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Sermon for Epiphany 7

February 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Matthew 5:38-48

Augustana 2011

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The text for the sermon this morning is the Gospel reading for today, the continuation of the Sermon on the Mount.

The last few weeks have really been a sermon series based on the Gospel readings.  The sermon today is really a continuation of Jesus’ explaining what living like a disciple in the kingdom of heaven looks like.  We know that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who have emptied themselves of their own righteousness and have been filled with the righteousness of Christ Jesus.  We call that repentance.  We know that these readings in our Gospel lessons go together and that they form part of a whole.

Jesus said that the lives of his disciples should be shaped by God’s holy Law.  Jesus’ entire life and ministry certainly is!  Therefore we who follow after Him should conform our lives to God’s Law.  Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  Who accomplishes God’s Law?  Jesus does!  Therefore, it should be clear that God’s Law is not evil.  What is evil is our failure to follow it or even allow it to have authority for our lives.  As if Jesus was not clear enough He sums up His position by saying, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Are we clear that the lives of Jesus’ disciples should be shaped by God’s Law?  Yes?  Good.

As we saw then last week, Jesus then explains about what this superior righteousness looks like.  Jesus expects His disciples’ good works to be greater than the scribes and Pharisees, even perfect as His Father in Heaven is perfect.  What we are not talking about, what we have already solved weeks ago when we read the Beatitudes, is how one takes possession of the kingdom of heaven.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  In other words, those who have the kingdom of heaven already now, you, disciples of Jesus, you have it not because of your righteousness but because of your poverty of spirit, your repentance.  Alright?  I’m just trying to be clear, because sometimes people hear kingdom of heaven and they start thinking about baby angels and flying away on clouds and Jesus is not talking about that.  He’s talking about living and working in God’s kingdom in the here and now with the final payoff, entering the kingdom of heaven on the Last Day, still yet to come.  We use the phrase, already now, but not yet.  So, last week, Jesus described kingdom life by looking at four very practical, everyday issues, murder, adultery, divorce, and religious oaths.  The same formula we heard last week Jesus repeats, You have heard that it was said… But I say to you.”  And today we have two more, retaliation and loving one’s enemies.  But again these are examples of kingdom living, not items on your to do list to get into heaven.  So Jesus is describing superior righteousness, kingdom righteousness.

The law of retribution provided safeguards against damage to personal property and possessions but we don’t see it that way at all today.  We hear that phrase, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” and what do we think of?  Tit for tat vengeance, right? And it’s totally “old school,” as the kids say.  I mentioned a few Sundays ago that if you missed out on the Leviticus class we just finished, you really missed out.  But this was one of the things I learned; contrary to how we are led to understand this today, God gave this command in Leviticus 24 as a way to limit revenge for wrongs.  So the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” law actually said, if someone injures you, you are entitled to no more than the equal retribution of the injury.  Fast forward fourteen hundred years, give or take, and the problem in Jesus’ day was that many people were misusing this provision of God’s Law.  What God intended to be the foundation for a court system, they had gone full circle again and applied back to personal relationships.  The irony was that they justified personal revenge by a law that was designed to prevent just that.  And so Jesus called his disciples to end the tit for tat that stood in the place of justice.

But Jesus goes beyond the law of retribution and calls his disciples to lives of reckless generosity.  [Read the text] I can hear what you’re thinking, “Literally?  Surely you’re not serious, pastor?  Surely Jesus isn’t serious?”  Sure, Jesus is exaggerating to make a point but that doesn’t mean He isn’t serious.  He wants to reform our instincts, our quick reactions and our general unwillingness to sacrifice.  So Jesus wants His disciples, if they are to get it wrong, to get it wrong on the side of giving, even to the point of being taken advantage.  One more thing I learned this week, this smack on the face is probably a backhanded slap.  Think about it.  If you got slapped on the right cheek, by a right handed person, it was a backhanded slap, an insult.  So be willing to be insulted for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus is serious.  To be grudging, ungenerous and unwilling to go the first mile, is to flirt with damnation.  But look at this way, can a person who already knows who he or she is God’s eyes sustain an insult?  Of course!  This is how Jesus calls his disciples to lives of radical generosity, self-sacrifice and quiet submission.

