SERMON: Wrestling with Sin - Journey Toward Freedom Text: Romans 7:15-25
Date: March 1st, 1998 - 1st Sunday in Lent Where: Springfield Heights Mennonite Church (English Service)
Worship Leader: Henry Kliewer Invocation: MariAnn Dueck Words: 1928
Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. As individuals and as a community of faith we are encouraged to start out on a journey of looking inward. In these coming weeks leading up to Good Friday and Easter we will be reminded repeatedly that sin injures our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. And we are also invited to embark on a journey toward Freedom and Reconciliation in Christ.
Today's sermon is about sin and freedom. Both, in our individual lives and in the life of the congregation sin can mess up our relationships with God and with each other. The season of Lent offers an opportunity to examine our inner landscape, to confess our emptiness and our brockenness, and to welcome the resurrected Christ anew into our lives.
We feel bad about the things that separate us from God and our fellow brothers and sisters. Whenever we commit a sin there is shame and guilt involved. Our sins indeed have a way of affecting our conscience - for most people anyway.
Mark Twain once told the following story in a speech he delivered on honesty. "When I was a boy, I was walking along a street and happened to spy a car full of watermelons. I was fond of watermelon, so I sneaked quietly up to the cart and snitched one. Then I ran into a nearby alley and sank my teeth into the melon. No sooner had I done so, however, than a strange feeling came over me. Without a moment's hesitation, I made my decision. I walked back to the cart, replaced the melon -- and took a ripe one."
I think that's a free interpretation about what the apostle Paul says in Romans 7:14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do -- this I keep on doing. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God's law; 23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
I don't know about you, but I'm at least a little bit curious about "the things" that were bothering Paul's conscience. He seems to imply that he is struggling with both, sins of commission and sins of omission. This reminds me of a story about a Sunday School teacher who asked her class: "What are sins of omission?" After some thought little Johnny said: "They're the sins we should have committed but didn't get around to."
But seriously, I wonder if Paul was struggling with bitterness and resentment against those who persecuted him. I wonder if he had to fight back pride because God had chosen him, "the worst of sinners" - by his own admission, to play a key role in God's plan of salvation for the Jews. I wonder if Paul felt envy toward the riches of others, saying: "If only I had it as good as the other apostles." I wonder if Paul was laden with, an insatiable greed to convert more and more souls for the Lord. I wonder if he battled fear of failure (or fear of success) in his ministry. I wonder if Paul was tempted by beautiful women, or if he was a closet drinker or smoker (oh, you're right - Tabbaco didn't exist back then). I wonder if he had a problem with gossip - going around town smearing the missionary tactics of the apostle Peter to the Gentiles. I wonder if he was a soap opera junkie or if he cheered on his favorite gladiators in the arena. I wonder how he got along with his wife and family.
I also wonder what freedom from sin means to you personally. What are you struggling with?
Paul gives us many hints that he was not above sin. Indeed he confesses in agony that he is plagued by a "thorn in flesh". He gives us many clues of his struggles. He proclaims his solidarity with the rest of us mortals by telling us that he is not immune to sin. He too was tempted to "be like God" - which is one definition of sin.
Someone said in our catechism class last week: "The bad things are the things that come very naturally for us." There is a piece of Adam and Eve in each one of us from the time we are born. On the other hand, doing what is right is a constant struggle. To move toward freedom we constantly have to go against the natural flow.
At summer camp one of the counselors was leading a discussion on the purpose God had for everything He created. They began to find good reasons for clouds and trees and rocks and rivers and animals and just about everything else in nature. Finally, one of the children said, "IF God had a good purpose for everything, then why did He create poison ivy?" (Guess where he was the day before). The discussion leader gulped and, as he struggled with the question, one of the other children came to his rescue, saying, "The reason God made poison ivy is because He wanted us to know there are certain things we should keep our cotton-pickin' hands off."
That's right, when God created humankind, He gave us the freedom to move at will in His garden - to eat and be filled with the fruits of just about every tree, and to enjoy the beauty of God's Creation. But with that freedom also came some limitations: "Of the fruit of the tree in the center of the garden you shall not eat."
In our relationship with God as well as in our relationships with other people "there are certain things we should keep our cotton-pickin' hands off." That is a part of God's created order.
Paul refers to the Law of the Old Testament as having something to do with our desire for sin. In Romans 7:8 he says: But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. It is when we try to follow the letter of the Law in our own power, in order to receive God's favor, that sin and Satan will have reason to party. If we try to obtain salvation by following the letter of the Law, we are doomed to failure - because sooner or later we will mess up.
However, I'm not suggesting that we follow the advice of the Reformer Martin Luther to his friend Melancton when he said: "Come one my friend, sin a little. Or, don't you think that God deserve to have something to forgive you for?" And, as the Apostle Paul himself said (Romans 6:1-2), "1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?
Paul's understanding of our relationship with God and our fellowman is that it is a constant struggle. The things that have a tendency to distance us from God and others seem to come so naturally. But the things that bring us closer to God and one another and that strengthen our relationships remain a constant battle.
Freedom from sin is so hard to come by. And here is the turning point: regardless of how many battles we loose, God continues to invite us toward reconciliation and new Life. No matter how often we stumble or falter, the Bible shows us a God who reaches out to us in mercy.
To deny that sin is a real factor in our lives would be foolish. The power of sin must be admitted and taken seriously. Even more importantly, the Power of God over sin is what gives us the strength to persist in our battles against temptation and sin. The suffering and resurrection of Christ tell us that sin and evil do not have the last word. Evil is a threatening power, yes. But more importantly the power of Satan has been defeated by the Love of God in Christ Jesus.
To move toward freedom we constantly have to go against the natural flow.
The power of the Evil One in our lives is real. But, the good news is that, just as Jesus was able to resist and to reject the tempting offers of Satan, so we too, through the power of Christ can keep our cotton-pickin' hands off of sin. Not only that, but, as we move against the natural tendency to give in to temptations our jealousy is transformed into a playful communion with God and others. The denial and avoidance of our pain turns into confidence that God is at work in our lives. Our greed and emptiness turns into a confident conviction that with God all things are possible. Our possessiveness and lust for power turns into compassion that heals the hurt of others. Our pride is transformed into a healthy understanding of who we are in relationship to God. Our shame and envy is restored to perfection in Christ. As we move against the flow of our natural tendencies our fears make room for courage to lead us on in our faith. In our weakness we reach out to God and find deliverance.
When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness he stood alone against Satan. But we don't have to stand alone. When we stand alone we are no match for the devil. Maybe that's why we are here this morning, because in community with other Christians we are not alone.
In Philippians 3:12ff Paul confesses: 12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers (and sisters), I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Let us then press on to take hold of the freedom in Christ. Let us be a support to one another as we become transformed into the likeness of Christ. Let us not be discouraged when we loose one battle here and there, (or when we are tempted to go back for a riper watermelon). But let us claim and celebrate our victory in Christ. Let us not remember our past sins forever. Instead, let us acknowledge our vulnerability to try "to be like God" and let us pray to the One who has obtained the victory over sin and death to forgive our sins.
On our journey towards Good Friday may the message of God's transforming love inspire in us a true desire for renewal and reconciliation. May we find new hope in the assurance that we do not stand alone, but that Jesus Christ and His Body are faithful companions on our journey toward Freedom. AMEN