13th Sunday after Pentecost “Transformed for Service”
August 27, 2023 Romans 11:33~12:8
Dear brothers & sisters in Christ,
The poet, Elizabeth Barret Browning, once wrote: Earth’s crammed with heaven // and every common bush afire with God // but only he who sees takes off his shoes. It sounds like she’s referring to the time God met with Moses at the burning bush; Moses recognized God’s presence & did not run away in fear, but humbly took off his shoes, listened to God speak, and went away to obey God in humble service. History is filled with God‘s glorious working like that; but only those who see-by-faith take off their shoes, & respond in the right way.
All our readings this morning invite us to be among those who SEE the earth crammed with heaven == with how God-in-Christ has come down from heaven and touched the earth to fill it with His glory; the glory of mercy & life for doomed sinners.
In the OT reading, Isaiah writes to a future people, who would suffer in exile away from Jerusalem, but with the promise that heaven’s righteousness was on its way. He says, “Listen,…& look to the rock… to Abraham, to Sarah… give your attention…. Lift up your eyes…” He means: look & marvel at God‘s historic working. God chose that one faithful couple to be the source of His blessing for ALL nations of the world. Isaiah promises that the devasted city of Jerusalem will have a rebirth and blossom like the Garden of Eden. Sorrow would turn to joy & gladness. And even tho the heavens & earth vanish like smoke, God’s salvation will go out, & righteousness will endure forever.
In the Gospel reading, the region of Caesarea Philippi became stuffed full of heaven.
North of the Sea of Galilee, this region was an area where the Canaanites worshipped Baal, & later the Greeks worshipped ‘Pan’. In Jesus’ day, the Romans made sacrifices to Caesar. But on this day, heaven touches earth as Jesus arrives = which is far better than a burning bush. And Peter, in faith, sees & confesses that the most ancient promise has been fulfilled: the Creator has sent heaven’s Son as Savior.
So, what Isaiah foretold & what Peter confessed is what the Apostle Paul celebrates as he writes to the Christians in Rome. Paul has seen earth crammed with heaven, and it transformed his life. And that same faith-in-Christ transforms your life, he says.
You know how -when you look at the sun & then look away- your vision has an after-image. Some say they ‘see spots’, & others say it looks like ‘diamonds’ & it makes things look like they’re glowing. Since the glory of the Son has shined His mercy on the believers in Rome, to Paul = they look different than before.
So, Paul begins, “O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God.” In God’s great story, He is bringing the restoration of all believers in the One Holy Church == which is the New Israel of God. That’s the picture Isaiah paints with the Garden & Eden & thanksgiving & song. Elsewhere Isaiah says: “the ransomed of the Lord will return and come to Zion . . everlasting joy shall be upon their heads” and “sorrow and sighing shall flee away”.
By the Holy Spirit, Paul can see & write about this day of restoration, when God brings about a gathering of all believers-in-Christ from all the different nations; they make up the Body of Christ, which is the Church. Whatever caused sorrow is gone; it’s replaced by singing. Jesus himself is the cause of the joy: “For from him and thru him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
Now, the Roman Christians themselves would NOT have looked very glorious to the world. The majority of them were poor & powerless; they were lowly workers, not elite; they didn’t lie, cheat, & trample on others to get ahead because the God of Abraham does not allow that. They lived in Rome but did not act like the Romans, so they had to gather for worship in small groups, in houses, to avoid ridicule & persecution. Not a glorious people.
But when Paul looks at them, he sees Christ – in humility & faithfulness. He encourages them to make the most of who they are. Their very lives & daily behaviors are a sacrificial offering to the God of heaven & earth. Under God’s mercy in Christ, their living faith is useful now, and will have its reward later.
Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”.
The language of sacrifice recalls the OT temple & animal blood; which now has a new meaning. Their daily lives are a living sacrifice; the new Jerusalem is found in those small house churches surrounded by the pagan Roman Empire. These people with faith in God’s Son are the new temple of God; they are ‘living stones’, holy & acceptable to Him.
The gospel of Christ proclaims that the perfect sacrifice of Jesus on the cross put an end to temple sacrifices. He was the holy Lamb of God – who takes away the sin of the whole world = once & for all; guilty lives are covered by His sinless life. In Christ, God’s people are freed from the old covenant; and now their physical ‘body’ =the life they live= becomes a living sacrifice of praise to the Creator, & serving in His Kingdom.
Paul sees these humble Christians in Rome in the after-image of God’s glory. They are the body of Christ, at work in the world. Paul identifies the gifts of the Spirit being seen in them == gifts of prophecy (that is, understanding & teaching the Word); he sees serving, teaching, encouragement, contribution, leadership, & mercy. God freely forgives all sins for a living purpose: to make His mercy & holy ways seen in the fallen world – thru His people. This is what Paul sees, and he marvels at God’s work.
