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What's wrong with the world - Romans 1:18-32

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the Riverside Church service on 27th April 2008.

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 “A catastrophe of the magnitude of the Asian tsunami inevitably hurls the greatest of challenges at religion”, wrote Melanie Philips in the Daily Mail back in January 2005.    That boxing day Tsunami  killed 225,000 people and caused $7.5bn worth of damage.  And so at the time Melanie Philips asked:  “How can the God of love permit such terrible things to happen to His creation? How can He allow such a massacre?”

Well that was 3years ago, but these kind of bad things are happening all the time.  This week saw the funeral of a teenager knocked over by a bus on Ferrensway.  And also this week, another 4 teenagers were convicted of murdering 55-year-old Stephen Green.  They pulled him off his bike and stamped on his head so badly that he later died in hospital from a blood clot. 

Whether it’s teenage murders, accidents or massive natural disasters, the question is:  what’s wrong with the world, which is the title of this morning’s sermon.  Or as Melanie Philips put it:  “How can the God of love permit such terrible things to happen”.

As Christians, we believe in Creator God who is both all-powerful and all-loving.  But maybe, as you’ve thought about what’s going on in the wider world, or maybe even the struggles in your own life, you’ve questioned whether God is really all-powerful;  or maybe, if He’s all-powerful, is He really all-loving? 

Certainly, for professing Atheists like Richard Dawkins, murders and natural disasters simply confirm their own faith position:  God doesn’t exist. 

Well as always, the answer’s in God’s word.  So pl turn back to that passage we read earlier in Rom chapter 1 on p[ 1047/ 1747].

And in the rest of chapter 1, we’re going to see 2 answers to the question:  what’s wrong with the world:

1.      The world is a mess because people have rejected their Creator (v18-23)

2.      The word is a mess because their Creator is handing them over to judgement (v24-32)

 

The World is a mess because people have rejected their Creator       (1:18-23)

So, in v18-23 we see the reason the world is a mess is because people have rejected their creator.   Look with me at v18:

18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven

Why has God’s wrath come from heaven to earth?   Because of people’s godlessness and wickedness, the rest of v18 tells us.  And what’s the root cause of that godlessness and wickedness?  Truth suppression.  Godless and wicked people suppress the truth.  But what truth you might be asking?  Well the truth about God.  Look onto v19:

19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

God has revealed His existence to us by the very fact of the Creation He’s put us in.  v20 tells us that Creation testifies not only to God’s divine existence, but also to His eternal power.    Even atheist scientists like Professor Flew of Reading University, are now conceding that the evidence of design in the universe points towards a Creator God behind it all.    

As we heard from our OT reading: 

Ps 19:1: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  Day after day they pour forth speech;  night after night they display knowledge.  There is no speech or language where their voice isn’t heard.”

It’s what theologians call ‘General revelation’.  And if you want to find out more about how modern scientific evidence is increasing pointing to the God’s existence, then this is the book for you:  The case for a Creator.  And if you want to borrow this copy then come and ask me after the service.  But we know it’s true in human experience as well don’t we?  It’s why, when your first child is born, you’re in awe and wonder at the tiny bundle in your hands.  We’re reminded that once we were just like this tiny baby.  The words of Psalm 139 might come to mind:

Psalm 139:13:  “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; “

It’s why even non-Christians often get spiritual at the birth of their children.  But it’s not just children.  Yesterday we were walking through the Dalby forest and there were some breath-taking views and it moved me to praise the Lord who made it all.  And it’s the same story when you see a coral reef, the Grand Canyon, Ayres Rock or just a beautiful garden or waterfall. 

Despite what people like Richard Dawkins try to say, the reality is that all peoples and cultures have always been religious or spiritual.  Day and night Creation testifies to the Glory of the God who made it all.  There is no nation, tribe or tongue that can’t understand the basics. 

That’s why, coming back the end of Rom 1:20, they’re without excuse.  No one has an excuse for denying the existence of God – because, like an artist’s signature embedded in his painting, God has made Himself perfectly clear, by leaving His fingerprints all over Creation.  So they are without excuse. 

