Sermon series: Living Beyond Yourself
Arthur Conan Doyle, the ingenious creator of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, once found great humor in a practical joke he played on 12 famous friends. Each of these men was virtuous and highly respected. For the joke, Doyle sent every one of them the same telegram: "Fly at once, all is discovered!" Within 24 hours, the dozen men of noble reputation had taken a trip out of the country! No matter how noble our reputation is, we all have things for which we are ashamed and hope no one discovers. The only lasting solution to a guilty conscience is the forgiveness of God Himself.
In the next few moments, we're going to deal with our failures. Sin is an obvious failure for us. What God would hope is not that we would dwell on our failures, but rather that we'd learn something from them. In fact, before I become buried in guilt, I'd like to keep this story in mind as we tackle the tough topic of sin.
A Louisiana farmer's favorite mule fell into a well. After studying the situation, the farmer came to the conclusion that he couldn't pull the mule out, so he might as well bury him. It would be the humane thing to do. So he got a truckload of dirt, backed up to the well, and dumped the dirt on top of the mule at the bottom of the well. But when the dirt hit the mule, it started snorting and tramping. As it tramped, it began to work itself up on top of the dirt. So the farmer continued to pour dirt in the well until the mule snorted and tramped its way to the top. It then walked away, a dirtier - but wiser - mule. What was intended to bury it turned out to be its salvation.
Being stuck in a deep well of sin and its consequences is a terrible experience.
I. The destructive power of sin
Part of the beauty of Romans 8 comes from its position in Paul's letter. In the preceding chapter, Paul takes a look at his own life, and his own shortcomings, and writes words like these:
"For I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate. For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For the desire to do what is good is with me, but there is no ability to do it. For I do not do the good that I want to do, but I practice the evil that I do not want to do. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this dying body?" (Romans 7:15, 18–19, 24 HCSB)
Had Paul ended his letter at that moment, it would have been one of the most depressing things any of us had ever read- not necessarily because we're disappointed in Paul, but because it rings so true in each of our hearts. We know we are a sinful people.
Dr. Bob Reccord tells the story of a major move that was set to take place inside the halls of a Fortune 500 company. It was unheard of, but the company was ready to promote a 38-year-old from vice president to president. The young man was a very impressive business man who wooed and awed the board of directors. Upon completing the final interview process, the board broke for lunch with plans to offer this man the prestigious position.
The young man went to lunch alone that day, and was unintentionally followed by several of the board members, who happened to stand in line behind him. Naturally, they were watching him closely, filled with pride and excitement about the coming announcement. Just then, everything changed. When the young man came to the bread section, he placed two, 3-cent butter patties on his tray and nonchalantly covered them up with his napkin. When he paid for his meal, he did not reveal the stolen treasures.
An hour later, a room that should have been filled with joy was instead marked by anger. And instead of being promoted to president, the young man with the promising future was fired - all for six cents worth of butter.
The smallest of our sins is costly, far more costly than any of us have ever imagined. Thankfully, Paul turned his attention away from his own sin, and back to the one who set him free from sin. The joy he had in writing of God's grace is what makes Romans 8 one of the greatest chapters in all the Bible.
II. God has broken the power of sin
Paul says that God has already set him free from the law of sin and death (8:1), and that while he couldn't beat the sin that had hounded him, God did by sending his own Son. This is coming from a chapter-seven man who still battled sinful leanings, a man who often lost those battles.
This should be a relief to us. God has already done the hard work in tackling the sin problem. Because of the cross, sin is defeated. Satan's greatest threat to any of us is a permanent separation from God because of our own sin. Satan sets the trap, and hopes we'll fall into it. But when Jesus gave his life up for the sake of sinners, the ultimate power of sin was defeated once and for all. Even though all of us have sinned and fallen short of God's glory (Romans 3:23), when we accept the gift of God's grace we can still experience God's glory as if we had never sinned at all.
Kevin Miller relates this story.
While staying with my friends, Tim and Jill Jones, I watched their hamster, Hammy, in his little cage. Hammy has a warm nest of cedar shavings to curl up in, a water bottle to drink from, and best of all, a wheel he can run inside of. He has everything a hamster could want or need.
