6th Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A - Lutheran Service Book Readings)
Sunday, February 13, 2011
(Front of sanctuary, stretch out a circle of Caution tape).
The Pharisees and the scribes, the very religious teachers in the days of Jesus, they drew lines around sin. They marked out what broke God’s commandments. They taught their interpretations of “do not murder” and “do not commit adultery.” They drew a circle around the forbidden actions, and then they made sure they didn’t set foot inside that circle. They drew a circle around the forbidden actions, and then they made sure they pointed out who fell into the circle, who was sinning in a way that deserved judgment. They drew a circle around sin, but they clearly didn’t think they were within that circle.
When you draw the circle small, you start to believe that you can keep the commandments, that you can be righteous in your actions. You define murder as unjustly taking someone’s life, and you raise your hand and say, “I’m innocent of that.” You define adultery as cheating on your spouse, and you raise your hand and say, “I’m innocent of that.”
And this isn’t just the Pharisees and the scribes, even today there are Christians who believe they can stop sinning. A short search on the Internet turned up people who think that they really can stop sinning and that only people who stop sinning are Christians. But in order to claim that they’ve stopped sinning, they’ve got to draw the circle pretty small, draw the line around a small group of sins, draw the line in such a way so that they’re not in that circle. They’ve got to draw that line with the Pharisees and the scribes.
But Jesus comes in the Sermon on the Mount and says, “You have heard it said.” Jesus says, “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” You have heard what others have taught, you have heard how they interpret the Law of God, you have heard their claims about their righteousness, but I say to you there’s more to this that, there’s more to this that what they’re teaching. Jesus takes that small circle and stretches it wider than anyone had been teaching. (Stretch out the Caution tape to circle the entire congregation). Jesus stretches it wider than the interpretation of the Pharisees and the scribes. Jesus stretches it wide so that there’s no escape, there’s no way to believe that you are sinless, there’s no way to see yourself as holy and righteous, there’s no way to see yourself as being without sin. You are inside the circle. You are a sinner.
When Jesus expands the circle, He shows what a surpassing righteousness looks like, shows what righteousness in God’s kingdom really looks like, shows what it means to truly follow God’s Laws, to truly have a heart bent on loving God and loving neighbor, to truly understand the Law of God as being about relationships with others, to see that it’s more than just narrowly defining the rules so that we can follow them, that it’s about expanding those rules to show how the righteousness of God is incredibly radical.
It’s radical because it’s not just about keeping the letter of the law; it’s about the spirit of the law. It’s about what it means to love God; it’s about what it means to love your neighbor. It’s about having relationships with God and others; it’s about being wholly committed to serving others in love. That’s a surpassing righteousness; that’s a righteousness that goes beyond what we’d expect of ourselves; that’s a righteousness that originates in the heart of God; that’s a righteousness that looks incredibly different than what we see around us and in us.
And that’s the thing, when Jesus expands the circle, He also shows us we’re sinners. We’re in the circle. We’re inside the lines. We’re the ones who have fallen into the circle, gone into the danger zone, follow our evil desires right into the trap of sin. When Jesus expands the circle, we’re caught in our sinfulness.
“Do not murder” becomes “do not become unjustly angry at someone, calling someone a fool.” It’s no longer just about physically taking someone’s life; it’s also about what goes on in your heart, about condemning someone with your thoughts. When Jesus expands the line that way, it’s impossible for us to stay outside of the circle.
“Do not commit adultery” becomes “do not lust after someone in your heart.” It’s no longer just about a physical act; it’s also about what goes on in your heart, where you let your mind wander. When Jesus expands the line that way, it’s impossible for us to stay outside of the circle.
But where does this leave us? Are we just left inside the danger zone? Are we just left inside the circle of sin, left to be condemned because our righteousness is lacking?
Actually, this section of the Sermon on the Mount sends us back to the beginning of the sermon by Jesus, sends us back to how Jesus began, how He began with the Beatitudes which help us to know what God has done for those who are sinners, what God has done for those who are in the danger zone.
(Begin wrapping up the Caution tape) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” Blessed are the ones who are lost, who are sinners, who are spiritually poor, blessed are they, for they have the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Blessed are the ones who mourn about their sinfulness, who repent, who turn away from their sin, who have sorrow over their sins, for they are comforted, they are given the comfort of the promise of forgiveness.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Blessed are the ones who want righteousness in their lives—not through making the circle smaller, not by redefining God’s commandments, not by pretending that they are without sin. Blessed are the ones who want true righteousness in their lives, who want God to work His righteousness in their hearts, who want God’s Spirit to work in their lives. Blessed are they, for they will be filled, they will be filled with a righteousness that is not their own, a righteousness that is from God, a righteousness that comes from the Holy Spirit.
We are taken out of the danger zone by Jesus. We are forgiven by Jesus. We are given a righteousness, a surpassing righteousness that is not our own. It’s the righteousness of Jesus. We are taken from our place in the danger zone, taken from the place of breaking God’s law, and now we’re forgiven, given the promise of eternal life. We are blessed as a gift. Blessed in ways that we could not even imagine. Blessed in ways we definitely don’t deserve.
And it’s not that Jesus removed the whole Law. It’s just that He removed us from the danger zone. We’re still sinners. We’re still breaking the commandments every day. Because of our sinfulness, there’s no way to pretend that we can be perfect. But what God does is He removes us from the position of judgment, removes us from that place that would condemn us, that place that would leave us dead for eternity.
So that’s what I want you to remember when you think about the caution tape being gone. I want you to remember that Jesus has saved you from the danger zone, Jesus has saved you from the condemnation of the Law, Jesus has blessed you who are poor in spirit, you who are sinful and cannot escape that by your own actions.
Instead of leaving you there in the circle of condemnation, instead of leaving you there in the danger zone, Jesus ultimately through the cross put Himself in the circle, put Himself in the danger zone. He removed you from the danger zone and stepped in to be condemned Himself. He was judged on the cross for our sins, judged to death, while we received His righteousness, His surpassing righteousness.
So while it’s true that we all deserve to be in the danger zone, while it’s true that according to the Law of God, according to the true understanding of God’s Law, that we are condemned, we are not innocent, we are judged for our sins, while this is true, it’s also true that Jesus has removed us from the danger zone, given us His righteousness, saved us for all eternity, transformed our lives.