Rejection - Romans 1:18-32
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[Show Clip- A Wonderful World from Good Morning Vietnam]
The uneasy juxtaposition of that song and those images captures perfectly the tension and ambiguity we all feel living in this world. In so many ways it is a wonderful world. There is the majestic beauty of the mountains, the breathtaking variety of the forests, the tantalizing intricacy of a single cell and the inspiring acts of self-sacrifice. This is what the Bible affirms unreservedly, as we saw last week, for this is God’s creation whose signature is written in the very heavens and in every DNA molecule. But the Bible would also tell us that it is a warped world. There is the brutality of war, the devastation of the forests, the destruction of human cells and the most repellent acts of unbelievable cruelty. And so, just as the order of the world declares God’s grandeur, the disorder proclaims God’s anger. It is literally a cursed world we live in which is in desperate need of rescue. And just how desperate we really are, is what the apostle Paul is about to show us in Romans 1:18-32. I would be the first to admit that it does not make for pleasant reading, but if we are going to have any understanding of the Gospel, how really good that news is, then we must grasp how bad things really are, so this makes for necessary reading.
The warped world in which we live can only be understood against the wonderful world God originally created. You see, if the world as we now know it is the world that has always been then you have some insurmountable problems, not least that God is the author of evil. If evil did not enter this world as an alien entity, then whatever is, is right. This is the fallacy behind some of the arguments being put forward today within the church for the legitimacy of same sex relations: “this is how God made me and so I must express myself in this way, otherwise it is a denial of God’s gift to me.” But what if some things we think are gifts are in fact distortions of the original design, so what we experience is far from ‘natural’ in the sense that they deviate from God’s original plan and purposes? Then such things are being interpreted wrongly; that far from our sexual inclinations being signs of God’s approval; they are indications of God’s disapproval.
First, then, we have the background of what we can call the delightful enterprise. There is no doubt that behind this passage is Genesis 1-3. Paul refers to the creation of the world-v20, the classification of the creatures into birds, mammals and reptiles-v23; he uses the terms of Genesis in speaking of ‘glory and ‘image and ‘likeness’, he alludes to human beings knowledge of God (19,21) as Adam knew God, and the desire to become ‘wise’ -v22.
And so the delightful enterprise of God creating a wonderful world had a specific order which resulted is certain blessings. There is God as the good ruler, beneath which are men and women made in his image which is in part expressed in terms of their sex, the difference of male and female, and yet one flesh, as within the Trinity there is one God, but diversity of Father Son and Holy Spirit. And as God’s vice regents, they are to care for the world of plants and animals. Genesis then tells us that God blessed humanity as male and female and said be fruitful and multiply. That is the truth of reality, God’s design and intention [see diagram] and what is more, it is God’s glory. We may stand before a wonderful painting by Rembrandt and say it is glorious; but what is that compared to a wonderful world which points to a God who is glorious?
But all of that has been inverted by what can be called the deadly exchange.
Three times Paul speaks of us engaging in an exchange. In v 23 we exchange that which is immortal- God, for that which is perishable and non-God as the main object of our affections, human beings or even animals. In v25 we exchange the truth about reality that God is the centre of all things, for the lie, that we are the centre. And then in v26ff we exchange natural sexual relations for non-natural which deface our God given image of male and female bonded together as one flesh.
And so our world becomes disordered and everything gets turned upside down and is bound not to work properly [see diagram], everything is out of sync so that the wonderful world becomes a troubled world, do you see?
Now what Paul does in this passage is unpack for us a three-fold sequence.
First, human beings exchange God for what God has made; our preference is for the creature over the Creator. In short -idolatry.
Second, as a result God hands us over to what we prefer and this is his judgment. In short God is angry.
Thirdly, we act out externally and bodily in our sexual relations a dramatization of the internal, spiritual condition of the fallen human soul. In short we work out the deadly exchange.
In order to show us that we are all guilty of this crime against God which incurs his anger, Paul begins by demonstrating that there is no excuse- v19, ‘…since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For 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 people are without excuse.’
Paul is saying that everyone knows there is a God because God has made it clear that he exists. How has he done that? Well, according to verse 20, ‘from what he has made’. The word Paul uses translated ‘made’ is poiema, from which we get our word ‘poem’. That is, deep down we cannot help but recognise the world as a creation, a work of divine artistry. Just as a poem shows intention, meaning, wisdom and skill, and that there is indeed a poet behind it, so it is with the world. God through his universe is transmitting signals to us of his greatness, power, wisdom and goodness, what the sociologist Peter Berger called ‘signals of transcendence.’
