Thursday, February 22, 2018

My World without Billy

February 22, 2018

I woke up this morning to a world without Billy Graham. It felt strange, because throughout my 64 years on this earth—including over four decades serving in the gospel ministry—Rev. William Franklin Graham has been a dependable constant for me in an all-too-often chaotic world.

Long before I was born on December 29, 1953, Billy Graham was already a national phenomenon who had preached to hundreds of thousands.  But before my first birthday, his fame became global. For it was in 1954 that Billy Graham took London by storm when he held a three month long crusade during which over two million Londoners attended the services and some 40,000 made professions of faith in Christ.

The news this week is filled with the many other mind-boggling statistics about the ministry of this remarkable man and I need not repeat them here. A quick Google search will provide a menu of stories about how Billy Graham touched and sometimes dramatically changed the lives of many famous people, from Johnny Cash, to Pastor Rick Warren, to George W. Bush. But most of the 100 million people who saw him preach in person and the uncounted billions who watched him on TV were not famous, but the impact that he made on their lives was no less significant. This story is about how Billy Graham affected me.

Mine was the first “TV Generation,” and television was a major factor in Graham’s impact on the world—and on me. I grew up watching Billy Graham crusades. It is hard to communicate the impact of those broadcasts to those of you born after the advent of cable television. For most of my childhood St. Louis had three network TV stations plus a PBS channel with a weak signal. So when a crusade broadcast secured one hour of prime time, it effectively tied up one third of the TV viewing options during that time, giving Billy something of a captive audience. No evangelist today, no matter how effective, could hope to capture such an audience. For me and millions like me, the impact of Cliff Barrows leading those massive crusade choirs, George Beverly Shea’s powerful bass voice singing We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder and How Great Thou Art, celebrity testimonies from people like Johnny Cash, Graham’s clear and convicting sermons, and the image of multitudes of people responding to the invitation as the crowd sang Just As I Am made a deep and lasting impression.

I was only twelve years old when I first began to sense God leading me into the ministry. By fifteen I preached my first sermon. As God’s Spirit was working on my heart, Billy Graham was my much admired role model. The longer I was in the ministry, the more I learned about Graham’s life and approach to ministry, the stronger that role model became. For as I came to better appreciate the challenges of serving in the ministry, and the temptations that come with the calling, the better I appreciated the steadfast consistency of Billy Graham and the wisdom he demonstrated in handling those challenges in his own life. Vice President Pence was in the news last year because of his longstanding commitment to follow the so-called “Billy Graham Rule”—a policy of never allowing himself to be alone with a woman not his wife. Actually, this is only one aspect of a far broader set of principles that came to be known as the Modesto Manifesto:

During his meetings in Modesto, California, in November 1948, Graham met with his co-workers and friends George Beverly Shea, Grady Wilson, and Cliff Barrows (at the motel on South Ninth Street where they were staying) to determine what were the most common criticisms of evangelists and how they should organize their own meetings so that they would be above reproach. Among the points they agreed on was that the Graham team would avoid even any appearance of financial abuse, exercise extreme care to avoid even the appearance of any sexual impropriety (from that point on, Graham made it a point not to travel, meet or eat alone with any woman other than his wife Ruth), to cooperate with any local churches that were willing to participate in united evangelism effort, and to be honest and reliable in their publicity and reporting of results. The so-called Modesto Manifesto was the name they gave among themselves to the principles they decided on and applied in Graham's ministry from that point on. (

Graham’s example helped me to craft my own set of guiding principles to protect my own ministry from any hint of scandal.

Some years ago I put down on paper my longstanding guideline for avoiding sexual sin in my ministry, Glen Land’s 10 Rules for Avoiding Personal Disaster in Pastoral Relations with the Opposite Sex (

Years ago I determined to stay well clear of the money handling aspects of parish ministry. In any of the churches that I served I made certain that I had no role whatsoever in the process of collecting and depositing offerings. Nor would I have access to the giving records of members lest an accusation of favoritism toward large donors be leveled against me.

Finally, again learning from Billy Graham’s example, I have consistently steered clear of politics in my ministry. The pulpit is not a political stump. My calling is not to promote a political party or a candidate for public office. It is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ to a world in desperate need of his saving grace.

I regret that I never had the chance to personally meet and shake the hand of Billy Graham. Less than three months after we got married, Joyce and I attended nearly all of the services of Graham’s St. Louis crusade in November 1973. Twice I heard him address meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention. But I was never closer than one more face in a sea of faces. Nonetheless I feel like I know him well.

The world is an emptier place without Billy Graham’s presence. Still, grief is not what I am feeling today. Rather, I am profoundly grateful for the privilege of having lived so much of my life at a time when this great man of God was in the full flower of his ministry.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Retirement Reflections

On Sunday, December 2, 1973, a little rural church in the Missouri Ozarks, deep in what is now known as the Mark Twain National Forest, called a very green kid who was still 27 days shy of his 20th birthday, to be their fulltime pastor. The church was Grassy Hollow Baptist Church. That boy pastor was me.

A lifetime of vocational ministry that thus began 44 years ago drew to a close last month on Sunday, December 17, when I preached at Gospel Community Church Rivermont for the last time. As of that day I officially retired.

Forty-four years ago I could cradle my entire theological library in one arm. Today I have some 40 bankers boxes filled with books—and that after culling my collection by at least 20%. But I collected a lot more than books over those 44 years. My ministry has taken me from Missouri to Texas, back to Missouri, California, back to Missouri, Chicago, Wisconsin, Virginia, and in a short time, once again back to Missouri. In addition, my many mission trips have taken me to the Amazon Basin of Brazil, Russia, Yemen, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kuwait, Thailand, Guatemala, and the United Kingdom. Along the way I’ve gotten to know and love some amazing people. Joyce and I have collected some wonderful memories.

The setting for the next chapter of our story will be close to where it all began, back in Washington County, Missouri, just a few miles east of the little village of Caledonia, a quaint little tourist town about 80 miles south of St. Louis. There my brother, Lindell, will be building our new home on a ridgetop clearing in the woods near the farm where our family lived when I was in high school. Here I hope to do some serious writing, both fiction and non-fiction. When I’m not writing I intend to slowly transform those 7½ acres of Ozark woodland into our own private garden. And I expect I’ll still be doing a lot of preaching in the dozens of little country churches within an hour’s drive of our new home.

Construction of that new house is set to begin in a few weeks. But it will be a big job. The access road must be improved, power has to be run to the site, a well drilled, a basement dug… the list goes on and on. Till then we will be at the mercy of family members for room and board. Our well-ordered world will be in chaos for the next several months.

I’ve come a long way from that terrified 15-year-old boy who preached his very first sermon on March 9, 1969 at Fellowship Baptist Church in High Ridge, Missouri. Yet in some ways, it seems like only yesterday.

Life has been an adventure. The story is not over.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

A Eulogy

My 87-year-old father died on December 30, 2017. I shared the eulogy that follows at his funeral on January 3. - GL

I have trouble even imagining the world of my father’s childhood.

Fred Harry Land, the fourth of six children born to Holman and Mary Land of Crawford County, Missouri, entered this world on the night of December 21, 1930, the night before the winter solstice—the longest night of the year. As the story of that event has been passed down, it was a night of heavy snow and bitter cold in the Ozark countryside just a few miles south of the little village of Leasburg.

Dad was born in a weathered, rough sawn, oak slab, cabin with a rusty tin roof. It boasted neither electricity nor plumbing. An old wood stove in the front room and a wood cook stove in the kitchen struggled to provide such heat as there was, but this was insufficient to prevent ice from forming in the chamber pots in the two small bedrooms on such a night as that one. Kerosene lamps offered dim illumination at best. Water was hauled by hand from a nearby spring. As an alternative to the chamber pots, there was a privy out back for those willing to brave the elements. Newsprint, pages from old catalogs, and as a last resort, corn cobs served as toilet paper. In many respects that cabin wasn’t much different from the far more spacious oak barn that provided the family milk cow and a mule shelter from the elements. But at least the cabin had a wooden floor.

Dad grew up deprived of the many advantages that he and Mom gave to Mona, Lindell, and me. The Great Depression was barely into its second year late in 1930 and for millions of people around the world things would continue to get worse long before they got better.

Life on my Grandpa Land’s farm would have been tough enough had the economy been booming. Those rocky clay ridges begrudgingly yielded a living at the price of cruel toil. Boyhood for Dad was little different from what his ancestors many generations earlier would have known. Two adults and six kids were crammed into a tiny cabin—personal privacy was the luxury of the rich. Food was what you could raise, grow, or bag hunting. Meat on the table was salted pork, fried chicken, or squirrel taken with the heavy old 10-gauge, double-barreled, black powder, shotgun that was the only gun in the house. Most meals were accompanied by thick flour gravy. The rest of the meal came from Grandma’s garden. It was a high fat, high calorie, high salt diet in which lard figured prominently, but long hours of hard manual labor demanded it. Obesity was never an issue.

Bathing was limited to a once a week ritual when a big galvanized wash tub was hauled into the kitchen and filled with water heated on the cook stove. The same water that rinsed off the lucky guy who got first dibs was still in the tub for the hapless soul at the end of the line. The soap used was the harsh homemade lye soap that Grandma was still making when I was a little boy in the early ‘60s. After all these years I would still instantly recognize its distinctive smell.

It was a tough world that demanded toughness from those who survived. That was certainly true of my father. When he graduated from high school at age 17 he was a wiry 5’9” and 150 lbs. By this point he had survived a bad concussion that left him blind for a couple days and a broken arm that was improperly set by the local saw bones, leaving him with a slightly crooked right arm. (Believe it or not, he got the concussion from running down a hill jumping stumps. He lost his footing and did a header into one of them.) He had a quick temper, a tendency to boast, and a habit of settling arguments with his fists.

Dad was no scholar. Educational opportunities in Leasburg were rather bleak in those days, and to make matters worse, Dad had vision problems that glasses never completely corrected. Consequently reading for any length of time tended to give him a headache. But his educational attainments had nothing to do with his intelligence. He was certainly bright enough to know that there was no future in remaining in Leasburg. He wanted to see the world. So in 1948, shortly after graduating, he got Grandpa to sign for him so that he could join the navy.

The first bit of the world beyond Leasburg that Dad saw was the U.S. Navy’s Great Lakes Training Center just north of Chicago. He wasn’t impressed. In fact, he was convinced that he’d made the biggest mistake of his life. Just eight days after enlisting he petitioned—in vain, of course—for a hardship discharge.

But in many respects the navy was good for him. With the high protein diet that he enjoyed in boot camp he quickly added 30 pounds of muscle to his lean frame—mostly on his chest and upper arms. He maintained the upper body strength that this gave him until just a few weeks ago by which time cancer had finally taken its toll. One of the contributing factors to his muscular upper body was the fact that Dad was the undefeated company boxer in boot camp. He boasted of beating the Golden Gloves champion of Chicago in the ring. He particularly liked boxing because after a bout he got all the steak he could eat.

Dad avoided most of the usual sailors’ vices. He didn’t drink, smoke, or womanize. But he did gamble, both poker and craps, and he was good at it. So after a few hours in port, when many of the ship’s crew came back aboard from liberty hungover and broke, Dad was saving his pay—and putting it to work with a little payday loan business for his cash-strapped shipmates. Consequently, when he was discharged he had enough money saved to pay cash for a brand new ’51 Chevy and to make the down payment on a house. The financial futures of his shipmates I leave to your imagination.

It was in the navy that Dad learned the trade that he would pursue until he retired. He was discharged with the rating of Electrician’s Mate 3rd Class. Not long after moving to High Ridge, he went to work in St. Louis for American Car and Foundry rewinding electric motors for trains. It was a dirty, dangerous place to work, so when an opening in the electrical shop at the Anheuser-Busch Brewer came up, he jumped at it. He would work at the brewery, first as an electrician and then as an electrical foreman, until he retired. He soon became known as the best electrician in the brewery. Plenty of men could fix a piece of equipment if told what was broken, but Dad was a troubleshooter. He could study a piece of complex electrical machinery and figure out why it wasn’t working. It was his rare skill as a diagnostician that made him so valuable to the company. When lesser men were stumped, the order would go out: “Send for Land!” I have often wondered what Dad might have accomplished with a first class education. He had a good head for math. Combined with his mechanical aptitude and his analytical ability, he would have made a fine engineer.

I must confess that it was this very ability that used to frustrate and exasperate me no end. I grew up hearing Dad say—and if I heard it once I heard it a thousand times—“What man has done I can do!” And though there was a lot of hyperbole in that boast, it also reflected a solid core of optimism and self-confidence that defined who my father was. Faced with a recalcitrant piece of equipment, maybe something that he had never worked on before, Dad would tear it down and tackle the repair, confident that he could master the problem, leaving us lesser mortals shaking their heads in shamefaced wonder when he succeeded. I recall one particular winter Saturday when Dad left for work having assigned me to a day of woodcutting. I headed to the woods but try as I might, I couldn’t get the chainsaw started. (I never have been on very good terms with 2-cycle engines.) When called to give an account at the end of the day, I reported to my father my tale of woe. To my lasting mortification, he went outside and had the saw running in five minutes.

