Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Treaty of Calvary

Text: Romans 4:13-17; 5:1-11

WHEN I WAS A KID IN SCHOOL STUDYING American History, we learned about April 19, 1775. That was the date of the famous "shot heard round the world." That’s when our colonist forefathers stood up to the British troops at Lexington and Concord, and the Revolutionary War was begun.

Of course we also learned about July 4, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was ratified in Philadelphia. And October 17, 1781, when the British surrendered at Yorktown. And of course, we learned about September 17, 1787, the day our Constitution was adopted by the Constitutional Convention.

But somehow we never heard much about September 3, 1783. Anybody here remember what happened that day? No? That’s the day of the signing of the Treaty of Paris, when Great Britain and the brand-new United States of America agreed to terms of peace. That’s the day the Revolutionary War officially came to an end, and we had won.

It’s easy to overlook the Treaty of Paris. For one thing, it happened, well, in Paris, France. Here in southwestern Pennsylvania, it’s not too hard to visualize the battles and struggles of the Revolution itself. We don’t have to go that far to see where they took place. And every time we travel the Washington Trail, Route 68 in Butler County, we remember the exploits of the man who would later lead our forces to victory. But Paris, especially Paris in 1783 is so far away-- it’s hard to get our imaginations around anything that happened there.

And then treaties are basically about politics and diplomacy and legal affairs. Terribly dry and boring, not exciting like battles and sieges and deeds of heroism. No wonder September 3, 1783 doesn’t stick in our heads!

But the Treaty of Paris was essential for the birth of our nation. Without the Treaty of Paris, we’d still be at war with Great Britain. At the very best, we’d only have a cease-fire. And if the Crown of England ever felt it was worthwhile to resume hostilities, they could do that. It would just be the same war going on and on.

George III agreed to the terms of the Treaty of Paris because we, the American colonists, had won the war. He was the head of the greatest nations in the world at the time. But after six and a half years of struggle, he simply couldn’t keep pouring in men and money and materiel and munitions to put down those pesky colonials across the Atlantic. So he had his ambassadors sign the Treaty.

Like most treaties, each side got something out of it. We got the best of it, of course: We got our independence and the rights to the land claimed by the thirteen former colonies. But the British got some benefits, too, like the right to navigate on the Mississippi River, the right of pro-British combatants to be free from American prosecution, and the right of pro-British colonists to sue for the recovery of confiscated property.

But suppose a rabble of rebellious revolutionaries and terrorists declared war against a great superpower, a high and glorious Emperor or King. Suppose unlike our colonial ancestors, these rebels had no excuse or cause for war. Suppose under the King’s rulership, they’d been free and responsible citizens with everything they could ever want or need, but they rebelled anyway. Suppose even that the great King had delegated much of the rulership of His empire to these ungrateful wretches, but it wasn’t enough for them, they wanted to put down the King and be kings and queens themselves.

Suppose this war of rebellion had gone on for years, decades, centuries. Suppose the cruelty, brutality, treachery, and desecration of these terrorists was without boundary or limit. And suppose the great King had all the men, money, materiel, and munitions to put down the rebellion whenever He wanted.

Will such a King conclude a treaty of peace with such a gang of bloody rebels? Will He not stop waiting for them to surrender and destroy them altogether, just as they deserve?

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? You’d think He’d bring all His power to bear and be done with this war, once and for all. He could. He’d have the right to. He’d have the power to do it. Let Him wipe them out those terrorists, and let His loyal subjects stand up and cheer!

But what if that’s not what the great King did? What if, instead, He drew up a treaty of peace with those rebels, and it was all in their favor-- life and health and property and riches and high places in His kingdom forever more! What if He sealed it with the blood of His beloved and only Son?

And what if-- what if-- the only thing required from the rebels was that they lay down their arms and accept all the good things promised by this amazing treaty? What if they’d be breaking the treaty if they insisted on trying to do good things in order to deserve the King’s offer of peace?

