There’s an old army chaplain saying that there’s no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole. It means that when life and death hang in the balance, people start to pray to the God they say they don’t believe in.
I have a similar saying. There are no agnostics in a car park. When the shop is closing in 15 minutes and you’ve already done 3 laps of the car park without luck, all doubts of God’s existence melt away. Because when you’ve taken the trouble to go all the way to Albury, but you got caught up in roadworks just out of Howlong, and it looks like everyone else has decided to take the day off to go shopping too, and it’s raining so you don’t want to park in the street and you couldn’t even if you wanted to, and your dream of buying those $10 jeans made in Bangladesh on sale in K mart hang in the balance – that’s when everyone remembers to pray.
“Lord, if it isn’t too much to ask for, give me a car parking space.”
But if a parking space then appears out of nowhere what does it mean? Is it just a coincidence? Would it have happened anyway whether you prayed for it or not? Or is it proof of the existence of an all-powerful, all loving creator and of the power of prayer? These are important questions. I mean. Will that car parking space change your life forever, leading to a life of single minded devotion to your Father in heaven whose mercy and grace is more abundant than the savings at Kmart? Or will your memory of the fact that you got what you asked for fade away as quickly as the blue dye in those Bangladeshi jeans?
That’s the problem with signs. When we are troubled by things going on in world affairs or in our own private affairs, we want some proof, some reassurance that there is a God who cares and can do something about it. A power of love and wisdom who takes an interest in what is going on in our lives.
But where should we look for those signs? Will we find that reassurance in the forces of nature, or in the events of history, or in the laws of science or in the coincidences of every day? Like meeting that person at the shops that you hadn’t even thought about for years until that very morning and then out of the blue there they are. Is it a chance meeting or is there no such thing as chance?
We look for these signs of the power of God in many different places, but even if we found one, if it was staring at us in front of our face, would we recognise it or even understand it?
For example, many signs I’ve found are either too deafening or too vague to make any sense. A volcano may be an awesome display of power beyond human ability or control. But can we harness that power to solve our everyday problems? Can it make any practical difference to our life? Does a volcano even care about our struggles with anxiety or depression?
From one point of view, another day alive or even just a ray of sunshine on a rainy day is a precious gift. But would it have happened anyway whether we stopped to give thanks for it or even noticed it? We want a sign of God’s power and love, to give us hope when hope is in short supply. But sometimes we look in all the wrong places. And sometimes we only see what we want to see.
In Romans chapter 1, the apostle Paul wrote,
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, “The righteous will live by faith”.
Paul reminds us here that we find the power of God in the gospel. Gospel is an old fashioned word. It is the good spiel. It is glad tidings. It is the great message. It is good news. Like the new father whose job it is to ring up every member of the family to announce the birth of a new baby. Like the announcement that the Olympic Games are coming to Sydaney. Like the message from the doctor that says that the lump is benign. It is good news, a message too good to keep to yourself.
Paul, of course, has a particular message in mind. It is the good news about Jesus, the Son of Mary, and the Son of God. Who learned a trade and healed the sick. Who got tired and slept and commanded the wind and the waves to stop and they did. Who walked among the common people and also walked on water. Who ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners and condemned the rich and powerful for their hypocrisy. Who astonished the crowds with his teaching.
The time has come, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.
If you forgive people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive people their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
I have to say that Jesus’ words, his teaching, is so wise and so inspiring while being so astonishingly against the grain of all other worldly wisdom. His reputation as a great moral teacher is well deserved. But his words are worthily matched by his deeds. For although the common people were fascinated by Jesus the rulers were afraid of him and hated him for it. They called him a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. They tried to trap him in his words and when that didn’t work, they had him arrested and brought lying witnesses against him. They pronounced him guilty in a hurried trial in the middle of the night. And crucified him. They laughed at him while he died and they posted a guard at his tomb to make sure that his nonsense died with him.
No one was more surprised than his disciples when he showed himself alive to them. They had deserted him at his arrest. They had hidden themselves away during his death. But two months later they were preaching forgiveness in the name of the living Jesus risen from the dead. They announced,
Christ died for sin, once for all, the righteous one for the unrighteous to bring you to God.
He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.
This is the gospel, the glad tidings, the news that is too good to keep to ourselves. For in Jesus we find forgiveness, the chance for a new beginning with God. We spend our whole lives trying to justify ourselves before others, but Jesus justifies us before God. And in Jesus’ risen life we have the hope for a new kind of life now, and the promise of eternal life.
This is the power of the loving God announced in the gospel. It is a power greater than our own guilty conscience. It is a power greater than our bad reputation. It is a power greater than the long list of all our mistakes. It is a power even greater than death’s claim upon us. For the grave may receive our mortal bodies when our job is done and our life is over, but the grave only holds us on loan. It can’t keep us forever. For all the power of death, the power of God is greater, and the grave must surrender us to God’s greater claim. And we will stand before God and we will receive an answer for all the things that have been done to us and for all the things we’ve done.
All this is a gift from God. It is not something that we can do for ourselves, but our hope rests on what Jesus has done for us. Salvation is a gift from God and this gift is received and enjoyed by faith. As Paul said,
The gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.
Not for the salvation of everyone who deserves it. Not of everyone whose attendance at church is impeccable and whose donations to its work is regular and generous. Not of everyone whose record of good deeds outweighs their bad deeds. But of everyone who believes.
It’s not that faith is the new good deed. The only one good deed that you have to do to make up for all your bad deeds. Instead, faith receives the gift of salvation from Jesus empty handed. Empty of pride. Empty of all our attempts to justify our existence. Empty of all our trophies and treasures. It’s not that I have to hate myself and pretend that there is nothing good in me. It is simply the admission that all that is good in me is a gift from God as well so that my rights and wrongs don’t even come into the equation.
Whatever faith is it means that I don’t want to be the guy who can walk past the cross of Jesus and say, “No thanks. I’m good.” For the real enemy of faith is not the doubts that plague me in my weakest moments, but the stubborn pride that insists that it’s fine. I’m fine and everything is fine without Jesus.
What this means is that the gospel, this good news about Jesus, reveals a kind of righteousness that is different to the righteousness that we are used to. It is a righteousness that isn’t sanctimonious or fake, that isn’t judgmental or holier than thou. It is a righteousness that is God’s and that comes from God to us so that it becomes ours. It is a righteousness that seeks to put our wrongs right. Firstly, in the gift of forgiveness by which our mistakes are not held against us. Secondly, in the gift of obedience by which we grow in our love for God and for others. Like a canvas washed clean so something beautiful can take form. A righteousness that starts small but grows big but from first to last, from beginning to end it is by faith. Not standing on our own merits. Not trying to put God in our debt by our extravagant sacrifices. But trusting in God and having the courage to take one step at a time in the footsteps of Jesus. Not needing to be first or the best at everything or the centre of attention, but simply grateful to be a child of God.
This is why the righteous will live by faith. Without faith we leave God’s gift of life and salvation unopened. Without faith we insist on our just deserts. Without faith we try to establish our own righteousness on our own merits. Without faith my life is empty of hope and joy but at least I can sing defiantly that I did it my way. Without faith life is simply existing. But the righteous will live. Not just a life after death but a life before death as well. And they will live by faith. Trusting our heavenly Father like Jesus. Loving others like Jesus. Living a life worth living like Jesus. Washed clean by his blood. Led by his Spirit. Inspired by his example.
In our troubled world we long for signs of an all-powerful and all loving God. But we look for those signs in all the wrong places. The gospel is the power of all loving God, because it is the good news about Jesus. By his words and deeds Jesus has purchased for us a salvation that no one can take away and has given us the gift of righteousness that we could never have earned for ourselves. In that gift we find forgiveness, the chance for a new start, led by a love that starts small but grows big until it puts right all our wrongs.
The time has come, Jesus said. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.