The Big But!

Small country churches often have messages on their signs. Some are of the Turn or Burn, guilt provoking ilk. Like the one that said, “Ch__ch: What is missing?”  (U R!)  Well, I guess it’s true: we are missing church – at least being in our church.

 Virtual worship, while better than nothing, does get tiresome. My friend Drew who is the minister at St. Alban’s in Baton Rouge, wrote a parody called “Online Worship” to the tune of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” My favorite line is, “Our kids will be pagans / they watch church on the floor / Dad, fast forward the sermon / we’ve heard it before.”

 A few days ago, I did see one church sign that I really liked. I loved the simplicity of it. It said, “Our World Needs Jesus”. Christie turned to me and said that truer words were never spoken. She’s right. And you don’t need to be in church to need Jesus. You can need Jesus anywhere and everywhere. Our world needs Jesus.

An Associated Press poll reported that Americans are the unhappiest they’ve been in 50 years. “This bold — yet unsurprising — conclusion comes from the COVID Response Tracking Study, conducted at the University of Chicago. It finds that just 14% of American adults say they’re very happy, down from 31% who said the same in 2018. That year, 23% said they’d often or sometimes felt isolated in recent weeks. Now, 50% say that.”

It’s important to note that this survey was conducted before the death of George Floyd. On a clergy webinar last week, the bishop arranged for a counselor who teaches clergy wellness at Virginia Union to talk to us about the difficulties that ministers are facing right now. Those difficulties are not unlike the strains and stresses that everyone is facing. She said that the anxiety of both the pandemic and the civil unrest, fueled by the 24 – hour news cycle, creates a fight or flight chemical reaction in the body. So, basically reading about a spike in cases or a wave of violence feels like your house is on fire.

Chemicals are produced that are very helpful in crises. You can race up the stairs and grab your sleeping children from a burning 3rd floor or lift a tractor that has overturned on your friend’s leg. But when those chemicals just sit there with your morning coffee, day after day, even if you try to work them off on your Peloton, you begin to experience chronic stress. Your body keeps the score: trouble sleeping, inability to fully concentrate, lethargy, digestive problems.

Maybe you can relate. Anyway, all of this is to say that our world needs Jesus. There is a whole lot of talk-talk-talk on all fronts right now by lots of talking heads. Including my own. Too much talk, if you ask me. If you subscribe to the Almost Daily Devotional you will have noticed this past week that there are less of my words and more of Jesus’ words. This is because our world needs Jesus.

Another way to say that is our world needs the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are certain verses in scripture which articulate the gospel with clarity. We have one of those verses in our reading from Romans this morning. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life. There are two notable contrasts in those two clauses, aren’t there. The first is wage vs. free gift. You earn a wage; you are given a gift. Many of us are notorious earners. We earn a living, earn someone’s trust, earn a vacation after lots of hard work.

Earning one’s keep can be an exhausting way to live. Christie and I were invited over to a new neighbor’s patio this past week for a bourbon tasting. 5 of us were there. The neighbor had tastes of 3 different bourbons for all of us. We were supposed to first guess the tasting notes of each: cherry, clove, oak, tobacco, etc. After that we were to guess the brand of bourbon. Apparently, I was working really hard at being right, because my new neighbor looked at me and said, “Paul – you really are a high achiever, aren’t you!” Blimey! If you can’t enjoy a bourbon tasting without winning, you’ve got a real problem.

According to the bible, however, I’m not the only one with a real problem. And that leads to the second contrast in Romans 6:23: death vs. eternal life. The wages of sin is death. All earning ends up in death. That is what sin does to us. That’s what the Law does to us. Sinners try to earn and sinners can never earn enough to merit God’s righteousness. The Law can never be fulfilled. Moreover, the comparison to others game (well, at least I’m not as bad as she is) cuts no mustard with God.

Our friend Connor Gwin had great post on Mockingbird about the temptation to “identify out.” He said newcomers to 12 step groups are warned against this – finding reasons that they are not like the other people in the room: not that far gone, haven’t lost a job, not old enough, etc.  He said, “This habit of identifying out applies to almost every area of life. It is not just alcoholics and addicts that are burdened by being “terminally unique.” We—by which I mean humans—love to be different and not like those other people (whoever those other people are).”  Well, according to the bible we are all sinners who’s earning only leads to death. There is no identifying out.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the verse or the end of the story. Have you noticed that the gospel is always in the “however”? In the case of our verse, it’s in the “but”. Dave’s brother John said in a sermon one time said, “thankfully, we have a but. And it’s a BIG BUT!”

To our point this morning, the Big But is “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  On the cross He earned our salvation for us. It’s all ours – a free gift.

I will use words to say one thing.  I need Jesus – His free gift and His eternal life. You need Jesus – His free gift and His eternal life. And our world needs Jesus – His free gift and His eternal life.

Amen.