Sunday was a little unusual at church. The weatherman warned us about a blizzard coming, and it rolled in at 7:15 in the morning. By 9 am (service time), we had probably two inches of snow in the church driveway, which had formerly been clear. It was coming down thick and fast, and the wind was really blowing. We never cancel church (I live so close, and for those who felt the need to be in God’s house, I think they should get something for their trouble — God’s Word must be heard in His house), but in view of how quickly the snow was piling up, we decided to abbreviate the service. We sang a hymn, I preached this sermon, we had Holy Communion, we sang a hymn, and then I dismissed them with the Lord’s blessing. Peoples’ safety took precedence in that situation. The pastor is like a father in many ways, as Paul notes, and in this case I decided to shorten it up so people could get home and hunker down. God gives authority to be exercised for the good of all.
This sermon took a long time to write. I started working on it a couple of weeks ago. Then we had MLC Sunday, so I didn’t have to preach (which was ok — got a lot of other stuff done), and then this past week I had the privilege of burying a faithful member and ministering to his family. I got it done and memorized in time, though. I ended up abbreviating/editing the sermon as I preached it, which was fine — it needed it but I didn’t have time to sit down & do it before that. This is just a really long text. It’s got a lot in it. I focused on the two biggest threats or spiritual pitfalls for my people in this text, namely unthinking trangressions of the Fifth & Sixth Commandments.
It’s interesting that the way Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount is how I ended up preaching this text. Jesus points out what the Jews had heard from the scribes and teachers of the law, and then He says, “But I say to you….” I took common statements that people make violating or ignoring the 5th & 6th Commandments, and then showed how they were wrong, based on this Word of God. It seemed to work pretty well. Conventional wisdom is always ripe for deflating with the sword of the Spirit. Hope you enjoy the sermon.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder,and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (matt 5.21-37 niv)
Sports fans love the playoffs. The regular season can be fun, but the playoffs are always special if your team has a chance to play. It doesn’t matter if it’s high school football, college basketball in March, or playing for the World Series in October. The playoffs always hold fans’ attention. Every play matters more. Every possession is hard fought. The players play harder. Everybody steps up their game. The intensity ratchets up in the playoffs.
Jesus is going to do something similar in our text for today. He’s going to take God’s law and ratchet up the intensity. Jesus does this not by giving us new and harder laws to keep; He does it by taking God’s law that all people have in their hearts and that was written down in the Ten Commandments, and showing what its true meaning is. Notice that Jesus says over and over in this text, “You have heard that it was said….but I say to you.” He takes the law that everybody assumes they keep, and as the divinely anointed Prophet He forces us to look at it again. Jesus cranks up the intensity on God’s law simply by teaching us what it really means. In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, there’s going to be one common thread running through all of Jesus’ teaching today. He wants us to Take This Seriously. Specifically, Jesus wants us to take the Fifth Commandment seriously, and take the Sixth Commandment seriously.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’” Our initial reaction is to say, “Hey, I’ve kept that one! Cross that commandment off the list. I haven’t killed anybody.” This is the first commandment even rank unbelievers and godless sinners reach for to prove that they’re good people. You always hear people say that: “I haven’t killed anybody!” As if that proves that you are a good and decent person, that you haven’t shot anybody or ran anybody over with your car. Congratulations – the murder in your heart hasn’t become blood on your hands. That doesn’t mean that you haven’t broken the commandment. Have you ever been ever been so mad with someone that you couldn’t see straight? Have you ever harbored a grudge against a coworker or a relative or even someone at church? Have you ever complained about someone else’s behavior, or spoken harshly against someone, either to their face or behind their back? Then you have broken this commandment. Anger in the heart is murder before God, just as surely as violence committed with your hands.
When it comes to angry words and the Fifth Commandment, Jesus wants us to take this seriously. You can tell by the way the intensity steps up in each part of what He says. Anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca!’, which was an Aramaic slang term that meant empty-headed or idiot, was answerable to the Sanhedrin, Jesus says. You could be charged with a crime if you said words like that in public. It was similar to our charges of libel or slander today. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fires of hell, Jesus says. Anybody who vents their anger on their fellow man with rude or abusive words deserves hell. Do you see how often we break this command thoughtlessly? We need to take this seriously.
The words Jesus uses to describe hell are very precise and descriptive. Jesus calls it the Gehenna of fire, literally. Gehenna was the name of a valley on the southern side of the city of Jerusalem. Nowadays it just looks like an open green ravine – almost park like. In the Old Testament the apostate rulers of Israel used to sacrifice children there. Later it was used as a garbage dump and a place to throw unwanted dead bodies. Fires often started there and were just left to burn. When Jesus talks about hell, you can picture a garbage dump on fire. That’s how seriously Jesus wants us to take the angry words that fly out of our mouths.
That’s what Christ has delivered us from. He sacrificed Himself so that we would never go there. He willingly suffered all the pain of hell to deliver us from the eternal consequences of our thoughtless words. Then He descended into hell to proclaim His triumph to Satan, to flaunt it in his face and say, “You lost! They’re mine! I redeemed them and you are powerless!” Jesus went on a victory parade through hell after He died to prove to the entire universe that He had overcome hell. Instead of a burning garbage dump, we get the glories of heaven, forever.
Jesus gives us two concrete examples of the right way to repair the damage done by angry words. First He uses the example of someone who comes to worship, but remembers that there’s an unresolved problem with their fellow believer. How can someone love God, whom he has not seen, if he does not love his brother, whom he can see? That’s the basic idea behind Jesus’ words here. We would each do well to ponder for ourselves what attitudes toward others and what unresolved grudges we bring to worship – and then work to fix them.
