Sunday, February 06, 2011

We've Had the Revolution...Now What?

[This was prepared to be shared with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Matthew 5:13-20
This past week, we have witnessed a kind of revolution happening in Egypt. It looks as though this revolution will result in the end of a long period of iron fisted rule. But assuming that the pro-democracy demonstrators there are successful, there will be questions the people of Egypt will be asking of themselves soon. They’re questions like, “What now?” “How do we go forward?” People who go through revolutions always wrestle with questions like these in their aftermath.*

Last Sunday’s Gospel lesson, taken from the opening verses of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, was a place where Jesus laid down an absolutely revolutionary life, one that puts the world’s standard operating procedures on their heads.

In it, Jesus described people as blessed the world might see us unfortunate, at best. Jesus, it turns out, wasn’t just laying down God’s law in the Beatitudes, but also describing a way of life that seeps into the minds, hearts, and wills of those who cultivate daily closeness to Jesus Christ. Even if we have questions about all that though, because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross, because of His resurrection, and because of the new life we know He offers to all who repent and believe in Him, we hear the Beatitudes and we want to sign up for the Kingdom of heaven.

But after Jesus, through His death and resurrection, works this revolution of transforming us from the enemies of God we were when we were born into the friends of God we become when we are born from above, we have questions: What now? How do we go forward? Jesus starts to answer those questions in today’s lesson. Please take out your Celebrate bulletin inserts and look at today’s Gospel lesson.

Now, as you read the opening verses of the lesson, you’ll have to keep the Beatitudes in mind. In verses 13 and 14, Jesus is saying, “You blessed ones are the salt of the earth. You blessed ones are the light of the world.”

With that in mind, read verse 13 along with me silently, please: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”

Most of us love salt. It enhances the flavor of food. But salt is also a great preservative. Those who walk with Jesus preserve what is true and godly. Without moralizing or judging, true followers of Jesus remind us all of God’s will, God’s love, and God’s ability to express His power through weak people surrendered to Him.

Ernest Gordon was a young Scotsman studying Philosophy and History when World War II broke out. He joined the military and was captured by the Japanese in the summer of 1942. He and his fellow prisoners were given rations of one lump of rice each day. They were tortured daily and were worked incessantly, under blazing sun and torrential rain. The brutalization included savagery and thievery among the prisoners themselves, who stole food from other prisoners too weak to defend themselves. Gordon, suffering from multiple diseases, was sent to a holding hut, one where all those certain to die went. One prisoner though, dared to do something that no prisoner had previously done. He cared for weaker prisoners. He took Gordon under his wing, giving him massages, encouraging words, and the occasional smuggled banana. Improbably, Gordon survived and through his benefactor something else happened. Though he had never been interested in God, Gordon came to follow Jesus Christ. He would later say, “'Faith thrives when there is no hope but God.” Folks, the man who cared for Gordon, a Christian, was salt of the earth. He preserved the kingdom way of life. In a place of horrors, he preserved the life of love and compassion and righteousness Jesus sets us free to live. That’s the kind of life we’re called and commanded to live too.

Read verse 14, please: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Over the past several weeks, several of our lessons have featured variations of the phrase, "light of the world." In the Old Testament, we’re told how God called the people of Israel into being to be a light to the nations, showing the world the one true God of the universe, preparing for the arrival of the Messiah. Jesus comes and we’re told in the New Testament that He is the light of the world. In today's lesson, Jesus is saying that those who follow Him—you and me—are to give light to the world. His fellow Jews would have found Jesus’ imagery unmistakably clear. The temple in Jerusalem was built on a high mount. From it, God’s people exalted God before the world.

Now, we Gentile Christians who, the New Testament says, have been grafted into the people of God by the grace given in Jesus and our faith in Him, are to lift Jesus up before all the world. Faith in Jesus Christ is a public thing. Jesus commands us to be lights in this darkened world; we’re to let everyone know about the new life that only comes through Jesus.

