"Our Shameful Rejection of God's Best"
Mar.20, 2011 Romans 1:16-25
RE-VOLTING, SHAMEFUL, UNTHINKING FOLLY
It all happened so fast. I had just pulled my grocery cart up to the checkout. Suddenly I remembered I needed a 9-volt battery for a remote control for our stairlift. I quickly left the cart there and dodged over to the battery rack about 3 metres away. But as I was going, a woman with her own fully-loaded cart approached the checkout area. I apologized and moved back to pull my cart out of the way, then went back to get the battery; 2-packs were on sale.
Upon arriving at home, I unloaded the bags groceries. Then I felt something in my pocket - it was the pack of batteries! I double-checked the receipt. No sign of the batteries. Congratulations, Ernest, you've officially joined the ranks of the criminal class known as shoplifters!
I don't know how it happened. I had no recollection of when or how the batteries were slipped into my pocket. I do know I was slightly flustered at the time. Anyway, that didn't matter; I'd have to return them.
So, the next week when I was routinely at the store again, I approached a fellow stocking shelves and asked if the owner was in. He said no; I made my first confession, explaining how I came by a set of batteries without paying. He suggested I speak to Sue, the Grocery Manager, at the back. I waited for her and told her my tale. She appreciated my honesty. Then when I was at the checkout, I made my third confession, explaining to the cashier how it came about that I was checking out a 2-battery pack with 1 battery already missing. Three confessions and a considerable amount of egg on face! While they were all gracious, I would much rather that it had never happened in the first place. How embarrassing!
Excusable, one might argue; certainly not deliberate. Unthinking, senseless, I wasn't even aware it was happening. But in the eyes of the law, that didn't matter: I was guilty of ripping off the store of merchandise it owned, short-changing it. Even though I couldn't recall exactly how it happened, a video camera would have nailed me cold.
In the first chapter of Romans, the apostle Paul describes how humans routinely short-change God, much more seriously than shoplifting (bad as that is). We rob God of the glory and worship that is due Him. By our conscious choices and sinful desires, we set ourselves up for wrath infinitely greater than that of any grocery store manager. Yet the Lord has foreseen our dilemma and provided a way for us to be saved and track His righteousness and obedience instead.
THE POSITIVE POWER OF GOD'S INVITATION
Before getting into our actual problem, Paul does start the letter very positively. Throughout the first half of the first chapter, he focuses on the "Good News" or gospel, mentioning it half a dozen times: v1, he identifies himself as "set apart for the gospel of God"; v2, "the gospel [God] promised beforehand"; v9, he serves God wholeheartedly "in preaching the gospel of His Son"; 15, he's eager to preach the gospel also at Rome; 16, "I am not ashamed of the gospel"; 17, "In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed." Gospel, gospel, gospel: that seems to be all Paul wants to talk about! He's starting his systematic presentation by accentuating the positive, the Good News.
Other terms here also hint at God's gracious invitation. There's the word "call": vv5-7, "We received grace and apostleship to call people...You also are among those who are called to belong to Christ Jesus.To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints..." There's a call, a beckoning or invitation, a wonderful offer.
What's this Good News about, to what are we called, what's being showcased? Note the term 'revealed' in v17: "For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed..." That's something to be desired more than any earthly possession: God's righteousness, right standing and relationship, complete innocence in God's eyes. It's a God-kind of righteousness; Paul means both justification (having Christ's righteousness imputed to us positionally) and sanctification (being made holy in our daily behaviour).
What else is being offered in the display-case? V5 says we are called 'to the obedience that comes from faith': the gospel draws us to faith that follows-through in obedient action. And v16, Paul says the gospel is "the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes": the Good News includes God's invitation to be saved, made whole, put right, escape from hell to heaven where we can be with Him forever rather than suffer sin's punishment eternally.
So, Paul starts this 'greatest letter ever written' with a very positive presentation of God's call to believe the gospel and receive these great blessings - salvation, righteousness, and obedience that pleases Him.
THE WORLD'S WORST EXCHANGE RATE
This world's wealth fluctuates dramatically in value, depending on circumstance. Take for example the Canadian / U.S.Dollar exchange rate. A few years back the loonie was worthy only about 80 cents US; but lately it's been stronger than its American counterpart. Makes cross-border shoppers happy, if not Canadian companies!
