It always happens. And it happened again this past week. Every time I get together with Rabbi Tuffs and folks from the synagogue, we always end up telling jokes. Heck, even for this event we’re hoping to have at the Tipsy Boar in March, we’re telling a sort of joke. Here’s our promo line. A pastor and a rabbi walk into a bar, and the first drink is on them. And that’s no joke. It’s a little clever, I think. By the way, if you’re curious to learn more about that event, touch base with me after worship or look for more information in the coming weeks.
Anyway, when I began looking at the scripture for today, maybe that’s why I remembered this joke. This woman is relaxing at home watching TV, when suddenly this urgent news bulletin breaks in. The anchor reports: A driver is going the wrong way on 95, and causing all sorts of chaos. She thinks. Oh my goodness, my husband worked late tonight. He is probably coming home right now. I better call and warn him. As soon as he picks up, she wastes no time. She tells him. “Honey, please be careful, some drivers is going the wrong way on 95.” Her husband starts shouting! “Babe, it’s worse than that! It’s not one driver. It’s thousands!” Wait for it. Wait for it. Ok. You get it.
Why did I think of that joke? Because that guy going the wrong way shows the heart of the problem with the human race. Left on our own, human beings always go the wrong way. And worse than that, they don’t even realize it. And that wrong way has nothing to do with what good or bad things people actually do. A cold blooded murderer and a person who lives an exemplary life are both going the same wrong direction. How can that be? In these words from Romans, God shows us the way. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.
How can it be? How can someone doing utterly evil things and someone doing very good things both be heading the same wrong direction? In both cases, neither is seeking God. It’s possible that they both are thinking they’re seeking God. After all, ISIS folks believe they are doing theirmurders for God. But in reality, neither is seeking God at all. No human being, on their own, seeks God ever. So how do human beings experience God at all? Because God is seeking them. Only when you realize that, does your direction change. Only when you grasp the wonder of this God seeking you, dying for you, do you finally see the light.
But before we get there, let’s talk about why everyone is in the dark in the first place. How can it be possible that no human being seeks God? That’s what Paul is telling us. He says it so clearly. “There is no one who has understanding. There is no one who seeks God.” But in case, you didn’t really get it, look at what he says before. He says, “Both Jew and Greek, are under the power of sin.” In Romans 1, he talked about the depravity of Gentile culture, idolatry, orgies. Now, he is saying, both the depraved and the devout, are under the power of sin? Whether you have lived a life of compassion and care or a life of cruelty and disregard, in the end, Paul is saying, it doesn’t matter. In either case, you both are heading in the wrong direction.
Folks often start connecting to a church, because they want to get their life straightened out, to go the right way. And that’s exemplary. But in Christianity, it’s not the central point at all. God is telling us here, both people living a moral life and an immoral life have the same core problem. So that’s can’t be it. If you think that’s what Christianity is about, you have totally grasped the wrong end of the stick.
On the other hand, if you have become a Christian, you need to see something too. Before Paul experienced the gospel, do you think he saw him himself as no better than some idol worshipping, orgy attending, Gentile? No way. But now, he gets it. Even as a devout Jew, he was no better. The gospel radically re-humanized the entire human race for Paul, and it has to do the same for us. If we’re honest, we always have one group or another that we’re tempted to look down on. Take politics for example. Whether you are conservative or liberal, do you really look at the other side, and say? I’m no better. Probably not. You likely say. No, we are a lot better. Or let’s go deeper. Do you look at the folks at ISIS, and say to yourself; I’m no better? That’s what God is telling us. If you get what the gospel is telling us, really telling us, it will re-humanize everyone for you, even those who do the most evil of acts.
But how can Paul say this? How can there be no difference? How can he say even, that there is no one who shows kindness, not even one? Because Paul is going way deeper than our outward behavior. Paul is looking at why we do everything, whether it is good or bad. He is not interested in what we are doing. No, Paul is interested in what direction what we are doing points. Do you see the phrases he uses? No one seeks God. All have turned aside. Paul is talking about direction. To go back to the joke, Paul is saying. It doesn’t matter if you’re a great driver or a terrible one, if you both are heading the wrong direction. And what is that direction? It’s the direction that takes you away from God. That’s all that sin is; anything that draws you away from God.
And you can move away from God by being very good or by being very bad. If you are going the bad route, you move away from God, by trying to control your own life. And if you go the very good route, you move away from God, by trying to control God. But in either case, it’s not about God. It’s about you. The very bad person is certainly all about me, me, me. What I want; who cares about anyone else. But the very good person is all about me, me, me, too. They just camouflage it behind good deeds. But they still want something. Maybe it’s approval from God or others or blessings or security, whatever. But they’re not seeking God. They’re seeking something from God. Paul doesn’t say that people don’t seek blessings from God or answers from God or forgiveness from God. Of course they do. Paul is saying that no one seeks God just to seek God. It’s so appropriate that they put all the spirituality books at Barnes and Noble next to the self-help section. That’s what most of them are about, God helping me. Everybody is looking to God’s hand. But nobody is looking to God’s face.
