Topical Scripture: Romans 8:3-4
It’s January, so everyone must be on a diet. Time magazine reports on the latest fads.
One aims at men who eat at fast-food restaurants, and tells us to eat a Big Mac (540 calories), not a Whopper (760 calories). I could stay on that diet. One says to eat small meals all day; another says to eat only three meals and no snacks. I want one which says to eat big meals all day long. One says to eat fruits, grains, and veggies; another says to eat meat, poultry, fish and cheese. One says to avoid all coffee, diet drinks and artificial sweeteners; another says to drink tea all day long.
I’m announcing today my answer to the diet confusion. It’s called the Cancellation Diet: Diet Dr. Pepper cancels Butterfingers; carrots cancel chocolate cake; you can eat chicken fried steak so long as you have broccoli somewhere on the table. I expect to make a fortune, most of which will go to my cardiologist.
Exercise more, eat less, lose weight, get organized, take time to smell the roses, slow down, keep it simple. But not much changes day to day, year to year, does it? There are wars and rumors of war; the stock market goes up and it goes down; babies are born and people die. And the problems which follow us around day by day don’t seem to go away.
Are you facing the same temptations this year as last, the same struggles and doubts and feelings of inadequacy? We come to worship and go to Sunday school and give and read and pray, but what really changes?
Leonard Bernstein spoke for most of us:
What I say I don’t feel
What I feel I don’t show
What I show isn’t real
What is real, Lord–I don’t know. . . .
Why I drift off to sleep
With pledges of deep resolve again,
Then along comes the day
And suddenly they dissolve again–
I don’t know. . . .
What I need I don’t have
What I have I don’t own
What I own I don’t want
What I want, Lord, I don’t know.
Here’s the good news: there’s a way off the treadmill to nowhere, the constant struggle and strain against brokenness and discouragement and temptation you and I face every morning of every day.
There’s a way to joy and peace and victory over our fallen lives. God has made us to be “more than conquerors through him who loved us” (v. 37). More than conquerors, every day. More than conquerors over every temptation and struggle we face. No exceptions, nothing outside the power of God’s Spirit in our lives. That is his promise and purpose for us.
Last week we learned that grace is greater than guilt. This week we learn that the Spirit is greater than sin. All sin, any sin, your worst sins, your greatest temptations to sin. There’s a simple step waiting for you, a step into spiritual hope and victory. But you must take it today.
My college apartment made the yearbook as the messiest on campus. This was an award for which there was much competition; my roommates and I were deeply honored. What won the prize for us was our refrigerator. Not just the part crammed with leftover Chinese food and outdated milk and empty ketchup bottles. The freezer was the piece de resistance. It had been made years before self-defrosting devices were invented, and required regular defrosting by its users. Of course, we would never have thought to do such a thing. So the usable space shrank smaller and smaller while the frost and ice grew thicker and thicker, until our icebox was literally that.
My soul behaves in the same way, and so does yours. It fills with frustrations and disappointments and failures and sins until the usable space gets so small that I must do something about it. So I do.
I get up and read the Bible each morning, in a schedule I’ve been following for years. I read from some devotional literature I appreciate, then spend time in prayer. I confess my sins and ask God’s forgiveness. I plan to do better today. I head out into the day to serve God. To love him with all my heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love you as myself.
Except that all my defrosting doesn’t keep the ice at bay for long. The reason is that it can’t. Our text begins: “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature . . .”
The “law” here is the Torah, the Jewish law containing the Ten Commandments and all the regulations applying them to our lives. There was nothing wrong with the law. If we could keep the Ten Commandments perfectly, all would be well. We would never be broken in our relationship with God or others. But we can’t, because of our “sinful nature.” The fact that we are prone to sin, that we want to sin, that sin is an ever-present pull and power living inside us.
But we don’t like to hear that. We think that we’re good people who sometimes do bad things, not bad people who sometimes do good things. So we try harder to do better. That’s how our culture solves problems–get up earlier, stay up later, work longer. Do more to please God and defeat sin and be good.
Work hard to be the people we want to be. Struggle and strive and strain. Do all you can and then do some more. How’s that working for you?
Henri Nouwen has been reading our mail and our minds:
“One of the most obvious characteristics of our daily lives is that we are busy. We experience our lives as filled with things to do, people to meet, projects to finish, letters to write, calls to make, and appointments to keep. Our lives often seem like over-packed suitcases bursting at the seams. In fact, we are almost always aware of being behind schedule. There is a nagging sense that there are unfinished tasks, unfulfilled promises, unrealized proposals. There is always something else that we should have remembered, done, or said. There are always people we did not speak to, write to, or visit. Thus, although we are very busy, we have a lingering feeling of never really fulfilling our obligations. The strange thing, however, is that it is very hard not to be busy. Being busy has become a status symbol. . . .
“Beneath our worrying lives, however, something else is going on. While our minds and hearts are filled with many things, and we wonder how we can live up to the expectations imposed upon us by ourselves and others, we have a deep sense of unfulfillment. While busy with and worried about many things, we seldom feel truly satisfied, at peace, at home. A gnawing sense of being unfulfilled underlies our filled lives…The great paradox of our time is that many of us are busy and bored at the same time. While running from one event to the next, we wonder in our innermost selves if anything is really happening. While we can hardly keep up with our many tasks and obligations, we are not so sure that it would make any difference if we did nothing at all. While people keep pushing us in all directions, we doubt if anyone really cares. In short, while our lives are full, we are unfulfilled” (Making All Things New: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life).
The time has come to abandon the effort and get a new freezer. To trade in the one which cannot be fixed for one which never breaks. To stop our religious efforts and busyness and performance. To give up, and then to look up.
Here’s God’s answer to our dilemma: “God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man” (v. 3).
Jesus’ death was the Father’s idea, his plan. I used to picture God as angry and wrathful, and Jesus as loving and kind. When Janet and I started dating, her father had every right to be suspicious about me. If he hated me but Janet liked me and made him accept me for her sake, that would be the way I thought God felt about me.
Except that the Bible says, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16). The Scriptures tell us that “the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion” (Isaiah 30:18). God sent his Son. He thinks you’re worth the excruciating death of his Son on your cross.
So he sent him “to be a sin offering.” The “sin offering” is mentioned 25 times in the book of Leviticus. It was a sacrifice made for our sins, both conscious and unconscious. All the sins you know you’ve committed, and all you don’t, are covered.
Those things which keep you from God are now removed forever. They are “condemned,” marked for destruction. This is past tense in the Greek: “he condemned sin in sinful man.” This is a completed action. When Jesus died, our sin died with him.
Now “the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit” (v. 4). Now we can fulfill the purpose God intended for his law all along.
It’s still best for us to keep the word and will of God. Imagine a society where everyone lived by the Ten Commandments. The Spirit of God enables us to fulfill the word of God. The fruit of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gaatians 5:22-23)–fulfill the Ten Commandments and law of God.
This is what the Spirit produces in every life he controls. This is what he did fully in Jesus, and to a lesser extent in John and James and Peter and Priscilla and Aquilla and Phoebe and the rest of the apostolic leaders. This is what he wants to do in us. He wants to liberate us from our sinful nature, to empower us in defeating temptation whenever it attacks, to replace our old freezer with his new model.
But the choice is ours. We can live according to our sinful nature, or we can live “according to the Spirit.” How do we do this? The way Jesus did it. We’ll say much more about this next week, but for now let’s remember Jesus’ habit every time Satan and temptation attacked him. He went to God, praying to start the day and end the day and all through the day. He went to the word of God, as when he quoted Scripture in defeating Satan’s wilderness temptations. He went to the people of God, as when he asked his disciples to pray with him during his Gethsemane trials. He stayed connected with his Father by his Spirit, all day long. And so he had the power of God to win the victory of God, all day long.
To win the battle over temptation and sin, you and I must give up and then look up. Stop trying to defeat Satan in your resolve. Stop fighting with your weapons. Lay them down. Give up and look up. Surrender everything to him–your problems and struggles, your plans and dreams, your hopes and fears.
The Great Physician cannot restore you to health unless he can treat every part of your life–the pain you feel and the diseases you don’t. Stop. Yield. Let him do whatever he wants with you, whenever and wherever he wishes. Start the day by giving it to him. Walk through the day by giving it to him. Stop trying to become what you think you should be, and rest in him. Let him do what he wants with you. And know that it will be better than you could have imagined.
St. John of the Cross was a Spanish mystic who died in 1591. His wisdom on living in the Spirit and peace of Jesus has been used by God for more than four centuries. Consider this advice:
To reach satisfaction in all, desire its possession in nothing.
To come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all, desire to be nothing.
To come to the knowledge of all, desire the knowledge of nothing.
To come to the pleasure you have not, you must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not, you must go by a way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not, you must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not, you must go by a way in which you are not.
When you turn toward something, you cease to cast yourself upon the all.
When you come to the possession of the all, you must possess it without wanting anything.
Because if you desire to have something in all, your treasure in God is not purely your all.
Is God “purely your all” today?