August 22, 2010

Above the Law - Aug 22, 2010

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A man named Lord Acton once remarked, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A brief stroll through history confirms this axiom to be true. People who attain power and authority often consider themselves above the law. They aren’t, but they think it all the same.

But what if you really were above the law? You.

What if you didn’t have to look down at the speedometer when you saw a police car in your rearview? What if all of your taxes were paid in advance and you could toss that letter from the IRS? What if everyone treated you like their closest friend? Forgiving your misspoken words. Forgetting your broken promises. What if your Creator loved you more than anyone else, and agreed to pay off your eternal debt of sin, free of charge?

Wouldn’t that be liberating? You’d be above the law. Never afraid of punishment. Totally free.

Writing to followers of Christ who lived in Galatia, the apostle Paul penned this intriguing statement:
“…if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law” (Galatians 5:18 NIV).
Paul elaborates on this idea in the first verses of our sermon reading for today. We continue our study of Paul’s letter to the Colossian Christians at Colossians 2, verse 13.
“13When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. 15And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:13-15 NIV).
Here’s how God’s forgiveness works. Jesus was God’s Son, born of a woman into the human race. He never sinned, and therefore didn’t need to be forgiven. Didn’t need to be restored to a good relationship with God the Father. But, on the cross, Jesus was punished for EVERY human sin that had ever, or would ever, be done. Like it says in Second Corinthians...
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV).
If all the just punishment for our sins has already been suffered by Jesus, there is no more punishment left to be dished out. And if there is no more punishment for sin, we have been raised above the law.

The law was like a huge boulder hanging fearfully above our heads. It looked down on us and terrified us because we knew that our sins deserved punishment. But when that rock fell, it fell on Jesus and we were set free. In Romans 8, verses 1-2 it says…
“1Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2 NIV).
Or as Paul put it in our reading from Colossians,
“…He forgave us all our sins, 14having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13b-14 NIV).

What this means is that if Christ really died on the cross for you and me, and if God the Father really raised Him from the dead as proof that His sacrifice was enough, and was accepted - then we are free. We are above the law, and Satan and death no longer have any footing against us. No accusation can be made, for the sentence has already been served.

Some people are very uncomfortable with this idea. Some view religion as merely a machine that tries to make better people. They say, if you tell everyone that all their sins are freely forgiven, then they won’t have any reason to behave themselves. They’ll just run around with a license to sin.

Paul was well aware of this flawed response to the Gospel. Turn to Romans 6, verse 1. After explaining that though faith in Jesus we have full forgiveness, Paul says…
“1What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:1-4 NIV).
The apostle Peter was also aware that free forgiveness could be abused. He knew that our inner sinful nature would seek to use Christ’s love as a license to sin. In his first letter Peter wrote this to his fellow Christians…
“Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16 NIV).
Turn to Galatians 5, verse 13. There Paul writes…
“13You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. 14The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:13-14 NIV).
The forgiveness that we have through Christ’s cross is free. It is complete. But it is freedom FROM sin and sin’s punishment, not freedom to sin. A repentant heart will not use God’s love and forgiveness as an excuse to live in sin. Instead, a repentant heart rejoices in the all-forgiving love of Christ, and seeks to mold itself to God’s will.

It’s a bit like being a diplomat in a foreign country. Representatives of the United States are given “diplomatic immunity”. They are not subject to the laws of the foreign country that they are in. Their diplomatic immunity is not intended as a license to break laws. It is meant to enable them to relax and concentrate on serving their country to the best of their ability.

Once Paul has established that the Colossians now stand above the law in Christ, he continues. Colossians 2, verse 16…
“16Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. 19He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow” (Colossians 2:17-18 NIV).
God gave a lot of laws to the Jews to govern the way they worshiped him. This is what Paul is talking about when he mentions religious festivals, New Moon celebrations and Sabbath days. The festivals were held once a year like our Christmas and Easter. The New Moon celebrations were religious services held at the first of every month – at the “New Moon”. The Sabbaths, of course, were weekly services like the way we hold church on Sunday.

These worship times all had certain rules and regulations connected with them. Details about what animals were to be offered, who was to do it, how it was to be carried out.

Paul says that what happened at these gatherings was meant to foreshadow what the Savior would do when he finally came.

For example, in the Old Testament some foods were considered ceremonially unclean, others clean. After Christ came, God declared all foods clean as a way of illustrating that through Christ all people are declared clean.

