June 30, 2014
Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
I’m sure they had their reasons.
I refer to the folks who put together the readings for the Revised Common Lectionary. I’m sure they had their reasons to leap-frog over verses 20-24 but in so doing, they created something of an irony (if not something of an exegetical faux pas).
Granted, Jesus’ rant against various cities in the deleted/skipped verses here are difficult to read. They also seem to come from out of nowhere, nestled in between some nice musings about John the Baptist and some lovely words about rest for the weary. I imagine that if today one of us preachers suddenly interrupted one of our own sermons for a turn-the-air-blue diatribe, our congregations would arch a collective eyebrow and wonder if we’d had a bad burrito the night prior. Most of our congregants would also doubtless do their best to ignore what had just happened (and hope it did not happen again anytime soon!).
So maybe the Lectionary folks thought that, too. This does not fit here. Maybe it’s even a textual mistake, a wrong insertion. Who knows? In any event, it’s easier to skip these judgments than engage them.
But on that point I must hasten to demur. Because the skipped verses are framed by other verses that pretty much tell us we are making a mistake to pretend Jesus did not speak the words he did about Korazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum. In verses 16-19 Jesus pretty much says that it is a theological error to look at who Jesus is and what he does and then choose to deride Jesus for those words and actions.
“The problem with you people,” Jesus says, “is that you want to call all the shots, force every prophet into your own pre-conceived mold. If you don’t like the message, you pick up on some aspect of the messenger as an excuse to reject him entirely. John never eats and you say that’s just nuts. I do enjoy eating and drinking and you say I’m an epicurean liberal. It’s high time you listen to what God’s prophets say and stop looking for excuses for the fingers you keep sticking in your ears to block out God’s truth.”
That’s what Jesus says. So how ironic that the Lectionary then turns right around and edits Jesus by having us ignore something he then went on to say! What’s more, Jesus then goes on to comment in verses 25-27 that everything he says comes straight from the Father and that to know the Father, you need to know and embrace the Son who reveals the Father.
All in all, then, this may not be a good juncture in Scripture to skip over certain words spoken by Jesus! We may not like hearing Jesus in imprecatory mode. We may not enjoy the specter of judgment on those who refused to recognize Jesus through his miracles, but it’s not up to us to edit the divine discourse.
Each preacher can and must make up his/her mind on this issue but my recommendation would be to include Jesus’ tough talk in verses 20-24 and use it as a way to understand this larger passage. In what follows, I will assume that we will not quietly bracket Jesus’ speech on the unrepentant cities.
That said . . . what is there to observe in Matthew 11? First, it is important to remember that all these words flow out of the scandalous and shocking fact that as Matthew 11 opens, no less than the imprisoned John the Baptist has sent some emissaries to Jesus to inquire if Jesus really was The One or if they should go back to waiting for the promised Messiah after all. Can it really be that the one sent to prepare the way for the Christ got to a point so desperate that he began to doubt the identity of Jesus? Or was John still pretty sure that Jesus was The One but had his disciples ask Jesus this question as a subtle rebuke over what John regarded as the too-slow pace of Jesus’ ministry to date? In that case, John’s question would have been almost a cheeky form of the question we sometimes rhetorically ask to motivate someone to greater courage and action: “Are you a man or a mouse!?”
That was the set up for Jesus not only to send word back to John that more was going on than he maybe knew but also to point out that as it turned out, neither John nor Jesus was exactly what anyone expected. Both were easily caricatured by opponents looking to impugn their characters. John was an abstemious sort who dressed weirdly, talked weirdly, and was given to many-a rhetorical excess. So those who wanted to dismiss John as being of no importance in God’s grand scheme of things said, “He’s nuts. He’s got a demon in him. He’s a few garbanzo beans short of a good hummus.”
