Sez Who? - Romans 1:18-21

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 21st May 2000.

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He was identified as ‘Patient Zero’ - the initial carrier of the AIDS HIV virus in the United States. His name was Gaetan Dugas, a French Canadian airline steward. Before his death in 1984, Dugas estimated that he had had sexual liaisons with 2, 500 partners in New York and Californian bathhouses, rest rooms, bars and motels. Even after he had been told by doctors that he had this fatal sexually transmitting disease, he continued to infect dozens of partners. ‘I’ve got gay cancer,’ he would tell them afterwards, perversely enjoying the merging of sex and death.

Now we may be tempted to dismiss Dugas simply as mentally deranged, one of those unfortunate sociopaths that life occasionally throws up. But let’s pause and think of another possible way of looking at the situation. If all morality is relative, so what is good for you isn't necessarily good for me, directed only by the goal of gaining maximum personal happiness - then why not do what he did? If there is no absolute right and wrong, if we are the products of blind meaningless chance, coming from nowhere and going nowhere, then who is to say what is good or bad? Society perhaps? But, what is society but a collection of individuals which will eventually die, so why should I put the alleged well being of society above my own well being in terms of personal pleasure and fulfilment? You see, we come up against what the Yale Law Professor, Arthur Leff has termed ‘the grand sez who? ’He argues that if there is no God, no transcendent source of value, then there is no universally accepted source of authority. We object to Serbs that genocide is wrong. ‘Sez who? You wouldn’t object to killing a thousand ants would you, so why not a thousand people? ’We tell our youngsters that vandalism is objectionable ‘Sez who? ’Those who have property and are well off anyway and can buy their fun? Its every man and woman for himself. You may object ‘But I don’t believe in God and yet I don’t do these things.’ That may well be true, but I would put it to you that you have no compelling reason to offer to anyone else why they shouldn't, except they might get caught and in the long term they will be unhappy anyway if society descends into chaos, so we will all be losers. But that still doesn't give us a moral reason why not.

So what is the problem? A few years ago, Professor Christie Davies of Reading University carried out a study called ‘Moralisation and Demoralisation’ and charted the rise in crime and social disorder in Britain over the last 150 years. He showed that while housing conditions and poverty were far worse at the beginning of the twentieth century than at the end, the reported incidence of serious crime was far less. He comments on the situation today in these terms: ‘For the Left the villain is capitalism and for the Right it is welfare; both are ways of avoiding the conclusion that wicked and irresponsible choices are made by wicked and irresponsible individuals. ’In others words, the problem at root is a moral one.

The Bible would go even further and say at root the problem is a spiritual one, and it is to the spiritual diagnosis of the apostle Paul that we turn in Romans 1: 18ff. And I want us to look at this under three headings: the problem of judgement, the signs of judgement and the solution to judgement.

First of all, the problem of judgement. Here Paul is describing his own world, but did you notice how remarkably similar it is to ours? He is painting in dark hues, a world in a state of moral decay, indeed, any world that turns its back on its Maker and his laws, for the result is always the same, an initial gradual declension and eventually a rapid social slide into chaos. When Rome eventually fell to the Barbarian hordes in the 4th century AD, it was not because the opposing armies were militarily superior, it was because the Roman Empire had become so morally flabby and internally weak, they were a push over, with no will to fight, with nothing to defend, save personal pleasure, and certainly no principle. They were not the first civilisation to go that way and neither will they be the last.

When you think about it, what Paul describes in these pages, and what we see unfolding around us, is nothing but a re - enactment of the original sin of Adam with its attendant miseries as recorded in 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’ (22) as well as the refusal to remain a creature dependent on his Maker (v18, 21), but instead foolishly willing to exchange God’s truth for the lie of Satan (25), a rebellion deserving death (v32). In other words, the falling apart of our world are all signs of a world on the run from God. What Adam did, we still do, because we have inherited his nature in wanting to mount a royal coup and oust God from his rightful place on the throne of the universe and put ourselves there, so we make all the decisions about how we are to run our lives. To a lesser or greater degree we all do it. But the fall - out becomes worse when society institutionalises the rebellion, when good is called bad and bad is called good because there is no reason for thinking otherwise.

