Two elderly women are out driving. As they’re cruising along they come to an intersection. The stoplight’s red but they just blow on through. Mabel, the one in the passenger seat, thinks to herself, “I must be losing it. I could’ve sworn we just went through a red light.” After a few more minutes they come to another intersection and the light is red again, but Mildred drives right on through. This time Mabel is almost sure the light had been red.
At the next intersection, sure enough, the light is definitely red and as they blow through, Mabel exclaims, “Mildred, do you know we just ran three red lights in a row! You could’ve killed us!” Mildred turns and says, “Oh, am I driving?”
I want to talk to you this morning about how no matter how confusing life gets life gets, there’s an offer on the table that cuts through it all. The psalmist says it: There is forgiveness with you, O God.
Now there’s no doubt life is complex, complicated, and at times overwhelming. What I see people trying to do in response is to reduce life to very simple forms and formulas. We try to text our life. You know, texting is the art of turning the wonderfully complex and powerful English language into abbreviations and small code phrases. “See you soon” is now “C u soon.” We reduce English now days on our cell phones: LOL, yolo, etc. I don’t even write OK anymore; that’s too many letters. I just push the letter K. That’s it! That’s all you get from me.
Even my mom is doing it. I can’t understand half of what she txts (and yes I did only write the letters “txt” and not the correct word “text”) because it’s so short and up to date of what is the quickest way to write something. I want my old mom back, not this new 21st century version!
Now of course this isn’t always a problem or the wrong thing, but cutting corners only gets you so far.
In religion, in our Christian faith, I see cutting corners and reducing stuff all the time. We want to harmonize the four Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John into one Gospel that has all the pieces put together with no problems. But it can’t be done. They’re all needed. If we didn’t need all four then we wouldn’t have gotten all four.
When we get into an argument with someone, perhaps in our family or in our neighborhood or at work, all of a sudden we are 100% right and they are 100% wrong. We go so far as to end really good and important relationships because, “she hurt me,” or “he was wrong.” Simplifying things, making everything black and white, at the wrong time often leads us down wrong paths.
There is a passage located in the introductory chapter of the 1951 book, The Workshop Way of Learning, written by Earl C. Kelley, a Professor of Secondary Education at Wayne University. Now here’s a guy who didn’t reduce things at all. He just lets the truth hang out there for all to see:
“We have not succeeded in answering all our problems—indeed we sometimes feel we have not completely answered any of them. The answers we have found have only served to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel that we are as confused as ever, but we think we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.”
“Confused on a higher level and about more important things!” How’s that as an honest assessment, without oversimplifying or cutting corners?
Perhaps that’s a little too much, though.
In her book, Joni, Joni Eareckson Tada describes her first distressing realization of the grim reality of her paralysis. Joni was only 15 when she was permanently paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a diving accident. She was rushed to the hospital for extensive tests and x-rays to determine the extent of her injury. As she lay unclothed on a hospital cart, the sheet covering her slipped to the side leaving her partially exposed.
In her modesty, Joni desperately wanted to cover herself, a small task easily and quickly accomplished before her accident. But now, as much as she wanted to make her arms and hands move, they simply would not
respond. Joni knew in her mind exactly what she wanted to do, but her body was totally unresponsive.
Her frustration as you can imagine was immense. Sometimes life is beyond the reach of simplifying and reduction.
Paul describes in the Letter to the Romans a different struggle that is probably even deeper and more frustrating. It certainly afflicts more people than paralysis; in fact, it affects everyone. We could call it spiritual paralysis.
Our reading from Romans is a passage that grips us because in some essential way we know exactly what it’s saying. “For what I want to do, I do not do. But what I hate, I do.” You may not want to sin, you may desire to do what is right and not do what’s wrong, you may want to change your way and change your life, you may believe this time it will be different, you even pray and hope that today will be a new day, but then you don’t and it isn’t and nothing new has been accomplished. And it’s frustrating. The power of sin in our lives is deep, and it afflicts us all.
When I read this I think this is Paul’s spiritual autobiography, even as a follower of Jesus Christ.
Some have doubted this could be true, since Paul seems like the invincible Man of Spirit. But what Paul writes is in first person, and so it’s tough to come to any other conclusion that Paul is talking about himself and his spiritual frustrations and struggles.
Besides this, none of what he writes is in past tense. It’s in present tense. In fact, Paul could have easily put his spiritual struggles in the past since he wrote the prior section of verses 7-13 in past tense. When he starts this amazing section of confessional autobiography he deliberately changes to present tense. His frustrations and pain, his living with a “body of death,” isn’t in the past at all. This isn’t a memory of how life used to be before he became a Christian, a good guy. This is who he is now.
What we have is Paul’s actual experience of the Christian life as he lives it day after day after day after day.
And here’s his confession, “For what I want to do, I do not do. But what I hate, I do.” He feels like a split personality, that there is a continual
civil war going on inside his heart. It’s almost as if two people are inside him or it’s like he hears two voices, one calling him this way and one calling him that way.
