Harrowing Of Hell
March 24, 2024

Why Do I Do What I Do Not Want to Do?

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To watch the sermon click here.

Have you ever had this sense that there’s just something wrong with you? I’m not suggesting there is… Just the opposite in fact. I know how great you are, and it’s not only because you are a soul deeply loved by God, but also, because I know you, most of you, and so, I know you’re extraordinary.

But sometimes, at least for me, I have this nagging feeling that there’s just something wrong with me. That there’s a rock I can’t get out from under; a hill I can’t crest; a habit I can’t kick; a quirk I can’t eradicate; a feeling I can’t purge, a slight I can’t let go of…and I look in the mirror and I wonder why? Why do I do the thing that I do not want to do?

That was a question stirring in the minds of the people who stood by the side of the road as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. That was the emotion rolling around in their hearts as they stood there, waving palm branches crying: “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is the one that comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!”

It’s a fabulous word, Hosanna. It’s the kind of word that just rolls off the tongue: Hosanna! Easy to shout: Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!… So positive, so joyous. Which is why it is easy to overlook the linguistic origins of this word.

Hosanna comes from the Hebrew hoshi’ana, which means: Stop, help, save us, please! Stop, help, save us, please! We could interpret the calling out of “Hosanna” by the people lining the road to see Jesus in a few ways: as a corporate plea from a people under the thumb of Rome, or as an individual cry for transformation.

Today we’re going to focus on the personal and particular that prods us to explore “Hosanna” through the question: “Why do I do the things that I do not want to do?”

It’s a question that is itchy and uncomfortable. It’s the kind of question that we might not want to wrestle with, but we are heading into Holy Week, which is the perfect time to consider this question within the context of who we are and how we live our life.

For some this may provoke dramatic revelation, something freighted with trauma, or addiction, or unresolved grievances that go way back. For others, it may be about habits that we have fallen into that diminishes our personhood, or devalues people we find ourselves in relationship with.

This question about doing what we don’t want to do may drive us into the shadows of our own psyche, or the traumas of our own past, or the secrets that we indulge in the dark corners of our lives. It may reveal the deep ruts carved into the gray matters of our mind by the dopamine hits we bow to, by the grievances we pamper, or grudges we catered to, or anger we coddled. Or maybe by video games, or You Tube videos, or pornography, or voyeurism, or eating, or sex, or speeding down the street, or grabbing the phone when it beeps, in the hope of another little hit.

The season of Lent is the time Christians set aside to ask ourselves about the things that we do that we don’t want to do; to be honest and self-reflective about what a path forward, a path through, might look like; and to wonder by our own efforts we can fill in the neurosynaptic trenches we have inadvertently dug so deeply over a lifetime.

It can be very hard to do. Mostly, we backslide, we return to that thing that we obsess over, or lash out at, or habitually return to, and we wonder why? Maybe psychologists can tell us. Maybe we can even answer the question ourselves. But sometimes knowledge is not enough.

In Anna Lembke’s book Dopamine Nation, she tells the story of Jacob, a man addicted to dysfunctional Internet relationships. Anna is a psychiatrist, and Jacob a Silicon Valley scientist. They both knew why he did what he did, yet together they could do nothing through knowledge, medication, or willpower to change the habits he had developed.

Then, one day, in utter self-loathing and frustration, after everything else had failed Jacob dropped to his knees, and cried out to God: Stop, help, save me, please. It was the only answer left to the question: Why do I do what I do not want to do? Over time, Hosanna returned him to himself, and to the God who has always loved him.

My hope, today, is to encourage you to grab the word shouted by the people of Israel as they stood on the side of the road:  Hosanna. Hosanna in the highest. My hope is to fill your mind with Hosanna in a way that allows you to carry it from Palm Sunday to the foot of the cross, because that is where Jesus is inviting us to meet him, so, he can save us. It is where we will hear his response to our plea: Stop, help, save us, please.

The cross was not what the people of Israel were looking for that first Palm Sunday, just the opposite. But, it is where Jesus knew they needed to go if they were to heal. The cross returned to them to the Spartacus Rebellion, where 130 years prior, Rome imprinted into Israel’s corporate memory the horror of a cross adorned with a dying person every 40 feet between the city of Rome and the city of Capua. 6000 people slowly suffocating on crosses for 130 miles.

And then again, closer in time, 20 years earlier there was the nightmare of the Galilean Rebellion where 2000 people were crucified across towns and cities throughout Galilee. Jesus’ response to Hosanna was to go toward the cross, toward the crisis, toward the habit, toward the grief and transform it.

Now I want to say here that I’m not suggesting that the people of Israel put themselves in the sight lines of another Spartacus. What I am suggesting is that, individually, we have to go towards that which binds us in order to pass through it and be liberated.

Jesus knows that to break free from the things that we do that we do not want to do, we must be in it, and there he will meet us.

Our role model here is the apostle Paul. Paul was a spiritual heavyweight, a champion of the Jesus dojo. He prayed, he fasted, he tithed, heck he probably gave all of his money away. Paul was a person of extraordinary courage. Three times he was nearly beaten to death by rods, and once he was stoned and left for dead. He spent 5 ½ years in jail, over three different imprisonments and experienced a hurtful fissure with his friend Barnabas.

Paul knew the spiritual topography of the human heart. He was also capable of going straight to the deepest caverns of himself, to dip his feet in the cool tributaries of his soul. And yet, he still cried out: “Why do I do the things that I do not want to do?” Even Paul shouted, Hosanna! Stop, help, save me, please!

It is for this reason that Paul gets on his knees, as noted in his First letter to the Corinthians proclaiming: “Thanks be to God who gives me the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:57). The only way out is down a dead-end street, where we arrive at the end of our own agency, confronted by our own inability to stop doing the thing that we do not want to do. The way through only appears when we are on our knees.

The point of Holy Week is the realization that our transformation can only be found when we give up. When we admit that there are things that we do even though we don’t want to do them, and there is darn near nothing we can do about it except go to the cross. Running towards, not away; owning, not blaming.

And when we arrive at the cross we get down on our knees, and we set our hands on its hard surface, and whisper: “Hosanna. Stop, Jesus! Help, Jesus! Save me, Jesus! Please.”  We give up, we abdicate, and admit that we need Jesus.

And if we don’t go to the cross, we may never stop doing the things that we do not want to do; continuing to lose the battle against whatever binds us, whatever deep ruts we have carved, whatever traumas we have endured, whatever dark corners we have crawled into, we will remain there until we meet Jesus at the foot of the cross.

So, my hope for you this Holy Week is that you consider what is the thing that you do that you perseverate on, the grievance you haven’t let go of, the habit you can’t kick, the dopamine hit that you crave; contemplate it throughout the services of Holy Week, and then bring it to the foot of cross on Good Friday.

And then, when invited up to the cross, come, and bring what you cannot beat, and give it up to Jesus, meet Jesus in it, meet Jesus there, and whisper “Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest.”

Go to the cross. Then wait for resurrection. For there is no resurrection if there is no cross.