But Dad’s biggest accomplishment while in the navy wasn’t boxing, loan sharking, or learning the difference between AC and DC. It was marrying his sweetheart back home. On May 31, 1950, while on leave, Dad married Beverly Faye Pennock, a young girl from the neighboring town of Bourbon. After a whirlwind honeymoon Dad reported back to his ship, the USS Abnaki (ATF-96), and headed out to sea, bound for Korea. They wouldn’t see each other again for a year. Perhaps that is why for the rest of their 67+ years of marriage, they did almost everything together. Theirs was not a relationship that included poker nights for the boys or coffee klatches for the ladies. Whether it was work or play, they almost always did it together. Mom would provide the creative impetus—there was nothing of the artist in my father—and Dad would provide the muscle. They made quite a team. Together they built and remodeled multiple homes. In fact, I would argue that they were never happier than they were sweating together in the middle of some big project.

Dad is one of only a handful of men that I have known in my life who could literally build a house from digging the footings to the finish work without having to contract out a single task. He could do it all. He really didn’t have the patience to do fine finish carpentry—he was much better at framing. Of course wiring the house was no challenge for him. And he was a self-taught plumber. His water lines didn’t leak and his toilets always flushed properly. But as I was reminded just a few weeks ago when spending the night at Mona and Joe’s where I used a shower that my Dad had installed many years ago, he had this weird quirk, as many of us can testify, of getting the hot and cold water lines crossed. After Mona and Joe bought the house from Mom and Dad, Joe set about uncrossing numerous mixed up waterlines. That shower was the only one he hadn’t gotten around to. I kinda hope he leaves it as it is—a memorial if you would. But if so, a warning label needs to be added for the benefit of the uninitiated.

Generosity is perhaps not the first trait that leaps to mind for those who had the occasion to share a meal with Fred Land. How often I remember Mom’s exasperation with Dad as he inevitably took the first place in line at the buffet table at some family gathering. Nor was he shy about laying claim to the last piece of pie. If challenged it was hard to fault his logic. “I’m the one who worked to earn the money to buy this food, who better than me to eat it?” But any greediness in such petty things was more than compensated for by his extraordinary generosity when it came to the big things in life, especially when it came to his children. I remember the pride in his voice when years ago Dad told me that he realized that he had become a millionaire. He had added up his cash plus the value of his stocks, bonds, and property and for the first time the total topped one million dollars. Not bad for a kid who left home with the clothes on his back.

Most of that million is long gone. In part this was from some bad investment decisions. But the fact is that Mom and Dad have given much of their hard-earned assets to their children and grandchildren. A car here, a house there, a school loan paid off, a farm signed over, a big wad of cash handed over free and clear… the list goes on and on and on. If nothing else, my parent’s generosity is an effective curb on any tendency toward pride that I might have. When I get in one of those self-congratulatory moods I need but ask myself, “Where would I be were it not for the help of Mom and Dad?” I was once tempted to tell a pastor search committee: “I was born in Bourbon and Anheuser-Busch helped put me through seminary.”

One of my early memories—I was about six at the time—was seeing my father baptized by Pastor John Sullivan at Fellowship Baptist Church, our church in High Ridge. Just a couple years later I would follow his example. Dad was never a Bible scholar. Reading typically put him to sleep. Nor was he inclined to talk much about his faith. But I never doubted the reality of it. For by the time I was old enough to watch and learn from his example, that brash young man from Leasburg had matured into a solid, sober, faithful, loving husband and father. The life he lived was a far stronger testimony of what a godly man is like than any sermon that I’ve ever preached. There wasn’t a lot of “do what I say” in my father. But there was a world of “do what I do.”

Dad taught us the meaning, importance, and value of work. I’m sure that he must have called in sick on occasion but such occasions were so rare that I can’t remember one. What I do remember is Dad getting up early to put chains on his pickup so that he could make it to work on time in the teeth of a winter storm. I don’t think he ever missed a day of work because of weather, even when he was commuting 80 miles from the farm to St. Louis. And when he got home from work he worked at home. I still remember the winter in Caledonia when he overhauled the engine of his old Chevy pickup in an unheated barn, handling those pieces of cold metal dripping with gasoline with his raw, chapped hands. When he did relax, he enjoyed nothing more than following his beloved St. Louis Cardinals. And unlike many baseball fans, Dad really understood the game.

Dad taught us the importance of loving and caring for your family. Not once did he ever lay a hand on my mother in anger. He didn’t hesitate to spank one of us kids if we had it coming, but he never struck us with a clenched fist. And when we needed him, he was always there. He never made a promise to me that he didn’t keep. He never disappointed me. He never let me down.

I never saw him drunk. I never saw him paralyzed with fear. I never caught him in a lie. I never heard him make an excuse. My father taught me what it means to be a man. As a young man his dashing good looks included a mane of thick, wavy, jet black, hair. He bore a striking resemblance to how Superman was depicted in the comic books of my childhood, which is appropriate, since that is how I always thought of him.

He had plenty of opinions but he wasn’t one to offer unsolicited advice. After I left home he only did so twice: Always buy good tools and have your kids close together so that you get them out of diapers quickly. He also told me, “When in doubt, vote Republican,” but I think that was before I moved out.

Over a decade ago Dad was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer. The doctors attacked it with a vengeance: surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy… the works. And though in the end all of their efforts failed to permanently eradicate the disease, they did buy him over a decade of continued life. But such aggressive treatment was not without a cost. For the rest of his days he would cope with such unpleasant side-effects as a leaky bladder.

How he responded to all of this tells us much about the measure of a man that some of you knew as Fred, others as “Grandpa,” who my sister called “Daddy,” who my brother called “Pop, and whom I simply knew as “Dad.” To be reduced to wearing a diaper in your old age might cause a lesser man to slide into a permanent state of depression. But not my Dad. Optimism tempered by pragmatism has always defined his outlook on life. He seldom complained and he NEVER whined. Instead of bitching about the umpire’s call, he just hit what was pitched. A pithy comment he made to me soon after the cancer treatment ended, succinctly summed up his attitude. He said, “A man only has two pleasures in life. At least I can still eat.” In an email a while back my friend, Bob, put it this way, “Your dad would survive a concentration camp while others perished out of frustration and hopelessness.”

I once made a list of the most influential people in my life. Four of those individuals are in this room today:
  • My mom, who first opened my mind and heart to the truth of God’s Word.
  • My old friend, Bob, who for some 50 years has been there for me through thick and thin and who kept me honest through it all.
  • My beloved wife, Joyce, the one great love of my life, who provided a much needed civilizing influence on me.
  • And my Dad, who taught me to be a man.

Late on the night of December 30, lying hand in hand beside my mom, Dad peacefully slipped into eternity to stand in the presence of his Lord.

A couple weeks ago in the Belgrade Bank Selma Akers briefly mistook me for my father. Joyce tells me that with each passing year I look, sound, and act more like him. And some mornings when I look into the bathroom mirror I think, “What’s Dad doing in my bathroom?”  That said, I close with this. I can think of no greater honor than to have it said of me, “He reminds me of Fred Land.”

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The Story of the Green Bay Jailer

[NOTE: This story was written on December 12, 1994. At the time I served as pastor of Valley Baptist Church in Appleton, Wisconsin. – GL]

Dan Bozich is in daily close contact with some of the vilest people in northeast Wisconsin. Dan is a corrections officer at the Green Bay Correctional Institution, one of Wisconsin’s maximum security prisons. When Dan goes to work in the morning it is to spend his day rubbing elbows with murderers, rapists, and drug dealers. Some days he works in the segregation unit where he deals with such people as child molesters—people deemed unfit even for the general prison population.

The work of a corrections officer is not for everyone. It requires both physical and mental toughness to a degree not found in most people. Dan Bozich more than meets the necessary criteria. Dan is a physically imposing man. He has the build of a football lineman: broad shoulders, huge biceps, and a thick muscular neck. Slap Dan on the back and it’s like slapping a shoe sole. Matching his physical condition is his mental strength. Like most people in law enforcement, Dan has learned to suppress the instincts of compassion and tenderness that are a part of normal human interaction, for there is nothing normal about the prison environment. The very qualities that make life worth living on the outside can cost you your job or even your life when you work in a prison. Any way you look at him, Dan Bozich is a hard man.

Dan’s wife, Jill, has been a member of Valley Baptist Church in Appleton, Wisconsin, for some time. A few months ago Dan and Jill’s twin daughters, Erin and Erica, were saved and later baptized. Dan attended the baptism and was moved by it. He started attending occasional church services. His interest grew. Finally, after the worship service on December 4, Dan made an appointment for later in the week to meet with me.

On Thursday afternoon, as we talked in my study, it quickly became obvious to me that Dan was under conviction. A part of him wanted to follow Christ but another part had real fears about how that could be possible in the work environment that he faced each day. How could he be a Christian without hypocrisy given the way he felt about some of the people he was charged to watch? Dan was ever so close to making a commitment, but it appeared that he was not going to be able to make that last step of faith. I silently prayed in desperation that God would not let this opportunity pass, that somehow he would give me the words to secure for Christ the soul of Dan Bozich. And then, in a glorious moment of supernatural insight, God showed me the key that would release Dan from his prison of sin. And at the very moment the insight was granted, I knew that Dan’s life was about to be changed forever. I inwardly smiled and said to myself, “I’ve got you now!”

“Dan,” I said, “Did you know that there’s an account in the New Testament of a corrections officer who gave his life to Christ?”

“No!” he replied with evident interest.

“Would you like me to read that story to you now?”

“Yes, I would.”

Then I opened my bible and read these words from Acts 16:22-34:

25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, 26and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone's bonds were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.

And as I read, I saw in the expression on Dan’s face the evidence that the last line of resistance had just dissolved. Dan and I knelt together and Dan Bozich, the Green Bay jailer, asked Jesus Christ to be the Lord of his life.

That passage from Acts has long been a favorite of mine. But never before had I connected “jailer” with “corrections officer.” And I will never again read those verses without remembering Dan Bozich and how a corrections officer in ancient Philippi once showed a corrections officer in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the path to salvation.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

A Mythbuster Look at the Christmas Carols

Why Did They Burn That Poor Mule?
I remember when I was little hearing people sing the third stanza of Deck the Halls: “See the blazing Yule before us.” Afterwards I wondered to myself, why did they burn that poor mule?

You may have heard the one about the kid who made a drawing of the Nativity scene for Sunday school. Everyone looked familiar except for a fat guy standing in the corner. “Who’s that?” asked his teacher. “That’s Round John Virgin,” said the kid. “You know, Round John Virgin, mother, and child.” And before you classify that story as myth, remember: I really did think they were roasting a mule…

Many of you have seen the Discovery Channel’s popular series, Mythbusters. Each week Adam Savage, Jamie Hyneman attempt to prove or disprove all kinds of popular myths and urban legends. What would the Mythbusters do with the theological assumptions and the level of historical accuracy behind our beloved Christmas carols? Since Savage and Hyneman are both outspoken atheists, I decided that I was much better qualified to either confirm or refute the popular beliefs about the first Christmas found in the carols.

I’m betting that much of what you think you know about Christmas is based on those carols you learned as a child. It may come as a shock that these are not an entirely reliable source of information. And I’m not even talking about some of the more absurd notions like that presented in The Little Drummer Boy:

Shall I play for you, on my drum?
Mary nodded, the ox and lamb kept time,
I played my drum for Him,
I played my best for Him,
Then He smiled at me,
Me and my drum.

Oh course we all know that pounding on a drum has long been a favorite method of shepherds and cowboys to calm restless flocks and herds, so we’d naturally expect one of the shepherd boys to be packing his trusty bongo. And no first-time mother would ever object to some strange kid banging away on a drum just a few hours after she endured a difficult birth in a barn. And don’t even get me started about the ox and lamb rhythm section…

Actually myths about miraculous animal activity associated with the birth of Christ regularly appear in medieval times. So it should not be surprising to see the line in the first stanza of Good Christian Men, Rejoice, “Man and beast before Him bow…” since this ancient carol dates back to the 14th Century in its original Latin version. Luke 2 makes no mention of any animals at all except for the flocks of sheep out in the fields. While it is reasonable to assume that there would have been animals in that stable, there is no reason to believe that they acted in any way out of the ordinary—unless they may have been a bit uneasy at having unexpected human company sharing their humble accommodations. You can bet they weren’t talking, bowing down, or beating time to music.

Away in a Manger
Away in a Manger was probably the very first Christmas carol that I learned to sing. Remember those words in the second stanza, “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes…”? The writer is anonymous but I have to believe he was a father who’d lost sleep due to a crying baby. I’m reminded of the words of one of my Old Testament professors, a man who was a practicing pediatrician when God called him into the ministry. Having already earned one doctorate, he headed off to seminary and earned first a Master of Divinity and then a Ph.D. His comment? “A baby that doesn’t cry is sick.”

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (or did they?)
Perhaps the most prevalent theme in our Christmas music is the image of heavenly choirs of angels singing to celebrate the birth of our Lord:
Ø  Hark! the herald angels sing…
Ø  Angels we have heard on high, Sweetly singing o’re the plains…
Ø  With the angels let us sing…
Ø  Sing choirs of angels, sing in exultation…
Ø  Whom angels greet with anthems sweet…
I could go on.

