Why Utopia never arrives - Romans 1:16-32
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
You have heard of the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? The optimist is the person who believes that this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist is the one who sadly believes he is right-this is as good as it gets. Our world has not been short of its optimists. In 1516 Thomas More, of Man for All Seasons fame wrote a book called Utopia- which could be translated good place or dream place. It depicted an island with 54 well designed towns, each with 6,000 communities ,Spartan in their values and war hating in their attitudes. There were gardens for every house and even euthanasia for the old and decrepit. More recently Ian M Banks in his latest novel, Look Windward sees his Utopia as existing on another planet which offers its 15 billion inhabitants every climate, terrain and distraction they could wish for. Here you can travel a river longer than a thousand Amazons, or go rafting on molten lava.
But of course the ideals of Utopia are not restricted to works of fiction. Here is part of the second Humanist Manifesto : By using technology wisely, we can control our environment, conquer poverty, modify human behaviour, alter the course of human evolution and cultural development and provide humankind with an unparalleled opportunity for achieving an abundant and meaningful life. But when attempts have been made to translate this into practice Utopia soon becomes Dystopia - a place of torment. You see this in the 5 year plans of Stalin in Russia, the Cultural revolution of Mao in China , and the madness of Pol Pot in Cambodia, In seeking to put in place a so called equal society- social experiments were undertaken which left millions and millions dead and dying through starvation. George Orwell saw this clearly in his satire on the communists state in his Animal farm where it was wryly observed That though all the animals were equal, some were more equal than others.
But we in the West are not in a position to feel morally superior either. After the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and the unprecedented alliance against Iraq at the beginning of the 90s it was the then President George Bush who pronounced a new world order. Such a pronouncement now seems rather hollow doesnt it? A new world disorder more like. The great social experiment of moral liberalisation which began in our country in the 1960s has conspired to produce the broken families, the drug abuse and the violence we are now experiencing in the 21st century. Have you ever wondered why? Why for all the ideals, hopes and aspirations, Utopia never arrives? Well, the apostle Paul tells us in that reading from Romans- it is because, he says, God is angry. Look at v 18: For the wrath of God is being revealed (present tense) from heaven against all godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. That is why.
Now this may come as a bit of a shock to some of us- all this talk of an angry God, after all doesnt the Bible tell us that God is love, so how can he be angry with that which he has made? Well, three things need to be said. First, Gods love and Gods anger are not to be thought of as expressions of his nature in exactly the same way. What I mean is this: God from all eternity has been love, God is love. There has always been that dynamic of giving and receiving within the Godhead even before the universe was created the Father eternally loving the Son, the Son eternally loving the Father, embracing each other by the eternal love of the Holy Spirit. But for God to express his anger, something or someone outside of God has to do something to provoke it-namely sin. i.e. No sin, no anger. Secondly, Gods anger is not like ours. We tend to get angry because we feel hard done by. The girlfriend ignores us, we get angry. We are passed over for promotion, we get angry. And often our anger is wholly disproportionate too. It is not so much an eye for an eye, we want two eyes if the truth be known. Whereas our anger tends to be fitful and selfish, Gods anger is measured and often greatly restrained and is concerned with justice. But in the third place, Gods anger and his love are not opposites, he is angry because he loves. The opposite of anger is not love, it is indifference. So here you have a father or mother with a son or daughter. The children get into stealing, lying, lazy habits, destructive habits. Which is the parent who really loves them. Is it the one who with a shrug of the shoulders says, Oh it doesnt really matter, its their life, who am I to interfere? And so they go from bad to worse. Or is it the parent who is angry with what they are doing to themselves and other people and will do all that they can to help the children to a better way of life and that will sometimes involve sanctions, punishment, when reason seems to fail. Who would you rather have as your parent? So it is with God. Call it righteous anger if you like- a divine disgust at what evil does to his children and what evil his children do to each other. Tell me could you honestly believe in a God who smiles just as benignly on Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa with equal affection? As someone once said: The real question is not How dare a loving God be angry? but rather How can a loving God feel anything less?
