July 11, 2020

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Last Sunday's Sermon


"A Conundrum"                                                                                                      Romans 7:15-25


Do you like solving riddles? Maybe you're good at word puzzles. I've never been particularly good at solving riddles or puzzles, but sometimes I like to work at them. Maybe you do too? Ever heard this riddle?

I am the only thing that always tells the truth

I show off everything I see

I come in all shapes and sizes

So tell me what I must be (A mirror)


Here's one written by Albert Einstein: If you were standing on the South Pole facing north and you take one step backward, which way would you be traveling? (North, of course, since all directions from the South Pole are north) Those riddles have answers, and if you think about them long enough, you can usually come up with an answer that makes sense. But what about puzzling questions that seem to have no answers? And even when you can come up with a solution, it doesn't satisfy everyone. Those kinds of puzzles have a name: conundrums. I like saying that word: conundrum. Webster defines conundrum as "any puzzling question or problem."


Smart people love conundrums, because they think if they work on them long enough, using all their brain-power, they can come up with the answer. But then it wouldn't be a conundrum; just a problem or a puzzle. The unique feature of a conundrum is that it's genuinely unsolvable. Here is a real-life case in point that might illustrate what I mean.


There was a Presbyterian church in the middle of the process of calling a new pastor. They interviewed two candidates; we'll call them Pastor A and Pastor B. The congregation voted to call Pastor A, but the chairperson of the search committee mistakenly sent the letter of call to Pastor B. Pastor B was so happy to leave the church he was serving that he immediately resigned and wrote to the new church to tell them that he was coming. Only then did they realize that the wrong pastor had been sent the call letter.

What should they do? That was their conundrum; and a true story! Do you tell Pastor B that he wasn't really selected, and leave him now without a church? Or do you take Pastor B, knowing all the while that the search committee's choice was really Pastor A? And if so, do you tell Pastor B he was second choice? He's going to find out anyway, isn't he? It's a conundrum. There is no human answer that will satisfy everyone, no matter how determined a problem-solver you may be. Incidentally, I don't know much about the outcome of this story, but I do know that the church took Pastor B as their new pastor. And I'm fairly sure the chairperson of the search committee moved away and is a Methodist now!


In the verses from Romans that we just read, the Apostle Paul presents us with a conundrum of the first order. It has to do with sin; with living our lives in willful disobedience to God, even when we know we are doing so. Here is the way Paul says it: "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." British scholar J.B. Philips translated it this way "My own behavior baffles me, for I do not do what I want to, but I do the very thing I hate."


Paul is describing the conundrum that is his life: that there is a constant tension within himself when it comes to doing the right thing. He knows what the right choices are; he can wish to do them, he can tell them to his friends. But when it comes to doing the right thing, more often than not, he fails. And the harder he tries to obey, the more likely he is to disobey. It makes no sense to the reasonable person, but there it is.


Paul goes on to describe his frustration with this tension. First, he suggests that trying harder is the solution. If the problem is lust, just try harder not to think about those things. If the problem is anger, try harder not to be angry. If the problem is judgment and criticism, then simply refuse to be judgmental and critical. This was the position of the Jews in Paul's day. They had all the rules—612 of them—and they prided themselves in keeping every one of them. And we can do that too; for a while. For a brief period of time, we can control our desires and our thoughts and our actions, and look very, very religious. But not for long. Then we too give into them, and we fail. In one of our prayers of confession, we pray that, "we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves."


That's what Paul is saying, but there's another way. The other alternative that he identifies is to simply give in to the temptations that face us if we are bound to sin. If "it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me." (v. 17) that does it. We have no choice in the matter, so let it rip! Think those sinful thoughts, give in to those base human desires; if it feels good, do it. After all, it's not us doing it anyway – it's not our fault – it's the sin that lies within us, so we're not really responsible.


Do you see how unsatisfying both of those two roads might be? One leads to total frustration and failure, while the other leads to total resignation and corruption. Neither is acceptable; neither is viable as a way of solving this dilemma which Paul defined, when he wrote "My own behavior baffles me, for I do not do the thing I want to do, but I do the very thing that I hate." And both lead to misery, and despair...and finally...to death. And there ain't nothing we can do about it. That, my friends, is the truth about the human condition of sin.


When we were first married Jayne and I were part of a small group Bible study. We were sitting in our apartment living room, studying this very passage from Romans, and the person who was reading the scripture became more and more discouraged as she read the desperate words of Paul. You could hear the discouragement in her voice. "For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out...For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing...What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? As she was reading, I realized that she wasn't reading Paul's words, she was confessing her own. "What a wretched [person] I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?" Then she choked back tears as she read Paul's concluding sentence. "Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!"


What we cannot accomplish by our own efforts, or by our noble actions, is exactly what Jesus Christ has done through his life, death and resurrection. The conundrum that was humanly impossible to solve by any of us has been solved by grace. Gone is the frustration of not being able to do the right thing. Gone is the shame of giving in to sin. God has spoken, the dilemma has been solved, once and for all.


And that brings us, well, to us. Where are we in this present day conundrum? Are we still trying to do the right thing, to live by the rules, to meet all the expectations that we know are good? I'll bet you're frustrated, if that is you. I'll bet you're failing badly, and it has made you miserable in the process. Or are you someone who has just given in? You tried obedience, it doesn't work, so you just live any old way you want to live, and you destroy anyone and anything that gets in your way, including those you love. And you tell yourself that you will not be ashamed of anything you do; because it's not your fault; you were made that way. But at night, when you lay awake in bed, you're not so sure. And you're still miserable.


There's another way. In fact, there's "the only way." We bring our sins, and our crumpled lives to Jesus, and we tell him everything. We tell him that even when we know the right road, we often turn the wrong way. We tell him that sometimes we enjoy the sin that holds us captive, even though we know it breaks his heart. Two weeks ago we gave that a word: the word repentance. We confess to him that we are dying, and we wonder who will rescue us from this body of death. And then our Savior speaks and these are his words: "Take, eat. This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me."


Your sins, though they be like scarlet, are white as snow. You are forgiven.

The puzzling question or problem is no more. The conundrum is completely gone.

Praise be to God! Amen.

(Thanks to Steven Molin for sermon ideas)