St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Lent, March 13, 2022
“God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls.”
THERE ARE A FEW WORDS in King James terms that are a challenge to layreaders, attempting a cold reading of an Epistle out loud. I want to shout the pronunciation in order to help, but it’s too late. So, the word concupiscence comes out quite funny in its many forms. When we realize what it means, we’re even more embarrassed. It means lust, folks, plain and simple: a strong sexual desire. Up there with superfluity of naughtiness, we want to laugh, but we feel this is too serious a matter. And we’re right.
Sin is a problem, and maybe that’s why we call it by curious and unpronounceable names. St. Paul wrote that we should “Flee sexual immorality. "Every sin that a person does is outside the body," but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body.” 1 Cor 6:18 When our body betrays us and, in the aftermath, leaves us gasping on the shore when the storm leaves us battered, half-dead and sorry, we swear never again, but we know that our bodies seem to have minds of their own.
A man oddly qualified to speak on the subject of concupiscence was King Solomon, who took to himself 700 wives and 300 concubines, and in the end called his life vanity, chasing the wind. Of his great sin he seems to blame the women, but he’s really describing that tornado called lust. “For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil: But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell… Remove thy way far from her, and come not nigh the door of her house … rejoice with the wife of thy youth… And why wilt thou, my son, be ravished with a strange woman, and embrace the stranger? For the ways of man are before the eyes of the Lord … His own iniquities shall take the wicked himself, and he shall be holden with the cords of his sins.” Prov 5:3-21
That’s why Jesus made the observation that the actual act of adultery may not be your issue, but even a silent, mental lust for some other person is adultery, in the heart. A sin against your own body.
Is it hot in here?
Why is this such a difficult thing? It is difficult, or the words of today’s collect would not ring so true: “ALMIGHTY God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul…” No Power of ourselves: In our own strength, we know that our moral core melts down at the times of highest temptation. Without the help of God, all the country songs come true, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin both have songs for it.
And that’s not the most evil of sins. The world stands aghast today at the audacity of the Russian president’s vicious raids against a neighboring country, with murderous intent and war crimes. We think of corporate decisions that multiply profits for insiders and leave thousands of pensioners flat broke. Violence, greed, mayhem and hatred are evidenced around us, and we’re powerless to wipe the earth clean of sin. Evil works its way with us all, it would seem. What can be done?
Jesus prayed a wonderful prayer, the model prayer for us. In it, first we praise God the Father, whose Name is holy and revered. His will is done in heaven, but we pray for his will to impress itself on earth. We seek our daily requirements to come from His Hand, then we ask help for our more debilitating need: lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Temptation is situational. It’s not sin in itself, but a test of obedience, a test to see what we’re made of. So often we fail that test, but even our failures teach us something and move us to find the remedy. Our failures convince us of the need for a Savior.
St. Paul said there is a remedy. “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13 Jesus Himself said to “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Matthew 26:41 And St. James says that victory at the testing point is both possible and worth aiming for, because: “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.” James 1:12
God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness. Such phrases, when I heard them in my youth, sounded like the preacher didn’t know about real life. To the contrary, when one has lived long enough, uncleanness is all too familiar and holiness is a longed-for country that calls out its peace and easy conscience to anyone that cares. But can we ever arrive there? Well, if God has called us there, He is the one responsible to grant us the grace and strength to make the journey. We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves, perhaps, but His might and grace abound where sin has already done its death dance.
Jesus and His disciples needed relief from the pressures of ministry in Galilee, so they traveled over the border into pagan country, Sidon of the Phoenicians. I’ve often preached on this encounter, but look again at the pagan mother’s sorrow, that her daughter was demon-possessed. We don’t read how, but any knowledge of that culture reveals a sordid and perverse side to their religion. Demons were invariably summoned, and women were used to channel them. Enough said. It’s no mystery how the younger woman got infected. There is a drama going on here. The Sidonian woman is asking the Jewish Messiah to heal a spiritual infestation from her Baal and Ashtaroth temple. Is she really converting or just borrowing a holy gift for her unholy household? He tests her motives with shrewd rebuffs. She passes His test gloriously. He grants her desire, and we know that she, from that day, will not set foot in that wicked shrine ever again.
No power. People living in Paradise all buy gas generators for those times PG&E cuts the juice for days up there, fearing another fire. No power is what our collect says we have. But the woman of Sidon also says, The dogs may eat crumbs under the picnic table, though they have no right to sit on the benches. Humbly, we ask God’s grace first to forgive our sins, and then to strengthen us for the fight that is sure to follow. All our lives we will battle our various desires and the pitfalls we fear to face again. The enemy has your address, your email, your cell phone number. He’s calling again. Do you answer it, or press the red button? Not just this time, but every time?
When the schools began to teach sex ed, the PE or history teacher who’d been assigned to speak frankly about adult things to 13-year-olds stood helpless before 25 kids and began in a squeaky voice and sweaty palms to describe human sexuality in clinical terms nobody understood. A film was run, relieving the poor teacher from the most embarrassing subjects, with cartoon graphics, in order that young minds understand the mechanics of reproduction, and how it’s not for now, but when the time arrives, there are wise adults to help you. At home, or in school, if kids don’t learn the facts of life from a loving and moral adult, a parent or other authority, they will get it themselves from the internet or other kids. We need to be able to talk about it. We don’t do this well. I’m not sure I have an answer, but the biblical injunctions I have cited here can be helpful, especially if we use more current translations and avoid words like concupiscence.
An old theological mistake may be the crux of a problem. No power. John Calvin started a school of theology that evaluates humankind as totally ruined, lost and depraved. We have no power, nor do we have any rights before God. Give it up. You can do nothing to save yourself. Only if God has chosen you, and numbered you with the elect, will He raise you up one day and give you the grace to believe and be saved. Then be grateful, you wicked sinner, for you did nothing and can do nothing for yourself. It’s His grace alone.
Now. We’re Anglicans. Calvin has a point, but comes to wrong conclusions. We’re helpless, in part yes, because we are born into the sinful state of humankind. Helpless to save ourselves. We need a Redeemer, for the weight of sin is heavy, and our strength cannot remove it from us, nor can we fully escape its gravity, so we might fail and fall from time to time. But we’re not ruined, not depraved. God loves us, and created us in His image and likeness. Some of that was lost, yes, at the fall. But His image remains, and is called out of us when He rises from that tomb triumphant. Hope is born. Christ does the heavy lifting, but expects us to take our part, do our portion, turn our will towards Him, and choose Him. He doesn’t do that to us, but the nail-pierced Hand reaches out to you and to me, and we must take it. He bled for you. He died for me. Our sins were the problem. He is the answer. That’s what Lent is all about.
We haven’t power enough to help ourselves at the hour of testing. We need Him. Ask His help. Pray. Give it up to Him. This is a relationship, not an abduction from on high. He’s your Savior, not your little helper. You will fall at times, but He is faithful and just to forgive. Power is yours, in abundance, if you will only ask.