Dark Light?

“Now if you call yourself a Jew, and rest in the law, boast in God, know His will, and approve the things that are superior, being instructed from the law, and if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light to those in darkness, an instructor of the ignorant, a teacher of the immature, having the full expression of knowledge and truth in the law — you then, who teach another, don’t you teach yourself? You who preach, “You must not steal” — do you steal? You who say, “You must not commit adultery” — do you commit adultery? You who detest idols, do you rob their temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written: The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Romans 2:17-24 HCSB)

One of the wonderful things about being a grandpa is the chance to play like a kid with my grandkids. In some ways, I’m still that same kid that I was years ago even though my body doesn’t always agree. I’d love to play football in the backyard, lie on my back out in a field and watch the clouds during the day or the stars at night, fly a kite on a windy day, go camping in a tent and sleep on the hard ground and still wake up feeling good and rested the next morning, and to roll around and wrestle on the floor and still be able to jump up and keep going. However, my reality is a little less rigorous and a lot slower but I still enjoy it.

My five year old grandson loves LEGO and we often play while putting a new LEGO kit together. We also enjoy playing the LEGO Star Wars video game on my old Nintendo Wii game console. He always wants to be some sort of droid because he loves robots. While he loves Star Wars, it is still limited to the cartoon and LEGO versions and he hasn’t quite grown into watching the movies with me. They are still a little long and too boring for a five year old to enjoy. He would rather engage me in a light saber battle in the game than sit and watch one of the movies with me but we still have lots of fun.

Of course, one of the primary story lines in Star Wars is the allure of the dark side of the Force upon many of the characters. This is especially true in the struggle Luke Skywalker faces in his anger towards the evil Emperor and the primary villain, his father, Darth Vader. Luke’s anger towards them makes his powers stronger and more difficult to defeat even as he totters on the edge of falling headlong into the darkness of the “dark side” of the Force. The Emperor knows that if he can pull Luke just a little farther into the dark and powerful abyss of the Dark Side by letting his anger dominate his feelings and drive his actions, then he will have an even more powerful ally than Darth Vader. It is that age-old classic tale of good versus evil and eternal hope in a savior/warrior/king. We see it in so many epic tales, but many fail to realize that scripture has been telling this tale long before Star Wars or Harry Potter and it has much bigger plot twists and a completely unexpected and shocking ending. I will do my best to limit the Star Wars references, but let’s take a look at it…

Paul is laser focused this week in our focal passage on the issue of Jewish privilege, pride and hypocrisy. So, notice how Paul fires off this litany of items that the Jews took pride in: They rest in the law, boast in God, know His will, approve the things that are superior, are instructed from the law, are guides to the blind, light to those in darkness, instructor of the ignorant and teachers for the immature. Whew! What a resume. Oh sorry, I left off one… their ethnic name, of course: Jew. It means praise. Who wouldn’t take pride in a heritage like that, right?

We always look for ways to boast in personal or family achievements, don’t we? As a grandfather, that seems to just come naturally. Let me show you a few photos (see below). I love to brag on my kids and my grandkids. I am proud of them. They are beautiful, loving, kind, honest, hard working and beneficial members of society. When I thought they weren’t listening, they somehow picked up most of those things that I so desperately wanted them to learn. Be kind, gracious, forgiving, and honest. Do they have challenges, make mistakes and face struggles? Absolutely, just like everyone does but they love each other, they love their neighbor and they love God. What more could I want? Honestly, not a thing! Oh, I almost forgot… their name, of course. Nickerson. It should bring praise to God. As my dad used to say, “Make me proud, son!”

