“A Healthy Boast”
July 28, 2019
Pastor Lucas Bitter
Intown Lutheran Church (Atlanta, GA)
11 See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!
12 Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh. 14 May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which[a] the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.16 Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.
17 From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.
18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.
Welcome to the final sermon in our “Healthy Faith” series. For the past 3 weeks we’ve been comparing faith to health and fitness. Each week we’ve looked at it from a slightly different angle. Today’s angle is this: For many people, the primary goal of health and fitness is boasting.
- After lifting weights at the gym, we take a picture of ourselves flexing in the mirror, and then post it on Instagram, so the whole Internet can see how ripped we are.
- After finishing a marathon, we put a “26.2” sticker on the back of our car so that anyone driving behind us can see how far we have run.
- After going rock climbing or mountain biking or winning our indoor soccer league on the weekend, we drop casual hints at the office on Monday because we want to impress people with how athletic and fit we are. (“Did you do anything interesting this weekend?” Not really, how about you? “Not really. I did do a 60-mile bike race for charity on Saturday. . . .but other than that, not too much.”)
So is all of this a good thing? The exercise, probably yes. The boasting, probably no. But it’s just a simple fact – for many people, the primary goal of health and fitness is boasting. And as we’ve said so many times this sermon series – what’s true for physical health is also true for spiritual health.
This was certainly true for the Christians in Galatia. By this point in the series we’re pretty familiar with the context, I think. Paul was writing to a group of churches which he had started – and which were now being corrupted by false teachers in his absence. What the false teachers were doing was, basically, boasting in their spiritual fitness. They were telling people that you weren’t saved only by Jesus. You were also saved by being a good person and doing good things – especially by following all the cultural laws of Old Testament Judaism.
The false teachers at the Galatian congregations were showing off. “Everybody, look at how committed we are! We are so serious about God that it impacts every area of our lives.”
- The foods we eat.
- The clothes we wear.
- The days of the week when we work or rest.
And even, according to these verses. . . .
- The amount of skin that we have on our bodies.
Our text today talks a lot about circumcision. (It’s mentioned 6 times in these 8 verses.) And so we’re going to talk a little bit about circumcision this morning. If you don’t know what circumcision is, I’m not going to explain it to you. You can look it up on your own sometime. But basically I would say that while today circumcision is an operation that many baby boys have done for the sake of health and hygiene and perhaps cultural tradition, back in Old Testament times it was much more than that. 2,000 years before Christ, God had appeared to Abraham (the father of the Jewish nation) and said “The Savior of the world is coming from your family.” And circumcision is the sign of the covenant that I am making with you. I want you and your descendants to circumcise all of your baby boys down through the years until the Savior arrives.”
So in Old Testament times, circumcision was a big deal. It was painful. It was permanent. It physically marked you as being different from other people. And it physically marked you as being part of the line of the Savior.
But then the Savior came. And when he did, God’s covenant of circumcision expired. The world was no longer waiting for the Savior to come from that one specific family. The Savior was here. . .and he was a Savior for all nations of the world. Circumcision was no longer necessary.
But old habits die hard. The Jewish people continued to circumcise their baby boys (which was fine). . . .but in places like Galatia something else started happening as well. Some Jewish Christians began telling other Christians, “unless you get circumcised – you’re not really saved.” Paul says,
12 Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh.
This was more than just clinging to a cultural custom. The false teachers here had turned circumcision into a reason for boasting. “Look at how serious I am about God! I’ve got my commitment to God cut right into my body!” And they were trying to get more people to do it too, so they could boast about how well their spirituality was spreading.
OK, time out. Does all this sound kind of creepy and weird to you? In our culture today, whether or not a man is circumcised is totally his own business. You wouldn’t talk about this with other people. You certainly wouldn’t pressure other people to do it or not to do it. What in the world??!!
Well, even if we don’t understand it, we can still understand the thinking behind it. These false teachers were saying, “Anybody can eat the Jewish diet. Anybody can rest on the Sabbath day. But to actually have a part of your body removed. . . . now that’s a real commitment. That shows you’re serious about your faith. That shows you’re a real Christian.”
So what would be the modern-day equivalent of something like this?
What about something like a tattoo? It’s painful. . . it’s permanent. . . and it signifies something. What if everybody old-school Christian had a big tattoo of a cross on their right forearm? What if you started attending church for the very first time, came through Bible Basics Class, became a Christian and joined our church? And then an older member came up to you and said “I see you don’t have the tattoo. . . . well until you get one, you’re not really one of us.”
How silly is that? The Bible says nothing about “if you don’t have a cross tattoo you’re not really a Christian.” But a new believer may not know that, and they may be led to doubt their salvation. All over something as silly as a mark on their skin.
The circumcision problem was kind of like that.
And to demonstrate the silliness I’d like to do something unusual this morning. We’re going to have a “third reading.” We already had 2 readings this morning, from the Book of Jeremiah and the Book of Galatians. Both of these readings were part of the inspired Word of God . . .but this 3rd reading is a little different. It was written by a man named Dr. Seuss. And it starts like this.
Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches-
Had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches-Had none upon thars.
Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.
But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”
And whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
They’d hike right on past them without even talking.
