We Have No Power

SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT

People desire power. And power, is a force that needs an object: to have power, a person has to have it over something, or someone. This is the common understanding of why power is so appealing to us— to be able to control things, to change them to fit into our vision of reality. The more power, the more influence. The more influence, the more others conform to our desires. But I would like to propose an equally strong motivation for why we desire power. Yes, we desire power to control… but not necessarily to control others…  what we are truly looking to control is ourselves. The allure of self-mastery and self-rule, to “the master of my fate and the captain of my soul.” Within the  desire for power lay a desire to perfect ourselves, overcome moral trials, and justify self by our own means and for our own glory.

But, personal history most likely presents a ton of evidence which testifies  to our absolute incompetence and utter inability; but we honestly come by this weakness. Think of the Garden of Eden. The serpent put forth a proposition to the woman that she simply could not resist (and neither could her husband), And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die; for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof [of the tree of knowledge], then you eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

You will be as gods, with all their knowledge and power. You will be a god unto yourself. This inward desire resided in a physical object, a tangible created thing: fruit. The temptation of the promise of power which the woman and the man inwardly desired was visibly attractive as well, And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. The temptation to transgress God’s commandment and willfully sin came through the physical sense of sight, it was pleasant to the eyes and so very desirable. The deceiver stirred the internal thought life which could not control the appetite of the flesh. he took the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

At a minimum, Adam and Eve desired equality with God; perhaps, even desired to rule as god (the history of humanity certainly makes a strong case!) The first ‘power struggle’ between humanity and their creator in recorded history. But as important, Genesis chapter three records the first power struggle within the self, between flesh and the spirit, between the lust of the eyes and desires of the heart. The result: alienation and autonomy… a deadly autonomy. They were separated from God; separated from each other; from the animals and from the very creation itself. The man alone. The woman alone. Naked in the world, vulnerable to the dangers of external threats, and inwardly, suffering from guilt and shame.

We moderns live in the age of ‘psychology’ which is quick to assign  moral struggles and personal battles naively to the inward land of the psyche; or the heart. Our confused meta-physic has either disregarded or ignored the real dangers associated with the senses, from created things that catch the eye, or please the palate. Perhaps latent gnosticism renders the physical, the sensual, the allures of the flesh to the land of inconsequence. But Christianity understands the senses to be the windows and doors by which unholy desire and concupiscence within the soul bears the fruit of vice. We don’t simply have ‘bad hearts’, we also have a body, with its own insatiable desires and needs. We are susceptible, says our Prayer Book to temptations from the Devil, the world AND the flesh. St. Paul was a man who clearly understood this, For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would (Gal 5:17).

And so the Apostle in his epistle today exhorts us with a solemn warning against the sins of the flesh, a frequent warning he gives in almost everyone of his New Testament epistles. “We exhort you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more.” What loving earnestness we find in his opening words--he beseeches, he exhorts as speaking in the Name and by the authority of the Lord Jesus who calls his disciples unto holiness and purity of life. In fact, Jesus himself teaches us to do so with everything we have and at whatever the cost,

And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell (Mt 5:28-29).

Now, Jesus isn’t literally telling us to disfigure ourselves but he is making a strong statement on just how serious and the measures we should be willing to take in the battle against the flesh. For the world is full of good created things which in our fallen state we can so easily abuse, “"For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world” (1 Jn 2:16). In other words, created things in and of themselves aren’t necessarily the problem, it is the worldly residue of lust which lurks in the hearts of those being perfected. Therefore, we must never rest in the pursuit of holiness, but "abound more and more."

For to those who have received such a great salvation comes the command to walk (both in body and soul) in a manner which pleases the One who is the author of salvation: having been taught of Christ to pursue holiness we must never be put aside what we have learned. Now, from St. Paul’s epistle I would like to point out two important consequences from sensual sins. Turning again to our Epistle, verse two,

For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God...

Friends, our heavenly Father desires for His children to attain unto holiness:  as the Apostle says, “this is the will of God.” He lovingly desires to bring many sons and daughters into his heavenly abode, to dwell in the eternal mansion and feast at his table forever and ever. He will, therefore, give us the help we need to carry out His commands. As image-bearers, humanity reflects their creator as embodied souls, the soul inseparably dwelling in the form and beauty of the physical body, and this is not our own but is the property and artistry of its maker.

Therefore, each individual Christian is entrusted by God with his or her body as a "vessel" or instrument to be used for the Giver, and every individual must, therefore, learn how to "possess" or acquire mastery over that instrument, to keep it clean, to regard it with honour, and not debase it as Gentiles might who had never learned the intention of their Creator.  Sensual sins, in the first place, cause us to sin against our bodies is to sin against ourselves. This is the first consequence of sinning in the flesh, whereby stirring a tempest of guilt, shame, and self-loathing within the soul.

