Friday, February 14, 2014

The Judge, the Bridegroom, and His Oath

Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 16, 2014 (Sixth Sunday after Epiphany)

For practical reasons, we have to cut the Bible into bite-sized chunks when we read it, study it, or preach it.  You just can’t read whole books at a time (well, except maybe for Philemon or 2nd or 3rd John).  But cutting the Bible into chunks like that does have its disadvantages.  When we forget to look at the context, we run the risk of turning Gospel into Law or Law into Gospel.  Last week’s Gospel and this week’s Gospel, which are consecutive parts of the Sermon on the Mount, are connected in this way.

Last week’s Gospel ended this way: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” which forms a pretty good summary of the whole lesson.  This Sunday’s Gospel comes directly after that verse.  The sections of today’s Gospel aren’t separate discussions of the Commandments.  They are also not intended simply advice on how to do a better job of keeping them.  They are examples and explanations of what Jesus means when He says that our righteousness needs to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.  In each case, he’s pointing out that instead of making the Law more severe by imposing extra commandments, the Pharisees actually reduce the force of the Law by making it do-able (and making it do-able is, in fact, the point of all these extra regulations).

Now, I should point out here that when I say that the Law isn’t do-able and that therefore we’re helpless and hopeless under the Law, that does not mean that we should ignore it.  Remember also that Jesus said in last Sunday’s Gospel that He came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.  The Law really is a description of how creation was intended to function.  Mankind is the only part of creation other than the angels that actually has moral responsibility for its actions.  The Law is both a description and a commandment as to how we are to relate to Him, each other, and the rest of creation.  We really do ignore it at our peril.  It is still God’s will for our lives, and simply making the Gospel an excuse to put it aside is to tell God that He messed up when He made things how He did in the first place.  Telling God He messed up, and fearing, loving, and trusting in Him above all things, are simply mutually exclusive.  And that includes loving and trusting in Him when He tells you your sins are forgiven.  That’s right, I said that ignoring the Law also means ignoring the Gospel.  It’s why the Church practices excommunication when someone continues in stubborn unrepentance for a public, outward sin.  Ignoring the Law and simply doing whatever we want is simply not a possibility for the Christian who wants to remain a Christian.

Reconciliation with your fellow Christian follows upon that.  When you refuse to forgive your fellow man, you are wishing that he were eternally dead.  The only way we come to eternity is by being forgiven (precisely because the Law is impossible for us to keep), and when we harbor anger at somebody, we are criticizing God for forgiving him and taking him to heaven.  And we dare not do that because God’s forgiveness of the other guy and God’s forgiveness of you come from the same place, namely the cross.  To deny that someone is forgiven is to deny that you yourself are forgiven.

And the same thing is true of all the other commandments.  You cannot keep them perfectly, because it’s not just about outward words and deeds, it’s also about thoughts.  Even cutting off body parts doesn’t save you, because thoughts and feelings can’t be cut off so easily as an eye or a hand can.  Lust isn’t just a matter of the body, it’s first and foremost about the mind.  Neither men nor women can completely keep themselves from looking at members of the opposite sex they consider attractive.  That does not mean we should give in to lust (there again, the Gospel is not an excuse for outward sin), nor that we should condone or excuse divorce for anything less than actual unfaithfulness (In fact, because the two are one flesh the sin of one in fact brings guilt and shame even on the innocent party, as Jesus points out) but it does mean that only in Christ’s perfect love for His imperfect and unfaithful bride, the Church do we find relief from the guilt and shame that comes from these particular sins.

Again, in the case of using God’s name or even the names of things He created, there is no perfection to be found.  Jesus’ command to let your yes be yes and your no be no is not a legalistic requirement that we never take an oath in court or sign on a dotted line that the information we have provided is correct to the best of our knowledge when we fill out legal paperwork (and by the way, signing such paperwork is the equivalent of taking an oath in court, since such paperwork is automatically evidence against anyone who goes against what he is signing to), including, by the way, that inevitable piece of paper we all sign this time of year, IRS form 1040.  It’s because mankind is so sinful and untrustworthy that we must at times take oaths and certify by our signatures that we are telling the truth.  Here again, just like in the case of divorce, sin is so powerful and pervasive that even innocent parties who only want to tell the truth are forced to take oaths and thus become virtually guilty as if they were in the habit of telling lies without such oaths.

Indeed, even God Himself has been forced by humanity’s sin to take oaths.  He has been forced by humanity’s sin to swear by Himself that His promises are true, lest we fail to believe Him.  But then, it’s His love for us that forces Him to take these oaths.  His promise to Adam and Eve that the woman’s offspring would crush the serpent’s head.  His promise to Abraham that in him all nations on earth would be blessed.  His promise to David that his ultimate Descendant would sit on the throne of the true Israel, the true people of God, and judge them using justice He Himself had procured for them.  And so on.  God is made a sinner because of the sin of His people, just as His people make each other sinners all the time.  But God did it deliberately and with a specific purpose in mind.

You see, You can’t accuse God of sin without accusing sin of sin.  You can’t place upon God the wages of sin, namely death, without death being paid back to death in the form of resurrection.  And so, even though it was because of our sin, our failure to trust Him when He merely says our sins are forgiven, that He is forced by His own love for us to sign a last will and testament, a legal contract and binding oath that becomes effective when the person signing it dies.  His love for us forced Him to die as if he were a sinner so that He could promise and give us Himself, living and risen from the dead.  Jesus’ last will and testament to us is what He gives us today, precisely for the forgiveness of our many grave sins.  It’s the only last will and testament that promises gifts that can only come from one who is living.  It’s the only last will and testament that gives life itself.  Jesus has sworn an oath that His death forgives your sin and takes away its wages, and He has died in order to seal that testament.  It is yours.  Which means He is yours, forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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