3/19/2006

Sermon text

Here's my sermon for Sunday, March 19.

"Who is John Galt?"

That question is both the opening line and in a sense the theme of a book entitled Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. Her purpose was to share her personal philosophical outlook, which she called objectivism. In the book, Ms. Rand describes a world where the most productive people in the world decide to go on strike. They simply quit. All the strong leaders, the greatest inventors, industrialists, businesspeople, philosophers, music composers… they decide that they are sick of carrying the world on their shoulders like the mythological Atlas… and so they simply shrug the responsibility straight off. They decide that the only thing in the world that is important to them is their own lives, their own accomplishment, and their own desires.
This concept is brought to a head when the infamous John Galt shows the heroine a building that contains a brilliant invention he has made, but refuses to share with the world. In a sense, the building represents the anti-church… there is no God, there are no people, and there is no community, but instead it is a shrine to human achievement and ingenuity.
Let me read you how Rand describes this building:

"The door of the structure was a straight, smooth sheet of stainless steel, softly lustrous and bluish in the sun. Above it, cut in the granite, as the only feature of the building's rectangular austerity, there stood an inscription.
I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

At first, we might merely call this philosophical perspective distasteful… but are we truly all that different? What percentage of our lives do we actually give to others? To God? Isn't it true that we feel a strong sense of entitlement to the wealth or life that we build and create?

Ayn Rand's philosophy of objectivism may not have garnered popular acclaim, but we see its results all around us. Our country has become increasingly self-centered. Advertising is focused on getting you to buy things that you want for yourself. Work is not seen as a way of helping the world, but as a way of getting money, and sometimes power, for yourself. The legal system is no longer focused on protecting people, but instead is used to give people the right to anything they want get, be it abortion or homosexual marriage or divorce on demand… for themselves. Everything about our culture is self-centered.

Really, though, this isn't even the most fearsome thing. What's really horrific is the fact that the church has bought into this kind of thinking. Rather than calling Christians to a life of self-sacrifice, some megachurches are designing entertaining programs to speak to people's "felt needs," but are failing to preach the full gospel. Some emergent churches are suggesting that all you need is a vague sense of spirituality, and that the truth is somewhat relative. Some easy believism churches are suggesting that all you need to do is think in your head that you want Jesus to come into your heart, and it doesn't matter what your life looks like after that. My friends, the church is infested with just as much self-centeredness as the world!

Now, in our heads, we know this can't be right. Today, I'd like for us to consider what the Apostle Paul says our lives should look like when God calls us out from the destructive self-centeredness of the world. Let's begin with prayer.

-Lord, you are our King. Your glory is the reason we exist.
-But God, we forsake your service. We try to go our own way, to create lives that give us what we want, without realizing that you know our needs better than we ever could.
-Forgive us, Father. Help us to understand the things you show us in Scripture, and help us to respond correctly to your teaching. We are weak, Lord, but we do want to honor you. Help us to do it rightly.
In Jesus name, amen.

The situation in Rome was a somewhat uncertain one. In the early days of the church, missionaries would travel to one city at a time. At each city, they would first preach the gospel message. When they had a group of committed believers, they would choose a few of them to be elders. These elders became the leaders and foundation of a new church. That church would use their knowledge of the gospel message and the Old Testament Scriptures to guide their understanding of God. In some areas, though, they would get out of hand, and the apostle who established the church would write letters to them to correct them. Those letters were copied and circulated to the surrounding churches, and they became the New Testament.
Rome, though, was unique. As they used to say, "All roads lead to Rome." The church in Rome was composed of believers who came from various parts of the Roman Empire, and had been saved in different contexts. Some may have been in Israel when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles at Pentecost. Some may have received the gospel through missionaries in other lands, or through Christians in the Roman military. The church would have been mostly Gentile, but would have had a strong Jewish Christian component as well.
Because of these circumstances, there was probably a lot of uncertainty in the church. They may have had conflicting understandings of the gospel message, and they may have been arguing about the right way to live. The Jews were claiming that they had a better understanding of God than Gentiles because of their rich spiritual history, while the Gentiles felt that God had turned away from the Jews because of their unbelief.
Paul, then, is thinking about all these things when he writes his letter. In the context of trying to balance the questions and arguments going on in the church of Rome, he seeks to answer three main questions.
1.) What is the gospel?
2.) What is the place of ethnic Israel in light of the gospel?
3.) Once we have the gospel, how should we then live?
Paul's purpose in Romans is to answer these questions.

