Monday, November 26, 2012

Sermon: Romans 12:1-16, "Living Sacrifices," Part 1

Living Sacrifices, Part 1

Living Sacrifices: Part 2

A pdf of this sermon, with end notes, can be found here.

The requirement to enter heaven is simple, so simple that even a child can understand it.
Linda was testing the children in her SS class to see if they understood the concept of getting to heaven. She asked them, "If I sold my house and my car, had a big garage sale and gave all my money to the church, would that get me into heaven?" "NO!" came a loud and confident chorus. "If I cleaned the church, mowed the yard, and kept everything neat and tidy, would that get me into heaven?" Again, the answer was a resounding "NO!" By now she was starting to smile. This was fun! "Well, then, if I was kind to animals and gave candy to all the children, and loved my husband, would that get me into heaven?" Yet again, they all answered, "NO!" Linda was bursting with pride for them. "Well," she continued, "how can I get into heaven?" A five-year-old boy shouted the answer... "You gotta be dead."
The requirement to enter heaven is simple, so simple that even a child can understand it... although there is no guarantee he will. Before a person crosses that threshold, though, it is necessary to make adequate preparations, which includes becoming one of the Living Sacrifices Paul describes in Romans 12.

Paul has just finished extolling the great mercy of a God willing (and able, i.e., sovereign) to save those who were once disobedient, whether Jews or gentiles. Then, in chapter 12, he explains the appropriate response to that mercy, which is understanding your responsibility to the Lord as well as your role in the Church. It was Paul's hope for the church in Rome and should be our hope for this congregation. He begins by explaining...

I. Your Responsibility to the Lord (vv. 1-2)

Rom 12:1 ...1 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. 2 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 exhorts his readers to make themselves "living sacrifices" (an oxymoron),1 which conjures up a vivid and uncomfortable picture. An animal chosen as an offering to God was always killed first and then placed on the altar. Yet here, Paul changes the image; besides making his readers the animal, he omits the initial step that puts an end to both volition and pain for the sacrifice. He calls on them to do what no animal could or would do, to jump willingly into the flame and to remain there. Moreover, he says this is the kind of devotion God expects; it is the Christian's responsibility. ... Some would call this fanaticism. It is, of course, a figure, but the shock value surely gets their attention, as it should yours. If you are a Christian, you must...

A. Be completely devoted to Him.

Then Paul explains what he means. Unlike an animal sacrifice, which is devoted to God in death, the Christian must be devoted to God in life, and the sacrifice he renders "is intelligent and deliberate" (Harrison 1976:127). To do this, the believer must change, not merely the way he acts—although that is certainly important—he must alter the way he thinks. He must "be transformed by the renewing of [his] mind" (v. 2), not all at once, gradually yet persistently as time goes on.2 So, if you are a Christian, you must also...

B. Be constantly transformed by Him.

Many Christians do not like to think; they want others to think for them: "Don't make me struggle to understand what God expects or what the Bible says. Just tell me what to do!" Thinking is work, sometimes hard work; yet here Paul indicates that it is a necessary part of the Christian life. Serving God is not a mindless exercise. It requires you to think; more than that, it demands that you think differently.3 You must revise the way you look at life, your values, expectations, and goals so they conform to a new pattern, one that reflects God's values, expectations, and goals. By making this change, Paul says, you will gain clarity of insight that enables you to recognize and appreciate what God is doing and to see your own place in the divine plan. Paul says, "Then you will know God's will."4

It is easy to get so caught up in what you are doing or in what is happening to you, that you miss the bigger picture... and there is a bigger picture. Just because you are not a popular evangelist or preacher, just because you are only a student or you have (what most people would consider) an 'ordinary' job or you are retired does not mean you are insignificant in God's program. He has a role for you to play, and while it may not be a high-profile position, while it may not change where you are now, it is not insignificant. The impact you have in His program, though, depends largely on you, not so much on your ability as on your availability, on your willingness to place His interests above your own.

Once you make that decision, though, do not think of God's will as a mystery or a riddle, something He hides and reveals only to those skilful or spiritual enough to decipher it. That is not the way He operates. To those who make God's values, God's expectations, and God's goals their own, He makes His will clear. It is really quite simple—and this is Paul's point here: If you want to know God's will, conform your life to God's way. Of course, if you do not want to know God's will, if you are afraid of what He might expect from you then, by all means, do your own thing, set your own goals, go your own way. In that case, though, whatever happiness you receive and whatever success you realize will be shortsighted and short-lived. In the end, all that matters and all that lasts is what you do for God. As the English missionary C.T. Studd wrote...
Only one life, 'twill soon be past,
Only what's done for Christ will last.
In the end, all that matters and all that lasts is what you do for God. This is your responsibility to the Lord.

What is involved in transforming the mind? Paul explains in the next section that it begins with a realistic appraisal of your place in Christian service, specifically...

II. Your Role in the Church (vv. 3-8)

Romans 12:3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. 4 Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
There are apparently some in the church at Rome who have an inflated view of their own importance. They think they can or should be ministering in ways for which God has not equipped them. Paul says...