That is very heart of Paul’s lament. The very name that God, their Heavenly Father, had given them should be a source of pride and praise. Hey, world! Look at MY kids! They look just like me, don’t they. If “Jew” means praise, then these people – the Jews – were meant to bring praise to the Holy One, the one true God. Their relationship with God and their reflection of God’s character was meant to be a source of praise to God and a means of pointing all non-Jews to God. THAT was their purpose. THAT was God’s plan. THAT’S Paul’s point! You who brag about teaching others about God, aren’t you listening to and learning the very lessons your giving? You who claim to be the light of the world, why are you stumbling around in the darkness? As Jesus said, “Leave them alone! They are blind guides. And if the blind guide the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15:14 HCSB)

You might wonder where this is going. You, very likely, aren’t Jewish and neither am I. In a sense, that’s exactly where Paul is headed. How does this passage relate to you and me? Pay close attention to this… Paul says a true Jew is not defined by his ethnicity and his family pedigree, he’s defined by his faith and his obedience to God. It simply isn’t enough to wear the right clothing, have the right family heritage, attend the right religious school, have the right family name and even worship in the right temple. What matters is your heart and its love for God and how that’s impacting your life choices, daily work, family relationships, religious instruction, and your corporate and personal worship. In other words, don’t wear the name, bear the name.

I live in what is commonly referred to as “the Bible Belt.” It is an area in the United States where folks have espoused and embraced traditional Christian values for many generations and where Christian churches are a common sight. Some have even said that we have a church on every street corner. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but hopefully you get the point. Prayer at school events and Friday night (high school) and even Saturday afternoon (local college) football games is regularly practiced and, most often, expected. Some might see that as a privilege, a reflection of our spiritual heritage and an expectation that most folks likely share that spiritual heritage and love for God. However, some see it much like Paul does the name Jew – hollow, empty and devoid of its intended and true meaning.

Which view or perception of Christianity in our culture is the more accurate view of the truth? Like most things, it lies somewhere in the middle and not in either extreme. There are certainly some Christians who reflect the character of Christ and actively seek to obey Him and His commands but there are many who don’t. Unfortunately, many wear the name but don’t bear the name. They are “Christian” in name, but not in character and obedience. I suspect that is probably true in your own life and community, too. As a pastor, my personal purpose and professional goal is to move you towards deeper faith and active obedience to Christ. In this passage, Paul is deeply concerned with the same issue in the lives of Jewish Christians in Rome. It is insufficient to sit back and claim knowledge of the law and favor with God and then ignore the demands that knowledge and relationship commands.

In one of my favorite comic book stories, a young man named Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and develops supernatural powers. As Peter wrestles with the implications and consequences of these incredible super powers, his uncle tells him that “with great power comes great responsibility.” That is precisely Paul’s point in our focal passage, today. The Jew’s knowledge, relationship, blessings, and calling of God upon them is NOT for their personal benefit, gain and privilege, it is for God’s purpose and plan. I’m often guilty of implying something without specifically stating it, so let me get specific and say this very, very clearly. A Christian’s knowledge, relationship, blessing and calling of God is not for our personal benefit, privilege or spiritual power and position. IT IS for God’s purpose and plan. YOUR salvation is NOT for your sole benefit and enjoyment it is to achieve God’s purpose and plan!

In my previous reference to Luke Skywalker and Star Wars, I noted how Luke was being drawn by his anger towards the “dark side” of the Force. He was being enticed to use that dark, insidious power as a means of vindication and to destroy those who had sought to destroy him. If he could just use that dark power for this one selfish act then everything would be better and the Empire’s evil threat would be destroyed and life would be good. We often fall into the same trap. In addition to doing things that are very selfish and for our personal benefit, we even approach our relationship with God that way. We are commanded to love God above anything and everything else, and to love others in the same way that we love ourselves. Yet, we somehow take God’s loving and selfless act of sacrifice on our behalf and turn it into a very selfishly motivated transaction. We tend to see salvation for what we can gain from it and get out of it and less about God’s incredible love, selfless gift and purposeful plan.

