Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 28, 2021
Romans 4:13-25 Commentary
Death continues to intimidate many people. As a result, most people will do almost anything to avoid or at least indefinitely postpone death. The Bible suggests that we’d even trade everything we have in exchange for an escape from death.
We sometimes sense that many people believe that if we just didn’t have to worry about death, our lives would be so much less stressful. Aside from a few morticians and life insurance salespeople, we assume we’d be far happier.
So while the Bible doesn’t report exactly what his disciples initially thought of Jesus’ death, we can imagine their reaction. We assume that they thought about it the way we think of someone’s execution for a crime she never committed. His disciples probably thought of Jesus’ crucifixion as an awful tragedy and ghastly injustice.
Jesus’ followers may also have deduced from his crucifixion that he’d been nothing more than an idealistic martyr. Sure, he’d said something about rising from the dead again. But at the end of the first Good Friday, that probably seemed like nothing more than the ramblings of a delusional person.
Think too of how death looked on that awful first Good Friday evening. After all of the day’s sound and fury, it seemed as if death, with its thugs, sin and Satan, was the undefeated champion of the world.
If, after all, death could beat the only person who didn’t deserve to die, it could beat anybody. So when Jesus died, it must have seemed as if the whole world’s fate was to eventually die right along with him. But in the darkness of the first Easter, God slugged it out with the defending world champion, death. In that darkness, God crowned life the new world champion.
The first Good Friday’s darkness symbolized the Father’s abandonment of Jesus. The first Easter’s darkness provided the perfect setting for the Father to show his love for Jesus. On that first Easter, after all, God showed that God, not the religious and political leaders, had orchestrated Jesus’ death. On that first Easter morning, after all, God announced that God accepted and approved Jesus Christ’s work on our behalf.
It had seemed as if death and its goons had been in control ever since our first parents caved in to temptation. Death had, after all, mowed down one generation after the other. Death seemed to have beaten every person from Adam to Jesus.
Of course, a few of God’s people had escaped death by somehow going right into God’s eternal presence without dying first. Yet people like Enoch and Elijah hadn’t conquered death; they’d just “sidestepped” it. Death, after all, continued to claim sinners and saints, rulers and subjects, employers and employees, and even young children. Death, in fact, seems to have been particularly busy during this past year.
On the first Easter morning, however, God conquered death and its goons. So we can say that death, in a sense, died on that glorious morning. On that first Easter morning, for the first time, death and its allies had to grudgingly admit that someone was superior to them.
Yet it may seem as if we’re celebrating too soon. After all, the number of people who have died hasn’t shrunk by even one since Christ rose from the dead. People we know and love still die. Millions of people have died of COVID in just the past year alone. Both our Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers and hearers know that we too will also die, unless Jesus Christ returns first.
Yet Christ’s resurrection changes, among other things, the meaning of death for Christians. Christ’s Easter victory over death changes how we look at death. Now, with the apostle Paul we can sing, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
After all, as one theologian points out, Christ’s resurrection means that death is, in a real sense, no longer death. In the light of Christ’s glorious resurrection, it’s more like a “shadow” of death that can scare but not hurt us.
In fact Paul suggests that Christ’s resurrection has turned death into something like a wasp that has lost its stinger. Even with its dying breaths, death can generate a lot of noise. Yet it can no longer do God’s children lasting harm.
Of course, death itself is sometimes still very painful. But it loses its stranglehold on us once Christians die. Death still stings those who love people it claims. But it must surrender its grip on those who have died.
So, as a colleague notes, when the New Testament talks about physical death after God raised Jesus from the dead, it often uses the term “sleep.” In I Thessalonians 4:14, for example, Paul writes, “We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” That colleague points out that our Lesson’s proclaimers might point out that Paul says that Jesus “died.” However, the apostle says that Christians who die are “asleep.”
Of course, various people have used the word “sleep” to describe death. They, however, were just basically trying to soften its blow. By raising Christ from the dead, God actually turned death into sleep for God’s dearly beloved people.
So now while we may still fear dying, Christians no longer have to fear death. Whoever sleeps, after all, isn’t permanently gone. She’s just resting so that she can eventually awaken refreshed.
