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Monday, March 29, 2010

The Sin of Idolatry (Psalm 118, John 12.12-19)

March 28, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today is Palm Sunday, in which we remember Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. We are right to take up the words of that day, quoted from Psalm 118: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” We are right to celebrate Jesus as King and have a celebration service.

But if you are reading the Gospel story, and particularly if you are following the events of Passion week – which run from today through Easter, you realize something is “off” in the story. If it were a movie, you’d be watching the Palm Sunday procession, perhaps in slow motion, and everyone would be cheering and waving palms, but the music in the background might have something discordant in it. A good director would somehow signal you that all is not quite right in this scene.

And surely later in the week you’d look back on this day and ask questions. How could so many in Jerusalem call for Jesus’ execution when only days earlier they were welcoming him and shouting hosannas and blessings? How could things change so dramatically, so quickly?

I want to look with you today at Palm Sunday and the “triumphal entry” and consider the discordant motif running through it. I see it as an expression of one of the chief sins of humanity: idolatry. I then want to look with you at a parallel and modern expression of that Palm Sunday idolatry, and then at the very right ways in which Jesus is worthy of our hosannas and blessings.

A Discordant Motif: Idolatry

Reading the Palm Sunday story can be confusing. It seems so positive and supportive of Jesus, then the crowds turn on him days later. What’s going on?

The most important thing to know is the crowd’s expectation. They were looking for a political savior. As you may know, in the Hebrew scriptures God had promised to send His “anointed one” or Messiah. A number of Old Testament prophecies tied into this promise, not the least of which was that he would be a descendant and heir of King David. It was not too long ago that we talked about God’s covenant with King David, which promised to maintain and establish his line forever. Part of the Jewish hope was that King David’s heir would one day return to power and throw off the heavy yoke of oppression from the Roman Empire.

Note the distinction there. God had promised to maintain David’s line, but the people understood that in a particular way that had to do with the politics of their day. Many in Jesus’ day were looking for a Messiah to take on Rome. In fact, political groups existed in Jesus’ day for just that purpose. The Zealots were one such political group, and at least one of Jesus’ disciples belonged to the Zealots or revolutionary party. Jesus was not the first public figure on whom the Jewish people pinned their hopes.

As you read through the Gospels and even the first chapter of Acts (after the Resurrection!), you will see that those around Jesus continued to ask him things like, “Is now the time for you to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Many seemed to be waiting for him to give the word to raise the rebellion.

So it was on Palm Sunday. Riding through the gate into Jerusalem was a specific fulfillment of one of the Messiah prophecies, and the people greeted him with the words to Psalm 118, also tied to the Messianic hope. In Psalm 118 and during Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the people shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” That one who comes in the Lord’s name is the Messiah. We often think the word “Hosanna” means something like “Halleluiah!” but you can see its actual translation there in Psalm 118:25. It’s there after “O Lord” – hosanna is the Hebrew underlying, “Do save; we beseech you!” The “hosa-“ part means “save us” and the “na!” part is a word of pleading – something like, “right now” or “please!” This is what you would shout in Hebrew if you were drowning or choking: “Help! Save me!”

And so it is also what one would cry out to the Messiah, the anointed one of God. And you can imagine, then, how one’s emotions could turn if the one to whom you were crying for salvation seemed to offer anything but. How could Jesus be the political/military hero once he was arrested by the Romans?

For the last six weeks we have been talking about sin, and I believe there is a sin underlying the Palm Sunday scene. It was not, perhaps, conscious and intentional, but nonetheless significant and powerful. And that is the sin of idolatry. Now, we think of idolatry as purposefully creating and worshiping a false god, but this is an example of what I think is a far more common and insidious form of this sin. That form of idolatry is making the God of the Scripture into the god we think we need. The Jewish people of Jesus’ day believed their greatest need was political freedom from Rome, so over a period of years and generations they made the Messiah God promised into the Messiah they wanted… and then were disheartened and even angry when Jesus wasn’t the Savior they imagined.

Don’t think that is a sin? I understand… call it unwitting idolatry then. What I want you to see and understand is the danger of it, particularly for us today.

