February 2, 2014

A Wretch Like Me

Alright, so this morning finds us in the third week of our series, “Do Over.”  The whole idea for this series has been that all of us at some point in our lives find ourselves in a place where we are in need of a do over.  We’ve messed something up and need a fresh start.  We’ve damaged a relationship because of what we’ve done or said and need to get it put back on track.  Or maybe it’s simply that our entire lives are a wreck and we need a total reset.  Here’s the thing about a do over, though: knowing that one is available if we need it isn’t enough.  If we don’t take it, the offer doesn’t do us any good.  Now perhaps you are sitting there thinking that this “do over” we’ve been talking about is kind of like insurance: it’s good to have on hand, but you never want to be in a place where you have to use it.  That’s not such a bad way of thinking, but the problem with it is this: you need it.  Having a “do over” available but not taking it isn’t so much like merely having insurance as it is, say, taking out a flood insurance policy on your house, having your house flood, and then refusing to use the policy and instead trying to pay out-of-pocket to get things put back together.  It just doesn’t make any sense.  No, no, the truth about your life is also the truth about my life: we have a problem we can’t solve.  And the problem is this: There’s only one standard that actually matters in this life and we aren’t living up to it.  Actually, we don’t really live up to any standards, even our own, but we definitely fail to meet the big one: God’s.  You and I can’t meet God’s standard on our own.  We are in need of a do over.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is that we are not on our own.  We have help in the person of Jesus Christ.  This is the incredible truth we looked at last week.  Because He lived a perfect life and then gave up His life as a sacrifice on our behalf, Jesus has attained the ultimately right standing with God.  When we place our faith in Him He shares His right standing with us so that we can also be made right before God.  Jesus offers us His gift of a right relationship with God.  Essentially God looks at us, sees Jesus, and says, “Yep, you’re good.”  Far from being an obvious solution to our problem, though, this is a solution that totally defies the way we would normally imagine getting right with God should work.  Given our way, we would have worked really hard and, once all the boxes were checked off, then we would have been offered this right standing (which we would have graciously refused because we already had things worked out ourselves).  Instead, this solution to our problem requires a complete worldview shift because instead of doing a whole lot to advance ourselves and earning this right standing, we simply receive this gift by faith as an act of God’s grace.

Well, all of that is pretty much a summary of the first four chapters of Paul’s letter to the believers in ancient Rome.  Coming into what we know as the fifth chapter, Paul begins to unpack some of this teaching and take things a step or two further.  Before he does, though, Paul summarizes everything he’s been saying before getting into more detail.  In Romans 5:1 he writes this: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  By faith we have been justified and because of that we have peace with God through Jesus.  We have peace through Christ.  We have salivation through Jesus.   We are saved by Christ.  That’s a pretty stunning thought if you think about it.  But have you ever spent much time thinking about what the kind of person Jesus saves is like?  How deserving are the people to whom Jesus gives a do over?

Now, if you’ve been around a church for very long, you’ve probably been programmed to respond to that question with something like, “Jesus came to save wretches…like me.”  But, while that is theologically accurate, it’s not really the most natural of answers.  It is a learned response.  You see, we tend to think in terms of people receiving good things because they somehow deserve them.  That’s why Buddhism’s Karmic system is so popular.  I mean, have you ever heard about somebody receiving an unexpected blessing and thought to yourself, “Well that just couldn’t have happened to a nicer person”?  When ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was still on they would spend a lot of time telling all about the hardships the family had faced and all the good things they were trying to do for their communities in spite of them so that you would sit there and think, “Well they deserve this incredible house they’re receiving,” and not, “well those jerks should have gotten a bag of coal, not the whole sleigh!”  Those kinds of reactions are pretty normal when people experience what seems like good luck.  They are even more pronounced when people are the recipients of a sacrifice.

Consider a couple of stories.  On August 16, 1987 a routine Northwest Airlines flight took off from Detroit, Michigan bound for Phoenix, Arizona.  Within seconds of takeoff something went disastrously wrong.  The plane suddenly rolled 40 degrees to the left and its wing caught a light pole at the end of the runway, ripping off the end of the wing and igniting the fuel that was in it.  This caused the plane to roll a full 90 degrees to the left, smashing into some buildings, flipping the plane all the way over, and breaking it into fiery pieces.  There were 156 people on board including the flight crew.  Everyone died…except one little girl named Cecelia.  As the plane began to turn over, Cecelia’s mother somehow got out of her own seatbelt, bent down in front of her daughter, wrapped her arms around her, and shielded her from the devastation.  Firefighters later found Cecelia still secured in her seatbelt a few feet from the bodies of her mother, father, and older brother.  Her mother, who almost certainly would have died anyway, turned her own death into the ultimate sacrifice and gave her daughter the gift of life.  Stories of sacrifices like this one are always moving to us at a very deep level.  There’s just something inherently good about a parent making such a sacrifice for her child.  And certainly a child so young deserves such a second chance, right?

