Some of you may remember Pastor Luc say that voo doo continues to be a common idolatry in Haiti. The other day our missionary in residence Scott Satre was sharing about how ancestor worship is still prevalent in Cameroon. People know better but they keep doing idolatry. Aren’t they awful? As if that isn’t bad enough, we have witnessed the culture, society and government here in our nation approve same-sex marriage. There is a homosexual couple on just about every television series on air today. It and other alternative lifestyles are being promoted to young children in schools. This not to mention how children speak to their parents today. Aren’t they awful? As if that were not enough, you read headlines like the one in the September 19th Buffalo News: “Drag queen packs church hall for Buffalo’s Gay Bingo nights” with the subtitle “It’s ‘not your grandmother’s bingo’ at Westminster Presbyterian Church, where emcee’s one-liners, taunts and innuendo shake things up.” It is yet another reminder that they do not follow the Bible and encourage others to do the same. Aren’t they awful?
We are meant to be cheering Paul on and saying, “Aren’t they awful?”
The Christians in Rome would have.
These verses sounded a lot like what many used to hear in their Jewish synagogues about those awful Gentiles. In fact, Paul followed the same logic and argument that you can find in the Wisdom of Solomon. That was a popular Jewish writing that early Christians would have known well and that you can read today in Roman Catholic Bibles in the Apocrypha. Wisdom chapters 13 and 14 sound very similar to these verses in Romans. They both begin arguing from creation to the knowledge of God, both say that idolatry is the most basic sin and that idolatry leads to immorality, and that there is judgment for those who practice such things. Wisdom was enjoying telling the history of those awful Gentiles—those awful other people—and so as you might imagine any Christian who identifies themselves with the Jewish people rather than with those awful Gentiles would be cheering Paul as he denounces them and maybe even thanking God that they are not like them.
Moreover, Greeks and Romans thought of the barbarians along similar lines. The barbarians were those awful other people – the type that are not sophisticated enough to have left behind idol worship and who do horrible things. So the Greeks and Romans would be thinking of the barbarians when they heard these verses and be cheering him on saying, “Aren’t they awful?” They too may even be thanking God that they are not like them.
And so we too are meant to be cheering Paul on as we read these verses and thinking, “Aren’t they awful?” Paul expects us to think that those who practice idolatry in other parts of the world are awful. He expects us to think that those who practice immorality and those who give approval to others to practice immorality are awful and he uses the most disgusting example he could to make the point – homosexual behavior. He expects us to think of “them” as awful – whether they are pagans somewhere else in the world, politicians in Washington, D.C., or Presbyterians in Buffalo. We are meant to cheer Paul on as he describes them and say, “Amen!” (And then Paul says, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (Rom 2:1).)
Paul has just caught us in a trap because he wants us to see that we are all sinners in need of Jesus.
Paul wanted the Christians in Rome to know that barbarians are not a different kind of people – we are all sinners. Read these verses again and you will discover that Paul did not leave any loopholes starting with the first verse: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against ALL ungodliness and unrighteousness of people, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” Unlike the so-called Wisdom of Solomon, Paul is not telling the story of the Gentiles and saying the Jewish people are different. Paul also is not telling the story of the barbarians and saying that the supposedly more sophisticated Greeks and Romans are different. Paul tells here the universal story of humanity. It is the story of idolaters in Haiti, sitcom writers in Hollywood, Presbyterians in Buffalo, and you. The bad news is that there are not two types of people – us and them – there is only one type of human being: sinner. We are all awful. Every human being is without excuse for our idolatry and our immorality that grows out of it and thus every human being deserves to die.
Paul tells us the bad news so that we will want to share the gospel with those other barbarians who are just like us. He tells us that God’s wrath is revealed against all human ungodliness and unrighteousness because now our only option is to turn away from our own unrighteousness to the righteousness of God by faith. As Paul summed it up in the two verses just before our passage today: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” –the righteousness of God is from beginning to end from faith – “as it is written, ‘The righteous-by-faith shall live.’” Paul was not ashamed to take the gospel to the Greeks nor to the barbarians. He knew that he is no different than a barbarian. The gospel is for you and for those you think sound funny or who don’t seem civilized to you. He would want us to share the good news with our neighbors, Presbyterians in Buffalo, and idolaters somewhere else in the world. But we will only be motivated enough to do so if we realize just how much we too are awful and deserve to die but because we are righteous-by-faith we will live. Thanks be to God for that good news! Amen.