Monday, July 19, 2010

Sermon - How Righteous?

(The following is a sermon preached at our sister congregation, St. John's in Racine)

Matthew 20:20-26
July 11th, 2010
“How Righteous?”

Dear Friends at St. John's. Grace and peace to you from God the Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Also, greetings from your brothers and sisters at Grace Lutheran Church, where I serve.

I think a great deal of my own congregation, and the times I've visited here at St. John's you've always been kind and welcoming to me too. You're nice people. I'm sure if I needed a favor you'd do your best to help me out. You probably also do your best to serve your neighbor, and love God with your whole heart. I think that even Pastor Quinn would assure me that you're good people – God's people in this place.

But are you good enough? Jesus has some pretty striking words for us today in Matthew's gospel. Words which might be hard to swallow. He says, “unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven”. Well that takes the wind out of our sails, doesn't it? How righteous are you? And is it enough?

I think Jesus means to have us all ask this question of ourselves. “What about me? Am I righteous enough?”

Before you answer it, let's have a look at the commandments. It's not too hard – they were our Old Testament reading today. Well how do you do? Do you have other gods before the one true God? Do you keep his name holy? Do you keep his day holy? What about your neighbor? Do you honor the authorities God gives us? Do you murder, steal, lie, and commit adultery? Any coveting by you?

I think many would grade themselves pretty well even against this standard. But if you think so, you're not reading these commandments rightly. Only a very shallow and twisted view of God's law lets us rest on self-righteous laurels. Anyone who thinks he keeps these commandments is delusional. There is no one that is righteous, not one. All have sinned and fall short. Even our best works are as filthy rags before God.

And Jesus shows us why. He raises the bar on these commandments. He says, “you've heard it said don't murder... but I tell you don't even be angry!” You know it's against the rules to swear at your brother, but I say even calling him a fool is out of bounds. Elsewhere Jesus tells us that murder, adultery and other sins – even if you're just thinking about them – bear guilt and bring us under judgment. We confess sins of deed, but also of word and even of thought.

So it might appear that we are done for. That we will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. For our righteousness is a sham. It's really not very righteous at all. We sin a lot, even the nicest ones of us.

In fact there's only one who never broke the law. Who kept the commandments perfectly. Who loved God and loved his neighbor without fail. One who always put others first. One who always loved, and never sinned. He was like us in every way, yet without sin. And his name, of course, is Jesus Christ.

His righteousness exceeded the scribes and the Pharisees. His holiness and purity were unmatched. He stands alone – perfect man, the second Adam who did not fall for the devil's temptations. He was obedient to God – obedient, even unto death on a cross.

And because the Righteous one came to take our place, to be our Savior, and give us all good things – he gives us also his righteousness.

Every Sunday-school child knows that Jesus died for us. But we often forget that he also lived for us. He took our place on the cross, and took away our sins. But he also took our place in his life of law-fulfilling, and gives us his own righteousness.

When we hear these words of Jesus, “unless your righteousness exceeds the Pharisees....” we can see how it does! Not with a righteousness of our own, but the righteousness that Christ wins for us and gives to us. On our own we have nothing. With Christ we have it all. On our own we are sinners. In Christ we are saints. On our own – righteousness is impossible. In Christ, our righteousness is more than enough to please the judge of all.

Yes, Jesus also died for us. He takes the punishment with one hand even as he gives us his own righteousness with the other. He takes our place in life and death – taking what is terrible, and giving always what is good.

He does the same in Holy Baptism. Where our old nature is drowned and a new creation arises. Not just when the water hit your head, but every day as you remember your baptism and its blessings, by daily repentance and contrition. Each day you receive his righteousness anew.

And in the Sacrament of his altar, he forgives our sins, sustains our faith, and confirms again our righteous standing before God. Holy, perfect, forgiven and renewed people of God – washed and fed by God – ready for anything he calls us to do.

These are the means by which you enter the kingdom of heaven. They are not your means, they are his. These are the means by which you are made righteous. It's not your righteousness, but his. But like all his gifts, he gives them to you – freely and fully, for the sake of him who died and rose and lives forever – righteous and making us righteous, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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