+ In Nomine Jesu +
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The message this morning is based on the Epistle reading from Romans 5. Of particular importance for our purposes is the latter part of the reading, where St. Paul says, “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” I’d ask you to note especially the words in those verses that describe us, who Christ died to save. We were weak, ungodly, sinners.
We’ll come back to that passage in a few minutes, but first I’d like to tell you a short little story. There were two men who went into a church one day to pray. One of the men was someone that everyone in the community would have seen as upright and holy. He dressed appropriately and he looked right. He thought himself too to be a pillar of the community. The other man was, in many respects, the exact opposite. He didn’t dress right, and he certainly didn’t look right. He knew that no one would turn to him for anything. In fact, he was the person that most people would go out of their way to avoid if they saw him walking toward them on the street.
The first man knelt down to pray. He rejoiced to God over his own goodness. He reminded God that he gave a great deal of his money on a regular basis to the church. He also reminded God that he fasted from time to time. He thanked God that he wasn’t like other people, people who extorted money from others, or who were unjust, adulterers, and the like. Then, as he looked across the sanctuary, he also thanked God that he wasn’t like the other man who came into the church to pray that day.
All the while, the other man had his head bowed down as he stood before God. It didn’t seem to him fitting that he should even look toward heaven. He began to pound his hands on his chest in a self-deprecating manner. Whatever needs weighed that day on his heart and mind, he simply set aside. He came to the church for one thing and one thing only, the mercy of God. And so, he said, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”
You may recognize the story I just told you as a modern rendition of a parable that Jesus once told, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. After He told the parable, Jesus said, “I tell you, (the second man) went down to his house justified, rather than the (first). For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
At another time, Jesus allowed a woman, a prostitute, to anoint His feet with oil. It was a scandalous thing to some of the people who saw it happen. One particular man, a Pharisee, was indignant with Jesus. He said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” Jesus said to him, “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon (the Pharisee) answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And (Jesus) said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
These two stories relate very much to the reading before us this morning from Romans 5. The question is, who were we, who were you, before Jesus saved you from sin and death? Who were you when He looked down to the world and chose to love you by giving up His own life? The Apostle Paul says, Christ died, “for the ungodly.”
Paul’s description of who we were before Jesus saved us, is so important because there is a direct relationship between our perception of our sin, its magnitude, if you will, and our perception of the Gospel, of God’s forgiveness in Christ. The problem with the pharisee, whether then, or now, is that he never sees his sin as significant enough to really give it much thought. When the two men prayed in the church, the one was there to show God how great he was. The other was there because he recognized that he wasn’t even worthy to lift up his eyes to God. For the first, the Gospel was irrelevant. It was for people like the other man in the church that day. Men who clearly need God’s grace if they ever expect to enter into His presence.
At the same time, the Pharisee who objected to the woman anointing the feet of Jesus, didn’t love Him a great deal because he perceived his sin to be very little. On the other hand, the prostitute, who Jesus forgave, was devoted to Him in love because He had forgiven her such a tremendous debt.
The fact is, we rarely realize or acknowledge how great our debt to God really is. It is important, however, for our perception of our debt to be in line with what the Scriptures tell us. Again, there is direct relationship between our perception of our sin, its magnitude and our perception of the Gospel of God’s forgiveness in Christ.
If we allow the Scriptures to speak to us with all of their counsel, we run headlong into a category that befits all of us quite well when it comes to the law and to our transgression of the law. The apostle writes, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.” All of us then are transgressors of the law! Thus, week after week, we come here, and we stand before God and we confess our sin. “I have sinned against you (we say) in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart and I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I justly deserve your present and your eternal punishment.”
Even as one apostle tells us that we are guilty of the whole law, another, namely St. Paul, lumps us all together into another nice, neat, though unflattering little group. Whether we see ourselves as deeply flawed, as infected with the worst of sin, as having violated the whole law of God, or as relatively good, we are all, nonetheless, weak, ungodly, sinners.
Being weak doesn’t mean we couldn’t bench press much weight. It’s a word that is often translated into English as sick. It has to do with a malady, an inability to help oneself, to lift oneself up. The word is often used in the Scriptures to describe human nature as being unable to save itself.
So, God looked down at the world, to love it, to save it from sin and death, and there we were, there you were, not clamoring to be saved, not reaching out your hand for God to lift you up out of the mire of sin and death, for you were an enemy of God, flopping around, as it were, in your weakness, unable to save yourself.
And then, at just the right time, while you were still weak, “Christ died for the ungodly.” Have you ever thought of yourself in that way before, as ungodly, that is? Enough of this already, considering yourself too sinful to be saved from the guilt and condemnation of your sin!! God knows who you are!! He knows what you’ve done, and what you haven’t done, as it were!! And even in knowing, in knowing you more fully and more intimately than you know yourself, He came into the world to die for you!! “At just the right time, Christ died for the ungodly!!” That death of Jesus, all of its merit, all that it accomplished, because yours when Jesus reached down through time and space to wash you with the water of Holy Baptism. Ungodly though you were, He said, “I have bought with a price. Behold, you are mine!”
If Jesus knew who I am now, He would have never died for me! Such is the lament of the deeply troubled and repentant. The sentiment, though seemingly humble, comes dangerously close to calling God a liar. Why? Well, because, as the Apostle has told us, God showed His love for us “in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, (for you).”
The second man who went into the church that day, did so because he was weighed down with the guilt and the condemnation of his sin. He didn’t want to suffer eternally for what he knew he had done. As great as his sin loomed in his heart and mind, the Gospel of God’s forgiveness in Christ would have to be oh so much greater!! It would seem that St. Paul understood the greatness of the Gospel in the same way, for, apart from these words of comfort before us this morning, it was also he who said, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, (Jesus) appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +