Sunday, October 2, 2016

Celestial Church: Sermon on Matthew 6:19-24

Believe it or not, this is the tenth Sunday we've been studying Jesus' Sermon on the Mount together. We remember how he began his Sermon with the Beatitudes – throwing his arms open wide for the outcasts of the earth: the meek, the humble, the forlorn, the poor, the hungry and thirsty, the victimized and broken. We remember how he charged them with a mission: to be salt to flavor and light to shine in the world. 

We remember how he insisted he hadn't come to cancel out what Moses taught them, but rather to show them a higher righteousness, one we now know we can only reach through the gift of the Holy Spirit given to all who believe in Jesus. The Spirit and the Law aim for the same goal: the love and life of God. But the Law points the way, and the Spirit fuels our speedy way there.

So where the Law told us not to murder, the Spirit already is curing us of murder's roots in anger and forming us into a people of forgiveness. Where the Law told us not to commit adultery, the Spirit already is curing us of adultery's roots in lust and forming us into a people of purity and love. Where the Law regulated divorce, the Spirit already is curing us of divorce's roots by forming us into a people of contentment and commitment. Where the Law regulated oaths and promises, the Spirit already is curing us of deceit and trickery and forming us into a people of truth and honesty. And where the Law regulated revenge and seemed to set boundaries to love, the Spirit already is pouring into our hearts God's love for even our enemies. That's how the Spirit gets us to the Law's goal when we couldn't follow it by our own strength. 

And then, we remember, Jesus warned us of the perils of the religious life – how even the very pillars of righteousness like prayer, fasting, and almsgiving or charity could be perverted into a mere performance by hypocrites. Instead, he charged us to avoid seeking praise for doing them – do them secretly, if we have to – so that our motive is pleasing our Father in heaven, who sees in secret and promises to reward us.

And so now Jesus unpacks more about the rewards he's been talking about. And he tells us that there's a big difference between the rewards the Father gives and the rewards the world gives. Because the rewards of this world don't last – maybe they fall apart while we're watching, or maybe they just stay behind when we're gone. “Do not lay up for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19). 

Isn't that the truth? What do we have on earth – what things, what funds – that can last forever? Treasures on earth, especially material possessions, are mighty vulnerable. Those fancy new shoes will eventually wear out. That Porsche or that Jaguar will break down, just like any other car. Some circuit will blow in that flat-screen TV. And that's if no one breaks in and steals it first! Or if no disaster hitsI mean, you can all think of one local family that has seen this year what a tornado and a fire can do to a chickenhouse. 

Nothing we collect on this earth is safe – not a thing. Moth, rust, wear 'n tear, fire, storm – they all destroy. And what seems built to last can always be stolen away. Earthly treasure is a pretty risky investment. Ultimately, there's no security in it. And any security there seems to be, is tempered by the fact that, whether or not it lasts our lifetime, we can't enjoy it once that lifetime ends.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth and rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19-20). That's the solution. Instead of storing our best treasure here, where it's vulnerable, store it in heaven, where it isn't. There's no decay in heaven. No thievery in heaven. No tornadoes or fires in heaven. What's on earth is precarious and temporary, but what's in heaven is secure and eternal. 

And where you invest is important, because your whole life – your feelings, your interest, your thoughts, your attention, your cares – will track your investment portfolio. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). It's important.

Next, Jesus says something cryptic – one of the more puzzling things he says in the Gospels, according to some interpreters, and that's saying a lot. “The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23). 

For people in Jesus' day, the eye was either a source of light, or the way light entered the body, or both. And what Jesus says makes perfect sense in a very literal way. If you have healthy eyesight, you can see. Your body will be full of light. If you don't have healthy eyesight – if there's something wrong with your eye – then, in the literal sense, your vision, or in their talk, your 'body,' is full of darkness.

But what that has to do with the topic at hand, how it connects to what Jesus just said or where he's going, isn't clear until you realize he, or at least his editor Matthew, is enjoying some wordplay. There's actually not just a double, but a triple entendre here. To speak in that world of having a 'good eye' was not just a way to describe its physical health, and to talk about having an 'evil eye' was not just a way to refer to its physical weaknesses. To have an 'evil eye' was to be stingy and envious – to look at others and want to take things away from them, or to look at them with resentment. So much so that, to this very day, there are places in the Mediterranean world like Greece and Turkey where the superstitions around the evil eye remain so strong that people cover their stores, their buses, even their airplanes with talismans in hopes of shielding themselves against its curse. When I was in Turkey a few years ago, I picked one up as a souvenir.

