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Sunday sermon 17 May 2015 – Are you dead or not? The fight against sin continues…

Readings: Romans 6:1-14; Matthew 6:24

Message

C.H. Spurgeon, that famous preacher of the 19th Century, tells the story of a woman who claimed she had attained “sinless perfection” and had not sinned for years. Then he recalls that someone stood heavily on her toe (was it Spurgeon?) and “her sinless perfection departed her like the morning dew”.

Last week we referred to the Roman Road – Romans 1:16-17- about “the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…”; Romans 3:23 (all have sinned – in fact you need to read Romans chapters 1-3 to see the extent of the sin) – and in Romans 5 in particular, how sin is dealt with (justification, reconciliation, atonement and grace were considered).

The key verses in Romans 5 in this regard are verses 8 and 9: But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. (NRSV)

Romans 6 – today’s passage – is a favourite passage for people who are enthusiastic about baptism. Most lean towards believers’ or adult baptism, as the symbolic aspects are not lost to us – in Romans 6:3 and 4: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

Those who support infant baptism hasten to refer us to Colossians 2:11-12: In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. (NRSV) The NIV translates the verse as follows:  In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

The question is – whichever baptismal tradition you support – have you really died?

Simon Ponsonby gives us this account: George Müller, the 19th Century German (Prussian) saintly founder of orphanages and schools, was asked the secret of his success: There was a day when I died, utterly died; died to George Müller and his opinions, preferences, tastes and will – died to the world, its approval or censure – died to the approval or blame even of my brethren and friends – and since then I have studied only to show myself approved unto God.)  (2 Tim 2:15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. KJV)

In similar vein, Ponsonby speaks about the worldwide evangelist Billy Graham, who when asked how he coped being away from his wife with the temptations of travel and fame, commented: “I’m dead to every woman but my wife Ruth.” 

If we are dead to sin, then things have to be different. Romans 6:2 and 6:6 confirm this.

The big question Paul asks here, though, is about grace. This question starts here: 6:1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 6:2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?

Because we have this grace that we are positioned in, to which we have gained access to by faith (Romans 5:2) – does that give us a license to sin more to achieve more grace?

Romans 5 ends with these verses (which we did not read last week) – which of course raises the very question we are looking at: Romans 5:20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, Romans 5:21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

You can see the logic. A little boy spills milk all over the kitchen floor – and mum cleans it up. “Never mind” she says, “look how shiny it is now”. He responds with a smile: “maybe I should spill milk more often then!” You can also see the absurdity in this logic. Tom Wright uses this story to illustrate this (my version or summary follows): Think of the prodigal son – who has been welcomed back in an act of grace by the father who breaks protocol when he runs down the road. Life is pretty normal again – dad is getting older, the older brother more tolerant of the prodigal, and things are rather ordinary in the home. Suddenly it crosses his mind again – as he thinks of that wonderful day of being welcomed by his dad – how great the party was – suddenly he begins to wonder if he should run away for a while again – and “play the penitent and come back again. Maybe I’ll get another party!”

Wright goes on to say: Absurd? Unthinkable? Don’t you believe it. It’s exactly what a great many people think. ‘God will forgive me; that’s his job!’ declared a famous philosopher two centuries ago.  (Christian Johann Heinrich Heine is the philosopher quoted here: December 13, 1797 – February 17, 1856. As an unrelated aside, Heine also said some more helpful things like this quote:  If the Romans had been obliged to learn Latin, they would never have found time to conquer the world.)

Twice in this passage Paul asks whether it’s ok to sin more to essentially get more grace. (It also appears in verse 15 which we didn’t read). Twice he answers – “by no means” – literally “may it never be” – or as in the KJV “God forbid!”

Sin should not be our master. (v14). So we can’t make excuses. Simon Ponsonby also tells the story of a speeding fine he got in the post (in the UK). Included in the letter were a list of excuses that they indicated would not be accepted: these included “I did not know the road; I did not see the signs; I have a clean licence; I was late; I didn’t know cameras were there; the road was clear; I was momentarily distracted; the car behind forced me to speed up.”

Ponsonby says this about this power of sin: Paul accepts no excuse for sinning. Though he says Adam influences us, ultimately we are accountable in Christ for our sin, and if we sin we do so volitionally. Shall we sin? No! It is possible not to sin. Does Paul believe we can be free from sin? Yes! Does Paul believe we can live a life, moment by moment, sinless? Yes! Was Paul sinless? No (as Romans 7 will lead us to acknowledge). Have I ever met a sinless person? No. Nevertheless, Paul refuses to take sin for granted – he refuses to resign to its power. 