You see, it is not as if God has been hiding, rather, we are the ones who have been doing to denying, v21, ‘For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.’
Knowledge of God should have led us to honouring God and thanking God. This again is part of universal experience, sheer gratitude for being alive. But, says, Paul that feeling or knowledge can be supressed- v18, which is a wicked thing to do. Let me tell you something: One beautiful, sky- blue summer day, the 20th century, atheist dramatist Samuel Becket who wrote ‘Waiting for Godot’ and other nihilistic plays, was drinking beer and watching a cricket match with friends, when one of them remarked that it was the ‘sort of day that makes one glad to be alive.’ To which Becket immediately replied, ‘Oh, I don’t think I would go so far as that.’
While it may appear to be clever to deny God it is in fact foolish. Rather than our minds becoming enlightened they plunge into a kind of darkness, and out of them flows all sorts of dreadful thoughts. God substitutes are sought because by nature we are worshipping beings, sometimes it is an ideology or a leader who promises a better world, or maybe some celebrity idol through whom we feel we can live the dream vicariously. But history has shown over and over again that when you get rid of God in your thinking you soon begin to get rid of man. Real human beings become sacrificed to our idol and we become less than human, and more like animals, the kind of creatures mentioned in v23. Think of the horrors unleashed by National Socialism. In Auschwitz one poor bedraggled prisoner asked: ‘Where is God?’ His fellow inmate asked: ‘Where is man?’ That’s right, without God to whom we can refer to get our dignity and shape our morality, man too soon disappears.
It is the sheer absurdity of the idolatrous exchange we make which should shock us. Think about it. There is at the centre of the universe this magnificent resplendent personal Being- God, the fountain of all love and joy and wisdom, in whose image we are made, and who showers upon us daily blessings we can’t even begin to number. And Paul says, we exchange that glory for images that are made to look like images, that is, people who are the image of God. So the genuine article is exchanged for a copy of a copy! Can you imagine someone turning away the offer of the real Mona Lisa, not just for a copy, (which might be worth something), but a photocopy which is a joke? [picture] To say that such a person’s thinking is darkened and that they are fools would be a major understatement. And yet, that is exactly what we do with the most beautiful and valuable Being that has existed from all eternity- God.
As a consequence we are told, God ‘gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.’ v 24.
And so we have another exchange in v25 the truth for the lie; the truth being that God is at the centre of all reality, the lie being that we are. And so self-worship takes place. And perhaps nowhere is such self- worship so disfiguringly displayed than in the next exchange which takes place, v26ff, the exchange of natural sexual relations for unnatural ones, that is, which run counter to God’s design and purpose- lesbian and homosexual genital relations.
It is important to stress that this passage is not all that the Bible has to say on the subject of homosexuality and disordered sexuality, which is mentioned in verse 24, in which we are all caught up to some degree or other. It is important that we get the balance right between the clear conviction that the Bible regards homosexual acts as wrong and the compassion which behoves us to come alongside those with homosexual desires who wish to be godly. But this passage is very important in providing the fundamental theological framework for understanding why the Bible regards homosexual practice to be wrong and such desires to be disordered.
There are in fact two basic theological reasons why same-sex genital relationships are fundamentally wrong.
First, Genesis 1:27-28, which lies behind this passage in Romans and is affirmed by Jesus himself in Mark 10, states God’s created order and purpose for human beings namely, it is as male and female we are meant to relate sexually and so in some measure display God’s image, that is, unity in diversity, the two becoming one, with the purpose of procreation and filling the earth in order to lovingly care for the world. And it is this which receives God’s blessing: ‘So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Same sex relations not only distort this, they destroy it. The unity in difference can’t be attained, not least because biologically the ‘one flesh’ is not possible. Also you don’t get fertility but sterility.
What is more, at a deeper level it is one of the most profound acts of rebellion against the Creator we can make and one of the clearest expressions of our fundamental self-centredness.
Let me unpack that statement a bit more carefully.
The Creator has ordered things in a certain way which he declares to be good - in this case a means of enabling the closest intimacy between two human beings- a man and a woman with specifically designed anatomy to achieve that end, and to produce others who are also God’s image bearers. Homosexuality by its very nature is in defying God at this point, effectively claiming that we think his ordering is not good and we know better. What is more, instead of the love of the Trinity being reflected in marriage such that there is another like and yet unlike me, a man with a woman, a woman with a man, homosexuality is a form of narcissism in the sense that the object of one’s affections is another who is only like me.. It is like looking into a mirror and seeing another reflection of oneself and so in one sense is a form of self-love or self- worship- a man is faced with an image of himself in another man, and a woman in another woman. That is putting it rather starkly I know, but it is what is embedded in these passages.
