Sixth Sunday after Epiphany 13 February 2011
(Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Psalm 119 1Corinthians 3:1-9 Matthew 5:21-37)
Does anyone here think you can contain the waters of Niagara Falls in a coffee mug?
Is there anyone here who thought we were going to hold all the water from this sprinkling can in this tea cup?
Is there anyone here who pretends to understand the awesome and amazing love in the heart of Jesus Christ?
The greatest disservice I could do to this Gospel text this morning and the utmost perversion I could perform to the character of the Christian life is to preach this Gospel text in a moralizing and legalistic manner.
Some of you may want me to rant and rave against lust and adultery and divorce. Others may want me to fume and shout against violence and anger; still others, about taking oaths and vows. Certainly, all of those are worthwhile sermon topics.
However, as pastor Jeanette reminded us last week, in Matthew’s Gospel we are in the midst of hearing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—chapters 5-6-7. We heard the beginning two weeks ago with the Beatitudes, a continuation last week with the images of salt and light, and this sermon continues today and for the next two weeks.
I find it fascinating to see how Jesus is dealing with the Law. We hear four clearly-defined moral injunctions. Jesus begins each one with some form of the statement, “You have heard it was said in ancient times,” followed by an Old Testament quotation— one on “anger”, one on “adultery,” one on “divorce” and one on “taking oaths”—and then Jesus’ dramatic rebuttal, “But I say to you,” and we then hear one or more illustrations. These illustrations become the key!
If Jesus’ mission was not to abolish the law but rather to fulfill it, then it’s the bigger picture, the larger context, which grabs us this morning. So much of this Sermon on the Mount is about “being in right relationship.” Sometimes this confronts us in dramatic ways, such as the courageous uprising against a dictator in Egypt, or at other times in a personal relationship with a spouse or a friend.
The Jews knew the Law and they knew it well. So that’s where Jesus begins: anger, adultery, divorce, oaths. Initially, the law was meant to preserve relationships of justice between people, but gradually it changed. It turned into securing God’s love.
So the Law became how to get God to love us: obey all the laws and you are a shoe-in. Don’t murder, because if you do, you’re liable to judgment. Do not commit adultery. Do not divorce your wife. Do not swear falsely. If you do any of these things you have broken the Law, and forfeited your relationship with God.
And then Jesus goes a step further, in fact Jesus goes so much further beyond the Law, that it becomes absurd. Jesus says, if you even get angry with your brother or sister you are liable to judgment; even if you have a bad thought, not only have you already committed adultery but I want you to gouge your eye out and throw it away. Is there anyone here who has never gotten angry? It is absurd to even think that anyone here has never had a inappropriate thought. Eye-gouging and cutting off limbs is not standard practice! And do not even think of marrying a divorced woman, and do not break any kind of vow.
Jesus takes the Law to absurdity!
Jesus is saying, if you have ever been angry, if you have ever had a bad thought, if you have ever gone against a promise you made….Jesus makes it so absurd that it is totally impossible to keep. And that’s the point!
It is impossible for you to think you can ever be good and perfect enough to earn your way into God’s love. It is impossible to keep the standard laid out by Jesus. It is impossible without the love of God in Jesus Christ!
If the absurdity of Jesus’ interpretation of the Law makes no sense, then I guarantee that the relentless love of God in the heart of Jesus for every human person makes even less human sense!
The Kingdom belongs to people who are not trying to look good or impress anybody, even themselves. The kingdom belongs to those who are not plotting how they can call attention to themselves. The Kingdom belongs to those who are not worrying about how their actions will be interpreted or wondering if they will get gold stars for their behavior.
Twenty centuries later, Jesus is speaking pointedly to individuals and groups and congregations trapped in a fatal narcissism of spiritual perfectionism, to those of us caught up in boasting about our victories in the vineyard and fretting and flapping about our human weaknesses and character defects.
Let’s not miss the part of this teaching concerning right versus wrong behavior, but also let’s not forget that the sinners to whom Jesus directed his messianic ministry were not those who skipped morning devotions or Sunday church. His ministry was, most often, to those whom society considered totally worthless sinners. They had done nothing to keep the law and merit salvation. Yet, Jesus called them to open themselves to the gift that was offered to them.
The salvation Jesus brought cannot be earned. There can be no bargaining with God in a petty poker table atmosphere: “I have done this so you owe me that.” On the mountain, Jesus utterly destroys the juridic notion that our works demand payment in return. Our puny works do not entitle us to barter with God. Yes, we are called to be light and salt, but being light and salt is not our jackpot to God. Everything depends on God’s good grace!
Before you leave this church this morning, I want to make sure you hear and can believe that, as important as it is to do good works and reach out beyond these walls and be faithful to our mission, I need you believe that the very foundation of such faithfulness is knowing and believing in the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ!
Please…do not leave this building until you are confident in knowing that only one thing is necessary—regardless of who you are, what you have done, what you believe or how you feel—what is necessary is for you to know the relentless love in the heart of Jesus Christ for you.
Does anyone here think we can contain the waters of Niagara Falls in a coffee mug? Neither can God’s love be contained. Amen.