Sunday, July 13, 2014

What is Conversion?

Texts: Genesis 25:19-34; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-33; Romans 8:1-11

As I looked at the interplay between these three passages, I found myself contrasting Genesis with Romans, and turning to the parable from Jesus to answer the basic question that arose. So we will walk through the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis and the description of the Spirit-filled life in Romans, which leads us to Matthew 13 for the answer to our question. 

Genesis 25
The passage we heard read gives the background to the relationship between the Children of Israel (Jacob was renamed Israel in chapter 32) and the descendants of Esau (see chapter 36). The Edomites (verse 30) were Judah’s southern neighbours, with whom they were often in conflict and on whom they looked down. But of course they were close cousins, both children of Abraham, both sons of Isaac and Rebekah. We read that the boys were twins, with Esau born first. A prophecy before they were born told of the conflict that would come between them. We learn that Isaac loved their older son, Esau, who was an avid hunter. Rebekah loved their younger son, Jacob, enjoyed life within their settlement. 

One day Esau was out hunting and came back tired and hungry. Jacob was making a lentil stew, which Esau smelled as he came back home. I remember one of Lois and my first anniversaries. We drove from Nappanee to Mishawaka to a restaurant called Cornucopia, where we had lentil soup and cheese—one of the best meals I can ever remember. It helps me understand how Esau felt. Add to the goodness of the stew, Esau’s basic temperament. He smelled the stew. He was hungry. He wanted it, and he wanted it right away. He reminds me of an ad for The Source last Father’s Day: “I want that.” Esau was much like one of us; he could be the poster boy for our generation; “I want that!” 

Jacob’s name means “grabber” or “grasper”, from the way in which he was born holding on to Esau’s heal. As you know, that name is a Hebrew way of saying, “Cheater”, which name he lives up to throughout these chapters. So we do not have a picture in which Jacob is the hero and Esau the goat; rather we see both of them living for the moment, getting out of life what they think they want, rather than living for what we might call “the greater good”. In short, Jacob and Esau live according to the flesh, which takes us to Romans 8 and life “according to the Spirit”. 

Romans 8
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” We might suggest that Jacob and Esau lived under the law of sin and death, the kind of life described in the verses immediately preceding Romans 8 (7: 21 to 25). Paul here contrasts this life, which leads to bitterness and pain, with life in the Spirit. 

See how Paul describes this life (verses 9 to 11): “You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” 

The end of chapter 8 (verses 31 to 39) is one of the Bible’s greatest passages, and brings this life in the Spirit to a joyful and incredible climax: “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

Rather than describing this life further, I come to my question: How do you move from life in the flesh to life in the Spirit? I suppose one answer is to say that you open yourself to the fullness of God’s Spirit and ask God to fill you with the Spirit. This is certainly true. I have heard many sermons that take this line. We can call this process “sanctification” and describe it as a crisis experience that follows the crisis of conversion. That’s a fair way to talk about what’s going on, but I have come to see the whole as an ongoing process of conversion, to that my question becomes, “What is conversion?” 

Matthew 13
The parable of the sower/soils is well known. We have the image of the farmer sowing the seed in the field. I heard of a group of women in Kenya who knew immediately that the farmer was a man: “Only a man would through seed out on the field in that way. Women know that you walk along the row, placing the seed carefully just the right depth below the surface in good soil. Only a man would be so careless as to throw the seed out on the field like that!” 

Well, I don’t know why exactly the farmer planted as he did, but Jesus used an image common to the experience of his hearers, that of a farmer planting his field, throwing the seed across the ground that he had prepared. Some of the seed fell on paths that people used across the fields: It was quickly eaten up by the birds. Some of the seed fell on soil full of rocks, so that it began to grow well, but could not put down good roots to grow to maturity. Some of the seed fell on soil filled with weeds, even though the farmer had tried to get all such obstacles out of the field, and the weeds choked out the young plant. Some seed fell on good ground, and returned a good crop, up to a hundred times as much as was planted. 

Then Jesus explains the parable:
The seed is “the word” or “the message of the kingdom”—in short, the gospel of the Kingdom.
The hard path represents hard hearts and ears unwilling to hear and understand.
The rocky soil represents those who hear the word and appear to receive it, but there is no depth to reality to their understanding.
The thorns and weeds refer to those who have so much going on that the word is choked out of their lives.
Finally there is the good soil: Those who “hear the word and understand it.” 

 “What is conversion?” The answer suggested by the parable is: “hearing and understanding”. To understand includes the idea of response, so that “hearing and understanding” includes Jesus’ usual response when people asked him how to be saved: “Follow me”; but the word that caught my attention is this word, “Understand”. 

What does it mean to understand? My mind went back to Psalm 1: “Blessed is the one who walks not in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the Law of the Lord, and in the Law he meditates day and night.” I remember working on this passage when I first started preaching regularly in 1981. I learned then that this word “meditate” means something like mutter or “repeat under one’s breath”. The idea is of a student of the Law (or Torah) who memorizes the Law, repeating softly to himself as he rocks back and forth. 

Gordon Matties (in his commentary on the book of Judges) observes that this injunction to meditate on the Law begins the Books of Prophecy in Joshua 1, and the Book of Writings in Psalm 1. Taken with the use of John 1 (“In the beginning was the Word”), we might suggest that each part of Scripture begins with the Word or Law of God, and the call for us to place it at the centre of our lives.

Try substituting “the Word” or “Gospel” for “Law”: “My delight is in the Word/the Gospel, and I meditate day and night on/in the Word/the Gospel.” This message of the kingdom—which is of course none other than the Living Word, Jesus himself—becomes the content of my thoughts, repeated ceaselessly under my breath waiting for the Word to take shape in my mind. Paul describes it in Romans 12:2 like this: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Understanding: The renewal of our minds. 

I once heard a preacher (I think it was Stephen Olford) describe how he prepared sermons. He described the process of reading and re-reading the text, waiting for it to break open in his hand. That is actually what happens. You hear the Word—God’s Word—and you let it live in your heart and mind until you begin to understand it. Then we realize that the Word that is planted is not simply the spoken or written Word, but is actually the Living Word about which the written Word speaks. The Gospel message always points to Jesus, and it is Jesus who lives in our heart and mind until we begin to understand him. 

Which is Impossible!
Here is the problem. Jesus reveals God, who is infinite. You and I are finite. We cannot possibly understand God in any depth. Isaiah (40: 12 to 14) puts it this way: “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance? Who can fathom the Spirit of the Lord, or instruct the Lord as his counsellor? Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding?” 

This simple fact points us to God’s grace. Without God’s grace, without God’s goodness, without God’s love we have no way to be anything other than the kind of soil that can never receive the Word. Only as God gives us understanding can God’s Word grow within us. All that we can do is say, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” And God does! 

Crisis and Process
All of this suggests that at some point we say to God in Christ, “Help me!” That is what we can call the crisis of conversion. Then the Word—living and written—lives within us, and we meditate on the Word, repeat the Word, live the Word, and somehow God begins to show us, and we begin really to understand and be converted. 

Recently I was sitting at the piano with a hymn in front of me and ran across the line, “Nothing can I do without Thee.” As I reflected on it, I took another step in a lifetime of being converted, starting with that moment when I turned to God and asked for help, 52 years ago. The hymn reminded me that when I sin by failing to do what God prompts me to do, I do so with the help that God gives me—to sin! When I rebel more actively and set my jaw to disobey willfully, God gives me the strength and ability to disobey. I must admit that the thought shook me. There is no moment when I can say, “I do this on my own.” There is nothing that I can do without God. Now this is not a new thought, as if I discovered something Christians do not already know; but it was a piece of my ongoing understanding as the Word lies in the soil of my life and I hear again and understand anew.
Note: I am not saying that God wants us to sin, but that God in grace and mercy does not stop our lives in the moment of rebellion, but with love and kindness beyond description gives us time to return.

What do we do with this idea this morning? In the parable Jesus asks what kind of soil you are. Do you want to have the kind of joy and power that Paul describes, or do you prefer the immediate gratification that Jacob and Esau lived by? Notice that the way of the flesh (Jacob and Esau) is a life centred in pride. It is selfish and egotistical; and it ends in death. The way of the Spirit is a life centred in others—looking to God and looking out for others at all times; it is a life of love, and it ends in God’s abundant life forever. That ongoing conversion of our hearts and minds brings with it the transformation of our lives as we follow Jesus.

Charles Wesley has told the story of his own conversion through the encounter in which Jacob became Israel, from Genesis 32. I don’t think that all of Wesley’s themes are in Genesis 32, but they are certainly in the whole of Scripture, and perhaps they can express our desire to continue being converted. Here his poem:
Come, O thou Traveller unknown, Whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone, And I am left alone with Thee;
With Thee all night I mean to stay, And wrestle till the break of day.
 I need not tell Thee who I am, My misery and sin declare;
Thyself hast called me by my name, Look on Thy hands, and read it there;
But who, I ask Thee, who art Thou? Tell me Thy name, and tell me now.
In vain Thou strugglest to get free, I never will unloose my hold!
Art Thou the Man that died for me? The secret of Thy love unfold;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go, Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

’Tis all in vain to hold Thy tongue Or touch the hollow of my thigh;
Though every sinew be unstrung, Out of my arms Thou shalt not fly;
Wrestling I will not let Thee go Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

My strength is gone, my nature dies, I sink beneath Thy weighty hand,
Faint to revive, and fall to rise; I fall, and yet by faith I stand;
I stand and will not let Thee go Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.
Yield to me now, for I am weak, But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak, Be conquered by my instant prayer;
Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move, And tell me if Thy Name is Love. 

’Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me! I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee, Pure, universal love Thou art;
To me, to all, Thy mercies move; Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.
My prayer hath power with God; the grace Unspeakable I now receive;
Through faith I see Thee face to face, I see Thee face to face, and live!
In vain I have not wept and strove; Thy nature and Thy Name is Love. 

I know Thee, Saviour, who Thou art. Jesus, the feeble sinner’s friend;
Nor wilt Thou with the night depart. But stay and love me to the end,
Thy mercies never shall remove; Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

Lame as I am, I take the prey, Hell, earth, and sin, with ease o’ercome;
I leap for joy, pursue my way, And as a bounding hart fly home,
Through all eternity to prove Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.
What is conversion? That moment that we turn to God and admit that we cannot do anything on our own ask for help to live with God's Word (Living and Written) at the centre of our lives. And the rest of our lives as we begin to understand what that moment means.

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