February 1, 2015

The Good News

Let’s start this morning with some trivia.  What do Return of the Jedi, Rocky Balboa, Antwone Fisher, Les Miserables, and Iron Man 3 all have in common?  They are all stories of redemption.  In Return of the Jedi the exciting climax of the movie comes when Anakin Skywalker—Darth Vader—returns from the “dark side,” saves the life of his son Luke, and puts an end to the evil of The Emperor.  In Rocky Balboa, the washed-up, old fighter proves to himself and the world that he still has what it takes when he comes out of retirement and goes toe-to-toe with the reigning heavyweight champ, Mason “the Line” Dixon.  In Antwone Fisher a young, emotionally broken soldier finds healing and wholeness through the help of a committed counselor, his girlfriend, and the family he never knew he had.  In Les Miserables, the thief Jean Valjean is given a second chance at life by a gracious Catholic priest and commits the rest of his life to serving and saving those who were in the same dire straits in which he once found himself.  Finally, in Iron Man 3, Tony Stark at last discovers what’s most important in life and commits himself to using his genius and resources to make the world better.

Now, you may not find your favorite movie on that list, but I suspect that your favorite movie has some sort of a redemption theme to it.  A character starts the movie as a villain or troubled or in trouble and finishes the movie with a new attitude, with a new chance, with a fresh start on life.  There aren’t many movies that don’t have at least some kind of redemption element to them.  Such a story element is a tried-and-true formula for a good movie.  Why is that?  Why are stories of redemption so attractive to us?  I would argue their attraction lies in the fact that they echo the story in which we are actively playing a part.  We are all playing a part in God’s big story and one of the parts that is most important to that story, the third part, the part we are going to talk about this morning, is redemption.

So then, we are in the third week of our series, The Big Story this morning.  The whole idea for this series is that most of us spend most of our Bible-reading time focused on the details of some passage or another.  We puzzle over the minutiae of John’s Revelation.  We spend time making sure we don’t miss a single illustration from Paul’s letters.  We look carefully to figure out exactly what route the Israelites took from Egypt to the Promised Land.  We want to know every last detail of the Scriptures so we are ready to handle whatever challenge might come our way.  Hear me well: this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  But, if we spend all our time here, we can get so bogged down in the details that we start missing the forest for the trees.  You see, all those details have a context.  If we don’t understand the context, we won’t properly understand the details.  To this end in this series we are covering the entire Bible in four weeks from 30,000 feet.

Two weeks ago we looked at the first part of the story: creation.  In the beginning, God created everything we see and don’t see.  In Moses’ telling of this part of the story we learn a great deal about the character of the God we serve and the kind of world He created for us.  The simple summary is that it was good.  You and I are part of a good story.  Then last week we took a small step forward and discovered that not long after creation was completed the first man and his wife bought into a temptation set before them to rebel against God’s authority and make gods out of themselves.  This decision on their part served to open the door of this world to the corrosive power and presence of sin which has been making a mess of things ever since.  But, the good news here is that even in the mess the first man and woman created—and to which we have contributed in abundance—God’s love for us remained unchanged.  Even in a mess, God still loves us.  He still loves us and so the first thing He did after the Fall was to begin setting in place His plans to make us a way to get back to Him in order that we might once again enjoy His presence as we did in the beginning.

The problem was, when we rebelled against God’s authority in favor of our own, allowing sin to enter the building, what really happened was that we sold the whole block to sin.  It was buried in the fine print that we didn’t read very closely when we signed the contract, but nevertheless, sin now owned us.  God’s deep love for us, though, means He never gives up on us so He came after us while we were still living under the authority of sin.  Unfortunately through the lens of the sin now controlling us, we often mistook God’s movement in our direction.  Through our sin-filtered reasoning processes we figured that He was looking to pay us back for what we did to Him…just like we would have done, what we have done, to those who have hurt us.  We thought He was coming to pay us back and so we ran deeper into the recesses of sin.  It would take a radical act of love on His part to finally convince us that just the opposite is true.  God was never trying to pay us back, He was seeking to bring us back.  Look, God’s not trying to pay you back, He’s trying to bring you back; He was looking to pay the price to allow you to be His once again; He was looking to redeem you.  God’s not trying to pay you back, He’s trying to bring you back.  This morning we are going to look at the story of how that happened, in order that we might understand the lengths God was willing to go in order to make you His once again.  I hope you’re ready because this is an incredible story.

