Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Sermon on Romans 12:9-21, for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, "Living in Love," Part 11

Part 11 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. Last week in the first half of Romans 12, we reflected on how Paul is looking at the church through the lens of Christ Jesus—that is, conscious of our sins and guilt that put Jesus on the cross, but also conscious of the new life that Jesus gives us by faith. Not surprisingly, the verses you heard today, Romans 12:9-21, are a perfect description of Jesus—sincere in love, blessing and not cursing those who persecuted Him, living peaceably, and not overcoming evil by evil, but by good. My Bible has the heading “Marks of the True Christian” over the section. So let’s check off which marks fit you—right? If we have any honesty about ourselves, we’ll find that checklist embarrassingly incomplete, when we measure ourselves by it. But instead of reading this as further proof of our unworthiness and failures (of which there’s more than enough evidence in the 10 Commandments), Paul is here opening our eyes to the reality of Christ working in and through His church, and showing you where Christ will lead your life if you follow Him. A vision of what the church looks and acts like when the Gospel has thoroughly worked itself through our lives, and Christians are Living in Christ’s Love.
A few verses before, in last weeks’ sermon, we paused to remember that we shouldn’t think more highly of ourselves than we ought, but to think humbly. Often we are eager for immediate results, or discouraged by lack of progress. But we’re not in a game of measuring ourselves against someone else, feeling insecure that we’re not as good as them, feeling boastful that we’re better than them, or feeling jealous that we don’t have the gifts someone else has. That’s not a good game to play, because you can’t win, and everyone loses when pride, rivalry, jealousy, or despair take hold. The competition Paul urges us to instead is a positive one—a joyful game of outdoing one another in showing honor! That’s the way to compete! By outdoing each other in doing good, and encouraging and building one another up! There is no loser in that scenario, and honor is not something we give to ourselves, but to others.
Was Paul onto a self-esteem trip, to artificially boost everyone’s egos? No, because he says “Let love be genuine”. Flattery and false praise is not genuine. But real encouragement, appreciation, and honoring our brothers and sisters in Christ is genuine and God pleasing. Being eager and ready to excel at doing good for others is pleasing to God.
Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. To abhor is to hate or detest something. If we are living in love, we cannot delight or have pleasure in what is evil, but only what is good. Have you ever heard the analogy (as I recall) about the little boy who was sent by his grandfather to fill up a little coal basket with water, and bring it back to him? The boy is frustrated that the water always leaks out before he gets back, and complains after the third time that the work was wasted—until the kindly old man shows him that the water had washed the basket clean. The analogy, then, is that we often read the Bible, or hear the Word of God—perhaps in a sermon—and almost as quickly as we’ve stopped, we’ve forgotten—like water leaking from a basket. But in the process we are getting washed clean. So if our hearts and minds are sometimes like a sieve—what are we pouring into them?
If we apply this command to abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good to our lives, what are we loading up with? Are we cleansing our minds and hearts with the pure Word of God, and setting our mind on noble and praiseworthy things? Or are we filling up that sieve with junk and bad stuff? What if we’re constantly downloading bad images and ideas into our minds, through phones, computers, televisions, and video games—fed on the entertainment diet of violence, greed, revenge, distortions of God’s good gift of sex, etc? Instead of cleansing our mind, we are clumping it up with evil, to grow more and more desensitized. True, it’s not what goes into a person that defiles them, but what comes out of their mouth and heart. But if all we “input” is bad stuff, what will we expect the “output” to be?
On the contrary, to constantly hold Jesus Christ before our eyes, to witness His love, to hear His Word, shapes our lives more and more into His image. Paul talks in Philippians about “having this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5), that we remember how He humbled Himself and became a servant to others. Having the mind of Christ among us, is to say that the life and mind of Christ will begin to permeate our thinking. Even if we have a “leaky basket” up here, it will “trickle down” to wash over our lives and actions. Daily I fall short of having a fervent spirit, rejoicing in hope, having patience in tribulation, and showing constancy in prayer. Especially patience. Daily I pray for God’s strength to walk in Christ’s love. Daily the Christian battles sin, confesses it to God, and rises in our new baptismal life in Christ. The Holy Spirit is going to be sanctifying and cleansing you all the way to your grave—and it won’t be till after you’ve gotten there that you arrive at the perfection in glory that God intends. That’s no excuse for being “slothful in zeal” or simply being “lazy”—but we should be fervently striving for the life that God is shaping in us.
You have seen videos of first time skydivers jumping out of an airplane? How they have to do their first number of dives attached by the body to another instructor? It must be greatly reassuring to the newbie that they are with someone experienced. Wouldn’t it be humorous if we had to follow that same tandem approach in other more complicated tasks in life? It’s amusing to imagine the awkward struggle. Not so easy to perform a task on the ground, strapped to someone else. But in Christ Jesus, we have the benefit of a more perfect union than those “tandem divers.” Christ Jesus is perfectly joined to us in baptism, and you live in and through Him. In all your struggles against sin, in your walk in the new life, Christ is attached to you. Our Christian life is not lived under the law, with the dread of not having God’s approval because of our repeated failures. Rather, we’re sure of God’s approval only because of the mercies and forgiveness of Christ Jesus. Based on that mercy of Christ, we walk (even with stumbles and ungainly stride) in His commandments. And He doesn’t leave us to fall solo after the 3rd or 4th try. Jesus is with us through everything, even when we feel most greatly oppressed by our sufferings and challenges. Train your eyes on Christ, and not yourself, and know that He is faithful to work in your life, however much you face your own discouragement, disappointment, or setbacks. Final victory is certain in Him, not because of you.
