Epiphany 6a

Preached: February 13, 2011

Our New Heart Cherishes Genuine Righteousness
Matthew 5:21-37

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The Word from God through which Jesus speaks to us is Matthew 5.

You have heard it said to the people long ago: “You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be accountable to the court.” But I tell you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be accountable to the court. And whoever says to his brother, “Raka” will be accountable to the Sanhedrin. And whoever says, “You, fool,” will be accountable [to go] to the fire of hell.

Therefore, if you are bringing your gift to 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. Then come and offer your gift. Come to agreement with your adversary quickly while you are still on the way, so that your adversary does not hand you over to the court and the court to the officer and he throws you into prison. Truly I say to you, you will never escape from there until you hand over the last penny.

You have heard it said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye traps you [in sin], pluck it out and throw it away from you. For it's better for you that one of your members perishes rather than your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand traps you [in sin], cut it off and throw it away from you. For it is better for you that one of your members perishes rather than your hold body going away into hell.

It's been said, “Let whoever divorces his wife give her a divorce certificate.” But I tell you that everyone who divorces his wife except due to fornication has made her stigmatized as an adulteress. And whoever marries anyone so divorced is stigmatized as an adulterer.

Again you have heard that it was said to the people long ago: “Do not swear falsely, but repay to the Lord what you have sworn.” But I tell you not to swear at all, neither by heaven (because that's God's throne), nor by the earth (because that's the footstool for his feet), nor by Jerusalem (because that's the city of the great King). And don't swear by your head, because you can't make one hair white or black. But Let your word be, “Yes, yes. No, no.” Anything more than this is from the evil One.” (Matthew 5:21-37)

This is the word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

Tomorrow is St. Valentine's Day. If you've been in the stores, you've seen a lot of hearts. Heart-shaped boxes. Heart-shaped candies. Teddy bears holding hearts. Maybe you've even seen Cupid aiming his arrow at a heart.

In the word of God before us today, Jesus aims at our hearts, but not to make us fall in love with our sweetheart. In Baptism Jesus gave you a new heart. But what was wrong with the old? What is the new like? Let's think about that as we continue this series on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. May the Holy Spirit open our minds to ponder Jesus' words here, as we focus on the theme: Our new heart cherishes genuine righteousness.

A. A righteousness pure from sinful anger

1. How does the Fifth Commandment expose our unrighteousness?

“Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 NIV1984), Jesus has just said, as we heard last week. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were considered the best people of their day. And they had a kind of righteousness. You see, righteousness means to measure up to what the law says, meeting it's requirements. In short, it's to be right in the sight of the law. And the Pharisees were righteous according to their own interpretation of the law.

How well do you think that would fly in traffic court if a speeder argued, “Yes, I saw the 55 mph sign, but I interpreted it to mean I couldn't go 55 mph faster that the other traffic. That's why I kept it under 110.” He might be righteous in his own eyes, but not in the judge's. And that's whose opinion matters.

So Jesus exposes their false interpretation of God's Law and clearly shows why sinners by their own efforts fall do not have genuine righteousness.

Take, for example, the Fifth Commandment: “Do not murder” (Matthew 5:21 NIV1984). The Pharisees' interpretation said that only if someone killed another person's, only then would they face judgment in the courtroom. Now since they hadn't killed anyone, they figured they were righteous in the sight of the Fifth Commandment.

But God did not give the Fifth Commandment as judicial rule for earthly courts. Anyone listening to all the commandments comes to the Ninth and Tenth that forbid coveting, something that only happens in the heart. God aims not only at the outward actions that a human court might judge, but also the actions of the heart, the thoughts and emotions on the inside.

We could paraphrase Jesus like this: “They say that only a murderer should end up under judgment in court. But I tell you that even anger in the heart makes you guilty in the courtroom. And if that anger goes so far to actually speak an angry word of contempt like 'Raca,' the highest court in the land, the Sanhedrin, ought to hear the case. In fact, angry name-calling like, 'You, fool. You, stupid idiot,' sends the guilty speaker into the fires of hell.” Who of us has that kind of righteousness, a heart pure of anger?

