Sunday, October 19, 2008

Therefore, in View of God's Mercy

Text: Romans 11:33 - 12:8

A FEW YEARS AGO SHORTLY before Thanksgiving I received a donation request from a famous secular charity. Over and over it said that November was the time of year to "give thanks"-- or maybe it was, "be thankful"; I don’t precisely remember which--and therefore I should "give thanks" by giving a healthy amount to their cause.

It was and is a worthy cause, I’m not disputing that. But it struck me how the writer kept talking about us "giving thanks," but seemed to turn himself inside so as not to imply there was anyone or any Being we should give thanks to. It didn’t even seem important that the potential giver should be able to think of anything specific that he or she was thankful for. Thankfulness seemed to be an emotion or a state of mind unconnected with anything or anybody in particular, but seeing as how everyone was in America was supposed to feel that way in November, it would be really, really nice if we’d "give thanks" by being thankful with our money and write a check to this charity.

That may be enough for the worthy causes of this world, tapping into an emotion of thankfulness so we’re thankful with our cash or our volunteer service or whatever. But when it comes to the One who alone is worthy of honor, glory, worship, thanks, and praise, when it comes to Almighty God, it’s not enough simply to be thankful with, we have to be thankful for, and thankful to.

In other words, the Thank Offering we receive today is not something that stands by itself, a project that the women of the church do because it’s a good idea and a helpful thing to do. No, it is a joyful response to our Lord and God, for who He is and what He has done for us. It should be offered in view of His mercy.

St. Paul leads us in praise starting in verse 33 of the eleventh chapter of his letter to the Romans. He says, "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!" We can never reach the bottom of what God has to give and what He knows and what He does with His knowledge. There is no way we can figure out what God does and why He does it. We cannot poke, prod, weigh, measure, analyze or comprehend the Triune God and His ways. We can only fall at His feet and give Him the thanks and praise He deserves.

This is true of everything God is and everything He does. But it’s especially true of the amazing salvation He accomplished for us in Jesus Christ. This doxology is the thanks and praise called for by the vision of God’s grace that Paul lays out for us in the first eleven chapters of his letter.

In the first three chapters of Romans the Apostle, writing in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, shows us just how sinful we all are. We are all guilty before God. We’re all lawbreakers, we all deserve the sentence of everlasting death for offending against His holiness.

Wait a minute! Aren’t we pretty nice people? But pretty nice people think and do very wicked things every day of our lives. If we believe God should overlook our sin and not pass judgement upon us, it’s because our sin has blinded us to God’s overwhelming holiness. God could’ve decided to finish the job He started in the days of Noah and wipe humanity from the face of the earth and He’d have every right to.

But the thing is, He didn’t. From the middle of chapter 3 on through chapter 8, the Holy Spirit reveals how the one true and righteous God not only let us, the guilty, live, He also made it possible for us to live forever in blessedness with Him-- by sacrificing His beloved only-begotten Son Jesus Christ in our place. And all we have to do is accept that free gift by faith. And that isn’t a work of our own, for even the faith to accept His grace is another free gift from Almighty God.

Chapter 9 up to verse 33 in chapter 11 is all about God’s mercy in opening up this wonderful salvation to us Gentiles. He didn’t have to. He could’ve restricted it to His chosen people, the Jews. Instead, He has grafted us together with faithful Israel in one living tree, rooted in Christ and bearing fruit for the glory of God!

This mercy deserves endless thanks and praise! Jesus Christ our Savior and God made all this possible by the propitiation He won for us in His blood. He voluntarily took the punishment we deserved, He makes us adopted daughters and sons of God, and now shares with us the inheritance that by all rights belonged to Him alone. As Charles Wesley wrote in his hymn "And Can It Be?":

He left his Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace.
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race.
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For, O my God, it found out me!

How unsearchable are the judgements of God! How impossible it is for us mere humans to trace out His paths! It doesn’t make a bit of logical sense that our God would do what He did for us, but He did it.

And He did it without consulting you or me and it’s a good thing for us He did not. As Paul says, "Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor?" Some people think they could’ve given God better advice about how to be reconciled with humanity. They say they can do without Christ on the bloody cross. They try a hundred other ways to get into God’s favor; they say No Thanks to the free gift God gave humankind on Calvary and they try to earn their way to God on their own. But we who have been saved by the blood of that cross, we don’t understand it, either, but that only fills us with more admiration, thankfulness, and praise.