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear adds the idea of angels playing harps:
Ø  From angels bending near the earth, To touch their harps of gold…

Angels We Have Heard on High has the shepherds joining the chorus.

The only problem with all this is nowhere in scripture does it once mention angels singing.

What does Luke’s gospel actually say?

13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

In the New Testament singing is always mentioned in the context of praise to God. There are several different Greek words that are used to convey the idea. But the word translated praising in Luke 2:13 is not the word usually used for singing.

But let’s face it. We are talking about angelic voices here. And somehow I suspect that prose from the lips of an angel would sound like music to a human ear. So I’m willing to give Charles Wesley and Joseph Mohr and all those other great hymn writers a pass on this one.

But lose the golden harps.

Perhaps the biggest misinformation about that first Christmas that song writers have contributed to has to do with the star and the wise men; confusion that is compounded by how little we actually know about this most mysterious aspect of the nativity stories.

We Three Kings of Orient
They adorn countless Christmas cards.  They’re the most exotic figurines in a traditional nativity crèche.  They’re the little boys wearing the paper crowns in the Christmas play.  They are the subject of song, and myth and legend.  They are the wise men—those mysterious figures from the East who came to worship and honor the infant Jesus.

Just who were the wise men?  Were they, as the song says, three kings of the orient?

The wise men are more accurately called the magi from the Greek word mágoi.  From that same Greek root we get the words magic and magician.  The term first referred to members of the shaman chaste of the ancient Medes, a tribe in what is now western Iran.  To the magi was ascribed the power to interpret dreams.  The Greek philosophers regarded the magi not only as priests, but as teachers and philosophers as well.

Long before the 1st Century magi had assumed a much broader meaning.  The magi were thought to possess supernatural knowledge and ability.  They were interpreters of dreams, soothsayers, astrologers, scientists, magicians, and counselors to those in power.   By Jesus’ day the magi were no longer exclusively Persians.  There were Babylonian magi, Arabian magi and even Jewish magi such as the sorcerer Bar-Jesus in Acts 13.  They ranged from charlatans like Bar-Jesus to some of the most learned men in the ancient world.  The magi in Matthew 2 are pictured has wholly admirable characters, magi at their best.

Where were the magi from? The Gospel simply says that they were “from the East”. Beyond that, there are three locations that are usually suggested: Parthia, Babylon, and the deserts of Arabia or Syria. Strong arguments can be made for each. Parthia is the location most favored by the history of the term mágoi. The Babylonians had a long and highly developed interest in astronomy and astrology. And camel caravans had long been bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh north from the southern end of the Arabian Desert—the region of modern day Yemen.

If the magi were from Parthia, then their dress—belted tunics with full sleeves, flowing trousers, and conical-shaped caps—would have looked very much like the genie from Aladdin’s lamp!

Then there’s the theory that the magi came from multiple locations, an idea closely associated with several other legends, none of which have any basis in history. Like the belief that there were three magi. The Bible doesn’t say how many there were. Three are assumed because three kinds of gifts are listed. Or the notion that the magi were kings. (Again, the Bible is silent on this point.) Various names have been given them. Best known are: Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar which first show up in the 3rd Century. By the 9th Century the tradition was established that they represent three races. Balthasar was Asian; Gaspar a white European; and Melchior was a black African.

The confusion continues to this day. Bob Yarbrough, a dear friend of mine, now teaches seminary in St. Louis but years ago he was as a logger in Montana. He told me about Steve Spooner, a wild Montana man he sawed with over 35 years ago. Bob was trying to lead Steve to faith in Christ. It was around Christmas. The discussion veered off to the birth narratives. To illustrate how improbable the Bible is, Steve said, “We know the wise men were from China.” That was news to Bob. So he asked, “Steve, how do we know the wise men were from China?” Steve’s answer? “Because it says, ‘We three kings of ORIENT are.’” Hard to argue with that kind of logic.

We don’t know precisely where the magi were from, only that they were “from the East.”  So what do we know?
·         We know there were at least two, since mágoi is a plural.
·         We know they were men, since these words have masculine endings.
·         We can assume that they were men of some financial means.  Their gifts were valuable.  In the First Century frankincense and myrrh were worth more than their weight in gold.  They had the leisure and financial means to make a long journey.  Given the dangers of travel in the border regions on the eastern end of the Roman Empire and the value of their goods, they were probably accompanied by a large contingent of armed guards.
·         We can assume they were men of some stature and influence, since they were quickly granted a private audience with King Herod.
·         We can assume that they traveled some distance to get to Jerusalem.  If they came from the closest possible location, the western edge of the Syrian Desert, then they traveled at least a couple hundred miles—a good ten-day trip.  However, if they journeyed from southern Arabia or from Parthia, which is located well to the northeast of Babylon, then conceivably they traveled as far as 2,000 miles, much of it through empty desert, and most likely on camels.  Such a trip would have taken at least four to six months and possibly much longer.
·         We know that they were regarded as wise and learned men in their day and that a part of their learning included a study of the stars.  Their statements to Herod’s court were regarded as quite credible and were taken with utter seriousness.

Were the Magi present on Christmas night? – The third stanza of The First Noel suggests as much.

We get a clue to the truth from Matthew 2:7 which reads, “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.” Herod did some quick math. He assumed that the star appeared at the moment the Messiah was born. We have no way of knowing if that assumption was correct. Did the star appear when Christ was born, or did it appear to the Magi in advance, so as to put their arrival on the scene near the time of the birth? There is simply no way for us to know. Luke’s account of the birth makes no mention of the star at all. The shepherds saw a host of angels, but they said nothing about a star. And being familiar with the night sky, we have to believe that they would have noticed.

In Matthew 2:16 Herod ordered his swordsmen to kill all male children in Bethlehem two years old and under. Many argue from this that Jesus was two when the magi arrived. If so, why kill the newborns? The obvious answer is that Herod wasn’t being all that discriminating—he just wanted to make sure he got the right baby. But that makes as much or more sense if when Herod issued his execution order he included children older than the age ascertained from the Magi just to make certain that he found his target. If we know anything at all about Herod the Great, we know that he never shied from shedding innocent blood.

What we can conclude from the text is that the Magi did not arrive the actual night that Jesus was born, for it says in verse 11 that they found the family in a house not a stable. But that’s not much help. I think it safe to assume that the morning after the birth Joseph’s #1 priority was to get his young family out that stable and into a house. Given the realities of Middle Eastern hospitality, it is unthinkable that some family in Bethlehem would not have opened their home to a young mother with a newborn baby. So for all we know, the magi may have arrived the next night.

