Finally getting back to posting sermons. My church at Knaphill holds its annual covenant service today, where we renew our promises to God. Here is the sermon.
Henry Gerets was the American padre appointed as a chaplain to those Nazis who were put on trial at Nuremberg after World War Two. It was not a job he wanted. His only son had been killed by the Germans in the war, and so you can imagine his feelings towards these evil people.
But eventually he accepted the post. He went to Nuremberg, and he set about visiting every notorious Nazi held there. Gerets went from cell to cell, sharing the Gospel with men who were about to pay for their crimes by being hanged. Some went to the gallows, proudly defying the God of whom Henry Gerets spoke.
But some got down on their knees, and begged for mercy.
And mercy is a fundamental quality of the Gospel. ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy,’ says Paul in Romans 12:1. It is the mercy of God that has brought us to this Covenant Service. We, too, are the ‘tax collectors and sinners’ beloved of Jesus and brought into his Father’s presence by grace.
In fact, it’s better than ‘mercy’. What Paul really says is, ‘in view of God’s mercies’. How many of us have known God only to be merciful once to us? Is it not our testimony that God is merciful to us over and over? Like the author of Lamentations, we know that his mercies are ‘new every morning’. Mercy upon mercy, grace followed by more grace, love poured out over more love – is that not the God of the Gospel?
And we come to make our promises today ‘in view of God’s mercies’. Paul has given his readers eleven chapters about God’s mercies. We know many years of God’s mercies. In view of all he has done for us in Christ, we offer ourselves.
How are we going to do that? Paul says it’s going to take all we are and all we have. He calls us to make two responses – one with our bodies and one with our minds.
Firstly, then, our bodies:
‘offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship’ (verse 1)
‘Sacrifice’ – for Paul as a Jew, this is the language of worship. It is appropriate to use our bodies as expressions of our worship. Some Christians do this quite naturally. They may do in set liturgical ways such as kneeling for prayer. I have to say, that I have found that simple bodily act of kneeling for prayer in, say, an Anglican church has been a profound reminder for me of my need to be humble before God. Similarly, I remember asking one Anglican friend why she signed herself with the cross before worship. She told me it was a particular reminder to herself that the Cross was the reason she could be in worship at the first place. It therefore prevented her from approaching worship casually.
Some Christians, especially those of a charismatic of Pentecostal spirituality, use their bodies more spontaneously in worship, perhaps most notably when lifting their hands in praise. It is, of course, an ancient Jewish practice to lift up holy hands to God in the sanctuary. It is mentioned in the Psalms. The Jewish tradition is more to raise hands in intercession, whereas the charismatic-Pentecostal style is more about praise. It’s as if to say, ‘I am already lifting my voice to God in praise. What else can I raise as a sign of how much I want to worship God?’
One thing that strikes me about prayers in worship and before worship is that a common theme is this: ‘Lord, we thank you that we are free to worship you in this country.’ Now that’s a laudable sentiment, and we should not take that freedom lightly. But I wonder whether it morphs for some of us into, ‘Thank you, Lord, that we don’t have to pay a price in order to worship you.’ Because if it does, then we have lost sight of the fact that worship is a sacrifice, and that surely means it will cost us something.
How, then, are we going to offer something costly with our bodies as an act of worship to God? It may not be in terms of persecution, but if worship costs us nothing then it is barely on the level of a hobby or a pastime. They probably cost us more than worshipping our God of mercy does.
That cost may come for some of our more elderly and frail family in the physical effort it takes to be at worship, and to participate. Their faithful commitment to worship is something the rest of us will only understand when we get to their age and condition.
But of course this is not all about Sunday services. This call to use our bodies sacrificially in worship is also about our expression of devotion every day. Think of how the old marriage service contained the promise, ‘With my body I worship thee’ – it says, ‘With my body I honour you’ in the modern service. is that not what we are to do? God created our bodies. They are not empty shells for the ‘real person’. They are part of who we are. Tomorrow morning, you will see there are ways in which you can make a physical effort with your body as a way of honouring God. There will be something you can do that will be ‘holy and pleasing to God’ with your body.
I’m sure you have little problem with the idea that worship is ‘holy’ – that is, it is something we set aside for God’s service. When we do something that is specifically for our Lord – whether it is explicit or implicit – the fact that we have made it for him means it is holy.