Earthly courts cannot judge the heart, and Jesus is not saying they should. But rather than feeling righteous because an earthly court can't find you guilty, consider your status in God's courtroom. He exposes the thoughts, attitudes, and emotions of the heart. That's the righteousness we need. But who has it?

And don't hide behind the excuse, “But my anger is justified. Even Jesus got angry with the money changers and merchants in the temple courtyard.” There is such a thing as righteous anger. But righteous anger flows from love for God and love for our neighbor. Jesus' was filled with zeal for God's house. The money changers there dishonored God and harmed the spiritual worship of the people. Love for God for his neighbor moved Jesus. That's righteous anger.

Or consider when god-fearing parents become angry with their children's disobedience. If this is righteous anger, it does not come because the child's bad behavior made the family look bad or causes problems for the parents. But if this anger flows from love for their child that wants the best for them and from love for God who has place them there as parents to raise their children in the way of the Lord, then that's righteous anger. And there are other examples.

But what do people usually mean when they say, “My anger's justified”? Most of the time they mean, “I've been wronged. I've been hurt. Look at what they've done to me. So I have every right to be angry.” That's not righteous anger. That's the very kind of anger Jesus says brings us the fires of hell. It doesn't come from love for God or love for others, but from love of self. “I've been hurt. I've been injured. I've suffered.” It's the anger that wants to lash out with contempt or name-calling or even worse. Rather than showing love and kindness, it wants to treat the other person as an enemy

And don't think that coming to church or putting on a good show as a Christian is going to cover up that anger from God's sight. That's why Jesus says to leave the gift at the altar and go be reconciled first. Get rid of the anger in your heart. It's like if someone is taking you to court because you owe them money and refuse to pay. In the old days, you'd be thrown into prison until the last penny was paid, and how much do you think you can earn sitting in a debtor's prison? So don't harbor anger. Be reconciled. Keep paying the debt of love. Treat them as a friend. Show them love and kindness. And if the other refuses to be reconciled, then they have incurred a huge debt. You've paid yours and with your anger set aside may return to the altar in peace.

2. In what way does Jesus' righteousness change us?

How far this surpasses the righteousness of the Pharisees! How far this surpasses our own righteousness! You and I fall short. What good news that we heard last week as Jesus' declared: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come abolish them but to fulfill them' (Matthew 5:17 NIV1984). He has fulfilled the Law for you. He has kept it perfectly. His righteousness completely meets the laws true requirements. His righteousness counts as your record in God's courtroom as you stand there in faith that clings to Jesus alone. That's the new heart Jesus has given to you. Your new heart cherishes Jesus' righteousness. For God freely credits it to you as genuine and true.

And as our new hearts cherish Jesus' righteousness, we also cherish righteousness in our lives. You've been washed. You've been sanctified. You've been justified. So rid yourself of the anger that stains. Remember what Jesus said last week? “You are the salt of the earth … You are light of the world” (Matthew 5:13, 14 NIV1984). What a way to be salt and light by getting rid of the anger and living in righteousness and peace . For you know that no matter what the personally harm is you've suffered that has made you so angry, your heavenly Father works it for good. In fact, the bounty of his blessing far outweighs all the hurt and curses others can heap upon you. Look at the cross and see the good the Lord worked for you there despite the harm and hurt his enemies aimed to cause. With your new heart, clothed in Christ's righteousness, cherish the genuine righteousness that God works in your life. He enables you to lay aside your anger so that your righteousness is not just on the outside like the Pharisees, but it's genuine, as deep as your own heart, purified from sinful anger.

B. A righteousness pure from sinful lust

1. In what ways do we break the Sixth Commandment?

Jesus goes on with the Sixth Commandment: “Do not commit adultery” (Matthew 5:27 NIV1984). This includes much more than cheating on your spouse. It applies not only to the married but also to the unmarried. Any kind of look that has a lustful intention breaks God's commandment, unless you're looking at your own wife or husband. In marriage lustful passions and desires between the husband and the wife are good and god-pleasing, but outside of marriage, how impure!