So the real problem with our world is not lack of education ,or the need for more technology or better housing. The real problem is that we are on the wrong side of God and God is making no secret of the fact. The evidence of his divine disapproval is all around us. And notice the two things that provoke it: godlessness and wickedness- v 18. Godlessness -our failure as religious beings and wickedness our failure as moral beings. And those two words are a perfect summary of what the Bible means when it talks about the sinfulness of the human race. We are made in Gods image but we reject the norms of spirituality and morality which that image demands. Like Frank Sinatra we have decided to do things our way-not Gods way. And Pauls argument is that we have no excuse for that. There is no excuse for our godlessness according to v 19 for we know enough about God to worship him, and there is no excuse for our immorality because according to v 32 we know enough about his moral standards to obey him.
Now it may be that you are here tonight and you are thinking that for you God, if he or it exists at all, is an irrelevance. You know nothing about him, so how dare he judge you, anymore than if you do not know that the speed limit is 30 miles an hour how can you be prosecuted if you exceed it- so just plead ignorance.
Well, let me tell you that you will meet God one day and the plea of ignorance will be inadmissible and Paul tells us why in v 19-20 (read- plain in them). If you were to go the Ferens art gallery in town and view some of the paintings there, you dont think for a moment that those works of art came into being all by themselves do you? As you study the painting, part of your mind will ponder the artist himself, maybe thinking what an incredible imagination he has, what skill in transferring those thoughts via brush strokes and pigments onto canvas. Well, similarly God has taken steps to make himself known through what he has made. God in himself is invisible and eternal, but through what can be seen in space and time he communicates to us something of his divine nature, his divine artistry if you like. What is more, there is within each one of us, according to v21 a knowledge of God, perhaps more of a sense of God- an intuitive knowledge if you like-that awareness deep down that there is someone who has made us and for whom we were made, that we are creatures of a Creator. And sometimes this comes out quite by accident .It was the unbelieving Oxford philosopher A.J Ayer who once exclaimed Thank God I am an atheist. Although we may not particularly look around for someone to thank when things are going well for us, you can be pretty sure we want someone to blame when things start to go wrong-then we look for a God to whom we can vent our spleen. But the problem is not that God hasnt spoken, the real problem is that we havent listened . We have the truth but what do we do with it? Well, we suppress it, thats what we do according to Paul in v 18-literally we hold it down, push the knowledge below the level of consciousness in order to escape its disturbing claims. We may even say we repress it. Trying to ignore God is like trying to hold your breath, do it long enough and you blush with the attempt. And so it is when we try to suppress this knowledge of God, do it long enough and eventually we blush with shame- v21-24.
If you learn nothing else while here in Hull, learn this one fact that belief eventually affects behaviour. No belief is neutral. Ignore God and there are consequences in every area of our life. First in our thought life our thinking becomes darkened. Instead of being wise we become fools. Take the Philosopher Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest atheist philosophers of the 20th century. He was a genius. But he left his family destroyed, his followers disillusioned as he lied and cheated his way through one affair after another-how foolish can you get? But second there is corruption in our religious life : They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and animals. So here we are at the beginning of the 21st century and has there ever been a century so steeped in superstition like ours? Intelligent people believing that the way you organise your furniture actually affects your well being- Feng Shui. That crystals have powers of healing. Come off it. We are told: What does it matter what you believe so long as it gets you through life. That is the message of Steven Speilbergs latest film AI - if you believe in God and that helps fine, but it is no different to someone else believing in the blue fairy. But then there is a very high price to pay in our social life too which is what vv 24- 32 are all about. What spills out of our minds flows, into the bedrooms and eventually out onto the streets (24-25 read).
Three times Paul talks about God handing us over to the consequence of our moral error. Did you notice it? God gave them over: v24 he gave them over in their sinful desires,v26God gave them over to shameful lust,v27 God gave them over to a depraved mind. In other words the perversion is the punishment. We rebel against the Maker and go against the moral grain of the universe and we shall suffer for it, just as surely as if we decide to defy the physical laws of the universe by jumping off a high story building, it just takes a little longer to work itself out thats all.
Now why does Paul take as his case example of the full course of social ruin- homosexual practice? When Paul talks about such relations as being unnatural ,he is not necessarily saying that they are against the predisposed inclinations of those who are doing them. He is saying that whatever reason, such practices go against the natural order of things as God originally intended. He has Genesis 1 and 2 in mind here, that the Creators intention is that sex is for heterosexual marriage. And so to engage in homosexual sex not only constitutes a wanton disregard for the Creators purpose for which we are anatomically designed anyway-the male sex organs to fit the female sex organs, but it also constitutes a defacing of Gods image which is meant to be reflected in heterosexual marriage, the complementarity of male and female which together reflect the unity and diversity within the trinity itself.
