Friday, March 02, 2012

Sermon: Matthew 5: 17-48 Kingdom Obedience

What do you think of when you hear the word law? It might be a judge with a curly wig, sitting in a courtroom. It could be a traffic cop pulling you over for speeding. We tend to think of negative images when we think of the law - broken laws; judgements and things like that.

When we think of the Old Testament Law, you might naturally think of the Ten Commandments; and you might just ask yourself - why do we need the Law? After all, if we’re New Testament Christians, and it’s found in the Old Testament, why do we need to bother with the law?

Over these midweeks in Lent we’re looking at the sermon on the mount. Last week, we heard the blessings that God bestows on his kingdom people - the attitudes that are blessed in his community. Again, that might make you wonder why we need the Old Testament; or what we should do with it?

After all, if Jesus is teaching his disciples, showing them how to live and what to do, as he sits up on a mountain, it’s like a New Testament version of Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Law from God. Should we just live by the Sermon on the Mount? Should we rip out the Old Testament from our Bibles?

Before we do any violence to the pew Bibles, it’s important to hear what Jesus says tonight about the Old Testament. You see, he says that the Law is fixed. ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.’ Jesus hasn’t come to overthrow them or get rid of them. The law of God still stands, as we see in verse 18. ‘For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished.’ Jesus is saying that the law is permanent - look around, if heaven and earth are still here, the law still stands; every part of it, down to the smallest marking (an iota) is fixed.

The fixed law is unchanging in its demands. And that’s where our problem lies. The law is clear, setting out God’s standards, his requirements of each one of us, but none of us can meet the standard. If I were to read out the Ten Commandments, we wouldn’t even make it to number two before we would all have failed. You shall have no other gods before me? That’s me out. And, I suspect, that’s you out too.

As if that’s not enough, what Jesus says next magnifies our problem: ‘For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ Houston, we have a problem. the scribes and the Pharisees were the SAS of the super-religious.

They not only observed the rules; they had rules about the rules. Just think of the Sabbath. The law says to rest; but that wasn’t enough for the Pharisees. They compiled an encyclopedia of rules about what constituted work - what you could or could not do on the Sabbath. So in Matthew 12, when Jesus and the disciples are walking through a grainfield, the disciples are condemned for plucking some heads of grain to eat. That’s work, after all.

Their righteousness was strict. And Jesus says that our righteousness has to exceed theirs in order to enter the kingdom? I’m out, and I suspect you are too. None of us can achieve this by ourselves. The fixed law stands broken.

But the great good news of the gospel is that Jesus came to do what we could not do for ourselves. The law stands over us in judgement. We have broken it and deserve punishment. But it’s not just fixed - Jesus goes on to say that it will also be fulfilled: ‘I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.’ Jesus does not seek to destroy the law; but rather to fulfil it - to perfectly meet its demands. Just think of the way in which Jesus fulfils some of the prophecies - his location of birth; his mother’s virginity; his tribe of birth; his ministry; his miracles; his betrayal; arrest; and crucifixion. It’s more than that, though - Jesus has also fulfilled the law’s demands. He was perfectly obedient in every moment of his life to the will of his father; never thought wrong thoughts, never said wrong words, never did wrong things; never dishonoured his parents, never murdered or stole or swore.

Jesus fulfilled the law, obeyed it, so that he has the perfect righteousness of perfect relationship with God the Father. And as we trust in Christ, we receive what Luther called the great exchange: Not just that Jesus takes away our sin by bearing it in his body on the cross; but also that he gives us his righteousness; it is imputed to us, counted as ours - we are counted as justified - just as if I’d never sinned. We see this in lots of places in Scripture, but turn with me to 2 Corinthians 5:21. ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ Jesus takes our sin and gives us his righteousness. This is how we enter the kingdom; this is how our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.

So why do we need to worry about the law? Why do we need to worry about the Ten Commandments? The law points us to the perfect obedience of Jesus; and Jesus calls us to obey him - not in order to gain acceptance from God (we already have it!) but because we have been accepted. Jesus calls us to walk in his way, obeying the law from heart obedience, not just external observance.

We see that in the rest of the chapter, where Jesus takes the law and shows us what it’s really like to obey it. You see, the Pharisees prided themselves on not breaking the law, because they had never murdered anyone; because they had never committed adultery; because they were zealous to fulfil their oaths. But Jesus says it’s not enough! Did you notice the pattern? ‘it was said... but I say to you.’ Only Jesus can explain and expand the law, because he was the one who wrote it in the first place.

You can commit murder in the heart without murdering with hands - ‘But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement.’ It’s so easy to allow anger to fester in the heart - it reminds me of a sign I saw in a harbour one day which should have read ‘Danger: Slipway’ but with the d removed it said ‘Anger Slipway’ - without any outward sign, we can be sliding down that anger slipway into judgement.

Similarly, Jesus says that adultery is a heart matter long before it becomes a physical matter. To look with lust is to commit adultery, let alone engaging in the act. Jesus calls us to radically deal with our sin - to get rid of the things that cause us to sin (yet I don’t think he literally means chop off your hand or pluck out your eye, as one young man in the north coast did on the railway line...).

Jesus says to not make elaborate oaths, but simply be known for your honesty. Similarly, don’t be stingy, but be generous - even when others exploit you - go the second mile.

Jesus says don’t just love your friends and hate your enemy - love your enemies. Even the worst of the worst manage to love those who love them; but Jesus calls us to love our enemies; mirroring and reflecting the grace of our God; showing the family likeness as children of our heavenly Father. Just think of his grace - his sun shines on both the evil and the good; the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous. God gives his common grace gifts to everyone, whether they thank him or not; whether they love him or not.

All these commands Jesus gives us are driving us towards the last words of the chapter. We who are imperfect, rebellious sinners; who have been credited with the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus - as we obey God; so we strive towards becoming more like him: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’

This sermon was preached at the midweek Lent service in Aghavea Parish Church on Wendesday 29th February 2012.

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