Sixth Sunday after Trinity (Matthew 5:20-26)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Sixth Sunday after Trinity + July 28, 2019

Text: Matthew 5:20-26

How different Judaism was from Christianity!  Of course, there’s the main difference: believing that Jesus is the promised Messiah (Christ).  But when you accept Christ, all of Scripture suddenly must be reexamined through the cross.  Jesus says to the Jews of His day, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” (John 5:39)

To give you an example from our Vacation Bible School this past week, we first talked about God’s way with Adam and Eve in the Garden.  There were two trees in the Garden—the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  They were free to eat of any tree—including the Tree of Life—but not the other tree.  We know what happened, that they turned their hearts away from God’s Word and disobeyed that one simple prohibition.  When God is shoving them out the door, He says, “Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (Genesis 3:22)  That living tree with its life-giving fruit was barred for man, so that he would not avoid the consequence of his sin—death.

But when we read this as Christians, we see the promised deliverance.  The Son of the Living God was lifted up on the cross—an instrument of death penalty, made from dead wood—and by that He gave life to the world.  1 Peter 2:24 explains, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”  Death was borne by the Living God, and the very instrument of His dying brought life to dying men and women.  So in John’s Revelation at the end, the Tree reappears in full leaf, bearing constant fruit, “The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Rev. 22:2)

I have to say, however, one of the most difficult things to resolve between the Old and New Testament is what to do about the Law once the Gospel has been revealed.  Jesus takes up this question in His debut sermon:

“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.

There are two extreme approaches to the Law that Christians have taken:

  • First, there’s no more need for the Law because Jesus fulfilled it all.  The Lamb of God has taken away the sin of the world, and we are new creations in Christ, so what good are the Ten Commandments to us?

“This one party taught and held that the regenerated do not learn the new obedience (that is, in what good works they should walk) from the law; nor should this doctrine in any way be urged on the basis of the law, since they have been liberated by the Son of God, have become his Spirit’s temple, and hence are free, so that just as the sun spontaneously completes its regular course without any outside impulse, they, too, through the inspiration and impulse of the Holy Spirit spontaneously do what God requires of them.” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, VI 2)

That would be great, if it weren’t for the sinful flesh we still live with.  But it’s that flesh and the devil around us that—even for genuine believers—causes us to disobey and despise God’s Word.  We still need the Law to show us our sin, because we still need our sin to be put to death.

This is what you see in many progressive churches that embrace immoral behavior in the name of “love.”  They will say the Law (and most of the Old Testament) is obsolete. A favorite verse of this approach is Galatians 3:25-28: “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian [the Law], for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  With this “liberation” from the Law in mind, this passage is used to justify everything from women’s ordination to transgenderism.

There’s a milder (but no less dangerous) version of this that considers the Gospel a watered-down Law.  Sure, God was serious when He commanded these things, but Jesus has given us a pass to make mistakes.  “All you have to do is believe in Jesus, and then you’re good!” The way this shows is when we tell ourselves, “Ah, I live a pretty good life.  I’ve done enough.”  When your walk with the Lord is about doing the minimum to “get into heaven”—I come to church now and then, I take communion when I really need it so it feels more special, I read my Bible when I have time (aka rarely).

  • Second, the other extreme is when the words of Jesus, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” are taken as a call to action, a personal challenge.  You could call this works righteousness, or a holiness movement.

The fallout from this approach is people despairing that they’re “not good enough” to be a Christian because they struggle with sins and have a messy past.  If Jesus is commanding us to obey the Law even stricter, then what hope is there for those who have been divorced?  What of those whose criminal records remind them daily of their unworthiness?  If you take it to extremes, can those who smoke and drink even be saved?

  • But neither of these extremes is correct, because both of them have no need for Christ.  If Christ negated the Law for us, then maybe God was unjust for putting people to death before?  If Christ came to ramp up the requirements for personal holiness, then what good was His all-atoning sacrifice on the cross?
  • “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.”  The Law and the Prophets expose our sin, our uncleanness, the reason we die, and most of all our need for them to be fulfilled for us.  They lead us right to the manger, the preaching of the Kingdom of God, Calvary, and the empty tomb.  Our sins do alienate us from God and from one another, but Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets brings reconciliation.
  • In Him, our errors—which are many—are not overlooked, but atoned for.  That’s why we are baptized into His death and resurrection.  It’s life for every sinner who believes!  Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
  • How does this change our lives?  Jesus uses several Commandments as an example, starting with the Fifth:
  • “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘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.”
  • God is not very interested in outward appearances because He looks at the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  The sinful man looks at the command, “You shall not murder” and thinks he’s avoided it because he doesn’t have criminal penalties.  But God goes deeper to the place where murder starts—in a cold heart toward a fellow human being.  This is where we need the real work.
  • So, God doesn’t just work an outward, civil righteousness, but works change in the heart.  If you are prone to angry outbursts, God works to give you a forgiving, reconciling heart toward those who offend you.  If you’re an alcoholic, God gives you a heart that leans on Him rather than the escape of a buzz.  If you delight in checking out fine women in summer clothing or fantasize about how another man would treat you, God is at work to give you eyes and a devotion only for your spouse.

