holiness

One of Us


Mark 1:9-15 (NRSV)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”


It is the season of Lent, and this story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness tells us much about how to put sin behind us and grow spiritually, seeking holy alignment with God.

Not that Jesus, who was in a mysterious way fully divine and fully human, had sin in his life. He did have the potential to sin; he simply did not succumb to temptation, as we so often do as frail humans.

We often think of baptism as an act of repentance and a cleansing of sin, and these are accurate notions. We have to go a little deeper into baptism’s meaning, however, to comprehend what the sinless Christ accomplished at the Jordan River, and how it ties to our lives today.

When Jesus was baptized, a new alliance between humanity and God was affirmed. When we accept baptism as the key identifying event in our lives, we make ourselves part of that alliance, with ties that run as deep as the purest bonds of family.

The Father in Heaven affirmed Jesus’ sonship; in baptism, we too become children of Father God, siblings of the Savior Son. As the author of Hebrews notes, “The one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.”

Think of baptism as God lifting up his children, gazing upon them and claiming them as his own. God also kneels down with his children. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness was God, through Jesus’ eyes, seeing life from our level. And what a painful place the wilderness can be.

In the other synoptic gospels (Matthew and Luke), the effort to tempt Jesus is described in greater detail. We hear specifically the lures old Satan dangled to try to convince Jesus to sin: You know you’re hungry; make bread from stones. Throw yourself from the highest point of the temple; angels will save you. Bow down to me and I’ll let you rule the world!

I also like the less-detailed account in Mark, however. It creates the possibility that Jesus faced the temptations most dangerous to me. I feel I can see him walking about in the chalky, sun-baked wilderness, hungrily praying about everything that draws humans away from God.

I’m also reminded of the need to find time apart for meditation and prayer. Folks, we’re really not very good at this in our culture. It is as if our goal is to fill every moment with something to tingle the ears or penetrate the eyes, as if time spent in unstimulated silence is somehow wasted.

We fail to do what Jesus did. We fail to go without so we can remember our fragility and dependence. That’s the real purpose of fasting. The act helps us become more conscious of the voids within us, deep depressions in the soul we too often try to fill with excesses in eating, sex, recreation or other diversions.

Having consumed the wrong kind of sustenance and thinking we are satisfied, we then fail to gather our strength through direct communion with God. That’s the great result of intense communal worship and private prayer: Those voids can be permanently filled with God’s Holy Spirit.

I don’t talk about our failures to make us despair, however. No, I point them out so we can, with God’s help, overcome them and be amazed at all that God wants to do for us!

Never forget that in the midst of what seemed like vacant, dry wasteland, a place of constant danger, there were angels ready to tend to our sibling Savior. Do you not think they will do the same for us, his little brothers and sisters in the family of God?

All around us there is a God-aligned spirit world ready to come to our aid. Its members stand between us and what tries to afflict us. They go to war for us against the forces of evil, if only we let them.

When the brokenness of this world overcomes us, the angels comfort us. They want to help, particularly as we, like them, work on God’s behalf more each day.

Yes, the Bible stories in the Lenten season remind us of sin. But more importantly, they remind us of the joy and power in a life redeemed from sin, a life connected to eternity by Jesus Christ.

 

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Overwhelmed by Reality

Mark 9:1-9 (NRSV)

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.


If we’re going to understand this story called the “transfiguration,” we first have to acknowledge that we do not see reality in full.

We like to trust our eyes, but you don’t have to be a religious person at all to understand there is more to the universe than meets the eye. Just ask any amateur astronomer. Many of our best discoveries have come because we built instruments capable of seeing wavelengths beyond the visible light our eyes can process.

We also see differently from other animals in creation. For example, biologists say birds and bees can see ultraviolet light, while we cannot.

Our inability to see in full is a common theme of the Bible, too. For example, in 2 Kings, chapter 6, the prophet Elisha appeared to be surrounded by an enemy king trying to capture him. His servant, alarmed, pointed out the approaching enemy.

