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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Can We Be in Control?

One annual event on many church calendars is Men's Day.  As part of the Men's Day preparation, three preachers were asked to speak briefly at the Wednesday night Bible study and prayer time, all using the same text, 1 Corinthians 15:56-58.  We got our heads together to try to avoid too much repetition, and it worked well.  Thanks to Rev. Patrick Clay of Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church and Rev. Dennis Horne of Monument of Faith Church for being my excellent partners in this enterprise.  I focused on verse 56 because it gave me the opportunity to think about the relationship of sin and the law.  The focus, according to the theme, was on men, but of course the same kinds of arguments found in this sermon can apply regardless of a person's gender.

1 Corinthians 15:56-58
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

I want to address the first portion of the passage, verse 56, a compound sentence which says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.”  The question I want us to consider for a few minutes is “Can we be in control?”
One of the great unknowns of human existence is death.  Everyone faces it eventually.  We watch helplessly when loved ones die.  We remain on this side of a great, impenetrable divide.  The uncertainty of death arouses great anxiety in some people.  Others are able not to dwell on such fears, and some face the inevitability of death with a kind of calm resolve and peace.
            Those who put their trust in God can often put aside their anxieties about death and rest in the hope of God’s salvation.  With or without faith, most people manage to keep thoughts of death at bay through one strategy or another.  They keep focused on living and on building security in this world.  But that does not mean that fear does not break through now and then.  Death can be a powerful shaping force in our lives, even if we keep the subject buried just below the surface of our consciousness.
            Death, or its possibility, may drive us to change our diets, to start exercising, to take various medicines, to have surgeries, to break old habits and start new habits, to take a vacation, to change jobs, to move to another climate, to improve our relationships, to pray and meditate.  Death makes us act because it is the ultimate loss of control.
            If that is true, that death is the ultimate loss of control, then perhaps we might also say that the desire and efforts and strategies that people use to take control of their lives can be ways of warding off death.  And warding off death can be a good thing.  God made us for life.
            But there is a kind of striving for control that can get out of hand.  We talk about people with a “controlling personality.”  We say that some co-workers are “micromanagers.”  And we accuse people in our lives of being “control freaks.”  We protest to people who try to tell us what to do and how to live, “You’re not the boss of me!”  There is a kind of concern for control that is not good for relationships and gets out of hand.  It may, in fact, mask an underlying anxiety about losing control.  It may be a reaction to the fear of death.
            We don’t want an untimely death.  On the other hand, death comes to all, and in the right season it can be received with grace.  But when we let ourselves get so concerned with controlling every detail of our lives and the lives of people around us, could it be that we have let ourselves be controlled by fear of death rather than by the goodness of God’s gift of life?
            The Apostle Paul wrote in this text that the sting of death is sin.  He says that death has a sting.  The sting is what hurts us.  The sting is the harm that comes to us.  Death stings us because of sin. 
            On one level, that means that if we die in sin, we face a future without hope.  Death swallows us up, and we are in the clutches of an enemy we cannot defeat by our human power.  The sting of death, in this way, speaks of dying in sin and facing judgment.   I would like to say more here, but the time is short, and I can come back around to this in combination with the next important thing to say.
            On another level, saying that the sting of death is sin means that death gets its poison into us through sin.  Sinning puts us into the atmosphere of death, the sphere of influence of death.  Death sneaks its way into our lives and pollutes them and twists them and dominates them, and it does this through sin.
            One of the principle biblical concepts of sin is our desire to control our lives without depending on God.  All the way back to the Garden of Eden story, human beings believed that they had a better plan than God.  It’s not a story about a magic fruit tree and an arbitrary prohibition from God.  It is a story about human beings trying to become sovereign over their own lives and realizing how unready and how unqualified they are to take charge for themselves. 
