Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Sermon for third mid-week Lent service

                                                                                                Mid-Lent 3
                                                                                                Mt 5:21-26

            Newer is better.  That is a basic assumption on which our culture operates.  And it’s really not surprising.  After all, we are a society that is based on technology.  Ever since the industrial revolution we have lived in a world of ever improving technology that has made our life easier.  We live in a world where you can use your car to travel with complete independence in comfort that until recently was impossible.  You can get on an airplane and with ease you can be anywhere in the world in less than a day.
            The arrival of computers, the internet, tablets and smart phones has magnified this sense.  You and I now take for granted things we do with our phone that were unimaginable for most of us fifteen or twenty years ago.  And the pace of innovation isn’t slowing down.  You buy some piece of technology and in a brief span of time it has become virtually obsolete.  I mean, who today is using the first generation iPhone that came out in 2007?
            This sense of progress and that newer is better also impacts the way we think about the world.  Our culture accepts the newest theory from science as the truth because it is the newest one.  So, in the 1970’s “the truth” was that there was global cooling and that we were headed for another ice age.  During the last decade or so “the truth” has been that there is global warming because that has been the new accepted theory.
            And this has a significant impact on social issues in our country.  One of the arguments for the acceptance of homosexuality and same sex marriage is that to oppose it is to be “on the wrong side of history.”  Acceptance of these things is new.  Because it is new, it must be right since obviously today we know better than people who lived in the past.
            However, this attitude is very different from what has existed during most of human history. For almost everyone who lived before us, the thing that carried the most weight and importance was what people in the past had believed.  Those things handed down through the generations were considered to be wise and authoritative.
            That was certainly the case for Judaism in first century Palestine.  For them, what was authoritative was what Moses and the prophets had said.  The word of God provided guidance and wisdom for life.  And then, after that, the noted teachers of the past who had interpreted the Torah were authoritative.  They had developed a body of oral law which described how the Torah was to be kept.  The oral law had been handed down by a series of teachers over the years.  What mattered was not what you thought.  What mattered was instead what Rabbi Hillel and the rabbi’s before him had said.  This was the assumption about how life worked.
            And then, along came Jesus Christ.  It very quickly became clear that he was operating in a very different way. As I have mentioned, we hear at the end of the Sermon on the Mount: “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”
            Jesus didn’t teach like the Scribes.  He taught as one who had authority – an authority that was located in himself.  That fact stands front and center was we enter into this section of the sermon.  Six times Jesus declares, “You have heard that it was said … But I say to you.”  Six times Jesus takes up an interpretation of the Torah that had been handed down among the Pharisees and scribes, and he blows it off.  He tells people to ignore it and he replaces it with his own interpretation.
            In our text tonight, we hear the first of these.  Jesus declares, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
            The interpretation that had been handed down was very straight forward.  Don’t murder.  And if you murder someone you will be subject to judgment – you will be executed.  However, Jesus says something else – something that goes far beyond just the bare command.  He provides an interpretation that reveals the full truth behind the commandment. We hear: “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
            Jesus says that it not just murder, but the very root of murder, anger that is forbidden.  It is not just murder, but being insulting of our neighbor as if they were completely worthless.  This is what God’s commandment involves. 
            Of course, it’s not hard to recognize how Jesus’ words speak to you and your life.  You find that anger dwells in your heart, without you even trying.  When wronged or harmed, you gladly embrace that anger and stoke it. And then you act on it.  You act to get pay back.  You speak words that are meant to harm – words by which want to let the other person know that they are worthless in your eyes.
            During the season of Lent, we are preparing to observe our Lord’s suffering and death on the cross.  Because of your anger, the Son of God submitted himself to anger.  He submitted himself to mocking and brutality. He submitted himself to death on the cross.  And when he did so, he submitted himself to something far worse than human anger. He submitted himself to the wrath of God against your sin.  He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” as he received judgment in your place. And then on the third day – on Easter – he rose from the dead.
            After teaching what the Fifth Commandment really means, our Lord then provides some very practical instruction.  He says, “Therefore if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”  Jesus describes a situation in which as a person goes to make an offering at the temple in Jerusalem he remembers that some contention exists with another person.  He says that one is first to be reconciled to the other person, and then proceed with the offering.  He says that where anger is present the priority is to be given to reconciling through forgiveness.
            This is true for you because of what God the Father has done in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  God has reconciled you to himself through Christ.  He has forgiven you all your sins.  And because he has done this you now forgive those who sin against you.  You reconcile with them because of what God has done for you.
            Later in this Gospel, Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  Peter offered a number that seemed really large; that seemed to be very gracious.  Jesus’ response was: “Think bigger.”  We need to think bigger when it comes to forgiving others because of how greatly God has forgiven us.
            Right after Peter’s question, Jesus told the parable about the unforgiving servant.  A servant owed his master a debt that was so large he could never pay it back in several lifetimes – think of what it would be like if you owed a hundred billion dollars.  In his mercy, the master forgave the debt and let the servant go.  Later the servant encountered a fellow servant who owed him a small amount.  The man who owed him money asked for mercy – just as the servant had done before the master.  But servant would not help him and had him thrown in jail.
            When the master learned of this he was incensed.      The master summoned the servant and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”  And then Jesus added, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
            The forgiveness that God gives to us in Jesus Christ is not something that we can hold on to and keep as our own personal possession.  We are not able to hoard it for ourselves.  Instead, in order to have it from God was must pass it on and give it to others. 
            We can do this, because the source of this forgiveness will never run out.  It will never dry up. It will continue to provide Christians with forgiveness until the Last Day.  It will never cease to give forgiveness to us because the crucified Lord has risen from the dead.       



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