Secondly, according to vv 26-27, the ‘giving over’ of people by God to such desires and activities is itself God’s judgement. This is the way the writer John Piper explains this aspect of homosexuality, ‘We learn from Paul in Ephesians 5:31-32 that, from the beginning, manhood and womanhood existed to represent or dramatize God's relation to his people and then Christ's relation to his bride, the church. In this drama, the man represents God or Christ and is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. … And sexual union in the covenant of marriage represents pure, undefiled, intense heart-worship. That is, God means for the beauty of worship to be dramatized in the right ordering of our sexual lives.
But instead, we have exchanged the glory of God for images, especially of ourselves. The beauty of heart-worship has been destroyed. Therefore, in judgment, God decrees that this disordering of our relation to him be dramatized in the disordering of our sexual relations with each other…..
Homosexuality is the most vivid form of that breakdown. God and man in covenant worship are represented by male and female in covenant sexual union. Therefore, when man turns from God to images of himself, God hands us over to what we have chosen and dramatizes it by male and female turning to images of themselves for sexual union, namely their own sex.’
However, the real problem can be traced back to our wrong thinking according to v28- ‘Since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God (dokimazein) he gave them over to a depraved mind.’ That is, he simply let them continue thinking along the paths they were already thinking- namely, thoughts which excluded God. The fundamental error of the human race is that God is no longer the centre of the solar system of our thinking. Put it this way: What would happen if our sun lost its place in the solar system? There would be interplanetary chaos. You would have Mars spinning off into endless darkness, Saturn’s rings starting to crumble, Mercury might fly right into the Sun and there would be bits of the solar system strewn everywhere. It is only because they are rightly related to the Sun that it works. Here Paul is saying that morally and spiritually speaking that is what has happened to humankind. God is like the sun in the solar system of our lives and if he is removed from the centre of our thinking, then our thinking and behaviour get out of control and soon the whole of society begins to collapse.
What the Gospel provides, amongst other things is a different way of thinking, reconnecting with reality, engaging in a double exchange, exchanging the lie for the truth whereby we have God in your mind, so that his values and purposes shape and transform us. It begins with seeing things differently with God at the centre of the solar system of our affections, attitudes and words, so that the glorious, resplendent reality which is the Triune God will exercise its gravitational pull on every part of our lives. The result is that they come into their proper orbit in relation to one another and stop smashing into each other and so ruining everything.
That happens as we respond to the Gospel and the Lord Jesus Christ occupies that central place. And it is this Gospel which is offered to everyone. Do lives change as a result? Of course they do. Let me close with words from someone who was locked into a gay lifestyle but then became a Christian: ‘We must not rewrite or water down the Scriptures. The Bible clearly states that heterosexuality is God’s intent for humankind. It also presents all sexual behaviour outside of marriage as sin and not God’s best for us. When I came out of the gay community I was looking for truth and direction. My gay friends said I was a fool. The church could only put homosexual people down and had no idea how to assist in the process of recovery. I found my direction from the Bible .It was the only safe place to go. The Bible gave me a true picture of God as a Father, his unconditional love for all his children, regardless of their struggles My own father had not been able to parent me as I needed, the church had not been able to supply unconditional acceptance of me, but I found through the Scriptures that God would do these things for me. I learned healthy boundaries from reading the Scripture. It was there I learned the things I needed to function in a whole way... I shudder to think what may have happened to me if I had gone to a counsellor or church which had affirmed me in my homosexuality. If that had happened I may well have been dead from AIDS now. Many of the people I knew back then are now dead.’ But he goes on to say this, which I personally would want to underscore: ‘To many Christians who are struggling with unwanted homosexual feelings, I would say to you: there is hope and healing for you ...you are not a second class Christian. Jesus’ death on the cross was for you as well. God is not ashamed of you. He is your Father and longs to lavish his love on you. You are not an unwanted child. Your life can be a testimony to the grace and healing love of your Father, so walk proudly into the glorious riches and the full inheritance that God has for all his children.’
And friends that applies to all of us. God invites us to become his children, with him as our Father, by turning away from whatever god-substitutes we have erected in our lives, seeing Jesus’ death as the point of cleansing and receiving his Holy Spirit as the source of our renewal. And he offers that to you tonight.
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