Elisha prayed his servant’s eyes be opened, and voilà, the servant suddenly could see God’s horses and chariots of fire ringing the mountains around them. The enemy king’s soldiers proved to be no problem for them.

From birth, sin obscures our ability to see reality in full. Paul, writing in 2 Corinthians 4, said Satan, acting as ruler of this world, “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

Even for believers, a full grasp of reality is difficult. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul also wrote: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

As believers, however, we also are being drawn into deeper understandings of reality. In our transfiguration story from Mark, we are invited into a moment where the veil is briefly lifted and three broken human beings who also happen to be disciples are allowed to see Jesus Christ in full.

Not that they know how to process what they’re seeing. Jesus’ clothes are whiter than white, whiter than anything in those Tide commercials that ran during the Super Bowl. Peter, not knowing what to do, starts talking, seeming to babble through the greatest vision he has ever witnessed.

Funny thing is, Peter is partially grasping the situation. His desire to build what sounds like a camp is rooted in the Jewish belief of the day, the idea that when God comes to dwell with his people, they return to a nomadic existence, God’s presence being all they really need for survival.

Peter’s response was essentially right; you’ll note there were no stinging words from Jesus to put Peter in his place. It simply was too early to sit down and dwell in God’s glory. There was work to be done. There is work to be done.

Let me teach you a word you may not have heard before. Peter believed he was experiencing the parousia, the full and complete presence of God among us, what we sometimes call the Second Coming of Christ. In the parousia, everything will be as it was meant to be. God’s reality and glory will no longer be filtered and dimmed for us.

There were and are steps to get there, though. This is why Jesus told his three key disciples to say nothing about what they had seen until after the resurrection. Jesus had not even gone to the cross yet, and certainly his death was necessary to pay for our sins.

Christ’s resurrection would serve as proof the cross had worked, that death is defeated. That first Easter morning brought us a step closer to glorious parousia—we are but one step away now, even though it has seemed like a very long step to take.

Just before the transfiguration, Jesus had been laying out all the steps. He warned the disciples he must die and rise from the dead, a concept they could not grasp at the time. They wanted the glorious presence without the necessary work of salvation Jesus was willing to undertake. They had forgotten the price of sin.

He also mentioned his followers would have to take up their own crosses as they came to believe in the work he would do on the cross. Some of his disciples, Peter included, would do so literally, crucified as leaders of the early church. According to church tradition, Peter asked to be crucified upside down, saying he was unworthy to die in exactly the same manner as his Lord and Savior.

As Jesus’ followers, we are all called to follow our own particular Via Dolorosa, the sometimes difficult, painful path that joins us to Christ. Some of you already know what it means to surrender certain aspects of your life to the greater glory of God, seeking the growth of the kingdom in the hearts of people around you.

As you have these cross-bearing experiences, never forget that we move toward a glorious presence we cannot even begin to understand in full. I say this from time to time, and it’s worth saying again: Imagine the greatest experience your mind can concoct, and then understand your imagination has fallen far, far short of what you, as a follower of Christ, will actually enjoy when fully in the presence of God.

Years after the transfiguration experience, Peter wrote about it in a letter, what we now call 2 Peter. He focused not on what he saw, but what he heard, the voice from heaven declaring once again that Jesus is the Son of God, the same declaration we imitate as we tell others about living a life in Christ.

“So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed,” Peter wrote. “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Amen; may we work with our hearts attuned to God’s glory.

Good to Great


Matthew 1:18-25 (NRSV)

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel,”


which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.


Over the next two weeks, we’re going to take a close look at Jesus’ earthly parents. Matthew focuses on the good Jew Joseph; Luke spends more time examining Jesus’ conception and birth from Mary’s perspective. Let’s start with Dad.

Joseph was a righteous man. We know this because the fact is stated flatly in the story we have heard today. By “righteous,” the author of Matthew is implying Joseph is more than a simple keeper of the law; he has what we might call a good heart.