            We, like Adam and Eve, often find ourselves trying to take control.  We want to run things.  We want the people around us to do things our way.  Men want their wives, their co-workers, their neighbors, their kids, their siblings, their girlfriends, their buddies, their teammates, to do things their way. 
            You know the guy I’m talking about.  He can’t seem to listen to others.  He gives long speeches about how to do things (Lord, help me here, I’m talking to myself.)  He gets angry when people don’t automatically comply with his plans and his wishes.  He always acts like the expert.  He’s got a plan for you and expects you to carry it out.  If he’s a pastor or deacon, he may try to enhance his control by invoking God as his sponsor.
            In the extreme, he may be like the prominent athlete in the news who wants control so bad he breaks out into violent acts.  He can’t be questioned or challenged.  And the odds are that every church, ours included, has in its pews men (or women) who have resorted to violence to control their loved ones.  It’s wrong.  It needs to stop.  God and the church can help you get help and stop.  You don’t need to demand to be in control over others and become violent.
            One thing Paul is telling us here is that trying to fight off death by controlling everything around you is really a way of giving in to death.  Instead of pushing death away, fear of death is pushing itself into our lives.  We think we can prevent the chaos by keeping everything under control, but the chaos is working within us, pressing upward toward consciousness, fighting our love for life and replacing it with control.
            Only God is capable of guiding our lives.  So I’m not saying don’t use your gifts of leadership and administration.  I’m saying let them operate in a realm of grace and freedom and love.  Grace means letting God work through other people, not controlling other people.  Freedom means being open to changes in plans and the choices of others.  Love means listening and valuing the many people God sends into your life, with all the gifts they bring.
            Paul expands his argument by saying that the power of sin is the law.  I could spend a few weeks talking about the ambiguous concept of the law in the Bible and theology.  There are many controversies over its significance across the history of the church.  But let it suffice tonight to say that the law has a limited good purpose.  It cannot save us.  But understood rightly, it can guide us.
            Our anxiety, however, makes us want the law to be our salvation.  We think it is straightforward.  It is simple.  It is clear.  There it is in black and white on the page.  We feel that we can follow something that is in plain view.  So we sometimes wish and long for the law to be our salvation.  It is, again, a strategy of control.  And as you know, the people who own authority over the law, own the rest of the people.
            Again, you have seen this guy.  He knows the regulations.  He has told you exactly what he wants done.  He wants it done this way, no matter what good idea you think you have.  In our churches, he says that we have always done things this way and it worked for our parents and their parents and the ones that came before.  He says the constitution and bylaws of a Missionary Baptist Church tell us what organizations and officers to have, and that should be good enough to do the work of the church.  He loves standard operating procedure and prefers no variations.
            But law cannot save.  It is by grace we are saved.  The power of sin is the law.  Law turbocharges our sinfulness.  Law boosts sin’s power.  Law becomes the lever to let sin shove the world around.  The law is a club in a violent man’s hand to beat down his opponents or any who question him.  That’s not the purpose of the law.  So when sin gets it’s grip on us, we use the law to intensify our controlling impulses.
            So don’t be one of these guys.  You can be a man without being in control of everything and everyone around you.  Let God send co-workers, fellow-travelers, teammates, into your life who can bring their goodness and truth and beauty with them.  Let it be life that flourishes, not death through the sinfulness of control and the power of law. 
           God gives the victory.  Jesus gave up control as he prayed in the garden.  He laid out his ideas for a good plan, but he acknowledged that there might be other plans that would work out.  He said, “Not my will, but thy will, be done.”  He went down a path that was not in his own control.  It looked like death would win.  Death tried to sting him, but he was without sin.  The law tried to condemn him, but he was the lawgiver himself.   
           When it seemed that he would be swallowed up by death, instead, death was swallowed up in victory.  Jesus knew that the God who loved him before death would still love him even into eternity.  In the world Jesus gave us, death is not a destroyer, but a passage to new life.  He showed us the way.  May we walk in it with courage, and not succumb to our fears.

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