For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” Benjamin Franklin famously wrote in 1789. Since then there have been many suggestions for what a third certainty in life could be. These have included families, mistakes, homework, the second law of thermodynamics, and that it is raining in Tavistock. I’d agree with pretty much all of these (although I don’t actually know what the second law of thermodynamics is…), but as a teacher, if I had to select one, it would be homework.
I wonder what Paul would have said if he’d been asked what the third certainty of life is? Looking at the passage above, from his letter to the Romans, I suspect he might have said sin, or doing wrong in God’s eyes. He makes it clear in these verses that all have sinned and fallen short of the standard that God expected from us when he created us. Every single person who has ever lived has failed to live up to the standard that God expected from us. We are all sinners and therefore face judgement from God.
All is not lost, however, since Paul also offers hope to his readers. Those who put their trust in Jesus are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Although we are sinners and deserve God’s punishment, we can be justified, that is, “declared righteous.” What’s more, we can be justified “freely”; our justification is a gift from God for which there is no charge to us at all. How? Through God’s grace. He has decided to offer us this gift simply because he loves us. This is all made possible through Christ’s death when he redeemed our sins, releasing us from the fate that was deservedly ours, specifically death and separation from God.
This is pretty complex stuff, but the key is that if we place our trust in Christ as our saviour we are spared from death. Jesus took all of our sins on himself and took our punishment so that we might be with God. That is wonderful news and cause for much celebration. Will you celebrate today God’s gift of life to us?
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.
Tomorrow morning one of my lessons is being observed. In theory, my boss should be more concerned about this, since the purpose is to train him in observing lessons and providing valid feedback. I can’t help but worry about it, though. I always have a sense of dread, mild panic, and concern that I might get caught out! In the past I’ve always received positive feedback from observed lessons but there is always a first time. Lesson observations are supposed to be constructive; even if a teacher does something wrong, an observation means that they can be alerted to their weaknesses and given an opportunity to improve. Observers are supposed to point out in a positive way where things can be improved.
In today’s verse Paul outlines the purpose of the law – that is, the rules and regulations that we find in the Old Testament. We saw a couple of days ago that Paul believes the law to be holy, righteous and good. Yesterday we saw that Paul understands that people are not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Christ. In Romans 3:20 he explains precisely why the law is still so important: through the law, Paul says, we become conscious of our sin. He elaborates on this a little later in Romans when he says, ‘nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet”‘ (Romans 7:7). The law does not provide a means for our salvation from sin, but it does hold a light up to our lives so that we might understand what sin is, and how and where we commit it. The law shows us the sinful state of our lives. The law also, therefore leads us to Christ. It shows us our need for salvation, but it also makes it clear than we cannot win justification for ourselves. It shows us that we need to accept Christ as our saviour, since there is no other way to escape from sin, destruction and death. Indeed, the better understanding we have of the law, the more we understand the significance of our wrong doing, and the more we understand that we need Christ.
Rather than overlooking the law and the books of the Old Testament in which it is found, therefore, we should ensure that it becomes part of our personal Bible study. It will point us to Christ and ensure that we are clear on our need for a saviour. Whilst having our weaknesses exposed and pointed out to us is never an enjoyable experience, it does enable us to move forward and improve our standing.
So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
Working in a school I come into contact with a lot of rules. Schools are particularly good for rules. They seem to have rules for everything. The school that I attended would probably win an award for the most ridiculous rules. There was a blue door that led into the playground from the main building that we were absolutely prohibited from using most of the time. On other occasions we would be allowed to go in one direction through it. Sometimes we would be allowed the other way through. It all got very confusing! Then there were the legendary one way systems that filtered all pupils in the same direction. These systems were at their most ridiculous when you wanted to go to the next classroom which happened to be against the one way system. We were made to walk most of the way around the school in order to go one door down. If we dared attempt to go against the flow, we’d hear the booming voice of our Second Master shouting at us, “NOOOO! YOU’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!” It was these outbursts that led to our Second Master being given the nickname ‘Cardiac Keith’!
We all find ourselves wondering what the purpose of particular rules are from time to time. Christians are not exempt from this. Many is the time I’ve heard Christian brothers and sisters debating the rules of the Old Testament, and whether or not we should pay attention to them. After all, since the time of Christ we have been saved by grace, not by following a set of rules. Surely the Old Testament is consequently of little relevance? This is not the case at all. As Paul explained earlier in his letter to the Romans, “it was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but though the righteousness that comes by faith” (Romans 4:13). If even those devoted figures in the Old Testament were saved by faith and not by following the law it is surely wrong to believe that since Christ’s coming the law is irrelevant because the means of salvation have changed. And if that is the case, perhaps we need to think long and hard about our view of the Old Testament and the law. We certainly need to avoid dismissing it as irrelevant.
