Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sermon: Titus 3: 1-7

I wonder if you’ve ever seen the Channel 4 programme, How Clean Is Your House? Each week, Kim and Aggie go to the house of someone who is in dire need of help. Their house hasn’t been cleaned in fifteen or twenty years. The living is a mess of papers or takeaway wrappers or whatever, and it needs to be transformed. After a lot of hard work, some cleaning secrets, and half an hour of television, the house is like new. You wouldn’t recognise it. Something dirty, unclean, is transformed by cleaning.

In the Bible reading tonight, we see something similar happening. Paul is writing to his young colleague, Titus, who is on the island of Crete. He’s there to help establish the church, and teach sound doctrine. But just as important as getting the doctrine right, Paul also wants to see the Christians live out what they believe. As we saw right back in chapter 1, ‘knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness.’

But unlike the cleaning programme on TV, or indeed any of the makeover kind of programmes, Paul sets out right at the start of this passage how the Christians are to behave. In the programmes, you see the state of the house, then all the effort to get it set right, and only in the last couple of minutes, the finished article. Yet here, Paul says how the Christian should behave straight away.

Earlier in the letter, he dealt with behaviour in the church (chapter 1, with his emphasis on leaders), and in the home (chapter 2). Now he turns his attention to the state and society. How should Christians behave in relation to the government?

In verse 1, Paul says we should be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, and to be ready for every good work. Is this the mark of Christians today? Are we submissive and obedient to the authorities? You might even be offended by me asking that question - and yet it’s still an issue for us. Do we obey the laws of the land, or bend some of them? For some, it’s straightforward - we don’t kill people, and we don’t rob banks. But what about laws like speed limits? Or traffic lights?

The reason Paul sets being ready for every good work here is because over in Romans 13 (:3-4), he writes of the duties of government - to approve the good and punish the evil. As we submit to government, then, we support them in being ready to do good, just as they approve what is good. Yet, as can sometimes happen, the government perverts things, and approves what is evil, and punishes what is good - in these circumstances, we must recognise God’s over-arching authority, and obey God rather than men.

Widening the picture from government, to those around us, Paul gives us four patterns of behaviour, two negative and two positive: speak evil of no one, avoid quarrelling, being gentle, and showing perfect courtesy towards all people. Are these how we are known around Dundonald? Are these the things that non-Christians would say or notice about us?

This, then, is the standard that Paul sets out for Christians. It should be so different from those around us, because, as Paul goes on to point out, this isn’t how things are. It also isn’t how things were for Paul and the other believers before they became Christians. Notice at the start of verse 3: ‘For we ourselves were once...’

Here’s how it was: Rather than being obedient and submissive to authority, we were foolish, disobedient, led astray, and slaves to various passions and pleasures. It’s not a very positive picture Paul paints, is it? Because, you see, he’s not just thinking of human authority here. He’s also thinking of God’s authority, which we disobey, and turn astray. As Isaiah 53:6 says: ‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.’

As well as this, our attitudes to those around us wasn’t much better: ‘passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.’ This is fairly bleak stuff. Rather than seeking the best for others, putting them before ourselves, the picture of those without Christ is one of me first - viewing others with malice and envy. Malice is wishing the worst for others, while envy is being jealous of what others have. The summary at the end there, hated by others and hating one another seems harsh, and yet, in the core of our being, this is probably true.

We’ve seen what Paul calls for in Christians, and we’ve seen how things were before. The two are completely different - there’s obviously a change involved when we come to faith, when we turn to Christ. But what is it brings about the transformation? Is it some lessons in treating others nicely? Is it having our backbone removed? Is it something that we work up within ourselves, so that we try really, really hard to be nice to people?

No. None of the above. To be blunt, nothing that we can do can make us change from hating others to being submissive and obedient. Just as in the How Clean Is Your House programme, it takes something from outside, to do what the person themselves cannot do.

Paul says: ‘But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us.’ It took the intervention of God our Saviour, and specifically the Lord Jesus (who seems to be referred to here as the goodness and loving kindness). And how was it that God our Saviour saves people?

Notice that Paul spells out that it’s not because of us, or what we have done: ‘not because of works done by us in righteousness’ - that would have been impossible. Malice, envy, hatred aren’t exactly what God is looking for! This is entirely Paul’s point. Because our actions are always evil, we can’t expect to be saved by them.

Rather, our only hope is being saved by God’s mercy and his grace. Those twin characteristics go together, and we see them here in this passage too - verse 5 and verse 7. We are saved by his mercy and justified by his grace. Mercy is when God does not give us what our deeds deserve. Grace is when God gives us what we don’t deserve.

Our evil deeds deserve the judgement and condemnation of a holy God. Yet that holy God, in the person of the Lord Jesus, took our sins, died for them, died for us, taking the punishment that we deserve. He doesn’t give us what we deserve. But more than that, he then gives us what we don’t deserve. We don’t deserve to be welcomed into heaven, to be seen as justified (just as if I’d never sinned), yet he does this for us too.

Yet, as if even this weren’t enough, Paul goes even further in describing how God’s mercy and grace have been given to us. Earlier we were talking about the cleaning of the houses in the TV programme. Here we see the washing of regeneration. God brings about his transformation in us, not through brainwashing, but through soul-washing! The washing, the cleansing that comes about through Jesus’ blood is that which regenerates us - makes us new, and changes us. Another picture is that of renewal - renewal of the Holy Spirit, which again makes us new.

[Some might think that this washing of regeneration refers to Baptism, so that when we are baptised, then we are born again, but this is inaccurate. Baptism is a symbol of the regeneration, the washing or cleansing of the believer, which has already happened. Baptism is the public sign of what has already happened in the individual’s life, as a believer, or of what we pray will happen as we baptise the children of believers.]

This passage is, if you will, the testimony of a believer. Here is how I now live, but it was not always like this. And here is how the transformation came about. As we’ve seen already in Titus, a change in behaviour comes as a result of the gospel, as we respond to what God has done for us in Christ.

So where are you in this scheme? Are you a believer already? If so, then how does this appear in your life? Can those around see something different in the way you live, compared to the others in the factory or office or classroom? Let’s be clear that the passage isn’t asking you to pull your socks up, or to try a bit harder. Rather, it’s a call to recognise what God has done for you, and to live in response to that.

Or maybe you’re not yet a believer. You identify very well with that description of the non-Christian - malice, envy, hating others and being hated. You don’t like how things are, you want to change, but you don’t know how. Look to Christ, and find the grace and mercy that he provides - he who was hated and despised, who went to the cross to bear the punishment for your sin. He can wash you clean, and save you tonight, if you will ask him.

This sermon was preached at Sundays at 6.30 in St Elizabeth's Halls, Dundonald on Sunday 19th April, 2009.

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