Sunday, March 28, 2010

Not Your Usual Palm Sunday Sermon

Calvary Presbyterian Church
Enumclaw, WA
March 28, 2010 Dan Oliva

“Lust: Not Your Usual Palm Sunday Sermon”
Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Corinthians 13:4-8

Well, it is Palm Sunday weekend, but I have to warn you: if you came here expecting a regular Palm Sunday sermon, you will be sorely disappointed. We are finishing up our series on the Seven Deadly Sins, and today is the last of the Seven. However, if you do want a regular Palm Sunday sermon, I made some copies of my sermon from last year – you can snag one in the foyer if you want. So far we have looked at six of the seven deadly sins – pride, greed, envy, anger, sloth, gluttony – hmm, which one are we missing? Oh, that’s right – lust. Today we are talking about lust.
Now, the topic of lust is not a fun topic, is it? Talking about sex in church is often uncomfortable, and always awkward. One of the most awkward church moments that I can remember, happened one Sunday morning when I was in college. I was back in Yakima, and we were at First Presbyterian that morning. I think they had been going through a sermon series on hot button issues, and that morning it was the final sermon of the series – and it was on sex. I don’t remember any of the points the pastor made that day, but I clearly remember him stepping into the pulpit and opening with, “This morning is the last sermon in our series, which seems appropriate, because, ladies, as you know, for us men, everything has to end in sex.” There was this incredibly long, awkward silence. Painful silence. He actually rallied pretty well – he made a show of scribbling on his notes and said, “Hmm, OK, scratch that opener for the 11:00 service.” Talking about sexuality in church is awkward – so I don’t want to start off with that kind of joke (which I just did, I guess). Instead, let’s start with two Scripture passages – Matthew 5:27-30 and 1 Corinthians 13:4-8.
Today I want us to talk about lust – and not just because it’s on the list of seven deadly sins. I think it’s important to talk about lust because lust is a temptation and sin that we all struggle with – not in the same way, but it affects all of our lives. Most men struggle with lust – I actually made up a little chart to show you (80% of men say they struggle with lust, 20% are liars). Lust affects women, too – sometimes as a temptation, other times as a force or power in your lives. I want this message to speak to everyone here, though I will probably tend to speak from a male perspective (I can’t help that).
So let’s start with Matthew 5. Jesus starts out in verse 27: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’’ He’s quoting right from the Old Testament, Exodus 20:14. He’s quoting the law, and most people in the crowd were very familiar with the law. He goes on, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” You know the law says adultery is wrong, but there is more to it than just that – your understanding of the law is shallow and inadequate! Jesus teaches the crowd (and us) a deeper understanding of sexuality, and we need to understand what that is.
Notice the last word of verse 28 – the word heart. Right away, Jesus is making an important distinction. For the first-century crowd, they would have understood the heart to be the source of a person’s identity, the core of who someone is, the center of a person’s will. So right away, Jesus tells us, “This isn’t about do this action or don’t do this action. It’s not about actions. First and foremost, this is about the condition of your heart – the condition of your inner world, your identity.” This echoes what we’ve been saying throughout this series – when it comes to sin, it’s not about actions. Sin isn’t just about wrong actions, it’s about our nature, a problem with who we are inside. Something inside, in our nature, is broken, and it shows up as sinful actions. Jesus tells us when it comes to adultery, sexuality, or lust, what needs addressing first is our inner world, our identity. Deal with our inner condition first, and our external actions will follow. So don’t hear this sermon today as “Just don’t do it!” or “Stop doing this list of things.” It goes deeper than that.