Continuing in verse six,

That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified. For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness. He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit.

First let us understand to what the Apostle is referring to when he write when we read “That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter.”  “he matter," (not “in any manner”) but ‘the manner’ of which he is speaking. S. Paul is not exhorting us against dishonesty, but showing that dishonesty is impurity. And he’s specifically talking about impure family relations, about being dishonest with brothers and sisters in the church. Dishonesty in the Christian oikos is a fraud on family life, a robbery of the peace and life of homes, and especially of Christian homes.  Our Lord and Master will avenge such dishonour done to the life of the family and of the Church. “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones” (Luke 17:2).

And let us remember our Lord’s warning, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me” (Mt 25:45). Sensual sins--all the sins of the flesh, in thought, word, and deed--are the worst form of selfishness.  Hence our Divine Lord takes such earthly sins into His own hands. Here the words of the prophet Isaiah, “I will punish the world for their evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; and I will cause the arrogance of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the ruthless” (Isa 13:11). Sensual sins then, are not only sins against ourselves, but grievous sins unto others. We do not sin in a vacuum.

If we’re honest, we all too often try to live out the Christian life autonomously and independent; a law unto ourselves. This drift into autonomy, the movement away from God to self, is often accompanied by an acute case of delirium brought upon by the chief of all vices:  pride. Blinded by pride we are fooled, convinced that our power is all-sufficient… sufficient enough to live in this fallen world in perfect obedience to God. Pride says “I can love God with my whole self, yes, I can love others as Christ would have me, walk in righteousness and holiness, fend off the temptations of the flesh.” We fool ourselves into thinking, “yes, I can do all this apart from the power and protection of God.” Like swine wallowing in pearls, rejecting the word of the Lord who declares, you will not succeed by might, nor by your power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.

Beloved, here is the truth: we simply do not innately possess the power necessary to protect our bodies and souls from the ravages and temptations of the eyes and the enticements of the senses. As we revel in self-reliance and autonomy (and I’m speaking of the Christian) we are as vulnerable as Eve and susceptible as Adam. The fool says in his heart, there is no God. He also is a fool who doesn’t acknowledge the reality of our Adversary, the Devil, who desires to destroy us. In the words of Martin Luther, we dwell in a fallen world, where the prince is an evil spirit and has the hearts of men in his power, doing what he will. The deceiver often begins his wicked work through God’s good creations, tantalizing our desires and appetites.

Lent calls us to a new level of sobriety. We simply do not have any power of ourselves to help ourselves. This is what we just admitted to God and to one another a few minutes ago in praying the Collect appointed for this 2nd Sunday in Lent. it is a sobering prayer, and to varying degrees, if we’re honest, it’s devastating; flying in the face of secular optimism and the triumphalism of modernity. Are we really to believe that We have no power to help ourselves??? No. We do not. We have no natural or innate power of our own to fend off the assaults of sensual temptation. We have no power to “keep ourselves unharmed both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls.”

Left to our own strength we are overrun by any and all external adversities and all to often will succumb to “evil thoughts that assault and hurt” the soul. In a one-on-one power struggle with the flesh... friends, we lose. And this is why we plead, by prayer and supplication, for Jesus Christ to exert his mighty power and defend us from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul. Our very weakness and defenselessness is our plea.  We have "no power of ourselves to help ourselves," but Christ, who knows us so very intimately, knows our weakness, sees and not only prays continually at the heavenly altar for the church, but is our sure and powerful defense in times of trial. Do not discount the power of prayer for he to whom we plead is greater than the world and all its temptations.

Apart from the power and protection of Christ, our ability to prevail against such assaults without the aid of Him by Whom the Tempter was, and is overcome is fools game. We are utterly incapable of fending off the assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil and therefore desperately need God to see and protect us. Like the Canaanite woman found in today’s Gospel reading who pleaded with Christ to be allowed to partake of the ‘children’s bread, but begged for the crumbs on the table, let us, with great humility, submit ourselves, our souls and bodies, under the mighty protection of Christ, who himself was tempted in the wilderness, and yet came out of His temptation without sin.

Only He can help us overcome the temptations of the flesh. Our hope is not in our own power but in Christ. Therefore, prepare yourselves, your souls and bodies to come to His table and strengthened in the inner man. Come to Him who is able to save to the uttermost all those who come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for us. Beloved come and enter into the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, for He alone is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen..