Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Text: Matthew 5:20-37
 I warn you – unless you obey God better than the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees do, you can't enter the Kingdom of Heaven at all! (verse 20)

Uncle Heinrich

Every night Uncle Heinrich (late of the Barossa Valley but now long gone to his heavenly home) listened to the news on the radio with religious fervour and much to Auntie Glads’ disgust sucked on his pipe as he did so.  As he sat with his ear to the radio, puffs of smoke wafted overhead.  When the cloud of smoke intensified you knew the news was not to Uncle Heinrich’s liking.  Immediately the news was finished, Uncle Heinrich clicked off the radio with an urgent flurry and launched forth, to anyone who wasn't quick enough to get away, about the wickedness of the world. 

He had just heard the latest report on the criminal activities of those who should be “locked up and the key thrown away” and “the shenanigans of the politicians”, as he used to say, and then after he had his say about the day’s events and righted the world’s wrongs Uncle Heinrich would say with sigh (and those out of sight would mouth the words because he said the same thing every time – no-one would dare mimic him in view), “Ach, the good ol’ days, the good ol’ days.  Die Tage von meinen Vater und Mutter. (The days of my father and mother).  Things were much simpler then”.  And with that Uncle Heinrich would take a slurping suck on his pipe and go into deep thought.  Everyone who had the misfortune to be trapped in the room quietly crept away.

Is this what is happening in today’s Gospel reading? 
Is Jesus harking back to the good old days when rules were rules? 
Everyone knew what was the right thing to do.  There were no shades of gray.  Everything was black and white. 

Uncle Heinrich would often talk about Pastor (pronounced ‘Pusta’) Gotthilfenberger who taught him at confirmation classes the terrible sins connected with each of the Ten Commandments and God’s punishment on those who break these commandments. He often talked about the best sermon he ever heard – Pusta  Gotthilfenberger’s sermon on the fiery judgement on all those who turn away from God.  He recalled with just as much enthusiasm how ‘Pusta’ thundered from the pulpit, and it swayed and rocked every time he smashed his fist on the sides of the pulpit to the point he thought the judgement of God would come then and there when Pusta and pulpit would come crashing down onto the congregation.  As far as Pusta Gotthilfenberger was concerned, the matter was black and white.

Does Jesus want to get back to the Old Testament rules where everything is clear cut and black and white?  Jesus says, “I assure you, until heaven and earth disappear, even the smallest detail of God's law will remain until its purpose is achieved” (Matthew 5:18 NLT).

Jesus points to the Pharisees who were experts when it came to carrying out the rules.  They had rules to stop them from breaking the rules.  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.

Jesus said, I warn you – unless  you obey God better than the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees do, you can't enter the Kingdom of Heaven at all” (Matthew 5:20 NLT). Notice that Jesus tells his followers that unless their obedience to the rules of God doesn’t surpass that of the Pharisees you can’t enter the kingdom of heaven”. 

Jesus is holding up their obedience as a benchmark.  The Pharisees were up there on the highest pedestals when it came to obedience.  What could Jesus mean?  Who could outdo the Pharisees in keeping the law?  This is too hard!  And besides can we really keep God’s law to the standard he requires?

Then Jesus really goes crazy.  He says,
Get angry with anyone, that’s murder.  Call him a fool, and you'll go to hell.
Look at another person lustfully, that's adultery of the heart.
Remarry after wrongfully divorcing your marriage partner, that’s adultery.

Don't use God’s name carelessly making vows and breaking them.
It’s easy to get back at someone. Give way to a gentler and forgiving approach. Love your enemies.
Don’t hold a grudge. Always make reconciliation your chief aim.

That is just plain crazy!  One minute Jesus is saying that we have to show greater obedience than the Pharisees if we want to get into the Kingdom of heaven and the next minute he raises the bar even higher with his radical interpretation of the rules. 
He says, “Don’t murder anyone”, but adds, “Anyone who gets angry or calls someone a worthless fool breaks this commandment”.
He doesn’t just say, “Don’t commit adultery” but says, “Anyone who looks at another person in the wrong sort of way is guilty of disobedience”.
Jesus says, “Don’t get revenge but love those who hate your guts”.