It began almost as soon as Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden.  This was a good thing too because the effects of sin began to manifest themselves in even more tragic ways then as well.  God gave the couple two sons, Cain and Abel.  Over time, Cain was consumed by jealousy of his brother and ultimately murdered him.  After this, Adam and Eve had a third son who they named Seth.  This child grew up to know the Lord and he passed this knowledge on to his children and his children to their children and on and on down the line of history.  All the while things on earth were getting bad.  Like a college freshman coming out of a heavily sheltered life discovering the party scene for the first time and going on a full-throated partying binge, people in those early days when the dust from the Fall was still settling embraced the evil sin led them to desire wholeheartedly.  The text says that all of their thoughts were only for evil all the time.  It got so bad that God had to take some rather dramatic actions to set things on a better path.  It wasn’t much better because He was still working through the lives of sin-broken people, but it was a decided improvement all the same.  Eventually the time was right for God to begin creating the nation from which He would launch His plans for our good.  Building a nation, though, takes time.  It takes time to grow a population from a single couple to nation size.  It takes time for a culture to develop.  It takes time for a worldview to form.  From the time God called an old man named Abram to leave behind everything familiar and follow Him into the unknown to the time when a broken old man named Moses led a whole nation of Abram’s descendants out of slavery in Egypt to return to the lands to which God had led Abram a half a millennia of time had passed.  Another 1,500 years would pass before the time came to execute the final stage of His grand plan.

Along the way there were challenges.  Some God sought out intentionally in order to reveal specific aspects of His character to the people.  He gave them rules designed to serve as the boundaries of life with Him.  These rules would eventually become part of the cultural framework of the people and provided the lens through which they looked at and interacted with the rest of the world.  Other challenges, though, would rest on the shoulders of the people.  They rebelled against the rules time and time again.  They tried on the worldviews of all the nations around them.  They gave themselves away to bigger, more powerful nations.  Each time, like a loving parent God let them go, disciplined them firmly but fairly, and welcomed them back home when they realized their folly and sought to return.  It was the parable of the prodigal son played out on a national stage over and over and over again.  And, when the time finally came that the people demonstrated their incorrigible commitment to living life their own way instead of remaining within the spacious boundaries God had given them, He threw them out and allowed them to experience the harsh reality of life outside the lines in all of its inglorious splendor.  Again, though, when sufficient time had passed, He brought the people back and reestablished them as a nation, although but for a brief season they would never again be independent.

Throughout all this nation-building and guiding, God’s plan and pattern was to work through people.  Ordinary people like you and me have consistently been His favorite means to accomplish His plans.  He chose broken people, worked through them in spite of their flaws, and revealed His glory in sometimes surprising ways.  His plan was always to use people and specifically a person.  But, planning to work through a specific person means you need a family.  And families don’t come out of nowhere.  To get just the right family, God spent literally centuries molding and shaping, guiding and guarding a line of people to get things just right.  He worked through people like Judah who was a scoundrel and a liar and ultimately produced the male heir through whom God would continue his family line after being seduced by his daughter-in-law.  He used a Jericho prostitute named Rahab.  He saw the line continue through the radical faithfulness of a Moabitess named Ruth whose people were the avowed enemies of Israel.  He took Ruth’s great grandson David, turned him into the greatest leader of the nation since Moses, and continued the chain of descendants through his murderous affair with the wife of a Hittite man.  The final couple in the line before the revelation of His own Son was poor and her pregnancy started before they were married creating a social headache and casting undue suspicion on the family for years to come.

