Biblically-Prescribed Remedies for Despair

Sermon delivered on Trinity 18C, Sunday, October 20, 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: Jeremiah 31.27-34; Psalm 119.97-104; 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5; Luke 18.1-8.

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

If you are one who characterizes the OT as being all gloom and doom while the NT is all warm and fuzzy, you will be a bit grumpy over hearing our texts this morning because in them our OT lesson promises a breathtaking hope while our NT lessons exhort us to hang on and persevere as we await our Lord’s return to put all things to rights. What’s going on here? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

In our OT lesson from Jeremiah, God breathes a fresh and stunning new hope and promise to his people (that would include us as well). God starts with the obvious. Your sins have caused you to live in exile. For God’s people Israel this meant literal exile to a foreign land, an unthinkable punishment for most of them. For us, exile is more figurative but every bit as real: alienation from our Source of life and health: God himself. This causes all kinds of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual maladies in us from anxiety to cancer to heart disease to apathy to anger, you name it. If we enjoyed perfect communion with God as our first ancestors did in paradise, we would live in perfect health and enjoy life to its fullest as God’s image-bearing humans. But we no longer live in paradise. Our sins have forced us to live in exile, alienated and hostile toward God and each other.

So what do to? From God’s perspective, sins can be and are forgiven. But that doesn’t address the root cause of the problem: a thoroughly corrupted heart, the biblical term for the center of our will. As God reminded his prophet Jeremiah earlier, the human heart is desperately sick and beyond repair. Who but God can understand it (Jeremiah 17.9)? Until the heart is fixed, the problem of sin will remain. Forgiveness there is but forgiveness under the Old Covenant was not thorough enough to address the root cause of sin, a corrupt heart.

We’re now ready to hear the breathtaking part. In today’s lesson, God promises to not only forgive our sins, but to heal our corrupted hearts so that we will no longer sin and God will no longer have to forgive. But how? Before we attempt to answer this question, we must humbly acknowledge that any answer we offer will be incomplete. We are dealing with issues above our pay grade as mortal and finite humans. We must therefore trust God to be good to his word. With this in mind, God promises to heal our corrupt hearts in two ways. First, God will pour his Spirit into us so that our hearts are inclined toward him. We will remember that we are his bride, his beloved people, whom God has rescued from the outside powers of Evil and Sin as well as from ourselves. This promise was fulfilled, albeit only partially, at Pentecost when all God’s people who were in Christ received the Holy Spirit. That phenomenon continues to this day. But the history of the Church indicates that God’s people are good at rejecting the Spirit’s presence and/or refusing to listen to his wise but gentle counsel, and the Spirit, who never forces himself on us, puts up with our ongoing rebellion and hostility toward God even as he continues to heal us one day at at time, even when we cannot see that we are making any progress. When we are humble and wise enough to obey the Spirit’s promptings, however, we find ourselves empowered to be the fully human beings God created us to be. In biblical language, this means our hearts (or will) are inclined to obey God’s will to be the image-bearing creatures who are fit to run God’s world on his behalf. Given this dynamic, we can assume the day will come when God’s Spirit heals us completely, presumably in God’s new creation. Given that St. Paul tells us our resurrection bodies will be animated by God’s Spirit and not flesh and blood like our mortal bodies, it is not unreasonable to think that this will be the time God gives us a new and uncorrupted heart that is willing and eager to obey God and reflect his image out into his new world.

The second way God promises in our OT lesson to heal us, albeit implied, is through radical and complete forgiveness. If you have ever been forgiven of a serious offense, you will know immediately the healing power that real forgiveness brings. If God is going to bring the kind of healing to our corrupted hearts that he promises through his prophet, God must find a way to bring massive and complete forgiveness for the sins of the entire human race, ours included. Of course we believe this has happened in and through the blood of the Lamb shed for us on the cross. This is why holy communion is so important for the healing of our hearts. When we take communion, we literally consume our Lord’s body and blood given for our redemption and the forgiveness of our sins and are tangibly healed in the process.The extent to which we have the grace, humility, and good sense to accept God’s complete forgiveness of our sins, is the extent to which we allow God to heal our corrupted and sick heart. Jeremiah also indicates how terribly costly it was for God to forgive our sin. When God tells us that he will remember our sin no more, it doesn’t mean that our sin doesn’t remain in God’s memory; rather, God is telling us that he will not act on our sin (in Scripture to remember something is to act on it, to not remember something is to not act on it). This is why forgiveness is so hard. We are not called to try blot out the memory of the offense, but rather to not act on it by exacting revenge. This costly act of total forgiveness of all human sin on God’s part is indicative of the depth and length and breadth of God’s love for us, despite our rebellion against him.

This two-fold dynamic of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us combined with the healing power of radical forgiveness, the kind that only God can provide, is how God intends to fulfill his promise and heal the human heart. But we all know this promise has not been fulfilled, nor has the Lord returned as promised, and this can lead us to despair. So what to do as faithful Christians? Stop believing the promises and adopt an “every person for him/herself” mentality? Turn cynical? Drink heavily? No, these are all symptoms of despair and as Christians we are never to fall into despair because we are a radically forgiven and loved people despite our warts and flaws and sins.