These words are often applied to Holy Communion. We should make sure, as much as lies with us, that we are at peace with our neighbor and that no sin separates us before we come to the Lord’s table. Don’t let anger or hard feelings ruin the closeness in spirit that Holy Communion gives. I want as many people as are eligible for the Lord’s Supper to receive it frequently. In order to be eligible for the Lord’s Supper, you need to be a Christian who’s able to examine him- or herself and in doctrinal agreement with us. So you can examine yourself and know what we teach, we have catechism instruction and confirmation for our young people. I wish everybody who was able to would come to the Lord’s Supper as often as they could, because of the great blessings it promises. All the same, each of us should take a moment and reflect on our relationships with others before we come forward for the Sacrament, and if you realize that there is an urgent falling-out you need to take care of, maybe it’s better that you address that before you come to the Sacrament. Think about it for yourself.
The second example Jesus gives has a similar point: settle problems with your neighbor quickly. Don’t let things fester. Address them, deal with them, and turn your enemy into your friend. Many times we’re reluctant to ruffle any feathers or bring any disagreements out into the open, but unresolved problems between people don’t just work themselves out. Jesus wants us to take this seriously, because like the people in His short parable, we’re all on the way to the Judge. You, me, everybody – we will all have to stand before the Judge and give an account of ourselves. When we take that seriously, we’ll want to resolve problems before they flare up into bigger ones.
“You have heart that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” You young people, especially, pay attention because people will use these arguments on you. Someday a boy or a girl will try and pressure you into doing something you know is wrong, and you need to be ready for when they do. People who lobby for homosexuality also say many of these same things. “People are sexual beings,” they argue. “People are designed to participate in these things and enjoy them. God made us this way, didn’t He? It feels right so it must be right. How can God judge me for something that He created me to do?” People who say that aren’t taking Jesus’ word seriously.
They have half a truth. God did create humans to be sexual beings. People are supposed to enjoy God’s gift of sex and physical intimacy – but it is never to be used outside of marriage. When it’s used within marriage, it’s a great blessing from God, but when it’s used outside of marriage, it’s destructive. Look around at the world today. Ask your parents. Pay attention to what happens with your friends’ families or other relatives. How much heartache would people save if they listened to Jesus here? How much emotional pain? How much disease and abuse? How many children wouldn’t suffer innocently for their parents’ sins in breaking the Sixth Commandment? Think about that, and you’ll begin to see the wisdom in Jesus’ saying. He’s telling you to take lust seriously and resist it right where it starts – in your heart. Because it’s your heart that’s the problem when it comes to lust, not your eyes or anything else. Only God knows how many times you’ve broken this commandment. Your wife doesn’t know. Your husband doesn’t know. Your parents or your kids don’t know. Your pastor doesn’t know unless you confess it to him, and even then it’s impossible to fully list all of one’s lustful thoughts. You don’t even know how many times you’ve violated this word of Jesus. That should make each of us fall to our knees and cry out, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” And when we do – He does. It is done to you exactly as you have believed. You are washed clean from your sins that polluted your body and fouled your mind and heart. Jesus has saved us from our sins and sanctified us, made us holy, forever.
As someone who’s swimming in the open sewer of this world along with you, I beg you: take Jesus’ word about lust seriously. Adultery is not nearly as narrow as we usually think about it. It’s glances out the car window at someone jogging. It’s lingering on your new coworker in your mind as you walk past them. It’s a lot more than we’re used to thinking of. If you realize this sin is starting to take root in your life, do like Jesus says. Take a figurative chainsaw to it. Notice I said figurative. Root out the sin, kill it, confess it to Christ, and be forgiven for it. Then go and start fighting against it all over again.
If you don’t, the result could very well be what Jesus describes: “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” A lot of people have been puzzled by the right way to understand these words. A couple of things can help us understand what Jesus means here.
When two people get divorced, both of them look guilty, even if one is totally innocent – which rarely happens, but both people still look guilty. Let’s say Mr. Jones has an affair and wants to leave Mrs. Jones. Even if Mrs. Jones didn’t do anything to break their marriage bond, it looks to everyone like she did. She’s tainted by the stigma of divorce now. People like to gossip – “oh, they got a divorce so Mrs. Jones could take up with Mr. Smith.” It looks like both people did wrong, even if one of them doesn’t share as much of the blame. That’s what Jesus means when He says that divorce causes a woman to become an adulteress and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
When Jesus says that marital unfaithfulness is a legitimate cause for divorce, He’s talking very broadly. This is more than just seducing your neighbor’s wife. This is cheating on your spouse, very broadly defined. Anything that takes away from a person’s one-flesh relationship with their spouse falls under what Jesus is talking about here. Lust, pornography, as well as lesser forms of sexual immorality that the world considers perfectly fine, are all included here.
If you’re struggling with lust, take heart. Christ has made you a new creation. He covers your lust and your shameful sins with His blood. He’s planted a new heart and a new spirit in you. You are not hopeless. The child of God is never hopeless, because our Lord lives and promises to forgive you and strengthen you. You have a choice. You are baptized and that means you can resist sin successfully. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Take the Sixth Commandment seriously, and take your Lord’s forgiveness seriously.
The Christian life isn’t like the playoffs. It’s a lot more serious. The consequences are a lot more permanent – but so are the blessings. With your Lord’s help, you can take what He says seriously and order your footsteps rightly in His sight. God grant it for each of us. Amen.