The Invitation to Everyone – Rev. Louis Timberlake

The Invitation To Everyone: Humanity’s Story

Louis Timberlake

August 9, 2015

Romans 3:21-26

Alright, I saw some eyes glaze over. That’s ok, I’m right there with you. This is a dense passage. We could spend hours on this one, but then you wouldn’t come back next week. It’s good stuff; I’d be doing it and you a disservice to dumb it down. So, I’m going to encourage you to track with me for fifteen minutes, because this is a pretty significant passage, but not an easy one.

So, when I was in high school, I got pretty interested in poker, specifically Texas Hold Em. Now, some of you may know Texas Hold Em, some may not. In short, each person is dealt two cards face down, you have five community cards are dealt face up at the center of the table, and each person is trying to assemble the best five card hand, based on the cards in their hand and on the table. The community cards aren’t dealt all at once. The first round, three cards are dealt. Those cards are called the Flop. Next, a fourth card, called the Turn, is dealt. Finally, a fifth card, the River, is dealt. There’s not a set answer as to why they’re called the Flop, the Turn, and the River, but I read some interesting proposals last week. A lot of people think that the Flop is called such because of the sound it makes when you throw it on the table. Many think that the Turn is called such because that card, more so than the others, has the potential to change the dynamic of the game. Finally, and this is my favorite, some think that the River is called such because, back when they used to play on Mississippi riverboats, some people would try to cheat by dealing a fifth card that would improve their hand. If they got caught, they’d get thrown in the river. I don’t know if that’s 100% true, but it definitely makes for some good trivia.

But, let’s go back to the Turn. A lot can change with this card. The betting stakes are getting higher, making for some tough decisions. Also, the hand can seem to be heading in a certain direction with the flop and then this card can change the percentages. The passage that we read today is the Turn in Romans. Honestly, you can’t understate the shift that takes place in these few verses. Romans starts out with an introduction. Paul hasn’t been to Rome yet, he’s writing a community of people he does not know. So, he introduces himself and talks about how he’s planning to visit Rome and looks forward to visiting with this community. Then, he launches into almost three chapters worth of talk about sin, guilt, and judgment. I mean, it’s a great way to introduce yourself. Imagine if a new pastor came into Christ Church and the very first sermon was all about how we’re just a bunch of sinful, guilty people, subject to wrath. The Bishop would have about thirty emails from Christ Church people on Monday morning.

But Paul doesn’t beat around the bush. He launches straight into this brilliant, but pretty harsh view of humanity. And the thing is, he knows his audience. He’s writing to both Gentiles and Jews and he knows that the Jews are thinking at this point, “Wait, no, we’re in good shape. We keep the law, we are the chosen people of God.” So, Paul unloads on the Jews and basically says, “Y’all aren’t any better. You don’t really follow the law. You don’t really live the way God desires. No one is righteous. All of us are living in ways that aren’t what God intended. Jew, Gentile, Everyone.”

At this point, everyone’s just super excited about a visit from this guy...

But, then we have the Turn. I don’t know if Paul smiled much, he seems to be a pretty serious guy. But, if he did, he was struggling not to break out in a big grin right here, right before the passage we read. Because, in this passage, everything changes.

This first sentence is earthshaking. It’s like the twist in an M Night Shyamalan movie. “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets.”

We’re thinking, “What?” because we have no idea what he’s saying.
They’re thinking, “What!?” because this is an extremely radical statement.

Remember, Jesus followers were still seen as a group within Judaism at this point. And, up to this point in Jewish thought, the Law or Torah was fundamental to a relationship with God.  The Torah is everything, it is the foundation of the Covenant that God made with the Israelites. It’s more than a set of rules, the Torah is a story. It is The Story. It goes a little like this:

God created, but humanity rebelled and God’s Creation was corrupted.
Instead of scrapping the whole thing, God committed to heal Creation.

God made a Covenant, a binding relationship, with a people, Israel.
Through this relationship, through this people, God would heal Creation.
The Law provided the structure of this Covenant, it ordered the lives of these people so that they could participate in this work of healing.

The Law was central for relationship with God and the healing of Creation.

