Sunday, August 9, 2015

Reasonable Worship

Have you ever been to court? I went to court once. It wasn’t fun. I don’t recommend the experience. But as so many good stories do, this story started at camp, not Frontier Lodge, but a camp named Bayside outside of Halifax. Unfortunately, it began with a small tragedy: one of the young campers had fallen out of her bunk and broken her arm. Some counsellors were assigned to drive her into town and take her to the hospital. But since the only available cars were counsellor-cars, we thought it wise to send along a second car ... just in case the first one broke down. And, sure enough: one of the cars didn’t quite make it to the hospital -- but it was the second car -- the one that I was driving. It was a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle, and the throttle cable had broken. As you likely remember, older Volkswagens had their engines in the rear, and the cable was a long one connecting the gas pedal at the front to the throttle in the rear. It broke when we were only a half-block from the gas-station on the outside of Halifax. My co-pilot, Chris, wondered if we should try to push the car, but I had a better idea: with those old Volkswagens, with the rear hood up, you could sit across the rear bumper, slip your arm under a big steel brace, and govern the throttle with your finger. I convinced Chris that we could make it to the gas station that way. And so we did. But the gas station attendant was not at all pleased to see us, and was quite vocal about his displeasure, so we looked at each other, shrugged, and decided to drive the further roughly eight blocks to the hospital. Well, we didn’t make it. We were close - we could see where the first car was parked. But our progress was impeded by the convergence of six police cars on our position. Halifax clearly was having a light crime day... Anyway, the patrolman found an obscure infraction to give me since it was much less expensive than, say, not wearing a seatbelt. But my friends felt (with some justification) that the ticket should be contested, and they agreed to support me in court. What were we thinking? Anyway, we went. And when it was our turn, the judge might as well have been speaking Swahili -- and yet she was clearly quite insistent upon receiving an answer. But... I didn’t speak Swahili. If only I could determine what she found to be an acceptable answer. I think I answered “no”, and her gavel came down hard as she loudly pronounced… a date. October 20, I believe it was. “Next!” someone bellowed, and we walked away, entirely bewildered. And we walked into an office-looking room and sheepishly asked for an explanation. The clerk there was very kind, and she explained that October 20 would be the date of my hearing. Oh dear -- I was going to be in Ontario starting in September, and returning for a court date was going to be many times more costly than the original ticket. The clerk recommended that I simply pay the fee, and explained the procedure to me. I have no idea what we would have done without that clerk. But in case you ever wondered, this is one of the things that lawyers (or legal clerks) are good for. It was too bad that camp counsellors couldn’t afford lawyers. I was clearly way over my head in that court. The judge was absolute ruler there, and I didn't understand what was going on. But that kind clerk explained things in words I could understand, and gave me sound legal advice -- for free. Well that’s exactly what Paul is doing for us in our text this morning (Romans 11:33-12:2). Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. Here, Paul is inviting us to take a peek into the courtroom (perhaps even the throne-room) of God -- the righteous judge, who will judge the world with justice, who is able to save and to destroy, who knows the thoughts and intents of the heart and will reveal even our most closely-guarded secrets -- to get a glimpse of His Majesty, and to humble ourselves before his power and wisdom. Paul cites two Old Testament passages here, and they share a common theme: simply stated -- God is God and I am not. When a Pharisee like Paul made such a citation, he would expect at least some familiarity with the full text that he is referencing. In Isaiah 40, we read: Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. Similarly, in Job, a passage that Peter drew our attention to two weeks ago, we find that the “most righteous man on Earth” -- that is, Job himself -- responds with these words: “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know…. I [now] despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Yes: humility is appropriate in the throne-room of the Almighty. By making reference to these two Old Testament passages, Paul is simply setting the stage! And it is a little like my experience in the courtroom: I could not possibly fathom what I was being told by the judge. My bad, of course. Hundreds of years of legal proceedings meant that her way of doing things and the words that she chose were right and good, and if I couldn’t follow, that was my problem. But we are in the same situation with God, only more so. He is God, and we are not. And we, by virtue of our very existence, find ourselves in his domain, under his rules, and subject to his decisions. We might not like it -- but that doesn’t change a thing. So how do we respond? What is the sensible response? What is the most reasonable course of action under our circumstances? When I found myself in that courtroom there was a kindly legal clerk, who made the most sensible legal recommendation under my circumstances. In exactly the same way, Paul is helping us -- and he gives us sound legal advice for navigating the rules in force in the domain of Almighty God.(Chapter 12:1): He begins: I beseech you therefore, by the mercies of God,
And that word translated “beseech” is elsewhere translated “urge” or “counsel” or “beg”, and it literally means “advocate” -- really: it is a legal term recommending the sensible course of action. “I advocate therefore” he says -- and that word “therefore” simply points to what has come before -- to the fact that God’s judgments are unsearchable and his ways inscrutable! And from him and through him and to him are all things. In an environment that is completely beyond our control or understanding, we would do well to pay close attention to that recommendation. But notice the beautiful addition to the stage that has already been set: Paul adds God’s great mercies to the already referenced majesty and perfection of God. If God’s only attributes were his holiness and justice, surely we would be crushed under the weight of it. On the other hand, if God’s only attributes were his love and mercy, there would no need to do anything at all. But put them together, and how do we respond? What is the recommendation? I appeal to you therefore, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable worship. That word translated “reasonable” -- in Greek, it is “logikos” from which we get our word “logical”, of course. (some modern translations actually translate the word “logikos” as “spiritual”, which is a little strange, but it would take too long to explain -- for now, let’s allow that “logikos” should be translated “logically”). So Paul is simply saying “in view of the circumstances that you find yourselves in (on the one hand the greatness of God, and on the other hand, His great mercy) let me tell you what is your most sensible course of action: to present your bodies as living sacrifices. This is “reasonable worship”. This is “logical worship”. Paul is saying that if we really knew how the universe runs, if we really understood how everything works together, if we had any idea of how great and awesome and loving and kind Almighty God is, then we would not even so much as hesitate: we would immediately put our lives on the line for him. And note that Paul doesn’t say that it is appropriate to sacrifice our goods, or to sacrifice our money, or to sacrifice our time. When we sacrifice our bodies, we are explicitly offering them to go places and do things that we just wouldn’t do otherwise. “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God”. I wonder what kind of impact it would have on our community if every member of Bethel were to wake up every morning with this sacrificial attitude. Please also note that the scriptural understanding of sacrifice is somewhat different from our modern understanding. The idea of "sacrifice" in the Bible is closer to the idea of "sacrifice" in the game of chess. In chess, if you lose a piece and it results in a better position, that's called a "sacrifice". On the other hand, if you lose a piece and it result in a worse position, that's called a... "mistake". After all, Abraham presented Isaac to God on the altar of sacrifice, but God provided a substitute, and gave Isaac back to his father. Similarly, the landmark sacrifice in the history of Israel was the passover lamb. And while the lamb itself was sacrificed, the family was told to eat it in its entirety -- to make a feast and a celebration of it, and to share that feast with their neighbors. Finally, the noteworthy sacrifice of Jesus is the path to victory. Jesus scorned the cross and its shame for the joy set before him. So when Paul advocates that we present our bodies as a living sacrifice, it by no means contradicts the abundant life that Jesus gives us. And while Paul is at it, he reminds us of the rules for sacrifices in the Old Testament -- it was considered a grave sin to bring a second-rate or defective animal to the Temple for sacrifices -- so we need to work toward a sacrifice of our bodies that is holy, and wholly acceptable to God. But how, you might ask, can we possibly achieve that? Paul gives us a good answer to this good question in the following verse. 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." As we consider the presenting of our bodies as a living sacrifice, Paul gives us its parameters. First we see the conflict: the world is continually seeking to make you operate according to its rules. Don’t buy in. The world is continually expecting you to dance to its tune. Don’t play along. The world is continually attempting to influence you according to its values. Don’t give in to its coercion. Instead, be transformed by the renewal of your mind. Or, in other words, change the way that you think. Of course, that’s another way to say “repent”, isn’t it. Because, after all, repentance should be like breathing to a Christian. As Rosaria Butterfield writes: “Repentance is not just a conversion exercise. It is the posture of the Christian. . . . Repentance is the threshold to God.” Don’t imagine repentance is just something that you do to become a Christian. On the contrary. If it were, the word “repent” would not appear seven times in the messages to the seven churches in Revelation. If it were, Paul would not tell us in Colossians 2:6 to continue in Christ just as we have received him. Instead, we received Christ with the attitude of repentance, and it is the same attitude of repentance that is required to keep our minds renewed in him. To illustrate the principle of mind-renewal, here's a little puzzle...[on power-point] suppose you have a birthday cake and a really long knife. If you make one full cut through the cake, you end up with two pieces, of course. But what if you make two full cuts through the cake? Well, if the two cuts don't cross, you get three pieces, and if the two cuts do cross, then you get four. But what about three cuts? (This is where it gets interesting). Of course, three parallel-ish cuts will yield four pieces. If only two of the three cuts cross each other, you get five pieces. If one cut crosses both of two non-crossing cuts (or if three cuts all meet in the middle), you get six pieces. If all three cuts cross the other two, you get seven pieces. But what about eight or nine? Any idea how you can get eight pieces. Let me show you: you need to cut across the third dimension -- cutting each of the four pieces in half vertically. Now, I'll confess: I constructed this problem in such a way as to make it really difficult to get the right answer -- I really wasn’t being fair. I showed you the birthday cake from the top -- so that there was no hint that I was even allowing you to think about that third dimension. But this is exactly what the world does all the time. Whenever there is any issue that is a challenge to the church, the world - that is, far too much of our news and our entertainment and our education -- "frames" those issues in such a way that the answer that they want to reach is the only answer that seems available. To mix metaphors, the world wants you to look at everything through its “special” set of glasses. The teachers of the law did the same thing to Jesus in the gospels. In a crowd of hot-blooded patriotic Jewish men, they craftily came to Jesus hoping to trap him: Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar's.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” When they heard it, they marvelled. And they left him and went away. Do you see Jesus’ remarkable wisdom here? The Pharisees see no way out for him. As far as they are concerned it is a yes or no question - that's how they "framed" it. If he says "yes (that is, we should pay tax to Caesar)", they know that he will lose the respect of the crowd. But if he says "no (that is, we should not pay tax to Caesar)", then they can turn him over to the authorities. But Jesus doesn't fall for it. Instead, he sees beyond their frame. He isn't limited by their frame. God's perspective is always bigger - his ways are higher than our ways - oh, the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and give to God the things that are God's. One of the wisest and cleverest answers to any question in history. And if we want to renew our minds, if we want to be transformed, there is no better advice that I could give you than "pay attention to Jesus". And the amazing dynamic of it is this: the more you fix your eyes on Jesus, the more your life will be transformed, and the more your mind is renewed, the more you will want to pay attention to Jesus. You see, Jesus doesn't just have witty comebacks for those wanting to trap him. He also breaks free from the frame when he wants to help people. Do you remember the woman at the well? One of her great concerns was that her people, the Samaritans, had taught her that the right place to worship God was on Mount Gerazim. But she knew that the Jews taught that the right place to worship God was at Jerusalem. As far as she was concerned, there was no way out of this conflict, and she brings the question before Jesus: (she says)
"Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”

But Jesus isn't constrained by her inability to see beyond those two mountains -- listen to his response: Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father... true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him..." When we can break free of the thought-constraining frame of the world -- the one they construct to distract us from the truth, when we allow our minds to be renewed so that our thinking is transformed, then we will see our Lord and Saviour for who he is - with all of the depths of his riches and wisdom. That is what it was able to do for that Samaritan woman. Her next words to Jesus are now focused on the real issue: (she says)

“I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” And Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” And it is this same dynamic that represents our “logical worship”. It is only by fixing our eyes on Jesus that we can continue to transform our minds. In this way, we will be able to stand against that most effective tactic of the enemy -- to constrain our thinking -- usually by deceptive means. Such deception takes its toll in churches throughout the world. Some Christians are tempted to proclaim a message of rules and regulations. Sure, it might provide great guidance for exactly how to live, but this is no gospel at all; it is legislation, and it is really just legalism in disguise. Other Christians -are tempted to proclaim a message of acceptance.. Sure, it might contain the truth that God loves us exactly as we are, but this is no gospel at all; it is affirmation, and it is really just license in disguise. As far as the world is concerned, there is no third option. The world cannot see beyond the interval between legislation and affirmation. But God opens up that new dimension -- and provides salvation by way of... transformation. For we did not receive an affirmative gospel; And we did not receive a legislative gospel; Rather, we received a transformative gospel. This is the transformation that we receive in Jesus -- this is the new creation that marks those who are found in Christ. Because there is no salvation in affirmation. And there is no salvation in legislation. There is only salvation in transformation. I’ve already quoted Dr. Butterfield, but I’d like to do it again. She writes: “The internal mission of the Bible is to transform the nature of humanity.” As we escape from the confines of the world’s thinking, as our minds are transformed by the renewal of the Holy Spirit, then we can truly bring our bodies to God as an act of true worship. And then and only then will we be able to understand the good, acceptable perfect will of God in our lives. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe - Hebrews 12:28-29