When the Star-Belly children went out to play ball,
Could a Plain Belly get in the game… ? Not at all.
You only could play if your bellies had stars.
And the Plain Belly children had none upon thars.
The story goes on to detail all kinds of discrimination that the Plain-Belly Sneetches experienced from the Star-Belly Sneetches. BUT THEN! A new character enters the story.
“My friends,” he announced in a voice clear and keen,
“My name is Sylvester McMonkey McBean.
And I’ve heard of your troubles. I’ve heard you’re unhappy.
But I can fix that. I’m the Fix-It-Up Chappie!
I’ve come here to help you. I have what you need.
And my prices are low. And I work at great speed.
And my work is one hundred percent guaranteed!
And now this entrepreneur unveils his own personal invention. It’s a machine that – for the low cost of just $3 – gives you a star upon your belly. In a matter of minutes he’s convinced all the Plain-Belly Sneetches to use his machine. And suddenly all of the Sneetches look exactly alike.
But the Star-Bellied Sneetches don’t like it. They liked being different! They liked feeling superior! But conveniently, Sylvester McMonkey McBean busts out another machine. This one – for the low cost of just $10, removes the star from your belly. In a matter of minutes he’s convinced all the original Star-Belly Sneetches to use this machine. And now they are able to look different again.
But then Sylvester McMonkey McBean – great businessman that he is – invites all the original Plain-Bellied Sneetches into the second machine as well. In a matter of minutes they get their stars removed too! And things start to kind of unravel from there.
From then on of course – as you can probably guess –
Things really got into a horrible mess.
All the rest of that day, on those wild screaming beaches,
That fix-it-up Chappie kept fixing up Sneetches.
Off again! On Again! In again! Out again!
Through the machines they raced round and about again,
Changing their stars every minute or two.
They kept paying money. They kept running through
Until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew
Whether this one was that one…or that one was this one
Or which one was what one …or what one was who.
Finally the Sneetches run out of money. And Sylvester McMonkey McBean loads up his machines and drives away chuckling. His final comment on the situation is, “They never will learn. No, you can’t teach a Sneetch!”
But he’s wrong. Here’s the last paragraph in the story.
McBean was quite wrong. I’m quite happy to say
That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day,
The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars
And whether they had one, or not, upon thars.
So there you go.
Q: What’s the point of the story?
A: We’re all the same. And it is silly it is to let an inconsequential physical feature make you feel like you’re better than other people.
In the Old Testament era, circumcision had been this incredibly important thing – a sign of God’s covenant with his family of believers – but those days were now gone. The Savior had come! He had died on the cross, as promised, to win free salvation for every single person in the world. And now, in the days after Jesus, whether or not you’re circumcised is no more important than whether or not you have a green star on your belly. Paul writes, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters. What matters is the new creation.” It’s not about what’s on the outside. . . it’s about what’s on the inside.
But we sinful human beings don’t think this way, do we? We’re obsessed with outward appearances. . . we love standing out and looking better than other people. . . and like those false teachers in Galatia, we love boasting about our own spiritual fitness.
So here’s the real question this morning. Here’s where the rubber meets the road. As a Christian living in 2019 – what is the star upon your belly? What is the tattoo on your arm? What is the outward thing that makes you feel better than other people?
- Is it the fact that you go to church on a Sunday?
- Is it the fact that you donate your time, and talents, and money to the mission of the gospel?
- Is it that fact that you’re a good mom, a good dad, and you make responsible choices for the good of your family?
- Is it the fact that you do good things for the people around you?
- Is it the fact that you DON’T do some of the bad things that people around you are doing?
The star on your belly may be different than mine but at the end of the day we all tend to think this way, don’t we? We think that the outwards thing that we do and don’t do make us somehow better than the other people around us. And when we think that way we’re being just as silly as the Star-Bellied Sneetches. And we’re just as sinful as the false teachers in Galatia.
What did we sing in our opening hymn? “Forbit it, Lord, that I should boast.” That hymn was based on these very verses. Paul writes, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
May I never boast except in the fact that God looked down on the world and saw me – a proud, selfish, arrogant sinner, looking down on other people and thinking I’m better than them – and God said “I want that proud, arrogant, selfish sinner in heaven someday.”
May I never boast except in the fact that God sent Jesus to this earth live a humble and selfless life, a perfect life, for me. And God sent Jesus to the cross to suffer and die and pay with his blood for all my sins of arrogance and all my sins of pride.
May I never boast except in the fact that I – a person who absolutely does not deserve it – will get to be in heaven someday. Because that’s how grace works. Because that’s how great our God is.
That’s something worth boasting about. The other things don’t matter. Paul writes, 15 Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.
- You’re not saved by what you do or don’t do.
- You’re not saved by following outdated laws and covenants.
- You’re not saved because you’re Jewish or you’re Greek.
- You’re saved because of Jesus.
- You’re saved because by the power of his gospel, he sent
his Holy Spirit into your heart and made you his New Creation.
- A person with faith in their heart.
- A person who trusts in Jesus alone for salvation.
- A person who will live forever in heaven.
It’s not about what’s on the outside. It’s about what’s on the inside.
23 This is what the Lord says:
not the wise boast of their wisdom
or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches,
24 but let the one who boasts boast about this:
that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord.