Doing the Impossible
Topic: Biblical Verse: Matthew 5:38–5:48
The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
February 22-23, 2014
“Doing the Impossible”
The 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi come to a close today (Feb 23) as the 2800+ athletes from around the world get ready to head for home. So, what was your favorite event at the Olympics? The luge? Downhill skiing? Figure skating or speed skating? Snowboarding? Hockey? They’re all good! I don’t know about you, but as I’ve watched these athletes participate in the various competitions, I am just in awe of their abilities and their determination. It’s just amazing to me what they are capable of doing as individuals or as teams – training, strength, endurance, agility. At times, it almost looks like they are doing the impossible. Once or twice, I imagined myself trying to do in some small way what these athletes do so well. Needless to say, that brief flight of fancy did not end well as I pictured myself in great pain in the hospital. It is that idea of doing the impossible that is before us today as we consider Jesus’ words in the Gospel lesson, a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Here, Jesus calls on his followers – you and me – to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Hmmm… sounds like a pretty tall order. How are we supposed to do this? Is it even possible to do this? Is Jesus calling us to do the impossible? This becomes the theme for the message this day, “Doing the Impossible.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
Over the last month, the appointed Gospel lessons have all come from Matthew 5, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Last Sunday, and again today, those readings from Matthew 5 contain six sections that follow the same basic pattern. They each begin with Jesus teaching the people: “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you” (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 38-39, 43-44). Traditionally, these have been called “antitheses,” which mean opposites or contrasts. Jesus speaks of murder and anger, adultery and lust, divorce, oaths, responding to evil, loving friends and enemies. Drawing on God’s revealed instruction, his Torah, from the Old Testament, Jesus urges his followers to go deeper to the root of the commandment, and not just focus on the external manifestation. So, what does this mean? Jesus instructs us that at the root of murder is anger, and at the root of adultery is lust. What is done externally with the hand begins with what is internal in the heart. Jesus makes clear that he did not come to abolish God’s instruction, his Torah, what we refer to as the Law. Neither did Jesus come to do away with the Prophets and their message of repentance. Far from it! Rather, Jesus came to fulfill – to complete, to accomplish – both the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17). To realize that whole, complete and perfect will of God in our lives means that retaliation must give way to nonresistance, and loving our neighbor must include loving our enemy as well. This is what Jesus calls his followers to live out in their own lives. That sure sounds like doing the impossible, doesn’t it?
Today’s Old Testament lesson (Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18) is part of God’s Torah, his instruction to his chosen people of old. Having delivered them from slavery in Egypt, God now called his people to use their new-found freedom in such a way that the poor and the sojourner would be taken care of. Their freedom was not to be used as an excuse to steal or lie or swear falsely. Their freedom was not intended to oppress their neighbor, or take advantage of workers or those with disabilities. Their freedom was to bring about justice, not injustice. It was not to be a cover-up for vengeance. And it all came down to this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 9:18). You see, not only had God set his people free from something, He had also set them free for something. Their freedom was to show forth the glory and mercy of the Lord God as they dealt with one another, and this then was to be a magnet that would attract the attention of other people and nations around them. In this way, God’s people were to be a blessing not only to themselves, but to the whole world.
This is the foundation from which Jesus speaks in the Gospel to us today. Jesus actually raises the bar for what it means to love our neighbor by doing the impossible and living out these ideals that run so counter to our human nature. If we’re only doing what everyone else is doing, what’s the point? If we only love those who love us, if we only do good to those who do good to us, so what? Everybody does that. How are we as Jesus’ disciples different? He call us to love others as he himself has loved us – freely, unconditionally, without limit. He calls us to love those who may not be very loveable, which is exactly what we are apart from Christ. Apart from Jesus, we have no standing with God. Apart from Jesus, we got nothing. Sure, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). That is God’s providential nature to provide for all of creation, but that does not mean God is favorably disposed toward us. How do we know if God is favorably disposed toward us? That assurance comes through Jesus, who came to do the impossible for us. “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The closing words of Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson seem to lay a heavy burden on us: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). That is surely doing the impossible? How can we ever hope to attain to perfection? Bottom line: we can’t. That is what Jesus has done for us. His sinless life of perfect obedience to the Father’s will, together with his innocent suffering and death upon the cross as payment for our sin and disobedience – all this Jesus transfers to us. So when the Father looks upon us, our efforts and attempts to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give to the one who begs from us, love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us – defective and imperfect though they may be, the righteousness of Jesus covers all our defects and imperfections. “The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Not a few, not some of our sin – but all of it. And being set free from sin and the threat of punishment, God in Christ has now set us free to love and serve our neighbor.
Perhaps one of the most moving modern examples of what it means to love our enemies took place in the aftermath of the West Nickel Mines School shooting in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania on October 2, 2006. You may recall that gunman Carl Roberts IV entered the Old Order Amish school, and after taking hostages, shot ten girls ages 6-13, killing five of them, and then committed suicide in the schoolhouse. The response of the Amish community to the family of the gunman was almost immediate as they came to the Roberts’ home within hours after the shooting to offer their comfort. They established a fund for the family of the shooter and attended his funeral. Marie Roberts, mother of the shooter, wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbors in response: “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need… Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world…” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amish_school_shooting). Is God calling you to do the impossible? Never forget, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 2:37). Amen.