Story number two: During the Vietnam War a young graduate of West Point was sent to lead a group of new recruits into battle.  He served admirably and worked his hardest to keep his men from ambush and death.  One night, though, his men came under heavy attack and one of the group was severely wounded.  Unwilling to leave any of his men behind, the young lieutenant knowingly sacrificed his life to pull the wounded soldier to safety.  Ultimately, he died from the wounds he received, but his attempts to rescue the wounded soldier succeeded.  Eventually the man was nursed back to health and sent home.  Sometime after his return to the states, the young lieutenant’s grieving parents heard he was nearby.  They sought him out and invited him to dinner in order to have a chance to meet the man their son gave his life to save.  The man showed up for dinner obnoxiously drunk and made an offensive embarrassment of himself.  The grieving parents did everything they could to redeem the visit, but it was to no avail.  When the man finally left, discounting any possibly extenuating circumstances, the only thing the father could say was, “To think that our precious son had to die for somebody like that.”

As much as stories like the first one can warm our hearts, stories like this one can leave us cold.  We naturally share in the hurt and anger of the parents.  But, here’s the question that matters for us this morning: which of these stories better reflects the sacrifice Jesus made for us?  Were we mere innocents with our whole lives ahead of us, threatened with an unpredictable tragedy?  Or were we more like the offensively, obnoxiously drunk man showing no signs of living up to the sacrifice made on his behalf?  Perhaps to put things even more simply: do we deserve the sacrifice that has been made on our behalf?  That is an uncomfortable question with even more uncomfortable answers.

It’s a question whose answers actually take us to the next part of living a “do over” lifestyle.  You see, there are a lot of people you know—maybe even some folks in the room—who are caught in a destructive pattern, are aware of a way out that’s available to them, but still don’t take it.  They know that never using the gift that’s been purchased for them is a waste, but still, they don’t use it.  Why?  Why wouldn’t they do that?  Well, for some folks the issue is pride.  We’ll get to breaking you down in a second.  For a lot of others, though, at least part of the issue is that they don’t believe they deserve it.  They don’t believe they’re worth it.  This is a terrible place for people to find themselves so let’s take just a minute and shed some light on things for the sake of clarity.  And, if you’ll thumb or turn your way to Romans 5, we’ll look together at some of what Paul has to say about this.

Look with me at Romans 5:6 and let’s see what Paul has to say here: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”  So then, we were weak and ungodly and Christ died for us.  Thanks, Paul.  Okay, here’s the truth for all these folks who just feel too badly about themselves to do what it takes to pull out of a life pattern sorely in need of a do over: That feeling inside of you that sometimes keeps you from doing what’s necessary to fix things in your life, that feeling you just don’t deserve better…it is absolutely right.  You don’t deserve it.  You never have.  You never will.  Dear Jesus, thank you for giving us these words today…  Oh, I’m sorry, was that not what you were expecting to hear?  Okay, give me another chance.  You know that feeling inside of you?  It is absolutely right…you don’t deserve it…but you are worth it.  You see, what you deserve and what you are worth are two entirely separate matters.  Paul makes this pretty clear here.  Christ died for you.  He wouldn’t have done that if He didn’t think you were worth it.  But, you are the ungodly, meaning you didn’t deserve it.

Stay with me here for a minute.  We have two ideas here—what we deserve and what we are worth—which are very different from one another.  And yet, through the lens of our culture they are often used interchangeably.  So then, which is it?  Are they the same as our culture proclaims or are they different?  We need to have this clear because if we don’t we can quickly put ourselves in a hard place where we perceive ourselves deserving of good or evil based on how we currently feel about our self-worth.  The danger here is that there are some very evil people who have a high sense of self-worth.  On the other side of things, if we as individuals or as a society consider another person or a class of people to be not worth very much, we will assume they deserve little and offer them less.