So what does this say about Tsunamis and murders?  What does this say about those like Richard Darwkins, who say that the mess in our world disproves God’s existence?  

Well v18 say they’re being wicked.  They’re using the mess in our world as a smoke screen for their wicked suppression of the truth about God’s existence. 

Now of course we need to respond compassionately and generously to the victims of crime, accidents and natural disasters.    And that might involve visiting the bereaved or sending money overseas to help humanitarian projects.  And one project that’s especially on my heart at the moment, is the unfolding humanitarian disasters in Zimbabwe caused my Mugabe and his cronies.  But we also need also to keep all these disasters in perspective.  The crisis in Sudan hasn’t gone away even though it’s not on our TVs.  In 1976, and earthquake in China killed ¼ of a million people;  in 1965, an Indian drought killed 1.5 million people.  And even in the UK, every year, 200K unborn babies are killed by abortionists. 

Yes we need to be rightly responding to all the mess in the world where we can.  But until Jesus returns and ushers in the New perfect Creation, the Bible tells us that there will always be poverty, injustice, accidents, murderers and so-called natural disasters. 

But those who use any of these things to deny God’s existence are being wicked. 

So what happens when people suppress the truth about God? 

Well look on to v21: 

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him”

Although, deep down, they knew that we’re not a cosmic accident;  they knew that life isn’t random and meaningless;  they knew that we are accountable to the God who made us.  But although they knew this, they tried to live as if God didn’t exist – and they certainly didn’t give thanks to God for any of the good things He’s provided. 

And if we think back over the last 60 years in our own nation, we can see that this is exactly what's happened.  The One true God has been systematically and progressively wiped out of the public consciousness. 

In 1948 the Director General of the BBC said ‘There are many demands of impartiality laid on the Corporation, but [to be impartial about Christian values] is not one of them. We are citizens of a Christian country and the BBC … bases its policy upon a positive attitude towards Christian values. It seeks to safeguard those values and to foster acceptance of them.’

Christianity on the BBC is now either ignored or marginalised.  And where it is mentioned, it’s usually the subject of humour and ridicule, or in the case of Jerry Springer the opera, it overt blasphemy.

It’s no one wonder that recent surveys show that most Young people are not even make the connection between Easter or even Christmas and God.  I’ve even heard about Young People becoming Christians and wondering why God named His son after a swear word – Jesus.  That’s how ignorant people become when they suppress the truth about God and try to ignore Him.    But what happens next:  look on to the rest of v21:

“but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.  “

When people stop believing in the One true God, they don’t believe in nothing. 

We’re all created in the image of God;  and He’s revealed the basics to everyone in Creation:  so there’s a god-shaped hole in everyone.  So when people ignore the One True God, they don’t stop believing, they simply exchange their knowledge and belief in God for idolatry.  In the ancient world, and in parts of the world today such as India, this literally means making physical idols.  Now of course, even non-Christians in the UK might agree that it’s ridiculous to worship something as your Creator which you’ve just made with your own hands. 

But idolatry means giving the honour and glory that God deserves, to anyone or anything else. And idolatry is very much alive and well in the UK – filling the spiritual vacuum.  Just take a look around, and you’ll see that, while God is officially dead, spiritually of every sort is exploding at the same time.  When I worked in the City, I was used to get sent on various management development courses;  and on one course I had to walk out of a session about Thai Chi;  a mainstream company was paying for us to be taught about harmonising ourselves with supposed spiritual forces of Yin and Yang. 

In the church, attendances are declining overall and it’s hard work encouraging people to come to church isn’t it?  But when there’s a Mind, Body and Soul Exhibition or a Psychic Fayre going on somewhere in the City, people flock to them don’t they?  You only have to pick up a copy of the Hull Daily Mail to see a menu of such invitations to idolatry. 

But idolatry doesn’t have to be overtly spiritual;  you can made an idol out of things that are even good and right, if you use them to replace God;  people can make a idol out of their families, their careers, or even their giving and relief work.    As v25 puts it:

“They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.”

