Sunday, March 21, 1999

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, March 21, 1999
Text: Matthew 14:42-42 and Romans 7:18

Paul talking about his selfish desires of sin: I know that my selfish desires won't let me do anything that is good. Even when I want to do right I cannot. Instead of doing what I know is right I do wrong. So if I don't do what I know is right then I am no longer the one doing these evil things, the sin that lives in me is what does them. The law has shown me that something in me keeps me from doing what I know is right. With my whole heart I agree with the law of God but in every part of me I discover something fighting against my mind and it makes me a prisoner of sin that controls everything I do. What a miserable person I am. Who will rescue me from this body that is doomed to die? Thank God, Jesus Christ will rescue me!

This past week I went into a coffee shop on Bayview, as I usually do on Fridays, and realized that the shop was full except for one huge padded chair. I realized it was at a table where a young man was already sitting so I took my coffee and asked this young man if I could sit next to him. He was clearly engrossed in a thick textbook making copious notes and underlining things within this tome. I asked a second time, "Would you mind if I sat next to you?" He looked up and said, "OK, as long as your remain quiet." He clearly did not know who I was! It is a professional inability to be quiet when you're clergy. I realized that he was engrossed in his work and I gave him a few seconds of silence then couldn't resist it and said, "May I ask what it is you are reading?" He looked over his glasses as if to say, "Oh no! I've got one of those!" But he did say, "I am preparing for my final exams and I have to defend my thesis very shortly. I have to have all my work done by tomorrow morning." I looked at all the coffee cups lined up on the table that he had drunk and I said, "That is not going to save you from the fire that is going to come." He said, "No, but it sure helps me go through it faster." He looked at me pleadingly and said, "Please be quiet and let me finish my studies." And so I did.

My mind went back to the time when a good friend and I were roommates in University in first year at Mount Alison. My friend had been a classmate in high school in New Brunswick and because we knew each other had decided to be roommates. He studied Chemical Engineering and I Political Science. My friend really struggled with the course work; no matter how hard he worked it caused him the greatest anxiety. Particularly around exam time he would roll around in his dreams screaming out formulas - most disconcerting when you're trying to sleep. He would be talking about the reaction of strong acids and weak bases, K=k6 over KW and other things like this. Finally as a Political Scientist I'd had enough of this and so I woke him up and asked him if he realized if he knew what he was doing. He said, "Oh I'm just so anxious about my exams. I am wrestling with a force that is greater than myself."

I couldn't help but think that what he was saying about his wrestling with studies is what many of us experience with the very nature of life itself. It is as if we are wrestling at times, with a force and a power greater than ourselves and sometimes that force is our very inner selves. When we wrestle with these things it is a difficult and haunting thing. It is one that can often dominate our whole lives. I think it is for that reason that I find the Scriptures so powerful. As a book of religion, a book of ideas about God, about people wrestling with God, the Bible is so winsome because it tries not to avoid these things by covering them up with plastic religiosity but shows us up for who we really are and the wrestles that each of us has. When you look at the Bible these struggles become real. From the very beginning, with the story of Adam and Eve, you have the account of a wrestle between ourselves and ourselves. Between our very sinful nature and the call of God and the divine call - the story of Adam and Eve is such a wrestle.

Recently I saw a painting by Delacroix of "Jacob Wrestling With The Angel." It is magnificent. Jacob throws himself at the Angel headfirst and then ensues a wrestle with this divine being and Jacob. Or, look at David wrestling with himself, his own anxiety over what he had done with Bathsheba and his guilt and how he was going to deal with the guilt. Such was the nature of the power in the wrestle in his own life. But there is not a more poignant example in the whole of scripture of how we wrestle with ourselves, than the great story that was read this morning, the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Gethsemane has the ability to transcend time. It had the ability to transcend the moment that Jesus faced and speaks to all of us about the very inner struggles that we face. All the more so because it was our Lord who actually went through this great event.


