We Are Kingdom ThinkersMatthew 5: 21-37 Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Years ago, on a bitterly cold Sunday morning, a small town pastor was driving to church to worship with his parishioners. He had a bit of a commute every day from his small farmhouse in the country to the church meeting house at the heart of downtown.
And on this particular Sunday, as the pastor was driving to church, he found the road to be blocked. A tree had fallen in the night, making it impossible for him to drive through.
In an act of desperation, still miles outside of town, he decided to travel on foot to church. As he set out, he quickly remembered that in the truck of his car were his ice skates! And located just a football fields distance from the road was the river that wound its way into the heart of town, just a stones throw from his little church. So, he grabbed his skates- trudged through the snow- laced them up and off he went. Flying down the frozen highway of the local river.
After a couple of sweaty miles, he finally made it into town! Feeling rather pleased with himself – he then put his shoes back on and happily made his way into the church, just (narrowly) before the organ prelude began. As he went down front to greet his church family (looking rather warm and winded) He said “Good morning church! You will never believe how I got here today…” He went on to tell them about the tree in the road, and the innovative means of transportation that he came up with- weaving for them a tail of valor and dedication. While he stood up there red faced and sweating.
But when he was finished and as he went to climb the steps and the front of the church to take his place at the pulpit, one of his Deacons stood up, and in anger pounded his fist on the pew in front of him and said, “I am shocked at you, pastor! I am shocked that you would dare ice skate on the Sabbath Day!”
The deacon put a stop to the worship service, and much to the pastor’s surprise, he called for an immediate meeting of the deacons and church leaders.
The deacons fumed as they walked back to the Pastor’s study.
And then they asked the pastor to explain himself.
He said, “Well. It was either skate to church or not come at all!”
And the angry deacon that had pounded his fist asked, “Well, did you enjoy it, pastor?”
And the pastor said, “Well, no. That was a lot of work!”
The Deacons conferred with each other and then they said, “Alright then, that’s fine. As long as you didn’t have fun. Let’s get on with the service.”
With all that being said, any guesses as to our Scripture’s topic today?
Legalism! Those moments when the rules (written or unwritten) get in the way of the greater mission and message of the Gospel!
At the first of the year, we jumped on the Lectionary bandwagon. The Lectionary is a schedule of Scripture that cycles every three years. It provides a frame for what we do here on Sunday mornings, and it make sure that we are talking about the whole Bible, not just the parts that we gravitate towards. This switch to the lectionary probably went unnoticed to you all, and that is just fine, it means that we were smooth, but this whole switch was really exciting to me!
I had been itching to jump on this schedule, to get into a rhythm.
And a few weeks ago I got excited all over again, when I saw that we were going to be in the Sermon on the Mount until Lent! I thought, “All right! The Sermon on the Mount, the heart of Christ’s teachings! The Kingdom of God! The ethics of Christianity! The Sermon on the Mount! We are going to swim in it!”
And that’s where we have been the last couple of weeks, we have talked about the Beatitudes.
How we are blessed to be a blessing for others… our calling as Kingdom People.
We have talked about Salt, Light, and Deeds… our calling as Kingdom Builders.
But then we got to today, this passage, and I remembered, “Oh right… the Sermon on the Mount isn’t always so neat and clean. Or so uplifting. But rather, at times, it is challenging and it is hard. It talks about cutting off hands that sin, and plucking out eyes that give into temptation. That’s kinda gross.”
So, alas here we are! We are committed. And we are going to stay with Jesus, up on this mountain, and hear everything that he has to say to us. We are going to trust that Christ has Good New for us today, as well as every other day!
Jesus is talking, if you remember, to his friends and followers- the disciples are a little core group he has around him… but as Christ traveled around teaching and performing miracles, he would have gather a rather large crowd around him. Not just the infamous 12 that we think of. So for today we are one of the crowd. Let’s walk through this passage for a bit.
Jesus says, “You have heard it said… But I say to you.” It might be good, right at the outset to ask some questions of this text.
“Who said this?”
“We have heard this said where?”
Well, those who normally went around reminding people about the rules, the regulations were the religious leaders of the community. In this case, that would be the Scribes and the Pharisees. The Pharisees, in particular were very concerned with correct observance of the law. Pharisees were the rule police of the day. Religious law-enforcement.
So, when Jesus says, “You have heard it said”- we could likely complete that statement with, “You have heard it said by the scribes and Pharisees….”
Now, As Christians, we have been trained to dislike that word, Pharisee. We are taught to cringe when we hear that word mentioned back in Sunday school. But the Pharisees were just a group of religious leaders that respected, cherished, and worshiped the law. Because it was through the law, through absolute obedience to the law that they could worship God.
And to an extent they were right! We need the law, the law has its purpose.
