Monday, March 13, 2017

It's Not a New Year's Resolution Kind of Faith: Romans 8:5-13

It’s close enough to the middle of March that I think enough time has sufficiently passed to reflect upon the following question: how are you doing on your New Year’s Resolutions?  Are you continuing to accomplish them, or are you like the vast majority of folks who have already given up?  I would include myself in that last category if I actually made New Year’s Resolutions.  I’ve given up on even making them because of my less than stellar success rate.

And aren’t New Year’s Resolutions an interesting thing?  I mean think about the things that folks usually try to accomplish.  Think about the things they often say that they will work on: losing weight, becoming a kinder person, becoming more generous, removing stress from life, becoming more diligent in prayer and spirituality.  Lofty things.  How come folks don’t say: you know what, for my New Year’s resolution, I am going to become more of a jerk in my daily life.?  I am going to become enraged while I drive.  I am going to work diligently to become as stressed out as I possibly can so that I give myself ulcers and end up on Prozac.  I am going to eat myself silly and gain 100 lbs by the end of the year.  I am going to work hard to stop praying and consume all my time with sitting in front of the television and computer doing nothing.  Why don’t folks make these kinds of resolutions?

One pastor whose sermon I listened to had a pretty good answer, I thought.  We don’t need any help doing most of those things.  They come rather naturally.  It’s easy to become enraged in traffic.  It’s easy to eat the things that are not healthy for us.  It’s easy to get stressed out over everything.  It’s easy to stop praying and seeking God on a regular basis.  It’s easy to sit in front of the television or computer and simply veg out instead of actively engage the world.  Such things are almost our default settings.  It’s a struggle to break out of them.

For the longest time, I thought Christianity was a lot like making those New Year’s Resolutions.  Promise to do the right things.  Promise to do what Jesus says.  Promise to love one’s neighbor and love one’s enemies.  Focus on such matters with great intensity, and accomplish them.  If you were failing to accomplish them, you simply weren’t working hard enough.  If your life was falling apart, you simply weren’t practicing your faith in the appropriate manner.  If you wanted to live a good, healthy life, you needed to do what the Bible said.  You might run into a few road blocks from time to time, but everything would eventually work out.  Everything would end up rosy and peachy if you simply focused on doing what God wanted you to do.

I no longer believe this.  Something happened along the way that made me reevaluate what I believed and preached and taught.  It started with getting stressed out and burned out because of circumstances that were well beyond my control–things that shouldn’t have happened because I thought I was doing the right things!  And then it was a revelation of exactly what my mind was set on.  God showed me the depths of my heart and what I was truly trying to get.  And that can be summed up in a repeat of this statement: If you wanted to live a good, healthy life, you needed to do what the Bible says.  Think about that sentence very carefully.  What is the end goal?  What is the deepest desire?  What is wanted above all else?  A good, healthy life.  You may ask: what’s wrong with deeply wanting a good, healthy life?

Here is what St. Paul has to say about such matters as we turn to our biblical text from Romans chapter 8: 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. Paul here is not offering up condemnation.  He is not pointing fingers at anyone and name calling.  He is simply recognizing that there are two types of people in the world: there are those who live their lives completely and totally oriented toward the “things of the flesh”, and there are those who live their lives completely and totally oriented toward the “things of the Spirit.”  Please know that when Paul says the “things of the flesh”, he is not simply talking about the natural desires of our bodies–he’s not simply talking about food, drink, sex, sleep, and rest.  He is talking about all of the things of the world that demand our attention–that seek to influence us into believing that they can provide us with a deep sense of safety, satisfaction, and fulfillment.  He’s talking about the lure of status and wealth. He’s talking about the lure of achievement and knowledge.  He’s talking about the lure of possessions and acceptance by others.  Paul says that there are people who believe that these things are the ultimate goals in life, and their lives are oriented toward these things.  Everything they think; everything they do; everything they say is geared toward getting the things of the flesh–to living the good life.

But Paul also points out the problem with this life orientation: it is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law–indeed it cannot submit to God’s law; and it is not pleasing to God.  He says that such an orientation of one’s life leads to death.  We actually covered most of the reasons why such a life orientation leads to death in earlier portions of the book of Romans.  In a very real way, Paul is simply reminding the congregation of Rome of what he covered earlier, and he does so to remind them of what comes next.

Verse 9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.  Paul’s writing here is not a command.  It’s not a “Turn your lives around from the flesh and get into the Spirit.”  That’s not what Paul says.  He is being descriptive.  He is looking at the congregation in Rome–and to us–and saying, “You are not like that.  You don’t have that kind of life orientation.  You see things in a different way; your entire being has come under the influence of a different power–a different entity.”  Paul says, you/we are in the Spirit because the Spirit of God dwells in us.  Why is this important?

