One industry that is doing better than anyone would likely have ever predicted during the pandemic the last several months is that of jigsaw puzzle makers. Apparently some puzzle companies at one point couldn’t keep up with the demand and some stores for a while were pretty much sold out. I have to admit that I am not much of a jigsaw puzzle person myself at all, but adorning the dining room table in our house there is a pretty large puzzle – a jigsaw puzzle that has this cover which shows what the jigsaw puzzle is supposed to look like, once it’s all put together. The puzzle in our house is made up of the state flag and the state flower of every single state in Unites States of America – 100 flags and flowers on this little box, all of which to my eyes don’t look like there are many differences at all between many of those flags and many of those flowers.
In today’s lesson from Romans 12 the apostle Paul is talking about what we could call a spiritual jigsaw puzzle. In verse 2, for example, when he says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,” he is talking about fitting together spiritually – in this case, not fitting together spiritually – not “conforming” – with sinful things. Instead, as he says in the opening verse, “Offer you bodies as living sacrifices.” That’s the way to fit the pieces of your life together – to conform – to what God wants for you to do and to be and to enjoy. So let’s talk about putting the pieces of our lives together our Lord’s way as we talk about God’s Jigsaw Puzzle of the Living Sacrifice.
Now, what would that picture look like on the cover of your life – a Living Sacrifice? It wouldn’t be too pleasant at all for a couple of reasons. First of all, St. Paul is alluding back in time to the many animal sacrifices which the forefathers of many of these people had made when they were required to bring bulls and goats and lambs and sheep to the temple of the Lord to be slaughtered at the altar of God as part of their worship. That would literally not be a pleasant picture, to say the least. But that was part of the point. God wanted to make sure that his children of Israel would be able to remember every single day that all the sins they committed every single day demanded the shedding of blood in order for there to be the payment for — and the forgiveness of — those sins – a shedding of blood that reached its ultimate fulfillment in the final sacrifice provided by the Lamb of God, our Lord Jesus.
But another reason the picture on the cover of the jigsaw puzzle of our lives would not in any way be a pleasant one is precisely because our lives so often do conform to the pattern of this world. People in the world yell and scream at each other. We so often do the same, even if we are not yelling and screaming. People in the world use language or speak about others in ways that are not appropriate for people created by God, and we so often do the same. People of the world don’t think they need a Savior of the world or if they do care about being saved, they think they can do just fine saving themselves, and we so often can act and think the same way. There are many pictures in my life – just as I am sure there are many pictures in your life – that I would not want my Lord God to put on cover of the jigsaw puzzle that reflects how my living sacrifice looks.
But that’s exactly why the Lord in his mercy decided to provide someone who would not — and could not — conform to the pattern of this world. Not only did our Savior Jesus not ever have one jigsaw puzzle piece in his life not fit in exactly where it should – but he also did something no one else ever could. He conformed his will to the will of his heavenly Father in not just living perfectly as his Father demanded, but in also dying in the place of all those who could not live that way. The real Living Sacrifice was made by the one who by that sacrifice burned away from God’s memory our every sin. The real Living Sacrifice means that there is no payment or sacrifice for sin we ever need to make. The real Living Sacrifice is what makes us want to offer our lives as living sacrifices every single day God gives us on this earth to thank him for what he did.
These words from the apostle Paul tell us one very important way we can do that. While God does not want the jigsaw pieces of our lives to fit in with those who don’t know or care about the Lord, he does want them to fit in with those who do. In fact, he has made us his own so that we will want our lives to fit together perfectly with all the others he has made his own in what he calls the Body of Christ.
That is what he is talking about in verses 4-8, the last verses of our Lesson, when he says, for example in verse 4: “Just as each of us has one body and many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” And then he goes on to mention seven particular kinds of gifts he has given his people so that all of his people can work together and enjoy one another in the holy church of God.
So, just briefly: Prophesying. Prophesying is what he mentions first. While prophesying can mean talking about the future, its normal meaning in the Bible is telling what God says – sharing his Word. All of us are to do that, but those who have a special gift in this way are to do it, he says, “in proportion to his faith.” That expression literally says “in keeping with the faith.” In other words, when we proclaim the Word to each other – when we as pastors or teachers share it with you — it is to be according to the faith – according to the words of the gospel, and not something we are making up or think is true, but is not.
And then with the other gifts: Again, we all are to use them to some degree, but God in his love has given more abilities and interests and opportunities to some, while others are blessed in different ways. Serving, Paul says. Teaching, Paul says. Encouraging, Paul says. Contributing to the needs of others, Paul says. Leading, Paul says. Showing mercy, Paul says. And as you do those various types of things in your life, God wants us to let how we do them fit into God’s way of looking at things like a perfectly fitted puzzle peace. Generously, God says, Diligently, God says. Cheerfully, God says.
Does that then help it make more sense why the apostle Paul would begin this section in verse 3 by giving this kind of encouragement: “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” That phrase “in accordance of the measure of faith God has given you” refers to using the faith in Christ that God in his grace has given you as the way to determine how to look at other people – how to have the jigsaw puzzle pieces of your life fit in with others. When I look at other people in that way – when you look at other people that way – there is no way any of us can think of ourselves more highly than we ought. The cover of the jigsaw puzzle of my life looks just as bad – and probably worse – than the next person. And, thankfully, the cover of the jigsaw puzzle of that person’s life through Christ Jesus – looks the exact same way – the perfectly same way – as does mine.
So, in view of God’s mercy, I urge you brothers and sisters, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices. Where you have conformed to wicked ways, confess that to God, and tell anyone you have hurt by anything you have said or by anything you have done how sorry you are – and if you are the person being spoken to, without hesitation speak words of forgiveness to that brother or sister in Christ, even as you ask them for that same forgiveness if you have acted in a similar way. And as you and I confess to – and receive forgiveness from – one another in the name of the Living Sacrifice of all time, our Lord Jesus, we are also showing how much we value how God has fitted us together in a body with all kinds of members and all kinds of different gifts, all so that we can enjoy the family in Christ that we are – and all so that we can provide a large witness to those who have no concept at this time exactly what it means to have the peace of God that truly does go beyond understanding — so great is the mercy of God toward every single one of us.
Sometimes it can be difficult to understand how a difficult jigsaw puzzle will finally be able to fit together. Everything can just seem to be a mess with a thousand or many more tiny little pieces spread across the table. Life at times seems just as disconnected and chaotic. That’s why our dear Lord wants us to know that through the living sacrifice of Jesus we are connected to God himself. And if we are connected to God, we can let God take care of the chaos. After all, he is the one who not only performed the miracle of connecting us to himself, but he has also performed the miracle of joining us all together in this body. So because of all that, when it comes right down to it, what does the cover of God’s jigsaw puzzle of the living sacrifice look like? Because of Jesus it looks like this… exactly what I’m looking at right now! Let’s keep putting the pieces together little by little to keep it that way. Amen.