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Sermon for Sunday 9 July 2017

FIRST READING Zechariah 9:9-12

9Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. 11As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. 12Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.


PSALM Psalm 145:1-14

1I will exalt you, O God my King, and bless your name forever and ever. 2Every day will I bless you and praise your Name forever and ever. 3Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; there is no end to his greatness. 4One generation shall praise your works to another and shall declare your power. 5I will ponder the glorious splendor of your majesty and all your marvelous works. 6They shall speak of the might of your wondrous acts, and I will tell of your greatness. 7They shall publish the remembrance of your great goodness; they shall sing of your righteous deeds. 8The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness. 9The Lord is loving to everyone and his compassion is over all his works. 10All your works praise you, O Lord, and your faithful servants bless you. 11They make known the glory of your kingdom and speak of your power; 12That the peoples may know of your power and the glorious splendor of your kingdom. 13Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom; your dominion endures throughout all ages. 14The Lord is faithful in all his words and merciful in all his deeds.


SECOND READING Romans 7:14-25a

14For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For 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. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23but 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. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25aThanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!


GOSPEL Matthew 11:25-30

25At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”




During my internship, the associate pastor was very deliberate about the Rite of Confession and Absolution. One Sunday morning she was supplying in a different church and she asked me to go with her. As was customary, she led the congregation in the prayer of confession. She called the people to confess, reminding them of the sin within their hearts, and then all joined, in reading the prayer of confession. She then paused for the silent confession, and she kept pausing for a good long while. She believed that adequate time for “proper” reflection was needed, in order to adequately appreciate God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ. So, she would pause for an extended length of time.
In this particular case, she paused so long, that the people began to rustle as they waited for the next part of the service. For many it was awkward, and more than a few worshipers thought she had lost her place or mislaid the insert with the proper words written on it. Finally, someone was overheard to murmur, “Just hurry up and forgive us, so we can shake hands and sit down.” Temptation and the sin that can result, for many, is an uncomfortable subject: both are subjects that we find we wrestle with every day.
As many of you know, I enjoy watching reality TV shows like the Discovery channel’s Deadliest Catch. Not long ago there was another documentary that chronicled the exciting true story about the Great Tuna run of 1998. The story began with tuna running only 30 miles off Cape Cod. What made this particular run so exciting was that such a run hadn’t happened in 47 years. Even more exciting was the fact that the tuna were not only running, but they were also biting! It was a fisherman’s dream. All you needed was a sharp hook and some bait and you could haul in a bountiful catch. But that wasn’t all, a person could even make some money.
Speculation had it, that Japanese buyers would pay up to $50,000 for a nice blue fin tuna. But there was a catch: Atlantic blue fin tuna can exceed 900 pounds, which can be a problem if you’re not an expert fisherman. And not every fisherman, no matter how much they think of their abilities, is an expert. And some of these non-experts got themselves in trouble in the Great Tuna run of 1998. Tuna, I’m told, are very powerful fish. It’s easier to hook one, than it is to reel it into your boat, especially if you snag a large one. Here in was the problem that season. For many, desire and experience didn’t match up.
This was the problem on September 23rd, 1998 when so many inexperienced fishermen ignored Coast Guard warnings and headed out to sea in small boats. One such boat, the Christi Anne, a 19-footer capsized while doing battle with a tuna. Another boat, the Basic Instinct suffered the same fate. And still another boat, a 28-footer named Official Business, was totally swamped after it hooked onto a 600-pound tuna. The tuna pulled it under water.
The narrator of the story said, “These fishermen underestimated the power of the fish they were trying to catch.” This story reminds me of what temptation does to us. It takes us by surprise. It looks manageable on the surface. Only after we hook into it, do we discover its strength, and by then it’s too late. We find ourselves being pulled underwater. Through the ages millions of people have been pulled under by the power of temptation.
