Years ago, when we lived in Prud’homme, Saskatchewan, and I was taking classes at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, I had a VW Rabbit with a diesel engine and a five-speed transmission. That car was great on fuel, which is exactly what I needed as I drove the 60 kms between home and class each day. At one point, the speedometer cable broke, and after doing a little research, I decided that I would try to fix it myself. On these particular cars, the speedometer cable connects into the back of the transmission, so what I had to do was fish the broken piece out of the transmission and then replace the cable. As I was attempting to do that, I dropped the broken piece inside the transmission. Now I had a dilemma, because if I drove the car, that broken piece could get caught up in the gears and wreck the transmission. So I decided to hire a tow truck to tow my Rabbit all the way into Saskatoon to a mechanic who pulled the transmission all apart to get that little piece out. So instead of spending about $100, I ended up spending about $2,000. Now the good news was that the mechanic discovered that the transmission case on my car was cracked and he was able to replace it. But I could have saved myself a significant towing bill if I had taken my car to the mechanic in the first place.
Here’s a question that I am asking you to think about: In whom did I place my faith when I was trying to fix the speedometer cable on my car? In me. In whom should have placed my faith? My mechanic. Why? Because he, and not me, could do the job that I needed done.
Now let’s switch gears a bit and think about a similar question with far greater consequences. When it comes to being right with God, in whom do you place your trust? Is it yourself, or God, or a mixture of both? When it comes to being in sync with God, is part of your trust in him, and part in yourself? Where should our trust be placed for things to be right between us and God?
To help us as we consider these questions, we are going to continue our series called Essentials in which we are thinking about the essential things that we need to have a good, strong, life-filled, resilient soul. Last week, we realized that we enter into life with God through Grace Alone, and that the forgiveness, salvation and eternal life he gives us through Jesus is a totally free gift. Today, the Bible passage that is going to guide our reflections is Romans 3:21-28. If you have a Bible or a Bible app, I invite you to turn there now.
Righteousness in Relationship
As you do that, there is a key word that you will find in our passage, a word which we don’t usually use in everyday life, but it is critical to understanding what Paul is saying here. That key word is righteousness and righteousness is something which we all crave whether we understand what it is or not. We all want to be right within ourselves. We all want to be right with God, if we believe in God, or right with the universe that surrounds us if we don’t believe in God.
If you don’t understand what the word “righteousness” means, you are not alone. When I was growing up, I never heard the words “righteous” or “righteousness” unless the Righteous Brothers were singing the song “Unchained Melody” on the radio, and I still didn’t know what that word meant. The word “righteous” is sometimes used to describe someone who is feeling great or performing at the top of their game. So you could say that the way that Edmonton Oiler hockey player Connor McDavid scored that goal on Friday night, when he single-handedly beat four New York Ranger skaters and then the goalies, was righteous. And you would be correct.
But the Bible means something a little bit different when the words “righteous” or “righteousness” are used. It is not about feeling right or performing right, it is about being proper, honorable and ethical in our relationships with others, especially those with whom we have a special bond. The root of the Hebrew word for righteous, sedeq, may have the sense of “being straight.” When I am buying lumber for a building project, what I often do is hold up each board and look down along its length to see if it is straight. In a way, I am checking those boards to see if they are righteous, because you can’t make a straight, or righteous, project out of crooked, or unrighteous, boards. Whether it is by sighting with their eyes, or using a level, a square, a tape measure, or a straight edge, carpenters are constantly checking for straightness, or righteousness, when they are building things, because they want all the pieces to fit together well so that the project they are working on can be both functional and beautiful. In other words, the individual pieces need to be righteous in relationship to each other so that the final product can be righteous.
In the same way, we human beings need to be aligned in our relationships with each other so that we fit together well and then overall our relationship is strong, life-giving and beautiful. Nowhere is this more important than in our relationship with God. In Old Testament times, God’s people had a covenant relationship with him. Out of all the nations in the world, he had chosen the descendants of Jacob (or Israel, as he was later named by God) to be his people. They, in turn, agreed to represent God in the world by following the way of life that he had revealed to them. The way that God and his people aligned themselves with each other was by doing the right thing within the context of the relationship. As I read in one of the resources that I used to prepare this message, “Righteousness is justice within the context of a covenant relationship.”
Do you want to be righteous? If you are married, do the right thing within your marriage. If you work for someone else, do the right thing within your employee-employer relationship. If you have a good friend, do the right thing within your friendship relationship.
Broken People Becoming Righteous
But how do broken, flawed, sinful people like us become righteous in their relationship with God? The Bible actually gives us three ways that it can happen. First, people are righteous when they trust in God to vindicate them, even though they are deprived of what is due to them. Jacob’s son, Joseph, is an example of a person who is righteous in this way. Even though he was sold into slavery by his brothers, thrown into jail under a false accusation and left to languish there because of the bad memory of Pharoah’s butler, Joseph continued to trust that God would vindicate him. Second, people are righteous when they turn away from their sins and put their trust and hope in God. The promise of being made right with God is what’s behind 2 Chronicles 7:14, which reads, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14) Third, people are righteous when God declares them to be righteous. For example, we read in Isaiah 11:4, but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. (Isaiah 11:4)
God declares the poor to be righteous because he will always judge in their favor. Now you might think to yourself, “That’s not fair! Why would God always make decisions in favor of the poor?” And the answer is, “Well, if God doesn’t make decisions in favor of the poor, who will?” God has a heart for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the foreigner, people who often experience injustice because they lack resources. God’s plan and passionate desire is to overturn all injustice, lift up the downtrodden and make the broken whole.