I want to look at wrestling with our inner selves and using the Garden of Gethsemane story as an example of how it affects our lives. The first thing that we see is the inevitability of this wrestle and struggle with ourselves.

If you look at Matthew, Mark and Luke, the synoptic gospels, they all give an example of this story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is a very powerful moment and must have had a huge impact on the disciples, probably because James, John and Peter were there. What we see Jesus going through in Gethsemane is what really is instructive here: for Jesus knows that in the next couple of days terrible things are going to befall him. He knows that the cross (or something like it) lies before him and that suffering will take place and that someone is about to betray him. So he goes to the Garden to get away from life for awhile and have a time of prayer and meditation. He takes three of the Disciples with him because he wants their comfort and love. He confides in them in one of his most passionate moments. He says, "My soul is overwhelmed, even to the point of death. Stay with me!"

What happens? James, John and Peter fall asleep and leave him on his own. In a moment of devotion he turns to his Father, falls flat on his face as any good Jew would in deference to God his Father, and then those immortal words come, "If this is possible take this cup from me." The richness of the language of that phrase, if you know the Old Testament, cannot be missed. For the cup is found in both Psalms and Jeremiah and the cup means two things: one is drowning in one's calamities. It you take the cup it means drowning in the difficulties of life or it means being consumed by the fire of God's judgement. The cup represents the fire of God's judgement. So in both these cases it talks about the overwhelming power of difficulties and sorrow. When Jesus says, "Take this cup from me," he means take the calamities and suffering, take the judgement that will be on my shoulders from me. He then comes back to the Disciples to see if they're still with him and they're not! They're still asleep. He returns and gives the prayer again, and these words are really the heart of the story. He says, "But not my will but thine be done." Not what I will, but O God, what you will. Here we see Jesus struggling with the will. The will to preserve himself, to maintain his life and avoid the sorrow but then the other - the inevitable will that the Father had was that he would suffer and die for others. So Jesus had this struggle as we do in our lives when we struggle and wrestle with the easy path and the path that we know is ultimately the divine path.

The Apostle Paul, in the passage in Romans, had a somewhat different struggle. He knew what was needed of him and what the law required, but because of his human nature he couldn't do it. He wrestled with his inner self and the will of God because, by virtue of sin, he did not feel that he could be fully obedient to the will of God and that he fell short. Here we have a person who believed and knew the will of God but because of his sinful nature could not be fully obedient to it. In either of these cases, Jesus or the Apostle Paul, we find this wrestling with the inner self, the inability to do what the Father wills, because of our own will and strength.


There are afoot within the Church and the world two pieces of false teaching that cause us not to fully understand this story. The first is that struggles are not a natural part of life. This is what I call the 'antiseptic' view of human existence, the synthetic view. Because we're human, any suffering or abnormality is somehow contrary to the nature of what life was supposed to be. We're not supposed to have abnormalities, frailties and weaknesses, but rather we're supposed to be fully human, somehow triumphant about all the things that come our way. You see that in culture and in the images that are sent to us. 'Be all that you can be, be as strong as you can be, be perfect, be complete.' Do you know how many women are struggling with the pressures in their lives to somehow be absolutely everything to all people all the time? At home, at work, church, social settings, overwhelming situations where any imperfection, weakness or inability to live up to some sort of ideal means that we somehow are imperfect. The danger is that it never causes us to wrestle with our true sinful selves. Somehow, by virtue of our own works or by our own abilities, we can transcend our natural selves. The danger is, however, that it sends a very negative message about the true nature of humanity in obedience to God.

