Last week Saint Paul tried to teach us in his letters that we are no longer condemned by the law but are in fact justified by faith though the blood of the cross. This week he complains that though he is not condemned by the law, he is still beset with evil and with evil habits that continually well up in his soul, and like all of us, he tends to do the evil he would rather not do and forgoes the good his spirit longs to do. And so, it is left to us to contemplate this and wonder to ourselves just why this is the case.
To explain this, we need to understand that all of us, from the highest, holiest prophet, down to the most wretched miserable soul among us seeks personal comfort over all things. We all seek comfort in food, shelter, love, warmth and security. We need to know that these comforts that we all seek are not evil and in fact are among the greatest blessings God can give us. Sometimes though, this comfort that we seek becomes an intense desire and then occasionally may become an overwhelming driving force in our lives that can become hurtful to ourselves and to others around us. We call these overwhelming desires for comfort at all cost, addictions and it happens to many of us as in addictions to drugs, sex, food, material things and alcohol, to name a few.
To understand how something like a God given gift, very good and pleasing can turn to become something evil and self-destructive in our lives is the challenge for us today, as all of us have faced this problem in one way or another in the past and some may face it again in the future, because none of us are immune to the effect of evil in our lives.
Years ago, before Barbara and I were married, we started to set up a house we were going to rent when we got married. One the main items we needed was a mattress and so we went out looking at mattresses and box springs. Going from a comfortable single bed at our parent’s house to a new double mattress took some doing for both of us. There were many a sleepless night, but finally we both got used to it and slept well on that mattress for many years. And as the years unfolded, that mattress became even better and better as it got broken in almost to the point where we didn’t want to get up in the morning. As more years rolled by that mattress became increasingly conformed to our bodies until one day it had so enveloped us that it was difficult to get up out of bed, and when we did, we found that our backs and necks ached and we began to wonder why we were tired all the time and hurt so. It wasn’t too long after that we figured out that it was time for a new mattress, and so we went out shopping again.
That night the new mattress was switched out for the old one. We got into bed – lay there for a few minutes and then Barbara said to me – “Umm, I think I want the old mattress back – it fits me and I’ll never be able to get used to this” . . . but of course we did get used to it but the change to a new mattress was painful at first until we got used to a comfortable bed again.
What I am trying to relay to you this morning is that all of God’s gifts are good and right for us and give us comfort and joy. Things like wine and spirits, dancing and sex, banquets and merriment, things that have been historically looked down on by religious society for the evil that they sometimes spawn are indeed good things. But as time goes on, and we become more and more accustomed and attracted to these things, they tend to take hold of us and we find it more and more difficult to do without them, until unfortunately, we wake up one morning to find that we need them, not because we want them, but because they own us, very much like an old mattress that has completely encompassed round about us.
And so like many in groups like alcoholics anonymous and narcotics anonymous, we are forced to admit the truth, that we have no power to control our own behavior – and so we do what we don’t want to do even as we know we should not.
But what about all those who refuse to admit a problem? How do they justify it? Do they like Paul say to themselves . . . “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” . . . Or do we say . . . “I want it,” “I am going to get it,” and “I don’t care what you or anyone else says.”
There is a story I once read of a man’s daughter who was three-years-old and enjoying a snowy, wintry day when she discovered that snow was great for both sledding and eating. When the man’s wife saw her eating the snow, she told her that snow was not for eating and that she needed to stop.
That night the daughter added this to her prayer before she went to bed: she prayed “And Jesus, is it okay if I eat snow?” Immediately her eyes opened wide, and she said “Mommy, Jesus said YES!”
The human heart is writ large in a three-year-old. And they wondered how did the little girl even know that toddlers could receive words from the Lord? The parents of course laughed. But they laughed because eating snow is probably not that big of a deal, and they could be with her and help her when tempted with doing something far worse. But, at least they thought, she had the concept of praying about everything. They decided then that they would take it one step at a time and reserve a discussion about the darkness of the human heart for later.
Things are not so harmless in the adult version. “I prayed about it,” adult-style, is nearly always invoked when Scripture clearly teaches one thing and the person wants to do another. For example, a Christian woman is (somehow!) granted that coveted spiritual exception to marry an unbeliever. When challenged by her friends, she says: “I prayed about it.” Or another follower of Christ is startled to hear the Spirit say a resounding “YES, you can move in with your girlfriend,” or “YES, you can leave your wife and children, because, after all, I want you to be happy.” Or an entire church denomination decides among themselves that abortion and homosexuality are blessings, because . . . well “We prayed about it”.
I have to wonder what “God” are these people praying to? How often this perverse, self-deceived foolishness is apparent to everyone except the people involved. So how do we respond? We have very few possibilities.
The obvious place to start is to wonder as we are looking in the mirror. Indeed, where and how do we justify our own desires? And so we say to ourselves “Yikes”, we certainly didn’t have to look very hard.
So what do we do? How do we accept the gifts of God and at the same time reject the evil that is instilled within us? This of course is THE question that priests and philosophers have been writing about for centuries. In the gospels Jesus tells us that if something offends you pluck it out, or cut it off . . . and he is right in that people addicted to one thing or another need to make conscience choice to cut it out of their lives completely if they are ever going to be free . . . and so should we. But once we do so there is a void that needs to be filled, and not just by anything but by another gift, another comfort . . . one that will be as uncomfortable as a new mattress but something new to get used to. It might be exercise, or a study group, or even church . . . anything that may fill the void of where evil once thrived. In the gospel lesson today Jesus tells us . . . “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” And isn’t that what we are looking for each week at church . . . rest for our souls? Jesus tells us to repent . . . to turn from evil and reject it utterly . . . and in that way we will live to God and not ourselves.
Very often in life we tend to pray to God and then answer our own prayer in the way we want it answered. How often do we like Laban in today’s Old Testament lesson ask to be shown what it is that God desires. How many of us ask for a sign from heaven that this is okay or that is okay. Today, Laban gives God a condition to meet and God complies . . . “I came today to the spring, and said, `O LORD, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,” and who will say to me, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also” — let her be the woman whom the LORD has appointed for my master’s son.’
Laban shows us here just the kind of prayer we need to ask . . . one where God can provide an answer . . . not one that we may want to hear . . . but one that he wants to give . . . for in setting up this scene Laban knows for sure that the answer is not of himself but of God.
Finally, we have all received gifts from God in the form of family, friends and neighbors, love, food and clothing all given to us for our comfort and our benefit. It is up to each of us to cherish these things because they are from God and to be ever thankful to Him above all things. It is when we let the gifts of God become the god in our life that we encourage evil to grow in our hearts to the point that God, the real God of our fathers, has no longer a place for Himself in our soul; that we are doomed in our sins.
God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be always devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
This sermon is part of the ministry of the Word at Saint Nicholas Anglican Church in West Seneca, NY in the United States and a Continuing Church in the Anglican Tradition. If you have been helped by any of the sermons or thoughts expressed on this sermon blog, we would love to hear from you at anglicanchurchofsaintnicholas.org .
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