But Hammy refuses to run inside his running wheel. Instead, he has come up with what he thinks is a better idea. Hammy climbs on top of the wheel, turns over on his back, and stretches out. Gradually the wheel starts to turn, and Hammy's entire body rolls with it, head first. The wheel picks up speed and spins faster and faster until CLUNK! Hammy's head smacks on the bottom of the cage. Hammy gets up, shakes himself, apparently hurt from the unexpected sharp blow on his head.
But what does Hammy do? He climbs back up on top of the wheel, turns over, stretches himself out, and gets ready to clunk his head again. Why? Why would a hamster who has everything he needs disregard the wheel's proper use and do something that only hurts himself? And why, even after that, would he do it again?
The bigger question is: Why do humans, who are supposedly smarter than hamsters, sometimes do the same thing?
Tom Watson, Sr., is the man who founded IBM. You can imagine the money, the investments, the experiments, this man, and his multi-billion dollar company have made through the years. Once, years ago, when a million dollars was still a million dollars, Watson had a top junior executive who spent $12 million of the company's money on a venture that failed. The executive put his resignation on Watson's desk saying, "I'm sure that you want my resignation." Watson roared back:, "No I don't want your resignation. I've just spent $12 million educating you. It's about time you get to work."
God won't accept your resignation. Instead, he'll accept your failures as part of the investment He has made in your spiritual growth. But now, he expects you to get to work! So let's do it. The second point of this message is the work room that requires the most sweat and toil.
But part if your game plan is to know that it can be done. Sin doesn't have the power to hold you prisoner. God has broken the chains. It's what Jesus had in mind when he cried those last words on the cross: "It is finished!"
III. Refuse the power of sin
The instruction from Romans 8 sounds a familiar chord from other biblical teachings. According to what Paul writes here (verses 5-8), the mind set on what our sinful nature desires will live by that sinful nature. On the other hand, if we set our minds on what the Spirit desires, we will live according to the Spirit. One mindset leads to death, and the other leads to life. One mindset leads to hostility with God, but the other leads to peace with God.
The very first psalm teaches the same principle, only with a different word picture:
"How happy is the man who does not follow the advice of the wicked or take the path of sinners or join a group of mockers! Instead, his delight is in the LORD’s instruction, and he meditates on it day and night" (Psalms 1:1–2 HCSB).
A man who meditates on the word of God will delight himself and God. But a man who doesn't control his mind will slow first to a walk with the counsel of the wicked, then he will stand in the way of sinners, and finally, he will sit in the seat of mockers. We should run a good race for Christ - not even slowing to a walk!
"No one undergoing a trial should say, 'I am being tempted by God.' For God is not tempted by evil, and He Himself doesn't tempt anyone. But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death".
James 1:13–15 HCSB
If you could go backwards through the progressive steps - from death to sin, from sin to the birth of sin, from the birth of sin to the desire to sin - you'll come to the point of your own evil desires. If at that point we take hold of the mind of Christ, we can break the progressive chain and stop its destructive cycle.
Paul says the key is to set our minds on what the Spirit desires. Is that a bad thing? The tempter would have us think that we've just missed out on some great experience, that God has actually punished us for leaving a life of sin. But picture this: When a man and woman fall in love and get married, they automatically stop some practices and start others. For instance, both the husband and wife stop dating other people, and start enjoying the companionship for which they had so long searched.
Later in Romans 12:2, Paul will writes these words to those who want to please God: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." Your transformed mind will make all the difference when it comes to enjoying or despising your walk with Christ. The power to break free from the chains of sin - the power that God has already provided - is already available to us, right now.
Just before he was executed for his terrible crimes, mass murderer Ted Bundy told James Dobson that his road to prison had begun with a look at a pornographic magazine. Porn was immediately addictive for him, and it led to actions that were an affront to God and society.
On the other hand, author and pastor Max Lucado took control of his mind and walked away from a potential problem with alcoholism. Lucado said, "I come from a family of alcoholism. If there's anything about this DNA stuff, I've got it."
