Monday, March 23, 2009

Lenten Sermons

Last week I was preaching a series of Lenten Mission services (what Evangelicals often call "renewal services"). I used four texts in Paul's letter to the Romans as a base for the overall theme: From Sinner to Saint. Over the next few days I'll post each of the four sermons. The first is below:


Everyone knows something is wrong with our world. Some people focus on war or other political actions that contribute to suffering and death. Some people focus on nature — pollution and animal rights. Some people focus on social values, and there is a big division here: there are those who think even more personal freedom is best, while others believe personal freedoms need to be curbed and controlled. The issues here range from entertainment to foundations of society like marriage and family.

Everyone knows something is wrong in our own social communities when local papers can have four articles about adults sexually abusing children in a single daily edition. We have grown accustomed to hearing about drive-by shootings and teen-aged killers. A common response is relief when those things mostly happen even in Harrisburg or Lancaster and not in our own little—and we think “safe”— little boroughs and hamlets.

We know that the media has “gone downhill,” but it’s happened so progressively that we just accept it as part of the way things are. Yesterday’s immorality has become today’s morality. For 35 years, the Motion Picture Production Code served as a moral guideline for American film-makers. The code, to which film-makers were required to adhere, included this paragraph: "No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin."

Movies today seem to stir lust intentionally. Many viewers skim over a description of “brief nudity, sexual situations and profanity.” It is almost uncommon for a television series not to have a homosexual character. Casual sexual encounters and unmarried couples cohabitating are standard fare. The amazing thing is that, with so many professing Christians in this country, there is no public outcry that such a thing is wrong and will not be tolerated. In fact, it is just the opposite. Popular opinion offers a view that to condemn these “freedoms” as wrong is intolerant, and intolerance is the ultimate “wrong.”

We live in a time and place in world history where popular human opinion is considered as close to Truth as it’s possible to get. This has been slowly growing in Western culture for two centuries. Since the Enlightenment there has been a steady erosion at the foundations of how humans perceive one another and how we perceive ourselves. There is an assumption that, before anything else, human beings are individuals. Gone is the idea of humans as the glory of God’s creation. Individualism has diminished each of us, but Enlightenment thinking is only one tangible expression of a far deeper problem — sin.

Sin is bad word in our society, not because it points to evil, but because people think the concept of sin is itself evil. The word “sin” implies right and wrong, accountability, authority — in other words, a sovereign and personal God. Popular thinking today has been warped by the one thing that twisted human beings and their cultures for thousands of years: personal autonomy — doing what I want to do. We have seen a gradual change over the past several decades in our society from emphasizing individual responsibility to emphasizing, almost glorifying, individual rights.

This is where Paul starts the substance of his letter to the Romans. In his opening he has shared his enthusiasm for the gospel of Jesus Christ, but Paul knows that good news can be nothing special apart from a thorough understanding of the bad news. Beginning at 1:18 and going through 3:20 Paul elaborates on the nature and extent of sin. His point is that sin is awful and sin totally infects humanity, but it is not enough merely to generalize. Paul gives context to these basic concepts.

That is what we need. If there is no problem, then there is no need for help. If we can admit our problems (and this is true across the board, from AA philosophy to daily interpersonal relationships), then we can be open to solutions. Before we can feel the need for God’s salvation, we need to feel the grasp of sin in our lives. And I say this intentionally — God’s salvation, because our sin will twist even “salvation” among people in the faith community. Faith has become self-improvement instead of responding in repentance to a holy God who is calling a people transformed by his righteousness out of this world.

Even in the Church today there is a tone, an attitude, that says, “What about me?” This is sin, and Paul knows we need to understand something about it — God hates it. Yet not only that. Because the very nature of sin is opposition to God, there are horrible repercussions on people who persist in sin.

Let’s face it: there is language here that people just do not want to hear, and few people in our culture today are willing to accept it. Paul does not mince words, and he goes straight to his foundational point: The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness (v18). Everything that follows in this section simply unpacks the implications and nuances of this verse that explodes like a bomb in the climate of today’s world.

