'Review, react - respond!' - Romans 12:1-2
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Do you make New Years Resolutions? The things we know we ought to do and don't? - The trouble is that most of us will have abandoned them all by the end of the first week of January. I understand that the top 3 resolutions this year are: to lose weight, to lose more weight and to lose weight quickly! - Well perhaps that's more of a commentary on the values of the society we live in than serious planning.
Nevertheless at the end of the year it is a good time to take stock, to ask ourselves the awkward questions, to give ourselves a 'spiritual MOT' and take the right actions to fix any issues we identify! Many of us will need to make a real effort to find enough time for this because the pace and expectations of our 21st century lifestyle make finding quality time with God very difficult - yet of course all the more important.
Romans 12 1-2 is an ideal text on which to base our thoughts (see handout):
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Paul has laid out the great truths of the gospel in Chapters 1 - 11 of his letter to the Romans, things like: The pervasive nature of sin, justification by faith alone, God's grace, and the wonderful forgiveness and freedom we can have in Christ -
But now he gets very practical - in fact whenever in Scripture you see the words 'therefore' or 'so', you know that a practical application is coming, Paul here is asking us to consider these great truths and make an appropriate response. You see Christianity makes sense, it's based on good evidence, you don't have to take a leap into the dark and it's a very practical religion - Paul has given us 11 chapters of very good reasons 'why' we should do, as well as now encouraging us in 'what' we should do and how we go about it.
Now of course 2007 will have been a very different year for each one of us - for some a time of sadness, for others great joy, some may have come to understand the wonderful truths of the gospel for the first time, others will have been on the road for many years, but for everyone these words can be significant as we take them to heart and ask ourselves the basic question 'what do I need to do?'
The one thing we can say about Paul is that he wasn't half hearted, he believed what he was saying, he practised what he preached and did everything he could to share the message with others, we sense here the passion as he pleads with the Romans to take action - yes he could have instructed them (he had the authority of an apostle and on other occasions when there were serious issues to grasp he wasn't frightened to use that authority), but here we see his pastoral heart -
- he is so anxious that these Roman Christians grasp the central truths of real Christianity and apply them personally - he knew that heart belief cannot be imposed, and of course it's just the same for us.
The nub of the action required is centred round the little word offer, or present as it is rendered in many translations:
I wonder if there are still one or two unopened presents around your Christmas tree? Things you have bought with loving care, with the recipient in mind, but for one reason or another you were unable to give. In practice unopened gifts are useless - the gift needs to change hands and be unwrapped for it to realise it's potential. And so it is with Christianity, we can keep it under wraps, keep it to ourselves and live half hearted Christian Lives or make the step of trusting God with our whole life. In this day there are far too many part time Christians, and yes I do know that this is a theological impossibility but in practice far too many of us are rendered ineffective by compromise. This is just the issue that Paul is so keen to get across.
He is saying that the only response to the death of Jesus Christ on Calvary for our salvation that makes sense, that has any logic about it, is to give ourselves wholeheartedly and unreservedly to Him - He has done so much for us, we can never hope to do any more than give Him pleasure by our service for Him! Yes that may well mean that we have to give some things up, but by comparison they are generally trivial (even if it feels a big deal at the time) This word 'sacrifice' speaks of a highly unpopular value, neglected because today's mindset is generally about 'me first' - it's a mindset that says if I want it and it feels all right and doesn't damage anyone too close to me then it's my right to have it - on credit if necessary. This is diametrically opposed to the Christian mindset which puts the needs of others first, even when it causes us personal hardship to do so.
A classic example is the missionary pioneer CT Studd, born into the 19th.century aristocratic racing set, he became an England sports personality, the David Beckham of his day, but then found Christ and gave up everything to become a pioneer missionary to China, India and the heart of Africa. Although in some ways he was an eccentric (and must have been a nightmare to his senders!), he had grasped the Romans 12:1 principle which he personalised and has become the motto of the mission he founded:
If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice is too great for me to make for Him
You just can't argue with that - I think that today he'd be the master of the sound bite, the contrast with today's politicians is that he actually lived out his convictions with integrity, and that is demonstrated today by thousands of living churches round the world, some in the most difficult of situations, that essentially were built on his sacrifice. If you'd like to read more background then do have a look at the website - the web address is on your sheet: www.nosacrificetoogreat.com
Am I suggesting then that we all become Pioneer Missionaries? Of course not, although I would say that it should always be a serious option on our agenda! The UK church is sending fewer and fewer to serve overseas and only a small fraction of those we send are doing church planting within unreached people groups. The commission hasn't changed, folk say the need is greater now at home - I'm not so sure - perhaps it's more to do with much of the UK church losing the plot when it comes to gospel centred Christianity.
