July 28, 2013

Keeping the Faith

The other night Lisa and I were making dinner together and macaroni and cheese was on the menu (it’s about all Josiah will eat right now beyond yogurt and bananas).  I was responsible for getting it ready.  As I let the water come to a boil I decided I would go ahead and get the parts of the cheese sauce all ready to go.  I got out a measuring cup and stopped.  I couldn’t remember how much milk to put in.  I asked Lisa if she knew and she promptly looked at the box.  She then gave me a hard time for always following the instructions.  Well, I gave a half-hearted defense and then acknowledged that, yes, I do generally try and read the instructions to things before I jump in.  I read the instructions whether I’m building a bookshelf, making a casserole, or playing a game.  I want to know what my parameters for success are before I start so that I have a pretty good sense throughout whether or not I’m doing things right.  And this is not without good reason.  Normally when I don’t pay very close attention to the instructions when putting together an oft-purchased bookshelf I mess up and have to go back and take things apart in order to get it right.  Now, some of this stems from the fact that I’m a perfectionist.  But, I think there is a broader commentary at work here.  All of us, even the freest of spirits, like to have a sense of when we are on track and when we are off track in life.  We like to know if what we are doing falls within the lines or outside of them.  Now, different people adopt different sets of rules for living some of which are similar to each other and some paradigmatically opposite, but we all like to know the rules we’ve chosen and if we’re following them.

The reason for this sounds entirely counterintuitive at first hearing: in this world we are freest when we are living within the lines.  All freedom comes packaged with some limits.  When we cross those lines, we lose freedom.  But again: most folks don’t think about freedom in those terms.  Most folks understand freedom to mean having as few limitations as possible.  The freest person is the one with no limits.  But, the reality is that there is no such thing as limitless freedom and folks who attempt to live as if there were end up losing what freedom they do have.  Well, when you broaden this misunderstanding of freedom out to a whole culture, we may have been created for and genuinely desire freedom, but we aren’t very good at living free.

Well, as we continue with our series, Living Free, we are going to take a look together at some more of Paul’s thoughts on freedom for the churches he planted in the region of modern-day southern Turkey that was then called Galatia.  The Jesus followers in this region—all of whom owed their spiritual lives to Paul—were being faced with a powerful call to walk away from the freedom they had found in the Gospel Paul had presented to them in favor of taking up a lifestyle of rule-keeping with the Law of Moses as the rule.

In the first part of Paul’s letter (chapters 1-2), his approach to showing why this was unwise to do took a very much personal tone.  Paul called them out like a loving parent might do to an errant child.  He shared his own story of leaving behind the rule-keeping approach of the Jews in favor of freedom in Christ.  He related how his message of freedom had been approved by the leaders of the church in Jerusalem over objections to insist on rule-keeping for the Gentile believers.  He closed with a stirring exhortation of the ineffectiveness of rule-keeping as an approach to be made right with God by citing his own exemplary keeping of the Law of Moses and his subsequent failure to grasp the thing toward which the Law pointed: a relationship with God.  Or, as I put it last time: living by rule-keeping makes Christ meaningless.  What’s needed instead is faith.  We live by faith in the identity and character of Christ.  And as we, by faith, let His Spirit shape our hearts to be more in line with His, we will find ourselves living in the incredible freedom of who He designed us to be.  Freedom in this sense requires faith, not rules.

In this next part of the letter, Paul’s tone shifts from personal to theological.  What are the theological reasons for preferring freedom in Christ over and against the rule-keeping ways of the world and specifically for which some of the Jewish background believers were advocating?  Well, with these Jewish background folks in mind, Paul takes his audience all the way back to the very beginning of the Jewish people with the history of Abraham.  If he can show that the freedom of faith and not rule-keeping is what lies at the heart of the Jewish people, this will cut the legs out from under the argument of his opponents that rule-keeping is the only way to be made right with God.  Paul endeavors here to conclusively demonstrate that we get right with God by keeping the faith, not the rules.  We get right with God by keeping the faith, not the rules.  If you have your Bible or Bible app or bulletin insert, find your way to Galatians 3 and we’ll look at how Paul does this starting right at the beginning of the chapter.

