The First Sunday after Epiphany
January 11, 2015
“How to Please God”
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Romans 12:1-5
Last Sunday’s Epistle Lesson, which was also the text for the sermon, treated the central truth of our Christian religion: justification by faith alone. This is how we confess this precious truth in the Augsburg Confession:
This teaching affects everything we Christians think, say, and do. If you think the Christian religion consists in doing those things that will get God to give you what you want, you have a certain kind of religion. If you think Christianity is primarily a matter of being nice to people and avoiding conflict, you have another kind of religion. If you believe that God gave you his law to show you how to secure his approval and find your way to heaven, you have another kind of religion. If you believe that God has declared you to be righteous before him, has forgiven you all your sins and that he looks upon you favorably for the sake of Christ’s obedience and sacrifice for you, well then you have an entirely different kind of religion, and you are in a position to live a life that is pleasing to God.
You cannot please God by what you do until you are pleasing to God. First you must be robed in Christ’s righteousness. Only then can you do righteous deeds that please God. First you must receive God’s mercy in Christ.
This is how we approach God. And then God is glorified in the highest heaven by bringing his peace and goodwill to us here below. This is how to worship God. Come to him as a beggar. Admit your unworthiness. Humble yourself. Confess your sins. Offer no defense. Offer nothing to God but his boundless grace revealed in his Son who lived and died for us. Believe him when he tells you that you are justified by his blood.
From receiving God’s mercy you can worship him in truth. You can offer your body as a living sacrifice to him. Jesus’ offering unto death sanctifies our offerings. God doesn’t need our blood. We need his. And when we have it, when we have his righteousness, his favor, and his forgiveness, then the offering of our bodies is holy and acceptable to him. Our lives are lives of worship.
Your body is not your own. It belongs to him who redeemed you. St. Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth:
To present our bodies as living sacrifices to God means that we do not offer them to our own sinful passions. Sins of disobeying proper authority, violence against the neighbor, sexual immorality, theft, lying, and the like, is submitting to a slavery from which God has graciously set us free. St. Paul writes in Romans 6:
Worship isn’t just about what we do in church. It’s about how we live in the world. We think about what we do. We’re not driven by instinct or desire, like animals. We can think. We can consider. When we take to heart the truth God reveals to us that truth transforms our minds. The truth that God reveals to us in Christ reveals his will to us, what St. Paul here calls “his good and acceptable and perfect will.”
Figuring out God’s will is, in some respects, impossible. In many respects we are flying blind all the time. Consider the bus accident over in Larimore, the terrorist attack in Paris, the flood, the tornado, the murder, the heart attack, and then ponder our profound ignorance of God’s hidden will. God is God and we’re not and when we presume to pry into his mind we find ourselves swallowed up in darkness!
But in the most important respects, we know perfectly well what God’s will is. We know it is God’s will that he be merciful to us. His Son humbled himself from the time he was born, in order to bear the burden of our debt, our guilt, and our sin. It is God’s will that we imitate the humility of him who has taken away our sin. This is what God wants. This is what God treasures. He treasures our imitation of his Son.
See how our humility is expressed. First, we don’t think too highly of ourselves. Then, we consider that every Christian is a member of the same body but has a different function. We enjoy unity and diversity at the same time. We are one. We share the same Savior, the same faith, the same divine truth by which we are saved, and we belong to the same body, the holy Christian Church. Since we all belong to Christ’s body we belong to one another.
Yet we are not all the same. We have different natural talents. We have been given different opportunities. We have different jobs. The value of what we do is not determined by the standards of the world because we do not conform ourselves to this world. The world measures what it does by how much praise it gets, how many people know about it, how much money it makes, how much prestige or status is attached to it, and so forth. The world looks at the deeds it does as a means of self-advancement.
But we are already justified by God. We can’t become any more righteous than we already are. So we judge neither ourselves nor our fellow Christians by the value of what we do, but by our value as members of the body of Christ. That value is determined by God. Our deeds have value, not because of the benefits we can see, but because everything we do we do as Christians who live under the grace of God.
Two things go together: faith and love. Faith does not do anything at all. Faith trusts in the doing of another. St. Paul writes in Romans 4:4-5,
To make faith into our good work ruins it. Then our good work competes with Christ’s good work and we end up trusting in our faith instead of Christ. That’s poison to the soul. Faith does nothing. You do nothing to make yourself righteous, nothing at all. Faith simply receives. God says it, faith believes it, and so we have it.
Love goes together with faith, but it must be distinguished from it. Whereas faith is passive – doing nothing, and receiving everything – love is active. It is constantly doing. It does whatever benefits the neighbor. It doesn’t do what benefits the one doing it because the one who loves has, through faith, every benefit he could possibly have. He doesn’t have to do to get. He already has. He can give without fear of losing. He can bear in patience with others’ faults. There is nothing love cannot bear, because it already has, through faith, the very riches of heaven.
The unity of the church and the humility of Christians go together. The strife in the world and the pride of power, possessions, and status go together. The world extols its wisdom even when it acts the fool by denying God and his only begotten Son. The world treasures its wealth, even though everyone dies and leaves his money for someone else to spend. The world treasures power and rank and status, even though we see how the mighty are fallen every time we open a newspaper.
Do not be conformed to this world, dear Christian. It has nothing to offer you of lasting value. Treasure the gospel of Christ, the sermon of the angels to the shepherds, the light of Epiphany, the preaching of the cross. That’s what Jesus was learning when he lingered on at the temple after his parents had gone home to Nazareth. It was the Festival of the Passover. Jesus himself was the Passover Lamb whose blood marks our doors and causes the angel of death to pass over us. To know that you will never die! To know that you live under the favor of God! The world’s promises cannot compare!
Rolf D. Preus