There are two stories that illustrate this most profoundly and show that we do have to wrestle with ourselves and come to terms with our own weaknesses. One is a story of a gentleman who was a renowned legal scholar in South Africa. A man of whom I was in awe and had a great reputation for his knowledge of commercial law and the law of property. He was considered the doyen of legal scholarship in that area in that country. He was a white man (I say that in contrast to the second person) who was in his 70s. He and his wife invited me one day, because his wife attended our church, to go to their home for dinner. I was excited about seeing this man although I could never understand why I had never met him before and why he never came to church. I thought that maybe I could have some positive impact on his life by going to visit him! As I walked in the door up came this wheelchair. In the chair was a dishevelled, tiny, emaciated, crooked man. A man, I later discovered, who had cerebral palsy from birth. He was a man whose body had degenerated over the years, whose arthritis had set in, whose spine had twisted, whose speech had deteriorated, whose legs had weakened, whose arms had lost all strength. Yet, here before me in this wheelchair, was none other than one of the greatest legal scholars of our time, Trafford.

When I talked to Trafford about his life, one of the things that astounded me was the fact that when he was born his parents were so disgusted at the sight of him that they decided it was not worth their while to let him have an education. Because he was so flawed and twisted and unable to speak and walk like other children, they would put him in the park in the early part of the morning and leave him there all day, sitting in his chair and pick him up in the evenings and bring him home. One day, there was a nun from one of the convents in Cape Town and she saw him sitting there. She approached him and sat beside him and made sure that, over the next few years, this person received an education. He received such an education from those nuns that he went on to become one of the greatest scholars, even a candidate for the Rhodes Scholarship, but was unable to go to Oxford because of his ill health.

In a world that glorifies perfection, the whole and complete and beautiful and powerful, a man like Trafford is an anathema. This man said to me, "It is because of the hand of God, because of the compassion of these women, that I am what I am and, despite my sinfulness and broken body, despite my crippling bones, God still had a plan for my life."

Adolph Hitler, in his writings, wanted to eliminate such people from society, could not stand looking at their suffering, have them removed, put away so we don't have to gaze on them and see the struggle of our own weakness. Yet it is precisely through that weakness that Trafford Barlow became such a magnificent exponent of human rights and took South Africa by the scruff of its neck through Apartheid.

The second person was a man named Denton from Mamelodi. He was a young, 21 year old black man and a member of the African National Congress. When I met him in 1979, we were both in our early 20s but he was unique because he was part of an elite group within the African National Congress that lived underground in South Africa. One of the jobs that he had was to put other young men on trial who were betraying the cause of the African National Congress by working with the South African government. Denton was part of a trial group and one of the ways of dealing with young men who would wander from the path was to put a tire around their neck and fill that tire with gasoline and chain the tire to their hands and feet and light it thus killing the victim. It is called necklacing. ( Only through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has this really come out over the last two or three years. )

Denton went one day to perform one such execution of a young man. The young man's back was turned to him. They heard the charges against him and Denton was given the job of lighting the match. When the young man finally turned around, Denton realized it was his cousin. For a moment of sheer agony Denton didn't know what to do. Finally, he walked over to his fellow executioners and said, "I want to do a deal with you. I want to wear the necklace if you will let my cousin go free; he's only a young boy and he doesn't know what he has done." They put the rubber tire on his neck and they chained it to his hands and feet. Denton said to me, and has said to young people ever since in the ministry that he has had in the Methodist Church over the years in South Africa, "For the first time in my life I understood what the cross was all about. I understood the dilemma of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane when they were about to put the match to that collar. I understood what the cross meant for the first time. I would have to stand there for the sins and weakness of somebody else." As they were about to strike the match the young men were so overwhelmed by his sacrifice that they declared Denton and his cousin innocent and walked away.

Sometimes, in the wrestles of life, God throws us into the midst of making difficult decisions just as he threw his son into the midst of the most difficult decision to stand where we cannot stand, to be what we cannot be. But if we somehow deny that these wrestles of life are a natural part of it then we deny the very sacrifice that Christ made for us.


The second lie is that faith takes away all the struggles of life. You hear these platitudes all the time. I hear people talking about victory in Christ. I say, "Absolutely, Amen, yes, victory through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ!" But what they're talking about is somehow victory over every little thing that might be in our lives. They claim complete and absolute victory in this life over our sinfulness so that we no longer struggle with everything. This was never the case. Sometimes faith actually causes us to take on difficulties, to bear the cross. "Greater love hath no man than this," said Jesus "that he laid down his life for his friends. If you wish to be my disciple you must take this cross upon yourself." It is not so simple then to say that we just have victory which causes us to rise above everything. It is the victory of Christ that causes us to go right into the depths of life's problems, to deal with the most difficult people in society and most difficult situations.

