God Wants Me to Change?

“God Wants Me to Change?”

Rom 12-2 be transformed, words

Romans 12:1-2 (12:2) – September 10, 2017

The date of September 11th is a significant date to remember. Just as many people remember where they were on November 22, 1963, the date John F. Kennedy was assassinated, so, too, many people remember where they were on September 11, 2001, when planes flew into buildings, and horror upon horror was seen on televisions and video monitors around the world..

When we think of the inhumanity that people display—people who assassinate a national leader, or who cold-bloodedly kill dozens, or even hundreds of their fellow human beings—man’s inhumanity to man can leave our jaws hanging open, shaking our heads in disbelief.

We are horrified when we think about such things. I am sorry to bring this up, but Romans, the book of the New Testament from which our Scripture reading comes, has some very bad news in it. All of us fall short of what God wants for us. All of us miss the mark, as far as God is concerned. As Romans 3:11 tells us, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one seeks after God.” We are all self-centered, not God-centered.

However, the book of Romans also has some very good news! The Apostle Paul says we are not deserted in such a hopeless situation. No! “The message of [the book of] Romans is that sin’s mastery over humankind has been broken in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” [1] We all know that the wages of sin is death—death, meaning separation from God forever. But the free gift of God is eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ! Those are the blessed words of Romans 6:23!

I wanted to remind everyone about this difference, this separation that the Apostle Paul tells us about, us and the Roman believers. Here, on this side, is the BEFORE side. Life without God. Life is really bad news! Eternal darkness, and separation from God, forever. Here, on the other side, is the AFTER side. Life with Christ, and life eternally in God’s presence and light.

Just in case anyone is wondering exactly how we develop a relationship with Christ, we tell our Lord Jesus that we have sinned. We are truly sorry, we confess our sins to Him, and ask Him to forgive us. The best part? He will forgive us, freely! No strings attached. And then, we will enter into the best relationship we will ever have in our lives—true friendship with God.

Thanks be to God that we are accepted through our Lord Jesus Christ, and as Romans 8 tells us, nothing—in the whole universe—can separate us from the love of God!

That, in a nutshell, is the message of the first half of the letter to the Romans. But, now that we are in Christ, now what? What do we do now? How shall we then live? These first two verses of Romans chapter 12 hit home. Paul gives us several strong commands.

Let’s read Romans 12:1 again from that wonderful modern translation by Eugene Peterson, “The Message.” “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.”

We were just asking, now that I—you—all of us believe in Jesus, confess our sins, and are welcomed by God into the family of God, what next? Right here, Paul tells us. Paul wants us to place our whole lives before God as our offering.

Did you know the Jewish people in Israel (before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that is) sacrificed all kinds of things at the Temple, often? That was a requirement for being obedient to God, for being a fine, upstanding Jew. There were thank offerings, and guilt offerings, offerings for forgiveness and for harvest time, wave offerings, drink offerings, and animal offerings. Offerings on special occasions, and everyday offerings. There were enough animal, grain, wine, and other offerings to keep the many priests at the Temple in Jerusalem very busy, indeed! I’m not talking about only the Pharisees, but all of Israel. God expected offerings from everyone.

That was then—during the time of Jesus, and before. But, what about now? What kinds of offerings is Paul talking about? How do we bring offerings to God? I’ll say it again. Or rather, Paul will tell us, from Romans 12:1: “Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.”

A number of years ago, my children, my husband and I went to Michigan to see my in-laws. They decided we all should go to a really nice public garden, some distance away from their home. The public garden included a butterfly house. I don’t know whether anyone here has ever been to a butterfly house, but all different kinds and colors of butterflies fly around. Plus, there is a special section where the caterpillars make their cocoons and become a chrysalis. It takes some time, but finally they transform into a butterfly. My children just loved watching the butterflies flit around from flower to flower. I decided to sit still, and several butterflies came and landed on my arms. One even landed on my head.

Is there a difference between a caterpillar and a butterfly? I think we all would say, yes! Certainly! Is there a difference between the sinful us, and the forgiven us? I think so. That is what the Apostle Paul is getting at.

God is so pleased when we bring our whole selves to God. Before, our old selves were sinful, self-centered, and not doing or thinking or saying the things that pleased God. That sinful self is what the Apostle Paul talks about in the first half of this letter to the Romans! But now we have a relationship with God, we are being changed from the inside out. A complete change of our inner, spiritual selves, from being self-centered to God-centered!

A caterpillar changes or transforms into a butterfly. In the same way, “Paul speaks of radical inward change. The mind is key in the renewal process. The renewed mind is able to think, discern, and test what will please God instead of being deceived by sin.” [2]

Now, I need to let everyone know: this change is still happening. We are not completely sin-less. With God’s help, we sin less and less.

Sadly, the world we inhabit is still very much affected by sin. We can see that from natural disasters, like hurricanes, wild fires and earthquakes (to mention some catastrophic things happening in our world right now). Our fellow human beings are also very much affected by sin and self-involvement, self-centered fear and self-important egotism, focusing on their own issues to the neglect of any one or any thing else.

Which brings us full circle to what we started this sermon with: man’s inhumanity to man. It is not difficult to tick off on both hands the horrible things people do to other people. We can feel sadness for the sin we still have in our own lives, too. We can shake our heads, in sorrow and grief. And, yes, we can praise God that God is not finished with us yet!

As the Apostle Paul reminds us in our Scripture reading in Romans 12:2, “fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what God wants from you, and quickly respond to it.”

Does God want all of us to change? You bet! Each day we are becoming more and more changed into the likeness of our Lord Jesus. We can all say “amen!” to that.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1038

Commentary, Romans 12:1-8, Mary Hinkle Shore,, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[2] Chesser, Dawn  – Director of Preaching Ministries, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/book-of-romans-sermon-starters-week-13

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Have You Met a Pharisee?

“Have You Met a Pharisee?”

luke-18-pharisee-and-tax-collector

Luke 18:13 – October 23, 2016

I’d like to start with a question: has anyone here ever met a Pharisee?

The Pharisees were professional “religious folks.” They were the moral bookkeepers of Jesus’ day, keeping track of right activity and wrong activity. The Pharisees kept an exact mental ledger, and were meticulous about having as little in the “wrong activity” column as possible. They were not only meticulous about their own activity, and went over their own business with a fine-tooth comb, but they gave recommendations to the rest of Israel on how to live, as well.

As this passage mentions in verse 9, righteousness was VERY important to the Pharisees; so much so that “certain ones” even went so far as to trust in themselves that they were righteous, and looked at others with contempt.

I ask again—has anyone here ever met a Pharisee?

Jesus mentions one Pharisee in particular in this parable. From my study and reflection on this text, I see this particular Pharisee being acutely concerned with external activity—wrong activity that was obvious to anyone. Let’s look at verse 11: ”God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people—swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector .” What can we see? EXTERNAL activity, where this Pharisee looks judgmentally with his lip curled at other people’s external actions. May I suggest that this Pharisee had his eyes focused on the external, visible part, on the wrong-activity part of people’s lives?

If we take a look at the Bible, at both the Old and New Testaments, we can see wrong-headed, external actions being committed time and time again. Over and over and over again. People at the time of the Bible just did not learn. I have a feeling that people today are in a similar situation, making mistakes and wrong decisions on a regular basis.

Certainly, our actions are important to God. Wrong-activity goes against everything we have ever been taught in Sunday school, from the pulpit, in seminary, about sanctified living, and how to present our bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God. But, a subtext I see here in this passage concerns INTERNAL attitudes and activities: the inside job.

When we talk about the inside job, the internal attitudes and activities, it does not matter whether we consider Bible times or today. People mess up. They have messed up for thousands of years. People not only do bad things, they say and think bad things. They miss the mark.