Instead, St. Paul and the Lord Jesus himself have the answers for us. We are to ensconce ourselves in God’s word contained in Scripture and remain vigilant in prayer. Let’s face it. Being an orthodox Christian gets harder every day as our society increasingly turns away from God. We are mocked because we fail to get with the program of the post-modern world with all its sickness and narcissism. For example, we are derided as haters because we will not succumb to the new sexual ethics being forced on us. We still believe that a healthy life is lived the way God’s created order runs, including how we view and use sex and how we treat each other. Moreover, after two thousand years we are still waiting for Christ to return to finish his saving work and usher in the resurrection of the dead and God’s new creation, and this can create doubts in us. That St. Luke included the parable of the unjust judge and the widow suggests that even in the first century AD, Christians were falling into despair because they had expected Christ’s return and it hadn’t happened. 

But both St. Paul and Christ himself tell us to stand firm despite our doubts. God’s timetable is not ours and we are dealing with matters far above our pay grade. And so we learn the story of God’s rescue plan in Scripture and in so learning the story, we learn how to live our lives in ways that are pleasing to God, all the while confident that we have God’s Holy Spirit living in us and helping us to be transformed into fully human beings. As St. Paul reminds us, Scripture is useful for teaching and training and correcting our thinking, speaking, and behavior. When we read Scripture we are reminded of the mighty acts of God and his promise to give us a future and a hope. And because all Scripture is God-breathed, i.e., it finds its origins in God through human writers, it has the power to heal as well. I suspect the reason so many of the mainline Christian churches have abandoned the faith once delivered to the saints (to you and me) is because many interpreters and ministers have become disillusioned over unfulfilled promises or were taught and trained incorrectly. We know our ears itch for new innovations because our hearts are corrupt as we’ve seen, and the Spirit will never force us to think correctly when it comes to matters of the Spirit and of God. So we have to read Scripture together and interpret it faithfully within the confines of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. When we do so, we are promised that our reading faithfully will change us for the better. Not perfectly, of course; perfection will have to wait for God’s new world. But reading Scripture will change us enough to help us live righteously and this pleases God. For anyone who claims to love God, living in ways that we know please God is healing balm in itself.

Likewise with prayer. Our Lord reminds us that God’s promises are true and we are to hang on and pray in the manner the widow did in his parable. And what did she do? She was tenacious and bothered the unjust judge. The Greek word for bother means to give someone a black eye so our Lord intended for us to persevere and be tenacious. We are to pray this way, not to bend God’s will to ours, but rather as a witness to our faith that God really does exist and that God really is good and just and right. Not only that, bold and tenacious praying bears witness to the fact that we believe an invisible God is truly accessible to us and cares about us. God isn’t like the unjust judge in the parable. That never was the point. The point is that we are called to keep the faith, even as we wait for God to answer our prayers, or even when God chooses not to answer our prayers. However, if we pay careful attention to what we pray for, we will surely discover that more often than not, God does answer our prayers, even if it is not in the way we ask for originally. There is a holy mystery about this, my beloved, but underneath it all there must be an indefatigable faith in the power, goodness, mercy, and love of God. And so we pray, in part, because God uses prayer to strengthen our faith and this, in turn, helps keep us from falling into despair. When the time is right, the Father will surely act quickly to vindicate the faithful and this must be our sure and certain expectation.

As we pray, we also must act as the widow did. Praying and acting are never mutually exclusive. Our inner house must be in order if we ever hope to have our behaviors make a difference as well as please God, and so the widow acted by bothering the unjust judge. So we must too. We often hear that there needs to be more action and less praying. The implication is prayer is ineffective and should be consigned to the dustbin in favor of action. But this criticism would have surprised the Son of God, who prayed to find strength and direction for his actions and decisions. So we must not be kowtowed into silence or shamed into abandoning prayer in favor of social action.

This is the biblical prescription to fight the despair we all feel in our lives from time to time. We are to read Scriptures to learn the story of God’s rescue plan for his creation and image-bearers and persevere in prayer. It was practiced and endorsed by the OT prophets and the Son of God himself, along with his apostles. And so we have a choice. If God really is our Creator, who knows us better than God? And if God really does love and care about us, why would God purposely lead us astray by telling us to do things that will not help and benefit us? Will we be wise and choose God’s help or be fools and resort in pride to self-help as the human race usually does? The latter option will surely fail because the human race does not know God or God’s ways. God’s ways, on the other hand, are always good and just and right, and we are called to have an informed faith that the Holy Spirit will use to see us through the darkest valleys if we will persevere and do so together. Is this the kind of faith you have? If so, are you, e.g., persevering in prayer to God to open the way for us to find a home we can call our own? Does your faith not only carry you through the dark times of your life but also create in you a generous heart so that you will support the work of your parish family? God has given himself to us to rescue us from death and despair. Let us resolve to honor him by following after his generous ways. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.   

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