You’d think that King was either out of His mind-- or that He was the most loving, gracious, caring, merciful, and glorious King the world has ever known. But surely, such a King, such a superpower, has never existed-- has He? And such a treaty, could it ever be offered? How could anything like that be imagined?

St. Paul answers these questions in his letter to the Romans. In the first three chapters, the Apostle convicts all humanity of being in vicious, unexcusable rebellion against our Lord and King. That includes every man, every woman, every child; rich and poor, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, knowing God’s law and not knowing God’s law. We are all guilty of waging war against our gracious Lord, and He has every right to destroy us in His wrath.

But beginning towards the end of Chapter 3, Paul reveals how the Lord God Himself intervened to end the hostilities between Him and us. In Chapter 4, he gives an example of one man who accepted the King’s terms and inherited His promises-- our father Abraham. And in our portion of Chapter 4, Paul outlines the glorious terms of the treaty of peace our Lord and King has made with us, for our benefit and His eternal glory.

We can call it the Treaty of Calvary, and by all calculations, it was ratified at 3:00 in the afternoon on Friday, April 3rd, in the Year of Our Lord 33. On that day and at that hour, Jesus Christ the Son of God died on the cross of Calvary to seal our peace with His own innocent blood. And simply by laying down our arms and accepting His grace through faith in Him, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The rebellious world looks on and says, "Impossible!" And it is amazing, overwhelming, almost too good to be true. As St. Paul says in Chapter 5, verses 6 and following,

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

"While we were still sinners Christ died for us"! While we were still rebellious, blaspheming, self-righteous, cold, cruel, careless sinners, our God and King made a unilateral treaty with us and signed it with His own blood!

Amazing, but not incredible!

Something you may have noticed, that's going around these days in popular American culture: The constant use of the word "incredible." "Incredible" means "not to be credited" or "not to be believed," and people use it for everything. I’ve even heard Christians use it, about things that you’d think they’d want you to believe. The other day, I heard an advert telling me to send for "This incredible set of Scripture cards!" Excuse me, if it’s unbelievable, why should I bother?

The marvellous love that God offers us in the Treaty of Calvary is not incredible. In fact, the only requirement laid upon us is that we do credit and believe it. The only thing we have to do is be like Abraham and reach out in faith and simply accept God’s promises offered to us in Jesus Christ.

And yes, God’s promise to Abraham that he would inherit the world finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The promises of the Treaty of Calvary are better than a pledge of earthly territory and property and fishing and commercial rights. They extend from this world to the world to come, and their blessings and benefits to us will never end.

Let’s look at the terms of this treaty, here in Romans Chapter 5.

First of all, now that we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Peace with God! That means your sins are forgiven! That means that your conscience can be calm and clear!

I know what it’s like to remember some past sin, and feel unsettled about it. Maybe I’ve asked forgiveness of the person I offended, but I just don’t feel forgiven. The Holy Spirit here tells me and tells you to believe God, not our feelings. The blood of Jesus has covered our sins. We have God’s peace-- let’s enjoy it!

And through Christ we have access to God’s grace and we can stand in it. We can stop acting like it’s up to us to please God in our own paltry power. We can stop trying to put God in our debt by observing the law. Our standing with our King is all by His grace. It comes simply and solely because we belong to His righteous Son, Jesus Christ. He fulfilled the law perfectly for us, and makes us worthy to come into His Father’s presence.