At the end of Romans 7, Paul declared that sin dwelt within the members of his body.  The word he used in Greek was that sin had established a military base within him to influence his members.  Here in Romans 8, Paul uses the exact same word in describing the Spirit’s indwelling–that the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ has established a base of operations deep within us–not in our members, but in our hearts.  The Spirit of God is working within us to reorient our lives so that we find life and peace.  The Spirit of Christ is bringing life to our bodies, not only after we experience our physical deaths, but right here and right now in this life.

How does this come about?  Let’s finish out Paul’s thought with verse 12 So then, brothers and 
sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.  Paul says here that because the Spirit dwells in us, we no longer owe the world anything.  We are no longer in debt to the world for anything.  We know that the world cannot bring us fulfillment or peace or ultimate joy and happiness.  We know that the world only brings us temporary satisfaction; temporary joy; temporary happiness.  You know this.  You know this deep within even if you don’t want to admit it.  You know that whenever you achieve that business goal, there is another one that takes its place.  You know that whenever you work and buy your dream home, there’s always another thing to add to it.  You know that whenever you finally reach Friday, Monday morning is just around the corner.  There is always something more to buy; always something more to try; always something more to vie, always one more question why; and in the end you will die with something more to satisfy–if you live according to the flesh.

But if you live according to the Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body, and you will live.  What does this mean?  This means, that as Christians, we are in a constant state of putting to death our fleshy desires.  We are in a constant state of battle as the world tries to encroach upon us.  We are in a constant state of vigilance as we seek to squash anything that would lead us away from a life that is in the Spirit and pleasing to God.

And on the surface level, this sounds a lot like making New Year’s Resolutions. This sounds a lot like making rules for ourselves.  It sounds a lot like, “I’m going to follow what the Bible says so that I can live a good life.”  But that’s not it.  That’s not it at all.  That’s not how we fight that kind of battle.  If we try to fight the battle this way, we will lose, and we will not have abundant life.

Let me try and tie it all together with this example.  It’s pertinent to me since my family has joined the ranks of those playing Little League Baseball.  The world says, “Get your kids involved in sports because they will learn character.  They will learn how to work on a team.  They will learn life lessons that will give them a leg up throughout the rest of their lives.  Sacrifice in all other areas of life to make this happen.  Cut your family time.  Cut your church time.  Maximize your desire for winning.  Do everything that you can to avoid losing.  Your life–and more importantly, your child’s life–will be better for it.”

A New Year’s Resolution response would be: I am not going to let sports dominate my life, and because of this, baseball will be the enemy.  We will shun it and avoid it at all costs because it is cutting into other parts of our lives.  That’s not exactly easy or fun.  I mean, baseball is a game.  It’s fun!  Life can have enjoyment, you know?

Therefore, I think a Christian response would be this: Baseball, you are promising things that you cannot meet.  Ultimately, you cannot bring fulfillment.  Ultimately, you cannot change a heart.  Ultimately, you cannot turn either me or my child into a good person.  There is only one who can do that.  There is only one who can change a heart and make a person good from within.  There is only one who died for me and for the world.  There is only one who can bring the things that you are promising, and that is Jesus.  You, baseball, are a game.  Jesus is the Son of the living God.  I will engage with you because you are fun, but stop promising me the good life.  You can’t deliver.  Jesus already has.

And that, my brothers and sisters, is the key.  This is what Paul is trying to stress to the church at Rome and to us: when you are in Christ; when you are in the Spirit, Christ is in you; the Spirit is in you.  Trust in their work!  Trust in what they did and promised they would do.  Trust that Jesus has already died to save you.  Trust that the Spirit is working within you to overcome sin and put to death the desires of the flesh.  Turn your eyes upon Jesus.  Look to the cross.  Concentrate on Him and the redemption that you have in Him.  Focus your heart and mind on the fact that He died for you when you least deserved it.  Focus on His willingness to sacrifice Himself for you and take your place, and your heart will begin to fill with the love of God.  Your heart will begin to fill with a great love for Jesus.  You will desire Him.  You will want to please Him.  Nothing else will bring you the joy that He brings.  Nothing else will bring you the peace that He brings.  Nothing else will bring you the fulfillment that He brings.  The answer to your quest to be a better person is not to make more resolutions; it’s not to try harder–it’s to orient your entire life toward the One who died and rose again.  It’s to think about Him.  Think about what He did for you.  Long to walk daily with Him.

My brothers and sisters, we have Jesus in us.  We have the Spirit of God in us.  We are walking in Jesus.  We are walking in the Spirit.  Don’t let the world lure you away.  Don’t let the world trick you into going into its path.  Stand firm in Jesus.  Focus on the cross.  Let Jesus be your vision.  Amen.

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