The Surprising Power of the Gospel

Sermon delivered on Trinity 4C, Sunday, July 14, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Amos 7.7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1.1-14; Luke 10.25-37.

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

What are we to make of the prophetic oracles contained in our OT and psalm lessons with their fearsome message of God’s judgment on human sin? Or what can we expect to happen to us when we fail our Lord’s challenge to us to act like good Samaritans toward our neighbors (and even our enemies)? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

To begin, it will be helpful to look at our lessons through the lens of locus of control. On whom is the responsibility placed? Locus of control implies being in charge so this is a critical question for us to answer. Who is really in control of God’s world, God or us? In our OT lesson, the Lord, though his prophet (or mouthpiece) Amos, clearly condemns Israel’s idolatry which had led God’s people to practice all kinds of perversity and injustice. This is no small matter because we always become what we worship, whether for good or for ill. Despite God’s repeated calls to his people to repent, they stubbornly refused to do so, choosing instead to worship all kinds of false gods instead of the one true living God, the God who had called them to be his people. Their stubborn refusal to repent would lead to their exile to Assyria some twenty-five years later. And when Amaziah the priest challenged Amos’ prophecies, he too found himself under God’s terrible judgment. The locus of control seems to be with God’s people, presumably because they had a real choice. God called them to repentance and expected them to choose wisely, giving them the freedom to do so. But God’s people failed to choose wisely and found themselves under God’s ultimate judgment of exile. 

Likewise, in our psalm lesson, God condemned the rulers of his people for ruling unjustly as God called them to do. Instead of protecting the weakest and most helpless in society, Israel’s rulers had apparently ruled as the rest of the world’s rulers ruled. They took care of the rich and powerful while ignoring the needs of others. While God had given his human image-bearers the freedom and power to be stewards over creation, Israel’s rulers had failed to learn the ways of God and ruled instead in the darkness and evil of the world’s ways. This resulted in God’s judgment on them and their rule: exile and death. Once again the locus of control seems to be with the rulers. God had given them the free will and ability to choose wisely to rule on God’s behalf and they had failed to do so. Like God’s people Israel over whom they ruled, Israel’s rulers found themselves under God’s fierce and terrible judgment for failing to act faithfully as God’s image-bearing stewards.

Turning to our gospel lesson, the locus of control seems to remain with humans. In his parable about the good Samaritan, our Lord tells us unequivocally that we are to act like the true image-bearers that God created us to be. How do we do that? In part, by loving our neighbor, neighbor broadly and inconveniently defined to include anybody and everybody in need, enemies included. It won’t do to treat well just those we like and love. No, we are to treat all human beings well because all human beings are created in God’s image, even if some have worked really hard to destroy that image. But what happens to us when we don’t follow the good Samaritan’s example in our Lord’s parable? While Jesus didn’t explicitly tell us, the implication is that we too will fall under God’s judgment because we will have failed to act wisely (in the manner God expects). The locus of control still seems to be with us. We have a choice to do as Jesus tells us to do and many times we fail to act accordingly.

Now for those who do not believe in God or have any notion of Sin and its power to destroy, this is no big deal. They go blithely along without a clue or care in the world, at least about locus of control when it comes to acting rightly in the image of God, supremely modeled by our Lord Jesus Christ. But as Scripture makes clear, ignorance is no excuse; neither is it bliss in this context. Those who deny God or reject God’s commands for us to act rightly will still come under God’s judgment and this should bring us no joy because we too are in the same boat. God calls us to act justly and rightly and all too often we miss the mark, acting selfishly and myopically, pursuing our own broken desires and interests. This can cause us great anxiety, especially if we believe in God’s righteous-ness and justice. If God truly is good and right, how can God not judge our sinful behavior and us? God gave us free will to choose between right and wrong and expects us to choose the right, much like we as parents expect our kids to choose the right. So when we miss the mark, i.e., when we sin by failing to act as truly human beings God created us to be, the consequences fall on us because we have a choice and fail to choose wisely. Consequences follow.

But here’s the problem with that line of thinking as St. Paul pointed out in his letter to the Romans. While we do have free will and ostensible freedom to choose, ever since our first ancestors rebelled in the garden and got expelled from paradise, the human race has been held captive by an alien and hostile power better known as Sin. I am not talking about the misdeeds we do (our various sins). I am talking about Sin, that dark power that has enslaved us and greatly circumscribes our fee will. Don’t believe me? Check out Romans 7 for starters. How many times have you resolved to do the right thing, only to find yourself thwarted? For example, how are those new year’s resolutions you made in January coming along? Want to lose weight? No problem. Go on a diet. Want to break your addiction to porn? No problem. Just stop looking at it. Want to stop smoking? Just put down those cancer sticks. Right. Naiveté anyone? Because we have free will and the ability to choose wisely, because we are made in God’s image and therefore have God’s spiritual DNA, it should be no problem for us to do these things. We are blessed with locus of control! But the history of the human race since after the Fall tells a grimly different story. Father Bowser spoke of it two weeks ago when he talked about the “egoic mind,” our fallen nature. We all seem to have a bent toward sinning beyond our control that makes us behave and speak and think in ways that sometimes just baffle us. This is the power of Sin at work and it has enslaved all of us to one degree or another. 