And through Christ, we may boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. This boast has nothing to do with what we are or have been in ourselves-- it totally has to do with what Jesus did for us.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Calvary, we can even boast in our sufferings. For now our sufferings have meaning. Now we are fighting on the side of our Lord, the most glorious and gracious God and King, and our wounds come in His service. In Christ, our suffering does not defeat us, it makes us more like Him, in endurance, character, and hope. For in all our sufferings, the Holy Spirit pours the love of God into our hearts, the love that Jesus knew when He bore the sins of the world for our sake.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Calvary, now that we have been justified by Christ’s blood, we have been saved through Him from the wrath of God. It’s not nice or popular or modern to talk about the wrath of God against sin. But deep inside, we all know our rebellion against Him deserves it. So we excuse ourselves. Or we try to heap up good works to balance out our bad ones. Or we try to run away into pleasure or depression or busyness, anything to escape facing the wrath of God. But in Christ, that threat is removed! For the sake of Jesus’ shed blood, God our King has ceased His war against us and we have nothing to fear from Him, ever again.
That reconciliation came to be while we were still God’s enemies! So now that we have been reconciled to God through the death of His Son, how much more will we be saved by His resurrection life!

For under the Treaty of Calvary, peace with God gives us so much more than His war against us being over. He doesn’t just march away and leave us on our own. No! Peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ makes us heirs of all the gracious promises first offered to our father Abraham, for all those promises are Yes and Amen in God’s crucified and risen Son. Power and glory, wisdom and strength, honor, glory, and blessing: All these are ours through Jesus Christ, who defeated death and brings us with Him to His Father’s throne.

We can boast in God, because He is no longer our divine Enemy; rather through Jesus Christ, He is our Father and our eternal Friend. He has reconciled us to Himself, He has concluded His treaty of peace with us, and nothing will ever be the same.

Think what this can mean for your every day life and for mine! We have peace with the great King: how can any enemy now have any lasting power over us? And that includes the enemies that attack us within our own thoughts and minds! God has reconciled us to Himself: now we can courageously and lovingly offer reconciliation to others. He has converted us from rebels and terrorists into His loyal subjects and royal children: now we can serve Him humbly, gladly, and willingly. We can take His direction and offer the love and peace of Jesus Christ even to people we think could never deserve it.

For we did not deserve for God to make peace with us, yet He did. We didn’t force Him to give us these blessings by winning the fight against Him or by earning them by our own good works. Yet here we are, enjoying all the joys of life and hope and peace with Him.

Rejoice in that peace! Live in it! Boast in it! And more than that, offer and extend that peace to everyone you know. For when you do, though Jesus Christ your Lord you are ratifying and keeping the Treaty of Calvary.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The War Within

Text: Romans 7:15-8:11

PLEASE PERMIT ME TO begin with something personal. About four weeks ago, I noticed that my body was doing something it shouldn’t have been. So I went on the Internet to look it up. The websites said the symptom could mean anything from a minor infection to cancer, and that you should see a doctor as soon as possible to find out. I got in for an appointment by the end of that week, I was examined, and they sent me to the Medical Center to undergo a certain test. I got that taken care of on July 1st. Then I settled down to wait for the results.

But we all know good and well that "settled down" isn’t the term you use when the diagnosis might possibly be cancer. Of all possible common diseases, it’s the one that seems to strike the most horror into us, the one we live in most fear of getting.

How come? Maybe partly because cancer isn’t like an infection or an injury, where some foreign thing attacks your body from outside, it’s your body attacking itself. You also have that with lupus and other autoimmune diseases. But somehow with cancer, the treachery seems worse. With autoimmune diseases, it’s as if the Army were to launch a military coup. But with cancer, it’s as if whole groups of civilians, whole streets full of your neighbors, suddenly rose up and started making war on the rest of you. It’s your own perverted cells taking over your healthy cells and making them traitors just like themselves. To fight cancer, in a way you have to make war on yourself, from the outside. And without aggressive treatment, the outcome for your body is defeat and death.

That’s a nasty thing to think of. It’s an even nastier thing to experience-- as I’m sure many of you know firsthand. You won’t blame me when I say I haven’t had an easy time of it since that test on the 1st. And that I won’t rest easy until I’ve got the results of the follow-up biopsy I’m to do in the next couple weeks-- assuming that cancer is not in the diagnosis.