Most Christians know the basics of the story. Mary, who was engaged to Joseph, found herself to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit, carrying the promised Messiah in her womb. This meant very real trouble for Mary. In her day, an engagement carried with it all the legal and moral requirements of a full marriage, even though the couple had not yet consummated the relationship.

Upon discovering Mary was pregnant by another, Joseph under the law had every right to have her publicly shamed and even stoned to death. Instead, he resolved to let her escape what he believed to be her sin, “planning to dismiss her quietly.”

It was very much the right thing to do, a gracious, loving and noble act, abundant in mercy toward someone Joseph believed had wronged him terribly. He was truly a good-hearted man.

Our righteousness can never match God’s holiness, however, and sometimes we are called to go beyond good behavior to follow God’s will. When an angel later came to Joseph in a dream, he learned the truly spectacular facts surrounding the child in Mary’s womb.

Joseph proved to be the kind of man God sought. Apparently without hesitation, he took on the tasks given him as soon as he awoke. He also would receive other instructions from God (head to Egypt, now go home) in a similar manner, and again act without hesitation, despite how odd they might have seemed.

I’m certainly not God, but I’m going to ask Joseph to do something else today. I’m going to ask him to serve as an example of what is possible when we move from good to great. By that, I mean when we move in our lives from laudable righteousness to radical obedience, regardless of what obedience may cost us in this world.

Note that Joseph’s righteousness is described as an ongoing state; certainly he was considered righteous by those around him before he learned Mary was pregnant, and before God began to speak to him through angels and dreams.

We can assume saving Mary cost Joseph a great deal in terms of how he appeared to others, who watched the situation without angelic guidance. To call already pregnant Mary his wife, he had to risk his honor, exposing himself to the whispers that almost certainly would begin in a small village: “Joseph could not control himself,” or another possible rumor, “Joseph is foolish enough to raise another man’s child.”

If Joseph had been about being righteous before human beings, he actually would have chosen to ignore God. Instead, he followed the difficult path, acting as if God’s will is all that matters.

Most of us gathered here today have achieved some appearance of righteousness in the eyes of other people. Success in worldly matters can make us seem righteous. We are perceived by others as “blessed.”

Even without financial success, we can take on roles in life that carry with them the veneer of righteousness. People in what we might call the “helping” professions certainly have it: Doctors, nurses, law enforcement officers, firefighters, military personnel and maybe even clergy seem to have some  sort of special status akin to righteousness, at least until doing something to lose it.

Dedicated churchgoers certainly can have an air of righteousness about them, particularly if they are known for giving and service to others.

Don’t get me wrong. That’s all good, quite worthy of notice.

But what about that next level? What about that radical obedience Joseph demonstrated? What does it take to work on God’s behalf as God alters the world for the better?

Well, first of all, we have to be careful not to get too comfortable in our situations. Biblically, we know contentment is a good thing, but we don’t want to settle into a righteous-looking life as if it were a big, comfy couch.

We miss so many opportunities when we are content to the point of being complacent. I would note the danger of such complacency increases as we get older, when we should have more time and freedom to explore radical responses to God’s call on us.

Beyond getting up off the big, comfy couch, we also have to be alert, listening to what God says to us. Joseph heard from God and recognized God’s truth for what it was. Our righteous praying and use of Scripture should have a result: We should hear from God from time to time, in ways that challenge us.

And of course, we need courage. We often simply need to regain that old-fashioned idea that this life, while precious, may even be shortened or put at risk when we really go to work for God—and that even losing our lives while working for God is not that big a deal, if we really have faith in what comes next.

Buck up, little Christians!

I do not know what each of you might be called to do. I do not know what I might be called to do, or what we as a church might be called to do. I just know there is much more to do as we await Christ’s return.

I pray I have just afflicted the comfortable so we, with Christ as our message and the Holy Spirit as our guide, will do the work of God in radical ways. That’s where the story of Joseph takes me, anyway.

