Monday, October 16, 2017

Sermon on Matthew 22:34-46, for the 18th Sunday after Trinity, "Commander and Savior"

            In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Last Sunday, if you were here, we had a bulletin quote from Luther, that whether God’s Law or man’s law, the law should never bind further than love goes, and that love should be the interpreter of the law. “Where there is no love these things become meaningless and the law begins to do harm. The reason for enacting all laws and ordinances is only to establish love, as Paul says, Romans 13:10 ‘Love therefore is the fulfilment of the law.’” Luther’s reflection and St. Paul’s comments both echo Jesus’ words today. He shows the Law is given that we might love. Jesus sums up the whole of God’s law in two great commandments. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
            If we just reflect for a moment, we’ll realize that enforcing laws with excessive cruelty, goes beyond love. Laws applied inflexibly, so as to prevent compassion or to harm the innocent violate the principle of love. The apostle James reminds us: “Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). Jesus shows both perfect love and true mercy. He sets the boundaries of what love is and what is obedience to His commandments. Since they are His commandments, He is the Commander of Love. Jesus aims our love in two directions, when He sums up the commandments: “Love God” (what we might call the “vertical direction”) and “love your neighbor” (the “horizontal direction”).
            Whatever trap they had in mind for Jesus with their question, “which is the great commandment in the Law?” they had to agree with His answer. Famously, the Pharisees counted 613 commandments in the Bible. Perhaps they thought He would choose one among the many, and they could nail Him for whatever He left out. Instead, He summarized the Law so completely, that they had no response. But later they would still “nail Him” anyway for a different reason. Jesus perfectly grouped the 10 Commandments into what we call “the Two Tables of the Law”—the First Table: commandments about our relationship to God (vertical dimension); and the Second Table: the rest of the commandments, which are about our relationship to our neighbors (horizontal dimension).
            Jesus says, on these two commandments depend (literally “hang”) all the Law and the Prophets. Perhaps it’s just a happy coincidence, but when you join together these two dimensions, you get a cross. Jesus says all the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments. The weight of everything God commanded, required, and foretold, hung on these love commands. Jesus later says, after His resurrection, that all the Law and the Prophets testify about Him (Luke 24:27; 44). Jesus hung on this cross, He hung physically on a wooden post and cross-beam, but spiritually, the whole Law and Prophets hung upon Him. Their fulfillment and our life, hung upon the outcome of Jesus’ saving act. Unpin these two commandments, or remove Jesus Christ, and the whole thing comes apart. But in Him all things hold together (Col. 1:17), and Christ walked the way and suffered the death that atoned for us all.
            For our part, Luther warns us not to neglect the 10 Commandments, because they relate to all of our life. But make no mistake—they can’t save us. Thankfully, Jesus turns our attention, and the Pharisees’ to the very teaching that can save us. He asks them who the Christ, or Messiah is. Messiah is the Hebrew, and Christ is the Greek translation of the same Old Testament title, which means “Anointed” or “Chosen One.” Jesus knows they were waiting for this Anointed One, but didn’t yet know who He was. Some early Jews even debated whether there would be one, or even two Messiahs. One a king, and perhaps another a priest. But they all agreed that there would be the Messiah or Christ who descended from David.
            Agreed that the Christ was to be born from David’s line, Jesus puts them in an unexpected corner, by quoting Psalm 110:1. They knew this Messianic passage well. It was a Psalm King David wrote. And Psalm 110 is the most frequently quoted passage in the New Testament. It reads: The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet. It can be puzzling, so let’s look at it piece by piece, and then the whole picture. “The Lord said to my Lord”—two persons are conversing, “the Lord”, and “my Lord”. If we turn to the Hebrew, we get a  little help—the first “Lord” is the name of God Himself, Yahweh. And the second, “my Lord” is the Hebrew title “Adonai”. So YHWH said to my Adonai, sit at my right hand”. That first person is obviously God the Father. But who is “Adonai” or “my Lord” that God is speaking to? The Jews believed this to be the Messiah, or Christ. Jesus agrees, but then points out how unusual it is that David is speaking with respect and honor, by the title “my Lord”, to a human descendant of his, who is yet to be born!
            So let’s recap this: God the Father is speaking to the Messiah or Christ, whom David is addressing as “my Lord.” The Jews agreed that the Christ would be a human descendant of David. But how could they reconcile the fact that David is calling Him Lord? Do you address your grandchildren as “lord?” I hope not! It’s highly unusual—but it shows that David knew his Lord would rank above him, and be seated at God’s right hand, to rule over all His enemies. David was worshipping his future Savior, the Christ! What other conclusion could they come to, than that this was the Divine Son of God?! Jesus’ point is that this passage betrays David’s understanding that the Messiah or Christ was both human and divine, else he would not have addressed Him as “my Lord”.  The Pharisees didn’t miss this fact, but they had no response—once again. They couldn’t, or wouldn’t answer, and after this, didn’t dare test Jesus with any more questions. Jesus had an undefeated record against them.
            We know that they didn’t miss the connection Jesus was making for them, about Him being the Messiah or Christ, and that this Christ was divine—the Son of God. We know it, because in Matthew 26:63, when they arrest Jesus and put Him on trial, the high priest demands of Jesus: “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Enraged, the high priest charged Jesus with blasphemy (a mere human claiming to be god), and they declared Jesus deserved death. So by Jesus asking them, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is he? If David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” Jesus raises the conversation to the ultimate, the highest point. It all revolves around who He is. If they accept what the Scriptures reveal, they will find that Jesus is the One sent by God. But as we know, they chose instead to crucify Him. But even in this act of hatred, they only allowed Him to prove His claim that He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, by His rising from the dead. Something only God could do.
            So following the arc of our reading—Jesus answers their question about which is the greatest commandment, by teaching them the commandments of love—to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself. With perfect authority, Jesus is the good “Commander” of these “love commandments”. Hearing them, we immediately see their validity, but also the perfection they require. To love God with the full intensity of heart, mind, soul, and strength, is sadly a command we fall short of, even with our best efforts. And to love our neighbor as ourselves, as simple as it sounds, is a mirror in which we can see the countless faults and failings of our love toward those around us. Before God, the “Commander” of these good laws, we can only confess our guilt; all that we have broken.
            But by turning the conversation to the Christ, Jesus aims the arc of the conversation right to the target of Himself. Who is this Christ? In Him we find our Savior from guilt, sin, from broken commands. The great commandments are good and worthy of our whole effort, our whole life long. But we cannot be saved through them. If the conversation doesn’t lead to Christ then all their “spiritual efforts” are for nothing. But in Christ, our Savior, we are rescued from the depths of sin and death. In Jesus we are rescued from the impossible perfection demanded by the Law, into the grace-given salvation from Him. Martin Luther sums Jesus’ teaching up: “Be on your guard, learn God’s commandments and the gospel of Christ; God’s commandments teach what you are to do, which estates are pleasing to God and are ordained by him; but my gospel teaches you how to escape death and be saved. These doctrines will give you more than enough to study as long as you live, and no one will be able to master them completely.” Truly, this short passage of Scripture covers two of the biggest topics of the whole Bible—the Law and the Gospel—in a nutshell. And they show how Jesus is both the Commander of God’s Law, but also our Savior, our rescuer from sin and death.
            All the Law and the Prophets “hang” on the two “love commands”: “Love God” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” All these commands, requirements, and promises of God hang on Jesus Christ, hung on the cross, so that we might have His free gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Loved by this all surpassing love—loved by the One who Commands love, and who mercifully and generously gives it—we are saved by Jesus—the Christ, the Son of God, and Son of David. Amen.



