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Every week, hundreds of thousands of men and women prepare an extended speech, to last anywhere from 10 to 40 minutes, that they'll deliver on Sunday morning to a congregation of interested, bored, questioning, impatient, like- and unlike-minded people. It's constantly going on below the cultural radar, with who knows what consequences in the world at large.
San Antonio is lucky to have at least three of the nation's most prominent sermonizers: the ecumenical grandpa with evangelistic fire in the belly, Buckner Fanning; the syndicated, apocalyptic, and spectacularly King-Jamesian orator John Hagee; and the friendly, zillion-selling, touched-by-an-anecdote author and speaker Max Lucado.
Tom Westbrook, pastor of University Heights Baptist Church in Stillwater, Oklahoma, is neither a televistic fireside chatter nor a Bible-thumping-and-fried-chicken-for-lunch Zephaniah. Instead, he is surely the master sorcerer of the Sunday sermon. He stands in a sidelong slouch, reference card or two in hand, and delivers hypnotic incantations that awaken and then flatter the mind, reminding us over and over — catching the breath every time — that the intelligence is the seat of passion.
The lights go out, and the walls and ceiling are spattered with words and images, Epcot-rama style; or music begins to swell under his words; or a pack of dramatists take over as he recedes into the background, never letting go the Ellingtonian strings of control.
After a month of Sundays, patterns emerge: stolid Baptist theology, stripped of its polyester and rep tie; a view of the scriptures as consistently shocking and revealing (I've never seen a better embodiment of Viktor Shklovsky's ostranenia in a public speaker); an image of faith as being irrevocably person-centered — the sermons are alive with a roster of ordinary saints from the local congregation and the Westbrook diaspora; an image of God as the ultimate Westbrook, demanding that we follow him through leap after leap of logic and faith, promising slogging hard times and adrenaline-charged redemption.
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I magine God called you. You go to bed one night. You are tired. You get up again and put out the cat. You let it back in and feed the cat. Put out the cat again. Take your vitamins. Try to get the last bit out of the tooth paste tube because you forgot to buy some at the store yesterday, or the day before, or last week. You turn out the bathroom light. You sit on the side of the bed, and hold all of tomorrow's worries at bay. You plop onto the pillow, and suddenly you are aware that Someone is trying to talk to you.
Usually, you worry through tomorrow. You worry about the family, and a couple of friends. You worry about the finances, and you have this vague notion that you have not done enough for everyone. Then, you drift off to a fitful night.
Tonight, though, you dream. You are running down a path through frightening woods filled with eyes, vines above and below, stickers, sounds, and dark. Someone is chasing you. You are afraid, but not witless. Adrenaline pumps through your veins, but you know to be more afraid of the woods than the person chasing you. You fear both the tiny things, and the big things in the woods that can kill you, more than Whoever, or Whatever is chasing you. Maybe Whoever will save you by chasing you from these woods. You still fear Whoever is chasing you. He or it seems to be able to chase you forever. He or it does not sound tired in the least. In fact He seems to grow stronger as you grow tired. Why does He chase you? The dream changes. You cannot awaken.
Change of scenery: you are walking down a warm beach. The sun is setting the clouds on fire with reds, blues, and hints of purple. The moon already promises to be bright that night. The sand and water are a little warmer than the air, and you stop. Dolphins swim in close to shore, two, four, eight of them. You linger here. You let the surf bury your toes. You seek to stay a few minutes because it is too beautiful not to watch the sandpipers running in and out of the waves. The air is too clean, the salt spray too invigorating to pass by this place. You actually turn around to take all of it in, but are startled to find someone standing in back of you, enjoying watching you. He scares you.
Change of dreams: you have listened to the judge droning, dispatching case after case through the morning. You had no idea that you would sit through ten criminals' lives to get your chance at justice. The bailiff finally calls your name and you stand in front of the judge. You stand close, because you know you are right, and he will understand. He tells you to step back. You are too close. The judge talks so loud that everyone can hear. You look around nervously, and realize the room is packed with a hundred people. Your neighbor shakes her head at you. A journalist, who had been doodling, is staring at you as though she knows you. The judge's tone has not changed when addressing you. He sounds as if he is addressing the criminals. His tone implies that you are guilty, blameworthy, derelict (criminal!). All of your reasons for being right evaporate. You are standing, but you are dead, lifeless. You cannot stand here under the judgment that you see coming. Suddenly, you are startled to see Someone standing with you. You don't know if he (she) is there to damn you or deliver you to judgment.
The dream changes one last time. You are standing in the window of your hotel room. You woke up a few minutes ago and smelled the smoke. You crawled down low and wet the towels and placed them under the door to the hall. The hall door was hot to touch. You heard no voices in the hall. You now see your self as you had feared when you saw other people on TV. You have broken the window. You now stand at a window seven stories up and a fireman on a ladder is about three feet away. It feels like six feet. He is reaching to you to tell you to jump to him. You look to the right and see an older couple quiet, resigned. She weeps and looks at her wedding band. You look to the left, and flames are licking out the window. Your eyes sting. Your lungs hurt. The fireman wears a mask. You cannot see his face. He is three feet away, but it might as well be twenty. His hand almost reaches you, but you have to lean out of the window to take it.
Suddenly the room is hot, alive with fire. Someone opened your hall door and the flames are reaching for the oxygen in your window. A fireman has pushed into your room and brought the flames. She is pushing you out the window.
You awaken. You are sweaty. A knowing is growing inside you. The knowing seems to say that all four dreams are the same Someone, the same Something in each. It takes all four dreams to understand what God is saying to you. Who God is to you. You turn on the light.
Grace. You look up "Grace" in your Bible's concordance to find verses about God's grace. You find,
[Jesus] grew and became strong, ...and [God's] grace was upon him.
