From a new sermon series on worship:
I was once taken to task after a sermon I preached on worship when I was a Local Preacher. Having confined myself to the question of worship when we are gathered together on a Sunday, someone wanted to know why I hadn’t talked about the worship of our daily lives.
Well, you can’t include everything in one sermon – although some preachers try! But my friend had a point. If you consider Christian worship, you have to see that it is about more than Sunday morning. We are called to a lifestyle of worship, and is what Paul does here. Romans 12 is about Christian lifestyle, but it is packed with words from the realm of the temple – ‘offer’, ‘sacrifice’ and ‘worship’ all occur in verse 1.
And so if we are to have a series of sermons on worship, we must think about our lifestyle of worship. We speak about some people who are ‘Sunday Christians’ – they come to a church service on Sunday, but have no connection with the church in the rest of the week and Sunday morning has no effect on the way they live from day to day. The early church would not have recognised such people as authentically Christians at all. The summons is to follow Jesus, and you don’t get any annual leave away from that calling.
But behind all this is the first of two questions that Romans 12:1-2 addresses: why should we worship? Paul puts it quite simply: ‘in view of God’s mercy’ (verse 1). More fully, he says,
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. (Verse 1)
We offer a lifestyle of worship to God ‘in view of God’s mercy’. The ‘Sunday Christian’ may not understand this. On occasion, I have asked congregations for ideas to include in the opening prayers of praise and adoration. “What reasons do we have for bringing our praise and worship to God this week?” I have asked. Often, my experience has been that the answers which come back have a lot to do with the goodness and beauty of creation, and for the sort of blessings that all sorts of people, religious or not, enjoy – good health, a new job, the birth of a new family member, and so on.
Now there is nothing wrong with any of those reasons. But what is missing? What we have is a collection of reasons to be thankful that are based on the goodness of God in creation, but what is absent is any recognition of the love of God in salvation. ‘God’s mercy’ is missing. Jesus and his Cross are absent.
Remember – this is Romans chapter 12. Paul has spent eleven chapters arguing why the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus change everything. When he says, ‘in view of God’s mercy’, he has in mind all the incarnate Son of God has done for us in giving his life and in being raised from the dead. If we are only Sunday worshippers, we have not grasped what God has done for us in Christ. Either we have not realised that Christ died for our sins and rose for our justification, or we are glad to receive his forgiveness but just enjoy the blessing without showing any gratitude.
In fact, Paul’s language is even stronger. He doesn’t simply say ‘in view of God’s mercy’, he literally says, ‘in view of God’s mercies’. It isn’t as though God was merciful to us in Christ at the Cross and that’s that, we’ve had our mercy (amazing as that is). No! God is consistently and continually merciful to us. How many of us have had second chance after second chance from him? How many of us can look at our lives and see him faithfully directing our steps? We remember the Old Testament words that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. But where do those words come from? Of all books, they come from Lamentations, where the author is grieving the judgement of God on sinful Judah in allowing Babylon to take God’s people into exile and cause devastation and destruction everywhere. Yet even the God of judgement can be merciful every morning. If he is merciful like that in the midst of judgement, how much more merciful is he in other ways?
So if we want reason to worship by the way we live each day, we have it in the mercies of our God. Surely a God who is merciful to us in the ways the Scriptures tell us is one to whom we should be deeply and consistently grateful. Surely we show that gratitude in the way we follow his Son.
Let me make this a little more specific, then: do you know that Christ died and rose for you? As you sense gratitude welling up to him for all that he has done and all that he continues to do for you, is there any particular way at present that he is calling you to give glory to him by imitating his life?
And let that lead us into the second of the two questions: how should we worship? Paul gives us two answers to ‘how’: firstly, with our bodies, and secondly, with our minds.
Firstly, then, our bodies:
[O]ffer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. (Verse 1b)
Now we might get nervous about what ‘sacrifice’ involves, rather in the way people assume that whatever they fear most is what God is most likely to ask them to do. If you don’t like the thought of going to remote regions of Africa, then God will definitely call you to be a missionary there. No wonder someone once said, “The problem with living sacrifices is that they keep crawling off the altar.”