Yet in giving Christ victory over death, God didn’t just give us something to which to look forward. God also gave God’s adopted sons and daughters something here and now. People sometimes say something like, “To the victors go the spoils.” We profess that the “spoils” the victorious Christ claims is our “righteousness,” our justification.
In other words, because God raised Christ from the dead, the heavenly jury is no longer weighing our verdict. It has returned and pronounced the verdict: we have a right relationship with the Lord.
God created Adam and Eve for a right relationship with himself. Yet when our first parents sinned, they scarred that good relationship. They left not only themselves, but also every one of their descendants guilty. They made people liable to the eternal death penalty that is eternal separation from God. Sin left even the saintliest people totally unable to save ourselves.
So if we were to have a good relationship with God, we needed to find it somewhere outside ourselves. Someone who had that good relationship was going to have to give us that relationship. Christ didn’t just enjoy perfect fellowship with his heavenly Father before he was born to Mary and Joseph. He was also completely righteous. Christ, after all, lived a perfect life. He never did anything against God or other people.
Yet because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, we profess that he now shares that righteousness with his adopted siblings. We, to use my colleague Stan Mast’s evocative phrase, “get all the credit without putting in any of the work.”
Yet we also know that we need Christ to share his righteousness with us just as much as we need him to earn it. After all, we’re naturally like someone who’s travelling through the hot and dry American Southwest who’s desperately thirsty. When he comes to a restaurant, he doesn’t have enough money to buy something to drink. So while something to drink is right there for him, he can’t get it.
In a similar way, when Jesus died on the cross, he accomplished everything God’s dearly beloved people need to be in a right relationship with the Lord. He made everything ready for the great wedding reception that is eternal life in God’s glorious presence.
Yet the hungry and thirsty guests whom God graciously invited to that banquet didn’t come. In fact, those God invited to the great feast didn’t even want to come. So someone had to bring in God’s chosen guests.
That’s a reason why God raised Christ from the dead. God’s adopted children were hungry and thirsty for the banquet that is God’s salvation. Yet we didn’t want to come to that banquet on God’s terms.
So God in Christ went out and got us. God gave us the water of life for our thirst and bread of life for our hunger. God even gave Christians mouths with which to eat and drink and hands with which to accept God’s gifts. God, in other words, gives us not only salvation, but also the faith with which we obediently receive it.
So because of Christ’s resurrection our heavenly Father forgives and welcomes back prodigal children. Because of Christ’s resurrection the Lord makes the Lord’s prodigal children what Paul calls “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.”
It’s not enough for Christians just to carefully study what happens at Christ’s empty tomb. We also receive Christ’s resurrection for us with our obedient faith. Jesus’ followers actively trust that God, for Jesus’ sake, now not only views but also treats us as God’s beloved children.
Of course, God knows our sins even better than Romans 4’s proclaimers and hearers do. God knows perfectly well when we sin against the Lord and each other. Easter didn’t, after all, make God’s vision worse. God still sees when God’s dearly beloved people act, talk and even think as if we don’t know God.
Yet because God raised Christ from the dead, God treats us as though we’d never sinned. God deals with Jesus’ friends as people who’ve never put our trust in other people or things. God treats us as though we’d never used God’s name carelessly or neglected society’s most vulnerable members.
Because God raised Jesus from the dead, God also equips Christians to love God above all and each other as much as ourselves. God empowers us to forgive those who’ve hurt us and pray for our enemies.
Now Jesus’ followers can treat each other as Christian brothers and sisters. Of course, those fellow Christians still sometimes do and say things that scar us. They parent us imperfectly. Our Christian brothers and sisters break their promises to us and let us down.
Yet because God raised Jesus from the dead for their sakes as well as ours, we can view them as God views them. And, by God’s grace, we can even treat them as God treats them – as God’s sons and daughters, as our Christian brothers and sisters.
In her famous Diary of Anne Frank, the young woman writes this about her diary: “I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for giving me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s inside me!”
From so many angles, that, as a colleague loves to say, will preach.
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