In the Old Testament animal sacrifices were offered to God when people sinned. These foreshadowed how Christ would sacrifice Himself, once, on the cross, to take away the sins of the world.

In the Old Testament the Sabbath day was a day of rest and worship. The Jewish people were forbidden to do regular work on that day. It was their time to worship God. Through Jesus sinners are given ETERNAL REST and peace with God.

The Old Testament laws were shadows of the reality that is found in Jesus. They were previews of the blockbuster to come.

But here’s what happened. Sometimes the purpose of rules and regulations gets lost. A regulation begins to be followed just because that’s what has always been done. Then the regulation takes on a purpose that was never intended.

The Jews began to see the worship laws that God had given them as things that were done in order to earn God’s love and forgiveness. When Jesus finally came, they found it hard to let go of the things they’d grown up doing. They found it hard to trust solely in the salvation that came through God’s Son. They were convinced that salvation must have something to do with their observing the Old Testament worship laws. Even Peter found it hard to let the old ways go. Turn to Acts 10, verse 9.

“9About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. 13Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
14“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
15The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:9-15 NIV).

On another occasion, Peter fell back into old ways. He was in Antioch where the church was made up of both Jewish born Christians and Gentile born Christians. Paul writes…
“11When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. 12Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
14When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
15“We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ 16know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:11-21 NIV).
When he wrote to the Colossians Christians, Paul didn’t want them to be intimidated into resurrecting all the old Jewish traditions. He knew that these things might seem very religious. The young Christians at Colossae might have thought they could become more mature Christians if they started following these traditions. But that was the farthest thing from the truth.

Adopting an intricate system of manmade laws only distracts from Christ’s forgiveness. And if you begin to think that obeying these traditions is what makes you a acceptable to God, then you’ve been severed from Christ.

In his letter to the Galatian Christians, Paul wrote…
“2Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope” (Galatians 5:2-5 NIV).
Faith in Christ connects us to Him. He alone is the reason we stand above the law, forgiven. He alone is the way to grow stronger in the faith. Ritual and tradition can have value, but not in connection with our salvation. Christ alone is our salvation.

Let’s read our final section from Colossians 2, verse 20.
“20Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Colossians 2:20-23 NIV).
My daughters have a series of books called “Sweet Pickle” books. Inside this one (“Xerus Won’t Allow It”) it says, “In the world of Sweet Pickles, each animal gets into a pickle because of an all to human personality trait. This book is about X-rating Xerus, who thinks that telling people what is not allowed will solve all problems.”

In the book, whenever a problem arises, Xerus makes a sign that bans whatever type of activity he sees as causing the problem. First he clears up a problem outside the town bank by putting up a sign that says, “No Parking, No Stopping, No Standing, No Talking”. An argument in the park leads him to put up a sign that says, “No ball playing in picnic area, No eating on ball field, No sleeping, No yelling.” Eventually it gets ridiculous when two animals bump into each other at the door of a shop. Neither will step aside for the other, so Xerus solves the problem by putting up a sign that says, “Absolutely No going in the out. Positively No going out the in. No in or out allowed.

The human response to problems is often to make more laws. Problem is, laws don’t really solve problems. Laws can’t erase what has already been done. Laws can be broken in the future. You see, laws have no power to reform the heart, which is the source of our sins.

The monk who castrates himself to avoid sexual sin can’t cut away his lustful thoughts. Taking a vow of poverty won’t necessarily decrease the sin of greed. In fact, it may increase the sin of worry, trading one sin for another. Becoming a pacifist does not banish all feelings of hatred and anger.

Laws and rules doesn’t reform the heart. And even if it could, they can’t erase the past. Only Christ cleanses and reforms. Only Christ removes us from under the threat of God’s punishment for sin, and opens the way for a new way of living. A way that begins with forgiveness and freedom and peace with God.

Prayer: Father in heaven, thank you for making us your children through faith in all your Son has done for us. Thank you for opening the way to forgiveness and peace through Your Son’s cross. We tend to judge others unfairly Lord, help us not to do this. We tend to see laws and regulations and harsh words as the solutions to so many of our problems. Erase this instinct from our hearts. Center our minds in Christ, where we are above the law. Center our minds in Christ, where we cannot feel unworthy when others judge us. Center our minds in Christ, and keep us from the shackles of legalism that the world would put back on us.


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