The Power of God

Sermon delivered on Trinity 8B, Sunday, July 26, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 11.1-25; Psalm 14.1-7; Ephesians 3.14-21; John 6.1-21.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

What are we to make of the apparent contrast of themes in our readings this morning? On the one hand the psalmist tells us that God looks down from heaven to see if there are any who seek him and finds no one because all are corrupt and their deeds reflect this stark and depressing reality. We get a real-life example of what this looks like in the sordid tale of David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba and its aftermath. On the other hand we read Paul’s soaring prayer with its emphasis on goodness and power that accompanies his astonishing claim made earlier that it is through the Church, through you and me, that God will make his wisdom known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Ephesians 3.10). Do you feel up to that task? So what are we to think and believe? Is Paul’s prayer to live a godly life simply naive and unrealistic in the face of the human condition? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

The sad tale of David and Bathsheba is pretty straightforward and doesn’t need much explanation. The writer makes it clear that David wasn’t where he was supposed to be. He should have been on the front fighting with his men. Instead, he was at home in Jerusalem taking it easy. We aren’t told why David wasn’t with his men, only that he wasn’t, and that got him into big trouble. Here we see the pragmatic wisdom behind James’ warning in action:

One is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved (James 1.14-16).

Now we might expect a man of lesser character to act as David did when he saw a beautiful naked woman. But this is David we are talking about, the man after God’s own heart, and as we watch David commit adultery and then ultimately resort to murder to cover his tracks, we are shocked. The first question we want to ask is what kind of heart does God have if David does this?

The answer to that question is not that God has an adulterous and murderous heart. David, despite his great sin in this sordid affair and his penchant for shedding blood as a warrior, was a man after God’s own heart because he never turned to other gods or worshiped them. Despite his many flaws, David remained faithful to his God, although certainly not perfectly. Instead, the writer invites us to focus on the human condition. As the psalmist observed in our lesson, no one is immune from sin, not even God’s anointed king, the man after God’s own heart, and we see that being played out in this story. We have already noted that David was not where he was supposed to be and at least for the moment had too much time on his hands, time that he used for sinful purposes. We also note that nowhere did David stop and ask God to help him resist that alluring temptation. Perhaps David had become proud or was deceiving himself, thinking that because he was God’s anointed, God would not find out or give him a free pass. But as we shall see next week, David could not have been more wrong. Sin always has its consequences. Hence, one of the things the writer surely wants us to see is that anytime we rely solely on our own strength or cleverness or devices, we are setting ourselves up for a fall. If this can happen to the Lord’s anointed, it can happen to anyone. This is why we are never to put our whole hope and trust in human leaders because all have gone astray (Romans 3.23).

And a moment’s thought about our own experience confirms the wisdom of all this. We may not be adulterers and murderers like David was, but every one of us has our own skeletons in the closet, the deep dark secrets we are terrified that others might find out about, which will expose our own serious flaws and less than perfect character. How often have we resolved to live a life pleasing to the Lord, only to end up confessing our failures, almost on a daily basis? For those of us who truly desire to have a deep and faithful relationship with God, this can become very distressing and discouraging. How can we ever hope to love God with all our being and our neighbors as ourselves when we get it wrong so often? And if that is the case, can God really love and forgive us? After all, isn’t the road to hell paved with good intentions and fatally flawed execution? The words of the psalmist continue to haunt us: there is no one who does good in God’s eyes, not even one. How can we possibly have a future and a hope?

Paul and the rest of the NT writers have the answer for us: the love of God made known supremely in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There is no sin and no amount of sin that cannot be overcome and forgiven because of Jesus’ blood shed for us. If it weren’t for the love of God made known on the cross, none of us would ever dare to have any real hope about a present or future life with God because we are all dead in our sins and so thoroughly infected we cannot possibly hope to drag ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But we do have hope, precisely because of the blood of Jesus Christ shed for us. That is why Paul could boldly tell the Romans there is now no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus because in Jesus, God has condemned our sin in the flesh and taken it on himself so that we no longer need to fear God’s righteous wrath or condemnation (Romans 8.1-4).

This is more than just mere platitude, folks. If you do not really believe this, you will never have any hope of having Paul’s prayer for you come alive in your life because the whole prayer is predicated on us accepting God’s real love for us and his real forgiveness of our sins, irrespective of what they are. If we still worship an angry God whom we think is nothing more than a bean counter who gives us a bunch of rules we cannot possibly hope to follow on our own so that he can beat us up, we are not worshiping the God of the Bible and should therefore not be surprised when our prayers for help to this false god go unanswered. For us to live in the power of God, we must first understand that while we are sinners, we are forgiven sinners, bought with the price of the Son’s own dear blood and greatly loved by the Father.

