Saturday, February 12, 2011

Epiphany 6

What does it mean to live a righteous life? Think about it. Can you picture someone in your life you would call righteous? Well certainly this person must be virtuous and upstanding in every way. He or she would have to go out of their way to meet the needs of everyone all the time. Maybe the cast and crew of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” would fit the bill. They travel all over the country to build nice homes for deserving families out of the kindness of their hearts (of course with a little help from advertizes). Maybe a religious leader like the Dali Lama would be righteous. Our culture certainly thinks he’s a good and virtuous person since he’s an advocate of peace and understanding. How about a philanthropist like Bill Gates who promises to donate his entire fortune to charity? What about us here today? Does God demand that you and I be righteous? The Gospel today tells us that the answer is yes! And despite the accusations other religions make against Christianity, that we are not strict enough (this goes especially against us Lutherans), it’s clear from out text that God wants our deeds to outshine those of “Extreme Makeover” the Dali Lama and Bill Gates. Jesus tells us through the Gospel lesson today that,
(I. The Christian life demands perfection in not hating your brother.)
(II. The Christian life demands perfection in not committing adultery.)
(III. The Christian life’s demands are met only in Christ’s perfect righteousness.)

What does perfect Christian righteousness look like? It begins by observing the God’s Law. This Law isn’t something that’s inaccessible to us, or something that we understand by meditating on the idea of God. Rather, it’s been given to us through the revelation of scripture. We know on Sinai God gave his people, which include us today, the Ten Commandments revealing His will. Through the commandments God demands that we live according to his holy will. In last week’s Gospel lesson Jesus said, “Whoever does (the commandments) and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” And also, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” So our righteousness, our obedience to the commandments, must be perfect. Jesus’ words can mean nothing else. In the Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy we heard that the Law comes with a blessing and a curse. If we keep the Law and are righteous we will receive every good blessing. However, if we break the law we will “surely perish.”

To paint the picture of what perfect righteousness looks like, Jesus tells us in the Gospel, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” Fair enough we think to ourselves. When was the last time that I went out and murdered someone? Only the worst people murder. So, it seems the fifth commandment (you shall not murder) is taken care of, right? Wrong! Jesus says, “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.” This should make us stop and at take stock of these demanding words. We see that the Law is more damning than how we first try to interpret it, as something that’s easy to do. “You shall not murder” means that even if you have anger against your brother, you are guilty of breaking the whole commandment. Luther explains this in the Large Catechism, “Christ says that we must not kill, neither with hand, heart, mouth, signs, gestures, help, nor council. Therefore this commandment forbids everyone to be angry, except those who are in the place of God, that is, parents and the government.”

Now ask yourself, have you ever been angry? Have you ever wanted to hurt someone who’s offended you? When you get cut off in traffic, do you yell out obscenities? Do you harbor grudges against family members for hurtful things they’ve said or done? Have you imagined getting back at a bully who intimidates you? Of course, when we’re honest we have to say yes! We’re guilty of murdering our brother. And this isn’t a minor type of murdering. Indeed, before God our Judge it’s as if we have our brother’s blood dripping from our hands.

Jesus goes on to tell us, “So 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. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” This message is especially directed at Christians who come before God’s alter in order to be reconciled with Him. When we come to God’s house angry with our brother, we deserve to be handed over to our Heavenly Judge as we are, sinful and unclean with the blood of our brother on our hands. Therefore He teaches us later in the Sermon on the Mount to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And He also teaches the parable of the unforgiving servant who refused to forgive his fellow brother after his master forgave him his debt. When we hold onto anger in our hearts the Judge rightfully accuses us, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy your fellow servant, as I have had mercy on you?”

The Christian life is one of perfect reconciliation with our neighbors at all times. But more often than not, we don’t show mercy to our brother the way we should. Instead, we dare to approach God with secret anger and malice in our hearts. We remember sins long after we say that we’ve forgiven them. Keeping this anger in us keeps the blood of our brother on our hands and we appear before the Judge as unrighteous and deserving to be thrown into the hell of fire till we pay the last penny of our debt.