A. Be honest in assessing your gift.

"Step back from your situation and take stock of your abilities. What has God given you? How has He equipped you?"5

Paul is not trying to limit those involved in church ministry. Using the figure (simile) of a human body,6 he emphasizes the importance of every person in the congregation: "each member belongs to all the others" (v. 5). Like the parts of a human body, however, "these members do not all have the same function" (v. 4). So, each member must consider what role God has for him, which may or may not coincide with the role that member would like to have.7 If we all preached, who would listen?

You must make the same "sober judgment" of yourself and of the role God has for you in the congregation.8 It is not always easy to be objective, but you must strive for an honest estimate of your abilities. If you cannot carry a tune, then He probably has not called you to sing in the choir. The question is: How has God prepared you to serve Him?

Suppose you are confident about what God has not called you to do but are uncertain about what He does want you to do. In that case, you should ask someone whose judgment on such matters you trust. Be patient with yourself but persistent in your efforts.9 Just as spiritual growth is a process, so is your place in spiritual service.

Like the parts of the human body, every believer has a function in the church body. It is not a role you necessarily choose.10 Rather, God determines your part and prepares you accordingly by giving you the necessary expertise. This may involve an overt working of His Spirit, such as when Jesus' disciples spoke in tongues on Pentecost,11 but more often it is the Spirit's enhancing of some ability you already have, sometimes an ability you do not even know you have. Paul calls this divine equipping for ministry, "spiritual gifts," and they vary from believer to believer.
Rom 12:6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8 if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
This is an important topic for Paul, because he gives similar lists of spiritual gifts to other churches.12 None of the lists he offers is exhaustive, but each list illustrates areas of ministry available in local congregations. Some of these we associate with special training, like teaching, but formal education really only sharpens what God has already given. Paul's point is that, because you have a gift—and every believer does—you should...

B. Be diligent in applying your gift.

...otherwise you are neglecting the grace God has given to you, as the servant did who buried his talent in the ground, a decision that had decidedly unpleasant consequences for him.13

The "sober judgment" Paul advocates in v. 3 pertains primarily to those who think more highly of themselves than they should,14 but as you ponder the role God has for you, other considerations may be relevant as well. In addition to identifying your gifts...
Keep in mind that there is a limit to what you can do effectively.
  • Do not assume that just because you may be capable of doing many things, you should be doing them. Most churches have more needs than people willing to fill them. Most churches also have a few people who try to meet the majority of those needs, primarily because they do not see anyone else stepping in.
  • If you are one of these conscientious individuals, bear in mind the law of diminishing returns. Do not do many things at the expense of doing nothing well. Concentrate on the areas of ministry in which you are most productive and accept the fact that other areas may simply remain neglected, at least by you. (Do not confuse service in the church with devotion to the Lord.)
Keep in mind that there is a limit to what you can do effectively and, perhaps, to what you should do.
Keep in mind that the little things are also important.
  • Can you recall a time when you were discouraged or not feeling well or simply down, and someone said just the right thing to change your mood or did something unexpectedly thoughtful for you? Perhaps it was a card or a call or just of word of encouragement. Whatever it was, it lifted your spirits. Do you remember how much that seemingly small gesture meant to you?15
  • The "sober judgment" Paul is advocating here cuts both ways. It means that you should not elevate your own importance to the congregation, but it also means that you should not belittle your potential for ministry. You may not think that you have much to contribute, but without your gift, no matter how insignificant it may seem to you, the church body, your church body will suffer.
Keep in mind that the little things are also important, so embrace even small opportunities for service.
Keep in mind that being able is sometimes enough.
  • A particular ministry does not always require the corresponding spiritual gift. An elder, for example, must be "able to teach" (1 Tim 3:2; also 2 Tim 2:24), but the office does not require that he have the gift of teaching.16 Similarly, Timothy may not have been an outspoken advocate of the gospel, yet Paul tells him to "do the work of an evangelist" (2 Tim 4:5), perhaps because there was no one available with that gift, making him the most likely candidate for the task.
  • The church needs all its members to exercise their gifts, yet often the needs seem to outnumber the gifts. In that case, God may want to stretch your faith by giving you a task for which you are capable but are reluctant to accept because you do not have the right gift. Keep yourself open to that possibility.
Keep in mind that being able is sometimes enough, so do not let you gift(s) limit your service.
Your spiritual gift defines, to a great extent, your role in the church; and when you exercise that gift, the Holy Spirit works through you to make the church as a whole grow. It is part of what being a "living sacrifice" entails.
What Paul writes to the believers in Rome is advice he would give to all believers, including you, that...
  • Your responsibility to the Lord is to be completely devoted to Him as well as constantly transformed by Him. 
So, how would you characterize your devotion and your transformation? Are they stagnant, or are they increasing?
  • Your role in the Church is to be honest in assessing your gift as well as diligent in applying your gift.
So, have you made your assessment and your application? Are you developing and using you gift?
These are what God expects from all believers, including you.

A pdf of this sermon including the end notes, can be found here.

Tomorrow: "Living Sacrifices," Part 2

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Relevant and civil comments are welcome. Whether there will be any response depends on whether Dr. Manuel notices them and has the time and inclination to respond or, if not, whether I feel competent to do so.
Jim Skaggs