Sunday, September 1, 2013

When Our Hard Work Doesn't Work

Texts: Romans 4:1-25; John 6:22-29

TOMORROW IS LABOR DAY, WHEN we celebrate the efforts and accomplishments of America's workers.  So it was appropriate that recently the actor Ashton Kucher should give an audience of young people a strong exhortation about the value and necessity of hard work.  He was speaking at the Teen Choice Awards, and among other things, he said, "I've noticed throughout my life that Opportunity looks a lot like hard work."  His point was that nobody should sit around passively and then complain when opportunity to get ahead seems to pass them by. Hard work is essential, and the kids need to get that through their heads while they're young, and save themselves a lifetime of disappointment and misery.

That's how it operates in this world, "under the sun," as Solomon put it in Ecclesiastes.  You get what you work for, and if you don't work, you don't get. And if you can work but refuse to, and by dint of welfare and handouts you do get, you're settling for way less than second best, and when the handouts run out, you'll be sunk.  It's the way things are.

But there's a sphere where all these facts are stood on their heads.  Where to stop working is virtue, where to keep on working is to do evil, where being willing simply to reach out and receive good things we don't deserve is to be the happiest of all.

St. Paul speaks of this condition in our reading from the fourth chapter of his letter to the Romans.  Now, in the Bible, context is everything.  So we need to remember that prior to this, up to the first part of chapter 3, the Holy Spirit has convicted us all, Jews and Gentiles alike, of unrighteousness before God.  The Jews have the Law of Moses written on tablets of stone; they don't obey it.  The Gentiles (and all mankind, really) have the natural law of God inscribes on their hearts, and they suppress it and break it, too.  So we're all in the position where the law has declared us all guilty.  God has brought us to this position so that, as Paul writes in 3:19-20,

. . . [E]very mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.  Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

The law of God, whether it's the written law given through Moses or our inward sense of right and wrong, describes the work, the big job we have to do in order to please our Lord and Creator.  Ultimately, whether we acknowledge Him or not, God is our Boss, and if He wants to fire us, there's no place else to go.

And even if we feel we want to do what is just and right and do the work God requires, every day we're putting ourselves more in His disfavor.  We're like incompetent workers who not only don't do our jobs, but even when we're trying our best we break the machinery and alienate the customers and embezzle our employer's funds. When it comes to achieving favor with God, our hard work doesn't work.  This is how it is when we depend on ourselves to gain and maintain our own righteousness by obeying the law.

But the good news, as Paul tells us in the last part of Romans chapter 3, is that God Himself has done all the hard work for us through His Son Jesus Christ.  His blood shed on the cross makes everything right between us and our divine Employer: We are justified in His sight.  His death paid the price to buy us back out of slavery to sin: In Jesus Christ we are redeemed.  His sacrifice of Himself propitiated the wrath that God rightly had directed against us for our sin: He has settled the our sin debt for us and it will never be held against us again.

Jesus Christ did all this for us when He died on Calvary, and His resurrection proves that God accepted His work.  But how do we make the work of Jesus Christ our own?  Do we do it by laboring really hard to love God and our neighbor, so we'll deserve the favor of Christ?

Well, think of the words of Jesus Himself as recorded in the sixth chapter of John's gospel.  The day before He had fed the 5,000-plus on the east side of the Sea of Galilee.  Then somehow He'd transported Himself to the Capernaum side of the lake, though everyone had seen the disciples go off in the only boat they had without Him.  Even though they didn't necessarily know Jesus had walked most of the way across on the water, they certainly were sure that this Rabbi was a special representative of God and they weren't going to lose hold of Him.  They were racing around, working hard not to lose hold of Him.

But as Jesus says, "You are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you."   He seems to be agreeing with the idea we all have, that spiritual blessings, like earthly ones, have to be earned by our own efforts.  So of course the representatives of the crowd ask Jesus, "What must we do to do the works God requires?"

Now, they knew the Law.  And they knew God expected them to keep it.  But maybe, just maybe Rabbi Jesus would give them some wonderful new tip so they could keep it.

And Jesus says simply, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."

That's it.  If they or we want to gain eternal life, if we want to appropriate the work of Christ on the cross for ourselves, we must not work.  We must let God do all the work and simply receive the gift of salvation by faith in Christ alone.  Our work has no place in God's plan to make us right with Him.  In fact, to insist on working for it ourselves is to imply that Jesus and His death aren't good enough for us.

But if you've read your Bible and knew about the patriarch Abraham, you might be inclined to object.  Wasn't Abraham justified by his works when he obeyed God and left Ur and then Haran to go to the land of Canaan?  Didn't God reward him for his deed when he was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah?   Abraham pleased God by his works, didn't he? and aren't we to be sons of Abraham and follow in his footsteps?