Much of this section in Romans 12:9-21 describes our corporate life together as Christians, our mutual love and concern for one another—material assistance, compassion, godly affection for each other, making peace with each other and living in harmony. But verses 14-21 especially focus on our response to enemies and persecution, and how we respond to evil.
I just read a touching story about some homeless teenage boys in Tanzania, Africa, who were used to the rough and tumble life of living on the street and stealing to get enough food to survive. Two young boys, James and Samwel, had spent the afternoon with a church outreach program listening to an audio recording of the New Testament. Later, when James seized an opportunity to steal, and was named by his friend, he struck him viciously with an iron pipe, creating a great gash on his head. But when Samwel’s friends urged him to take revenge, or they would do it themselves, he answered, "We've been listening to the radio [Proclaimer], and it said we must forgive. It would be wrong to hurt James because he hurt me. I choose to forgive him…it is wrong to seek revenge…the right thing to do is forgive him." James had been hiding nearby, but the words of forgiveness touched his heart so much that he risked making his presence known. He walked past the other teens, stopped, knelt down and hugged Samwel. "Thank you for forgiving me," he said humbly. "I forgive you too!"
The Word of God broke what could have quickly become a cycle of violence and revenge. It disarmed the tactic of repaying evil for evil, and overcame the evil with good. And in the end, forgiveness and peace was restored among friends. Christ’s death on the cross is the perfect example of the unrelenting evil and cruelty of men facing up against the unrelenting goodness, longsuffering, and love of Jesus. And which won out? Jesus blessed those who persecuted Him and prayed for their forgiveness. His sacrificial death, and His glorious rising from the dead are proof of the victory of good. And it is only by His love living in you, living in Samwel, or anyone else who has been wronged—that we find the love of Christ to forgive them and do them no wrong in return. Forgiving not only friends who have deeply wronged us, but even a love that forgives strangers and enemies, as Christ did from the cross.
Daily Christians are confronted with sin and evil, from the petty annoyances that make us angry to grievances up to and including injury to ourselves or even the death of a loved ones, as in places like Iraq and Syria. Whether it’s a small matter of patience, or whether we’re talking about Christians who have suffered deep grief through unspeakable persecutions against themselves or loved ones—the question is not how great or small the evil, but how we respond to it. To repay evil with evil adds fuel to the fire. James talks about how just our tongue can spark a fire into a raging blaze. Whenever cursing, slander, or gossip leave our mouths, we escalate the crisis, and do nothing to help it. On the other hand, when we repay wounds and wrongs against us with unexpected love and kindness—as Paul describes feeding your enemy or giving him a drink—we “heap burning coals on his head.” This simply means that the enemy will be ashamed by their own conduct when they see that it’s not repaid with evil, but with good. It upsets the way we are programmed to think. Our sinful nature wants to egg on a fight by returning tit for tat—but getting even rarely satisfies us. Sin wants worse than getting even. But throwing God’s love into the situation completely changes the equation.
This is why there are countless stories of the persecutors of Christians being won over to Christ by the love and forgiveness of those whom they persecuted or even executed. And I pray that more lives would be changed like this in the Middle East and around the world. Revenge and other acts of evil should never be seen as tools that lie at our disposal to combat evil, small or great. Vengeance is the Lord’s prerogative alone, and only good has the power to win genuine victory over evil. Living in genuine love, in each of the ways described in Romans 12—through patience, prayer, blessing and not cursing, showing solidarity through a shoulder to weep on or sharing in one another’s joys; being humble and at peace with everyone—this kind of genuine love is not our work, but it is the work of Christ in us. And Christ’s love is the greatest good that shatters through even the darkest evil, turning darkness into light, turning sorrow into joy, and turning our sin and death into a glorious resurrection and the hope of everlasting life. Look nowhere else for that goodness and love than in God and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He is in your life to make you a Christian, a little reflection of Him and His love for others. “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24) Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. In v. 9, “Let love be genuine”—the word “genuine” is literally, unhypocritical. What is hypocrisy, and why must love be free of it? Where does this pure love come from? 1 Peter 1:22. How do we get a “pure heart?” Psalm 51:10; Ezekiel 36:26-27.
  2. Why must the Christian abhor or detest evil? Who also does this? Psalm 5:4-6; 101:3-4. Why do they hold fast to what is good? Psalm 147:10-11.
  3. What healthy competition does Paul encourage in Romans 12:10? How can we do this? Hebrews 10:24-25
  4. Why is hospitality to be a characteristic of Christians? For what situations was it a qualification? 1 Timothy 3:2; 5:10; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 4:9.
  5. How does Jesus model for us vs. 14? How does the Christian church share in its joys and sorrows, with all its members? 1 Corinthians 12:24-26; Galatians 6:1-2.
  6. Vs. 16 speaks of living in “harmony.” Harmony is the pleasant musical blending of different notes played or sung at the same time. How is this a description of how Christians should live together? What is the cause of disharmony?
  7. Vs. 17-21 continues to discuss the response to enemies and persecution. It outlines how evil can never be a “means to a good end” and that the Christian must never take revenge or consider evil as a tool that we can wield against evil for good. What happens to us when we try to use evil for good? How does it change us? What is so much harder (but right!) about using good?

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