Caught in a Tailspin

Sermon on 24 July, 2016 - Romans 1.16-2.4

Pastor Don Pieper

            We're in week two of our series, When In Rome.  Last week we explored Paul's laying out the all-inclusive Good News, or Gospel of Jesus Christ, in his opening greeting to the churches in Rome.  

            Now, in the second half of chapter one, Paul explores 'The all-inclusive Bad News, or, We're Caught in a Tailspin', where Paul urges us to “get real”, writing: “(Our Father) God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18).

Calvin: I can't believe I broke Dad's binoculars!  He'll blow every capillary in his body!  Dad said to be very careful with them, and what do I do? I go and break them. He'll flay me alive!

Hobbes: How did you do it, anyway?

Calvin: I just dropped them. 

Hobbes: And they broke? 

Calvin: Well, I was tossing them to myself at the time, as I ran down the sidewalk.  Don't sneeze (Calvin & Hobbes 10th Anniversary Book, p. 79 & 81).  

            Here's the bad news.  Our sin is a serious problem.  It messes up God's good and perfect plan for us individually and collectively, which has consequences.  Sin is wicked because it suppresses the truth about God's character and purpose.  In his letter, Paul describes the deadly tailspin of sin. 

            A tailspin is when something goes wrong with a plane and it begins to descend, spiraling out of control as it plummets to the earth.  If something doesn't correct its deadly descent, nothing can prevent its terminal outcome.  So it is with sin.  Paul describes what this looks like in the life and character of those caught up in such a tailspin.  It all begins, Paul says, with our tendency to ignore God. 

            He writes: “Through everything God made, (anyone) can see God's invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature.  So there's no excuse for not knowing God.  Yet, even though people knew about God, they wouldn't worship Him as God or even give Him thanks” (Romans 1:20-21).

            Paul says the critical, mechanical error that triggers our our tendency to ignore God, our failure to seek him out, to know him, to worship or even simply to acknowledge him.  As Paul adds a few verses later, “they thought it foolish to even acknowledge God”  (Romans 1:28).


            Think of how susceptible we are to this.  We make ourselves so busy that we often fail to pause to thank or acknowledge him.  We see evidence of this today in the decreasing number of people whoregularly gather with others in public worship.  And the less we do so the more distracted and preoccupied with our desires, issues and self-importance we become...  

Calvin: So you want some water, huh? Well, I've got a big can of it here.  It's up to me to decide if you get water or not!  I control your fate!  Your very lives are in my hands!  Without me you're as good as dead!  Without me, you don't...!    (downpour)  Uh... (p. 103)

            What's tragic about our failure to acknowledge God or worship him is our blindness to how dangerous this tendency is.  Before long we become convinced of lies such as the ones Calvin there begins to believe – that he's ultimately in control.  Not only that but Paul points out that we “begin to think up foolish ideas of what God is like.  As a result, (our) minds become dark and confused...  Instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, (we) worship idols” (Romans 1:21-23). 

            That's the second slip in the tailspin of sin – the worshiping of idols.  Most today don't see that one as a problem.  I mean, worshiping golden calves and bronze snakes is so yesterday, not exactly an irresistible temptation for most of us today.  No one seriously considers worshiping some cold, inanimate object any more, do they?  Or do they?  Calvin...? 

Calvin: Oh greatest of the mass media, thank you for elevating emotion, reducing thought, and stifling imagination.  Thank you for the artificiality of quick solutions and for the insidious manipulation of human desires and commercial purposes.  This bowl of lukewarm tapioca represents my brain.  I offer it in humble sacrifice.  Bestow they flickering light forever (Calvin & Hobbes 10th Anniversary Book, p.164).

            Add to the TV your computer, i-phone, x-box, or Go-Pokemon, noting that an idol is defined as that which is most important to you revealed in how much time, energy or money you invest in it and you can see that idols are very much a part of mainstream culture today.  So what might yours be? 

            Here's a little test you can take: What do you spend the most time/money on?  What gets you the most excited?  When you're hurt or stressed, where do you go for comfort? Is there anything or anyone you feel like you couldn't live without? 

            Your answers to those questions reveals your vulnerability to post-modern idol worship idolatry begins when we replace intimacy with God with anything or anyone else, making things and people into little gods by making them our top priority evident in how we spend our most precious commodities – our time and our money.  Paul puts it this way: “They traded the truth about God for a lie. They worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself”  (Romans 1:25).

