Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37, for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, "Law and Gospel"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. In the Gospel reading today, we hear a section of Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount, where He teaches on the 5th, 6th, and 8th commandments in particular. The commandment on murder, adultery, and lying. Jesus’ teaching will confront us on many angles and leave us all convicted of our sin. He is rooting out our sinful human tendency to try to escape from God’s law by various tricks. Sometimes we try to narrow down God’s command into a category that doesn’t apply to us, so we don’t recognize that we’ve disobeyed. In particular, when we think of the law only outwardly, and not applying to the heart and mind—or when we try to find loopholes that will justify our behavior, saying the law doesn’t apply to our situation, so we can still feel we are righteous. But instead of allowing that, Jesus closes all the loopholes, leaving us condemned by the law. The law finds us out, and there is no escaping it. If the Law was our hope for salvation, we’d indeed be lost. We look for a way out of under the law, but as we’ll discover, there is only one Way, and that’s for Jesus Christ to come under the law, and redeem us from under the law.
And one thing that is unmistakable is Jesus’ deadly earnestness about sin. Careless and hateful insults are deserving of hellfire. Anger makes us liable to judgment, and the sins of the heart are condemned just as justly by God as acts of violence. Lust in the heart is already adultery, and worse than losing an eye or hand, is the thought of our whole body perishing in hell. Divorce is not permitted except on the very narrow grounds sexual immorality, and marrying a divorcee is adultery. Oaths sworn to God must be performed or not taken at all. God has no use for broken promises.
If we thought the law was only going to catch the “big offenders” who have actually killed a person, or who have physically committed adultery, or have told blatant lies, we were mistaken. The crushing force of the law is a weight that neither we nor our ancestors could bear. And yet we are forced to admit the meticulous goodness of God’s law. Not only should I never do the unthinkable act of murder, but so also should I never rise up in anger against a brother or sister and insult them, mock them, or hate them. I know that my heart should be pure of all those evil and hurtful thoughts, and my mouth and tongue should be clean of bitter and callous words. I understand that if I have wronged someone, it’s my duty to quickly go and reconcile with them, confessing any wrong.
We admit that God intended for marriage to be one man and one woman faithful to each other for life, faithful not only with our bodies, but with our eyes, thoughts, and words. We are to honor God and one another by keeping the marriage bed pure; keeping our intimate affections for our spouse; and devoting our thoughts to faithfulness and self-giving toward them. That our words would continue to declare our unchanging love for them. This too, we know is good, and that strong marriages make for stable families and strong society.
We admit that lies, slander, and gossip have no place in our mouth, but that we should always speak the truth in love. We should guard and protect our neighbor’s reputation as we expect that ours would also be protected. We admit that to swear an oath is meaningless if it is ever broken, and that we must not take such a casual attitude about making and breaking promises. We should not take oaths, but simply be true to our word, which should reflect our integrity, trustworthiness, and honor.
All these things we know, and yet we look back on our life and are ashamed at how badly we’ve failed. It would be incredible if anyone could say that after close examination of their life, by such a thorough reading of the Law as Jesus taught, that they could find nothing wrong in themselves. Or that they could conclude, as a rich young man once said to Jesus, “All these things I have done since my youth.” He was deceived about his own righteousness, and thought that he could stand before God based on his own law-keeping.
If we would have any such self-deceptions, God’s law drives them from us. We must acknowledge we’re not judged by the sins anyone else has committed, but we’re compared to and held accountable to God’s standard alone. His law is the measuring stick, and Jesus keeps the law raised to its full height, while our sinful nature wishes to keep pulling it down. We hope that by lowering the law, we can get it to match our “own level” of righteousness. If I’m about this good (raise hand for measure) in my own estimation, then it would be good if the law stands about here (lower hand a notch). But that’s telling ourselves that “All these things I have done since my youth.” But when Jesus comes and holds God’s standard up to its full height, and shows it’s pervasive look into our thoughts, words, and actions, we feel impossibly small and sinful underneath the law. And then we’ve gotten the message.
This insight helps us understand the verses just before our reading, that we heard last week. There we find some Gospel and some hope for our terrible situation. Let me read them again, from Matthew 5:17–20, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
A couple of observations: Jesus isn’t getting rid of the law or negating it, but fulfilling it—we’ll come back to that in a moment. Secondly, God is not pleased with any tampering with His law, relaxing or lower it, and teaching others to do the same; it’s all going to be accomplished. And finally, Jesus is saying that an even better righteousness than that of the scribes and Pharisees is needed to get into heaven. Their righteousness, by the way, was of the self-confident variety, like the rich young man who thought he’d kept all the commandments since his youth. The problem is Jesus says even this righteousness doesn’t cut it. So where does the true and saving righteousness come from? None other than Jesus Himself, who fulfills and accomplishes all the law for us!
You see, the Law is astonishingly hard and demanding if we study it in its fullness, with Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to cut us some slack, and write off sins. He kept the law at its fullest height, and proceeded to fulfill and accomplish every last thing it required. He obeyed the law down to the last dotting of the ‘i’ and crossing of the ‘t’. Jesus “played by the rules” and won the promise that no one else could—the promise of eternal life. The Law is not a cruel, impossible code, but rather a reflection of God’s very goodness. How so? Jesus reflected the highest value and love for life, in keeping the 5th commandment, “You shall not murder.” The furthest thing from using violence, force, or hatred to accomplish His Father’s will, Jesus even bowed His head under the murderous hands of those who crucified Him. And the way that He honored human life was evident from His care for the lepers and crippled, His raising from death the only son of a widow, and His refusal to strike back at those who wounded Him. He sought reconciliation even with His enemies, even when He had done no wrong, He came to us and gave everything.