This is a gift from God, freely offered to one and all, and by God’s grace we can know we are loved and forgiven. This is not our own doing. If we are to really know the breadth, length, height, and depth of God, that knowledge must come from God. It cannot be manufactured by us, any more than we can manufacture knowledge about our loved ones’ love for us without them making their love known to us. And once we truly believe we are forgiven and loved by God, we open ourselves to the power of God so that we do not have to be defeated in our living the way David was or the way we are when we try to live a faithful life by our own strength.

Paul tells us how to tap that power. First, we must truly desire to have the power of God working in our lives. God never forces himself on us. True love cannot do that to the beloved. But all too often we are like our own St. Augustine, who, desiring to leave behind his old life of sexual promiscuity, prayed to the Lord for chastity, but just not right then. Augustine wasn’t quite ready at that time to give up sex for his Lord and was at least honest enough to pray that. So while Paul’s prayer is all about the power of God in our lives, it is based on the presupposition that we desire to have God at work in our lives. In other words, we must be willing to put in our sweat equity.

Once we are willing to do that, Paul tells us that if we ever hope to fulfill the task of the Church to make known God’s wisdom to the powers and authorities, we must ask God to equip us for the task. To do that, we must be firmly united with Christ in and through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. This is the Christ who meets us where we are and uses what we present to him to feed us and others, just like he used the bread and fishes to feed the five thousand. This happens most tangibly at communion when we come to the table to feed on our Lord’s body and blood and find our strength renewed. This is the same Christ who walked on the stormy sea, the very symbol of evil and darkness, and overcame it. Without Christ in us, we have no chance or hope of ever being his people. But as Paul’s prayer reminds us, to have Christ live in us, we simply have to ask and expect it to happen. I suspect many Christians who live in this country really don’t believe this. We’ve bought into the alternative story line that things like feeding the five thousand or walking on water or Jesus living in his people are just fairy tales and myth. They can’t possibly happen. So we might say the words Paul tells us to say—strengthen my inner being with power by your Spirit by connecting me with the Lord Jesus—but we don’t really believe anything will happen. We are not used to seeing signs and wonders and so we secretly (and sometimes openly) scoff at such requests. And I can promise you, if this is the case, you will not be disappointed. You will get exactly what you have asked for—nothing.

This is why so many churches limp along, powerless and rudderless. They don’t really believe in the power of God. They have never experienced it in their individual or collective lives the way many of us do here at St. Augustine’s. Just ask Dr. Falor sometime about the Spirit’s power, or think of the times in your life where you surprised yourself in the way you handled an extremely difficult thing. The same Jesus who overcame the stormy sea, who walks with us through the darkest valley, and conquered even death itself, is available to us right now as his body at St. Augustine’s. All we have to do is ask for his help and power and believe that he loves us enough and is powerful enough to grant us our requests that are according to his good will and purposes for us as a parish because he has commissioned us to bring his healing love to our neck of the woods, and it will be ours. Do you believe this? Really believe this?

Please don’t misunderstand. I do not suggest any of this is automatic, quick, or easy. We are profoundly broken people who are also subjected to the influence of the dark powers and principalities. But we are made stronger through adversity and Jesus’ death and resurrection stand as God’s eternal testimony that the power of God’s love made known to us in Jesus Christ is stronger than any adversity or foe we face. To be sure, none of us will be sin-free until we lose our mortal bodies (cf. Romans 6.7). But we are assured that we can be more than conquerors through him who loved us because neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.37-39), thanks be to God! Simply put, if you want the power of God to live in you to make you a new creation to bear good fruit for the kingdom, you simply have to ask and believe God todo this for you because he loves you and wants you to be the fully human being he created you to be.

I close with a story I hope illustrates and summarizes what I have been talking about.

We sat down to table and the officer began his story: “I have served in the army ever since I was quite young. I knew my duties and was a favorite of my superiors as a conscientious officer. But I was young, as were also my friends, and unhappily I started drinking. It went from bad to worse until drinking became an illness. When I did not drink, I was a good officer, but when I would start drinking, then I would have to go to bed for six weeks. My superiors were patient with me for a long time, but finally, for rudeness to the commanding officer while I was drunk, they reduced my rank to private and transferred me to a garrison for three years. They threatened me with more severe punishment if I would not improve and give up drinking. In this unfortunate condition all my efforts at self-control were of no avail and I could not stay sober for any length of time. Then I heard that I was to be sent to the guardhouse and I was beside myself with anguish.

