12I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
A sixteen-year-old boy comes home after getting his driver’s license and goes straight to his dad and asks, “Dad, can I borrow the car for tonight?”
The father says, “Not so fast, son. First I need to see your grades improve, you need to clean your room, and I need you to get a hair cut.”
A few weeks passed and the boy brought home his report card and proudly handed it to his father. “Dad, I got straight A’s and my room is sparkling. Can I borrow the car tonight?”
“Not so fast,” says the father. “You still haven’t gotten a haircut.”
Thinking quickly the boy said, “But dad, Jesus had long hair.”
“That’s true,” said the father. “And Jesus walked everywhere he went, too.”
Hopefully it is obvious that when it comes to being a Christian, the length of your hair doesn’t matter at all. But as followers of Jesus Christ and as redeemed people working for the redemption of the world, there are certain things that we are expected to do with the lives that God has given to us. Today I want to look at Romans 12:1-8 and look at three different expectations of those that are following Christ daily. I want to look at Our Changed Lives, Our Humble Lives, and Our Gifted Lives.
Our Changed lives
Our scripture for this morning begins with Paul encouraging the Roman Christians to present their bodies as living sacrifices. Sacrifices made to God were common in the first century, not only in Judaism, but in other religions as well. When they made sacrifices to God, they didn’t give God something that they didn’t need or want anymore. It was always something valuable like the prize bull or lamb, finest grain, and so on. If they were giving something to God that they really didn’t want anymore then I guess it would really be a sacrifice, now would it?
So Paul is encouraging the Romans to offer their bodies to God as a living sacrifice. What Paul is saying is for the Romans to give their all to God. Don’t hold back anything. Don’t just give God what you no longer need. Give him your body, your soul, your entire life.
I like the way Rick Warren talks about living sacrifices. He asks the question “What’s wrong with living sacrifices? They keep crawling off the altar.” How many of us are guilty of this? We offer our bodies, we offer our minds, souls, all of our being to God one day, only to take that offering back? I hope you kept your receipt when you gave your body to God as a living sacrifice because you might want a refund.
This is especially sad because we all do it. We make a commitment to following Christ, and maybe we stick with it for a while. A day, a week, a month, a year go by. And then something “better” comes along and we crawl right off that altar. We take that offering back from God. And we don’t even try to justify it with God. We don’t even say, “Oh, I was just joking.” Or, “That was before I got this really sweet job offer making a bunch of money.” Or whatever our excuse could be. No, we just take back the lives that we gave to God.
When we offer our bodies and our lives up to God as a living sacrifice, it is to be a life-long commitment to following and serving God. Our desires for temporary and monetary satisfaction, our greed, lust, envy, yeah, they don’t go away, but we learn to fight and defeat those temptations because how we live as Christians matters. Sure, we are saved by grace, but our faithfulness to Christ matters as well. Believe me, I know that it can be hard, maybe even downright impossible to live a life anything close to the one that Jesus lived as an example. Loving our enemies, forgiving others, caring for the poor and the least of these takes work. And it is so opposite of the pursuit of the American Dream that every person is told that they are to put first. This quest for money and power that our society seems to thirst and hunger for are so far from what Jesus calls us to. And that is why Paul encourages the Roman Christians, and I would say us today, to not be conformed to the ways of the world, but to be transformed to the will of God.
When I first really dedicated myself to serving the Lord, I found it very difficult because I was very much conformed to the ways of the world. I was motivated by money, power, and fame. And believe me, there are still plenty of worldly temptations out there that cause me to stumble to this day.
Furthermore, who has time to sit down and read the Bible and pray every day? Who has enough money to live off only 90% of their income and give (at least) 10% to those in need? Stop gossiping? Buy fairly traded goods? Live simply? When I made the decision to follow and serve Christ I knew that it was a commitment that I should not take lightly because there were a lot of things in this world that I enjoyed being conformed to and that they would be difficult to change in my life. So how did I go about it?
I think a story is appropriate here. Our back yard is extremely shaded. There is row of about eight pine trees on my neighbor’s property that boarders our yard that casts a large shadow across our back yard most of the day. This row of trees and the shade that it makes has dictated where I put my garden, what perennials I can grow, and how well (or how poorly) the grass grows in my back yard.
A few weeks ago my neighbor asked me if I would be able to help him take down the first tree in this row of trees. It was the largest of the trees, by far. He wanted to cut it down because it was overcoming the other trees, and it was leaning pretty severely toward my property. So he thought that it would be best to cut the tree down before it fell down and caused some major damage.
So this past Tuesday we began cutting down that big, old pine. And how do you take down a big pine? Do you just start chopping at the base of the tree? If we were to just start chopping, we would have little control over where the thing fell. It might have fallen into the fence, into my garden, or onto a smaller tree and caused significant damage (just the thing we were trying to avoid by cutting it down!).
No, we started by cutting off many of the limbs. Some were small limbs that came off with little effort. Others were larger limbs that were a little dangerous and took a little more work and a little more planning. Then we started to cut off the top of the tree. And this was the part that scared me the most. But my neighbor, a seasoned woodsman, dropped the top of the tree right where he had wanted it. Then he cut the trunk of the tree into a number of smaller, more manageable sections. Then once on the ground, we cut those sections up into more manageable sections and carried them off to be ground up into next year’s mulch.
Our lives as living sacrifices, being not conformed to the ways of the world but being transformed to the will of God is a lot like cutting down that old pine. We know that if we don’t do something about it, that our lives will eventually fall and cause damage. Damage to our own lives and the lives of others.