For a more light-hearted example, who hasn’t succumbed to the power of a delicious, moist, rich piece of chocolate cake–regardless of how hard we tried to resist it? Maybe I shouldn’t have used this particular example this close to lunch time, but it is an example to which most all of us can relate. One lady I heard about was scowling at a friend as they sat in a small cafe. “I thought you said you were counting calories,” she remarked. Her friend, who was enjoying her second slice of chocolate cake, said, “I am . . . So far today, this makes 7,750.”
Of course, dessert lovers aren’t the only ones where dieting is a constant battle. Terry the other day caught me standing on the bathroom scale, sucking in my stomach. “Ha!” she said, “That’s not going to help.” “Sure, it does,” I said. “It’s the only way I can see the numbers.” Of course, I’m making light of a problem that’s serious for a lot of folks. But I want us to be able to relate to these words from the pen of St. Paul, starting at the 20th verse: “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (Romans 7:19-25A).
I think it’s safe to say that everyone here today has battled with temptation at some point. Some of us fight this battle every day. And there are times when fighting temptation is like fighting a giant tuna. If we don’t seek God’s help, we can get quickly pulled under and we worry that we’re going to drown. It’s almost demonic how temptation works.
It’s a battle that many of us wage all our lives, not just with dieting, but with life in general. There are things we know we ought to do, but it’s a battle to motivate ourselves to do them, and there are other things that we know we shouldn’t do—they’re destructive for us–yet we go ahead and do them anyway. St. Paul cries out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” The question that keeps coming to my mind is, can there be a more relevant passage of Scripture for many of us today?
Doing good and avoiding evil is the primary battle of the human condition. It means taking control of our lives and ruling our passions. Someone once said that there are only two pains in life–the pain of discipline and the pain of regret. And then they added: “Discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.” If we could somehow discipline ourselves in all the various ways, we could have a remarkable life. But how can this be done? How can we win the battle over our own desires and actions?
Legendary management guru Tom Peters understands this problem. Most of us have a to-do list, but Peters also has what he calls a “to-don’t” list–an inventory of behaviors and practices that sap his energy, divert his focus, and should to be avoided. As Peters puts it, “What you decide not to do, is probably more important than what you decide to do.” That’s an interesting statement, “What you decide not to do, is probably more important than what you decide to do.”
How many have taken the time to make a “to-don’t” list? Surprisingly, I’ll bet you already have one in your mind. These “to-don’t” lists are part of our value system. These are things that you’ve already made up your mind that you’ll never do—lie about your neighbor, be unfaithful to your spouse, commit murder . . . no matter how out-of-control the drivers on I-85 get. However, most of us could improve our lives if we expanded that list of “to-don’ts” and put them on paper. Many of you have heard me say the following when it comes to food temptations. It’s not my will power that’s the problem, I will eat if given the chance. It’s my won’t power that gets me into trouble.
What’s interesting is that psychological studies agree with Tom Peters. They show that willpower is the single most important habit for individual success. These studies show that self-discipline, or will power, is more important than IQ, in how well students do in college. Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Self-disciplined young people spend less time distracted from their studies in activities like watching television, playing computer games and partying. They also have fewer absences from classes. Self-disciplined young people are also more likely to earn higher grades in their classes and gain admission into more selective schools.
Think about that for a moment. If you want to help a student get scholarships so they can avoid accumulating massive student loans, help them learn discipline and you’ll set them on the path of lasting success. But this isn’t just true for students. In all of life, willpower is more important to success than talent.
If you could make yourself do everything on your “to-do” list and eliminate everything that is on your “to-don’t” list you’d probably be a super-star in the office . . . or in your home . . . or in school . . . or any endeavor in life. Plato once said, “For a man to conquer himself is the first and noblest of all virtues.” The writer John Milton put it like this: “He who reigns within himself and rules his passions, desires and fears, is more than a king.” The Bible even talks about discipline when it talks about the difficulties of controlling what we say. St. James, in the third chapter of his epistle, in part says, “if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”
But how do you do it? How do we rule our passions and desires? How do we develop good discipline? Oftentimes it’s like fighting a giant tuna. How do we pull it into our boat? The truth is, no one can do it for us. It’s a battle each of us face each day. St. Paul writes, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me . . . ?” Experts tell us that establishing good habits is the key to strengthening either our will power, or our won’t power.