This past week I watched the movie Schindler's List and couldn't sleep that night. I turned to Dietrich Bonheoffer. He was someone who wrestled with whether or not he should put Hitler to death. He says in his heart and will that you shouldn't kill somebody and yet when you see someone murdering Jews and destroying his nation and throwing the country into the chaos of war, what else could he do? He was torn between two wrongs - between the wrong of killing and the wrong of allowing others to be killed. He wrote that when he faced that kind of dilemma he had to ask 'what is faith?' He came to this conclusion:

I'm discovering, right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself whether it be a saint, a converted sinner or a righteous person, or an unrighteous person or to be a sick person or a healthy person. By this worldliness, I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities for in so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously not our own sufferings but those of God in the world, watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith. That is metanoia. That is how one becomes a person and how one becomes a Christian.

God does not say to us, "There are no difficulties. You can avoid all the complexities of life, all the moral dilemmas." Rather what Christ says to us is, "I am with you even in the midst of this. Come and kneel with me."

What then, is the solution to all this? What does Jesus say about all this? If we are in a struggle between our sinful nature and our spiritual selves, if we're in a struggle between the flesh and the spirit, if we're in a struggle between what we know is right and the fact that we don't do it, even if we struggle between the easy way and what is the will of the Father, what, then, do we do? What do we do when our wills are fallen and lead us in tough directions?

There is a story of a farmer who wanted to get some life insurance. He called in an insurance salesperson and the farmer was asked by the insurance person, "Have you ever had any accidents in your life?" The farmer thought for a moment and said, "No, I haven't had any accidents in my life." The insurance salesperson said, "Are you sure?" "Well, come to think about it there was the moment when that donkey kicked me and broke five of my ribs. There was the time the rattlesnake bit me on the leg and nearly paralyzed me, and then there was the moment when the bull lifted me with his horns and threw me three feet into the air over the fence and I landed and broke my pelvis. So yes, I guess I had a few of those things." The insurance man said, "Well don't you call those accidents?" The farmer said, "Oh no! They all did that on purpose!"

Sometimes we purposely do the wrong thing and we struggle with it. It's not always a struggle between our will and the will of God, sometimes we come down clearly on our own will. How then do we deal with it?

There are three ways that Jesus gives us. The first is persistence. One prayer does not solve the whole of life and make everything clear. Jesus, three times, gave the same prayer to the Father. Three times he said, "Please take this cup of suffering." "Not my will but thine be done." Three times he says this before finally he has the peace to get up from the garden and go back down into the city of Jerusalem. Three times he implored. Sometimes we think it's all very easy and swift. But it isn't; sometimes it's hard and you have to be persistent in seeking the will of God.

Secondly you must submit. Submission is the key. It's all right to wrestle with yourself. It's all right to say to God, "This is what I will." But ultimately it must come down to 'thy will be done.' At the end of it all, the goal should be obedience, the goal should be falling on your knees and saying as Jesus did, "Not my will but thine be done." Don't give up, but do submit.

Thirdly, we need to comfort one another. Far too often I hear Christians quick to judge the weakness and sins of others, quick to point a finger, quick to see the abnormalities and inconsistencies in others. Jesus knew that when he was there in his moment of trial he needed others to bow down with him on their knees and to pray. But, oh no, they fell asleep and left him on his own. We leave too many people on their own and, rather than standing in judgement when people have struggles, we should be on our knees next to them pleading with that person, 'not my will but thine be done.' For when we get on our knees with others and with Christ, then the struggle changes and we can submit with the grace of Christ.

Let us do that with one another and with ourselves and with the world this Lent. Never let it be said that it is our will but always God's will that be done. Amen.