What did I do that for?!
Passages: Romans 7:15-8:8 / John 14: 15-27
This morning is confession time. For the last month or so I have been on that thing we all hate: a diet! That however is not my confession. Salads and red-top milk now lace my fridge and meat has become an absent friend for the most part. Treats are supposed to be low-fat which often seems to be a synonym for tasteless or salty. It means trips to the gym although on the plus side that also means trips to the sauna. Believe it or not I do want to do this: to improve my health, improve my stamina, sleep better and so on. Here is my confession: I am an awful cheat.
Despite wanting to loose weight it seems that I want crisps, cream cakes and fast food too. I am my own worst enemy. I have a constant internal battle between what I want to do and what I seem to do. I nearly always immediately regret when I cheat and yet I keep doing it. It’s a self-destructive cycle that I don’t seem to be able to escape from.
Life can be like this, can’t it. We set ourselves goals, we set ourselves morals to live by: to do good and avoid evil. We set out with genuine intentions to do these things and often start out well. To be more patient with our families, to smile more at work, to be more generous with our money or to look after our money better, to stop smoking, to put others first, to look after our health, the list goes on and on. Sometimes we manage this yet after a while we fall back into those old patterns to self and want, then the whole process starts over again and again. All too often it seems impossible to escape and if we do then we are one of the few that manage.
In our reading today Paul was thinking some very similar thoughts. He was in despair. All those good things God said to do like loving God first, putting other before himself, loving everyone, working on his temper, not worrying so much, he constantly kept failing at. And all those things God said not to do like breaking promises, hurting others in words and actions, being selfish and loosing our temper, these he just kept on doing. Its not like he wanted to be selfish, yet if he looked at his actions that’s what he kept doing. Why was it that even though he always wanted to be good that he kept failing. It didn’t make any sense. He wanted to obey God and follow his ways and yet too often he simply followed his selfish nature. It is the human condition and has plagued us, and every other person in history, for our whole lives. We seem like a people torn in two directions and that is exactly how Paul sees it. On the one hand he desires to do good and to follow God, yet on the other hand he keeps doing evil, the thing we call sin; those things that ignore God and neighbour and focus only on ourselves.
God calls us to be perfect just as he too is perfect. A holy God that calls us to be holy. He wants us to come to him, to love him and follow him, to enjoy being known as his. He desires for us to be whole, to be the people he made us to be and to know the immense love that he has for us and yet he cannot have a hint of sin in his presence, not even an inkling. It’s like having a knife you’ve used to spread marmite then wanting to use it to spread butter. Not matter how much you scrape it on the toast there is still some marmite the gets into the butter and corrupts it. It seems hopeless, even impossible, especially if we look to our past. None of us can honestly say that we have lived a perfect life so far, nor can we envisage it in the future no matter how hard we try. It can often feel like locking the gates after the horse has bolted. Perhaps we find ourselves echoing the language that Paul uses, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” The system we are trapped in, this system of sin that leads to death, needs to be broken and yet our attempts to break it simply drive us deeper into that very system.
It is like an old clay-bottomed well. Over the years the well has all but dried up. The only remains of water is the wet clay at the bottom. One day a boy walks past this well with his father and the father warns the boy sternly, ‘you must never go near that well. It is very dangerous’. The next day, enticed by the well, the boy returns on his own and leans over to look how far the well goes down and why his dad thinks it’s so dangerous. At that moment he slips and falls to the bottom. As he sits the bottom his feet get stuck in the clay and not wanting to get in more trouble he tries to get out himself. The problem is that the more he struggles the deeper into the wet clay he sinks. Every wiggle and jump he uses to get out simply drives him deeper and deeper into the clay. It seems like there is no hope.