Jesus, on the other hand, appears to have been anything but abstemious. When people threw weddings, they wanted Jesus at the party (and according to John’s gospel, Jesus was even good at providing a whole winery’s worth of vino for folks who were already three sheets to the wind). When people threw dinner parties, they invited Jesus and at those gatherings, Jesus was not averse to asking for a second helping of the lamb stew. So those who wanted to dismiss Jesus as being a good non-candidate for Messiah said, “That wine-bibbing and cheeseburger-consuming fellow doesn’t look a thing like God and so can’t possibly be God’s Christ.”
In other words, “We’ll know God’s servants when we see them and these two ain’t it.”
But the God of Scripture is consistent in his ability to surprise and to startle. Indeed, a good bit of divine revelation happens precisely through just those surprises. We learn the most about God’s nature and plans not when God puts in some appearance that accords pretty much with what we expect of a deity in the first place but when God shows up in the least likely of guises and in the least likely of places.
Who would have guessed that God would have decided to start a mighty nation by approaching a wrinkled old couple in the retirement home—two people who had not managed to generate children even when they were young and virile? Who would have guessed that God’s favorites would always been the less likely of the possible candidates: crafty and wily old Jacob is favored over his more staid brother Esau; the young braggart Joseph is chosen over his more stable and hard-working brothers; Moses the stutterer becomes God’s mouthpiece instead of his more golden-tongued brother Aaron; the family runt David gets elevated over all the other sons of Jesse.
God always chooses the less likely of the options. And he shows up in other surprising places. The Israelite spies who visit Jericho make a beeline for a brothel. Who knows why they went there first but at the end of the day, God preached a sermon to them from the lips of no less than the establishment’s madam, Rahab herself. God delivers the Ninevites from certain doom by pressing into service the reluctant and truculent figure of Jonah (a man whose personality could have curdled milk, as Frederick Buechner once put it). God frees the Israelites from their long captivity by turning the Persian (and pagan) King Cyrus into a messiah.
And lest we think that these surprises were limited to the Old Testament, God starts out the New Testament with its own surprise BANG by implanting his Son into the uterus of an unsuspecting virgin named Mary and having him delivered into a donkey’s feedbunk.
John the Baptist looked at the shape and content of Jesus’ ministry and said, “This can’t be. He can’t be the one.” But John should have just looked in the mirror. Because if God could use the zany son of Zechariah and Elizabeth . . . well, there was just no telling what God might do next! Small wonder that Jesus ends up saying in verse 25 that praise is to be given to God for revealing the deep truths of salvation not to the wise and learned but to “little children.”
Children, after all, have a vast capacity to be surprised!
Jesus’ words in Matthew 11 about his “easy” yoke and his “light” burden are among the best-known in the New Testament. The word usually translated as “light” is accurately rendered as meaning something that is light in terms of weight. But the other word associated with Jesus’ yoke—the Greek word chrestos—means something more than “easy.” Chrestos carries with it more of a ring of “kindness” and of “pleasantness.” Apparently, Jesus’ yoke is the opposite of what we’d usually associate with yokes. A yoke seems like something you’d impose, something you’d just as soon not have laid over your shoulders at all. Yet Jesus’ yoke is a kind and pleasant phenomenon. It is not a despised thing but is as gentle and kind as when someone you love lays his or her hand on you to encourage you, to love you, to lead you gently and lovingly where you should go and to that place where you can flourish.
In Matthew 11, Jesus goes through a lot. He recalls being called names. He has to pronounce a difficult sentence on unrepentant cities. As the chapter opened, he even had to endure the doubt of his own cousin, John the Baptist. Small wonder that by the end his mind turns toward thoughts of rest for the weary. But Jesus knows that peace and rest for now must come to us from the midst of the squalor of our lives.
Tom Long once told a story that illustrates this. One time Long was asked to preach at what was billed as a special “family worship service.” It was a great idea . . . on paper. The notion was to hold the worship service not in the sanctuary but in the fellowship hall. There families would gather around tables, in the center of which would be the ingredients for making a mini-loaf of bread. The plan was to have the families make bread together and then, while the sweet aroma of baking bread filled the hall, the minister would preach. When the bread was finished, it would be brought out and used for a celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
It was a great idea . . . on paper.
