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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!

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