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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.


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.

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