Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Wretched man that I am

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  Romans 7:24-25

The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories are favorites on our boys’ bookshelves.  They are set in a pleasant suburb in the mid-fifties, the sort of place where mothers have always just taken sugar cookies out of the oven and daddies are headed out after work to finish the new treehouse ladder.  The stories are populated with children—accomplished, good natured, obedient children—who just happen to be passing through unfortunate phases.

Take Nicholas Semicolon, subject of the story Philip read to all of us as we made our way across Maine last week.  Nicholas is ten, large and strong for his age, the apple of his mother’s eye.  But he also happens to have become a thoroughly rotten bully.  He hits girls and pulls dog’s tails, upsets baby carriages and speaks rudely to everyone he meets.  His parents have been blissfully ignorant about all of this until they receive a call from Mrs. Eager, whose son’s legs are covered in bandages after little Nicky’s latest attack.

The Semicolons talk through the matter, and decide that Mrs. Piggle Wiggle must simply be consulted.  She is the marvel of the cul-de-sac, a sort of child psychologist-cum-apothecary, with just the thing for every child’s maladjustments.  “Would a bully bath be right?,” Mrs. Piggle Wiggle wonders.  No, we are told, it must be leadership pills instead, “little green pills that taste like peppermint..but bring out wonderful qualities of leadership, especially in only children.”  A pill before bed and another after breakfast, and little Nicky has resolved to give his old tricycle to the girl next door before starting up a community improvement association among the neighborhood kids.

Why, you may wonder, have I wasted two minutes of your Sunday morning on a silly sixty-year old children’s story?  Well perhaps, this story is a modern parable.  Maybe it hints at one of the deepest and most persistent myths we tell ourselves about who we really are.  In the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories, there are no bad children—just good ones who pass through unfortunate phases.  The stories argue that the moral life is important, but that it’s something completely under our own control.  If we try hard enough, or if we have access to the right sort of mood-altering pharmaceuticals, we will always land on our feet.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s leadership pills come in more varieties these days than they did sixty years ago.  There are endless titles on the self-help aisles, sixteen kinds of yoga and forty different varieties of therapy.  We have apps to track things, ingenious exercise routines—and of course, there are always pharmaceuticals.  We have methods for making ourselves happy or calming ourselves down, becoming more mindful or forgetting it all.  To be sure, some of these things are useful.  But they also constitute a never-ending supply of schemes and tricks to reinforce the illusion of control, to suggest once more that we really are good people, just a little off track.

“Wretched man that I am,” writes Saint Paul, “who will deliver me from this body of death.”

Today’s Epistle lesson makes for difficult reading—and not just because the syntax is complicated.  Alan has actually managed that quite well for us this morning.  Saint Paul is opening wide a glimpse into the profound struggle within the human heart, a debilitating failure to do the good we know we should do.  “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate, he says. “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”   He reveals a tormented soul, a person who has become a stranger to himself.  He sees within himself a “a law at war with the law of [his] mind.  He has become a “captive to the law of sin which dwells in [his] members.”  He cannot control his own life, but an evil master drives him to despair.  He longs for deliverance, because he cannot remedy the situation in his own power. 

And you are the wretch.  I am the wretch. This misery is what we call the human condition.  Man the summit of creation, the bearer of God’s image, a little lower than the angels—man has come to this mass of contradictions, this powerless frustration.  We are the ones who beg, who cry out, “who will deliver me from this body of death?”  Difficult reading indeed.

We are under the power of sin.  It’s not just that we make mistakes or fall short of our worthy aims. It’s not that we just need to know more or to want to be better.  Indeed, the wretched man knows what God expects of him.  He delights in the law.  He desires to do what is right.  Romans 7 describes the agony of a conscientious person.  But sin is a force, a master who knows us better than we know ourselves.  Sin confuses and manipulates and compels.  We can’t get free of sin’s grip.  The more we resist, the more forceful sin shows itself to be.

We’d rather forget this story, but it has a part in the biography of every person who has taken the trouble to understand his or her own life.  Saint Paul is no innovator here.  There are parallels to this passage in the pagan philosophers and the Jewish rabbis.  Most of the world religions propose some solution to it. 

“Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death.”  This is the true word about us, but it is not the final word about us.  This agonizing passage comes from the heart of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, his summary of the Gospel entrusted to Him.  The Gospel is good news, a joyful, and hopeful message.  It proclaims God’s mercy, His gift of the Redeemer, the transforming power freely extended to us.  But note this, the Gospel is the solution to the problem diagnosed in today’s lesson.  It is the answer to the wretched man’s question, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” 

“Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  There is a Deliverer, sent from God, whose love could not allow us to remain trapped in such agony.  There is One who made Himself powerless like us.  He took on Himself the burden we cannot lift, and even unto death, He identified Himself fully with us.  He defeated death’s power, rising from the grave.  He announces the reconciling word: “your sins are forgiven.”  He sends forth His Spirit to bring peace to the troubled soul, a new kind of freedom and courage.  Through His work in us, sin is mastered and cast out.  We are no longer slaves of sin, but serve Christ joyfully, doing His will through the help He supplies. 

Thanks be to God, that we are not left forever in this agonizing frustration, wretches longing for deliverance.  To be sure, there is always a struggle, what Saint Paul would call, in another place, the battle of the Spirit against the flesh.[1]  But in this battle, our victory is assured. 

I do think, though, that we all must pass through this struggle, and many of us more than once. Until we have faced our own powerlessness over sin, the Gospel will be but an abstraction to us.   If you are living in the strength Christ supplies, you will see this text as a chapter in the earlier pages of your spiritual.  But if our lesson’s description seems utterly foreign to you, you’re almost certainly letting yourself off too easily.  You’ve allowed your conscience to sleep.  Your understanding of what God expects from you is far too small. 

But maybe this text does set forth the theme of your life today.  You want to serve God.  You’re trying as hard as you can, and you come up short every time.  You see sin at work in you, and you don’t know how to control it.  There is no method or system to solve your problem, no Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle to stir up the needful concoction.  But there is a Deliverer, God rich in mercy, who brings joy to wretches and life to those trapped in the body of death.   “Come unto me,” He says, “all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  There is peace to be found, and abundant power.  Turn to Him and be set free.

[1] Gal. 5:17.

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