The poet said: ‘Earth (is) crammed with heaven,… but only he who sees takes off his shoes.’ Sometimes God’s people have trouble seeing this reality of God-at-work thru their lives in the world. Paul does warn them in verse 3 to not be blinded by their own pride in their church-status, abilities or gifts; self-ego will hinder their good serving.
He says, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone not to think of himself more highly than he ought.” A self-focused pride can be a chief danger in the church, and Paul reminds us that none of us are irreplaceable. How often have you seen it that a well-serving member dies, & there’s a fear that no one can ‘fill their shoes.’ But then the Lord raises up another & the work gets done. Pride is that sinful attitude that thinks ‘no one can replace me.’ But don’t put God to the test on that!
We only need to consider how many different gifts are listed here; & that no one person can do them all. That’s by design, because Christ’s body has many members with different functions. That also means that there’s a place in serving for everyone; even for those who pretend that they don’t have any gifts. Christ has a purpose for all His members: in serving, organizing, /teaching, cleaning, /building, planning, /giving, cooking, /sewing, repairing, /caring & comforting. He has made us a part of His gospel mission and His church’s story.
Paul says that the new life we have, forgiven in Christ, renews our mind & transforms our living, so that with sober judgment we can look, and see our place in God’s kingdom.
I think the words Paul is given to describe the serving Body of Christ & His kingdom also reaches beyond the narrow church, and into the church’s mission field = in the home & community, in the workplace & school, because that’s where our bodies are much of the time.
So, the farmer cares for the cattle, or plows & plants so that food is available for themselves & many others. Thru the farmer, the Creator is at work in the world. Likewise, managing the earth’s many different resources, buying, selling & distributing wood & steel & rock & cotton & oil & all the by-products = these all support human life. And God spreads out His people into all those areas of life with the ultimate hope that every living soul will hear of their Savior before their days are done.
That hope of the gospel is also behind those who work in financing, in education, in recreation, in law enforcement, medical & emergency services, counseling and other kinds of human care. All moral areas of earthly life become sanctified when the people of God live according to His gifts & their measure of faith. No matter what our job is, or how good or bad the world around us is, our bodily life belongs to our God & Savior; and He is giving us that purpose of being a living sacrifice = which is a daily form of praise & worship of Him.
One of those gifts mentioned is a more ‘frontline’ gift that is directly connected to the gospel faith: teaching. In our day, there is a threat that we must face head-on: the idea that parents are not the best teachers for their children because they’re not trained or don’t have education degrees. That may be true when teaching trigonometry, or nuclear science.
But it’s not true of teaching the faith, & the basic building blocks & life skills of sin, repentance & forgiveness, kindness & morality, of gender, respect, the value of the family, and of that eternal perspective of life that comes from faith in Christ Jesus. Teaching those things cannot be turned over to any gov’t agency or public school. It belongs to parents, family & the church.
How important it is to teach God’s Word of Life, and to show the bible’s faith to our children & grandchildren in our words & actions. Often times it’s informal when you’re in the car and a young person asks a question about God or the things God expects of us. They may complain about how hard it is to live by God’s ways among their friends, especially when they hear & see immorality in popular music, in social media, & on the internet.
They are not going to get God’s good counsel or loving correction from the secular world; it has to come from us. Those opportunities are what the poet calls ‘common bushes afire with God’, but are only seen by those who take off their shoes with faith.
In the Small Catechism, Dr. Martin Luther talks about our living purpose & living sacrifice by using the words ‘vocation’ or our ‘station’. No matter what our station in life, this faith in Christ equips us to be good & acceptable, in useful service to God. Whether a father or mother, / son or daughter, / an employee or employer, / teacher or student, / the one to care for or the one cared for; in all stations, our gifts & abilities are no longer our own; they are God-given & God-designed; so that our humble lives will be transformed for service == God wants you & me to see that our daily lives are crammed full of heaven, so that thru us the earth will see the glory of Christ.
There is a monument east of London at Three Mills Green. It pictures two hands, joined together, in self-sacrificial service. In 1901, Thomas Pickett was working in a well. He was overcome by the ‘foul air’ which was carbon dioxide that gathered in the well. Godfrey Nicholson responded. He climbed down & reached out his hand to help; but was overcome. Then came Frederick Eliot who reached out his hand & was overcome; & next came Robert Underhill. Each worker offered a saving hand in rescue, but those 4 workers died while trying to help. To remember these men, a workers’ memorial was erected.
Two hands, joined together, in self-sacrificial service.
People go to London to see many other things: The crown jewels, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, The changing of the guard. So it’s easy to miss this humble monument. But it offers something quite different than the other sights: a reminder of ordinary people & sacrifice. Our Creator appoints all of us ordinary people, giving us each various gifts & daily vocations; & with those He expects us to serve others & His kingdom.
His gift of faith in Christ turns us away from conforming to the world, where we will gain & enjoy things only for ourselves. Faith transforms us & renews us for a better purpose: to display an after-image of our humble, serving Savior Jesus, so that others will see & believe & live. In view of God’s mercies, present yourself to God as a living sacrifice.