For more than 20 years, drinking wasn't a major issue for Lucado. But in 2001, it nearly became one. Lucado recalled, "I lowered my guard a bit. One beer with a barbecue won't hurt. Then another time with Mexican food. Then a time or two with no food at all."
One afternoon on his way to speak at a men's retreat he began to plot: "Where could I buy a beer and not be seen by anyone I know?" He drove to an out-of-the-way convenience store, parked, and waited till all the patrons left. He entered, bought a beer, held it close to his side, and hurried to his car. "I felt a sense of conviction," Lucado remembers, "because the night before I'd had a long talk with my oldest daughter about not covering things up."
Lucado didn't drink that beer. Instead he rolled down the window, threw it in a trash bin, and asked God for forgiveness. He also decided to come clean with the elders of his church about what happened: "When I shared it with the elders, they just looked at me across the table and said, 'Satan is determined to get you for this right now. We're going to cover this with prayer, but you've got to get the alcohol out of your life.' And I really took that as from God."
Citation: Robert Andrescik, "America's Pastor Speaks to Men," New Man (Jan/Feb 2002); submitted by Van Morris, Mount Washington, Kentucky
IV. Live powerfully apart from sin
How you live is going to make a difference in the way you enjoy life. "So then, brothers, we are not obligated to the flesh to live according to the flesh, for if you live according to the flesh, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. All those led by God’s Spirit are God's sons" (Romans 8:12–14 HCSB).
Take the example of sexuality. A lifestyle of sexual sin can can lead to embarrassment, physical and medical ramifications, financial penalties, and a guilt-ridden sense of spiritual bankruptcy. On the other hand, a lifestyle that honors God's plan for sexuality, and the rules He has placed around it, can enrich a marriage and create the joy.
Controlling your mind and making progress in the battle against temptation become evident as we manifest spiritual fruit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
Those rewards are worth the effort. Having a powerful way to live is worth the battle.
With all this concentration on sin, most of us are left with a bit of worry. Does God really have enough grace for a sinner like me?
Author and Pastor Lee Strobel tells this story.
Shortly after the Korean War, a Korean woman had an affair with an American soldier, and she got pregnant. He went back to the United States, and she never saw him again. She gave birth to a little girl who looked different than the other Korean children. She had light-colored, curly hair. In that culture, children of mixed race were ostracized by the community. In fact, many women would kill their children because they didn't want them to face such rejection.
But this woman didn't do that. She tried to raise her little girl as best she could, until the rejection was too much. She did something that probably nobody in this room could imagine ever doing. She abandoned her little girl to the streets.
This little girl was ruthlessly taunted by people. They called her the ugliest word in the Korean language - "tooki" - alien devil. It didn't take long for this little girl to draw conclusions about herself based on the way people treated her.
For two years she lived in the streets, until finally she made her way to an orphanage. One day, word came that a couple from America was going to adopt a little boy. All the children in the orphanage got excited, because at least one little boy was going to have hope. He was going to have a family. So this little girl spent the day cleaning up the little boys - giving them baths and combing their hair - and wondering which one would be adopted by the American couple.
The next day the couple came, and this is what the girl recalled.
"It was like Goliath had come back to life. I saw the man with his huge hands lift up each and every baby. I knew he loved every one of them as if they were his own. I saw tears running down his face, and I knew if they could, they would have taken the whole lot home with them.
"He saw me out of the corner of his eye. Now let me tell you, I was nine years old, but I didn't even weigh 30 pounds. I was a scrawny thing. I had worms in my body. I had lice in my hair. I had boils all over me. I was full of scars. I was not a pretty sight. But the man came over to me, and he began rattling away something in English, and I looked up at him. Then he took this huge hand and laid it on my face. What was he saying? He was saying, 'I want this child. This is the child for me.'"
Lee Strobel, "Meet the Jesus I Know," Preaching Today Audio #211
With all our scars, with all that is wrong with us, with all the terrible consequences our sin has laid upon us, God still wants us. The cross is the proof. Romans 8 is the love letter. The only unknown about the entire story is whether those who hear the invitation will accept the offer of adoption by God's grace.