Download or listen to The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, “But I Say To You” (Matthew 5:21-32)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There’s always that moment when you’re driving down the road, you pass a side street, and the police car pulls out behind you. No lights, no sirens, just following you. I, at least, get a little nervous. I check my seat belt to make sure it’s fastened. I check my speedometer to make sure I’m going slower than the limit. I make sure I come to a full stop at every stop sign. But even if I’m doing all of that correctly, I still get a little nervous. Maybe I’ve forgotten to do something, or I don’t even know that I’ve done something wrong. And when the police do pull us over, what do we do? We come up with reasons, and excuses, and extenuating circumstances for why we’re not really guilty, why we shouldn’t get a ticket, why we don’t deserve to be punished. And sometimes things get more serious. When people come before a judge in a courtroom, what do they do? They hire defense attorneys; they craft a defense; they construct a strategy. They try to find loopholes in the law, reasons why they are not guilty, ways out from under the consequences of actions or accusations.
If this is the way we react when confronted with human laws and our breaking of them, how do you imagine we respond when confronted with God’s Law? Well, much the same way. When we’re confronted with the Law of God written down for us in the Scriptures or proclaimed to us, we come up with reasons and excuses and extenuating circumstances. Why we’re not guilty, or why that law doesn’t apply to us, or why we don’t deserve to be punished. We craft our defenses, and we construct our strategies. We check to make sure our moral seat belts are fastened securely; we make sure our accelerators are not going to far beyond the limits of what is okay; we try to come to full stops at the intersections of right and wrong.
Now we may be able to fool a policeman or a judge (or maybe not), but we can sometimes plead our case, ask for leniency, claim to be first-time offenders, get a fine instead of jail time, get life in prison rather than a death sentence. We can construct our defenses before the lawkeepers of this world, but none of that works with God. God doesn’t look at outward actions like everyone else does; He sees everything in our hearts. And so Jesus comes to bring the law before our eyes in its full severity. He says, “You have heard it said…” That is, not so much the Old Testament Law in itself, but the various and sometimes competing interpretations of the experts in the Law. “But I say to you…” He says. Jesus is the authoritative interpreter of the Law of God; He does not speak as one among many, or offer an opinion along with everyone else. He speaks not as a new Moses, but as God from Sinai. “I say to you.” You have heard it said, “Do not murder.” That’s the commandment; and then the interpretation: “And the one who murders will be liable to judgment.” So it is even in our country today. If you murder someone you will be liable to judgment—maybe even the judgment of death. “But I say to you,” Jesus says, “that even if you have anger against your brother; even if out of the bitterness of your heart, you belittle or berate your brother with angry words, you are liable to the council, or the fires of hell. It’s all the same, as far as God is concerned. So be reconciled to your brother, with your accuser, before you get to the judge. Otherwise, you may be thrown into prison and you won’t get out until you’ve paid the last penny. That is, you will never get out.
You have heard it said, Do not commit adultery. And we know from the Gospels that the one who commits adultery is, like the murderer, liable to the judgment of stoning to death. But I say to you, Jesus says, that even if you look lustfully at a women who is not your wife, or a man who is not your husband, you’ve already committed adultery in your heart.
You’ve heard it said, If you divorce your wife, make sure you give her the proper divorce certificate. But I say to you, if you divorce your wife, you make her commit adultery, and when she remarries, you make that man take part in adultery as well. At Jesus’ time, it was assumed, even in the divorce certificates themselves, that the woman would remarry. So divorce was essentially adultery legalized.
Jesus refuses to lessen the Law at all. He refuses to relax the Law, for Christians or for anyone else. The Law must and will stand. Not the least commandment, not a word, not the least stroke of a pen, or the smallest dot, will pass away from the Law until all things are accomplished. The Law will stand, and if it stands by itself, it will crush us. Perhaps you’re feeling its weight right now. When Jesus refuses to look like other people do, and instead goes straight for the heart of the matter. Because the actions and the thoughts are exactly the same before God. Now the consequences may not be the same: it’s one thing to be angry with someone; it’s entirely another to actually murder him. At the very least, I’m sure it matters to him! It’s one thing to entertain a lustful fantasy; it’s entirely another thing to actually engage in adultery. At the very least, it matters to your spouse. But as far as God’s concerned, they’re the same because they both come from the same place: a dark and sinful heart. Jesus says, It’s not the things that go into you that defile you, but what comes out of you. And what comes out of you comes out of your heart; and what comes out of your heart is all sorts of evil desires, greed, lust, covetousness, anger, bitterness, sexual immorality. These things come out of your heart, and they defile you. To hear this law from Jesus’ mouth is a little like driving a car without a seat belt; with the accelerator pressed all the way to the floor, and there are no brakes; when you’ve already run every stop light and gone through every stop sign, and you can’t go back and fix it; you can’t go back and make it right again. The Law stands, but the only way we can take it seriously, the only way we can let it stand as it is, is if Jesus is everything He says He is. If He has accomplished all things, so that the Law no longer stands against us, so we are no longer liable to eternal judgment.
For you, driving the broken car of this flesh, without seat belts or brakes, speeding down the road: hear again the Word of Jesus to you this day: all things have been accomplished. Jesus fulfills all the Law and the Prophets, and when He says it’s finished, it is. There are no loopholes in the Law of God because there are no gaps in the mercy of Jesus. Today you hear His word to you again; today you eat and drink again His Body and Blood, and new life courses through your veins. You know just how broken this creation is, just how broken you are. You are everything Jesus says to His disciples at the beginning of the chapter: poor in spirit, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, in need of peace and mercy, mourning, and quite possibly persecuted and spoken against for Jesus’ sake. But if you are those things, then you are blessed for Jesus’ sake. Blessed of the Father. You will be filled and satisfied, you will be comforted, you have peace and mercy, you will inherit both the Reign of Heaven and the earth in the new creation. This is His promise to you, made possible by His death, and it depends in no way at all on your past performance.
And now, blessed ones, He turns your gaze to look at those around you. They need you, and they need the peace and mercy you have been given. Be reconciled, for the sake of Christ. Before you come to this altar, share the peace of Christ which you receive. Forgive as you have been forgiven. Christ has reconciled you to God; be reconciled to those who have sinned against you. That occasion for sin, that temptation that you have been cherishing or harboring in your heart, in your room, in the darkness: cut it off, and throw it away. By prayer, by the Word of God, by the encouragement of the brothers, by the power of the Holy Spirit, be forgiven and be free. Husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the Church; do not divorce them. Wives, submit to your husbands as the Church does to Christ; do not divorce them. If you have divorce in your past, as much as it depends on you, be reconciled and forgive. Be a sign of mercy in this world; be salt and light. This is the good and pleasing will of God for you, blessed ones of God in Jesus Christ. All things are accomplished, for you, for your family, for this congregation, and for the whole world.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/15/14