Next Jesus brings up the 6th commandment, “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.'” Hearing this we tell ourselves, I don’t break this command. We think of someone else who we suspect is guilty and say to ourselves, I don’t break the commandment like that person. Keeping the commandment could be difficult at times, but we feel like we have it under control. Absolutely not! Jesus says, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Have you ever had any lustful desires for someone, especially someone outside of marriage? Yes, we all have. We’re convicted and found guilty before God for all kinds of lust and adultery. Luther writes in his Large Catechism. “Not only is the outward act of adultery forbidden, but also every kind of cause, motive, and means of adultery. Then the heart, lips, and the whole body must be chaste and offer no opportunity, help, or persuasion toward inchastity.” In our sexually charged culture rampant with internet pornography and indecency on TV, can anyone live their lives unscathed by inchastity? Is it possible to survive the pressures of youth and not commit the sin of lust? Our culture tries to teach us that members of the opposite sex are just objects to fulfill our pleasure and we are pressured to accept it. We start mitigating the full severity of this commandment when we condone sexual relationships of any type outside of God’s ordained estate of marriage between a man and woman. For instance, saying that it’s ok for a young couple to live together because they’re in love makes us responsible for their sin. Earlier in the sermon Jesus said, “Whoever relaxes one of the least of the commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”

Instead we must flee from sexual immorality. “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.” But instead of fleeing from sexual immorality, our sinful flesh draws us to it. Even if we abstain from the act, our mind commits the sin and we fall under the condemnation of the Law in God’s sight.

These commands must be kept if we can be called perfectly righteous. If we have enough pride to proclaim that we have fulfilled the commandments in actions, which I doubt is possible, then our thoughts and desires still betray us. We are anything but righteous. We justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. Dear friends, we are guilty before God, and the righteousness demanded of us in the Law is impossible. The Law kills us. It secures us in our sins and exposes us for who and what we really are, enemies of a righteous God.

What is left for us to do? Nothing! What is left for God to do? Everything! Jesus Christ alone is righteous. He alone is the Son of God who kept the Law perfectly, who never hated his brother, who never lusted in his heart, who is perfectly righteous before the Father. And I have Good News for you today. Christ’s righteousness is for you! Jesus Christ kept the Law perfectly, was perfectly righteous in order to make you perfectly righteous. Jesus never came to be a more stringent lawgiver than Moses as some people think from this sermon. Instead Jesus points to himself and his own righteousness which becomes yours. How does it become yours? It becomes yours through the exchange of righteousness on the cross. On the cross God the Father laid on Christ all of your sin, guilt and punishment for falling short of his holy Law. He was sacrificed on the cross putting to death your sin, your guilt, and the punishment you deserve. In exchange you receive Jesus Christ’s perfect righteousness before the Father in heaven. Therefore Jesus tells to come to him with our guilt and sin. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” Our burden is light, because Jesus has taken the weight of our condemnation under the law and has given us his righteousness which we have done nothing to earn but have received it freely anyway in faith. Yes the Law does kill us through convicting us of our sins, but the Good News of Christ brings us back to life, a life that has been won for us by the blood of Jesus.

Being freed from the condemnation under the Law are we then allowed to go on sinning as we did before? As St. Paul has written, “Let it not be!” “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” We must consider ourselves as dead to sin and alive only to God. This shows itself in two ways. First in returning to our Baptism through repenting of our sins daily, and second in showing love to our neighbor which flows out of the righteousness we have with God. Despite the fact that our sins have been forgiven, not just those in the past but those of the future too, we are still waiting for the consummation of Christ’s work on the cross on the last day. Therefore we are continually tempted and struggle with sin in the world. Does this mean that we’ve lost the grace we received in Baptism. No! God’s promises given in baptism never leave us. Instead are led, through hearing God’s Law, to return to the promise in Baptism, that Christ has put to death all our sins in the washing of water and the Word. So we repent before God and our brother and receive the forgiveness we have though Jesus Christ’s perfect righteousness.

And the righteousness from Christ isn’t meant to stay bottled up. It finds its expression in the love we show to our brothers. The life of a Christian is cross-shaped. There is a vertical dimension between God and man and a horizontal dimension between a man and his neighbor. God takes the initiative and grants us righteousness through Christ’s death that we receive in faith through the hearing of the Gospel. That righteousness manifests itself in works of love toward our neighbor. Doing good works then has nothing to do with earning points with God. Rather it is a natural expression of faith with showers our brothers and sisters in Christ with works of mercy and love. Because we are righteous in Christ we no longer get angery with our brother when he hurts us with his words and actions. Instead we are lead to pray for him. We no longer lust and demean our bodies in sexual immorality. Instead we pray for those who are trapped in that sin and speak highly of God’s gift of marriage which is the proper place for human sexuality.

Dear friends in Christ, the Christian life does make demands. But those demands are met only in Jesus Christ. Because he was perfectly righteous, you are now perfectly righteous. Because of what Christ has done for you, you can in turn love your neighbor as yourself. The Bill Gates, Dali Lamas and Extreme Makeovers of the world may appear righteous through the lens of our culture, but we know that true and real righteousness comes only through Jesus Christ and what he has earned for us by his death and resurrection. Amen.
-Seminarian Brian Flamme

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