We are probably all aware of the Romantic poet, Shelley’s famous poem “Ode to a Skylark,” the one that begins, “Hail to the blithe spirit, bird thou never wert.” His praise is rich and fulsome in his 105 lines to the glorious music of this small bird. He writes,
“Better than all measures/ Of delightful sound /Better than all treasures/ That in books is found”
But he ends with what does this urge me to be and to do? And he says,
“That such harmonious madness/From my lips would flow/That the world should listen then/As I am listening now.”
His deepest wish is to encourage his readers to live in such harmony together – but he describes it as “madness” to think so – “harmonious madness.”
A similar kind of aspiration is occurring at the beginning of Romans Ch 12.
In chapter 11, Paul offers fulsome praise of God to his readers. He is indulging in triumphant praise, everything we are, everything we have comes from God. Everything that exists, the whole of creation is his handiwork and is sustained by his power and love and his final words in Chapter 11 are:
“To God be the glory for ever and ever,”
The action resulting from this praise does reminisce the harmony that Shelley refers to, but first Paul wants to offer God the highest form of worship that he can and N.T. people would really understand that that would be sacrificial offering.
“Therefore I urge you, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing as a spiritual act of worship.” v 1
Sacrifice was certainly an integral part of Jewish worship in those days, and it would also be completely understood as religious ritual throughout the Roman Empire. But it is not the case for us, and what Paul is saying here in most interesting, for he is encouraging his readers and us to look at our Christian lives as acts of worship, every day and in every moment, by being “living sacrifices,” living being the operative word. Tom Wright explains, that whereas the sacrifices in the Temple were killed, the Christian’s self-offering is all about “coming alive with new life and living covering all aspects of our life.” And there are no half measures with Paul, he means all aspects. We cannot compartmentalise life into aspects where God is or is not present. God is present all the time, in every moment.
But, says Paul, it is not that straightforward and he includes this warning in v2. Using Tom Wright’s translation.
“Don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age.”
Apparently first century Jews believed that world history was divided into the present age and the age to come. The present age symbolises “evil” i.e. rebellion against God; and the age to come is where God would bring new life to the world, justice, joy, peace. This is the crucial point – Paul believed that the age to come had already begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
With the dawning of the new age, comes the warning, “don’t be squeezed out of shape by the patterns of this world.” Paul is encouraging us to think through every aspect of our human society, to be certain that we live and behave the way that Jesus taught. The key to this activity, that is, being able to view society objectively, to be able to see every moment and situation in the light of God’s purpose for us… is the
“transforming or renewing of the mind.” V2
Tom Wright says this is very important – “it means understanding why life is meant to be lived one way rather than another. Life can have silly, shallow patterns of behaviour that can be copied unthinkingly.” Some might easily spring to mind for you. Let’s try and illustrate this.
In Australia, two major highways, intersecting, can create a massive junction, where you need binoculars to see the other side as you draw up to the traffic lights. There can several lanes going off left and right and many heading straight on. You can have Tom Tom shouting in your ear, “In 20 yards turn right,” then “TURN RIGHT!” So there is no choice but to select a lane. Having done so, a miracle happens, some gorgeous, wonderful highways engineer has painted a white line on the road and all you have to do is follow that white line into the distance and it takes you safely and exactly to where you want to go. Paul is saying, “Don’t dither about at the junctions of life, view society objectively, select the lane and then follow guidelines that Jesus taught us, through the patterns and behaviours of society choosing those that set us apart as creators of a better world where thoughts, words and actions are life enhancing, life supporting and life fulfilling.
Now Paul’s expectations are always sky high, but at least we know what we are aiming for, creating ourselves anew in every single moment to be the expression of God’s likeness. Paul calls it “being transformed!” In the Harry Potter stories, the headmaster of Hogwarts School has the magical bird, the Phoenix, sitting on a perch in his office. In one of the stories, the bird shocks Harry by collapsing in a cloud of ashes, but later is transformed into an even more beautiful representation of the Phoenix, capable of great acts. Paul doesn’t expect us to collapse in a cloud of ashes, but by keeping our minds spiritually alert and active in all that is going on around us, we can be transformed to be better than we were.
God doesn’t expect us to be perfect, but rather that we try to be the best that we can be.
But while we are trying to be the best that you can be – here comes another warning, “Don’t think more highly of yourselves than you ought.”v 3
The Roman Christians were involved in the merits of status. Premier status for them, was like e.g. civil authority. That was top ranking, Premier League. Those in Divisions 1, 2 or “lower” were inferior and of lesser value. This is not the way that Jesus taught. For Paul says that we all must work together as one body in Christ.
If Paul were to walk into our village school, I reckon he would be full of praise, because on the library wall you will find these words, “Together everyone achieves more!” What an incredible, wonderful statement. What a great understanding to teach our children.
There was an item on the NW News last Wednesday that referred to the terrible bombings in Warrington, 20 years ago, where two little boys died. As a result of this tragedy, people came together to help and assist each other and this “togetherness” has remained and grown within the community over the years, churches, groups and schools learning the strength that comes from working together. That was the clear message from the local news.
In v 4-5 Paul, once again, illustrates this with his picture of the different parts of the body working together for the greater good of the whole, reminding us that,
“In Christ we who are many form one body and each member belongs to all the others.”
This isn’t the “harmonious madness” of Shelley, because in Christ everything is possible, we can make it happen.
The different gifts that we all possess are part of that sacrificial offering in v1. We must give thanks for our individual and different gifts and the list of gifts in v 6-8 is not meant to be comprehensive, it simply means that we must find out what our task is and give ourselves to it in love and service to God and others with joy and enthusiasm.
So in summary, our life with God is central to all that we are and all that we undertake. We need to look at our society objectively and follow the guidelines that Jesus taught us to be the best that we can be. Finally, says Paul, by being together in God we will achieve more, especially as we pool and use our individual gifts.