But it didn’t work. Within minutes the fellowship hall was a hazy cloud of flour dust. Soggy balls of dough bounced off Rev. Long’s new suit as children hurled bits of the dough at each other. Husbands and wives began to snipe, nerves were frayed. Then the ovens didn’t work right and it took forever for the bread to bake. Children whimpered, babies screamed, families were on the verge of falling apart.
But finally, and mercifully, the end of the service came. The script called for Long to pronounce the normal blessing saying, “The peace of God be with you.” Too tired and irritable to ad-lib anything, Long just said it straight out, holding limp, flour-caked hands to the air and saying, “The peace of God be with you.”
And immediately, from the back of the trashed fellowship hall, a young child’s voice piped up, “It already is.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
At one time or another, some of us have perhaps been tempted to pray for “a sign.” Maybe a few of us have been not just tempted to pray for a sign but we have petitioned God to show us something tangible that will help us make some big decision.
“Oh, Lord, if she really is the right one for me, then let her call me in the next fifteen minutes!”
“Dear God, if you want me to take this job, then give me some kind of sign so I’ll know–give me a thunderclap, a beam of sunshine, something to show me the way!”
Mostly it doesn’t work like that, of course. We’re even a bit suspicious of people who claim that God talks directly to them just about every morning at breakfast. Even if some ostensible sign is claimed by someone, we’re more likely to chalk it up to coincidence than direct divine intervention.
“I was sitting in my car asking God for a sign and, suddenly, the light turned green! See!”
Well, no, most of us wouldn’t see much in that.
Surely very few, if any, of us have ever recommended that people seek God’s will for their lives by letting a Bible fall open, plunking down an index finger, and taking a cue from whatever verse you happen to find. It is said that once there was a person who wanted to know God’s will and so he flipped open the Bible, blindly jabbed his finger at the text, and then read the verse, “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” Since that didn’t seem to provide quite the direction he was looking for, he tried again, this time plunking down on the verse, “Go and do likewise”! All in all, not a very spiritually mature way to operate!
Of course, there are Bible stories that seem to lend credence to the idea that God operates through the doling out of special revelatory signs. Gideon had his fleece. Abraham saw a flaming torch once. Moses had the burning bush, and in Genesis 24 we see even a lowly servant receive a sign. Such things do happen, at least in the Bible.
And so on one level you could look at the story in Genesis 24 and conclude that this is another one of those “special” Bible stories that shows how God used to work in the lives of key biblical characters, even though he mostly doesn’t work that way for us anymore. Of course God provided a sign to this servant: we’re talking about Isaac here. The future of the whole covenant depends on the family line of Abraham. You expect things to fall into place like this for such an important figure in salvation history. The rest of us, however, are a bit more on our own, left to puzzle out the will of God without such obvious heavenly help.
As I said, it would be easy to think that way about this story, but I want to suggest this is a wrong way to approach this text. It may have more to do with us in the here-and-now than we think.
This story is straightforward. Sarah has died recently and Abraham appears to be perhaps on his own deathbed as Genesis 24 opens. Before Abraham closes out his earthly journey of faith, he wants to make sure that the covenantal promises will go forward through Isaac. Hence, getting Isaac a wife with whom to have a family is a simple and logical necessity. But Abraham does not want Isaac hooking up with a local girl but instead insists that for now the covenant stay in the family. So Abraham sends his servant back to the old country to select a wife for Isaac from among his distant cousins there.
So the servant leaves with an entire entourage of other servants, camels, and quite a few costly gifts as well. Once they arrive in the old country, the servant prays for a sign and swiftly receives it when Rebekah comes to the spring and does indeed exude a kind generosity toward this total stranger. Before she knows what has hit her, she is decked out in heavy gold rings and bracelets even as this servant launches into a full-throated rendition of the doxology in praise of Yahweh for leading him to just this girl.
