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Worship and Sermons
July 5, 2020

“Sanctification: An Old Struggle” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, July 5, 2020, Year A / 6th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9) – Zechariah 9:9-12 and Psalm 145:8-14  •  Romans 7:15-25a  •  Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

THEME:  Take our sin seriously and trust God to deal with it in order to better appreciate his grace, which helps us become more like Christ.


Do any of you enjoy horror movies?  I confess I am not a huge fan of the modern version of slasher movies.  But I do like the old classics. 

That goes all the way back to my childhood when I would watch black-and-white reruns of Bela Legosi as Dracula, Lon Chaney as The Wolf Man and the Mummy.  And the scariest movie of them all:  Boris Karloff as the monster in Frankenstein.

What many people don’t realize is that Frankenstein the movie is based on a famous 19th century novel by Mary Shelley, wife of the great English poet Percy Bisshe Shelley.  It was published in 1818 when she was just 21 years old.  It was an instant best seller.

The protagonist is, of course, the young scientist, Victor Frankenstein.  After a blissful childhood, Victor’s mother dies just before he enters the University of Ingolstadt to study biology and chemistry. 

Still grieving his mother’s death, young Herr Frankenstein becomes obsessed with discovering the secret of life itself.  After several years of research, he comes to believe he has found it.

So begins his horrific and tragic experiment to create a human-like being from the body parts of cadavers.  Mary Shelley simply calls his creation “the creature”.  Others call him a fiend and a monster.

In creating the Monster, Victor is motivated by noble, altruistic ambition.  He could hardly have better intentions.  His goal, he says, is to “create and renew life.”  

It’s clear that Victor intends to do this all by himself.  He’s going it alone.  He doesn’t admit it to himself, but he’s playing God.  And even the creature can see that.  Speaking to his creator, the monster says, “I ought to be your Adam.” 

The problem is that Victor Frankenstein is not God.  And soon enough, his noble ambition and life-giving intentions lead to devastation and death for all concerned.  The moral of the story is that, not only is the road to hell paved with good intentions, but only God can bring life out of death.

That is exactly the point Paul is making as he discusses the problem of human sin in his letter to the house churches in Rome. 

Paul shifts gears here in a dramatic way, but his topic remains the same.  He’s describing the Christian life and what theologians call Sanctification, which is a fancy way of saying how we grow more and more like Christ.

Over the last few weeks he’s talked about dying to sin and becoming alive in Christ.  Then, last week, he used the unorthodox metaphor of slavery to urge the Roman Christians to enslave themselves to God through Jesus Christ.

We, like them, come to understand that what Paul means is refusing to submit to the slavery of sin and, instead, committing ourselves to serving God’s purposes, with the Spirit’s help.

This morning, Paul explores the shocking power of sin to pervert even the best of intentions, so that the end result of our actions is too often the very opposite of the good we hope to achieve. 

He does this with a sort of soliloquy.  It’s a dramatic monologue that illustrates his own experience with the pervasive nature of sin and its power to overcome even our strongest urge to do good.

“I can will what is right, but I cannot do it,” he says.  As a result, he does the very thing he hates.  It’s as if there’s a war going on within himself.  And sin is winning. 

Paul is a Jew, and he delights in God’s law and its ethical commands.  But then he reflects on what he actually does.  It’s as if he’s standing apart from himself, having an out of body experience.  He witnesses another law, the law of sin, hijack his words and his actions.

We may be tempted to write this off as Paul being melodramatic.  But let’s put ourselves in Paul’s shoes for just a moment.  I think we will see how right he is to call himself wretched.

Paul is not just any old Jew.  Paul was trained in the law by one of the foremost rabbis of his day, Gamaliel, a pharisee and Doctor of the Jewish Law renowned throughout the ancient world.  Learning about the law from Gamaliel is the equivalent of getting a PhD from Harvard and having the world’s foremost expert in your field as your thesis advisor.

So, Paul knew what it meant to try with all his might to keep the law.  That’s how he also knew it was not possible. 

And if you or I have ever seriously tried to change ourselves by following Christ’s commandments closely, then we, too, will know that failure is inevitable. 

How many times have we all looked back on our behavior as if we, too, were having an out-of-body experience.  Just like Paul, we engage in our own internal dramatic monologue as we play back the events of the day.  From time to time, this is what mine sounds like:

“Ugh, there I go letting my anger get the better of me again, when I tried so hard not to take out my frustration and stress on the people I love.  There’s that old demon lust again, rearing its ugly head.  Oh – and there’s greed and ambition in all their self-serving glory, when I swore to myself and God I would make decisions based solely on his will.”  And so on, and so on.

What about you?  What does your inner monologue sound like?

Whatever the specifics are, the conclusion is probably the same as mine.  We simply cannot overcome sin and its dire consequences through our own ability.

But that doesn’t stop us from trying, does it? 

Deeply ingrained in our American culture is an ethos of individualism, self-sufficiency and self-determination.  No doubt it stems from the earliest English settlers.  

It was the driving force behind the increasing tide of independence fervor that swept through colonial America, culminating in the Declaration of Independence that we celebrate this weekend.

Then in the early 1800s, it became a movement.  At the same moment Mary Shelley was writing her famous novel Frankenstein over in England, a number of prominent New England Unitarians gave birth to the movement we call Transcendentalism. 

The leader of that movement was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was an ordained Unitarian minister.  He left the church to become a writer and public speaker. 

He and his fellow intellectuals rejected the pervasive and dangerous nature of human sin that was an essential tenet of orthodox Calvinism.  They also rejected the fully divine nature of Jesus Christ and our need for God’s grace.  

Instead, they stressed that each individual must have a unique relationship to the universe.  And it is up to each individual to search that out.  When they do, so the transcendentalists believed, they would become more and more God-like.

Emerson put it best in his most famous essay, “Self-Reliance.” He wrote, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.  Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. . . No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.  Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.” 

What do you think Paul would say about that? 

That’s a far cry from what he tells the Roman Christians.  For Paul, sin is a force of evil to be reckoned with, to be scrutinized and resisted.  But the harder we try to do that, the more we realize our own efforts alone are futile.  Only God can deal with sin and free us from its impact.

And, for Paul, that is cause for great rejoicing.  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” he says.  You can hear the joy in his written words.

That is exactly the right response to God’s grace.  The more atuned we are to our own sin, the more grateful we will be for God’s grace.  Or as the Presbyterian Pastor and author, Tim Keller, puts it,

“The more you see your own flaws and sins, the more precious, electrifying, and amazing God’s grace appears to you.”

And that experience of God’s grace is how we grow to love one another better.

As Jesus tells Simon the pharisee in the parable of the two debtors, the one who is forgiven much, loves much.  The one who is forgiven little, loves little.

How have we experienced forgiveness and God's grace?  

Do we take the time to reflect on how, where and against whom we have sinned?  Praying the Examen prayer at the end of the day is a great way to do that.

The purpose is not to wallow in fear and self-loathing.  No – the point is to understand better what trespasses God has forgiven us. Understanding the extent of his grace, we can celebrate along with Paul the deliverance that Jesus makes possible for us. 

And that’s how we become more like Christ.  Our gratitude will grow, as our love for him gets stronger.  And our love for one another will increase accordingly.

Friends, God’s grace is always greater than our sins.  And that sets us free – free to love.

What better time to celebrate that liberating grace than this Independence Day. 

So, in the end, the greatest struggle we face is not overcoming our own sin, but trusting that God can. 

And he’s the only one who can.

May it be so.

Last Published: July 6, 2020 10:25 AM
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