But what about the idea that Paul tells us here that this offering of our bodies is ‘pleasing to God’? Will you just take a moment to reflect on the fact that we can give God pleasure with what we offer him? Our images of a solemn, severe old-fashioned Headmaster God need tempering with these words. Right now, I believe God is looking forward to what we can offer him. Why? Because it will be what Paul calls here our ‘true and proper worship’. That is, when we have reasoned how we should respond to the mercies of God, it will become apparent that the offering of our bodies is an appropriate response.
Let us each think this morning, especially as we renew our covenant promises: how are we going to offer our bodies in worship to God?
Secondly, our minds:
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. (Verse 2)
This may sound like a negative question to get into this point, but bear with me: what do we think the effects of sin are? I would suggest that we have underplayed the effect of sin upon our minds, because our society has for the last three hundred years placed such value upon the powers of human reason. We sometimes overlook the effect of sin upon the mind. So, for example, we rightfully laud the achievements of scientists, whose use of their minds have brought wonderful benefits to our lives. But we miss the way scientific minds have been used to bring terrible harm to our world – nuclear weapons, environmental damage, climate change and so on.
I suggest we are all like that. Our minds are capable of great things, but they are also corrupted. They are as much affected by sin as any other part of us. Earlier in the epistle, Paul spoke about the ‘unfit mind’ (1:28) and that is what we have. So our minds need renewing, because as Christians we are not finally to be part of this sinful age but of the glorious age to come, the kingdom of God.
So if we are grateful for the mercies of God, we shall submit our minds to the renewing power of the Holy Spirit. What does this renewal of our minds look like? We get some idea when we realise that the end product, according to Paul, is that we ‘will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will’. In other words, having renewed minds is not a matter of just reading a list of rules and following them. That is what machines and computer programs do. It is impersonal. No: the renewed mind can ‘test and approve what God’s will is’. That implies personal involvement, a journey of discovery.
And so I suggest to you that the Holy Spirit renews our mind not by filling them with rules but with the mind of Christ. The Spirit shows us more of Christ – his person, work and teaching. This becomes the matrix by which we are guided into evaluating what the will of God is. We are involved in working out what that will is – it isn’t simply dropped into our empty minds.
How, then, do we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s renewing work in our minds? Well – if it means getting in touch with the mind of Christ, then yes, this is another time when I need to urge us to engage in those spiritual disciplines that soak us in the Scriptures, particularly the New Testament and especially the Gospels. It may be daily reading of the Bible using Bible reading notes. It may be taking a reading and using our imagination to get inside the story by wondering what our five senses would tell us or how we would feel if we were one of the characters. It may mean taking a passage, looking for the one thing that particularly strikes us and then chewing that over. Whatever methods we use, we need to be as diligent about our Bible reading as we are about nourishing ourselves with food, and we certainly need to respond prayerfully to whatever we have encountered. We shall also do this not only on our own but in conversation and fellowship with our sisters and brothers in Christ. For the mind of Christ will come in exploration with them as well as individually.
And I must also remind you that none of this is a quick fix. In a society that is addicted to instant solutions (so says he whose Internet connection speed is about to double!) the renewal of our minds is a long process. If the old mind is, as I said before, an ‘unfit mind’, then the renewal that makes our minds spiritually fit for the kingdom of God is a long training process, much like the years of training our Olympic and Paralympic heroes of recent weeks have had to follow.
But … it’s worth it. Because this leads us to discern ‘God’s will – his good, pleasing and perfect will.’ Did you notice that? His will is ‘good, pleasing and perfect’. Although our Covenant promise will balance the ideas that some things we are called to will be enjoyable and others will be difficult, it is common among some Christians to assume that the will of God will automatically be hard, if not unpleasant and maybe downright tortuous. Yet Paul says it is ‘good, pleasing and perfect’. Yes, of course sometimes following God’s will can be painful – in talking about our bodies we used the word ‘sacrifice’ – but it can also be a joyous thing. Our faith is resurrection as well as death.
So let us embrace the call to dedicate our bodies and minds to God, in the light of his never-ending mercies. Let us be willing to sacrifice, yes, but let us also relish the thought that discovering his will and walking in it may bring joy not only to our Lord but also to us.