-In chapters 1-8, Paul explains the gospel message in all its fullness. This should be an example to us… Christ and his gift of salvation is the BEGINNING of all theology! All our understanding of the Bible is incomplete without Christ's saving act on the cross. If we want to protect ourselves from false doctrines and be growing in spiritual maturity, we MUST begin with a clear and excellent understanding of the gospel.

Well, what is this message? The message is this.
-God created a world where everything, especially mankind, is designed to worship him.
-However, each of us has chosen to make ourselves the center of our lives rather than him. We have engaged in all sorts of destructive behaviors for the sake of our self indulgence. These sins complete separate us from the joy and beauty of being in God's presence.
-Once we sinned, there was no hope for us because we could not attain righteousness. However, Jesus Christ, who is God, came to earth and lived a perfect life. He was punished and killed as if he WAS a sinner, and yet he rose to life again three days later, showing that he is, in fact, God! Because of this sacrifice on his part, he has the right to forgive us and make us righteous again in God's sight despite our sin.
-If we want to regain a right relationship with God, we must turn away from our sins, accept Christ's offer of salvation, and commit ourselves to serving and glorifying God with our lives.
-This is the gospel message, and it is the core of all that we are and all that we do as Christians.

Well, Paul goes on to answer the second question in chapters 9-11. The Jews were feeling slighted, because it seemed as though the Christians were preaching that God had forgotten them and their long, rich history of being his chosen people.

-Paul made it clear to them that God is free to choose whomever he will to be saved. He also reminded them that salvation only comes through faith, not through works. However, he does acknowledge that God has always had a special relationship with Israel, and that he has a unique plan for them.

And so we come to chapter 12, where Paul is beginning to answer the question of how we should live once we have received the gospel. Verses 1-8 are a transitional passage, in that Paul is preparing us for the rest of his teachings by telling us how we should see ourselves and our job here on earth in relation to God. The passage is key because it should shape the way we view our mission and our lives.

Let's first look at the key verses, verses 1 and 2.
The first thing that Paul tells us to do is to not conform to the world. Recognize the dangers it holds and shy away from that type of thinking. Be honest about the things in your life that are designed for your pleasure rather than God's glory. So often we rationalize the fact that we are very much like the world by saying "Oh, the Bible doesn't say it's wrong, so it's ok for us. There's nothing wrong with it." The problem, though, is that the Bible DOES speak against sins of OMISSION just as much as it does against sins of COMMISSION. In other words, it is not enough for us to just avoid major sins. We must also pursue the things God desires for us to do.

To that end, Paul tells us secondly, think differently. In fact, we should not just think differently, but should completely renew the way that we understand the world. The old way of self-indulgence and self-centeredness needs to be thrown out. Because God has changed your life, you must change the way you think about it.

A renewed mind is one that has God's message of salvation at its center. It trusts God's sovereignty completely. It recognizes that his guidance and commands in Scripture are true and good for us. Above all, a renewed mind trusts and worships God in all things. Only that level of trust will allow us to truly know God's perfect will.

Once we truly have this worshipful mindset, the only right action that we can take is to offer ourselves as living sacrifices. What is a sacrifice? A sacrifice is an offering. You don't get an obvious return on investment. Think of the Old Testament sacrifices. The animal was just… given, and nothing obvious was given back. This needs to be our attitude- to be joyful in giving to God without any obvious repayment, because the sacrifices of our lives can NEVER compare to His sacrifice, and they can NEVER measure up to the mercy and grace Christ showed us at the cross. We ought to be PASSIONATE about sacrificing ourselves for His cause!

