You aren’t down for the count
Romans 11: Are they down for the count…the answer is a clear-cut no.
The people of Israel, Paul says, have, in general, messed up royally. They had an inside track to God but rejected him. Because of their disobedience and unbelief they’ve been cut off and are no longer connected to the “root” of God’s love and faithfulness. The Lord, who specializes in taking bad situations and turning them into good ones, has used their rejection as a way to open the door for all peoples of the world to come in. When an “outsider” believes in Jesus that person is grafted into the “vine” of God’s grace. In this the outsider becomes an insider. Now, what of those people of Israel who became dead to God because of their unbelief? Is it too late for them? Is their permanent loss a sad necessity that the way to God be opened for the non-Jews? Paul answers, “No way!” He serves a God of Second Chances and even now the Lord’s working out a restoration for those who’ve been cut off. In his plan it’s never been “Jews verses Gentiles.” The Lord’s working right now to bring salvation to all, grafting in all who will come, making them part of his family. Isn’t this good news! The Gentiles have never known God, but now a way has been made for them to connect to him. The people of Israel have a long history with God but blew it. Still, God works to bring them back home. Maybe you were raised in church and knew the Lord as Savior at one time but now all that’s past tense in your life. I have Good News for you. As it was for the people of Israel who messed up royally there remains hope. Right now the Lord invites you to return and be reattached to the vine of his mercy, love, and grace. Even if everyone else has given up on you, God hasn’t.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Romans 5: When it’s sin verses grace, grace wins hands down.
Obviously, it all starts with Adam, the first human being. This first man’s failure puts in motion a whole string of failures. Humanity is in a death spiral. One man’s sin results in the sins of many. One man’s sin results in the deaths of many. Without an intervention this story is going to end badly. Then, God’s own Son, Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, steps into history. Adam’s disobedience brings death. Jesus’ obedience brings life. For humanity it’s a gift beyond understanding. Our sin: our crushing, destroying, death dealing sin seems insurmountable. Now, through Jesus, the remedy is given. Sin, as powerful as it is, meets its match. Grace wins.
Take Away: No matter how great the sin, it meets it match in God’s matchless grace.
Grace extended to both insiders and outsiders
Romans 3: Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself.
The Jews, Paul says, have a special relationship with God. They’re the writers of Scripture, introducing God to the world. That’s a place of great honor, but it’s no guarantee of salvation. Not only that, but these custodians of God’s Word have, themselves, failed to live according to it. Meanwhile, the outsiders have gone their own way. Ignorant of God’s commands, uninterested in his ways, they too have failed. The result is “that we’re sinners, every one of us, in the same sinking boat with everybody else.” So now what? Those with the inside path to God haven’t followed it and those on the outside haven’t found it. Hope for salvation has to come from, not within, but from outside of humanity. Enter Jesus. Through him the remedy for failure and sin is offered. The Jews need him because they’ve rejected what they knew God wanted. The outsiders need him because they’ve never started down God’s path in the first place. The generous provision of God is his making a way to life for all people, Jews and non-Jews alike. The hope of salvation, then, is in this wonderful expression of God’s grace to a lost human race.
Take Away: For those who know the law but haven’t kept it and for those who never kept it because they never knew it, that is, for all of us, our only hope is God’s grace.
Acts 25: I appeal to Caesar
Paul has been confined in Caesarea for two years as Governor Felix ignores his innocence and hopes for some kind of bribe that never comes. It isn’t that Paul is chained in a dungeon; in fact, he’s invited to chat with Felix several times. Then, a new Governor is appointed. Festus is immediately approached by Paul’s enemies who want him moved to Jerusalem, supposedly to stand trial in their courts, but actually that he might be removed from Roman protection and murdered. The new Governor knows the kind of people he’s dealing with and, instead, invites them to come to Caesarea and make their case there. In less than two weeks, Paul finds himself being wildly accused once again, this time before Festus. When this new Governor wavers and asks Paul if he’s willing to face these people (who obviously can’t wait to get their hands on him) he surprises everyone by playing the trump card available to a Roman citizen: he requests that his case be heard by Caesar, himself. This takes the Jews of Jerusalem out of play and places Paul under the scrutiny of the Emperor. In this case, Caesar isn’t an especially nice guy and he certainly isn’t known for his mercy. From Paul’s point of view, though, it’s better to take his chances with Caesar than face certain death from the Jewish leadership. I’m glad today that when I face the accusations of my failure, guilt, and sin that, rather than face the consequences, that I can appeal to a Higher Court. This Court is known for its grace and mercy. This is a place where love and forgiveness abounds. As my life is on the line and my sin moves to condemn me, I appeal to God, not for justice, but for mercy.