The Last Episode

1 John 2:28-3:3 (NRSV)

And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.

If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him. See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.


As in several other places in the New Testament, a reader can discover what seems to be a tension between ideas in 1 John.

First, the author is emphatic that belief in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the path to salvation. In chapter 1, verses 7 through 9, he writes, “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

But later in the letter—just beyond our reading for today—the tone changes, as if those who are in Christ cannot sin. “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. … Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.”

The two ideas pull at each other, but the tension is there to keep heresies from developing. If we forget salvation is an act of grace, an unmerited gift from God, we can start thinking we somehow earn our salvation on our own, and we begin to live like Pharisees. But at the same time, when people do not make a conscious effort to stop sinning, we can cheapen Christ’s sacrifice, saying to ourselves as we sin, “It’s okay—Jesus will forgive me.”

I think all of this is easier to process when we consider our text today. The author of 1 John is inviting us to live as if we know how our story ends. Why? Because we actually do know how our story ends.

If you’re standing on a train track, and you hear a whistle and feel a vibration under your feet, what do you do? You get off the track.

If you’re crawling out of a dark cave and you see a beam of light, what do you do? You crawl toward the light.

If you know your boss is going to walk through the door at any moment, what do you do? You work like you’ve been working hard all day. (That’s actually an extreme paraphrase of one of Jesus’ parables; see Matthew 24:45-51.)

If you genuinely believe you’re going to see Jesus face-to-face one day, what do you do? You put aside sin, those things displeasing to him. You certainly put aside those things that are recurring; if you keep reading 1 John, you’ll see the author seems particularly concerned about repetitive patterns of sin.

We know how to handle situations when the end result is clear. We change our behaviors so we are aligned with future circumstances.

Here’s what we don’t want to do. We don’t want to live like the people who are oblivious about the end result. I’ll give you an example: We don’t want to be like the characters on “Seinfeld.”

Most of you who are regulars know I have a deep affinity for “Star Trek,” and I’ve promised to limit my references to that show. But what many of you don’t know is that I also love “Seinfeld.” In particular, I think the show’s final, two-part episode in 1998 was deeply theological, whether or not the writer Larry David intended it to be.

For nine seasons, the characters on the show went about their lives without ever considering the consequences of their actions. Jerry, George and Kramer wrecked women’s lives with abandon; the toxic glue on cheapskate George’s discount wedding invitations killed his fiancée, for crying out loud! Elaine was just as adept at ruining the lives of men around her.

There also was the constant lying and deceit, whether it was Jerry trying to avoid visiting his parents at Del Boca Vista in Florida or the whole group trying to get soup from the soup Nazi. And those of us who watched the series throughout loved every minute of it. As long as we’re watching fiction, it’s amusing to see people living their lives as if there is no ultimate end in view, particularly when they are so hilariously sarcastic about everything.

It was the theologian in me, however, that made me think the final episode was brilliant.

In short, Jerry, Kramer, Elaine and George find themselves far from home, in a small town that actually has what most of us consider normal values. Fictional Latham, Mass., has even gone so far as to enshrine the need to help each other in the law, requiring people to come to the aid of someone in trouble.

Seeing a very overweight man being robbed, the Seinfeld Four choose to film the event rather than helping him or calling for help. They make fun of the victim the whole time, as they’ve always been prone to do. They end up under arrest for not providing aid, and being the first people put on trial under the law, the courtroom scene turns into a spectacle.

People they have victimized over the years arrive to testify against them. Jerry stole an elderly lady’s marble rye; she’s there, and she’s still angry. The Bubble Boy explains how they nearly killed him during an argument over Trivial Pursuit. (Moors! Moops!) Teri Hatcher shows up, and that’s all a pastor can say about her character.

An old girlfriend tells how George fled an apartment fire by pushing children and an elderly woman out of the way. There are references to uromycitisis poisoning, the puffy shirt, cockfighting, and how Jerry was “all the time mocking, mocking, mocking, mocking, mocking. Now it is Abu’s time to mock!”

