Proper 16A

August 18, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 16:13-20

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Exodus 1:8-2:10

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 138

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Romans 12:1-8

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

                For eleven amazing chapters Paul has been explaining God’s incredible mercy to the mixed congregation at Rome.  In the first three chapters he plumbed the depths of human depravity to demonstrate how much we all need God’s mercy.  In chapters 4 and 5 he proclaimed the Good News that through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven, justified, saved to the uttermost by the mercies of God.  In chapters 6-8 he further expounded the good news by declaring that God has also given us a new life by the working of the Spirit and a new hope through Christ.  Then in Romans 9-11 he showed how all of that mercy was part of God’s master plan to save the world.  God has moved heaven and earth to show mercy to his sinful people, which includes both Jews and Gentiles.  In the end, he says in 11:32, God will have “mercy on them all.”

                Now, with all that mercy behind us, or rather in front of us, in full view (“in view of God’s mercy,” verse 1), Paul turns to his readers and asks, “So what?  Now you know the full truth about the incredible mercy of God in Jesus Christ.  What are you going to do with your knowledge?  How should you respond to such mercy?”  Verse 1 sums up Paul’s answer.  “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, 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.”

    Paul’s language there is clearly derived from the Old Testament, where God’s people responded to his merciful acts with burnt offerings.  They took special animals and killed them and offered their dead bodies on the altar of the temple.  They thought that was the way God wanted his people to respond to him; that is what worship meant for them.  Of course, that’s because God had commanded such sacrifices, but only as a physical expression of what was in their hearts.  That’s why God said to them over and over again, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice; justice, not burnt offerings; you, not dead animals.”

    Now here in Romans, God says the same thing to people set free by the awesome sacrifice of Christ.  I want you—all of you, not just not your soul, but your body as well.  Throughout Romans Paul has identified the body (whether soma, as here, or sarx) as the source of a great deal of the trouble in our lives.  So here he says that salvation includes our bodies.  Through Paul God says, “I want all of the life you live in your body—your sexual life, your work life, your recreational life, your health care, your finances, your relationships.  I don’t want you to be religious only in the sense of offering prayers, singing songs, and giving money.  I want all of your life to be an offering to me, a continual offering.”  That is the kind of worship that pleases God—logikov lutreian.  That word logikon has the sense of both logical and spiritual.  God wants us to present all of life back to him in a thoughtful, reasonable, and deeply spiritual way.

    We preachers need to point out the irony of that request in the light of what Paul has said about the mercy of God, so that our congregations don’t miss the paradox.  Critics might even call this the joke or the hoax of Christianity.  On the one hand, God says that salvation is free, absolutely free, because it was earned by the blood of Christ.  We don’t have to do a thing to earn it or deserve it.  We are saved by God’s free grace which we receive through a simple child-like faith in Christ.  It’s free, free, free.  But now, on the other hand, God says, “Now give me everything.”  “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.”

    What kind of double talk is that?  Is this some kind of heavenly con game, a divine bait and switch, where once God get you in the door with a freebie, you end up giving much more than you had bargained for?  I mean, what gives here?  Well, what gives is life, life in all its fullness, life filled with joy and peace and hope and significance.

    Here’s the deal.  God saves us by grace, accepting us right where we are, but there’s much more to being saved than getting forgiven, escaping the flames, and sliding safe into heaven. There’s also life here and now.  Life can be a pale and limp version of what our Father has in store for his children, or it can be full, robust, filled with meaning and purpose, the kind of life everyone wants.  The secret of such a life is the sacrificial surrender of self to God.

    The world absolutely cannot understand that or believe it.  Going all the way back to the Garden, humans have believed that the ticket to the good life, to fame and fortune, yes, even to divinity is to elevate self above God.  “You will be like God,” hissed the serpent.  Believing that lie, all of humanity assumes that the “sovereign self” is the key to real life.  Since we Christians are still very much part of the world, we struggle to understand the great truth Paul proclaims in this first verse of his great “So what?”  It just seems cockeyed, this idea that we will get real life by surrendering our whole life to God.  But that is the way, that is the truth, that is the life that Christ offers to those who are saved by God’s mercy and grace.

    Because the world does not understand that truth, Paul’s next words are crucial.  “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world….”  The secret of such sacrificial living is getting detached from the way the world thinks and lives.  This may well be the great challenge of our day, because, as the poet put it, “the world is too much with us.”  Our values and lifestyles are shaped by the world in larger measure than we even know.  We read its newspapers, are plugged into its devices, watch its TV, go to its movies, read its books, interact with its people, shop in its stores, and largely act just like it does.  So it is terribly difficult to even think of offering ourselves as living sacrifices to God.  Such a thought is absolutely foreign to our world, and so to us.

    That is why God says that we must stop conforming to the world and be transformed by the renewal of our minds. The word “conformed” is susxematidzesthe, which describes what a chameleon does as it blends into its environment to avoid notice.  We fit into the world so perfectly that we are barely distinguishable from the surrounding culture.  The key to not conforming is the renewing of our minds.  We will never become what God wants us to be, or enjoy the life God wants us to have, or make the kind of contribution to the life of this world that God wants us to make, until our minds are renewed by the Spirit of God using the Word of God.  There is simply no substitute for reprogramming our minds by the Word of God.  We can’t be transformed (the word there is metamorphosis, the change we see in a caterpillar becoming a butterfly) unless our minds are so renewed.