Take Away: Its mercy I need from God and its mercy I receive.
Taking care of God’s people
Acts 20: God’s people they are…God himself thought they were worth dying for.
As did Jesus several years earlier, now Paul “sets his face toward Jerusalem” knowing that his arrival there will result in hardship. To speed his journey the Apostle doesn’t go back into Ephesus but, instead, sends word to the church leaders to meet him in Miletus, located about fifty miles south of Ephesus. Here he has an emotional meeting with his dear friends and co-workers. He charges them to guard and protect God’s people in Ephesus, reminding them that “God himself thought they were worth dying for.” Even as this great Apostle is going to go through trials so will this great church. As I study this passage I can’t help but think of the role of the ministry. Paul, I see, isn’t worried about the organization and program of the church. He doesn’t urge the leaders to focus on current worship trends or new technology. Rather, he reminds them that they’re to guard and protect the “sheep” placed under their watch care. They’re to value God’s people as God, himself, values them. Happily, Paul has good news for these leaders of Ephesus and for church leaders across the ages. He tells them that God “can make you into what he wants you to be and give you everything you could possibly need in this community of holy friends.” The work of the ministry includes guarding and protecting God’s people from false teaching. The power for accomplishing that task comes from a gracious God who works in our lives, giving us everything we need to successfully do the work to which we’re called.
Take Away: The Lord not only calls people to spiritual leadership, he also empowers them for that task.
Luke 13: That’s when you’ll find yourselves out in the cold, strangers to grace.
I find this phrase, “strangers to grace” a chilling one. Jesus says that a lot of people think that because they hang out in the right places and associate themselves with the right people that they have it made. When the curtain of history falls they think they’ll be just fine and they’ll have a place at the table. The trouble is that their level of “knowing” falls far short of the requirement. To know Jesus is vastly superior to knowing about Jesus. His disciples live in a personal relationship with him. They don’t just hang out in the vicinity but, instead, enjoy a spiritual intimacy with our Lord. I can’t think of anything worse than depending on “proximity religion” when a personal, cherished, living relationship is available. It’s only at that level, as I live as a friend of the Lord, that I enjoy being a “friend of grace.”
Take Away: I want to be well acquainted with God’s grace in my life.
Mark 9: Then I believe. Help me with my doubts!
The man is desperate to get help for his son who’s possessed by a demon causing the boy to have dangerous convulsions. He brings him to Jesus, pleading for help. However, Jesus is absent at the time. Some of the disciples, though, have had experience with such things. They’ve been commissioned by Jesus to do exactly what needs to be done. However, in spite of their efforts the condition of the child is unchanged. Just as the father is about to leave Jesus arrives and asks what’s going on. The man explains the need. As the boy is again thrown into a seizure, Jesus asks how long this has been going on and the man answers, adding, “If you can do anything, do it…help us!” Jesus calls the man to faith reminding him that there are no “ifs” in faith. I love the answer of the desperate father. For the sake of his son he’ll banish all the “ifs” and replace them with belief. Then, with transparent honestly, he pleads “Help me with my doubts!” Oh how I identify with this good man. With the hard facts so close at hand he struggles to get a grasp on absolute faith. As he says these words, he has a son trashing about on the ground and, right before him he has Jesus, the Miracle Worker. With every fiber of his being he wants to be doubt free. Apparently, that’s good enough for Jesus. An honest struggle for faith is enough faith for the impossible to happen. As I struggle with the hard realities of life in view of the claims of God’s grace and mercy I’m often like that father. Happily, I’m reminded here that the Lord does, indeed, help us with our doubts. Even a struggling faith has power in God’s eyes.
