Sunday, January 26, 2014

Fulfilling the Word: Neighbors and Enemies (Matthew 5.38-48)

Sermons by: Robert Austell - January 26, 2014
Text: Matthew 5:38-48

:: Sermon Audio (link) - scroll down for written draft
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "Variations on 'New Britain'" (John Carter)
Song of Praise: "Your Grace is Enough" (Matt Maher)
Song of Praise: "Salvation's Song" (Robin Mark)
The Word in Music: "Lord, I Want to Be a Christian" (Moses Hogan)
Song of Assurance: "The Gospel Song" (Sovereign Grace Music)
Offering of Music: "Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart" (Marilynn Ham)
Hymn of Sending: "O Day of Peace" (JERUSALEM)
Postlude: "Toccata" (Leon Boellmann)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose. 
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41 “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor (Lev 19:18) and hate your enemy.’ 44 “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 “If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:38-48)
Today is our third week in one of Jesus’ extended teaching texts called the “Sermon on the Mount.” This is part of a longer series I’m calling “It is written…” in which we look at Jesus' use of scripture – how he quoted and understood and taught and lived the truths of Hebrew scripture (what we would call our Old Testament). In the Sermon on the Mount we have looked at his handling of scripture on anger and on the making and breaking of vows. Today we look at his handling of scripture on retaliation and vengeance, even when it is “deserved.”

Lex Talionis

“An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” – you probably have heard that before. It is often referred to as the “Law of Retaliation” or by its Latin equivalent: lex talionis. It can be found in the Old Testament and, in one sense, represents the ultimate in fairness and justice. Why would I say that when it sounds so harsh and brutal to our ears? (It does, right?) It was fair and just, especially for those ancient times, because it set limits on punishment. Said another way, it ensured that “the punishment fit the crime.” In a time and culture when revenge and payback would favor the more powerful, lex talionis prohibited exacting a greater vengeance or having different penalties for different social classes.

What was missing in this approach to justice? It may prohibit abuse of the Law, but it leaves little room for forgiveness or grace. Vengeance or revenge may seem like the thing we want or need after we’ve been wronged, but it cannot bring healing or restoration, particularly if the solution is not restitution, but simply inflicting the same harm on the other person.

Jesus did two things at once in his teaching. He spoke against the use of this Law for revenge (even within the boundaries it provided). And he went even further and offered the possibility for grace. This is not a recipe for further harm, but an invitation into the space where there is possibility of redemption. And that’s an important distinction to make.

Let’s look at how Jesus illustrates his teaching. As in the texts we’ve looked at the previous two weeks, he quotes the old teaching, says “but I say to you,” and then offers three illustrations for what he has to say about it.

“Do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (v. 39)

First, about “do not resist an evil person.” There is a time to resist evil. This is probably not the best translation choice here because Jesus doesn’t have in mind defense of life (or any defense) or even a theory of non-resistance. Rather, this has the sense of “attack back.” That would have been the “eye for an eye” approach, but that’s just where he finds opportunity for further sin (in revenge or vengeance) and no opportunity for reconciliation, grace, or redemption. He holds out for more!

A right implementation of the Law would have been, “If someone slaps your right cheek, report them to the legal authority and (whoever they or you might be) their cheek will be struck in punishment.” What that had devolved into was, “If someone slaps your right cheek, strike them back (or worse).” At the very least, Jesus was calling out that abuse of the Law; but he offered something truly better: “turn the other cheek.” With the knowledge that the Law required just punishment, turning the other cheek would not be an invitation to further harm, but an indication of forgiveness and grace. It would not be an act of weakness on the part of the one struck, but an act of strength through grace.

Of course our minds rush to ways to abuse that, but we also lack the context of Jewish Law and the lex talionis. Again, this is not like a fist-fight where you are to hold your hands by your side and accept abuse. It is about how we respond to one wrong: not adding a second wrong to it, but offering a “right” as an act of grace. As we have noted in previous weeks, that opens up space for failure (and being wronged again), but it also powerfully opens up space for redemption for the one forgiven (and reconciliation for the two parties involved). Let’s look at the other illustrations.

“If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.” (v. 40)

This illustrates the same point, with the same options. Someone may wrongly (or even rightly) sue; this is not unlike being struck on the cheek. The Law offers boundaries and protection. Taking matters into one’s own hands and seeking revenge or personal justice is adding a second wrong to the first. Instead, responding with grace changes the conversation. It risks failure and being taken advantage of, but also brings into the situation the possibility of redemption and reconciliation.

“Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.” (v. 41)

Scholars think this is a direct reference to the right of Roman soldiers (under Roman law) in Jesus’ day to require a Jewish person to serve as porters for a set distance. Again, the options are to attack (the meaning of that word ‘resistance’ earlier), do only what the law requires, or go above and beyond. There are some things we are required to do by law or the powers that be. If those things are illegal, we must not comply; but within the scope of the law, what would it be like to do more than is required or expected? What kind of “witness” might that provide? This example was very specific to Jesus’ culture and context, but there might be some interesting applications for us with authorities like bosses, parents, teachers, and more. Is there a way to invite reconciliation or simply strengthen relationship by doing more than the minimum?

