Christianity 201

September 7, 2017

Life as a Living Sacrifice: Sounds Like Fun?

by Clarke Dixon

Romans 12:1 (NRSV)  I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” You may have three reactions to this verse.

First off, it does not sound much like fun. A sacrifice, not just of money, or of some time, but your very self. And just any old self, but a self which is “holy and acceptable to God.” However, to have this kind of negative reaction is to miss what is really being said here. To react negatively to the idea of giving yourself to God would be like a groom, who on seeing his bride walking down the aisle says “well this sucks.” Or a bride walking down the aisle to meet her groom saying “I’d far rather be somewhere else, with someone else.” I suppose such sentiments can happen in arranged marriages and the like, but in the twenty years I have been officiating weddings, the excitement of the bride and groom over the moment and over each other has always been palpable. The wedding, that moment you give yourself to another person, is not seen as a misfortune, but as a very positive opportunity! Likewise with God, giving ourselves to God is a glorious opportunity! We should not think of it as something we have to do, so much as something we get to do. I did not have to get married, changing my life and focus to “us” rather than “me.” But I got to!

Additionally, “holy and acceptable to God” may seem like a downer. However, holiness is also something we get to do, something we will want to do! I have never officiated a wedding where upon getting to the marriage vows the bride or groom has said, “Do I have to do this part?” To be a good man or woman for our bride or groom is something we aspire to on our wedding day. Sometimes the bride or groom will forget such things once they are wife and husband, but God is always faithful.

Being “holy and acceptable to God” may also feel like a predicament. How are we going to pull that off? But this is something we are enabled to do. It is “by the mercies of God” or “through the mercies of God” that we are enabled to become holy and acceptable to God. It is through the work of Jesus for us and the Holy Spirit within us. Again, it is part of a wonderful privilege and opportunity.

Secondly, you may think: “I guess I can commit to this if it is going to make God love me.” This is to to turn this verse into a “so that” verse. There is no “so that” here in Romans 12:1. There are “so that” verses in the Bible. For example you might want to consider John 3:16, which says “For God so loved the world, so that he gave His only begotten Son, in order that, whoever believes in Him, shall not perish” (a conglomeration of translations, quite literal where italicized). The “so that” points to how God loved us first. In Romans 12:1 we have a “therefore” verse. Paul is pointing back to all he has reviewed in Romans chapters 1 through 11, namely, the human predicament and the glory of God’s love. Now, therefore, on the basis of His love, let us commit ourselves to God. We do not do so to make Him love us more. We can not make Him love us more than He already does. We give ourselves to Him as our expression of love for Him.

Consider the vows and promises that an in-love couple make to each other on their wedding day. They should never think “I commit to these vows so that you will love me”, but rather “I commit to these vows already knowing you love me”. Living out the the vows of marriage is a reflection of the reality of love, not a prerequisite to eventually attain it. It is much the same with our relationship with God who has already demonstrated His love for us in the gift of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Further, when you have a good love relationship with your fiancé, committing to these vows, committing to having your life changed by marriage, is a very reasonable and rational thing to do. It is a sensible next step in your relationship. This too is reflected in our relationship with God as Romans 12:1 points out:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Romans 12:1 (NRSV emphasis mine)

The word translated as “spiritual” here in the NRSV is a word from which we get the English word “logical.” Knowing God’s love and commitment to you, committing your life to God is a logical next step. It is a reasonable and rational thing to do in the same way that marrying my wife was one of the smartest decisions I have ever made!

Third, you may hear these verses and think “Okay, I’m in. I’m ready to present myself to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable, now give me the rule book so I can memorize all the rules.” We want to be careful here, not to think of Paul, or any other New Testament writer, as the second coming of Moses. It had already been established that Gentiles coming to faith in Christ did not need to become Jewish with the observance of all the rules of Judaism. But they could not simply live like Romans either. So what we have in the New Testament is not a new rule book, but the implications of giving one’s life to God. The Christian life is not about following a rule book, but about relationship. Relationships require, not rules, but discernment. God is not asking us to fill our minds with rules, but the renewing of our minds with His presence:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2 (NRSV)

Looking to the marriage analogy again, I have never known a bride and groom exchange rule books at the wedding ceremony. They are entering into a relationship, not with a list of rules, but with each other. There is a learning and discerning which is part and parcel of the wonderful institution of marriage.

In conclusion, people may have negative responses to the idea of giving themselves to God as living sacrifices. But when we begin to grasp just Who God is, and what His love is like, we recognize that doing so is a most wonderful opportunity. May the opportunity that lay before you fill and thrill your soul.


