act friendly toward us because he has to. God embraces us as a loving Father. Amen? We’re in the family now! Amen? We’re children of God now! Amen? We’re brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ now! Amen? Can you believe it?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, that means peace with God. Do you know that peace? It can sustain you through any hardship, any trial, any suffering you may face. In fact, because of this rock-solid foundation of peace with God, Paul says, we can even “boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance”—or patience—“and patience produces character, and character produces hope.”
So let’s all get on with suffering, O.K., because look at all the good stuff God does with it! Doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? Do you believe that God can use suffering for our good?
One lesson I’ve learned in this past week is that God uses car trouble to teach me patience, which produces character, which produces hope. I’m not kidding! We went to the beach last week in the Tampa Bay area, and on our way, our Honda minivan broke down. We knew right away it was a transmission problem. Why did we know this? Because the exact same problem occurred one year ago, when we paid a lot of money to have the transmission rebuilt. And we knew one year ago that we had a transmission problem. Why did we know this? Because the exact same problem occurred a year before that, when we paid a lot of money to have the transmission rebuilt. This year, like last year, we were just outside of the one-year warranty.
Fortunately, our minivan broke down a few miles from the small town of Forsyth, where I pastored a church when I was in seminary. Some of my former parishioners there helped us. I was even able to borrow one of their cars to drive an hour-and-a-half back to Alpharetta, where Tammy Allison helped us by offering us the use of their minivan for the week. On our way back from beach, Lisa was able to drive the Honda—slowly but successfully—all the way back to our house.
So we had a great vacation in spite of the setback, and we got our piece-of-junk minivan back home. But the minivan still needed to be fixed. But I was feeling O.K. about everything—maybe on Tuesday, after the 4th of July holiday, someone from the corporate headquarters of this local transmission shop would agree to do the right thing and fix the car for free—or at a greatly reduced cost, and it wouldn’t put us out another three grand to fix it. Anyway, I thought, we’ll deal with that on Tuesday. Now to enjoy my holiday! That afternoon, I was going to go to Publix and get some food and supplies for grilling—it was the 4th, after all. So I get in my 18-year-old Honda Accord, which is, after all, just two years shy of classic status and 1,500 miles shy of 300,000. And I crank it. [Imitate crank sound.] As I’ve mentioned in the past, the Accord does this sometimes in the summer heat. It would likely start up later, when it cooled down a little. I knew that.
But in that moment, I was thinking to myself, “We are driving two embarrassingly old Hondas—trying desperately to keep one of them running with bailing wire, chewing gum, cable ties, and duct tape, while the other is facing yet another expensive repair.” And we’re driving these two old cars, holding our breath each day, hoping that they will get us from point A to point B—and why are we doing this? Because I decided to answer the call into ministry eight years ago. I did not anticipate the huge financial sacrifice that it would require of my family and me. So what am I doing, on this July 4th, sitting in my driveway, cranking my car in vain. Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. I’m feeling sorry for myself. Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. I’m thinking, “I was doing fine as an engineer.” Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. “We didn’t have live on such a tight budget before.” Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. “We could’ve bought a couple of new cars by now.” Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. “We didn’t have these kinds of worries back then.” Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch… Ch-ch.
So I go back in the house, and—I’m speaking to married men now—are you like me. Do you just know when you’re about to say something that’s going to start an argument with your wife? It’s like you see it coming—like the light of an approaching train at the end of a tunnel—but you just can’t get out of its way? Well, it happened… We fought. Lisa told me, among other things, that I did not trust that God would really take care of us—that, despite what I preach, I live my life as if it’s all up to me. And she wants me to actually believe these pretty words that I tell you each week. And she reminded me of how much God has taken care of us so far, how faithful God has been to us, how happy and healthy our family is, how nice our home is, how we’ve made ends meet. And how, in spite of our car troubles, there hasn’t been a single time when we couldn’t get from point A to point B. And even as she was saying this, I knew that every word she spoke was completely true. Surprisingly, this is not always the case… Not that she isn’t usually right, but that I fail to see it that way at the time.
And, although she had no idea what I was preaching on this week, she said, “Maybe God keeps sending us this car trouble, trying to get your attention, in order to teach you something about what it means to trust in him!” And I’m like, “Whoa!” I thought I was the theologian in this family. These words literally brought me to my knees. I did the best praying I’ve done in a while. And while this didn’t need to happen to convince me that she was right, the next morning, the corporate guy from the transmission place told us that they were repairing the car at no cost.
Praise God! What else can I say. I’m so full of foolish, foolish pride. I don’t want to trust God the way God wants me to, because it would be admitting that I can’t trust in myself. I don’t really want to be up to my eyeballs in debt to God. I want the ledger sheet to be in balance. I want to pay God back for all of his amazing grace.
But those aren’t the terms of this peace treaty that we agree to for when we place our faith in Jesus. It’s about the most one-sided treaty imaginable.
“Oh, Brent,” God was saying to me that evening, “you’re striving in vain. Give it up. Surrender. Place your life in God’s hands. Learn what true peace is. Learn what hope really looks like.”
† N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 506.