Finally, in v. 42 Jesus sums up his teaching and sets up what is to follow, which summarizes much of his ethical teaching.

Love Your Neighbor, Hate Your Enemy?


In v. 42 Jesus says, “Give to him who asks of you and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” This seems a shift from what has preceded, and it is. These who “ask” and “want to borrow” are not the seeming enemy, attacker, and oppressor of vv. 39-41. It is, in fact, the heart of the Jewish Law to care for one’s neighbors. And that is just what Jesus quotes next, with another “you have heard that it was said.” It comes from Leviticus 19:18 and will later be part of a conversation between Jesus and a young scribe about what is the greatest commandment in the Law: “You shall love your neighbor (‘as yourself’ in Leviticus).” But Jesus appends to that “and hate your enemy.” Is that in the Bible? Well, he is likely referring to something like Deuteronomy 23, in which the Ammonites and Moabites were singled out as particular enemies of Israel for not helping God’s people when they were fleeing from slavery in Egypt. We will come back to that in a moment.

But what Jesus now teaches is not “love neighbors, hate enemies” but “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (v. 44) That’s radical! But isn’t that just the move we have seen him make in the preceding verses? That’s why I lump all of this together under one topic. Isn’t the one who strikes you, the one who sues you, and the one who takes advantage of their power over you the enemy? And yet throughout all those examples, Jesus teaches us not to respond as an enemy, seeking vengeance and revenge, but to respond with grace in the context of what is true and right. The purpose is not just to be graceful, but to create the space and context for redemption and reconciliation.

And the next part is what ties that all together. This is “so that you may be (show yourselves to be) sons and daughters of your Father who is in heaven.” It is to be and act like God acts – full of grace and truth. In Christ we are children of God; this is a call to live up to that identity!

This raises the question: is God really like this? That’s one of the questions we are dealing with in Wednesday night Bible study. How come God was against whole peoples like the Ammonites and the Moabites in the Old Testament? Where’s the grace in that? Well, in Deuteronomy 23, which was the reference for “you have heard it said to hate your enemies,” God really did declare those two peoples as the enemies of Israel for setting themselves against Israel when they were down and out and just out of slavery. But was that a permanent stance? There is a notable exception that parallels what we talked about last week. Just as we noted how a failed-but-redeemed king showed up in Jesus’ genealogy despite murder and adultery, there is another prominent person mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy: one of those “enemies of Israel.” It is Ruth, a Moabite who asked to accompany her mother in law back to Israel and who eventually married Boaz as her “kinsman redeemer.” It is a glorious story from Israel’s history of how literally loving one’s enemies can lead to redemption – in this case, part of God’s redemptive plan for the world.

Takeaway: Love like Christ


Jesus goes on to note that even those who don’t know God can often manage to treat their friends well. But it is our particular calling and opportunity, as those who fall short and yet are loved and redeemed by God, to love our enemies and show grace to those who we might otherwise seek to pay back wrong for wrong. Jesus concludes this portion of his teaching with these words: “Therefore you are to be perfect (holy) as your heavenly Father is perfect (holy).” This is, perhaps, directed at the Scribes and Pharisees, who thought they were perfectly keeping the Law. In his teaching Jesus has shown how impossible that is – none is righteous, not even one. But he has also held up God as one who holds grace and truth in tension, that we might have the freedom to fail, but also through redemption, the freedom to live.

Jesus reminds us, “This is what God the Father is like! As his children, be like Him. Learn from Him, emulate Him, do unto others as God has done to you.” God redeems what is failure, what is lost, in our lives. God is the one against whom we have sinned, but who gives us more than we ask or deserve. And so, having been loved so extravagantly, we are to love one another… even those who have sinned against us. Amen!





Sunday, January 19, 2014

Fulfilling the Word: Vows (Matthew 5.27-37)

Sermons by: Robert Austell - January 19, 2014
Text: Matthew 5:27-37

:: Sermon Audio (link) - scroll down for written draft
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "Father, I Adore You" (Fred Bock)
Hymn of Praise: "Come Ye Sinners" (Indelible Grace)
Song of Response: "Salvation's Song" (Robin Mark)
Song of Assurance: "The Gospel Song" (Sovereign Grace Music)
Hymn of Sending: "Lord, Dismiss Us With Your Blessing" (SICILIAN MARINER)
Postlude: "Prelude and Fugue in F Major" (Bach)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose. 