Sermon Talking Points
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  1. In Matthew 22:46, we reach the last questions the Pharisees or any of the Jews dared ask Jesus anymore questions (about God’s Word). Why did they stop? When they gave up conversation with Jesus, what did they resolve to do instead? Matthew 26:1-5.
  2. In Matthew 22:34, the Pharisees seem either excited or impressed that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees (their religious and political rivals). They decide to try to test Jesus too. Does Jesus answer their question directly? (vs. 37-40). How does Jesus’ answer perfectly summarize all 10 Commandments? Read these commandments in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.
  3. From teaching about the Law in verses 34-40, Jesus turns their attention to the teaching of the Gospel (Good News) in vs. 41-46. What does the title “Christ” or “Messiah” mean? What was this descendant of David going to do? 2 Samuel 7:12-14.
  4. Psalm 110:1-4 is the most quoted passage in the New Testament. Jesus uses this well-known prophecy of the Messiah to discuss a surprising revelation—why would King David, address a human descendant of his, not yet born, as “my Lord?” What did this reveal about who the Messiah was? Why were they unable or unwilling to answer Jesus? What did they realize He was claiming? Compare to Matthew 26:63-68.
  5. How does Jesus’ revealing of Himself as the Christ, and the bringer of salvation to mankind, help answer our inability to perfectly keep God’s Law? When Jesus says David wrote “in the Spirit” (vs. 43), what does this say about the origins and authorship of Scripture? 2 Timothy 3:16. 

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