By Pastor Steven Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen,
The jokes and stories about men getting lost are legendary. You’ve heard them; so have I, and frankly, I am offended! “Why was Moses wandering in the wilderness for forty years?” “Because men didn’t ask for directions in those days either.” “How many men does it take to ask for directions?” “No one knows because it’s never been done before.”
But some men DO ask for directions. A man piloting a hot air balloon was lost so he lowered his basket near the ground to speak with a farmer in the field. “Excuse me sir, but do you know where I am?” And the farmer says “Yes. You’re in a hot air balloon.” Even last Sunday, Jason described being lost while leading a group of high school kids on a snowshoeing expedition at Good Earth Village; he was lost because he refused a guide and a trail map. The common thread in each of these stories is that, as legend has it, men have difficulty asking for help, especially when we have lost our way. Apparently, it’s a guy thing.
There was a time in my life when I was lost. I’ve told some of you this story before, that, as a high school kid who had grown up, essentially without any religious training in my life. Didn’t go to church, didn’t attend Sunday School, didn’t even own a bible; and by my the time I was a sophomore, I was drifting dangerously close to trouble. Then, a man came into my life by the name of Dave Phillips, who was the Young Life leader at my high school, and through our friendship, I came to faith in Jesus Christ. When I trusted Christ at that Young Life Camp in Colorado, my greatest concern wasn’t about giving up bad friends or bad habits, but rather, as a novice Christian, how was I going to find my way in a dark and scary world? I didn’t know where to turn in the bible for encouragement or guidance. I didn’t know anything about growing in my faith. I was afraid to ask for help, but my friend Dave knew me well.
Before we left Colorado and returned to Minnesota, Dave took me aside and asked if he could teach me “The Roman Road.” He said it was six bible verses from the Book of Romans in the bible, and if I memorized them, I would always have God’s promises to lean on when life got hard. Dave was right, of course, and these six verses have been a light in the darkness for me for 40 years. And today I want to teach you the Roman Road. I expect that there are some in our midst this day who need to know what Dave taught me. Perhaps there are some who have never cracked a bible, or who have never really grasped what a relationship with Jesus is all about. This is The Roman Road; May God bring it to you with grace and hope; that is my prayer for you.
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The Roman Road begins in Paul’s Letter to the Church at Rome, the 3rd chapter, the 23rd verse:
For there is no distinction to be made anywhere;
all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.
On the one hand, there is something comforting about those words “all have sinned.” It places us in some rather interesting company, doesn’t it? I mean, if “all have sinned” then we are no worse than people like Billy Graham or Bishop Rogness or Pope Benedict II. But then, we’re no better than people like Saddam Hussein or the local drug dealer, or the CEO of Enron. Now how comforting is that? I mean, no matter how good we’ve been, or how much we have messed up our lives, God looks at me and Billy Graham and says “Hmmmm, Steve Molin – Billy Graham; same difference.” We’re both sinners. We’re both scoundrels. We both deserve to be punished. That’s the meaning of this troubling verse.
In Greek, the word “sin” is “amartia.” It’s an archery term, actually; it means “missing the mark.” We were aiming for a bull’s eye and we didn’t even hit the board. None of us, no matter how religious we appear to be; none of us hits a bull’s eye when it comes to pleasing God.
The second stop on the Roman Road is Romans 6:23:
For the wages of sin is death,
but God’s free gift to those who love him is eternal life.
There is a fundamental difference between a wage and a gift. Wages are something we earn…something we deserve. I get paid wages for being a pastor; I work one day a week and it takes 2 people to bring me all the money! But a gift is something that comes to us that we do not deserve. The best example of this truth is how we describes the grades we got in junior high school. When I got an “A” (which didn’t happen very often, by the way), when I got an “A” I would proudly say “I earned an “A!” But when I did poorly, I would describe it this way; “The teacher gave me a “D.”
We don’t deserve what we get from God. When bad things happen to good people, we cry out that God is not fair, but God is more than fair. All of us deserve punishment for our sins…that would be our fair wage; but God chooses to give the give of forgiveness to those who believe in him. And each of us has a choice; to ask God for help and accept his gift of grace, or to earn his love. Do you see what a dead end that road leads to?
The third stop on The Roman Road begins to explain God’s great love for his children: The amazing proof of God’s love is this; it was while we were sinners that Christ died for us.
I think there is a sense among many Christians that we are a fairly loveable and gentle people who have simply made a few mistakes along the way. Not so! Not so at all. We were not attractive, cuddly, warm and friendly creatures when Jesus decided to hang on the cross for us. We were God’s enemy! We stood against everything that God stood for! Our sins hade us ugly and horrible in God’s sight.
The Apostle Paul, who wrote these words, knew this truth well. At one point in his writings he would refer to himself as “the worst of all sinners.” Before his conversion, Paul hated the followers of Jesus and he actually murdered Christians for their faith. Paul knew…as we should know…that our sins make us enemies of God. But God’s love is a powerful thing. His love for us is so deep that he died for us – the enemy – so that we might live. And it was all a gift. Didn’t deserve it; cannot pay for it, but Jesus gave his life anyway so that we might live forever. That’s the amazing proof of God’s love.
The Roman Road continues with a dramatic statement in Romans 8:1.
There is there now no condemnation
for those who are in Christ Jesus.
If we believe in Jesus Christ, our sins are not held against us. We are pardoned. Forgiven. Free.
In the Victor Hugo story Les Miserables, there is a scene that is a poignant illustration of grace. Jean Val Jean is imprisoned for 19 years for theft, and when he gets released from prison, he is taken in by the local priest. On the very first night in the priest’s home, Val Jean gets up while the others are sleeping, and he steals all the silverware. Of course, he was caught, and when the constable brings him to the priest’s home in handcuffs, and tells the priest “Father, this thief stole your silverware, but he insists that you gave it to him as a gift.” Now the punishment is going to come! Now, justice will be served. Except the priest offers the gift of grace.
“Officer, this man tells the truth.” And then he turns to Val Jean and says “But sir, you forgot that I also gave you these candlesticks.” He should have been punished. He should have been imprisoned. But forgiveness set him free. And out of gratitude, Val Jean lived the rest of his days in grateful obedience.
You and I have been given a gift far greater than a set of candlesticks. And how do we choose to live our lives? That’s a question for each of us to answer.
The next to last stop on The Roman Road is a question, actually, with the answer implied. I love the way Englishman J.B. Phillips translates Romans 8:31:
If God is for us,
who can possibly be against us?
God is for us. God is on our side. When life gets hard, or when our world turns upside down, God stands with us to guard and protect and keep us close. In Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” the third verse says it this way:
Though hordes of devils fill the land,
all threatening to devour us
We tremble not, unmoved we stand;
they cannot overpower us
Let this world’s tyrant rage;
in battle we’ll engage
His might is doomed to fail,
God’s judgment must prevail
One little word subdues him.
Those words of Luther paint a picture of a powerful and righteous protector standing up against the bullies of this world. But I also like Bill Butters’ description. Billy and I played high school hockey against each other, and he went on to play 10 years in the NHL. When he was with the North Stars, even though he was 5’ 10” tall, he never lost a fight. 100 fights and he never lost one. Because his best friend on the team was 6’3” Jack Carlson, who told Billy “I’ll always be there to back you up, Bill.” So Butters would stand up to the toughest guys on the other team, and when the gloves came off, he would just step aside and let Carlson step in.
It may not be that simplistic in our Christian journey, but you get the picture. Our God is a powerful force in this world that he created, and he vows to go with us wherever we go.
And the final stop on the Roman Road is perhaps the most important; Romans 8:38 tells us:
Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Do you know what that means? You and I didn’t do anything to earn God’s love, and we can’t do anything to lose it. Yes, you and I sin. Yes, we stumble and fall into immoral lifestyles. People judge us and criticize us and some may even hate us for the way we live our lives. But God doesn’t. And that’s the bottom line of grace; that God’s love is rock solid and can never be taken from us.
You know, we live in a world where is much debate about Christian values and Christian lifestyle, and how Christians must look and live. We are told that, if we are really Christian, there are the things we do not do. If we are really Christian, there are the people we do not vote for. If we’re really Christian, we don’t smoke or chew or date the girls that do. But those are our rules, you see, not God’s. Now we are bound to him, not by rules but by grace. And nothing can ever change that fact. Once we have been found, we are never lost.
The road is set before us, with God’s promises placed along the way. May your journey be blessed, as seek to love the God who first loved you. Thanks be to God. Amen.