Now, in the midst of our reflection on the sin of lust, we have to be sure to talk about the positive aspects of our sexuality. The church does not do a good job when it comes to talking about sex – usually it is reduced to telling our kids to wait until marriage, and that’s about it. Instead, we can affirm that we are created in God’s image, that we are whole people – emotional people, spiritual people, physical people – and that means sexuality is a part of who we are. To deny that part exists, or to attempt to shut that part off – that seems a little ridiculous; no wonder we are so often broken and fractured in this area. Listen to these words: “My lover is knocking: ‘Open to me, my sister, my darling, my dove, my flawless one. My head is drenched with dew, my hair with the dampness of the night.’ I have taken off my robe – must I put it on again? I have washed my feet – must I soil them again? My lover thrust his hand through the latch-opening; my heart began to pound for him. I arose to open for my lover, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with flowing myrrh, on the handles of the lock. I opened for my lover, but my lover had left; he was gone” (Song of Songs 5:1-6)
Any ideas where these words are found? Shakespeare? Adult section of the bookstore? No, they are in the Bible, in the book Song of Songs. Deep, passionate, love poetry, plain and simple – words between a man and a woman about the physical, sexual joy in their relationship. Pretty racy stuff in the Bible! And what these verses teach us – the Song of Songs and other places in Scripture – they remind us that sexual desire is part of being human, that it is a gift from God, that it is OK to acknowledge that part of our lives.
That means we need to hear Jesus’ words clearly. He is not saying, “If you have feelings of attraction towards someone, you have committed adultery with them.” Sometimes we hear it that way, and we get discouraged. Jesus isn’t saying that. The New Testament scholar Dale Bruner translates Jesus’ words as, “anyone who stares at a woman.” Now, at first that seems like just playing with words. In college, we had a running joke that when it came to lust, it was the second look that got you – so you’d better make sure the first look counted! I don’t think Bruner means it in that way. Instead, this isn’t about normal attraction felt at first glance – it’s about “sustained, willful looking” – whether that is literal or in our hearts. Those initial feelings of attraction – that is not lust, that is the sex drive given to us at Creation; it’s when we sustain and allow it to dwell in our hearts, willfully keep it alive in our hearts, that is a drive given to us
at the Fall. Martin Luther, writing in the 16th century, offers some good advice: “Do what one of the ancient fathers counseled long ago: ‘I cannot keep a bird from flying over my head. But I can certainly keep it from nesting in my hair or from biting my nose off.’” Pretty good advice for us today! Lust, then, is allowing desire to nest in our lives. What else does lust involve?
When I preached on sloth, I mentioned Dante’s Inferno, his poetic journey through Hell. Remember the slothful were found in the fifth circle of Hell? He finds the lustful in the second circle – he stands on a dark ledge, looking into a giant whirlwind, in which the souls of the lustful spin and spin, for all eternity. Why are they punished this way? The darkness is symbolic of their lack of divine light, and the secrecy of their sin; the whirlwind is an expression of a life in which they abandoned themselves to their passions and appetites. Eternally tossed in the darkness of a whirlwind – that is a horrible image of punishment. But it helps us understand what lust is – a life led by passions and appetites, specifically our sexual appetite. There are other kinds of lusts, too – house lust, car lust, career lust, coffee lust, book lust – but today we’re just focusing on sexual lust – the times when we allow our lives to be guided by our sexual appetite.
One aspect of lust is sex as entertainment. Lust is sex as a consumable good, a product to be consumed by an individual. We see all kinds of examples of this, it has become mainstream in our culture. Drive through Bonney Lake, and you can order your espresso from a bikini-clad barista (or so I’ve heard). Get your coffee with a dash of sexual gratification. Or head out to dinner in Seattle or any major city – right next to Red Robin and Olive Garden is a Hooters restaurant – order buffalo wings with a side of stimulation.
Lust places sexuality in the same category as consumable products, and when that happens, we wind up objectifying others, dehumanizing others, and violating the sanctity of other people’s humanness. And when we treat someone else as an object, when we dehumanize someone sexually, what we really do is seek to have power over them. Lust and power, lust and control, are two sides of one coin, and when they go together, the results are pretty scary.
Lust and power show up as pornography. Images in magazines, catalogs, and of course on the web. Soft-core pornography, hard-core pornography, adult pornography, child pornography – pornography combines lust and power into a consumable product. You can look at it at your leisure, in the privacy of your own home. You can have what you want, who you want, when you want it. Sexuality gets completely separated from anything that has to do with relationship; women (and men, though the vast majority of pornography is about women), women are exploited and reduced to objects, reduced to a collection of body parts, reduced to a product that is consumed to suit someone’s needs. Do you see how destructive this is? Do you see how pornography is not just a personal, private thing? That the excuse “It’s not hurting anyone” doesn’t really fly, because it begins to shape how you view everyone around you, it begins to affect every other area of your life.