Her father, Bethuel and brother Laban take one look at the small fortune in gold the girl is wearing and suddenly become very interested in this stranger at the spring! Commentators note that it is quite probable that this family had not heard of the God Yahweh. Abraham, after all, had been gone for decades with no known contact with his extended family. But no sooner does the family see the trinkets with which Rebekah has been showered and they get very religious very quickly! Verse 30 says that the first thing Laban noticed was all the gold–his eyes sparkled at the wealth of it all. Rebekah then mentions what the stranger had said, including his song of praise to some God named “Yahweh.” Laban then replies, “Yahweh, did you say? Well, then, praise Yahweh! Invite this fellow into the house!”
When opportunity knocks, you open the door!
Genesis 24 is one of the most leisurely, detailed narratives in the Bible’s opening book, and it is a curiosity to wonder why. The Lectionary skips around a lot but the fact is that there is a lot of detail here, a lot of review of what had come earlier in the Abraham cycle of stories. Why?
Maybe because God himself is in the details.
Unlike other narratives earlier in Genesis, God nowhere speaks in Genesis 24. The servant does not receive a heavenly vision, is not told by God where to go. Likewise God’s Spirit does not tip off Bethuel, Laban, and Rebekah by telling them to be on the lookout for a certain stranger who will soon be coming their way. As Walter Brueggemann notes, with the exception of the servant’s brief prayer in verses 12-15, this story is “secular” in the sense of being the report of some very ordinary-sounding events. God is not reported as saying or doing anything in particular, and yet throughout this chapter you have the feeling that God is directing everything.
In retrospect the servant can see how this has all come together just so. Even before he prayed his prayer at the spring, God had already brought him to just the right place. Maybe that’s why he takes the time so lovingly and thoughtfully to recount every last detail to Rebekah’s family over dinner. Maybe that is why the author of Genesis likewise takes care to write it all out again. After all, would you have batted an eye or sensed that something was missing from Genesis 24 if in verse 34, instead of recounting the whole long story all over again, the text had said, “And so the servant then told Bethuel and Laban the story of his journey.”
It could have been left at that. As a reader, you don’t need to review the whole thing. You might even get impatient. Suppose you are reading a novel some evening in which chapter 3 is the story of the main character’s trip to Chicago one weekend. You read about what hotel he stayed at, where he went out for dinner, the stores he shopped at, the particular display he saw at the Chicago Art Institute. It might all be very interesting, but what would you think if you then went on to chapter 4 only to find that this chapter was about how this same character came back home to Grand Rapids and then told his roommate about the whole weekend, once again repeating every last hotel, museum, and restaurant detail you had just read in the previous chapter? You might get rather frustrated with this book. “Why doesn’t this author just get on with it?” you might say to yourself.
But the author of Genesis is making a vital point: even ordinary-sounding stories such as the one the servant so carefully re-tells can be, and often are, full of God. But if we rarefy this story, make it about just what happens when someone important like Isaac is taking center stage, then we may miss that. This is about us, too.
Because listen: if you want to be a “spiritual person,” then that spirituality is going to be active not just on those rare mountaintop moments of life but in and through the very mundane details of your day-to-day life. St. Teresa of Avila once noted that “Christ dwells among the pots and pans.” It was Teresa’s way of saying that if we don’t bump into Jesus in the run of a typical day, we maybe won’t run into him much at all.
Thomas Merton once tried to make a similar point when he observed that a spiritual life is first and foremost just a life. If you want to be a holy or spiritual person, you need to be a person first, and what’s more you need to be the very specific person God already created you to be. The “spiritual” part of being a Christian is not way out there somewhere beyond the horizon waiting for you to arrive. It’s here, it’s now.
Sometimes we’d all like a sign we could see, discern, figure out right on the spot. And sometimes those signs come, too. But even when there is nothing else to which one can point, the sign of the cross remains. If God could be, and indeed was, active in that most terrible of moments, then we are assured all over again that there is no moment in also our lives when God cannot be active. Add that to Jesus’ promise never to leave us and suddenly the details of life shine with new meaning. In the face of that, what can we do but join Abraham’s servant in singing the doxology!
