I remember vividly an episode from my teenage years. Like all teenagers, I had a rebellious streak. I didn’t want to abide by all of the rules and impositions my parents had instituted. I wanted to stretch my wings. Do the things that I wanted to do. I was very much like most teens in the world. And on one such occasion, I lost my temper. I wanted to do a particular thing–I don’t remember what it was–and I was denied. I threw a fit.
And my dad responded, “Whenever you think you are grown enough to do what you want to do, just pack your suitcase and leave.”
I went to my room and pulled out my suitcase. And then I began to plan. I had exactly $274 in my wallet. I would go to my friend Kevin’s house. It was a long walk, but I could make it. I would ask to stay there. But what then? Would they let me stay long term? Would they feed me? Would they buy me clothes? What would happen if I spent all my money and had nothing left? What would happen then? Where would I find myself. Visions of standing at the end of a sidewalk with no place to go, no place to stay, broke and alone filled my head.
I put my suitcase up.
Maybe you can relate, but I want to intentionally shift the focus of this story, because I don’t want us to think about us for the time being. I want to shift the focus of this story to my dad. Because it is only in hindsight that I can see what my dad was doing. He was giving me up. I worded that last sentence very carefully. My dad was not giving up on me. He was giving me up. Essentially he was saying, “If you want your freedom, take it! There is the door. Go!”
Even though I didn’t know what my dad was doing at the time, when I began thinking about it, it scared the hell out of me. I realized I still needed my parents. Freedom wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
What would happen if God granted us that freedom? What if God gave us up? We don’t have to wonder what would happen. We know. We have a biblical history of what that looks like, and that biblical history informs St. Paul as he continues laying out his condemnation of humankind in the book of Romans. Once again, I warn you, this journey is a dark journey for a while. We will travel in darkness before we see the light. And once again–like last week–I offer my apologies in advance. We will not get to Jesus’ saving action today. We will not hear John 3:16-17. Our hearts must be prepared to hear the Gospel. As I said last week, by the time we are done with the next two chapters either our hearts will be hardened so that we no longer want anything to do with God, or they will be crushed to the point that we rediscover just how amazing God’s love through Jesus is. We will rediscover amazing grace.
Last week, I ended my sermon revealing how we are deserving of God’s wrath because we do not honor or worship Him as God. We chase our idols of family, wealth, status, free time, government, and the like. We chase them because we believe they will bring us fulfillment. We believe they will bring us safety and security. We believe they will bring us true life. But they do not. They lead us down a path of destruction. Deep down, there is a part of us that knows this, but as Paul said last week, we deceive ourselves. We tell ourselves that we are just fine–that there is nothing wrong with what we do or what we live for. Stubbornly, we cling to our idols.
And this is where Paul continues today. Verse 24, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.” God said, “If you want your freedom to follow your heart’s desire, you have it. Go get it!” One commentator said it best. God did not simply give us freedom. No, that would mean we would be without desire and free to choose whatever we wanted. God gave us the freedom to pursue the lusts of our hearts. Not only did God say, “Go pack your suitcase.” Essentially God said, “Here, let’s pack. And then after helping you pack, He shoved you out the door.” Sometimes there is no reasoning. Sometimes there is no begging and pleading. Sometimes there is no sitting down in a rational, loveable manner and showing another the consequences of his or her actions. Sometimes a heart is hell bent on trying to get what it wants, and no matter what you say; no matter what you do; you will not prevent a person from trying to get it.
Have you ever tried to keep an alcoholic from getting another drink?
Have you ever tried to keep an addict from taking another hit?
Have you ever tried to keep a sexual pervert away from porn?
Have you ever tried to keep a Cowboy’s fan from reliving the 90's? Okay, perhaps that last one wasn’t fair.
But you know the futility. You know the impossibility. And if you have ever reached your wits end, you know what it is to give a person up. You know what it is to let that person go on in his or her self-destructive behavior. And if you are angry enough, you push them toward rock bottom.
When humanity decided to worship the creature instead of the creator because of the stubbornness and warping of their hearts, God gave them up.
Verse 26, For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. I can hear the thoughts of some of you. “Oh, here we go. Time for some gay bashing.” I can hear the thoughts of others, “Now, it’s time to bring the hammer on the gay agenda and show them what God really feels toward those sinners. Time to tell them to repent of their sinfulness or end up in hell.”
