Sunday, January 16, 2011

Today's Sermon: Matthew 5:21-26

In our worship for the last couple months we’ve been hearing God’s Word in Matthew 5, the famous ‘sermon on the mount’; Jesus’ inaugural address for the Kingdom of heaven on earth. We’ve seen that this is a Kingdom born not of strength and power and wealth but built of people poor in spirit, meek, merciful; the mourners, the persecuted, the peacemakers, the pure in heart, and those hungry for the right-life. Through these people Jesus’ light will shine into the darkest corners and His salt will season the bitter, flavourless places.

As David shared last week, in Matthew 5:17 we see that while Jesus’ sermon on the mount is an inauguration of this kingdom, it is not a cancellation of what has gone before:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.”

Jesus is God continuing to make a People for Himself on earth, as Israel’s Messiah; God with us; the God who saves. The old covenant with Israel is not done away with, but blossoms in this new covenant. The plan has not changed, but is now accomplished by Christ the King of the Jews; the Son of God and thus the King over all creation; people adopted by His grace.

Of course, as Jesus’ inaugural address continues, He paints a radical picture of this Kingdom:
20 For 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 Pharisees are intense. They add rules to the commandments to keep as far from breaking them as possible. But Jesus says that more is needed to enter this Kingdom; and holds out an unheard of kind of righteousness; a righteousness unachievable.

He’s just saying this to drive us to our knees, right?!

Well, yes, Jesus does call us to repent, to confess a righteousness from God; not of ourselves. To confess we live in the kingdom on Jesus’ merit, not our own. But we can’t read the rest of this sermon and go away thinking Jesus is anything less than serious. What follows in this chapter are six demanding ethical exhortations, which end with the conclusion:
48 “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

In the weeks to come we’ll hear from these six exhortations in Jesus’ inauguration sermon; these six examples of how Jesus intends his fulfilment of the Law and Prophets to work out in our lives. Together they describe not only of the purpose for which we were created, but the way that the Kingdom comes to a creation now spoiled and steeped in evil.

Our focus today is the first exhortation, in Matthew 5:21-26. And inside it we’ll also get a highly suggestive seventh exhortation that appears to be a key to the others. We begin at 21:
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Jesus quotes from the 10 Commandments, simply enough: Thou shalt not murder. But then he gets right to the heart of the issue. Does this sound a bit extreme? Fool? That’s all it takes? Surely we could think of other four letter f-words we’d prefer to condemn, but this isn't about taboo words, it is about a danger in all our hearts and on all our lips. We all have our part in the deadly iceberg that has murder at its tip.

I don’t know if you pay attention to news from across the Atlantic, but last weekend an American congresswoman from Arizona, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in the head by a 22 year old gunman who then turned and killed six other people at a political event outside a grocery store. No one can be sure what motivated this murderer specifically, but the incident has sparked much debate on the way attitudes and speech set a climate for violence.

County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik started the discussion when he responded to the incident in a press conference saying: “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous, and unfortunately Arizona has become sort of the capital .... We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry, .... The fiery rhetoric that has taken hold in politics may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences. To try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, has impact on people, especially who are unbalanced personalities to begin with.” A columnist in the Tucson Citizen said “Dupnik is hitting on something with a long history to back up the need to call out the flamethrowers of hate and pour cold water on them. The issue is not whether [the shooter] was directly inspired [by heated political rhetoric] to take his Glock 19 and massacre a bunch of people .... The real issue is that if we do not stop the growing climate of hate and demonization of others…the path is into the pit of darkness.” Of course the whole discussion is tinged with political interest, but it is hard to deny the basic point. As comedian Jon Stewart put it: "Wouldn't it be great if our talk did not match the actions of crazy people?"

Was Jesus exaggerating when he connected murder with anger and the cursing of others, or did He put His finger on the pulse of fallen humanity? How often do bitterness and anger fester like turbulent undercurrents beneath the calm appearance of the surface of the sea? Where does murder come from? Is it the stuff of crazy people? Is it denying the responsibility that gunmen have for their crimes to suggest that murder is also the stuff of crazy societies? Aren't we all a bit crazy; or susceptible to this craziness? Its easy to contrast ourselves morally with a gunman who kills a pleasant enough seeming woman in cold blood, but who are the unpleasant thorns in our side that we murder in our hearts and with our words on a regular basis?

Aren’t our families and societies steeped in undealt-with anger and cursing? Doesn’t it heap up generationally on the outside and build up emotionally on the inside, just waiting for something to spark it, exploding externally in physical, verbal or manipulative violence or combusting internally in frustrated, paralyzing depression, addiction, and the isolation of distrust and suspicion? Has Jesus exaggerated at all in calling this the danger of hell? This “do not murder” command is not as distant from everyday life as we like to think.

