Last month, I preached at the East County Church of Christ in Portland, Oregon. It was a lovely morning with old and new friends. This post is the manuscript from that sermon. Many thanks to the East County Church and the Abney family for how they received and blessed my family while we were there.
I was once at a basketball game when a friend of mine, a young father I’ll call Mike – came in and sat by me with his 2 ½ year old son. Trevor, like most 2-year olds, wouldn’t sit still. Mike told him – don’t go past that row, but then Trevor went past that row. So, Mike got him in his lap, talked to him sternly, warned him again – don’t go past that row. Then, Mike turned to me and apologized, “I’m so sorry about that.” “It’s ok,” I said, “he is two.”
Then Trevor spotted popcorn on the floor on the next row. And Mike warned him, “Don’t eat that popcorn off the floor.” But Trevor crawled over the bleacher seat and ate the popcorn. So, he got a stern talking-to again. And, I got another apology.
It went on like that throughout the game, and I noticed that Mike kept apologizing to me when Trevor disobeyed him. And each time, he got more and more frustrated with Trevor and more and more apologetic to me. Eventually, a friend of ours from church took Trevor to play on the court during halftime.
So, I decided to ask – “When Trevor was misbehaving, you kept apologizing to me. Are you worried about what I think of your parenting?”
He said, “Honestly, Liz and I just read a parenting book that her sister loves, and I’m trying to do what it says. I am following the exact procedures, but they are not working. I feel like this book is ruining my parenting and everyone can tell what a horrible parent I am.”
So, we ended up having a conversation about the role of parenting books– how every parenting book doesn’t work for every family. I’m around Mike all the time – and he’s a good father. He is working out his role with integrity and grace. But he did not fit the mold of that first parenting book he read, and I’m glad he stopped trying.
We can all identify with Mike on some level. As the boss at work, you might try to squeeze yourself into the mold of the well-loved boss who came before you, but his style and your style just are not the same. As a freshman in high school, you may try to squeeze yourself into the mold of a certain click because you want to be accepted, but then you find yourself acting like someone you are not. As a basketball player, you get your big moment to start when the regular point guard is injured, and all you can think about is playing like he does.
That’s not exactly what Paul is saying here in Romans – but it does get us thinking about what it’s like to be squeezed into a confining mold or shape that dictates how we should behave. Look at what Paul says about being squeezed into a mold, or being conformed into an inhibiting shape:
Romans 1:1-2 says, “So, my dear family, this is my appeal to you by the mercies of God; offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. This is your true and appropriate worship. What’s more, don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you can work out what God’s will is, what is good and acceptable and complete.”
I am somewhat claustrophobic. I can do elevators, but I don’t like it. I will sit in the back seat of a two-door sedan, but my pulse beats a little faster in the process. I draw my line at caves.
Now, what will perhaps seem strange to you is that the passage we are studying today from Romans 12 – brings out my claustrophobic tendencies.
As I studied this text in preparation for my visit with you, I felt that familiar discomfort of being confined. Now, at first glance, it might seem that the confining nature of this passage is the fact that as a Christian, I must be a sacrifice. In temple worship, the bodies of dead animals were placed on altars in religious ceremonies. I picture animals tied up, confined, led to be sacrificed whether they liked it or not. A literal translation of altar from Hebrew is “slaughter place.” So, the idea of being slaughtered, of being a sacrifice might sound like the confining part of this passage. But, that’s a misunderstanding of the passage. That’s not what makes me feel claustrophobic.
The confining aspect of this passage comes when we realize the magnitude of the power of this present age in squeezing us into its shape. This world whispers seductively into our ears the same thing that the serpent said to Eve: Do life your way instead of God’s way. Independence is better than dependence. You can have power and freedom – God wants to take those things from you, to confine you and control you.
But the serpent lied. And the result was that death and rebellion began to squeeze human beings into the mold of the present age of this world.
The point of this passage is to remind us how people live when they have experienced mercy, how they live when they are no longer confined or squeezed into the mold of this world but are shaped instead by mercy.
This present age doesn’t know anything about mercy – the confining mold of this world is selfishness, but the way of mercy is sacrifice.
And do you want to know where that altar of sacrifice is located – it’s often where we least expect it. In Romans 12, that altar stands in the middle of our fellowship with each other. Crawling upon the altar, being a living sacrifice, involves living in harmony with each other. Loving each other so much that others notice it.
I’m a visitor, so I can’t say for sure, but if you are like most churches, you experience your share of bickering. You do your gossiping. You are deeply disappointed with each other sometimes. Some of you don’t keep your commitments to one another, but you are defensive if you feel judged for it. Some of you are so cynical that you oppose every idea that comes along.
