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Romans 1:21,22

(c) Copyright 2000 Rev. Bill Versteeg

Introductory comment

Beauty, our culture honours the skin deep variety. We pour billions into skin deep beauty related industries. From Hollywood to magazines to beauty and hair products to diet fads, somehow we all have a desire to be beautiful. Of course there are understandable reasons for that - beauty magnetically draws attention, beauty and success go hand in hand, beauty sells, beauty draws the investment of others in a world where we can make great gains of others by their interest in us.

This passage has to do with beauty, beauty lost, beauty exchanged for ugliness, beauty not of the skin deep variety, beauty of the heart, mind, emotions, spirit.

Romans 1:16-22

16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith."

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

When it came to the gospel, Paul had no shame, because he knew it was the solution to humanity's, his own, yours and mine, deepest problem - we call it sin. We might try to put the best possible spin on our sin, but at the very root of all sin is that our hearts don't want to bow before or acknowledge the living God even though all of creation is his poetry displaying the works of his hands, revealing his eternal power and divine nature. If the first and most important part of the law of God is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and strength, that is the first law that our hearts are determined to break. Spin it any way you want, unless we are born again, our hearts have very little interest in the one true God.

That is Paul's first point in verse 21, in refusing to acknowledge the one true God revealed in creation, the human heart refuses to worship or honour him as God, the human heart refuses to give credit where credit is due. We break the most fundamental of all laws - Love the Lord your God. Paul writes: 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him. To glorify the Lord could be literally translated - we are to portray his beauty. Let me use a few illustrations: If you meet a man who is passionately in love with a women, and if you ask him to describe her, by the end of his description you would probably be convinced, not only that she is an angel, but that she is the epitome of beauty in every way. He will glorify the girl he loves. When you meet a convincing sales man, he has the capacity to glorify his product to the point that it convinces you to buy it, it certainly must be one of the best products around, a miracle in a bottle. Both of these human illustration of the term "to glorify" have the connotation of excess, certainly the young man will eventually discover that the young women is not an angel and actually has a few figurative warts, and certainly the product is not a miracle in a bottle. However, when it comes to glorifying God, excess or overstatement is not possible. To glorify him as God, no matter what excess we use, is not excessive because the beauty, the holiness, the majesty, the power, the eternity, the love, the grace, the oneness, the truth, (I'm sure you understand this list could go on and on) of God is without limit. We cannot be excessive in portraying the beauty of the Lord, in glorifying God as God. And Paul says here that the human heart, even though they knew God, choose not to glorify him. Again, he was speaking about himself, about you and me. We fail to portray the beauty of the Lord when we in pride focus on ourselves, our accomplishments, our qualities. We fail to portray the beauty of the Lord when we restrain our worship (no matter the spin we put on it), when we avoid excess when it comes to giving glory to God, when we keep our mouths shut when they should be open, when we fail to give thanks to the one who has given us every good gift.

Paul continues by saying their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools

Most of us have seen this.  People use reason to come to conclusions that seem impossible, foolish, futile, downright stupid. By most accurate accounts, the terrorists who destroyed the trade towers were not insane, they were rational human beings whose hearts were so darkened by hatred and perverted religious zeal that they rationally thought they were entering paradise by their murderous acts. Reason in a darkened heart does not lead to truth, it leads to greater and more consistent darkness. Paul understood that though people can think themselves wise, rational beings, if the heart is dark, so is the gift of reason. Rebelling against God, reason becomes futile, it simply affirms the rebellious premise again and again that there is no God. People who don't believe in God are as rational as we are, the problem is, their hearts will not see the light of the glory of Christ, and since from the heart flow all the issues of life, their reason simply leads them further in the pathway of rebellion. Paul was as rational a person when he was Saul killing Christians as when he later became Paul serving Christ. The difference was a change of heart. Even reason can become ugly.

And then Paul gets to the heart of what I want to focus on today, in both our morning and evening services. Paul says: and (they) exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Behind this one statement is theology that sweeps throughout the scripture, beginning from creation and coming to fulfillment in the new Jerusalem. And this morning, in the minutes that I have left I would like to survey this with you.