But in spiritual matters, the human race has been suckered in to a lousy exchange rate, the worst deal possible. Here's how it works. Paul maintains that, to people of ordinary intelligence, it should be obvious that there is a God who is stronger and superior to ourselves, who created the universe with amazing design and has established moral absolutes of right and wrong.Vv 19-20, "...what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities-- his eternal power and divine nature-- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." Let's re-phrase that: God's might (eternal power) and majesty (divine nature, God-ness) should be plain to anyone who looks around, up at the stars, the orderliness and complexity of the natural world. So much so that to maintain there is no God or that it just 'happened' would seem poor logic.
We don't have time here to revisit the creation/evolution debate in depth, but I'd point out what to me are 3 strong arguments for a Creator. 1) The strength of genetic walls: species reproduce 'according to their kind', not with a lot of cross-overs between species; if evolution were true, there would be a lot more evidence of 'missing links' in the fossil record. But as it is, that's just it - they're missing! 2) The improbably irreducible complexity of organs and molecules. Darwin admitted his puzzlement as to how an eye could evolve. Today's researchers such as Kirk Durston are demonstrating how statistically impossible it would be to have mere chance formation of molecules such as enzymes that require a specific 4-dimensional shape in order to work. 3) The second law of thermodynamics - entropy - the amount of free (random) energy in a system is always increasing. Things don't get more orderly without outside intervention (which is why it's always necessary to tidy your house!). In nature, systems tend to 'run down' rather than become more orderly and sophisticated as would be necessary if evolution were true.
So, Paul's saying our indebetedness to a Creator should be obvious to anyone who looks around and asks the question, "How did that get there?" Likewise, he argues in chapter 2 that we are hard-wired for awareness of an absolute moral sense of right and wrong. 2:15, Gentiles don't have the Jewish law, but "...they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them." So, innate conscience also is a witness to spiritual realities beyond us. Most cultures agree there are certain things that are absolutely wrong; it's never completely that you're free to do just whatever you want. Now, some people argue God can't exist because there is such evil and catastrophe in the world. But, if God didn't exist, how could there be a problem? Where would their sense of 'right' and 'wrong' come from? Wouldn't we be just a-spiritual animals, blissfully untroubled by such an ethical dilemma in the first place? The very fact that we ARE troubled about matters of justice and right-ness itself presupposes some supreme Arbiter of value.
So, God's power and divinity should be obvious to us, on account of creation and conscience, prompting us (v21) to glorify the Creator as God and give thanks to Him. Should've been obvious...but what happened instead? We turned our backs and rejected the obvious, because it didin't put US in the driver's seat. V21, "For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened." Saying 'no' to God in our will resulted in confused empty thinking and darkening / withering / perverting of our heart, the seat of our desires and affections. Vv22-23, "Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles." Here's the world's worst exchange ever: giving up the true, glorious God, for idols of our own making (Greeks and Romans tended to make images of people to represent their gods, while Egyptians made images of birds, quadrupeds, and reptiles).
Today, in North America, we're still doing it - substituting idols we create for the truly glorious God. We don't like the moral implications of a doctrine of creation, so what do we do? Invent the theory of evolution: random chance and natural selection supposedly are the explanation for our origin and destiny. Evolution is an idol. Similarly, we don't like the concept of an ultimate Judge who will hold us accountable for our conformance to absolutes of good and evil, so what do we do? Fashion and bow down to the philosophy of relativism: 'different strokes for different folks' means you can get away with just about anything. Dismiss the yardstick of absolutes altogether as something quaint, Victorian, passe. Just don't try to ram your values down my throat!
"Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools." (NLT) Because we exchanged, bartered away, what should have been obvious about God for a pack of lies. The 'exchange' terminology is also found in v25: "They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator..." Of this dumb exchange, Robertson comments sarcastically: "What a bargain they made, the truth of God for a lie!"
ABANDONED TO DEPTHS OF SHAME AND WRATH
We turned our backs on God, supposing we had escaped what we perceived to be moral tyranny. But this remains God's world whether or not we choose to accept it; and God has hard-wired creation to run generally in accord with His moral laws. So even though we may choose to ignore God and trespass against His guidance and boundaries, we will still eventually run up against His truth embedded in the moral dynamic of creation.