I once heard a pastor say that once upon a time she lamented all of the “distractions” that would come to her in the course of the average week. She was trying to write sermons, prepare catechism lessons, and do other obviously “spiritual” work but the phone kept ringing with people who had a question or a comment on this or that. Someone was at the door, emails cried out to be answered, and so forth and so on. But then one day she realized: these so-called “distractions” were themselves a big part of ministry. If she couldn’t be spiritual in and through those times, then when would she be spiritual?
Indeed, we’ve all realized sometimes that the best work we did for God on a given day was not what we set out to do but what we did when something unforeseen cropped up. One day recently I had several things I was determined to get written that day–stuff I believed to be important and holy work. But that evening I realized that the most important thing I’d written all day (and just maybe the most important thing I’d written in a long while) was not what I had planned to do but a long email reply I sent to someone who was wrestling with some key questions about faith and life. It was only after this person wrote me back to say how her tears were flowing at the goodness of God that came to her in that email that I realized what had happened.
God is in the details.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Those who preach and teach the part of this psalm the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday face a set of challenges. First, concepts such as monarchy, kingdom and sovereignty to which this psalm refers are largely unfamiliar to citizens of the 21st century. The few surviving monarchs are, after all, largely ceremonial. So preachers and teachers do well to spend some time familiarizing worshipers with the role monarchs played in the psalmist’s day.
Second, the Lectionary only appoints verses 8-14 of Psalm 145 for this Sunday. Preaching and teaching only part of any biblical piece is always fraught with danger. So those who lead worshipers through this psalm must take seriously its context and wider message.
Third, Psalm 145 is an acrostic. That means that its first verse begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the second verse with the second letter and so on. Even the best of English Bible translations struggle to convey that acrostic structure well. What’s more, acrostics, notes James Mays, convey comprehensiveness. So if only part of the psalm is preached or taught, as the Lectionary suggests, only part of that comprehensiveness is conveyed.
Some things, however, are very clear about Psalm 145. It is obviously a song of praise. After all, it’s not just that the word is used six times in the psalm. The poem also uses similar words and phrases such as “exalt,” “celebrate,” “joyfully sing” and “extol” throughout. So any sermon or lesson on this text must reflect its tone of praise. While one might argue the old “three points and a poem” approach to preaching and teaching is seldom (if ever!) appropriate, it seems particularly inappropriate for exposition of this glorious hymn of praise.
The section of the Psalm appointed for this Sunday, verses 8-14, covers eight lines of its acrostic, from the Hebrew letters het to samek. Verse 8 paraphrases what God says about himself at Mount Sinai: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). When the Israelites thought of Yahweh, they often thought of God in those terms, as gracious, merciful, slow to anger and overflowing with love.
Yet throughout the section of this psalm appointed for this Sunday, the psalmist insists God doesn’t reserve this character just for Israel. God, says the poet, is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and overflowing with love to everyone (and perhaps everything) God has made.
So this psalm begs for its preachers and teachers to reflect with worshipers on the universal scope of God’s loving-kindness. While the poet may refer to God as his God and King (verse 1), he clearly envisions God as being God and King of all. So while we often presume God is kind only to those who are kind, this poem insists God’s mercy extends to God’s whole creation, thereby inviting the objects of God’s kindness to imitate God by being gracious and merciful to all.
Verse 10 turns from language about God to language addressed to God. “All you have made,” the psalmist professes there, “will praise you, O Lord.” In other words, those toward whom God is compassionate will respond to that compassion with praise. This is, of course, in some ways a very eschatological assertion. It is very hard sometimes, after all, to see how people who don’t worship God, to say nothing of some creatures, praise God. So this psalm points ahead to the day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:10). In the meantime, however, Psalm 145 invites worshipers to find ways to invite even those who don’t yet know the Lord to praise God, in part through a faithful relationship with the Lord.
Verses 11-13 are what one scholar calls “the centerpiece of the acrostic.” They testify to vital features of God’s character and interaction with human creatures. Verses 11-13 also form part of the psalm’s acrostic. Verse 11 begins with the Hebrew letter kaph; verse 12 with lamed; and verse 13 with mem. Together they form the root of the Hebrew word melek, which means “king” and the word malkut, which means “kingdom.”