**I would recommend the audio version today over the written draft; the draft is fine as an outline, but there was much more nuance and detail in the spoken version.**
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ (Ex 20:14; Deut 5:18); 28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 “If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 “If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 “It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’ 32 but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33 “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ 34 “But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 “Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.  (Matthew 5:27-37)
It is a hard word today, perhaps even a hurtful one, to hear these scriptures that mention divorce. And so before any of the introductory comments I might normally have, let me offer this word. I know this is tender, tender space for many of you. Please know that I am aware of that and plan to move very gently through this text, which is not primarily about divorce. Let me remind you where we left off last week – that the place of greatest hurt and harm is when we cling to or are subjected to interpretations of scripture that wander into a so-called truth or grace disconnected from the other. That is, a place of no-rules or a place where if you break the rules you are done. The place where Jesus leads us is a different place altogether. And it’s not just for some, it is for all (who will listen)… it is for you. It is a place in the space between grace and truth, where there is freedom to fail and freedom to live. So know that is my trajectory today because I believe that is Jesus’ trajectory and the substance of the Good News of God’s Word.

So now for those introductory comments:

Today we continue in our series entitled, “It is Written.” This is a look at a number of the places where Jesus quotes scripture and then teaches or acts on it. We are looking at how much he valued and used it as well as HOW he used it in his own teaching and ministry. We are keying off his teaching (Matthew 5:17-18) that he did not come to abolish or do away with the old scripture (the Law and the Prophets); rather he came to fulfill, complete, and perfect those scriptures.

Today we are looking at another part of the famous “Sermon on the Mount” in which Jesus really dug deep into the Old Scriptures. He challenged the practices of the self-righteous religious leaders and taught some of his hardest-sounding teaching about what is right not just being what people see on the outside, but what is percolating deep inside in our thoughts, motives, and feelings. His words are incredibly challenging and today, very personal. But they are also deeply freeing; and that is the Good News I want you to remind you about before we are done.

The Law


Last week we looked at how Jesus started with the Commandment against murder and went far beyond literal murder to things like anger, belittling others, and nursing grudges. While murder was and is a worse CRIME, Jesus made it clear that when we nurse anger and these other motives, we sin against God. The conclusion we must draw from his teaching is what is written in Psalm 53 and quoted in Romans 3: there is none righteous, not even one! His specific audience was two-fold: those who watered down God’s Law in such a way that one could appear to keep it and those who were living apart from God’s life-giving Word, either by ignorance or choice. We talked about these two groups last week as those who hold to a truth without grace or a grace without truth, noting that both fall short of the true meaning of the words. The Scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of his day, were notably in the first group, having an elaborate definition and system of law-keeping by which they might consider themselves “righteous.” Just as in our day, there were surely those listening who thought, “I could never keep all those rules, so why bother?” Jesus made it clear, as Paul did so abundantly in his later New Testament writings, that we are all on a level playing field before God, and it is one in which we ALL fall short and need God’s help.

In vv. 27-37, Jesus follows a very similar progression, focusing on another of the Ten Commandments.

As he did with the commandment against murder he does now with the commandment against adultery, going far deeper to adulterous thoughts and actions. In the same way that he moved from murder to anger, he moves from adultery to lust, here also signaling that the breach of God’s righteousness is complete. And as he did with a progression of illustrations about anger, he does here with hell as the consequence. Again, I remind you that this is gentle Jesus, full of love and grace! Let’s look briefly at the examples he gives of the kind of things that grieve God.

First, in addition to upholding the prohibition against committing adultery, Jesus warns that lust is so dangerous that you’d be better off blind or maimed than to indulge lust. Let me note several things here. There is a danger of over-literalizing here. First, he says “everyone who looks at a woman with lust,” but this is not just a warning to men, but to any indulging of lust. To reduce it to the specific example he gives and to exclude others is to make the same error the Pharisees made and miss the point. Secondly, Jesus is not telling us to wound or maim ourselves to avoid lust. He is using such extreme imagery to drive home the point of the seriousness of this sin. Having said that, don’t miss the point he IS making: the seriousness of this sin. We desperately need God’s help!

Then Jesus gives related illustrations concerning divorce and the making of vows. It is helpful to know the cultural context on divorce in his day. It had become the practice, as it still is in some Middle Eastern cultures, that a man could divorce a woman over the smallest of complaints. The rabbis were split on this practice, with some supporting it. As he is throughout the sermon on the mount, Jesus is opposing any view of the Law that is more interested in externally keeping the letter of the Law and missing or intentionally discarding the spirit of the Law. And so, it is not right, he says, for a man to furnish a flimsy pretext for divorce, especially, if one bears in mind the previous verses, if lust for another is driving that pretext. Secondarily, but extremely important to note, this left the divorced woman particularly vulnerable in that culture, often understood to have been the unfaithful one. Jesus teaching here provided a protection for women that had become all but absent in the religious and cultural understanding of the day.

This seemingly brings up the related topic of making vows, since marriage is one example of vows made before God. And Jesus goes on to teach against making false vows, breaking vows made to God, or making superstitious and meaningless vows to some authority other than God since God is over all. He says to simply be truthful – let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no.’