But is our thanksgiving designed to try to pay God back? Is that our obligation, to try to reciprocate His great and immeasurable gift to us? No, God is so great and glorious and mighty; what Jesus did for us is so rich and powerful, trying to even things up with God with our thanks would be incredibly foolish and futile and even insulting. We know that. For as Paul says in verse 35, "Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?"

No one has ever given anything to God, to put the almighty Lord of the universe in his or her debt. No one could ever counsel God on how and where and when and how He should do things.

How could we? For everything comes from Him, including us, everything comes through Him, and everything goes to praise Him. That is the where and how and why of everything that is made. All glory belongs to God forever. God is the reason we have everything to be thankful for, and He is the One we are thankful to. And so, He gives us the privilege and opportunity to be thankful with.

So we come to verse 1 of chapter 12: "Therefore, I urge you, brothers [and sisters] in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-- this is your spiritual [or reasonable] act of worship." And in verse 2, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." With our bodies and minds God enables us to give thanks to Him for His awe-inspiring mercy, wherein the eternal and innocent Son of God died to make us who were God’s enemies into His friends and children.

This phrase, "in view of God’s mercy, . . . offer" is so important! A lot of people say they don’t need to bother with theology and doctrine, they’re too busy loving Christ and serving Him. But friends, we can’t love and serve Christ if we don’t know Who He is and what He’s done for us! When we understand the teaching about how Jesus Christ died on a cross for our sins and rose again for our life, that’s what fills us with the gratitude and love that drives us to give and to serve! Otherwise, we’re loving and serving a Christ we’ve made up in our own heads! It is in view of the mercy of God in sending His Son into this world to die in our place, that we offer our bodies and minds in thankfulness to Him! God in His mercy has incorporated us into the body of His Son, in His mercy He by His Holy Spirit is renewing our minds more and more to be like the mind of Christ, and equally due to His mercy we can show our thanks with all He has given us.

A minute ago I said something about serving Christ. Strictly speaking, that is just a figure of speech. Do you realize that neither you nor I or any human being can directly serve God? Again as Paul says, "Who has ever given to God, that God should repay Him?" Rather, we serve God by serving our neighbor, particularly our brothers and sisters in the Church. And so we take up offerings like today’s, to serve our neighbor through ministries of education, health, nutrition, job-training, evangelism, and more. We are thankful with our money for the sake of others, because God in His riches and wisdom and knowledge has been so overwhelmingly generous to us.

But we see here in our verses from Romans 12 how our thankful response transcends mere money. A check or a few volunteer hours may be enough for a secular charity; our God expects us to show our gratitude with our very lives. God has given everyone of us gifts to be thankful with for the good of the Church and the world. God’s spiritual gifts are given not to bring glory to us who have them, but to be a means for us to show our gratitude for God’s mercy in Christ towards us.

It’s striking how Paul prefaces his exhortation about the gifts; he says: "For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you." This phrase, "measure of faith" . . . since the passage concerns the distribution of gifts for service, could this imply that God gives different amounts of trust in Him to different people, such that if, say, you find that your faith is small, your thankfulness through service can be small, too? No, God does not leave us that excuse for practical ingratitude. Rather, "the measure of faith" God gives us is the yardstick of the one faith of the Church, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was raised on the third day and appeared to many faithful witness, and that He will return on the Last Day to judge the living and the dead. Seeing the mercy of God displayed in the humility and victory of Christ, how can we think of boasting in our spiritual gifts, as if we had made them or earned them or as if we had them for our benefit and not for the sake of others? When we show our thankfulness through word or act or material possessions, we’re using only what God has given us to be thankful with.

But He has given us wonderful gifts of grace to be thankful with, and He has given us His marvellous mercy in Christ Jesus to be thankful for and Himself to be thankful to. It doesn’t really take a spiritual gifts survey to find out what your gift is: If there is something that gives you joy in the Lord as you do it, if it builds up the church and you simply must do or burst, where you sense the presence of the Holy Spirit guiding and aiding you as you serve, where you see others as well as yourself overflowing with thanksgiving to God as you engage in that activity or skill, that is a gift of grace you have been given for the sake of Christ’s one body, the Church.

It is good for us to be thankful with our money, as with the offering today. It is better still to be thankful with our lives, our bodies offered as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, and our minds transformed and renewed to agree more and more with the mind of Jesus Christ. In this way God gives us more and more to be thankful to Him for, as we test and approve His good, pleasing, and perfect will, and so He gives us more and more to be thankful with. For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things: To the one Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to Him be the glory forever! Amen.

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