So, we reject God: He lets us have our way; if we refuse to learn His truth by instruction, the harsh schoolteacher of experience may have to be the one that inflicts the lessons. V24, "Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts..." The verb here 'gave them over' is more literally 'to hand over'; also in v26, "God gave them over to shameful lusts," and v28, "...since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done." Because we thumbed our nose at God, He consigned us to the painful eventual effects or outcomes of our choices.
A darkened senseless heart lusts for wrong things. Vv26-27 clearly describe homosexual practices, which hardly seem to raise an eyebrow any more in popular culture. Yet pursuing sex as an object outside convenantal heterosexual marriage runs a vastly increased risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Thus in the words of v27, people receive "in themselves the due penalty for their perversion".
Vv28-29 talk of being given over "to a depraved mind...They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity." This week the news reported a massive co-ordinated police effort succeeded in breaking up an international pedophile ring that involved hundreds of individuals, including 2 Canadians (one of whom was a man from Kitchener). In other news, the see-through dress Kate Middleton used to catch Prince Harry's eye sold at an auction for 124,000 pounds though it cost less than 50 to make. Is that the direction we want fashion to be heading?
Now, while Paul has caught our attention with the example of sinful sex, he goes on to emphasize the problem is more general than that. Vv 29-31 list many kinds of sins, from the more obvious to the subtle. Some involve a rejection of any higher authority: v30, "God-haters, insolent, arrogant, and boastful...they disobey their parents." Others raise the self above one's neighbour in a way that harms or mocks or takes advantage: "They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice.They are gossips, slanderers..." And some emphasize the hardening and poisoning of our own heart, as sin walls us off from any true relationship: "They have become filled with...greed...they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless." In Dickens' classic Christmas story, Jacob Marley recognized too late how his own greed and inhumanity had robbed him of what he might have been in life had he been more open to others.
While Paul began his letter very positively, he doesn't sugar-coat the ragged outcome of our sinning. V21, we become 'fools'; v24, we degrade or dishonour our bodies with one another; v26, we buy into lusts that are 'shameful'. Confessing my failure to pay for the batteries at the checkout was a little shaming. Some sins are more noticeably so. This month's Faith Today magazine has an article on Prostitution and the need for Canadians to start breaking the chains that keep some women victimized in the sex trade. Do they feel shame? One former prostitute recalls, "Not one girl I met was stable.All of us did drugs; every single one was high.If you have a soul, you can't do this and feel no shame or not dirty.Feeling like that for so long, if you don't numb it, you're going to kill yourself." Sin produced shame so strong they had to numb it or it would destroy them.
The consequences of unrighteousness don't end with simply shame in this life. 1:32 acknowledges that our sinful practices, according to God's righteous decree, deserve death. 2:3, we will not 'escape God's judgment'. Already, 1:18 says, "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men..." Yes, wrath; not blind rage but tempered anger aroused on the basis of reason and law; principled and appropriate outburst. God is no benign Santa-Claus in 2:5,8f: "But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed....But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil..." Paul's gospel declares God will judge people's secrets. Does the church preach that enough? Why not - are we embarrassed as if that would make God somehow inferior?
UP FOR A FIGHT - "HAVE YOU EVER LOST?"
When self knocks God off the throne, refusing to either glorify Him as He has revealed Himself to be or give Him thanks, self can't stand seeing the spot vacant. We promptly take God's place (until we realize too late we're in fact the slave of evil which we've unwittingly allowed to govern us).
Self is very sneaky; it can pretend to be religious; it can deceive us very well, making us hypocrites. Paul's list at the end of chapter 1 includes "strife...arrogant and boastful." Self excels in these elevatings of me over another.
The movie Shadowlands tells the story of CS Lewis' brief marriage to Joy Gresham before she succumbs unexpectedly to cancer. Mrs Gresham, and the circumstances of her early death, challenge Lewis' stuffy self-assured manner as a knowledgeable Oxford professor. An early scene with him teaching a handful of students has him saying he's always 'up for a fight', eager for debate. Someone questions this, "But have you ever lost?" Joy wonders if he's ever asked a question to which he didn't already have the answer. As time goes on, she shows him how confined and protected he's made his life, not letting anybody really come close. And it's in losing her that his heart seems finally opened, humbled, he reaches the end of his own self-sufficiency and has to learn to trust God in a new way. God becomes more glorious to Lewis because he has experienced the risk of giving oneself in love, suffering in oneness with another dear one who hurts. In crashing up against our human limits, Lewis comes to appreciate His Creator in a new way. Let's pray.