Sermon 09-02-12: “All Things New, Part 4: New Mind”

September 20, 2012

I apologize for the delay in posting this sermon… My trip to Kenya, which included very spotty wi-fi, put me behind!

As anyone who’s tried it knows, being a faithful follower of Jesus is difficult. We sometimes fail. We sin. But in today’s scripture, Paul tells us that something remarkable happens as we learn not to “conform to the patterns of this world”: we please God. God isn’t some overly demanding taskmaster that we can never make happy. Instead, God is like a great teacher or coach, who inspires us to do our best work. And like a great teacher or coach, our Lord takes delight in us.

What would Jesus love to see you do? Will you do it?

Sermon Text: Romans 12:1-8

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Much to my parents’ horror, my best friend in eighth and ninth grade was a guy named Jason. My parents were horrified because over the course of those two years, Jason became a punk-rocker—during a brief period of time when punk-rock and punk-rock fashions were popular among a small subsection of my high school. Not only did Jason listen to punk rock, he shaved his head into a mohawk—not a “faux”-hawk, mind you, but a real mohawk—and dyed it bright orange. He wore safety pins in his ears. He wore ridiculous punk-rock clothes, including a fashionably torn blue-jean jacket with these words painted on back: “Non-conformists unite!”

Non-conformists unite! He became famous, or infamous, around high school for this slogan, which he eventually spray-painted on an outside wall of the high school, an action for which he got suspended. Apparently, Jason failed to see the irony of the slogan “Non-conformists unite!” “Hey, all of you non-conformists out there!” he seemed to say. “Why don’t we all get together and form a social club?”

Which just goes to prove how difficult it is to be a non-conformist. The kids who “conformed,” by listening to Van Halen and wearing polo shirts with their collars turned up had many more friends and went on many more dates!

It’s hard to be a non-conformist, but Paul tells us in today’s scripture that this is literally what living a Christian life will mean for us. “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” I guess from an outsider’s perspective—if you’re Jewish or Hindu or atheist, for example—it may be hard to see how being a Christian—in this country, in this culture—is non-conformist.

If you haven’t noticed, it’s election season, which means both candidates for president want to show voters how Christian they are. Mitt Romney’s people are trying to convince voters that despite the fact that his Mormon faith puts him far outside the realm of orthodox Christianity, he really isn’t so different from other Christians. President Obama’s people are trying to convince voters that even though his policies on abortion and gay marriage put him at odds with most churches in this country, he really isn’t so different from other Christians. My point is, if you want to get elected president, it seems like you have to profess some version of Christian faith.

Being a Christian hardly seems anti-establishment or countercultural or non-conformist—until you meet someone whose life demonstrates the profound difference that Christian faith can make. Have you ever met a Christian who was just different from most people? I don’t mean different weird. Growing up, I had neighbors down the street who were devoted Christians, but they were different weird. The two boys in the family were friends of mine. They didn’t have a TV in their house. They couldn’t go see movies. They weren’t allowed to listen to any music that—I kid you not—had drums in it. Because drums were of the devil. Seriously! They loved coming over to my house, you know. I’d be like, “Do you want to go outside and throw the football.” And they’d be like, “No! Can we just stay inside and watch The Dukes of Hazzard?”

No, being a Christian should make us different but different in a good way—in a compelling way, in a way that wins people over, in a way that makes other people want what we have. Jane Rogers was a saint in our church who died recently. My favorite part of Dr. Martin’s eulogy last Monday was when he talked about what an effective witness for Jesus Jane was. She was an effective witness, he said, not only because she devoted so much of her life to God’s mission in the world—for example, by serving the people in the Gulf Coast whose lives were turned upside down by Hurricane Katrina—but especially because, no matter what she was doing, she showed the world that following Jesus should often be a happy and joyful and even fun experience. We probably know other Christians like Jane, for whom being a Christian makes them different in a good way.

But one problem we run into, which Paul refers to in verses 3 through 8, is this danger of comparing ourselves to other Christians. “Sure, that Christian has got it all together. Why can’t I be like that person?” When we start comparing ourselves to others, it’s easy to feel discouraged.

For example, I feel discouraged sometimes reading Facebook posts and status updates from some of my Christian friends and acquaintances—especially from fellow clergy. They’re all like “Jesus this,” and “Jesus that,” and look at this amazing thing that the Lord did in my life today, and my church is so awesome, and I’m so happy-happy-happy, and I’m so blessed-blessed-blessed. And I don’t think they’re lying, exactly, but I sometimes want to say, “Get real!” Aren’t there times when living a Christian life is very hard to do? Isn’t it a struggle sometimes? Isn’t it hard to trust in the Lord sometimes? I’m sympathetic with my friend Jason from high school: Not conforming to the patterns of this world is often a challenge.

A couple of weeks ago, a Christian writer named Rachel Evans discussed this problem on her blog. She said she recently discovered that her Christian life falls into a “sad and predictable cycle,” complete with five phases. “Phase 1,” she writes: “My commitment to Jesus is primarily an intellectual one. He is an idea I believe in, not a person I follow. Phase 2: I read through the Gospels again and realize that Jesus doesn’t want me to simply like him; he wants me to follow him. Phase 3: I buy the latest Shane Claiborne book, read it in two days, and resolve that following Jesus means selling all my things, sleeping with the homeless, and starting a monastic community.” Shane Claiborne, in case you don’t know, is a popular evangelical author who sold all of his possessions, started a monastic community, and sleeps with the homeless. Evans continues, “I begin looking into the cost of apartments in inner-city Nashville,” not too far from the small town where she lives.