Essentially, though, a sacrifice is an offering of something or someone over to God for him to do with as he pleases. When we say the Covenant Prayer at the beginning of each Methodist year in September, there is a fine balance stated over and over in different ways between those callings that might be congenial to our aptitudes and interests, and those which might not be. God is neither a sadist nor an indulgent grandfather. He is merciful to us, we give ourselves over to him and he deploys us for his kingdom purposes.
More specifically, Paul describes the sacrifice of our bodies with three adjectives. You may think that only the word ‘living’ is attached to sacrifices, but a more precise translation would be ‘sacrifices, living, holy and pleasing to God’.
So note that God wants living sacrifices, not dead ones. Just as you might put money into an offering plate, I invite you to imagine yourself putting your whole body on a huge plate that is carried to the front and dedicated to him. We ‘offer’ not simply our money, but ourselves. We ‘present’ our bodies. You may recall that when our previous hymn book, Hymns and Psalms, came out, some people made a fuss about the wording in the final verse of ‘When I Survey The Wondrous Cross.’ Instead of singing,
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small
the words were,
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Some Christians didn’t like the use of the word ‘present’, but I don’t think it was a bad one. We bring gifts unconditionally to those whom we love, and Paul urges us to do something similar with our bodies. Let us offer what we can do with our physical bodies to God.
Moreover, it needs to be a holy sacrifice. To be holy is to be set apart for God’s special purposes. There is nothing mundane or routine in the offering of our bodies. God has a special purpose for us, and it can only be accomplished if we dedicate our bodies to him. What can I do with my strengths and my talents? How can they be used for kingdom purposes?
Finally, these sacrifices are pleasing to God. Do not get the image that God is po-faced and stern in the face of our offering. As we put our bodies at his disposal, he is pleased! This is what he longed for. We can give great pleasure to God by offering a present of our bodies to him.
Secondly, we worship with 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)
To say that we worship with our minds may make some people nervous, like watching the news report in the week about a thirteen-year-old girl from Surbiton called Neha Ramu, who has an IQ of 162. If we have to use our minds in worship, some of us will feel we are not qualified.
But this is not about being intellectual. It goes more like this: a lifestyle of worship involves finding out God’s will and doing it, in order to bring more pleasure to God. But the problem we have is with tuning in to God’s will. Sin affects our minds as much as any other part of our being. For example, that is why science can be used for ill as well as for good: think of weapons of mass destruction or environmental damage. It is also about the way we try to deceive ourselves and deliberately twist our thinking to find something acceptable that actually isn’t. Every part of our humanity is affected by sin, including our thinking. It is therefore part of redemption that our minds are renewed in godly ways of thinking. That is not something exclusive to eggheads, but something we all need. We remember that Jesus said we were to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
So how do we allow God to renew our minds and thus transform us, so that we can do his will as an act of worship? Well, although ‘Be transformed’ is passive – it is something that happens to us – ‘the renewing of your minds’ is not. We need to be intentional about renewing our minds. That is why we promote daily Bible reading notes here, such as Our Daily Bread. That is why we have house groups. That is why we ran the Sacred Rhythms course to help people learn the practice of spiritual disciplines. That is why we promoted the Week of Accompanied Prayer.
But – we have to avail ourselves of these opportunities. It’s no good complaining that we can’t discern the will of God when we’re not taking our chances to let the Scriptures shape our thinking in godly ways. After all – which kind of believer would not be serious about knowing the will of God and walking in it? Would it not be the Sunday Christian again? There are plenty of other institutions in our world that want to shape our minds according to their values. Retailers and governments want us to think like consumers, not like disciples. It takes deliberate action on our part to put ourselves in a place where God can renew and transform our minds, so that our thinking and our believing is closer to his.
Friends, let us remember again that we are worshippers in response to ‘God’s mercies’. Think again about all the ways in which God has been merciful to you. Will you now consider these questions? How am I going to offer my body in devotion to Jesus Christ? And what steps will I take to allow God to make my mind Jesus-shaped rather than world-shaped?