So what’s the point of all this beyond giving you the summary version of the Old Testament?  Remember God’s love amid the mess of sin?  God worked patiently through the details and follies of human history for centuries to bring things to the time when He could unleash His plans for our good, for the time when He could make good on the announcement that the seed of the woman would one day crush the head of the serpent.  He would let nothing stand in His way.  His love for us was so overwhelming that it washed away every obstacle that rose up against its fullest expression in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  The scandal-plagued son of the poor couple whose birth was heralded by local shepherds and foreign princes alike was the ultimate expression of the love of the Father for us, His most glorious of creations.  His love for us was so great that it led Him to send His one and only Son to die that we might live.  And by His death we were given the rescue we needed from the mess of sin that had defined our existence ever since we had been expelled from the Garden.  The God who we had offended to His face after having literally given us the world, the perfectly holy and exalted God who had every reason to pay us back with utter extinction sought no such thing.  Instead, He sought to bring us back by bridging the gap we could have never crossed on our own.  God never once tried to pay us back, only to bring us back.  I don’t care where exactly you are in life right now God’s not trying to pay you back, He’s trying to bring you back.

And the thing is: He has to bring you back.  You see, there’s one more part of the story here.  That part is the theme undergirding all the work God was doing in and among us as we journeyed through the halls of history: sin.  From the Fall to the cross sin was the dominant theme of our existence.  In spite of our best efforts to reach out to God and live life His way or to simply improve ourselves with one moral theory or another we never got any better.  In fact, all our efforts to improve ourselves morally since the cross have failed.  Most of them rather spectacularly.

What was amply demonstrated between the Fall and the cross and has been overwhelmingly documented since is this: we are broken and nothing we have ever done has solved the problem.  In sin we all carry a disease that has corrupted us at every point and which, in spite of our best efforts, we cannot cure.  No matter how hard we have tried to resist its awful effects they always manage to claim victory over us in the end.  Moral reformers have come and gone and all have failed in the end, their legacies ultimately tarnished by one thing or another.  The results of our embrace of this disease are well-documented and yet we keep returning for one more hit because this time will be different.  To put it rather crassly, we’re stuck on stupid.

For those who have stopped to reflect on this very long the sense of helplessness and despair, of frustration and futility seems palpable.  We hate the sin and what it does in and around us and yet love it for the way it feels in the moment.  We know it will break us and yet we keep going back for one more embrace.  Perhaps no one has given better word to this than a man who pursued self-righteousness as far as he could before being called to something else.  He hated those who had embraced God’s solution with visceral passion up until the moment he accepted it for himself.  His name was Paul and he described his ongoing struggle with the sin that had so long held sway in his heart and mind with words that perfectly capture things in both their form and their content.  These words are found in his letter to the church in Rome and if you’ll grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures you can follow along with me in Romans 7:15.

He gives word to this incredible struggle like this: “For I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.  So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.  For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.  For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.  So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.  Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Can you feel the truth of what he describes there?  Have you experienced it in the longing in your own soul to do what is good and right while yet always settling for the evil and the wrong?  Well, what do you call someone who desires to do one thing but is forced by another who owns him to do something that contradicts the desire of his heart?  A slave.  What Paul describes here is the struggle of being a slave of sin.  Think about that: we are owned by sin.  We are owned and we don’t possess the necessary means to break that ownership.  This was the situation we accepted for ourselves when we rebelled against our Creator in the Garden.  He knew it too.  That’s why in spite of His entirely justified anger He was brokenhearted for us.  That’s why He started working from that moment forward to bring about the means by which our ownership could be transferred from sin back to Him.  All His activity was never to pay us back; it was to bring us back.  God’s not trying to pay you back, He’s trying to bring you back.

