What is the difference between lawful condemnation and gracious justification? Dr. Kevin Murriel explores these dynamics in the powerful sermon below. He is the Senior Pastor of Cliftondale UMC in Atlanta, Georgia.
What is the difference between lawful condemnation and gracious justification? Dr. Kevin Murriel explores these dynamics in the powerful sermon below. He is the Senior Pastor of Cliftondale UMC in Atlanta, Georgia.
Apart from the Gospels, the Epistle to the Romans is the “pearl of great price” in Scripture. It was Martin Luther’s study of this book that fired the Reformation. Luther contended that, “the Epistle to the Romans is the masterpiece of the New Testament and the very purist gospel…it can never be too much or too well read or studied, and the more it is handled the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.”
One of the greatest fathers of the church, Chrysostom, had it read to him twice a week. The poet Coleridge said it was, “the most profound writing that exists.” I hope you know your Methodist history well enough to know that when, in his deep soul searching, John Wesley went to a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London, the leader was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans; and Wesley testified that while the leader read, “I felt my heart strangely warmed; I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
There is no possible way to express the monumental role this Epistle has played in the history of the Christian movement. In all of Christian history, Romans has been pivotal.
In a few verses from the first chapter of the Epistle, Paul expressed his desire to go to Rome. Only recently did I note that Paul expressed his same longing as he was closing his letter. In between those expressions of deep desire in Chapter 1 and Chapter 15, Paul spells out in the most deliberate and studied way his understanding of the gospel, and the core of the gospel message, justification by grace through faith. And after using all his genius to write this brilliant argument for the Christian faith, Paul expresses again his passion to share that faith with the Romans, in verse 29 of Chapter 15: “know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ.”
I can’t imagine that my longing and passion for sharing the Gospel comes anywhere near that of Paul, but my passion is great, and my age and years of ministry have not diminished that passion. In fact, the passion is greater because I don’t know how much longer I have, and I don’t know how many occasions I will have to share it. Paul’s confession is mine: Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel.
I want to do it now by simply outlining what the full measure of the blessing of Christ is.
First of all, Christ comes to free us. Let that sink in. Let it permeate every fiber of our awareness. Christ comes to free us.
Among Christians in one section of Africa, the New Testament word for redemption means “God took our heads out.” It’s a rather strange phrase, but when you trace it back to the 19th century when slave trading was practiced, the meaning becomes powerful. White men invaded African villages and carried men, women and children off into slavery. Each slave had an iron collar buckled around his neck. To that iron collar was attached a chain which was attached to the iron collar around the neck of another, and on and on, until a long chain of people where marched off to the sea shore where a ship waited to take them to England and America to be sold into slavery.
From time to time, as the chain of slaves would make their way to the coast, a relative, loved one, or friend would recognize someone who had been taken captive and would pay a ransom to the captor for the collar to be removed and the person to be freed. Thus the word for redemption: God took our heads out.
However we state it, whatever image we use out of our own culture, redemption means that God’s action in Jesus Christ sets us free from the bondage of sin, guilt and death. Christ comes to free us.
So, where are you? Do you feel pain in your heart, a heaviness of spirit because there is a broken relationship? Parents, do you have children you are separated from? Is your marriage in trouble? You and your spouse have drifted apart…or the relationship is severed because of infidelity? Christ comes to free us.
Do you feel helpless because you or a family member is bound in the tenacious grip of alcohol, drugs, gambling or some other destructive habit? Christ comes to free us.
Is you energy drained because you have been living too close to moral compromise? Christ comes to free us.
Are you preoccupied with sexual lust? Christ comes to free us.
Are you addicted to pornography? Christ comes to free us.
Could the blessing be greater? Christ comes to free us.
The blessing may not be be greater, but it is fuller. Not only does Christ come to free us, he comes to fit us; Christ come to fit us, to transform us for Kingdom living.