People listening to Jesus knew that having an 'evil eye,' being stingy and jealous like that, was a dangerous thing. But then to have a 'good eye,' a 'healthy eye,' was to have a generous way of looking at people – to look at them and, out of love or compassion or kindness, want to bless them instead of cursing them or ignoring them. And so a 'good eye' came to mean a person was generous – not for the sake of praise like the hypocrites, but for the sake of goodness, even the glory of God.

And the eye, Jesus says, is the lamp of the body: if your eye is generous – if you hold material goods lightly and give them away to others – then “your whole body,” your very life, “will be full of light,” of goodness. That is the kind of life Jesus is calling us to here. It's a life of investing in heavenly treasures through generosity – which, after all, is something Jesus already said we'd be rewarded for, if we did it with a focus on serving God. 

The opposite is a stingy eye, one more interested in clinging to earthly treasures than in giving them away out of the love that God rewards with heavenly treasures. And if you have a stingy eye, a 'bad eye,' “your whole body will be full of darkness” – your life will be tainted and darkened by your small, self-centered vision of the world and the meaning of life. “If then the light in you is darkness” – if even your best moments are corrupted by stinginess, greed, envy – “how great is the darkness!”, says the Lord Jesus.

That's a rich saying. But Jesus isn't even finished with it. Because there's a triple entendre here, an extra layer of meaning. The word that appears here as 'healthy' or 'good' actually means 'single.' A good eye is a single eye – one that can focus and stay focused on just one thing and see it clearly, rather than giving you double vision and divided attention. 

And that leads in to what Jesus is about to say. “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24). Laws at the time allowed, in rare circumstances, for a slave to be owned jointly by two masters. But under Jewish law, a jointly-owned slave couldn't eat the Passover meal from both masters' tables. He had to pick one. Ultimately, when it came down to it, he had to choose which one would have more of his devotion, more of his loyalty and commitment. Both couldn't share it – not forever, not in any stable way.

We cannot serve two masters. There cannot be two ultimate, life-consuming commitments in your life – because there will come a time when you have to choose. The more you devote yourself to one, the more you relativize the other – and then it's no longer your master. And so, Jesus ends this morning's passage, “You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24). 'Mammon' was the Aramaic word for 'money' – its root came from 'something you trust in' – and Matthew's Greek text leaves it untranslated because he sees what Jesus is doing here. He's saying that, when you let money master you, you treat it as if it were a god, an entity unto itself, a rival to his Father for mastery over your life.

And that's the God's-honest-truth of it. It's why we joke – but some of us live as if it were literally true – about “the Almighty Dollar,” and why we say money makes the world go 'round. Because many people throughout history have made this false god Mammon the centerpiece and master of their lives – whether through actively pursuing more money and more material goods, or trying to preserve the money and things they already have, or just wishing for it, dreaming about it, committing emotionally to it. 

Money makes a fine servant, but a dreadful master – one God wants to dethrone in your life. Because mammon, for all its seeming use, for all the seeming worldly wisdom of investing further in its schemes and temptations, is just earthly treasure – it and its fruits can be destroyed, stolen, wasted, lost.

But Jesus' words apply to much more than money and material goods, because there are ways besides crass materialism that we can devote ourselves to earthly treasure. We might devote ourselves, for one example, to human praise. That's what the hypocrites earlier in Matthew 6 were doing. They went through the motions of righteousness, upheld the pillars of Judaism with prayer and fasting and charity, but their motive was to be seen by people – to gain praise, respect, a religious reputation to be enjoyed for its own sake, with all the prestige that carried in their culture. 

And, like Jesus said, whatever praise or respect or reputation or prestige they get that way is the sum total of their reward. That's an earthly treasure – a purely earthly one. And a religious life lived as performance art is every bit as much a life of earthly treasure-seeking as a life that revolves around the acquisition, protection, or coveting of mammon

So is any life committed to some trophy or accomplishment, trying to set some record to preserve your name, like building a tower to heaven. But we can't even get through the first book of the Bible before we learn that it won't reach, won't preserve our legacy or give us a good name; only God can do that. Making Abraham's name great was an act of grace meant to bless all the nations of the earth (Genesis 12:2-3).

Or there's the life devoted to a hobby. Maybe that hobby is hunting or fishing – you build your schedule around it, you devote your spare time to it, you think about it all the time, to the point where God and his call on your life fades into the background. Or maybe the hobby is a sport, whether as a player or as a spectator – you schedule your life around it, you devote yourself body and soul to it, and God seems to fade out of your life; you have less time, less energy, to commit to him; given a choice between obeying God by fellowshipping with his people on a Sunday morning or spending that time in pursuit of the sport and its commandments, you're prone to choose Option #2.

