Monday, August 25, 2014

Sermon on Romans 11:33-12:8, for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, "Transformed for Service" Part 10

Part 10 of a sermon series based on Romans 6-14, "God's Greater Story". 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. As we enter Romans 12, a quick recap of where we have been so far in the book of Romans is in order. Chapter 12 marks a significant transition in the topic of the book, marked by a “Therefore.” And as we said before, a good rule when reading, is when you see a “therefore”…ask what is it there for? It connects what follows, with what came before. Starting from Romans 6, we talked about how we’ve been baptized into God’s Greater Story. In chapters 7-8 We heard how that Greater Story unfolds to us through Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In chapters 9-11 we’ve learned about God’s Greater People, the community of His church. And in these final weeks we’ll see God’s Greater Plan for our lives—the way He desires us to be people of mercy in response to His mercy toward us in Christ Jesus. The “therefore” tells us that the Christian life that Paul will describe and urge us to follow, in chapters 12-16, is all circles in and out of God’s merciful work toward us in Christ. Our salvation is the sole accomplishment of Jesus Christ—but the working out of that salvation and its effects, takes place in your life, by the working of the Holy Spirit.
I can safely assume that probably all of you have watched a beautiful sunset before, living on Maui. Though we all know it’s not good to stare right at the sun, I’m sure many of us have also done this and had the experience of the bright “afterimage” of the sun momentarily burned into our eyes, so that when we looked away, we still saw the bright spot of the sun, and everything around us glowed until the light faded away. If you think about it, that can be a metaphor for the way that the apostle Paul saw the church. In the previous chapters he detailed in many different ways the depth of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus. He was staring at the Son—the Son of God. And now awed with the brilliance of His Light, and the unfathomable depths of God’s plan and His mercy, Paul bursts out in praise of God, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
God’s ways are mysterious, they are beyond our understanding. Sometimes they fill us with simultaneous fear and awe. Sometimes they leave us grasping for answers; sometimes we mistakenly presume to know better. But God has revealed enough of His will and His heart to us in Christ Jesus, that we can know for a certainty that God is holy, just, and loving. We can see that sin, evil, and death were not His will for creation, but that He has countered sin, evil, and death, in the most unlikely way, through Jesus’ death and resurrection. While we cannot understand the how and why of individual circumstances and sufferings in this life, we can understand that Jesus’ cross is the key to God’s defeat of evil, and it’s His participation in our sufferings. By atoning for our sins, and rising from death, we can praise Him and have respect for all that we don’t understand, because He is God, and we are not.
So with eyes still aglow from staring at the Son—the Son of God, and all that he’s told us of salvation in Romans 1-11—Paul turns his gaze to the church, and the life God anticipates for us and gives us in Christ Jesus. And with the brilliant afterimage of Jesus Christ casting its glow on the church, Paul sees the church as it should be, and as God desires. Earlier in the year, in a series on the Beatitudes, I reflected on how we aren’t to look at the church through “rose-colored glasses”, but “Christ-colored glasses.” If you take what I mean by that, we don’t have an artificially rosy view or expectation of the church—we don’t see a perfect church free of real people, sinners, hypocrites, people wrestling with their sins. But rather we see sinners who are sanctified—forgiven and made holy in Jesus Christ. We see sinners who are struggling against their old sinful flesh, and striving to live in the new life of the Spirit that they have received in Christ Jesus. In Christ Jesus, we can see the Christian church made up of people who are at the same time saints and sinners, or simply forgiven sinners. And the glow that Paul sees lingering over the church is not artificial, it’s not a trick of the eye, but it’s genuine spiritual sight, that sees truly that Jesus is at work in the lives of His people the church—even when at times, things appear less than impressive. Christ’s work is often hidden, as at the cross, under things that the world sees as foolish, weak, low and despised, and the things that are not. Humble lives and humble people. But by God’s Spirit we can recognize that God’s power is made perfect in weakness, and this is most often where His glory is shown.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” By the mercies of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice. God’s mercy encircles our whole Christian life from start to finish. Your bodies are a living sacrifice. What does this simple phrase teach us? First of all, your body and how you use it matters! We’re in this world, in this body for a reason, and we don’t live our lives out on some “higher plane of consciousness” disconnected from the material world. Body matters. Spiritual is not “up here” and material “down here”, with nothing to join them, but all of our actions have spiritual significance, whether we see it or not.
Before we dig into what “living sacrifice” means, though, let’s first define “spiritual.” The word “spiritual” is given such a wide variety of definitions (or no definition at all) today, that it’s hard to know what people mean when they use it. Romans 12:1 says that presenting your bodies to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, is your spiritual act of worship. But the word “spiritual” there, is not the usual one found in the New Testament. The common word is “pneumatikos” like the word “pneumatic.” Breath, wind, or spirit. Spiritual—from the working of the Holy Spirit. But the word here in Romans 12:1 is “logikos”, like the word “logical”. Logikos can mean rational, reasonable, and here, can also be translated as “spiritual”. Now wait a minute. If we are working from the vague, fuzzy definitions of “spiritual” that are so common today, we probably think that words like “spiritual” and “rational or logical” should never cross paths. But if we are working from the words of the Holy Spirit, could Paul really mean that presenting our bodies to God as a living sacrifice, is both spiritual and reasonable?
Definitely! For Christians, the spiritual is not the realm of fiction or fantasy or superstition, it is the firm confidence that the material world is not the end all and be all of existence. We’re not just atoms and molecules sparked into motion by nothingness, but we are the creation of the rational, thinking, all powerful God of all creation. His order and design is written all over creation, if we do not blind our eyes to see it. And so what is “spiritual” is to acknowledge that we are not mere animals, but living souls made by God to dwell with Him and know Him. It is to know that living out this life on earth is not the only purpose of our existence, but to know that God wants us to live in an eternal destiny with Him—not as disembodied spirits or angels, but in physical bodies made new to enjoy His new creation. So it is “spiritual” to receive the work of the Holy Spirit in us, that directs us to Jesus Christ, God’s Son. To see Him as the One and only Door to Eternal Life, the One who died for our sins and gives us new life. What is “spiritual” for the Christian, therefore, is completely interested in both what we do now with our bodies, and what will happen to our bodies in the future.
So Paul tells us that committing our bodies to serve God and obey Him, is a rational, it is a spiritual act of worship. It is our logical response to the mercy of God, for what could be more appropriate for us to do in response to Jesus’ selfless life for us, than to try to imitate His love toward others? For we owe our very lives to Him, and there is nothing we can do to repay it—but there is everywhere the need for Christian love and compassion and service to be poured out on the world. Luther once wrote that the world is filled to overflowing with suffering and need, but that this is the very thing that makes our service to “Christ in His needy ones” so necessary. Using our lives, our bodies, in the service of others, is worship rendered to God. It is an act of praise in itself. Instead of God repaying us for something we have first done to Him, we are offering back to Him what He first gave to us. We surrender our lives to His calling and direction.
That’s a “living sacrifice”. Sacrifice, is by definition, something costly. In the Old Testament, a sacrifice of an animal was surrendering a costly part of your livelihood. The animal’s death served as a costly reminder that your sin left you in constant debt with God, and that it was only by His offering a substitute sacrifice, that you were spared the judgment your sins deserved. The value of that animal for work, for food, for income, was lost to you. You didn’t get to keep it. And sacrifice was the work of priests, in the Temple in Jerusalem. But when God in His mercy, atoned for our constant debt of sin by offering Jesus as the once for all, perfect sacrifice—the worldwide debt was forgiven. God paid in full, payable on the death of Jesus Christ. Like that, animal sacrifice was over. Unnecessary. A shadow that gave way to the reality that came in Christ Jesus.
But there still is a place for sacrifice. Not a dying sacrifice; not because there is any debt still to be paid. But a living sacrifice—of a life transformed after the image of Jesus Christ. Your life, given back to God—lost to yourself, but found in Christ Jesus. For a new and living purpose. Sacrifices made everywhere and by every Christian—man, woman, or child. Costly sacrifices of living not to yourself—to maximize the value your life can generate in income or material goods for you—but living for others, as Christ did. Devoting your time, talent, and treasure to others in need of your help. And this “spiritual” worship doesn’t take place only through impressive or dramatic acts of “super saints”—but it happens through the mundane, the ordinary, an often unnoticed or unappreciated acts of serving your neighbor.
The tired hands of a mother who washes her baby’s bottom and tucks her warmly into bed. The aching hands of a machinist who devotes his skill and craft to making reliable parts. The wounded hands of a soldier, carrying his friend off the battlefield. The tender hands of a child, comforting a friend who is hurting. There is no counting the acts or ways in which a Christian might show the kindness of Christ to their neighbor. But all of those opportunities surround you daily. Wherever your workplace is, your neighborhood, your church, even the narrow confines of a bed, where an elderly or suffering Christian calls on God in prayer. These are all the places, in our bodies, where God has given us a place to serve and praise Him in love. And whenever we do so, it’s not by our strength, which is so fickle and likely to fail. But it is by the strength of His constant mercies, which are new day by day, and which echo in every act of love done in this body. This is your spiritual worship. This is your living sacrifice. God at work in your life—transforming and renovating His people for His purposes.
And we will be tempted to reflect on our own progress—whether we are convinced of our success, onward and upward—or discouraged by our failures—setback after setback. And if so, we are reminded by Paul’s words, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3). Don’t think too highly of yourself, don’t measure yourself over, against, or under anyone else—God alone is judge; He who distributed the measure of faith to each person as He assigns. We have nothing to prove, but only to think wisely and humbly, and our failures should only make it more obvious day by day that we are totally dependent on the grace of God that is given to us. To Him be all the glory, forever and ever, Amen.  

