23 June 2014

Sermon – “Good News, Bad News” (Romans 1:16-25)

We’ve all heard the “good news, bad news jokes”. A tomato and a carrot were out for a walk one evening. They were crossing the street when a car tore by and seriously injured the carrot. The carrot was carried off in an ambulance while the tomato rushed to the hospital after him. Outside the emergency room he met with the doctor. “How is my friend doing?” he asked breathlessly. “Is he going to live?” The doctor looked at him sternly and replied, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that your friend is still alive. The bad news is that he’s going to end up being a vegetable for the rest of his life.”

If you listened carefully to this morning’s reading from the New Testament, you will have noticed that it contains both good news and bad news. Paul starts with the good news, which is the gospel—and he gives us two good reasons why this is so. First of all, it is the power of God. The word in Greek is dunamis, from which we derive our English words “dynamic” and “dynamite”. And so we believe that, unlike other stories, the gospel has a power of its own, to bring those who hear it into a relationship with God.

I may have told you before of the story of Ernest Gordon, a Scottish military officer who was captured by the Japanese in World War 2 and taken to a prisoner of war camp in Burma, to work on the infamous “railway of death”. He and a group of his fellow prisoners began to read the New Testament together and it was not long before they were realizing that this Jesus of whom they were reading was not just a figure of history but one who was present in their very midst. Soon their lives were being transformed. Where there had been despair there was hope. The near-animal behavior that they had been reduced to by their captors was replaced by courageous acts of self-giving. They would never be the same again. That story has been duplicated again and again wherever men and women come into contact with the gospel.

The Gospel [wrote Karl Barth] is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question mark against all truths. The Gospel is not the door but the hinge… By the Gospel the whole concrete world is dissolved and established. 

The gospel is good news because of its power. But that power derives from its content. “For in it,” Paul tells us, “the righteousness of God is revealed…” Now you could just as easily translate those words, “In it the justice of God is revealed.” Whichever way you do it, it will become clear to us as we venture through Romans that God’s righteousness and God’s justice are not the same as human righteousness and human justice. According to human justice, the punishment must fit the crime. One of the earliest things a child learns to say is, “But that’s not fair!” What we will find is that God’s justice simply does not fit neatly into any of our human categories. It will always baffle us, always confound us—and that is why Paul says it is revealed “from faith to faith”, or as the New Living Translation puts it, “from start to finish by faith”.

The Act: They suppressed the truth

However, this amazing good news, which Paul proclaims and which is the subject of this letter, is set against the backdrop of bad news. Just as the gospel reveals the righteousness of God, so by contrast it inevitably reveals the wrath of God as well. Now speaking about God’s anger makes many people profoundly uneasy. It conjures up images of hellfire-and-brimstone preachers of past generations who appeared to think it was more effective to frighten their parishioners into Christian faith than to woo them. Yet when you take a moment to think about it, are there not things in this world that God ought to be angry about—the carnage of war, the horror of slavery and human trafficking, the evils of racism; or on a closer to home level, domestic abuse, bullying that drives children to suicide, a drunk driver who plows into a family of five? What kind of God would he be if he were not angry about things such as these?

Paul will have more to say about specific evils in the final verses of the chapter. However, for the moment he calls upon us to look at the root cause of so much of what is out of kilter both in his world and (I want to say) in our world today. It all revolves around two verbs. The first is in verse 18. Paul speaks of those “who by their wickedness suppress the truth”. The term quite literally means “hold down”. So you have a picture of a group of brigands taking someone captive and holding them to the floor. It happened to the prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament. Jeremiah was warning that the city of Jerusalem was going to fall to the armies of Chaldea and that they ought to surrender. The city officials didn’t like what he was saying because they were afraid it would undermine the morale of their troops. (Never mind that Jeremiah was right and that surrendering from the start would spare a great many lives and even the city itself.) So they took him captive and shut him up in a muddy cistern.

So it is that not only individuals but whole societies can become profoundly uncomfortable with the truth, to the point where they will go to almost any length to suppress it—and this is where Paul’s second verb comes in, in verses 23 and 25: “exchange”. Once the truth has been rejected, there needs to be an alternative “truth” to take its place. In verse 23 Paul writes, “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.” He was expanding on a verse from the Psalms, where the psalmist looked back to the construction of the golden calf on Mount Sinai and wailed, “They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass” (106:20).

Lest we think the church is immune from this, the lessons of history teach us otherwise. At the time of the Reformation the church had exchanged the free grace of God for a system of rituals and indulgences. In Nazi Germany the church exchanged God’s love for people of all nations for the myth of the German Volk. Today I fear that we have exchanged God’s holiness and the call to repentance for a “gospel” of inclusivity.

Late in the seventh century BC the prophet Jeremiah lamented,

Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:11-13)

The Consequence: Their hearts were darkened

You cannot drink for long from a cracked cistern. There will be consequences, and the first consequence that Paul identifies is that “their senseless minds were darkened”. In actual fact the word that Paul uses in verse 21 is not “mind” but “heart”. And at its root the word translated “senseless” means something like lacking comprehension, insight or understanding. What we are seeing here is a dreadful process: that our actions and our thoughts, what we do with our bodies, what we entertain in our minds, will invariably penetrate deeper into what makes up the very core of our being.

The lesson is brought home in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The ring that lies at the center of the story wields great powers in the hands of its possessor. Yet it becomes clear that the ring exerts a power not only on the external world but also in the heart of the one wearing it—and that that power is not for the good. The case in point is the evil Gollum, a slimy character who dwells in darkness at the bottom of a cave, surviving on a diet of raw fish and the occasional straying goblin. Gollum had begun his life as a hobbit, but the power of the ring had gradually corrupted his heart to the point where he was wholly given over to the purposes of evil.

We think of our heart affecting our minds and actions. The book of Proverbs teaches us, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, 
for from it flow the springs of life.” Yet it recognizes that the flow goes in both directions. How do we keep our hearts?

Put away from you crooked speech,
and put devious talk far from you. 

Let your eyes look directly forward, 

and your gaze be straight before you. 

Keep straight the path of your feet… 

Do not swerve to the right or to the left; 

turn your foot away from evil. (Proverbs 4:23-27)

As Jesus’ disciples we are challenged to maintain a difficult balance. Our place is in the world, but how important it is not to allow the world’s values to take hold of our minds and penetrate our hearts. For then we cease to be the salt and light that Jesus calls us to be. And if the salt has lost its saltiness, what is it good for?

The Outcome: God gave them up

And so we have the truth being suppressed and exchanged for a lie. We have hearts darkened. But the bad news does not end there. There is still one more dreadful and frightening detail that Paul has to add. “Therefore,” he says in verse 24, “God gave them up…”

What haunting words! What a dreadful sentence! Can you imagine anything more devastating? To be given up by God. For God to leave us alone, entirely to our own devices. To call out and all we hear is an echo. To have nothing and no one in any ultimate sense to whom to turn. This is the final outcome of suppressing the truth and exchanging it for a lie. This is what happens when we allow our hearts to be darkened. It is a terrible fate.

“God gave them up…” Yet already, in the prospect of that devastating silence, there is a faint whisper of hope. The darkness has descended upon us; yet as we look to the eastern horizon we see the first glimmer of the first ray of dawn—and it is found in those very words of desolation: “God gave them up…”

The hope is in the fact that this is not the last time in his letter to the Romans that Paul will use those words. Underneath the fearful scene that Paul paints for us in chapter 1 is the abiding conviction of chapter 8—that the God of his gospel, the God whom he proclaims and in whom we put our faith today, is the God “who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). In the words of Stuart Townend’s hymn,

How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure,
That he should give his only Son
To make a wretch his treasure.

How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns his face away,
As wounds which mar the Chosen One
Bring many sons to glory.

When Jesus cried aloud, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he was taking God’s absence, the final outcome of our exchanging the truth for a lie, upon himself. “So remember,” Paul writes elsewhere, “that at one time you were without God in the world. But now you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:11-13).

Out of the bad news our wondrous God brings good news. May we find our minds made new and our hearts set free by its transforming power.

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