We see how human beings reflect this characteristic of God in current events being played out in our world today. Recently, news came out that, in 2010, hockey player Kyle Beach was sexually assaulted by an employee of the Chicago Blackhawks. Kyle reported the assault and nothing was done in a timely or proper fashion. At that time, Kyle was a minor league hockey player and the Blackhawks were a sports corporation worth hundreds of millions of dollars. So you can see that there was a huge power imbalance. Kyle was harmed within the context of the relationship that he had with the Blackhawks, and the Blackhawks did not act justly toward him. Now that the full extent of what happened has been revealed and Kyle identified himself as the player who was assaulted, people are calling him courageous for coming forward and doing the right thing. Without using the word, they are declaring Kyle to be righteous, even though justice has not yet been fulfilled. This is what God does. But God does it much better than human beings do because he sees all and knows all things. God knew that Kyle Beach was righteous even when no one else did.
Jesus is God’s Righteousness for Us
But God also does more than declare us to be righteous. He actually makes us righteous. God is the only perfect partner in the God-human relationship and therefore we can say that God is righteous all by himself. But God’s righteousness is even greater than that because God fulfills the covenant he has with us even when we break it. God does the right thing on his end of the relationship, AND he does the right thing on our end of the relationship as well. And he does that so that overall our relationship with him can be righteous, that is, strong, life-giving and beautiful.
In the covenant-making ceremony recorded for us in Genesis 15, God appeared in the form of a smoking pot and a blazing torch and passed between the animals Abram had cut in half. In vassal-king covenants like this one, it should have been the vassal, or lesser person, which was Abram, who passed between the animals to indicate that he would suffer the same fate as they did if he did not keep the covenant fully. Instead, it was Yahweh, the great, high king of the universe who said that he would pay the consequences when his people broke the covenant with him. This is something that God did over and over again – he promised a Messiah when Adam and Eve disobeyed him in the Garden of Eden, he provided strong leaders to rescue and restore his people when they forgot about him and became oppressed by other nations, he forgave David and kept him as king even after his adultery with Bathsheba.
But nowhere in human history did God’s righteousness ever shine more brightly than in the face of God the Son, Jesus Christ. Because he loves us, Jesus came into this world to fulfill God’s righteousness for us. Jesus did that by living a perfect human life that counts as righteous for all people. Then, Jesus willingly went to the cross to pay the full cost of forgiveness for all the times when humans broke the covenant with God their Creator. That includes the punishment for all the times when humans rebelled against God and went their own way, all the times people misused the power, abilities and resources God had given them, all the times when we hurt instead of helped other people, all of our covenant failures were placed on Jesus, instead of us, and he suffered, in full, the consequences for all our sin. And when Jesus finally fulfilled all of the human responsibilities in our covenant with God, he said, “It is finished” and then gave up his life and died.
The words “It is finished”, which is tetelestai in Greek, were often spoken in the marketplace in ancient times when a deal was completed. In uttering these words, Jesus is telling us that he has completely fulfilled all the human parts in the God-human covenant. Jesus is God’s righteousness for us. In him, we have a strong, beautiful and life-giving relationship with God. All our sins in the past have been covered over by Jesus. All of our future will be made complete by Jesus. And in the present, we have the assurance that we are beloved, forgiven children of God who are adored by our heavenly Father, embraced by our Savior, Jesus, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve those around us with God’s love in Jesus’ name.
We Are Righteous By Faith Alone
So how do we receive this righteousness of God from Jesus? It comes to us as a totally free gift. As we saw last week, it is ours by grace alone. And it comes to us through faith alone. So what is faith? It is child-like trust in Jesus.
Is there something that we need to do to make our faith complete? No. Trying to add some good works of our own will only taint the gift God is giving to us. Worse yet, it shifts our focus and trust from Jesus onto our ourselves, and anytime we trust in ourselves for God’s righteousness, even if it is only a tiny part, we cast doubt on whether God’s righteousness is really ours because we can never know if we did our part perfectly.
Even our faith is a gift given to us by the Holy Spirit who works through the Bible, God’s Word, and the sacred acts of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, to create faith in our heart. In Holy Baptism, our covenantal relationship with God began and that is when he chose us to be his child. In Holy Communion, our faith is nourished with the Good News that Jesus forgives us and is with us. But the real power is in God’s Word, for just as he spoke all things into being at the beginning of time, so God also brings to life a new person within us, a covenant-keeper who loves God with all of their heart, soul, strength and mind and loves their neighbor as they love themselves.
Can you imagine what it would be like to live each moment of each day of your life with the full-blown awareness that all of God’s righteousness is yours through faith in Jesus? You would never have to worry about whether or not God loves you or is with you. You would have no concern about your past, present or future because you would know that Jesus has it all covered. And whenever you experience suffering, sorrow or injustice, you can look forward to the future with confident hope because you know that, in the end, Jesus will vindicate you.
So the challenge that I am leaving with you today is to live your life from Jesus instead of from the world. If you are like me, you tend to look to the world for all you need for life. What I am asking you to do is to live as if you are already dead in this world. And then draw all you need for life from Jesus instead. Let him love you, nourish you, comfort you, guide you and lift you up. And you will find that you have more love, joy and peace in your life as a result. I suggest to you that this is what it means to live by faith alone. This is way of living described for us in Galatians 2:20: I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20) Amen.
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church on November 7, 2021. For more information, please go to wglc.org.)