December 5, 2010

A Life-filled Freedom

Although we are not a very liturgical church, we are officially into the liturgical season of Advent.This is, of course, the time of preparation for the celebration of our Savior’s birth.It is a season of, among other things, love, joy, peace, and hope.I remember that because at the church in which I grew up we had great big banners with those four words on them hanging along the side walls.Perhaps more importantly, though, when you really spend some time thinking about it, these four are the natural results of Christ’s presence in our lives.When we truly understand who Jesus is and what He has done for us, then the manifestation of these four traits along with the other six fruits of the Spirit must happen.Advent is also a season for the telling and retelling of stories.We hear the stories of Jesus’ birth, of course, but as families gather together we also tell the stories of our own pasts.We remember the journeys that our families have taken to reach the places where we are now.For families who have much of a sense of faith about them, this telling of stories can often become a reminder of how God has worked in the past to bring the family through a variety of challenges such that they are able to gather together and celebrate today.Now, there are without question many families who are in the middle of just such a story and are waiting to see how God is going to bring them through this experience. Yet even for these, the stories of how God has acted in the past can give them the hope they need to keep trudging forward until they experience the kind of deliverance for which they are longing.

You know, all of this does not apply only to family groups. The Christmas season is a good time for us as individual followers of Jesus to sit back and take stock of our lives. We take stock of how God has acted in our favor in the past. We meditate on the ways He has kept us in His hands and how He is leading us forward with the faithfulness so central to His character. We are reminded of the starting point of all of this: a tiny baby lying in a feed trough. We reflect on this helpless infant and are filled with the hope we need to take whatever is the next step God has for us to take. Now, we might protest that our stories are far too mundane for God’s action when compared with the glory of the Christmas Story (not the terrible movie by the same name), but were it not for some prior knowledge that we really only have because we have been in the church for more than a year, there is nothing out of the ordinary about the story of a poor couple in the first-century having a baby in their current place of residence (I guess they missed the ambulance ride to the hospital) and laying him down in whatever make-shift crib they could put together.In Christ God redeemed the ordinary and in doing so gave us this incredible hope to move forward in spite of the very much ordinary-ness of our stories.God did something extraordinary in the most ordinary of ways and the implications of this are nothing short of life-changing.In this promised life-change we find a reason for hoping rooted in the unchanging character of God.It is this reason for hoping that I want to talk to you about this Advent season.And to do so, we are going to look at a passage of Scripture that sits a bit outside the norm for this time of year.Yet as far as I’m concerned there is no other place in Scripture that unpacks the hopeful implications of the coming of the Savior into the world in such a powerful way so look we will at Romans 8.If you have your Bibles with you, open them to Romans 8:1.We will start with the first half of the chapter this morning and in the weeks before and after Christmas get into the great stuff waiting for us at the end of the chapter.

With all of this said, let me read the famous first verse of Romans 8: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Now, that is a pretty remarkable statement.Those who find themselves rooted in a relationship with Jesus Christ no longer have any condemnation.With as much condemnation as we find in this world, knowing that a relationship with Jesus can take us out from under its damning umbrella is a great comfort.This is especially true if you find yourself to be one of those (normal) people who has struggled with sin in some fashion and the ensuing feelings of guilt, shame, and, yes, condemnation.In spite of this, as with nearly everything else in the Bible, without understanding the full context our appreciation of the power of Paul’s words here is rendered incomplete.In order to grasp these words in their full glory we need to back up a bit.

In his letter to the believers in Rome, Paul’s basic approach is to present them the straightforward, no-holds-barred Gospel. In order to do this he begins by establishing a need for it. Thus, in chapter one Paul argues that God is clearly knowable without any special abilities on the part of people. Anyone and everyone can know not only God, but His clear standard of righteousness. The problem is that no one lives up to this. Everyone falls short. Moral but otherwise non-religious people fall short. Religious people fall short. Everyone falls short.The good news (Gospel) is that we can find justification in Christ.In Christ we can find freedom from the cycle of sin that holds us down and keeps us from experiencing the life that is truly life.This is a good thing too, because the result of this pattern of sinful rebellion against God’s clearly knowable standard is death.