Next comes Phase 4, and many of us can relate to it: She says that before she ends up selling all her possessions, sleeping alongside the homeless, and starting a monastic community, she remembers that she has a job, a mortgage, and a spouse—and her spouse doesn’t even read Shane Claiborne, so he may not go along with her radical plans. Besides, Rachel Evans doesn’t have kids yet. Many of us would have to add kids to our list of responsibilities that might prevent us from being the radical kind of Christian that we may want to be. After Evans realizes that she can’t be like Shane Claiborne, she moves onto Phase 5: “Heavy with guilt and overwhelmed by the insurmountable nature of my own convictions,” she writes, “I give up and revert right back to Phase 1. Following Jesus, it seems, just isn’t realistic.”

Do you ever feel this way as a Christian?

Nike debuted a popular new ad campaign during the Olympics called “Find Your Greatness.” It was inspiring. It almost inspired me to give up running barefoot and go buy a pair of running shoes! Almost! Sorry, Nike. See, the commercials featured not world-class Olympic athletes but ordinary people like you and me, all of whom, the announcer tells us, have greatness within them. This one commercial showed this kid jogging in the early morning. He is obese, and he hardly fits the image of an athlete. Yet by committing himself to getting in shape, striving to put one foot in front of the other, he’s demonstrating this same beautiful quality of greatness that resides within Olympic champions. Tons of people responded positively to this commercial, and I understand why. We want to be perfect, but, let’s face it, we probably never will be, and it discourages us. It discourages me! I like to run, and I would love to be one of those ripped guys with six-pack abs and what I call “runner’s face.” [Suck in cheeks.] I don’t know what else to call it—that thin, muscular face that really good athletes have. I ran this 5K race last June in Athens, and I met this guy before the race, and he had one of those faces—and I thought, “Oh, man! This guy’s going to beat me!” Because he’s one of those guys who works out a lot. And he did beat me.

So just because I can’t be that ripped guy with six-pack abs and runner’s face, does that mean I should give up on exercise altogether? No. It shouldn’t be all or nothing—we’re either perfect or we’re failures, and there’s no in-between. And isn’t this also true of living a Christian life?

I know a person who, on more than one occasion, has tried to follow one of those “read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year” reading plans. And he’s failed every time. And he feels guilty. Are you like that? Maybe you can’t read through the whole Bible in a year. But I bet you can get one of those Upper Room devotional magazines and read a little bit of the Bible today. Maybe you can’t afford to go on a mission trip to a third-world country. But I bet you can look in the church bulletin or on our website and find some way to serve other people right here in this church, or in this community. Maybe you can’t tithe right now. But I bet you can learn to give something to God on a regular basis. Maybe you can’t be like Billy Graham and lead a lost person to saving faith in Jesus Christ. But I bet you can find the courage to invite a friend to church some time.

When it comes to living a Christian life, it shouldn’t be all or nothing. This process of “presenting our bodies as living sacrifices,” being transformed through the renewing our minds, learning not to “conform to the patterns of this world”—it’s not supposed to be easy. But Paul gives us something in today’s scripture that we might find very encouraging. Twice in Romans 12:1-2, Paul indicates that whenever we do this difficult thing of “not conforming to the patterns of the world,” when, in spite of the challenges, we do what God wants us to do, something amazing happens. Do you know what it is? We please God. God takes delight in us. We give God pleasure.

I learned something about myself last week: Before I spent time reflecting on this scripture, I never really thought much about how my actions can please God. I don’t know about you, but I think I’ve lived my Christian life believing that God can never really be happy with me. I mean, I know he forgives me, and saves me, because of what Christ did on the cross. But God also has these impossibly high standards, and how can I ever measure up? If I do what God wants me to do, that’s like an “S” in conduct, instead of getting an “N” or a “U”; God expects no less than perfection, so how can we not constantly disappoint God?

This isn’t at all what Paul says here, and this is good news!

As many of you know, I’m leaving for Kenya on a mission trip on Wednesday. People come up to me and say, “Oh, you must be so excited!” And I’m like, “No. I’m not excited! I’m a little scared. I’m apprehensive. This is far outside of my comfort zone.” But when I tell some people this, they’re like, “Well, then why are you going?” And I’m like, “Duh. I’m going because the Lord is sending me! Why else?” If I didn’t go, I would be letting God down. And I would feel guilty.

But that’s not the way to think about it.

Have you ever had a great teacher or coach? They’re tough. They demand a lot from you. They have high expectations. But if they’re great at what they do, you want to do your best work for them—not simply to avoid punishment—but to to make them happy, to win their praise and approval, to bring them pleasure, to make them proud of you. Our Lord is the greatest teacher, the greatest coach of all!

Jesus knows and appreciates that going on this trip is outside my comfort zone. I think that he loves that I’m willing to do it anyway! That by going on this trip, not only am I not disappointing him, I’m actually doing something that he will take delight in. That he’ll be proud of. Forget about not letting him down or not disappointing him! I want to make him happy. I want to please him. And the Bible says I can. And I will! I’m going to please the Lord when I pack my bags on Tuesday. And I’m gong to please the Lord when I go to the airport. And I’m going to please the Lord when I get on that plane. And I’m going to please the Lord when I try my best to do good work for the his kingdom. And when I get back next week, I’m going keep on looking for other ways that I can please him—even when it means stepping outside of my comfort zone

[Eric Liddle, Chariots of Fire] I want to feel God’s pleasure!

How about you? What would Jesus love to see you do? Will you do it?

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