How is all this related? It is all tied back to the commandment against adultery – which Jesus elaborates is a vow broken when lusts are indulged. Far from singling out divorced people (or even those who have committed a sexual indiscretion), Jesus throws a wide net that surely includes every single one of us. Who has not lusted after something or someone at some time? Who has not broken their word or made a promise that can’t be kept? Without diminishing the seriousness of something like adultery, we must confront the truth: “there is no one righteous, not even one.”

And heed this warning: to think, “Well, at least I’m better off than so-and-so” OR “I’m a worse sinner than all these people around me” is to miss Jesus’ point altogether. There is no one righteous, not even one; except there is ONE, and he loves you and wants you… yes, YOU.

The Space In-Between


Let me remind you of the “space in-between truth and grace.” I touched on this last week and directed you to the banners on the wall to help visualize this. Today I have a fancy graphic.

So just to name what I think is there, let me direct you to the space between ‘grace’ and ‘truth.’ In the graphic I’ve tried to connect them even more than you see on our banner. They can’t be separated without becoming something else. You’ll see off to the left side that there is only license or an “everything is right” attitude. Off to the right side there is only legalism and self-righteousness. Though we often think otherwise, there is no freedom in any of that.

But that space there, the green space – and how appropriate that the cross of Christ is there – that’s where you find FREEDOM. Freedom is not in the rules and freedom is not in anything-goes. Freedom is in the space and tension in the middle of grace and truth. In that space between grace and truth, in the presence of Jesus, there is FREEDOM TO FAIL. And that is an important freedom. It is the freedom to hear the truth of God’s Word and be found both guilty and still wanted and loved. We settle for believing we are not guilty or for finding others who look worse than we are. But this is right where Jesus is today in Matthew 5. We are not righteous before God. And here’s the Good News: we are not cast out, but we are chosen, wanted, and loved.

Sound too good to be true? Consider two stories from Jesus’ life and ministry that relate to today’s specific sins:

Freedom to Fail (John 8)


In John 8 the religious leaders are trying to trap Jesus in going against the Law and they “catch” a woman in the act of adultery. Hauling her out into the town street, they gather a crowd and prepare to stone her, but first ask Jesus what to do. Should they follow the letter of the law and invoke the penalty of death (right side of graph)? Will Jesus let her off the hook and say the Law is not important (left side of graphic)? Instead, Jesus invites the crowd into the green area… “let whoever is without sin (righteous) cast the first stone.” And rather than enter in, they all leave. Then, Jesus speaks to the woman where she kneels: she has failed, but he invites her to live, “Neither do I condemn you; go and give up this way of sinning.” If you’ve ever experienced true grace in this way, you won’t ever forget it. It is transforming!

Redemption (Matthew 1:6)


That movement from failing to living is redemption. It’s what God does. I could give hundreds of examples, but I’d like to single out one more that particularly relates to today’s topic. You may remember the story of David and Bathsheba. Bathsheba was married to Uriah and David noticed her one day from his vantage point in the palace. He not only noticed, he lusted and indulged that lust to take Bathsheba and subsequently arrange for Uriah to be killed on the front lines. He was guilty of both adultery and murder, not just in thought but in deed. To go through his subsequent confrontation, confession, consequences, and more would be another whole sermon (or two). What I want to highlight, though, is God’s power and willingness to redeem even the most dire situations and failures. Look with me at Matthew 1:6. This is in the middle of the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew: “David was the father of Solomon by Bathsheba who had been the wife of Uriah.” It’s what we already know, right? David’s son was Solomon. Out of 42 namings of fathers and sons, women are only mentioned five times. Of those, each was part of a story of redemption. In this case, all history is reminded of the story: “Bathsheba had been the wife of Uriah” – until David took her away and had Uriah killed. And yet, that hard truth is neither swept under the rug nor prevented God from something glorious; this is the genealogy of the line of Jesus Christ.

Takeaways


What do I hope you take away from today’s message? I hope you hear that there is not freedom apart from the connected grace and truth found in Jesus Christ. There is only enslavement there. But in Christ there is FREEDOM, freedom to fail and freedom to live. God’s true word to us is that we all will fail. There is none righteous, not even one. But God’s gracious word is that there is redemption in Christ, spoken to all who will listen, that God wants us and loves us and wants us to be a part.

This is Good News! May we have ears to hears and hearts to believe it! Amen.




Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Space Between Truth and Grace (Matthew 5.17-26)

Sermons by: Robert Austell - January 12, 2014
Text: Matthew 5:17-26

:: Sermon Audio (link) - scroll down for written draft
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "O Day of Peace" (Hubert Parry)
Hymn of Praise: "O Day of Peace" (JERUSALEM)
The Word in Music: "Lord, Make Me and Instrument" (Willcocks)
Song of Response: "Friend of Sinners" (Toplady/Red Mountain Music)
Song of Assurance: "The Gospel Song" (Sovereign Grace Music)
Hymn of Sending: "How Firm a Foundation" (FOUNDATION)
Postlude: "Sent Forth by God's Blessing" (Ore)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.  **I should note that this week the manuscript and the spoken version are fairly different, though they do follow the same main ideas.**
17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. 21 “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ 22 “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. 23 “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. 25 “Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. 26 “Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent.
Last week we began a series entitled “It is Written.” This is a look at a number of the places where Jesus quotes scripture – his scripture, the Hebrew Scripture or our Old Testament. And we are looking at how much he valued and used it as well as HOW he used it in his own teaching and ministry. In many ways this series will key off of something Jesus said in today’s text: that he did not come to abolish or do away with the old scripture (the Law and the Prophets); rather he came to fulfill, complete, and perfect those scriptures.

The New Testament is the perfect complement to the old Hebrew Scriptures. The Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – contain the story of Jesus fulfilling the old scriptures. And most of the rest of the New Testament contains the explanation of how Jesus fulfilled the old scriptures. I think you will see how much it all hangs together; and not just because I say so, but as Jesus said.

Today we are looking at part of the famous “Sermon on the Mount” in which Jesus really dug deep into the Old Scriptures. He challenged the practices of the self-righteous religious leaders and taught some of his hardest-sounding teaching about what is right not just being what people see on the outside, but what is percolating deep inside in our thoughts, motives, and feelings. But hang in there; this is incredibly challenging, but also incredibly rich. And while it is deeply convicting, it is also deeply freeing; and that is the Good News I want you to hear before we are done.

The Law


The scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day were known for rule-keeping. Often that is a good thing; but there is a kind of 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.  But at best we will often scoop them out of all their impact and create a false sense of goodness and rightness and congratulate ourselves, especially in comparison with other people.  At worst, we sin by missing the spirit of the Law.

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. 

In vv. 21-26, Jesus teaches on part of the Law of Moses, the Torah. He references the sixth commandment, saying, “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit 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 not the kind of righteousness 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.  For 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 on 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 each of these cases we see that Jesus is interpreting the Law correctly. He is doing just what he said he came to do in vv. 17-18; he is by no means doing away with it! Rather, he is completing, fulfilling, and perfecting the Law.  It’s not just the one specific case of murder that breaks God’s Law.  It is anything that disrupts the order and blessing intended by the Word of God.  From first to last, the Commandments (and they are just one example of God’s Law and Word) offer an order and blessing that flows out of recognition that God is the one and only Lord and God.  That recognition orders and blesses our perspective on everything: 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.

Where Does that Leave Us?

So not only is Jesus fulfilling and perfecting the intent of the Old Law by explaining its full scope and intent; he also is implicitly teaching the very thing that the Apostle Paul will take so much time to explain and unravel in Romans: that God’s Word is good and true, and in its light (and the light of Christ) we are all shown to be unrighteous and in need of God’s intervention. We will confess it later in the service as our prayer of confession, and it comes from Psalms and is quoted in Romans: “There is none righteous, not even one!”
There is none righteous, not even one. God has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there is anyone who understands, who seeks after God. Every one of them has turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is no one righteous, not even one. Oh, that salvation would come out of Zion! When God restores His captive people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.” (Psalm 53:2-3,6; cf. also Romans 3:10ff)
However, Jesus’ point is not to depress us! His goal is to bring us Good News of God’s Kingdom and salvation! So what in the world is he doing here by digging even deeper to expose human sinfulness? I can’t help but remember our Christmas scripture text: Jesus came as light in the darkness, to SHINE in the darkness to bring light and life and hope. So, how do we get that from this?

I’d like to use our newest banner to try to explain. It’s the huge Grace/Truth banner on the side wall. It would be an interesting exercise to poll the congregation and ask you what you make of that. What do you see? What most grabs your attention? The reason we have both grace and truth up there is because we believe that they are inseparable. And Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is one great example of that.

“I haven’t come to do away with Truth… with the Law, with God’s Word.” No, Jesus said he came to uphold, explain, perfect, and complete it. He came to teach – even to BE – the capital ‘T’ on God’s truth. Think of “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” And all those times he began teaching with, “Verily, verily” – which means “Truly, truly” or “Listen up, here’s truth!” And he certainly isn’t letting anyone off the hook in today’s text. He’s pressing God’s truth into what goes on inside us – in our hearts and minds. And we are found wanting. And he certainly doesn’t let the super-religious Scribes and Pharisees off the hook. Nope, he’s all Truth with a big ‘T.’ For those who ever caricature the Old Testament as Law/angry God and the New Testament (or at least Jesus) as sweetness and light, they haven’t really read Jesus’ teaching.

And yet, we do know Jesus to be full of grace. We read that in the beginning of John’s gospel and many other places as well. We see and hear Jesus offer forgiveness as the greater blessing alongside physical healings. We are astonished when, on the cross, Jesus forgives those who have crucified him. Oh, he is also Grace with a capital ‘G’ and that’s part of why we find him so compelling.

