Free to Serve

Free to Serve

If you want confirmation
that you have passed from being young
to being old there is an easy test.

Wake up on Saturday morning,
turn on the TV,
and look for some cartoons to watch.

Chances are, you won’t find any
because Saturday Morning Cartoons
are a thing of the past.

But you can still take the test.
Ask your kids or grandkids
or neighbors kids to show you
their favorite cartoon.

If you are officially old,
you won’t understand the show.
It will leave you flummoxed
and thinking that this child
must have something wrong with their head
to find that show entertaining.

The true test though,
the most meaningful one,
the one that is 100% effective,
is to go and find reruns
of some of the cartoons you watched
when you were a kid.

Because when I go back
and watch reruns of some of my favorite cartoons
from when I was a kid
like Thundercats or He-Man, or Transformers,
I have to shake my head and wonder
if my head was not screwed on quite right
when I was a kid.

They are just horrible.
Recycled animation. Cheesy dialogue.
Effects for the sake of effects.
They are difficult to go back and watch.

There are classics though,
cartoons that seem to stand the test of time,
and those of course, are the Looney Toons.

All the wonderful shows and shorts
that came from Warner Brothers or Disney.
Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck,
Mickey Mouse and Pluto,
The Road Runner
and Wylie E. Coyote, Super Genius.

If you want to feel young again,
all you need to do is watch a few episodes
of Bugs and friends
and you can start feeling like a kid again.
Most of those, I am proud to share with my girls,
and it tickles my heart to no end
when they choose to watch them
on Saturday morning.

As I was studying Romans 6 this week
and contemplating just what Paul is talking about,
it got me to thinking about these classic cartoons.

I always found it interesting
that in most of those shows,
when a character was having to make a decision
or was being shown to have a crisis of conscience,
the same plot device was employed.

The picture would go to a close up
of the head and shoulders of the character,
and then, poof!
A little, tiny, version of themselves
in a devil costume would appear on their shoulder. And that little devil
would proceed to try and convince them
to do the wrong thing.
To not help in a situation
or to give into greed
or whatever the situation may be.
And just before the main character decides
to head off in the wrong direction, poof!
A tiny little version of themselves
in an angel costume appears on their shoulder
and begins to convince them
to make the right choice,
to do the good thing,
to help the character in peril
or to forget about greed
and succumb to generosity.
And then the back and forth debate begins
between the little devil and the little angel,
ending when the character finally decides to act.

Or, as Paul says in Romans,
“Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion
in your mortal bodies,
to make you obey your passions…
but present yourselves to God
as those who have been brought
from death to life,
for sin will have no dominion over you…”

The image of the angel on one shoulder
and the devil on the other
is a visual portrayal of our internal struggle.
A struggle that Paul is trying desperately
to get us to understand.

Now Paul never gets as creative
as to have us picture little devils or angels
on our shoulders,
but he does write about the struggle
between the flesh and spirit.

The struggle between a part of us
that simply wants to seek
the riches and pleasures of this life,
things that are fleeting,
that moth and rust corrupt,
to the neglect of the spiritual riches
and pleasures that truly last.

In Chapter 5 Paul introduced us to this idea
that in Adam we are all sinners,
and through faith in Christ
we are all made righteous,
we have peace with God.

In chapter 6 he goes a step further.
Paul declares that we have all died in Christ,
and more than that,
we have been raised with him.
Those that have died, he tells us,
have been freed from the law,
freed from sin, freed even from death.

We have this great gift in Jesus.
Not merely a far off heaven some day,
but here and now,
we are free from everything
that was holding us back
from truly knowing God
and building God’s kingdom.

To go back to our Looney Toons analogy.
It’s as though, before Jesus,
when that moment of decision came,
the little devil pops up on your shoulder
to convince you to do wrong,
and just when you would think
that the angel is about to appear
to counteract the devil, poof!
Another devil appears to reinforce the first.

After the fall and prior to Jesus,
all we could do was sin.
It was who we were.
Even the good we could do,
compared to God’s goodness, was as filthy rags.
It was too little, and often,
even the good we did was self-seeking,
something we did to make ourselves look better
or feel better about ourselves.

But now, through faith in Christ,
not only do we have an angel on our shoulder,
who we call the Holy Spirit, but that little devil,
no longer owns any space
on that other shoulder.
He, or she, has been evicted –
that is, unless you yourself decide
to open the door and let him back in.

N.T. Wright talks about it this way:

Imagine you are a farmer living in the middle ages.
Your farm is built on a piece of land
that is at the border of to estates.

The land you live on belongs to a lord
who is overbearing and cruel.
Not only does he seem to always be demanding
a greater portion of your crops
but this lord is blood thirsty
and is constantly conscripting you
to go and fight his battles.
You finally decide you have had enough.
You know the lord of the other estate
on which your farm sits on the border,
is a good lord.
Who does not go to war
and is fair to his vassals
and even protects them.

So one day,
when the cruel lord is called away
you and your family pack up all you have
and move across the border.
You are now a citizen of a different estate.
You belong to a different lord.

When the cruel lord returns he is furious,
and he stands at the border to your farm
and shouts at you, threatens you,
demands that you go to war for him
and give him his share of your crops.

