Topic: Biblical Verse: Matthew 5:21–37
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
“Being SJLC 2017: Choices”
Some people say that the Bible is a guidebook for life. I suppose that the thinking there is that if you follow the teaching that you’ll find in the Bible, you’ll become a better person, having better relationships with the world around you. Some of the same people say that Jesus was a teacher of morality, someone who offered wisdom to his followers, wisdom that would shape their lives with an understanding of what to do or not do as they journeyed through life. And those people leave it at that, free to take whatever they like or leave behind whatever they dislike from either the Scripture or Jesus’ teaching.
Yes, the Bible does have much to say about life. Jesus does, too; he even spoke about what people understood to be the Bible’s guidelines for living. But Jesus isn’t merely a teacher of morality, and the Bible isn’t simply a book that contains guidelines for living. If they were simply those things, there’d be little point in following either when so many other contenders claim to offer a path to better living – many of which promise much more immediate or attractive-sounding results.
Christians, however, believe that the Bible is God’s living Word and that Jesus is the Word-made-flesh. And if Jesus really is the Word of God, God the Son, that means that the Bible – especially Jesus’ teaching about how his people are called to live – is the most reliable place for people to learn what life is meant to be. When you read the Bible, you’ll see that Jesus doesn’t really leave people who would follow him with the choice to take or leave whatever they will of his teaching. Jesus speaks the truth because he is Truth. Jesus’ teaching can guide your living because he is the author of life. For the Christian especially, life is all about Jesus – and so are the choices that you make.
This weekend marks the finale of our Being SJLC emphasis for this year as the Epiphany season draws to a close. I hope that the theme for this year’s focus, “It’s all about Jesus,” hits home for you today, recalling how Jesus is the light for all nations, and how his light continues to dawn in and through the lives of his people. For the past two weeks, we’ve heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, a message that continues in our Gospel text today. Jesus spoke about what it meant to be blessed in the kingdom of God. He declared his disciples to be salt and light for this world. So as we close out this year’s Being SJLC emphasis and hear Jesus’ teaching about life, consider the following question: “Who are you becoming?”
As they gathered around to hear Jesus out there in the countryside, his followers might have been thinking that they were doing OK in following God’s design for life. They’d learned from their culture what was expected of them, even in some less-common situations that could make life a little rough when they came around. Some of them probably even thought that they were following the law perfectly (or at least as best as could be expected). But that was a misunderstanding that Jesus would soon put right.
With the part of the Sermon on the Mount that you’ve heard today, Jesus illuminates the true intention of God’s Torah instruction for life. Spoiler alert: it sets a bar that is far higher and a standard that is far more comprehensive than any of us would be able to achieve on our own. That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: Jesus achieved it for us – and that achievement shapes his followers lives to be increasingly like his. This is what being a disciple is all about: following Jesus in a life that is transformed and, by nature of that changing, changes the lives of the people around it. You’re not perfect; Jesus is. Following him leads you to become more like him, living a life that ever more reflects God’s intention for it. Who are you becoming?
In the first segment of Jesus’ teaching today, you heard him speak about murder. Now, we understand that murder isn’t the same as mere killing; it’s killing with hateful intent. But Jesus doesn’t just leave it there. He declares that God’s (fifth) commandment isn’t just about taking a life. It’s much more comprehensive. Jesus warns his followers against harboring malice in their hearts, especially against fellow believers. Bitterness and rage are damnable. The emotions that you let flow inside you can spill over into full-grown word and action that hurts or harms your neighbor – but even if they never do, those attitudes will harm you. Bit by bit, they shape your life.
Instead of hating or holding on to a grievance against your fellow human being, Jesus calls his followers to seek to restore broken relationships. By God’s grace, you can forgive as you have been forgiven. Reconciliation is a mark of Jesus’ disciples.
With the following segment of the Sermon the Mount, Jesus continues to teach his followers about desires that can move from one’s heart into the outside world. Here, he turns attention to the sin of adultery. And as you just heard him do with the Fifth Commandment, so he does with the Sixth. “You shall not commit adultery” isn’t just about married people straying from their vows; instead, Jesus calls all his followers to sexual purity in inner thought as well as outward deed. Lustful looking, even in itself, is adultery. In the same way, pornography – or anything else that invites lustful desire into your heart and mind – is a deadly poison for man and woman alike. As Jesus lays it out, impure thoughts are a serious danger to the life of discipleship. What you let grow inside you can easily lash out into the outside world.
Instead of letting your eye dwell on the things that would lead you into danger, turn away. And even though your eye might be drawn toward it, God’s power even extends to your neck! You can still turn your head when you know that what’s in front of you isn’t something you need to be seeing.
From adultery, Jesus moves on to the related topic of divorce. In first century Palestine, much like today, people didn’t think divorce was that big of a deal. Back then, if you went and got the proper certificate for divorce, you’d be in the clear. They thought that was following the law, doing what was needed. But Jesus isn’t having any of that. He’s telling his followers, “Do not divorce, it shouldn’t be a thing among you.” Divorce has the same effect as adultery because both violate and destroy marriage as God designed it.
You may know the trauma of divorce in your life. Divorce is never a healthy event, even in those situations where it might seem the most necessary. It’s like taking a living body and tearing it in two. Yet God still offers full and complete forgiveness from the sin of the past, bringing healing to brokenness, even as the scars remain. As a Christian, one who would follow Jesus as a disciple, you can still move forward as a child of God, making choices that reflect His design in your relationships in the future.
The final topic Jesus addresses in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount might seem a little strange to modern-day hearers. He talks about oaths, the vows that people would make to reinforce their sincerity when speaking. The people of his day even had an elaborate ranking system for oaths: oaths by the heavens, to the earth, to the great city of Jerusalem, to the back of your head. When it comes down to it, making such oaths was really about playing around with the truth. And as Jesus puts it, deception in any form is an act that comes from the devil, the evil one. He’s been doing it since the days of Adam and Eve.
Playing around with the truth is almost a pastime in our day. In a culture so saturated with social media platforms, it seems all too easy to hurl stinging words out into the void without caring about how they might impact your neighbor. As a person who has been claimed by Christ, however, you have been redeemed to speak the truth – to speak the truth in love. Your speech matters. Say what you mean and only what you mean. Don’t use words lightly. Choose them well in a way that honors the one who gives you the ability to speak.
It’s all about Jesus.
Discipleship is about following Jesus as the Holy Spirit works on you each day to make you more Christ-like. The choices that you make in life make a difference. But our Lord does not leave you to make them alone. He stands with you as your shepherd to guard and guide you through life. This weekend at St. John’s, the Holy Spirit will be poured out on another child as she is washed in the waters of Holy Baptism. God will adopt her as His own. Even though she cannot yet walk or talk, the Lord is already at work to shape her life and make her more and more like Jesus. God does the same through your baptism, too.
So who are you becoming? In God’s grace, look to the Word, and see.