High Standards and Big Problems
Not counting a few hundred rounds of mini-golf, I have played one round of real golf in my life. My whole family was vacationing at a resort in Minnesota and one morning my two uncles, both of whom are pretty avid golfers, offered to take all the older cousins to the resort’s course for a lesson. With their wise instruction, I not only didn’t get very sunburned—quite a feat for me—but I also managed to not take any more than 10…or 12…strokes to get the ball in the hole on nearly the entire back nine…with one exception. There was this one hole with a nice, wide open green that was punctuated in the middle with a pretty good-sized pond. I could actually hit the ball pretty far for having never done it before, but this pond was sitting right at about the max of my driving distance. When it was my turn I set the ball on the tee, squared up, and hit a perfect shot…right to the middle of the pond. It made a really nice splash at least. Fortunately, I was saved by the grace of my uncles, their full bag of balls, and by a locker room attendant named John who worked at the Essex Fells Country Club in a New Jersey town by the same name in the 1930s. When John, or Buddy as he was affectionately called, was finished cleaning up the locker room, if there were no other members present, the club pro, Dave O’Connell, would sometimes take him for a free round. One day, Buddy went out with Dave and another friend, Des Sullivan, and his first tee shot was terrible. The ball sailed into the woods and it was pretty obvious that retrieving it was going to be no easy feat. Furthermore, who wants to start a stroke down on their initial tee shot? Buddy begged and pleased for the duo to give him a do over. After all, he reasoned, they had been playing all morning and he had only just started. Eventually they agreed and let Buddy play it again. Buddy returned to the locker room and for months proudly proclaimed to all the members that he had been given an extra shot by the pro. The members loved his story and eventually started giving themselves an extra shot here and there in his honor. They decided to name the practice after the man with the great story. Calling the extra shot a “Buddy,” though, didn’t really have much of a ring to it so they went with his last name instead: Mulligan. Golfers of all stripes have been giving themselves these “do overs,” these Mulligans, ever since.
This morning we are going to continue the brand new series, “Do Over,” that many of you started in your small groups over the past hour. The whole idea of this series is that there are times in all of our lives when we are in need of a Mulligan, a “do over.” Maybe you rather unfairly snapped at your spouse or kids the other day. Perhaps you found a creative way to stick your foot three or four feet down your throat with a friend. Or maybe for you, your whole life is a train wreck and you need someone to pick you up, straighten you out again, and set you back on the tracks so you can take a fresh run at life. If you have ever found yourself in this kind of a place, these next six weeks are going to be perfect for you. With the help of an ancient letter written to believers in the city of Rome by a guy named Paul who is the reason you’ve heard anything about Jesus, we are going to take a look at how we can in fact have this “do over.” We are going to see that we can not only experience some restarts in the short term, but how we can actually live “do over” lives.”
Here’s the thing about a do over, though: It’s great to know one’s available if we need it, but the only way it can actually do us any good is to take it. Think about it like this: Have you ever been driving around and gotten lost? Let me talk to just the guys for a minute: Have you ever been driving around, got lost, and didn’t want to admit it? I’m actually usually pretty quick to admit when I’m lost, but I’m also pretty quick to get frustrated when I’m lost. I’m not a terribly patient lost person. How about this, though: Have you ever been driving around, got lost, and didn’t know it. That’s a trickier situation. When Lisa and I were in Colorado, she worked for a company called the Bars Program which sends out secret shoppers into restaurants and convenience stores to help make sure their employees are properly carding for alcohol and tobacco purchases. They had a fancy mapping program that put all the businesses they were contracted with in a certain area into a route that a secret shopper could logically follow from one to the next. In order to make a little extra money on occasion, I would do routes in the Denver metro area. Because I’m not very good at following written directions, I would take the routes from the company, put them into Google Maps and study the pictures. Well, one day I headed out on a route that was slated to take me somewhere between 7-8 hours to complete. I had studied both the maps and the written directions and was ready to go. The first part of the route went pretty smoothly, but near the middle of the route, I started following the directions way out to the outskirts of town. I was driving through some long stretches in which there was nothing. I mean nothing. It was all to visit some obscure bar. Eventually I reached the place where both Google Maps and the Bars’ directions said it should be and there was nothing there. Unbeknownst to me, I had spent the last 45 minutes lost. Had you told me during that time that I was lost and in need of a do over, I would have laughed at you. I had the directions I’d chosen to follow and knew right where I was. I was totally capable of returning home from where I was. But…I wasn’t going to get where I was going on my current path. It just wasn’t going to work. Eventually I had to accept the fact that I didn’t know where I was going, but until that time, I thought I was doing fine.
