Proper 9A

June 30, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Genesis 24:34-67

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 145:8-14

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Romans 7:15-23a

    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.”

    Illustration Idea

    “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.