Peeled - Self-Control

Acts 24:22-27 Then Felix, who was well acquainted with the Way, adjourned the proceedings. “When Lysias the commander comes,” he said, “I will decide your case.” 23 He ordered the centurion to keep Paul under guard but to give him some freedom and permit his friends to take care of his needs. 24 Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 As Paul talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” 26 At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him. 27 When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison.

In its most difficult scene, you can just feel the tension in the story of Snow White. She knows she shouldn’t, but she sees that apple. And yet it glints. And yet it pulls. She knows she shouldn’t and yet it calls to her. You can just feel that inner tension. And we watch it unleash and we watch her take that bite. Down she falls into a deathlike sleep undone by her untamable impulse. We watch it all happen in the story and we desperately hope it doesn’t happen to us in real life. Because deep down we know that self-control is one of those powers in life that’s absolutely vital. Its lack will destroy us. Its power will protect us. And that kind of power terrifies us.

It must. Snow White is not the only story in our American canon of literature like that. There are many more. I could talk about what Gollum represents in The Lord of the Rings series along with the horrifying pull of that ring. I could tell you about Maleficent the film that came out just last year. I could tell you it made ¾ of a billion dollars. I could tell you it wasn’t just the draw of Angelina Jolie that did that. I could tell you that really it’s the ongoing power of the story that called is Sleeping Beauty. That we know the curse of which its speaks and know the draw of that evil spindle and we fear it may just prick our finger too. I could say more to you about it, but I really don’t think I have to.

But Paul did to his audience. And why? Because Felix wasn’t haunted by those stories. He just didn’t really care where his impulses led him. We’re afraid to take a bite. He downs the whole apple. We’re scared to touch the spindle. He burns the whole thing down. This was a man who fully embraced every sexual feeling and indulged every impulse. If he was ticked off at somebody, he just offed them. If he wanted a woman, he just took her. Apparently, his newest flavor of the day, Drusilla, didn’t feel a whole lot differently. She was on her third marriage. And the world over knew why. Word must’ve gotten around like wildfire because to this day we still know the story.

One day Felix spotted her. History says that Drusilla was a very beautiful woman. And Felix thought to himself, “How can I steal her?” That’s how it went down. He spotted her, had an impulse, and didn’t deny it. He sent a servant to her saying, “I’ll make you happy.” When the servant arrived, she said, “Sounds great!” packed up and married Felix. Apparently, they must not have tried to cover it up or make the story go away. Their affair got to so many eyes and ears that it was even documented for all of history by a very well-known historian named Josephus. Clearly this was a couple who lived moment to moment, impulse to impulse, and feeling to feeling. And they didn’t care who knew about it.

And today’s flavor of the day was Paul. Paul had been sent to Felix after the Jews had just about blown up Jerusalem with hatred of him. So one day after they were bored with the food and were done for the day with the ocean and the sun of Caesarea, they thought, “What could be our next diversion?” And what popped into their heads was, “Let’s haul in the guy who’s promoting the next big idea. Let’s be a part of the hot new trend. Let’s hear from one of the big guns behind The Way. This should be kind of fun.” So they haul him in, but when they did suddenly all the fun vanished. Seriously just eight Greek words later Luke tells us that, “Felix was afraid.” (v. 25) And then he just shut down. It must’ve been quite the scene too because Luke got it down here for us verbatim. He said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” (v. 25)

It took just eight words for Luke to cover the distance between fun and fear. And it took just three great concepts for him to cover the massive distance between diversion to devastation. Paul taught about, “righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come.” (v. 26) That’s what made the fun turn serious. That’s what moved the presentation from interesting diversion to devastating truth. That’s what moved Felix to feel deep and sudden fear. It only took a presentation on righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come. Just those three central topics.

And we get that as Christians. All too well. How can we not? We know why Snow White and her apple resonate. We get why the ring tugged at Gollum in such an unrelenting way. Because we sense there are powers working on our souls that can’t be boxed in or willed away. We sense that self-control is sometimes only an empty illusion. That sometimes the pull is just too strong. The spindle calls. The ring pulls. The apple glints. We’ve felt the tug of illicit desires and the tidal wave of feelings. For food or sex or power. For whatever it may be. And we fear. We fear that in the most critical of moments that our self-control may betray us and we’ll be lost. Just like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. And we’re right to fear that our self-control will betray us. Because it has before. Heated words haven’t always been checked; diabetes can beckon; and click bait on the computer sometimes has had our number. And we know what that’s going to look like in the harsh light of the coming judgment.

Why am I telling you all this? Because it would be far too easy for us to just throw Felix and Drusilla under the bus. It would far to easy for us to treat them like a tax write off in April and say, “Well, that’s too bad for Drusilla. She should’ve handled her impulses better.” Or, “Tough for Felix and his failures. Sure glad I wouldn’t have withered under Paul’s preaching.” But that’s just not true. The fundamental difference between us and them isn’t our inherent will power or our amazing over-the-top self-control. The fundamental difference between us and them isn’t even that we never fear God’s coming judgment. We sometimes do.