He’s just as direct here as he has been the whole time.  I love this: “You crazy Galatians!  Did someone put a hex on you?  Have you taken leave of your senses?”  You think Paul’s a little worked up here?  “Something crazy has happened, for it’s obvious that you no longer have the crucified Jesus in clear focus in your lives.  His sacrifice on the cross was certainly set before you clearly enough.”  Now that Paul has their attention, he gets right down to business.  Stay with me at v. 2: “Let me put this question to you: How did your new life begin?  Was it by working your heads off to please God?  Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you?  Are you going to continue this craziness?  For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God.  If you weren’t smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it?  Did you go through this whole painful learning process for nothing?  It is not yet a total loss, but it certainly will be if you keep this up!”

So I’d say Paul’s a little excited here.  I have to think his transcriber had to ask him several time to slow down a bit.  In any event, what’s Paul saying here?  Well, perhaps a story would help.  Before tightrope walker Nik Wallenda made his famous walks across the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls, there was another man famous for his daring tightrope walking feats.  His name was Charles Blondin.  Blondin achieved fame as a tightrope walker not for merely walking across Niagara Falls once.  He did it several times.  In fact, he did it so many times that he started doing tricks on his way across.  He rode bicycle across once, he would go backwards, he would stop halfway, sit on a special stool and eat a meal, and the like.  But his in most famous trick he walked across the Falls, greeted the crowd there to welcome him, and then asked if anyone wanted to go back across with him on his back.  Believe it or not, he did get a taker.  It ended up being his manager staged to look like a regular member of the crowd, but still, that man had some nerve to volunteer for this.  He put his entire life in Blondin’s hands…or rather his balance.  Imagine, though, if at about the halfway point, Blondin’s passenger suddenly said, “That’s far enough, Charles.  I’ll go on my own from here.”  We would easily declare him to be crazy.  Only someone crazy would think they could complete by their own effort what someone like Blondin had started.  And yet, consider again the words of Paul’s that I just read to you.

Remember what I said at the end of our time together last week.  When we have only known one way of looking at the world for our entire lives, leaving that is hard.  Before coming to Christ, rule-keeping is all we know.  Indeed, rule-keeping is all there is.  And we gravitate towards that because if we succeed, we make ourselves to be kings and queens of our own little worlds.  This was the initial deceit of the Fall and the desire to be the lords and ladies of our own realms has not cooled since.  With all of that in mind, giving up the rules and submitting ourselves to Christ is a monumental worldview shift.  It requires giving up completely the idea that we will ever be able to make it on our own, that we’ll ever be good enough or smart enough or capable enough or just plain enough enough on our own.  That a high hurdle to clear and with the continuing presence of our sinful nature—the leftover desire from the Fall to be our own masters—human inertia always pulls us in that direction.  What this means is that we need to hear words just like Paul wrote to the Galatian believers on a regular basis to call us back onto the path.  We need to have it constantly held over our heads that we get right with God by keeping the faith, not the rules.

Consider his next words at v. 5: “Answer this question: Does the God who lavishly provides you with his own presence, his Holy Spirit, working things in your lives you could never do for yourselves, does he do these things because of your strenuous moral striving or because you trust him to do them in you?”  Put like that the answer is obvious: our moral striving has nothing to do with it.  There are two lines of response here.  The first has Paul leaping up out of his chair and exclaiming: “Right!  So what you are doing walking around with that inwardly smug self-satisfaction after doing a good deed like you’ve earned another day in the kingdom of God?”  The second forces us back to the same painful awareness we had to face last week: we’re never going to impress God with what we do.  We’re never going to impress God with who we are.  Our very best works are absolute rubbish when compared to the goodness of God.  I would say it would be like comparing a pile of steaming manure to a gleaming new Ferrari fresh off the assembly line, but that would be an insult to God.  God has never done anything for us because we deserve it.  Anything we have received from God has been because of that: we received it.  Remember the beginning of the most famous verse from John’s Gospel?  “For God so loved the world that He gave…”  He gives and we receive.  End of story.  If we start thinking it works in any other way we are going to get ourselves tangled in a mess of rules that will prove more difficult than the Gordian Knot to undo.  We get right with God by keeping the faith, not the rules.

