Sunday, August 26, 2018

Offered Alive: Sermon on Romans 12:1-2

The warm December sun overhead was fittingly bright – fitting even for a day the man wouldn't live to see the end of. His heart thundered warmly in his chest, burning hot like a fragment of the sun to which it would soon be offered up in return. As he stood so near the height of the pyramid, he heard the conch shell blow, and saw a vision of his near future tumble unceremoniously down the steps. But no sense fighting it. If, after all, as he believed, the gods had shed their blood to restore life to the world under the fifth sun, the least men could do – the least he could do – was shed his blood to repay their debt and keep the sun and world in motion.

Not that he had much choice. Through a long train of tragedies, a month ago he'd found himself up for sale in a slave market at Azcapotzalco. The bidder – the buyer – was a merchant from Tenochtitlan in the east, eager to contribute to the upcoming Panquetzalitzli celebration. Nine days ago, the slave – like others bought with the same intent in mind – had been drenched in sacred water, stripped and clothed in paper vestments, coated in stripes of blue and yellow body paint. Forced to dance the serpent dance with his captors, and sing along with the song to Huitzilopochtli, god of war, the Dart-Hurler, in whose likeness the slaves had been dressed and painted.

He recalled, as the conch shells blew, how last night he'd been marched up and down these same steep steps. How he'd been drugged with fermented sap. And then the day came. The city, adorned in blue-striped banners and pennants from every tree and every cactus. While the masses raced in procession from place to place, he'd been forced to fight captive warriors, re-enacting the battle of Huitzilopochtli against his sister and brothers. The slave remembered the combat, the brutality, the close calls; then how the battle ended as the parade arrived, setting their adversaries to flight.

Then they'd stood marched to the pyramid, made procession around it, and stood at its foot, gazing up toward its unfathomable heights. A priest led a fiery blazing serpent, with tongue of parrot feathers, down to consume the bowl of sacred paper. The drums were beating; the trumpets were blaring. And at last, the slaves and captives were led up the steps – step by step, step by step – by those who'd bought them or caught them. It was a somber trek upward. The city, the lake, the plain stretched out to distant mountain horizons around Tenochtitlan, all too visible the closer he drew to the lofty summit of the Hueyi Teocalli and its twin temples. The steps were steep. He knew what awaited him. His heart rebelled. But the drinks he'd been plied with soothed and slowed him, curbing his innate fear of death in the face of Huitzilopochtli, the Deceiver, Lord of Battles, of “war, blood, and burning.”

Finally, it was his turn. The conch sounded; the man who'd been in line in front of him, or rather his open and heartless shell, tumbled down the steps below. With trepidation, fear, and obligation, he, too, now surrendered to the hands pushing him toward the stone circle. Sacrifice was demanded. Sacrifice would be had. Knocked to the ground, four tan-skinned priests in capes and loincloths grabbed his ankles and wrists, held him down tight. His last-ditch reflex to fight ebbed away. The rock beneath his back was sticky and slick. His eyes fixed, squinting, on the radiant sun – soon obscured by a high priest with a dark stone knife, glistening wet from use. The waiting victim's heart throbbed in his chest, as if protesting its impending manhandling and exposure in the open air. And soon it was all over.

So lived many lives and died many deaths during the age of the Aztec Empire. For them, human sacrifices like these were no rare occurrence. During their last century especially, they clung to the thought that their gods had undertaken great sacrifices for them, shedding their divine blood to fuel the world's motion and repopulate it; and as a result, they'd have said, they owed those gods a debt to sacrifice constantly for and to them – by gifts, by animals, by constant bloodletting, and ultimately by human bodies and hearts. It's not a pretty picture. Even in surviving watercolors by native artists, it comes through in all its repulsiveness. If I didn't have a point, I'd never have asked you to picture it.

