14th Sunday After Pentecost September 2, 2012
415(1-2, 4-6), 226 (1-6), 415(1-2, 5-6), 415(7)
“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Hebrews 13:20-21 ESV).
Dear Servants of Jesus Christ:
It stands as the epitome of justice in the Old West—“Wanted: Dead or Alive.” It indicated that the man being sought was the worst sort of outlaw—a man so bad, so dangerous, so evil, that society just wanted to be rid of him no matter what and no matter how. You could bring in such an outlaw seated in a saddle or draped over one, either way. Such men lived constantly on edge knowing they could legally be killed by anyone who found them. They were desperate men living in desperate times.
So are we. While I assume that there are no wanted posters with your picture hanging in the local post office, both God and the Devil want you, dead or alive—though, obviously, for every different reasons. Since I also doubt that anyone here has ever been truly desperate, I wonder just how well we can relate to—how well we can comprehend or understand—the desperate condition that was once our lot in life.
God’s Word has more to say about all of this, as we will hear in our text found recorded in Paul’s letter to the Romans, the 14th chapter:
One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
These are the holy, perfect, inspired words of our God. Desiring to be strengthened, encouraged, and instructed by these holy words, we pray: “Sanctify us through your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.
Before we go further into our “wanted” theme, I need to ask if you know what “relativism” is? There are various definitions, but the one that best explains how the word is used most often today has to do with the belief that ethical truths are dependent upon the individuals or groups of individuals holding them. In plain English: “Right is whatever you believe it is.”
It has now been almost 11 years since our nation’s terrorist enemies launched a shockingly effective attack against our nation. Whether they knew the term or not, the men who planned and carried out the attacks held to a form of relativism. While they would have rioted in protest had the United States brazenly targeted their civilian population centers with such an attack, they believed themselves to be fully justified in attacking ours. After the attack many in our country thought and spoke in much the same vein of relativism when they called for a brutal, broad-sweeping response even before we had identified those who were guilty. “Right” for many of our citizens on September 12, 2001 was whatever would satisfy our thirst for vengeance.
Seven years ago many citizens on the Gulf Coast practiced relativism following Hurricane Katrina—evidently believing it perfectly acceptable to steal what belongs to someone else because of the flood waters in their living room. The fact is, trying times do not cancel the commandments. Rather, they bring out our true character.
We begin by defining relativism mostly because it seems that this is exactly what Paul is promoting in the opening verses of the text. Paul, talking about eating food sacrificed to idols and the observance of certain festivals or holy days, said: “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind.” [v.5] It sounds like Paul is saying, “What you do is acceptable, as long as you are convinced in your own mind that it is right for you.”
Is that what Paul is writing by inspiration of the Holy Spirit? Absolutely. Is he then advocating relativism? Absolutely not! The critical difference is that Paul is talking here about adiaphora— things that God has neither commanded nor forbidden. In other words, Paul is talking about those things for which there is neither an absolute right nor an absolute wrong. There is, therefore, no one right answer that can and should be applied to, or imposed upon, everyone equally. “In such matters,” Paul is saying, “let your conscience be your guide. Do what in your heart you believe to be right.”
Note that Paul gives no such guidance concerning those things that are commanded or forbidden by our God. In such cases there is no personal decision to be made. God Himself has decided the matter, and man’s inner conviction can never be permitted to alter God’s holy will.
The sort of thing Paul had in mind here was whether it was better or worse, for example, to be a vegetarian. We know also that one of the thorny issues those folks faced was whether it was right or wrong to buy and eat meat from animals that had been sacrificed in pagan temples. No doubt, they had many other questions, like whether they could now work on Saturdays or if they should honor the old Jewish Sabbath laws. This was the sort of thing Paul was addressing when he told them to “Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind.”
The Christians of that day wrestled with such questions. Today we might include whether it is right or wrong in God’s eyes to retire relatively early; and, more to the point, how God wants me to spend the last third of my life—obviously not in self-centered non-service. Is it right or wrong to work after church on Sunday? Is it right or wrong to stop off at the bar to have a drink after work? Is it right or wrong to fast in preparation for the Lord’s Supper?