As we see in the verse above, Paul had a very high view of the law. He believed that it is ‘holy’. When you think about it, how could it not be? Since God is holy – or holy, holy, holy, even – (Isaiah 6:3), all that comes from him must also be holy. Since the law of the Old Testament came from him, it must be holy. It would be foolish for us to dismiss anything that has come from God, anything that imbues and reflects his character. There must be a significance and a relevance for us today within the law; we simply need to discover what that significance and relevance is.
Paul continues that “the commandment is holy, righteous and good.” The rules laid out in the Old Testament are themselves “righteous,” that is, they are morally perfect. It is righteousness that we find through Christ’s death and resurrection. The law encapsulates God’s perfection since it outlines the way we are to live. Its righteousness exposes our lack of righteousness, since we cannot possibly live up to the requirements it sets out for us. It thus shows us just why and how much we need Christ as our saviour.
This verse concludes with the statement that the commandment is ‘good’. Genesis tells us that God looked at his creation and saw that it was ‘good’ – ‘very good’ even (Genesis 1:31). Since the law is part of God’s creation it follows that it is good. It is good because if comes from God. It is good because it is fit for purpose, that is it is an effective way of revealing our sinfulness. It is good because it is beneficial for us – it highlights just how much we need a saviour.
Whilst some rules and laws might be unnecessary, pointless and irrelevant, God’s law most certainly is not. It is holy, righteous and good. We need it today just as much as those living before Christ did. We must ensure that we do not fall into the trap of declaring it null and void, but rather make sure that we study it carefully. A thorough knowledge of the law will drive us into Christ’s arms and deepen our relationship with him.
What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on Remembrance Sunday, 13th November 2011, at Leatherhead Methodist Church in Surrey. It is based on Isaiah 53, Mark 16:1-8 and Romans 6:1-10.
Today we think about those who have given their lives fighting for our country. It is estimated that during the twentieth century, more than 160 million people died fighting in wars. Of these, it is thought that 15 million people died during the First World War, whilst a further 66 million died during the Second. The scale of war casualties over just the last hundred years or so is just devastating and truly shocking. It is difficult to come to terms with the scale. The numbers are so vast that they can become meaningless.
What helped me to better understand the scale of the horror of war was a visit to Tyne Cot cemetery in Belgium, where 12,000 Allied soldiers who died during the First World War are buried. This vast cemetery, with its never ending “row on row” of headstones, is the resting place of just a small proportion of the brave soldiers who fought for their country. A memorial at the back of the cemetery lists the names of a further 34,000 soldiers whose remains were never recovered.
We have a lot to be thankful to these brave soldiers, and the thousands of others who died fighting for our country. If it were not for them, we would not be able to enjoy the considerable freedoms that we do.
Of course, British soldiers did not cease fighting and dying with the end of the First or even the Second World War. The British Army is still busy today, working around the world, and particularly in Afghanistan, supporting those who stand up to brutal regimes, and espousing the values of freedom and fairness wherever they go. Indeed, since 2001, 385 British soldiers have lost their life fighting in Afghanistan. If freedom can be brought to people in areas that otherwise would be subject to violence and oppression, whilst clearly very hard for their loved ones, the deaths of these brave men and women will not have been in vain.
In some ways, the death of a soldier fighting for peace and freedom is a helpful metaphor for the death of Jesus Christ, which we will be considering today. That’s what we’ll be considering today as we reflect on the ultimate sacrifice that a person can make; laying down their life so that others might enjoy freedom. We’ll consider how the death of a soldier during war can be a metaphor for the death of Jesus Christ. We’ll reflect on the crucial difference between Jesus’ sacrifice and that of a member of the armed forces. Finally, we’ll see that through all this talk of death, there is a bright hope for the future which is open to all.
Our first point this morning, then is that of the ultimate sacrifice; the surrendering of ones life so that others might be set free.
It’s remarkable that so many people over the generations have chosen to fight for their country gladly, and without concern for their own welfare. We can see this clearly during the First World War One of the most brutal battles that the British army has ever fought is the Battle of the Somme, which took place during this so-called “war to end all wars.” On the first day alone, the 1st July 1916, 20,000 men were killed, whilst another 146,000 Allied troops and 164,000 Germans died during the coming of the weeks. Those who died were to a large extent cannon fodder in a war of attrition which would have a huge impact on post-war Britain. With the order on the first day to calmly walk across the battle lines facing the full brunt of the German machine guns, they were like lambs going to slaughter.
You may recognise that expression. We encountered it today in our first reading from Isaiah 53. The chapter records how the Servant of God was “led like a lamb to the slaughter.” Just as the men at the Somme did their duty and confronted the Germans, the Servant in Isaiah “did not open his mouth,” but calmly faced the death that he knew was coming.
