Hi, my name’s Ray and I’m a theologyoholic. (Hi Ray). Actually I’m exaggerating. I’m not addicted to it, but as geeky as it sounds, I do love theology. Years before attending seminary, I gathered with some friends before work every week to discuss great Christians’ writings like Calvin’s Institutes or Luther’s Bondage of the Will. At seminary I was exposed to some classic systematic theologians like Berkhof and Barth and I sat under some amazing scholars like Dr. John Jefferson Davis and Dr. Roger Nicole. But more recently I have come across some new theologians, who are quickly becoming my favorites, and I would like to introduce you to them.
These are the Duck Dynasty boys. Papa Phil is on your left and son Willie is on your right. Twenty-five years ago Phil began making duck calls in a dilapidated shack in Louisiana, the business took off, and they became millionaires and now have their own reality TV show. As you can guess by their appearances, money hasn’t changed them a great deal and one reason for that is because they are men of deep faith. Son Willie said that has met plenty of people who have fame, and as Willie describes it, “So much money it is silly.” But when they come to him with questions it’s not about business. They come to him with questions about how to live life. He says that they do so because in spite of fame and fortune, many of them are miserable. What does Willie do? He listens a lot and then he opens the Bible to show them the way. Willie said in a speech to a University that there are two things of major importance, given how brief life truly is. First is to know where we are going after this life and second is how to tell others how to get there also. Now that’s some pretty good theology.
Papa Phil has his testimony on YouTube and it is powerful. He describes how when he was 28 years old he was into drugs, sex and rock and roll. One day a man with a Bible came into the beer joint that Phil was running and wanted to talk to him but Phil chased him out. But when his life started to go south, Phil looked the bible man back up and what he learned changed his life. He said that he listened to the story of the One that we are all counting time by, meaning by that, this it is the year of our Lord 2013. He said that he decided to follow this Lord when he heard that He was God in the flesh and that He died for our sins. As Phil put it, “It took the blood of God to remove my sins.”
When I heard him say those words, it struck because I have never heard anyone put it quite like that before. Theologians talk about substitutionary atonement, the Prayer Book speaks of “propitiation” but sometimes such expressions can make the whole thing sound sterile or even clinical. But when a Louisiana duck call maker says, “It took the blood of God to remove my sins” you understand that we are now where the rubber hits the road. Phil spoke from such personal conviction and experience and there was nothing sterile or clinical about it.
And he is so right in what he says because nothing else but the blood of Jesus will remove our sins. But why is that? The short answer is because God is that holy and we are that sinful. But what about doing good works? Aren’t they important? Sure they are, but we could never do enough good works to pay the debt to God that we have accrued due to our sins. You see God does not judge us by using a scale, placing our sins on one side and our good works on the other. And let me tell you that is very, very good news, because the scale would never, ever be in our favor.
I say that because the prophets tell us that God’s standard for holiness is so high that even our good works by comparison are like filthy rags before God (Is 64:6). That may sound insulting but if we will be painfully honest with ourselves then we will understand that is the truth. In our fallenness, even the best things we do have mixed motives. We hold to an ideal of unconditional love but even our love, because of our sin, is tainted. We give love so that we can receive love, and most of the time, when we no longer receive, then we stop giving. Compared to God’s true unconditional love for us, my love truly is a filthy rag. Heck, if I am honest, compared to the unconditional love of my dog, my love is a filthy rag. So our good works, which are at best mixed with questionable motives, won’t get us there.
What about the sacrificial system? Why doesn’t that save us? World religions, especially the ancient ones were filled with sacrifices. An ancient historian described the rivers of blood that flowed from the temple mount on the Day of Atonement but even those sacrifices fell short. They were still important because they pointed to a greater sacrifice, to Jesus as the Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world. But in and of themselves the sacrifices could not remove sin. This is how the writer of the letter to the Hebrews put it. “The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared. But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. That is why, when Christ came into the world” (Heb 10)
So Phil was right. It does take the blood of God to take away our sins, and in classic Southern understatement Phil, said when he realized this, “And I thought that was a mighty kind thing to do for a scumbag like me.” That’s not exactly a line from the hymn Amazing Grace, but he gets the point across.