And of course, they are all found guilty. The series ends with them in prison. The Seinfeld universe, as weird as it was, is put right in the last episode, with goodness affirmed and badness condemned.

As complicated as he can seem, the author of 1 John is telling us how the same principle plays out in real life. We have a last episode coming. It is already written. We know whom we see when we arrive in it. The good will be affirmed, even rewarded, and the bad will be condemned.

As people who already know the story, we are called to live our lives accordingly, no matter how much we might think we are entitled to that marble rye.


The featured image is Joos van Cleve’s “Final Judgment,” circa 1520.

Building Blocks

Romans 15:1-6 (NLT)

We who are strong must be considerate of those who are sensitive about things like this. We must not just please ourselves. We should help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord. For even Christ didn’t live to please himself. As the Scriptures say, “The insults of those who insult you, O God, have fallen on me.” Such things were written in the Scriptures long ago to teach us. And the Scriptures give us hope and encouragement as we wait patiently for God’s promises to be fulfilled.

May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.


If you heard last week’s sermon, you’ve probably realized that today’s text is a continuation of what we heard last week, with a few subtle shifts.

After having encouraged all of his audience to live with flexibility about lifestyle rules and show tolerance for each other, Paul now focuses especially on the “strong” believers, the ones who are more mature in their faith. He says the strong have a special burden, a specific calling, to “help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord.”

As Methodists, we could apply one of our favorite 18th century words, “sanctification,” here. This is the idea that even after we are saved, God’s grace continues to shape us, growing us in spiritual maturity and our ability to love as Jesus loves. We see this as the primary work of the Holy Spirit in our lives once we have found salvation.

And while humans are completely dependent on God for grace, Paul is once again reminding us that Christians are invited to come alongside God and help with the great work being done, including the ongoing sanctification of believers.

So, how do we go about this work of building up others?

An Honest Look in the Mirror

Well, there’s an obvious first step. We have to assess whether we are really among the strong in faith. It is possible over time to fool ourselves. Time spent in church doesn’t necessarily translate into discipleship, although time in church certainly helps.

Some matters to consider as you make your assessment:

Do you get all the basic points in the Bible, particularly the stuff about the resurrection, and how we are saved by God’s grace through faith in what Jesus did through the cross? Do you know the important Bible stories well enough to tell them to others when appropriate?

Is your understanding of Christianity aligned with the core doctrines established by the larger church through the centuries?

Certainly we’ve made adjustments to doctrine over time. After all, this year is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Those adjustments, however, usually have involved a return to the early church’s understanding of Christianity. They are adjustments for drift, designed to get us back on a course set by Scripture.

If you find yourself out of alignment with these biblically based truths and doctrines, further study may be in order. It is unlikely you are the first person to properly understand the Holy Spirit’s guidance after nearly two millennia of the Spirit educating billions of Christians.

Does your life reflect these truths? As we’ve heard in Romans, there is thinking and there is doing. Are you aware of your weaknesses toward sin, and working with God to overcome them?

If you’re confident in your ability to answer “yes” to these sets of questions, then you may be called to help build up others, perhaps as a teacher or guide.

A Willingness to Intervene

The next step may sound a little odd, but I think it’s important. We have to overcome the idea that what is going on in other people’s lives is none of our business.

Certainly, we don’t want to be nosy, rude or intrusive, and we cannot help those who give us the old Heisman Trophy stiff arm in response to our overtures. But if we see people off the Christian path and don’t try to help them find their way to it, we are actually going against the grain of Christian theology. When we look away, we are no better than the supposedly holy Jews in the parable of the Good Samaritan who gave their injured fellow Jew a wide berth.

This responsibility to intervene is particularly true when we see our Christian brothers and sisters off the path. By calling themselves Christian and joining a particular church, they already have sought community and accountability so they can grow as disciples.

