Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sermon – “No Condemnation” (Romans 8:1)

You probably didn’t notice his obituary. I’m not even sure that it appeared in the local newspapers. But in April of this year the world said goodbye to Edward Norton Lorenz. And who, you may ask, was Edward Norton Lorenz? Lorenz was a meteorologist who developed a mathematical model for the way air moves in the atmosphere. One day, while using a numerical computer model to rerun a weather prediction, he took a shortcut and entered the decimal .506 rather than the full .506127. To his surprise, he came up with a completely different weather scenario. Several years later he published his findings using the now famous query, “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”

The lesson he learned was that all actions—even the most seemingly insignificant ones—have their consequences. And sometimes those consequences can be altogether out of proportion to the original action. Most of us are probably familiar with the six-hundred-year-old rhyme that tells how “the kingdom was lost for want of a nail”:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For want of a horse the rider was lost,
For want of a rider the battle was lost,
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

I often think that we have a version of that same principle expressed in Scripture, in the warning that accompanies the second of the Ten Commandments. Do you remember how it goes—about the children being punished for the iniquity of their parents to the third and fourth generation of those who reject the Lord, but of his showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love him and keep his commandments?

It seems a dire admonition, almost like karma—that somehow through the actions of the past we can be made victims of a cruel and unbending fate, as though strapped to an enormous flywheel spinning out of control.

In a sense, when we look at this morning’s reading from the Old Testament, what we have before us is the gentlest flapping of the butterfly’s wing. After twenty years of childlessness, Isaac and Rebekah become the proud parents of twins. Even during the pregnancy we hear adumbrations of future tragedy. The twins wrestle within Rebekah’s womb, and the Lord tells of an enduring rivalry that will follow. At the time of birth, the younger twin is born grasping at the older one’s heel. Perhaps no one thought very much of it at the time, but the name that was given to him, “Jacob”, from the word haqeb, “heel”, would be a lifelong reminder of the peculiar circumstances of his birth.

The scene swiftly moves to their youth. Esau was a strapping, outdoors kind of guy, “a skillful hunter, a man of the field”, as the Bible describes him. Jacob, on the other hand, was more of a mama’s boy, who preferred to spend his time indoors—in the kitchen of all places.

That was how Jacob developed the reputation of being something of an amateur chef. Esau could smell the delicious blend of aromas that Jacob was cooking up one day as he made his way, sweaty and dirty, in from his work in the fields. “I’m famished,” he bellowed. “Give me some of that red stuff.”

Now whether this was the moment that Jacob had been waiting for, or whether it was just an idea that popped into his mind, we don’t know. But something made Jacob hesitate before he dipped his ladle into the stew. “How about a trade,” he said to Esau, as he leaned over the steaming cauldron, “your birthright for a helping of my stew?” “I’m so hungry right now I would be willing to give just about anything,” replied the older brother. “Then give me your word of honor—now,” said Jacob, as he tasted a sample of the stew for himself. “OK, OK, it’s a deal,” gasped Esau. You could practically see the saliva running down from the corners of his mouth. And in a moment he was sitting in front of a heaping bowl of Jacob’s tasty concoction, scarfing it down as though there were no tomorrow.

As the Bible writer lets down the curtain on this little vignette from the life of Jacob and Esau, he comments, “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” Three little words in Hebrew, yet they fall with devastating power. “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” The butterfly had flapped its wing.

Little did either of the two brothers have any idea of the consequence of what they had done. Esau had a full stomach. Jacob had become the heir to the family fortune. But that scene would come back to haunt them again and again, as the animosity between them grew into full-fledged vengeance and the threat of murder; and one dark night Jacob would find himself alone and unable to sleep, cowering in fear of what his powerful brother was going do to him.

In subsequent generations the hostility between Israel (the descendants of Jacob) and Edom (the descendants of Esau) would only grow worse. In Moses’ time, as the people of Israel made their way back towards the Promised Land, the Edomites refused to allow them to cross their territory. This led to continued wars and retribution for centuries—right to the time of Nebuchadnezzar, when the kingdom of Edom took advantage of the Babylonian sweep of the region to slaughter and plunder their distant cousins, the Jews.