It’s not nice, or comfortable, or pleasant to be talking about cancer on a Sunday morning. But it’s a good metaphor for the terrible reality St. Paul gives us in the 7th chapter of his letter to the Romans. Cancer is a civil war within. It pits your own body against itself. But sin is even worse. Sin is also a cancer; it’s a war against every human being’s body, mind, and soul.

Now, many good and thoughtful Bible scholars believe Paul is talking here about how things were with him before Jesus got hold of him and made him a Christian. Other good and thoughtful scholars say No, Paul is talking about the struggles of the Christian life. I can’t claim to be a scholar of any kind, but having looked at this passage for many years, I have to agree with the second group, the ones who say it’s about trying to live up to our holy calling in Christ after Jesus has saved us. To use good solid Church language, it’s about sanctification, not justification.

For look at what our brother Paul says: He says he wants to do good. He says he hates evil. The unjustified person can’t truly say that. People who don’t belong to Christ know they should do good, they say they want to do good, but their goodness stops when it’s hard, or inconvenient, or when others stop rewarding them for it, or if it’ll lose them money. The "goodness" of an unbeliever isn’t about being good for Goodness’ own sake or being good for God's sake, it’s about feeling good about themselves. The unsaved man has no concept of how deep and wide and humanly-unattainable true Goodness even is.

And unless he’s living in a war zone or some crime-filled neighborhood, an unsaved person has no real sense of the evilness of Evil. In fact, people who live where vice is the everyday way of life often get used to it. It’s like evil is inconvenient, but it’s how it is. Your neighbor may be a drug dealer who shoots up other drug dealers, but he’s your neighbor and far as you’re concerned, he’s a nice guy. Or even if he’s not, you respect him for how tough he is.

But God forbid we should go thinking that attitude only belongs to "Those People." We are all "Those People." We all wink at sin in ourselves and people we know. We’re all riddled with the cancer that is rebellion against God . . . until the Great Physician, Jesus Christ, comes to conquer sin in us and give us health and peace for the first time in our lives. Jesus comes like Dr. Christiaan Barnard and transplants into us a new heart, a heart that beats with the goodness that is Christ’s alone. And that’s when we begin to understand just how sinful sin really is.

But we Christians are in a strange situation on this earth: We’re hybrid creatures. We’re living with the heart of Christ and also with our old sinful heart of the flesh; we have Christ’s new nature in us, and our old human nature. But unlike in a hybrid car, say, those two natures don’t pull together. They pull apart. They’re at war with one another. They’re like cancer versus healthy cells. Jesus saves us, and like Paul we begin to delight in the law of God in our inmost selves. But there’s also a law of sin in us that pulls us to do what we ought not do. This law in our members, as Paul calls it, is like a cancer that wants to take over everything we are, until we go down into death.

But there’s this term, "the flesh." Maybe if we could just transcend our physical bodies and be more spiiiiiritual, maybe we could live up to our calling in Christ?

That idea’s been around for centuries, that our minds and spirits are good, they’re just dragged down by our evil bodies. But this idea is a mistake. Worse than that, it’s a heresy.

Matter is not bad in itself. God created it. Jesus Christ Himself rose from the dead in a material body. When Paul uses the word "flesh" in this passage he’s speaking of what we are by birth as sinful human beings--body, mind, and spirit. Nothing we have in ourselves will go to make us able to live up to the Law of God that we see in the face of our Lord Jesus Christ. We can try to cure ourselves by trying hard to be good. We can work till we drop to win the victory on our own. But it’d be useless. As Paul says in verse 18, "Nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh." Have you ever noticed-- it’s hard even to repent without sinning. And so with Paul we cry out, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?"

Who, indeed?

It used to seem odd to me that Paul says that in verse 24, then immediately says, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Was Paul giving thanks for the mess he was in? For the mess all God’s people on this earth are in?