Go to another section of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Have you ever noticed the dramatic difference between Chapter 7 and the first verse of Chapter 8? In the last part of Chapter 7, he describes the anguishing war that is going on inside him. He feels that he is being brought under the captivity of sin. He moans,”For the good that I would, I do not, and the evil that I would not, that I do.” Then he groans, “O wretched man that I am…who will deliver me from this body doomed to death?”
That‘s the way Chapter 7 closes. Then the very first verse of chapter 8 is this glorious word: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.”
Do you see the tremendous difference between Paul’s condition, which he expresses so dramatically in chapter 7 — “O wretched man that I am” — and the beginning of chapter 8 – “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus”?
What a huge divide! How do we leap over it?
People may tell you that you simply need to give your sins Jesus; and they say it so glibly: just give your sins to Jesus. That’s impossible. We can’t give our sins to Jesus; if we could, we’d all be saints.
We can’t give our sins to Jesus. We give ourselves to Jesus and He takes our sin. He transforms us and fits us for Kingdom living.
There’s a story about a man who was tired and weak all the time, drained of energy. Finally he decided to visit his doctor. “Doctor,” he said, “I feel drained and exhausted. I don’t seem to have any energy. I have a chronic headache. I feel worn out all the time. What’s the best thing I could do?” The doctor knew something about the man’s wild and fast-paced lifestyle. “What’s the best thing you can do? You can go home after work, eat a nutritious meal, get a good night’s rest, and stop running around and carousing all night — that’s the best thing you can do.” The man pondered for a moment, then asked, “What’s the next best thing I can do?”
Too often we decide for the next best thing because we are not willing to be who God called us to be. We are not willing for God to transform and fit us for Kingdom living.
Listen! Holiness is not an option for God’s people. God says, “Be holy as I am holy.” We can’t leave that word back in the Old Testament, as though it had no relevance to us. Over and over again in the New Testament, we’re called to be “new creatures in Christ Jesus.” Holiness is not an option for us as Christians.
We are where we are as a nation today because we have become a people and a place where “everything goes” –
Where as many Christians as non-Christians are divorced yearly,
Where our city is full of children without fathers,
Where some government leader is caught lying and cheating almost every week,
Where the Supreme Court has made a decision that completely disregards God design and Christ’s understanding of marriage –
We are where we are because we have ignored God’s call, “be holy as I am holy.”
There ought to be about us Christians something that distinguishes us, that sets us apart in our ethical understanding, in our moral life, in the way we walk, in the way we talk, in how we live together in our family, in how we raise our children, in how we treat our wives, in how we treat our husbands, in the way we think about issues like abortion, same sex marriage, sexual brokenness, gambling, extravagant consumption, in how we treat the environment, in how we treat prisoners and the attention we pay to the poor, in how we order both our private and our public life.
In Ezekiel God says to Israel, “The nations shall know that I am the Lord, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.” Listen friends, the world is not paying attention to the church today, and will not pay attention to the Church in the future until those of us who call ourselves Christian vindicate God’s holiness before their eyes.
Again, holiness is not an option for God’s people. God calls us to be holy as he is holy. Now listen — only Christ can make us holy. He fits us for Kingdom living.
And that leads to this final word. Christ comes to free us; he comes to fit us for Kingdom living, and he comes to fill us, to fill us with his Holy Spirit. And that’s our need, friends, the power of the Holy Spirit.
How we need the Holy Spirit. I believe the reason most of us are impotent in our discipleship, the reason being a Christian is a debilitating struggle for too many of us is that we do not claim Jesus’ promise, “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit is come upon you.”
We don’t spend enough time on our knees. We trust Jesus with some things some of the time when we need to trust him with all things all the time.
We have all been troubled by what happened in Charleston, South Carolina a few weeks ago. Nine persons in church, in a Bible Study, were shot down by a man possessed with the demon of hatred. What moved me most, and challenged me to the depth of my soul, was the response of some family members of those who had been killed. They attended the session when the judge was setting the bond for the young killer. The judge allowed some persons to speak to the man who had killed their family member. I couldn’t believe it. Person after person not only expressed their grief, but they told the young man they forgave him.
