Have you ever played the 'Desert Island' game? It's a common 'ice-breaker' discussion where you share what you would most want if stranded on a desert Island for a year, with your possessions limited to the space of a backpack, and you could only have one of each kind of item (one book, one CD, etc). Not counting food and a global communications device, what would you you most want to have with you?
As a pastor, I know my book choice has to be the Bible (smile). And honestly, it would be. But lets assume the Gideon's had already put a Bible on your desert Island. So, what would your book be? For me, the answer is easy... J.R.R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. I know, I'm cheating and making all three books count as one. So sue me. Yes, I am a Tolkien geek, and not ashamed of it. I've read the LOTR books at least 8 times, and these stories are etched in my memory. So, here's a scenario to consider. Lets say that we are stranded on that island together (horror, I know) and somehow you only knew the very basic concept and characters of the LOTR. Given that we had lots of time for conversation, I decided to give you the detailed version. But, instead of walking you through the entire narrative, I just jumped in at a random part of the story...
"So, here we find Sam and Frodo dressed as orcs, walking with other orcs across Mordor." What? Sam and Frodo became orcs? "No, of course not." Then why are the dressed as orcs? "Um, okay, I guess you need to know more of the story."
"Then there's the time where Boromir died trying to protect Merry and Pippin (these are Hobbits for you non-Tolkien types)" Wait, what? I thought Boromir was selfish, suspicious, and tried to steal the ring from Frodo! What happened? "Yes, you're right, I guess you need to know more of the story."
"And in the end, it was Gollum who finally cast the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom." WHAT? After everything Frodo and Sam went through, it was Gollum who destroyed the ring? Who wrote this anyway!!" "Sigh... Okay, lets start at the beginning. You have to know the whole story!"
If you are a fan of storytelling at all, you know that there are few things as frustrating as only hearing an excerpt that is totally confusing outside of the larger story. It's like walking through a room with a movie on, and the 10 seconds you see make no sense at all.
Here's where I'm going with this (you're asking, 'where is he going with this!') If this scattered approach to stories would drive us crazy in any other context, why do we do this so often with the Bible? I love quotes, and there are some awesome quotes from the Lord of the Rings, but it's unimaginable to know anything about that story from just a few good one-liners. This is even more true of the Bible, and it is the most 'one-liner' quoted book in history. As we discussed a few weeks back, it is essential for us- as people who profess to love God's Word- to get beyond the 'one-liner' approach and start to read and understand larger passages, within the crucially important framework of context.
As we take our next step into Romans, this idea of whole story context is more important than ever. If you were to read the first half of Romans chapter 2 (our text this Sunday) in isolation, it wouldn't just not make sense, it would raise all sorts of troubling questions about the nature of God and Salvation as we understand them from a Christian worldview.
This past Sunday, in the second half of Romans 1, Paul laid down the gauntlet as he presented the evidence of humanities rebellion against God. In the closing line of what is the opening statement of his case for the Gospel, Paul argues that "although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them." In the beginning of Chapter 2, Paul takes his second step into the argument by clarifying who he is talking to... and that would be me. And you. All of us. So no finger pointing! If you then continue down through verse 16, and stop there, it's easy to conclude that Paul has already forgotten what he said in 1:16-17 (God's righteousness by faith), and that we are in serious trouble. OR... just maybe... there's more to the story. And my friends, there is! This Sunday we will place these paragraphs into the larger context of Paul's entire case, and see how what seems to make no sense in light of God's mercy is actually the necessary prelude to Roman's majestic proclamation of God's Amazing Grace. It's a story you don't want to miss!
If you are in town, I sincerely hope to see you Sunday, and wherever you may be, I pray that you have a wonderful weekend.
Learning the Story with you,
"You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things."
“The Dark Lord has Nine. But we have One, mightier than they: the White Rider. He has passed through the fire and the abyss, and they shall fear him. We will go where he leads.”
Aragorn, from "The Two Towers"