A number of you know that last February I started a blog on the internet. Named – appropriately enough – “Surburg’s blog,” it was intended to be a way to share news items and articles that relate to the Church and her life in the world. It was also intended to be a way to share things I write with a broader audience. I enjoy writing articles for the theological journals of our seminaries, but those pieces reach a limited audience and must deal with narrow topics. I wanted something that would allow me to share things that are often more than a church newsletter, but less than a journal article. I had the goal of being able share my thoughts in a way that would reach a wider audience of Lutheran pastors and lay people.
The experiment has succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. As of yesterday when I was writing this sermon, the blog had been viewed 109,000 times. Now that’s a lot of mouse clicks! And perhaps even more remarkable has been the source of those viewers. While naturally, the majority are in the United States it has been amazing to see the blog viewed regularly by people all over the world in places like Germany, Russia, France and China.
I have fairly basic computer and internet skills, and so my blog is nothing fancy from a technical standpoint. I use the basic Blogger platform provided by Google. Blogger allows you to see the nations in which viewers are located. It also enables you to see the websites that are the source of viewers. It is always interesting to see how other websites and blogs refer people to my blog. During the course of last year it was one way that I could tell that the blog was establishing itself as something people consider to be a useful resource.
When I see that a number of page views have come from a website that I don’t recognize, I will click on the link and find out what it is. And on one occasion this provided a huge shock. I noticed that thirty or forty views had come off a website with an innocuous name like “meetone.com.” So I clicked on the link and when the page opened, there was a picture of a completely naked woman in what we will just call a very provocative pose. I was flabbergasted and my instant reaction was to close the page as quickly as possible, as I nearly spilled my coffee reaching for the mouse. I think what had happened was that I had recently posted the link for an excellent article about how the use of pornography actually alters the brain, and this must have attracted attention from some viewers who are not my usual audience.
The enormous presence of pornography on the internet illustrates why Jesus’ words tonight are so important for the world in which we live. Once again, Jesus takes a commandment and show us the deeper meaning that fulfills God’s will. He shows us how sin pervades our life, and because we have received the reign of God in him, he calls us to live in ways that reject it.
In our text Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman so as to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Once again, Jesus takes up the commandment and the manner in which it was normally understood by the scribes and Pharisees of his day. They read it in a very straightforward manner: “Don’t commit adultery.” If you were married and you didn’t have sex with someone other than your spouse, then you were keeping the Sixth Commandment.
However, yet again, Jesus takes things deeper. He declares, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman so as to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus says that to look at a woman and lust for her is to break the Sixth Commandment – and of course the same thing is true of a woman looking at a man. There is an ambiguity in Jesus’ words that encompasses different ways this can happen. It covers both looking with the intent of lusting, and also a looking that prompts lusting.
Our Lord’s point is that sin is about the heart. It’s not just a matter of the deeds we commit. It includes the very thoughts and motives that are found within us. Later in the Gospel, Jesus will say, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.”
As fallen people, this sin is found within us. And it does indeed prompt sinful actions. Because of this sin that cuts us off from the holy God, our heavenly Father sent his Son into this world. He sent him to bring the reign of God – to bring God’s salvation. During Lent we are preparing to remember again that Jesus Christ brought the forgiving reign of God by dying on the cross. Our Lord said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” He gave himself as the ransom for us, and then on the third day he rose from the dead. Because he did this, we know that we are forgiven and have been freed from eternal death.
You have received this saving reign. You received it in your baptism as you were born again of water and the Spirit and came to share in Jesus’ saving death. You stand before God forgiven because of Jesus Christ. And now, Christ’s Spirit is at work in you, helping you to live in ways that follow God’s will.
The old man is still there – and he will be there until you die or Christ returns. And so living under God’s reign means struggling against sin. That is what our Lord emphasizes in our text tonight when he says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
Now this of course, hyperbole, a figure of speech that Jesus uses to emphasize his point. He is not promoting self-mutilation, especially since sin is a matter of the heart. Yet by this language our Lord alerts us to the seriousness of the struggle and the way we are to engage in it.
God created man as male and female. He created Eve from Adam as the helper corresponding to him. And then we learn in Genesis 2, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Man and woman were created to be complementary to one another physically and emotionally. God created marriage as the lifelong union of a man and a woman – a union that is established and expressed in the one flesh union of sex. Jesus teaches us in the latter portion of our text that this union of marriage is intended to be for life.
Because this is God’s will and created design for his gift of sex, we are not to use it outside of marriage. We are to be sexually pure. This means that Christians who are not married are not to have sexual intercourse. This means that Christians who are married are only to have sexual intercourse with their spouse. And it means that all Christians are to avoid those things that prompt and provide the opportunity for lust.
In our text, Jesus places the emphasis on looking – on what we see. And it is on this front that we face great challenges. When I was a young teen temptations of sight were the glimpse of the cover of a Playboy magazine at the book store, or looking at the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Yet today, anyone with a computer, tablet or smart phone can access a limitless range of pornography anywhere they are. We are immersed in a deluge of sexually explicit television shows, ads and pictures. And when we look, we invite lust.
The answer then for those who live under the reign of God through the work of the Spirit is very straightforward: Don’t look; turn away. Take the app off your phone. Get rid of the bookmarks on your computer. Put software on your computer that blocks sexual content. Don’t turn for the second glance at the attractive man or woman.
This won’t remove the presence of sin from your heart. It will still be there until you die or Christ returns. Lustful and sinful thoughts will still spring up, but if you don’t look you aren’t prompting them and you aren’t promoting them. Bernard of Clairvaux was once asked about lustful thoughts and what a person can do about them. He said that you can’t keep the birds from flying over your head. But you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.