Remaking God Today

Maybe you’ve already seen the connection all too clearly. If anything, responses to last Sunday’s vote on health care provides a pointed demonstration in how we can fall prey to this kind of idolatrous thinking. Whether you are in favor of the health care bill or strongly opposed, can you believe the rhetoric surrounding it? And it is precisely when self-identified Christians start weighing in with cries of “Antichrist” and God’s will (for or against the plan) that I begin to see the specter of Palm Sunday. Will this bill save us? Will it ruin us? Is our eternal salvation or security really that insecure? Will we really reduce the God of the universe to a political party or platform?

And that’s just the most recent example. A rampant prosperity gospel – teaching that God will grant riches, security, and happiness to those who serve Him in just the right way – is a Palm Sunday phenomenon and a false promise to the poor and suffering if ever I’ve seen one. In fact, shaping the God who was, is, and shall be into the god we want is a practice that goes back a long way. When Moses was gone too long on the mountain receiving the very words of God, his people were in the valley cooking up a god they could see and touch.

I’m not saying a Christian can’t or shouldn’t have political or other opinions. But be wary of worshiping a god who looks too Republican, Democrat, white, or black. On Palm Sunday, all of Jerusalem (and probably many disciples) shouted “save us” to a caricature of the Messiah even as the very real one rode in front of them.

In order to guard against our own idolatry, we must be willing to submit our understanding of God to His self-revelation in Scripture and worship Him on His own terms. Easier said than done, I know. But that’s the challenge Palm Sunday puts before us.

Everything Right With Hosannas and Blessings

Having said all that, why would we celebrate Palm Sunday? We do because the words and the celebration are the right words and celebration, they were just not offered to the Messiah Jesus was.

We do sing and celebrate the one who came and comes in the name of the Lord – Jesus, our Lord. And we do rightly cry, “Hosanna!” – “Please, save us!” – to Jesus, our Savior.

The challenge of Palm Sunday, then, is to indeed look to Jesus as Lord and Savior, but on his own terms as the one who died to reconcile us to God, to offer that miraculous intervention we’ve been talking about for several weeks.

We can and should be concerned about health care, government, poverty, suffering, and everything else that makes up our world. We can and should make our needs and wants known to God, who has invited those prayers. But we ultimately deceive ourselves if we remake the God who was, is, and will always be into the god we want. Further, we risk becoming disillusioned and even angry at such a god, when in reality we’ve become disappointed in the god of our own making.

Palm Sunday is a caution against idolatry. It is also an invitation to recognize, call out to, and worship Jesus as Lord and Savior, sent into the world to bring the spiritually dead to life through the loving power of the God who was, who is, and who will always be. Amen.

Monday, March 22, 2010

What to Do with Sinners? (John 8.1-11)

March 21, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

There’s a crowd gathering… it could be in the school cafeteria or at the bus stop or at the office party or in the middle of a first century Judean village.  The dynamics are the same: someone is the center of attention and they are about to be humiliated.  You see some of your friends there in the crowd.  You feel a little sorry for whoever that is, but you also feel a sense of relief that it’s not you.  After all, some of these same people have teased you before.  And it’s an easy line to cross – to jump in, to create a safe distance between you and the one being singled out.  After all, you aren’t like them; you don’t want to be confused with them.  Another easy line to cross: you’re a little better than they are.  That’s why you’re safe; that’s why you’re not there where they are.  You didn’t make the mistakes they did.  You have the mental measuring stick out and you take stock: “better than; less than.”  And there you are, stone in hand.

For the last two weeks we looked at Romans 2-3, at a situation in the early church where something similar happened.  Some inside the church were viewing some outside the church and using God’s Law as a spiritual measuring stick to say: “better than; less than.”  But the Apostle Paul confronted them and said, “There is no spiritual difference, no grounds for boasting and judging like that.”

Paul was being consistent with Jesus, who taught that God’s Law was intended for blessing rather than cursing.  His teaching got him in trouble with those who used the Law as a measuring stick.  You heard one example of that in today’s lesson.

If all this theological terminology is confusing, let me offer a visual aid to help understand what is at stake.  Then we’ll consider how Jesus was put to the test on this issue.  The question is this, as simple as I can put it: When it comes to God and us humans, what is the function of the Bible?

Is it a “measuring stick” by which we can see how are doing: better than or less than the next person?

me>you  they<we

Or is it what we’ve seen in recent weeks? …God-given boundaries to hold out to us life, hope, freedom, and the one source of saving righteousness in Jesus Christ?