Jesus reflected the highest value and love for sexuality and marriage, in keeping the 6th commandment, both in His single life of celibacy, and in His defense of marriage and in particular upholding the rights of the women who stood to suffer the most. He protected them against the fallout of easy divorce at the husband’s whim, by only permitting divorce for unfaithfulness. He also showed mercy for the adulterous woman who was going to be stoned, and turned away her accusers, before telling her to “go and sin no more.” And in an even bigger sense, not just in Jesus’ earthly life, but in God’s whole experience with the Israelite people, the 6th commandment reflects God’s complete and amazing faithfulness, even to an unfaithful people. The OT book of Hosea is a living parable about God making a covenant like marriage with His people, and sticking with them, even when they were unfaithful and went astray. It’s a beautiful story of redemption, about how God tenderly brings back His wayward people. And Jesus continues that faithfulness today to His bridegroom the church. Marriage faithfulness is an echo of the greater faithfulness of God to His people.
The 8th commandment reflects Jesus’ highest honor for truth; it was Jesus who declared  “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” He said that “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37). Telling the truth can sometimes be painful, and Jesus did so, even when it exposed the hypocrisy and lies we tell ourselves. He taught that we should not take oaths or swear by heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or by our own head, because when God swears, when God makes an oath, it is impossible for Him to lie (Hebrews 6:13-20). God wants us to know that His promises and His purpose are unchangeable, unlike our failing human promises.
So Jesus upholds God’s Law because it reflects God’s character and goodness. And when Jesus says in the last verse of Matthew 5, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, He asks of us the impossible. We’ve plainly seen that we could never reach the perfection of God’s Law. So how can we be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect? With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible. It is only by the undeserved gift of faith. When God grants us to believe and trust in His Son Jesus Christ, we receive as pure gift, the perfect life of Jesus lived for us. He is perfect as His heavenly Father is perfect, and “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16).
The Good News, the Gospel, is that Jesus lived perfectly in obedience to God’s law; not as an impossible example to follow, to fill us with despair, but He is the Righteous One of God, keeping the law in our place and for our sake. All the sins and broken commandments that mark your record, are paid for in full by Jesus’ death on the cross. Your guilt and shame is washed away in the cleansing of His blood. All of the good that you left undone, the thoughts, words, and deeds that should have daily been yours, have been forgiven, as surely as God’s Word of promise, and Jesus’ perfect obedience is now counted as yours. We need His true righteousness, His true perfection, the only record that can stand before God’s examination. And when we have faith in Him, God counts that record as ours. We pass under Christ’s examination. That is what it is for God to justify us by faith in Jesus. All who stand in Christ Jesus, and repent of their sins, face no condemnation, because Jesus sets us free from our guilt and gives us His innocence in its place. Not only does this free us from the impossible burden of the law that none of us could bear, but it saves us by grace—the free, undeserved gift (Acts 15:10-11).
So hear God’s law in all its fullness and goodness, and see in it the reflection of your sin and God’s goodness. Repent of your sin; then hear the Good News of the Gospel, that Jesus Christ has paid for your every sin, and His righteousness has already been examined and found perfect in the eyes of God, the True and Only Judge, and He has made this known by raising Jesus from the dead and making Him both Lord and Christ (Acts. 2:36). To God be the glory for His free gift of forgiveness and life! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Which of the commandments does Jesus teach on in Matthew 5:21-37? How does Jesus show the full extent of the law? Why are we tempted to reduce the extent of the law? Why is this a “dead end” solution? Galatians 3:10-14; James 2:10-11
  2. What must be our hope for salvation instead? Galatians 4:4-5; Matthew 5:17-20. Describe the extent of the 5th commandment, regarding murder and the value of human life. Confess your sins of thought, word, and deed according to the commandment. Now state positively the good that you ought to do, according to this commandment.
  3. Describe the extent of the 6th commandment regarding sexuality and the sanctity of marriage. Confess your sins of thought, word, and deed according to this commandment. Now state the good you ought to do…
  4. Describe the extent of the 8th commandment regarding lies and the sanctity of truth. Confess your sins. Now state the good you ought to do.
  5. How did the apostle’s regard the possibility of keeping the law to God’s satisfaction? Acts 15:10-11; Romans 7:1-14.
  6. How does Matthew 5:17-20 point us to the One who did keep the Law to God’s satisfaction? How thoroughly did He do so? How was Jesus’ life a reflection of all the goodness of the commandments? How do we see in them God’s holiness?
  7. How do we attain the righteousness that is greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees, or those who build their confidence in their own righteousness? Galatians 2:16; Romans 8:1-11. How did God declare Jesus innocent and vindicate His life and death on the cross, given freely for us? Acts 2:36. Describe how the sweetness of the Gospel heals the painful surgery of the Law, and what it means to have new life in Christ.

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