Training for Action

Once we’ve overcome our reluctance to interfere, we have to discern how we are going to help others build their lives for the better. The ways we do this vary depending our personalities, abilities, and education. I will say this: In one way or another, we all need mentors.

I needed mentors as a lay person who was beginning to teach and lead. I continued to need mentors as I became a clergy person. If I’m trying to learn some new aspect of ministry, or deepen my spirituality in some way, I still need mentors, even after 15 years of professional ministry.

Paul knew the importance of mentoring. Look at his two letters to a young pastor named Timothy. It simply is easier to go somewhere new if you go with someone who has been there before.

Hearing all of this, some of you may feel a stirring in your heart.

I hope all of you feel a desire to mature as Christians, to get to a place where you feel you can answer “yes” to the assessment questions I raised earlier.

Some of you may be feeling it is time to make a real difference in the lives of people around you. If so, I want to hear from you. I want to spend significant time with you.

Together, we’ll figure out what God is saying.

The Explorer’s Sacrifice

Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.


We are entering a new section of Romans, one where Paul talks extensively about the long-term Christian life—the ongoing post-conversion changes we should all experience.

Yes, we are saved by simple faith, by believing in the proven work Jesus Christ has done on the cross. Our belief is enough to save us. But is there more to do?

Yes, of course there is. We have received a gift so great we cannot fully comprehend it, the gift of eternal life, Paul is saying. If we properly understand the gift, we turn our lives into a giant thank-you note to God.

We give our bodies, conforming our behaviors to his will as closely as possible. We surrender our minds, letting God’s Spirit work in us and change our very thought patterns through prayer and Scripture.

Most of us like the part about God’s grace being freely given, the fact that salvation is a simple matter of belief. But when it comes to thinking about ongoing discipleship—about actual change—well, we’re not always so receptive. The Christian life starts to sound like work.

There’s a term for when we accept the gift but offer no response, no thanks, no real change in our minds and hearts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian martyred by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis in World War II, called such an attitude “cheap grace.”

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow upon ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

I suppose I could just stop here, hoping to shame us into responding more fully to God’s grace, the way our parents might have guilted us into writing a thank-you note for a nice present we received. I think I can make all of this a little more palatable, however. Perhaps we can even become excited about this new section of Romans.

We are called to give up some attitudes and behaviors when we become Christians. We are not left with a void, however; God replaces the lesser behaviors and thoughts we surrender with even more gifts.

We are being invited to explore the kingdom that is dawning now, even before it is present in full. Like any explorer, we have to sacrifice the stuff that weighs us down if we are going to find something new, something that will change us to the core.*

We do respond to God simply as an act of thanks. We repent of what separates us from him. We pray and search the Scripture to try to understand how to better please our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. God doesn’t just receive our thank-you notes and flip them on the kitchen table with the rest of his mail, however. He gets excited by our response.

God says, “What else can I do for you? It is such a joy to have you a part of my plan! What do you want to know next? What do you want to do next?”

“How can I help you be the best you you can be?”

And God changes you some more. And you see where you used to be and where you are now, and you give more thanks. And God changes you even more!

It is a glorious cycle, one spiraling us toward heaven. Pretty soon, all that stuff we gave up, all that stuff we thought was so important, is simply scattered on the ground far below us, as forgettable as yesterday’s garbage.

If you don’t believe me—well, just try to fulfill Paul’s plea for a time. Six months, a year, something substantial. Make God’s word part of your life. Talk to him in prayer.

And certainly, most certainly, give up those behaviors that you know are not of his will. We have a short word for those behaviors: sin. Stop sinning. Ask God for the strength you need to stop.

Paul is not asking us to suffer. No, not at all. Instead, he’s asking us to live fully. We free ourselves to accept the further gifts to come, the gifts that gild our salvation.


*If you want to explore the backpack metaphor further, John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” is a good place to start.