Take Away: An honest struggle for faith is enough faith for the impossible to happen.
Letting the Pharisees have it
Matthew 23: They talk a good line, but they don’t live it.
This is the chapter in which Jesus nails the Pharisees. In line after line he pronounces judgment on them. They, who know more about the Laws of the Old Testament than anyone else, have strained all the grace and mercy out of it, leaving only a brittle, unyielding, damning crust. They load people down with all that while stripping away the very essence of God. Rather than pointing the way to a living relationship with a good, loving, and gracious God they point to rules and regulations and assured failure and doom. To say it gently, Jesus thinks these rule-making, burden-loading, grace-denying individuals are bad people. We Christians need to pay careful attention to this. We understand that living in the Lord means that we abstain from some things and pursue others. However, if that approach becomes the dominant one; if keeping all the rules becomes the definition of who we are in God; if we come to believe that “knowing about” God is our primary calling, then we’ve taken a dangerous step toward the religion of the Pharisees. In contrast to that brittle religion our Lord pictures God’s desire for people as being like that of the mother hen who extends her embrace to her chicks. If we lose sight of that and make the “hard side” the main element of our relationship with the Lord we have more in common with the Pharisees than we might want to think.
Take Away: Christianity is more about love and grace and mercy than it is about knowing all the right things and keeping a list of rules.
Really, it’s God’s business and not mine
Matthew 20: Can’t I do what I want with my own money?
Jesus tells the story of a man who hires day laborers. Early in the morning he hires a group, promising them a certain wage. As the day goes on, he continues to add workers with some only working the last hour of the day. When the workers are paid, all receive the amount promised the workers who first hired on and have worked all day long. Some of them complain that since they worked longer and harder that they should be paid more. The answer is that they’re being paid exactly what was agreed when they were hired and it’s no business of theirs what the boss does with his own money. This, I think, is a picture of God’s grace to us. I understand that no one is deserving of God’s blessings, but obviously, some are more deserving than others. However, the Lord wants to bless each and every one. At the Judgment there will be some who gave their lives to Jesus while they were young and then served the Lord many years. Others will be there who barely made it in, maybe due to a death bed conversion. The grace of God will be extended to all who were willing to receive it. After all, it’s his grace and he can do with it whatever he wants.
Take Away: The very definition of grace includes the concept that it’s given to the undeserving.
The way to forgiveness
Matthew 12: If Satan banishes Satan is there any Satan left?
It’s really about the Sabbath. The religious leaders have taken “Remember the Sabbath day” and turned it into a heavy burden laid on the backs of the people. Even picking a piece of fruit to eat is considered to be a transgression. Jesus responds with examples from their own law and history proving that they’re wrong. He goes on healing people, even on the Sabbath. When a demon-afflicted woman is set free the critics of Jesus sputter that he must be in cahoots with the devil. Our Lord responds that if they say that about him what do they say about their own exorcists? Beyond that, it’s a silly contention anyway. If Satan casts out Satan there wouldn’t be anything of Satan left. He then deals with the opposite side of the same coin. If the Holy Spirit is the One who forgives sins and we cast the Holy Spirit out of lives, how can we ever expect to be forgiven our sins? Its serious business isn’t it. We’re sinners in need of forgiveness. There’s one who forgives. Throw him out and we’re left without hope. Stated differently, there’s one road to forgiveness, if I refuse to travel that road, there’s no way I can ever arrive at forgiveness. The way to God is abundant and grace-filled, offering hope to the worst sinner. Still, it’s the only way. I can take it or leave it, but if I leave it, I’m left with nothing.
Take Away: We have, in Christ, hope abundant, but aside from Christ we have no hope at all.