Paul never visited the Aztec capital city Tenochtitlan, far across the sea and not yet built in his day. But what if he had? If he'd traipsed into Tenochtitlan during the run-up to a festival like that, inspecting their temples and learning Nahuatl so he could understand their stories – what might Paul have said? Just like Romans 1, I think he'd proclaim them “without excuse; for although they knew God, they didn't honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they become futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:20-21). The Aztecs had, as their sayings went, no polished eye, and clearly their noses lost their power to sniff out the truth.

Grieving the emptiness of their achievements amidst such idolatry and violence, Paul would have frankly said that “they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:22-23). Though not in the same way as the more familiar Greeks, the Aztecs, too, had been given over to “the dishonoring of their bodies” through the bleeding and the ritual killing and what came next (Romans 1:24) – all because “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Romans 1:25). And so they became “full of … murder, strife,” as a city and empire (Romans 1:29), and were exposed as “foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Romans 1:31). The ugly reality is, “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery; and the way of peace, they have not known” (Romans 3:15-17). In this way and in the judgment to come, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18).

Paul would have found ways to connect with them. “I see you are a very superstitious people,” he might well have said, like he did in Athens (Acts 17:22). He would have looked for hints of mystery and longing. But he would have announced that, unlike their Huitzilopochtli, “the God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, … is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything” (Acts 17:24-25) – least of all these bloody offerings. Paul would have agreed that the true God is a God who sacrifices for our good – but that sacrifice happened on the cross; that God appeared on earth in the humble Jesus and not as a violent warrior; and the right response to our debt had nothing to do with perpetuating the cycle of death and appeasing the flesh, for “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8), and everything to do with breaking the cycle and reaching something higher. So now this true God “commands all people everywhere” – in Athens, in Lancaster County, and, yes, in Tenochtitlan – “to repent” (Acts 17:30).

Paul would have charged that this whole Aztec system, all these festivals, were empty superstitions. And that meant they couldn't be the right sort of worship – not even a chance. How can the heartless offer their heart? And “what pagans sacrifice, they offer to demons, and not to God,” Paul writes (1 Corinthians 10:20). Yet even if they said they did it for God, even then, it couldn't be the right way to worship. Because the only sort of worship worthwhile, Paul would say, is “rational worship” (Romans 12:1). That's the phrase he uses in our passage today. Most modern translations call it something else – 'spiritual worship,' maybe – but the actual words he uses are “logical worship,” “rational worship.” It's the kind of service to God that fits creatures with brains in their heads.

And Aztec worship wasn't that. Human sacrifice isn't rational worship; it's repulsive superstition. Idolatry isn't rational worship; it's the foolishness of exchanging God's truth for a lie and God's glory for petty things. Those foolish kinds of religion might be good enough for wild animals, but certainly not humans with working brains. And so far, that's probably very clear to us. There's nothing about the Aztec religion that resonates or appeals. But when Paul talks about “this age” in the present tense, he's talking about a network of values and structures and powers that hold sway in first-century Rome, fifteenth-century Tenochtitlan, and the twenty-first-century USA all the same. Sure, Paul would have said that the Aztecs had corrupted minds and darkened hearts – he'd call them out on their irrational worship – but he'd say the very same thing to today's America.

Here and now may look different from there and then. We sacrifice our minds and bodies slowly, stretching out the painful death, as we devote them to hungry careers and ambitions; as we let consumerism consume us, and fill ourselves with fruitless distractions, banners waving in the breeze; as we make idols of our families and causes and, perhaps above all, our pride. And that, no less than in Tenochtitlan, is human sacrifice. It just drains the life from us less slowly. It's easier to paper over our mess. But we convince ourselves that the world won't stay in motion unless we drain our lives out for it in overwork. We convince ourselves that the violence of our culture is normal, unavoidable; that sanctioned forms of it are necessary. And we convince ourselves that some people are expendable, can be turned into tools for what we call a greater good, or disposed of altogether (like the unborn, the disabled, the immigrant, the elderly, and plenty of other lives in between). We reduce God's image-bearers to labels we've made up, so that we can better treat them as mere objects. Even in the church, we dedicate ourselves to maintaining the status quo of America as it used to be, or as we imagine it used to be; we make the 1950s our god, perhaps, and sacrifice the Lord's vision for our future to the 'divinity' of a defunct decade.  In and out of the church, so much of what we do, we see its real ugliness only in Tenochtitlan's smoky mirrors.