The two can’t be separated. Rather, they cannot be separated and remain good or whole. For we do separate them all the time. That’s what the Scribes and Pharisees had done, claiming the superiority of Law and getting so off-track that they were sinning in their own religiosity. That streak of what we call “legalism” has run unabated through the church since it started 2000 years ago. You can read about it in Acts, Galatians, and many places in the Gospels. And you can look around and find it throughout American Christianity in 2014.

And you can also find those who want to major in grace. And there’s nothing wrong with that until it separates from the truth of God’s Word and God’s Son and becomes an exercise in letting people off the hook. Like the temptation that snared Eve in the Garden, we can ask, “Did God really say?” and come to define our own truth and rules and boundaries.

And here’s the thing: if you separate grace and truth, both cease to be. What is left is neither grace nor truth because in order to be what God intended, they must be held together.

The Space In-Between


We are going to spend two more weeks in the Sermon on the Mount, so we will revisit this dynamic. But just to whet your appetite, let me give a teaser for what is coming. It is a challenging and helpful thing to understand the tension between grace and truth and our own tendency toward one or the other. But simply describing that was not what Jesus was doing here. He was inviting his hearers – and us – into the space in-between. We are supposed to feel convicted by truth and God’s Word. We are supposed to realize that there are none righteous, not even one. But rather than retreat to self-righteousness or flee to anything-goes, Jesus invites us into the space and tension of hearing the truth of God’s Word and being captured by God’s grace.

So just to name what I think is there, let me direct you to the cross between ‘grace’ and ‘truth’ on our banner. See that space there – and how appropriate that the cross of Christ is there! That’s where you find FREEDOM. Freedom is not in the rules and freedom is not in anything-goes. Freedom is in the space and tension in the middle of grace and truth. And next week I want to describe two freedoms that are in that space, both of which are important.

In that space between grace and truth, in the presence of Jesus, there is FREEDOM TO FAIL. And that is an important freedom. It is the freedom to hear the truth of God’s Word and be found both guilty and still wanted and loved. That is a real freedom and it’s one we are going to explore more next week. We settle for believing we are not guilty or for finding others who look worse than we are. But this is right where Jesus was today in Matthew 5. We are not righteous before God. And here’s the Good News: we are not cast out, but we are chosen, wanted, and loved.

And in understanding that, accepting that, and rising in that, there is the FREEDOM TO LIVE. That’s also in that space and tension between grace and truth, in the presence of Christ. It’s a freedom to obey God’s Word, not because we have to, but because we want to. It’s the freedom that comes from failing and experiencing forgiveness. It’s the freedom God has designed us for. And it exists there in the middle space.

That’s Good News I can use!

Come back next week and we’ll look at that some more!




Sunday, January 5, 2014

Temptation and the Word (Luke 4.1-15)

Sermons by: Robert Austell - January 5, 2014
Text: Luke 4:1-15

:: Sermon Audio (link) - scroll down for written draft
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "Variations on 'O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days'" (John Carter)
Hymn of Praise: "Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days" (ST. FLAVIAN)
Hymn of Preparation: "Break Thou the Bread of Life/Come Feed My Soul" (BREAD OF LIFE; refrain C. Youngblood)
Hymn of Sending: "Before the Throne/Have Mercy" (Bancroft, Cook,; refrain S Barnard)
Postlude: "Thy Strong Word Did Cleave the Darkness" (Manz)


:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.
1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led around by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And He ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended, He became hungry. 3 And the devil said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” 4 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE.’” 5 And he led Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. 6 And the devil said to Him, “I will give You all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. 7 “Therefore if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD AND SERVE HIM ONLY.’” 9 And he led Him to Jerusalem and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here; 10 for it is written, ‘HE WILL COMMAND HIS ANGELS CONCERNING YOU TO GUARD YOU,’ 11 and, ‘ON their HANDS THEY WILL BEAR YOU UP, SO THAT YOU WILL NOT STRIKE YOUR FOOT AGAINST A STONE.’” 12 And Jesus answered and said to him, “It is said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT PUT THE LORD YOUR GOD TO THE TEST.’” 13 When the devil had finished every temptation, he left Him until an opportune time. 14 And Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district. 15 And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all.   ~Luke 4:1-15
Today we are beginning a series called “It is Written.” It was inspired by a discussion I heard about “red-letter Christians.” You’ve heard of or seen Bibles where the words of Christ are printed in red? There have been people for some time who have prioritized Jesus’ words over the other words in the Bible. And particularly in the last ten years or so, there has been a movement to more formally do that, sometimes setting Jesus off against Paul’s epistles or the Hebrew (Old Testament) Scriptures. Yet, anyone who does take Jesus’ teaching seriously should see how connected his words are to the rest of scripture – both what came before him and what came after.

There is a reason for that! If there were a theme verse for this series, it would be from Matthew 5:17-18 and Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” There he says, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” What we see in Jesus teaching, and even more in his life, is that he upholds and explains and completes the Hebrew Scriptures. What we read in the New Testament Gospels are the narration of his fulfillment; and what we read in the New Testament Epistles is the explanation of that fulfillment.

