Sunday, February 6, 2011

Epiphany 5, Series A

This is basically just a cut-and-paste of a sermon from a couple of years ago on Trinity 6. Since it references other Trinity 6 propers I ad-libbed a little in the pulpit so that I wasn't referring to the wrong Epistle reading, etc. One of the hazards of a part-time pastorate is that I don't have the time to devote to sermon writing that I otherwise would. God's Word of Law and Gospel was still preached, though, and that's what's important.

Sermon on Matthew 5:13-20

For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 6, 2011 (The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Series A)

The Pharisees were known for being “religious” in their day. The word “religious” is often used to describe those who are frequent in their Church attendance and who are seen as striving to follow God’s Law in their life even when it’s unpopular to do so. The thing is, often the people who refer to their neighbors as “religious” are those whose own consciences tell them that they have not done very well in these matters. Often, a statement will be made that goes something like this: “Well, so-and-so and his wife, they’re very religious people,” which tends to imply that the speaker is not so religious. And sometimes those who use the word feel that unless they also measure up to the standard set by these so-called religious people, that God will be displeased with them and that He will not listen to their prayers or give them any blessings at all in this life. And sometimes that sort of thought results in the further idea that since God’s already displeased with them, why bother even trying to follow His commandments or to be interested in what His Word says?

At first glance, this text seems to have nothing to say to such people, who know that they are guilty of sin and that they have not measured up to the standard set by their own friends and neighbors, let alone the ancient biblical scribes and Pharisees. “See there? See that? That proves it! God is angry with me because I’m not a religious person, and that’s why I feel so bad and so guilty all the time. That’s why He isn’t answering my prayers.” At first glance, this text only increases the despair of those who know that they aren’t righteous and who know that they can’t make themselves righteous by anything they do.

But that’s not the purpose here. Jesus isn’t trying to grind into the dust those who have already fallen spiritually and can’t get up. He is trying to point out to the so-called “religious” people that their own religiosity is not enough. He is saying to those who think that they are righteous and holy and who are proud of their own keeping of God’s Law that they still aren’t able to earn their way into heaven. No matter how good you are, you still aren’t good enough to earn God’s favor. No matter how much you do for the Church, it’s not good enough to make up for your faults. God’s grace and blessings upon us don’t come to us because we’re good people, because none of us are good people.

The fact of the matter is, as Jesus points out, that the righteousness which God expects isn’t necessarily seen in the fact that a person is careful to keep the Ten Commandments outwardly. Instead, this righteousness includes all the thoughts and desires of the heart, as well as the attitude toward the neighbor. Think about it. We learn in the Catechism that the Ten Commandments are supposed to be kept because they are how we show love to God and our neighbor. But if you are trying to do good or be religious with the motivation that God will be pleased with you and possibly reward you in some way, who are you really thinking of? God and your neighbor? Or yourself? A person who tries to be religious in order to earn God’s favor is really thinking only of himself when he tries to be good and to do good, because he’s thinking not of what he can do for God or for others, but what he wants God to do for him. A person who does a lot for the Church because he’s trying to show everyone what he can do, earns only condemnation for all his work. In this way the most religious and outwardly righteous person may in fact be committing the worst sins of all by their attempt to be righteous and to do good. They may be using their outward righteousness as a cloak to cover up the fact that they also know themselves to be horrible, greedy, lustful, murderous, hateful sinners inside. In fact, we all do that, whether we have been righteous or not. We try to do good in order to hide our sins, not only from other people, but also from ourselves. This is why Jesus says to go and be reconciled with our brother before offering our gifts to God, so that we don’t use our outward religious observances toward God as an excuse to try to cover up our sins toward each other.

And so, whether you are seen by others as a “religious” person or not, today’s Gospel lesson is frightening. Your righteousness must be greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees. Even the best and most outwardly righteous people in the world don’t cut it when it comes to God’s standards of holiness. How can we mere common people measure up? The answer is provided by St. Paul in today’s epistle lesson. You do measure up because when God looks at you He sees Christ. You have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. You have the righteousness of Christ Himself. This white robe, which covers the stains of your sins, was put on you in Holy Baptism. Your sins, which would have kept you out of the Kingdom of Heaven, were transferred to Christ through the water of the Baptismal Font, and in their place His perfect and complete righteousness and holiness is now yours. You have been raised to new life by Christ through the Holy Spirit’s power, so that this righteousness of Christ which has now become yours is, in fact, lived out in lives of love and service to the neighbor.

Now, that’s all well and good, you say, and most if not all of us here have been baptized, but what about the fact that we have not always been righteous even after our baptism? What about the fact that even though we have been baptized Christians for many years we have still lusted and hated and stolen and otherwise sinned against our neighbors, if not in our outward actions, then at least in our hearts? Are the promises God makes to us in baptism null and void because of that? No! Baptism is not merely a past event, a one-time event that only gets you started in the Christian life and then stops there. Baptism is the reality of the whole Christian life. God’s righteousness is available to us even though we have left it behind many, many times. He still restores us to His righteousness and His kingdom, not by baptizing us again, but by returning us to the “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all” that we received in those first few moments of citizenship in God’s kingdom at the Holy Font.

Every time you hear the Word of forgiveness proclaimed to you in Holy Absolution, every time you hear the blessed Holy Gospel through the proclamation of God’s Word, every time you are reminded of these things through your personal devotions and readings in God’s Word, every time your brothers and sisters in Christ remind you of this forgiveness, this Gospel, through their encouragement and conversation with you—every time these things happen, you are restored to God’s Kingdom. You are restored to the righteousness of Christ which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. Every time you partake of Christ’s body and blood you enter into the kingdom itself which this righteousness has won you. When you eat and drink of Christ Himself you are one with Him and with His Father and with all of those, both those living among us and those who have fallen asleep, who, like you, have received His righteousness in place of their sin. You cannot earn your way into God’s kingdom with your righteousness, or with anything that you do. But God has already given you a righteousness that is much greater than your own, and even greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees, the righteousness of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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