There’s another problem here, though. The instrument God gave to help people have some sort of an easy-to-follow guide with regards to His standard of righteousness (namely, the Law) became corrupted by the same sinful nature that was holding us down. In this way, the thing which was designed to bring us to the path of life became simply another path of death. Our place in this is that instead of walking the path of life like we know we should, we flirt with this path of death and as a result experience the condemning glare of the Law. None of this means the Law itself is bad, but in our struggles with sin the Law’s condemning power keeps us on the ground and doesn’t let us up. For the few times we do manage to go without sin for a reasonable amount of time (I’ll let you define what exactly that is) we might walk with our heads high, but the sinful nature in us—what Paul calls our “flesh”—is hammering at us to find some other creative (or not so creative) way to test the boundaries of this righteousness imposed by the Law. And we know we shouldn’t do whatever it is, but we do it anyway.

This is the struggle in which many of us find ourselves. We know the things we ought to be doing. The problem is that we don’t do these and instead pursue the things we know we ought not to be doing. This leads many down the path of hopelessness because they recognize that this cycle is killing them, but they don’t see any other way around it. In this hopeless situation people generally react in one of two ways: they give in and give up the real life available in Christ in favor of the fleeting pleasures of this world (and let us not mince words: many of the things to which our sinful nature calls us are indeed exceptionally pleasurable in the moment); or else we fall into a stifling legalism in which we became painfully aware of our shortcomings with regards to the Law and feel too confined by the subsequent guilt and condemnation to spend much time actually living our lives.In both of these situations we sit under the condemnation of the Law, wondering how we are ever going to break free from this cycle and break out into the life beyond the walls we construct to reign in our own broken natures.Paul writes eloquently of this struggle at the end of chapter 7 when he says things like, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”In a way such that he seems to be channeling our modern angst with this same issue in 7:24 Paul cries out: “Wretched man that I am!Who will deliver me from this body of death?”And here, with hopelessness seeming to finally overtake us and send us spiraling down the death chute of this world the light of hope dawns: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Thus the babe born at Christmas would grow to break this cycle once and for all.Thus we find ourselves able to embrace Paul’s words in 8:1 with an invigorated hope.But what does this really mean for us?Why does it matter that we have this help and hope in Jesus?Well, as Paul points out in the following verses, it means that we can find freedom from the stifling condemnation of the law and a doorway to the real, Spirit-filled life that we’ve always wanted (even if we haven’t always known we wanted it).It is these two things that Paul begins to unpack in the first part of chapter 8: freedom from condemnation and the dawning of life.Indeed, dwelling in Christ through the Spirit brings freedom and life.Let’s journey forward to find out how.

Treating these two great themes in turn, let us first deal with the freedom from condemnation.Listen to the full context of Paul’s words at the beginning of the chapter, starting in v. 1: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”You see, before Christ came, all people had to point them to the path that God wanted His people to walk was the Law.After Christ, if we reject the help He offers we are still left under the dictates of the law.Now, Paul unpacks the breakdown of the Law pretty thoroughly in chapter 7 and we’re not going to talk about that now, but suffice to say, the major problem with the law is this: it set out a standard of righteousness way beyond what anyone could possible manage on their own, sin corrupted it such that through a kind of reverse psychology we naturally reach for the things that Law says are bad, yet the standard of the Law remains unchanging such that all those who remain under its authority are perpetually condemned.In sum, the Law shows us the things for which we will be condemned, leads us to do them, and then condemns us for doing them.This hopeless cycle repeats itself into infinity because we are forever unable to fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law.The hope found in the babe born at Christmastime, though, is that these righteous requirements have now been fulfilled.We no longer have to live under the dictates of the Law.We can instead live under the grace of Jesus Christ.Dwelling in Christ through the Spirit brings freedom and life.

