Sunday, August 28, 2016

Chaste Church: Sermon on Matthew 5:27-32

As we've been exploring the Sermon on the Mount in the past few weeks, Jesus has invited the crowd to live the blessed life – to be ready for the kingdom of God to arrive. He's reminded them that the kingdom people are the real Israel – they make a difference in the world, like salt and light. And they haven't abandoned the Law of Moses. But he's come as the New Moses to take us deeper. He's signing us up for the new covenant, where God will take away our hard hearts and give us soft hearts inscribed already with the Law. 

And he gives us the Spirit of God. The Spirit lets us race to the Law's goal faster than the Law gets there, because the Spirit gives us that power. So although we glance back to the Law to make sure we're going the right way, we don't live under it; we live ahead of it, in the Spirit. So where the Law told us not to murder, Jesus shows us that the Spirit will cure our anger, which is the root of murder – and if we follow the Spirit, we can't fall afoul of the Law.

So now Jesus turns to the next greatest crime after murder: “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery'” (Matthew 5:27). And few people have any objection to that. Certainly the crowd that day didn't. They knew that was the Law, and they respected it. And they knew it was the main sexual sin any of them faced, since most people in Jesus' day were married in their teen years. And even today, most of those who commit adultery will usually agree that adultery is generally wrong, even if they think their case is something special. But Jesus drives us deeper than the words of the Law; he wants us to see what it reveals about God's heart and God's vision for healthy life in his kingdom.

But Jesus forces us to ask, “Why? Why not commit adultery? What's so special about marriage that adultery is a problem?” And so we have to know what marriage is, and what our impulses for love and intimacy are for. 

Jesus isn't shy about telling us, either. Elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew, he gets into a debate with the Pharisees about this topic. They're interested in wrangling about the rules; he's interested in what God's plan was from the very beginning. “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What, therefore, God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).

Our culture is dreadfully confused about marriage – even more than the Pharisees ever were. We know that. But Jesus tells us what we need to know. He explains marriage by pointing back to the first one. Marriage is a special kind of union created by God. It isn't something we came up with. It isn't an invention like the car or the telephone or the electric guitar – something we can redesign at will, something we have authority over, to do with as we please. Marriage is a divine creation, not a human invention. So he sets the definition and the rules, not us. And because he created it, we're meant to think of it as a gift, not a burden. It's something he gave because he loves us. It's a gift from our Creator, and it reaches back through time to those first hazy memories of a world without sin.

Jesus tells us next that marriage is built on difference – the union of complementary people. Marriage is built on the fact that some of us were created male and others of us were created female. That's just what marriage is: a union that involves man and woman. Jesus said it. And God defined it. No matter what the courts or the laws say, a union without both man and woman can't be a marriage. That's not unfairness; that's just the way it's defined. Marriage is meant for something that only a man and a woman can do.

Jesus goes on to tell us that marriage is important – so important that God said it takes precedence over the next greatest bonds in society, those tying a person to his or her parents. A man departs from his parents in order to be bound to his wife. Marriage becomes the primary human commitment for those who enter into it, so it has to be something pretty serious.

And then Jesus makes clear: there are two people involved in this. Not one. And certainly not three or four or five. Polygamy was never God's design for marriage; it was tolerated for a while, but that 'while' is done and over with. Because marriage involves two, just two. Now, the word 'two' isn't in the original Hebrew. By the time Jesus is having this conversation, some Jews had been noticing that, when Noah brought animals onto the ark that were 'male and female,' the same words God used earlier in defining marriage, it was 'two by two' – and that meant that marriage should be two, too. Jesus agrees: marriage is for two, one man and one woman.

But these two don't stay merely two, the way a business partnership between two people does. Jesus explains, again quoting Genesis, that the two – the man and the woman united in marriage – become one flesh, a new creature that's meant to last as long as the people who make up its parts do. In marriage, we become one new thing, an organic unity. And in that one new thing, that one flesh, is the one and only setting where God's good gift of human sexuality was meant to be celebrated. Outside of that, it turns rotten and dangerous – fast.

If Jesus had needed to, he could have gone on. He could have pointed out how the next verse showed that one of the reasons for marriage was “to be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Marriage is the setting where that's meant to happen; no other will do. Marriage is what all those desires were meant for. It's where our physical parts work together like one body, one compound organism, for a common goal: the creation of new life. That's not all marriage is for, of course. Eve was created because it wasn't good for Adam to be alone; he needed companionship, he needed an equal who'd be 'bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh,' he needed a helper suitable for him.

Jesus also could have reminded us that marriage is a living parable. Paul talks about that, and so did the ancient prophets. They said that, when God gave the Law at Mount Sinai, he actually had a wedding with the nation of Israel (e.g., Ezekiel 16:8). He rescued the damsel in distress in Egypt, and at the mountain he married her. Paul takes that up and speaks of the relationship between Christ and his church as a marriage, or leading to a marriage, like we see in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 19:6-9). That's what every marriage is meant to point toward. Every marriage, Paul shows us, is created as a parable pointing to that reality of God and his people (Ephesians 5:31). And that's what makes marriage so holy, so sacred, so important.

And that's what makes adultery so dreadful. Adultery is unfaithfulness to your spouse, or accommodating some other person's unfaithfulness to his or her spouse. It isn't just a property crime. If marriage is a parable of God and his people, adultery is a parable of idolatry – which is exactly the way the prophets talk about it. Adultery is a betrayal of sacred promises, a crime not just against another person but against God. It's a horrible misuse of the gifts God has given us. And that's on top of all the harm it causes in real flesh-and-blood human lives – not just of the betrayed husband or wife, but friends and family torn asunder when the 'one flesh' gets stuck to other flesh in ways it never should.

And so now that we understand what marriage is, Jesus can ask us, “Where does adultery come from?” And the first answer has to be, “Desire for another.” It comes from the eyes, and ultimately the heart. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality” (Matthew 15:19). Before adultery is ever a body issue, it's a heart issue. And so Jesus tells us in this morning's passage, “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). 

Jesus is warning us that lust – which many people in that day and age, and in ours, too, thought was harmless – is what you'll see in adultery's baby pictures. Lust is where it begins. Lust isn't innocent, like many people back then believed. Lust is a hankering for what isn't yours to have, yours to dream about – Jesus uses the same word that you find in the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor's wife” (Exodus 20:17). And, it deserves to be mentioned, premarital sex was widely viewed as a sort of adultery in advance – so lust is a problem between two singles just as between people otherwise attached.

Note, by the way, who gets blamed for lust. Among Jews in that day, if a man lusted after a woman, the blame was placed mainly on the woman – maybe she didn't have her hair wrapped up in a headscarf, or maybe her arms were bare, or maybe she was talking to a man besides her husband. But Jesus says, no, the blame for lust falls mainly on the one doing the lusting.

And when Jesus talks about lust, he isn't talking merely about attraction. As one commentator says, “Jesus refers not to noticing a person's beauty, but to imbibing it, meditating on it, seeking to possess it.” The intent is what matters. Lust is about intentionally cultivating the temptation – looking with that intent, not just to appreciate beauty in an aesthetic sense, not just being attracted to in a way that can rightly lead to marriage, but intending to dwell on someone in ways inappropriate to act on, to fuel one's imagination. 

Jesus isn't advocating being repressed; he's talking about keeping control of your desires, stopping them from latching onto forbidden things. He's teaching us to avoid reducing people to objects – physical objects for our sexual desires, or emotional objects to fulfill our wistful longings. He's teaching us to treat people as whole people, with an intimacy in thought and in action kept only in proportion to our commitment.

Jesus says that lust is serious – so serious it carries eternal consequences. So much so that you should be ready to go to any lengths to avoid it – better to live without eyes or hands than to surrender to lust and perish in hell (Matthew 5:29-30). Now, he isn't literally telling us to rip out our eyes or cut off our hands – because that isn't where lust comes from, anyway. It comes from the heart. And it's the heart that needs cured. Which, thank God, is exactly what he offers the Spirit for – to train us to avoid lust so that we won't even need the Law's rules on adultery. And the Spirit brings us together with other mature believers who can help keep us accountable.