Why did the magi come? Why would important and wealthy men journey great distances at considerable cost and risk with no apparent prospect for personal gain? What drew the magi to Bethlehem? Well, the Star drew them. It’s hard for a modern Western mind to understand the way the ancients looked at reality. Let me illustrate with a couple events from the night of November 5, 2001. I was in suburban Milwaukee when I learned that a longtime friend and co-worker had just died.  Moments later I noticed something odd about the sky. It was a display of the northern lights and with a degree of clarity and brilliance unusual for those latitudes. Bright reds and greens danced across the autumn sky. It was the most dazzling aurora borealis that I’ve ever seen. In fact, if you go to and search that date you will see a picture of that same aurora taken in Roanoke, Virginia!

Now all that this meant to me was that an unusually large solar flare a few days earlier had sent a mass of energized particles hurtling through space and those particles were now colliding with earth’s ionosphere, resulting in an aurora. But had I been a magus in the ancient Near East, I’d have interpreted those events very differently. I’d have seen an important connection between my co-worker’s death and that atmospheric disturbance. The aurora would have been interpreted as a sign with symbolic meaning.

Perhaps this helps us understand how seeing an unusual star in the night sky would take on special meaning to those sages of old. It was a sign, a portent of some important event that was happening or was about to happen. It had meaning to the world at large and to them personally. They would have gleaned clues to what nation was involved from the specific area of the sky where the star appeared. Perhaps the star was in the constellation Leo. They may have associated Leo with the Lion of Judah, the symbol of the royal house of David. Some such reasoning process led them to conclude that the event involved Israel. We do know that they were not led to Jerusalem by literally following the star. That is common misconception. In verse two the magi told Herod that they saw the star in the east. Later in verse nine we are told that the star reappeared to them as they were leaving Jerusalem and led them to Bethlehem—directly to the place where the child was located.

So what was this star? Was it some natural phenomenon that was interpreted symbolically? Many theories over the years have been offered with just such an explanation in mind. A supernova, a comet, or an unusual planetary conjunction are among the better-known ideas. In 1975 Arthur C. Clarke actually wrote a sci-fi short story, The Star, based on the supernova theory. All of these suggestions raise interesting points and all have both strengths and weaknesses.

But I’m not convinced that any of these theories adequately address the events recorded in Matthew. The first appearance of the star might be explained as a primitive culture’s interpretation of an unusual natural event. But the actions of the star in Matthew 2:9 defy any such naturalistic explanation: “And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.” The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem—where tradition says the stable was located—is just over five miles SSW of site of Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. For a light in the heavens to guide travelers from Herod’s palace to a specific spot in Bethlehem means that this light must have been very low in the sky and had to have been moving very slowly.

Imagine the difficulty of following a hot air balloon from the ground. If it’s at 30,000 feet and caught up in the jet stream it’d be impossible to keep up with and impossible to estimate when you were directly under it. On the other hand, if that balloon were only a hundred feet off the ground and drifting slowly, you could easily keep up with it in open country and would know with confidence when it was directly overhead. Movement of this nature could not be attributed to a comet or a supernova or a planetary conjunction or any known atmospheric disturbance, nor could such phenomena begin to provide the kind of precise direction needed to locate one specific person on the ground. And specific direction, after all, was the whole point of the exercise! Whatever that star was, it was no thing of nature.

What we think of as an event limited to one night was actually a series of events spread out over weeks or months:

First, the command of Caesar Augustus compelled Mary and Joseph to make the difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Whether they arrived on the night of Jesus’ birth or a day or two earlier we don’t know, but given their living arrangements they couldn’t have been there long.

Second, the nighttime announcement of an angelic messenger inspired the shepherds to leave their flocks and investigate.

Finally, on a night long ago a group of pagan scholars studying the stars saw something totally unexpected. They concluded, for reasons no long clear to us, that this unusual star signified the birth of a new King of the Jews. So they headed for the logical place to look for a new Jewish king, the palace of the current Jewish king, Herod the Great in Jerusalem. As they left Herod’s court on their way to Bethlehem, that mysterious star reappeared and led them with precision to the very house where Jesus lay.

These diverse moving parts were under the direct control of God: Roman imperial tax policies, the superstitious beliefs of pagan astrologers, the natural curiosity of lowly shepherds, the fear and hostility of a cruel despot, the seemly inconsequential travels of a poor peasant couple, and the announcement of an angelic messenger… all skillfully combined, like threads in a heavenly tapestry, to set the stage for the birth of the Son of God.

No one is suggesting that a song or carol must be correct in every detail before you can sing it. So feel free to enjoy your favorites (unless your favorite happens to be Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer which ought to be banned by law). But for a reliable source of Advent season theology, stick with Matthew and Luke.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, September 04, 2016

The Righteous Shall Live By Faith

First Message in the Series
Romans – The Road to Righteousness

Sunday, September 4, 2016
Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church
Glen A. Land, Senior Pastor

Guilt, fear, and shame—the sources of a debilitating state of mind that robs our days of joy and our nights of peace.

Guilt, fear, and shame—feelings that haunt the lives of people everywhere, regardless of race, nationality, language, culture, educational level, or economic status.

Guilt, fear, and shame— emotions that have bedeviled us from that day when we each first grasped the meaning of “bad.”

Guilt, fear, and shame—since the first Sumerian scribe more than 5,000 years ago pressed a sharpened stick into soft clay tablets to fashion the earliest written words, human history has been the dreary record of the ruinous consequences of this terrible triad of despair.

But guilt, fear, and shame are far older than Sumer—far older than any written history. Their story actually begins in a garden of delights—the Garden of Eden. You know the story…

Genesis 3:4-11
4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

8And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 10And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” 11He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

So what exactly were the consequences of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? What did Adam and Eve actually learn from their misadventure?

  • Because they broke God’s command, they learned about guilt. It was guilt that caused Adam to blame Eve and Eve to blame the serpent.
  • Because they broke God’s trust, they learned about fear. When God drew near, instead of greeting Him with gladness, they hid in the bushes.
  • Because they broke God’s relationship with them, they learned about shame. Their response? A pathetic attempt to cover their nakedness with fig leaves.

Guilt, fear, and shame—the three-fold emotions of sin. This was the immediate consequence of their disobedience.

  • Guilt: that sense of having done something wrong. You see that flashing blue light in your rearview mirror and it hits you. I was speeding. I broke the law.
  • Fear: the distress felt when faced with the consequences of your actions. The IRS is auditing your taxes. You suddenly realize that when they uncover the deduction you claimed for that “business trip” to Vegas, you’re going to be facing a big fine.
  • Shame: the embarrassment or sense of unworthiness that we feel in the presence of someone better than us. That feeling you had when a parent or spouse caught you looking at an inappropriate website—a feeling sometimes expressed by the phrase, “I wanted to crawl into a hole and pull the hole in after me.”

