Summary: A talk given at our evening Ash Wednesday service. Jesus's death on the cross has paid the price for our sins but our bad habits, bad behaviour and the things that trip us up still need to be confronted.
A young man once visited the great German preacher Martin Luther to ask for his advice. He said that he was constantly plagued by wrongful desires and lustful thoughts and did not know what to do. Martin Luther’s reply was typically blunt and to the point. He said, “You can’t stop birds flying to and fro in the air, but you can stop the birds from nesting in your hair!”
There is a war raging; and as this war rages people, families and structures are seriously damaged. People are being shot at, grenades being launched. For those who survive there are deep wounds that need attention; and the physical battles being waged in Libya right now might help us to consider the most important of all conflicts – the war that goes on in the hearts and minds of every human being.
Writing to believers James asks, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you” (4:1)?
Let’s be clear. There are righteous, good desires such as the desire for justice, the desire to become more like Jesus, and the desire to do the right thing; but there are so many sinful, evil, wrong desires – and wrong desire can be boiled down to the desire for more; and that might be more money, more pleasure, more fame, more territory or more possessions. When we covet something that is not ours then the desire is wrong; and there is a war raging in each one of us because of our wrong desires.
In the early 1900’s a question was raised in The Times newspaper, “What is wrong with the world?” One writer sent in the following response: “Dear Sir, I am; yours faithfully, G.K. Chesterton.
I have lost count of the number of times that I have been in full agreement with St. Paul when he wrote, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do.”
“No, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” (Romans 7: 18-19).
Paul’s solution is that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). He says that “the mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom 8:6).
The solution offered by James in tonight’s Bible reading is this: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you” (4:7-8).
My friends we are in a battle. There is a battle waging for our own hearts and minds. There is a battle raging for the hearts and minds of people we love, and there’s a battle raging within the Church – the body of believers. There is a battle and we are not told to just throw our hands in the air and admit defeat or think we can never be changed. No. We are called to act!
We actually have to do something ourselves. We can’t simply blame our circumstances or our weaknesses or the temptation served up by others. James, the brother of Jesus asks us to submit to God, flee the devil, and come near or draw near to God. He is the only one who can cleanse us, forgive us, renew us, and change us, but we do need to submit to God, to flee the devil, and to draw near to God.
Instead of trying to avoid or run away from the things, the desires, and the sins that trip us up, I believe we need to confront them head on. That may mean spending time with a Christian friend talking and praying. It will certainly mean honesty with God and will require honesty with ourselves and those we love.
There is a battle raging and I want Jesus to win that battle in my heart and in your heart. The US Peace Corps train their workers for every eventuality they might face in the South American jungle.
It’s quite likely they will face an anaconda, the largest snake in the world; only it is not a snake, it is a telegraph pole with a temper. It takes ten men to carry one if the snake is in a good mood! Here is the section in the Peace Corp Handbook on what to do if you are attacked by an anaconda snake. There are 10 steps you are supposed to follow:
1. If you are attacked by an anaconda, do not run. The snake is faster than you are.
2. Lie flat on the ground. Put your arms tight against your sides, your legs tight together.
3. Tuck in your chin.