You see, just like I thought I was doing before the reality of my lostness smacked me in the face, most of us go through our lives thinking we’re basically doing okay. But as the apostle Paul makes clear in his letter to the believers in ancient Rome, our thoughts about how we’re doing—which usually involve comparing ourselves to the people around us—don’t ultimately matter all that much. You see there is only one standard that actually matters and that standard is God’s. And the thing about God’s standard is that it’s really…really …high. Well, as Paul starts getting into the first part of his letter in which he pretty clearly lays out the good news, he first has to walk us through some bad news. His first bad news is for the folks out there who aren’t doing right and they really don’t care. These are the folks who not only don’t believe in God, but who believe that they can live their life however they want regardless of the consequences and you don’t really have any place to say anything to them about it because, again, they don’t care what you think. We can pretty much all agree that these are some immoral folks. On this group of people Paul just lays the smack down. He tells them just how it is and it isn’t pretty. About this group he concludes: “Though they know God’s decree that those who [behave like they do] deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”
Those are some pretty tough words, and for a lot of folks, particularly church folks, we hear them and are inclined to respond, “Yeah! You tell ‘em, Paul. Tell those immoral slobs how it is!” After all, if you’re like most folks—Paul is talking about the worst of the worst here, right?—you would not put yourself in this group. We are inclined to count ourselves as pretty moral people. We do the right thing most of the time…enough to satisfy our consciences…mostly. I mean we don’t want to get prideful or anything by saying we’re awesome, but the adverb “pretty” seems to nuance the adjective “moral” enough to satisfy the demands of public humility. But then, after apparently writing off all the moral degenerates out there (I’ll pull my tongue out of my cheek in just a minute), Paul turns to the rest of us and says, “Weeeelll…not so much.”
Starting in Romans chapter 2—and if you have a Bible with you in some form, turn or thumb your way there—Paul turns to we “moral” people who tend to judge the “godless heathens” of our culture pretty harshly and says, “Actually, you guys do the same kinds of things.” Listen to how he puts this starting in 2:1: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” Paul essentially says, “Look, we’re all on basically the same page here. You may not commit some of the exact moral offenses “they” do, but you’ve got your own junk getting in the way of doing what’s right by God and people”—a kind of lifestyle Paul and other Biblical authors sometimes call “righteousness.” The reality is that God is going to deal with everybody just exactly as they are. He’ll take us one-by-one and hold us accountable for the choices we’ve made. And yes, if you think about the sum total of the choices you’ve made, that’s about as terrifying a prospect as it sounds. In v. 6 Paul puts this directly: “[God] will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life [in other words, if you do everything right all the time and never once commit a single sin, God will give you eternal life because you have earned it]; but for those who are self-seeking [ever put yourself first in anything?] and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness [in other words, you don’t do what’s right by God and by people every single time], there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil…but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good. . . .For God shows no partiality.” So, if you do what’s good all the time, you’ve been doing that your whole life, and you continue doing it until the day of judgment, God’s going to give you the proper reward for that kind of behavior. But if you don’t, God will give you the proper reward for that as well…it just won’t be quite as pleasant.
Now, at this point, when it feels like Paul is laying on the judgment kind of thick, there’s something inside of us that makes us want to protest. “Hold on a minute, Paul,” we complain, “I didn’t necessarily sign up for all this.” You know, maybe you only sort of signed up for the whole faith thing. You like the Jesus part, but you aren’t really ready to give up your whole lifestyle for it. Or maybe you’re here this morning because somebody made you feel guilty for not coming. You really didn’t want to, but you were tired of the nagging so you gave in. And here I’m reading to you from a guy who says you have a problem you can’t solve and judgment’s coming because you haven’t been perfect. Well, maybe the only standard you really want for yourself is “sort-of-perfect.” The gung-ho Jesus people are welcome to strive for His impossible-to-keep standard, but that’s on them. You shouldn’t get judged by their standard.
