Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
October 8, 2017
Text: Philippians 3:8b-9, O.T.: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20, N.T.: Philippians 3:4b-14
Last Sunday we considered the importance of being of one mind as the people of Jesus Christ. The Scripture lesson from Philippians 2:2 encouraged us to be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
From this we considered how each generation should have the back of other generations. Older generations should have the back of younger generations. Younger generations should have the back of older generations. The different generations in a congregation should be of one mind, supporting one another with the love of Jesus Christ.
Then we went home, feeling good about the unity we share together here at Bellevue United Presbyterian Church. Some of us spent the afternoon watching the Steelers. Others of us went to family events, worked in the yard, or whatever else we had to do.
Before we went to bed, some of us dared to see if there was anything on the news we might want to know before we thanked God for the blessing of the day. It seemed all was well…
Until the next morning.
Monday morning’s news took everything we considered during last Sunday’s sermon and turned it upside down.
A Baby Boomer – a man who graduated from high school the same year I did, randomly shot into 22,000 people – most of whom were young. We all know the rest.
It was an example of that which we are becoming all too familiar – domestic terrorism. American citizens, with all of the benefits our Constitution provides, with all of the opportunity our national education system provides, with all of the wealth our education and opportunity provides, randomly attack our own people.
We are aghast and demoralized by what we saw in Las Vegas. We know nothing about Stephen Paddock’s motivations. We only know he did what he did. We can see the suffering he brought to not just the crowd at Route 91 Harvest Music Festival, the families of those who died and those who are suffering from wounds, but all of us who share the same mind in Jesus Christ. Celine Dion called it “the nightmare” two nights later during her performance at Caesar’s Palace. It is our national “nightmare.”
We cannot comprehend why a retirement age adult would do such violence to innocent young people at a country music concert. We come this morning to worship asking how this morning’s Scripture passage relates to what happened last Sunday night?
First, we read from Exodus and the Ten Commandments and are reminded that God’s Law does not guarantee the world will be without sin. God gave us Ten Commandments. But those Ten Commandments never stopped sin. If people want to break the Law, they will. If people rationalize that it’s better to break the Law than to live under the Law, they will break the Law.
Law-breaking is a rational decision. Let’s not minimize personal responsibility by attributing it to mental illness, or victimhood. Rational people break the Law every day. They have their reasons for Law breaking.
We disagree with their reasons. But they do it anyway.
Years ago, James Earl Ray rationalized murdering a Baptist minister beloved by many who taught the message of Jesus in non-violence. He went to the same civics classes as we did. He was raised to admire the same Constitution as we do. But he made a rational choice to disdain what he had been taught to respect and follow. We don’t agree with his reasons. But he used reason to kill Martin Luther King, Jr.
Then, people set fire to their neighborhoods around the country after James Earl Ray gunned down Martin Luther King. The people who set the fires believed they had just cause. It was a rational choice. But it did not reflect God’s will for people to live like Jesus.
When people make the decision to commit murder, they use their minds to justify what they’re doing as the right thing. Law or fear of the Law doesn’t stop their decisions to break the Law.
Stephen Paddock made a rational decision. He planned what he did like Lee Harvey Oswalt and Sirhan Sirhan. He had been a government employee at one time with the IRS and stood for the law of the land. He chose to break it anyway. The Law can’t and doesn’t stop sin.
When God gave Ten Commandments to Moses during the Exodus, God knew Israel and humans would still sin. God warned with plenty of threats that breaking His Law had severe consequences. Israel broke it and humanity breaks it anyway.
Israel worshipped other gods. Israel lived immorally during the time of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Israel’s kings had affairs, had people murdered, violated marital vows, had concubines, sacrificed children to Molech, fought viciously with each other. Despite the Law of Moses, Israel did not live up to their role as God’s chosen people.
The Law didn’t stop Israel or its Kings from breaking the Law. Nor will it stop us, even if America’s Supreme Court somehow took a different position on the separation of Church and state.
Breaking the Law will always be considered reasonable when an individual or group believes it will gain more by breaking the Law than by keeping the Law.
Don’t expect the Law to inhibit Law breaking. It hasn’t, it doesn’t, and it won’t. Law breaking is part of human nature, horrifying as it is.