This is God’s will and God’s work for you in Christ, to daily drown your old sinful nature, and to rise to live to God not just with your outward actions, but from a heart that is being renewed after the image of your Creator (Col. 3:10) Amen.

Sixth Sunday after Trinity (Matthew 5:20-26)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
Sixth Sunday after Trinity + July 8, 2018
Text; Matthew 5:20-26

This week, our Vacation Bible School will center around the Ten Commandments.
For centuries, the first thing those learning the Christian faith encountered has been the Ten Commandments.  We think they are elementary, and therefore easy to do.  After all, they sound so simple:

  1. You shall have no other gods.
  2. You shall not misuse the Name of the Lord your God.
  • Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
  1. Honor your father and your mother.
  2. You shall not murder.
  3. You shall not commit adultery.
  • You shall not steal.
  • You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
  1. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
  2. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

We would like the Commandments to be tame, manageable.  As easy as following the civil laws like where to park and the proper way to conduct business.
The Gospel reading for today is part of what’s called the Sermon on the Mount (page 809-811 in the pew Bibles).  The very first part, most of us are familiar with, the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”  Then Jesus compares Christians to the light of the world and salt of the earth.  In the part read today, He begins to explain the Law and its relation to the Kingdom of Heaven.  He takes the Ten Commandments, and ramps up the holiness.  If you thought the thunder and lightning of Mount Sinai were scary, listen to how the Lord explains the Fifth Commandment:
21“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22But 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. 23So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come 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. 26Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:20–26)
“Thou shalt not kill,” we heard Moses say, and we feel pretty good if we haven’t actually ended anyone’s life.  (It’ s harder for the soldier or peace officer to acquit himself.)  A commentator writes, “Jesus says that the commandment extends to…resentment and anger against someone. Such anger is itself a violation on man made in the image of God. God cannot accept our offering if we are angry with our brother (vv. 23–24)”[1]
The Law of God is like juggling plates.  You’re handed one, and that’s ok.  Two is a little harder, three a little more difficult. Then, four, five, six, all the way to ten.  You are going to drop and break them.
Just like this incident at Mount Sinai where the Law was first given:
15Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written. 16The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets…19And as soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the [golden] calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it.” (Exodus 32:15–20)
If the Commandments are so elementary, then it should be easy to keep them.  You work hard to keep them diligently.  So what’s the problem?  It’s the reality of your sin.  David says, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Psalm 143:2)  None of us has the ability to keep ourselves together and avoid breaking the commandments.  They speak not just to our actions, but also the thoughts and intents of our heart.  We are going to break the Law, and when it does—as often as it does—our confidence can’t be in our obedience to the Law.
The Law of God is also like charming a snake.  You think you’ve got it under control and suddenly it lashes out and bites you.
Just like this:
4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” (Numbers 21:4–6)
You know better than trying to master all Ten Commandments.  Maybe you’d be content to conquer one or two that you really struggle with.  You want to be more loving and patient toward people, and you’re doing well for a while.   You’ve got a problem with internet porn, and you think you’re finally stronger than you used to be.  You try really hard to be content with what God has given you, and for a while you have a time of clarity.  You think you’ve gotten the upper hand on your weakness.
But then it happens again.  The old worry takes over your heart and you make hasty plans without prayer.  Your weak flesh is led away by the faintest reminder and those old evil fires are kindled again.  A friend of yours makes a big ticket purchase and you curse God because it isn’t you who gets something new and shiny.
The Law cannot and will not be mastered by any of us sinners.  It will always exercise its power over our members.  Remember the experience of even St. Paul:
18For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:18–24)
When you run up against the holy Ten Commandments, your only hope is this: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 25)  It is this glorious Gospel that Jesus brings you to after you have been broken by the Law.
As you stand amid the proverbial rubble of the stone tablets, the plates which you could not juggle, hear the Word of the Lord from Colossians 2:
13And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13–14)
The Lord has taken your sin away from you.  He took it to the cross and died your justly-deserved sentence.  You are forgiven and free.
To you in your pitiful, frustrating weakness, bitten by the snakes of sins you thought you could master, this is the Gospel of the Lord to you:
14And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14–15)
Those bitten by the serpents in the wilderness were commanded to look up to the bronze serpent and live.  Look up to Jesus hanging on the cross, naked and shameful, yet clothing you with His holiness; weak, and yet giving you strength; defeated, giving you a share in His victory over sin and Satan and the grave.
Beloved of God, Christ says, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  He has done it all for you to give you the righteousness though which you may enter the Kingdom of heaven.  This is how our Lord explains the Law in light of the Kingdom of heaven, so that “no human being may boast in the presence of God”[2] and as many as believe may rejoice in the gift of salvation which Jesus alone gained for us.  As St. Paul writes in Philippians 3:9, this is what it means to “be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ.”  Amen.
[1] Iain Campbell, “Opening Up Matthew”
[2] 1 Corinthians 1:29