"The Knowing Better
I asked my doctor for a ninety day suspended sentence a few days ago. He had been warning me for some time that I was borderline diabetic and that if I did not increase my exercise and decrease my eating, I would wind up having to take medication. "On the other hand," he said, "If you can discipline yourself, it is likely that you can handle this on your own.
Now I knew my doctor was right at the time and if intellectual knowledge translated directly into intelligent action, I would certainly have avoided what he said during my last visit. "Well, it seems your sugar is still just a bit high. I think we might consider medication." That's when I went for the suspended sentence. "How about, letting me take another shot at this and come back in ninety days for more blood work. If I don't get the weight and sugar readings down, then I take the pills."
You see, I know better.
The doctor agreed, but I think I saw the tiniest smirk on his face that betrayed a doubtful attitude toward my good intentions. "I'll show him," I thought to myself with firm commitment, "...I know what I need to do!" Then came the line from Paul's words to the Romans, "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?"
What a gap there is between knowledge of what is good and the ability to act on that knowledge! I call this the "Knowing Better Syndrome."
I would wager that every person here today can relate to this syndrome in a very personal way in at least one of the following statements.
No matter what the circumstances in our individual lives may be, all of us have in one way or another struggled with these realities of living. The "Knowing Better Syndrome" can be defined as the fact that even when we know something is absolutely right and good - doing what is absolutely right and good frequently lies beyond our ability to accomplish.
One of the dimensions in today's reading is this struggle between knowledge and action. Paul says clearly that he believes the law of God (most clearly expressed in the Ten Commandments) is a good thing. Yet, he finds himself unable to conduct his life 100% in accordance with those commandments. Knowing and doing are worlds apart.
There is another, slightly different angle to this text. Paul is somewhat baffled by this inner struggle. We can relate to Paul when we find ourselves saying things like, "I don't know why I did that!" "I don't understand myself sometimes!"
One of the clearest examples of this is when people struggle with addiction. Has there ever been anyone who wanted their children to start smoking? Personally, I know what it is like to want to quit smoking, but getting the job done was amazingly difficult. You go through things like, "I want to stop... I know it is the right thing to stop..." Paul expresses this struggle with something like, "I know what is good and I want to do what is good... something in me compels me to do what is wrong... there is a war inside of me!"
Paul affirms that deep within he really wants to live the way God wants him to live, but his "flesh" (earthy self) is in bondage to sin. His problem is our problem. It is one of the basic facts of the human condition -- we are conflicted and the classic struggle between what is good and what is wrong is not simply an abstract intellectual debate, but an inner, personal struggle.
So how do we make the connection between knowing what is right and doing what is right? Any visit to the magazine rack of any grocery store screams answers. "How to lose 100 pounds in three days!" "Have an athlete's body in six weeks!" These magazines with their "fix your life in no time," articles sell like hot cakes. You can catch all the latest and most bizarre scandals of the day right along side the magic secrets to all your "Knowing Better Syndrome" problems!
In fact, there is no such thing as a quick fix program that will close the gap between knowing what is good and right and doing what is good and right.
So is it hopeless to try and bring our knowing and doing together? Is there any way to develop a Christian lifestyle that will give us the ability to navigate the rough waters of the "Knowing Better Syndrome?"
Let's pick it up with Paul's final question and his concluding affirmation. It is interesting that Paul asks who will set him free -- not what will set him free. It is not a program that will bring resolution, but rather a person. Listen again:
Paul is not left to his own conflicted devices to line up his living with his knowing. The vicious cycle of trying harder, falling harder, trying still harder and falling still harder was broken by his faith in Jesus Christ.
Faith in Christ is not an intellectual exercise, but a response of the whole person. It is a living, interactive relationship in which Christ leads, guides and strengthens his followers. This was a promise Jesus made to his followers during his last earthly night with them. They were confused and distraught that he was leaving and he said, "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you." [John 14:18] He went on to tell them about the Holy Spirit who would come to them and be for them within what Jesus had been for them in the flesh. The Holy Spirit of God who is active within our lives brings strength, insight and hope for accomplishing what is good and right.¹
When we come to terms with our inability to bring about the good and right, we are more open to hearing the good news of the gospel. Paul hits the wall when he cries out, "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" And it is precisely at this point that he encounters the good news. It will happen through, "Jesus Christ our Lord."
For me, this applies to the directions of my physician about my encounter with diabetes. I am literally wondering, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" For you, it could be the same struggle, but likely it is another. The same answer applies. We can bring some resolution to the conflict of the "Knowing Better Syndrome" as we turn to the one who can actually make a difference and bring about the inner change that leads us to hopeful, joy filled living.
Let us pray:
¹The lectionary readings for the remainder of July offer an opportunity to pursue this discussion further by exploring the complete eighth chapter of Romans. We will offer a few notes for this in succeeding weeks under comments on the epistle readings. Essentially, you could use this week's full text sermon followed by three weeks that will deal with the Premise, the Practice, and the Promise of the Christian life.