If we establish the right kind of habits, we won’t have to wonder what the right thing to do is, in a given situation. Doing the right thing will just come naturally. Studies by psychologists tell us that developing good habits can become our “default” behaviors so that, regardless of the situation, we’ll act in an appropriate way. Think of it as the “default” settings of a computer. For example, the default font for Microsoft Word is Calibri. So anytime you begin a document, the Calibri font will show up on your computer screen. If you want to begin your document in Times New Roman, you’ll have to reset the font.
A default behavior is your natural way of acting–particularly when you’re under stress. Think about it, some people when they’re under stress almost always get angry. Others get depressed. That’s their default behavior. That can change, of course, depending on who’s around. I find it interesting that, as a pastor, many people will use different language around me than they generally use when they get frustrated. And for some of you, thank you by the way, I appreciate that. But it’s generally short lived because as soon as I’m gone, their default behavior returns.
According to studies that have been conducted, we only have limited reservoirs of self-control. So, when we get stressed, tired, or otherwise emotionally or mentally preoccupied, our ability to will ourselves to eat properly, be polite, or any other positive behavior, wanes and we resort to ingrained or habitual behaviors. Some of these behaviors are not in our best interest. We find ourselves overeating or going on shopping sprees, for example. There are however, other behaviors that we can default to under stress that are in our best good, if we’ve established the right habits.
Researchers surveyed college students and found that when the students were tired or stressed, such as during final exams, they would default to good behaviors or bad behaviors, depending on their habits. For example, students who habitually ate a healthy breakfast every morning continued to do so through exam week, while students who routinely ate junk food ate even larger quantities of junk food through exam week. Don’t you see, whatever we’ve established as a habit, is the behavior we’ll resort to in times of stress. If we want to guard against giving in to our “to-don’ts,” the secret is to set up new healthy habits.
This was part of the secret of the success of NFL coach Tony Dungy, one of the most respected figures in professional athletics. He was famous for helping the players on his teams to form the right habits. “Champions don’t do extraordinary things,” Dungy explained. “They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.” It’s true in athletics and it’s also true in life. Create healthy habits and you will create a healthy life.
It is, of course, easier if you start when you’re young–and that’s why it’s important for parents to help their children establish positive habits, but it’s never too late. Even if it’s a simple matter of substituting an hour each day with a long walk rather than sitting in front of the TV, the more good habits we establish, the easier it will be to substitute “to-dos” for “to-don’ts.” But still, it won’t be easy. St. Paul writes, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me . . . ?”
But then he writes, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” This is to say there’s help for us in the battle. We’re not alone, just as St. Paul wasn’t alone. We have someone who will come along side us and help us with our struggle in our battle with temptation. This is why prayer is so important. Prayer isn’t simply a matter of spending a few moments every day enumerating our requests to God. Prayer is a matter of spending time each day communicating with God. When we pray, we need to give God time to speak to us. As communication experts will tell you, for information exchange to take place, you must also actively listen.
There’s a story told of a pastor named Carter Jones. Jones had a small room in the attic that he used as a place of prayer. When he was especially burdened, he would make his way up the winding staircase to that room to spend quiet moments with God. The members of his family knew that when he went to the attic room, they were not to bother him.
One day he climbed the stairs and knelt beside a chair to pray. He had hardly started when the door swung open. There stood his little girl. The moment his eyes met hers, she knew she had done wrong. She said, “Daddy, you’ve been so busy lately I haven’t seen you very much. And I just wanted to tell you that I love you.” And with that she threw her arms around her father’s neck, gave him a big hug, wheeled around, and was gone as quickly as she had come. When she was gone, Carter Jones continued in prayer. “Father,” he said, “I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t had much time for you. I just want to tell you, that I love you.”
It’s amazing how much strength we gain for our battle with temptation when we spend time every day communicating with God in prayer. Life doesn’t have to be like a constant battle to land a giant tuna. We have a Friend who wants to help us in the battle. Developing strong willpower, or won’t-power will help. Developing good habits would be even better. But spending time in God’s presence and asking for His help in the battle is the best help of all.
St. Paul reminds us in 1 Cor. 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” And in Phil 4:6-7, he writes, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

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