Sermon 6th Sunday after Epiphany
Text: Matt. 5:21-37
Grace, mercy, and peace to us from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
OK, let's quickly summarize the main points of the Gospel text from Matt. chapter five:
Jesus reminds us of the 5th commandment "You shall not commit murder".... but he adds that if you get angry with your brother, you're just as guilty before the law, and deserve the fires of hell.... Then there's what appears to be some legal advice about giving offerings if your brother has something against you, especially if you think he's going to take you to court... Jesus also takes us to the 6th commandment "you shall not commit adultery", but if you look lustfully at woman, you're just as guilty, and deserve the fires of hell... And if you get a divorce outside unfaithfulness... that puts you back in the adultery department.... and back to deserving the fires of hell again... Oh, and some very stern warnings about making vows.
Well... and warm, cheery, Epiphany greetings to you too!
Yes friends, this is one of those Gospel texts that comes along every once in a while that can leave us squirming in the seat so badly that we might be thinking to ourselves: "If this is the Good News, I'd hate to hear what the Bad News is!" Because... seriously now, let's be honest, when we first read this text, there's so much Law given here, we are left kind of scrambling to find some hope of the Gospel.
And (at first glance anyway), the only glimmer of "hope" we seem to find to avoid those fires of hell that Jesus refers to... is some bizzare (and rather scary) reference to the surgical removal of the hand or the eye!
This passage is from the Sermon on the Mount, which in of itself has been the subject of a lot of debate in theological circles. One of the most common overarching questions that is bantered around is: Is the Sermon on the Mount Law or Gospel? (I think the answer is BOTH>)
However, make no mistake, this particular passage by itself is entirely Law. However, by the same token, to assign this passage to Law, talk a little bit about it, and just leave it there and walk away, would be a rather short-sighted.
In context, a look at the surrounding text that Matthew writes can shed some additional insight for us. Specifically, the verses just prior to this passage (which was part of last week's gospel text) is helpful to our understanding what our text this morning is telling us.
Verses 19 and 20 read: 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.
The scribes and the Pharisees... the reference to these highly revered men is significant. Although it's not specifically stated, it's a pretty safe bet that some of these men were in the audience when Jesus spoke; especially since we know that Jesus is drawing a multitude and has by this point, started to make a name for Himself. So, the context of the passage tells us that Jesus is taking aim to all who boast in their righteousness (like the scribes and the Pharisees) and giving them a major reality check.
Murder, we all know, is very VERY serious business... Our laws say that if you commit premeditated murder, the state can lock you up for life, and in some cases and situations you can be put to death for it. But notice what the Lord equates hatred to: murder! He said, "You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire.
In the eyes of God, having hatred in your heart towards that neighbor or that family member...having hatred in your heart towards that co-worker...is just as murderous as taking a knife to their throats. We can't just look at the physical act of murder... there's a "heart problem" behind it.
Divorce is at pandemic proportions in our society; more than half of all marriages end in divorce within the first six years and that has been the case here in the U.S. for quite some time now.
Statistically (very sad to say) it isn't much better within the walls of Christ's church. Granted, some marriages (sadly) do end for reasons that are related to adultery or abandonment, but many do not. Many end for very selfish reasons – citing the oft quoted excuse "irreconcilable differences". But regardless of the reasons, one thing is for certain: God hates divorce! He hates what is does to families; he hates what it does to children; he hates what it does to society; he hates what it does to His Church.
Again we can't just look at the physical act -- there's a "heart problem" behind that too.
Jesus takes aim at those whose who commit adultery, but especially those who think they have kept the 6th commandment. 27 "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 lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Doesn't get much plainer than that... Having lust in your heart towards that other person carries the same eternal penalty as actually committing the physical act. It's possible that Jesus has the story of David and Bathsheba in mind here, as a reminder of where the problem of adultery, murder, and all sin have their root: What lies in our hearts. I am also reminded of what Pastor Wingfield has mentioned before in Adult Bible Class: what if it were possible to have your thoughts projected upon the wall... any volunteers? Not me, thank you.
But we can see what the Lord is doing here: He's not just reciting the Law merely for the sake of whacking us in the head about what the Law says. (Sometimes there's certainly a place for that – we DO need those reminders...but the truth is, anybody can do that. )
Part of what Christ is saying this is: Sin is a drastic problem...with drastic consequences... and a drastic problem such as sin calls for taking drastic measures. Shrugging our shoulders at our sin and just saying, "well, no one's perfect" is not an acceptable response. God doesn't wink at sin, and neither should we. Jesus said: If your right eye (or right hand) causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.