Not so fast, Paul says in Chapter 4.  How was it actually that Abraham pleased God?  The Apostle quotes Genesis 15:6:  "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness."  It was by faith and faith alone that Father Abraham was accepted as righteous before God!

And is the righteousness that God credited Abraham by faith the heritage only for the circumcised, that is, the Jews?  No, because God created that faith in him and accepted that faith before the sign of circumcision was even given.  The important thing is not whether we are Jews or Gentiles, the important thing is that God does His work in us and credits righteousness to us by faith.  To walk in the footsteps of Abraham, Paul argues in verse 12, is to receive by faith the work that God has done for us and to live our lives trusting that God has done everything necessary for us to be accepted by Him.  Just as Abraham looked forward to Christ and trusted in the work He would do, we look back on the saving work Jesus completed and trust that it is enough and more than enough, apart from anything we could accomplish.

But--!  But--!  Don't we have to do something to be Abraham's true heirs?  The other day I heard that some television host was arguing that if you don't think the impending national healthcare law is a great thing you can't possibly be a real Christian.  The radio host who passed this story along thought this was ridiculous on political grounds.  As Christians, we first and foremost have to reject this statement on spiritual grounds.  We are Christians through being accepted by God in Jesus Christ, and that was due to no work of kindness of ours, public or private.  For as our reading says, "It was not through law--" [And the law is largely about how we should be kind to one another] "--Not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith."

But let's say it were possible for someone to receive the new heaven and new earth God promises by his or her hard work trying to love God and neighbor.  If that were the case, Paul says, "faith has no value and the promise is worthless."  But we've already seen that doing our best to please God-- that is, following the law-- doesn't get us anywhere.  It only puts us deeper into God's righteous wrath.

But being right with God through faith is an entirely different story.  For one thing, it's totally inclusive.  For it says in verse 16;

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring-- not only to those who are of the law [that is, ethnic Jews], but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham.  He is the father of us all.

This is totally countercultural!  The culture says-- what is that song from The Sound of Music?  It goes something like

Nothing comes from nothing,
Nothing ever could;
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must've done something good.1

Human culture says it's all about work and rewards.  But the promise of God comes to us who are dead in trespasses and sins, who are totally helpless and can't do a single solitary thing to work our way to eternal life.  And see! He makes us alive in Christ!  Our God is the God who does call something out of nothing by the power of His Word, and He does it every time the Holy Spirit plants faith in Jesus Christ into a lost sinner, like each of us were before He gave us new life in Christ.

Our God is the God who "calls things that are not as though they were."  And when He speaks, those things spring into being!  How do we know this is true in time and space and not just in theory?  Well, says Paul, look at the whole history of the birth of Isaac.  Both Abraham and Sarah were as good as dead where it came to having children.  They totally didn't have it in them.  But God had promised him a son from his own loins by his wife Sarah herself and no surrogate.  God in His mercy maintained and repeated this promise even after the fiasco with Hagar and her son Ishmael.  And without wavering Abraham believed that the Lord indeed would give him his own begotten son by Sarah.  He had faith that God had the power to do what He had promised, and this faith was "credited to him as righteousness."

So what does this mean for us as we go about our lives as children of God living in an ungodly world?  First, we must resist the Devil's lie that God requires more of us than faith in the finished work of His Son Jesus Christ, or that faith itself is some kind of a work we do, and not itself the gift of God.

We must stand firmly against the world's conception that being a Christian is about doing good deeds, and the more good deeds you do, the better Christian you are.  Yes, God does want us to walk in the footsteps of our Father Abraham, who acted on the divine promises he believed.  But our actions and our work do not make us his children or children of the living God.  That all comes by grace through faith in Christ alone.

And we must utterly reject the falsehood that creeps upon us when we're depressed or in a bad situation, the nasty little voice that suggests we're not good enough to be saved by the blood of Christ, or worse, that somehow the blood of Christ isn't strong enough to save a wretch like you or me.  If we were good, we wouldn't need saving!  And the promise of God in Jesus stands firm and strong.  His cross is more than sufficient to save us from all our sins.

For what does the Apostle say at the end of our reading from Romans?

The words "It was credited to him" were written not for him [Abraham] alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness-- for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.  He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

In the sphere of this world, by all means, work as hard as you can at the vocation God has called you to.  But in the sphere of the world to come, stop struggling, stop your fruitless working, put down your tools and come with empty hands ready to receive.  The Son of Man gives you the food that endures to eternal life, and He gives you the faith you need to take it from His hand.  By His grace, may you cease your labors and rest forever in Him.  Amen.
1  By Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, 1959

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