The Pharisee from this passage in Luke 18 looks at externals, and says to himself, “Gee, I’m not so bad. Matter of fact, I’m pretty good. Come to think of it, I’m doing all right!” See what his thought-process is here? He’s making himself out to be better, superior to other people. Verse 9: “Trusting in himself that he was righteous!”

This “super-righteous guy” was—in reality—anything but. So busy looking at other people’s outsides that he never did a reality check of his own life. Such a self-serving, prideful prayer! He was blind to his own shortcomings, and his own not-so-wonderful position before God. As long as he considered himself to be pretty good, more-righteous-than-thou, that was good enough for him. So much better than the sneer of contempt he expressed for all of the “sinful people.”

What about the contempt and scorn that Pharisees today express for others? Let’s take a similar situation: the one of a high-and-mighty bully on the playground. “You’re not as (good, fast, smart, pretty….)  as me!” Or, “You’re just a (jerk, baby, loser, …) And what about names that belittle – “shorty, four eyes, tubby, pipsqueak, etcetera.” [1]

You get the idea. Let your mind wander to add labels used in your workplace, school, community center, or neighborhood.

We all can feel what is hurtful about these names and labels, even if we cannot rationally identify it. And, these are not the only kinds of phrases Pharisees—those snide, blustering bullies—use. Just reminding us: we need to think ahead about how to handle similar belittling terms, and even worse terms with racial or sexual connotations.

I ask again, has anyone here ever met a Pharisee?

I am not sure whether you all know this, but at seminary, almost everyone who attends classes for a Master of Divinity degree takes at least one preaching class. We learn how to preach, how to bring a sermon to a congregation.

While I was in the Preaching class at seminary, I ran into one of my professors in the cafeteria. He and I periodically talked about my theological background and where I came from, theologically speaking. As we put our trays on the conveyor belt, I mentioned to him that I was working on a sermon for Preaching class. He asked me which text I was working on. I told him, “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, from Luke 18.” His question—”which are you?” My response—”Oh, the tax collector, of course . . . I’m a reformed theologian.” The professor roared with laughter; he really appreciated that. (That’s theological humor for you.)

But it’s true. I do identify with the tax collector. The tax collector here KNEW he was a sinner. He didn’t have any illusions about himself! He knew what the Hebrew Bible had to say about external activity, and how to approach God. He KNEW that he missed the mark. He was conscious—oh, so conscious–of his sin. As Paul says in Romans 3:23, we ALL have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God. We have turned, EVERY ONE, to his, or her, own way.

But, the tax collector does not stop at just wallowing in sin. Neither should we!!! No–he falls at the feet of God and claims God’s mercy. As Jesus says in this parable, “I tell you, this man went to his house justified.” The Pharisee in this parable couldn’t even see where he had missed the mark. The tax collector recognized his sin, and he knew where to go. He knew he was powerless over sin. He knew his life was unmanageable. He knew where to flee for help and mercy!

Could the contrast between the two men possibly be more clear? Could the difference between the two prayers possibly be more extreme? What about you and me? Are there places where we have not done what God wants us to do? Are there impatient or unkind words that we have said? What about nasty, mean thoughts that have gone through our minds?

The Pharisee trusted in his own flawed and erroneous righteousness; we can certainly learn from his mistakes. The tax collector knew his own sinfulness very well! He threw himself on God’s mercy and forgiveness, wholeheartedly.

“Mercy there was great, and grace was free, Pardon there was multiplied to me. There my burdened soul found liberty—at Calvary!” We can thank God that God does not use a balance sheet for our accounts.

As I say each Sunday, we are forgiven! If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness. We can go to our houses justified, through the mercy and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. What better news can we possibly receive than that? Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/09/year-c-proper-25-30th-sunday-of.html ; Worshiping with Children, Proper 25, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)