Monday, August 25, 2014

Proper 16 of Series A (Romans 11:33-12:8)

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the eleventh and twelfth chapters of Paul’s letter to the Church of God in Rome. Dear friends in Christ, God is incomprehensible. He doesn’t act according to our wishes, He refuses to take our orders. He does things as He wishes them to be done, and He doesn’t ask for our advice. His ways are not our ways, His plans are not our plans. He is other, different, the Creator, rather than the creature, and as creatures, we should expect to understand God only by what He chooses to reveal to us. Saint Paul cries out, “How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!” This is a terrifying statement for people who think that they are in control. But for Saint Paul, this is a statement of grace. How unsearchable His judgments, that God would judge His own Son guilty in the place of you and me. How inscrutable His ways, that Jesus would hang upon the cross for the very ones who nailed Him there, even for all sinners that ever lived or ever would live. That God would give the Gentiles the salvation brought into the world through the Jews was surprising, to say the least, but that was how God planned it. His ways are not our ways; He is not a tame God.

But we think we can control God, that we can domesticate Him. We think we can put Him down when He gets out of hand, or at least send Him to His kennel. Or maybe we think that we can give God advice, instruct Him on how He should do things. We have an idea or two about how this world should be run, but our advice comes most often on issues closer to home. We have plenty to say on how our own lives should go. But Paul says, “Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor?” No one has, although plenty have tried. This is a far different thing than prayer. Prayer is offering requests, always understanding that He is the Creator and we are the creatures. Advising God, trying to domesticate Him for our own purposes, that is putting ourselves in the drivers’ seat, making His will bend to our desires.

Paul warns, “Do not be conformed to this world.” The world tries to exercise authority over both man and God, the world seeks its own power and glory against that of others. Those conformed to the world dominate their fellow creatures, seeking always to exalt themselves above those around them. Those conformed to the world attempt to control God, telling Him how He should do things, advising Him on matters great and small. It all comes down to pride. This world feeds on pride, pride which drives us to great exertions on behalf of our own success, prosperity, and happiness, pride which even exalts itself over against God. Pride calls on us to use what we’ve been given for our own good, to make our lives easier, more comfortable. We have different gifts, that is obvious, and in our mind that means that some gifts are worth more than others. Pride calls on us to exalt ourselves over others on the basis of what we’ve been given.

That’s exactly what Paul warns us about. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” You are not of the world, you are of Christ. You have been transformed by the renewal of your mind. You were transformed on the day you were converted, rebirthed, made new; the day that you were baptized into the Triune name, the day when you were brought from death to life, from sin to righteousness, from Satan to God. You are continually transformed, renewed each and every day as you return to your baptism in repentance and faith. You are not conformed to the world and its prideful ways that lead only to death, you are transformed, you are made new to live differently than the world.

This new way of life is characterized not by pride, but by sacrifice. “I appeal to you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” The Jews knew about sacrifice, the killing of bulls and goats for the sin of the people. Christians know of the sacrifice of Christ once for all people, once for all sin. The sacrifice of the New Testament people of God is in imitation of Christ; we no longer give to God the life of an animal, we give God everything we have. Since you have a body, you can sacrifice; you have become a priest in your baptism. Since you are never without you body, worship is constant. Since your body is visible, all sacrifice becomes a witness and a proclamation, a lived doxology to God; God is glorified in your service to others. This sacrifice is constant, it is comprehensive, it involves all you have at all times; the Christian is always sacrificing.

That is what your gifts are for; not to satisfy your own pride, to puff you up in the sight of your neighbors, but for the good of others. Your gifts are to be laid down on the altar as a living sacrifice in service of your neighbor’s needs. Our gifts are not to be used to impress men, and they certainly have no use in impressing God. Saint Paul asks, “Who has given a gift to Him that He might be repaid?” No one has ever put God in his or her debt; God doesn’t owe us anything. That is paganism, to think that we have anything to give to God. That’s not the way salvation works; eternal life is a gift to you through Christ, it doesn’t depend on you giving Him anything at all. It’s the same with everything else we have in this world. All that we have to offer Him comes from Him in the first place. The one who is conformed to the world says, “My money, my time, my talents.” There is only talk of ownership. The one transformed by Christ says, “We give thee but thine own; this money, this time, these talents are not mine at all, but gifts from God, and I will use them for the good of others.” That is what we call stewardship.

Paul exhorts us to humble stewardship: “By the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think.” Pride destroys service; the prideful person wants nothing to do with offering up his body as a living sacrifice, but will seek only his own good. That is not what your gifts have been given for. You are not a free agent; your gifts, your talents, your treasure, your very self, have been given to you for the good of the whole. “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” 

You have been given specific gifts for the good of that body. God didn’t ask you what gifts He should give you, any more than He asked you how He should accomplish salvation. But He has given each and every one of you specific, individual gifts. But these gifts are to be used, in concert with other members of the body, for the good of the whole. For none of these gifts belong to us in the first place; they are gifts of God, and we are simply stewards. And we lay them all down, we lay our entire lives down, for the good of our neighbor. Paul says, “Think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” See how God has blessed you and seek to use those gifts, not for your own pride, as those conformed to the world do, but for the good of others, for you have been transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Has God blessed you with an income? Sacrifice it for the good of your neighbor; your spouse, your children first as your nearest neighbors, but then a portion for the good of your community, the good of your congregation. Has God blessed you with talents, skills and aptitudes? Sacrifice them for the good of your neighbor, seeing how you can serve those with a variety of needs all around you. The Christian life is one of placing others ahead of yourself, seeking to serve the needs of others with the unique gifts that God has given you. “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”
In this way, we preach a powerful message to and against the world. We stand in opposition to worldly pride, refusing to be conformed to selfishness. You won’t do this perfectly, you will certainly stumble into the trap of pride, but the same blood that forgives all your other sins forgives those sins, too. You are forgiven—this day and every day, by the blood shed upon the cross in self-sacrifice for you. Our self-sacrifice points to that greater sacrifice, the sacrifice that redeemed the world, that redeemed you, that transformed you for service in this world. Your life of self-sacrifice is God’s bridgehead in this evil world, an outpost of Christ’s love in a place that knows only the love of self. You lay down your life for your neighbor because Christ laid down His life for you. 

A life of self-sacrifice is not an easy life; it involves putting to death one’s sin through repentance and faith, confession and absolution. Being a living sacrifice means the scorn of the world, as it certainly did for Christ. The Church doesn’t look like much as it stumbles through this world, making itself low for the good of the neighbor. But the Lord who bought her with His own blood has a promise, given by Jesus Himself in our Gospel lesson: “On this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The Body of which you are a member will never be overcome, for it is Christ’s Body, and He is risen from the dead never to die again. This world can rage all it wants, but the victory belongs to our Lord, and His victory is the Church’s victory, it is your victory. Our desire is to give praise to God for that great promise, to offer with our words and with our lives the doxology of praise sung by Paul in our text: “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.”

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