When we first bought our property in Williamsburg, there were two enormous locust trees in the back yard. You know, the trees with the really big thorns? We had two of them. Really big trees. One was really close to the house, and over time, we noticed that it had a habit of dropping really big branches during big storms. Branches that were big enough to damage the house if one were to hit it. It was a big tree. The diameter of the trunk was a good 4-5 feet. But we just kept letting it go until we started making the kids leave the back room in the house, we call it the play room because it has all of the Legos and video games in it, during bad storms. It was also close enough to our power lines to take them out if a branch fell the wrong way. But you know, we human beings are pretty good at ignoring things we don’t want to see, problems we don’t want to deal with. Well, one day, I was walking by that tree on my way to the barn and I noticed, at about my eye level, a dandelion growing out of the trunk of the tree. We knew that the tree really sprawled and tended to drop branches, but until then it had looked relatively healthy. But dandelions aren’t supposed to be growing out of tree trunks six or so feet off the ground. Now we knew it was a sick tree, and eventually it WOULD drop a really big branch on the house, and it might hurt someone when it happened. So I called a tree-cutting company and we had the tree removed.
When the tree cutters got to the lower part of the trunk, I could see just how sick our healthy-looking tree really was. The outermost few inches all the way around looked pretty good, but inside that, the trunk was rotting. In some places, the inner part of the trunk had almost completely rotted away, creating a hollowed-out trunk. When he finished, the crew chief walked over and said, “It’s a good thing you called. That tree was sick, and getting sicker, and really needed to come down. The whole tree could have come down.” Even healthy locust trees are messy, and I just figured ours was messier than most. But what looked to me like a relatively healthy tree was really a possibly serious accident waiting to happen.
As we come to the end of Romans 1, Paul makes it really clear that the reason the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is so absolutely critical and is so urgently needed is that the tree called humanity is rotten to the core and without intervention, will come crashing down any minute. Humanity was intended from the beginning to be a central part of God’s plan to rule over His creation. In Genesis 1:28 God says, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” We were created to rule over God’s creation as stewards. Humanity was intended, from the very beginning, to fill the earth, to explore the earth, to discover, to play, to enjoy. That’s part of what it means that God created humanity “in his own image” (Gen. 1:27). And that is why, should something go wrong at the core of humanity, all of creation, not just our own souls but all of creation would be impacted. And we as human being have worked ourselves into rebellion against our Creator from the beginning.
That rebellion is now a part of who we are as human beings. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure this out. If you somehow made it through childhood and young adulthood thinking that we as human beings really are mostly innocent, becoming a parent will blow that idea out of the water like a torpedo. What are the first two words most toddlers learn first? “No” and “Mine,” right? Selfish, greedy, and contrary pretty much from birth. And as we develop, that rebellious seed, which the Bible calls sin, grows and develops right along with us because it is a part of us. And if we don’t deal with that rotting disease that lurks below the surface, damage and destruction, probably others and ultimately our own, will be sure to come. The good news is that this disease, as deadly as it is, is treatable. Turn to Romans 1:18-25.
This isn’t a fun passage to read, but it’s an important one. Critically important. Because in these words, St. Paul describes the symptoms of our terminal illness – the sin disease.
The first symptom is twisted thinking. And our thinking becomes twisted because we suppress the truth. Paul isn’t talking about people who don’t know the truth. He’s talking about people who know the truth and choose to ignore it. That’s what it means to suppress the truth. The word translated as “suppress” here has both a positive and a negative meaning. Positively, it means to “hold firmly to something.” Hebrews 10:23 says “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” The word translated as “hold fast” in Hebrews is the exact same word translated as “suppress in Romans 1:18. See, the negative meaning of that word is to “hold something down or resist.” Either way, the sheer determination of the one “holding fast” or “holding down” or “resisting” comes shining through. The picture isn’t of someone not knowing the truth, or missing the truth somehow, maybe by not noticing it or seeing it. The picture is of someone actively resisting the truth. Someone who knows the truth and knows it as truth, but refuses to accept it.