This emphasizes the psalm’s theme, God’s kingship over not only Israel, but also all of creation. But this Monarch whom Psalm 145 praises is no sovereign tyrant. This God is glorious, powerful and mighty. God the King is also faithful to God’s promises and loving toward everything God has made.
Psalm 145 suggests that it’s among this Sovereign’s subjects’ tasks to make this glorious, loving and faithful God known to all God has made. God’s people tell of the glory of God and God’s kingdom so that all people may know of God’s mighty acts. God’s adopted sons and daughters speak of God’s might so that everything God creates and cares for may know about the glorious splendor of God’s kingdom.
While human kingdoms are very temporary, God’s kingdom is “an everlasting kingdom” (13). While other reigns come and go, God’s reign “endures through all generations” (13). God’s kingdom is what Jesus calls a most valuable treasure and pearl, worth selling or abandoning everything else to faithfully receive it.
Of course, God’s kingdom isn’t always readily obvious. As this is being written, rebels are sowing anarchy as they close in on Iraq’s already embattled capital of Baghdad. Nigerian militants are wreaking havoc by killing and kidnapping Christians. North America’s city streets are all too often littered with the carnage of violence.
So even as God’s people profess that God is king and that God’s kingdom is eternal, Psalm 145 enlists worshipers in the cause of helping to make that kingdom real and visible. It invites God’s children to praise the Lord by siding with “all those who fall … and are bowed down” (14). It summons God’s adopted sons and daughters to extol God by forgiving and praying for enemies. For where God’s Spirit equips God’s people to do those things, God’s everlasting kingdom comes.
Psalm 145 invites God’s children to tell the glory of God’s kingdom by being faithful in their marriages and other relationships. It invites God’s saints to speak of God’s might by caring for every part of God’s crying creation. For where God’s subjects serve their King in those ways, God’s eternal kingdom comes.
The 1987 movie, Forrest Gump, fairly sparkles with compassion (Psalm 145:8-9). It begins with Forrest Gump’s first day of school. Gump’s physical disability makes him an unattractive seat companion for nearly everyone on the bus. But Jenny offers him a seat, thereby sowing the seeds for a life-long, if checkered, relationship between Forrest and her.
Jenny is a compassionate, but flawed character who is deeply shaped by a very abusive childhood. In fact, you might argue that her sometimes-misplaced compassion is what repeatedly gets her into such deep trouble.
Forrest reciprocates that compassion by becoming a very compassionate person himself. In fact, you might argue his compassion becomes his central trait. He shows that compassion particularly to Jenny. While she drifts in and out of his life, Forrest never loses his love or compassion for her.
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Years ago William James made an interesting distinction in his classic work, Varieties of Religious Experience. He talked about “healthy minded” religion and “morbid minded” religion. Those who belong to the latter, the “sick soul” camp, are those who see themselves as sinful, dispossessed, and disinherited, while the “healthy minded” religious experience is filled with optimism. For the last half century or so, American Christianity has been dominated by the healthy minded sort of religion, which has meant that the “bad stuff” has been rejected in many circles. There can be no downers, like human depravity, our inability to save ourselves, or the utter need for divine rescue.
Well, I want to be a healthy minded person as much as the next person. I don’t want to be morbid; I want to be an optimistic, possibility thinking, I-can-do-it kind of Christian. But what Paul says in our text rings a bell with me and, I suspect, with every honest, self-aware Christian. The fact that we can overdo the “sick soul” business and become morbid about human existence is no reason to ignore the deep truth we find in passages like this one. In fact, the late James Montgomery Boice was strongly of the opinion that “the real problem is that we Christians do not believe we are sinners.”
That certainly was not Paul’s problem. “I do not understand what I do.” That is a universal human problem. Centuries ago Greek philosophers and English play writers said things like, “Know thyself” and “To thine own self be true.” The question is, “Who am I?” In the modern era the search for self-understanding has been clarified and complicated by the likes of Sigmund Freud who theorized that each of us is a composite of three separate “selves,” which he called the ego, the id, and the superego. Virtual Faith, an early book about the effect of the internet on young people, pointed out that computer experimentation with various cyberspace identities has led to even greater identity confusion. After constantly surfing the web and being deeply immersed in various fantasy games, a young man named Michael Saunders asked, “Which of me am I?”
