Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 11:16-19; Romans 7:15-25a
Robert L. Getty, Ph.D.
July 9, 2017
As long as I can remember, I have liked solving riddles. Riddles; the kind of word puzzles that your teacher gives you when you’re done with your math assignment and waiting for the other students to finish. I was never particularly good at solving them, but I liked working on them. Maybe you did too? Here are some riddles. Call out the answer if you like.
I am the only thing that always tells the truth
I show off everything I see
I come in all shapes and sizes
So, tell me what I must be (mirror)
I am a wealthy doctor, I have a wealthy son
But if you’re looking for his father, I am not the one
Who am I? (mother)
Here’s one written by Albert Einstein…
If you were standing on the South Pole facing north
And you take one step backward, which way would you be traveling?
(north, since all directions from the South Pole are north)
Those are riddles; they all have answers, and if you think about them long enough, like most riddles, you can usually come up with an answer that makes sense. But what about puzzling questions that seem to have no sensible answers? And even when you come up with a possible solution, it doesn’t satisfy everyone? I learned years ago that those are called conundrums. I like that word; I even like to say it: conundrum. Webster defines conundrum as “Any puzzling question or problem.” Bright people love conundrums, because they think that if they work on them long enough, using all their brain-power, they can come up with an answer. But then it wouldn’t be a conundrum; just a problem or a puzzle. The unique feature about a conundrum is that it is truly unsolvable.
In the verses from Romans that were just read, the Apostle Paul presents us with a conundrum of the first order. Here is the way Paul says it: “I do not understand my own actions.” British scholar J.B. Philips translated it this way “My own behavior baffles me, for I do not do what I want to, but I do the very thing I hate.” Paul is describing the conundrum that is his life: that there is a constant tension within himself when it comes to doing the right thing. He knows what the right choices are; he can wish to do them, he can tell them to his friends. But when it comes to doing the right thing, more often than not, he fails. And the harder he tries to obey, the more likely he is to disobey. It makes no sense to the reasonable person, but there it is.
For a brief period of time, we can control our desires and our thoughts and our actions, and look very, very religious. But not for very long, and then we too give into them, and we have failed. In our liturgy, we confess that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” That’s what Paul is saying here. Even if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you’re not as good as you think you are, and you’re worse than you’d like to admit. That’s the first struggle. The struggle to live up to what you know you ought to be.
There is the struggle, coming to grips with repeated personal failure. Just because you are a Christian doesn’t make you immune to temptation and immune to the pull of sin in your life. When I stand in front of the mirror what I see is a man who struggles with sin every single day. It’s hard for us as believers to come to grips with what Paul is saying here. Paul is saying that indwelling sin is constantly lining up to do battle with us, to pull us down, to destroy us, to discourage us and to pull us away from God. Evil is not only with us, evil is also waging war inside of us all the time.
Then there is the struggle to admit, the true nature of the war within. That’s what life is like. Some of us barely make it to church because it’s been a difficult week. Spiritually, emotionally, physically, and in every way, we’ve struggled through the last seven days. You know what? That’s OK. If you’re really struggling, if you feel there’s a war within, you have a lot in common with the greatest Christian who ever lived. You struggle with sin because that experience is meant to drive you into the arms of Jesus Christ.
The struggle that you are undergoing in your life now doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It makes you an excellent candidate for the grace of God. Cheer up, your struggles are part of God’s plan to make you holy. Your struggles are his strategy to make you like Jesus Christ. Do you feel like you’re trapped in the muck and mire of sin? Run to Jesus Christ and embrace the cross. Not only does Paul do what is not desired; he does not do what is desired. Not only Paul, but all believers, have “left undone those things which we ought to have done.”
It is not uncommon for commentators to suggest what might have been in Paul’s mind when he cried out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). “Wretched” we understand, but what is the “body of death” from which he wants to be rescued? A most gruesome picture is that presented by the Roman poet Virgil (70–19 BC) – a picture that his audience in Rome might well have been familiar. In Book Eight of the Aeneid, Virgil’s epic poem that chronicles the wanderings of Aeneas after the fall of Troy, the horrific cruelty of the Etruscan king Mezentius is told. To punish and torture his living captives, Mezentius tied them face to face with decomposing corpses of those killed in battle, leaving them bound together until the living captive died.