This prophecy foreshadows the death of Jesus Christ. Whilst Jesus pleaded with God in the Garden of Gethsemane to take away the cup of suffering that he had been presented with, ultimately he sought to conform his actions to the will of his Father, and for him, that meant death on the cross. He was willing to pay the ultimate price, because he knew that doing so would set us all free from a life of sin and despair, separated from the creator God.
There is another remarkable parallel between this passage in Isaiah, and the life and death of Jesus Christ. Isaiah, considering the death of the Servant, continues by asking the question, “yet who of his generation protested?” When the Servant goes to his death, there is no one who is willing to speak out in his defence, there is no one willing to question whether the Servant’s death is right or not.
This is similarly the case for Jesus. When Jesus went to the cross, it was with the support of many of the people. Certainly the Romans and the Jewish authorities were keen to despatch him. Even the crowd, when asked by Pontius Pilate whom they wished to pardon demanded the release of Barabbas rather than the innocent and righteous Jesus.
Whilst the many British soldiers whose deaths we remember today lost their lives fighting for what they believed to be a better world, or at least a less imperfect world, the Servant in Isaiah dies for a higher purpose still. In his death he took on the “transgression of the people,” namely sinners like us who daily fall short of the expectations that God has of us. The life of the servant was “an offering for sin,” as it says in verse 10. In his death, the Servant “bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
Just as the fallen of the two world wars, and numerous battles and wars since 1945, gave their lives for the benefit of the many, this servant, Jesus Christ, gave his life for all transgressors, including you and me.
This brings us to our second point, that death is not the end. Death was not the end for the Servant in Isaiah, and it certainly was not the end for Jesus.
The story of the Servant, as I’m sure we all know, clearly does not end with his death. In verse 10 of the Isaiah passage, we read, “yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him, he was put to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” Despite being killed, we are told that God will “prolong his days.” The Servant will receive eternal life.
This is what we saw in our passage from Mark 16. Three days after the death of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome, took spices to anoint the body of Jesus. When they got to the tomb, however, they were astonished and afraid by what they saw. Jesus was not in the tomb. Instead, they were confronted by a “young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe.” Quite naturally, they were alarmed by his presence.
The message this mysterious man in white had for them was truly earth shattering. He told them that Jesus, whom they are seeking, has risen. “He is not here,” he tells them. “He has risen.” If they head to Galilee, he says, they will see Jesus there.
This staggering proclamation stunned and staggered the women. They had expected to find a closed tomb with the body of their beloved Jesus in his final resting place. Even after all that Jesus had said during his ministry, they were confused and upset by the absence of his body.
The prophecy of the Servant in Isaiah is borne out here with Jesus. Just as the Servant was “led like a lamb to the slaughter,” “cut off from the land of the living,” “bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors,” yet would live to “see the light of life” and have his days prolonged, Jesus took the place of sinners on the cross, died, and was resurrected by the power of God.
The incredible revelation brought to the women here in Mark’s gospel has provoked many different feelings in people throughout the generations. The resurrection of a person nailed to a cross is something which, unsurprisingly, people have difficulty accepting. Some have simply dismissed the resurrection as a made up story, a myth circulated by the early Church. Some have sought to find a rational explanation, and have tried to explain the resurrection away by saying that Jesus did not actually die on the cross.
Others have accepted the miracle of the resurrection, believing that Jesus himself had explained throughout his earthly ministry that it was what would happen. Those who have accepted the truth of the resurrection have themselves been divided; some, like the two Mary’s and Salome, were nervous, whilst others have been excited not just by the resurrection itself, but also the implications it has for the whole of humankind. The resurrection, after all, offers hope, hope of a life that continues beyond the grave. A hope that is wonderful to consider as we contemplate today the loss of all of those who have lost their lives fighting for their country.
This brings us to our third and final point, the point that lies at the heart of the Christian gospel. Just as death was not the end for the Servant in Isaiah, just as death was not the end for Jesus Christ, neither is death the end for us today. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can have hope in a future that is eternal. What’s more, as we reflect today on the horrors of war and the loss of human life that flows from fighting, this eternal future is one free from violence and war, where love and peace abound.
This hope is brought out by Paul in his letter to the Romans. In our reading from the letter this morning, Paul described how “all who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death.” Paul is not giving baptism in itself some magical power here to transform our lives, but is recognising that baptism is simply an outward sign of the inward, spiritual conversion of Christians. If we turn to Christ, renounce our old, sinful ways, and strive to live like him, we are dead to our old selves. If we live in this way, we can share in Jesus’ death, since in dying Jesus took on our sin. To return to our Isaiah passage, Jesus “bore the sin of many,” and if we truly follow him, that applies to us, as it does to all those who love Christ.
Paul continues by saying, in verse five, that, “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” This verse reflects the true magnificence of the Gospel message. Not only are we freed from sin by sharing in Christ’s death, we are also united in his resurrection. Just as Jesus died and was resurrected and taken to be with his Father in heaven, so too will we. Paul is in no doubt at all as to the truthfulness of this statement; his words are that we shall certainly be united in a resurrection like Jesus’. There is no doubt. It is a certainty. Just as we can be certain that night will follow day, and that Spring will follow Winter, we can be certain that new life will follow death.
In verse seven of our Roman’s reading, Paul states that “anyone who has died has been set free from sin.” The expression “to be set free” has great resonance on Remembrance Sunday. Our armed forces have, throughout our history, fought to defend us and to uphold the values that we aspire to. This is, perhaps, no clearer than during the Second World War, when the western world battled against the forces of Fascism and Nazism. There is a very real sense in which those who fought during the Second World War fought, if not to set us free, then certainly they fought to ensure that we remained free from tyrannical ideas that were threatening lifestyles and even lives in countries not that far from our own. Today, two of the most important tasks of our armed services are to protect the freedoms that we enjoy at home, whilst also striving to set free those in other countries whose liberty and human rights are being abused. It is right that today we remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and paid with their lives for the freedom of others.
How much more, though, should we rejoice that Jesus sacrificed his life in order to set us free from sin? This is not just freedom in the here and now, but eternal freedom. Freedom that lasts beyond the grave. Had it not been for the death and resurrection of Jesus, we would be weighed down by our sin. We would not be able to approach God, much less have a relationship with him or to enter into his heavenly kingdom. There would be no eternal life if Jesus had not set us free from sin. It is only through his actions on the cross that we can be free.
In conclusion, then, how do we respond to all that we have heard today? How do we respond both to the sacrifice of those who have given their lives up for the good of others, so that they might be set free from earthly injustice, and to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who died so that we might be set free from sin for eternity? Well, today is primarily a day for remembrance. Let’s make a point in the days ahead, just as we have done today, to reflect on the sacrifices made both by our armed forces, and that sacrifice with eternal consequences by Jesus Christ. Let’s hold our armed forces in our prayers, those who are fighting, those who have been injured, mentally or physically, and those who have been killed in the line of duty. And let’s pray for those who have lost a loved one serving in the armed forces, as well as those who care and look after those who have been injured by war.
Let’s also reflect, though, on the hope that we have of a life after death, both for those killed in action, but also for ourselves. Let’s give thanks to God for his unending love for us that we can see through his eternal plan of salvation, which culminated in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And let’s praise Jesus for going willingly to the cross, to take the punishment for our sin, so that we might have eternal life.
We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
What are your gifts? Are you a good rugby player or a concert pianist? Are you a born leader or a superb administrator? Are your people skills second to none or are you a technological whizz kid? Perhaps you’re a talented interior designer or a competent accountant.
Maybe you haven’t discovered what your particular skills or areas of expertise are yet. Don’t worry if this is you; there are plenty of us still waiting to discover what our God-given talents are!
In today’s verses, Paul is in no doubt that our skills and talents are gifts from God. He is also in no doubt that, whatever skills we have been given, we must use them. Just as you would be disappointed if you gave a friend a marvellous gift as a birthday present, only for him to put it unused into a box in the garage, God is disappointed if we don’t use the gifts that he has given us. Of course, if we love God, we should be putting those gifts actively into his service.
It’s very easy, particularly in a large Church, to sit back and be a passive consumer of what goes on around us, to turn up, listen to the sermon, sing the songs, and then go home without making any contribution to the life of the Church. We have to question whether this is the right approach, however.
In the previous verses in this letter, which we looked at yesterday, Paul portrayed the Church as a body of many parts, with individuals making up those parts. To function at its best, a body needs all its parts; two arms, two legs, a head, and so on. A Church is just the same; to function at its best, it needs all of its parts; welcomers at the door, someone to make the coffee, people to work with the children, preachers, musicians, people to lead outreach and many more. It might be that you have a particular skill that is desperately needed by your Church, and the leadership team are praying for you to come forward. You could be an answer to prayer. From the pew you might not even be aware of the need. If you’re a mean lead guitarist and your Church already has one, you might think there’s no need for you to come forward. But it may be that the current guitarist feels overstretched, has issues at work, needs to spend more time with his family and is hoping for someone to share the burden with.
Let’s thank God today for our gifts, and resolve to use them, whatever they may be, for his glory. If we’re not really sure what gifts we have to offer, let’s pray that we might discover what our particular skills are. And let’s encourage those around us, praise their gifts, and help them to utilise these for the good of the kingdom!