And this doesn’t take a whole bunch of interpretation on our part. Jesus is very direct and clear about making the connection. His teaching is full of phrases like, “it is written,” “it is said,” and “you have heard it said.” So, between now and March we will look at a number of the places where Jesus invokes Hebrew Scripture in his teaching. And then in March and April, leading up to Easter, we will look at places where Jesus actually fulfilled scripture in his actions.

Today we begin with the so-called “temptation of Jesus” in which the devil tempts Jesus three different times while he is fasting and praying alone for forty days. In each case, Jesus responds with Hebrew Scripture (from the Torah, aka Law of Moses).

“You don’t need God” [INDEPENDENCE]


Jesus had been praying and fasting for forty days, something beyond imagination for most of us though it is medically possible (if inadvisable).  I don’t know if you have ever fasted for spiritual reasons, but it’s not easy.  The longest I have ever done it was during a “30 HOUR Famine” like the youth group does here.  There were parts of that fast that were pretty tough!  I shared back in November that after my sophomore year in college, I got Typhoid Fever on a summer-long mission trip, and couldn’t eat for about two weeks (and then another four of only chicken broth).  That wasn’t on purpose but was closer to the 40 days, and I did learn some important spiritual truths during that time. What I think most of you could identify with is trying to do something spiritually beneficial and running up against resistance.  Maybe you decided to start reading your Bible again or praying more regularly.  And it’s like someone slipped you a sleeping pill… you just can’t keep your eyes open.  As Jesus once told his disciples, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Well imagine the intense spiritual discipline necessary to fast and pray for forty days in the desert.  It wasn’t any easier for Jesus than it would be for you or me!  That’s the implication of his full humanity.  He didn’t get to try out being human like God dipping His toe in the pool of humanity; he dove completely in.  I don’t know or understand the mechanics of that, but I believe the witness of Scripture that it is true.  God became human in Jesus Christ.  And so, after forty days fasting and praying in the desert, he would have been incredibly weak and hungry.

And the Devil speaks these insidious words, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”  Not, “Here’s some bread; why don’t you have a bite?”  But, “You have the power and authority to satisfy your human needs; why don’t you use them?”  More subtly, the question underneath the Devil’s words, “Why do you need to fast and pray when you are the Son of God?”  The assertion was, “Use your name; use your power; don’t follow God’s path – take the easy way out; feed your hunger because you can.”

And listen to Jesus’ reply, quoting God’s Word from Deuteronomy: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”  We heard the rest of that verse earlier in the service, “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.” (Dt. 8:3) Jesus didn’t need to quote it for the Devil’s sake, but was drawing upon it for his own sake. And his point was that he did not come to assert his own will, but to serve the Father’s will. 

Here’s how that temptation can play out for us. If we are hard-pressed or struggling and we have cut God out of the loop, then what we come up with may well look like the best we can get.  Some are falling behind on bills and it becomes so easy to sweep the dirt of immediate bills under the rug of a credit card.  Some are depressed and despondent at home and “make the best of it” by drinking or staying out more and more.  Some feel out of control and turn to self-destructive behavior to try to create a sense of control.  The Devil has whispered that we can take these “rocks” all around us and find satisfaction, but we keep coming back day after day to something that does not answer our need.  Consider what that may be for you.

And consider what was necessary and sufficient for Jesus in his specific physical and emotional human need: every word that comes out of the mouth of God. Are we bold enough to believe it?

“Others can give you what you need” [or, SELF-SATISFACTION; INGRATITUDE?]


Jesus’ forty days in the desert was the beginning of his traveling and teaching ministry and he was beginning it with prayerful attention to God’s Word and will.  Throughout his ministry there was a tension between the Messiah expectation of the people around him and his own understanding of being God’s anointed.  Many looked for him to be a revolutionary and take on the military power of Rome.  Satan’s offer to hand over earthly power to Jesus was not just a “you can have all this” line, but a short step away from the already existing expectations for the Messiah that Jesus would hear over the next few years.

This is also the deal that endless stories have been based on.  It’s the “sell your soul to the devil” story.  If you will only worship me, you can have it all.  It’s the deal at the crossroads, and Jesus resisted by standing on God’s Word.  He quoted Deuteronomy 6 and said, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.’”  Worship is our chief purpose, and Jesus refused to give away his humanity.  Rather, he leaned on God’s Word and declared his intent to love, obey, and serve God alone.