    That renewal, in turn, is the secret of knowing and doing God’s will.  Often as we try to be good men and women and children, we complain about not knowing God will for our lives.  And when we do know it, we wonder if it will actually work in this kind of world.  Well, says Paul, when your life is transformed by the renewal of your mind, you will be able to “test and approve what God’s will is.”  That means two things.  You will actually know God’s will and you will find that God’s commands are really the best, smartest, most satisfying way to live.

    That all sounds really fine, doesn’t it?  But what does it mean?  How does it cash out in daily life?  What does such spiritual, transformed, renewed living look like out on the street?  Paul spells it out in verse 3-8, which can be summarized in two words—“humble service.”  “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you, do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think….”  That is the first condition for transformed living.  The great church father, Chrysostom, was once asked, “What is the first Christian virtue?”  His response was swift.  “Humility.”  “And what is the second?”  “Humility.”  “And the third?”  “Humility.”

    All of the transformed Christian life flows from a proper humility, from a proper view of oneself.  How much of life is dominated by the desire to be number one, or to protect our good name, or to look good, or to promote ourselves, or to convince ourselves that we are valuable?  How many of humanity’s problems are caused by that self-centered focus?  We naturally tend to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think.

    Or conversely, think of all the sorrow visited on this world by folks who think of themselves more “lowly” than they ought to think.  Paul is not calling us to that miserable condition of self-doubt.  Humility does not mean having a negative view of oneself.  Rather it means that you “think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.”  Look at yourself realistically, your strengths and weaknesses, your gifts and liabilities, in the light of the faith God has given you.

    In other words, we must let the governing factor in our self-appraisal be the faith God has given you or, better, what the infallible “rule of your faith” says about us.  The Bible says that we have been made in the image of God.  Therefore we are a persons of incredible worth and importance—not the greatest, not the best, just children of God put on this earth to accomplish things of worth and value for God.  As Dallas Willard says in The Divine Conspiracy, “We are made to be significant.  We are built to count…. We are placed in a specific context to count in ways no one else does.  That is our destiny.”

    What am I supposed to do for God?  Paul gets at that with this business about spiritual gifts and how to use them.  Each of us has at least one gift.  We are to use that gift as well as we can in accordance with our calling, in that area of life where God placed us.  Most modern day Christians know that; in fact, we hear about our gifts almost ad nauseam these days.  That’s why I like the way Dallas Willard puts it in Conspiracy.  “Every last one of us has a kingdom, or a queendom, or a government—a realm that is uniquely our own, where our choice determines what happens.  We are, all of us, never ceasing beings with a unique eternal calling to count for good in God’s great universe”

    My kingdom is a pulpit.  People sometimes speak disparagingly about ministers establishing their own little kingdom, as though that were a bad thing, which it is, if we are setting up our own kingdom.  But if God has given that kingdom to you, it’s a different matter.  This is my kingdom, the place God has put me to use my gifts to serve him and his people.  Others might have their kingdom in a classroom, or a boardroom, or a kitchen, or a hospital, or a desk, or behind the wheel of an 18 wheeler.

    Here’s the answer to the great “So What.”  Here’s the cash value of all that high sounding language about sacrifice and transformation and renewal.  The purpose of our lives is to use our gifts to promote the kingdom of God within our own little kingdoms.  Our lifelong challenge is to bring our little kingdoms under the reign of God, so that we serve his Kingdom by what we do in ours.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean doing high and mighty things.  Jesus came to bring the kingdom of God to this world.  Yes, he did some high and mighty things.  But he is best remembered for doing things like washing his disciples’ feet and dying on a cross.  Remember those two words that sum up a transformed, renewed life—“humble service.”   “I did not come to be served, but to serve and give my life as a ransom for many.”  As the old hymn, “Lead On, O King Eternal,” puts it, “with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.”

    Illustration Idea

    Nearly everyone reading these words has read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, or at least seen the play or movie based on it.  So you know the scene that changed Jean Valjean’s life.  Valjean is a thief just released from prison.  He is given food and shelter and shown great kindness by a minister and his wife, but in the middle of the night he steals away with their precious silverware.

    The next day the police haul him back and ask the minister if the silver is his.  “Of course,” replies the minister gruffly, “and I am very angry with this man. He was supposed to leave with the candlesticks, too. Here they are.”  Though they barely believe him, the police have no choice but to let Valjean go.  Valjean is dumbstruck by this kind of treatment.  Such mercy is a mystery to him.  What the minister says next determines the rest of his life.  “This silver will buy your freedom.  Become a good man.  I leave you to God.”  Valjean responds to mercy precisely by becoming a good man.

    That story puts us in touch with Romans 12, which deals precisely with the issue of response. Paul says exactly what that minister said.  In view of the mercy you’ve experienced, “Go and become the eternally significant person God means you to be.  I leave you to God.”