The same goes for a job – a good thing to have, actually a pretty necessary thing to have at most stages of life, but when it becomes a rival to God and competes for your time, your energy, your effort, your sacrifice, instead of being part and parcel of a life serving God, then there may be more than a whiff of idolatry in the air. And then there's pleasure. Some devote their lives to physical encounters with men or women; some devote their lives to vacations and luxury; some devote their lives, their efforts, their resources, to gourmet food. But in all its forms, once it becomes another master alongside the Master of Creation, you can't serve both; one, in your life, will get a demotion – and Jesus makes clear which one should.

You just cannot, in the end, serve two masters. You cannot serve God and Mammon. You cannot serve God and Human Praise. You cannot serve God and Trophies. You cannot serve God and Pleasure. You cannot serve God and Hobbies. Money, material goods, praise, trophies, pleasure, hobbies – those are fine in themselves, fine when we hold them loosely, when we praise God for them when they come and praise God when they go. But when we organize our lives around them, when we serve them, when we effectively idolize them – and all too many of us do that, to one degree or another – we treat them like our gods. And when we do that, we set ourselves up for disappointment and loss.

Maybe tomorrow when they fall apart – mammon and its fruits decay and can be stolen; human praise is fickle; trophies and accomplishments can be eclipsed or surpassed; pleasure is fleeting; hobbies grow sour. But if not tomorrow, then our last day, it's guaranteed they will disappoint all who trust in them. 

Now, the ancient Egyptians didn't think so. They packed their pharaoh's pyramid tombs full of signs of wealth and prosperity to enjoy in the next life. And Viking chieftains, when their bodies were sent out on a boat and lit on fire, were packed in with plenty of grave goods so they'd keep their social standing and fortune in the next life. Most every ancient culture did something similar.

But there are no grave goods in the tombs of the early Christians. Grave goods disappear from Roman society as it shifts from paganism to Christianity. Because Christians knew that Jesus was right, and the Egyptians, Vikings, Etruscans, and just about every culture in the world was wrong: you can't take it with you. 

Serving Mammon and his cousins is a disappointment – if not during our lives, certainly at their end. And that is the definition of a bad investment. Only investing in heavenly treasure, only a life committed to God and his goals through active faith, is a secure and certain investment without an expiration date.

Today of all days, we should keep in mind that none of us knows how many days are written for us in the Lord's book. I doubt I have to remind you that ten years ago this very day, less than seven miles from here as the crow flies, a disturbed man fatally shot five and injured five other girls in a little Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines. Not one of those children left home that morning thinking that October 2, 2006, was their last day on earth. But for five of them, it was; and for five, it wasn't. And who can tell the difference?

I also don't have to remind you of the tragedies we've seen this week. A son of our congregation was stolen from the earth in the prime of his life a week ago – badly injured in a motorcycle race, sent into a coma, passed on the next day. (By the way, as of this morning, people – including a few from this church family – had given over $10,000 to help cover the family's medical, travel, and funeral expenses. That kind of generosity is the stuff heavenly treasure is made of.) 

And I don't have to remind you that one of our brothers is nearing his heavenly departure – but neither he nor any doctors could tell you for sure whether it'll be tonight, or tomorrow, or one or two or three weeks from now.

The truth is, none of us knows how many days we have on this earth to enjoy our earthly treasures. No one can say whether their earthly treasures will even last as long as they do – because moth and rust destroy, and thieves break in and steal. And none of us can tell how long we have to invest in heavenly treasure before that's all we have. Life in this world is dreadfully short, and the shelf life of the petty treasures we pointlessly chase is often much shorter. Submitting to their mastery is a foolish way to invest the days you're given. 

Take a look at your life. How much of your time and effort lately has been focused on storing up earthly treasures – money, things, praise and popularity, trophies and accolades, temporary thrills and pleasures, meaningless pursuits? And how much of your time and effort lately has been invested in storing up heavenly treasure by living prayerfully, generously, and faithfully for God, to seek his kingdom first and foremost (Matthew 6:33)?

Earthly treasures and earthly achievements will fade away. Heavenly treasures will last. Earthly food will rot. Only Jesus promises to be the Bread from Heaven for us, and to give us a spring to drink from that lasts eternally so we'll never thirst again. To devote ourselves to heavenly treasure, it's only fitting that the celestial church – the church with its eyes fixed on heavenly truths, heavenly goals, heavenly gain – should share a heavenly meal. And Jesus has offered us a foretaste of that.
So this morning, as we process the events of the last decade, the last week, and the days ahead, remember that only what's stored up in heaven lasts – and none of us knows when that's all we'll have left. But remember also that the only way we can reach our heavenly treasure is through Jesus Christ. He died to separate us from the guilt, power, and ultimately the very being of our sin. And he rose again to breathe new life into us. 

When we share this heavenly food, that truth enters into us, sustains us, fits us for the grand banquet in heaven of which this is a treasured foretaste. Come to the table. Do this in remembrance of him.

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