That cruel lord
has no more rights to you or your crops.
He has no dominion over you any longer.
The most he can do is stand on the border
and yell.

But you lived under his threats and his abuse
for decades, and the first time you hear him yell,
you begin to load crops on a cart
and set out to give them to him.

His power is broken, his dominion is destroyed,
but you have been conditioned to acquiesce.
Even though the power he had no longer exists.

You see this same phenomenon
with the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt. God had just delivered them in a big way
with lots of signs and wonders
and lots of promises to care for them,
yet still, almost immediately
after reaching the other side of the Red Sea,
the people grumble and long for
and romanticize their former slavery in Egypt.

That little devil on your shoulder,
the cruel lord, have been a part of our lives
for a long time.
We spend a lot of years listening to their lies
and believing that “me first”
is the best course of action
or that might makes right
or that we can do whatever we like
as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else.
And then,
when we finally come to faith in Christ,
when we finally get that freedom,
when their power over us is broken,
we still succumb to the conditioning.
We long to go back
even when we know that it isn’t good for us because it is familiar and comfortable.

What then are we supposed to do?
The way we overcome
that little devil on our shoulder,
the way we shut out the voice calling us
to do what we know we shouldn’t,
is to remember whose we are,
and that is what Paul is asking us to do
in Romans 6.

Paul sets it up as a tale of two masters,
telling us that formerly
we had no choice but to be
the servants or slaves of sin,
but now, through Jesus,
we have a new master,
we live on new lands,
and we have to keep reminding ourselves
of that fact.

Reminding ourselves that sin and death
no longer have mastery over us,
that all they can do is shout at us
and mock us from a distance,
and that which master we serve
is entirely up to us.

“Do you not know
that if you present yourselves to anyone
as obedient slaves,
you are slaves of the one whom you obey,
either of sin which leads to death,
or of obedience, which leads to righteousness.”

We make the choice;
we decide who we are going to obey.

And I wish it was that simple,
we just make a choice
and then we never go back
and allow sin to have dominion over us,
but we all know that isn’t the case.

All of us, if we are being honest,
allow sin to exercise dominion over us every day
in ways big and small.

It is a constant struggle.
It is that war inside of us
that we spoke about last week,
the battle raging between the spirit and the flesh. Between who we want to be and who we are.

And there is a reason
that sin seems to keep winning,
why we keep going back to that cruel lord.

It’s because we are not allowing our faith
to exercise dominion over us.
We will always obey one of those voices –
and if we don’t choose,
the choice will be made for us.
We were not freed
in order to just go off and do what we want,
we were already doing that;
we are freed, saved,
in order that we could choose to serve
a new master,
to serve the God of heaven and earth.

Serving God, following Jesus,
wrestling against that little devil on your shoulder,
is not easy.
In fact, the easy thing to do
is just give in to that temptation.
Following Jesus is difficult, to say the least.
G.K. Chesterton,
whom everyone should read at some point,
wrote concerning life as a Christian:

“The Christian ideal has not been tried
and found wanting.
It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

Discipleship is not easy.
It takes lots of work
and lots of commitment and it’s hard to do.
And so we move our farm,
and decide to serve a new master,
and discover that it is still difficult,
in a lot of ways more so,
and we decide that it is easier
to give in to the old master,
to do the old familiar things.

Let me give you an example from my own life.

I’ve heard it said that it takes 21 days
to make a new habit,
but in my experience,
that doesn’t mean
you don’t have to keep choosing
to do the new thing – whatever it is –
every single day, long past day 21.

Like back in January
I began a reading program
with some friends of mine
where we read through the Bible in a year.

It amounts to several chapters a day.
Right now, as of this morning,
I am 5 days behind,
over 20 chapters that I have to catch up on.

That is part of discipleship,
that is part of the path I believe
God wants me to walk on in this season of my life,
and this week, I am failing in it big time.

And it’s not that I’m skipping the reading
in order to go run amuck and sin all over the place. But I am allowing other things to get in the way,
in all honesty, most days this week,
it has been a little extra sleep
since both kids have been out of town.

Is it a sin to sleep in, no.
But if it’s getting in the way of me following Jesus,
of knowing God more,
then I am certainly not obeying my new master,
but the old one.

When things get difficult,
we tend to go back to the default.

We go back to the old ruts and routines
that we are comfortable with,
and so we never really push through
and discover how much better
it is on the other side.
We just give in to what is easy,
to the path of least resistance.

But Romans 6 is telling us that we can change,
we can become more and more obedient to God,
and discover ourselves being perfected in faith,
sanctified by the Holy Spirit,
and blessed beyond measure.
But we have to press on,
we have to keep going,
we have to refuse to listen
to all of the voices that get in our way,
if we are ever to experience the joy and peace
of life in God’s kingdom.

You’re gonna serve somebody,
Bob Dylan had that right.
But we get to make that choice,
we get to choose our master,
we get to choose to follow Jesus.

So let’s do that today.
Let’s commit and recommit ourselves
to listen to God’s voice in our life,
to tune out the little devils,
to follow the path of Christ, wherever it leads.

And let’s do so knowing it will be tough,
knowing it will be a challenge,
but also believing it will be worth the struggle…
and so we look forward to a greater blessing
on the other side. Amen? Amen.

Romans 6:12-23

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