Sunday, February 13, 2011
Sermon - Matthew 5:21-37 - Epiphany 6
February 13th, 2011
“Raising the Bar”
Have you ever murdered someone? No? Have you ever cheated on your spouse? Probably not. Have you ever been angry with your brother? Have you ever called someone an idiot? Have you ever taken an oath, “sworn to God” or on your mother's grave? Have you ever taken a look at someone with less than pure thoughts? If you answer yes to any of these – then Jesus says you are liable for judgment, deserving of condemnation – you've earned your ticket to eternal punishment in Hell.
“Well, good morning to you too, pastor, nice way to start the sermon.” But it's true. In today's Gospel reading Jesus smacks us up and down with the law. He takes what laws and rules people were comfortable with – you know, the ones we can mostly keep – and he blows them up in our faces, showing us how truly impossible it is to keep the law of God.
You may think you're ok because you've never killed someone. But anger is murder in the heart. And that counts too. You may think you're just fine because you've never cheated on your wife, but you have – with your eyes. And that's a damnable sin. You may think that divorce is ok as long as both parties agree it's just not working out – but Jesus says otherwise.
All of these sins, which we think of as “no big deal”, Jesus pulls the rug out from under us. They are a big deal, as big a deal as hell itself.
And don't think that Jesus doesn't mean it. Don't think that he's talking in exaggerated terms here. He's deadly serious.
Nor is he just trying to scare you straight – so that you'll shape up for fear of punishment. It's too late for that anyway. All of us have already earned our own death, and worse. The perfection God demands was never in our reach anyway, and we'd be fools to think we can get there tomorrow.
So why, then? Why does Jesus cut us down with this extreme law? Why does God, for that matter, make it so tough for us to keep it? It's like Jesus is taking our sin and failure here and rubbing our noses in it – pointing out to us in starkest terms just how much the law has us dead to rights.
It's to drive you to despair. It's to show you how hopeless your situation is. It's to lay out for you that there is no way in heaven, earth, or hell, that you can measure up. “You have heard it said...” yes, we've heard a lot about the law, and how we can do this or that. How if we only follow this, or keep that, or just think this way – then the solution is within our grasp. We hear this from false teachers who may even believe it themselves – that we can save ourselves from disaster. That the choice is ours, the power is ours, that we just have to do ______. But it's a lie.
“You have heard it said...” but JESUS says something different. He raises the bar. He makes it harder, he makes it impossible. Rather, he shows the truth that it is impossible to please God with our works, he brings our sins to light, and leaves us in despair, without hope, lost.
But he doesn't leave us there. If we were to look to ourselves, we could sit in a corner and cry about how hopeless it is. But there's somewhere else to look. If we are to keep trying to reach up, to stand up, to rise up to the occasion, we will always fall and fall short. But there's someone who reaches down to us. It's Jesus.
These words aren't the only words Jesus ever said. And scolding us, though we deserve it, isn't the only thing he ever does.
He raises the bar on the law, but he also raises the bar of his cross. This is why he came – the cross. And there he hangs and suffers and dies, to wipe out all our law-breaking. There he is raised, for all to see, the perfect sacrifice, dying for all. There's you're only hope for God's favor, but what a hope it is!
What salvation could be more certain than the one that God himself accomplishes? We, who can do nothing right – we get to rely on him who does everything well. He who was without sin – the only one ever – he became sin for us. The only one who didn't deserve death takes it on for all who do. The only one not subject to death makes himself subject to death for his rebellious subjects, and wins life for us by it.
He shows us our sin, clear as day. But he doesn't just pat us on the head and say, “Close enough. Try harder next time, now run along”. Nor does he leave us in despair. Instead he takes the punishment from us. He descends to the depths for us. He dies our death, takes our cross, and gives us life.
And in doing so, he raises us. Through him, and only through him, do we meet God's standards. In him, we are declared perfect, made perfect. God sees us that way, even now. He works on us, and in us, by his Spirit - he has “begun a good work in us”, and he will “bring it to completion at the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” What a joy it will be, on that final day, to be fully free from sin in every way.
No we are far from perfect. We fall short of the bar, especially the high bar Jesus sets for us in the Sermon on the Mt. Repentance is a daily struggle. But not a hopeless one.
For Jesus meets every demand of the law, and through his cross, wipes away our transgressions. Newly created in him, by water and word, we are raised to life – now and forever – and perfected by him.
Jesus raises the bar on the law, but he also raises us, even to eternal life. Thanks be to God! Amen.