That can be a hard way to live. Many Christians, in fact, are like the young man desperate for a girlfriend who asked an unpopular young woman he didn't much like to go steady. She was elated until he said, “But let’s not tell anyone else about it. It’ll be our little secret.” “Don’t keep your relationship with Me hidden,” Jesus says. “Live it out loud.” If we keep our faith in Christ a personal thing, doesn’t Jesus have every right to think that we’re ashamed of Him?

In what Jesus has said so far, we see that we are blessed—saved by the undeserved, unearned grace of God—in order to be blessings to others. But this amazing grace does not bring an end to the commands— laws—of God given in the Old Testament.

Read what Jesus says next, starting at verse 17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished…”

So, what law is Jesus talking about? We know that the Old Testament contains dietary laws that God rescinded in the New Testament. We know that ritual laws revolving around sacrifices are no longer needed because Jesus is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world, once and for all.

Jesus here is referring to the moral laws in the Ten Commandments. These laws are inviolable for all time. Want to know the will of God for your wallet, your mouth, your sex life, your soul? It’s all there in the Ten Commandments and they haven’t changed in 3500 years. Jesus says they won’t change until heaven and earth pass away. They remain as protective fences meant to steer us always toward life at its best.

But you and I know that we can’t successfully obey these laws. The law can’t save us from sin and death. Only Jesus can do that. So why does Jesus still say the law is important?

Lutheran Christians have considered this question and said that there are three purposes that the Law still has.
  • First, the law acts as a curb on the sinful impulses of all people, even before they know Jesus Christ. 
  • Second, the law drives us to Jesus for grace and forgiveness. When we’re honest, we acknowledge that while we understand God’s commands, we don’t keep them. Our inborn sin prevents us from keeping them. Desperate, we turn to Jesus, seeking the same mercy He showed to the repentant thief who hung on a cross next to Jesus and to whom Jesus promised, “Today, you will be with Me in paradise.” 
  • But for the followers of Jesus, there is a third use of the Law. It’s a guide for us. Having been freed by grace from sin and death, the Ten Commandments become a road map for us. God told the prophet Jeremiah to tell His people centuries ago: “stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies…[to] walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” God was telling the people to remember His commands for them and so be led back to Him. When God’s law drives us to Jesus, it leads us to the place where life is found, where rightness with God, with our neighbors, and with ourselves is found.
Now, look at the last verse of our lesson. Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This passage used to trouble me a lot! The Pharisees were righteous in their own eyes, but not in God’s. They thought that they were great people who had conquered their own sin. But, in their arrogance, they completely lacked the love for God and neighbor that the Law commands.

So, what, I wondered, did Jesus mean by seeming to tell all His followers to try to out-righteous the spiritual snobs He called hypocrites and whitewashed tombs?

Then I realized something: We will be more righteous than the Pharisees—we are more righteous than the Pharisees—when we are humble enough to let the shed blood of Jesus cover our sins and wash us clean. We will be righteous, right with God, when we rely completely on the God we know in Jesus Christ, and not our own wisdom, not our own pretended goodness.

For twenty years, I’ve been doing my taxes using the TurboTax computer program. And every year, I make the same mistake. I’ll be working on some part of my return and figure that I know something better than the program. I input data where I think it should go and totally mess things up. If I could get back all the hours I’ve spent on the unnecessary, grief-inducing side roads I’ve created for myself, rather than simply following the prompts the program gives, I probably could have done something productive with my life.

The Law is still important. It contains prompts from God, pointing us not only to the right way to live, but also to the One Who wants to lead us into His Kingdom. Unless we let the law lead us each day to Jesus, it will condemn us. But if we let it drive us back to Jesus whenever our lives go off course, we will be right with God, in sync with His purposes for our lives. We will be the salt of the earth who preserve what is godly and good. We will be the light of the world who show others the way to Jesus. We will be graced. We will be blessed. The Kingdom of heaven will be ours. Amen

*This approach to the sermon, how to live after the revolution, is that taken by N.T. Wright in his commentary on this text, found in Matthew for Everyone. I so liked his approach, finding that it so clarified what Jesus is doing in the sermon, that I couldn't resist using the same approach myself here.

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