Could you have done that? I can’t imagine I could. Where did that kind of power come from? Those folks would be quick to tell you. It comes from Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. I want the kind of power those folks had.
So I have come to you in the full measure of the blessing of Christ. Christ who comes to free us, to fit us for kingdom living, and to fill us with his presence and power. That’s the fullness of the blessing of the Gospel. I don’t want to miss any of that, and I don’t want you to miss it.
See Romans 3:21-26; 5:20 for this sermon’s text.
The Barna Group conducted a poll several years ago to see what some of the most widely known Bible verses are. The poll turned up some interesting results. Among the top Bible verses was this one: “God helps those who help themselves.” Does anyone here know what the problem is with this? It’s not in the Bible! Further studies from the Barna Group showed that a majority of Christians in America agreed with the statement and felt that the Bible teaches this idea.
If those statistics are representative of the congregation gathered here, then I may about to become very unpopular by what I’m going to say: Not only is “God helps those who help themselves” NOT in the Bible, it also goes against the very grain of the entire scriptural witness. In fact, I think that if we say God only helps those who help themselves, that is just an excuse to not offer help to anyone who needs it. But that’s another sermon for another day.
If it were true that God only helps those who help themselves, then friends, we’re all in a world of hurt because we’re all incapable of really “helping” ourselves. If it were true that God helps those who help themselves, then the grace we sing about that’s amazing to save a wretch like me, is really not so amazing after all. Think about it: how would the lyrics of that beloved hymn be different if it were true that “God helps those who help themselves”?
Here would be the first verse:
Mediocre grace, how pleasant the sound
That gave a little extra to such a self-reliant person like me,
I once was a little misguided, but I got myself out,
Had blurry vision, but took some Visine and now I see clearly.
Instead, it’s this:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind, but now I see.
What’s with this “wretch” theology? I think that’s the part that really disturbs us. Perhaps that brings up memories of the message of our depravity being drilled or hammered into our spirits by parents or teachers or preachers to make us feel awful, guilty to the point of being paralyzed. Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”comes to mind as he describes sinful humans in this way:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.
Whew! Grace, anyone? Doesn’t that make us feel trapped in the belief that we will never be able to do anything good and will only be able to do everything wrong? Who wants to live in that sort of trapped existence?
Well, in an attempt to avoid this sort of wretched theology of hopeless depravity, we Christians in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition have often glossed over a point that was right in the thick of Wesley’s understanding of grace. What I’ve witnessed is that some often move from the wonderful message of God’s prevenient, initiating, wooing grace directly to the message of God’s desire to sanctify us and renew the creation. The problem is that in narrative terms, this is like going straight from the beautiful message of Christmas directly to the empty tomb. But in the midst of that we have a bloody, torturous cross that bears an Innocent Redeemer who cries at the hour of his execution a piercing word – “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Who exactly is “them”? The religious authorities who put Jesus on trial? Pilate and the Roman soldiers who authorized his torture and execution? The crowds who shouted “Crucify him!”? Are we among the “them”? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Or is Paul wrong when he said “we all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory”? Was Paul mistaken when he said in the epistle to the Ephesians that we were all dead in trespasses and sin? “Well, he must not have been a good Methodist like us. He was too pessimistic!” Honestly, that’s an overcorrection. There’s truth in Paul’s message, there’s reality in the belief that we are among the “them” for whom Christ pleads forgiveness. If we desire that Christ brings us the grace to renew us and breathe new life into us, that admits quite simply that there is something about and in us that is old and dead and in need of being renewed. So, somehow, someway we must come to terms with that in ourselves which isn’t as it ought to be, and to admit that we are not able to make ourselves be what we ought to be on our own. We needn’t necessarily go down the road of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to get this message of realizing our deep and abiding need for saving grace from beyond ourselves, but we need to come to terms with our own need for forgiveness.
And regardless of whether or not we want to admit it, this is thoroughly Wesleyan. It is the movement of grace that we call justification. John Wesley had a very succinct definition of “justification” when in a sermon on the subject he said this: “The plain scriptural notion of justification is pardon, the forgiveness of sins.”
