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Monday, March 8, 2010

Sinning on the Inside (Matthew 5, Romans 2)

March 7, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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Today we continue in Lent, trying to take a realistic look at the human condition and our great need – our desperate need – for God’s intervention.  We began two weeks ago by considering the story of Adam and Eve and the implications of their “original sin.”  Last week we looked at the Ten Commandments, not as rules to bind us but as bounds to set us free.  With the imagery of Ash Wednesday and the Curse upon us, we saw that for those living in the ashes between Eden and the End, the Ten Commandments offer a temporary shelter in the present world, with all the hope of a God who is coming to save us from death itself.

Today we press on into the New Testament to consider Jesus’ teaching on those same Commandments.  We saw last week that the tenth commandment focuses inward, warning us to guard against letting temptation take root and become covetousness.  Jesus continues that inward focus, revisiting many of the Commandments and warning against the early and inward sins that lie between temptation and outward sins of commission.

You’ve heard the verse, but it is worth repeating: Jesus said of God’s Law, of the Commandments, “I did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets… but to fulfill (or perfect) [them].” (Matthew 5:17)  Jesus’ choice of words there points us towards the two key responses to God’s Law, and more broadly to God’s Word. 

One Kind of “Perfect”

I have said before that we can take the best gifts of God and warp and twist them into distortions of the original.  In some ways that is the imprint of our fallen selves, created in the beautiful image of God, yet distorted and warped by sin.  An example of where we have and continue to do this is with God’s Word itself.  They are “words of life,” as we sing sometimes, but we can twist them into rules and law that kills the spirit.  We might even speak of keeping God’s commandments perfectly, but this is not the kind of “perfect” for which Jesus said he came. 

There is a kind of “perfect” Commandment-keeping that misses the point.  It is the kind that makes careful definitions of the Law, creates a checklist, and then heaps great self-congratulations on fulfilling one’s own expectations.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t obey the Ten Commandments.  Rather, at best we scoop them out of all their impact and create a false sense of goodness and rightness and congratulate ourselves.  At worst, we sin by missing the spirit of the Law. 

Fulfilling the Intent of the Law

Jesus illustrates in the passages from Matthew, part of his “Sermon on the Mount.”  He introduces each example with “You have heard…” and he follows up with, “But I say….”  We didn’t read all of these, nor am I going to speak to all of them.  But we’ll look at a few.

In vv. 21-26, Jesus teaches on the sixth commandment – do not murder.  Most of us can say with confidence that we have not broken that commandment.  We may even look upon those who have with a smug self-righteousness that we are morally superior.  That is exactly the wrong kind of “perfect” – not what the Commandments were intended to produce.  Rather, Jesus presses in and demonstrates that each and every one of us are guilty of breaking this Commandment.  Sure, murder is a worse crime than anger, but when it comes to moral purity and spiritual righteousness, we all fall short.  So Jesus presses with several examples of the spirit of the Law: if you are angry with another, you are guilty; if you call or treat someone as a ‘fool’ you are guilty – guilty enough for hell he says!  As a measure of the significance of these inward sins, Jesus puts their correction over the act of offering at the altar of God!  He says to first make it right – be reconciled – THEN come make an offering.  In a second example, he says to make friends with your enemies, lest they betray you by your own inconsistency toward them.

In vv. 27-31, Jesus teaches on the seventh commandment – do not commit adultery.  We likewise scoop out the significance of this commandment to all but the most specific and literal examples of “cheating on my spouse” – and even then distinguish more and less serious variations.  Jesus doesn’t mess around here, but goes deep, to the very beginnings of lust in such a way that very few escape the implications, which are wide indeed.  Here, God’s Commandment reaches not only into the marriage bed, but into what we watch on TV, on the Internet, read in books, and the way we look at members of the opposite (or even same) sex!  His teaching starts to impinge on our choice in music, clothes, advertising, and much more.  And his illustrations are even more serious than the previous ones.  Surely we must take him seriously when he implies that the loss of an eye or hand or body part would not be as serious as the consequences of our lusts.

In each of these cases we see that Jesus is interpreting the Law correctly.  It’s not just the one specific case of murder or adultery that breaks God’s Law.  It is anything that disrupts the order and blessing intended by those Laws.  We saw last week that from first to last, the Commandments offered an order and blessing that flowed out of recognition that God was one and only Lord and God.  That recognition ordered and blessed our perspective on God, time, family, neighbors, and self.  So Jesus is unpacking that: anything that disrupts our love of neighbor under the reign of God breaks God’s intention for the Commandments.

Consider a third example.  In vv. 43-48, Jesus broadly treats “love of neighbor” – covered in a number of the Ten Commandments and elsewhere in the Law.  He doesn’t negate the old Law in this case, but broadens the conception of “neighbor” to include the whole world.  The positive implications of the commandment then become to love and pray for one’s enemies.  He compares this with God’s own behavior in allowing a common grace to shine and fall on the evil and the good.  He concludes with another appeal to “perfection” and this is what pointed me to what I’m calling “the right kind of perfect.”

By “being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect” does Jesus mean that I am to be sinless?  Is that possible?  Or could he mean something else, perhaps even related to his earlier words about coming to fulfill or “perfect” the Law? 

The Right Kind of “Perfect”

Look with me at a different passage – Romans 2:17 and following.  There the Apostle Paul is writing to Jewish Christians about the circumcision requirement for Gentile Christians.  Paul accuses the Jewish Christians of getting fixated on the letter of the Law and missing the spirit of the Law.  By clinging to the letter of the Law and missing the grace of God toward the Gentiles who believed in Christ, some Jewish Christians were, in Paul’s opinion, dishonoring God. (v. 23)  He concludes that passage with this strong statement:

For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh.  But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God. (vv. 28-29)

You want to be a “real Christian”?? – that’s the gist of what Paul is asking here.  If so, then don’t focus on outward appearances, but on the inward reality.  Is God’s Word a mask, outer-ware for your soul?  Or is it the very food on which your soul depends?  Has God written His Word upon your heart?

That’s the “right kind of perfect” – the kind that is, by the Holy Spirit’s help, keeping the spirit of God’s Law in the heart.  Doing so can only come out of the humility of realizing how far each of us falls short of God’s moral and spiritual purity, but also out of the joy of making our home in the blessed sanctuary of ordering life under the reign of the one and only Lord of all. 

The Blessing and the Challenge of the Word

So that’s the blessing and the challenge of the Commandments in particular, and God’s word in general.  At once, they convict us of the reality of the human condition – that we fall short and are cursed for spiritual death; and yet at the same time God has blessed us with a Word that offers us temporary shelter and an eternal hope that He will intervene and give us life.

What does one do with this teaching on the Commandments?

Broadly, the application is two-fold, growing out of two significant realizations about the human condition: we are challenged and we are blessed.

We are challenged to not give in to easy self-righteousness, displacing our need for a holy God to intervene and save.  To respond to this challenge produces a profound and genuine humility.

There is also blessing: we are blessed to have some living words of hope spoken into our death camp – words which offer us order and blessing in this, our temporary home; and words which hold out a picture and a hope of new life with the one and only Lord of all.  To receive this blessing produces a profound and genuine joy.

God’s Word… food for the soul… humility and joy… challenge and blessing.

For those with ears to hear.  Amen.

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