Romans 12:1-8 Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.
3 For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think. Instead, think sensibly, as God has distributed a measure of faith to each one. 4 Now as we have many parts in one body, and all the parts do not have the same function, 5 in the same way we who are many are one body in Christ and individually members of one another. 6 According to the grace given to us, we have different gifts:
If prophecy, use it according to the standard of one’s faith; 7 if service, in service; if teaching, in teaching; 8 if exhorting, in exhortation; giving, with generosity; leading, with diligence; showing mercy, with cheerfulness.
If you’ve ever attempted to read the Bible from cover to cover, chances are you made it through Genesis and maybe Exodus. Somewhere in Leviticus, I’m guessing, your head began to spin. You became bogged down with the deluge of details about sacrifices.
In the liturgy of Israel, sacrifice was the divinely ordered Means of Grace by which God gave blessings to His people. The Israelites sacrificed cows, sheep, goats, turtledoves, pigeons, wheats and grains. They offered burnt sacrifices, sin sacrifices, guilt sacrifices, peace sacrifices and meal sacrifices.
Throughout the Old Testament times, God’s people brought animals to the Lord’s altar. The priest would ceremonially kill these animals and formally present them to the Lord. The sacrifices then symbolically became the Lord’s property.
I’m guessing that you did not bring a goat or lamb with you to church today for sacrifice. That’s OK. God doesn’t want any more dead sacrifices. He wants a living sacrifice. St. Paul explains: “Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship.”
Don’t you find Paul’s terminology odd? He urges a “living sacrifice.” But, by definition, sacrifices are killed and left for dead on the altar. St. Paul is teaching us that our own personal sacrifice should be more than the waving of wheat or an unblemished goat. Our sacrifice should be more than a few coins set aside for the work of the gospel. Though our sacrifice could include those things, it should be radically more.
We are no longer to be bringing something else as a substitute. As Christians, we are to be bringing ourselves. We are not offering up a dead sacrifice, but living sacrifices that are able to respond to God’s mercy with service that is “holy and pleasing” to Him. This will now be life for life.
We don’t have to bring these dead sacrifices anymore because the greatest sacrifice of all died on God’s altar of the cross. Jesus was the perfect sacrifice. He is the fulfillment of all those Old Testament sacrifices. He is the culmination of all the guilt, sin, and peace sacrifices. He gave His life for our lives. Now, we give our lives to Him in return. He died in service to us. Now, we live in service to Him.
Our motivation for serving God is not because we have to. It isn’t in order to gain God’s mercy … rather, it is in response to receiving God’s mercy. When hearing about the love God has for us in sending His Son as our sacrifice, why would we not want to live sacrificial lives in return?
We are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices because of the mercies of God. Notice that the word “mercies” is plural. Some English translations have “mercy,” but the word is plural. God’s mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23).
We speak because we have been spoken to by God. We serve as we have been served by God. We teach as we have been taught by God. We encourage as we have been encouraged by God. We contribute to the needs of others because God has taken care of our needs. We give generously because God has given His Son and salvation generously to us. We lead because our Good Shepherd is leading us to heaven. We show mercy because God has poured out His mercies on us.
This is our spiritual worship. This is more than mere mechanics, more than sitting in a pew for an hour each week. Worship is an attitude of the heart. Your spiritual worship is an attitude of praising and glorifying God in every action of your lives – cheering your child from the sideline, helping a fellow student with a question on her homework, cutting your elderly neighbor’s lawn for her, washing the dishes or filling up the gas tank for your spouse. When these are done out of love and faith in God, then they are as much a part of your worship to God as singing hymns in church.
God’s mercies change the way we look and act in our world. It is our natural inclination to conform. We want to be liked by those around us. We want to be accepted by society. We value popularity and approval. We don’t want to be slandered as old-fashioned, bigoted or homophobic. Even if we don’t necessarily agree right away, it is much easier for us to conform to the decadence and immorality around us than to stand up against this tidal wave of depravity.