This temptation is one of those most common to humanity.  Even when God is the one promising or giving the riches and blessing, Satan would rob God of worship.  That’s the bottom line.  The “stuff” is just the carrot, but Satan does not want God to be worshiped or served.  In the passage Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 6, God is telling His people not to fall into the worship of a false god.  Listen again to what is going on there:
…when the Lord your God brings you into the land… great and splendid cities… houses full of all good things… cisterns… vineyards… olive trees… and you eat and are satisfied… then watch yourself, that you do not forget the Lord. (vv. 10-12)
Listen to the next part, in verse 13:
You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name.  You shall not follow other gods…
When surrounded by plenty, how easy it is for human eyes to wander! Success is something human beings strive for, measure, and accomplish on their own.  It is defined in worldly terms, in dollars and cents, and as a measure of power and status.  Success means you are educated, or wealthy, or comfortable.  It does not correspond to God, godliness, or faithfulness to God, except perhaps as one is willing to give it away and serve others.  You may sense that two different lines of thought are present.  There is one theme of success and prosperity and there is one of worship and obedience.  The great lie and temptation of Satan is to tie those things together.  The subtle lie is to link faith with prosperity.  Satan will take that deal, for it’s easy to give up on God when He doesn’t come through with the money or the deal.  The more open lie is to erase God from the picture altogether and to serve what is not God in an effort to achieve success or prosperity. 

Milton captured this lie precisely in Paradise Lost when he has Satan giving a speech to the condemned of Hell and telling them that he would rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.  That is exactly Satan’s lie – that we are better off on our own with some level of material success than first and foremost loving, obeying, and serving God.

Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6, which warns, “watch yourself, that you do not forget the Lord who brought you out of slavery.”  That passage leads to the same point Jesus made to Satan: love, obey, and serve God alone. That is the way through the temptation to chase after the false gods of success and discover the riches of being blessed – that is, lined up and following after the will and Word of God.  Jesus demonstrated this way and he is the Way. 

“God must prove Himself to you” [ARROGANCE]


Thirdly, Satan challenged Jesus to throw himself off the top of the Temple in Jerusalem, saying, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.”  It wasn’t to take his life, but to show His power.  Satan continued, “For it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning you to guard you… on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”  Though Satan is quoting scripture (Psalm 91), he mis-applies it.  That Psalm is an affirmation of God’s sheltering and helping hand for those who trust Him and are hard-pressed and in need.  It is not a formula for hurling oneself into danger.  It is no wonder that Jesus responds by saying, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”  But there is more to this temptation than the obvious correction to the mis-use of Psalm 91.

For one, this temptation anticipates the crucifixion.  While Satan would not have known the details of Jesus’ obedience and yet-to-come crucifixion, he could imagine how to get Jesus off course.  To take advantage of the position of Son would be to follow the path of Satan’s own sin.  Satan was cast out of heaven for seeking to elevate himself rather than to serve God.  If Jesus would do the same, surely he would thwart God’s plans significantly.  In some ways, this was a re-play of the temptation of Adam and Eve, but with even more at stake, if that is possible.  While Adam’s sin led to the downfall of the human race, now the redemption of humanity is at stake.

Even at the end of this passage, when Satan leaves, it is only until he can return at “an opportune time” to continue his efforts at sabotage.  There is a cosmic battle being played out here, and Jesus proves faithful again and again. While all that is true, I’d like to focus on the human part of this.  What does this temptation have in common with us?  And how can we learn from Jesus and not yield to this temptation?

Jesus’ quotation of God’s Word points us in the direction we need to go.  He quotes again from Deuteronomy 6 (as he did with the second temptation).  The rest of that passage reads as follows:
You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested Him at Massah… you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord… (vv. 16-18)
Jesus is again affirming obedience to God’s will and Word.  This has been his response to all three temptations, and it is our way out as well. The explanation of “putting God to the test” is a story from Exodus 17.  It is the first of two stories of water from the rock.  In this story, the people are in great need, desperate for water, and they complain to Moses, asking whether the Lord was with them or not.  They did not go to Moses and say, “Will you ask God to help us, to give us water?”  They argued with Moses and demanded that he provide water.  They no longer believed that God was with them. 

This was the choice Satan put to Jesus.  Throw yourself off the Temple and make God show His power.  Certainly, God could have proven Himself that way, but Jesus did not take the route of the faithless Israelites: he continued to seek, listen, and obey God’s will and Word rather than make his own way apart from God.

This is a very real temptation that we face.  And the heart of it is not just doubting God or having periods of struggle with faith.  That kind of struggle and doubt can find resolution.  This particular temptation finds expression in the prayer that says, “This is what I need, and if God doesn’t answer this, then I’m giving up on God.”  That’s the kind of temptation that can ruin us and take us down for a long time. One of the reasons I hear often given by people who no longer attend church is something like this: “One time there was this horrible situation; I prayed to God to fix it and He didn’t, so I don’t believe in God anymore.”  That’s where Satan longs to go with that temptation – to have people’s prayers not be about seeking God’s will, but about fulfilling our wishes and grading God on the results.

What Jesus demonstrates during these extended temptations is not just a good knowledge of Scripture, but recognition that they are Words of Life and Truth for the most difficult of our human situations. Satan tried every different angle to get Jesus off-track: self-reliance, idolatry, and forcing God’s hand. But Jesus, who had access to supernatural power, depended on God’s Words in human weakness. How much more should we also! Jesus points us again and again to God’s Word and to listening, looking, and trusting that Word as we wait for, trust in, and serve God of all. Amen.