If the word “Jew” means praise and if the term Christian means “little Christ” then the focus of those terms is not on those who bore them but on the object of praise and emulation. So, the focus of salvation is not the recipient but the source and the purpose of our salvation is not the benefits we receive but the calling it places on us. In fact, the Great Commission given to the disciples by Christ yields the same focus: “Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 HCSB)

Finally, Paul says that the purpose of the Jews (praise towards God) is being thwarted by their outright disobedience to the law and their hypocrisy towards its demands. They claim obedience to the law but their disobedience brings reproach and dishonor on God. Paul appears to be quoting Isaiah 52:5 and reminding the Jews of God’s condemnation during the Exile. They were “sold” to a foreign nation and suffered under national exile because of their idolatry and disobedience. The people who were supposed to bring praise to God brought shame and reproach. In fact, Paul takes this a step further and says that their actions are not JUST dishonoring to God’s name, they are BLASPHEMING His name. Whoa! We need to stop and take a look at that claim and its implications on us.

Purpose is powerful. We are driven to find and fulfill our purpose in life. We continually seek that “thing” for which we were made and that brings joy, satisfaction and fulfillment to our lives. We keep looking for “what’s missing” in our lives, yet, most never seem to really find it. They wander around like lost sheep trying this, doing this, buying things and settling for this or that, moving from job to job and relationship to relationship looking for what’s missing in their lives. The problem? They seek the purpose for which they were made (sometimes without even recognizing that’s what they are doing) and they keep missing the mark. Why? Because we think our purpose is found in us and not in God. However, if we are created beings (and I think nature and logic/reasoning clearly indicates we are) then our purpose will be found in and through our creator, not ourselves.

The purpose of the Jews and of Gentile Christians (adopted Jews – we’ll get to this later in Romans) is to bring praise to God and glory to His name. How is this achieved? By following and fulfilling God’s purpose, design and commands. God is demonstrating the truth, power and purpose of His creation design through us! If God’s Word is TRUE then it will be clearly demonstrated in the lives of those who obey its commands and live by its principles. If we claim His Word is true and yet live in disobedience to its commands and ignore its principles, then we not only bring shame upon God we actually BLASPHEME His name. In essence, that is what is meant by the third commandment of “taking God’s name in vain.” We often take this to mean “cursing” and it can include that when we include “God” in those phrases, but it really means to wrongly associate God’s holiness, goodness and name to something that is clearly not holy, good or His.

One last thought, to blaspheme God is spiritual adultery. Traditional wedding vows included the phrase “to keep yourself only to him/her for as long as you both shall live.” It meant you promised to be faithful to your spouse and to NEVER love or be emotionally or sexually intimate with another. Biblically speaking, “the two became one” and “what God joined together no man should separate.” Scripture uses these same terms and ideas to reference the intimate relationship between man and God and many of the prophets accuse God’s people of being like an unfaithful wife towards Him. One of the reasons that we fail to find our purpose and fulfillment in God is because we have failed to see our relationship with Him in this manner. We have yet to love Him in that way. Exclusively. Above ALL Else. We take His name, but we continually cheat and prostitute ourselves spiritually. No wonder the world looks at Christians and doubts God’s existence. We say we LOVE God above all else, but we seem to cheat, a lot, and it sure isn’t evident in our actions. We say we follow Him, but we sure seem to wander far away from His footsteps. We say we believe Him and His Word, but our disobedience and our actions don’t reflect it.

So, what should we do? The first step is to recognize these tendencies in your own life. Most people who cheat on their spouses will justify their actions and make excuses for their feelings. We do the same with God. Step 1: STOP! Stop making excuses and justifying your actions. No More Excuses! Step 2: SEE! See your disobedience as blasphemy and destructive to your relationship with God. Step 3: SAY! Tell God what you’ve been doing, confess. Admit it and determine to make that change. Step 4: SURRENDER! Give in to God’s authority and stop trying to be in control. In this relationship, you aren’t in charge. He is and He should be, must be. Step 5: SHOW! Your purpose is to show God’s glory and to bring praise to His name, not yours. If you bear His name then bring honor to His name, not shame. Stop the blasphemy and start the praise!

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty? It’s no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled on by men. “You are the light of the world. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16 HCSB)

Be SALT! Shine like a LIGHT! Be a city on a hill, STAND OUT and STAND UP for God’s glory! Remember, the darker the night the brighter that star shines.

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