Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (Matthew 5:21-37)

Jesus cuts to the chase.  He doesn’t sugar coat His message to lure people in with fluffy words, only to hook them.  Right away, He gets to what His work is about by confronting us our failures by the Ten Commandments.

But He doesn’t quite follow the order given on Sinai (Exodus 20:1-20)—first our duty toward God, and then our duty to our neighbor.  He starts with the fifth, and He applies it in terms of the greatest amount of damage we can cause by breaking them.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’” This was the very one committed by Cain when the world was newly infected with sin.  But the murder of Abel didn’t just come out of nowhere. As James says, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:14-15)  Jealousy over Abel’s offering sprouted into hatred for his brother, and blossomed into Cain raising his hand against him.

The commandment forbids more than ending someone’s life.  It always begins with a devaluing of the other person and a justification for wrath.  That anger could be well-deserved (being cheated out of money, betrayed by family, etc.)  Yet in our anger, we rise up to the position of God and execute judgment: First of the person (“You fool!”) and then carry out sentence (“You must die!”)  Now, it doesn’t always get to the severity of shedding blood, but it is the same root sin in the heart. And this should scare us, that we have this vile potential within us—that we would remove the dignity given by God to other human beings.  It should also humble us because that very person we would write off as an idiot, God valued them so much that He gave the price of His only Son’s blood to save them.

Next, Jesus addresses sins against our nearest neighbor—our spouse (or future spouse): “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This is about breaking or cheapening the one-flesh union.  If you thought it was just about deed, then there are plenty of couples who have stayed faithful for years.  But the Sixth Commandment includes breaking that union in the heart.

If you think Jesus isn’t wise to our modern technology, you’d be dead wrong.  More than ever, this application of the sixth commandment is relevant because of the prevalence of pornography.  Several surveys document how rampant this is in a digital age where provocative images can be subtly viewed on handheld screens.  Many people talk about porn in terms of addiction, but Jesus doesn’t give that latitude. He says very clearly that every instance of being enticed by someone who is not your wife or husband is indeed adultery.  And despite the excuses we make, the damage caused by inviting erotic content into our lives or our marriage does real damage to our spouse.

Certainly, it can destroy you on a psychological and emotional level, because men objectify women’s bodies and women dream of the man who can satisfy them in ways their husband cannot.  But it’s even worse for the Christian who indulges in this private adultery because of the damage it does to their soul. Their conscience is at odds with the Word of God. The weak and wicked flesh tries to justify itself, tries to make excuses.  And the danger is real: if you are lured into living by the flesh, you will fall under the condemnation, “neither the sexually immoral…will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10). 

Just as not all anger leads to murder, not all adultery of the heart leads to divorce, but the immorality is all too real.  The one-flesh bond which God made man and woman for is tugged at and—if left unchecked—rent asunder. ““It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”  Here is another place where our modern way of thinking is at odds with God’s ways.  Whether we are looking for loopholes to get rid of a troublesome spouse, or trying to quiet our conscience after the papers are signed, we can’t deny God’s intent for marriage: That He desires husband and wife to live in lifelong commitment, loving and honoring each other.  Divorce is the consequence of our hardness of heart—his and hers. And here even the “innocent” party can come guilty of adultery.

The Lord chose these sins to open up His preaching because they are the ones which have the most collateral damage.  Their consequences can be felt. Some can’t be taken back. Others take years to rebuild trust. These are the things which hold our sins up before our eyes, and we cannot make excuses for ourselves.  We can’t pay God back for what we’ve done.

Where does that leave us?  All of us are found to be sinners, and we’ve been all-too comfortable with that.  We have zero merit to bring to God, but as we are emptied of our own righteousness, our faith brings us to the Lord.

At the beginning of service, we confessed that in two verses from the Psalms:

“Our help is in the Name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Ps. 124:8) and

“I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (Ps. 32:5)

Where is our help?  Not in what a good job or terrible job of obeying we’ve done, or keeping ourselves free from public shame.  It’s not in getting it right next time. Our help is in the Name of the Lord—in who He is as the Savior of sinners.  That is the Name which He put on you in your Baptism. He puts His Name on sinners, making enemies and wicked people into children of God.  What could possibly make up for the sins which we’ve done? Only the blood of Christ can pay so high a price to God. Only being crucified with Christ can free our conscience from the guilt we bear.  Only being raised with Him to newness of life and the help of the Holy Spirit can transform our desires away from dead works, into love for God and love for our neighbor.

“I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”  Jesus puts real healing in confessing your sins.  Not just in the privacy of your own heart. After all, you can see where privacy can lead you in gross sins and excuses for them.  He’s talking about confessing your sins to another Christian. Three places in the Gospels, Jesus attaches this promise to confessing your sins to another, usually your pastor: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound on heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” and “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven him” (Matt. 16:19, 18:18; John 20:21-23)  This isn’t about power on the part of any man; it’s about you speaking the truth of your sin, exposing yourself before the Lord, and hearing His words of grace and peace. Truth be told, we’re more nervous about exposing our wickedness to another person, and we’d rather “deal with it” ourselves.  But the Lord knows this, and also knows what we need to truly heal our souls and bodies.

For several months, I’ve put it in the bulletin that private confession and absolution is available, but I want to show you what exactly it is.  Turn to page 292 in the hymnal. There are several suggestions for preparing your heart to make the most out of it—reading the Ten Commandments, praying penitential psalms.  It’s not that these make the forgiveness any more or less effective, but they sharpen the focus of what this is about and who God is for you. Then, you see a dialog between you and the pastor, along with a general confession.  Then, there’s a space where you may (and please do take advantage of this) verbalize your sins.  Then, without excuse for them, you simply say, “I am sorry for all this and I ask for grace. I want to do better.”

Then comes the best part, the unexpected part, because if you exposed yourself any other place in life, you would be looked at differently and possibly ostracized.  But before the Lord and His minister, you hear, “God be merciful to you and strengthen your faith.” Can you believe this?! Then you hear a forgiveness that’s better than another person can give; it’s the Lord’s forgiveness—talking directly to you, who have just laid it all out there knowing that you only deserve temporal death and eternal punishment.  And He has forgiven you! Alleluia! Praise the Lord! So, consider this your personal invitation to call me and set up a time for confession, so you can have the Lord’s help to turn from your sin and grow in faith.

What this teaching of Jesus also shows us is that the Church and this congregation need to be a place where we’re not surprised to see ourselves and others as sinners with broken lives.  Your pastor doesn’t talk down to you; these words of Jesus hit home. I also don’t avail myself of confession as often as I need to. Life gets in the way and I make excuses.

Here in this place, what unites us is our common help in the Name of the Lord, so we support each other, looking not for how trouble-free our lives and others’ should be, but how Jesus, who saves us from our sins, is at work to restore fellowship with God and healing from our past (or present).  We’re here to support one another in the aftermath of sins we can’t erase from our past—murders, adulteries, divorces, oath-breaking—but we know that the Lord has taken the record of debt that stood against us and nailed it to Jesus’ cross. So, with the help of God and His power to bring good out of evil, we care for each other and bind up each other’s wounds.

Just as Jesus knows how real our sins are, may we all also know how real a Savior He is for us. Amen.

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