The Fifth Sunday in Lent March 29, 2009
145, 153, 235, 52
Dear fellow Christians:
We find ourselves in the tedious end of winter here in the North Country. The days grow longer, but the cold, like some clueless house guest, seems unaware that we would like it to pack up and go wherever it is that cold goes to spend its summer vacation.
There are other issues that seem even worse in the face of a lingering winter. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on, our national economy is struggling, the stock market is in a prolonged funk, and we seem to be witnessing the moral fabric of our country disintegrating.
At the same time, life for a child of God could not possibly hold greater promise or a brighter future. Yet it doesn’t always feel that way, does it? Problems here in this vale of tears seem to have a way of piling up even to the point that it becomes difficult to keep a future as bright as ours in sight and in focus. We plod through the days as if we have already lost, rather than having already won.
Our emotions do that to us. We allow temporal frustrations, failures, and setbacks to tarnish all that is good in our lives. What is even more surprising is that we allow the here-and-now to actually dull the crystalline promises of the here-after. Our relevant and uplifting text for today will simply not allow such silliness to stand. It will not tolerate any sort of pessimism or gloom in the face of such a glorious and promising future, secured for us by our Savior God.
The text that will realign and reenergize us today is found in the 8th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans:
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. If Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.
So far the holy, inspired words of our text. We humbly acknowledge that these are not the words of mortal men, but the words of our Creator God, who desires to strengthen and comfort us through the study of these sacred words. That such gifts would indeed be ours today, we pray, “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.
One of the more common and, quite frankly, more disturbing comments that is heard from time to time (especially from those who do not regularly darken the door of God’s house) is that divine worship services like ours just don’t seem relevant today. Another is that “I just don't get anything out of church.” Both are used to justify doing something else on Sunday morning.
Consider both of the above charges for a moment and then hear again the opening verse of our text: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” [v.1]
Clearly there is something wrong here, since there is obviously something relevant that is offered in God’s house every Sunday—the very words that speak of the one path to eternal life. Clearly these words also therefore offer something to every single human being since they teach us how and why we personally can share in that eternal life.
In fact, by even imagining that the worship of our God is not relevant, we have already insulted Him. Worship of our God is always relevant. In examining the statement “I don't get anything out of church” we need to acknowledge that if something as important as eternal life is offered at church, then the problem quite obviously lies with the one who refuses to receive or appreciate it. If I am not getting anything, despite the fact that such priceless things are being offered, then the problem lies with me. The fact that I am not getting anything means that I am looking for the wrong things and that I need to make some changes—big changes, substantial changes—in a hurry.
You will recall that we began by talking about what many regard as a dreary and somewhat depressing time of year. Are things really as bad as they seem? Of course not—not for a citizen of this great and rich land of opportunity, and certainly not for a Christian living in any country that offers such freedom and privilege. The problem then is not so much reality as it is our dismal, dispirited perception of reality. You’ve probably all seen it before in others: the rich kid, who has it all, complaining about the smallest bit of misfortune that has filled his world with woe and hardship. Don’t you suppose that we must appear the same way to God given all that He has done for us and how little appreciation we show in return? Can you imagine how God must react when He showers us with the fantastic news of sins forgiven and the gift of eternal life, when He offers us His Son’s very body and blood in Holy Communion, and when He lavishes comfort, peace, and spiritual strength upon us, day by day and week after week, only to be rewarded with something like “Church isn’t relevant” and “I don’t get anything out of it”? No one can, of course, presume to speak for God, but from a human perspective we could imagine God responding to such comments with: “Just what do I need to offer you to make your time in my Word relevant and worth your time?”
What then do you think is the problem? How or why could it ever be that we hear words like the first verse of our text (There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus) and still somehow harbor the feeling that there is really little or nothing for me here? A bit of digging into our text gives us some answers.
If any human being is offered forgiveness, life, comfort, and hope in the course of a worship service, and yet still feels that he is getting little or nothing out of it, that probably means he is looking for the wrong thing. Our text put is this way: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.” [v.5] If you and I are truly hungry for the right sort of things when we enter God’s house or read from our Bibles, we will never be disappointed. If, on the other hand, we are expecting what our God has never promised, or what He told us not to expect, we will most certainly be disappointed. Then we will almost certainly experience a certain detachment and even boredom.
It reminds me, in a way, of a little strip mall that was built about two years ago just to the south of our church in Bismarck. I used to feel so sorry for whoever built that complex because no one wanted to rent the space. Week after week I would drive by and wish I could give them a bit of business, but the only thing there was a coffee and donut place. I don’t need any more coffee and it is obvious I don’t need donuts. Finally, another store moved in—a feed store, of all things, which holds zero interest for me. I’m just not in the market (although the thought did cross my mind that it would probably be a whole lot cheaper to feed our teenagers if we did our grocery shopping there). Neither place really offers anything I need. Then it occurred to me that I’ve never been in either store. Imagine walking into the feed store and finding that “feed” actually does refer to your teenagers and that they sell milk by the 55 gallon drum, breakfast cereal by the bushel, and pasta in 5 gallon buckets. Suddenly the place is very relevant and does, in fact, offer just what we need.
The problem with walking into the storehouse of God’s Word and finding nothing that interests us has nothing to do with what God is offering. It has everything to do with the fact that we are in the market for all the wrong things. Finding nothing relevant in a worship service would be like refusing to go to someone else’s birthday party because you know you yourself won’t get any presents. The feeling that you simply don’t get anything out of church means your mind is focused on—preoccupied with—what our text describes as “the things of the flesh.” This is not just a minor issue, is it? Our text goes on to describe the basic problem: “For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” [vv.6-8] Far from frivolous, our text makes it plain that this is a most serious spiritual condition that can also manifest itself in connection with our expectations of God’s Word and promise.
Does that then mean that if I regularly drift off during most or all of the sermon, or if I find myself generally disinterested during a worship service, I am really an enemy of God? Not necessarily, but it does mean that you have identified a very real and present danger in your life. It means your goals and priorities probably need attention.
Our text is just the ticket. Following up on that golden declaration: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” we are told not just of the dangers of being earthly-minded, but of the incredible story behind God’s declaration that you and I are no longer condemned. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” [vv.1-4]
Far from irrelevant, these words teach us things that we could never know on our own, things that we could never have guessed to be true, but nonetheless had to know if we were to escape Hell and inherit Heaven. You can judge for yourself, but it seems evident that it is more than just a little “relevant” to learn that my natural inclinations concerning how one gets to Heaven are all wrong. There is also “something in it for me” to learn or be reminded that the price of admission to Heaven, according to God’s Word, cannot be earned by any sinner, but that God the Father earned it for me by “sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.” He opened the doors of heaven by punishing his Son in our place. In other words, what we could never accomplish because our sins had destroyed God’s law-based plan, God did for us with his grace-based plan.
These are things we could never know on our own, but we are taught and reminded of them at every service of the Word. Again, judge for yourself if such things are relevant. The obvious answer is that nothing could ever be more so.
God grant us then an appreciation for the truly great and relevant facts that he offers us in the true Christian faith and for the ongoing opportunity to worship him as our one, true, Savior-God. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.