And you know what? Paul totally agrees with you. In fact, He thinks God does too. Jump down to v. 14 with me: “For when Gentiles [and by that Paul is talking about anybody who not only doesn’t live, but isn’t actually interested in living life the way the guys who contributed to the Bible seem to think God wants us to live], who do not have the law [meaning they don’t know how God expects us to live], by nature [meaning, on their own] do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.” In other words, forget about whatever you think God’s standard is for a minute. Most of us have an internal standard to which we hold ourselves. Furthermore, for most of us, we’d like to think this standard is pretty high. We have high expectations of ourselves and somewhere inside we feel some guilt for not living up to this. So what Paul is saying here is this: For argument’s sake let’s say that you’ve never heard of God’s standards for living. All you’ve ever known is the standard you keep for yourself. So, assuming total ignorance of God’s standards, if you fully live up to your own standards, God’s going to look at you and say, “You know what? You didn’t know My standard, but you fully lived up to yours meaning you tried and succeeded to live up to what you understood is right. That’s good enough for me. Come on in.” Catch all that? If you’ve been around church for a while, you may need to clean out your ears to make sure you’re hearing me rightly. Or perhaps you just need to pick your jaw up off the ground and hear me again. Paul’s saying that on the day of judgment, if you have never once heard of God, never been told about how He expects people to live, but you have lived up to your own standards—which are going to be high because even if you don’t know it, you were created in His image and were built pre-loaded with those standards—He’s going to take that as good enough. That’s some kind of a God worth following, isn’t it?
But, this is the point at which a problem develops. You see, you don’t actually live up to your own standards. Let’s take Paul’s argument for a minute and assume that you are clueless about God’s standards, but you do have your own standards. The thing I know about you, because it’s true about me too, is this: you don’t live up to your own standards. Forget about God’s standards for a minute. You don’t even live up to your own standards which are in actuality way lower than His. His standard is perfection. His standard is being perfectly in tune with His character. Your standard is “pretty good.” Those aren’t the same thing. Pretty good is not perfect. And even though God would be gracious enough to accept “pretty good” if that’s all you knew and you managed it, you don’t manage it…you aren’t managing it.
If you’ll flip over to chapter 3 and find verse 10 with me, you can see how Paul actually puts this. He quotes from a rather satirical psalm of David: “[No one] is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” You see, you’ve got a problem that you can’t solve. You need to be good…but you aren’t. You want to do good…but you can’t. You strive for this…but you get that. Given the chance, you invariably put yourself and what you want ahead of everyone else even if that plays itself out by seemingly putting others first thereby meeting your need to be a servant. The guys who contributed to the Bible had a label for this tendency and its various outworkings: sin. And just in case you feel the need to defend yourself by protesting something along the lines of, “Well, that’s only natural to put myself first! Everybody does it…even Christians,” let me preempt you by saying I agree with you. It is natural. That’s the point. Because of the impact of sin, this desire to put ourselves first, to make ourselves God, regardless of how that happens to play out, is totally natural. And in case what I’m saying isn’t clear, let me say it more so: Everybody’s a sinner. There isn’t any such thing as a “good person.” Such a person does not exist. Now, there are people who do good things, even a lot of good things, but it’s a very far cry from doing good things to being a good person…unless you want to get into defining people by their behavior which is a very dangerous thing to do. No, see, living in a way that violates God’s standard: that’s natural. Doing the things of God, keeping the standard of God…that’s unnatural. You may have a grand moral vision for your life, but whether that moral vision is framed by God’s desires as expressed in the Scriptures or by something else, you fall short of it. What more, no matter how hard you try, you’re really not making any headway. This is a problem you can’t solve. You can’t meet God’s standard on your own.
Some of you know this and have embraced it. Some of you know this and aren’t yet sure whether or not you agree or perhaps simply whether or not you care. Some of you perhaps don’t know this. But whether or not you’re ready to embrace it, here’s the truth: you have a problem you can’t solve. Come on: forget God’s standard for just a minute; you know you don’t live up to your own standards. And if that’s the case, how do you think you’re going to meet God’s standard? You can’t meet God’s standard on your own. You can’t even meet your own standard on your own. You are lost and you may not even know it. Now, eventually you’re going to arrive somewhere, but the odds are insurmountably high that you won’t like where you end up. You’ve taken your best shot and it has sailed off into the woods. It has splashed down right in the middle of the pond…several times. You need a Mulligan, a do over. But, on your own, you can’t get one. You can’t meet God’s standard on your own. You need your very own Dave O’Connell and Des Sullivan to give you a do over. You can’t meet God’s standard on your own. That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: you’re not on your own. A do over, a fresh start, is completely within your reach because of the help you have. This help has a name: Jesus Christ. When we embrace who He is and what He’s done, we have all the help we need. And if you come back next week, you’ll hear all about it.