And while Jesus is on the issue of marriage, he takes aim at another challenge: divorce. The Law had said, long before, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce” (Matthew 5:31; cf. Deuteronomy 24:1-4). And elsewhere in the Gospel, Jesus gets into a debate with the Pharisees about divorce. 

See, in Jesus' time, there were two main groups of Pharisees, called the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel – Paul studied, before his conversion, under Hillel's grandson Gamaliel, maybe you remember. They agreed about plenty. They agreed, for instance, that marriage vows involved a commitment to provide food, clothing, shelter, and intimacy. 

But one difference between them was how they read the passage in Deuteronomy that Jesus is quoting. It explains that one basis for divorce was 'a matter of indecency.' Shammai said that that's some kind of sexual sin, of the sort laid out in Leviticus. Hillel, on the other hand, interpreted the phrase as actually offering two different reasons: 'indecency,' on the one hand, and 'any matter,' on the other. So they offered 'any-matter' divorce – just any reason a man can think up.

And believe me, they came up with a lot of reasons. The early rabbis recorded in Jewish writings list plenty of reasons why men divorced their wives, or why wives asked courts to make their husbands divorce them. They said he could divorce her if he decided her head was the wrong shape, or her nose was too big or too little, or she had missing teeth, or she was too tan, or if her eyebrows were too bushy, or if she caught certain diseases, or if she didn't cook, or if she burned supper, or if she didn't leave the house clean, or if she yelled at him, or if she couldn't have children, or if she visited her parents, or if she spoke to another man, or if she did anything he'd told her not to do, or even if he just saw somebody prettier. The rabbis list all those reasons and plenty more as fair grounds for divorce. That's what they meant by 'any-matter' divorce – and our country practices much the same today.

That's why the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” – any matter (Matthew 19:3). He put a stop to all their legal wrangling, all this making of excuses to find ways out of marriage. He said no – only the biblical reasons like adultery, desertion, emotional neglect, or material neglect would be acceptable, anything that persistently broke marriage vows without repentance. 

He went further, then – further than anybody else – and said that God would not look on an 'any-matter' divorce as valid. And all the Jews agreed that remarriage after an invalid divorce was a form of adultery, technically speaking (Matthew 5:32). 

That's a hard thing to hear. Maybe some of us here this morning have been divorced, and maybe for reasons that Jesus says don't pass muster. Maybe some of us have remarried after that, and Jesus says that's technically adultery – the act of remarriage, not necessarily the rest of the marriage. That's not a comfortable thing to hear. But Jesus offers grace and forgiveness for all who repent, even adulterers and technical adulterers.

But still, the Pharisees had an objection to the way Jesus was talking about marriage. They thought that there were circumstances where God commanded them to divorce, in the Law, so marriage just can't be what Jesus says it is, they figured (Matthew 19:7). 

Jesus reads it differently. He says that God allowed them to divorce, on these specific grounds (Matthew 19:8-9). A divorce wasn't the command; giving a certificate in the event of a divorce was the command – and that's because, in other ancient cultures, a first husband could reclaim a wife any time he pleased, even if she'd been remarried for years. That's why Moses wrote what he did. God regulated how to divorce, but that doesn't mean they or we should do it.

Jesus called for total forgiveness wherever possible, so long as the person repented. Divorce was the last resort in case of an absolutely hardened heart, but even then, it was never mandatory, so far as Jesus was concerned – and neither was marrying again. Divorce is against what God designed marriage for, and that's what's important to Jesus here – because God gave us marriage as a gift to bring life. Almost never is divorce something that God wants us to do – in cases of abuse, certainly, and some other unrepentant and persistent betrayals like continued adultery, but otherwise not – and so divorce isn't a decision to make without counsel from God's word, God's Spirit, and God's people. 

That's what Jesus is telling us – we should not look at marriage and think about divorce as an option, because we should see marriage the way God sees it: as exclusive, lifelong loyalty with body and soul between a man made in God's image and a woman made in God's image, joined as one new flesh made in God's image to invite new life.

When his disciples were shocked at how extreme Jesus' teaching on divorce was, they complained that, if they couldn't even have the threat of divorce to keep spouses in line, it'd be better for a man not to marry (Matthew 19:10). And Jesus shocked them more by saying that, if they couldn't handle it, maybe they shouldn't marry after all. 

Most Jews at the time believed marriage was mandatory, that it was one of God's commandments. There were people who couldn't marry, of course – those who were eunuchs from birth or by human action – but Jesus added a third choice, another option: staying unmarried “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” for those given the gift to receive that lifestyle (Matthew 19:11-12). Historically, the church treated that as some higher calling for monks and nuns, and said that married life was second-class; these days, the church often treats singles as second-class, in practice. But Jesus is saying that the paths are equal.

And thank God, he gives us the Spirit. The Spirit makes us run to the Law's goal faster than the Law can catch up. If the Spirit changes our hearts and makes us so committed to our marriage that we fulfill all the vows we make, if our first instinct is to forgive, if we cultivate a healthy relationship with our spouse... then you don't need to even know all the reasons the Law lets you divorce, you don't need to know all the loopholes. Those are for the people trying to get by as conveniently as they can. Those are for legalists. 

The Law doesn't have to tell us when we can divorce, if we're too enraptured by God's vision for our marriage, or for holy singleness, to ever need or want to, even when hurt or betrayed. And the Spirit nurtures within us the true antidote to both lust and groundless divorce: contentment, whether with our gift of singleness or with the spouse God has provided for you, and above all with the adventure of living for God's kingdom.

Maybe you're wondering this morning what all this means to you. Some of us here are perhaps past the age where our passions are beyond our control, or you've disciplined yourselves to live out Jesus' calling to marital faithfulness. Some of us here are happily married; others are widowed. 

But realize that on both of these fronts, what we believe and are called to practice is against literally everything in our culture. Lust is one of the great defining factors in American life – and acting on it is portrayed as normal in virtually every book, every movie, every television program, every commercial, every billboard. And that's what people hear from their friends, their neighbors, their classmates and co-workers. Modern American culture, as much as any other, is an empire of lust.

You may not be sure how to put Jesus' words into practice in your life context any more than you already do, but for your sons and daughters, your grandsons and granddaughters, this is likely to be a real struggle, and a difficult one. They'll need all the loving help, support, and gentle guidance they can get. Do they see why Jesus' teaching on marriage and sex is so much better than what the culture is offering – so much healthier, so much more joyful? Help them. It's not enough to just tell your children, “Don't do this, don't do that.” Rules and regulations are never enough. The hardened human heart is relentless in finding pretexts to defy the rules. Pray for a heart change and give them wisdom instead.

What Jesus says here is radically relevant to us here this morning. The broader culture is absolutely obsessed with normalizing lust, adultery, and divorce. You hear people say that they can't believe the Maker of the universe would care about their sex lives, much less what goes on inside their heads. And I'll tell you two things about people that say that. 

One: they don't know that God loves them. Because if they knew that God loved them, they'd know that the details of their lives are something God cares about. 

And two: they trivialize sex and marriage far beneath their real importance. Because while they don't define us, it's because they're too important, not too unimportant. It isn't just a physical, animal act; it invariably involves the human soul and points to the human destiny, and it doesn't get much more significant than that. And that's why normalized lust, adultery, and divorce are so dreadful – because that isn't how we were made to live, and it's killing our culture, and it's killing our neighbors.

And these sins cause havoc in the church, too. Maybe some of you can relate. I used to go to a church that was scandalized on numerous occasions by adulterous affairs between assorted pairs of people in the church – seemingly good, upstanding, active church members. And the damage was dreadful. In one case, an affair came to light between the assistant pastor and one of the women of the church. He had to leave, and the damage was utterly catastrophic. Dozens of people abandoned the church; and everyone else was deeply hurt. 

And that church was not unique. You know that; you've seen it. How many people are out there – how many people do you maybe know personally – who have abandoned the fellowship of God's children because of a chain of events that traces back to the fruit of a church member's lust?

And what's more, you might be surprised at the statistics on divorce in the church, or adultery in the church – it's not as high as some scare statistics, but certainly far higher than Jesus called his people to live. And then there's pornography use in the church – when I was in seminary, I counseled several friends who were going into ministry and who still wrestled with those addictions. It's an epidemic in the world today, and the church is far from immune. This isn't something we can ignore.

Jesus' teaching on marriage and sexuality is relevant to us, because he wants to make us into a different kind of people. What if we were a church that held marriage as sacred, even while affirming celibate singleness as an option? What if we cultivated pure hearts to resist lust and forgiving hearts to resist divorce? What if we were to actually live out Jesus' vision of marriage, as best as we sinners can? What if we were committed to helping each other – providing the time and attention and love to support one another? What if we were a welcoming refuge for those hurt by the culture's misguided perversions of sex and marriage – not judging people, not condemning them, but welcoming them in and showing them the beauties of a better way, the healthy way of life? 

That's the kind of people Jesus wants to make us, if we'll listen to his words and receive his Spirit. May we ever be a chaste church. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Conciliatory Church: Sermon on Matthew 5:21-26

Once again, here we are, gathered at the foot of the mountain where Jesus is preaching the Greatest Sermon Ever Preached, the Sermon That Built the Church.  In this sermon, Jesus is outlining his plan for a new society, a new Israel, a new fellowship of believers. He'll gather them from the misfits and bless them, because it's this motley crew who are really kingdom-ready – not the Zealots and not the Pharisees. 

But this blessed group have a mission to be salt and light in the world, to help it get ready for the kingdom, too. And to do that, they need to be righteous in a way only the Spirit can bring. Jesus' instructions aren't canceling the Law; but he's opening up the Law and showing us where it aims and how to get there in the Spirit's power (Matthew 5:1-20). So for the next few weeks, Jesus will be giving us examples of how he wants us to read the Law and live toward its goals.

And the first commandment Jesus tackles is one of the ones we think of first: “Thou shalt not murder.” Jesus reminds the crowd, “You have heard that it was said of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable to judgment'” (Matthew 5:21). That's the old standard. I mean, the Law says pretty clearly, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). It says, “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 24:17). 

And it goes on to explain murder in more detail – there are some great passages in Numbers and in Deuteronomy. And what the Law says is that murder is killing that's predatory and violent: striking with an iron or stone or wooden tool, or a fist, or a shove, or any kind of blow that deliberately results in death (Numbers 35:16-21) – and once found guilty “on the evidence of witnesses,” plural (Numbers 35:30), such a person was deemed a murderer and turned over to the 'avenger of blood,' who “shall himself put the murderer to death” (Numbers 35:19).

The murderer can't buy his way out of it; he's guilty of death, liable to judgment (Numbers 35:31). A murder happens when “anyone hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and attacks him and strikes him fatally so that he dies” (Deuteronomy 19:11). That's what the Law says. 

But before all of that, the Law explains why murder is such a problem. It's not just because it causes chaos in society, though it does. It's not just because it pollutes the land, though it does. It's because “God made man in his own image” that the blood of man is so sacred, and because God holds us sacred as his image-bearers, he takes very seriously any crime against us or our neighbors: “From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man” (Genesis 9:5-6).

We tend to approve of the verse “Thou shalt not murder.” I mean, who could object to that? Without that, every society would fall apart. And most of us don't commit murder, right? So it's great for justifying ourselves. How many of our neighbors think of themselves as basically good people because they've never murdered anybody? It sounds silly, when you put it like that; but that's what happens when you divide the world into 'good people' and 'bad people' based on a surface reading of the letter of the law.

But these words were never meant to be just a rule. Jesus is not content with the letter of the Law. He aims for the spirit of the Law. So Jesus cracks these words open and lets us peer through the Law, behind the Law, into God's heart. Because God didn't give the Law merely so we'd be a bunch of boys and girls who just obey the rules and pat ourselves on the back. God gave the Law, and now gives the Spirit, to make a people, a whole community, whose heart looks like God's heart.

So when Jesus reads the verse, “Thou shalt not murder,” he make us ask the question, “Where does murder come from? What kind of heart makes murder?” “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder,” and so forth, he says, and that's what really makes a person unclean: what comes out of their heart (Matthew 15:18-19). 

So what kind of heart makes murder? A heart that's full of anger. A heart that's full of contempt. A heart that looks at other people and doesn't see the image of God – or, worse, sees it and disregards it, sees it and despises it. We see it from the very beginning, the first murder that separated two brothers: “Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Genesis 4:8). Why? Because first, “Cain was very angry, and his face fell,” and he refused to keep that anger under control as the LORD told him (Genesis 4:5f.). “We should not be like Cain, who was of the Evil One and murdered his own brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous” (1 John 3:12).

So Jesus gives a new, deeper instruction on his own authority: “Whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment. Whoever says 'Raca'” – the word means 'empty-head,' 'dimwit,' 'numbskull' – “will be liable to the council. Whoever says, 'Fool!' – this word is worse than Raca, this word, more, means reprobate, unsaved, outside the kingdom – “whoever says 'Fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22). 

Jesus is not kidding around. God will judge a murderous heart with all its fruits, even if the actual murder is never acted out with the hands. Any of these offenses, especially against a fellow believer, a 'brother,' are serious. They come from the same place as murder and are crimes in God's sight just like it. His disciple makes it plainly clear: “Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:14-15).

But maybe you're thinking, “Whoa, slow down here. Is all anger bad? I mean, didn't Jesus get angry?” You're right. By one count, there are as many as fifteen different scenes in the Gospels that show Jesus as angry. And certainly he got angry with the Pharisees, and even used the harsh language, calling them fools. (When Jesus or Paul calls the disciples or the Galatians 'foolish,' they're using a different word that means 'thoughtless; but Jesus does use the word moroi for the Pharisees, because it fits.) Does that mean we should be angry? 

The real question is, what kind of anger? Jesus was angry and strict with the Pharisees at times. But Jesus' anger was never the sort of anger that even could have led to murder. Jesus' anger was never sinful anger. Whenever he was angry, he was the only one angry, which tells us he wasn't motivated the way most people are – Jesus' anger was more like super-heated, vocalized grief. He passionately opposed their sins, not for his sake – it was never about a personal offense – but always for their sake, and for the sake of those the Pharisees might harm or mislead. 

His anger was not something selfish; it was selfless. His anger was not something rash; it was patient, because Jesus as God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13). His anger was not unreasonable; it was thoughtful and targeted. His anger was not something enduring; it was perfectly measured. And his anger was not hateful or violent; it was peaceful and loving, to the point that his ultimate expression of anger toward the Pharisees' sin and their very real foolishness was not to kill them but to die for them, to subject himself to their murderous anger and to the very wrath of God against their anger. That's what Jesus' anger looked like.

Our anger is so rarely like Jesus' anger. Because our anger is usually not godly anger, not righteous anger. Our anger is natural anger, personal anger, cultivated anger. It's unavoidable to experience anger; those first flashes of anger are a perfectly natural human emotion. And that's the way it should be, because sometimes anger is the right reaction, if it's godly anger and kept under the Spirit's control. 

But more often than not, we let our anger get the best of us, or we're angry for the wrong reasons. And in those cases, our anger can turn into the kind of wrath Jesus warns us can lead to so much trouble – the kind of anger that would be murder, if not nipped in the bud. This kind of anger is enduring, continual; it keeps bubbling beneath the surface. And this kind of anger is destructive – it wants to be vented, it wants revenge, it wants to tear down and destroy. 

And our fallen nature has a knack for taking natural anger, or even godly anger, and perverting it into wrath, by filling it with personal motives and stoking its flames. “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. … Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:26-27, 31-32).

So what is there to do? I mean, it's one thing to warn us about the dangers of anger. But actually to get rid of anger – that's a whole 'nother story, isn't it? How can we be angry and not sin, in the case of godly anger or righteous anger? How can we put all bitterness and wrath and anger away from ourselves, in every other case? 

I think there is a way to do it, though. I believe the gospel offers us a cure for the sort of anger Jesus warns us leads to hell and misery. And as best as I understand it, there are six major steps.

First of all, the Christian cure to murderous anger has to begin in the Holy Spirit. There's no other way. If we want to get deeper than the letter of the Law, if we want to outrun the Law, if we want to get to the heart of the problem, we can't do it effectively in the power of our flesh. We just don't have it in us. That's what the story of Israel shows. We must be born again through the Spirit. And not just that, we have to be practically open to the Spirit. We have to be actively relying on the Spirit.

The second step is to admit our anger. If we can't identify when we're angry, then we won't be able to deal with it, will we? So we have to admit it. We have to own up to it. We have to look at ourselves and say, “Yes, this reaction is anger. Yes, this is contempt.” Admit it. Tell the truth, even if just to yourself. That's the only place to start. There can't be any resolution without confession. Admit your anger.

The third step is to reflect on the root. Ask yourself: “Why am I angry? And how does my soul get from there to being angry?” Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, once said, “What makes you angry is not what's happened to you, but what you tell yourself about what's happened to you.” Say you're angry because you're running late and stuck in heavy traffic. Take a deep breath and think about it: then you're really angry because you expected to be at your destination at a certain time; you see that expectation as being unmet; and you fear the consequences – maybe you fear looking bad, maybe you fear the loss of productivity; and you have the belief that it's important for you not to look bad, for you to be productive. 

Or, let's say you're angry because someone antagonizes you – calls you names, insults you, pulls power-plays against you. Perhaps you're really angry because you feel disrespected, and you fear losing face; perhaps you're really angry because you feel victimized and you have the belief that you should be respected and that the world should be fair. Like James said, “You desire and do not have, so you murder” (James 4:2). That's where it comes from – our expectations and fears, our unfulfilled desires viewed with a worldly eye.

The fourth step is to adopt kingdom vision. If our anger is usually stimulated by the stories we tell ourselves about what happens to us, if our anger has a lot to do with our unmet expectations and fears, then the antidote to a bad story is a better story. Maybe you're angry because you fear looking bad. Remind yourself that God is your Father; that he made you in his image; that he loves you; that his love for you, his opinion of you, doesn't depend on how good you look. 

Maybe you're angry because you fear that if you aren't productive, you'll fall short, or necessary things won't get accomplished and your corner of the world will be worse off as a result. Remind yourself that God values who you are above what you do; that he's already pleased with you in Christ; and that he's in charge of the world and can take care of it with or without you. Remind yourself that you are never alone; that Jesus is in control, so you don't have to be; that he will overcome any mistakes you make; that he gets the last world, not the unfairnesses of life; and that he accepts you as you are and patiently walks with you to become more like he is.

The fifth step – really, every step – is to pray through it. All this admission, all this reflection, all this transformation – it happens best through prayer. Pray for God to take your anger away. Pray for God to cure its causes. Pray for God to heal you of its roots. Pray for God to convince you of his better truth. And friends, if you're angry at someone, the best cure for it is to pray for them. 

It's hard, I know. I mean, maybe it's easy to ask God to change them. It's harder to take someone you're angry at, someone you're furious with, and ask God to bless them, ask God to be kind to them and gracious to them. That is hard. But we were given the Spirit to do hard things. And I'll challenge you: if there's someone who's crossed your mind while I've been preaching this morning, somebody you're angry with or somebody who's angry with you, I'd challenge you to try this. Really try praying for them, the way you'd pray for your best friend. You may find that that's what it takes for God to set you free.

And the sixth step is to actually practice anger's opposite. That's the giant leap forward Jesus offers us here in this passage. To beat anger, be proactive in seeking reconciliation. If you're angry with your boss, your co-worker, your friend, your neighbor – own up to it and overcome it with acts of kindness. Be the answer to your own prayer for God to bless them.

But Jesus doesn't leave it there, does he? Jesus actually gives us illustrations that go beyond the sixth step. It's good to cure ourselves of sinful anger. But if it's good for us to cure our sinful anger, it's good for us to cure their anger, too – the anger we cause in other people. Cain asked if he was his brother's keeper. And the answer is yes. Yes, we are our brothers' and sisters' and neighbors' keepers – we are responsible for one another. I know that goes against a culture that says every man for himself. I know it undercuts the pride that tells us we aren't responsible for anybody else's burdens or problems. But Jesus tells us otherwise.

In fact, Jesus tells us two radical stories about how far we should go to conquer anger in others, to guard and protect them from sliding down this terribly slope on our account. First, he tells the crowd to imagine this: you've gone to the temple in Jerusalem to worship God, and you've brought a sacrifice to the altar as a gift for God. But at that moment, you remember that someone – specifically, your brother, as in, a fellow follower of Jesus – has a grievance against you, a real reason to be angry with you (Matthew 5:23). What should you do? Jesus tells us: “Leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:24).

That must have shocked everybody who heard Jesus say it, for at least two reasons. First of all, worship at the temple was only supposed to be interrupted in an emergency – pretty much, a life or death situation. And so Jesus is telling us that our relationships with one another as his people are that serious – this is life or death, this matters that much – it matters more to God than our sacrifices, our worship songs, or this sermon. 

And second, the crowd here knows that Jesus doesn't just mean somebody down the road. He's preaching this message in Galilee, which was about eighty miles from Jerusalem. And odds are, if anybody listening to Jesus ends up in this situation, the brother in question is a fellow Galilean. So Jesus is saying, leave the animal there, tied up at the altar; walk eighty miles back to Galilee; deal with the problem, be proactive in reconciliation; and then you can walk eighty miles to Jerusalem again to finish the sacrifice.

But Jesus knows the Law, and the Law always put confession and restitution before sacrifice (Leviticus 6:1-7; Numbers 5:5-8). So must we. Even the rabbis agreed that worship was pointless if tainted by unreconciled relationships and unrepented sin; they said that atoning sacrifice only covered sin between two Israelites, two members of God's people, if they restored good will between them through confession and restitution. 

If you know that another believer has cause to be angry with you – if you realize you've done wrong to someone and given them a reason to be angry, a reason to risk going down this path – then it's more important for you to deal with it than for you to be here right now. Don't waste time.

But Jesus tells one more story. “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” (Matthew 5:25-26). It's an especially meaningful story this Sunday, since unless our church vandal changes his plea to guilty, Wilmer and I will be testifying in court two days from now. 

But the reason Jesus tells this story is that we aren't just responsible for fellow believers. Even our enemies, when they have a legitimate grudge, are our problem. And Jesus reminds us that there are practical consequences. If we're too bitter and stubborn to try conciliating our enemies, too bitter and stubborn to admit we've done wrong and try to fix it, then we'll pay the price. And he already hinted at the ultimate price we might pay. So come to terms quickly, he says. Doesn't necessarily mean make a friend – though Jesus sure isn't against that. But even your enemy, even the person who brings you up on charges – come to terms, try to cure them of their anger as much as it's within your power. Show care even for your accuser.

Jesus has a pretty radical vision. I felt pretty challenged as I read and re-read his words in preparation for this morning's message. And if you aren't feeling convicted this morning, either I got in the way of God's word for you, or you're perfect, or you may want to take a closer look at yourself. But the point of Jesus' message isn't just to give each isolated individual some advice on how to take care of his or her individual soul. Soul-care is important, but Jesus is outlining his plan for all Israel, for his whole community of believers. He's trying to shape their life together, trying to form them – form us – into the right kind of people, the right kind of church.

So let me ask you: what would a church look like if they lived like this? If they went to such lengths to guard against anger or contempt; if they looked at one another as brothers and sisters, if they bent over backwards to avoid anger, if they viewed all people as made in God's image and worth protecting, if they really embodied the gospel of love and dignity and reconciliation. 

Actually, I think one of the healthiest things about our church is that we've made a true commitment to doing this, at least in our life together. Sadly, most congregations aren't quite there. But maybe you have grievances or broken relationships outside this fellowship – and certainly, there are people who have absented themselves from our church because of nursing a grudge two or three decades old. That's a tragedy. That's exactly the sort of fractured fellowship Jesus was trying to prevent. 

What would it look like if we lived this out more fully? A window on the kingdom of God, I think. May the Lord preserve us from anger, may the Lord bring us together, may the Lord make us a people of peace in heart, head, and hands. Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Unabolished: Sermon on Matthew 5:17-20

I have to admit something. I've spent the week at a near-total loss as to what to say this morning. I think this – Matthew 5:17-20 may be one of the toughest passages in the entire Bible.  What are we supposed to make of words like, “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 a jot nor a tittle will pass from the Law until all is accomplished(Matthew 5:17-18)?

It doesn't surprise me that some of the earliest pagan critics of the Gospels, like the Emperor Julian the Apostate, latched onto these verses to claim that Christianity had gone astray. And it wasn't just them. For over a thousand years at least, Muslims have followed Julian's lead, finding an excuse in these verses for all the ways Islam retreats from the New Testament toward the Old. One medieval Muslim critic named Abd al-Jabbar used these verses to try to drive a wedge between Jesus and his later followers on issues like circumcision, Sabbath-keeping on Saturdays, fasting, ritual purity, matters of diet. Abd al-Jabbar said that “Christ only came to revive the Torah and establish it,” but after he “left the world,” Christ's companions “began to make changes, substitutions, and innovations in religion.” Abd al-Jabbar even paraphrased the passage as saying, “For with God, it is easier for the sky to drop to the earth than to permit something that Moses banned.”

And for a thousand years, that's been the way many Muslims have criticized our faith. Just two weeks ago today, ISIS released the latest issue of their magazine Dabiq and filled it with attacks on Christianity while defending their twisted misinterpretation of Islam. And in one article, they reviewed everything in the Old Testament that sounds violent – texts about the Israelites invading the Promised Land and destroying the Canaanites who didn't flee, texts about the death penalty in Israel – and used it to justify the way they behave. And then they said that we should have no objection, because this morning's passage supposedly means “everything that was mentioned from the Old Testament of war and enforcing laws was kept, unless specifically mentioned otherwise, in the Gospel of Jesus.” They go on to say that the only reason Christians believe in loving people instead of killing them is because we “cast aside such commandments and instead have followed papal decrees and the sermons of priests – showing that [our] love of men is greater than [our] love for the Creator of men.”

That's what they said, just two weeks ago. They used this passage as a pretext. That's what makes this such a challenging passage. But we're going to try this morning to find out what this passage really means, how it really applies to us. 

First, a recap. Jesus sketches the fact that we, the outcasts of the world and all its systems of power, are included in what God is doing. We the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, we hungry and thirsty and needy, are living the blessed life, being made ready for the kingdom to come in fullness. 

But the blessedness doesn't end with us. We're on a mission to season our community with Christ's flavor – because we're the salt of the earth – and to brighten out community with Christ's brilliance and truth and the presence of God – because we're the light of the world. And that's necessary to be part of the discipled community, the kingdom-ready people – that's what we're here for.

And now Jesus reminds us that to be God's people is to live as Israel, the true Israel, the new Israel. Remember, in sitting on the mountain to deliver these instructions, Jesus is presented by Matthew as a new Moses, the great Moses for our age. And actually, this is the first of five speeches that Jesus gives in Matthew, just like the Five Books of Moses. 

So now Jesus comes to the question: “How does the new Moses relate to the old Moses?” That was important to the Jewish believers in Matthew's audience, because long before ISIS and Abd al-Jabbar and Julian the Apostate got their hands on these verses, the Pharisees were accusing Jesus himself of trying to drive a wedge between his followers and Moses. They said that Jesus was abolishing the Law and teaching against it. Were they right? Do we get to throw out the Old Testament or stick it on the bottom shelf?

So what does Jesus say to answer them? Let's start with verse 17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them...” And in the next verse, he says that “until heaven and earth pass away, not a jot nor a tittle will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). Isn't that a weird phrase? Maybe you're wondering what a 'jot' is. And here's something I learned this week that just blew my mind. Well, I already knew that, where we read 'jot,' Jesus would have been talking about the Hebrew letter yodh – it's the tiniest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, looks like a bent-up apostrophe. 

That I knew. But I didn't know that the rabbis were telling a fun story to drive home a point. See, everybody loves the story of Abraham and his wife Sarah. But their names weren't always 'Abraham' and 'Sarah.' When you first meet them in the pages of Genesis, they're 'Abram' and 'Sarai.' And when Sarai gets her name changed to 'Sarah,' she loses a letter at the end – the letter yodh. And the story the rabbis told was that this yodh that dropped out of the Torah just kept complaining and protesting until it found its way back in, when Moses renamed a guy named Hoshea as Yehoshua – 'Joshua,' we call him. The yodh couldn't pass from the Law.

And Jesus is taking up that story and making a similar point. Not even that little letter can get left out; and how much less can we edit the Law or the Prophets to functionally delete a word, a verse, a chapter, or a whole book that we just don't want to deal with? How much less can we set the Old Testament aside; how much less can we abolish the Law or the Prophets? 

The point is that the Old Testament still matters – it will always matter, as long as heaven and earth stick around. The church had to fight this fight. A couple centuries after Jesus said this, a guy named Marcion said that the whole Old Testament needed to be ditched; he came up with a Bible that had just the Gospel of Luke and the letters of Paul – both edited to take out all the bits he didn't think were up to snuff. The church absolutely condemned him for it, because they knew how wrong it was.

But how often do we try to do something different? We sometimes treat the Law and the Prophets as less vital, as needing to be removed. I mean, you've seen these, right? {Holds up Gideon New Testament.} 

For a lot of us, this is what the Bible looks like: the New Testament, with maybe Psalms and Proverbs if we want to get adventurous. But the Old Testament isn't just for people who love history. It's essential for all Christians and for the whole church together. The Old Testament was what Paul had mainly in mind when he wrote about all scripture being “God-breathed” and how it's “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). And even Paul said that “the Law is holy” (Romans 7:12) and wrote, “Do we then overthrow the Law by this faith? No way! On the contrary, we uphold the Law” (Romans 3:31). Read this chunk of the Sermon on the Mount to Paul, and you'll hear a loud “Amen!”

See, the New Testament can't be understood without the Old Testament. It was never meant to be. That's why every New Testament book has so many quotes from the Old. And for basically any passage in the Gospels or in Paul's letters, there's probably one or two verses in the Old Testament that shed some light on it. And as for Revelation, it literally has more Old Testament references than it does verses in the whole book – somebody counted! There's a reason why, traditionally, church services always included an Old Testament reading every time, before readings from the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. You can't understand the New Testament without the Old, because we aren't meant to. The New Testament was written by people who studied the Old Testament, to people who'd been taught from the Old Testament.

What's more, the Old Testament is full of God's mercy and grace. It's amazing, but the Old Testament is totally full of beauty and profundity and truth. It's where God introduces himself as “the LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). It's where we first hear about loving the LORD with all we've got and loving our neighbor as ourselves (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18). It's where the LORD introduces himself as “mighty to save” (Isaiah 63:1). It's where he tells us that his mercies are new every morning, and that “great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:23). It's where the LORD meets the first killer, Cain, and offers to be his protector and avenger in spite of his unworthiness (Genesis 4:15). It's where the LORD himself provides the sheep for Abraham's sacrifice in Isaac's place. It's where we read of prophets, priests, kings, shepherds, and so much more; it's where we find the cast and crew of the Hall of Faith (Hebrews 11). And it's where God reveals his character in the guidelines he lays down for how Israel is supposed to live and witness.

And so Jesus says, “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” (Matthew 5:19). The rabbis actually talked about which commandments were greatest or heaviest, and which ones were lightest or least. And did you know they identified which of all the Law's commands was the least – the lightest, the easiest, the cheapest, the least consequential? It's this one from Deuteronomy: “If you come across a bird's nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young” (Deuteronomy 22:6). 

That's it. That's not hard to follow; that doesn't cost much. But it carries the same promise as the greatest commandments: a promise “that it may go well with you, and that you may live long” (Deuteronomy 22:7). To ignore this command about fairness and consideration to even the most common sparrow was to betray the Law as a whole – just like James said, “whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). Because the Law is not abolished. But we treat it that way. We neglect to read it. We ignore it. We recoil from it. We pretend it doesn't matter. We say, “Oh, that's just the Old Testament, don't bother me with that.” And friends, that isn't open to us.

Because our Lord himself said, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them but” – what does he say? – “but to fulfill them(Matthew 5:17). Now, I think there are a few things that means. 

First of all, Jesus fulfills them as prophesy. He himself said, “All the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John” (Matthew 11:13). That was the time when they made their prophecies. And Jesus came and answered them, and he still is. That's a huge theme for Matthew. Matthew explains almost everything Jesus did by saying he did it so that the words of the prophet, or the words of Moses, would be fulfilled (e.g., Matthew 1:22; 2:17; 4:14; etc.). 

If we ignore the Old Testament, we're missing out on the story and breaking up the gospel. Because the whole Bible is telling us a big story, the biggest story every, and the whole story of the Old Testament leads up to and centers in Jesus Christ as “the goal of the Law” (Romans 10:4). And Paul himself says that “the Law and the Prophets bear witness to … the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22). 

Jesus didn't come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; he came to fulfill them, to bring the story to its closing chapter, to tie together the plot lines and themes and make sense out of them. He came to be the great, shocking conclusion they were all leading up to. Jesus is God's great plot twist, but the foreshadowing is on every page of what came before.

But to fulfill the Law is also to obey it, to keep it, to do and teach the commandments. And that's exactly what Jesus does and teaches us to do. But as the new Moses, he explains the Law, he completes it, he uncovers what it's really about. He strips away all the legal wrangling of the scribes and Pharisees, he tears down the fence, he shows us what the Law is for. The Law is meant to shape and guide the kind of community he's building. And he sees the Law as basically commentary on the twofold Greatest Commandment – to love the LORD with everything we have, and then to love any and every neighbor worldwide the way we love ourselves. 

Paul couldn't agree more: “The one who loves another has fulfilled the Law. For the commandments … are summed up in this word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law” (Romans 13:8-10). “Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). And James is right there with Jesus and Paul on this one: to love your neighbor as yourself, and of course love God above all, is to “really fulfill the royal law” (James 2:8).

To have that kind of perspective, and to cherish the Law and the Prophets and read them that way, is exactly what Jesus is calling for, because it's what the Law calls for. Before, Israel kept flunking. So God promised that already in the Law that he would “circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul, that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6). 

That's what it's all about: this is the way to live in love. And the prophets said that a new covenant would come, and when it did, God would give us new hearts and write the Law on our hearts, and he'd put his Spirit within us so that we could obey it, and he would forgive all our sin, and he would claim us as his people and he would be our God (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:26-28). Even the rabbis suggested that when the kingdom of God showed up and the resurrection started a new era, the Law would be obeyed differently and more deeply under the Messiah's rule, because it had been fulfilled and we had been changed.

And now that we have that, now that we have hearts made tender in love and yearning to answer God's holiness and righteousness with our holiness and righteousness in Christ, well, can't we see love in all the commandments from the least to the greatest? Aren't our hearts tender enough to think of the little birds and be gentle to them? Why would we ever go another way? With the Spirit in us to write the Law on our new hearts, we aim to meet God's purposes for them all. 

And that's what Jesus spends the rest of Matthew 5 doing – he unveils God's purposes, God's intentions, in some laws of the Old Testament, showing how they were meant to train us and shape our character, not just by following them to the letter, but by synchronizing our hearts with God's heart as glimpsed there. We don't just blindly obey the 'what'; we behold the 'why' in light of the where and when. So we see how circumcision of the flesh points to circumcision of the heart, how the sabbath laws point to rest in God and the rhythm of a healthy life, how the dietary and purity laws point to wise living in holiness, how the war against the Canaanites points to spiritual warfare against our own sins and against demonic powers, how all the sacrifices and festivals showcase Christ. 

That's what critics like Julian and Abd al-Jabbar and ISIS get so wrong – they, like the Pharisees, misread the Law's role in God's plan, and so they think we've abolished the Law, when the healthy Christian life is actually one that fulfills it as it was meant to be. We may not be “under the Law,” as Paul tells us, but the Law is still prophecy and wisdom for our age as we're “led by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:18).

And that's the key to the last verse here. Verse 20 tells us, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). And that must have shocked the living daylights out of the crowd listening to Jesus that sunny day in Galilee. See, the scribes and the Pharisees had a reputation for being the epitome of righteousness. They were the best examples of piety, the near-perfect models for what it meant to live out the Law. This was maximal righteousness. And most people knew they couldn't do what the Pharisees did. Jesus saying this sounded to them like... like if he said to us that salvation was for people more charitable than Mother Teresa, more peaceful than Martin Luther King, more evangelistic than Billy Graham. That's how shocking Jesus sounded. And we're right to be shocked!

But let's not forget that while the Pharisees seemed Law-abiding, seemed Torah-observant, Jesus uncovered a startling truth about them. He said that they “leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men,” that they “have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish [their] tradition” (Mark 7:8-9). And for the sake of their tradition, all their legal wrangling and power plays and posturing, they had not just skipped over the least commandment; they had “neglected the weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). And so Jesus is exposing them as outside the kingdom. The scribes and Pharisees, as they are, are out; the crowds can be in – but they have to be the people of love, the people of higher righteousness.

And how do they – how do we – do that? It can't come from our flesh. We don't have that within us. But Paul tells us that “the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10), for “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). And how often does the Bible tell us to “walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16), whom we know we receive only under the new covenant? It's a major theme for Paul, and it gets to what Matthew's hearing from Jesus, too.

Imagine being in a race, and you're out in front. (I obviously don't speak from experience!) So you're out in front. But you don't know the way, exactly. That's what it's like to walk by the Spirit. We don't just walk by the Spirit; we run by the Spirit in pursuit of love – love of God and of our neighbors and neighborhoods. And that's the same goal where the Law is running. The Spirit makes us run faster than the Law. So before the Law can catch up and remind us not to murder, the Spirit's already at work curing anger in our hearts. Before the Law can catch up and tell us not to commit adultery, the Spirit's already fortifying us against lust. Before the Law can catch up and explain tithing, the Spirit's already stretching open our hands in generosity.

And to see that, you might think we don't need the Law. But even while racing ahead, we glance back, we check out the rear-view mirror, because the Law knows the way even when we don't. We look back at the Law to make sure we're on the right track and haven't gotten lost, haven't strayed. The Law isn't abolished. But we're not under it; we people of the new covenant live ahead of it, racing in the Spirit's power toward its goal, which is the love and life of God poured out in us and through us on account of Christ. And Christ died and rose again “in order that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). 

That's how to fulfill the righteous requirement of the Law: by following it from in front by the Spirit, trained to understand the Law this way through what Jesus taught and is teaching us even now, as the community of blessedness and salt and light. And that's the way to exceed the scribes and the Pharisees in righteousness. May we always walk, run, leap in the Spirit, and may we always live for the fulfillment of the Law – good, holy, unabolished. Amen.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Salty Church, Shiny Church: Sermon on Matthew 5:13-16

Good morning, brothers and sisters! If you were here last week, you remember that Jesus opened his greatest sermon by painting a picture of God's kingdom-ready people – the people called by God out from the tribes and nations of the world to be a special people. We call that the church. The church is the disciple community built on Jesus. 

The church is the people of the Beatitudes – maybe not living the world's version of the blessed life, but living the real blessed life because they're being made ready for God's kingdom to come in full. That's who we are. We're built on Jesus and the salvation he offers, and through discipleship and fellowship, we're being made ready for God's kingdom to come in full. That's what makes us blessed. But there's more that Jesus has to say about the church after the Beatitudes, and this morning, we've heard the next four verses.

And honestly, the very next thing Jesus says is a bit odd. He says, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). Why would he say that? What's so important about salt? Isn't that a weird thing to compare the church to? I mean, of all things we could be... salt? But actually, we have no idea just how important salt was in the ancient world. Salt was so important that Roman soldiers were given a special allowance of money to buy salt. It was called “salt money,” or a salarium – it's where we get the word 'salary.' When you earn a salary, you're getting 'salt money.' That's how important salt is.

And salt's always been used for a lot of things. In the ancient world, salt was used for purification. Israel's priests salted the grain offering (Leviticus 2:13) and the burnt offering (Ezekiel 43:24), the basic sacrifices made to God. Salt was a necessary ingredient in the holy incense that rose toward heaven (Exodus 30:35). Salt was used in the worship performed at God's temple (Ezra 6:9). In other words, salt was needed for everything holy. Newborns were rubbed with salt to purify them from contamination (Ezekiel 16:4). In one story, Elijah heals the impure waters of Jericho by sprinkling salt on them and praying to God for a miracle (2 Kings 2:19-22). Salt was like a disinfectant, and even to this day, salt is part of the process of making meat kosher. Even today, salt's the first step in a home remedy for ulcers, to dry out and kill the bacteria.

But salt wasn't just for purifying things. Salt is one of the oldest methods of preserving food, making it last longer – and in a world without refrigerators, that was unbelievably significant. And throughout history ever since, salted meats have been part of our diet. Maybe you've heard the Italian word that means “any and all salted meats”: salami. And besides that, we have plenty of salt-cured meats in our delis: bacon, prosciutto, corned beef, cured ham, salted dried fish – and it was no different then. Salt is for purifying things; salt is also for preserving things.

And because salt did those things, it was used for ratifying covenants. There are a couple verses in the Bible that talk about a “covenant of salt” (Numbers 18:19; 2 Chronicles 13:5). And what that meant was a bond of friendship and peace that was built to last, because the people had shared salt. Even today, in the Middle East, there's supposedly an Arabic expression that means, “There is salt between us.” We find the notion in the Bible, too. One of the letters preserved in Ezra has people explaining their loyalty to King Artaxerxes by saying, “We eat the salt of the palace” (Ezra 4:14) – in other words, we've shared salt with the king, and that makes us loyal friends who want to look out for his interests. Salt purifies, salt preserves, and salt builds a lasting covenant of peace and friendship.

But let's not forget the most obvious purpose of salt. Salt is a flavoring agent, a spice! We use it all the time! And they used it just as much, if not more. We have a much more varied diet than they did; in biblical times, food was often so tasteless that even bread needed to be dipped in salt so that they could enjoy it. And to this day, Jewish law mandates that salt be present on the table at every meal, partly because, in the absence of the Jerusalem temple, the rabbis decided that every table was an altar. And those same rabbis said that the world could no more go without salt than without the Law of the Lord. So salt is pretty important, I'd have to say.

And now you may be thinking, “Pastor, I did not know 'church' had been renamed 'lectures on common household items.' Some of those salt facts are a little interesting, but what on earth do they have to do with us here today?” 

Well, let me tell you. Jesus said to us, “You are the salt of the earth.” What might that mean? First, we said salt was used to purify things and make them acceptable before God. And so are we. Jesus is saying that we are here to purify the world. The church is on the earth as disinfectant for the land where we live. There's a lot of pollution out there, and I'm not just talking about the kind that upsets the Environmental Protection Agency. But we can do something about it. We can speak and live the gospel. We can do that in our own backyard.

Second, we said that salt is a preservative. It preserves what's good, so that the good lasts longer, so that the good endures. And that's what we do. Jesus is saying that we are here to preserve the world's good. We slow the rate of society's moral and spiritual decay. And has that ever been so needful as today? We're called to be a preservative for what's good and a purifier from what isn't.

Third, we said that salt was used to ratify covenants – that salt signified friendship between people who shared it in a “covenant of salt.” And maybe that has some meaning for us, too. We are here as agents of reconciliation for the world – like Paul said, the gospel is “the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19), first between people and God, but also between neighbors and enemies. Jesus already told us in the Beatitudes that being peacemakers is in our job description. We bring people back into contact. We bind society together. We make friendship where there once was indifference.

And fourth, we said that salt was used to give flavor to food – and it still is today. And so are we. Jesus is saying that his disciples give the world flavor. We here are the spice of life, as it were. We enhance the taste of society. Life is so much more interesting with the people of the gospel. A boring believer is a contradiction in terms. Maybe that's a surprising thought. A bishop in England named Timothy Ware tells a story. He had a friend who was a priest, who for a time in his life was hearing confessions – you know, in a confessional – just one after another, for quite some time. And the priest and the bishop got together, and the priest was a bit frustrated. And you know what he says? He blurts out: “What a pity there are no new sins!”

The truth is that sin is terribly tiresome, terribly dull, terribly monotonous and repetitive and deadening. Sin is extremely boring. We tend not to see that; we so easily fall under the devil's deception that makes sin seem so glamorous and exciting. But it isn't. Sin is the most uncreative thing you can do. What a pity there are no new sins! 

But, the bishop commented, “there are always new forms of holiness.” Holiness is creative – there's no end to new expressions of it. Holiness is inventive. Holiness is fresh, exciting, adventurous, heroic. And in being holy, in living publicly as a righteously creative community together, we season everything we touch with Christ's flavor, so that all earthly things come to taste like heaven. 

That's what the church is all about. That's what you are here for. You are the salt of the earth. You make life interesting. You, with Christ's flavor made perceptible, are the life of the party. “Let your speech” – and your character and your actions – “always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6). John Wesley put it this way. He said:

It is your very nature to season whatever is round about you. It is the nature of the divine savor which is in you, to spread to whatsoever you touch; to diffuse itself, on every side, to all those among whom you are. This is the great reason why the providence of God has so mingled you together with other men, that whatever grace you have received of God may through you be communicated to others; that every holy temper, and word, and work of yours, may have an influence on them also.

That's the point! To be the salt of the earth, we have to be different. The whole point of a seasoning is that it isn't the same as what it's put on. I've never sprinkled ground-up chicken on a chicken dinner. To be seasoning is to be something different, something that reacts with the chicken and brings out new expressions of flavor while adding its own. And if we cease to be different, if we so adapt to the culture around us that we're all but indistinguishable, then we lose our saltiness and become contaminated with the world's flavoring. Jesus has a warning about that (Matthew 5:13).

But all the same, to be the salt of the earth, we have to actually be in the earth, in society. Like Wesley says, we have to be “mingled together with other men.” Salt doesn't season a thing 'til it comes out the shaker, does it? And neither do we. When we come together on a Sunday morning or any other time to worship God and have fellowship with each other, we're in the shaker. And that's not bad: we need to be reflavored, refined, through that. That's necessary. But it isn't the point. 