When we were children, our parents told us not to cross a busy street without an adult to hold our hand. That was the rule. When we raise our kids… we teach them the same thing. “Don’t cross that street without an adult!” Because that is the rule! That is the law.
That law wasn’t put into place to be a burden, or to be oppressive. but it also wasn’t to be taken lightly. We teach our kids the law/rules… because we love them. We don’t want to see them get hurt.
And in the same way. God gave us the law. God gave us a set of rules to live by because God loves us and doesn’t want to see us get hurt!
But the Pharisees, tended to worship the laws, the rules, without remembering the whole purpose behind them.
God loves us. And God doesn’t want to see us get hurt.
When you forget the purpose, you lean towards legalism.
When the pastor skates to church for the sole purpose of worshiping with his congregation… and he is called out for breaking a rule in the meantime… that is definitely forgetting the purpose behind the rule.
Now, I want to remind us here (and I’ve mentioned this in weeks past) that Matthew is the most Jewish of all the gospels. It was written by a Jew for the Jewish community. But, this is not Jesus attacking Judaism- this really isn’t even about Jesus confronting the Pharisees. This is Jesus putting in his two cents! Speaking into the moral conversation or the day.
Jesus is speaking into the notion of legalism. This attention to the law, without regarding its purpose.
There are three laws that Jesus confronts:
First: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder’, but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother of sister, if you insult a brother or sister, even if you say ‘You fool,’ to a brother or sister, you will be judged!” (Matthew 5:21-22) Now this is a shocking statement made by Christ… the audience would have been reeling!
“There is no law against being angry! The bible is full of people and figures that get angry! Job even has the audacity to shake his fist at God! So, why is Jesus making such shocking statements?”
But he isn’t done yet!
Second, Jesus addresses the law on adultery and divorce. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28) The word here for lust, is the same word for coveting. The desire to possess something that isn’t your to have. To want something out of greed.
The third thing that Jesus addresses is oaths. While, the making of an oath or a covenant, is no where regarded in Scripture as sinful… the opposite actually. But the breaking of an oath is a big deal. Instead Jesus says: “let your no be no. and your yes be yes.” In other words: Be truthful and abide in your promises.
Jesus is pushing us to a point where we throw up our hands and say, “I give up! Who could possibly live up to these standards!” Jesus has told us, that if we are angry, if we are covetous and lust-filled, if we are not truthful – then we will be judged! How can anyone live up to these standards? Who here has never been angry, or lust-filled or dishonest?
And in fact, that is the very point! The answer is no one. Not a single one of us! It is impossible.
Jesus is teaching us two things, two very important things. The first is that upholding the law is utterly impossible. The law is a taskmaster! It is a tyrant! And we are weak and easily distracted! No one is capable of a complete fidelity, without the grace of God. That is the good news – the grace of God. We have the gigantic, merciful, and steadfast love of God. Our hearts, hands, eyes – are easily distracted. Can easily get us into trouble! But thank God for grace. Because God can help us with our hearts, hands, and eyes.
Why did our parents teach us not to cross the road without an adult, as children? Because they love us and don’t want us to get hurt. Why does Jesus teach us to not be angry, to not have lust filling up our hearts, to be honest always- because He love us, and doesn’t want us to get hurt.
So, the second lesson the Jesus is teaching us is that sin- all sin- starts as an inclination of the heart! Jesus has called us murders, adulterers, and oath breakers in just the spans of 16 verses! And he is right. Sin starts as just an inclination of the heart. Now, no one gets to the point of actually committing a murder or committing adultery without a dangerous, violent, restless change happening in their heart. Jesus is saying pay attention to your heart!
Don’t let that inkling of anger…
Don’t let that disappointment in your spouse…
Don’t let that unyielding pressure of obligation…
Don’t let that loneliness…
Grow into something that consumes you. Owns you. Don’t let it carry you away from God! Carry you off into a place of dangerous action – To a place of judgment.
Jesus is asking us, how is your heart?
When we open ourselves up to a relationship with Christ, we invite him in! Jesus knows your heart. He has searched it – he knows it… and, thank God, he can heal it.
How is your heart?
Everyday there is a crossroads in front of us. We can take the fork in the road that leads to Life and Prosperity, or we can take the road that leads to death and destruction.
How is your heart?
Does it turn away and ignore the teachings of Christ?
Or does it choose life, so that we may live and our children may thrive?
How is you heart, I ask you?
There on a hillside, while we sit in the dust at the feet of our Lord, Jesus asks us to go inside ourselves. To enter your own heart and take an account of how and where we are. This is a call to reflection!
As fear inducing as it may be. We must do that thing that the Pharisees feared to risk… we must seek out the greater meaning of the law! That God loves us. Knows us. And heals us. Even if we fall short of the law.
How is your heart, I ask you?
Thanks be to God for the healing ways of Grace. Amen.