First off, there will be no gay bashing–unless you call explaining what Paul says here gay bashing. And a Christian is not allowed to bash anyone–much less condemn a person to hell, so don’t expect me to do that either. These verses have been used as clobber verses toward gay people, and when used in such a fashion, they drive people away from the Good News. They drive people away from Jesus. This must never be our purpose. But we must not shy away from what Paul is conveying in these words either. He is making a very salient point.
More than a few scholars find it odd that Paul begins with homosexual acts for aren’t there other commands–other revelations of God which are seemingly more important? I mean, Paul himself argues later in Romans and in the book of Galatians that the entire law can be summed up in one great command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Why not begin with that command? Why begin with homosexual, sexual relations?
In this section of the book of Romans, Paul is showing us what happens when God gives us up. Paul is showing us what happens when God gives us the freedom to pursue the warped desires of our hearts. Paul is showing us the consequences of what happens when we replace God with idols. Nearly every scholar I consulted for this sermon agreed that the finely woven fabric of what God created begins to fray and come unraveled when we don’t have God in His proper place. Nearly every scholar said that when God is not the center of our lives and worship, then our lives begin to descend into chaos. God’s created order unravels. This is important. Let me say it again. God’s created order unravels.
So why start with homosexual behavior? Let me ask you a question: what is the first recorded command in the Bible? What is the first thing that God told humankind after He created them? Do you remember?
Let’s take a look. Please pick up the Bibles in your pews and turn to Genesis chapter one. For those of you who have forgotten the books of the Bible, knock the dust off, and turn to page one... Skip down to verse 27, and let’s read verses 27 and 28 together, “27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
So, what is God’s initial command to humanity? “Be fruitful and multiply and have stewardship over the earth.” Can a man and a man be fruitful and multiply? Can a woman and a woman be fruitful and multiply? You know the answer to that question. And before anyone starts in on me: yes, I am aware that there are couples who cannot have children, and no one thinks they are sinning. I am aware there are people who actively work to make sure they have no more children, including myself and no one causes a stir. But this isn’t about having children or not having children. It’s about how God ordered creation and how that order is maintained. Homosexuality is against that created order, and it contradicts the very first command given to humanity–a command which was issued BEFORE the giving of the Law to the Jewish people–a command woven into the very fabric of creation.
Paul begins with homosexuality for these reasons. Not that it is above other sins. Not that it is because homosexuality condemns a person to hell. I mean, as Timothy Keller says, “I know very well that heterosexuality doesn’t get you to heaven.” Not that it is to be the focus of the church’s activity in the world. Paul shows that when the Creator is replaced, even the most basic order of creation begins to be violated.
And then, it gets really, really bad. Verse 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. God gave them up to pursue the desires of their hearts, and in doing so, their minds became debased; warped; unhinged. The created order began to suffer even more. Take another look at that list of vices that St. Paul puts forward. Tell me that you have managed to escape every one of those vices. Tell me you have been able to avoid such things your whole life through. Tell me that to this day, you never boast, become greedy, spread gossip, or get upset at what someone else has. Tell me that you are not under the power of sin. Even you are corrupt and violate God’s natural order of things. God has given you over to the freedom to pursue the desires of your heart.
And the picture of reality isn’t pretty. Think about a world full of those vices. Think about a world full of people who are greedy, selfish, envious, foolish, faithless, heartless, and ruthless. Think about a world full of strife, deceit, murder, slander, and gossip. Think about a world where people applaud you for getting away with evil–where people encourage you to give into your every desire; where people affirm every decision you make whether it seem good or bad; where people call you a prude for doing good. Where people long for the hero to fall and gleefully laugh when he does. Would you like to live in that world? Do you believe that we thrive in such a world? Would you agree that a world like that could be described as hell?
When God gives us up to the freedom to pursue the desires of our hearts, then that’s exactly where we end up. Hell is not simply a reality after we die. It’s already here. It takes place when we replace God with idols. It takes place when we demand our freedom from God’s rule. God says, “Okay. Let me help you pack your bags. Let me walk you out the door. Good luck.” Continue down the path, and sooner rather than later, we will find ourselves at the end of some God-forsaken sidewalk with nowhere to go; nothing to do; alone; abandoned–in hell. Amen.