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. At the end of Romans 11, Paul bursts into praise of God, alluding to several Old Testament passages. Isaiah 40:13; 55:8-9; Job 36:22-23; 41:11. Why in the end, is the best and only final response to the mysteries of God to raise our voices in praise? What does it help us to realize about who we are in relation to Him?
  2. Romans 12:1 opens with another “Therefore.” This therefore marks a major turning point in Romans, from all the rich story of salvation in Christ Jesus that has been explained in chapters 1-11, to the implications of how we live that out, in chapters 12-16. What is the first description he gives of this new Christian life?
  3. Compare the sacrifices of the Old Testament, to what Paul means by “living sacrifices” in 12:1-2. Where are each performed? Who performs either? What is the goal of each? How did Jesus’ once for all sacrifice both end the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, and transform “sacrifice” into a new reality? Hebrews 9:11-10:18, especially 9:14, 24-26; 10:8-10. What New Testament sacrifices do we make? Hebrews 13:15-16; 1 Peter 2:5, 9.
  4. In verse 2, compare the words, “conformed” and “transformed.” If we are “conformed to the pattern of this age”—what image are we taking on? Is this good or bad? What does it look like? If we are transformed, whose image are we taking on? Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 11:1; 15:49; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 3:10. Whose work is this in us? Philippians 2:13; Romans 15:16.
  5. Why are Christians to strive to do the will of God in their lives? 1 John 2:17; 1 Peter 2:15; 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; 5:18. Our frequent failures and sins turn us continually back to repentance and the “throne of grace.” Hebrews 4:15-16. Why is it necessary that the Christian life always circle back to the mercy of God in Christ Jesus? Romans 12:1. What comfort does it bring to know that Jesus is our complete salvation?

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