Connections in the Texts
All of the lectionary texts for today point to the issue of knowing God -- or revelation. In Matthew, people don't know what they want. Neither John's strictness nor Jesus' availability please the people. They are not open to God in either case. Zechariah talks about the Messiah who comes "humble" and "riding on a donkey" -- not what people expect of their Messiah. Paul's discussion of his struggle with sin seems unrelated -- except that it raises the issue of how even Paul can not come up with a rational explanation for the spiritual struggle between sin and righteousness. The "slave to the law of sin" may speak to the issue of why revelation is so powerfully resisted. The Psalm comes in finally to say that those who do know the Lord will, "speak of the glory of your kingdom, and tell of your power."
The rest Jesus promises to those who come to him is paralleled by the Psalmist's, "The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down."
Matthew 11:16-19 & 25-30
This is one of those selections in the lectionary readings that makes me want to say, "What were they thinking." The verses on judgment are an integral part of the whole theme of Knowing God. There are consequences to turning away from the Lord of Life, just as there are benefits when we turn toward God.
There is an especially powerful point to be made in the "judgment" words. They are directed at those who would consider themselves spiritually fit. Yet, they are the ones who resist God. "The pagans," Jesus says, "Would have turned to God long ago if they had the opportunities to know God that you have." Pressing the theme a bit -- Jesus is addressing people who in our generation might be counselors at a Billy Graham Crusade, or in the mainline churches, perhaps teach in confirmation programs or serve as lectors. I am recalling a man who was an active deacon in his church. He spoke frequently about how great his church was and how unspiritual other people were. He decried the "moral collapse" of our time. He was arrested for selling fraudulent investments to elderly people in his church. They lost their money.
Jesus is not necessarily addressing "bad" people -- they simply have developed spiritual calluses that turn into resistance of God's Spirit. They have begun to take for granted their relationship with God and assume they are high on God's list of the "good guys." Jesus' words should call all of us to attention.
God chooses to reveal spiritual truth to "infants". As noted in the sermon above, this points to surrender. An infant can not, in fact, do anything for itself. The infant is dependent on others as the child of God is dependent upon God's gracious care. It is the dependent attitude of the infant that comes willingly to Christ for "rest."
This is Paul's classic passage on his inner struggle with sin. Our listeners might understand it in terms of their own struggles when they find themselves exclaiming things like, "I don't know why I did that!" "I don't understand myself sometimes!"
One of the clearest analogies is struggle with addiction. "I want to stop... I know it is the right thing to stop... I know what is good and I want to do what is good... something in me compels me to do what is wrong... there is a war inside of me!"
Paul affirms that deep within he really wants to do God's will, but his "flesh" (earthy self) is in bondage to sin. His problem is the human condition -- we are conflicted and the classic struggle between good and evil is not simply an abstract intellectual debate, but an inner, personal struggle.
Paul's recognition of the impossible conflict within leads him to cry out for redemption. Or... is this a rhetorical question in an abstract discussion? Some believe Paul is personalizing a universal principle. Others see here a glimpse into the inner life of the apostle. We hold that this is Paul's personal struggle and that it's place in scripture is secured by the fact that it speaks to all of us. St. Augustine's Confessions and Luther's works point to similar inner struggles. It is finally, Christ who will set him free.
This is the passage we encountered in the Psalm Sunday Gospel. (Mt. 21:1-11) Matthew quoted Zechariah's words as fulfillment of a messianic promise. The reading today, in conjunction with the other lectionary texts, speaks more to the issue of revelation. This is messiah who comes -- "triumphant and victorious" -- but that's not all -- he is also "humble and riding on a donkey..." Everything in the passage with the exception of these words fits with standard messianic expectation. But "humble and riding on a donkey?" -- only the "infant" to whom God is made known could hear such a thing.
In Revelation (19:11) the one who is called "Faithful and True" comes with fire in his eyes, crowns on his head and vanquishes evil. No humble donkey rider there! As well as the contemporary application, there is an eschatological tension in all the readings. Judgment in Matthew, deliverance in Romans and messianic peace in Zechariah.
The Psalm is a kind of a benediction on the whole of the readings. "Through it all" the kingdom of the Lord is everlasting and will finally prevail. The people of God will "make known" (be instruments of God's revelation) the "splendor of your kingdom."
A Call To Worship
(From Psalm 145)
A Prayer of Confession
Holy and merciful God, in your presence we confess our sinfulness, our shortcomings, and our offences against you. You alone know how often we have wandered from your ways, wasted your gifts and forgotten your love. Have mercy upon us, O Lord, for we are ashamed of our sins and sorry for all we have done to displease you. Forgive us our sins, and help us to live in your light and walk in your ways, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
Brothers and sisters in Christ, the Word of God declares that anyone who is in Christ is a new creature and that all things are made new in him. Receive the good news that in Christ we are forgiven. Amen.
A Prayer of Thanksgiving
Glory be to You, O God everlasting, who sent Your only-begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. Glory be to You, O Lord Jesus Christ, who has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel. Glory be to You, O Holy Spirit, who quickens us together with Christ, and sheds abroad His love in our hearts. Blessed be You, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God; and blessed be Your glorious name for ever. Amen.
A Prayer of