The point of being the salt of the earth is to then leave the shaker and go carry Christ's flavor into the world. Think about the last week, the last month. Think about the people you've come in contact with. Watch your life through their eyes. Feel your impact through their skin. What difference did you make? How did you influence them? How salty are you? A salty church influences those around it – whether by purifying, preserving, pacifying, or flavoring. Do we do that? Are we a salty church?

Think about that. Mull it over in your minds and hearts this morning. But let's keep going. Jesus has more to tell us. He doesn't stop with the image of salt. He then says, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). What does 'light' mean? We know what light is, obviously. But in the Bible, the three things it most commonly signifies are truth, love, and God's presence. Light is what lets us know the truth. The psalmist prayed, “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling” (Psalm 43:3). And, of course, we get that light from God's Word, which is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (cf. Psalm 119:105) – you know the verse, you know the song. 

Light is also connected to love: “Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause of stumbling” (1 John 2:10). And, of course, light means God's presence: “For you are my lamp, O LORD, and my God lightens my darkness” (2 Samuel 22:29). “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1). “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD (Isaiah 2:5). “The LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory” (Isaiah 60:19). You get the picture!

And the world needs light because the world is dark. Like the prophet Isaiah said, “Behold, darkness shall cover the earth” (Isaiah 60:2). And when the world is dark, people can't tell right from wrong or true from false. “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Isaiah 5:20). Paul said we live “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” (Philippians 2:15). And when the world is dark, people mislearn what's around them. What I mean is that, when we try to walk around in the dark, we don't get the full picture; and we fill in the blanks with whatever our limited experience suggests. 

Maybe you've heard the fable of the blind men and the elephant; one feels the tail and says an elephant is like a rope, another one feels the leg and says an elephant is like a tree, and so on, but none of them can figure out what an elephant is. Because their world is dark. Paul talks about people being “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18). The story of human 'progress' is a story of how we became “futile in [our] thinking, and [our] foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21). And when the world gets dark, and when the world's darkness is inside our minds and hearts, people excuse their indulgences. Remember what Jesus said in the Gospel of John: “Everyone who does wicked things hates the light and doesn't come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20).

A dark world is in desperate need of some light. And God had always said that the world would get it. That was Israel's job. Israel was called to be the special Servant of the LORD, to reveal his saving grace to all the nations, to let them see God's truth and love made present to them. The Father said to his special Servant, “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). 

We know that the biblical nation of Israel lapsed into darkness; they had no light to bring, and like Jonah, they didn't want to take what they had. But Jesus took up the task. That's why he kept saying things like, “The light has come into the world” (John 3:19); “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12); “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). We don't have to grope in darkness and touch the elephant and guess. Our eyes are healed, the room is lit: look and see the elephant; look and see the truth and love of God.

That was Israel's job – to be light to the nations, so that God's saving grace would reach the whole world. But now Jesus tells his disciples, “You – not the Pharisees, not the chief priests, not the Sanhedrin, not the Romans, but you poor in spirit, you persecuted, you mourners and you meek, you hungry and thirsty, you are the light of the world.” 

He's talking to us. We, in Christ, are the light of the world. That's what we're here for. We shine with his light. And we don't just shine privately; we are here to publicly manifest the grace of God. We aren't just called to have good opinions about Jesus and go about our daily business. We're called to reflect him, to shine for him, in our actions and our attitudes, which our words interpret by sharing the good news.

And we shouldn't hide it from the world's view or obscure it with our own agendas. That's what Jesus tells us. Who lights a candle and then covers it up? Why did you light it, if you didn't want it to do its job? You light a candle for a purpose. And God lit us for a purpose. But too often, the church's worship stays hidden inside church walls. It may be spiritually bright in here, under this bushel of a building, but we aren't meant to be hidden. We're meant to give light to everybody in this great global house, and certainly to those nearest by (Matthew 5:15).

Too often, we live as disciples in name only. We're Christians in theory, maybe, but a theoretical gospel gets you nowhere and rescues nobody. Theoretical Christianity makes no sense. John Wesley was right when he said that to turn Christianity into a solitary religion – something you can do on your own in private, and not in connection with other believers and with the world at large – would be to destroy it. Real discipleship doesn't let us do that. I know plenty of professing believers who try – far too many who try. Live like everyone else, say you're a Christian when the pollsters ring your phone, and go on as a theoretical Christian, a believer in name but not nature, on paper but not in practice. Maybe sometimes that's what we do, what I do, what you do.

Real discipleship is visible. Real discipleship is public. The life of a disciple is apparent and effective, like a city on top of a hill (Matthew 5:14). See, a village nestled in a valley, somebody could maybe miss that. You could hide in a valley. But there's no hiding a city on a hilltop. Eyes are drawn to it. And Wesley remarked, “As well may men think to hide a city as to hide a Christian.” You can't hide an active Christian, a practical disciple of Jesus. There's no point in trying, and even if you could, it'd be pointless to do it anyway. “Be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15).

We are the light of the world. The church, the disciple community, is the light of the world. If the salty church influences those around it, the shiny church illuminates those around us with the gospel, made known in word and deed and attitude. With the light we shine, we let our neighbors see God. With the light we shine, we let our neighbors see the world. We let them see themselves and their deeds for who and what they really are; we expose it all, bring it out into the light. And we let them see the promise of the kingdom; we show them what could be, what will be, what they and we together have the opportunity to get in on, through the doorway Jesus opened for us. We can't guarantee that they will see – they may well shut their eyes tight, and as Jesus warned, they may try to extinguish the light or convince us to install a dimmer switch – but we make sight possible.

Or, at least, that's what disciples do. And that's why we're here: to be disciples, to be salt, to be light. But how shiny are we? Do we make plain to our neighbors the glory and the grace and the truth and the love of God? Do we light up their life? Are things clearer when we're around, more joyful, more hopeful? Do we reflect Jesus Christ in our actions and attitudes? Or are we easy to ignore, in exactly the way light never is?

The truth is that a community where a salty, shiny church resides is inevitably different from one without it. But merely having a band of private worshippers changes little or nothing. Jesus warns about that. Jesus warns that a disciple who isn't focused on the kingdom, who isn't bringing Christ's flavor and brightness into the life of the community – well, such a disciple is worth about as much as tasteless salt or invisible light. And I don't know about you, but I wouldn't pay too much for a lamp nobody could see by or a can of salt that didn't make a difference. 

Friends, don't become saltless or lightless, don't be dull and dim; be vivid and bright, be disciples of the Lord Jesus! The point of it all is to glorify God in a way that brings others into contact with his good taste and his lovely light: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Hundreds of years ago, a saint named Gregory Palamas, the head pastor in Thessaloniki, explained that verse this way:

Just as light effortlessly attracts people's gaze, so a way of life pleasing to God draws their minds along with their eyes. We don't praise the air that shares in the brilliance of the sunlight, but rather the sun that's the source of this brilliance and bestows it on us. Even if we do praise the air for its brightness, we praise the sun much more. So it is when someone makes the brilliance of the Sun of Righteousness visible through his virtuous deeds. As soon as anyone looks at him, they are immediately led towards the glory of the heavenly Father of Christ, the Sun of Righteousness.

Ain't that the truth? We sparkle and shimmer with Christ's light in the good things we say and do and the good ways we say and do them, not so that people see us, but so that they can see Christ through us, and give glory to his Father in heaven. The glory isn't for us; it's for him. And when people are touched by God's goodness through us and give glory to God, that's the healthiest thing for them; that's how we live the kingdom, that's how we bring healing to our neighbors and neighborhoods, in a dark and decadent time when that light and salt is so desperately needed. 

Look around you this week. The people you'll meet – the people you could meet – need what you have, need what you're in their lives to bring. So for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ, who once died and who is risen and who will surely come again, let's commit to being a salty, shiny church this month, neither tasteless nor hidden, but flavorful and bright. To God be the glory. Amen.