So has God abandoned us to failure? No, and that is the good news; God has come to redeem us. He has not left us but rather has come to rescue us and all we have to do is accept that. Much like that boy in the well. If he decided to continue trying to rescue himself then surely he would be trapped forever, but instead he realised that he needed help. The clay was too much for him to deal with and needed someone outside the well to rescue him. So he called out to his Dad “I’m sorry, please help”. Hearing his son’s cried he ran to the well with a rope, tied one end around a tree and threw the other end down the well. He climbed down the rope, reached out his hand for his son to grab and pulled him out. We too needed someone not trapped in the system of sin and death that we are trapped in and so God came down the rope into our well, the world, to rescue us in Jesus. That sin we commit; ignoring God, his law and our neighbours, our selfish ambitions needed to be dealt with and so Jesus did, by dying on the cross then rising to life again 3 days later. The penalty of death paid on our behalf. All we have to do, like with any gift, is to accept it and say to God, like the boy to his dad, “I’m sorry, please help”. That is why Paul, after his declaration of despair suddenly busts out into, ‘Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ The question begs to be asked then. A question that we all must ask, young and old. Have we called out to God, rejected our selfish ambitions and accepted his rescue? My friends, don’t do what that boy did and struggle in the clay but call out to your heavenly father to pull you out.
The wonder is then, that if we have accepted God’s rescue then we are out of that system. No longer are we stuck in that clay of sin binding us to death. That depressing cycle that leads us to despair, guilt and condemnation is made powerless to us for we are now part of a family with God as the head leading the way, the church. That’s all well and good you may say, God has pulled us out of the clay of sin but what keeps us from falling back into it again? Well, God doesn’t leave us to struggle alone, nor simply pat us on the back and wish us luck. If we were left to our own devices we’d simply fall back into that well of sin over and over again, in fact that was the problem in the first place. Paul puts it like this in verses 5-8, “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires…The mind governed by the flesh is death…The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.” Now here ‘flesh’ doesn’t mean our physical bodies as if they were evil, far from it, as God has created us, rather it is a shorthand term used to mean the sinful things we do and think that has permeated our very nature, the corrupted nature that we have come to live-by. If we carry on living as we have always done, by the ‘flesh’ then we will fall back into sin as we have before. It’s a basic principle of life. If we do the same things over and over again then we should expect the same outcome over and over again. To change an outcome the process must be changed. The ‘flesh’, Paul says, is hostile to God: by it’s very nature it seeks self, it seeks gratification, it seeks glory. No wonder then that it is hostile to God and to his laws, his ways because that would mean acknowledging our weakness, our need for rescue, that God is greater then we are, that his ways are greater then our ways. Those that live like that cannot please God then, it is the natural conclusion that we must come to. No matter how much good we do, no matter how much we come to church or partake in the sacraments, we still have a nature problem of ‘flesh’; we ultimately will reject God for self and can never reach him.
There is another way though for those that accept that rescue God offers. A complete change of mind is offered to remove us from the perpetual cycle of sin. Later in Romans Paul puts it like this, ‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is —his good, pleasing and perfect will.’(Rom 12:2) So how then do we transform our minds? It is by receiving the Holy Spirit. When speaking of his death and ascension Jesus told the disciples not to worry because he’s not leaving them alone, rather he is sending us the Holy Spirit who will ‘teach [us] all things and will remind [us] of everything [Jesus has] said to [us].’ We must allow the Holy Spirit to change us, to transform us, to teach us of God’s ways and to strengthen us to live that way. As Paul says in verses 6-7, ‘those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires…the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.’ It means living differently, seeking what the Holy Spirit wants and desires, dying to our old ways of self and want and finding life in him.
When we seek to be physically stronger we lift weights, we train, we stretch. This principle is true for spirituality too. We must stretch out spiritual muscles, training ourselves in righteousness and holiness. Learning to listen as the Holy Spirit convicts, teaches, comforts and guides. To make time each day to pray and to read the bible, and meet regularly with other Christians to share what God is saying by his Holy Spirit and to spur one another on in holiness. To choose each day to reject self and follow him, and to keep the promises we have made.Is this easy, no but it is certainly worth it. It is also why we make promises to support one another and to meet together. God has given us the church for a reason. So let’s listen to his voice, let’s look for his guidance, let’s forget the flesh and set our minds on the desires of the Spirit to find life and peace. Amen