Think About the Future

Romans 4:13-25 (NLT)

Clearly, God’s promise to give the whole earth to Abraham and his descendants was based not on his obedience to God’s law, but on a right relationship with God that comes by faith. If God’s promise is only for those who obey the law, then faith is not necessary and the promise is pointless. For the law always brings punishment on those who try to obey it. (The only way to avoid breaking the law is to have no law to break!)

So the promise is received by faith. It is given as a free gift. And we are all certain to receive it, whether or not we live according to the law of Moses, if we have faith like Abraham’s. For Abraham is the father of all who believe. That is what the Scriptures mean when God told him, “I have made you the father of many nations.” This happened because Abraham believed in the God who brings the dead back to life and who creates new things out of nothing.

Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping—believing that he would become the father of many nations. For God had said to him, “That’s how many descendants you will have!” And Abraham’s faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead—and so was Sarah’s womb.

Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous. And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will also count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God.


If you engaged with last week’s sermon, you’ll notice that Paul this week simply continues to discuss Abraham and the nature of faith. I want to focus on a particular idea Paul raises, the importance of hope as an attitude to bolster our faith.

I’m liable to sound a little like a self-help guru today, but frankly, the ones I’ve heard simply repackage ancient concepts found in the Bible, enriching themselves in the process. That’s between the self-help gurus and God, I suppose. Maybe I’m just jealous—I could’ve been rich, if only I were better looking and not feeling bound to give credit where credit is due.

Let’s try a little exercise. I’m going to say a phrase and then we will pause for a few seconds. Here we go: Think about the future.

So, did you get a generally warm, happy feeling, or did you find yourself growing a little anxious? When it comes to the future, are you bullish or bearish?

Some of you felt a twinge of anxiety or fear, and that’s normal. We can always find reasons to be a little anxious. Bad things happen to good people. It’s a fact of life we all learn at a fairly early age.

Whether we let that anxiety control us says a lot about how much hope we carry in our hearts, however. And again, as Paul is telling us, hope and faith are intricately linked. At times, they seem to me to be almost indistinguishable.

Abraham had hope because he had heard from God and kept hearing from God. God was saying to Abraham, I know you’re really old and you don’t have any children by your wife. I promise you, you will. And from that child will come uncountable descendants, and blessings on the whole world.

As we discussed last week, Abraham sometimes struggled with how to move forward in life, but his faith grew even as he made mistakes. He had hope for the future, a future beyond his very long life, and his hope grew stronger as God slowly began the fulfillment of the promises.

He saw those promises fulfilled to the point where he was able to die a happy and confident man, having lived a “long and satisfying life” (Genesis 25:7). He was one who knew God would, in some mysterious way, care for him and his offspring forever.

If you’ll allow me, I also would ask you to think about something else. Think about the promises God has made us. I’m speaking to you as believers, of course—we who call ourselves Christians have accepted as valid and trustworthy these promises I want you to consider.

We are promised that death ultimately is meaningless. Death had great power over us, but Jesus broke that power when he died on the cross. We no longer slam into death and stop. We pass through death, it reduced to a thin veil, and we move on to eternal life with Christ.

We are promised that healing and holiness are available to us now. We are not simply afterlife gazers, people biding our time for a reward to come. We know that a life in Christ means this life, now.

Sure, we remain broken. We struggle, like old Abraham did. We slip and we sin. We carry the pain of wrongs done to us. But the more we engage with God, the more we are changed in this life. We are allowed to taste holiness and heaven now. That means the days ahead in this life should be brighter than the days behind us.

We are promised that the pain and suffering we already have experienced will be put away, reversed, healed in full. This is maybe the most mysterious promise of all, but it certainly should give us great hope. Those terrible events that have happened or may happen will not have everlasting effects. Somehow, God will make even the worst tragedies temporary ones.

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes,” Revelation 21 tells us, “and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

See a bright future before you, Christians. Live as people with an unending future, and let hope and joy into your present lives, strengthening your faith.