Now, there is a challenge in this for those of us who have lived in a church environment for long.We have become so used to this message of hope that we are anesthetized to its awe-inspiring power.But here’s the thing: prior to our association in Christ we are dead.It is only a spiritual death as we currently exist and our culture vigorously proclaims the spiritual life is a mere fabrication of the religious elite, but it is a state of death no less real than what we will face in the future.And the plain, though hard-to-acknowledge fact is that we know it.Why do you think that humans created religions in the first place? Why do you think that people throw themselves into humanitarian-type projects (particularly at this time of year)?Because apart from God we are spiritually dead, we know it, and we are doing everything we can think of to make ourselves alive once again.We do good deeds because we know that they are good (Paul’s argument from chapter 1) and good deeds seem more likely to fix what we intrinsically know is dead and broken inside us than do bad deeds.In spite of the good feelings that accompany such pitiful efforts at soul-fixing, when the dust settles we are still sitting on the death side of the chasm separating death and life as when we started.We are still sitting there and have the same feeling in our gut that we are not alive and it’s our own fault.More yet: nothing we do is going to change this situation.And here’s the sadder reality.There are many in this world who fancy themselves followers of Christ but who instead of truly following Him have merely found what seems to them to be a more effective method of pursuing the mindless moralism they’ve spent their lives playing at in hopes of saving themselves.They give lip-service to Christ’s Lordship but live their lives as if they were still under the auspices of the Law.They are walking death draped in life-colored garments.It’s like someone went to Blanford Cemetery, dug up a body, put make-up on it, and exclaimed “She’s alive!”All of this leaves us under the condemnation of the Law.This is what God the Father sent Jesus Christ to fix.He came and as one fully human—one fully “enfleshed”—kept all the demands of the Law, fulfilling its righteous requirements, and then sacrificed Himself in our place, taking on our spiritual and imminent physical death, satisfying God’s righteous wrath, so that we might be freed from the condemning power of the Law when we submit ourselves to His Lordship.Dwelling in Christ through the Spirit brings freedom and life.

With the condemnation of the Law sitting over our heads, we can never really lay hold of the life that is truly life. Once we embrace the freedom we have in Christ, however, we are released to pursue such life with all the strength and passion of the Spirit. For it is indeed the Spirit who enables us in this pursuit. When we are so filled with the Spirit because of our dwelling in Christ we will very naturally pursue this incredible life. Listen to more of Paul’s words starting in v. 5: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds of the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit [in other words the focus of our attention reveals the location of our hearts]. For to set the mind of the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God [ever really thought about that? I don’t want to be hostile to God], for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. [This is the tough reality: apart from dwelling in Christ through the Spirit we are incapable of finding the life and peace of the Spirit-filled mind because we are incapable of filling our minds with the things of the Spirit; they are foreign and even hateful to us.]Those who are in the flesh cannot please God [in case that wasn’t clear the first time].You, however, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.[Got that?Those who are in the Spirit have made a clean break from the things of the flesh and are not controlled or compelled by them any longer.This can only happen when we dwell in Christ through the Spirit and experience the accompanying freedom and life.]Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, 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 Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”

So, when we have submitted ourselves to Jesus Christ and have experienced the great freedom from the condemnation of the Law, we are further freed to embrace the life that is truly life.Now, I will grant you that this may sound more like the kind of story I might be telling nearer to Easter, but Easter had a beginning.It had its eternal origin in the gracious mind of God before creation even came into being, but its temporal beginning came when a mother’s screams of agony gave way to the screaming of a tiny one whose fragile but healthy lungs were still recovering from the shock of breathing air for the first time.As that sound pierced the din of noise that surrounds any small village the world was introduced to hope in a way unlike it had ever known before.Not only did hope itself enter the world, but the pathway to being a apart of the story of that hope opened as well.Like the source of the hope, this pathway was so far from what those who were waiting were expecting as to seem almost offensively foolish.In a manner far more direct than He had used before God revealed that He was not a solitary, lonely God who created in at least some part to satisfy His longing for companionship.Instead, God revealed that He had a family of His own.In Christ we were introduced to the Son and the Son came to let us know that we might be a part of His family if we take up the life He had to offer.We can be a part of His family and experience the freedom and life that flow in abundance there.Dwelling in Christ through the Spirit brings freedom and life.

