If you’re a regular at Bible Study or Adult Education, you know that I have a tendency to rag on the Apostle Paul a bit. Paul’s just not my favorite. He writes sentences that go on and on and on, and he chooses to go on and on and on about seemingly trivial matters. He’s grumpy, he’s arrogant, and like a mutated sea bass, he’s ill-tempered. When I read Paul, the voice I hear in my head is Dana Carvey as the Church Lady, the uptight and smug host of Church Chat. The Church Lady’s name, by the way, is Enid Strict; she and Paul would have gotten along. “Well isn’t that special.”
Paul writes a lot about a word we don’t like any more: righteousness. “Righteous, righteousness – it’s one of a whole nexus of related terms which have lost a great deal of their power in the contemporary world and have taken on unpleasant, unattractive connotations. Words like virtue, upright, just, justify, moral. And righteous, perhaps more than any, has become almost a term of reproach. The word itself seems to frown deeply and wears a black frock coat. It never smiles. Straitlaced, holier than thou: that’s what it’s come to suggest, and we don’t feel comfortable with it.
“This is sad, because it’s a perfectly good word. And sadder still, because this means that when we come across the term in Scripture – and that we do quite a lot – when we come across it, all those unpleasant overtones take over and obscure its meaning. And there is to this word a rich and full meaning which ought not escape our notice. Let’s look at it.
“In the first place, righteous/righteousness does indeed have the kind of moral/ethical tone with which we normally associate it. The word does point to a type of behavior and implies conformity to a certain moral standard. But second, and much more important, it is a term which refers to a relationship. The Hebrew word, for instance, is used in a very specific sense, used not just to refer to behavior, but used in a context – in the context of covenant. For example, a person or a group of people are righteous in the Old Testament sense, if they maintain the covenant which God has established with them. The Jews were called by God, and by God they were called to be a righteous people, not because they were morally superior to any other people – which they certainly weren’t – but because God had established with them a special relationship, a covenant, an agreement. To keep that covenant was to be righteous; to violate the relationship was to be unrighteous. The word, then, refers primarily not to a code, not to a set of do’s and don’ts – but to a life, a living, active relatedness between persons and God.
“And so you see, righteousness is really a much broader and richer concept than we would imagine at first glance. When it’s used to describe God, it never suggests the kind of stern disapproval some have come to associate with it. Rather – and quite the opposite – it points to God’s action to be related to His people, His movement to be with humanity. God establishes a covenant, and He is always righteous in that covenant. A woman, a man, is righteous when he or she keeps that covenant and continues to be with God.”
That’s what God is after – He’s after us, to be in relationship with us, and He’s provided the means for us to respond.
We’re turning a corner in this season of Lent. We will soon be confronted with the Passion of Our Lord, His “struggles, his disappointments, the lies, the denials and the betrayals, His agony, His death. And if we look closely enough, we will see clearly and overwhelmingly the righteousness of God. In Christ, God related Himself to and became one with the sadness, pain, sin, the depths of human life, as well as its heights and its joys. In Christ, the righteous God related Himself even to those things which are un-righteous. He made them His own. He knew their temptation, their pain; he experienced the power which they can exert over human life.
God did not have to do this for His own sake, but chose to do it for ours. This is the good news of God in Christ Jesus, that because of His righteousness in the face of all that was thrown at Him, we too, if we follow Him, we too can be counted as righteous. As in right relationship with God. And that, my friends, really is special.
 The Rev. Allan Warren: http://archive.theadventboston.org/sermons/aw031713.htm