Certainly, murderers should be held to justice. But Jesus is talking to everyone. Even to the murderers before they become murderers.

John was in Jesus’ audience, and he would later write in his first letter to the churches:
3:15 “Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates a fellow believer is a murderer, and you know that no murderers have eternal life in them.”

James was in Jesus’ audience, and he expanded on this later in his letter to Jesus’ disciples:
3:4 “Although ships are large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise the tongue is a very small part of the body ... 6 that corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. 9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, who have been made in God’s likeness.... 10 My brothers and sisters, this should not be so.”

Paul received Jesus’ words too, and taught us in our anger not to sin, thereby giving the devil a foothold. From Jesus we learn that where anger wells up, everlasting life does not.

When the papers tell us of a senseless killing, well, in many cases it is a monstrous act by a disturbed individual created by a dire circumstance, but it is also a symptom of our societal discord, an indication of the enmity that eeks its way into the nooks and crannies of each and every heart and threatens even the strongest of relationships. With this first exhortation Jesus has not simply amped up the expectations of holiness beyond even a Pharisaical strictness – he has diagnosed the illness and called for his followers to stop taking painkillers and face up to the disease and live within His gracious cure.

In the Tucson Citizen article I quoted earlier, the columnist concluded: “Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said it like it is. And if you doubt for a second the warning he is giving us….take a trip through Germany in the 1930’s and notice how [the holocaust began with a slow build of hate speech]. The difference, I hope, is that we can do what [people then] did not do…stop this nonsense before it gets totally out of control.” But how?

What makes us think that today will be any different than centuries before? What hope is there for any of us? Jesus implied we all face similar dangers; we are all “subject to judgment.” Listen to Jesus’ alternative to the cycle of recycled revenge; the downward spiral of anger, hatred, discord and murder; an alternative as radical and challenging as it is simple and seemingly mundane:
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.”

When the Israelites brought their sacrifices to the altar and accepted forgiveness, we know that they had inklings of how useless were these bulls and goats and rams, really, unless true and ultimate justice were trusted to the hands of God. In Psalm 51 we see David break down after committing murder to cover up his adultery and cries this very thing: “You do not delight in my sacrifices, O God!” What good; what hope; do they bring? But David foreshadowed our future hope in a crucified and risen Saviour when he prayed: “The sacrifice God wants is a broken and contrite heart.” God will work with that.

But the Kingdom of God does not end with about a bunch of contrite, privately pious, remorseful individuals either. It is a Kingdom not a Closet. The Kingdom doesn’t end in brokenness and isolation. This Kingdom is about new life; healing; reconciliation. How does the Kingdom come in a world where people hurt each other? Where Anger becomes bitterness becomes hatred becomes fear becomes contempt becomes murder? Jesus’ disciples, these practicing Jews, are told to continue to bring their gifts to the altar, but only once they have been reconciled one to another – because that is how this Kingdom comes on earth.

But how can we reconcile unless there is justice? Jesus himself said we are subject to judgment, and the gifts brought to the altar he’s referring to recognize this. The Jews brought sacrifices at God’s command because only God could atone for their wrongs. Those sacrifices may not have fixed everything, but they acknowledged this dependence on God for both justice and for mercy. Now Jesus, just a couple years before dying as an innocent sacrifice for the sins of the world, tells these people if someone has something against you, go be reconciled before bringing your gift to the altar. This is how you acknowledge your need of both justice and forgiveness in a way that pleases God – you make your confession to God and you make it to one another as well. In fact, you make a mockery of worship of this reconciling God if you pretend you can do one without the other.

Come as you are to worship, yes, but as you are, not hiding like Adam in the garden. Not hiding a clenched fist and begrudging bitterness. Not without a care in the world for the people around you. Go be reconciled, then come worship (and realize you already started).

Jesus’ exhortation here is reminiscent of Isaiah 58 and Amos 5, where the prophets exposed the worship practices of God’s people as hollow and offensive:
Isaiah 58:4 “Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.... 5 Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”
Amos 5:21 “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies... 23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.”

This is the righteousness Jesus inaugurates with the Sermon on the Mount and clinches with his cross and resurrection. He is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. And following Him follows the motions of the God who has always loved -- even humanity when it turned from him and against each other in sin. Think about it: If creation is the overflow of God’s everlasting communion of self-giving love to creation, and salvation is reconciliation for a broken selfish world, then how can we ever conceive of a Kingdom or a church that is about merely individual holiness and private worship? Gifts brought with one hand while behind the back the other is a clenched fist?

