Romans 9:30-10:4 sermon, 2018 Laws, Love and the pursuit of righteousness

So I went to a new mechanic by recommendation - a mechanic who’d been in the area for years and many people trusted. After getting the call that my car was done, I biked to the shop and saw the main man outside kneeling on the gravel as he cranked hard fixing a door. We had only met but three hours when I dropped the car off and introduced him to it. But now it’s later and as I got close, I had that relaxed, cheery pastor voice, eager to make a new friend, and said, “So how long have you been doing this?” He was a little gruff in reply and said, “Doing what, this door?” (Oh, you’re having one of those kind of days.”) But he knew what I really meant and then said, “Far too long…. Just give me a minute and I’ll be right with you.” “Oh, no worries, take your time. I’ll go by the register.”

When he came over he said first, “Yeah, it’s been one of those days where just can’t get the parts you need, don’t seem to finish any job…” He never really looked me in the eye - that kind of guy, but I gave a sympathetic “mmmm” and tried to continue our bonding, “Well, I’m a pastor and sometimes I wonder if it’d be nice to work more with my hands or just to be able to take a soul, find out what’s wrong and fix it and hand back the keys. Never seems to be that simple.” “Well, you never know,” he encouraged me. “Yeah, you’re right,” I said. But continuing to look away at the register and busying himself with my paperwork he added, “Well, today I’m going to hell. I’ve used every word in the book.” I gave a little chuckle and a smile since he was obviously being a little humorous, I finished paying and thanked him, but … what would you say?

Isn’t it just absurd what we get to say to that?

  • “I would be too if it weren’t for Jesus! Can I tell you about him?” How’s that for a direct line!

  • “You must be better off today than you were yesterday if yesterday you thought you were good enough for God. At least today you know better that you’re a sinner and now we’re getting somewhere.” Crazy, isn’t it? That someone could be convinced they are going to hell for sins and we get to talk about free and full forgiveness in Jesus’ name!

  • “I’ve got something to say that can catch your fall! You don’t have to go to hell!” This is ridiculous that when someone is so “far” from God, I’m ready with the Word in my mouth to give grace and mercy and eternal life - it comes flying to us from heaven for Jesus’ sake and makes the poor rich. Congratulations!

It’s just one of those things where you think about the absurdity of Christianity and what we get to say to sinners.

You know all of this, but today we’re tracking where love begins and we want to look and see how we get a river of love in our lives under God - where does it start? Our theme is Love Flows from Faith. Those words (love and faith) are heavy hitters and we don’t want them to lose their color and flavor and shape and what they bring to us each day of our lives.

By contrast, what is at work when I am competing with you in my heart? What is at work when my toe is tapping with impatience with people? What is working when I’m envious of others’ success or when I’m “so disappointed with you I can’t talk to you right now”? I often find I’m at my worst with you when I’m most upset with myself. Disappointed with myself in my heart and I have no big, generous heart for others. There’s something of a connection between love and faith. That’s what we’ll explore today, just like there’s a connection between arrogance and hatred or relational distance.

Paul takes us right to the heart of this. We get to see what Paul does as he knows how wide and deep and high is the love of God for him. That is the heart of his faith and it expresses itself in his ministry with Jews and Gentiles. When the missionary shows up, what does he get to say? It’s at the core of our faith and it’s ridiculously wonderful.

The missionary isn’t going to say, “Oh, Lord, we found a cusser! Let the lightning bolt strike here, he’s a potty-mouth!” I’m not going to say that. I’m not going to say, “Well, now I have to wash my steering wheel twice over if you touched it today, sinner!” You’re not going to do that. “Oh, those are all words I’ve never said before.” You may not say these things, but in our hearts is an arrogance that certainly thinks and acts what way.

You see where the relational distance shows up - from arrogance.  So Paul explores this and in this section he’s talking about how the start of love, faith, works. Let’s go to the top and see faith and how it happens and operates between us and God. What’s here at the start but overwhelming, ridiculous grace? And then we can look downriver and talk about love expressing itself in our lives.

So, going back to the source, think of it like a big X going from left to right.  Paul says, “What do we say about this, then?” How does it work? Well, the Gentiles start here at rock bottom. They’re pagans. They have no Ten Commandments, no Moses, no Abraham, no deliverance history with God, no circumcision, no covenant relationship, no sacrifices, no temple worship; they don’t even know God’s name. Paul says, “Let’s think about the Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness. Let’s just get it out there that they did not pursue God at all.” And yet, when the missionary shows up, he gets to say, “Repent and believe the good news!” And they have all they need for eternal life in their Lord Jesus Christ - so it’s like drawing the line of the X from the bottom to the top on the other side! They have the status of being perfect in God’s sight. They have obtained righteousness, Paul says, by faith alone through Jesus (the only way to get it!). It’s ridiculous and crazy.