            It starts with ignoring God.  Then, before we know it, we're worshiping idols.  Often without realizing it we trade truth for a lie.  We buy into what the world is selling, not just in terms of some valuable commodity, but also in terms of worldly ideology.  We buy the lie rather than invest in what God is offering – to bring him glory and “do the good things he planned for us long ago” (Ephesians 2:10). 

            If the enemy can get us to ignore God, worship idols and believe his lies then we're ripe for the next turn in the tailspin of sin – to be lulled into self-indulging behaviors that separate us from God and bring judgment and condemnation.  That's why Paul begins this section with the chilling statement: “God shows his anger from heaven against sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness”  (Romans 1:18).   He's not talking about some isolated sin or mistake but a behavior that has become a lifestyle and is at odds with God's will for us.

            That's why Paul pauses to talk about one of the most common forms of such sin – sexual sin.  It's not that this is the worst kind of sin, but it is one of the most common, not just today, but clearly in Paul's day as well.  Clearly from the list of sins that follows, not all human desire is of God or honors Him.  Paul urges us, in our devotion to God, to make God's standard are own, not that of society's.                                                

            The temptation here is to read no further for one of two reasons.  One, we are offended by Paul's words because we hear them as archaic and intolerant; or two, because we want to focus on the sin of others.  Paul's teaching here on homosexual behavior is clear: it is not natural or as God intended, but it is also an illustration of a larger point – the danger and effect of the tailspin of sin.  This is evident in that Paul goes back to the starting point of this tailspin, the failure to acknowledge God, and then points to other places this tailspin takes us.  The list he provides is utterly convicting. 

            Paul writes: “Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, He abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done.  Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip.  They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud and boastful”  (Romans 1:28-30).

            If we're honest with ourselves, we find ourselves mentioned in that list, repeatedly.  I've seen evidence of some of these behaviors even within the family of faith, the most prevalent being that of gossip.  We also have a nasty reputation for pride, quarreling and being boastful. 

            Paul lists these behaviors right along side homosexual behavior because all of it lies outside God's plan for his people because all of it reflects our tendency to trade truth for a lie.  This passage is intended to convict – not for the purpose of producing shame – but of freeing us from it.  Our tendency is to look at that list and point fingers at others who are guilty of it.  In doing so we condemn ourselves to remaining stuck and enslaved to our own junk and lie-based beliefs.  Paul raises a mirror to that...

            “You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse!  When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things...  Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God's judgment when you do the same things?”  (Romans 2:1-3).

            Through the words of Paul, God is urging us, urging you, not to fall into the trap of using God's word to lament about the sin of others, or what's wrong with the world around you, but to allow God to reveal the sin in you, what's wrong with you and your behavior, so that you may be set free from it.

            There's a poignant moment in the film, “In the Heart of the Sea”, in which a captain and his first mate, two proud men who have been described as an ill-married couple at the film's outset have helped to bring down a ship.  Their pride and greed and hatred of one another has consumed them until, marooned on an island, one of them approaches the other with a change of heart...convicted of his sin...

            [DVD clip from the film, “In the Heart of the Sea”; 1:21:20 – 1:23:15]

            The captain's first mate has come to see himself clearly – that his arrogance and greed has upset God and been the cause of his own downfall. The captain remains convinced of his own self-importance but he is right in one matter, they are both reliant on God's grace.  This is Paul's main point here and elsewhere in his letters.  As he later writes: “all who receive it will live in triumph over sin & death" (Romans 5:17).

            To this end, Paul points yet again to this Good News, acknowledging in doing so, that once we are caught up in tailspin of sin, we can not, not a one of us, pull ourselves out of it.  We are completely reliant on some outside force, someone greater than ourselves, to deliver us from self-destruction.

            To this end, Paul asks three timeless and poignant questions: “Don't you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you?  Does this mean nothing to you?  Can't you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?”  (Romans 2:4)  As Gandalf so lovingly says his to his friend, Frodo, “I'm not trying to hurt you; I'm trying to help you.”  Question is, will you let him? 

            Where on that list are you stuck?  If nothing comes to mind ask someone who you trust to honestly tell you to what behavior they find you most prone, and then take it to God in prayer...