If guilt, fear, and shame are the immediate consequences of our sin, then the long-term consequence is death—the physical death of our bodies and the eternity in hell separated from God that Revelation 20:14 calls the Second Death.

But there is also an intermediate consequence of our sin. Between the sinner’s sense of grief caused by guilt, fear, and shame; and the threat of death that hangs like a shroud over our futures; there is a lifetime spent in exile. Adam and Eve lived out their days as exiles, cast out of Eden with the way back blocked by a cherubim wielding a flaming sword, while forever haunted by the memory of what they’d lost.

Exile… the Bible is filled with stories of people living in exile, cut off from home, cut off from where they belong. Exile is an integral part of Judeo-Christian theology. Adam, Moses, Hagar, Jacob, Daniel, Isaiah, Jonah—all lived as exiles. Paul spent much of his life as a displaced person. The last book of the Bible, The Revelation, was penned by the Apostle John in exile on the island of Patmos. All of these men and women and more lived—and sometimes died—cut off from family, from friends, from home.

It is the plaintive cry of the exile that we hear in the words of Psalm 137:

1By the waters of Babylon,
    there we sat down and wept,
    when we remembered Zion.
2On the willows there
    we hung up our lyres.
3For there our captors
    required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4How shall we sing the Lord's song
    in a foreign land?

The theme of exile runs through Scripture because sin makes exiles of us all. Our heart’s home is with God. But because of our sin, we are cut off. The way back is barred. There is no going home again.

It was exile in this sense that David feared in Psalm 51, his powerful prayer of repentance after his sin with Bathsheba:

10Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and renew a right spirit within me.
11Cast me not away from your presence,
    and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and uphold me with a willing spirit.

Cast me not away from your presence… don’t make an exile of me again.

One of the worst punishments that a prisoner can face is solitary confinement—deeper exile for one already in exile. To be cut off, to be banished, to be shunned… To be forced into exile is to become a pariah to those whose love and respect we crave. Just ask Ryan Lochte. Sin has made him an exile within the international swimming fraternity, just as sin has made us all exiles from the presence of God.

Ever since The Fall, we’ve sought relief from guilt, fear, and shame.

We all experience each of the three emotions of sin, but some cultures tend to emphasize one more than the others.

  • Western cultures tend to focus on guilt. Catholic parochial school guilt has even become a mainstay of stand-up comedians.
  • The tribal cultures in the jungles of Africa and South America are fear based.
  • Muslim and oriental cultures are shame focused societies where appearances—hiding one’s guilt and saving face—are more important than one’s actions.

But in every culture underlying all of these anxieties is the ever-present fear of death and punishment.

To rid ourselves of guilt, fear, and shame, we sometimes resort to bizarre, even silly remedies. One website I checked out offered some “Emotional Healing Exercises.” A couple of their “exercises” such as, “Write a Letter to someone who hurt you, Read It Aloud, Then Burn It” or “Beat Up a Pillow with a Tennis Racket” are pretty standard stuff in the emotional health self-help world. But some were pretty weird, such as:

The Staircase to Your Inner Sanctuary Exercise
Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Relax. Now imagine that you’re at the top of a tiny staircase that begins… right behind your eyes. This staircase spirals downwards to the centre of your being. Visualize yourself as a little doll, at the top the staircase. Let yourself wander down the stairs to the core of your being, a place of great serenity. Let your dolly freely wander about the place. What do you see? What do you feel? Embrace your emotions. Don’t hold back. Let it flow. Whatever happens happens. Be the little doll within your sanctuary for as long as you like. Whatever happens will be beneficial.

The Pink Bubble of Light Exercise
This one has you visualizing yourself totally surrounded by glistening white light that comes down from the universe, filled with sparkling little silver stars. The light and the stars surround your entire body, swirling gently around you. Then you breathe in the white light. The white light will help you. (Exactly how this helps was not made clear.)

And if the exercises alone don’t hack it for you, the website will be happy to sell you some wonderful flower essences…

As ridiculous and useless as these so-called “exercises” are, at least they recognize our feelings of guilt, fear, and shame as real issues that need to be squarely faced and addressed. In the last half of Romans Chapter 1 Paul describes another approach, one that denies the factual basis of these emotions. And here there is nothing in the least bit humorous:

18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

24Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Look at this passage in its entirety, and you’ll see that it’s the depiction of a culture—a whole value system if you will—that stands under God’s judgment. For the Bible tells us that it is not merely individuals whom God will judge. He is also the judge of nations and of cultures. And the culture Paul describes is one embraced by people…
  • Who refuse to acknowledge God’s truth.
  • Who actively suppress that truth.
  • Who are futile in their thinking.
  • People who are fools.
  • Who worship the creation—not the Creator.
  • Who are filled with lust and perversion.
  • And people who actively affirm and celebrate rebellion against God and all he represents.

Paul spent his entire ministry working to undermine the power and influence of this world view. This culture has a name. The name is paganism. As characterized by the early church, paganism is a worldview in which hedonism reigns supreme. It is the “religion” if we can even properly call it a religion, of people who are sensual, materialistic, self-indulgent, and who have rejected the Christian basis for morality. In describing paganism Paul speaks of the thought process of a people who have lost touch with ultimate reality. They have ceased to be truly rational beings. Their thoughts have become complete nonsense—that’s how the Good News translation renders “futile in their thinking.” It suffers from a fatal flaw, the basic disconnect from reality that stems from their failure to recognize and glorify the true God. What God did in confusing the speech of the arrogant and proud builders of the Tower of Babel, he has allowed to happen to the very thought process of the pagans. This was the dominant culture of the Roman Empire—the culture that many of the Christians in Rome were a part of before they came to Christ—the culture that they were saved out of.

What, you may ask, has 1st Century paganism to do with a 21st Century world? In a word, everything. Paganism is having a great revival—a Satanic aping of spiritual awakening if you would. It comes in many forms. It’s adherents run the gamut from atheistic secular humanists like Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Angelina Jolie, and George Clooney to an increasingly creepy 90-year-old Hugh Heffner lounging about the Playboy mansion in those signature silk pajamas of his to gay anarchists running amok in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to some Wiccan priestess chanting to the rising sun at Stonehenge on the dawn of the summer solstice.