To all of these questions Paul gives an answer, a guideline, that can be applied to all such questions. Not only are we supposed to act in harmony with our consciences, we are to remember this simple truth: “…none of us lives to himself…for if we live, we live to the Lord.” [v.7,8] Stop for just a moment and reflect on those words. Think them through. This is part of our “wanted” theme. As you turn this great statement from Paul this way and that in your mind, note how contrary these words are to the general flow of our society. Recognize how incompatible they are and how obviously and dramatically they clash with the growing philosophy of the world around us. It is a foreign thought to the unregenerate human being that his life and his times are not his own. God’s Word tells us just that: “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
Sinful mankind trembles with rage at such words and with good reason. The very core of their existence is based upon the notion that they are their own, and are, therefore, entitled to do whatever they want with their bodies, time, and material wealth. Examine it and see. Why do some women claim abortion as their right? Because they believe they should be free to do whatever they want with their own bodies. Prostitution, gambling, pornography, drug abuse, drunkenness, idolatry—whenever mankind attempts to justify such things, the argument is always predicated on the false notion that we are our own, and have a right to do whatever we want with what is ours. This also explains the fanatical promotion of evolution in our society. Man is terrified of the thought that we are accountable to a Creator. Man’s solution is to pretend there is no Creator.
Christians, on the other hand, are privileged to know the truth of the matter revealed by Paul in Galatians 2:20:“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” We are wanted by our God! The very thought is mind-boggling. In fact not only does God want us alive, He want us dead—dead to sin, alive to Him. The New Man in us leaps for joy at such news. The Old Adam is none too thrilled.
So then we start plugging our timely but troubling questions into that basic formula, and our direction becomes much clearer, as it no doubt also did for the Roman Christians struggling with similar questions. At what age should I retire? Maybe the answer is actually sooner, rather than later, since you would be able better to serve the Lord after your retirement. Then it is not all about you. It’s all about service to your God—living to the Lord.
Should I work on Sunday? Not if it interferes with my worship or witness. On the other hand, maybe that’s the best time for some sort of service to my God. Can I really wear this dress to the glory and service of my God? Can I watch that movie or hang out at that bar as part of my living to the Lord? What God has given us here is a means to answer what could otherwise prove to be extremely difficult questions.
But our text did not end there, did it? As valuable as this insight might prove, it nonetheless pales in comparison to what comes next. The Holy Spirit through Paul next adds the part that brings it all into sharpest focus and perspective. Not only is it true that “none of us lives to himself,” but more importantly, “No one dies to himself.” So not only, “If we live, we live to the Lord; but also, “If we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” [vv.7-8]
This is how the first part of our text is put in its place and given perspective. Making decisions about food, drink, clothing, work and the like here on this earth is important, but how that importance fades when placed alongside the prospect of dying to the Lord. This we often fail to consider, and we make our lives much harder as a result.
The fact is our life here is really not about our life here. It is all about the life that most certainly follows this one. Our text sums it up with these familiar words: Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living. [vv.8-9] It means that our relationship with our Savior was altered by His death, but will not be altered by ours. We belong to Christ while we are alive, and we still belong to him when we move from this life to the next. In other words, He wants us, whether we live or die here in time. That is why life here on earth is all about Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Our text outlines how all of this came about with the simple words: “Christ died and rose and lived again.” We’ve heard such words before—many times before—so much so that we tend not to hear them always with thought and understanding. We are Christ’s because he rescued our very souls from the agony and despair of Hell itself. The cost was his very lifeblood and more. His blood would have been insufficient had He not first lived a holy, sinless life of perfect obedience. Remember that was the standard God had set for anyone who wanted to earn his way into Heaven. Fall short, even once, and you are forced to find another way. That’s also why Jesus had to offer a perfect life on the cross, and it was that perfect life and innocent death that God the Father credits now to our account—yours and mine. God has declared us holy and righteous because He vented the sum total of his righteous anger upon His own Son, who there on the cross died as our substitute—condemned, abandoned, in utter misery, and in our place.
Unfortunately, the Devil also wants us “dead or alive.” In his case, he wants us dead to our Savior God and alive to all that is evil. It is only trough the working of God the Holy Spirit within us that his desires are frustrated so that his desires do not live in our hearts as our desires. We no longer belong to Satan, we belong to the one true God. Jesus repaired the breach between us and our God by removing our sin.
All falls into place with this information, doesn’t it. Since our lives have been purchased by Christ, we are now His—willingly, joyfully, thankfully His. What a joy and comfort then to be able to say with Paul in our text: “If I live, I live to the Lord; and if I die, I die to the Lord. Therefore, whether I live or die, I am the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be my Lord , while I live and when I die.” Amen.
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