The devil has all this media and entertainment at his disposal to get us to conform to his evil ways. Facebook, Netflix, Disney, the New York Times, CNN, Beyonce – they all force us in their own ways to give up our Christianity and conform to the atheism of our culture. This is why the church elders and your pastors so strongly encourage you to be faithful in weekly worship, in using daily devotions, and reading God’s Word with your family. God’s Word is the only defense and offense for you and your children against the devil’s onslaught that is all around us.
St. Paul teaches: “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.” Paul says, no more conforming to this age. Instead, be transformed by God’s mercies renewing your mind. Instead of living to please ourselves, we now look for opportunities to live and act that give glory to God. Rather than looking to gain things from others, we look for ways to serve others.
St. Paul illustrates how we are to serve others by using the imagery that as Christians, we are part of the same body, with Christ as the head. “Now as we have many parts in one body, and all the parts do not have the same function, in the same way we who are many are one body in Christ and individually members of one another.”
One of the great mistakes that we see in the church today is the individualization of Christianity. People talk about their “personal relationship with Jesus.” Or, they say they are on a “walk with the Lord.”
When we focus on the “me” of our Christianity, then we slowly fade away from the connection to our church home. Why come to church when I can hear the Word at my leisure at home? Why force myself to get up on a day when I can sleep for something I can watch or read anytime I want on the internet? Why do I need to share my faith or give more in offerings or become more involved if Christianity is about me? Those things benefit other people.
The Bible doesn’t speak about “me and Jesus.” It speaks about me, and Jesus, and all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. It always speaks about our relationship to the body of Christ, the priesthood of all believers, the white-robed saints.
No matter which image of the Church you choose – citizens of a kingdom, sheep of the Good Shepherd, stones in a temple, members of a body – the biblical view of the Christian is always part of a larger whole. Even when you pray by yourself, with the doors locked and it’s just you and your Father in heaven, you pray as Jesus taught, “Our Father” … “Give us this day our daily bread.” Even alone, you always pray in the plural “us” and “we” because you are a part of the body of Christ.
Each part of the human body has different gifts. So, too, does the body of Christ. Each of us is gifted in some way for the common good of the congregation. Paul teaches: “I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think.” The thing about gifts is that it’s better to have others tell you about how gifted you are than for you to decide for yourself. Have you ever had someone after church tell you what a nice singing voice you have? … I haven’t, but perhaps you have. Or, maybe they see your artistic ability or the way you encourage others or that you are good at math or good at fixing things or you have a passion for children. You may not volunteer for doing any of those things in the church, but the Church of Christ needs you and wants to make use of your gifts. For the building up of the body of Christ.
President John Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” The apostle Paul might have put it this way: “Ask not what the body of Christ can do for you; but ask what you, as a member of the body, can do for the body of Christ.”
That is why I want to encourage you to be committed to doing three things as a member at Epiphany. Promise to be faithful in worship every single week. God feeds your faith through His Means of Grace and reminds you of His mercies in Christ when you are in these pews. Promise to be in at least one Bible study each week. God uses His Word to drive out the devil and selfish, sinful nature and conform you to His holy will. And promise to be involved in one ministry at Epiphany.
Maybe that means fixing or painting something. Maybe that is counting money or serving as an usher. Maybe that is visiting the homebound or inviting our school families to worship. Just be involved in something extra.
There is an old adage in the church that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. But, imagine what could be done if 80% of our members did the work of the church. What could be accomplished if 280 of our 350 members were doing more than they are doing now? How full would this church be if 80% of our 450 souls were in worship every week? We would have 360 in worship. What could God do if those faithful members were bringing their regular firstfruit offerings with them?
The Church is where you learn to receive mercies from God, so that you can share those mercies with others.
The Church is where Christ made Himself nothing to give you everything, so that you can make yourself nothing, giving yourself away. Because in Christ, you have nothing to lose.
The Church is where we learn about sacrifice. Christ sacrificed Himself for us. Now we respond to that sacrifice by doing what is not necessarily fun or what comes naturally to us.
Can any of us do more than we are now? I suspect that we all can. We might not want to give more time or more dollars or more effort. It might feel like a burden or our unfair share. Our flesh may scream against us giving more or doing just one more thing or taking on something new.
But, when it screams, that is when we know that our lives are being laid on the altar of sacrifice. Then we can become a living sacrifice to the Lord. Amen.