The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
July 31, 2016
We dedicated the five Sundays of this month to the consideration of the seemingly incongruent idea that we liberate the Almighty to accomplish His will for us.
I hope that by now any sense of incongruence has vanished by seeing how God has bound Himself by a promise to respect our self-sovereignty and thus has put us in a position where we can either prevent Him from doing what He’d like or set Him free to make it happen.
This sermon series is about giving God full freedom of movement in our lives – granting Him access to every part of them, letting Him call all the shots, permitting Him to re-order our priorities, and giving Him the go-ahead to do whatever He wants however He wants.
Today, in the last of this series, we look at allowing God to reorient the preoccupations of our minds.
Romans 12:2 says that Christians are transformed by the renewal of their minds. No wonder then that the Apostle Paul here urges us to “set [our] minds on things that are above” – where Christ is and where our best life originates. As we aim our thinking toward God, we enter more deeply the new order of existence He’s created by Christ’s death and resurrection. The focus of our minds lays out the direction of our lives.
The biblical scholar N.T. Wright tells of how the mother of a friend reacted when the teenager announced he’d become a Christian. Alarmed, she thought her son had joined some kind of cult. “They’ve brainwashed you!” she exclaimed in dismay. He, however, was ready with the right answer: “If you’d seen what was in my brain, you’d realize it needed washing!”
Of course, the teenager hadn’t been brainwashed. He’d only experienced what people experience after becoming Christ’s friends: a clearing of the mind and a new understanding of where the real action in life happens.
“If anything,” Wright reflects, “it’s our surrounding culture that brainwashes us, persuading us in a thousand subtle ways that the present world is the only one there is.” It’s seldom argued. It’s just assumed, and we unconsciously go along with the mood and presumptions of our culture. Only when we encounter the reality of Christ in scripture and experience, and we’re jolted by His light and love into an awareness of what lies behind what first meets the eye, do we view things differently.
It’s so easy, however, to let these truths slip through our mental fingers. It takes persistent effort to re-program our thinking, to remind ourselves of reality despite the appearance of things and, most importantly, to recall who we are as new creations crucified with Christ and resurrected to a new kind of existence.
The Bible tells us that Christ fundamentally changes believers at the unseen core of their soul. They are so transformed that they have become in their essence, as Romans 6:11 says, “dead to sin and alive to God” – though the full reality of that new identity is “hidden with Christ in God” and will not be fully revealed until Christ Himself is fully revealed. Believing in our as-of-yet mostly invisible identity leads to the visible transformation of our conduct and character. For our remembering who we are determines who we become.
King Edward VIII once spoke about his upbringing as a prince destined to become the king of England one day. He said, “My father [King George V] was a strict disciplinarian. Sometimes when I had done something wrong, he would admonish me, saying, ‘My dear boy, you must always remember who you are.’”
Few could see the future king in that frequently misbehaving boy, but his royalty was in truth his present identity as well as his future destiny. In the same way, we – who often cannot see it – must remember our identity and destiny in Christ. One day we shall, the Bible tells us, look very much like Him, and we will reign in heaven with Him. If with the eyes of faith, we can fix our focus on the person we shall in Him yet become – a person free from sin, smallness and stupidity; a person full of courage, righteousness and love – we will expedite the fulfillment of our God-given potential.
If we will but reorient our minds, Christ will make the possibilities of our lives extraordinarily different. He will break the chains that bind us to the past, and forge new ones by which to draw us into a better future.
To believe all this is to realize that sin is actually beneath us, and thus to repudiate impurity, greed, meanness and dishonesty. It is to live true to our new identity and practice those behaviors that are in line with who we’ve become by God’s adopting us into His family.
Craig Barnes, the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, tells of how when he was a child his parents adopted a 12-year-old boy named Roger. Roger’s parents had died from drug overdoses, and there was no one left to care for him. So the Barnes’s decided to raise him as if he were their own.
At first, it was difficult for Roger to adjust to being a part of a family without wild, heroin-addicted adults, and to learn what it means to be a member of the Barnes family. Often Craig would hear one of his parents say to Roger: “No, Roger, that’s not how we behave in this family.” “No, Roger, you don’t have to scream or fight or hurt people to get what you want.” “No, Roger, we expect you to show respect in this family.”
Over time Roger began to change and take on a family resemblance. He didn’t have to look like a Barnes to gain his place in the family, for he had been given it as a gift of grace. He just had to remember who he’d become and follow up on the new possibilities that gift opened up, seeking to bring to light what would still be mostly hidden: his new identity in grace.
In the same way, we don’t do the hard work of self-improvement in order to enter the family of God; we do it because, simply by God’s grace, we have already been made members of it and thus people with a new identity. Improving ourselves is just bringing to light what God has already done with us.
We set our minds on things above, that the reality of God’s grace might grab and hold our attention, and our fixed focus on Christ might liberate Him to bring us into our new destiny. Let us pray.