Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday After Trinity

I preached the following sermon today during Morning Prayer.  You have been warned.

The Struggle: The Good Fight

Today one often hears from pulpits, particularly television pulpits, sermons stating that you can do anything you set your mind to do and have everything you want in life.  You can do it if you just have enough faith (and send a contribution to P. O. Box…)!

This is not one of those sermons.  Yes, God can and does use his people for remarkable things even beyond what we can imagine.  And God is a gracious and generous provider indeed.  But, at the same time, the Christian life involves endurance, struggle, and discipline.  You may not hear that on T.V. but you will hear that from scripture particularly from Hebrews chapter 12 read this morning.

By the way, Hebrews 12:1 was a favorite verse of mine as a High School distance runner.  I took “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” very literally.

However I admit that I did not like verse 4 quite as much.  You may remember that reads, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.”  I preferred to stick to distance running.

But the Christian life is to be a struggle against sin and a struggle for what is good and right.  Even St. Paul struggled against sin in his life as he confessed in Romans chapter 7.  He said he desired to do what is right, but he struggled with inward temptation and sin that wanted to do what is not right.  And often he found himself doing wrongful things he did not want to do.  If St. Paul had to struggle, I suspect we all have to struggle.

So what do we do as we struggle against the wrong and for the right and somehow run with endurance this race of life that is set before us?  Well, it so happens that a major theme in the readings of this long Trinity season is striving to live as disciples of Christ.  But that is a matter for several sermons, and I do not wish to add to your struggle by attempting to summarize this theme.

But I do wish to make two observations about the struggle of the Christian life.  These two points are simple, although you may not ever see them on television.

First, we are to struggle well.  We are to run with endurance the race of life that is set before us.  We are to fight even.

Now “fight” is a strong word! I would not venture to use such strong language except that St. Paul uses it.  Something I recently noticed – by the way, a big reason to keep studying the Bible is you will notice gems of truth you did not notice before even in passages you’ve read many times before – as I was saying, something I recently noticed is that in his first letter to Timothy, towards the end, Paul exhorts Timothy:

O man of God . . . Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

That’s better than Braveheart!  So in 1st Timothy, Paul exhorts Timothy to fight the good fight of the faith.  In 2nd Timothy, near the end of his life, Paul states:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

In 1st Timothy, Paul exhorts, “Fight the good fight of the faith.”  In 2nd Timothy as he nears the end of his race of life, he says, “I have fought the good fight.”

So, yes, we are to struggle; we are to fight against sin and for what is right, for Jesus Christ, for his Holy Gospel, and for his kingdom.

But, second, we are not to fight alone - thanks be to God.  Numerous Bible passages testify to this.  At the beginning of the famous passage about the armour of God in Ephesians 6, St. Paul exhorts, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.”  Psalm 46 proclaims, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”  This psalm further emphasizes the strong presence of God by twice saying, “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”  And note how Jesus concluded The Great Commission at the conclusion of the Gospel of St. Matthew:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

We are to trust in our omnipotent and ever present Lord Jesus to help us to struggle and to fight well, to fulfill his Great Commission, to run with endurance the race that is set before us.

The collect for this 9th Sunday in Trinity reflects this reliance on God to help us to live right and to run well.  In our REC prayer book and in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, it reads:

Grant to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as are right; that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

That “we… cannot do any thing that is good without thee” is a radical statement indeed.  It joins a number of other collects of Thomas Cranmer in expressing a radical dependence on God.  But the collect we have here is a revision of Cranmer’s collect.  In his first Book of Common Prayer, Cranmer wrote even more radically “that we, which cannot be without thee, may by thee be able to live according to they will, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  And this was not an invention of Cranmer.  He closely translated a Latin prayer that dates back to at least the 7th century.

Thus the original collect says not only that we cannot do anything that is good without God, but that we cannot even exist without God - and rightly so!  It is God who has created us, not we ourselves.  And it is God who has recreated us by making us new creatures with new hearts in Christ.  So Cranmer was right to express a radical dependence on God.  And that should be our attitude as well.

But that is not a passive dependence.  We are to depend on him, his help, his strength, his presence as we seek to do always such things are right, as we seek to live according to his will, as we seek to fight the good fight of the Faith, as we seek to fulfill the Great Commission, as we seek to run with endurance the race that is set before us.

Thanks be to God that he has given us such a glorious calling, such a noble task, along with his very present help and the assurance of victory in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

And now we will pray Thomas Cranmer’s original collect.  Let us pray.

Grant to us Lord we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as be rightful; that we, which cannot be without thee, may by thee be able to live according to thy will, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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