In a later generation still, it is a descendant of the Edomites, Herod the Great, who orders the slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem. And in turn it is his son, another Herod, who has John the Baptist beheaded, and who, though not directly responsible for the death of Jesus, joins in mocking and humiliating him on his way to the cross.

“Thus Esau despised his birthright.” The author of Genesis matter-of-factly tells us. And there follow nearly two thousand years of consequences. Who ever would have thought…? Yet on a smaller scale I see this same principle being worked out again and again in people’s lives. Well do I remember a woman who lived what was probably the most secretive life I have ever seen. Only years later did I discover that her secrecy was really a cloak to hide an intolerable burden of guilt that she had carried around with her for more than a generation. Another woman continued to be haunted by the way she treated her mother at the time of her high school graduation, forty years after the event.

In his book Guilt and Grace Swiss physician Paul Tournier relates case after case of men and women who lived their whole lives unable to escape the consequences of something they may have done at an earlier time in their lives. Reflecting on the unending parade of such people who have come through his office, he writes,

Complexes, secret imaginations, temptations, vain and unconfessable dreams, a whole world of impulses more or less conscious, often of no clear form develop within us. They defy the censorship of our will, as we realize with confusion. It is another self which lives within us, which we cannot stifle…

What Tournier describes does not sound altogether different from what we read in last week’s epistle, from the seventh chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans:

I do not understand my own actions [he confesses]. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do… So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

Who among us has not shared this anguish? Of course there are all kind of things people do in their attempts to escape it. They receive psychiatry; they engage in philanthropy and acts of selflessness; they delve into asceticism; they numb themselves with alcohol and drugs; they immerse themselves in hedonism; they may go as far as suicide. Some even try religion. Yet there seems to be nothing that can enable them to escape. They have been tried, sentenced, condemned and punished by a jury of one—their own heart within them. With Paul they cry aloud, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

In the midst of this bleak picture there is good news. It comes to us again from St Paul, not in last Sunday’s reading but today’s. I cannot say the words without chills running down my spine: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

What Paul is telling us is that Jesus Christ has done for us what we (or anyone else in all the world) could never do for ourselves. At the time it must have seemed that he too was a victim of unalterable consequences. That must have been the way it appeared to Esau’s descendant Herod as he watched the bruised and humiliated Galilean walk from his court on the way to his death. In spite of all the miracles, all the idealism of his teaching, all the cheering of the crowds, the wheel of karma had taken him too.

Yet it was on the cross, as he hung utterly powerless even to swat a fly that might have landed on his face, that Jesus brought that seemingly all-powerful, unstoppable wheel to a grinding halt. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” declares St Paul.

Paul Tournier reflects,

So from one end of the Bible to the other, we constantly witness the same paradoxical happening. The guilt that men are never able to efface, in spite of sacrifices, penance, remorse and vain regrets, God himself wipes away… But the wonderful announcement of God’s free grace, which effaces guilt, runs up against the intuition which every man has, that a price must be paid. The reply which comes is the supreme message of the Bible; it is God himself who pays, God himself has paid the price once for all, and the most costly that could be paid—his own death, in Jesus Christ, on the cross.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Because of what Jesus has done for you and for me on the cross, and through faith in him, we need no longer be victims of the events of the past. He has set us free from the law of sin and death. That doesn’t mean that we won’t continue to do things that we regret. But it does mean that they no longer have the final say in our lives.

At morning and evening prayer in the old Book of Common Prayer we used to confess that “we have left undone those things that we ought to have done, and we have done those things that we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us…” As we look at our own lives and our own past, may we recognize that we bow before a God of infinite mercy and grace, who has done what we could never do for ourselves. And may you know within your heart, in spite of all that might want to tell you otherwise, that truly “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”.

Heavenly Father,
we cannot praise you enough,
that in the mystery of your love,
you have reached down to us in your Son
and given him to die for our sins on the cross:
help us to know in the depths of our hearts
that there is therefore now no condemnation
for those who are in Christ Jesus,
and so to live as those who have been set free,
for the glory of your name.

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