What’s the other side? Paul says that the Jews started at the top, they did pursue righteousness and talked about Abraham on mommy’s lap. They reviewed and memorized the commandments and meticulously poured over every page of the Old Testament to learn and know the will of God so they could keep it. “I testify that they have zeal for God,” Paul says. The Jews had all this “going for them” so-to-speak, but they pursued it their own way, as if it were by works. Their pursuit had nothing to do with God or actually receiving righteousness in his sight. Their just sinners with a big sweat in the end, trying to be perfect and they failed. Paul says they did not receive their goal. They continued to build their own Tower of Babel of works as if they could reach heaven by them and think, “if I just get another foot, I’ll get there.” But they never reach it.

This is the way it works - the lowly sinner is graced with life and the proud law-abider goes to hell with his own fool’s gold. Paul not only wants to show how the Jews end up in the wrong place (the other side of the X), but what’s going on in their heart along the way. What is this landslide into hell? How did it happen? He exposes the problem of the heart: pride. There is no life or love downstream from pride. Just hell.

Many Jews read their Old Testament in a surface relationship kind of way with God - where keeping his commands was easy and simple: “We can keep these and God will love us and bless us and hell need not be on our radar.” It was arrogant and Paul says they “stumbled over the stumbling stone, Jesus” because of it.

It wrecked their chances at righteousness with God and also ruined relationships with others. Think of the “handwashers” is our Gospel from Mark 7. They’re looking and comparing themselves with Jesus’ disciples - “how come they’re not keep their hands washed like the tradition of the elders?” They’re law-oriented, hardliners and strict and unloving. “You’re not doing what we’re doing” with their noses in the hair and shoulders standing tall before God and other people. And there’s nothing of faith as the source of the river, just their own self-righteous pride. Then what would they say to someone who says, “I’m to hell today.”

And Jesus tells the parable of two men at the temple, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee says with tall shoulders, “I thank you Father that I’m not like them.” That was his core, his relational approach to others - happy not to be like them. It’s distance. Does that sound like love? No! Why not? Arrogance.

And then there’s the one in the back, beating his breast and he won’t even look up from the floor. “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” There’s this dynamic at work when someone finally becomes a sinner. It’s different from the dynamic of the law-keeper. What happens now that you have disobeyed? A much deeper relationship dynamic is exposed.

Think of the kids who start a new school year with a new teacher or professor. All is rosy when you are obeying the rules, keeping your hands folded, turning things in on time. But what happens when you talk out of turn? It’s a whole new face on that teacher and you wonder what they’ll do. It’s a deeper dynamic. Or a friendship that builds and grows and is all happy and fun, but then your friend tells you something they’ve never told anyone, and you let it leak. They confide in you but you make a joke of it. Now what? What will that relationship fall on? What stuff is there between you? Will it hold you together or not?

This is what Paul is talking about - that space where the “I’m going to hell today” person finds out what God is going to say, what stuff is there in the core of our faith. We’re tracing the stream and what do we find when we get to the top? Can you believe how absurd it is that I can say I’ve hit the bottom and I’ve given God nothing. Paul says, this is what we say: “those who had nothing nevertheless obtained a place before God because of his Son, the Stone; whoever believes in Him will never be ashamed.

This relationship is so deep it’s not going anywhere. And it all comes from God as its source - an eternal plan that has grace alone written all over it. How wide, deep, and high is the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Welcome to the mountaintop! This is what we find in the heart of our God. It’s that surprising love on fullest display where it’s least expected.

If you’re like me you get into those ruts where you’re hurting people with your thoughts, words and behavior. You’re not what you want to be in a given room. You don’t have space for other sinners in your heart. What is at work is this arrogance and pride. But let’s be sinners again today. Climb the hill as a beggar, this miserable creature with an evil heart - “I’m going to hell today, I’ve used every evil in the book.” And there God would say what he really does say in Christ and I receive firsthand anew the depth of the deep stuff of God’s grace. This is all a huge reason why we must come back to worship again and say at the beginning, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” And we experience something totally ridiculous opening up for us, a heart that God alone has. And he puts it inside of us, this thing called love at the heart of our faith. See what Paul does here in this text? He prays for the Jews. He says, “My heart’s desire (where did he get this pure heart) and my prayer for the Jews is that they may be saved.” He could’ve boasted and bragged among the Jews, he could’ve held resentment for the hardened Jews who dogged him in his ministry. But he does none of it. He says, “I pray for them.” The love of God has given birth to this love for others in his heart, and before he speaks or acts, he is praying for them inside.

Paul knows that one hand says “save me, Lord” while the other one linked to it says, “save them too.” “Forgive me” is the twin of “forgive them” and only because God’s answer is so ridiculously good. His love leads me to be someone you find doing stuff that is ridiculous because I love you. So my knees bend before God as a sinner, but they also bend for you as we pray for each other. And you go out the doors today and meet a world of people who will disappoint and frustrate and offend and trouble you. But God makes room here in my heart for them all, for all these fellow sinners who are “going to hell today.” I pray for you too that we might not sit by as our hearts grow cold and careless, but return to the mountaintop, confess our faith, and jump in the stream to ride its powerful current. Amen.