But Paul’s spiritual analysis goes even further than that. For not only is ours a world on the run from God it is a world under the judgement of God - v18. This is God’s measured and righteous judicial response to our arrogant and wilful declaration of UDI. We willingly take the Maker’s gifts but we refuse to show him either the glory or gratitude v 21a.

So why the wrath? Paul tells us in vv18 - 23.

I am sure that you have noticed that very small children think that if they cover their eyes they really do believe you are not there, they sort of make you disappear. Well, Paul says that is precisely what we all tend to do with God - v19 - 20 (read). When you go to the Ferens art gallery and view some of the paintings there, you don’t think for a moment that those works of art came into being all by themselves do you? As you view a painting, part of your mind will be focused on the artist himself, maybe thinking what an incredible imagination he has, what skill in transferring those thoughts via bush strokes and pigments onto canvas. 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 - that awareness deep down that there is someone who has made us and for whom we were made, we are creatures of a Creator. That much we do know.

But what do we do with that knowledge? Use it to seek after him all the more? Not according to Paul and not according to experience - v 18 we ‘suppress the truth by (our) wickedness’, our ‘thinking’v21’ becomes futile and our foolish hearts darkened. Claiming to be wise we become fools, exchanging the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal men and animals. ’

Now, as we saw last week, whatever becomes the centre of our lives, our thinking, our drive for living, that is our idol, our substitute god. We are by nature, you see, worshipping creatures. Our rebellion shows itself in shifting our focus of attention from the Creator to the creature - v25(read).

Now it is important to notice the process by which this spiritual and moral decline takes place. We are often fed the view that the great thinkers who have shaped the modern world in its rejection of Christianity and the Christian heritage, have done so as a result of detached intellectual wrestling. So as a matter of intellectual integrity the old order had to be overthrown. Well, nothing could be further from the truth - the key phrase is in v 24: the ‘sinful desires of their hearts’. In his book ‘Intellectuals’ Paul Johnson has shown that whether it is Rousseau and his concern for individual freedom or Karl Marx and his alleged concern for the workers, deep down they were driven by what can only be described as egocentric desires. The impulses came first and some form of justification of their ideas came second. Let me give you just one example of someone who has changed the West's outlook on sex and especially homosexuality, perhaps more than any other, the American zoologist Alfred Kinsey who in 1948 and 1953 produced two very influential reports which, amongst other things, claimed that 10% of the male population were predominately homosexual. Let me ask: did Kinsey pursue his studies with scientific detachment with no axe to grind. Not according to his biographer James H Jones. Kinsey himself was both homosexual and a sado-masochist who encouraged his research team to have sex with each other and his wife, which he filmed in their attic. He also fixed his research results to support his lifestyle. Far from taking representative samples from the male population at large to determine sexual orientation and practice, 26% of his subjects were sex offenders and a further 25% were in prison, the rest were male prostitutes and pimps. Worse still, is the more recent evidence that he employed and trained paedophiles. And I stress, this work provided much of the basis for the loosening of society’s attitudes towards sexual activity from the 1960’s to the present day. Do you see what was driving this scientific research? Certainly not the pursuit of objective truth, but sadly his own lusts, sex which had become his idol. Now do you believe that what the inspired apostle is saying here is true? It is in their wickedness that men suppress the truth, extolling what is perverse to be natural and claiming to be intellectually sophisticated and wise in the process. Turn your back on God and you do not embrace agnosticism, you embrace a lie. Tell me, how can God ignore that and be true to himself? How can anyone with an ounce of moral sense in their being simply shrug their shoulders and say ‘so what?’ Such a state of affairs demands a reaction - justice, God’s justice.