But Paul, who is himself Jewish, has basically just said that there is potential for reconciliation with God, for relationship with God, apart from the Law. We cannot grasp how radical this sounds, coming from a 1st century Jewish person. And a Pharisee, at that, if you were here last week. This is a big deal.

Paul goes on to say that God put Jesus forward “as a sacrifice of atonement.” Another way to translate that is “a place of atonement,” which, for a Jewish person, referred to a very specific thing—the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. You remember what was in the Ark of the Covenant, right? I mean, you’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was the stone tablets that contained the Ten Commandments, given to Moses by God. The foundation of Jewish Law. So, the place of atonement, the place where God met the priests and offered mercy for those who had done wrong, was actually on top of the Law. Atonement literally means “at one-ment,” it means to be reconciled to God. This is the place where you are reconciled to God.

Paul says here that Jesus is the new place of atonement. That our relationship with God is grounded upon faith in Jesus. This is huge.

You see, the problem with the Covenant is that the Israelites could never seem to keep their part. Throughout the OT, there’s this constant tension—God is faithful, but the people are not. God does God’s part, the people mess up on a daily basis. And so, the problem is, how is this Covenant supposed to be the means by which God heals Creation when it’s violated on a regular basis by humanity?

This is Paul’s point in those three harsh chapters about sin and guilt. He’s establishing the problem. He’s saying, “look at the world around you, look at your own hearts, how can we really say that we are blameless? We can’t.” He says, “it doesn’t matter who you are, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All have acted in ways that are not what God intended for Creation.” He’s saying to the Jewish people, “We say that we are people of the Covenant, chosen by God, but we don’t keep our part. We’re no different than anyone else. If this whole plan is contingent on our faithfulness, then we’re in serious trouble.”

This is the problem, this is the great tension. But, in Jesus we find a solution.
In Jesus, we find a relationship with God that fulfills and transcends the Law.

In Jesus, our understanding of God’s faithfulness is redefined.

God’s faithfulness is redefined because, previously, for God to be faithful to the Covenant means just for God to hold up God’s end of the agreement. But, in Jesus, God acts to hold up our end as well. Don’t miss that. That’s the Turn, right there. In Jesus, God acts to hold up our end as well. It redefines what it means to be faithful. It’s not just about meeting basic commitments, but about doing everything it takes to preserve the Covenant and its goals.

And what is the goal of the Covenant? To heal Creation. To make things right. To take what has gone off track and remake it. It what Malcolm Guite says in that video, God is the artist who is remaking a masterpiece that has gone awry.

That’s what we are, each one of us. Masterpieces. Things created to be dynamic, to astound, to exhibit beauty, to challenge, to have great significance. We are masterpieces because we reflect the image of the true master. We are literally pieces of the master, the Creator of the universe, who is glorious and beautiful and astounding beyond anything we can comprehend.

And yet, the tragic story is that we have gone awry.
Something happened and we deviated from that fundamental identity.
We are masterpieces gone awry.

But, the Turn, the gospel, the good news is that the master has not given up. God, the great artist, invites us to be remade, to become that which we were created to be. Masterpieces. That is the invitation to all of humanity. Come and be remade into the masterpiece that you really are. Come see you as God sees you, for what you can be, for what you were intended to be.

We simply have to respond with faith.

You know, faith is a reflective activity. Remember, we are created in the image of God. We are created to reflect the nature of God. Our faith, in essence, is a reflection of God’s faithfulness. Verse 26 could be translated “faith in Jesus” or “the faith of Jesus.” That’s pretty powerful, to have the faith of Jesus. There’s almost a double meaning here. In one sense, it’s saying that we don’t go it alone, that Jesus provides all we need, even faith, when we are lacking. In another sense, it’s saying that faith is to offer, like Jesus, not merely a part, but everything. If we, as masterpieces gone awry, are to be remade, then we can’t hold anything back. 

Faithfulness has been redefined, it’s not simply about doing our part, but about offering everything that we are. This is the faithfulness that is shown by God, who is willing to give everything, to journey to the cross, for the sake of the Covenant. Faith is reflective. To have faith is to reflect the faithfulness of God.

We are invited, all are invited into deeper faith, deeper commitment, deeper sacrifice, so that we might be remade as true masterpieces and so that the brokenness within Creation might be healed.

How will we respond to that invitation?