Finally, Jesus deals loving one’s enemies (vv. 43–48). Point of information: there is no OT command to hate one’s neighbor.  So here is proof that Jesus is not taking any issue with the OT Law, but rather with interpretations of the Law found among the religious leaders of the day.  Jesus commands his disciples to love without taking into consideration the worthiness of the person being loved and to pray for others in the same way; even your enemies and those who persecute you should be able to see in some way your love for them.  There are no grounds for limiting your loving deeds to a particular group.  Why?  Because you are the heavenly Father’s adopted children, therefore you are to carry on in a manner befitting who you are.  Look at how God shows love; He makes the rain to fall and the sun to rise on both the evil and the good.  Just as our heavenly Father is good to evil people and good people alike, so is Jesus—He who gave His life as the ransom payment not for the few, but for the many.  Love your enemies.

“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” Jesus asks.  This is a radical message.  Just hearing these words from our Lord stirs up all kinds of emotion in us, feelings of failure, maybe even anger.  As outrageous as it was to His hearers then, the Sermon on the Mount remains challenging us today.  The Lord’s teaching has special force in a society that is concerned with possessions and busyness, and in which families are falling apart at an alarming rate under the pressures of poverty and divorce.  In our day, it seems newsworthy if some succeeds even in the most basic task of loving those who love him or her.  But in response to that kind of good work, Jesus asks, “what reward to you have?”  After all, even people in gangs look after each other.  You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I do want to point out one Greek word here because it is that important, “perfect.”  Jesus says “you must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  This word is teleios.  That may or may not sound familiar to you but this is the same root in the last phrase that Jesus says from the cross, “Tetelestai,”  “It is finished.”  It has connotations of maturity, completeness, fulfillment, or accomplishment.  On the cross Jesus completed the perfect obedience under the Law and as St. Paul tells us in Roman 10, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”  (Ro 10:4)  “You must be perfected even as your heavenly Father is perfect” might not be a bad paraphrase.  Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message reads, “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”  That’s pretty good.

Jesus has finished explaining God’s Law to its full effect.  If after the last two weeks, if you think there’s still a possibility that you’re not all that bad, you haven’t been paying attention!  Belonging to his kingdom, and living the kingdom life, takes more than external conformity to a set of religious standards.  The kingdom life goes far deeper than that.  Anyone who tries to seriously obey the will of God as Jesus has just taught it should see nothing but his or her own sinfulness!  But is Jesus’ purpose here to condemn you as sinners?  This goes back to the beginning of the section.  Jeff Gibbs in his commentary notes that ordinary disciples are called to live extraordinary lives as disciples of Jesus.  Jesus’ purpose is to reveal to you God’s will for your calling as disciples as you salt the earth and light the world.  Remember that the Holy Spirit created the relationship between you and Jesus through repentance and faith in the promised blessings Jesus announced in the Beatitudes.  In that relationship with God and strengthened by that blessing from God, you will as individual Christians and as a congregation, begin to show evidence of the will of God for your lives.  Your quest for perfection and completeness has nothing to do with causing or even maintaining your relationship with God.  Jesus is the one who exhibits absolute perfection in the place of His disciples and His completed and mature work for you is at all times your certain hope and confidence.  Most Christians at their best, feel like they’re a work in progress.  What Good News to know that in the perfect obedience of Christ, we are complete.  We do good works by carrying out the vocations to which we’ve been called because we already possess the kingdom of heaven.  Or, as Father Augustine is reportedly to have said while presiding at the Lord’s Supper, no less, “Receive who you are. Become what you’ve received.”  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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Sermon for Epiphany 6

February 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Matthew 5:21-37

Augustana 2011

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The text for the sermon today is from the Gospel reading for today.

If you’ve been in church at all the past few weeks, hopefully you have heard at least once about the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is His instructions to His disciples.  The clear parallel is to the Lord God who after He rescued Israel from Egypt, met with them on Mt. Sinai as recorded in Exodus and delivered His instructions for living as His people.  Jesus now meets with His disciples, those who have repented and are “poor in spirit.” He sits down and describes to them how their lives should look.  These words mean what they appear to mean.  They are a clear description of the lives of disciples who possess the kingdom of heaven.