So what form does this divine judgement take, what are the signs of judgement? ? Well, first of all notice in v18 that the present tense is used ‘The wrath of God is being revealed. ’It is something taking place now. And how it is being shown is revealed in that telling phrase which is repeated three times, ’God gave them over’ - v24 ‘he gave them over in their sinful desires’, v26 ’God gave them over to shameful lust’, v27 ‘God gave them over to a depraved mind.’ In other words the perversion is the punishment. This is what people want and so this is what people will get. God allows us to go our own way and suffer the consequences, personal and social, as sadly we are seeing today. But this is not simply retributive punishment, being given over to the prison of our own desires, the permissiveness which we foolishly mistake for freedom, it is in some measure restorative, the hope being that people will eventually recognise the folly and the destructive nature of living without God and his laws and so will eventually turn to him for rescue. In fact this is the direction of Paul’s argument up to chapter three, demonstrating that we are all in the same needy boat and there is only one solution - Christ and the Cross.

So, finally what is that solution to judgement? Look at v16 - 17 (read). Our laws and many of our public institutions did not come from nowhere, they have grown over many years out of the rich deep soil of the Christian faith. The belief that there is a God who is truth, who has spoken in the Bible, who has given us a conscience which accuses us when we go against the grain of the moral order of the universe, who has made men and women in his image and are so precious in his sight that he sent his one and only Son to the cross, to show his righteousness in punishing our sin as he took our place and so restores us back to himself as his children, forgiven and empowered by the Holy Spirit, when we put our trust in him - faith. This is the gospel of which Paul speaks. ‘Gospel’ which means good news as an answer to the bad news we have been thinking of and which is in evidence all around us, a world under the judgement of God. It is God’s way of making bad people into his good friends. What is more, when this happens, society is changed, it is enriched. History proves this time and time again.

Now is not the first time, Britain has found itself in Romans chapter 1. We may think things are bad now, but let me briefly tell you of a time when it was perhaps even worse. In 1684 527, 000 gallons of spirits were distilled in England. By 1750 the consumption of spirits had risen to 11,000,000 gallons. Gin was the drug problem of the day. MP’s were often too drunk to carry out parliamentary business in the afternoon. A favourite saying at the time was ‘To be as drunk as a lord’, meaning a ‘Lord Bishop’ - the Church was that bad. Gambling was a national obsession, with personal debt crippling many. Then there was the treatment of children. Did you know that many parish churches set up special institutions to ‘care’ for orphans, especially the unwanted offspring of prostitutes, which was a epidemic? Sounds so kind doesn't it? That is until surveys carried out at the time showed that the vast majority placed into such care died by the age of 12 months. Some were deliberately murdered and thrown onto the local rubbish tip. Some of the men and women, running these places, decided to send children out to beg, and to ensure greater pity and so more cash, forcibly maimed them, amputating a limb or blinding an eye. This was a time, at the beginning of the 18th century when it was being taught that if there is a God at all he is remote and uninterested, that reason was the answer to all our problems and the satisfaction of the senses was paramount. This was Britain - the moral leper of Europe.

Then God in 1740 raised up a 21 year old Church of England curate called George Whitefield, then the Wesley brothers and they preached this message of Romans and the country was set ablaze in Christian revival, when thousands from every strata of society came to know the living Christ for themselves and had their lives turned around. The spiritual descendants of these men were people like Wilberforce and Shaftesbury that went on to bringing about the great social changes we enjoy today - but it was the Gospel which was the driving force, shaping a nation.

Isn't that what we desperately need today? For our hearts to be set alight by God’s Spirit through the Gospel. For churches like ours to become communities of light. For each one of us who calls Jesus Christ Lord, to be seeking ways of demonstrating his kingdom. Yes, for their to be Christians schools which shows there is a better way, the only way, and that is to get back in touch with Reality, the one who has clearly given us his commands and principles, but more than that his Spirit of moral power when we humbly turn to His Son.


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