And what is truth? Truth is that which lines up with reality. When Jesus said “I am the truth,” he was saying that he IS ultimate reality. That truth is that which fall in line with the character and nature of who God is and what God does. Sadly, we as humans have several ways we suppress the truth. The first is by
First, we numb. We numb by spending more than we have. By eating more than we should. By drinking and popping pills or shooting up as a way of escape. Social worker Brené Brown says that we are “the most in debt, obese, addicted, medicated adult cohort in history.” Instead of facing the truth, we’d rather, as she says, “drink a couple of beers and eat a banana nut muffin.” And if numbing doesn’t work, we use distraction. We distract ourselves. If something isn’t pleasant to think about or deal with, we give ourselves something else to think about, to watch, to listen to. We turn on the TV. We turn on the radio. We look at our phones. We try to stay so busy that we don’t have time to think. And if numbing and distraction don’t work, we wind up simply living in denial of the truth. Sometimes we’ll say that someone is “in denial.” What do we mean when we say that? That reality is slapping them in the face in some way and they refuse to admit it. To even see it. They go on living as if it whatever has happened never happened. It’s the person who refuses to admit that their child is addicted to heroin, or that their spouse is cheating on them, even when confronted with evidence. It’s not that they can’t see it. It’s that they refuse to see it.
Roger Wengert, who is a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois, often begins his introductory ethics classes by asking how many of the students believe that truth is relative. That’s a common form of twisted thinking that we see today. Truth is relative. I have my truth, you have yours. Yours is fine for you, but it doesn’t work for me. But that only works if there really isn’t any kind of ultimate reality. A show of hands usually reveals that two-thirds to three-fourths of the class thinks in this manner. After discussing the syllabus, testing dates, papers and content of the course, Wengert informs the class that they will be graded according to height. When the smart-alecky tall kid loudly agrees with this system, the professor adds, “Short students get A’s; tall students flunk.”
Inevitably a student’s hand is raised: “Your grading system is not fair.” So he says, “I am the professor. I can grade however I wish.” And then the student insists, “But what you ought to do is grade us according to how well we learn the material. You should look at our papers and exams to see how well we have understood the content of the course and grade us on that.” The class nods in affirmation (especially the tall students).
Professor Wengert then replies, “By using words like should and ought, you betray your alleged conviction that truth is relative. If you were a true relativist, you would realize that there is no external standard to which my grading should conform. If my truth and my ethic lead me to an alternate grading system that you deem inappropriate, c’est la vie! I will grade however I wish.”[i]
The first symptom of the terminal sin disease is twisted thinking. The second is a darkened heart. Refusing to see the truth becomes an inability to see the truth. Look at Vv. 21-22. We tend to think of a fool as someone who acts impulsively, does something foolish so to speak; or as someone who lacks intelligence. But in the Bible, a fool is someone who, first and foremost, refuses to acknowledge that there is a God and refuses to make moral decisions based on God’s instruction. Psalm 14:1 says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good.” To say “in your heart” that there is no God is to live as if there is no God. It’s not an atheistic belief. It’s an atheistic lifestyle. And if, like most Americans, we can’t bring ourselves to say, “There is no God,” we find ways to live as if there were no God. So instead of celebrating the truth that God created us in His image and likeness, we create God in our image and likeness. We create God as we would have him be. And so whatever else I may say about God, I make sure to believe in a God who will always turn a blind eye to my shortcomings. A God who knows that I am human and make mistakes and loves me anyway. A God who accepts me just as I am and would never dream of changing anything about me.
And we certainly write wrath right out of the equation. But St. Paul won’t let us do that. Look back at V. 18. Why is the good news, good news? Because of the wrath of God. We want a God who loves, and doesn’t have wrath. In fact, we think of love and wrath as polar opposites. How can those two things exists in the same being? But the TRUTH is love and wrath are two sides of the same coin. I’ll prove it to you. I’m going to say three phrases, and I want you to note your physical response to each. Are you ready? Here we go. RAPE. SPOUSE ABUSE. MOLESTING A CHILD. How many of you found yourself somewhat angered by one of those words. Those are three words that can easily be put under the heading “evil” by almost everyone. Righteous anger is simply anger that is right. Anger at the things that make God angry. Do you think those things make God angry? Of course they do! And we WANT God to be angry about those things. Now, we as humans are also perfectly capable of unrighteous anger. And our wrath is usually explosive, unpredictable, out of control, and focused on getting revenge for a wrong done to us.