Paul would tell us that irrationality is a hallmark of this age. Everything characteristic of this age is, at its root, tied up in subhuman thinking. And even if the Aztecs were right, their hearts – and our hearts – are too dark to be offered. We've been naturally socialized into this darkness and foolishness; most of the time, it doesn't even register to us as unnatural – our fear, our defensiveness, our pursuit of power, our patterns of consumption, the standards for the Aztec or the American Dream. And so much of that superstition, so much that's unthinking, so much that just ignores or refuses the truth of God, creeps into our worship and our lives. Because we've been naturally socialized into it. Paul calls on us to open our eyes and resist. He urges us to stop “being conformed to this age” and all its unthinking lies (Romans 12:2). He longs to see us break free of everything unworthy of the kind of thinking creatures God made us.

Because all those bloody superstitions just don't suit us. They aren't reasonable, aren't rational, don't logically add up – for Aztecs or Americans. What is appropriate, what does suit us, is the kind of worship that uses reason – that reflects actively on God's truth and God's deeds. That's what we try to do here. We try to reflect, with our minds and hearts, on God's truth and God's deeds. When we steer clear, we surely fall short; when we get lost or doze during the sermon, we may fall short; when we get distracted and don't even focus on the words we're singing, we likely fall short; when we pepper our church world or personal devotions with unbiblical theology and pointless fluff and feel-good filler, we surely fall short. We lapse into less rational worship, the kind that doesn't suit who God made us. We were made as thinking beings, who string words together in our mouths and minds, who add and link ideas and move toward conclusions – and God wants to see that in our worship and in how we live. He yearns for us to offer worship that opens our vision and stretches our minds as it glorifies him and proclaims the rich depths of his whole truth to his whole world. God calls for our “logical worship,” the proper fruit of our reasonable faith (Romans 12:1).

What suits us is the kind of worship that's holy – that's set apart (Romans 12:1). Not compartmentalized in time – not limited to Sunday mornings – that isn't what holy is. Holy is pure; holy is different from what's all around. Holy is connected to and reflective of a God far above and beyond. The Aztecs would've seen their festivals as holy occasions, perhaps – would have pointed to the banners, the sacred bathing, the sacred dramas, the eating of a dough image of their god, and so many more rituals. But it wasn't holy, because it mirrored gods who were made in the people's image – or, at least, the elite warrior-class people's image – rather than mirroring the one God in whose image they were made. Worship appropriate for human beings isn't recursive; it doesn't just feed us back into ourselves, as if we could live and grow off of our own output, as if a series of copies and reflections could make an original clearer. What suits us is a worship free from distortion, a worship that actually opens us up to something different, to a God who may well change us and break us and remake us.

And what suits us is the kind of worship that's “pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1). Which might be hard for us to figure out. We're so steeped in our ways. We cling to our flesh. We're naturally socialized, like we said, on the unthinking ways of an irrational culture. There are assumptions we make, instincts we have, that are like second nature to us as Americans – just like there were assumptions and instincts that were second nature to the Aztecs before us. What we need is a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing the world. We need to break free from those old assumptions and thought-patterns, we need more light shed in our noggins, in a way that changes and breaks and remakes our brains, our minds. “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). That's what we need.

