Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Text: Matthew 5:17-37
Jesus said, "I tell you, then, that you will be able to enter the Kingdom of heaven only if you are more faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires" (verse 20).
Dad and Dave

Raising the bar

The characters of Dad and Dave are a well-known part of Australia’s cultural history. The writer Steele Rudd wrote a series of novels about Dad and Dave and Mum and Dave’s sweetheart Mabel in 1920s that became extremely popular and were turned in to a radio series in the 1930s and then later silent movies. (The radio program ran for 15 years, 4 nights a week and 90% of population listened). Dad and Dave lived in Snake Gully and even though it tells of the comical side of Australian life it also reflected the culture of the time.

There is the incident where Dave is sick of life on the farm and decides to join the army. Mum with thoughts of her 35 year old son exposed to the temptations of the big city and the iniquities of the army, told Dad that he had better give the boy a talkin’ to.

Out behind the dairy Dad coughed out his lecture.
"Be careful of that there liquor, Dave".
"Aw, I never touch it, Dad".
Dad proceeded with his warning about gambling and Dave protested that he had never wagered a penny in his life.
"Well", said Dad, "about women, now. They’re a real trap for young fellers and you can land in a lot of trouble over them".
"Cripes, Dad", said Dave. That’s one thing I’d never do – go out with women!"

Dad went back to Mum looking rather dubious and thoughtful.
"Did you give him a talking to about good clean livin’?" asked Mum.
"Yairs", said Dad, "but yer needn’t worry, Mum. I don’t think the army’ll have him. The boy’s a half-wit!"

The humour may be lost a bit in today’s world but the point is that the older generations were keen to pass on to their off-spring, even if they might be in their mid-thirties, what was expected of them and how they should behave. It was quite clear what was right and what was wrong when it came to things like alcohol, gambling, and sex. There was a clear set of guidelines, or rules if you like, that everyone was expected to follow.

Not everyone went to church every Sunday in the "good ol’ days" but there was a clear expectation that everyone would be part of the local community and that included the church. Everyone had a sense of what was the "Christian thing to do" and the "Christian way to behave". If someone in the community was in some kind of need the rule was to give them a hand – it was the "Christian thing to do".

The early Christians had a fine example of right and wrong in the Pharisees. We frequently allow criticism of the Pharisees to blind us to their splendid obedience. For them the law of God came first. They knew the difference between right and wrong. On top of all the taxes they paid, Pharisees donated a tenth of their income to charity. Many became martyrs under foreign rule rather than break the Sabbath regulations. The Pharisees went to extra trouble to make sure that they always did the right thing. They were models of good living and rightness before God.

When Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, "I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven" the people undoubtedly were bewildered. Notice that Jesus does not deny the righteousness of the Pharisees. He doesn’t say that these leaders were evil men. Jesus is acknowledging their uprightness and urges his listeners to an even greater righteousness saying that unless their righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees, they will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

What did Jesus mean? Who could out do the Pharisees in keeping the law? Simply, Jesus is really talking about being perfect. And who can do that?

Getting into the kingdom of heaven is a bit like getting a camel through the eye of a needle. Impossible! If we are expected to be better than the Pharisees then who can be saved - certainly not little ordinary me with all of my weaknesses and hang ups?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is establishing the radical nature of the law again. Jesus goes right to the centre of the Ten Commandments and deals with the attitude of the heart. He sees little difference between the person with a hateful heart and the one who actually strikes out to hurt or kill someone. From out of the hate-filled heart comes hurt to others. Listen to Jesus as he emphasises that "as long as heaven and earth last, not the least point nor the smallest detail of the Law will be done away with" (Matt 5:18).

He says, "You know you are forbidden to kill someone. I forbid you even to get angry with anyone. Call someone a fool, and you'll go to hell. Make no attempt at reconciliation with the person you have had a falling out with or don’t attempt to settle a dispute, and you are putting yourself in danger of the fire of hell" (Matt 5:21-22).
"You know that adultery is a no-no. I say, look at another person lustfully, that's adultery of the heart" (Matt 27-28).
"If you remarry after wrongfully divorcing your marriage partner, I don't care what the Old Testament says, I call it adultery" (Matt 5:31-32)
"When you use God's name, don't use it carelessly. If you are righteous person who can be trusted there is no reason to swear using God’s name" (Matt 5:33-37).
"If somebody hits you on the right cheek, the old ways of "an eye for an eye" must give way to a gentle and forgiving approach. Offer them your left cheek as well" (Matt 5:38-42).
"Love your neighbour and hate your enemy? No, I say, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you" (Matt 5:43-48).

Really all Jesus is saying here is that we are to be the kind of people that God created us to be. God made us in his image.
He made us to not be hateful but to love;
not to hold grudges but seek reconciliation;
he made us to be faithful and loyal, to honour him and hold him first in our lives;
he made us to always make love our aim and everything else will fall into place;
he created us to be like him – always patient, understanding compassionate, forgiving and full of grace. Jesus is saying that if you want to enter the kingdom of heaven then be who God created you to be. In other words, you have to be better than the Pharisees of Jesus' day.

At this the point we might say with the disciples, "If that is the case, who can be saved?"
If we take Jesus’ words seriously,
not try to make excuses or be selective about what parts of what Jesus says are relevant to us,
or try to justify why we behave the way we do or shift the blame to someone else (like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden), we are left empty handed.
There is no righteousness in us. There is nothing right about how we speak and behave; how we think and feel. There is no righteousness in us. Jesus has raised the bar so high here that we are left with our mouths wide open.

How do we respond to our Gospel reading today?
We can either say that all this is a lot of hogwash or,
hold out our empty trembling hands to receive God's grace. With God's love in our hands we can be confident of repenting that who we are and what we do does not match God's standard. We are all sinners and fall short of what God expects. In repentance we claim the forgiving love of God for ourselves.

When Jesus really lays down the law and we are tempted to despair because the bar has been raised too high; when we ask ‘Who can possibly do all these things?’ I like Jesus response to his disciples when he says, "With you, it's impossible. But with God all things, even saving people like you, is possible. With God, everything is possible".

We have nowhere to turn except to saving grace, to the mercy and healing of the friend of sinners.

At that point we are able to turn and look longingly at that man whose importance as Saviour was summed up in the words;
"Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world."

Without pretext, without evasiveness, we may actually sing and fully mean it -
Just as I am without one plea,
but that your blood was shed for me,
 O lamb of God, I come.

Jesus has fulfilled the requirements of the Law for us; he has even taken upon himself the consequences that our failure to keep the Law brings.
He did all this when he died for us. He died so that our failure to keep God's Law is swept away.
We are made new. Our relationship with God is restored.
We are called his children and heirs of eternal life.
In Christ our righteousness does surpass that of the Scribes and the Pharisees.
We have the righteousness of the crucified and risen Christ.
He died to make us right again with God.
We are made members of the kingdom of heaven!

Jesus raises the spiritual and moral bar to new heights. But alongside it, he allows himself to be lifted up, high on a cross, that amazing grace is near and freely available for all who aim high yet fall short.

With that cross up on the hill of Golgotha, with the newness that we receive through God's grace and forgiveness we are able to be what God intended us to be when he first created humanity.
In Christ, our heavenly Father no longer sees our failures but instead sees the goodness and righteousness that Christ has won for us.

What enables us to become members of the kingdom of heaven is not our goodness but the goodness that comes from Christ. Our goodness does not come from the mere mastery of God's rules but through Jesus Christ who both commands us to keep God's holy law, and who gave his life to make us good. In Christ and only in Christ, our goodness far surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.


© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
13th February 2011

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