Canadian pastor Clarke Dixon blogs his previous weekend’s sermon at Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon aka clarkedixon.wordpress.com. For several years, they’ve been a perfect fit here at C201.

August 30, 2017

Lessons from a Text Sung More Than Studied

We’re paying a return visit to Jack Levison at the Patheos blog Spirit Chatter. Click the title below to read at source.

Jacob’s Ladder and Esau’s Tragedy

Every year, without fail, we sang the chorus Jacob’s Ladder at church camp. Sung by a hundred Long Island high schoolers, it was interminable. (It never sounded like this. Wow!) We certainly had no idea this was a Negro Spiritual with a history that stretched back 150 years or so.

So we sang it. We sang the life out of it.

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Soldiers of the cross.

We sang the next verse.

Every rung goes higher, higher,
Every rung goes higher, higher,
Every rung goes higher, higher,
Soldiers of the cross.

And the next, which began, “Sinner, do you love my Jesus?” You can figure out by now how it continued.

We ended with the last stanza, which was a little more rousing because it had a dollop of guilt loaded onto it:

If you love him, why not serve him?

The problem is not the song (though the way we sang it was a problem) but that it’s often all we know about the story of Jacob’s ladder, in Genesis 28:10-19, this week’s lectionary text.

The story is so much bigger, better. Another stunner in a long line of stunners in the book of Genesis.

Here, with his head on a stone, Jacob has a dream in which God reiterates a promise first made to Abraham and Sarah, then to Isaac and Rebekah, and now, finally, to Abraham and Sarah’s grandson.

I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.

This promise, in one form or another, pops up at various places in the book of Genesis, just in case we thought that God, who is otherwise pretty invisible—there are very few thunderbolts thrown—had backed out of the human drama. (Who could blame God for that?!) It’s like the Cascade Mountains after a takeoff from Seattle; peeking through the clouds, you see Mount Baker, Mount Rainer, Mount Hood, Mount Saint Helens, and Mount Adams. They pop through the clouds, a line of them, the way these promises punctuate the human drama in Genesis.

In this story, the cushion for the promise is a dream: a ladder between earth and heaven. What’s so important about this dream? I’ve got five things for you to think about.

  • A sad son. What precedes this dream is really pathetic—and it’s about Esau. Esau saw that his father “Isaac had blessed Jacob” and sent him to find a wife not from the Canaanites (the inhabitants of the land). So what did Esau do? He imitated Isaac by taking a(nother) wife, Mahalath, Abraham’s granddaughter. We talked last week about sibling rivalry. It’s pathetic. Esau wants Isaac’s approval, so, like Jacob, he too marries a woman not from the Canaanites.
  • A brother blowing it. Esau doesn’t pick a granddaughter through the line of Isaac but through Ishmael, the bastard son of Abraham and Hagar. If he did it on purpose, he was a screwup. If he did it without realizing it, he was a loser. Either way, Jacob is still the pretty boy.
  • A divine snub. Jacob gets the dream, wouldn’t you know? Not Esau. The rich get richer. Why can’t Esau have his own dream? Why can’t Esau spend a night at the Gate of Heaven?
  • An uncommon adventure. Jacob was scared poo-less. It says as much: “And he was afraid.” I think it’s better to translate this, “He was scared poo-less (more or less)” because he then says, “This place is frightening!” (It’s the same Hebrew root.) Don’t be tricked by a translation like “This place is awesome.” That’s too tidy and trendy. And let this be a lesson to us. We sometimes think people in Bible-times had lots of visions, boatloads (like Noah) of God-experiences. They didn’t. Nope. This was a big-time exception–and Jacob knew it.
  • A useless oath. Jacob didn’t let the promise sink in. He had a vision, a very active one, by the way, of angels going up and down, but the main point, that God would be with him, just didn’t sink in. So afterwards, he made a vow: if God would be with him and take him home, he’d make the stone pillow a shrine and call it God’s House and, more important, give a tenth of his stuff to God. You see? Jacob didn’t get it at all. He bargained for what he already had, what God had already said.

For a bunch of mostly white, teenaged Long Islanders, the chorus, Jacob’s Ladder, was boring. Atonal, too. But its real problem is that it’s all many of us know about the real story and what comes before and after it. Not any more. Read this week’s lectionary—the whole of Genesis 28—and listen to this podcast to discover some other things you’ve missed in this profound story of how you can meet God.


The podcast is available at the website of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Houston.