 

What’s wrong with the world?  Well the world’s a mess firstly because people are hooked on lies.  In their godlessness and wickedness, they’ve surprised the truth about God.  Or rather tried to suppress the truth.  Because God’s still God isn’t he.    It’s like when a young toddler plays the hiding game and shuts their eyes.  They think just because they’ve shut their eyes, you can’t see them.    It’s ridiculous isn’t it?  God’s still God even if people ignore, marginalise or deliberatively try to suppress the truth about Him.   Why is the world a mess?  Well firstly, because people have rejected their Creator and turn to idolatrous lies instead.

 

 

The World’s a mess, because the Creator is handing them over the Judgment (v24-32)

But actually it gets worse.  Because secondly, the world is a mess because, in v24-32 we see their Creator handing them over to Judgement.  In v18, we were told that that God was angry or wrathful when people reject him.   And in v24-32, we get an explanation of what God’s wrath looks like in practice.  What does God do when people suppress the truth about Him and turn aside to lies? 

Well look at v24:  “Therefore, God gave them over”.

v26:    “For this reason, God gave them over”.

v28: Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over”

God judges sinful people by giving them over.  We’re not talking about the final judgement in hell here.  No, we’re talking about God’s interim judgments in this life.  Ever since the Fall of Adam and Eve in Gen 3, every part of our lives has been tainted by sin.  And left to ourselves, we’d be on a downward spiral of sin, judgement and more sin.  Part of God’s loving provision for His fallen Creation has been to restrain evil and sin. 

But when people constantly reject the truth about God and provoke Him to anger, His response is to withdraw His providential restraint of sin;  God gives us over to the consequences of our own sins in this world;  He gives us over to a downward spiral of sin and depravity which is mapped out for us in v24-32.  And the long list of depravity can be thought of in 2 broad categories:  sexual immorality and anti-social behaviour.

 

Sex

So in v24, we see the first consequence of being handed over.   It’s the degradation of their bodies.  Who remembers the film:  4 weddings and a funeral?   Well that was 12 years ago, and if you saw the film, you might remember that Hugh Grant’s character felt inadequate because he’d only had 9 sexual partners, when his girlfriend had had 33.  More recently the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, said in an interview that he’d had a lot less then 30 sexual partners, the implication being that he’d been quite restrained.  And because having such multiple sexual partners is normal in Britain today, that’s why we’ve seen an explosion of sexually transmitted disease over the last 15 years even among heterosexuals.

But v26-27 is actually talking about homosexual sex.  Notice in both v26 and v27, that same-sex intercourse by both genders is described as contrary to God’s designed nature; the word at the end of v27 is over translated;  more accurately the word translated ‘perversion’ means a ‘wandering’ or ‘error’;  in other words, homosexual sex is a moral error, a sin.  It’s not an unforgivable sin or any worse than many other sins;  but if it’s not forgiven, like any other sin, it will result in the ultimate penalty of God’s eternal judgement.

Now I know this is hard teaching, especially in today’s culture where virtually any sex outside of heterosexual marriage has been completely normalised.  And if you want to explore more what the Bible overall has to say on the subject of homosexuality, then there’s an excellent chapter in Melvin’s book:  Alien Nation [hold up].  But if you’re struggling with this issue, personally, intellectually or you know someone else who is and you want to talk it through, then come and see me after the service and we’ll arrange to meet up. 

But coming back Rom 1, the point was that an increase in homosexual activity is actually a sign of God’s judgement;  the judgement in this world as God hands people over to more and more sin.  Now this doesn’t mean that the reason individuals experience homosexual temptation is the direct result of their own person sin.  Jesus knocks that one on the head when discussing the collapse of the tower of Siloam.   He says:  “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."