Let’s start with what we deserve.  Jump down to v. 12 with me.  Paul writes here: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all [people] because all sinned…”  So what’s Paul saying here?  Well, the “one man” here is Adam.  (And hey, you may not think it’s scientifically astute to talk about a literal Adam and Eve, but here’s one way to think about it: Jesus believed in a literal Adam and Eve and He rose from the dead.  Whatever the guy who rose from the dead believes, I’m going with that.)  And, because this one man sinned, somehow everybody sinned.  In other words, Paul here is talking about original sin.  Now, this is an increasingly controversial concept in today’s feel-good culture, but the basic idea as Paul expresses it here is that through Adam’s initial sin, the disease of sin spread to all people rendering everyone since Adam a sinner.  Now, this may seem kind of unfair of God to you, but here’s the thing: God didn’t make us sinners.  When Adam sinned, we were all there sinning with him physically, philosophically, and theologically.  And when he sinned his very nature, given to him by God, was corrupted.  We now bear the scars of that.  We see this same kind of thing today, by the way, in what is sometimes called generational sin.  A parent who is an alcoholic is way more likely to have a child who is an alcoholic than one who isn’t.  Anger issues are often passed down from parents to their children.  Parents who are sinfully self-absorbed very regularly have children who are sinfully self-absorbed.  In the same sort of way, Adam’s corrupted nature has been passed on from parents to their children ever since.

So what does this mean?  It means that much unlike our culture and a number of different world religions teach, you and I are not born with natures that are basically good or even neutral but which have been corrupted since birth by our bad choices.  In fact, pop culture today takes things even a step further.  As the devastations of sin that seems so pressingly prevalent in our world makes denying our inherent brokenness ever more difficult, pop culture today has taken a new tack: there’s no such thing as brokenness!  There’s not really such a thing as sin (you know, beyond disagreeing with this über-tolerant worldview).  You are born perfect just the way you are.  You need simply to embrace who you feel like you should be and you’ll be fine.  This sentiment is perhaps best captured by Lady Gaga’s chart topper “Born this Way.”  Listen to how she puts it: “My mama told me when I was young [that] we are all born superstars.  She rolled my hair and put my lipstick on in the glass of her boudoir.  ‘There’s nothing wrong with loving who you are,’ she said, ‘cause he made you perfect, babe.  So hold your head up girl and you’ll go far, listen to me when I say.’  I’m beautiful in my way ‘cause God makes no mistakes, I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way.  Don’t hide yourself in regret.  Just love yourself and you’re set.  I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way.”  This is the anthem of our culture.  You are born perfect.  The only real sin you can commit is to act out of sync with who you are.  Even our own President espoused this worldview.  You are a good person who makes some mistakes.

Yet what Paul describes here is radically different.  Our problem is not primarily that we sin or that we act in ways that are out of sync with our values.  No, according to what Paul argues here, our problem is that we are sinners.  See the difference?  If our problem was merely that we sinned then in theory we could not sin.  But you see, we can’t not sin.  Try it sometime.  Try to go a whole week without doing anything that you know deep down God probably doesn’t want you to do.  Forget that, try and just go a whole day.  You can’t.  And this isn’t like a, “Hey, I could stop if I wanted to, I just don’t want to,” can’t.  As we are going to see in a couple of weeks, this is more of a, “I desperately want to get out of this mess, but I don’t have it within me to do it,” can’t.  The reason for this is that, again, our problem is not that we sin.  We are sinners.  Our very nature is broken.  We begin as mere carriers of this broken nature but as soon as we are self-aware we begin acting on it.  Thus we are condemned from the start because of our nature and condemned as we go because we act on it.  We are not innocents with our whole lives ahead of us yet who have faced some bad luck or made a single bad decision.  We are the obnoxious drunk who seems incapable or at the very least unwilling to face the reality of who we are and what has been done for us.  This is the problem we can’t solve.  We need a do over.

When Paul wrote that Christ died for the ungodly he was right: We are supremely undeserving of the sacrifice that’s been made on our behalf.  Paul draws this out even more in the next verse: “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die…”  Again, this is exactly how we think.  If someone is going to receive a sacrifice—particularly one so big as a life—they’ve got to deserve it.  We don’t want them to simply be right with God, we want them to overwhelm us with good works.  And yet, what did Paul say a couple of weeks ago?  “No one does good, not even one.”  So then, if we are going to think culturally about getting right with God, we’ve got to get to the place where we deserve what Jesus is giving.  Our culturally-attuned self-image depends on it.  And yet, if we are going to deserve it then we’ve got to overwhelm God with good works.  Yet I don’t know about you, but my good works so far in life aren’t exactly what we might call “overwhelming.”  We need a do over, but we don’t deserve it.

