Sermons

​Texts:  Romans 7:15-25a                                                David Endriss
            Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30                           Preached on 7/9/17
 
I DON’T KNOW MYSELF!
 
Introduction

What is the hardest word in English?  Is it one of the longest words?  Pneumono­ultra­microscopic­silico­volcano­coniosis new-mono-ultra-micro-scopic-sillico-volcano-co–ni-osis.  (it refers to a lung disease often caused by volcanoes).Or perhaps instead of a long word maybe one that is hard to spell:  hemacytometer  (a device that counts blood)  But let’s take a different tact.  Perhaps the hardest word has nothing to do with its length or its difficult spelling.  One could easily argue that the hardest word in the English language is also one of the shortest.  “No”.
 
It is certainly one of the first words we learn.  And even a toddler who does not understand the words of Romans chapter 7, understands the same dynamics that the apostle was writing about.  You tell a 2 year old, “no” and they will look you straight in the eye and with a devilish and mischievous grin go right ahead and do it. I do not do the good I want, writes Paul, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
 
Of course toddlers are not the only ones who behave this way.  The rest of us also have a problem with the word “no”.  In our heads we may understand why, but in our hearts we feel it is an imposition.  It cramps our freedom and hampers our individuality.  Do not touch, wet paint is an invitation to test the sign.  Doesn’t 55 miles per hour really mean 60?  Saying no to credit card debt means delaying gratification, when we would rather instead delay payment.
 
The Essence of Human Nature
One comic shows two people standing at a crosswalk.  Next to them is a sign which reads, “Absolutely No Machete Juggling.”  The man says, “Suddenly I have an urge to juggle machetes.”    In the corner a box reads:  The essence of human nature.  Something we may never consider doing becomes tempting when we are told not to.
 
Even such a great saint as Augustine tells of this tension.  In his autobiography he recalls a time as a young man when he and his friends stole some pears, not because he was hungry (they ended up throwing the pears to some pigs).  Ironically, they were not even that tasty, he had access to better pears.  Reflecting on the experience he wondered, “Was it possible to take pleasure in what was illicit for no reason other than that it was not allowed?”[i]
 
The American sculptor George Barnard is perhaps best known for his colossal work entitled, “The Struggle of the Two Natures of Man” now located in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  In it are two large male figures, one standing the other laying down.  The work is full of tension as the two forms struggle together.
 
The comics are full of illustrations of the devil sitting on one shoulder and an angel sitting on the other trying to talk a person into making a decision.  Does Paul have an angel and devil on his shoulders?  It almost seems like Paul is confused in this passage.  One keen observer noted that Paul is not confused so much as he recognizes that sin is a life-long struggle even for Christians. 
 
Some have tried to argue that Paul is talking about his pre-Christian state, a time before he confessed Jesus as Lord.   But his verbs in this passage are all in the present tense.  It is a struggle that he has now.  This fight is one that he has even as a faithful disciple. Further, Romans is written to other Christians helping them to understand this battle and how God’s grace meets us in the midst of our conflict with sin.
 
If Paul, that great first century apostle was fighting this fight, then what hope do I have?  Granted, there is some comfort in knowing that I am not alone in being tempted, but if he admits to this being a problem, then do I even stand a chance?
  
Conflict as a Good Sign
Take a deep breath and let’s step back and look at this from a different angle.  If someone comes to me and says that they really are not having this problem, then I might question the depth of their faith.  If there is no struggle, then perhaps their conscience has gone quiet, has gone asleep.
 
The 4th century Egyptian monk Evagrius put it this way:  Blessed are you, if the struggle grows fierce against you at the time of prayer.[ii] 
 
I might go so far as to say that a mark of a true Christian is this very battle.  Martin Luther knew this conflict in a deeply profound way.  In Latin he put it like this:  “Simil justus et peccator”.  Many of these words you can make out.  Simil is the same word from which we get simultaneous.  Justus, means just or righteous.  Et is the past tense of the verb “to eat” I et my lunch.  No, it really means “and”.  Finally, peccator is sinner.  Put it together and you get:  Simultaneously, saint and sinner.
 
We often talk about Jesus as being simultaneously both God and man.  Fully God, fully man.  In a similarly mysterious way, you and I are both sinner and saint.  100% sinner, and by the grace of God, 100% saint.  That may be poor math but it is pretty good theology.
 
A Real Battle
Perhaps the first lesson here is for us to take the reality of sin seriously.  Elsewhere the apostle refers to it as a spiritual battle, as real and as dangerous as any war.  And like any conflict, we need to arm ourselves.
 
The British pastor and author John Stott put it this way, an honest and humble acknowledgment of the hopeless evil of our flesh, even after the new birth, is the first step to holiness. To speak quite plainly, some of us are not leading holy lives for the simple reason that we have too high an opinion of ourselves.”[iii]
 
The first pastor I worked with after seminary had two sons who were in middle school.  One day the pastor was called into the office of the school’s principle.  The principle had the unenvious task of telling the pastor that one of his son’s had been misbehaving.  For a few minutes the principle squirmed in his seat trying to find a way a tactful way to say what had to be said.  Joe knowing full well what was coming let him be uncomfortable a little while before finally saying, “I am a Calvinist.  I believe in sin and I know perfectly well what my sons are capable of.”  At that point the principle took a great sigh of relief.
 
Romans 7 concludes with two passionate cries.  The first is a cry of longing.  “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  This is not a shout of despair but rather one of deep hunger.  A yearning, an ache to be freed from this battle with sin.
 
But the second is a cry of confidence.  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, our Lord!”  It is an exclamation of assurance.  It is a shout rooted in the deep conviction of God’s presence.  Paul will write more about this in the next chapter which we will look at next week.
 
Conclusion
And so we come once again to this table.  It has been set by our Lord for those of us who are both sinners and saints.  Those who call Jesus, Lord are saints and are invited to come.  But we come also deeply aware of our brokenness and sinfulness.  If we come to this table believing we are worthy in and of ourselves, we have disqualified ourselves.  We come only because of God’s grace.  And for that we can join with Paul exclaiming:  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

[i] Augustine, Confession Bk II.4
[ii] Evagrius of Pontus (d. 399), “Eastern Orthodoxy,” Christian History, no. 54.
[iii] Stott, John R.W., Men Made New pg. 74