The fundamental difference is what happens when we do. Felix and Drusilla got scared and shut down and sent away the preacher. The fundamental difference between us and the duo of Felix and Drusilla is that we tell the preacher to stay. We even ask him to go back to where Paul started. We ask him to preach to us about “righteousness.” (v. 25) That’s the concept that Luke actually lists first and first for a reason. I know that when a lot of folks hear that word they think about how we’re to be upright and good. And so what they think Paul really did in this sermon is bravely hammer on Felix and Drusilla the whole time, but folks who think that #1 don’t know Paul and #2 don’t understand what Luke here calls the “faith of Christ Jesus.” (v. 24) More on that in a minute.

For now I want to talk just for a minute about what the best of the secular world is saying about self-control. A recent study done at the University of Illinois shows that actively exercising willpower and fighting temptation is actually counterproductive. One of the lead researchers by the name of Dr. Dolores Albarracín, “suggests that the relaxed state is better at inhibiting the pull of temptations.” Forbes Magazine also recently put out an article entitled The Six Secrets to Self-Control. Amongst things like eating well, exercising, and sleeping they told their readers to quiet themselves with mindfulness and to “forgive yourself… intense self hatred and disgust… leads to over-indulging in the offending behavior… don’t wallow in it.”

In other words, the best of secular thinking says that self-control doesn’t come from self-control. You can’t command it. You can’t personally grow it. And if you try, it’ll only backfire on you. They’re saying self-control comes from a place of soul rest. It comes when guilt and disgust and self-hatred is gone. It comes when you don’t wallow in it. And that’s really true. Before I wrote this sermon I asked my wife, “When can you imagine saying no to that extra cookie?” Her response was immediate. “When I know I’m ok. When I’m content.”

Exactly. The Spirit is way ahead of the scientific world. Why do you think that Paul connects righteousness to self-control in his talk? Because when righteousness takes its seat in you, it’s gift is self-control. Do you know what Paul means by righteousness here? It’s a pretty rare word here in Acts. It’s used just four times, but it isn’t in Paul’s letter to the Romans. There it’s used well over thirty times. It’s a heavily, heavily used word. And for Paul it has an abundantly clear meaning. If he explained it once, he explained it 800 times. The righteousness Paul preaches about always comes through faith in Jesus.

I’m telling you. Paul explained that word backwards and forwards, sideways and upside down. He talked about where it didn’t come from (us!). And also where it couldn’t come from (us again). He talked about where it did come from (Jesus!). And he talked about how it had to come from there (Jesus again!). In fact, even right here in this Scripture we find that truth embedded. This new movement that Paul was a lead spokesman for in its early days was simply called The Way. Because The Way said there was only one way to be right before God. The Way said that if God is going to bring down that gavel in the coming judgment and say, “Righteous,” then it would have to be Jesus’ flawless self-control and holy discipline that was held up to God. The Way said that righteousness becomes ours through faith in Jesus.

And that is the fundamental difference between us and the marriage duo of Felix and Drusilla. That’s it right there. We don’t say, “I – unlike those two – don’t wither under the Paul’s preaching of self-control.” We do. What makes us fundamentally different is that by faith we run Jesus. That’s why nobody here interrupted the sermon earlier like Felix may have and said, “Pastor Jonathan, that’s enough for now. We’ll call for you again when it’s convenient.” You all wanted me to go on. You wanted me to bring you back to righteousness. Think of it. When God inspects your life and he gives it the ultimate white glove treatment, he won’t find a single lapse in self-control. Not a single blot or stain to your record.  All he’ll see is Jesus’ perfect record. Jesus. Jesus. And only Jesus.

And that is the perfect breeding ground for self-control. Science is right that a relaxed state is best at inhibiting the pull of temptations. But the Spirit is way, way ahead of science. You know how? The Spirit actually delivers that state in the gospel. When our hearts truly rest in Jesus’ righteousness with everything that that means. When we believe that we don’t have to make up for guilt. When we believe that bygones aren’t just bygones, but that for all intents and purposes and in God’s record they never even happened. When we believe that God thinks that way about us and because of that fights for us and works for us. When we believe in the righteousness of Christ. That is the ultimate relaxed spiritual place and the perfect breeding ground for self-control.

Because when our eyes are filled with his cross, they’re not at the same moment going to rove the beach looking for the best bikini. When our emotions find rest in him, strong words that leap to our minds never see the light of day. When our hearts are filled with his joy, they’re not going to be thirsty for one too many drinks. When our hearts are soothed with the medicine of the gospel, we don’t have to soothe ourselves with an overwhelming rush of sugar. When Christ’s righteousness is the juggernaut of our lives and we say, “yes,” to it, the magic of saying, “no,” to anything not related to it really does happen. Self-control really is just that simple.

Yeah, sometimes the ring may still pull. And, yes, sometimes the spindle may call and the apple still glint. But we already know the end to our fairy tale. Only true love could break the curse of the unending sleep of death. So True Love came. He burst into the times and places of our lives where the apple had been bitten or the spindle had pricked and he forgave it and covered it with his righteousness. There’s a part of me that wants to say out loud what is said at the end of every fairy tale, but it’d be far too cheesy for me to do that. Jesus’ righteousness is going to deliver a future reality far too great and far too wonderful to try to capture it like that.

And now that that reality has taken its proper and central seat in our hearts, we can live. Not just with consciousness. Not just with awareness, but with Spirit led life and faith. We can love each other deeply. We can dance with joy. We can find peace in trouble. We can wait patiently for the promises. We can share divine kindness. And now today, we can find strength to leave the poisonous apple with his tempting shine alone by basking in the perfect glow of Jesus’ righteousness. Amen.

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