Lust and power show up as pornography; they also stand at the center of our cultural identity. We live in a society where women are expected to have bodies shaped to stimulate sexual
desire in men – that is a clear cultural expectation in our culture right now. How many women here would agree with that statement? That’s kind of messed up, isn’t it? Do you know the advertising campaign from Dove? It’s called the Campaign for Real Beauty – which is already troubling: “We are campaigning for authentic beauty … so that you will by our products so you can appear more beautiful.” Their campaign, though, is filled with images of “normal-looking” women – women of different shapes and sizes, women who haven’t been Photoshopped, or at least not too much. That’s a good thing, right, or at least a step in the right direction. But last week, a study came out where they interviewed a bunch of women who had watched these Dove commercials and seen the magazine ads – and the overwhelming majority of women actually felt WORSE about their own appearance! Most had the response of, “That’s what I look like?” This kind of response, this kind of study, is not a sign of health in our culture – these are the results of lust and power being defining aspects of our culture.
I also need to mention that lust is a great promise-maker, but a horrible promise-keeper. Lust makes all kinds of promises, but they are all lies. Lust promises fulfillment – when men turn to pornography and masturbation, when women buy into the cultural expectations of sexual appearance or continuously seek out the feeling of being noticed by men around them – those are ways of seeking fulfillment. But in the end, it is simply a short-lived rush – a momentary gain, at the expense of long-term fruit like trust, authenticity, and community. When we only seek immediate gratification, we never find true fulfillment – lust makes us an empty promise.
Lust also promises that it is OK to live out our fantasies, and that if we do, we will discover ecstasy, we will discover paradise. If only I could be with her, if only I could have him … This is just another lie. Lust drives us to that momentary pleasure, but it doesn’t last, and in its place we find emptiness, we find shame. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard found this out when he decided to actually live out his fantasies – he went to a brothel one night, and the next day he wrote in his journal, “Last night I paid a woman in order to experience my own despicableness.” When we buy into lust’s promises, we come face to face with our own sinfulness, our own brokenness.
One more promise lust makes is that it promises the same thing as love. Lust masquerades as love, but again, its promises are empty. Simon Blackburn, a professor at Cambridge, wrote a book on lust and clearly captures the differences between love and lust (I’m not sure if he is a Christian or not, so he is a little … blunt): Love is a couple holding hands in the park, lust is a secret tryst in the bushes; love receives the world’s applause, lust is furtive and ashamed; love pursues the good of the other person through self-control and patience, lust pursues its own gratification without control or reason; love thrives on candlelight and conversation, lust is equally happy in a doorway or a taxi; love is a couple gazing into each other’s eyes, lust looks sideways for opportunities; love leaves a trail of knowledge, time, courtship, truth and trust, lust leaves a trail of clothing in the hall. Blackburn ends with this proclamation: “Living with lust is like living shackled to a lunatic.” Does that resonate with any of us here?
What Blackburn is getting at is actually very biblical – love stands in total contrast to lust, they are not the same thing. Hear these words from 1 Corinthians 13 (the “wedding chapter”): “Love
is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” Do you see the difference? Lust is self-focused, love is other-focused. Love rejects the cultural expectations generated by lust; love rejects the consumerism and exploitation created by lust; love rejects the false promises lust tries to offer. Instead, love focuses on the other person; it acknowledges they are created in God’s image, and therefore have dignity and value as a person, as a fellow human being, as a child of God.
Before we end our time, I want to offer a few practical ways to deal with lust in our lives. You may be asking, “This is all well and good, but what do I do now? What can I do to combat the power of lust in my life?” Let me give you some practical things to think about.
First, we can stop rationalizing, stop justifying lust in our own lives. Maybe we are like St. Augustine, who once prayed, “O Lord, deliver me from lust … but not yet!” We can stop cultivating lust in our life, stop making space for it in some dark corner of our soul.
Second, we can plan some good strategies for dealing with lust (Yes, it begins with a change in our hearts – but there is a place for wise choices). In college we would share as a group of guys, and someone would say, “I just don’t know how it happened! My girlfriend came over to my dorm room, and we sat on the bed to just talk, and it was late, and we were tired, so we lay down, and then we got cold, so we got under the covers, and we were just going to talk … and then it got kind of warm, so we took of some clothes … and suddenly we had gone too far, I just don’t know how it happened!” OK, let’s use our common sense here! Think about when you are tempted, and how you are tempted. Is it when you are on a spiritual high, or on a spiritual low? Is it at home when nobody is around, or is it at work? Avoid those kinds of situations where you’ve been tempted before. If you find yourself surfing porn on the web, put your computer out in the family room, or have the screen facing the entry door of your office, or install software that updates a trusted friend with your browser history. Plan some strategies, use some common sense.
Third, we can get involved in advocacy to work against sexual exploitation. If exploitation is part of our culture, then the problem is more than individual, it is systemic, and one way to seek God’s justice is to stand against the problem. Get involved in groups that hold businesses accountable for their advertising campaigns. Get involved in church ministries that speak out against pornography and the pornography industry. Get involved in International Justice Mission, which charges into the darkness to rescue little girls enslaved for prostitution. If you are involved in fighting against sexual exploitation on a global scale, it is a lot harder to embrace it in your own life, and you begin to see it in other areas.
Fifth, you can tell someone. This may be the simplest idea, but it can also be the hardest. Opening up to a spouse or trusted friend – bringing those dark areas of your life out into the light – can be on the of the hardest things you’ve ever done. But it may be one of the most healing things you can do. Of the seven deadlies, lust may be the hardest to overcome by
ourselves – would you agree? Last summer I was hiking down from the top of Mt. Si, near North Bend. Four miles up, then four miles down – and it’s pretty steep, about the same as the front side of Mt. Peak. I was about a half mile from the bottom, and up towards me comes this middle schooler, and over his shoulder he is carrying a bicycle. Now, Mt. Si is not a bike trail. There are steps, roots, rocks, and steep slopes. But here he comes, gung-ho excited to ride down from the top of Mt. Si. He tells me he’s been planning it for awhile, he’s got it all figured out. I laugh but tell him he is an inspiration to us all. And then, just a few minutes later, as I get to my car, I hear a whoop as he comes screaming down the last bit of the trail. Did he make it to the top? Of course not. Not for lack of zeal or desire, he just couldn’t do it on his own. When we are faced with lust, we cannot overcome it on our own. The community around us – our family, our brothers and sisters in Christ – can be a great source of strength and healing. Sharing with someone, sharing in a small group, even sharing in our large worship gatherings – in telling someone, we bring our sin into the light, we take away lust’s power, and we give others the chance to be Jesus to us.
Finally, but no less important, throughout our reflection and our struggles with lust, we can remember that we worship a God who is loving, patient, and forgiving. The writer of Lamentations proclaims: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Isn’t that a wonderful promise for us today? We all deal with lust, it affects all of us. Our sexuality is broken in one way or another, no matter how much we think we have it together. But it is not hopeless, it is far from hopeless. We worship a God who can change our hearts, who can change our inner being. No matter what we’ve done in the past, no matter how many times we’ve fallen down, or given into temptation, God loves us, and wants to work in and through us. His compassion, his love is new every morning.
He sent his Son to reveal that to us – his Son Jesus, who walked that long road to Jerusalem, entered the city on a donkey with palm branches waving, but wound up on a cross, crucified and dead. And all this week, Holy Week, we will reflect on that sorrow, that darkness, but next weekend we will celebrate the fact that the tomb is empty, that Jesus rose from the dead, that he conquered death, he conquered sin, once and for all – your sin, my sin. No matter what lies in your past, be encouraged by the cross and the resurrection. Be encouraged that God can make all things new.

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