Sermon delivered Sunday, September 27, 2009 at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH. If you would like to listen to the audio version of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
What is the Human Condition?
Good morning, St. Andrew’s! Today we continue our series of sermons on discipleship. You recall that we define discipleship as following Jesus and becoming more like him through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us. This, of course, requires us to know Jesus and his will for our lives. The goal of discipleship is to become just like Jesus.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus continues to tell us what it means for us to be his disciples. We have already seen that he has identified the intractable problem of sin that bedevils the human race, reminding us that sin comes from within us (Mark 7:20-23). He then tells us what we must do to be his followers (Mark 8:34). We must deny ourselves (i.e., stop our idolatrous behavior of worshiping ourselves instead of the One True God), and take up our cross (i.e., engage in the difficult process of transferring our ultimate allegiance from ourselves to God). Taking up our cross is an apt figure of speech because people condemned to crucifixion were forced to carry their cross, signifying their forced obedience to Rome. Likewise, when we take up our cross and learn to submit to God’s authority instead of our own, we acknowledge that this is not our first choice, that we would much rather follow the natural desires of our sinful and fallen nature than to submit ourselves to God’s will for us.
We have also seen that denying ourselves and taking up our cross is not a one time event but rather a process we call sanctification. It takes a lifetime and involves a fair share of setbacks along with the progress we make. Yet we can engage in this process of denying ourselves and taking up our cross with confidence because we are not doing this on our own. We are doing this with the help of the Holy Spirit, who our Lord himself promised to send us to help us in our weakness and infirmities (John 14:16ff). And finally, we have also seen that like Jesus, when we suffer for his sake, it is our path to glory (see, e.g., Philippians 2:5-11).
Back to today’s Gospel lesson, then, Jesus tells us in vivid hyperbolic language what sanctification in believers, in part, looks like. He reminds us that we are thoroughly infected with sin and there are dire and eternal consequences if we don’t do our part to eradicate it. Sin is like cancer and we must be ruthless in cutting it out. And so Jesus tells us that we must be self-aware, that we must do whatever it takes to eliminate that which causes us to sin, and we must be ruthless in doing so because sin separates us from God and leads to death.
For example, gluttony is something I struggle with constantly. It is a serious sin because it betrays a sinful selfishness in me. Eating is not bad in itself but gluttony demands more than its fair share. Since this is something I struggle with, it does not make sense to keep a bunch of snacks around the house because I will inevitably start eating them despite my best intentions. And so we don’t keep those kinds of food around that would encourage me to be a glutton.
Moreover, when I start thinking about food at inappropriate times, I consciously try to think about something else. This has taken great conscious effort on my part, and I am not always successful in thinking about other things. But the point is that in doing so I am attempting to cut out those things in me (and my environment) that would cause me to indulge my gluttony. Likewise, it would not be a good idea for an alcoholic to keep liquor around to test his resolve. If a person struggled with lust, browsing pornography sites would be an invitation to sin. Jesus tells us that we must cut out anything within us and outside us that would cause us to sin.
But this can be a problem because often times we find ourselves defeated and we get quickly discouraged. Has that ever happened to you? When it does, this is where our faith and prayer life must kick in because God has promised never to leave us alone or abandon us (Hebrews 13:5).
Where is God’s Grace?
James must have been aware that becoming discouraged in our discipleship is a common occurrence because in today’s Epistle lesson he has a remedy for us. The use of the word “sick” in most English translations is unfortunate, I think, because it gives us the mistaken impression that James is talking about physical healing. But the original text and context in which the Greek verbs are used does not necessarily suggest this. Moreover, I confess that there has been more than one time I have prayed for healing for someone and that person did not get better. This caused me to wonder about my own faith and tended to exacerbate the problem. Shall I give up praying because unanswered prayer becomes a stumbling block? God forbid!
The two verbs James uses for “sick” in this passage literally mean “weak” and “to grow weary” respectively. While it is true that these verbs are used in the Gospels to refer to physical healing, they are also used elsewhere in the NT to refer to people who are weak in faith or who have a weak conscience (see, e.g., 1 Corinthians 8:9-12). So James seems to be referring here to those who have grown weary or who have become weak, either spiritually or morally, in the midst of suffering. Such persons should ask the elders of the church to pray for them. James assures us that when we pray for those who have become weary and discouraged in their faith walk, that God will heal those afflicted. In other words, God will restore them from discouragement and spiritual defeat.
