Jeremiah wrote that "even prophets and priests cheat the people. They act as if my people's wounds were only scratches. 'All is well,' they say, when all is not well" (Jer. 6.13b,14).
It is said that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Partly because of Nero, we don't think of fiddling as a musical pastime any more, but rather as a trivial (or malicious) pursuit.
So many world religions fiddle with human problems. They don't provide real answers. In many cases the proposed solution is avoidance - seeking a way of escape, meditating oneself into a state where one is unconscious of the problems. And many in our society make use of alcohol and drugs as a means of escape.
This is not the Christian way! There is, in the gracious act of God in Jesus Christ, a real answer to human sin and all its accompanying problems.
Paul, having digressed for three chapters (9-11) to speak about the Jewish rejection of the Messiah, now returns to his main theme. "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer 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" (12.1-2).
"Therefore" assumes all that Paul has said in chapters 1 to 8. Someone has commented that, whenever we come across the word "therefore" in the New Testament, we should ask what it's there for! Not a bad way of remembering to look back at what has gone before.
Right back in 1.16, Paul emphasised that the gospel which he was called by God to preach is God's power for the salvation of everyone who believes. This good news is set against the background of the bad news of human sinfulness - bad news which embraces not only the corrupt pagan or the moral pagan, but also the good-living Jew. All have sinned, and because all have sinned, there is only one way of salvation, the way made possible through Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins. We can't be made right with God on the basis of our own goodness or obedience to the Law. Only Jesus Christ can make us right with God and he has died as an offering for our sins. So those who are "in Christ Jesus" - who have faith in what God has done for us in Christ Jesus - are no longer under God's judgment. They are reunited with God, restored to membership of his family, calling him "Abba! Father!"
"Therefore - on the basis of all this - in view of God's mercy - I urge you, brothers, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God -this is your spiritual act of worship."
When the hard-liners in the Soviet Union took control and placed Mikhael Gorbachev under house-arrest, it was Boris Yeltsin who secured his freedom. The media repeatedly asked the question, "Mr Gorbachev, what will you do to repay Boris Yeltsin?" On the basis of what he has done to thwart the coup, and to save you from the designs of the coup leaders, what are you going to do? Your future life and actions are going to be determined by your response to the one who has done so much for you! You may still have a hope that there are plenty of good Communists out there, that there is still a place for the Party in the reconstruction of the nation. You may become disillusioned by the whole system that was ready to stab you in the back while you were on holidays. But the question is, "Mr Gorbachev, what will you do to repay Boris Yeltsin?"
Some of us come from a tradition where a true dinner consisted of meat and three vegetables. And some of us have strong feelings about what constitutes "true worship." Some believe choruses are better for leading us into the presence of God. Others can't get beyond the good old hymns. Some may question whether it is true worship if we don't have a Psalm to sing somewhere in the service. And it should be wrapped up in sixty minutes flat!
It is so possible for us all to toss in our traditions and preferences and to miss the point of true worship. True worship may include any or all of the things we have mentioned. Yet not one of them is the guarantee of true worship.
Paul's words here remind us of the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman. Her position centred on being in the right place (the mountain and not Jerusalem), using the right Bible (the Samaritans used only the first five books of the Old Testament) and probably the right hymn book too. She had already admitted to having a de facto husband, so it's not as if she followed the Samaritan religion very devoutly! Jesus said to her, "God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth" (Jn 4.24).
True worship doesn't really have to do with formulae or rituals, with hymns or songs. It has to do with our relationship with God - and what we do with it! It has to be "in spirit and in truth."
And what does this spiritual activity - true worship - involve? Offer yourselves (literally, "your bodies") as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to him. True worship is offering your body to God for his service! Isn't that incredible? We have this picture of worship as getting "lost in wonder, love and praise" - our spirits becoming absorbed into mystical union with the divine - cultivating a kind of "spiritual otherness." But Paul links true worship with the dedication of our bodies to God's service. This reminds us of James's definition of pure and genuine religion (Jas 1.27) - "to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." We have this idea of worship as separation, but in reality it is involvement - involvement with God - and availability - being available to do his will.
This is part of what Paul goes on to say in vv. 3-8. Because of God's gracious gift, because of our union with him, we are members of his Body with different gifts. We are to use those gifts so that the work of Christ will be done - whether our gift is to speak God's message, to serve, to teach, to encourage, to share our financial resources, to exercise authority, to show kindness. That is an unfinished list. It isn't exhaustive. But it's quite clear that our worship is our involvement with God and our availability to do his will, both in building one another up within the Body, and to serve others beyond the Body.
Among the popular lines of toys a few years ago were the transformers - the car that folded out to become a robot. Of course, it could always be transformed back again.
Paul speaks in v. 2 of a divine transformation of our lives that is permanent. "Do not conform any longer 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."
In chapter 1, Paul spoke about the shameful passions and corrupted minds of the pagan world. In chapter 3, he concluded that all - even the good-living Jews - are sinners and fall short of the glory of God. The purpose of the grace of God in Jesus Christ isn't just to forgive us, but to transform us inwardly by a complete change of our mind. Our true worship is only possible by that inward transformation. We are to make ourselves available to God for this transformation. Its effect won't be detachment from other people and their needs, but the ability to be involved with them.
Notice the last part of chapter 12. Our love is to be sincere, warm and respectful. It is also to be open-eyed and realistic - hating the evil and clinging to the good. You can't love in a vacuum. We are to love one another - warts and all!
The Sunday School superintendent was laying a new concrete path. His young son ran right through the wet concrete. He really blew his top. His wife came out to see what was the matter. "Darling," she said, "I thought you loved children." "I do," he said, "in the abstract, but not in the concrete!"
The requirement that we love throws us into real contact with real people. Do you always find that easy? I don't! And that's why Paul says, "Be transformed by the renewing of your mind."
Work hard. Don't be lazy. Serve the Lord wholeheartedly - joyfully, patiently, prayerfully. Share your belongings with your needy fellow-Christians, and open your homes to strangers. This is rather tough stuff, don't you think? Let God transform you inwardly.
Jesus says that we are to "love our enemies and pray for those who persecute" us (Mt. 5.44). Paul echoes that here - ask God to bless (not curse) those who persecute you. Before Paul would see the Roman church, he would go to Jerusalem where he would be attacked by the Jews, then incarcerated in a Roman prison on no charges by an officer who hoped for a bribe, before finally coming to Rome as a prisoner. Bless those who persecute you...
Be genuine in your care for ordinary people. Don't pay back evil with evil.
These aren't the standards of the world. But they are the will of God. They are the way he has always meant us to be. They are part of that glory of God of which we fall short. They are part of our true worship for which we offer our bodies to God.
Lord, we come to you. We offer ourselves to you - to be involved in your love and available for your service. Lord, transform us inwardly by a complete change of our mind that we may know and do your will. Amen!
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