Sinners, Part One

Romans 1:18-32 (NLT)

But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.

Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles.

So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.

Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too.

We now move into a part of Romans where Paul, having described his desire to visit the church in Rome and his love of the Good News, turns to a darker subject. This is a meditation on the nature of sin.

In some ways, we also are being set up, just as Paul’s first audience was set up.

Paul begins with a simple assertion. Speaking of sinners in the third person, he says even they should be able to see evidence of God, which is revealed in God’s creation. You Luminary UMC folks know what Paul is talking about. When I ask during prayer time, “Where have you seen God,” you regularly praise the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, or the glory you have seen while hiking or boating.

Because sinners on some level can sense God’s presence, they have no excuse, Paul is saying. If you sense the presence of the one who is divine and eternal, then you should worship the Great Being, period.

It fascinates me that Paul easily could have used the story of Adam and Eve’s fall in Paradise as a backdrop for his discussion of sin, but that he chose not to do so. Certainly, Paul would have agreed we are born broken because sin entered the world long ago—that our minds are clouded. This is, after all, the same man who wrote, “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Here in Romans, however, Paul seems more interested in describing the pattern sinners follow as they fall deeper into sin.

The pattern begins with a breakdown in worship. In their arrogance, sinners begin to define God from their own clouded minds rather than from the great revelations about God we have been given over thousands of years. They may think they worship, but they instead commit acts of idolatry, the worship of lesser gods.

In Paul’s day, he would have been thinking specifically of the idol worshipers all around him in the dominant Greco-Roman culture. It’s not hard to modernize the example, however. I’ve already done that here in sermons on more than one occasion. Anything that is ranked in a person’s heart as more important than God is an idol.

A sinner’s career can certainly take precedence over God, as can the pursuit of security and possessions, which of course require money. Logic and reason are sharp, useful tools God has given us, but sinners abuse those tools if they use them to stab at the heart of faith.

Sometimes, even noble, beautiful ideas can become idols. For example, many people find it easy to elevate nation or family to the same level as God, and perhaps even above God. I have had to learn over time that the things of this earth we most cherish are best kept under God.

Much of the rest of Paul’s text today is dedicated to the repercussions of turning away from God. And yes, he talks very specifically about sexual sins at the heart of debates we are having in both church and state today.

He also moves from those very specific examples of sexual sins to other, more generalized sins, most of them striking at the root of how we treat one another. And in all of this, Paul seems to be indicating that sinners spiral more deeply into sin, unless, of course, they somehow embrace the Good News of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, the topic in Romans so important to the apostle.

This is a straightforward text. Paul is communicating clearly. Let me be clear regarding what I know is the more controversial part of the text, Paul’s discussion of homosexuality. Paul is calling this particular sexual behavior a sin. Also, he is not talking about a behavior occurring in some past context, a setting that is no longer relevant today.

He very specifically describes the acts and links them not to the specific events of first-century Rome, but to the general tendency of people who have taken their eyes off God to do ungodly things. He says these sinners even will teach others to commit those sins, sin begetting sin. Paul’s words serve as a lesson for today.

I also must emphasize that we are talking about statements made by a man who fully encountered the grace of Jesus Christ before making them. The man was all about grace—as we have seen already, he had a passion for the redemptive work of Jesus Christ that we seldom can match. And yet, in love, he continued to call a sin a sin.

At this point, I think I know most of Luminary UMC’s regulars well enough to know where we are right now. Having asserted homosexuality is, according to New Testament teaching, a sin, I have stirred emotions in many of you.

Some of you have friends or loved ones who call themselves gay or lesbian. It is likely that among this congregation there are people who have faced or are facing their own homosexual desires. Some of you may even be angry with me.

Others of you are inwardly rejoicing I said it. “Yay! Finally!” you’re thinking, although you perhaps also long for a time when such things were not discussed publicly.

I will close today by saying this to all of you who are part of this beloved church I pastor. Hang in there with me one more week. Hear me out one more Sunday. As I said at the first of this sermon, we are, in a way, being set up by Paul.

Next week, we will go to the slightly complicated place Paul is taking us, a place where we will stop talking about sinners in the third person. In other words, this will get even more personal.


Relentless and Scandalous

Third in a sermon series, “A Different Kind of Christmas”

The Old Testament doesn’t give us a lot of information about the prophet Hosea’s wife, Gomer. She may be described in English Bible translations as a promiscuous woman or a prostitute.

It may be that she worked in a pagan temple where ritualistic sex was associated with rain and the fertility of the land. It could be that she simply made several bad choices where relationships were concerned. What matters is this: To the Jews, she was a known sinner, a sexually broken, unworthy woman.

Don’t be too judgmental of Gomer, however.  Symbolically, unfaithful Gomer also is us. And what God communicates through this strange story in the Book of Hosea should be of great importance to us, particularly as we approach the Christmas season.

Despite Gomer’s reputation, God told the prophet Hosea to take her as his wife and to have three children by her. The story at first seems to be one of prophetic condemnation. Gomer’s sexual choices symbolize the religious infidelity of God’s chosen people, who repeatedly have worshiped other gods despite having been bound to the One True God.

In particular, the God-given names of the three children were designed to evoke images of what the people deserved for their idolatry. “Jezreel” served as a reminder of a brutal massacre and an image of what should happen to a people who turn from God. “Lo-ruhama” meant “no mercy,” and “Lo-ammi” meant “not my people.” Clearly, God was trying through this marriage of Hosea and Gomer to communicate displeasure.

The strange baseline for this story leads to an even stranger twist, however. After naming the children, God said this: “Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the Living God.’ ”

Despite sin, God intends to show mercy. Despite sin, God intends to call the Israelites his people.

This is followed by the second chapter of Hosea, which is largely poetry that speaks of a husband’s jealous love for a straying wife and his deep desire to return her to a state of faithfulness. And then in Chapter 3, Hosea is told to once again take an adulteress and love her. It’s unclear from the text if this woman was supposed to be Gomer, but for her sake, I like to think so.

God was saying through Hosea that even in his quite righteous anger, he loved the Israelites so much as to be relentless about his pursuit of them, despite the pain their sin caused him. Through his prophet, God even went so far as to predict their full return to him in the “latter days,” a promise found in Hosea 3:5.

As Christians, we believe this deep, even scandalous love has been extended to all the world through Jesus Christ. That expansion of the promise to all the world is the fulfillment of the promise made in the Old Testament that God’s children will be like “the sand of the sea,” uncountable.

It doesn’t matter what we have done. It doesn’t matter how far we have strayed, or how publicly humiliating our sin may have been. Whether we’ve been literal adulterers like Gomer, or pursuers of other godless wants and desires, God wants us back. God is willing to forgive and forget so that we may live in close union with our Creator for all eternity. All we have to do is believe in the effectiveness of the work Christ did on the cross.

As we’re told in Romans 3:23-24, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

When I read Hosea, I’m left wondering if Gomer was sensitive enough to God’s ways to understand the tremendous gift of mercy she had been given. She was allowed to live honorably and bear children despite the dishonor she deserved. She even received love where revulsion was to be expected.

When I read the Christmas story, I wonder the same thing about us. Do we understand how our sin should have separated us from God? Do we grasp what it means to be given holiness and eternal life despite the evil we have done?

Do we know and appreciate how much we are loved?