What all these people have in common is their denial of the moral basis for guilt, fear, and shame. Shaking their fists at their empty heaven, they declare themselves free from the constraints of conventional morality. Those in the vanguard of this philosophy—the really radical true believers—have not merely stretched the boundaries of moral propriety, they have blown them away. And they revile any who do not endorse and support their moral lawlessness. Who among us has not heard the latest outrage in the news without shaking our heads and muttering, “These people just aren’t thinking straight!” In truth, that is precisely their problem. Their thoughts, especially about God and his commands about right and wrong, are complete nonsense. And like arguing with a drunk, you cannot reason with them. They suffer from Babel of the Brain.

And what is heaven’s answer to this mockery of all that’s holy? “…God gave them up… God gave them up… God gave them up…”  Three times that bleak phrase is repeated like the slow echoing cadence of a sounding gong. It is the pronouncement of doom. Paul’s scathing account of the moral emptiness of paganism’s followers reveals its disastrous end; an end where God gives them up to the impurity of their lusts. He gives them up to their dishonorable passions. He gives them up to follow the sinful impulses of their debased minds. The apostle is absolutely unrelenting in his condemnation of a world view that is utterly opposed to Christ’s teachings

Pity the foolish pagans! Paul’s account reaches its nadir in verse 32, “Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” Willful rejection of divine revelation hardens the heart to the point where the rebel takes delight in the sinfulness of others. At this point wickedness has sunk to its lowest level.

But lest we too quickly thank heaven that we are not pagans, we need to ponder the fuller meaning of this text. For while Paul is certainly describing the plight of the pagan, when we look at the broader context of his epistle these words describe the state of all us apart from the saving blood of Jesus Christ. This is the inner reality of the human race—a reality that traces all the way back to Eden. These verses are a revelation of the gospel’s judgment on us all. They lay bare the rotten heart of the human race. And they warn that our sin has invited the wrath of God upon us.

Some cringe and back away from talk about God’s Wrath as if it were some holdover from a less enlightened age. They equate it with irrational passion. Yet we recognize that even for humans not all anger is irrational rage. Righteous indignation against moral evil is not only possible; it is a necessary component of goodness. To not be outraged by, say, the premeditated murder of a child, would indicate an alarming lack of love.

Certainly for fallen humanity we can seldom if ever separate sinful passion from righteous wrath. But that is not a problem for God. His wrath is as holy as his love. And it is just as much an essential aspect of his divine character. They are two sides of the same coin in the same way that his mercy and his justice are both divine attributes.

And so we come, finally, to the heart of this message and the theme of Romans, Romans 1:16-17:

16For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

The preaching of Christ crucified, risen, ascended, and coming again reveals to us both God’s loving mercy to the sinner and his righteous wrath toward sin. Don’t you see? It is the gospel that reveals both. In the gospel divine mercy and divine judgment are inseparable. God offers us forgiveness but he never offers to condone our sin. He doesn’t smile and wink at our misdeeds like an overindulgent grandparent. Through Christ God welcomes us into his family as our Father—but never as our grandpa.

What does Paul say? “For in it [“it” being the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed…” And the gospel is more than just the wonderful news that if we will confess our sinfulness, repent of our sin, believe in the Jesus Christ as our Savior and commit our lives to him as Lord he will save us. It is also the terrible wonderful incredible story of what he did to make this possible. And it is also the story of why he did it, a story that began back in the garden. It is ALL the gospel we must accept—or reject. We cannot cherry pick the nice parts.

It has often been observed that gospel literally means good news. And so it does. And so it is. But the road to the good news must pass through some very bad news: That guilt, fear, and shame you feel? You deserve it. You are guilty. You have reason to be afraid. And you ought to be ashamed of yourself. Until you face that awful truth not even God can help you. You’ve got to ‘fess up. You’ve got to come clean with yourself and with your God. Every AA member introduces himself or herself with the phrase, “I’m an alcoholic.” Well my name is Glen, and I’m a sinner.” We’d do well as Christians if we were to routinely greet one another in this manner. We call it confession and it’s the first step toward salvation. God already knows we’re sinners. We’re just agreeing with him.

So you know you’re a sinner. That guilt, fear, and shame you carry around is baggage you’ve earned—like those heavy chains dragged about by Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol. What are you going to do about it? The Bible teaches us that the next step is an act of will—you determine in your heart and mind to live differently, to turn around and go the other way. We call this repentance. I know. You’re already shaking your heads. You’ve been down that road before and it was a dead end. You’ve tried to change before and you’ve failed every time. And you’re right. All the heartfelt resolutions, all the good intentions, all the tearful pleading will get you nowhere because sin has you in a death grip. You’re not man enough, you’re not woman enough, you’re not strong enough, you’re not good enough to crawl out of the hole you’re in.

This is where the good news part of the gospel comes into play. Help is available. “…the gospel . . . . is the power of God for salvation…” The gospel—not the message we preach but the historical reality behind it—that act of divine redemption that began with a message from an angel to a maiden in Galilee and ended with a brutal execution on a cross, a glorious resurrection, an ascension into heaven, and a future return in glory and power—from this comes the power you need to change your life forever.

You’re guilty. You broke God’s command. On the cross Jesus took your guilt upon himself. He took it all.

You’re afraid. You’ve been running from God all your life. The thought of dying terrifies you. When Jesus was nailed to that cross he took your punishment upon himself. Hundreds of years before his birth in Bethlehem the prophet Isaiah foresaw the sacrifice that Christ would one day make for you and me:

“But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.”

You’re ashamed. The things you’ve done haunt your dreams. You’ve made such a mess of things. You can’t forgive yourself. There are people you can’t look in the eye, much less God. How could God forgive you?  For the answer we have to jump ahead to Romans 5:8-11:

8but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

The glorious message of Romans 1:17 is simply this. In the gospel, seen in all its fullness, a righteous status which is God’s grace gift to the human race is revealed and freely offered. God’s saving grace means that…

  • Christ has redeemed us. God’s justice is answered. Our debt is paid. Our guilt removed.
  • Christ shed his blood on the cross for our sin. God’s wrath was satisfied. We obtain his mercy which frees us from the fear of punishment.
  • Christ reconciled us with God and brings us into a right relationship with him. He intercedes with the Father on our behalf. God’s honor is preserved and our shame, removed.

All of this is received—and can only be received—by faith. This kind of faith, this saving faith, is best described as believing obedience. It is confidence that what Christ has done for us is sufficient to remove forever our guilt, our fear, and our shame. It is the obedience born of faith that the way of salvation opened to us in Christ is all we need. It is the faith needed to turn from sin and follow the savior. We are saved by grace. But faith opens the door.

Saved—by grace, through faith: No more guilt. No more fear. No more shame. And as the children of God we are no longer exiles. We have come home at last.

No more guilt, no more fear, no more shame—just grace. @RomansTheRoadToRighteousness