But then our theologian Phil made a second vital point. This is what he said. “It would do no good to have my sins removed, which are many, if something couldn’t be done about the six foot hole in the ground I’m going to…and you too by the way.” What he is so poignantly expressing is that Good Friday would not really be good if it were not for Easter Sunday. As important as it is for the blood of Christ to wash us from all of our sins, we still needed more. We are more than washed and forgiven. We are more than atoned for and made guilt free. Our destiny, as we heard in the lesson from Colossians, is to be raised with Christ, to be seated with Him in heavenly places. This is not done in some angelic form nor will we spend eternal life as spirit beings. We will live with Him forever in resurrected bodies that are free from corruption because Jesus has defeated death. St. Paul told the Corinthians. “So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”
Phil went on to say, “It’s too wild a story to be dreamed up by human beings, especially sinful ones.” I could not agree more. We have always been taught that if something is too good to be true then it probably is. But in this case, we are not being promised things that are too good to be true by men of questionable reputation. The promises of eternal life come from Jesus Himself. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life, the one who believes in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” And if Jesus words were not assurance enough, the apostles sealed the testimony of His resurrection with their own lives, most dying horrible deaths in His Name. So even though the Gospel story sounds too good to be true, it is in actuality not only true, but it is even better than we can think or imagine.
As Phil was completing his testimony, he left his listeners with a challenging comment. He said, “If you are not a believer and you don’t believe that God really exists at all, about the only hope that you have is that He will not be there. What we are saying is that we trust that He is.” This duck hunter’s logic reminded me of the argument of a 17thc Christian philosopher name Pascal. Both men argue that there is nothing to be gained by disbelief but everything to be gained by belief in Christ.
While I understand and agree with the points of both men, I want to offer a caution that there is more to what God is offering us through the resurrection of Jesus Christ than making one bet that wiser than another. Being a Christian is more than choosing theism over atheism. It is, as the very name implies, having Christ within. It is being united with the resurrected Lord. It is being a branch that derives its very life by being connected to the Vine. It is being filled with His light and as a consequence having this light so shine before men that they see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. In his powerful book on Grace, Max Lucado puts it this way. “The Christian is a person in whom Christ is happening….Rather than telling you to change, he creates the change. Do you clean up so he can accept you? No, he accepts you and begins cleaning you up. His dream isn’t just to get you into heaven but to get heaven into you.” (p10).
When I look back over my story, I think that it was this kind of grace that entered my life while in the University. I imagine that many of you have had a very similar experience. I had the right beliefs about the Lord but what I was lacking was the right relationship. I believed in Him and would even confess Him, but I cannot say that I was allowing Him to work in me the way that Max Lucado says that He should. But then I became, by yielding to God’s love for me, as Lucado put it, “a person in whom Christ is happening.” I have not done it perfectly. I have been inconsistent and had starts and stops. I have even failed Him many times but His love has kept me on this journey. He transformed my right beliefs into a right relationship just as He has done for many of you.
So as I said at the beginning of this sermon, I love theology, but I also know that theology does not save us. Good theology is like a good road map. It gets us to our destination but the map itself is not our destination. Again from Max Lucado. “He (Jesus) placed a term limit on sin and danced a victory jig in a graveyard. To be saved by grace is to be saved by him – not by an idea, doctrine, creed, or church membership but by Jesus himself, who will sweep into heaven anyone who so much as gives him a nod.” While the last part of that quote seems a little extreme, all we have to do is to remember Jesus words to the thief on the cross who only asked to be remembered when Jesus came into His kingdom. Jesus said to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The thief didn’t deserve that, nor did the thief do anything to earn it, but then again, that is what grace is all about.
And that is as it should be because neither do we deserve it, nor is there anything that we can do to earn it. It is simply ours to receive as a gift and to spend the rest of our lives and the rest of eternity saying, “Thank you.” On this day of all days, God’s grace reaches out to us having defeated our ultimate enemy, which is death, so that even at the grave we make our song, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen. The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia.