July 16th, 2014 – Evensong
A scorpion was walking along the bank of a river, wondering how to get to the other side. Suddenly, he saw a fox. He asked the fox to take him on his back across the river.
The fox, showing the cunning of his species, said, “No. If I do that, you’ll sting me, and I’ll drown.”
The scorpion assured him, “If I do that, we’ll both drown.”
The fox thought about it and finally agreed. So the scorpion climbed up on his back, and the fox began to swim. But halfway across the river, the scorpion stung him. As poison filled his veins, the fox turned to the scorpion and said, “Why did you do that? Now you’ll drown, too.”
“I couldn’t help it,” said the scorpion. “It’s my nature.”
It’s my nature. It’s the way I am.
I have had those times when I lose my temper, say hurtful things, act as venomously to those around me as that scorpion does. And then I apologise and seek forgiveness, sadly acknowledging that my very human, very fallen, nature has got the best of me once more.
I was reminded of this when I read this evening’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul’s humanity is often present in his writings; and here we see him fighting with the knowledge of his own shortcomings. It’s almost a stream of consciousness dialogue – something Paul adopts in a number of his letters, explaining his feelings and thoughts behind his statements to his readers.
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
I don’t do what I want to do, but I do the thing I hate; the very opposite! Paul’s sense of confusion is very clear here – I think he reflects all of our feelings towards the way we act. We know what we’re supposed to do, but we just don’t seem to be able to do it.
Paul goes further, and reflects that it is the sin living in him that carries out these actions that he so abhors.
Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
This isn’t Paul taking a sly look around him and making excuses for his actions. I don’t think that Paul is dodging the responsibility for his actions here. He’s simply stating the control that sin has over our lives – even a Godly man like Paul, brought in to ministry by Jesus Himself, is still human, and is subject to our very human nature.
Later on he says :
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.
This is quite a statement; he’s acknowledging that as a man he’s fallen and that whilst he may have the will to do good, he doesn’t have the ability. We’re all aware of ‘the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak’ – here Paul states that for us all.
Tonight’s reading comes from a section of his letter where Paul writes about the growth of Christians in faith, a positive statement of how Christian faith develops. Earlier in Romans he’s written of the faithfulness of God, of justification by faith and in Romans 6 he says that as Christians, sin shall not be our master, because we are helped by God’s grace to resist sin.
In tonight’s reading, though, we see that even though Paul knows this to be true, he acknowledges that Christians, as mere humans, we will have an ongoing struggle with our sinful nature. And I think we would all agree with what Paul says, that by ourselves, we’re incapable of doing the right thing for any great length of time and with any degree of constancy.
We find ourselves in that confused place that Paul wrote about. I don’t know about you, but I’ve often found myself agreeing with Oscar Wilde who wrote ‘I can resist anything except temptation.’
It’s not that we don’t WANT to abide by God’s law; it’s just that our instincts and nature as humans with free will fight against the law of God.
As Paul says:
For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
What is the law of God referred to here? Well, it’s the Mosaic Law – the laws of God to man laid down in the Old Testament. Paul is saying that despite his best efforts he resists this law. It’s in his nature – in all our natures. Rebellion against God’s Law has been in the hearts of men since the Garden of Eden. The efforts of man to obey God’s law in the Old Testament are not something we can be really proud of; it seems to be something of a chapter of accidents, with even some of the best of men, God’s favourites, like David, coming a cropper.
Fortunately for us, God appreciates the difficulties that we have. In tonight’s reading from Zechariah, we see:
See, your king comes to you
Righteous and having salvation,
Gentle, and riding on a donkey
This is a seen as referring to the entry of Jesus in to Jerusalem – ‘your king’ is a Messianic King from the line of David, and He will be righteous – obedient to God’s laws – gentle and humble – riding on a donkey, not the usual mode of transport of a traditional human king of that era, but very typical of kings beloved of God – David rode a mule, for example, and bringing salvation to the people.
A new king, who will be obedient to God’s laws, and who will, as we see later in the reading, be a bringer of peace and who will respect the old covenant with the people of Israel. A ruler who will, whilst respecting the law of God, will not enforce it legalistically and by force, but will bring people to obey it by other means.
The book of Zechariah has more things to say about the coming of the new king, but what’s relevant to us – and to Paul, and the other early Christians – was that this king, whose coming Zechariah prophesied and who was to establish a new kingdom of God, was already known to them as Jesus Christ.
Paul says :
Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Who will get him out of the predicament of his wish to obey God’s laws, and his human inability to do so? From a purely human perspective, things appear to be at an impasse; God’s Laws need obeying, but man is incapable of obeying them in the purely legalistic sense that was expected by God in the Old Testament. But Jesus, as the Messiah predicted by the prophets like Zechariah, has provided a new way by which man can obey God’s Laws:
Who will rescue us? How will we be rescued from this dilemma? Paul answers his own question:
Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord
We will be rescued through Jesus, through the grace of God offered through Jesus. We will be able to be free from sin not through our own efforts, no matter how hard we try to keep to the law, but by the grace of God, given to us through accepting Christ as our saviour.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t TRY and keep to the rules; Paul describes his ongoing struggle to keep the law of God, but acknowledges that his human nature stops him. But just because we’re fallen and imperfect, that mustn’t stop us from trying. God expects it of us.
We go in to each day of our lives in an ongoing struggle between our desire to keep God’s laws, and our nature to do the very opposite. But through our saviour we have been offered that little extra to tip the balance in our favour – God’s grace.
There are many days when I get up in the morning and realise the day is going to be a tough one. For me, the urge to rebel coincides with the times the chips are down. On those days, my prayers often include:
“Lord, give me a portion of your grace to help me through this day; and maybe a bit extra as well.”
It’s in our nature to rebel; it’s in God’s nature to have delivered us from rebellion by his grace offered to us through Jesus Christ.