The key issue for all of us, whatever our age, whether in employment or not, is our availability to God, does He have the freedom to use us? He doesn't force his attentions on us, that's why it's so important to maintain our availability. The conviction may come to serve by opening our home, by caring for the disadvantaged, by prayer, with practical skills or in 1001 different ways - all of which could well involve a measure of sacrifice. It may mean moving home, city or country, it may mean staying put, it may cost time or money. It will mean putting the interests of others first, but remember God is no man's debtor! I find it very telling that the happiest and most contented group of people I know are those who've had a close walk with God for many years and who have relatively little in the way of this worlds goods
In many translations the words 'Spiritual worship' are translated as 'reasonable service' which at first sight seems odd - how can the two apparently quite different concepts be reconciled? We have seen that 'giving our all for Jesus' may well be an eminently reasonable thing to do, but how does that tie in with the word worship as mentioned in the text?
Well the problem is more about our wrong understanding of worship than scriptural inconsistency! The bible teaches that in this world worship is more about what we do Monday to Saturday than about Sunday services, in the next world even I will be able to join the choir but for now friends there's a job to be done. We please God (i.e. perform spiritual acts of worship) by the things we do out there in the world, we come to church primarily to learn learn how to serve and to support each other and of course the singing helps us learn those great truths. There is something in human nature that is attracted to ritual, which may well start with meaning and purpose but can so easily turn into mindless repetition and in fact distract us from the tasks in hand. It pleases any Father when his children doing well, when they make good life choices and when they want to visit. So it is with our heavenly Father, He is 'worshipped' by our acts of service, done freely and intelligently out of love, not by constraint.
Paul is well aware that being a Christian isn't easy - it wasn't then and it isn't now, so he gives us a timely warning: - Do not conform any longer to the standards of this world. He recognises that we need to make a break with the standards of our society which in an insidious way affect our way of thinking so much. Remember as Christians we now live in alien territory with great pressure to 'go native' So how do we resist these pressures? It's easy for me to say these things within the security of the church family but how about those going back to work next week or to a difficult home situation?
Paul says we need a radically new way of thinking - a transformation!
How? - by the renewal of our minds - and the word used doesn't just mean 'changing your mind' but as radical a change as the metamorphosis of the ugly caterpillar into a butterfly! and I guess that if we are honest with ourselves for many of us our private thought life needs such a radical transformation for it to become pleasing to God - - so what can we actually do to effect that sort of change??
Firstly be warned it doesn't happen overnight, it's a process (that for most of us) takes a lifetime. There is no quick fix to holiness, no spiritual short cut, and older saints tell me that in some ways it gets harder as time goes by!!
Secondly it's about deliberately making the right choices, to act and react in a godly way in every aspect of life so that 'God's way' becomes second nature. In other words there is an intentionality to it.
Thirdly It isn't about making huge and complex sets of rules. Jesus spoke out against the irrational behaviour of the Pharisees with their detailed lists of regulations which missed the whole point of God's revelation through Old Testament times, - and we see precisely the same attitudes displayed in extremists like the Taliban today. I wonder if this is another characteristic of human nature - something about being in control, the wonder is that ordinary people still buy it
In fact true Christianity is radically different from all of these rule oriented religions - and much more reasonable because actually God gives us a tremendous amount of freedom to choose for ourselves. In fact it's just like when we as parents have to gradually 'let go' as our children grow up. In the Bible God our Father has given us all the principles of guidance we need to live successfully for Him in today's world! To make the big choices of life like career and life partner, and the small choices about how and where we spend our hard earned cash, about leisure and sport and so on. If we soak ourselves in this book, pray through the issues of life as they arise and listen to the wise counsel of others we will discover that finding God's will is habit forming and the transformation we've been talking about is well under way!
This may well be an unsettling concept for those who have been taught to look for confirmation of God's will in other ways, most of which have little scriptural warrant, but on reflection I would suggest that it is actually very liberating and quite logical. Remember that Paul was writing here about a renewal of the mind, it is God's choice to use the intellect He gave us in the first place, and in practice this means that with those minds we will increasingly make wiser and more godly choices.
So what is my hope or resolution for 2008? Well in a years time nothing would please me more than being able to look back and see the evidence of God at work in our lives - His good pleasing and perfect will.
How about you? What is your response to Paul's 'therefore'?
If none of this makes sense yet, suggest look at the church website - there's a page called 'about Christianity' which answers some frequently asked questions and links you to the excellent 'Two ways to Live' material: the address is on the sheet. www.stjohnnewland.org.uk/about.htm You could also try the Christianity Explored course - starting soon
However if Christianity for you is still more a matter of head rather than the heart, with Paul I urge that you 'offer yourself' to Him - I can assure you that He will accept the present and that you won't regret it
For the rest of us: Let's resolve to make the time for review and action in whatever way is required for Him
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