A thorough exposition of these verses could give considerable attention to each phrase in these verses. I am choosing to let most of the verses speak for themselves for two key reasons. First, the essence of what the Holy Spirit is saying through Paul is quite clear. We do not need to go into contortions about what this means. It means what it says. The second thing I want to do is give exhortation about how we are to understand what we find here and what to do about it.

How are we to understand these words that so graphically express the nature and extent of sin? The first thing is to understand them in the context of the Church. There is a clear message from the Church that is both clear and continuous. Christian Faith that is historical and orthodox has always called sin for what it is.

People tend to get disoriented as they assess the hot issues of their own time. History gives perspective. That is one reason God has given us revelation in a historical context. Someone has said: There is only wisdom for Christians: to look with a cool and very skeptical eye at all the things their own age is, precisely, most certain of. Even a secular journalist like Ted Koppel recognized this:

What is largely missing in American life today is a sense of context, of saying or doing anything that is intended or even expected to live beyond the moment. There is no culture in the world that is so obsessed as ours with immediacy... We have become so obsessed with facts that we have lost all touch with truth (Ted Koppel in a speech to the International Radio and Television Society, quoted in Harper's, Jan. 1986).

God is calling us to the one truth that is based in his very character. God himself is the standard, and anything that is outside of God’s Truth is godlessness, it is sin, and it is the object of his wrath.

Humanity’s problem, though, is that life outside of God’s Truth is exactly what characterizes life in this world. Starting with one disastrous decision by the first man and woman, mankind neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened (v21). And this is the recipe for disaster. G. K. Chesterton wisely observed, “When people cease to believe in God, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything.” This is exactly what Paul says here: Though they claimed to be wise, they became fools and God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity... (v22,24). Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind to do what ought not be done (v28).

There is a progressive regression here. The root problem starts out with idolatry — not bowing to God and giving him his rightful place (which is modeled by embracing what is right according to God’s character). When people choose a god other than the God, they are cut off from the only way to live according to truth. It is much worse to have a false idea of God than no idea at all.

The “other god” that people choose is self. “When men stop worshiping God, they promptly start worshiping man, with disastrous results.” People want to do what they want to do. The old slogan, if it feels good, do it, is a great description of sinful self. One of the most pervasive expressions of sinful self is sexual immorality. The gift of sex that God gave in his good creation, because it is so powerful and was meant to be so wonderful, has become a means to itself. People discover that sex has the ability to make one feel good, and it becomes an obsession.

There has been a gradual slide in our society for decades in the area of sexual ethics. First it was divorce. There was only one state that offered a no-fault divorce in 1957; now it is assumed to be the law of the land. The thinking of the culture affects the Church; divorce is hardly an issue in most Christian communities today. After divorce was normalized, cohabitation apart from marriage and out-of-wedlock births were the next target of normalization (with the “convenience of abortion” thrown in to avoid the intrusion of children into the pursuit of happiness). When I was pastoring I had a few couples come to me who were raised in a church yet “shacking up” (as it was once called), and wanting to have a big wedding celebration blessed by the church — and they were oblivious to the problem! The Church is not teaching its people the basics of a holy God and sinful behaviors.

The current agenda is the normalization of homosexual behavior. It does not take a college degree to understand what God’s Word says here:

Because [they exchanged the truth of God for a lie], God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion (v26–27).

I want to be clear where I stand on this. I stand with the clear sense of the biblical text. I stand with the witness of the historic, orthodox Church. I stand with what cannot be understood in any other way than God’s revealed truth. All of us who claim the Name of Jesus should understand this. We all need to know our commitment to Jesus Christ is at stake here. Years ago, in another battle for biblical truth, a popular Evangelical writer gave this quote:

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. When the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.

Dostoyevsky reminded us in The Brothers Karamazov that "if God does not exist, everything is permissible." We are now seeing "everything." And much of it is not good to get used to. Many Christians in the workplace are having homosex crammed down their throats, but they are forbidden to be overt with any witness to Jesus Christ.