This present age wants us to think of yourself a little more highly than we ought to, but the way of mercy is to be humble in our relationships. This present age wants us to avoid people in a low position, but the way of sacrifice is not to think we are superior to anyone. The way of this present age is to repay evil for evil, but the way of mercy is to overcome evil with good.
One way we can know this present age is squeezing us into its mold is when we take the good gift of God’s mercy and keep it to ourselves. It’s a form of hoarding. Hoarding is not some new phenomenon discovered by A&E for a reality TV show. Hoarding has been around a long, long time. In the wilderness, when God gave his people the gift of manna, what did they do with it? They hoarded it, and it spoiled. It was filled with maggots.
God’s mercy is a lot like God’s manna. Trying to hoard mercy – get what you can out of God’s mercy so you will be blessed in this life and go to heaven in the next one – that’s like someone who hoards so much stuff in his house that it’s not a home anymore. All the stuff turns rotten.
Mercy is given to us so that we will then turn and extend mercy to others. And it starts right here; it begins with each other. There’s no mercy for the world out there if it doesn’t start right here. If mercy stops with Christ-followers, it rots.
And that’s what I think it means to be a living sacrifice. Mercy flowing through you – a holy and pleasing sacrifice to God.
Several years ago, I rafted the Nile River. When we and the the Abneys had been in Jinja with our team for a couple years, a group of crazy, adventurous South Africans moved into Jinja to start a rafting business. They chose Jinja and that portion of the Nile for several reasons:
- Uganda was opening to business after years of civil unrest. In a time of peace, they expected tourism to boom – and it did.
- The stretch of the Nile starting at Jinja offered 8 rapids, perfectly spaced so that you weren’t going through one too quickly after the other; there was time to recover. But, it also wasn’t too far in between, so you didn’t have to row so long you became bored.
- The river offered class 5 rapids, the highest class you can raft commercially.
- It also has a high volume of water, so even though you were going through class 5 rapids, you weren’t likely to smash into rocks. The rafts stayed where you hoped they would stay because of the high volume of water.
- Unlike Zambezi River in South Africa, that particular segment of the Nile did not have a high population of hippos and crocodiles, so there was less danger of having your customers eaten by wild animals, a perk for the rafting business!
So to celebrate my husband John’s 30th birthday that year, all the men in our group rafted the Nile. And then all the women rafted on my friend Heather’s 30th.
The morning of the expedition, all the women and I loaded into the raft, and we received a speech from our guide. I knew him for several years – I don’t think I ever saw him wearing shoes or a shirt – I rarely saw him without a cigarette. His tattoos were all about the adventurous life he was leading, and his accent added to the sense of fun.
So, that morning, I put myself in his hands and listened to his speech while he had his morning smoke. I learned the commands for rowing on the right and rowing on the left, rowing backward and forward. One of his words of warning was serious: “When I say get down – I mean down. Get in the bottom of the raft and hold on.”
Before long, I found myself headed into Bujagali Falls, a class 5 rapid. I could hear the roar of the falls and see the huge rock formations that I was worried about hitting. As we neared the falls, I was intent on rowing right through that class 5 rapid in order to avoid the perils of splatting against the rocks, my greatest fear that day. And apparently, as I was concentrating on rowing, I missed my guide’s serious command to get down into the bottom of the boat. On that adventure, I went down Bujagali Falls in my lifejacket, tossed to and fro in the waves while my friends who paid attention were secure in the bottom of the boat. The river spat me out way ahead of them down the river. During the thirty seconds I was in the forceful water, I certainly thought I was breathing my last gasp of breath.
In America today, we live in permanent white water. The pace of life, the constant connectivity we experience, the worries of school shootings and terrorism and the economy – And it is tempting with all this white water, to choose independence over dependence. It’s tempting to keep your head down and take care of your own survival.
But no matter how much this present age seeks to confine you, living the transformed life is about listening to the guide in the back of the boat. Yes, in my story, the wild South African with tattoos and a cigarette gets to be our Jesus example.
Hear the voice of the one who teaches us about being a living sacrifice. Know he is there. Feel his guidance. Listen to his commands. Obey his words. Do what he showed us how to do.
It’s not about the white water – no matter how loud it may get or how much it wants to confine us.
It’s about hearing the prophetic word of Jesus. He’s been down this river before. He’s done this life. He knows the way
And he knows that if we will freely put ourselves on the altar, we won’t be dead. It’s there that we will find life.
Johnson, Luke Timothy. Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.
Wright, NT. Romans for Everyone, Part Two. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2004.