No the point is that homosexual activity will increase as people in general reject their Creator and His ways.  And again, if we take a step back, we can see that this is exactly what’s happened.  Less than 40 years ago, Homosexual sex was a criminal offence in this country.  Even those arguing for its decriminalisation in the late 1960s conceded on record in the House of Commons that such sex was ‘unpleasant and unnatural’.  40 years later, it’s now offensive even to say in public that homosexual sex is morally wrong.  Doctors are frightened of highlighting the well-known health risks of anal sex.  A couple of years ago, a Swedish pastor was prosecuted for preaching on the subject and I've read reports of American Christians being sacked for not supporting their companies' Gay Pride days.    And there may come a day where even the contents of this sermon could be deemed illegal in our own country.

So where is the church in all this?  Well instead of standing up for the Truth, many in the church are simply jumping on the world’s bandwagon.  Most Liberals even concede that v26&27 do say what they appear to say;  but we’ve moved on from the Bible, they say;  or we can simply pick and choose the bits we like.  Those of us who try to stick to the Bible teaching in this subject are often labelled homophobic.  Literally, homophobic means to have an irrational fear of homosexuality.  And we do need to be careful that we aren’t homophobic:  we need to welcome and love people who are struggling with this issue in the same way as we’d help people struggling with any other sinful issue, like pride or gluttony.  But it would be totally unloving to pretend that sin wasn’t sin and to encourage people to continue doing things that make God angry.  If we do that, then we’re into v32:

Rom 1:32:  Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

So a degraded sex life was the first practical outworking of God’s wrath in this world.  And the second, in v28-32 is anti-social behaviour.  Let’s have a quick look at the list in v29:

29They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

During last century, we’ve seen the most sustained and incredible increase in material prosperity our nation has even known.  My 98 year-old Grandma still remembers her parents telling her that at times, they didn’t have enough to eat.  Poverty in the UK is now defined by how much access you’ve got to consumer goods, like tellies and washing machines.  During the last century, police numbers more than doubled from 42K to 123K.  Although the crime statistics have shown a small fall over the past year, over a 30 year period during the century, crime went up by over 400%.    Anti-social behaviour orders and recruiting even more police are like sticking plasters on a broken leg.  What we really need is God’s undeserved mercy on our nation;  a revival of faith in the One True God, just as in previous centuries when God was pleased to bless us.  Otherwise, as some social commentators are predicting, our downward spiral of degradation could lead to the collapse of our Western civilisation, just as the Roman Empire did.    

 

The Gospel is the only hope

And that brings us to the final point of conclusion.  The Gospel is the only hope.  The only hope for our nation;  for all nations; and for all individuals, from whatever background.  Come back to v18 where the NIV misses out a crucial link word at the beginning of the sentence:  the word for.    The whole of v18-32 are the backdrop to v16&17 where Paul’s said:

16I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.

As we saw last week, a Gospel of salvation would be meaningless if there was nothing to be saved from.   But our world is a mess.  And it’s a mess because people have wilfully rejected their Creator.  And it’s a mess because their creator is handing us over to judgement in this world.    And unless someone intervenes to stop it, that downward spiral of judgment and handing over to more sin which leads to more judgment would lead the whole world to the final judgment of hell.  That’s the reality; and that’s the background to the good news about Jesus. 

What’s wrong with the world.  Well years ago in the Times there was a series of articles about the various social problems of the day.  At the end of each article was the question:  “What’s wrong with the world?”   And so G K Chesterton famously wrote a letter to the Times saying:  “Dear Editor: What’s wrong with the world? I am.  Faithfully yours, G.K. Chesterton.” 

What’s wrong with the world:  me, you and every other sinful human being on the planet.  And that’s why we all need the Gospel of salvation. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift of Jesus.   Let’s pray.

Closing Prayer

Dear Heavenly Father, thank you that you are a just and holy God who has to judge sin.  And we thank you for warnings us about the final judgment to come in your judgments in this world:  the mess in our world.    But we thank you even more for the escape route you’ve provided for all your people in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.    As Christians, help is to be truly thankful for just how much you’ve save us from;   and we pray for those around us who don’t know you and for our nation as a whole, they you would shower your mercy once again and save us from your judgments in this world as well as the next.  In Jesus name and for Your ultimate glory we pray, Amen. 

 

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