In 17th century Italy, in the town of Cremona, lived a young boy named Antonio. Antonio was often sad because he lived in a town that was famous for its music, but he could neither sing nor play.
Antonio’s voice was high and squeaky, so he was not welcome in the Cremona Boys’ Choir. When he took violin lessons, the neighbours persuaded his parents to make him stop. Yet, Antonio still wanted to make music.
Antonio’s friends kidded him because it seemed that his only talent was whittling, but he did not give up. One day the boy learned that a world-famous violinmaker named Amati lived in Cremona. The next morning Antonio went to visit Amati and begged to serve as his apprentice. For many years he studied and worked. Antonio’s knack for whittling grew into a skill of carving; his hobby became his craft. Patiently he fashioned many violins, striving to make each one better and more beautiful than the one before.
When Antonio died, he left over 1500 violins, each one bearing a label that said "Antonio Stradivarius." Today they are the most sought after violins in all the world. The clarity of tone and careful craftsmanship remain untouched by the centuries. Antonio Stradivarius could neither sing nor play, but he did what he could, and now, over 300 years later, his violins are still making beautiful music.
This story highlights that it isn’t important how many and what our talents might be, but whether we are using the talents that we have. And that is precisely what Paul is getting at in his letter to the Romans. He says, "God has also given each of us different gifts to use. If we can prophesy, we should do it according to the amount of faith we have. If we can serve others, we should serve. If we can teach, we should teach. If we can encourage others, we should encourage them. If we can give, we should be generous. If we are leaders, we should do our best. If we are good to others, we should do it cheerfully" (Rom 12:6-8).
Nowhere does Paul let us off the hook because we think that we don’t have as many talents as another person or because we think we can’t do something as good as someone else. Nor does he allow us to think that a partial use of our gifts will do or that we use them only when it suits us.
Let’s try and understand why Paul is so strong about using our talents in the best way possible in service to God and other people. In the earlier part of his letter to the Romans, he spells out in great detail the wonderful things that God has done through his Son, Jesus. He tells us how "everyone has sinned and is far away from God's saving presence" and yet "by the free gift of God's grace all are put right with him through Christ Jesus, who sets them free." (Rom 3:23,24).
Paul delights in telling his readers about the undeserved love which God lavishes on us even though we are helplessly lost in sin (Rom 5:6). Enthusiastically the apostle tells how we become one with Jesus in his death and resurrection through baptism and how we shall be raised from death just as he was. (Rom 6:2-4).
Paul is excited about the Gospel message. Even the worst things that can possibly happen to us will not stop God loving us. "Nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom 8:39). Paul has some good news to tell his readers and he goes into great detail to make sure they get the message.
Then he sums up everything saying, "How great are God's riches! How deep are his wisdom and knowledge! Who can explain his decisions? Who can understand his ways? As the scripture says, "Who knows the mind of the Lord? Who is able to give him advice? Who has ever given him anything, so that he had to pay it back?" For all things were created by him, and all things exist through him and for him. To God be the glory forever! Amen". (Rom 11:33-36)
On this high point, Paul could have finished his letter. But he doesn’t. He starts chapter 12 with "so then" or "therefore". When "therefore" is used you can bet the writer is saying that what he has told you previously has some consequences?
You are caught speeding, so (therefore) you received a fine. You helped someone in a time of trouble, so then (therefore) that person helped you when you needed help.
Jesus gave his life for you even when you were helplessly caught up in sin and couldn’t do anything to avoid God's punishment so then "offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him."
Note Paul’s use of words - "living sacrifices". The word sacrifice indicates total commitment. There are no half measures with a sacrifice. If there were, then it would no longer be a sacrifice.
When soldiers sacrifice their lives for their country, they give everything they have to the point of giving their lives for the freedom of those back home. When Jesus gave himself as a sacrifice for our sins, it was a total commitment. So when Paul talks about a living sacrifice, he means that our whole lives should demonstrate the same kind of commitment that God has to us. Perhaps this little story helps.
A little lad came to church one cold wintry morning to get out of the blustering wind. He had been trying to sell newspapers but not a single customer had passed by. He sheepishly entered the church and hoped to pass his hour unnoticed on the back pew. Though the Sunday crowd was slim, the preacher delivered a stirring message, and when the sermon was finished, he called for the offering.
The ushers went from row to row, and as one drew near to the little newspaper boy, he stopped in front of the lad and held out the plate. The boy’s eyes were fixed upon it, and after a long pause, he asked the usher to place the plate on the floor.
Then the boy did something both strange and beautiful. He literally stepped into the offering plate. And when he looked up there were big tears running down his cheeks. He said, "I don’t have any money, I haven’t sold a single newspaper today, but if Jesus did all the preacher said just for me, then I will gladly give my life to him."
That’s a cute story but it emphasises what our text is saying. Let God have complete control and complete use of every moment, and every bit of energy, and every resource. Let God use every talent of every person to fulfil his great plan for the church and the world! And because the church is made up of many different people, the variety of talents is enormous.
He uses one of his favourite pictures to describe the church - the human body. The body has many different parts all with own unique characteristics and functions. Some parts are more obvious than others, but all are equally important when it comes to the health and wellbeing of the body. In the same way, the church is made up of all different kind of people with all kinds of gifts. All are important if the church is to be healthy and happy.
Paul concludes, "There are many of us, but we each are part of the body of Christ, as well as part of one another. God has also given each of us different gifts to use." Note that last sentence. "God has given each of us different gifts to use." Everyone has a gift, if not numerous gifts. Everyone’s gift is important, after all, it comes from God and God doesn’t deal in trivialities that have no purpose. The gifts that God has given to you are to be used in some way to bring some kind of benefit to other people.
We usually have a pretty good idea what gifts God has given us, but every now and then we are surprised at what unused gifts we have. When we are challenged to give something a go, something we have never done before, we may find that we have a gift that had been left unused for so long.
All of us, young and old, need to hear Paul’s words again afresh, "Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him." There are no age restrictions - young people, you can use your gifts in many ways in worship, in leading, helping, serving and caring with energy and enthusiasm; - middle aged people, even when you think that your work doesn’t leave you any spare time, Christ’s body needs your skills, your leadership, your faith and your eagerness; - elderly people there is no retirement age for using God's gifts. Even when your own bodies might seem to be slowing down or packing it in, Christ’s body needs your wisdom, your strength, your faithfulness, the calm confidence of your experience more than ever. Through young and old, God is building his church.
God has put you and me here in this congregation for a purpose. It is no accident that we are in this family together. You have gifts that I need. I have gifts that you need. And God asks every single one of us to be his body in this community to accomplish his purpose of bringing lost men and women to their full potential in Christ.
I want to challenge you to give some thought to the gifts that God has given you. Seek to understand and then unwrap those gifts to use them in service and ministry for him. "Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him."
I believe that God is calling every member of this congregation to a new way of thinking about the church and your role in it. Paul says, "Let God change the way you think. Then you will know how to do everything that is good and pleasing to him." (Rom 12:2).
May God help us to be the kind of Church that is dedicated to him, committed to one another, and determined to fulfil our calling as his servants using our gifts in his service.
For the Common Good – Christine Harman
Reclaim your Heart – Yasmin Mogahed
Vince Gerhardy Blog
God of All Things – Andrew Wilson
The Gifts and Ministries of Holy Spirit – Lester Sumrall
The Cup of our Life – Joyce Rupp
Prayer & Spiritual Warfare – C. H. Spurgeon