Second, Christians aren’t righteous because of the Law. People who freely believe in Jesus Christ aren’t good people because the Law exists. Christian goodness isn’t based on legal restrictions that govern how we live. Christian goodness comes through faith in Jesus Christ.
Our faith in Jesus Christ restricts our free conscience. Instead of using our freedom to hurt other people, we use our freedom to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” We don’t exercise our freedom to do violence. We use our freedom to bless the people around us.
We can be upset with what’s going on around us that is illegal and immoral. But we don’t use our freedom to act violently against people who are using their freedom to break the Law and sin.
In fact, we would rather die like Christ did for sin and receive the joy of resurrected life than to find reasons to justify taking another life. This is what the Apostle Paul is saying to the Philippians.
“I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and share in His sufferings by becoming like Him in His death.”
We don’t know how many of the people who were killed or wounded in Las Vegas were Christians. What we do know is they were not at that concert to do one another harm.
They are suffering, and 58 died in their innocence, like Christ died in His innocence. They came without violence as their motive. They died without taking other lives. Many who died or were wounded acted in a Christ-like manner, protecting others’ lives by using their bodies as shields.
They were Christ-like freely without needing the Law to frighten them to be Christ-like.
They were willing to sacrifice themselves that others may live. Hundreds in the Las Vegas crowd self-lessly stayed among the dead and wounded to care for the needs of friends and strangers – to preserve and give life. They used their freedom to show Christ-like love – even at the risk to their lives. They were not afraid to die while saving another life.
They didn’t do this because the Law coerced them to be loving. They showed the nation and the world Jesus’ Gospel in their actions to save.
They had faith God was watching over them, just like we use faith in Jesus to protect us each day. And if, God forbid, we too are struck down, we have Jesus’ promise of our resurrection to overcome death. Faith in Jesus’ goodness, that is the key ingredient in our hearts and minds the Law or fear of the Law can’t manufacture.
Amid the horrors of Las Vegas, we must not overlook the more important lesson we are to learn. Goodness comes from faith in God through Jesus Christ. When people have faith in God, there will be good people in the world who will be examples of Jesus’ salvation. They will risk their lives to save other people by imitating Jesus Christ.
Make sure you are one of Jesus’ examples if and when that time comes when your faith is tested. Your goodness and courage will help others not to lose faith in God’s goodness and the goodness in others.
Finally, we are to press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Press on. What we lose in the injustices of this life are meant for us to know the value of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.
Neither Law, nor education, nor wealth, nor opportunity are going to save us from suffering and death in this world. There are people who chose to live as enemies of Jesus Christ and His Cross. Some of them are afraid of sacrificing their lives so others might live. Others of them disdain “loving their neighbors as themselves” and plan to take others’ lives.
They make decisions regardless of the benefits of living in this great land to take the lives of others. Their decisions do not coincide with Jesus’ teachings or Jesus’ example. These people are enemies of Jesus Christ.
Jesus never resorted to violence to save the world. Jesus taught us He doesn’t operate like the kingdoms of this world. He operates with love and mercy. He stands courageous before His enemies continuing to teach the essence of His Gospel – “Bless those who persecute you. Bless them and do not curse them.”
Jesus offers His spiritual gift of self-control to regulate our emotions and stresses. He offers us His spiritual gift of gentleness to be a blessing in a world of tense people who are emotionally overwhelmed by the violence we see around our land and in the world.
Las Vegas, Columbine High School and Aurora, Colorado; Newtown, Connecticut; Oklahoma City; Dallas, Texas; Charleston, South Carolina; Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania are all signs that we can’t regulate sin by Law, education, wealth and opportunity.
But neither must we let the failure of Law, education, wealth, or opportunity deter us from having faith in God. We who are mature in our faith will continue to live with gratitude for the blessings God gives us. We who hold fast to what Christ has given us continue to be persuaded by the power in God’s love to overcome the sin of this world.
We continue to look up and not backwards. We continue to be inspired and will not succumb to despair. Our citizenship is in heaven and nothing in this world can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord that gives us the eternal blessing of heaven.
Neither height, nor depth, nor length nor breadth, nor powers or principalities, nor things present or things to come will ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord!
So, my friends, press on! Press on in the ways of Jesus Christ! Press on toward the prize of heaven! It alone is our hope! Amen.