Sermon for Sunday, August 27, 2017
Many years ago there was a country song called “looking for love in all the wrong places”. Its road to fame was unusual. It was originally written by two school teachers, two unknown lyricists. Then a well-known composer helped them improve the song. Together, they searched for someone to record it. After many attempts, a relative unknown named Johnny Lee agreed. His recording of “Looking for love in all the wrong places” became famous when it was played in the movie Urban Cowboy which starred John Travolta and Debra Winger. That song tells the story of a person looking for human love, but doing so in the wrong places. “Well, I spent a lifetime lookin' for you.” And the joy of discovery, “ God bless the day I discovered you”. The song became a top country hit and crossed over to other styles. Johnny Lee became a star performer.
This song came to mind as I considered the words of Paul today. While the song speaks of human love, I think it could also help as a metaphor for the importance of seeking God. Paul wants us to focus our lives on Godly things. He wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” How often are we looking for satisfaction in worldly things? Do we seek to find joy in the wrong places? How often do we think that the answer is something other than God? Let us bless the day we discover that true joy, satisfaction, comfort and love are found in our relationship with God. There are two other themes in Paul’s writing, sacrifice and unity.
I think of how often we seek joy and satisfaction in things of this world. For some of us that may mean creating a man cave where we can spend time watching events on TV. Or perhaps we seek happiness by going shopping and purchasing some item that we think will make us happy. At times, we may fall in to a particular sin that meets our immediate needs or desires. Each of us can make a list of things we thought at one time would bring us comfort or peace or satisfaction.
Paul wants us focus on God. He asks us to seek God in all that we do. It is not so much about getting rid of all the things we have on earth, although for some that might be a necessary thing to help us focus on God. Rather, it is about the realization that God is our source of comfort. We realize that earthly things bring only temporary satisfaction. It is in God that we find our permanent hope, our eternal home. It is just as we say in Psalm 124, “Our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” We know that God will care for us and we are thankful. It is when we turn our bodies, minds and spirit to God that we know we are fulfilled.
Thomas Aquinas said that “it is better to limp in the right direction than to run in the wrong direction”. Our efforts may be tiny but even small actions have meaning.
God is there always, waiting for us to return. Dante once wrote, “the Infinite Goodness has such wide arms that it takes whatever turns to it.” Let us turn ourselves to the things of God not to the things of this earth. When we realize that God is the source of all strength, then we are able to live into the first verse from Paul. We present ourselves as a living sacrifice, we give ourselves to God and we seek to live our lives in God’s service. We no longer are conformed to this world, we are in the world but not of the world. Our lives are about sacrifice for God and others.
Sacrifice is giving up something of value for somebody or something else, often when nothing is expected in return. We speak of parents making a sacrifice for their children. We use the term in sports. In baseball, a batter may make a sacrifice to advance a runner. We often use the term ultimate sacrifice to refer to all the men and women in our armed forces who selflessly fought and died for our freedom.
Paul refers to a living sacrifice, a different way to think about the offering made to God. He wrote this Epistle before the destruction of the Temple, so his Jewish heritage might suggest that a burnt offering was still appropriate. Paul turns the idea of sacrifice around, changing the way we think about it. Paul wants to emphasize that God is interested in how we live our lives, as well as in the tangible gifts we bring to the table.
What has caused Paul to make this shift? First and foremost is the sacrifice of Jesus. We remember that he came down from heaven to help us learn and understand. We remember that Jesus gave up his life, dying on the cross for our redemption. For us, Jesus made the consummate sacrifice. He gave up his life for our sins. God has demonstrated through the actions of Jesus that there is no longer a need for animal sacrifice.
How does Paul justify his suggestion about a living sacrifice? Well, this entire book of the Bible is written using a rhetorical style. Sometimes it is convoluted and hard to understand. But when I simplify it for myself, I realize that in the first eleven chapters, Paul has described what God has done for us. As we begin chapter twelve, Paul uses the word therefore. In one sense, therefore means that all of his previous arguments bring him to this conclusion. Another possibly more appropriate idea is to consider the word therefore as a way for Paul to suggest that we offer to God ourselves because of all God has done for us. As Paul says, we receive these gifts out of God’s mercy. Therefore, we respond to God’s love with our own love. We answer the sacrifice of Jesus with our own sacrifice, meager though it may be.
One of my seminary professors, Walter Taylor, offered this explanation, “ since the gifts that have been given are so overwhelming, there is only one possible gift that can be given in response: the offering of one’s entire self to God”.
One of the commentaries that I read this week referred to this as a full bodied experience rather than an out of body experience. At first glance, we may think that Paul is talking about something mystical because he calls this our spiritual worship. But then as his discussions get more specific we realize he is talking about using the gifts of everyone in the community. That is a full-bodied experience when everyone together is able to help us discern what we should do and everyone works together to carry it out.
As we seek to follow the exhortations of Paul, we must first be willing to accept our own humility. Then, we can see the gifts that God has given to others and to accept their gifts as we live in unity. Only then can we discern God’s will for us and through the use of our communal gifts work to live out that call. All of the gifts Paul mentioned are directed towards others. They cause is to look outward not inward.
When we look at this list of gifts, I would remind you that these are potentially the gifts of everyone. All of us have the gifts of ministry, prophecy, exhortation and leadership. There are many other gifts that we have to offer as our living sacrifice to God. These gifts are not just something we do by oneself. We also do this corporately. We join together in unity, not uniformity, to live in sacrifice to God.
Paul was able to tell the story in just two verses. He calls on all of us to follow the things of heaven, not the things of the earth. Paul tells us to give a living sacrifice, We are to use our gifts. How might you share your gifts in service to the Lord and in service to your neighbor? When you answer that question, then you can say that you have provided a living sacrifice to God. It is one way that we worship our Lord. Amen.