I said there is a clear parallel between what Moses delivered to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai and what Jesus says here but I want to try to explain that a bit.  You know there are really two kinds of people in the world, the kind of people who are just barely able to pay their taxes and those who are wealthy enough to be able to pay someone else to find all the loopholes in the tax law so that they pay less in taxes.  Everything they do is legal but it’s legal because they found a loophole in the law.  In Jesus’ day there were folks who thought they could live by the rigor of God’s holy Law but they were essentially living in loopholes, mostly they created for themselves.  They quoted the Law of Moses even as they cursed their brother for his unfaithfulness and wrote out writs of divorce for the women they were tired of.  The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ call to His disciples whose righteousness should exceed that of the Pharisees.  Jesus used this formula over and over again, “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…”  Jesus is eliminating all those loopholes those folks found in God’s Law.  So there is a clear parallel to God’s giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai and Jesus’ closing of any and all loopholes in the Sermon on the Mount.

We might think of these folks in Jesus’ day as the self-righteous Pharisees of old but they are alive and well today in the church.  These are the ones who say, “I may not be perfect, but hey, nobody’s perfect.  At least I haven’t killed anybody.”  To that Jesus says, “Really?  Sure you have, in fact you might well have killed somebody on the way to church this morning.  “…[E]veryone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”  These same folks, say, “well, hey, at least I haven’t cheated on my wife, or husband!”  “Really?  What about those glances at the calendars in the book store?  I think maybe you protested a little too much about that movie, if you know what I mean.  Would you care to show me your Internet browser history?”  “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  Yes, you have killed somebody.  Yes, you have cheated on your spouse.  There are no loopholes in the Law.

There is a fine Christian tradition of examining the conscience according to the Ten Commandments.  Just according to the Fifth Commandment we need to ask ourselves: “Have I…

* Unjustly and intentionally murderd a human being?

* Been involved in an abortion, directly or indirectly (through advice, etc.)?

* Seriously considered or attempted suicide?

* Supported, promoted or encouraged the practice of assisted suicide or mercy killing?

* Deliberately desired to murder an innocent human being?

* Unjustly inflicted bodily harm an another person?

* Unjustly threatened another person with bodily harm?

* Verbally or emotionally abused another person?

* Hated another person, or wished him evil?

* Been prejudiced, or unjustly discriminated against others because of their race, color, nationality, sex or religion?

* Joined a hate group?

* Purposely provoked another by teasing or nagging?

* Recklessly endangered my life or health, or that of another, by my actions?

* Driven recklessly or under the influence of alcohol or other drugs?

* Abused alcohol or other drugs?

* Sold or given drugs to others to use for non-therapeutic purposes?

* Encouraged others to sin by creating a scandal?

* Caused serious injury or death by criminal neglect?

* Indulged in serious anger?

* Refused to control my temper?

* Been mean to, quarreled with, or willfully hurt someone?

* Been unforgiving to others, when mercy or pardon was requested?

* Sought revenge or hoped something bad would happen to someone?

* Delighted to see someone else get hurt or suffer?

* Treated animals cruelly, causing them to suffer or die needlessly?

Then tension you feel when you hear these questions is because your life does not measure up to God’s Law according to His own Son’s interpretation of it.  And the tension shows up because I think most of us, most of the time live and act as if we’re doing pretty well, and we judge ourselves according to how bad the other guy is. Rather instead we should examine ourselves and allow ourselves to be examined according to God’s clear Law.  We don’t need to worry about that guy who sure looks like a Pharisee, we need to see and confess the hypocrisy of our heart and humbly say, “I am not perfect, I am far from it.  God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

But there is something even more dangerous among us: that not only do we often fail to see that our lives don’t measure up but even our expectations of what our lives in Christ should be don’t measure up to what Jesus very clearly and very simply describes here.  We write off all manner of sin prevalent in our homes and in our families including gossip and mean-spiritedness, and all kinds of sexual immorality clearly condemned by God’s Law and are clearly counter to the order God Himself created and established and called “very good.” And as if it couldn’t get worse for us, we fail to even talk about living lives of faithful obedience and virtue because we’re so worried someone might think were being work-righteous.  We Lutherans have leaned so hard on the truth that when we do good works it’s not us doing them, but rather God doing them in and through us that we have begun to fail to see ourselves as moral agents responsible for what we do and don’t do.  It’s certainly true that every good deed and thought of ours, every virtuous perception, feeling and motivation is a fruit of the Holy Spirit within us.  Yet, as Jesus clearly shows us, these good works are still very much truly our doings, the real work of our hands and hearts and as our own Lutheran Confession clearly attest:

Fruit of the Spirit, however, are the works wrought by God’s Spirit, who dwells in believers. The Spirit works through the regenerate. These works are done by believers because they are regenerate. They act as though they knew of no command, threat, or reward. In this way God’s children live in the Law and walk according to God’s Law… The believer, so far as he is regenerate, acts without constraint and with a willing spirit to do what no threat of the Law (however severe) could ever force him to do. (FC Ep VI)

Who does the good work?  The Spirit does the works and the believer does the works. Together. The Spirit dwells in the believer, who freely cooperates. Both do the works.  My pastor back in Alexandria, Pastor Esget put it this way recently:  “[This] becomes an excuse to ignore the Christian life. The typical formulaic “You’re a sinner; Jesus died for you; all is forgiven” sermon leads to antinomianism, where the believer is taught that he needs no guide and does no good works.”

So let’s try this sermon.  Dear Christian friends.  You are sinners.  Jesus said, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  Jesus died for your sins and brings you into the kingdom of heaven.  All your sins are forgiven.  Since your sins are atoned for in the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ even unto death, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.”  “…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”  That’s why you shouldn’t murder.  That’s why you should live sexually pure and decent lives.  Jesus called you to be His disciples, not because you deserve it but because of His great mercy.  Being called to be a disciple of Jesus is a high honor and it requires the highest standard, standards far higher than any culture or society known to history.  And when we measure ourselves by His high standards then we know the high calling to which He has called us.  There, in the mercy and grace of God, shown to us most clearly in the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ our Brother, there we see ourselves as the ones we’ve been called to be in the kingdom of heaven.  “Since we have been called to live in the kingdom of God, let us live as obedient children of our heavenly Father doing the work He has given us to do, salting and lighting the world.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

Categories: Uncategorized

Sermon for Epiphany 5

February 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Augustana, 2011

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The text for the sermon this morning is the Gospel for today from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Sometimes, in order to get into a text you have to start at the end and work your way back through.  This Sunday that’s a good plan because the last verse has the phrase that connects us back through to what we have been talking about throughout the season.  “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  The magi come to worship Jesus as king. At the beginning of Jesus ministry he preaches the message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  And Jesus began doing kingdom work, setting right again God’s kingdom corrupted by sin and the effects of sin, illness and demon possession.  Then last week, Jesus begins to preach to His disciples, those who already have the kingdom, what living in the kingdom looks like.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  So there is this progression in the Gospel readings this season and we would do well to keep this in mind.  And we would do well to remember that we have arrived at this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount through a particular door, the Beatitudes.  You are the blessed ones; you have already received the kingdom of heaven.  It’s to you that Jesus preaches this Sermon on the Mount.

“You are the salt of the earth,” most Bibles read.  But this noun might better be seen acting like an action word, “You are that which salts the earth.”  The same goes for the light of the world.  “You are that which lights the world.”  You salt the earth; you light the world.  These images are not hard for us to understand.  We live in an area where recently salt is verb.  As a result of all the winter weather, the trucks salt the road.  If they didn’t, we couldn’t get around as safely as we do.  The same holds for light as a verb.  The state has just completed the lighting project out on I-40, so now we can say they have lit the area to help drivers safely navigate the area.  In these cases salt and light have beneficial effects on our area, helping us to drive safely.  The same holds true for the disciples who metaphorically salt and light the world.

It’s a question of who and whose you are.  You are disciples of Jesus, you are the blessed ones.  Think about that for a minute.  You are to salt and light the world.  It’s who you are.  No others have been called by Jesus to do this.  But don’t take this as a command from Jesus as much as it is a description of what it means to be Christ’s disciples in this world.  Who you are is not dependent on how well you salt or light the world, no.  Who you are is completely God’s own act of calling and preserving you in the faith through the Holy Spirit.  He does this through the Word of Jesus:  “You are blessed, you poor in spirit, because the reign of heaven is already yours.”  Because you are blessed, because you already possess the kingdom of heaven, you salt and light the world.

Now I don’t want to get bogged down with the specifics of salt in the time of the New Testament but I do think a quick word of explanation is due here.  When we’re talking about salt, we’re not talking about the box of Morton’s on the shelf.  Most folks in Palestine got their salt from the area around the Dead Sea.  This kind of salt could “lose its saltiness,” acquiring the alkaline taste of other chemical compounds present as the salt was dissolved out and salt that isn’t salty anymore is good for nothing.  You also might be wondering why the disciples are to salt the earth.  In this part of the country that might not need as much explanation because we know that salt is a great preservative for things like ham.  The earth needs curing and preserving, says Jesus, and disciples of Jesus salt the earth.