 SO WHAT’S TO BE DONE? What are the implications of this?

Have you noticed at the traffic light up the road (by the dentist where we can park on Sunday without fear of a needle or drill) that there are a number of permutations – possible combinations of who goes where and when? It takes a while – you can do quite a lot of praying and thinking at that intersection while waiting. The most interesting one is when you go along Anzac and turn left into Beach road by the VINZ workshop. There are times when the lights go red for those going straight and a green arrow allows you to go left. The moment those two are on at the same time, my brain has a fit. It’s the incongruence. The two signals contradict. (I encountered a similar thing recently in Auckland when there were two arrows pointing left – one was green and the other red. Symptoms of complex roads in a city that probably grew without planning!)

Red and green are opposites. Which do you obey? I want to slam on the brakes and the accelerator at the same time. Apparently in the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-76) they tried to change the colours so red would mean go (and thus match Chairman Mao’s red book). It didn’t work. Chaos ensued. A couple of things in relation to this then:

  • We need to be clear about when to stop and when to go.
  • Clear about what is okay and what is not.
  • About what we are against and what we are for.
  • About who we ignore and who we obey.
  • About who we serve, and who we don’t. Listen again:

v13 Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.

The translations differ here. We are not to offer parts of ourselves, parts of our bodies, or our members to sin as instruments of wickedness. Rather we are to offer them to God (in other words consecrate them to God). The NRSV uses the word “present”. We read in Romans 6:13: “…but present yourselves to God… and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” Present – means to place yourselves at someone’s disposal. To stand beside someone. Ponsonby says this: Baptized believers are to present themselves to God – again we have the Greek word parastemi, “standing beside” God. 

He goes on to say: When Old Testament priests were ordained they were anointed with blood on the right ear lobe, right thumb, and right big toe, cleansing and devoting their extremities to God (Leviticus 8: 23). In Anglo-Catholic churches when the Gospel is read, the people often make the sign of the cross three times – on their forehead, mouth and over their heart – symbolizing that their mind, words and affections are consecrated before Christ. It is important to do this, if not physically then spiritually, throughout the day, presenting to Christ all our instruments, offered to righteousness, set apart for God.

We do need to present every part of ourselves to God. The mind, lips and heart actual cover a lot of areas where sin so often abounds in our lives – what we think, say, and feel. You can list the sins that you struggle with in each category!

And if they are persistent sins – we need to die to them. We are not to hang around (presenting our members, positioning ourselves to sin), but rather we are to present ourselves, or “stand” ourselves, or stand beside God.

And we need new habits that crowd out the old ones. Ponsonby says this: Sin is often a programmed habit, an auto-reflex of the flesh – body members and mind. Holiness can become a habit through habitually presenting yourself and your members to God.

The single Gospel verse today (Matthew 6:24) is also about who we serve, who we honour, who our master is:  6:24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Money – wealth – mammon – you will find different words used in different translations. This struggle or choice we have to make is always there. Presenting ourselves before mammon, or wealth is probably a fertile ground for breeding sin! The persistent desire for more (shopping aka retail therapy) is a great example. If we die to sin, and live to God, presenting (positioning) ourselves before Him – we can change our habits.

Simon Ponsonby reminds us of that famous speech by Churchill at his old school Harrow: Never give in, never give in, never never never never, in nothing great or small, large or petty; never give in, never yield to force, never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

And this is Paul’s approach to the problem of persistent sin. Never give in to sin. Never, never, never, never: in sins large or petty, never surrender.

May this be so.

Amen.

 

Footnote: I am indebted to Tom Wright and Simon Ponsonby for the great illustrations and arguments they provide on this passage: Tom Wright (2006): Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1 (New Testament for Everyone) (Kindle Locations 1717-1719). SPCK. Kindle Edition.  Ponsonby, Simon (2013-05-24). God Is For Us (pp. 193-194). Monarch Books. Kindle Edition.

Sunday sermon 3 February 2013 – Cliffs and crosses

Sermon

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Luke 4:21-30

1 Corinthians 13

13 If I speak in the tonguesof men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames,but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Luke 4:

21 and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

24 “I tell you the truth,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy[a] in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

Message

It would be easy today to talk about love. That ‘nice’ type of reflection that you often hear at weddings about love – being patient and kind. It’s the soft reflective route and the outcome can be a warm fuzzy feeling. The truth is that soon after a wedding the gloves are off as people try to resolve their differences of opinion.

