Sermon given at Matins Sunday 14 February 2010: Lust

14 February 2010 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence 

Readings: Exodus 33:17-end 1 John 3:1-3

I wonder if any of you have been lucky enough to receive a Valentines greeting today. If you have, hopefully it will have been in reasonably good taste!

We are all aware though that we live in a world where love and romance is often cheapened by attitudes to sex which degrade or diminish our humanity.

During this month, in my sermons at Matins, as we prepare to keep Lent, I’m looking at the subject of sin and more precisely at the seven deadly sins: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride.

My colleague, Dr Nicholas Sagovsky will continue the series into the month of March.

Last week we looked at how the list of the seven deadly sins had developed, dating back to St John Cassian in the 4th century, and revised by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th.

And we saw how in the medieval period, Dante, in his epic poem “The Divine Comedy” focussed on them in detail as his characters journeyed through hell, purgatory and to paradise.

He considered the deadly sins as offences against love; grouping pride, envy and wrath as perverted love; greed, gluttony and lust as excessive love of earthly goods and describing sloth as insufficient love.

It was the sin of SLOTH that we then examined in some detail; discovering how serious the consequences of turning a blind eye to wrongdoing, or failing to take action when another person is in need, can be.

This week we move on to the sin of LUST, defined in the Popular Oxford Dictionary as “Animal desire for sexual indulgence” or “Strong and excessive desire especially of a sexual nature”.

If you visit some of the websites which deal with the deadly sins you will find that there are people who run league tables on which sins are the most popular in the sense of being those most committed.

Perhaps not surprisingly lust comes out on top; twice as popular of its nearest rival, anger!

Today as we think about this sin, I’d like us to look at what the Bible says about lust and sexual immorality; then briefly at the Church’s attitude to sex down through the centuries; and finally to focus on how we can develop healthy attitudes and practices in our own lives and encourage our society in this positive direction.

The bible doesn’t refer very often to the word Lust itself, and interestingly, in some contexts lust has nothing to do with sexual longing, but rather describes pleasure in general. However, there are plenty of references to the behaviour we associate with lust and in particular to fornication and adultery.

The first and most obvious reference is in the Ten Commandments, Exodus Ch 20 “You shall not commit adultery”.

Then in Leviticus Ch 20 we find the punishment to be metered out to those found guilty of adultery and it is very harsh ~ the penalty is death.

Having said that, there are several stories in the Old Testament, of well known characters, including King David, falling into this sin, but escaping such punishment.

Many of the stories also illustrate that some of the Old Testament characters had pretty insatiable sexual appetites. Read about Jacob in Genesis Ch 29 & 30 or about King Solomon in
1 Kings Chapter 11 where we’re told he had 700 foreign princesses among his wives and 300 concubines!

When we turn to the New Testament, teaching on sexual morality becomes rather more demanding.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is quoted as saying: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart”. He goes on, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”

Then in the Epistles we find St Paul in particular has a great deal to say about sexual immorality, and urges the early church communities to which he is writing, to cast out any members guilty of such sin and to have nothing to do with them.

The Church throughout it’s history has needless to say taken this Biblical teaching seriously, with the result that at times it has got particularly hung up on the subject of sexual sin.

Also, in the early centuries of the church, Christians became heavily influenced by Greek attitudes to the physical body, which were very negative. So sexuality and even marriage came to be regarded as unfortunate consequences of the fall and best avoided by those who would aspire to a pure life.
By the Mediaeval period, desires of a sexual nature were seen by some as in danger of leading them away from God. And in Dante’s Purgatory those guilty of lust, were made to walk within flames to purge themselves of sexual thoughts and feelings.
Negative attitudes towards sex continue in the 1662 Prayer Book, where we find in the introduction to the marriage service men referred to as brute beasts with carnal lusts and marriage being the way of containing these desires! 

In our own day too, we are all aware that the Church continues to struggle with its attitudes towards sex, particularly in how we view homosexuality.

So amidst all this, how do we come to a healthy attitude towards sex that doesn’t automatically link it with sin?
But at the same time, what do we as a Church have to offer to a society where promiscuity is rife and sex is often seen as a commodity?

If we return to the Bible once more, we find alongside its denunciation of the sins of lust and adultery, positive attitudes towards sex conducted within loving relationships and positive attitudes towards our bodies.

The Genesis account of creation reminds us that men and women are created in God’s image and are commanded to go forth and multiply!

Jesus, in the Gospels speaks of it being God’s will that a man and woman become one flesh and commends the permanence of such a relationship.

And in his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul speaks of our bodies as being the temple of the Holy Spirit. They are precious gifts from God and therefore not to be abused or treated in a degrading way. 

We are also helped towards a positive attitude towards sex by thinking about the corresponding virtue to lust, which is chastity.

Chastity is a word which can easily be misunderstood. The chastity belts of bygone ages which prevented women from having sex while their husbands were away fighting wars; and the vows taken by nuns and monks of poverty, chastity and obedience have led to the notion that chastity is about refraining from sex.

But chastity is not necessarily about abstinence, it is about fidelity ~ remaining faithful to one person.

It is when people come to see sex simply for their own pleasure and gratification that they are likely to be led into serial relationships and one night stands which so often lead to exploitation and hurt and possibility disease and unwanted pregnancies.

We can see then how deadly this sin of Lust is when it leads to broken lives and broken families, which all run counter to God’s will and the fullness of life that he desires for us all.

We mustn’t confuse lust though with the natural desires which we as human beings have be given as a gift. Those desires though need to be met in stable and loving relationships which are as much about giving as about receiving.

It is the encouragement and support of these loving relationships that should be at the heart of the Church’s mission and ministry in the 21st century. 

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