Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Call to Honest Surrender

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Matthew 5:21-37
As we begin this morning, I'd like to warn you that we are going to cover some uncomfortable topics--uncomfortable for all of us. As we do, remember the love and the desire to bring you forgiveness and healing that God bears for you.

Now, please pull out one of the pew Bibles and turn to page 565. We're going to look at a parable told by Jesus that relates to our Gospel lesson for this morning. Look at Matthew, chapter 21, and starting at verse 28, please read along with me silently:
[Jesus asks:] “But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said to Him, “The first.”
 Jesus told this story to demonstrate that it’s possible for someone to appear to obey God’s commands and yet be far from God. Jesus wants our hearts, minds, and lives to be aligned with the faith we confess.

Where are your heart, mind, and life oriented this morning?

Every Lutheran Catechism student has been taught that the Ten Commandments, God’s inviolable law for the whole human race for all time, is divisible into two tables.
  • The first three commandments command us, as Jesus sums it up in the Great Commandment, to love God completely. 
  • Commandments 4 through 10 command us, as Jesus also sums it up in the Great Commandment, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. 
In our Gospel lesson for last week, Jesus said that He had come into our world not to abolish these commandments, but to fulfill them. He went on to say that unless our righteousness exceeds that the of the Jewish sects known as Pharisees, none of us will even get a whiff of the kingdom of heaven.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day, you’ll recall, looked at the commandments and tried to discern what it was they absolutely had to do in order to obey them. They reduced relationship with God down to a list of dos and don’ts, effectively putting God on the same level they would put a street vendor with whom they might negotiate prices in the marketplace. The Pharisees, though claiming to revere and honor God, in effect, thought they that they could force God to bless them as they self-consciously adhered to the strict letter of God’s commands.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus challenges us to move beyond Phaisee-like religion to a trust relationship of love with God, our fellow church members, and the world around us.

Please pull out the Celebrate inserts so you can scan our Gospel lesson as we explore the passage. Jesus starts by saying: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire…”

We should note that Jesus’ version of the Fifth Commandment is the accurate one. In the original Hebrew, God doesn’t say, “You shall not kill,” but “You shall not murder.”

Yet Jesus’ explanation of the commandment hardly gets us off the hook. Evangelist Billy Graham’s late wife, Ruth, was once asked if, in their long years of marriage, she had ever considered divorcing her husband. Her reply: “Murder yes. Divorce no.”

She understood the reality to which Jesus is pointing us today: Physical murder is only the outward manifestation of a sin that occurs inside of us first. That sin is to be so angry with someone that we want to murder them, to take away a life that is only God’s to give and take.

Don’t be confused, though. Anger in itself is something that happens to us. It’s a basic human trait. Even God gets angry. Remember Jesus in overturning the tables of the extortionists in the Temple. (What I call His "temple tantrum.") The New Testament book of Ephesians tells us, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” In other words, don’t allow your anger to cause you to dehumanize the person at whom you’re mad and always seek reconciliation. Otherwise, we will have committed murder without raising a fist.

Slip down to verse 27 in our Gospel lesson. Jesus says: “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.”

As in the earlier verses, Jesus is telling us to look at more than the letter of God’s commandments, to their intention.

God has created sexual intimacy for one man and one woman in a lifetime covenant known as marriage. Lust, like anger, isn’t a bad thing in itself. In fact,  it’s the mechanism God invented to foster intimacy in marriage.

But, irrespective of the popular romantic myths of our world, lust need not be in control of our behavior. No one should be able to say with a straight face, “I couldn’t help myself.”

Jesus says that we are to be in control of all our impulses, not the other way around. In this, He echoes the words of God, when he told Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, “Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” 

Lust outside of marriage is a sin that can happen in more than just the sexual sphere. We can allow all sorts of desires to lead us away from being a committed married person. There are literally thousands of ways for husbands and wives to be unfaithful that don’t involve sex. Scholar Amy Oden writes that “we can create primary relationships with work, sports, or even the internet, rather than our spouse.” That makes sense to me. In fact, in every instance of adultery I’ve encountered as a pastoral counselor through the years, the adultery—the splintered loyalties, the lack of trust, the end of intimacy—occurred long before the physical adultery ever happened.

Please look at verse 31. Jesus says, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

These are hard words. They were even harder in Jesus’ day. In that sexist society, a man might come home and find a burnt dinner or no dinner and feel justified in divorcing his wife on the spot. Divorce was even more common then than it is today.

Here again, Jesus is pointing us to something deeper than the letter of the law. Ancient Jews thought that a person must be married. God’s kingdom only grew when couples had children. Singleness and barrenness were regarded as curses from God.

But Jesus ushered in a more eternal understanding of God’s kingdom. The Church truly grows not through the birth rate, but when people hear Christ’s call to repent and come to believe in Him. Marriage isn’t a necessity for Christians.

But if we do feel called to be married, Jesus says that it’s to be undertaken with seriousness. A woman once told me that when she married her husband, he was hardly the man of her dreams, and she figured that, if things didn’t work out, she could always leave him. But, over the course of the years, God worked in their relationship. In them both, God cultivated the kind of self-giving love that He gives us in Christ. To break that bond became unthinkable to them both. That's the kind of fidelity to love for God and love for neighbor to which God wants us to aspire each day of our lives, in every relationship of our lives.

Of course, we know of tragic situations in which divorce becomes the only option. Situations of abuse, adultery, or spiritual abandonment come to mind. And I’ve never known a spiritually healthy person who had been through a divorce who couldn’t also enumerate some things they brought to their former marriage that contributed to its demise. God understands and God can forgive our relational failures, just as He understands and can forgive all our failures. The Bible says that God remember that we are dust, created beings filled with frailty and sin.

But, in this teaching on divorce, as in today’s entire Gospel lesson, Jesus commands us to take the call to love our neighbors—even the neighbors with whom we have shared a marital bed—with utmost seriousness and respect.

Look now to verse 33. Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all…Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

And really, these final verses from our lesson, with their call to unswerving authenticity and openness, will do as a good summary of everything that Jesus is getting at in today’s lesson.

Remember that these words come to us as part of his Sermon on the Mount. It was directed not so much to the crowds who thronged around Jesus, but to His disciples, people like us who seek to follow Jesus. In it, Jesus is telling us about what it means to live in His kingdom here and now. We are to be authentic in our openness to Him and to others. Listen: This sermon explains the radical ethic of a people who know that they cannot keep God’s commands by their own strength or resolve, yet know that God is implacable in His demand that we keep those commands.

But we don’t despair! We come as imperfect sinners to a gracious God committed to healing our every ill and, if we will be honest about who we are and who we are not, will help us to become the people He calls us to be.

At another point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that it will be harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. The disciples are befuddled. They think that wealth is a sign of blessing from God. “Who then can enter the kingdom?” they ask. “With people, it’s impossible; but with God all things are possible,” Jesus says.

A committed Christian hopes to live with the kind of inner authenticity and commitment to love of God and of neighbor that Jesus describes in today’s Gospel lesson. But the point is that none of us will ever live like this if, like the Pharisees, we strive to prove ourselves spiritually.

Jesus has fulfilled God’s implacable law for us. Jesus’ call and command is to simply, day in and day out, surrender to Him. This is what He means when He says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus’ kingdom has come. He died and rose to make it so.

Surrender to Christ honestly and you will do the impossible: You will be a citizen of the kingdom of heaven in the midst of this world. The love of God will live in you and, even in a world of conflicts and challenges, you will be right with God, right with your neighbor, at peace with yourself. Amen

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