The apostle Paul asks this ancient philosophical and psychological question on a deeply spiritual level. “I do not understand what I do” in relation to God’s law. Most of us recognize his dilemma. In view of the fact that I continue to sin in spite of my strong desire and my best efforts not sin, what am I to make of myself? Am I really a Christian? I mean, how can I be both a Christian and a person who continues to sin as I do? Many of our congregants feel that way, and maybe you do too. Paul has some good news for us in this famous passage.
The key to understanding this text lies in the identity of the person who refers to himself as “I.” Careful scholars have debated this question endlessly. Is Paul talking about himself as a non-Christian (as he did in verses 1-13 of this chapter) or is he talking about himself as a “born again” Christian? It makes a huge difference, because if this “I” is a non-Christian self, then what Paul says here isn’t true/can’t be true of people like you and me, and there is no message, no direction, no comfort here for us.
I won’t bore you with all the details of the debate over the identity of the “I.” Nor will I go through my own reasoning as I’ve come to my own conclusion. You can find all of that in any good commentary and going into all that here won’t help you preach on this text. So let me cut to the chase and tell you that I agree with John Calvin and the majority of commentators through history who are convinced that Paul means his Christian self. In other words, what he describes here is the experience of a Christian.
To be more specific and accurate, he describes himself as a Christian, when he tries to battle sin in his own strength. When he says in verse 14, “I am unspiritual,” the word there is “fleshly.” He is referring to the fact that, like everyone else, he is weak because he is only human. In his own human strength—of mind, of will, or moral resolve and effort—he was weak. What’s more, he says, “I am sold as a slave to sin.” In spite of the fact that he has died to sin and is no longer under its control, sin still has great power in his life. In his own strength, he is in a desperate way when it comes to sin.
Indeed, he has discovered two terrible realities when he battles sin in his own strength. First of all, his own behavior is incomprehensible to him. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” He has discovered that it is one thing to want to do the right thing, and quite another to actually do it. You can will goodness and really mean it and really try, and yet do the opposite of what you seriously and deeply will.
There are, so to speak, two wills in him and us, or multiple levels of will. Paul is talking about what the old Presbyterian divine, Dr. John Murray, called “our determinate will,” our deepest determination. That determinate will wants to do good and agrees that the law of God is good. But in spite of that determinate will, Paul also willed to sin. He isn’t claiming that he didn’t will that. He is simply saying that is it possible, indeed, all too common, that a Christian actually wills to sin against his own determinate will.
How can we explain that? Well, says Paul, it is sin living in us that causes this mysterious behavior. Verse 17 says, “As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but sin living in me.” And again verse 20 says, “Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” I know that sounds like making excuses, shifting the blame, not taking responsibility for one’s own behavior, sort of a Pauline version of comedian Flip Wilson’s old tag line, “The devil made me do it.”
But that is not what Paul means. He knows very well that it is still Paul who is committing the sin. Indeed, in verse 18 he confesses, “I know that nothing good lives in me.” I am the one sinning. But, as he continues in the verse, he realizes that he is not that simple as a person. Even as sincere, dedicated Christian, he still has what he calls a “sinful nature.” In the best of us, there is still indwelling sin so powerful that it makes us a mystery to ourselves, because we act against our own best desires. “I do not understand what I do.” That’s one terrible reality Paul had discovered about himself.
The other terrible reality is closely related. “I find this law at work: when I want to do good, evil is right there with me.” It’s a law, a principle of the Christian life that when we decide to do what is right, the whole dominion of evil will be right there beside us to keep us from doing it. This reality explains why so many of us have experienced our greatest spiritual defeats right after our greatest victories, or after we have promised God that we will now stop our habitual sins. That reminds me of the old saying I often heard as a boy. “The devil ignores those who are already in his camp; it’s the serious ones, the ones heading for or already in the other camp that he works on overtime.”