This kind of teaching got Jesus in trouble and led to a conflict and trap described in John 8.  What is front and center are these same questions about sin and judgment, now with Jesus and the woman both at great risk.  I want to look with you at the situation described in John 8 and then turn the question to us, worded in a different way: What to do with sinners?

A Trap

John 7 describes a tipping point for the Jewish religious teachers.  Jesus had interrupted a ceremony on the last day of the Feast of Booths and basically claimed to be the promised one ushering in the Kingdom of God.  In a nutshell, the priest always stood up on the last day of that annual feast and poured water into a bowl to symbolize God’s promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus jumped up and shouted that HE was the living water people needed, and the time was now.  The Pharisees were outraged, and they specifically blame the crowd’s interest in Jesus on a lack of knowing and observing the Law (v. 49).  And so the Pharisees determine to trap Jesus into answering that very question: Will you hold hard and fast to the Law of God (as we define it) or deny it to remain popular?

In the next chapter (John 8) we find a trap laid for Jesus around this very issue of the Law.  The Pharisees’ hope is that the trap will result either in conclusive evidence that will lead Jesus to religious trial and conviction or perhaps to some major slip-up and him being stoned.

Jesus had come to the Temple area and was teaching early in the morning.  The Pharisees brought in a woman caught in the act of adultery.  Humiliated and perhaps even betrayed, she was dragged out in the middle of the crowd Jesus was teaching.  And the question was put to him: “The Law of Moses says to stone such women; what then do you say?”  Does he defend her and undercut his authority as a teacher and follower of the Law?  Or does he call for her to be killed, and lose his popularity (at least!) with the people.

Turning Things Around

At this point Jesus stooped down and started writing on the ground.  There has been all sorts of speculation as to what he was doing.  Maybe he was buying time.  Maybe he was writing the Ten Commandments down, to remind the gathered crowd that they, too, were sinful.  Maybe he was writing down specific sins – maybe even with names. 

Here’s my best and favorite explanation of what he was doing.  It’s not for sure, but I think it’s possible, and maybe even likely.  Look at Jeremiah 17:13-14.  That was our call to worship and was a scripture well known to Jesus, the Pharisees, and any Jewish person of that time.  It says, “Oh Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame.  Those who turn away on earth will be written down… [get that? WRITTEN DOWN], because they have forsaken the fountain of living water, even the Lord.”  Remember the previous day, Jesus had stood up at the city-wide religious feast and shouted that HE was the fountain of living water.  That was the thing that prompted this test and trap.  What if he was writing down their sins, not just to remind them of sin, but to call to mind that well-known verse – one already on everyone’s mind from what he had done at the feast.  And the point of that verse is to call out ALL who have sinned! 

Next Jesus stood and said, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Look at what he has done here: He upheld the law, excluded any of them from serving as judge, and called them to account for their own sins.  And then – I love this – he stooped down and wrote some more.  Maybe he wrote down some more sins.  Maybe he wrote out the rest of the Scripture from Jeremiah: “Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed; Save me and I will be saved.”  Judgment of sin is God’s alone; as is salvation! 

And here is the point I really want to bring into focus this morning.  Not only did Jesus demonstrate that the purpose of God’s Law was not for us to engage in “better than, less than” judgment; he also demonstrated the purpose of the Law as a sign pointing to God’s salvation.  The Law reminds us of our need for God’s miraculous intervention – that cry from Jeremiah of “Heal me, O Lord; Save me!”

Jesus underscored this view of the Law when he finally turned to the woman and asked, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?”  She answered, “No one, Lord,” for indeed all her accusers had left.  The only person there who could condemn her was Jesus, and he said, “I do not condemn you, either.”  But he did not leave it at that, for that would fall short of the purpose of the Law.  God’s Word and Law does shine a light on our sin, but not for condemnation, but to draw us to God for salvation and healing.  And so Jesus says, “I do not condemn you, either.  Go. From now on sin no more (literally, don’t keep sinning in this way).”

What to Do with Sinners?

There is so much in this story worth dwelling on.  The best way to get at application concisely is to ask with whom you identify in the story.

The story first challenges us as those with stones in our hands to recognize our own guilt before God’s Law and perfection.  As Paul wrote in Romans 2-3, which we looked at last week, there is no distinction.  There is no “better than, less than” and so no grounds to judge or condemn others as more or less deserving of God’s attention.  If we can grasp that spiritual reality, there is no option but to let go of the stones in our hands.

Second, if we can face that reality and realize that we are not better than, we then realize that we are the woman in the story.  We may have not yet been called out and caught, but we are not right with God on our own.  Jeremiah 17:13-14 then becomes our prayer – “I have turned away, O God; heal me and save me!”

Finally, if we can deal with our own sin and brokenness and recognize that it is Christ himself who has healed and saved us, we can become a part of Christ’s own work.  Remember my favorite mission question?  “What is God doing and how can I be a part?”  Well, through Christ, God is healing and saving one broken person after another.  Can we speak the words of Christ?  Can we say, “Neither do I condemn you… don’t keep sinning in this way.”  And that last not to turn back to an attitude of “better than” (or then we’re right back where we started!) but as an invitation to the joy and hope of following Christ and living according to His Word.

This teaching has great implications for us as a church as well.  Throughout history, starting right at the beginning, the church has been torn apart by a “better than, less than” approach to God’s Word and Law.  What we have seen consistently over the past number of weeks is that God’s Word and Law are two-edged and do not include that kind of approach to Christian faith and practice.  God’s Word and Law shine a light on the human spiritual condition and challenge us all as consistently and pervasively sinful and in need of God’s miraculous intervention and salvation.  And God’s Word and Law reveal God’s plan for that very salvation and the blessing of turning toward Jesus Christ in faith, repentance, and hope.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Pervasiveness of Sin (Romans 3.9-27)

March 14, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

We are continuing a series in which we are trying to take an honest and realistic look at the human spiritual condition.  We have looked at original sin in Genesis 2-3; we have looked at the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20; and last week we looked at Jesus’ expansion on the Law in Matthew 5.  We concluded that God’s Law, in particular, and God’s Word, in general, have a two-edged impact on the lives of those who listen and obey it.

One edge is one of challenge, reminding us of just how far we are from a perfectly holy, just, and right God.  The point of that challenge isn’t shame or humiliation, but humility, seeing our own finitude, culpability, mortality, and need for God’s intervention.

The other edge of God’s Word may be surprising, particularly as we think about the Law or Commandments.  God intends us to know and experience joy through obedience to His Word.  The Bible, even the Law and Commandments, are not meant to confine and constrain us, but to provide a protected and blessed space in which to live in joy.  I didn’t make the rules about not playing in the street to make sure my kids had a horrible time in the front yard, but so that they could enjoy playing outside; so also God has given us His Word so that we may experience a measure of joy in life that points us towards the hope of Heaven and life with God.

Today we are going to focus in a bit more on the first edge of God’s Word, the challenge of the Law.  We are going to look at a passage in Romans 3 that talks about the complete and utter pervasiveness of sin.  You may wonder what may be the point or benefit of recognizing the pervasiveness of sin.  What is the point of being confronted and challenged by the Law, by God’s Word?  We have already mentioned humility as one result, but there is more.  The passage in Romans explores at least three teachings that result from acknowledging the pervasiveness of sin. 

A Level Playing Field: Two Arguments

Paul begins the section of Romans that we are looking at with the double-question: “What then? Are we better than they?” (v. 9)  ‘We’ refers to Jewish Christians and ‘they’ refers to Greek Christians.  We talked about the end of Romans 2 last week.  There Paul was challenging the Jewish Christians not to be pre-occupied with the “wrong kind of perfect” – with an external observance of the Law that ignored an inward obedience.  In Romans 3 he stays after the Jewish Christians about the dangers of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.

To the extent that we modern-day American Christians can confuse church membership and culture with internal faith in Christ, many of Paul’s words here can apply to us.  Paul’s broad argument is that the pervasiveness of sin creates a level playing field for Jews and Greeks.  Framed for us, we might say that the pervasiveness of sin creates a level playing field with churched and unchurched.  Let’s look at three teachings in Romans 3 that result from this level playing field of pervasive sinfulness. 

Argument #1: “All are under sin” (v. 9) – so no better than “them”

Paul goes on to answer this question he has raised in v. 9.  He answers, “Not at all.”  All have sinned and all are under sin.  This is just what we’ve been looking at for several weeks.  Each human being bears the curse of Adam and Eve’s original sin.  And each human being persists in sinning themselves.  The Ten Commandments are comprehensive in describing what it looks like to order and submit every area of life to the one and only God’s sovereign rule.  And in the face of a surface reading of those Commandments, Jesus and Paul challenge us further to look deep at the attitudes and obedience of the heart.  We all fall short; it’s not even close.  That’s the challenge we talked about last week, and rightly understood in the context of faith, that should produce a humility before God.