It is a strange combination – this passage on love and the gospel reading where the people of Jesus’ own home town try to murder him by throwing him off a cliff.

The bigger picture is a massive battle – which is reflected in the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness.

It’s a battle for truth.

Last week you would have heard the first part of the reading from Luke 4 – Jesus explaining that the prophetic word from Isaiah referred to him.

The story continues today as Jesus declares: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

They love it! Verse 22 tells us “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.”

After the people rave – why doesn’t he just take the complements and move on! No. He has to get stuck into them.  He has to bring truth out into the open. Listen to his sermon:

23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

24 “I tell you the truth,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy[a] in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

In short – you are not the most important people in the world. Even in Elijah’s and Elisha’s  time God reached those outside of the family! Outside of Israel! In that time he touched the lives of Gentiles! Those outside the family of God. That did not go down well!

Luke continues:

28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

Humanity’s self-righteousness perfectly displayed. And before any of the encounters of faith, the healings, the miracles and all his teachings still to come, Jesus was on the road to the cross.

The gloves were off. Satan tried to derail him from the beginning. And when he resisted the temptations thrown his way, Satan used religious people to try to kill him. Nothing subtle there.

I came back to work on Wednesday after some leave where I stepped out of the rush.

Let me tell you something about the ministry – it’s like a battle field. In fact the battles I face are on-going. In the depths of my toughest moments I am really just being a follower of Jesus. The moment you take him and his message seriously, your own sin and failure looms to the fore. And of course Satan – the accuser – uses people to tell you that you are hopeless and useless. If Satan is at work in the world – he is surely the father of lies (John 8:44) who through adults who should know better and through bullies of all ages tells children especially that they will never amount to anything. Lucky for me as an adult I don’t have to be shaped by what people say about me.

Before I make a claim to be a preacher and a pastor, with all the risks that involves, I am first and foremost just a a follower of Jesus. I’m on the road to the cross.

Are you really a follower of Jesus? The road to the cross is the only one. Jesus was on that road from his baptism – through the temptations in the wilderness, through the attempt to get rid of him by his own people at Nazareth, through every encounter of opposition and every demonic manifestation – every trick questions and the lies that people told about him at his trial – Jesus was always on the road to the cross.

And we are no different. When speak the truth people don’t particularly like it. And truth leads to all kinds of interesting reactions. If they try to throw Jesus – their own boy – off a cliff, anything is possible. There will always be risk and opposition.

Jesus had a temporary victory but they would try again. From a human point of view it was always going to end in disaster on Calvary. But Jesus – still empowered by the Holy Spirit – stands firm. Well it says this: 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

THE TRUTH TODAY ABOUT THE HEART OF GOD FOR THE LOST

People still don’t like the truth today. We all justify ourselves – defend themselves. We argue about things that challenge our presuppositions.

This truth today – that God is still more interested in people out there than us – is offensive to many! If it’s not true – why did Jesus say this:

Luk 15:4  “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?

Luk 15:5  And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders

Luk 15:6  and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’

Luk 15:7  I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Yes you heard it. More rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than the 99 of us today.

Of course it may well be that some of us need to repent too! But you know what I mean! Luke records the words of Jesus elsewhere:

Luk_19:10  “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

Our mission this year involves this concern – this passion – to find a way to reach out into this community.

There will always be those who say that we need to look after our own first. That’s pastoral care and it’s a very significant part of our work.

Our home groups are part of that strategy – and our pastoral concerns team works really hard to care for many people.

If love does anything – it will drive us to face the truth – and continue the work of Jesus. God’s love that we receive is here to share and give away.

We will not reach the whole world. We won’t reach the whole community.

But we will endeavour to find out where God wants us to work and do that as part of our Mission. That is God’s heart – for those who need His love who are not here in the church.

In the meantime – we too need the full power of the Holy Spirit to keep us from being derailed – or thrown off our own particular cliffs!

It is the Holy Spirit who touches our hearts to give us God’s heart – a heart for those who are like lost sheep today.

It is the Holy Spirit who brings us to that point where we count everything else as loss – where we die to self – where we walk this walk to the cross ourselves. In the words of the song we will close with:

Everything I once held dear, I count it all as loss

Lead me to the cross, where your Love poured out, bring me to my knees, Lord I lay me down, Rid me of myself, I belong to you, Oh lead me, lead me to the cross.

Amen.