But Paul is not talking here about that transcendent evil that we call the devil. He is talking about the evil in us, our own evil, what he calls here “the law of sin.” That really means “the power of sin.” That power of sin is at work in the members of our body, says verse 23, meaning not just our hands and feet, but any part of our weak humanness. Sin always appeals to our human desires to work evil and harm in us. This indwelling sin has power and it works in my members to keep me from doing the good I want to do.
Indeed, there is a war within every genuinely serious Christian. On the one side, there is the real you, which Paul in verse 22 identifies as “my inner being,” the deepest self, the Christian you, the you that has been freed from sin’s dominating power and is not under the authority of Christ. The real you wants to do God’s will “with your mind,” that is, when you think hard about what you want to do. But there is this other law, this other power at work in you, waging war against the real you. It often succeeds, and then you once again make yourself a prisoner to the power of sin. That’s the second terrible reality Paul had discovered—that our desire to do good is always attacked by the power of evil, namely this indwelling sin that will use our desires to lure us back into the bondage from which Christ has set us free. (Our lectionary reading ends at 23a, but that’s an arbitrary and unfortunate division of the text. It leaves us with a dilemma for which there is apparently no solution. So I will follow Paul on to the conclusion of this chapter.)
Given this deep and depressing theological analysis of his behavior, it’s no wonder that Paul, and everyone like him, cries out, “O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?!” It is a terrible reality, an awful feeling, to want to please God but to be keenly aware that you disappoint him again and again. At least Paul tells us that we aren’t alone in that. And we know why that happens. Or do we? Do we know why we go down to defeat time and again? It’s because of indwelling sin, right? Well, yes, and no. It is indwelling sin that is the enemy, but the reason we are defeated by it again and again is that we try to fight it in our own strength using our own weapons.
That’s what Paul is saying in those mysterious last words of verse 25. “So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” Be sure to catch the emphasis on the words “I myself.” I of myself, when I act in my own strength, find myself caught in these terrible realities I’ve just described– a mystery to myself, a victim of sin, a wounded participant in a war I can’t win. I of myself am wretched. This is why so many Christians are wretched– we continue to battle sin in our own strength.
There is only one strength great enough to give us the victory over indwelling sin, and that is the strength of Jesus Christ our Lord. His strength defeated sin through the cross, so that we can be forgiven, justified, adopted as children of God, inheritors of heaven’s riches, and all of that. And his strength defeats sin in our lives through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. That’s what Paul will explain in depth in the next chapter of Romans. For now, he ends his exhaustive and exhausting explanation of his battle with sin with this relieved exclamation. “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
“I’m sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried. I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn’t. All is lost.”
Those are the opening words, almost the only words, in a 2013 survival movie entitled “All is Lost.” They are the words of Robert Redford who gives a tour de force acting performance as a man lost at sea. Sailing solo across the Indian Ocean, Redford experiences the sailor’s ultimate nightmare. As he is sleeping, his boat is rammed by a large shipping container drifting aimlessly on the high seas. His boat is severely damaged, but Redford copes admirably. A seasoned sailor with a well equipped boat, he works to patch the hole in the hull. In spite of all his heroic efforts to keep his sailboat afloat, it sinks in a fierce tropical storm.
All is lost, but he climbs into his life raft with everything he could rescue from his sunken boat. He continues to drift for days with no sign of land, using all his skill and strength to survive. He sees two container ships and tries to catch their attention with signal flares, to no avail. As his water and food run out, he gives up all hope of rescue. He writes the words quoted above and puts the message in a jar, hoping someone someday will find it and share it with his loved ones. Then, he sees another freighter in the distance. Using the remaining pages of his journal, he starts a fire to signal the ship, but his raft catches fire. Now all is lost.
But as he sinks into the ocean, a single giant hand reaches down and grabs him. After all his efforts to save himself, this wretched man is finally rescued by the hand of an unseen person, obviously from the ship, but not identified in the movie.