Summary: A message about the universal condition of human sinfulness and depravity and how we got to this point, taken from the first 3 chapters of Romans.
A few moments ago I performed for you a very poor illusion. My attempt was to so distort your perception of reality that you would believe with your mind that I had actually caused the band to disappear. I, however, am not an illusionist. Neither my techniques or presentation were convincing enough to cause you to abandon reason and actually believe something that wasn’t true. Some of you have probably seen a good illusionist perform his tricks, and have been amazed at how he or she was so masterfully able to convince you that something was true, when in reality, not only was it untrue...but it would be impossible for it to be true. This, according to our dictionary, is what an illusion is. It is an erroneous perception of reality.
The ancient philosopher Plato helps us to understand the power of illusion in one of his greatest writings; a piece called “The Cave.” In this story, there is a whole community of people who are chained together in a dark cave, unable to leave. They have spent their entire lives in this cave, having never seen the outside. There are fires in the cave that cast their shadows upon the walls of the cave. This is all they know. This is their world. To them, the only world that exists is a world of darkness, the flickering light of fires, and shadows on a wall. One day one of the men manages to escape. He finds the mouth of the cave, stumbles into the bright light of day, and stands in shocked amazement at what he sees. Sunlight, trees filled with leaves blowing in the wind, grass to walk on, birds flying through the air, a whole new reality that, until now he couldn’t even have imagined. The sounds of this strange new world overwhelm him; birds that sing, frogs that croak, the crunching of leaves and sticks under his feet as he walks.
On the verge of sensory overload, he looks around and sees that this beautiful new world stretches on forever as far as the eye can see. There are no chains, no boundaries, no perpetual darkness, there actually is more to the world than mere shadows. It is a rich, full, breathtaking place teeming with life. He couldn’t wait to rush back to the cave and tell everyone what is out there, anticipating the joy and tears of gladness as they threw off their chains and rushed out of the cave. But upon returning to the cave, and telling the story of what he had just found, the rest of the community ridiculed him. They thought he had lost his mind. Considering him to be insane, and possibly a danger to the community, they decided to kill him. After all, they couldn’t tolerate someone filling their minds with false hopes. The one who knew the truth was killed, and the rest of the community went on confined to the darkness, misery, and captivity of their erroneous perception of reality. They settled for existing within the confines of an illusion, while a glorious reality was just outside the cave
Though this story is a piece of fiction emerging from the mind of Plato, if you think about it, the human race is, in fact, living this story. Throughout the millennia of human existence, our species has been figuratively living chained in a dark cave with an erroneous perception of reality. Many have escaped the cave, discovered the true reality, and rushed back to tell our companions. Some are seen as a threat and murdered. Most are simply ignored. Many have actually succeeded in convincing some to throw off their chains and leave the cave.
As we begin our series of messages through Paul’s letter to the Romans, we begin with the first three chapters in which we discover that humanity has been presented with an illusion, an illusion so grand, so convincing, that the entire human race abandoned reason, exchanged the obvious truth for a clever lie, and was swept into a stream of existence filled with filth and stench, eventually carrying us into the murky waters of an inescapable sea of depravity and eventual death.
We weren’t always in this stream. Before there was death, there was life. Before there was depravity, there was purity. Before filth and stench there was awe-inspiring beauty. Before the darkness of deception, there was the brilliance of truth. And it’s in the brilliant light of truth that the human story began; a truth that is available not just to a select few, but a truth that is clearly available to every creature that possesses the power of reason. After introducing himself to, and greeting the Christians of Rome, Paul begins his letter here, introducing us in chapter 1, verses 18-20 to the stream of truth that we chose to leave so long ago.