Sermon by Rod Benson, 13 November 2011
What’s your favourite time of day? Mine is the dawn – even if I have to wake up earlier during Daylight Saving to experience it! I love the new day – the freshness, the soft light, the furnace of the sun tearing through the bank of cloud out to sea, the birdsong, the peace. Even the traffic is better at dawn. And the dawn portends a new day of possibility and opportunity.
Some new days are more important than others. There’s the day of your birth, the day you seriously became a follower of Jesus, perhaps the day you married and the day each of your children was born. There’s the day in 1901 when this nation became independent of Britain. There’s the day in 1905 when the Mosman Baptist Church was founded, or in 1920 when the present sanctuary was opened.
The Bible speaks of many new days. There’s the day of creation, when God created matter; and day eight of creation, 13.7 billion years later, when Adam and Eve looked around at the world they inhabited and were fully conscious of its grandeur and grace. What would it have been like to be in the Garden of Eden on that day?! And there are many other significant days in biblical history:
- Day 1 of the Exodus, and Israel’s redemption from Egypt.
- Day 1 of Saul’s monarchy.
- Day 1 of the public ministry of Jesus.
- Day 1 of the resurrection.
- Day 1 of the church, when the Holy Spirit created an altogether new entity, in which we participate today.
But every day is an opportunity to be aware of your existence, of your place in the world, and of the potential you have to make a difference. It’s an opportunity for a fresh start, a step higher, a renewed interest in what matters most. So what is it that matters most?
I put it to you that what matters most in your life, and in the life of your church, is your active participation in the kingdom of God – in the progress of God’s rule, and the renovation of human hearts, and the transformation of this world into the future that God intends. And there’s no better place to catch a glimpse of the foundation of that idea, and the sunrise of that concept, than Romans 12:1-2:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.
Do not conform 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.
Our relationship to God is the basis of all other relationships, and our duty to him the basis of all other duties.
The first word (“Therefore”) reminds us that what Paul is about to say (indeed all of what he will say in 12:1 – 15:13) rests on the theology of chapters 1-11. Doctrine is good, but without practical effect it may as well not exist. On the other hand, action is important, but it needs to be grounded in coherent theory and principles.
These two verses are the door to the ethical implications of the profound theology that Paul has expounded in the preceding eleven chapters. He explains and defends what he believes, as revealed to him through Jesus, and then says, “On the basis of our common understanding of the gospel and its application to all of our lives, here’s how we should live.”
And in Romans 12:1-2, Paul commends a positive attitude toward God in the light of his relationship to the world, and a negative attitude toward the world in its opposition to God. We call this Christian discipleship.
Notice that this is a response to God’s mercy. Notice too that it begins with an attitude, a turn of the will, a renewal of the individual mind, but it is demonstrated and effected in bodily devotion expressed in community.
“The sacrifice God looks for is no longer that of beast or bird in temple, but the daily commitment of life lived within the constraints and relationships of this bodily world.” By the time Paul was writing this letter to the Christians living at Rome, they were marked out as unusual because of their complete lack of a sacrificial ritual in their worship, in contrast to Jewish and pagan religion.
The closest they came to this was the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. There was no longer any need to offer literal sacrifices, because Jesus had fulfilled all that was required of the Old Testament sacrificial system, and brought it to a complete end. His death brought closure to the divine demand for animal sacrifice.
But Paul now exhorts the Christians to offer themselves to God. They give themselves. We give ourselves. We are the offering. We are the sacrifice. And our act of worship, intimately entered into, is both holy (in the sense of intelligent devotion to God) and pleasing (in the sense that it brings pleasure to God). The result of this kind of sacrifice is not death and destruction but devotion and delight. There is no higher calling.
But what does Paul mean by “true and proper worship”? The King James Version rendered this phrase “reasonable service.” It is difficult to translate into English. I think the NIV translators have it right. Paul has in mind the act of worship (involving not merely what happens when I gather together with other Christians for praise, prayer and mutual edification, but all of my life, my whole person).
He also has in mind the intentional or rational motivation for this worship. Thus Douglas Moo writes, commenting on the difficulty in translation, “We cannot feel confident that either ‘spiritual’ or ‘rational’ is absent from the adjective [i.e. the word translated “true and proper” in the NIV 2011] or that ‘worship’ or ‘service’ is lacking in the noun.”
As I said, in verse 1 Paul commends a positive attitude toward God; then in verse 2 he commends a negative attitude toward the world. It’s not that he doesn’t like culture or sport or kissing. He would be among the first to encourage us to be fully human, and express our humanness in the fullness of body, mind and spirit.
But there are limits, there are boundaries, beyond which lies sadness and madness. Unless we think carefully, and rely on good advice, and take precautionary actions, all of us have a tendency to drift into conformity with those qualities and actions that do us and our community damage.
Instead, says Paul, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” By an act of the will, we learn to think differently: new thoughts, godly thoughts, compassionate thoughts, thoughts of others, thoughts after Jesus, thoughts undergirded by sound doctrine, thoughts anticipating heaven and home.
And this becomes a habit, a daily process of renewal, slowly and inexorably changing our world-conformity into Christ-conformity. As we become proficient at this new art, as this process of Christian discipleship becomes second nature, we discover something that is at once simple yet profound, clear but deep.
With the help of the Holy Spirit, we discover that we are able to “test and approve what God’s will is” – like a muscle, our minds are trained to weigh up what is good and right and true (both out there in the world, and deep within our own minds and hearts) and put it into practice.
This is achieved not by endeavouring to keep all the laws, or copying the lifestyle or teachings of someone we admire, or trying to evade the label of hypocrite, but by submitting to the authority of the risen Jesus, and asking him to renew us from within by his Holy Spirit. It’s about a determined commitment to God, and daily dependence on God. This is the biblical basis for responsible Christian living. It’s a lifelong process, but it may be invoked, developed and deepened with each new day. You can decide to move forward at any time.
I attended a conference with Bill Hybels in Melbourne in 1999, and here’s part of what he said (I’ve never forgotten it):
People never drift into higher levels of commitment to God. People never drift into higher levels of devotion to the church. People never drift into higher devotion to servanthood. People always drift away from God, away from character, away from devotion, away from servanthood. How then do people wind up with increased devotion to God, to the church, and this kind of stuff? They are taught, they are challenged, and at some point the leader stands before them and says, “Make a decision today!”
Today may be your decision day. Today may be your new day. What will you decide?
I close with a prayer of St Francis of Asissi, inspired by Luke 9:23-24 and Romans 12:1-2:
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much
Seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Sermon 604 copyright © 2011 Rod Benson. Preached at Mosman Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 13 November 2011. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).