But it is scary to think of changing your life! It is a daunting task, intimidating even. And I believe that is why I was so slow to make a commitment to God in the first place. I looked at the long list of “To Do’s” and “Not To Do’s” and the expectations were just too much for me.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. The good news, like with the cutting down of the old pine tree, is that you don’t have to do it on your own. That is one of the greatest things about the church. The church is a group of people that meets regularly to worship God and to care for one another. And when there are others available, it makes these life changes seem more doable. And we also have the Holy Spirit working within us to change our hearts. So we don’t ever have to feel like we are doing it all on our own.
Also, like cutting down that old pine, we don’t need to do it all in one swift cut at the base of the tree. We disassemble our lives that are conformed to the ways of the world piece by piece, limb by limb, into manageable sections. Start praying daily. Work on forgiving others. Join a Bible study in a few weeks. Start giving to those in need. Practice hospitality. And if you do these things in manageable sections, you will find yourself living a changed life. You will become a living sacrifice, no longer conformed to the ways of the world.
Our Humble Lives
Paul goes on to write that a part of being changed people is that we are to be humble. In verse three he writes, “3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
Paul never says that we are to think poorly of ourselves, but we are not to think too highly of ourselves, either. Paul isn’t saying that we shouldn’t have self confidence, that we shouldn’t be bold for Christ. What Paul is saying is that each and every one of us has an equal amount of worth in the eyes of God. Whether you are the president of the United States, the homeless man living on the street corner, the CEO of Kraft Food, or an out of work father each person, each living soul is worth the same to God. What Paul is talking about here isn’t just humility, it is about equality.
Our Gifted Lives
So Paul tells us that we are to lead changed and humble lives, lives that he will go on to explain further in the rest of chapter 12. But between this charge to live lives fully committed to God as living sacrifices, giving an example of a changed life being a humble life, Paul launches into this section on giftedness. Paul writes in verses 4-8, “4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.”
Paul begins by using his famous metaphor for the church: a body. And that metaphor applies just as well today as it did in Paul’s day. Each of us is different, and each of us is important. Without even one of us, the body would be less and would suffer because of it. Whether we are gifted to prophesy, minister, teach, exhort, give generously, to lead, or to be compassionate, we are to use these gifts for the glory of God.
And we must remember that anytime we see a list of Spiritual Gifts in the Bible that this is not an exhaustive list. Not every Spiritual Gift is listed here. I believe all of the things that we are talented at or good at is a gift from God. The Psalmist writes in Psalm 139:13, “13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” And a knitter knows the thread that they are using! Psalm 139 is all about how God knows us inside and out, top to bottom. “Oh Lord you have searched me and know me.” Of course God knows you and your giftedness…God made you.
Perhaps the most difficult part of using our Spiritual Gifts is to figure out what they are. Especially after we are told that we are to be humble. Okay, so we are told “don’t think more highly of yourself than you ought to think.” But then we are told that we are given these gifts and that we are expected to use them to glorify God. So if God had given me the gift of music, should I volunteer to sing a solo at church next week? That has never been my style because this doesn’t seem very humble to me. To say, “Hey, you will all benefit from me singing a solo” seems like I am a little on the other side of humble.
This is where the Barnabases in the church come into play. The contemporary of Paul named Barnabas was given that name because it means, “son of encouragement.” We need to be sons and daughters of encouragement to help people discern their giftedness and how they can use that giftedness for God’s church. Every year we have a group called the Gifts Discernment Committee that meets to select people for various roles in the church including people that help plan worship, Sunday School teachers and administrators, and fellowship committees. The job of the Gifts Discernment Committee is to see these giftednesses in other people and encouraging them to fulfill specific roles for the church.
But this is tough to do sometimes. I know that sometimes it is difficult when you feel strongly led to serve God in a specific role. A friend of mine named Richard is now 90 years old and a retired pastor. He felt a call to ministry at a young age, but it wasn’t until he was (I believe) in his forties that he started his first pastorate.
He had grown up in a system that selected its church leaders by the lot. Different churches do this differently, but the way I understand the lot is that two or three possible pastors are nominated from the congregation. Then there are three Bibles placed on a table, one of which has some sort of marker in it. The location of the marker is unknown by those who have been nominated. They then each pick up a Bible. The person that chooses the Bible with the marker in it becomes the new pastor. (This process differs from denomination to denomination, but the point is that God will choose the right person for the job through what seems to be mere chance.)
So Richard felt the call to ministry at a young age, but you didn’t dare say in those days that you felt called to the ministry. That would be prideful. If God wanted you in the ministry he would call you through the lot. I think that Richard and the church missed out on twenty-some years of professional ministry because Richard was not able to voice his personal call to use the gifts that God had given to him.
So where do we find middle ground? How can we announce that we feel led to serve God in a certain way without boasting in our giftedness? I believe that we need to test what we believe to be our giftedness with what other people believe to be our giftedness.
A person from the denomination office shared me one day that she would often get people coming to her office saying that they felt called to pastoral ministry. Her answer was always, “Great, who else says so?”
When we feel called to use what we perceive to be our gifts, it is helpful to have other people encourage us to use those gifts as well. Go to someone and ask them to pray for you, ask them their opinion to see if they see that giftedness in you. Balancing a humble attitude and using our Spiritual Gifts doesn’t need to be a difficult task.
So we are called to live lives different from the world around us, lives conformed not to the ways of the world but lives conformed to Christ himself. Those lives are to be humble lives, not considering ourselves better than others, but seeing all people through the eyes of God as equals. And we are to humbly discern how we can use the gifts that God has given to us to glorify God. Because the lives that we have been given are not our lives at all. They are God’s lives. That’s what being a living sacrifice is all about.