Monday, September 24, 2007

Upgrade your plan

In July 2005, the journal Science has a list of 125 things that scientists cannot explain. One was the origin of language. Another was the business of language learning. And even though I’ve been working in language science for twelve years, my most profound language-learning experience occurred on a cross-walk in Germany. Let me tell you about it!

I was walking down the street in Munich, and I stopped for a red light. There, already waiting for the light, was an elderly gentleman. When he saw me beside him, he turned and said “* * * *”, (I could only tell you what he said if I spoke German!) but I could only smile, and shrug. It was so terribly embarrassing. I wanted at least to be able to say “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” But I couldn’t. Providing a merciful escape, the light turned green, and we both started across the cross-walk. And then about half-way across the street, it hit me: I knew exactly what this man had said to me! It was the strangest feeling. I turned back to agree with the fact that it was indeed a lovely spring morning. But then I realized that I had no idea how to say that in German. (so I was embarrassed twice).

Now humor me for a second. I might have been completely kidding myself, and he could (possibly) have been talking to me about the price of sausages, but I don’t think so. At the time, I knew that he had made a polite comment about the weather, even if I could never explain how I knew it. But German is related to English. And there were just enough hints in the words he used and in the way he talked that I was sure that I understood him after thinking about it for a number of seconds.

So why I am I telling you this? Well, language learning is somewhat like spiritual learning. Hearing words isn’t enough. If we just read the words or listen to me talk all those words can just pour over us, without any of it sticking, almost like a man speaking German. But just like listening to a man speaking German, if we have hooks to hang those words on, it can become valuable for us. Then we can have one of those “a-ha!” experiences that I had in Munich.

This morning brings us to the third in a series of sermons from the book of Romans. And I’m going to try to convince you that the sixth chapter in the book of Romans contains the key to understanding a lot of scripture. In fact, I’d claim that Romans chapter six represents perhaps one of the most important spiritual lessons that we can ever learn. But the words aren’t enough. If you let me, I’d like to encourage you to build spiritual cupboards to put these ideas in. That way, when you hear similar ideas from the books of first or second Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians or Colossians, you will have a place to put them.

Before we get to Romans chapter six, we really should read at least the last verse-and-a-half in chapter 5: “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Wow – that’s pretty dense, but these are our signposts, the big words of the day: sin and grace; death and life. Sin and Death go together, and Grace and Life go together. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the subject of Romans chapter six was, in fact, a matter of life and death. For starters, and if nothing else, we can learn from Romans that grace can trump sin; life can conquer death. The good news this morning is that grace and life are available to us, too. And Romans chapter six is nothing less than an attempt to explain just how we can be part of that victory.

But I almost get the feeling that Paul was having an experience a little bit like I had on that crosswalk in Germany: I knew what the message was, but I was inadequate to respond appropriately. Similarly, with Paul, the words of Romans are not simple; they are not easy to follow; they can be confusing. In fact, Paul gives us a hint of this problem in verse nineteen: he says “I’m putting all this in human terms because you are weak.” In our weakness, we just don't have the spiritual hooks to hang the spiritual truths that Paul wants to give us. Some people might find this lack of clarity frustrating. But that isn’t necessary. In fact, it could be comforting. What does this tell us? It suggests to us that life is not simple; life is not easy to understand, and life can be confusing. This means that the Bible is appropriate to our experience. It doesn’t pretend that there are short-cuts or magic words. It doesn’t make light of the difficult circumstances that we are going through. It understands that living is hard work.

Of course, this doesn’t sit well with some people. As John Piper says:[modern Christians] are pragmatists to the max. We want results. And we want them yesterday. We want them simply. We want them without too much pondering and too much pain. And … we have developed all kinds of Christ-coated remedies that [taste good and are easy to swallow, but are, in reality] shallow and short-lived.