This sermon came across as quite counter to what was being proliferated among some in the church at the time. There were church leaders who were teaching that in order to be justified, or have the assurance of pardon, people would first have to be sanctified or purified. Said Wesley, “Who are they that are justified? The ungodly…for it is not a saint but a sinner that is forgiven, and under the notion of a sinner. God [justifies] not the godly, but the ungodly; not those that are holy already, but the unholy. Does then the Good Shepherd seek and save only those that are found already? No. He seeks and saves that which is lost. He pardons those who need his pardoning mercy.”
Think of it this way – if sanctifying grace, the goal, is what God does in us, then before we can get there, we need to accept the grace that declares what God does for us. That is, forgiveness, or justifying grace.
Listen to our words of absolution that are offered prior to receiving the Lord’s Supper, in agreement with Paul in Romans 5 – “Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us.”
You see, even if we don’t like the term “wretch,” I think deep down if we are honest with ourselves we know that we are helpless on our own and we need the type of help that comes from a source from on high. We need that amazing, justifying grace. Forgiveness. Oh, it sounds so delightful to be forgiven, to be found because we had been lost. Even Charles Wesley got this when in the third verse of “And Can It Be That I Should Gain” he wrote beautifully:
He left his Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite his grace!
Emptied himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race.
Tis mercy all immense and free;
for O my God, it found out me!
Tis mercy all immense and free;
for O my God, it found out me!
Forgiveness. How generously we want it for ourselves. How sparingly we are tempted to be in dispersing it to others. Johnny Jeffords, who serves as pastor at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Memphis put it this way recently: “We sing ‘Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me,’ with such passion and meaning. And I’m truly thankful to realize that there’s a measure of grace that imparts mercy and love at my most wretched. The problem is that while I’m ever thankful for grace that ‘saved a wretch like me,’ I’m not so sure I’m glad that the same grace ‘saved a wretch’ like you.”
Miroslav Volf was born and raised in Croatia and teaches theological studies at Yale Divinity School. He wrote this recently, “According to a Croatian saying, ‘people talk about what they don’t have.’ We talk about forgiveness because we live in a sentimental but unforgiving culture.”
Volf wrote this amidst telling the story of his older brother Daniel. When Miroslav was but one year old and Daniel was five, they were being watched by their nanny whom they called Aunt Milica. Volf tells the story that one day Daniel,
slipped through the large gate in the courtyard where we had an apartment. He went to the nearby small military base – just two blocks away – to play with ‘his’ soldiers. On earlier walks through the neighborhood, he had found some friends there – soldiers in training, bored and in a need of diversion even if it came from an energetic five-year-old.
On that fateful day in 1957, one of them put him on a horse-drawn bread wagon. As they were passing through the gate on a bumpy cobblestone road, Daniel leaned sideways and his head got stuck between the door post and the wagon. The horses kept going. He died on the way to the hospital – a son lost to parents who adored him, and an older brother that I would never know.
He would go on to say, “Aunt Milica should have watched him. But she didn’t. She let him slip out, she didn’t look for him, and he was killed. But my parents never blamed her.” And they certainly could have blamed the nearest soldier who could have been put on trial, but they didn’t. In fact, he said, “the soldier felt terrible, so terrible in fact that he had to be admitted to the hospital. My father, with a wound in his heart that would never quite heal, went to visit him, to comfort the one whose carelessness had caused him so much grief, and tell him that my mother and he forgave him…they wouldn’t press charges, he said. Why should one more mother be plunged into grief, this time because the life of her son, a good boy but careless in a crucial moment, was ruined by the hands of justice?”
They forgave essentially because of one integral belief – that they themselves were forgiven people. They knew amazing grace couldn’t be begrudging. Forgiveness, real forgiveness, is so costly. Yet there is a mystery and paradox in that while this amazing grace of forgiveness cost so much, yet it comes to us, as the title of Volf’s book suggests, “Free of Charge”; Wesley called it “free grace,” affirming what Paul said in that we are justified freely by God’s grace that comes through the sacrifice of Jesus the Christ.
