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The Lens of Love

Dr. David Evans

February 20, 2017
Matthew 5:21-37

A Reading from the Gospel

‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.


 

evans-davidWe are now halfway through our in-depth look at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.   We began with the Beatitudes.   Last week we explored what it means for Christians to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.”  Today’s text “ups the ante”.  Hear the Word of God as it is recorded in the 5th chapter of the gospel of Matthew.

Millions of people visit Yellowstone National Park every year.  But the Park literature is quick to say that only 5 percent of the visitors ever leave a paved road.  And only 2 percent of those who drive across the country to visit one of the most amazing places on earth ever venture more than two miles off a paved road.

The point is:  most people have only a very narrow perspective on all that Yellowstone has to offer. They only see what can be seen from the safety of an automobile or a tour bus. You can see the spectacular plume of Old Faithful and you can take in the Virginia Cascades or Mammoth Hot Springs and you can catch sight of the buffalo herds grazing in the Meadow without ever leaving the comfort of your car.  So why would you go to the effort to set out on foot and risk an encounter with a grizzly bear when you can see the “high points” without any effort at all?

Why seeing Yellowstone crossed my mind as I was reading the 5th chapter of the gospel of Matthew I will never know. Except it occurred to me that in some ways it is a metaphor for what is happening in the Sermon on the Mount.

What’s going on here?  Jesus has gathered those who want to be citizens of the kingdom of heaven around him and is teaching them how kingdom citizens are to live in the world.  He is teaching them that the values of kingdom citizens are virtually upside-down from the values that the world holds dear.

Jesus begins with the Beatitudes.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”    The Beatitudes are shocking enough.   But then Jesus says:   “you are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world”, a teaching that at least some of you seemed to hear with new ears last week.   Being salt and light means, among other things, that we are called to create “circles of compassion” around the most vulnerable of our neighbors.

And to make sure we are clear on what Jesus is at stake, Jesus says this to a people for whom obeying the Law of Moses is already challenging enough:

In other words, if your righteousness does not exceed those who are zealous in keeping the law, then you cannot be a kingdom citizen.

Now, in today’s text, Jesus ups the ante.  Jesus says:   “You are not going to stay in your car. You are not going to view life in the kingdom of God from the pavement.  You are going to get out of your car and I am going to lead you to those places of faithfulness where few ever venture to go.”  And Jesus gives six examples of what it means that he has come “not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them.”     Four of which form our text for today.

  • The Law of Moses says:   ‘You shall not kill…’ “But I say to you that anyone who is even angry with his brother or sister is liable to judgment…”
  • “The law of Moses says:   ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  “But I say to you that anyone who even looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
  • “The Law of Moses says:   ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
  • Finally, “The Law of Moses says:  ‘You shall not swear falsely…’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all….  Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’….”  

For those for whom their Christian faith is a sort of “spectator sport,” a “hobby,” that you can pick up or put down whenever it is interesting or convenient, these are convicting words.   Each one of these “the law of Moses says…” communicates one unmistakable message:   “Being a follower of Jesus requires a faithfulness that is beyond our capacity.”  

The truth is:  each of these “the Law of Moses says but I say to you…” deserves its own sermon.  And I will leave it up to each of you to decide which sermon you need to hear! For Jesus is saying that just obeying the law is the minimum expected of a kingdom citizen. Jesus is challenging long held expectations of what it means to be faithful to God. But since we do not have time to explore each in depth, let’s just leave it that Jesus is shocking us into the reality that more is expected of us than we can possibly do. Let’s just say that with these words Jesus is leading us deep into the untamed wilderness of the gospel.  And deep into the tension between those who think living by the law is enough and Jesus’ expectation that our righteousness must go beyond, far beyond, just living by the law.

So what are we to do?  Tim Keller (The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, p. 121ff) tells of the woman who began worshiping in the church where he is the pastor.  She told Keller that she had gone to a church growing up and she had always heard that God accepts us only if we are sufficiently good and ethical.  She had never heard about grace.   That God accepts us regardless of anything we are doing or have done. She told him: “That is a scary idea! Oh, it’s good scary, but still scary.”  

Tim Keller was intrigued. He asked her: “What is so scary about unmerited free grace?”

Her reply went like this:  “If I was saved by my good works—then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through. I would be like a taxpayer with rights. I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life. But…if it is really true that I am a sinner saved by sheer grace—at God’s infinite cost—then there’s nothing that God cannot ask of me.”

Do you understand what she understood? It is not the law that demands so much of us. It is grace. She is describing what Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called “costly grace.” It is grace because it is free. It is costly because it asks of us our lives. It is grace because it gives us life. It is costly because it reminds us that our lives are not our own. Jesus is inviting us to belong to the kingdom of God. A kingdom where much more is expected of us than staying safe on the pavement.

Do you really want to follow Jesus? Do you really want your faith to be more than just a weekend hobby? Then Jesus invites you to get out of the car and put on your boots and hike deep into the beautiful landscape of the kingdom. It will be hard and it will challenge your deepest held convictions and sometimes it may even be scary. But there is no joy on earth like it. But here’s the promise of the gospel:  Jesus, the very one who asks so much of you, will be your companion every step of the way.

AMEN