This sermon was preached for Notting Hill Methodist Church on Sunday, July 5th, 2020. We are still meeting on Zoom and posting the service on YouTube afterward, so if you want to watch me actually give this sermon live you can look for us on there! I'm guessing this will be a feature of most, if not all, of church going forward.
Here in the UK we might get to start meeting in person soon. The government has allowed churches to reconvene with strict protocols in place to keep people safe. I'm guessing it will be at least a few weeks before we feel ready to gather in person.
They say the first step to solving any problem is first admitting that you have one. So here I am, admitting one of the biggest continuous problems in my life: I am a procrastinator. For as long as I can remember, I have waited until the last minute to do things. In school, I would almost never study for an exam until the last possible moments - often on the bus ride to school in the morning or even while walking down the hallway to my next class. Almost every paper I ever turned in was written the night before it was due. I managed to get good grades operating this way, so I never really felt like I needed to change.
As I grew up and eventually entered the world of professional ministry, my procrastination habit started to get worse. Writing a sermon is like having to write a 5-page paper - and you don’t just turn it into the teacher, you have to read it out loud to a whole bunch of people. Now, the first church I served had a Saturday night service, so at least I was never up late on a Saturday night finishing a sermon. I will admit, though, that sometimes I was starting that sermon around noon on Saturday and finishing up about 20 minutes before the service started. But I was an associate minister so I only had to do this about once a month, and I generally got good feedback on my sermons so I never really felt like I needed to change.
Then I began work as a chaplain in a retirement community where I had to lead and preach in worship every Sunday morning. I decided that I was going to try to kick my procrastination habit once and for all - through sheer power of will, and that worked - for a time. For a while, I disciplined myself into writing my sermons and having them finished before I went home on Thursdays.
However, as time went on, my procrastination habit started creeping in again. I found myself waiting to write sermons until late on Saturday nights. And then, for longer than I care to admit, I pushed it even further and got in the habit of writing my sermons around 6:30 on Sunday morning. This was obviously a terrible habit - it made my weekends less enjoyable, I never slept well on Saturday nights, and I clearly wasn’t giving my best to God or my congregation by doing such last-minute work.
But I struggled with exactly the same problem that Paul names in our reading from Romans today. I knew what I should be doing (writing my sermons earlier) and I wanted to do the right thing (by not procrastinating) but I found myself constantly and consistently doing the wrong thing anyway. As Paul wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
I suspect that many, if not most, of you, can relate to this, too, and at least one area of your life. It is a universal human struggle - we know the right thing to do, but we do the wrong thing anyway. For me, it’s procrastination. For someone else, it might be a struggle with gossip, or alcohol, or spending too much money, or bad eating habits. So often when we have a problem we not only know exactly what it is and we even know exactly what actions we could take to fix it, but we just….don’t.
In The Message translation of this scripture from Romans, Paul’s words become even more relatable: “If the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.”
Here, Paul is taking that first step to solving the problem - admitting that he has one. He recognizes that he does not have what it takes to solve this problem by himself. He can see the process that is broken inside him - the disconnect between what he wants to do (follow God’s law) and what he actually does (not follow God’s law.)
Paul names this disconnect as the power of sin.
When we think about the disconnects in our own lives - between the good we want to do and the bad we actually do, what would you say causes that disconnect for you? Would you name it as sin?
For me and my procrastination problem, I’d be more likely to name it as laziness on my part. Lack of discipline. Just plain stubbornness, sometimes. Perhaps even a secret part of me that likes the thrill of wondering whether or not something will get done on time - the jolts of adrenaline that come with the last second rush and the ultimate wave of relief when the thing does indeed get done.
But as I think more about this passage, I wonder if it is an aspect of sin.
The best definition of sin I’ve ever come across defined sin as “anything that separates us from God.”
Is my procrastination habit something that separates me from God? Maybe it is. It’s a habit that wastes time - the precious time that God gives us on this earth. It’s a habit that can lead me to spend more time doing things that aren’t focused on God rather than sitting in God’s word and listening to the Spirit. Ultimately, it’s a habit that makes me a lesser version of myself, that allows me to be less than who God fully calls me to be.
When we blame our disconnects on our own laziness or inherent flaws we usually just blame ourselves for our lack of discipline and ability to overcome the problems on our own. This reframing from Paul - that our inability to do what we know is right is due to sin dwelling within us - should give us hope - because not only does it identify the problem, it gives us the solution.
In The Message translation Paul goes on to say this: “I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.”
God knows that we will struggle in this life. God knows that we will wrestle with sin and that we won’t always do the good we want to do and we will sometimes do the evil we don’t want to do. Jesus came not only to show us the way, the truth and the life - the good that we ought to do, but to rescue us from our own sinful natures, to give us a way to live into that good.
In the Gospel passage from Matthew, Jesus says this, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
When we try to struggle through this life all on our own - we will be weary and burdened. When we try to fix all of our problems, our faults, and our flaws through our own sheer power of will, we will find ourselves not only failing - falling prey to that disconnect over and over again, but we will find ourselves exhausted in the process. And then we sit, disconnected from God, spending time in “sin’s prison,” as Paul wrote, and berating ourselves for falling short.
But the good news of Jesus Christ is that the disconnect is not where we have to stay. Jesus has come to save us from ourselves. We have to be willing to admit that we have the problem - and we have to be willing to turn to Jesus to be our solution.
As followers of Christ, we must be able to admit that we cannot do this on our own. We must be able to admit that by ourselves, we will always fall short of the glory of God - that if we try to make it on our own, the disconnect between what we want to do and what we actually do will always be there - because if we cannot admit to the power that sin has over our lives then we cannot repent of that sin.
It’s hard to admit that we are powerless. It’s hard to ask for help. But once we do, Jesus is there for us. Jesus is there with his gentle and humble heart and will give rest to our weary souls. Jesus will free us from the prison of sin and give us a new life to live, with a yoke that is easier and a burden that is lighter than the ones we bore before - because we will no longer carry them on our own, but with Christ.
Turning to Christ with our problems and our disconnects is not a magic solution. Work is still required on our part - not the least of which is to consistently ask Jesus to be with us in our struggles.
My procrastination problem doesn’t automatically go away when I turn to Jesus for help. But when I turn my focus from berating myself for doing wrong to asking Christ for the strength to do right, it’s a step in the right direction. I mean, here I am, having written this sermon on a Friday night instead of Saturday night, so that’s something, right?
The next time you find yourself struggling with the disconnect between what you want to do and what you actually do - remember these words from Paul - and remember to turn to Jesus to ask for help. Remember to go to Christ and lay your burdens at his feet, and then to pick up the yoke of Christ instead.
For we are all weary and heavy burdened, but we can all find freedom in Christ, if only we turn to him and ask.