“Late in World War II a large number of American and British soldiers were languishing in a war camp deep inside Germany. Some had been there for many months. A high barbed-wire fence ran across the center of the camp, isolating the two sets of prisoners. They were not allowed to go near the fence or communicate with each other. But once a day at noon the British and American chaplains could go to the fence and exchange greetings, always in the company of the guards.
“The Americans had put together a crude wireless radio and were getting some news from the outside world. Since nothing is more important to prisoners than news, the American chaplain would try to share a headline or two with his British counterpart in the few moments they had at the fence.
Sin is always in the past.
I absolutely love Vacation Bible School. Those five year olds and I had an awesome time this past week learning about the love of God and how he helps us when we are afraid and how he is merciful and forgiving.
But I got to thinking as I wrote this message… did we ever tell those children that sin doesn’t go away, just because Jesus is in our hearts?
Have you ever heard that?
In your two… ten… forty… eighty years of being a Christian, did someone ever tell you that even as a faithful disciple you are still going to struggle with sin?
I hope so… but I worry that hasn’t always been the case.
You see, our world likes to shove problems under neath the carpet. We like to hide them in dark closets. We don’t talk about our struggles. We don’t talk about our problems. And we certainly don’t talk about our sins.
Instead, we walk around with smiles on our faces, dressed up in our Sunday best, and pretend like now that Jesus is in the world all of our problems have disappeared.
That, my friends, is called a delusion. Or hypocrisy. Or any number of any other not so nice words.
What I wish someone had told me and my peers a long time ago is that sin will always be there… lurking just around the corner. Temptation is always a struggle. Mistakes, bad decisions, failure, backsliding… it comes with the territory of discipleship.
This faith journey is SUPPOSED to be hard. It is ALWAYS going to be a struggle.
That is why I am so grateful for pastors and teachers like the apostle Paul.
Because once again, he lays the truth bare and hits me in the gut…
Paul… the Pharisee among Pharisee… the rule-follower par excellence… the guy who always seems to have it together and who has such strength and such faith… all of a sudden he starts confessing…
I too, have spent a long time in sin’s prison. And I decide to do one thing, but then I act another, and I find myself doing things I absolutely hate to do…. I need help! I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it… Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time… The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. (The Message translation, paraphrased)
As a reminder that we are ALL human, and that this Christian life is not easy.
And so sin grabs hold, and hangs on right there…. And we find ourselves stuck in a civil war between the self that wants to do good and the self that wants to go back to old ways.
Throughout Christian history… faithful people have struggled in this way.
But as Bill O’Brien reminds us, “ Christianity and Western civilization do not fight an isolated curse.”
He talks about other faiths who also describe this struggle, including “Islam which identifies this struggle as jihad. The Arabic root for jihad means “strive, effort, labor.” Lesser jihad defines the kind of struggle justified in defense of oneself, for example, in military action. But greater jihad is the fighting of evil in one’s own heart. This is an inward reformation — a spiritual and moral struggle that leads to victory over ego.”
Every person shares this struggle between what we know is right and what we actually find ourselves doing. Sin lurks around the corner for all of us.
I want to take you back to that story of the prisoners of war in Germany. Remember that they heard the good news that the German commanders had surrendered and that the war was over?
Let me ask the question again… what do you do when you have been set free by Jesus Christ… but sin doesn’t know it yet? What do you do when you joyfully accept the love and grace of God… but sin is right there next to you like the walls of a prison fence?
Well, as O’Brien tells it, “An amazing thing happened. For the next three days the prisoners celebrated, waving at the guards — who still did not know the news — and smiling at the vicious dogs
“Then, when they awoke on the fourth day, there were no guards. Apparently they had fled into the forest, leaving the gate unlocked behind them.
“That day the prisoners walked out as “freed men.” But they had really been set free four days earlier by the news that the war was over.” (Bill O’Brien, Christian Century article, June 28, 2005)
We too, know that we have been set free from the power of sin by Jesus Christ. And so we find ourselves like those POW’s living in the prison camp still, waiting for our official release.
We know and we trust that it is coming. We know that someday the grace of God and the power of Jesus Christ will perfectly transform our lives and sin will no longer have any power whatsoever over us.
But while we remain within these walls… we can sit and sulk and lament our struggles –OR –
We can join with one another, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and celebrate the victory we know is ours already.
You have been set free. The struggle is still ongoing, but it no longer has to consume you.
Fix your eyes on Jesus… pray for his help… and know that the victory is already yours.