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Transforming Delight


Sermon #313 St. Martin’s #69 (Riverway) 7/9/23


I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Romans 7:15-25a


Habits

Call me nosy, but I’m curious, how is your New Year’s resolution going? Has anyone made it to July?


How about keeping up with a diet? Managing your debt?


Normally these are all good ideas—great goals that we have—but why do we have such a hard time keeping them? After a few days or weeks we drop them, and then, when we look at the mirror or at our credit card bill, we feel like an utter failure.

We know what is best for us—intellectually we know what we need to do, but the will to actually do it…that’s the hard thing to convince. It normally takes a crisis to get our will motivated.


It takes the doctor saying, “You’re going to die if you don’t change your eating habits.” Or a banker saying, “You’re gonna lose the house if you don’t change your spending habits.” Or your spouse saying, “You’re gonna lose the marriage if you don’t change your self-destructive behaviors.”


Habits are the darndest things, aren’t they? We consciously try to shape them after a crisis conversation, or when January 1st rolls around without realizing, but like a river that never stops flowing, we are perpetually being shaped by the habits we’ve pick up.


This reminds me of the story of an old Cherokee man instructing his young son. “Son,” he says, “everyone has two wolves inside them. One wolf is violent, wild, and destructive. The other is disciplined, wise, and benevolent. They are fighting inside you. Which wolf will win?”


The boy, looking dismayed, then replied, “I don’t know.” And then the old man said, “The wolf that will win is the wolf that is fed” (Rutledge 208-9).


Which wolf are we feeding? Which habits/behaviors do we continue to solidify in our lives?


I recently heard an interview with James Clear, the author of the very popular book, Atomic Habits. In the interview he talked about scaling down our actions into smaller units to reach a desired goal.


Instead of just saying, “I’m going to eat healthier and exercise a couple times a week.” He said it’s better to see each small behavior as part of a collection of habits in a larger system. Finding sustainable and reasonable actions and then layering them—adding more of them as you go—is the way to create real change. It’s the accumulation of a lot of small improvements.


But then he said: these small improvements compound and then you’ve got these forces working for you.


And that’s the dream. We’ve become so meticulous with our actions, that we have shaped our wills enough that we’ll unconsciously choose what is good for us even if the other option may be easier or more convenient. We feed the wise and benevolent wolf and don’t even realize it.


Romans 7

But when it comes to our faith it’s not as easy. Paul is aware of the forces at work in our world, and unfortunately, there is a force out there—that no matter how many good habits we create—is always trying to work for demise, our undoing.


In Paul’s letters, he talks about the Powers of Sin, Death, and the Devil. These dark powers work in the world and in our lives, and when we fall into sin we are conscripted into its services. We are participants in the brokenness of the world, subjects and slaves to its evil works.


Paul gets at this tension we feel in our lives; the tension between the “ideal us” and then reality. “I know the good though I do what I hate.”


This is terminology used in slavery. When someone is bound to something (or someone) that they did not choose, and there is no way to freedom…that’s slavery.


Just as the Israelites were slaves to Egypt, humanity is enslaved to these cosmic powers of Sin, Death, and the Devil. Paul wants us to see the brokenness of our world, and the part we play in it, as a cosmic form of slavery.


The discussion that comes up a lot in Romans is this idea of “the law.” We oversimplify it to mean: the law is bad and grace is good. But let’s not forget that Paul was a pious Jew, he even prided himself for keeping the law spotlessly.


“The law” was a gift from God; it represented the highest ideals, but Paul realized that this law couldn’t be attained by someone who bound in these chains of Sin and Death. The summit is always just out of reach. No matter how hard you work—how pious you try to be—you can’t reach this heavenly ideal. If you tried, you’d utterly fail.


As the theologian Karl Barth liked to say, it would be like trying to pull ourselves out of a swamp by our own hair.


Habits, even the best of them, will only get you so far when it comes to right relation to God. What Paul seems to be doing here is laying it all out there, so that we will do the same. Paul has tried to keep the law and has failed, and this is bigger than just you or me.


This problem spans everyone for all time. This is not just about our personal sins—as important as those are—but this disease, this enslavement, has marred humanity as a whole.


Corrupt governments, unethical institutions, failing systems are all a part of this enslavement too. Talking about Sin only on an individual basis makes it too private of a matter when, in reality, it affects us on multiple levels.


A culture of violence, racism, vast inequality…you name it…is a culture that is bound by the evil powers of this world.


And so, it seems that honesty is the best policy. If we can come to a point where we accept that we (and all of humanity) are helpless, chest deep in the swamp, and no matter how hard we try, we simply CANNOT save ourselves…well then, we are on the gospel track.


What Paul claimed back then, and what Christians claim today, is that a rescue mission has happened—for individuals AND for the entire world. A lifejacket has been thrown by the One whose feet are securely fixed on the bank of this raging river.


“Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to [sin and] death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”


Delight

For us today, we must reckon with the persuasiveness of Sin. We do the things we don’t want to, because we get some pleasure out of doing them. They bring us comfort or satisfaction, even if that feeling is fleeting.


The power of Jesus’ Good News is that it is fulfilling to the soul who longs to be made whole. And in the process what is being transformed are our desires. If our actions are the accumulation of so many of our impulses, then what needs conversion are our desires.


Augustine’s famous quote tells us that we are restless until we rest in God because God is the fulfillment of everything we long for. Recent authors have picked this up and remind us that we are what we love.


We give our time, attention, and wealth to the things we love. How much time do we give to social media or the 24-news cycle? How much money do we spend on specialty items in a given week? All these communicate (many times unconsciously) what we love.

Delight is not a trivial part of our faith—if we can recognize what we delight in, then we will have a better sense of what we need to be converted from. This can shape our prayers, and the prayers that we ask from others.


If we can recognize what our society as a whole delights in, then we will definitely know what is persuading us from God.


I think the church has the unique call in this day and time to help form people’s delights towards their Heavenly Father who loves them. This doesn’t require “more things to do,” in the conventional sense, rather, it requires learning to love what God loves.


When our desires are converted to God’s desires then a transformation of our actions naturally follows. Without thinking about it, we begin to bear fruit for God’s Kingdom because we are rooted in a soil that is otherworldly.


The gospel is actually really persuasive. Shame on us as the church if we have ever made the Good News of Jesus boring and dull because I’m convinced that one of the great powers of the gospel is that it is persuasive to those who long for more than what this fickle world has to offer.


And I think Riverway can be a refuge of sorts. A community of delight that delights in God, in one another, and the world he has made---and not for any selfish gain, but simply because all of this is a gift from our Heavenly Father (thank you Mark Clavier).


I think worship is the doorway into shaping our delights. It is the great reminder that it’s not all about us, that there is One greater than us, and we are not slaves to Sin and Death, but we are his beloved children who are called to go out into the world in his blessed name…and so, I’m really glad you’re here.


What would it look like if this place was known around our community as a place of delight where the values of God’s kingdom align with our lives? Where broken lives and relationships are mended by the power of God?


Can you imagine the impact we would have on this city, let alone among our families and friends?


This just may be what our city needs, let alone what you and I need. Will you join in becoming a community of delight for the glory of God?




6th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 9. Year A. Romans 7:15-25. Multiple themes and stories from F. Rutledges’s Not Ashamed of the Gospel. Interview from Adam Grant’s podcast. Photo by Stéphan Valentin on Unsplash.

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