Churches die over this stuff. Worship becomes all about a personal experience and expression, so we come and close our eyes and avoid conflicts and avoid one another and go our merry way. Like any other community, even if we do admit to a problem we do so by grumbling to everyone but the person with whom a problem has arisen. Like any other community, we find it easier to settle for false peace. But Jesus did not come to set up just any community.

Earlier in the sermon he said to be peacemakers. Clearly here Jesus shows that that does not mean passive-aggressive conflict-avoiders any more than it means warmongers and rabbel-rousers. Peacemakers talk about differences, hurts, miscommunications and misunderstandings (which most of them are) – not because they are themselves righteous or even because they are convincing enough to effect an agreement, but because of the courage and love and mercy given them under the shed blood of Christ! In this communion that comes from outside of them they can speak truth in love to one another; committed to reconciliation; to the love breaking into the world in Christ.

This starts in our worship, and it proceeds into our witness. If we settle for false peace here, what are we spreading in the world? Jesus goes on to say:
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with your adversary on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown in prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.”

On one level, this is kind of common sense. If you can settle it between yourselves you won’t be at the mercy of an unknown judge. But Jesus’ point is not simply to subvert the justice system or give weight to today’s face-saving out-of-court monetary settlements. The point is, don’t leave your messes for other people to clean up. Doing so perpetuates the cycles of violence and anger by shoving them under the rug for another day, when they come back with a vengeance. We lock ourselves in the prison of un-reconciliation.

So what hope is there?

Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus said, for they will be called the children of God. They exhibit Christ’s presence on earth. Peacemakers can’t guarantee everyone will be peaceable, but they do whatever is in their power to make things right, prudently recognizing that reconciliation comes ultimately from God. Here in verse 24 Jesus says “be reconciled,” not “reconcile” but “be reconciled”. Sometimes it is a slow-miracle, and in the process of healing, even where we were the victims of wrongdoing the Spirit shows us our sin too. So before we give our gifts of corporate worship, we let Him search and examine our hearts and lives and compel us to seek amongst ourselves his gift of the ministry of reconciliation. It is a gift we accept by sharing.

It is like when the inventor of basketball took the bottom out of the bucket and invented the hoop. Used to be the thing just caught the ball every time and someone had to climb up and retrieve the ball. Then they took the bottom out so that the basket received and delivered the ball all in one act. Then the basket became what it was created for and the game found its flow. Same here. You are a basket not a bucket. Sure you receive God’s love personally. But hold it to yourself and you reach the brim and that’s the end of it. Over time you receive a lot less living water than the one who lets it flow through, constantly poured out from above.

We Christians will not solve everything overnight, but we do chart a trajectory and walk a path together in Jesus’ name by the churches we gather and the worship and witness we proclaim with our words and our deeds. Jesus essentially says I am the sacrifice for sin. End the cycle. Mercy triumphs over judgment. Perfect love drives away fear. This is how you are ambassadors of reconciliation. It begins in this room and it happens in the same motion as the acceptance of reconciliation with God. You don’t get one without the other. Jesus is quite clear. Later Jesus says “Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors,” “Love the Lord your God and ... Love your neighbour as yourself.” God’s love is a river, not a pond.

This is not just about having a clear conscience for worship in the church. Go back to that anger passage and read that again in the context of your closest relationships. What hope do they have without humble confession, willingness to forgive, desire to be forgiven, and hope in the justice and reconciling power of God?! Think about this in the weeks to come. What Jesus is introducing as an exhortation with this first of six exhortations will crop up again and be central to the ones that follow: faithfulness in marriage, the keeping of promises, the ways one treats one’s enemies – all will come back to and be supported by this insistence on being reconciled. Otherwise what hope is there? Jesus is God with us, despite our sin. Paul wrote that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them,” thus giving us our message and our mission.


Tony Tanti said...

A river and not a pond, I like that.

The "be perfect" verse has always struck me as a bit unfair. I realize that it's the height of arrogance to call God unfair but I do wonder how a God who made me with a seeming inability to be perfect then asks for perfection.

As for reconciliation, this is a great message for everyone. Nothing kills a group of people like pent up grudges.

Jon Coutts said...

That "be perfect" concern is something I can resonate with, although it used to bother me more. I wonder what else we'd like him to ask for: mediocrity? The best we can do? I think the latter answer might be exactly what "be perfect" means, and that it is the reality of his everyday forgiveness that maintains that (in other words he isn't bluffing about us somehow being new every morning).