Jesus is painting a very graphic picture here to get our attention. He's saying here that if we have a problem of sinning with our eyes or our hands, then we need to get serious about guarding ourselves from such temptations. Take serious action! Set boundaries... Police your TV viewing habits... or shut off the TV entirely... If you have a subscription to a magazine that you know is kind of "borderline" and is leading your thoughts in places you know you shouldn't be going...you should probably cancel it! Use that internet filter on your computer! Don't mess around with sin! Our human nature always wants to try and see how close to the edge of the cliff we can get without falling off. It's a spiritual form of Russian Roulette. Don't play that game!
Yes, sin is a drastic problem which has drastic consequences. We don't have to look very far to see that, do we? The morning news paper... the evening news...are all vivid reminders of incredible destruction that sin as wrecked upon us, our world, our nation, our community... Or closer to home we might think about a neighbor or family member that's made some really bad choices. But of course the best place to see the consequences of sin... is a good honest look at the failings of our own lives. Maybe our failings from just these past few days.
Let's take a closer look at verse 25 which reads: Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. There is certainly very sound, practical words of advice offered here, as I'm sure any good attorney would agree. But I submit that there is also a broader picture Jesus is talking about here. You might have picked up that Jesus is using similar language here that he used in telling the story of the unrighteous servant, who was forgiven of his great debt by his master, but then went after a fellow slave and tried to make him pay of a much smaller debt. Jesus is not just talking to those who might be having legal problems. He's talking to each one of us... When you stop think about it....in addition to a legal problem... we have a heart problem that we can't fix. Each and every one of us. We have an accuser? You bet we do! Who is our accuser?
The old devil... certainly. But we have another accuser too ... the Law! In the civil realm, laws are, of course, in place for our protection, to guide us... to help us stay on the straight and narrow...to keep us out of trouble. And we certainly thank God for that. And yes, we should indeed take precautions to avoid the snares of sin, like I mentioned a few moments ago, but even there, that won't fix the sin problem of our hearts.
Throughout the pages of Scripture, God's Word reminds us such as in the Psalms and in the words of Saint Paul that the Law is good. But there's another side to the Law... a cold and cruel side. The Law points an accusing finger at each and every one of our greedy, self-centered, hate-filled, murderous, adulterous thoughts and actions... and pronounces “GUILTY” to each and every one of us. Satan knows the Law too... and he uses the Law against us as well doesn't he? He whispers in our ear things like “What if so and so knew about THAT sin...hmmmm?” “What makes you so sure God will forgive you for THAT?”
Martin Luther, and later C.F.W. Walther tell us in their writings concerning Law and Gospel that the Law will not and can not save us. The Law only accuses. Luther wrote that “the Law produces thirst; it leads the hearer to hell and slays him”. So... in our text Jesus, is telling us to come to terms with our accuser. So how do we do that? In of ourselves, we can't. We're absolutely powerless in facing our accuser by ourselves, because our accuser is absolutely correct. We're guilty. Like the Pharisees, we cannot point to what we've done and claim we have haven't broken the 5th and 6th commandments about murder and adultery...because we have...and not just those commandments... but all of them! In one form or another we break them all... every single day. We need an advocate to face our accuser.
You see, our heavenly Father looked down at His once perfect, beautiful creation that the first parents Adam and Eve made a complete mess of. Not bound by time, God saw the messes of all humanity down through the ages... He saw the messes that each of us have made for ourselves... and he saw of course... a drastic problem with drastic eternal consequences... and God in His great love and mercy for us... took drastic action.
He lovingly sent His only begotten Son to carry our sins to the cross...allowed Himself to be sacrificed; His sinless body pierced and His innocent blood spilled... for us.
He rose again from the dead, victorious over sin and death for all eternity... and because of His great love He is not only our Savior, He is our advocate. He is the fulfillment of the Law that we could never keep.
He clothed us in His righteousness...how? Through our baptism... He covers our naked, sinful, guilt and shame and proudly declares you to be His precious child that is NOT GUILTY....because of the blood of Jesus Christ. That friends, is how we come to terms with our accuser... through the cross... and ONLY through the cross. So when the devil reminds you of your sin, Luther's advice is simply agree with what the law says. Something to the effect of:
"Yes, devil, I admit that I surely deserve death and hell, and just as surely as I have confessed my sin before God, I have an advocate. His name is the Lord Jesus Christ and where He is, there I will be also." Just like what we do each Sunday as we confess our sins and receive God's joyous and gracious absolution. That's what it's all about: simply agreeing with God's Word about our true selves... and cling to Christ and his cross for His tender mercy.
Yes, the heavy hammer of the Law in today's text accuses us, reveals our filth....makes us thirsty... and drags us to hell... but the Gospel of our Lord Jesus... His work on the cross for us, Luther says, quenches our thirst... comforts us...heals us... and brings us to heaven.
And now the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, keep our hearts and minds on the risen Christ Jesus. Amen.