"More Than ... Obedience"

Romans 10:1-13

(A sermon inspired by John Wesley’s sixth sermon in his Standard Sermons, “Righteousness by Faith”)
By: Michael Roberts

As Pastor Lauren and I discussed this message today, we were trying to think of biblical stories, and one that came to mind was the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. It is a story that is meant to be funny, even as it hits with a profound truth. This story is a second ending to the story of Noah. After the flood, Noah and his descendants were charged with being fruitful and multiplying and filling the earth, but in this story, we are told that they tried to do things a different way. They worked hard to build a city to “contain themselves” it says, and to keep themselves from being scattered into the world. We are told that they started building their city with bricks instead of stone and tar instead of mortar. This is an important clue. Almost every Hebrew hearing this story would have laughed at this point. Brick, in that day, were nothing more than baked mud, and tar would not hold them together for long. This group of people, says the story, “wanted to make a name for themselves.” So, they decided to build a mighty tower that would reach all the way to heaven. As they gaze upon this “great accomplishment,” we are told that the Lord had to “come down” to see it. It is wonderful satire. In the end, God pushed them out of the nest, so to speak, and scattered them, thus nudging them to fulfill their purpose. These people had to step out in faith and learn to rely on a power much greater than their own.

Just a few chapters later, we come to Abraham’s encounter with God. God tells him to pack up and to head out, “to a land that I will show you.” In other words, Abraham and Sarah are not told where they were going. They were invited to step out in trust. The scriptures tell us that Abraham and Sarah did trust God and this trust was declared as righteousness.

Righteousness. It is a key word for us today. At its root, it simply means a “right relationship with God” or to be “in covenant with God,” where we are called and empowered to live by certain God-given virtues and values. In the scriptures, we have two big understandings of righteousness. We see both of this view, in both testaments. On the one hand, we have righteousness based in obedience to the law. On the other hand, we have righteousness rooted in faith. Distinguishing between them continues to be a struggle for us, for there is some truth in both.

It is easy for us to fall into the understanding that our righteousness, or accepted to God, is based on what we do. And, I must say, us preachers and pastors can feed this idea. We say it all the time -- “stand fast in faith.” “Go to church.” “Give your tithes and offerings.” “Be good.” And it might be easy to get the impression that this is the way into God’s good graces; that we are supposed to build our way up into God’s presence. It is up to us to “make a name for ourselves,” and “prove ourselves to God,” like the people gathered around the Tower of Mud.

But here’s the problem with this understanding of righteousness. If our acceptance is based on us being good, then it is only natural that we are going to make our list manageable. We will naturally bring God down to our level. We will make the requirements easy for us to meet. “Go to church, when it is convenient.” “Put something in the offering plate.” “See religion as keeping things stable and comfortable for those on the inside, maybe throw in some judgement of those outside, so you can justify not associating with ‘those people,’” and then we’ve got it made. We set it up so that we can make a “name for ourselves before God.”

But then God “comes down” into our neat little religious order, and turns on the light. Suddenly, our eyes are opens. We start to see just how far we have fallen short of the true glory of God. In this light, we begin to see the true magnitude of God’s love for all creation, and we know that there is no way we can live up to this love on our own. Our only hope, if there is any hope at all, is in the very love that God “comes down” to reveal.

In this light, we begin to understand that a right relationship with God cannot be based on us proving to God how good we are, but only by trusting in how good God is. The Apostle Paul calls it “righteousness by faith.” Faith! It is not something we must do to in order to be saved or to live in a right relationship with God? Here’s where understanding this doctrine is so important to our own spiritual health. Faith is putting our trust in God, but before we can do this, we must have something to trust in. God’s love comes first. First God opens our hearts to know that we are not alone, that we are loved, that God is there to see us through, even through death itself. First God gives cause for faith. And then we are able to give our lives to this relationship. Then we are able to believe. And get this. Not believing does not lead immediately to judgement or condemnation, not from a God who abounds in steadfast love. No, our struggle leads to compassion from God, and continuing presence, perhaps in understanding of how the church and its judgment can sometimes help to build walls in people hearts. God only wants us to know that we are loved. This love is our salvation. That’s what it means when we are told in our lesson that “the word of God - the blessing of God’s love - is near. It is on our lips and in our hearts. It is right there, and it is for everyone to receive.

So, if you desire to be reconciled to God in “right relationship”, do not say in your heart, “I must first do this.” “I must first go to church, or hear more sermons, or be more sincere in my prayers.” No. Actually, such attempts can become a huge stumbling block to a right relationship with God. With these thoughts, you are trying to “establish your own righteousness” rather than trust in God’s righteousness for you. First only believe. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is God’s love given to us, first right here (heart).

Here’s the question for you today: Is God’s Spirit communicating with your Spirit that we are loved, that you are a child of God. Do you know this, here (heart) – in that place deep within where words fail to fully express? Beyond all outward expressions of religion, do you sense God’s presence in your life and do you know this to be pure love? If so, then respond by believing, by giving yourself into this relationship. And I want you to know that both Pastor Lauren and I are available to talk through this with you and to pray with you if you feel so led. You may come talk to us after the service today, or anytime. We would also love to hear your testimony of how God is working in your life. I know God is. For the promise is sure: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Amen.

Michael Roberts