The Surprising Power of God

Sermon delivered on Trinity 8B, Sunday, July 25, 2021 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: 2 Samuel 11.1-25; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3.14-21; St. John 6.1-21.

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

In our epistle lesson, St. Paul prays for the power of God in the lives of his people, of you and me. He ends by making the bold declaration that God’s power working in us is “abundantly more than we can ask or imagine.” What does the apostle have in mind when he tells us this? How are we to read this in light of David’s folly in our OT lesson? This is what I want us to look at.

If you have been a Christian for any length of time you will certainly know it is not an easy thing to be a Christ follower and lover. As the psalmist reminds us starkly in our lesson, there is no one who does good, not a single person. It seems that we all have inherited Adam’s sin-sickness, a sickness that distorts and corrupts God’s image in us and makes us think, say, and do all kinds of things that dehumanize us. This, of course, is not God’s original intention for us as his image-bearers and our sin-sickness disqualifies us to rule God’s world on God’s behalf. Yet hard as we try—and try we do being the proud rebellious creatures we are—none of us have the ability to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps so that we can be the humans God created us to be. What to do?

Enter the power of God. When St. Paul prays for God’s power to be with us, he has in mind first and and foremost God’s ability to overcome our sin-sickness on our behalf. And even a superficial reading/knowledge of Scripture reminds us that God does indeed have the power to deliver us from our incurable sin-sickness. He is the God who created this vast universe by speaking it into existence out of nothing. He is the God who has the power to raise the dead as he did with Jesus that first Easter morning. He has the power the free his people from their bondage to slavery as he demonstrated when he brought his people Israel out of Egypt at Passover. And as our gospel lesson testifies, God become human has the power to feed the masses and rule over the storms of creation and life. Many of us have not experienced God’s power in such a spectacular manner, but some of us have, experiencing mighty acts of healing and other acts of God’s transformative power. 

And this power is surely behind St. Paul’s prayer for Christ’s body, the Church, in our epistle lesson. Earlier he made the astonishing claim that God’s purpose for his Church, for you and me, is to demonstrate God’s wisdom and purposes for healing and redemption to the dark powers and their human agents. Imagine that! We as Christ’s people are called to show the world and the powers who have usurped God’s rightful rule—an enigmatic mystery in its own right; why did God allow that?—how to be human and live according to God’s good will and created order! Clearly we cannot do that on our own because we are hopelessly sin-sick. Most of us can’t even manage to follow through on our new year’s resolutions for more than a month let alone live faithfully and obediently as God’s image-bearers! So how do we become God’s healed and redeemed people? Answer: by the grace and power of God. But how does that work? It works to the extent that we can bind ourselves to Christ so that we understand the nature of God’s power in us. When God empowers us to be his people, he does not empower us to lord it over others or to be mighty conquerors. Doing so would only help us impose our selfish desires on others—we do that quite nicely on our own, thank you very much—and satisfy our fallen human nature. No, the kind of power about which St. Paul speaks is the power to forgive, the power to be patient, the power to love, the power to be compassionate, the power to be humble, and the power to do good, to name just a few. It is the power to take up our cross and follow Christ, especially in the face of the world’s scorn and hatred of Christ and us, to suffer for his name’s sake so that he can use us to help bring in his kingdom on earth as in heaven. It is the type of power that doesn’t always bring immediate results; in fact, it is power that often looks like failure in the eyes of the world. And because it does not often meet our expectations of what real power looks like—the ability to impose our will and views on others, to stop at nothing in an effort to obtain security and wealth and status—we often mistake God’s power for weakness and timidity, and we treat it scornfully.

This is nothing new. Ask the surviving disciples on that Good Friday night if Christ was truly God’s Messiah and/or if they had seen God’s mighty power at work, and they would have looked at us like we had three heads. It took the power of the Resurrection for them to see that in the cross—a worldly sign of humanity’s ability to degrade, to torture, to humiliate—God’s power to forgive all our sins was at work and accomplishing God’s purposes. Nobody in Christ’s day expected a crucified God and many in our own day join with them despite the fact that we have 20-20 hindsight now. 