Jesus poses the next part as a question, “but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?”  We can ask the question a little differently, a way which I think is still true to the text, “If you don’t salt the earth, how will the earth get salted?”  If the snow plow driver doesn’t salt the road, how will the road get salted?  Just as it is the job of the snow plow driver to salt the road, so it is that Christians salt the earth.  It’s what they do.  Many of you might have heard of the controversy in New York City when the snow plow drivers were accused of not doing their job.  Think about what happens in the world when Christians don’t salt the earth and light the world.  A person who refuses this calling is a person who has never entered the kingdom.  Jesus does not mince words about non-salting disciples.  A disciple who no longer salts has deserted his calling and his Lord; he will be thrown out and trampled on the Last Day.

Just as you salt the earth, so shall you light the world.  This is an image which is a little clearer for us.  Dark is bad; in the dark is where evil hides.  Light is good and dispels the darkness.  Remember back just two weeks ago when Jesus began His ministry in Galilee?  Matthew described it as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy:

15      “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,

the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—

16      the people dwelling in darkness

have seen a great light,

and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,

on them a light has dawned.”

17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mt. 4:15-17)  The beginning of Jesus ministry is described as bringing light to people in darkness.  Now not even a full chapter later, Jesus’ disciples also light the world.  Now catch what Jesus says next. They’re actually a logical arguments.  “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” (Mt 5:14b, 15)  An invisible city on a hill doesn’t make sense. People don’t light a lamp and then hide it under a bushel basket.  That’s absurd.  Remember you light the world.  To try to escape this calling means rejecting Jesus Himself.  He teaches with authority, and all His disciples, then and now, believe that in Him, you are God’s way of blessing the world around you.  You bless the world around you, you salt the earth and you light the world by your good works.

“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Mt 5:16)  Oh yes, your good works are your salt for the earth and your light for the world.  Many Lutherans get nervous Around any talk of good works because of the fear of the false doctrine that good works might aid in one’s salvation.  But as our own Lutheran Confessions declare, good works are a necessary part of the Christian life.  From the Formula of Concord, “Especially in these last times, it is just as necessary to exhort people to Christian discipline and good works, and to remind them how necessary it is that they exercise themselves in good works as an evidence of their faith and their gratitude toward God, as it is to warn against mingling good works in the article of justification.”  (FC Ep IV 18)  Look how Jesus talks about good works.  What are they for?  Christians do good works so that others may see them and be drawn to God.  Millions of times over the past two thousand years, people receiving shelter, food, clothing, medical care, have asked Christians, “Why do you do this?”  And the answer is because Christians are called to do these things.  Jesus will explain throughout the rest of the Sermon on the Mount what these good works look like but the nature of them all is to glorify God and to serve one’s neighbor.

Jeff Gibbs in his commentary on Matthew, explains that these good works will be carried out by Christians in their “ordinary” vocations, those roles and stations in life where God has put them.  But, he points out, “Those works and those lives… are to be extraordinary…  Jesus’ disciples are called to lives of remarkable purity, faithfulness, piety, love and generosity.”  (Gibbs, 261)  He goes on to say that Christians today need to be exhorted not “to live in their vocations in ordinary ways, that is, in the same ways that non-Christians do.”  “Jesus’ disciples are called to be extraordinary husbands and wives, remarkable neighbors and employees, powerful friends and citizens.  Their deeds and their words, in the power of faith and the Spirit, will be like salt, like light in the darkness.” [emphasis original] (262)

As if there could be any mistaking of what Jesus says here, the reading today concludes with Jesus’ saying, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  (Mt 5:20)  But remember who has called you.  Remember who has made you His own.  The Lord of heaven and earth, the Son of God, the One who does not destroy the Law but the One who achieves every last demand and completes even the smallest requirement of it, He has called you.  He has given you possession of the kingdom of heaven.  He has blessed you.  Out of that relationship of grace and present promise and future blessing, you do good works, salting the earth and lighting the sin darkened world because your righteousness flows out of your relationship with Jesus.  Good works are a part of every disciple’s life in Christ and stem from Jesus’ call and blessing.

You’ve been called to an extraordinary life in Christ Jesus.  Salt the earth.  Light the world.  Glorify your Father in heaven assured of your righteousness in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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