Years ago, I was talking to my sister, about how I was struggling with some bad habit. She asked me. “What’s the pay-off?” She said. Even if you are doing something you don’t like, Kennedy, there has to be some sort of pay-off, otherwise you wouldn’t do it. And in every deed, we do, whether good or bad, we’re always looking for that, the pay-off. It’s always about us.
That’s why so often in an alcoholic family, the good spouse, who has been nobly putting up with the alcoholic’s behavior all these years, has a crisis, if the alcoholic gets sober. That person wasn’t just selflessly putting up with all the bad behavior. No, he or she was getting a pay-off. They weren’t loving the alcoholic so much as what the alcoholic’s behavior was getting them. It may have been a sense of moral nobility or of control or whatever. But when the alcoholic gets better, the pay-off goes away. And that’s a problem, a big problem, often as big as the alcoholism was itself.
That example only points to what every human being does. Whatever deeds we do, even good ones, when we drill down deep enough, are about us. No one serves God just to serve God. Heck, no one, on their own, serves others just to serve others. We’re all looking for a pay-off, to feel good about ourselves or superior to others or whatever. Now, let me be clear, it’s better to do good deeds than bad ones. But neither good deeds or bad deeds get to the heart of the human problem, which is neither of them lead you towards God. Instead, they lead you right back to yourself. “And that radical self-centeredness makes our world a mess.” (Tim Keller)
And we know this. When Paul describes us as people whose throats are open graves or have the venom of vipers, he is describing what lies underneath. Behind our best deeds, we sense it, the anger and touchiness, the resentment and discouragement. Inside, that’s us. So what’s the cure?
It begins with these words, every voice will be silenced. To get to healing, you first need to spiritually shut up. When we come to God with excuses or pleas we’ll do better (Please God) or or even beating ourselves up (God, I am so bad), we simply need to shut up. Whatever we say to God to help us become better will still move us in the wrong direction, toward self-justification or self-sufficiency or self-loathing. We’re just making ourselves worse. We’ve gotta let all that go, all the good things, all the bad things. Becoming a Christian, doesn’t simply mean repenting of your bad deeds. Heck, self-righteous religious people do that all the time. Becoming a Christian, means repenting of the reasons you did ever your best deeds. Becoming a Christian means coming to God with nothing, because nothing is all you got. As long as you come to God with something, salvation can’t come.
And when you come with nothing, then you get it. You not have been seeking God, but you realize. God has been ardently seeking you. And you’ll experience something the Bible calls, “the fear of God,” what the Bible says again and again is the beginning of wisdom, which simply means beginning to see reality.
We often mistake fear of God as being scared of God. Yet again and again, the Bible puts together fearing God with loving God or with experiencing God’s love. And at the same time, the Bible says that fear, like being scared fear, cannot co-exist with love. As I John puts it. There is no fear in love. But the more you experience the love of God, the more this fear of God grows in you, and every other fear diminishes. So what is this fear of God? What does it mean? The preacher Tim Keller has a great definition. This fear is joyful, humble awe and wonder at the salvation of God.
This is not just happiness, but something far more. It’s a joyful awes that frees you from yourself. It humbles you to the depths, even as it lifts you to the skies. An old rabbi put it like this: It’s carrying two pieces of paper with you all the time, on one is written: “You are as dust and ashes.” And on the other: “For you the universe was created.” This joyful awe leads you to feel so humbled, you can’t be self-centered. And at the same time, it leads you to feel so radically affirmed, you don’t need to be. You are living in joyful awe at what God has done for you; that God has sought you; how in Jesus, God has died for you; how Jesus has given everything for you, to turn you around and bring you home.
It’s the joyful, humble awe behind the lyrics of songs like, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small, Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all” or these words. “here is love vast as the ocean, loving kindness as the flood when the prince of life, our ransom, shed for us his precious blood, who his love will not remember…who can cease to sing his praise” or what we will sing in just a few minutes, “Just like a blind man, I wandered along, worries and fears, I claimed for my own, then like the blind man that God gave back his sight, Praise the Lord I saw the light.”
And when you see that light, really see it, then you’ll know the joyful fear of the Lord, the awe and wonder at the infinite, unbreakable, incredible love that God has for you. In that love, Jesus will free you from yourself, and you will love God simply because you love God. You won’t look to God for anything, because in God’s love, you already have it all.