Yet it is only in Christ’s death and resurrection that we find forgiveness of our sins and the table set to have real reconciliation with God our Father, something the world has not seen since before the Fall and until God arrived on the scene in the person of Jesus to deal with our sins and hostility toward him. At just the right time, St. Paul tells us in Romans, Christ died for us, even though we were still God’s enemies. Before Christ and bereft of his Holy Spirit, none of us would even consider dying for our mortal enemies, and even with the Holy Spirit living in us and making Christ known and available to us, many of us still struggle with the notion of loving our enemies, let alone dying to save them because we are so profoundly broken. But this is exactly what we are called to do, and as St. Paul promises in our epistle lesson we do indeed have Christ’s power and presence in us in and through the presence of the Holy Spirit to transform us into the people God created us to be so that we will one day be fit to rule God’s new world, the new heavens and earth. 

So if this is true, why do we have stories like David and Bathsheba in our OT lesson? After all, here we have King David, the man after God’s own heart, who was clearly endowed with God’s Holy Spirit even before the Spirit was made available to all God’s people at and after Pentecost, involved in one of the most sordid stories in all the Bible. In this story, we see God’s man commit adultery and then murder to cover it up to save his own skin (adultery was a capital offense in Israel, even for a king). And it was a murder committed with great cynicism and malice aforethought to boot. Not only did David violate the commandments to not commit murder, he also violated three others: he coveted his neighbor’s wife, stole her from her husband, and lied about it. Five out of ten is an impressive batting average, even for the worst sinners among us, let alone God’s anointed king. How could this have happened? In David’s case, there were some unfortunate circumstances involved, but we all have endured those before, often without sin. No, the bottom line is that David let his sin-sickness control him and the results were catastrophic, just as all sin is. In great understatement the writer ends this sordid story by observing succinctly that the thing David did displeased God. You don’t need reality TV. Just pick up your Bible and read it if you want to see humans at their worst. But unlike reality TV, you will actually profit from reading and pondering these stories.

All this can be terribly unnerving. Are God’s promises false? Was St. Paul delusional in praying his prayer found in our epistle lesson? Some would say yes. After all, we all know stories of religious leaders missing the mark and falling into catastrophic and grievous sin. You all have to put up with me on a regular basis, surely proof positive that God’s promises have failed! But for those of us who pay attention to these things, for every failure we can count many more successes in our lives and the lives of those we love. Think of serious illnesses that were healed. Think of hopelessly damaged relationships restored. Think on the fact that all of us here are reconciled to God while none of us deserve a lick of it! No, the power of God is real, even if at times it can certainly be unpredictable and enigmatic. But we must keep our eyes focused on Christ our prize, for only in and through his power do we have any hope of overcoming our sin-sickness and enjoying eternal life with him now and forever. In this world there will always be heartache and failure; after all, we live in a cursed world ravaged by human sin that naturally separates us and keeps us alienated to God our Father, the Source and Author of all life and health. Thus we suffer and fail. But there is also victory and healing and redemption in this world and I would boldly suggest that our little parish is a microcosm of God’s victory on our behalf in and through Christ, warts and all. Despite the fact that we are losers and ragamuffins, we are a family who love each other and support each other, despite the times when we irritate each other. We are usually patient and kind and (hopefully) forgiving of each other. We care for each other and enjoy sweet fellowship despite our differences. These are all signs of God’s power at work in us because none of this is possible without Christ in our midst and as our Center. And if you think otherwise, you are the one who is delusional, not St. Paul.

I close with a story from The Way of a Pilgrim that illustrates how Christ typically works in his people. 

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.’

“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.”

Notice first how Christ 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. 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 too long 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 occurs—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 he uses ordinary people and circumstances along with our own efforts to speak to and transform us. God can use even less than ideal circumstances to break through to us, as the young solder discovered. That may not be sexy enough for some of us but it is much more effective over the long haul because God respects us and our relational integrity. So if you are struggling with your faith, do the things that will cultivate Christ’s power. I beseech you, my beloved. Give yourself completely to Christ if you have not done so already. Please. Don’t hold back. Don’t be afraid. He loves you and he will not ultimately fail you because he is the only one who remains faithful to the Father! Cultivate his presence and power. He is our only hope to rescue and heal us from our sin-sickness! Read Scripture regularly. Partake in the Holy Eucharist as St. John exhorts us to do in our gospel lesson (listen if you have ears). Enjoy sweet fellowship with God’s faithful people, remembering our Lord’s promise to his fearful disciples in the midst of a life-threatening storm. Don’t be afraid, it is me, and only I have the power to save you. I know your lives are no less stormy. Trust in my power, and if you begin to doubt that power, meditate on my death and resurrection because in these events are your only hope and future. Doing so will remind you of the surprising and sometimes unpredictable power of God. Now to him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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