You will remember that in the beginning when God created the universe, including the crowning achievement of his creation, man and women, he looked at it, and he saw that it was good. Creation was filled with beauty. From the stars to the planets to the soil to the plants to the animals and then to Adam and Eve, God saw beauty. There was glory in creation. But there was a very special glory in Adam and Eve. They were created in the image of God.  So

God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

That means that this original man and women represented, even were a picture of God. In some of the very ways that God was beautiful, they were beautiful. When the angels saw them, when Satan saw them, they saw something of what God was like. They participated in the divine nature. They had the glory of God. They were magnetically beautiful. They were there to draw the attention of all creation, for the very reason that they pointed to God. In their beauty, they had God's blessing, God's attentions, God's gifts. This is true, not only of Adam and Eve, it is true of us also. We have inherited the beauty of God, the possibility of participating in the divine nature by being descendants of Adam. The very reason we are called not to murder is because to murder is to do an act against the image of God, the glory of God, the beauty of God. We still have qualities about us that reflect the beauty of God.

But with the fall into sin, that image became distorted. Where there once was holiness came mixture and impurity. Where there was once truth came the mixture of the lie. Where the once was love come the mixture of selfish ambition, hatred and even murder. Where there once was oneness and unity came division and divorce. But Paul goes even further. People, no longer wanting to worship God, not only failed to reflect his glory(beauty), they even choose to exchange his beauty, his glory for that of mere people, and then even animals. In this passage, Paul is beginning to picture for us ugliness, the ugliness that results from turning away from the living God. This ugliness is not just a result of sin, it is a result of worship. This evening we are going to find that worshipping the one true God restores us to beauty, this morning Paul points out that some of the very particular ugliness that we see in humanity comes from the worship of the wrong things. And the reason why beauty and ugliness are related to worship is the fundamental principle stated implicitly here and explicitly in Psalm 115 and 135, that we become like the god that we worship. If we worship idols, we become like them, distorted, ugly, victims of untruth, lifeless. If we worship the living God, we grow in beauty, in holiness, in truth and righteousness. The important point that we need to understand here is that we become like the thing that we worship.

Paul points out - they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

In our culture, there are many idols...that lead to ugliness.

We glorify skin deep slender beauty and the consequence for some has been ugly eating disorders.

We glorify money and its value in our lives. The consequence the third world is all too aware of is that the foreign policies of the west have been driven by greed and economic interest rather than justice, mercy and the true interest of other nations. The consequences have been ugly.

We glorify the individual, their right to self determination, their right to status in society, their right to happiness. The consequence is that we have sacrificed the truth, and we will find with time, we have sacrificed the truth that makes an orderly nation. As Chuck Colson has indicated:  If the truth or right and wrong is not inscribed on the human heart, then it can only be enforced externally. By compromising the truth, we set ourselves up for a totalitarian government.

We live in a culture that glorifies sex and pornography - the consequence is that there are people in our culture who have no awareness of healthy boundaries, who use and abuse others without even an awareness of the ugliness of their actions.

We live in a culture that glorifies chance, we call it gaming tables and Casinos which are little more than temples to the idol of chance - as gambling addiction counselors in Thunder Bay are being overwhelmed by the number of lives that are being destroyed by the ugliness of this addiction.

In a few weeks we will look at another ugliness that was especially prominent in Paul's day, and is prominent in ours also - homosexual practices.

The important principle that we need to understand in all this is that we become like the things or the God that we worship. So the ultimate question we must ask of ourselves is this: What is the most important thing in our lives in practice? We can measure that by the time, the effort spent. We can measure that by the words of praise that come from our lips. We can measure that by the occupation of our minds. We can measure that by the financial sacrifices we are willing to make - for what? We worship, we glorify with our actions. We will become like the thing we worship. This point underlies all of Paul's theology - a truth which becomes especially important in chapter 8, where, when we come to faith in Christ, our beauty starts being restored.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

As John concluded his first letter to the church, he said one thing

Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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