Who of you hasn’t been guilty of these things – anger, revenge, hate or roving eyes (a nice way of putting lust)?  (That’s rhetorical, no need for hands).
Maybe you’ve never thought of yourself as a murderer, a hater, an adulterer, as vengeful but after Jesus has finished in this part of the Sermon on the Mount we all look like pretty grubby. 

I don’t get it.  “Be obedient”, he says and then he raises the bar to the impossible.  To be truthful he doesn’t raise the bar at all.  The bar has been at that height all the time.  We know God’s standard is perfection.  That’s the way he created us to be.  He created Adam and Eve to be perfect; to live in complete harmony with the world, our fellow humanity and with God himself.  If that perfection had continued revenge, anger, lust, lack of respect for God and for one another would not be an issue. But sin has ruined all that God had created and had declared “good and perfect”.

It has been messed up and we continue to mess things up and Jesus knew that our righteousness and our obedience would never be able to get us into the Kingdom of Heaven.  He is setting things up for the rest of his ministry when he will declare that he has come to save those who are lost and then say from the cross, “Father, forgive them”.

When we realise how far we have fallen from God’s grace and how deep sin is embedded in our lives and no how matter good our intentions might be, it always manages to ruin things for us.  Jesus’ words today remind us that sin is an ever-present problem in our lives and the only person who can deal with it is Jesus himself. 

Jesus said, “I did not come to abolish the law of Moses … No I came to fulfil it” (Matt 5:17). 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.  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!

Let’s go further.  Could it be that when Jesus said “don't lust” or “don’t hold back being reconciled” he was also proclaiming new values that set us apart from the world as members of the Kingdom of Heaven? 

He is showing us what it means to live as God intended us to live; to be as God created us to be.  He provides us with guidelines and values that help us live the new life we have been given through being joined with Christ in life, death and resurrection. 

He is answering questions like,
“How do I deal with that person with whom I have had harsh words with in the congregation? 
How should I regard the person who really doesn’t like me, in facts hates me?
What should I do with my own feelings of hate and anger towards another person?
How can I be calmer, show more love, be more patient and kind and helpful and self-controlled?
How can I be more aware of the temptations that get me in?
Is looking (I’m talking sexually here) and not touching really all that wrong.  After all who am I hurting?
How can I work harder at making my marriage stronger?
And so we could go on?

Uncle Heinrich was no angel but he was clear about Jesus’ love and the part the grace of God played in his life.  He loved to tell Bible stories to the kids or quiz them about what they had learnt at Sunday School.  He was no great theologian but he let the light of Jesus’ love shine through him in the way he lived and spoke.

Through the Sermon on the Mount Jesus guides us as people of his family, his disciples, how to be different to the world and to let the light of his love and his mercy shine ever brighter through us. If you look at what Jesus says in his sermon you can see how people of the Kingdom are different and this difference is what brings light into the darkness of our community. 

Uncle Heinrich had this little phrase that sometimes he used carelessly but at other times it had great meaning.  “Durch die Gnade Gottes” – “By the grace of God”.  Someone would say, “I’m going to pull that cow out of the creek”. And he would shout back, “Durch die Gnade Gottes” – “By the grace of God”. 

Uncle Heinrich was getting old and a grandnephew was sitting on his knee.  They had just finished a lively chat about all sorts of things when the little boy stopped and thoughtfully said, “Uncle Heinie, you’re really old and I really like you.  How come you’re so nice?” 
Uncle Heinrich replied, “Durch die Gnade Gottes.”
“What does that mean, Uncle Heinie?”
“It means that Jesus has been very patient with me because he loves me and has made me who I am.  And you know what?  I reckon you’re pretty special too”.

“Durch die Gnade Gottes” let us place ourselves at God’s service and let Jesus change our hearts and lives that we may be lights shining in the world around us.


© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
16th February 2014

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