Last week, we heard Jesus preaching about being Salt and Light, and you may remember that I gave you a homework assignment. How did you do? Have you noticed God at work in your life this week? How has God been changing you? What have you caught yourself doing that can only be explained by God’s hand directing you? Think back through your week … ask God to bring to your mind the ways He was working in you and through you to shine his light into the world. Now turn to your neighbors and tell them one thing. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Anyone want to share with the whole congregation, just a sentence or two? … Thank you! Okay, we’re going to keep this exercise going another couple of weeks. I encourage you to ask God each day to make you aware of his work in you and through you. That’s what Jesus was trying to do for his disciples, as he preached to them on the side of that mountain. He was reminding them that God is at work, and we already are salt and light to the world, seasoning it with God’s love and shining God’s light into every dark corner. So keep it up!
While we are being salty and shiny, Jesus is asking more of us. Last week, we heard him insist that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. This week, as Jesus digs deeper into what it means to live into the spirit of the Law, he makes it clear that being his follower requires more from us than obeying a few rules. Following Jesus means holding ourselves to a higher standard of right living.
Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter five, verses 21-37.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,you will be liable to judgment; and if you insulta brother or sister,you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hellof fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sisterhas 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.
We’ve come a long way from the Beatitudes that opened this Sermon on the Mount, haven’t we! If those were radical words when Jesus first spoke them, imagine how much more radical these words must have sounded to the people gathered on that hillside. Jesus was still trying to reframe the way his followers saw the world. He was urging his disciples to see the world through God’s eyes, to recognize that God’s Kingdom was at hand. Jesus borrowed from the tradition of rabbis who had taught before him, by exaggerating the points he was trying to make, but he also did something that no rabbi had ever done before. He spoke with authority. And the standard he was setting for true Kingdom behavior was higher than anyone thought possible.
If part of your body causes you to sin, cut it off! It’s better to go through life as a cripple than to risk the fires of hell. Moses told you that you shouldn’t commit adultery, but I tell you that looking at someone with lust in your heart is just as bad. Moses told you not to kill each other. But I tell you that it’s just as evil as murder to hold a grudge against someone. One by one, Jesus holds up the Commandments and forces us to look deeper into God’s intention behind the command, to discover the spirit of the Law. We could spend a whole sermon on each one of these commands, exploring how Jesus offers a new Law that transcends the one handed down from Moses.
But Jesus isn’t interested in giving us a new checklist of things we aren’t supposed to do. As we take stock of our lives at bedtime, Jesus isn’t impressed if we can say, “Well, I didn’t murder anyone today, and I didn’t commit adultery – I must be okay!” Jesus says, “I expect more from my followers than just ‘okay’.”
Jesus tells us we need to dig deeper into ourselves, to get at the root of our sinfulness and purge it out before a grudge turns into hatred and murder, before lust turns into a pornography addiction, or leads to adultery and divorce, before an idle word becomes a lie, before a little envy blossoms into full-blown jealousy, before our apathy turns us away from God’s grace and love. Jesus asks us to open our lives to him, to allow the Holy Spirit to search out our weaknesses before they become hardened habits of sin that separate us from God.
Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton points out that, “Jesus is digging beneath the surface of outward observance to get at both the difficulty and the serious importance of being genuine and transparent in God’s new community of the church. For the writer of Matthew’s gospel, it is unimaginable that people who profess to be followers of Jesus should be Christians on the surface only.
“… All throughout this text, Jesus’ words are about dropping pretense and dealing with the real problems of being in relationship and community with others by being honest, straight-forward and humble with each other.” Dr. Chilton adds that the call of today’s text is an urgent one: “Do it now. Live by kingdom values now. Straighten out your life now. Make peace with others now. The kingdom of God is here, now. The spirit of God is giving you strength for whatever changes you need to make, now. The love of Christ is forgiving you and inviting you to forgive others, now.“
Yesterday, fourteen of us gathered in an Upper Room at Martin Luther College to begin the process of discovering what God is calling our church to be and do here on the corner of Center and Broadway in New Ulm. We asked a lot of questions, and probably didn’t come up with very many answers, but the desire to be faithful to God’s call is evident among us. One thing we discovered is that it’s a lot easier to come up with a list of things to do than it is to say why we do them. It’s a lot easier to remember stories of vital ministry in days gone by, than it is to imagine how our ministry can be more effective in the here and now. But we aren’t throwing in the towel just because the task isn’t easy. We know the call on our lives, and on our church, is an urgent one. God has a plan for us, and work for us to do. Our job is to make our hearts and lives ready to be and do what God calls us toward.
So, if Jesus were here today, preaching his Sermon on the Mount directly to us in this sanctuary, what would it sound like? What higher standard of behavior would he be expecting from us, the people who claim to be his followers? Would he pat us on the back and tell us what a good job we are doing of bringing his kingdom to reality? Or would he say something more like:
“You have heard it said that reading a paragraph or two from a devotional book will make you a better person, but I say to you that Christ longs for you to cultivate a deep hunger for God’s Word, and a personal relationship that keeps you connected to him through prayer as an ongoing conversation, not a recitation of memorized phrases.
“You have heard it said that pastors and paid staff members are the ones who are trained to do the work of the church, but I say to you that everyone who claims to follow me has been given gifts and talents for the purpose of ministry, and wasting those gifts is a sin.
“You have heard it said that going to church is a good thing. But I say to you that you ARE the church, and everything you do or say or think makes the church what it is. Again, you have heard it said that volunteering in the community once a month helps others. But I say to you that the word “Volunteer” needs to be struck from your vocabulary. Volunteers give away their discretionary time as an optional activity. There’s nothing optional about following Jesus. Being a disciple is a 24/7 commitment.”
Christ calls us to a higher standard of living into the Kingdom of God. To answer that call, we need to reorient our thinking, just as those disciples on the hillside had to do. We can choose to stick with the familiar “way we’ve always done things” as the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day tried to do, or we can choose to follow Jesus, to stay close to him, to serve him, to be the people of his kingdom. Because that’s what he’s calling us to be.