Think about this just a bit further and then we’ll look at why faith has always been at the root of a right relationship with God.  It is a very common thought in our culture that people are basically good.  And, good people naturally deserve good things.  But, what defines goodness?  What’s the standard?  How good do you have to be to qualify for good things?  Are there multiple levels of good things?  If you achieve only a level 4 of goodness, are you stuck at level 4 good things?  What might that level include?  How do we explain people who don’t seem to be very good and yet are clearly enjoying high level good things?  The only possible way to approach sorting out all of this is to devise a system of rules that literally covers every possibility.  There has to be a rule and corresponding reward for every situation in life.  This was the very kind of system which the Jews had worked for 2,000 years to devise at the time of Paul’s writing.  And it didn’t work.  If after 2,000 years of work a system of rules designed to put us in a right relationship with God is still failing, shouldn’t that put the final nail in the coffin of rule-keeping as a way to be right with God?  Paul certainly thought so.  We get right with God by keeping the faith, not the rules.

The reason for this actually lies at the very heart of our interactions with God as a people.  With a couple of exceptions, the world tradition of monotheism after the Flood began with God’s call to a man named Abram to go to a land he would be shown and there he would be made a blessing to all nations.  Essentially what God did with Abram, later Abraham, was to lay the foundations for the nation through which He would reveal Himself to the world, ultimately through His Son who would be the promised blessing as Paul will tell us later in the letter.  Well, in spite of some ups and downs in his journey with God, Abraham is widely held out to be one of the primary examples of faith in all of Scripture.  He is the only person described as a friend of God.  I think we can all agree that if you gain the title “friend of God,” you must be in a pretty right relationship with Him.  Yet, what was it that put Abraham in such a relationship?  Listen to what Paul writes next: “Don’t these things [God’s blessings] happen among you just as they happened with Abraham?  He believed God, and that act of belief was turned into a life that was right with God.  Is it not obvious to you that persons who put their trust in Christ (not persons who put their trust in the law!) are like Abraham: children of faith?  It was all laid out beforehand in Scripture that God would set things right with non-Jews [and Jews too, of course] by faith.  Scripture anticipated this in the promise to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed in you.’  So those now who live by faith are blessed along with Abraham, who lived by faith—this is no new doctrine!”  In other words, not only do we get right with God by keeping the faith, not the rules now, this has always been the case.

What made Abraham, the first person to really be in a relationship with God of any kind, let alone a right one, on this side of the Flood, right with God was his faith played out over the course of his lifetime.  Rules had nothing to do with it.  This was some 500 years before the Law would be given.  There are no rational arguments to be made that Abraham was living right with God because of some system of rules, Jewish or otherwise.  He lived in the freedom of faith.  We get right with God by keeping the faith, not the rules.

But this isn’t all.  Look at where Paul takes this next: “And that means that anyone who tries to live by his own effort, independent of God, is doomed to failure.  Scripture backs this up: ‘Utterly cursed is every person who fails to carry out every detail written in the Book of the law.’  The obvious impossibility of carrying out such a moral program should make it plain that no one can sustain a relationship with God that way.  The person who lives in right relationship with God does it by embracing what God arranges for him.  Doing things for God is the opposite of entering into what God does for you.”  Clear enough?  God’s standard is moral perfection.  Anything less than that won’t do for establishing and maintaining a right relationship with Him.  We are welcome to try it on our own, but whatever our adopted rule system happens to be, if we drift from it once, we fail.  We are, in Paul’s words, “utterly cursed.”  We get right with God by keeping the faith, not the rules.  And yet, rule-keeping is exactly what the Galatian believers were being tempted with in spite of their having already begun living in the freedom of faith.  In the same way, when we let our own hearts drift from honoring God with all we do as a gift of thanksgiving for His greater gift of life into thinking that we need to do this or that in order to please Him we are doing the same thing.  Or worse yet, when we put our own comfort or familiarity over a driving passion to advance the Gospel that brings freedom regardless of the personal costs we embrace a rule-keeping way of life with our own happiness as the chief object all while maintaining a Christian veneer.

There’s an additional challenge here.  When we walk back into that way of life, it’s as hard to leave it the second time as it was the first.  Pick back up with me in v. 12: “Habakkuk [the prophet] had it right: ‘The person who believes God, is set right by God—and that’s the real life.’  Rule-keeping does not naturally evolve into living by faith, but only perpetuates itself in more and more rule-keeping, a fact observed in Scripture: ‘The one who does these things [rule-keeping], continues to live by them.’”  Do you see why this is?  When we are trying to live by rule-keeping, by trying to be good enough for God, and we see ourselves failing, the natural reaction is to find more rules to more firmly hold ourselves in place.   This tendency is captured nicely in the oft-expressed frustrated exclamation when something has inconvenienced us: “There oughta’ be a law!”  We don’t naturally turn to faith to solve the problem of failing to maintain a relationship with God, or whoever or whatever happens to be filling that role in our lives at the current moment.  We turn to more rules.  Thus, rules beget rules which beget rules.  Things complexify over time.  But, following Jesus should be simple, remember?  We get right with God by keeping the faith, not the rules.