Through us runs a river which divides us by fear on one side and faith on the other. This Rio Grande in our souls splits us with distrust and doubt to one half and trust and love on the other.
Of course nobody has to be split only in half. Some may have 60% or 70% or even more on the side of trust; others may be filled that much or more with distrust. But nobody stands apart from this condition; all have this great river running through them.
We know the good, but we don’t do it. We know what’s wrong and fight against it, but then we do it anyway. We say “I will” but then don’t. We say “I won’t” but instead we do. We make a promise but then break it. We set a goal but don’t go after it. We say “I’ll never do that again” but we do it. We get on our knees and say, “Oh, God, I will do your will.” But the next day, we don’t.
If anybody here says that’s not true of him or herself, I have a very tough time believing that, and you are fooling yourself deeply.
As you know, the Peanuts comic strip had Lucy hold the football for Charlie and then Charlie would try to kick the ball. But at the precise moment of the point of no return, Lucy would pick the ball up and Charlie would kick and go flying through the air, landing in a hard heap on the ground on his back.
This one strip opened with Lucy holding the ball, begging Charlie to kick it. But Charlie Brown said, “Every time I try to kick the ball you remove it and I fall on my back.” They go back and forth and finally Lucy breaks down in tears and admits, “Charlie Brown I have been so terrible to you over the years, picking up the football like I have. I have played so many cruel tricks on you, but I’ve seen the error of my ways! I’ve seen the hurt look in your eyes when I’ve deceived you. I’ve been wrong, so wrong. Won’t you give a poor penitent girl another chance?”
Charlie is moved by her display of remorse and responds to her, “Of course, I’ll give you another chance.” He steps back and takes off. At the last moment, Lucy picks the ball up and Charlie Brown splatters on his back. And she says, “Recognizing your faults and actually changing your ways are two different things, Charlie Brown!”
There are only two kinds of people in the world: people who are broken and sinful and know it and people who are broken and sinful and won’t admit it. When we refuse to be real with ourselves, we have to cut corners and fake our lives.
But Paul won’t do this. Scripture refuses to do this. That’s what we learned last week with David. This is what we learn this week with Paul. This is how the Bible tells us we ought to see ourselves. We don’t have it together. We aren’t in control. Life is coming at us too fast. We are in over our heads.
So many give up at this point. We throw in the towel; stick only to what we can manage or conceive of ourselves and others from our little corner. But here’s the thing: Trying to avoid the truth builds roadblocks against reality and forms insecurity in ourselves. This creates all kinds of fears in our lives and isolates us from each other. We wear masks to play our part in our drama. We fake it. We pretend to have it all together when we don’t have it all together. We’re broken.
Too many merely try to avoid the issue that Paul brings out in the open and leave their soul and spirit hanging out to dry. They think since this whole things is complicated and can’t be broken down into simple parts easily understood, it’s better if they just forget the whole thing. After all, how can we be responsible for something we don’t comprehend?
Don’t give up. There is another power at work in our lives. There’s another simple but powerful force that can overcome even if we’re overwhelmed.
Corrie Ten Boom in the book, Reflections of God’s Glory wrote, “In Africa a man came to a meeting with bandaged hands. I asked him how he had been injured. He said, ‘My neighbor’s straw roof was on fire; I helped
him to put it out and that’s how my hands were burned.’ Later I heard the whole story.
That same neighbor had hated this man with the burned hands and had first set his roof on fire while his wife and children were asleep inside. Fortunately, he was able to put out the fire quickly enough. But sparks from that fire flew over to the roof of the man who had set it, and his roof started to burn also. The man began to yell for help to put out his fire, and this man whom he had hated enough to try to burn his house and endanger his family did everything he could to put out that man’s fire. That is how his hands were burned.”
What kindness and mercy this man showed to one who had meant to harm him and his family. When he faced the question of what he was going to do, he crossed that river that divides him and staked his life on the side of faith.
Christ carried his life outside Jerusalem, to the other side of the gates. There he was crucified and lifted up on Calvary, where death and distrust and fear reigned. It was there he planted his life for ours, revealed God’s heart against world’s heartlessness. He faced all we face, felt all we feel, knew all we know.
Christ came to that land, placed himself on it, and thereby claimed it all as his own. He staked himself to it, died on it, and in doing so secured it for God. Having surrendered all, he gave away nothing. Having committed himself completely, he lost nothing. For once where there was only death now there was life. Once where there was only fear now there was hope. Once where there was only distrust now there was faith.
Let Christ stake himself in your divided heart. Let him rise up over your divided soul. Let him cross over the great river that divides you and conquer that troubled water for your good, for the Lord’s sake, to God’s glory.
Believe in the Lord’s power to overcome all that seeks to overwhelm. Let his banner burn bright over the whole of your life. Because when it
comes right down to it, it truly is simple: There is forgiveness with God in Christ Jesus. Can anybody say Amen?