That James is referring to spiritual refreshment rather than physical healing is further clarified when he immediately tells us that anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven, essential to spiritual refreshment and healing. James is reminding us of an important truth and resource as we struggle in our efforts to become more like Jesus: We are not alone in our struggles. We have God’s very presence living in us, and through prayer, he is helping us to root out all sin and evil. But this requires faith on our part. We must believe he really is living in us and that he will grant anything we ask if he knows it will help us put to death our sinful nature.
This is the kind of faith to which today’s OT lesson alludes. Esther is a fascinating book because God and his Name are never explicitly mentioned in it. Yet did you notice the great faith that shines through in this story? If you read all 10 chapters of Esther, you will see God’s hand in the events and circumstances narrated. In today’s lesson, Esther literally risks her life in asking her husband, King Xerxes, to spare her life and the lives of her people. She had no guarantee that he would do so, especially when we keep in mind how Esther became his queen (another example of God’s providence). Yet she risks her life for the sake of her people precisely because she has faith that God is involved in their daily lives and she trusts him to uphold the promises he has made to his people Israel, even in the midst of their exile. It is a remarkable story of faith and it is that faith we must embrace.
Yet faith is not something static that we either have or do not have. As the eminent Anglican evangelical, Dr. John Stott, reminds us in his commentary on 2 Thessalonians, “faith is a relationship of trust in God, and like all relationships is a living, dynamic, growing thing.” The more we are convinced that God loves us and does work on your behalf, the more we are able to offer prayers in faith. How is the state of your own faith? Do you rely on God’s power rather than your own to help you overcome your sin? We must make the conscious effort to put to death our sinful nature but we are promised that we do not have to do it by ourselves. God is with us through the Power and Presence of his Holy Spirit.
Where is the Application?
So what lessons can we draw from all this? How can today’s texts help us as we seek to rid ourselves of anything that causes us to continue to sin? I would offer the following observations. First, we must do those things that remind us of God’s presence in our lives and the lives of his people. I am convinced that the Evil One uses our lack of remembering to help cultivate unbelief in God’s people. We need to remember God’s Power and Presence in our lives. We do this by sharing “God moments” with each other, and by reading about God’s mighty acts in the history of his people. If you do not know where to start with the latter, begin by reading Exodus in the OT or the Gospels or Acts in the NT. Do this frequently and consistently.
Second, James reminds us that every one of us, no matter how mature our faith, eventually grows weary in the process of our sanctification. When that happens we need to be connected to other faithful souls who will pray for God to refresh and restore us and then we must believe that he will. This means that we must put our sinful pride aside, stop attempting to be rugged individualists, and trust God to work in and through our fellow Christians and our prayers offered to him rightly and in faith [personal testimony].
Last, we must remember that our faith is dynamic, not static, and continually remind ourselves that God’s Holy Spirit is actively living and working in us, helping us become the beings he created us to be. Yes, we will have our setbacks, but we will also have our successes, and we forget the latter at our own peril. When we fail to put to death our sinful nature, we must ask God for forgiveness and seek the encouragement of other faithful Christians. But in faith we must keep reminding ourselves that despite setbacks from time to time, God’s Spirit is moving us to where he wants us to be. Like John Wesley, we must acknowledge that although sin remains, it does not reign. That is a prayer offered in faith. And when things are going well for us, we must not hesitate to thank God that they are so that we give him the glory instead of ourselves.
The process of sanctification has bad news and good news to it. The bad news is that sin has thoroughly infected us, and left to our own devices, we will surely fail in eradicating it. But the good news is that we are not left on our own. We have a God who loves us passionately and took care of the problem for us by taking on our flesh, dying on the cross for us, and giving us his Holy Spirit to help us to become just like him. In return he asks us to have faith in his great love for us and in his ability to work on our behalf until he returns again to finally put things aright. As we await his return, he has blessed us with grace, faith, prayer, and fellowship to help us do the very difficult work of putting our sinful nature to death. But the rewards are far greater than the suffering this causes. We get to live with the Source and Author of all life in this temporary world and then forever. That’s good news, folks, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.