Now we do not know exactly the cause of homosexual orientation. It would appear from studies that like a lot of other sinful behaviour it is formed by the affect of the sinful behaviour of others. Studies show that among male homosexual 67% come from families where the father is not around or is a wimp and the mother a terrifyingly dominating figure and so the boy seeks tenderness in male companionship. Paradoxically another 30% come from homes where the father is brutal and the mother treated like a door mat and so the boy learns to despise women and identify with male strength. The remainder comes from neither background but who have been seduced into a homosexual lifestyle maybe while at school or by a relative. We all express corruption in some way or another and lots of influences may be at work, but that does not mean that such things become right and neither does it mean that homosexual practice is the unforgivable sin, as we shall see. The further we move from Gods design, the further we get out of touch with reality and end up hurting ourselves-and more and more medical evidence is now coming out on the harmful physical effects of homosexual sex.
But by far the worst condemnation is reserved not for those who through weakness or ignorance find themselves drawn into this kind of activity- and which one of us here tonight cannot find him or herself guilty of at least one of the things listed in vv29-31 - insolent, arrogant, boastful, disobedient to parents- remember for every one finger pointing at someone else there are three fingers pointing back , but rather the greatest blame is apportioned to those who approve and promote such things -v 32 (read). And so in Gods sight who will have to render the greatest account? The young man or woman drawn into a gay lifestyle out of loneliness or the bishop I once heard extolling the virtues of a lesbian relationship he one came across because through lesbian sex, he said, the two women had discovered the love of Christ? Please pardon me for being so frank, because Paul is so frank-this is our world he is describing.
But why does God allow things to get so bad? It is with a positive aim in mind- to cause us to stop, pause what is going wrong and turn back to him. That, I believe is what the effect of the events in Manhattan are having all around the world. You see, when you think about it, this is a world well suited for sinners for it is a constant reminder that all is not well between us and God. A well known Harley Street doctor, once first assistant to the doctor of the Royal family said that it is bad practice to try and alleviate the symptoms of an ill patient straight away. Those symptoms- the spots, the aching joints or whatever are often the best indicators you have of helping you diagnose the real underlying problem, and of course that is what you really want to treat isn't it? And so it is with God. Because of his love for our eternal well being he sometimes allows the symptoms to run their course in order to make us realise that our world is a spiritually sick world and we need healing, desperately.
So where does that healing come from? Well, from God himself of course. We can no more cure ourselves than a lame man can make himself walk-we need help and God has provided that help. How? Well, we were told at the beginning of our reading v 16 (read). This is a church Paul is writing to, that is a group of people who are Christian believers. Now here were folk who fitted into all the categories he has already described, those who had lived the high life-sleeping around, who had swindled and lied and cheated their way through life, who had broken their parents hearts by the way they had trampled over their feelings. In other words they were people just like you and me. So what changed them? It was the Gospel. The message that God has devised a way whereby people on the wrong side of him can be put on the right side of him -which is what that little phrase righteousness of God means -being made in a right relationship-with the result that however falteringly, they can start living Gods way by Gods power. How does that happen? Well, through faith. Trusting that God through his Son Jesus, who is described at the beginning of the chapter, has stepped in to the breach and on a cross took the punishment and shame for our sin that we rightly deserve, so exhausting Gods anger -paying the price .It is a message which also tells us he is now alive as the rightful ruler of the world and our lives and by his Holy Spirit gives us what we really need-not principles to live by, but power by which to live.
And that is your greatest need, and mine, and God alone can and wants to meet it. Some of you are first years and you are worried that your grant hasnt arrived yet, that lectures are about to start soon and you are worried about how you are going to cope with all these clever people milling around you. You worry about the boyfriend or girlfriend you have left behind and whether they will still be yours when you get back. You are worried about how you are going to do without Mum and Dad but you would hate to admit that each night you cry yourself to sleep with your face in the pillow. If so I genuinely sympathise with you. But I tell you this is a far more important issue than all those things which are pressing in on you at the moment- Am I a true Christian believer or not? Do I walk by faith. Because if I dont, then I walk under his anger with the rest of a rebel world and Dystopia will be my lot. But it neednt be, not if you just for a moment stop, turn around and put your trust in the one who came and died for you-who said I came so that they may have life, in all its fullness.
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