“One day I was sitting in the barracks deep in thought. A monk came in to beg alms for the church. Those who had money gave what they could. When he approached me he asked, ‘Why are you so downcast?’ We started talking and I told him the cause of my grief. The monk sympathized with my situation and said, ‘My brother was once in a similar position, and I will tell you how he was cured. His spiritual father gave him a copy of the Gospels and strongly urged him to read a chapter whenever he wanted to take a drink. If the desire for a drink did not leave him after he read one chapter he was encouraged to read another and if necessary still another. My brother followed this advice, and after some time he lost all desire for alcoholic beverages. It is now fifteen years since he has touched a drop of alcohol. Why don’t you do the same, and you will discover how beneficial the reading of the Gospels can be. I have a copy at home and will gladly bring it to you.’

“I wasn’t very open to this idea so I objected, ‘How can your Gospels help when neither my efforts at self-control nor medical aid could keep me sober?’ I spoke in this way because I never read the Gospels.

“‘Give it a chance,’ continued the monk reassuringly, ‘and you will find it very helpful.’

“The next day he brought me this copy of the Gospels. I opened it, browsed through it, and said, ‘I will not take it, for I cannot understand it; I am not accustomed to reading Church Slavonic.’

“The monk did not give up but continued to encourage me and explained that God’s special power is present in the Gospel through his words. He went on, ‘At the beginning be concerned only with reading it diligently; understanding will come later. One holy man says that “even when you don’t understand the word of God, the demons do, and they tremble”; and the passion for drink is without a doubt their work. And St. John Chrysostom in speaking about the power of the word of God says that the very room where the Gospel is kept has the power to ward off the spirits of darkness and thwart their intrigues.’

“I do not recall what I gave the monk when I took the copy of the Gospels from him, but I placed the book in my trunk with my other belongings and forgot about it. Some time later a strong desire to have a drink took hold of me and I opened the trunk to get some money and run to the tavern. But I saw the copy of the Gospels before I got to the money and I remembered clearly what the monk had told me. I opened the book and read the first chapter of Matthew without understanding anything. Again I remembered the monk’s words, ‘At the beginning be concerned only with reading it diligently; understanding will come later.’ So I read another chapter and found it a bit more comprehensible. Shortly after I began reading the third chapter, the curfew bell rang and it was no longer possible for me to leave the barracks.

“In the morning my first thought was to get a drink, but then I decided to read another chapter to see what would happen. I read it and did not go. Again I wanted a drink, but I started reading and I felt better. This gave me courage, and with every temptation for a drink I began reading a chapter from the Gospels. The more I read, the easier it became, and when I finally finished reading all four Gospels the compulsion for drink had disappeared completely; I was repelled by the very thought of it. It is now twenty years since I stopped drinking alcoholic beverages.

“Everyone was surprised at the change that took place in me, and after three years I was reinstated as an officer and then climbed up the ranks until I was made a commanding officer. Later I married a fine woman; we have saved some money, which we now share with the poor. Now I have a grown son who is a fine lad and he also is an officer in the army.”

The Way of a Pilgrim

Notice first how Christ used human agency (the monk) to introduce the young soldier to his Gospel. Notice the monk’s persistence and the faith he had in the transformative power of the Gospel in people’s lives, a faith based, in part, on past experience.

Next, pay attention to how Christ used circumstance instead of understanding to stay the young soldier’s hand from drinking. He read the Gospel without understanding it, but was prevented from going on a drinking binge because he had lingered in his quarters to read it.

Finally, mark how understanding occurred—through persistent reading. Ask anyone who reads the Bible regularly and systematically and you will hear this same answer. God grants understanding to humble minds willing to submit to his word (as opposed to trying to make his word submit to their agendas) through our persistent reading of his word (i.e., though our sweat equity). Nothing sexy or spectacular here, just the power of the Spirit at work changing lives. Paul tells us the same about the power and efficacy of prayer in his own prayer for us today. Ask. Persist. Believe it will be yours (cf. Matthew 7.7-11; Luke 18.1-8). Paul knew it was true because he practiced it and as a result knew first-hand the transformative power of Jesus in his life. That same power is available to us right now so that we too can be changed by God to make a difference for God, thus helping to fulfill Paul’s prayer and God’s will for Christ’s body the Church. And that, folks, is not only an awesome privilege, it is Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Amen.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.