What can a renewed mind do? Paul says that, with a renewed mind, “by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). We make so much hay about figuring out what God's will is, when it comes to what we should do, how we should live, how we should worship. But for a mind made new, a mind shedding old habits and open to real change, we make it so complicated (or, as the Aztecs would say, we make a stew of all the chameleons we catch!). First, is the thing good? Does it have value? Is it virtuous? Then it might be God's will for us. Second, can we realistically imagine it putting a smile on God's face when we do it? Is it pleasing to him? Then it might be God's will for us. And third, does it express maturity? Is it something we can honestly say is mature, the action of a complete person living rationally and well? If it's all those things, give it a test, and you may well find it's the will of God.

What does a lifestyle lived like this look like? What kind of worship does it generate? What does our “logical worship,” our “rational” or “reasonable worship,” look like, if it's to proceed from a renewed mind that seeks God's good and pleasing and perfect will, if it aims to please him, if it aims to be holy? What kind of worship, what kind of life is that? We know what the Aztecs thought worship should look like. They believed in gods who sacrificed their blood; that we owed a debt; that the present world just needed to be kept in motion; and that violence and bloodshed were what their gods wanted, what their gods needed. So many people in ancient Mexico – men, women, even children – were routinely called on to offer their bodies in a very radical and ultimate way: as sacrifices that would be killed to maintain the status quo of the age.

Is that what God wants for us? It's true that all our hope is founded on a divine sacrifice – the Aztecs had some insight there. “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” for us (1 Corinthians 5:7). Jesus “appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice...” (Ephesians 5:2). “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22), so Jesus provided “his own blood” (Hebrews 13:12). And for that, we do owe a debt, like the Aztecs suspected: “We are debtors,” Paul confesses (Romans 8:12).

But it's the third key idea where the parallels break down.  See, it isn't the present world that needs to be kept in motion, but a new world that needs to break through. That world isn't the domain of Huitzilopochtli, a strife-stirring and deceitful god of war, but of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – who eternally live and reign as one God of Love, Peace, and Truth. God has no need for our blood, our violence, our deadly zeal, our destruction, or our death. He has no interest in human sacrifice of that kind (cf. Leviticus 20:1-5; Hosea 13:2; Ezekiel 23:39). But God is looking for sacrifice. In Aztec festivals, the slaves were bathed in sacred water and clothed in new vestments resembling their god before they were sacrificed. Well, we were bathed in sacred water at baptism, and we've been clothed in Christ Jesus and his righteousness (Galatians 3:27). Why? The Aztecs would see the obvious reason: to be a sacrifice. But what kind of sacrifice can we make of ourselves, when God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone” (Ezekiel 18:32)? Only one kind, Paul tells us. “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, which is your rational worship” (Romans 12:1). That is the kind of worship fitting for thinking people – a sacrifice that keeps on living.

God calls for the sacrifice of our bodies, your bodies, but his aim, he tells us, is to “give life to your mortal bodies” (Romans 8:11). God isn't looking for a sacrifice that wipes us off the map; that destroys us; that leaves us worse off than we were when we came. Oh, it may look like that for a while, because the road is hard. But he wants a sacrifice that leaves us more alive, more complete, than we were before. He wants a sacrifice that doesn't drain us dry, used up and thrown aside; he wants a sacrifice that we can make day after day.

Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought” – what, from life to death, like the sacrificial victims in Tenochtitlan, or like the casualties of modern American consumer culture? No! “Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life,” Paul directs us, “and your body parts to God as instruments for righteousness” (Romans 6:13). We're told to “not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:16). But God wants more than just what we have; he wants what we are. He wants our bodies given to him by rational minds – he claims ownership, use, consecration, devotion of our bodies and all the parts of them. To sacrifice them, we give them up to him.

How thankful I am that our way of sacrificing our bodies looks nothing like the ancient ugliness in Tenochtitlan. God never takes a heart out of us without putting a better one in (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26). Our “struggle against sin” might, in a climate of persecution, ultimately lead up to “the point of shedding [our] blood” (Hebrews 12:4) – but that's not the idea. It isn't a bloody sacrifice of death, but a full-on living sacrifice that God is looking for. We sacrifice our bodies – offering them alive – to the God who is the head of the Christ who is the head of his body, the church (1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:23). So don't be surprised when he insists on using your bodies for the service of Christ's body – but we'll get more to that next week.