But no. This is like a big red stop sign. Like a bolt of lightning. Like the world’s loudest coach’s whistle. It says, "Stop! Time out! Look over here and see what you need to see!"

And what we need to see is Jesus Christ and His righteousness. Jesus Christ and His power. Jesus Christ and His completed work. We can tie ourselves in knots worrying about how we just can’t seem to to live the Victorious, Holy Christian Life-- when the solution, the cure, the victory is right there in us all the time. Jesus Christ died to save us-- does He not now live to make us holy and whole? Jesus Christ lives in us-- does He not now work in us to please His heavenly Father and ours? There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!

Think of some sin you’ve committed lately. Some hurtful word you’ve said. Some foolish act you did. Some neglect of something you should’ve done, that hurt someone else very much. Yes, it was a sin. Yes, you were guilty, just as I am guilty of sins I can think of. But there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!

How can this be? It can be because in Christ the Law of the Spirit of life has set us free from the law of sin and death. As it says in verse 3, God sent His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh-- though with Jesus, the flesh was not sinful, but pure and innocent as God intended from the first-- so that by the death of the flesh of Christ, sin might be condemned and dealt with. Our sin is condemned, but you and I are not-- because we are in Christ Jesus.

Since we are in Christ Jesus, Christ Jesus is in us, through the ministry of His Holy Spirit. That means Jesus Himself is living His sinless life in us, doing His Father’s perfect will, making us into the grown-up, healthy children of God He’s redeemed us to be. He doesn’t save us then leave us on our own! He sends us His Spirit and calls us to walk in Him: and walking in the Spirit is to live in the reality of Christ in us.

We hurt ourselves so much by thinking this walk is something we try hard to do. Like it’s one more burden laid on us that we can’t carry. No, living according to the Spirit is simply trusting that whatever God wants us to do to please Him, Jesus Christ has already done in us. It’s accepting the forgiveness He won for us on the cross and not flogging ourselves over past sins He’s already wiped away! It’s stopping ourselves whenever we want to take over or be in control and saying humbly and simply, "Lord Jesus, do Your will in me and through me, and I praise You for it."

I’m finally learning that the most fleshly thing I can do in my life is think I’m in control of things I’m not in control of. You know what I am in control of? Saying, "Lord Jesus, help me!" and getting out of His way.

Living in the flesh, on the other hand-- it’s what happens whenever we think we can do anything without our Lord, even the best things in the world. It’s using Jesus as our Example, and not submitting to Him as our Savior and Redeemer. Fleshly living is asking, "What would Jesus do?" then effectively telling Him to stand back, because, by gum, we’re gonna do it!

But life in the Spirit doesn’t work that way. Life in the Spirit is asking, "What has Jesus done?" and letting the finished work of your Savior grow to completion in you.

He has promised to make that happen. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Whatever is happening in your life, He’s there to take over your fears, your cares, your temptations, your trials. He has already taken away your sins, and as Paul goes on to say farther on in this chapter, in all things you are more than a conqueror through Him who loved you. Jesus is the Great Physician whose boundless eternal life pushes back and totally cures the cancer of sin in your life and mine. The Holy Spirit dwelling in you is the guarantee. For as it says in verse 11, "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you."

Nothing good or healthy may dwell in our sinful flesh; that is, our fallen human nature. But everything good and healthy and wholesome dwells in the crucified and risen flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our old and new natures may be at war within us, but allegiance to Christ alone brings us victory and peace.

At the end of this service, we’ll sing the hymn "O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee." As you sing it, remember that your Master Jesus is the One serving the lowly and bearing the strain. He is the One moving the slow of heart to His ways. He, Jesus, is the Guide who brings the wayward home-- He is the One who works in you and through you and for you. Walk with Him in the power of His Spirit! To you He gives the hope and peace, the health and joy of His presence within. In Christ and Christ alone our sin has been cancelled, our hearts are cured, and the war within us will be gloriously won.