If faith is so unnatural for us, though, how do we come to it?  How do we get out of the cycle of rules?  How do we untangle the Gordian Knot that is whatever rule system we happened to have adopted?  How do we walk back into freedom when we’ve left it for rule-keeping?  The answer?  Christ.  Look at v. 13: “Christ redeemed us from that self-defeating, cursed life by absorbing it completely into himself.  Do you remember the Scripture that says, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’?  That is what happened when Jesus was nailed to the cross: He became a curse, and at the same time dissolved the curse.  And now, because of that, the air is cleared and we can see that Abraham’s blessing is present and available for non-Jews, too.  We are all able to receive God’s life, his Spirit, in and with us by believing—just the way Abraham received it.”

We were stuck in the futile cycle of rule-keeping and needed rescue.   This is what Jesus did and does for us.  When Paul talks about Jesus absorbing the curse of the law into himself I can’t help but picturing the movie “The Mask” with Jim Carey.  In the movie he stumbles upon an ancient Norse power mask that essentially turns him into a Loony Tunes-like cartoon character with the all the abilities that go along with that.  Near the end of the movie when he’s trying to rescuing the damsel in distress (played by Cameron Diaz) he finds her tied up with a bundle of dynamite next to her.  The timer is just about to reach zero and blow them all to smithereens.  So what does the Mask do?  He swallows it.  He takes the curse of the dynamite and absorbs it into himself.  He takes on the curse and dissolves it.  This is kind of what Christ did for us except that our dynamite is whatever system of rules we’ve adopted.  And because he was the one to break the power of the curse of the rules, he’s the only one to whom we can turn in order to find freedom from them.  Thus, we place our faith in Him to get out from under the dominion of the rules.  We get right with God by keeping the faith, not the rules.

So what do we do with this?  Well, I think there are two groups of people who need to hear this message.  The group gathered here this morning mostly represents the second.  The first group, though, are folks who have never really given following Jesus much in the way of serious thought.  They have been living by some system of rules and may have even found a pretty good life under it.  But, I can say with a fair degree of confidence that there is something going on right now in their life that is making it apparent that whatever system of rules they have devised is not really working.  It does a pretty good job, but it doesn’t take them all the way there.  They might consider themselves good enough for heaven as most folks do, but if pressed, they don’t really have a good reason why they think this…so they don’t press it if they can help it.  This group of folks needs to be impressed with the truth that all of their so-called goodness counts for exactly nothing before God.  Their system is failing them and they may not even know it.  They need to place their faith in Christ instead of their rule system and let the transformative power of His Spirit lead them into living with the freedom of a right relationship with God.  We get right with God by keeping the faith, not the rules.

The second group of folks is who comprised the bulk of Paul’s original audience: believers who knew the freedom found in faith but who were trying to live by rule-keeping on the side, or who were trying to substitute rules for relationship in their efforts to remain right with God.  To these folks Paul was saying: “What are you doing?  You know better than this.”  Friends, we get right with God by keeping the faith, not the rules.  Some of you need to do a heart check.  Why are you doing the things you are doing?  If the reason for every single action you take is not to first and foremost glorify God then you are trying to live by rule-keeping.  You are trying to complete by your own power what was begun with God’s power.  It’s simply not going to work for you.  We get right with God by keeping the faith, not the rules.  If you’ve got a bunch of rules ruling your life right now, if you have a bunch of things you are doing out of a sense of duty, for instance, get rid of them.  Stop living by their dictates.  Turn back to freedom.  Don’t waste the gift God has given you.  We get right with God by keeping the faith, not the rules.  By faith, pursue the righteousness of the Father.  Duties and deeds will never get you there.  Let His Spirit fill you with the joy of His presence as the evidence you are on track.  We get right with God by keeping the faith, not the rules.  It’s time to step out and start living.