Not so Paul. In Romans chapters six and seven, Paul is literally struggling with ultimate truth. And that’s where we’re going today. Romans chapter six and verse one: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may increase?” Paul isn’t living in a dream world; he, like every one of us, knows that our lives are places where sin and grace meet – that’s almost what it means to be human. We sin, but God’s grace is still extended to us. We celebrate God’s grace, but we still sin. So Paul knows that sin and grace do co-exist, but he is basically asking the question “Can the grace and sin co-exist happily." And immediately, he gives a decisive answer. The King James says “God forbid!” The New International Version says, “By no means.” – but both of these translations don’t do justice to the original. The New American Standard has the most literal translation: “May it never be!” Modern ways of conveying this thought include:

“can’t happen”/“it doesn’t work like that.” Or/“you can’t get there from here.”

Sin and grace cannot both increase in the same place. If grace is present, it means, of necessity, that sin must decrease.

But then the rest of the verse introduces the first wrinkle into the chapter: Paul explains “we died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Now hold on. Back a couple of verses, we heard sin reigns in death, and now he says “we died to sin.” Now I’m pretty sure that Paul isn’t saying that he wants sin to reign, so when he says “we died to sin,” it must mean that Paul is now using the idea of “death” in two very different ways. How in the world are we going to keep track of that? And we’re only on verse two.

Benjamin Franklin said that nothing is certain in this word but death and taxes, and now it seems like we can’t even be certain about death. Of course, death is a bit like taxes...

Have you ever got a call from a financial adviser? These guys never let up, do they – I get a call every two months. They know that nobody likes taxes, and they know that everyone would like to pay less tax. So they phone up and tell you that there are options when it comes to taxes, and they offer a free seminar to find out more; with the hope, of course, of becoming my tax consultant or accountant. Often, the trick is to pay tax at different times. If you invest now, you can end up paying less tax when the investment matures.

Well, this morning, Paul is saying that there is an option when it comes to death. And here we are in a free seminar to find out more about that option. But just like the tax guy, the trick is to experience death at a different time. Verses three and four: “don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with Christ… into death.” Apparently, this “early death option” is part of the “grace-and-life” package. And indeed it is. What’s more, it is a shame that it is not better advertised. You can’t be blamed for feeling that it is a bit of hidden fine print in the Christian life.

But you really shouldn’t feel like that for long. You see, the “early death option” isn’t an “extra” – it isn’t tacked on the end to make our lives complicated. Instead, the “early death option” is part of the reason that the whole salvation thing works in the first place. Our Savior, Jesus Christ broke the ground: he was willing to die early – when he didn’t deserve to, but then, as we read elsewhere, “[because Jesus was willing to die] God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth.” So the fine print (if you think of it that way) includes this promise, too – let’s read the rest of verse four and verse five: “We were therefore buried with Christ… into death so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, we may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection." Similarly in verse eight: “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him."

Just so there is no misunderstanding, resurrection with Christ is more than enough to make any “early death option” more than worth it. As Paul writes elsewhere “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” Similarly, Jesus says, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it." So let’s spell it out.

Death option number one – “the basic death plan”: let nature take its course. In this option, sin reigns, and the result is death. Physical death is an appropriate metaphor for spiritual death. Folks who choose “the basic death plan” are usually fixated on death by actively avoiding it. It is a little bit of a puzzle, but something like the ladies who, after reading the first English dictionary, commended Dr. Samuel Johnson, its compiler, for choosing not to include “naughty words.” “What?” Dr. Johnson asked, “Have you been looking for them?” By looking for unsavory words, the ladies demonstrated an unhealthy fixation. Similarly, there are a number of activities that demonstrate that we are motivated by death-avoidance.

The first indication of death-avoidance is the attempt to live as long as possible, or, to put it another way, a fixation with health. Indeed, our society and many modern Christians appear to be obsessed with health. A sure sign of a true Christian is the ability to look physical death in the face with that calm assurance that in the song: “And then one day, I’ll cross that river; I’ll fight life’s final war with pain. And then as death gives way to victory, I’ll see the lights of glory where my Savior lives.” In contrast, the world spends double on health food. The world idolizes the medical profession. We pay large amounts for fancy ways to exercise. The cosmetics industry is booming as we change the color of our hair, smooth out our wrinkles, and work on our complexions.