I was ten years old when I began to understand a bit of what it means to be justified, when asking my parents one Sunday morning before church what it means to be saved, they acknowledged that to have faith and trust in Christ in salvation I would need to make that decision to own it. Now granted, I was raised in a grace-filled home, but I remember the conviction of needing God’s forgiving, justifying grace when later that morning the song was sung,
Come every soul by sin oppressed; there’s mercy with the Lord;
and he will surely give you rest, by trusting in his word.
Only trust him, only trust him, only trust him now.
He will save you; he will save you; he will save you now.
Let us now reflect a moment on our need of forgiveness. Here’s where we are: prevenient grace is God’s “yes!” to us long before we could ever say “yes!” to God. We know pardon, we know justification, when enabled to respond, we say “yes!” to where God has already said “yes!” to us.
That is but the beginning of the journey, and is when we start to experience the process of God’s sanctifying grace working in our lives. But in this moment, in this space, let us acknowledge our deep need for God’s grace in offering this confession:
We confess to you, all-knowing God, what we are. We are not the people we like others to think we are. We are afraid to admit, even to ourselves, what lies in the depths of our souls. But we cannot hide our true selves from you. You know us as we are, and yet you love us. Help us not to shrink from self-knowledge. Teach us to respect ourselves for your sake. Give us the courage to put our trust in your guiding power. Raise us out of the paralysis of guilt into the freedom and energy of forgiven people. And for those who through long habit find forgiveness hard to accept, we ask you to break their bondage and set them free; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. If any one sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, the just One; and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!
In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!
Thanks be to God!
The Kingdom of Heaven is the rule and reign of God on earth, and this is what God is building among us.
Matthew teaches us that this King and his Kingdom have come and are coming. Thirty-two times in Matthew’s gospel, he uses the term “Kingdom of Heaven.” That’s his working theme as he shares the story of Jesus with the Jewish world in the first century. They were looking for a Messiah and Matthew tells them that in Jesus, that Messiah has come, bringing healing and forgiveness. In Jesus, death has been defeated, and that message is now the hope of the whole world.
This is the message of the Kingdom of God, and this is the message John the Baptist came preaching. This is the Kingdom he called people to get ready for. David Platt says, “If this Jesus is the King of all history, then it follows that He should be the King of your life. When you realize His rule and submit to His reign, it changes everything about how you live.”
In 2012, I went to India to preach the good news about Jesus Christ. We preached in little villages and under tents and one night in the middle of a bug-saturated street. We preached a message about this consuming fire of a God who wants our total allegiance. We preached about the exclusive nature of God, that he doesn’t want to share space in a heart with other gods or other interests. We told crowd after crowd of hungry souls that it can’t be “Jesus Plus.” To work, it has to be Christ alone. Night after night, we asked if there was anyone ready to give their exclusive allegiance to this God above all other gods. We challenged them: anyone responding must make a totally counter-cultural choice to reject thousands of Hindu idols in favor of the one, true God, who has revealed himself through Jesus Christ. Over the course of twelve days, hundreds of people said yes to that challenge.
And I was just one voice calling out in a few villages in a country of more than a billion people. But there are literally hundreds of thousands of “John the Baptists” in India, preaching and teaching the Word of God in thousands of little villages and under countless tents and in little hole-in-the-wall buildings. And through those voices, one by one, the Kingdom of God is being built in India. Sparks are flying all over India! Every person who claims Christ alone is like a spark and every preacher who cries out in the wilderness is like a spark, and one day, all those sparks will start a fire that will consume that country and eventually, the world.
Do you believe that?
If the witness of scripture is true, then this is how the Kingdom of Heaven comes. It is like preaching in the wilderness, like a voice calling out in a desert. Jesus says it is like a mustard seed that someone plants in a garden. It is the smallest of all seeds, but against all odds it becomes the largest tree in the garden and a place for birds to nest.