It should be apparent to anyone looking on, but sin blinds us to the truth that going against God’s laws results in horrible repercussions. In another letter Paul warns that A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature [the flesh] will from that nature [the flesh] reap destruction (Gal 6:7b,8). This is exactly what Paul is saying to the Romans over and over.

At the end of v27 we read: receiv[ing] in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Some people have asked, “Is AIDS a punishment from God on homosexuals?” The answer usually given even by the Christian community is no, and that is right if the image is of God sitting in heaven zapping particular people because they committed certain sins. Yet we need to remember that, in principle, sin brings death — any sin. That was the warning from the beginning. Disobeying and dishonoring God brings repercussion. That is built into the fabric of creation. There is a reason AIDS and herpes and syphilis and gonorrhea are threats to people who ignore God’s ways (and I mention the sexual context because Paul is explicit about it in the text). It is precisely because people ignore God’s way that one repercussion is pain and death.

There are signs of what is coming apart from a broad-based seeking of God. A few years ago a Dutch group launched a new political party, proclaiming: “We are going to shake The Hague awake!” The Charity, Freedom and Diversity (NVD) Party says it wants to lower the legal age for sexual relations from 16 to 12 years old and eventually scrap the limit altogether. “A ban just makes children curious,” Ad van den Berg, one of the Party’s founders, told the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper (Reuters, May 30). The NVD will also lobby for mandatory sex education for toddlers and sex with animals. The Party also believes broadcasting pornography should be allowed on day-time television, with “violent pornography” limited to late evening hours (The New Oxford Review, September, 2006).

As our culture goes from bad to worse from one decade to another right before our eyes, it is a testimony to the blinding nature of sin that so few people see it — or at least see it in a way that raises major alarm. Oswald Chambers, a popular Christian writer from a previous generation, gave a great formula for discerning wrong in his writings: “Beware of any belief that makes you self-indulgent; it comes from the pit, no matter how beautiful it sounds.”

Please remember why a passage like this is in Holy Scripture. Even though we have turned away from God, our Creator loves us too much to abandon us to the destruction of sin. God has acted to be our Savior. Jesus Christ, God the Son, died to make things right. His death shows us God’s response to sin. The cross of Jesus Christ not only shows us the love of God, it reveals the wrath of God against sin.

While the cross is prominent in many Protestant churches, the crucifix is not common at all. When I began attending Mass in 2003 my attention was often drawn to the large crucifix above the altar. So often I would find myself thinking, as I looked at the imposing form of Jesus on the cross, “that should have been me.... it was my sin that put him there — my sin and yours.

Sin, of course, is not limited to sexual immorality. The issue of homosexuality is important right now because that is a key arena where the battle is being raged. I will repeat something I said earlier — There is only wisdom for Christians: to look with a cool and very skeptical eye at all the things their own age is, precisely, most certain of. Yet we need to have a sensitivity to all sin, and that means hearing what God’s Word says in an encompassing way. There is one attitude to sin expressed in a two-fold prayer: Lord, have mercy on me; purify my heart. It’s like breathing in and out: Lord, have mercy on me; purify my heart.

The scope of this comes into view as Paul concludes this section:

[God] gave them over to a depraved mind to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless (v28b–31).

There are “little sins” we excuse every day. God hates them, and there are repercussions.

There are people who think they believe in the love of God through Jesus, but they pay no attention to the things that sent the Son of God to his death. Some think that Jesus died to give us all a free ride. God’s salvation is meant to transform our lives. The early Fathers of the Church were clear: He became like us so we could become like him. We cannot embrace the love of God apart from accepting the truth of the wrath of God.

C. S. Lewis observed: "There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, 'All right, then, have it your way.'" The message from God through Paul is clear — God abandons stubborn sinners to their willful self-centeredness.

The Church has set Lent apart as an intentional time to hear God’s Truth and be honest about our sins. It is when we are honest about sin that we begin to discover just how amazing and relevant both the Church and salvation in Jesus Christ really are.

Listen to what God is saying! (You may be surprised by how much better you understand the mess our world is in....)

No comments:

Site Meter