But the wrath of God is very different, IN THAT God’s wrath is always righteous. God’s wrath is always right. The wrath of God is the response of the Holy One to that which is unholy. The reaction of the Just One to injustice. The response of the Pure One to that which is impure. The wrath of God is simply the appropriate response of a loving God to things that harm those he loves. But pastor, I know I’ve done some things wrong. Maybe I cheated on a test or two in school, or stole a candy bar, or maybe I get a little bit too mad when I’m driving in traffic, and maybe I lie every once in a while, but I’ve never raped someone. I’ve never molested a child. I’m not a murderer. We have a habit in the church of saying that sin is sin and it’s all equally bad. But we all know that isn’t true. Lying to your child after their hamster dies, telling them that the new one in the cage is the same one that was in there yesterday, even though the one that was in there yesterday died and went out with the trash last night after she went to bed, is no where near as bad as rape or murder or molesting a child. But it comes from the same disease. Some of us, because of genetics, because of a bad childhood, because of things we can’t possible understand, seem to be capable of worse things than others. But we all have the same disease. The expression of the sin disease in you might not be as bad as the ones in me, but the disease is fatal in even the smallest amount.
But the disease, while fatal, is curable. The whole tree need not come down. Will God punish evil, and sin, ungodliness and unrighteousness, as St. Paul says here? Absolutely he will! That’s good news! And the sentence is death. Whether your sin tumor is the size of an atom or the size of a basketball, the sentence is the same. Death. This disease is fatal. Always. Those found with it will die. But God has a cure. God has made a way. God has made a way to violently punish evil while saving you and I. He has done it in the cross of Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus takes into himself our sin disease and dies for us the death that it should bring to us. And in the resurrection he gives to us his resurrection life. Our job is simply to say yes to the gift and in worship and in life show God the gratitude he deserves for doing this for us. Sin will be punished and the wrath of God will fall. It has already fallen on the cross of Christ. And through faith in Christ, it need not fall on us. All we have to do is reach out our hands and receive the gift.
One of my favorite authors is C.S. Lewis, and I absolutely love his so-called children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia, which I think every adult should read. In that series, in the book The Magician’s Nephew, he writes of the creation of fictitious Narnia through the song of Aslan, the lion who represents Jesus in the series. It is the song of creation. By the way, the word in Genesis 1 usually translated as “said,” as in “And God said …” could also be translate “sang.” And Creation Song reveals the majesty and glory of Aslan. As in Genesis 1, it is a grand call to worship. But there was one, Uncle Andrew, who would not hear it. The consequences were staggering:
When the great moment came and the Beasts spoke, he missed the whole point, for a rather interesting reason. When the Lion had first begun singing, long ago when it was still quite dark, he had realized that the noise was a song. And he had disliked the song very much. It made him think and feel things he did not want to think and feel.
Then, when the sun rose and he saw that the singer was a Lion (“only a lion,” as he said to himself) he tried his hardest to make himself believe that it wasn’t singing and never had been singing; only roaring as any lion might in a zoo in our own world. Of course it can’t really have been singing, he thought, I must have imagined it. I’ve been letting my nerves get out of order. Who ever heard of a lion singing?
And the longer and more beautifully the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring. Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. Uncle Andrew did. He soon did hear nothing but roaring in Aslan’s song. Soon he couldn’t have heard anything else even if he had wanted to. And when at last the Lion spoke and said, “Narnia awake,” he didn’t hear any words: he heard only a snarl. And when the beasts spoke in answer, he heard only barkings, growlings, bayings, and howlings.[ii]
And therein lie the symptoms of our terminal sin disease. Twisted thinking and a darkened heart. First, I won’t see the truth. Then I can’t see the truth. And then, finally, I no longer think there’s truth there to find.
[i] Mark Ashton, Absolute Truth (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), pp. 9-10
[ii] C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (Collier), pp. 125-126