What did Paul call himself—a “wretched man”? What did Virgil call those locked in the embrace of death—those “lingering wretches”? Surely no word other than “rescue” would fit both scenes. And if Paul had Virgil’s epic in mind, then this image of “body of death” suddenly puts the gospel’s deliverance from the law in a new and more serious light. The body of death from which Paul needed rescuing was his tendency to sin which had turned the law into his executioner. But rather than dying a slow and putrid death, Paul was rescued by the Lord Jesus Christ. The mature believer in Jesus Christ is not one who never struggles to obey God. Rather, the mature believer is one who has been released from the law’s condemnation and made free to serve its requirements by dying to the law, through Jesus Christ.
Paul’s situation is like that of a drug addict who quits “cold turkey.” Many times, the addict elapses and starts using drugs again because the problems that encouraged the addict to start using drugs are still present. The key to lifelong recovery lies in treating the mind. Paul was “addicted” to his past, sinful life, and we as Christians can become “addicted” to our past sinful lives without a strong faith in Christ. Only Christ can rescue us from our “cravings.”
The terrific value of small groups is knowing that there are others just like you who share your frustrations and share your joys. In group ministry; we recognize that we’re not alone in this journey we call “the Christian faith.” This reminded me – vividly – of a small group experience I had some time ago. We were sitting together, studying this very passage in Romans, and the person who was reading the text became more and more discouraged as she read the despairing words of Paul. You could hear the despair in her voice. “I can’t do the right thing…I’m a slave to sin…it holds me captive and it will not let me go…wretched person that I am, who will rescue me from this body of death?” As she was reading, I realized that she wasn’t reading Paul’s words, she was making her own confession. And then she choked back tears as she read Paul’s conclusion. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
What we cannot accomplish, through our efforts and our noble actions, Jesus Christ has done through his death and resurrection. The dilemma that was humanly impossible to solve by us has been solved by grace. Gone is the frustration of not being able to do the right thing. Gone is the shame of giving in to sin. God has spoken, the problem has been solved, once and for all time. Determine today to discover where in your life you are being abused by your ever-present capacity to find life on your own terms. Then, break free and re-identify if necessary with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gospel you believe, that we discussed in Romans chapter 6 has delivered you from sin, and here in Romans chapter 7 has delivered you from law. To be free of one is to be free of both.
We can thank our heavenly Father for delivering us from a law we could not keep, a law that had already condemned us to death. Thank God for allowing Jesus Christ, to fulfill the demands of the law for us that we might be free to live by the Spirit. We can be thankful for the strength of the Holy Spirit by which we persevere in the daily struggle against sin. We thank our savior for rescuing us from the body of death to which we were bound.
Jesus explains this in Matthew that we do not need to follow man-made rules the Pharisees made to make certain that the people did not break any of God’s laws. Jesus even replaced the Ten Commandments with the two Great Commandments – love God and love people. God’s grace gives us the freedom to enjoy the rights and privileges of being out from under the bondage of sin and man-made laws. Everyone is different and each has a unique struggle, and God loves that variety. He loves each and every one of us so much that he sent Jesus to die for us on the cross. When we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we are restored to God.
Friends we do not need to be overcome by our struggles, there’s another way – in fact, there is an “only way.” We bring our sins, and our crumpled lives to Jesus, and we tell him everything. We tell him that even when we know the right road, we often turn the other way. We tell him that sometimes we even enjoy the sin that holds us captive, though we know it breaks his heart. We confess to him that we are dying, and we wonder who will rescue us from this body of death. And then our Savior speaks, and these are his words – This is my body, this is my blood, all given in love for you. Take it, and eat it, and know that your sins, though they be like scarlet, are as white as snow. You are forgiven; and everything is new. The conundrum is no more. Thanks be to God! Amen.