What matters now is this call. Paul urges us, appeals to us, to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, which is your rational worship” (Romans 12:1). It isn't automatic. God has bought our bodies, but it's our choice whether to rob him – as we so often do – or to offer ourselves alive on his altar. It's our choice whether to cling to the superstitions of our Aztec or American way, or to rise higher into rational worship, the appropriate sort to come from the thinking creature God made you.

It will be difficult. (That's kind of the definition of sacrifice, isn't it?) We have to let God break the way we were raised and brought up. “We've always done it that way” is no excuse; it's just a definition of the problem. “I don't get it” is no excuse; it defines the problem. “That's ignorant,” “That's crazy,” “That's folly” – that's just the defensive way our irrational minds react to God's reason, which to us looks upside-down (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23-25; 2:14). We have to let God make our new hearts bright and our new minds clear. It's a process; it can take time. Tradition, upbringing, age – doesn't matter, because we're “without excuse” (Romans 1:20). Only as God changes our minds can we see the beauty of what he's done for us, and the real depth of our debt, and the kind of God he really is. Only as God changes our minds can we appreciate his radical summons. But now, while it's in process, we have to choose to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. Doing it will be costly – again, check literally any definition of the word 'sacrifice'!

For the Roman house churches Paul was writing to, coming out of such a terrible time of turmoil, they were understandably afraid that welcoming Paul and living this Jesus way would be the end of them – that it would get them in trouble, force them into unnatural positions, and spell their doom. Paul, facing their fears without blinking, tells them to go ahead and sacrifice their bodies – and watch God give them life. For us, breaking away from tradition and culture and all our old ways of thinking, and accepting change – well, it's a frightening prospect. Could get us in trouble. Could break us apart or shove us uncomfortably together. Could produce friction and heat. Could make a big stink and a big mess. Paul faces our fears, too, without blinking. And he says, “Nevertheless, present your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1).

Everything you've got, everything you are – put it at the disposal of the God whose Son is the Head of the Church. Put your whole body sacrificially at the service of his Body – and watch God multiply life. The Aztecs offered human sacrifice by killing bodies to maintain their age's status quo. Paul urges us to sacrifice our bodies as living offerings that defy everything about the status quo. And our sacrifice is more radical than anything that happened during any Aztec festival, and it uses no obsidian knife but just “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17).

We sing songs with questions like, “Is your all on the altar?” Well, is it? Jesus – not Huitzilopochtli, nor our coveted American idols – is the God who “comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). He “came that [we] might have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). To that end, Jesus died for us, shed divine blood for us – we are “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). So “we are debtors” (Romans 8:8). But what will you do? Will you choose to present your bodies as a living sacrifice? Again, it costs; again, it hurts; again, it is no easy or comfortable thing. It is a radical thing, a total thing. But for a thinking church, for a church who knows “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24), it's the only thing that fits. It's the only “rational worship” – this “living sacrifice” of your bodies and all they've got (Romans 12:1).

Will you put your all on the altar? Will you present your bodies as a living sacrifice? I can't make that choice for you. I can tell you it's the only worship that makes rational sense in light of who the true God truly is. I can tell you that the life Jesus gives is worth so much more than our jobs and our pensions, our trends and our traditions, our resistance and our recreation, our agendas and our stubborn desires. I can tell you all that. Paul can make his appeal to the mercies of God. But what will you do with it? This sermon is done, and in a few moments you'll have the choice: back to life as it was before, or on to life as a living sacrifice; further away from reason, or further into reason. But that choice is yours. Yours. Here. Now. “Choose ye this day...” (Joshua 24:15).

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