Here, though, when we are at our breaking point, feeling as if we should simply give up and go home, the truth comes breaking gloriously through the clouds.  Look at v. 8: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  We weren’t deserving; we aren’t deserving, but God didn’t let that stop Him.  His love is far too extravagant to let something like what we deserved prevent Him from pouring it out on us.  Our worth is far too great to Him to be content with leaving us separated, with giving us what we deserved.  And so from the moment of the Fall onward He began to execute His plans to see the demands of His righteousness satisfied such that we could be rightly related to Him once again.  These plans culminated in the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But, and this is important, this didn’t happen at some point when we finally somehow became deserving recipients of such a sacrifice.  That’s the whole point of what Paul is saying here: Christ died for us while we were still sinners.  We were still committed rebels both unable and unwilling to do our part to get right with Him.  We were enemies of God.  We were at our worst.  And it was in that place that God poured out His love on us.  The glorious truth of the Gospel is that He still does.  He still considers us of such inestimable worth that even at our worst, God loves us.  Even at our worst, God loves us.

All those times in your life when you felt like a failure, undeserving of God’s love, you were absolutely right.  You were undeserving of it.  And yet God loved you anyway.  When you felt like you were a moral sinkhole and at your very worst, you were right.  And yet, when you were at your worst, God loved you.  When we are at our worst, God loves us.

So here’s what I want to do this morning.  I want for us to together decide that we are going to make a break with our culture and own the truth.  No more hiding behind the claim that we are “good people.”  No more hiding behind some prideful need to make ourselves fit for heaven before we accept the ticket in.  No more hiding behind the notion that we are somehow too far gone for God’s grace to really get to us either.  No more hiding.  Forget about whether or not the world or anybody in it considers us a good person or a terrible person.  Those are the wrong terms and they use the wrong measuring stick anyway.  Through the lens of God’s standard for living of course you’re a terrible person!  Trying to use some standard other than His to determine whether or not we’re fit for Him would be like looking at three brown, paper lunch bags, one all waded up and then straightened out, one with a few small folds, and one very obviously brand new, but which are all full of freshly laid cow pies, and trying to decide which one of them would be best to use for carrying our lunch.  None of them!  It doesn’t matter what they look like on the outside.  The insides all stink!  The things you and I do have no bearing on whether or not we meet with God’s standard.  We need a do over not because we’ve done a few more bad things than good ones, but because at the core of who we are, we are broken.  This is the truth we are going to own together this morning.  Come on and say it with me: “I am a sinner.”  Say it again: “I am a sinner.”  Now add this: “Because I’m a sinner, I am always at my worst.”  Now add the last piece: “But when I’m at my worst, God loves me.”  Say it again: “When I’m at my worst, God loves me.”  One more time: “I may be at my worst, but God still loves me.”

 

That, my friends, is the good news.  And hey!  Lady Gaga was half right: God does love you just the way you are.  What do you know; pop culture has a shred of truth in it.  But, she only offers half of the good news.  When I’m at my worst, God’s loves me, but He’s not willing to leave me at my worst.  That wouldn’t be very loving of Him, would it?  That’s because love is an intentional decision to see people become fully who God designed them to be, not some feel-good emotion wherein we give people space to do whatever they want to do without much thought about the consequences they will someday face for it.  God didn’t design you to be at your worst.  He loves you there, in fact He loves you there so much that He sent His only Son to die for you.  But He’s not willing to leave you there.  He wants to see you become your best self.  When we’re at our worst, God loves us.  When you were at your worst…when you are at your worst, God loves you.  He loves you and He is willing to do whatever it takes to make you your best.  He loves you and He wants to give you the do over you’ve been longing for.  You don’t deserve it, but in His eyes you’re worth it; and His eyes are all that matter in the end.  When you’re at your worst, God loves you.  All you need to do now is to receive it by faith.  Invite Jesus to take up residence in your heart; receive Him as your Savior and Lord, and you can experience the do over you need.  Then, come back next week as we take a look at one of the major nuts and bolts of how to actually live a do over lifestyle.  You won’t want to miss it.