Sunday, February 16, 2014

Tough Talk from the Tender Savior

[This was prepared to be shared with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, during worship this morning.]

Matthew 5:21-37
You know, we Lutherans generally follow a plan of Sunday morning Bible readings called the lectionary. It's structured in three-year cycles, so we get the same sets of lessons--Old Testament, New Testament, Psalm, and Gospel readings--every third year. A smart pastor, knowing that Jesus' words, comprising today's Gospel lesson from Matthew, was coming up, would plan their vacation on this Sunday.

But I'm not a smart pastor. I'm preaching on this lesson.

So, as we begin this morning, be warned that we are going to cover some uncomfortable topics--uncomfortable for all of us. Uncomfortable for me. As we do, remember the love and the desire to bring you forgiveness and healing that God bears for you.

Now, please pick up a Bible and turn to Matthew 21:28. We're going to look at a parable told by Jesus that relates to our Gospel lesson for this morning. It says:
[Jesus asks:] "What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work today in the vineyard.' 29 " 'I will not,' he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. 30 "Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go. 31 "Which of the two did what his father wanted?" "The first," they answered.”
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, bodies, wills, and lives to be aligned with the faith we confess.

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

I’m not asking if you sinned yesterday or today.

You did.

So did I.

The question is how our lives are oriented today: Are they oriented oward Christ and the new life He gives to those who repent and believe in Him?

Or toward the world or our own preferred behaviors and ways of life?

Despite the sinful detours we may unintentionally take in our daily lives, is it clear to God that our lives are pointed toward Christ and heaven or toward sin and hell?

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 sect 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 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 away from Pharisee-like religion to a trust relationship of love with God, our fellow church members, and the world around us. He does this by confronting us with the full implications of God's moral law. And when we see the impossibility of keeping it completely and purely, we are driven to the foot of the cross of the Savior Who fulfilled the law for us, died to take the punishment we deserve for failing to keep it, and then rose from the dead to open up new life and eternity with God to all who repent and believe.

Please turn to our Gospel lesson, Matthew 5:21-37. Jesus starts by saying: "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca, ' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

First, we should say something about Jesus mentioning hell here. Someone asked during this past Wednesday night’s Discipleship 101 class why we Lutherans seemed so hesitant to talk about hell. I don’t know why exactly. I suspect it's because we want to make Jesus acceptable to a world bent on doing its own thing.

But Jesus, the One we call God and Lord, certainly didn’t hesitate to warn us about the perils of hell, of eternal separation from God. We shouldn’t obsess about hell, of course. But we also shouldn’t be in denial about it either. According to Jesus, hell is real, a place of eternal sadness and regret.

But to the core point Jesus makes here: 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.”

But if you're issuing a sigh of relief right now, 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.

And, I'm afraid this commandment is violated far more often than we may imagine. I know of parents, for example, who, when their children displease them, give the kids the silent treatment. Until their anger is assuaged, their kids don't exist to them. This is murder and it's wrong. The same can be said of spouses who use the silent treatment.

Don’t be confused by Jesus' words here, though. Anger in itself is something that happens to us. It’s a basic human trait.

I would go so far, that our capacity for anger even reflects the image of God in which every human being is created. Even God gets angry. Remember that Jesus overturned the tables of the extortionists in the Temple, enraged by their exploitation of God’s house of prayer and of God’s people. 

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, please. Jesus says: "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully 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, so that we see and understand 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 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.” Given weak human will and our inborn sinfulness, we know that this is just another way of telling us, place your life under God's control.

Please look now at verse 31 now. Jesus says, "It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”

These are hard words. They were even harder in Jesus’ day. In that 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.

But however hard it is for us to hear, 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.

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, even if what they contributed was little more than being naive.

One of the great errors we've made in the history of the Church is to hold up some sins as more horrible or more worthy of condemnation and censure than others. God doesn't see things that way! God understands and God can forgive our relational sins, just as He understands and can forgive all our sins.

The Bible says that God remembers 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, "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all...[please slip down to verse 37] Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”

And really, these final verses from our lesson, with their call to unswerving authenticity and openness, will serve as a good summary of everything that Jesus has been telling us today.

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. 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 with Him, 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 aspires 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 do so in our own power.

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, filled with the very life of God Himself. Amen

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