Paul spends a number of verses at this point “proving” his point by quoting Hebrew Scripture.  He quotes Psalms 14 and 53 (which read the same) about no one being righteous.  He quotes four or other Psalms as well, as if to make the point very comprehensively and clearly.

The bottom line is that those who have grown up with or who live in the community of God are no better than those who don’t.  If anything, those with God’s Word and community are more liable for sin because of having the explicit Word of God.  In no way can ‘we’ be seen as better than those outside the church! 

Argument #2: “There is no distinction” (v. 22) – only ONE righteousness

Paul follows up with a second argument, writing of Jews and Greeks who would be Christian that “there is no distinction.” (v. 22)  Still in some ways responding to the “Are we better than they are” question, Paul again answers, “Not at all.”

For even if one ignores the first argument that all are equally sinful, Paul now asserts that it is not our righteousness which God measures – and thank God!  We’d be sunk if He did.  Rather, “in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed…” (v. 25)  No, God only considers one righteousness for our salvation, and that is the righteousness of Christ.  That’s the first part of v. 22 – it is the “righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” that is the righteousness that saves us.  Again, thank God!

So do you see the difference?  It is hard to swallow this because we do make such a big deal about the relativity of sins.  There are some with worse earthly consequences than others; some crimes are worse than others.  But let me paint the spiritual picture as bluntly as I can and frame them with Paul’s two arguments…

We have sinned against God (as human beings and individually) and the consequence of that sin is spiritual death to God.  Paul’s first point is that there is no distinction between us because we are all equally dead.  There is no “really dead” and  “a little dead” – so, no distinction spiritually.  His second point is that there is only one kind of resuscitation – through faith in Jesus Christ, the only one whose humanity is spiritually alive and can give life.  If we have dressed ourselves up like the living, but are dead, then we’ve fooled ourselves.  If we’ve been resuscitated by Christ but attribute the life to our own goodness, we’ve also fooled ourselves.  All are spiritually dead and only Christ has the power of life… it’s a level playing field. 

“Boasting is Excluded” (v. 27) – a Law of Faith For All Who Believe (v. 22)

Paul has presented the pervasiveness of sin and the sole life-giving righteousness of Christ as two reasons for a level playing field.  He returns then with a short and pointed answer to the question, “Are we better than they are?”  He answers, “Boasting… is excluded.” (v. 27)  There is no basis, he says, for my boasting that I am better than this person or that person.  Since it was an appeal to the Law (regarding circumcision) that started much of this problem, he comes back around to Law.  But the Law to which he appeals is not the external keeping of the circumcision law, but a “law of faith.”  He has taken the point of division between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ passed it through the theological reality check of pervasive sin and perfect righteousness, and pointed Jew, Greek, us, and them – everyone – to our only hope of salvation and resuscitation, Jesus Christ.

Said another way, we are so completely and utterly lost and dead that our only hope is the miraculous intervention of God, to breathe fire and life into dead ashes.  It is precisely in and through Jesus Christ that God has intervened miraculously to do this.  And Paul is directing us away from two things – false hope in ourselves and damaging judgment of others – to point us towards the miraculous and resuscitating intervention of God through Christ.

Interestingly, this is not a New Testament or late concept, but present throughout God’s history with the human race.  I’ve mentioned the hope of God’s intervention even in the curse in the Garden on Adam and Eve.  I’ve mentioned the hope and vision of God’s intervention woven into the Ten Commandments.  And the very Psalm that Paul quotes, which starts out so bleak about none being righteous, ends with the hopeful plea that “salvation would come out of Zion” and the hopeful vision of God restoring His captive people.  To that the Psalmist sings, “Let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad!” (Psalm 53:6)

That’s the bottom-line of looking realistically at sin.  It’s not simply to convince you that we are spiritually dead and woe us us – get the sackcloth and ashes.  It is to mention in the same breath that God has accomplished that very miraculous intervention that fills the Bible throughout with hope.  It is why we look to Easter in hope, to once again declare and celebrate the God who brings life from death.  And that promise, as Paul writes in v. 22, is for all who believe.  Amen.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Sinning on the Inside (Matthew 5, Romans 2)

March 7, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

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.