[We held our last praise service in fellowship hall this evening. There are plans to redevelop the service, but it will take time -- there are many unanswered questions. Our pianist did some flip-flop engineering to keep the piano from moving around as she played. These little shoes sacrificing themselves fit well with my message on 'Living Sacrifices.' I felt so sad as I preached. I have cherished this little niche for preaching, and it is going away. I will also dearly miss collaborating with the musical director who is stepping down, as well as miss listening to her praise band. It is a sad time for me.]
So then, my friends, because of God’s great mercy to us I appeal to you: Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him. This is the true worship that you should offer. Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God — what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect.
Paul wrote the letter to the Romans 25 years after the time of Jesus. He had not been to Rome to visit the new Christian communities there, but he wanted to go. So he wrote this letter as an introduction, to tell them about what he believed and what he wanted to do.
Through most of the letter, Paul speaks about the wonderful things God has done for us in Christ. Forgiveness of sins, new life in the Spirit, and the hope of eternal life. These are God’s mercies to us. At this point in the letter, Paul shifts direction and answers the questions, “So what? What do we do in response to God’s grace in Christ?”
In answer to this Paul says, “My dear brothers and sisters, I urge you, in view of God’s mercies, to present yourselves [literally your bodies] to God as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. This is what worship looks like.” The idea of sacrifice was well known in Paul’s time. If you wanted to please the gods, or God, you took an animal from your flock or herd, you went to the holy place and offered it to the deity on an altar, and you hoped this pleased God or the gods. This act seems strange to us, but it was common to them. We make our offerings in a different way today. We sacrifice some of our money, put it in an offering plate, and put it on the altar, hoping that this is pleasing to God. Today, Paul might tell us, “In response to God, put yourselves in the offering plate. Become a living offering.”
So we are to be living sacrifices, living offerings. What does this look like? I’d like to share with you three images that may help.
1) The year is 1775, right at the start of the American revolution. A man named Paul Revere is going to make his famous midnight ride to warn people about the movement of British troops. Earlier that evening, a less well known event happened. Revere had to cross a river to get to the horse he was to ride. Two boatmen were to ferry him across in a rowboat. Problem is, there was a large British warship stationed in the river. Moonlight was not a problem, but the boatmen worried their oars would be heard on the water by the British as they went by. They had forgotten to bring mufflers to quiet the oars. They knocked on the door of a house, and a woman’s head popped out of an upstairs window. They explained the problem to her. They needed cloth to muffle the oars. She said, “Just a minute” and went back inside. The heard the rustle of petticoats, and then out of the window flew a long woolen undergarment. It was still warm. They cut off the two legs of the underwear and tied them to the oars to muffle them. Revere got across the river safely and continued on his mission. This woman gave her underwear to the cause, and she reminds me of all the sacrifices people would make when the War of Independence began the next day. They gave their clothing, their money, their bodies and their lives in a cause larger than self. We enjoy the United States of America today because in 1775 so many Americans were willing to become living sacrifices, offering themselves to the cause of freedom.
2) For the second image, we move from colonial Boston to Detroit today. Cass Community Social Services serves the poor and needy in Detroit. Last month a group from our church went up to Cass for a mission trip. We served the poor along with the Cass workers. On our last night there, we went swimming at the home of Faith Fowler, the director of Cass. It was about 9 pm when Faith arrived to meet us. We had been there already for an hour or so. Faith had worked all day, driven to Ann Arbor to teach a class at U of M, and finally gotten back to her home late. The first thing she did was to start building a fire for us in the fire pit, bringing out food to cook s’mores. Her instinctive response, after a long day of working, was to become our servant in this way. Cass does wonders serving the poor in Detroit, and they are able to do what they do because for 17 years Faith Fowler has been their director. She has offered herself to God as a living sacrifice. She served us just as she serves everyone else.
3) The last example is this praise service itself, which we have had for over 7 years. Early on, when the praise service was new, we invited MM to come and give us his opinion and his advice. After the service he said to us, “This is a lovely offering to God.” What encouragement that was to us! M understood immediately the nature of this praise service. From the beginning, it has been a living offering to God. And it has been the result of many people working together. Here is a list of nearly 40 names of people who have been involved in Ascend, either as techies or with music. [read list, ending with S] In addition, although I have been the main preacher for the service, we have had others preach, both clergy and laypeople. Others have helped with childcare, with communion, with food and refreshments, and with the sound equipment. I haven’t seen anyone throwing their underwear out the window, but in many ways people have offered their time and talent in order to make this service a living offering to God. As you know, this is the last praise service as we know it, with S and D stepping down after so many years of service. What the service will be in the future is not clear, but there are dedicated folks working now to redevelop and rebirth the service. So have patience, wait, pray and see what will come.
One last thought. Twice in our scripture, Paul speaks about how we can be pleasing to God. I like that word, pleasing. In your life, you have people you love, and nothing could lesson your love for them, and sometimes there are things they do that are especially pleasing to you. It’s the same with God. God loves us always, and there are times when what we do is especially pleasing to God. Paul says we are pleasing when we become living sacrifices and step into the offering plate ourselves. We say, “Here I am, God. My life came from you, and my life will return to you. My life is yours. Use me and my gifts in a way that honors you.” When we offer ourselves to God in this way, we can be sure that God is pleased.