So then, how shall we live once we understand this gospel?

We should first flee the self-centered practices of the world. We should change and even completely renew the way that we think by placing Christ and his work on the cross at the center of the way we consider ourselves. We must then become people who are willing to sacrifice every aspect our lives for the glory of God. That is the calling and the mission of everyone who would call themselves Christians.

But what should we do in PRACTICE to fulfill that calling?
Romans 12:3-8
First, we see that we should not think of ourselves more highly than we ought. The wording here is talking about the way we understand ourselves and the direction of our lives. Paul tells us that we need to realize that God has given us faith in Him so that we can serve him and know that it is for a good purpose. We should not think that we are above service or that our desires are more important than the needs of the church.

Next, we MUST use the blessings that God has given us in service to the church! That is the kind of sacrifice that He asks of us… a living sacrifice of service. As Paul shows us, this living sacrifice of service should be given to Christ's Body, which is the church. We are called to take our money, our time, and our talents, and to USE them. We are members of ONE body, and we are members of one another. We all have different functions, but we must all share in the mission and the burden and the joy of service in Christ's body. Only then are we truly honoring Him, and only then are we truly reflecting God's glory.

So, let me ask you. Would it be easy for an outsider to describe your life as a living sacrifice to God? The world has no trouble recognizing sacrifice. "Whoah, look at that guy sacrifice his body!" they might say, while watching a football game. Or think of Pat Tillman, the football player who gave up millions of dollars a year to serve his country, and was killed as a result. The world recognizes sacrifice… do they see it in you?

Let's get specific. If you are not a Christian today, we welcome you to our church. We do want to share with you the joy of being a Christian. But we also want you to realize what a challenge it truly is… to be a Christian is to be someone who is wholly committed to serving God with their life. Is he calling you? Consider carefully, because you are playing with eternal matters. Will you commit yourself to God? Will you become a living sacrifice?

For those of you who are not members of the church- why aren't you? Do you realize that it is dishonoring to God when you refuse to commit to and serve your local church? Do you realize that you are sinning by withholding the gifts God has given you? When will you truly commit yourselves to God's service? When will you be a true living sacrifice?

College students- Are you using your energy and flexibility to honor God? Are you learning the disciplines that will help you grow in spiritual maturity for the rest of your life? Are you preparing yourself for a life of service to Him? Are you a living sacrifice?

Ladies- Are you supporting and encouraging other members of the body in their acts of worship and areas of ministry, rather than protecting your own? Are you responding to Scriptural teaching with obedience, rather than letting your Christian walk be dominated by emotional moralism and relationships? Are you a living sacrifice?

Men- Are you helping to lead the congregation in a godly direction, or are you sitting back and passively waiting for others to take charge? Are you studying the Scriptures carefully to protect the church from false teachings? Are you spending your strength in defense of the weak? Are you a living sacrifice?

Friends, the world is screaming at us that the individual is all that matters. Pursue health, wealth, and self gratification! Enjoy yourself! You are different… nobody can tell you what to do!

Remember the quote from Ayn Rand's book? "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

My friend, this self-indulgent, self-glorifying attitude is completely contrary to the truth. It is a lie, intended to suck you into a meaningless existence, where only self and its desires matter. It is a whirlpool, draining a person's life of any earthly good or heavenly value.

As Christians, that is not our calling. Instead, we are called to humbly sit at the foot of God's throne. We are called to be obedient servants. We are called to love and teach and admonish each other. We are called to be members of the body. We are called to be living sacrifices. THAT is our spiritual act of worship to the God who has saved us. May God help us in pursuit of that goal. Let's pray.

Prayer: "God, how desperately we need your help. We love to serve ourselves. We love to pay attention to our TVs and our sports teams and our gossip and our news… and yet we ignore the very real needs here at our church, which is your body. Father, help us to see our own self-indulgence. Help us to renew our minds, so that we can discern your will and honor your name. Help us to be living sacrifices. In Jesus name, amen."

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