We talked earlier about the Advent season being a time when families gather to remember their stories.We also said that it is a time when we as individuals reflect on God’s place in our stories…or rather, our place in God’s story.But there are some folks who only wish they could be part of a story.They feel alone and isolated in a big world.They’ve moved from place to place or they haven’t had safe homes in which to plant their roots deeply or any number of things that may have kept them from building the deep relationships necessary to feel like they are a key part of a larger story.Well, a part of the hope in the baby born and laid in a manger is that even and especially these folks have the chance to be a part of a story in the ways of which they’ve always dreamed.This is Paul’s point in the last part of the chapter I want to look at with you this morning.Pick back up with me in v. 12: “So then, brothers [and sisters], we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons [and daughters] of God.For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear [as was the case when under the purview of the Law], but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons [and daughters], by whom we cry, ‘Abba!Father!’The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God [in other words, we can know that we are a part of the family of God because the Spirit Himself tells us], and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

A few months ago Lisa and I watched the movie Kite Runner.It is a beautiful, if difficult, story about the culture of Afghanistan prior to the Taliban takeover and of the hypocritical evil of the Taliban itself.The real point of drama in the film is when the main character who had many years before emigrated to and become a citizen of the U. S. with his father in order to escape both the Russians and the Taliban radicals sneaks back into this now foreign country in order to rescue the son of his childhood servant.In order to gain access to his former home he had to dress the part.He wore a fake beard and turban.He followed all the right behavioral patterns while remaining unstained from the obviously evil ones.He had to do this lest his identity be revealed too soon and he be rejected by the local populace.Now, the boy had been living as a slave to the duplicitous, cowardly, bully of a Taliban spiritual leader in his hometown.He had been abused in every way.The main character acted on his behalf to bring him the freedom and life he could not have possibly achieved on his own.The boy was held captive by forces far more powerful than he could hope to overcome.But the gift did not come merely in the form of giving him freedom and making real life possible for him.Once he was rescued, the boy became part of the man’s family.No longer was he simply the servant of a master who loved and cared for him as his father had been to the main character’s family.Now he had been adopted into the man’s family and was a treasured son.

This, my friends, is a beautiful picture of what we celebrate with Christ’s entrance into the world. The baby born at Christmastime became the man who snuck in a foreign land, dressing the part to a T and acting…nearly…the part, in order to rescue us from our spiritual slavery under a legalistic system which held us as guilty no matter what we did to appease it and to grant us the chance to live that which is truly life. This is not the end. He also brought the opportunity of being adopted into His family. Now we can be a part of a story that matters. It is an eternal story. It is a story that can and should be told over and over because it is the story of life. And we are not only in it, but we are one of the main characters. We are one of the reasons the story was written in the first place. So if you are one of those who struggles with not fitting into the kind of story all the Hallmark movies proclaim to be good and right, then you can rest easy knowing that you can be a part of the story that transcends culture only to redeem it and bring it to life. Or perhaps you are sitting under the condemnation of a life lived according to the demands of the Law. You have tried and tried to make things right on your own and you’re just not getting there. You’re not getting there and are ready to just give up and embrace the sin that constantly calls you to its palatial harem. This story is one about freedom from the condemnation because let’s face it: you’re never going to measure up on your own anyway. Or just maybe you are one of those living under the pressure of a stifling legalism. You feel like you are living up to the Law but the cost and effort have been enormous and you are growing tired of always being afraid of missing something that will leave you coming up short. The promise of the Law was life, but whatever you have now sure isn’t it. This story is one about living the life that is truly life. This is a story worth finding yourselves in. And we can step boldly into the middle of it when we answer the call of the One who gave His life to make it possible, place ourselves in His hands, and submit ourselves to following in His footsteps. Dwelling in Christ through the Spirit brings freedom and life. This is a reason for hoping.