How impossible to be pure as we see sex filling the world around us! How tempting to excuse it by saying, “It's not my fault if my eyes wander every once in a while.” But is it really a problem with our eye? If that's all it is, then pluck out your eye and you'll be pure. Or even cut off your hand, if that's what's causing you to sin. We don't hesitate to amputate a limb that's infected with gangrene to keep the body alive a little while on this earth. How much more so if it could keep us from hell! But it's not really an outward matter of the eyes or the hands, is it? It's a heart matter. That's where the lust and passions and sinful desires come from. God's commandments aim at our heart.

And don't think you can cover up you lustful passion by simply getting a divorce and marrying whomever your currently lusting after. That might look right as far as an earthly court of law, but divorce always breaks God's commandment. Either one or both of the spouses has already destroyed the marriage with marital unfaithfulness. Or the divorce itself tries to break the union that God has joined together until death. Such a divorce makes one or the other look like an adulterer.

2. How can we shine out as lights in a sex-filled world?

You are salt and you are light as you uphold God's plan for marriage and sex. Your new heart, clothed with Jesus' righteousness, longs for a life pure from sinful lust. It cherishes a life of genuine righteousness. Living in this sinful world, we cannot avoid all temptations to lustful passions. Yet, even as the birds of temptation fly around our heads, we don't have to let them make nests in our hair. And there is much we can avoid and flee from, just as Joseph did when Potiphar's wife tempted him. Think about that as you make your entertainment choices whether that's a movie to watch, a party to go to, a website to surf, music to listen to, jokes to laugh at, or magazines to read. It might feel like your missing out on the fun everyone else is having, but if it keeps you from sin, it's well worth it. Remember how even losing an eye or a hand, if it actually could keep us from sin, would have been well worth it? How much more so missing out on some false pleasure or superficial fun?

Think about that as you listen to some passage of the passage the Holy Spirit gave the Apostle Paul to write: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or course joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:3, 4 NIV1984). “It is God's will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 NIV1984). And finally, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:18-20 NIV1984). In a dark, sex-filled world, what a way to let your light shine out so that others praise your Father in heaven! What a way to be salt to slow the decay of the sinful around us! That's the genuine righteousness our new heart cherishes.

C. A righteousness pure from misusing God's name

1. How do we break the Second Commandment?

And finally in this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes us to the Second Commandment, the misuse of God's name, in particular using God's name in oaths. Some oaths are good and proper when necessary out of love for God and his honor and love for our neighbor and their well-being. For example, Jesus let himself be put under oath by the High Priest when asked if he was the Son of God.

But the Pharisees misused oaths. They had an elaborate system of deciding how binding an oath was. Did you swear by heaven or by earth or by Jerusalem? Did you actually mention God or not. Some oaths you had to keep; some you didn't. It sounds almost like children crossing fingers behind their back.

Jesus has none of that. “Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond that comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37 NIV1984). Let your talk and conversation be so honest and forthright that you don't need to bring in God as your witness to convince others of your truthfulness. Speak and live in such a way that people know that when you say “Yes,” you mean it. Your committed. And when you saw “No,” that too is the honest truth.

Here, dear friends, is where we need to listen to ourselves a little more closely. I don't know if it's engrained in people from little on up, but how often do you use God's name without even thinking about it? Rather than an excuse, that makes it worse that we so flippantly use the holy name of the Almighty, the only name that saves. “Jesus Christ, that was a close call.” Or “I tell you the fish was this big, by God.” Do you really need to invoke God as your witness? Let your yes be yes. And we don't need to invoke him to curse things either, “God damn this … God damn that.” We like to dismiss such talk as no big deal. It's so common. But what does Jesus say? “Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond that comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37 NIV1984). You don't want to be the devil's spokesperson, do you?

2. How can your new heart shine out through your words?

Rather let your light shine out by the way you speak. Your words are the window into your heart. The light of Jesus has shown into you. His light has shattered the darkness that once consumed you from the inside out. He has given you a new heart clothed with his righteousness, a new heart that shines. Show that new heart through the window of your words. Reflect the light of Jesus in your conversations. And when people know that you are a woman or man of your word, that your yes is yes and your no is no, how much more are they to take you at your word when you tell them about Jesus, your God and Savior? Our new hearts cherish the genuine righteousness that shines out through our words because then others are more ready to listen when you tell them about the righteousness that comes from Jesus Christ, the only righteousness that save. For Jesus has fulfilled the Law for us sinners. He gives you a new heart. Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313