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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 20 October: Never, never, never give up!

Readings:

2 Timothy 3:14-4:2

Luke 18:1-8

Message

18 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 

It really makes it easy when the bible explains the purpose of a parable. What a nice start today!

We tend to see this parable as a simple matter of persistence. Fair enough – always pray and don’t give up – is Luke’s comment here.

In short – if an unjust judge gives in to a nagging widow – how much more will God hear our prayers when and if we persist.

Don’t give up! Winston Churchill comes to mind! Never never never give up – was one of his famed speeches at a school prize giving, if I recall. At Harrow in 1941 at the height of the battle of Britain. And yes – dealing with the Nazis was a matter of justice. If the just war theory holds water it seems to when you have world domination by a man who does ethnic and other cleansing on a grand scale.

The parable itself has more in it that Luke alleges. Listen to it on its own.

He said: ‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” ‘For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!”’

Jesus explains further: And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.

And then Jesus has this to say – in what is a separate issue about the Son of Man returning:

However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?’

Which involves a separate sermon altogether.

In the reading from Timothy today we read:

 “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful (profitable) for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…”

And also:

“preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction – says Paul to Timothy.

So what does the word have to say to us today? About

  • Teaching
  • Rebuking
  • Correcting
  • Training
  • Encouraging

Is it about prayer? Yes

Is it saying God is unjust? He is being compared to a pretty horrible judge. No, although some say he is. Remember those long polar nights we spoke about – for some the sun never seems to rise. There are some who mistake the long lesson of waiting for an uncaring God.

This is one of those “how much more” parables.

Like Jesus in Luke 11 when teaching on prayer there. You may remember that message – or you could read it here:  https://bbpsermons.wordpress.com/2013/07/28/sunday-sermon-28-july-when-you-pray/

It’s the Lord’s Prayer on that occasion. And after sharing that prayer Jesus also said: ‘So I say to you: ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 ‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

If an unjust judge can surrender to an apparently powerless woman and grant her request – how much more a Good Father – a Good God – who by the way – says Jesus in Luke 11 – will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Great verse – the Holy Spirit is the presence and power and life changing love of God in action! You need to ask in order to receive! That helps! In fact there is no other way! “Seek the Lord while he made be found” says the prophet Isaiah (chapter 55). “Call on him while he is near!”

So return to Luke 18 – again about asking. In this story – fact or fiction – or fiction based on fact – the woman has no power! This also is about injustice – a sombre reminder of how people are abused. She is in her own strength quite powerless.

In fact at best she is a squeaky wheel – and “it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil”.

Pressing in on God is the key.

We had a taste of that yesterday at our leaders’ retreat – a few hours that went quickly. And not all those hours were prayer hours – but we have to press in! It was a start.

So is it about persistence and constancy? Yes.

But not a silent stoic waiting – here a riotous old widow woman who presses the buttons of this guy – literally “giving him a black eye” – so that he wants to shut her up (or close her campaign down). The term the judge uses is very funny! A black eye indeed – this little widow with no father or husband or son or brother to plead her cause in a man’s world and an unjust judicial system of the day!

So if the bible is useful (profitable) for

  • Teaching
  • Rebuking
  • Correcting
  • Training
  • Encouraging

The lesson to be learned is persistence.

The rebuke to be issued is this – at the worst extreme you can never pray – never ask God for anything because you’ve given up! That way you get nothing! That would be a rebuke! Don’t be daft! There is treasure here!

The correction – and the rebuke probably belong together. There is an interesting twist at the end of the passage. The broader context is the return of Jesus: and so we read: ‘However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?’ – the implied answer seems to be a bit dubious!

The rebuke – the correction from this story and teaching of Jesus – is a warning against prayerlessness. Faith dies when the praying stops.

It is said that if God was not present and many churches today – many people would not notice.

Here’s my rebuke! And I say this with all sincerity! Chatty noise and riotous friendliness is no substitute for prayer. We are often quite noisy on a Sunday before worship. But prayer is more important than just fun and fellowship. It’s the prayerful congregation which will win the cause! Which will reach people – and which will still be here in years to come – sharing the love of Jesus!

P.T. Forsyth was England ‘s greatest preacher in the nineteenth century and an authority on the power of prayer. Forsyth notes that the worst sin is prayerlessness. “Overt sin,” he writes, “crime or the glaring inconsistencies which often surprise us in Christian people are the effect of this or its punishment. We are left by God for lack of seeking God.”

And then he gives this advice on how to pray:

 Go into your chamber, shut the door and cultivate the habit of praying. Pay no attention to literary form… Read a passage of Scripture and then sit down and turn it into a prayer. Learn to be particular, specific, and detailed in your prayer… Let prayer be concrete, actual, a direct product of life’s experiences.

The training – read your bible and practice what it says about prayer! Do it!  Pray the bible – pray the Psalms! They are powerful prayers and hymns themselves and we can easily relate to the cries of the writers.

Come and do it here together! Wednesday morning – Thursday evening – Sunday before church. In the meeting room! There’s even a prayer box there – pop in and write a note requesting prayer! Sign up for our email prayer list!

The encouraging – that’s always easy. Especially if you are powerless! Persist. And sometimes you have to be a squeaky wheel. Keep reminding God of the situation – the need – the challenge – the pain – the injustice of your situation. Cry out to God!

Martin Luther, we are told, used his dog as an illustration about our passion for God. He once dangled some meat in front of the dog – showing observers the dogs persistent barking and leaping. His comment was that he wished he could pray with similar passion, desire and longing – with the dog’s intensity and concentration. He went on to tell his onlookers that with that kind of single mindedness his heart and soul would look only to Christ.

How much more us and God! We don’t need high clever language as we pray. We wouldn’t speak to our friends in fancy English. Our approach to God ois more like that of children and their parents! We do need to persist and not lose heart as we bring our prayers to God!

Never, never, never give up!

Amen.