You wished God's grace would be on you.
The Word became flesh.... We have seen His glory, ...full of grace and truth.
Again, you wish that like the beach, you could see God's glory, and grace up close. You wish you could dig your toes into the warmth of God's grace.
From the fullness of His grace we have all received one blessing after another. The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
You realize that you have spent too much time everywhere except on this beach with God's great grace blowing through you.
With great power the apostles testified to Jesus' resurrection, and much grace was upon them all.
Suddenly you know why you love the beach so much. You feel the life there. You can feel God sending a surge of grace through you in that place. God says, "I wanted you to exist. I wanted you to be here. I wanted you to be here with Me." It was Him enjoying watching you on the beach.
You think, "Okay, that makes the beach seem wonderful. But what was the judge, the forest, and the fire all about?" Your fingers walk over to "Justification." You see that of the few verses listed, they are all important.
After the suffering of [the Messiah's] soul, He... will justify many...
Now you see that the Someone coming to stand beside you in the courtroom was not a lawyer. The person coming to stand beside you looked like you, a mirror image of you. This person had come to stand in as your double and take your punishment. Your double would take your punishment while you returned to your life. Guilt wasn't the question. You were guilty. Everyone knew it. It was Jesus Who came to stand with you in front of the Judge.
Jesus told a story about justification:
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'
I tell you that this [tax] man, rather than the [religious man], went home
— and the word leaps off of the page! —
justified before God.
Suddenly you realize that in that court room you were as bad as any criminal. That Jesus had come to justify you, to stand in your stead and let you leave the judgment seat acquitted. You realize that God is too good to you. To understand in your head is hard. To grasp it in your heart seems impossible. That will take faith. You take a drink of your water.
You find "Faith" in your concordance, to find these verses.
Through [Jesus]..., we received grace... to call people... to the obedience that comes from faith.
(I can see your faith. It results in obedience!)
Listen to what Paul writes about faith.
I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.
[I hope] that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith.
(Want a reason for church? Pastor - fire - ember with visitor.)
Now listen to how faith and getting right with God get intertwined.
In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith...: 'The righteous will live by faith.'
This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.
When you stand frozen in the window, too afraid to jump, too frozen to leave certain death in the fiery room, God's Spirit nudges you off balance to jump into your rescuer's arms.
Do you think Faith is the main topic in the Fourth Chapter? Romans 4:9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 19, 20 all use the word to discuss how we move from what we can do, to what Jesus has done, and how He then builds in our lives what we cannot.
Hear where we are moving. We have seen the beaches of God's grace in the first three chapters. We have remembered how often we must leap into the fireman's arms in faith. Now come to God's courtroom for justice and hear where we are going. Hear the first verse in the fifth chapter.
Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
On the beach — Leaping from the window of the burning hotel — I can have (can you believe this?) peace.
That explains God's grace at the beach, Jesus the Justifier in God's courtroom, and the Spirit who is the firefighter Who walks through your fires to nudge you into God's salvation. None of those are as frightening as running from the huge creature, just in back of you in the forest's dark night. That is the fear in back of all the children's stories.
Last week I preached on God's wrath, and gave you God's definitions of wrath from Jeremiah.... The problem with the dream where you are chased is your perspective. This forest we've made is frightening, and should be. We have created a world of unbelievable wrath. People have taken land from people for millenia. They hate each other. People have made blood money and chemicals and poured them back into others' children through the land. They hate each other. People have used, abused, and broken each other for centuries. Their hatreds run deep. Their wrath simmers and explodes often. In a bag of cocaine are enough broken tribes in Columbia, spilled blood, and broken lives to pour tons of wrath into your body in one snort. Wrath comes like that: promising much, delivering nothing.
We know that the forest is scary. That is wise. That will keep us alive. We mistake our Pursuer. He has holes in his hands and heart. He is the ONLY ONE who can rescue us from the forest's wrath. Christ is the ONLY ONE who can chase us safely out of the entangling, wrath-filled forest.
So we have these four strands: wrath, grace, faith, justification. They seem so different from each other. They seem irreconcilable, so some people have a picture of God that is wrathful, forever, even in Christ. They run and run and run afraid. Jesus wept. Some people like only the grace, and do not have any idea from what they must be saved. They lack any urgency. They never share Christ with others. They enjoy being at the beach or feeling like that. Some people like being justified, and fire-insurance-in-hand they just run out of God's court and live their life as they please. Others think faith is everything. They think it is their faith, not God's gift. They think that they can put their faith in anything to make it work. If there is an American sin, this is it. These people like to jump from airplanes on fire, or ride skate boards through tornadoes, or get chased by bulls over coals. They faith in themselves, and some live! The four work as correctives to each other.
What's the point? How would the four strands come together? How would they look in your life? The audacious point of Paul moving in an overview is that these four chords, wrath, faith, grace, and justification make an unbreakable bond between God and us in Jesus Christ.
Listen to the strands in Romans to this point.
Through [Jesus]..., we received grace... to call people... to the obedience that comes from faith.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
[We] are justified freely by [God's] grace through... Christ Jesus.
[God's] promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace to all... [who believe].
Hear the thread of justification:
[We] are justified freely by [God's] grace... that came by Christ Jesus.
A man is justified by faith....
God... will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.
Four words, grace, faith, justify, and wrath. So much scripture. So much theology. What is the point? What is the hope? Why braid all of this together? How to bring all of these threads, all of these dreams together?
ALL OF THESE ARE SO we can know God. When THAT happens, 2 things result. 1) We get 'unstuck' from where ever we are stuck. 2) We can get beyond ourselves.
Leave the court. Jump into His arms. Run until He catches you. Ache to be with Him on the beach.