Let me be crystal clear. I am not talking about a “devil made me do it” mentality. Nor am I absolving us of any responsibility for our actions. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I am suggesting is that the myth of unfettered free will and locus of control is just that—a myth. There are dark forces at work in our world that have enslaved us and cause us to work in some very ungodly ways at times, some more so than others, much to our chagrin. Even so, our behaviors fall under the judgment of God. We can’t and won’t be able to use Sin’s power over us as an excuse when we stand before God’s judgment throne and are required to give an account of our lives. 

So what’s the answer? So far, there’s been no Good News in what I have just said. If we are enslaved by an outside power that hates us and wants to see us destroyed, what to do? St. Paul has the answer for us in our epistle lesson. The Father, he tells us, “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1.14). St. Paul, of course, is talking about Christ’s death and resurrection. God knows we don’t have the power to break our slavery to Sin, desperately as we might want to be freed from its tyranny. And so God broke Sin’s power over us on the cross, bearing its full weight himself, so that we could be truly free to act as fully human beings who are created in the Father’s image. We will indeed have to give an account of our lives when we stand before God’s judgment seat, but we will hear the verdict of not guilty because we have put our whole hope and trust in Christ and the power of him crucified and resurrected. As St. Paul would write elsewhere, none of us are totally free of the vestiges of Sin’s power over us until we die (Romans 6.7), but as Christians, we have nothing to fear because we kneel in humility and repentance at the foot of the Cross, our only hope to escape God’s just and terrible judgment.

This great gift of unmerited grace must change us in the power of the Spirit. We don’t see the Cross as a “get out of jail free” card that allows us to keep living in a state of perpetual rebellion against our Creator and Father. No, when by God’s grace and power we begin to grasp the terrible cost and deep love the Father and the Son have shown us in Christ’s death and resurrection, it hits us like a ton of bricks how costly our sins and slavery to Sin’s power is to God the Father, and with what love he has acted to free us so that we no longer need to fear his just condemnation of our sins, irrespective of locus of control. 

And because we are given the Holy Spirit to help break and mitigate Sin’s power over us so that we truly can be free people in Christ (Galatians 5.1), we are given the power to live godly lives, not perfectly of course; for whatever reason we are not completely free of Sin’s power this side of the grave. To complicate things further, God’s power at work in our lives through the gospel is typically not spectacular or sexy. Sometimes we don’t even recognize it! The Father works in our lives through his Spirit in quite unremarkable ways, and this can sometimes trip us up because when we hear the term “power” we are conditioned to think shock and awe. But that’s not how the Spirit typically works. Listen to this example and pay careful attention to the dynamics in the story because in it we see the power of the gospel, i.e., the power of God, at work.

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

If you ever needed an example to illustrate St. Paul’s statement that “God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (Romans 8.28), here you have it. Notice first how Christ works. He used human agency (the monk) to introduce the young soldier to his gospel. Notice how the monk abandoned his agenda (begging alms for the church), at least temporarily, to address a person’s needs that he perceived (good Samaritan, anyone?). We have to be ready to see others in pain if we ever hope to help them address it. Notice too the monk’s gentle 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. Was it really coincidence that the soldier found the gospels before he got to his drinking money? This is how God typically works to control the circumstances of our lives in a wise and loving way, but we have to pay attention to realize 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, which sadly many try to do, especially today) through our persistent reading of his word. God doesn’t beat us over the head to make us learn (usually). Instead God uses ordinary people and circumstances along with our own efforts to speak to and transform us. 

This is the power of God at work. This is the surprising power of the gospel. If we do not pay attention to these dynamics, we will likely miss seeing God’s providential work in our daily lives and become greatly impoverished in our ignorance. But when we start to look for God at work in our daily lives we will see his presence in the various circumstances and “chance” happening in our lives, which God will then use to develop a deep trust in his goodness and love for us, each and every day. That trust, in turn, can help see us through the darkest times of our lives. Without understanding and seeing how the power of God works, we are likely to fall victim to the old lie that God has abandoned us and doesn’t care about us, that God is not active in our world; we’re in it by ourselves, baby, and that is a terrifying prospect. Understanding how the power of God works is the best antidote to counter this cancerous thinking. For you see, the locus of control, despite our illusions and delusions and darkened thinking, has always been with God, and nothing in all creation, not Sin, not death, not our own folly nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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