This is how the Kingdom message was first proclaimed. In a few words … in a line. In these verses, Matthew gives us the message and the means of the gospel. The means, as we’ve discovered already, is counter-intuitive; the message is repentance. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” This is the message John came preaching and it is the message Jesus came preaching. Repent. Change. Reorient toward God. The Kingdom is at hand, is coming, is near!
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River (Matthew 3:1-6).
The Kingdom message is first of all an invitation: Repent.
Repentance is me exchanging how I’ve done it for a different way. It is me course-correcting, exchanging one path for another one that heads more directly into the heart of Jesus. N. T. Wright says it this way: “Repentance is a complete and lasting change of heart and life.”
This is how we prepare the road that leads from my heart to the heart of Jesus, the King. It is a spiritual exchange – exchanging the Kingdom of Self for the Kingdom of Heaven. Angel Davis teaches us that the Kingdom of Self is small and limited and focused on my personal feelings and happiness. It is very much based on my desire for control. In the Kingdom of Self, “self” reigns and God is dethroned. The Kingdom of Heaven, on the other hand, is big, hopeful, and focused on God’s truth and God’s pleasure. In the Kingdom of Heaven, God reigns and self surrenders.
Repentance means exchanging the Kingdom of Self for the Kingdom of God.
Pick a behavior. Pick something you’re not particularly proud of, like what you say on Facebook after a frustrating day, or how you act when you first wake up or how you respond to things you don’t understand. Now, ask yourself, “Is my approach small and limited? Do I default to pessimism or paranoia? Am I focused here on my personal feelings or happiness? Do I get quickly agitated when I cannot control this situation/ person/ habit?” If so, maybe this is the place of repentance for me. Maybe this is a thing for me to surrender.
Remember: The Kingdom of Heaven is big, hopeful and focused not on me and my feelings but on God and His Kingdom. God reigns and I surrender; surrender is the posture of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is my right response to the invitation to repent.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:7-12)
The Kingdom of Heaven is also an invitation to be baptized. To link baptism with repentance was an oddity, by Pharisee standards. The Pharisees weren’t often the kind to get baptized, certainly not for repentance’ sake. After all, to do so would be to admit they’d failed at a rule or two. To these people who thought they were pure, John preached a message of repentance, using two images: the fire and the axe. The axe is what cuts away anything that isn’t bearing fruit. And John says the axe is laid at the root of the tree. Not the branches, but the root! He was calling people to start over, to be born again. To come and die.
Fire is mentioned three times in this passage. All three times, it is a reference for clearing the way. If a king is coming into the wilderness and you want to make a road for him, you’d use fire to burn away the scrub and make a road. Jesus used fire to talk about burning the trash after you separate the wheat from the chaff. You keep what’s good and burn the rest. This is how the Kingdom gets built in us.
John was preaching a new thing, challenging his audience not to tweak or adjust, but to come and die … to do a new thing.
There is an invitation, an initiation and now an invocation to be filled, linking spiritual renewal to the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:13-17).
Now, the plot twists. John finds himself surprised by Jesus’ desire to be baptized. Isn’t baptism only for those who need to repent? A Messiah should not need to repent! Especially not out here in the open, in front of religious people who care a lot about the appearance of things.
But Jesus insists. In N.T. Wright’s translation, his response to John reads this way: “This is how it’s got to be right now. This is the right way for us to complete God’s whole saving plan.” Jesus now links repentance with God’s saving plan, then links the Messiah with those who need to repent. God’s plan is to save sinners, so by being baptized Jesus identifies himself with sinners. Jesus stands in this moment as an act of supreme obedience. This is how it is done in Kingdom: Surrender is the posture of the Kingdom of God.
What happens next is beautiful. When Jesus comes up out of the water, all of God is there. Father, Son and Holy Spirit … all there. The Son is on earth being buried by the water, then raised up, identifying completely with this Kingdom call to come and die. The Spirit is hovering dove-like above the Son, defining the character of the King and his Kingdom. This isn’t a warrior but a dove, a sign of hope and peace. The dove, which in the flood story found signs of life when it looked as if all life was dead and buried.