All these demonstrate an unhealthy fixation and death-avoidance. All these are clear signs that we’re committed to “the basic death plan”. Last week in the early service, it was quite a blessing to hear X show that her faith in God is bigger and more important to her than the medical machinery around her. We need more of that attitude in our churches. I’m sorry, folks: but God does not promise his children physical healing. He wants to heal our souls, yes; but the reality is that our bodies run down and fall apart. In kindness, He might grant us brief reprieves on that score, but they do not come with any guarantees, expressed or implied.

The second indication of death-avoidance is the attempt to establish a legacy in wealth, or status, or fame, or power. Have you even seen that bumper sticker, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins?” When we come to the realization that the world and all that is in it is temporary, none of these things matter any more. In spite of what television teaches us, God can be far happier with the contribution to the Kingdom of God from a single widow than he is with all the gifts of a church full of rich folk.

The final indication of death-avoidance in the attempt to squeeze as much out of the time that we have: we only care about doing the things we feel like doing, when we feel like doing it. We feed our appetites, because that’s all we live for: we eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Indeed. All of these actions, obsession with health, wealth, and self, derive directly from a commitment to “the basic death plan.” In verse 21, Paul asks “What benefit do we get from all these things?” -- and the answer is stark and final: “They result in death.”

But that isn’t the only option that we have for death. In our text this morning, Paul introduces for us “death option number two” the “early death plan” which is simply this: have faith in Jesus dying for us. When we have this faith, we become united with Christ in his premature death. We willingly lay down our lives before God, accepting the death of our desires, the death of our ambitions, the death of our rights and the death of our own personal glory. That is what it means to have saving faith. Yes, we are talking about salvation here. Death option number two is part of the package of saving faith. Saving faith is not faith *that* Jesus died for me. Saving faith is not “faith that anything.” Saving faith is faith *in* Jesus dying for me. Note the verb tense: the English language doesn’t even permit me to say “faith in Jesus died for me. Rather, we must say “faith in Jesus dying for me.” Our faith is not of the past or in the past. Our faith is living and active and present.

As verse five suggests, our salvation involves being united with Christ. Our hope of glory is that Christ is with us and in us today. But that eternal resurrection life depends on our participation in Christ’s death. Only if we are united with Christ in his death will we be united with him in his resurrection. Folks talk about being born again, and so they should. But the reality is that the second birth requires the first death. It is only by opting for an “early death plan” that we can be born again at all.

Incidentally, this idea isn’t limited to Romans chapter six. It can be found throughout the New Testament. Four quick examples:

Galatians 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

2 Corinthians 5:14, 15 “we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

Colossians 2:12 “[You were] buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

Colossians 3:3 “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

The “early death plan” is part of the fiber of scripture. The intervening centuries might have diluted the message, but it is clear and it is clearly important. And the key is that the “early death plan” supersedes the “basic death plan” – verse nine: “since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.” And that is precisely what God wants for us – to eliminate the mastery that death has over us, and to give us the means to live eternally. As it says in Hebrews 2:15 Christ came to "free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death." And in 2 Corinthians, we read: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

One final point from our text this morning: the “early death plan” is not just a theological construct. It is not just something waiting for us in heaven. We have the power and the responsibility to “work out our salvation” – to turn the “early death option” into a reality in our lives. Verse 12: “Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal bodies.” This is our responsibility. In the days in which Paul wrote this, regime change was only rarely due to a peaceful transfer of power. When he says “Don’t let sin reign,” he is saying that We need to be actively chipping away at the power of sin. We need to be aware of our weaknesses and cautious of our strengths. But our responsibility isn’t just to resist the advance of sin, verse 13: “rather, offer yourselves to God.” We also need to actively establish a beachhead for grace in our lives. Only by resisting sin and making ourselves available to God can we find ourselves united with Christ.

Here Paul uses words that indicate a struggle is taking place. And indeed it is. Next week, chapter seven will focus on this struggle. But let me leave you with this challenge. Don’t be satisfied with the “basic death plan”. Not only will it bring you to an unhappy end, it will also leach the joy and delight out of life. Instead, follow in the footsteps of Jesus, have the same attitude as him. Opt for the “early death plan”, and enjoy eternal life in God through our Lord Jesus Christ.