Incidentally this concept of a transfer of ownership has a technical term: redemption.  When something—or someone—is redeemed all that has happened is that ownership of the thing has been transferred from one person to another.  This happens because the necessary price has been paid.  Everything God did from the moment of the Fall onward was geared toward making available the means for our redemption.  He was laser-focused on turning the page on the story He was writing from time of the Fall to the time when redemption ruled the day.  He was completely committed to providing a clear answer to Paul’s anguished cry.  It is an answer that Paul himself acknowledges in the next verse: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Jesus the Christ, son of a poor couple, born of a virgin, hunted by kings, praised and reviled alike by people, sinless in life, innocent in death, glorious in resurrection.  He made Himself a sacrifice on our behalf.  God declared Him sufficient means to pay the price He was owed by humanity for our rebellion.  He took all the power of sin into Himself and broke it.  And with the power of sin thus broken, all of God’s plans for us, the plans He had been slowly unfolding for some 4,000 years, came to fruition.  The means necessary for the transfer of our ownership from sin to Him were made fully available.  Not only this, but once we belonged to Him, all the power that sin had once held over us was gone.  Think about that.  All the power that sin held over us was broken.  The power to force our compliance—in Christ we have the ability to not sin; the power of guilt—the feeling sin gleefully hands out once we’ve given ourselves over to it which serves to break our wills and keep us coming back because we don’t think we deserve better; the power of condemnation—after sin successfully beckons into its arms it is the first to point a finger at us and scream for judgment; the power of resignation to judgment—because once we have sinned enough we figure God owes us and He’s going to get what’s His through payback since He’s God.  All this power is gone…if we accept the transfer of ownership.  If we let God through Christ bring us back.  God’s not trying to pay you back; He’s trying to bring you back.

It is because of this broken power, this transfer of ownership, this redemption that Paul is able to next proclaim some of the most glorious words in all of Scripture.  Check this out in Romans 8: “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 [that is, like us—fully human] 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…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.”  Can I just get an “amen” here?

Friends, this is the glory of the third act of God’s story, the act in which we now have the opportunity to live fully: the death that comes from sin does not have to define us any longer.  We can have our ownership transferred to a new master who intends only to make us free.  The price has been paid in full.  We have been redeemed.  God has done everything necessary to bring us back short forcing us to come.  He never was trying to pay us back.  God’s not trying to pay us back; He’s trying to bring us back.  But notice I said there that we have the opportunity to live fully in this third act of God’s big story, not simply that we live fully in this third act.  You see, the thing about redemption is this: we don’t have to accept it.  The gentleman who came to pay the price will not force himself on us.  Consider the redemption story I mentioned a little while ago in Les Miserables.  When Jean Valjean goes to redeem Cosette from the rogue Thenardier and his wife, she was by no means beholden to go with him.  She could have refused and stayed where she was and while his willingness and desire to redeem her would not have changed, neither would have her situation.  And the rather glorious ending she came to know by the end of the third act would have simply languished in the realm of possibility instead of becoming manifest as the sweetness of reality.

God wants to bring you back; He’s put Himself ridiculously far out there in order to make it happen, but make no mistake: you do not have to go.  No one will force you to it and in fact just like Thenardier did everything he could to prevent Cosette from leaving, sin will do everything in its power including using the tools I just mentioned to keep you from accepting the transfer of ownership, the redemption, God has offered through Christ.  When you take time to think much about it staying in sin is going to seem so much easier than taking on all the burdens of righteousness—and it is.  Staying in sin will seem safer—and as far as this life is concerned it often is.  It will seem more comfortable—and given the situations into which following Jesus leads us there is really not much question on this point.  In fact, there will be very little to push you over the edge to accept this radical transfer of ownership save this one thing: freedom.  This transfer of ownership means freedom.  Redemption means freedom.  And freedom means life.  If you want to play at life—play that admittedly can sometimes come very close to approximating it—stay with sin.  Stay in the second part of the story.  You pick your favorite form of it.  It doesn’t really matter.  The result will always be the same.  But if you want to live—really live—redemption is the only way to go.  And if you have accepted the life available in this third part of the story, live like it.  Sin is a jealous master only content with ruling.  It’s not willing to be a mistress.  Neither is God.  He worked too hard for too long to be satisfied with anything less than all of us.  He loves us too much to not get all of us back.  God’s not trying to pay you back; He’s trying to bring you back.

There’s just one more thing about redemption if you’ll have it: As glorious a part of the story as it is, it’s not the final part of the story.  That’s still to come.  You see, the fact that many people still choose to stay in the second part of the story in spite of the doors being opened to the third means sin is still here and causing the same trouble it’s been causing since the beginning.  That won’t always be the case.  The fourth and final part of God’s story is still to come: restoration.  For all those who choose redemption, restoration is on the horizon.  And if you come back next week I’ll tell you about it.