And the Father is speaking the blessing that sends his Son out into Kingdom purposes. With this blessing, he teaches us that effective, fruitful ministry isn’t motivated by my need but by God’s love. My call isn’t empowered by my steam but by the Holy Spirit.
Here in this scene we are given a gift. We’re shown what a good baptism does for us. It kills everything in us that won’t live in the Kingdom and it surrounds us with the love of God. It fills us with the Holy Spirit. Baptism matters in the Kingdom of God because it is the essence of surrender. This is what it means to come and die.
The road that leads into the Kingdom of Heaven runs through fire and axes and water. That road invites us to separate the Kingdom of Self from the Kingdom of God – to let go of things that have no Kingdom value and clear a road for Jesus to come in.
Are you ready to come and die? To do a new thing? To become a new thing?
I’m excited about what’s unfolding at A Wesleyan Accent. We’ve got a group of younger voices in the Methodist/Wesleyan world who have a great deal to offer those of us seeking to live out the Christian life “with a Wesleyan accent” in the Kingdom of God. One of those is Phil Tallon. Recently, Phil wrote a piece on teaching youth about justification that really struck a chord in me. I believe he’s spot on to connect it with allegiance to a new kingdom.
Justification (or more formally – justification by grace through faith) is that aha moment when you see things in a new light. Like that moment when instead of seeing the wine glass, you suddenly see the two silhouettes. Or when you’ve struggled to get a concept in math for what seems like forever, but then things click and you suddenly just get it.
In Christian tradition, especially when spoken with a Wesleyan accent, we associate that moment with a realization of sin and the need for pardon and forgiveness – our need and Christ’s self-giving on the cross intersect and we suddenly just get it. That’s an amazing moment, but it’s usually a moment that’s taken a while to arrive.
The challenge Phil points out in dealing with youth, I think is the same challenge we face in the context of our wider culture – we don’t feel sufficiently guilty about our sin to feel the weight and impact of pardon. It’s not that we aren’t guilty, or that we might not eventually come to the realization of our need – as I said, that aha moment usually takes a bit of time to arrive. But to start there no longer makes sense in our self-esteem worshiping, everyone-gets-a-trophy culture.
As my mentor Billy Abraham has said, some things may need to be said before other things can be said.
One of the things that may need to be said before other things can be said involves trust. At its core, in the Kingdom of God, faith is about trust. So the question for everyone is who do you trust? Where does your ultimate trust lie? Is it in God or something/someone else? Is it in God’s authority over your life or something/someone else’s authority over your life?
A few weeks ago I was in Budapest, Hungary for a United Methodist meeting. While there I was able spend time with folks from the Methodist Church of Hungary as well as other Hungarians in the Methodist/Wesleyan family. They know all too well the importance of choosing who and what will hold your ultimate trust and allegiance.
Hungary has an amazing history – over 1,000 years – with much of it spent under the rule of outsiders. Most recently, Hungary suffered under the totalitarian authority first of the Nazis and then the Soviets. Only since 1989 have they been free to govern themselves. During those years of oppression, Hungarians faced a daily choice: where and with whom would they place their ultimate trust and allegiance? Would they trust the Nazis? Would they trust the Communists? Or would they trust in the authority of God? Would their ultimate allegiance be to the Kingdom of God, even as it lay hidden from their sight?
In the U.S. it’s easy to assume that our choice isn’t as significant because our government isn’t oppressive in the ways that the Nazis or Communists were. But that assumption is deeply flawed. Placing our ultimate trust and allegiance in any government or political system is a dangerous mistake. Even a quick review of U.S. history (which, among other things, includes slavery, Jim Crow, and the forced sterilization of people with disabilities) makes that fact painfully obvious.
So we’re back to the question of trust. Where does your ultimate trust lie? To what authority will you be most fundamentally accountable?
Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6.10-12, NLT)