Monday, July 12, 2021

Better than the Best


Matthew 5:20-26

"For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER' and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.
"If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. 
"Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, in order that your opponent may not deliver you to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you shall not come out of there, until you have paid up the last cent."

Sermon for Sixth Sunday After Trinity 07/11/21

Better Than the Best

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Sometimes planning only makes things harder. Have you ever noticed that? As some of you know, I plan the services a month or more at a time. I do that primarily to plan the hymns so Barbara has time to make her plans. It is more challenging to produce the music for the service than it might seem if you have never participated in doing so. When I plan the services, I read the text and try to plan the theme of the sermon - that is how I know which hymns to pick.

Usually, this sermon-theme planning works out okay. Sometimes, however, I come back to the text and discover that I overlooked something, or I cannot imagine what I was thinking of when I planned the theme that I put on the planning form. The hymns are almost always appropriate - but writing the sermon can get to be a challenge, trying to fit into a theme I no longer see or resonate with. I am sure you have had the same experience now and then, you know, reading a Bible passage and seeing one thing in it at one time, and reading it again weeks or months later and seeing something else, or something more -and wondering how you missed it earlier.

The reason for that is that the Word of God is living and active - according to the Bible itself. God is at work through His Word, and He opens up certain things to us at the time we need them - as they apply to our situation at the moment. It is the same Word, and it says the same things and means the same things - but we just pick up on how it applies differently in different situations and according to the need of different moments.

I only mention that because each time I read our text for this morning, I see something more - something I either did not see earlier, or saw and dismissed from my planning, and cannot put out of my mind as I consider the text anew. So, while we wrestle with this Gospel lesson, this morning, we will do so under the theme, Better Than the Best.

The theme came from the first sentence of our Gospel, "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven." Although we carry a prejudice against the Pharisees because of their condemnation by Jesus, the truth is that they were pretty good people. They were ultra-moral. They were the most diligent of the Jews in minding the Law and keeping their religion's rules and regulations. They were the kind of people that made others feel unclean by comparison, and they didn't have to brag about it to do so. They did brag, but they didn't need to in order to make others feel less religious or less righteous. They were really the Best.

Jesus didn't condemn them for keeping the Laws, but for their hypocrisy. They were keeping the rules, but they had forgotten God. They had the form of their religion, but they did not love God. They didn't understand the rules they were keeping - or the reasons for them. They were just about being the best without really thinking much about why or how their observance of their own religion matched up with the religion they were supposedly observing. Some of them were masters of putting on a good show publicly, and accommodating every vice and lust without anyone seeing it.

Jesus knew the truth, however. He saw their empty formalism. He saw the pride behind doing outwardly and slavishly what God desired they do from their heart - out of love for their God and Savior. The Pharisees didn't even call themselves "Pharisees". That name means the "separated ones". They called themselves "Haberim", meaning "The Associates" or "The Brothers". Their public nickname is the one that stuck, however, because they thought they were better than anyone else. And, in terms of keeping the rules, they were.

And Jesus said "that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven." You need to be better than the best. Then Jesus goes on to sharpen the Law for us so that we understand that even if mere formalism were our goal, we would find it far more difficult than we might imagine. It is not just enough, for example, to refrain from killing our neighbor. We must also not speak ill of him or call him a rude name. Even being angry is as bad as murder, but calling them a name or saying "You fool!" is enough to send you to hell. The demands of the Law are far more exacting than we like to think.

They are so exacting that if we were to try honestly to measure up for ourselves, we would find ourselves failing miserably. And that is the point of the Law. It accuses. The Law always accuses. The law should always remind you forcibly that you are fit for hell, and you deserve no good thing from God whatsoever. If you hear the Law preached and come away from it feeling pretty good about yourself, and think that you're not so bad after all, either I haven't done my job right, or you have not been paying attention.

So, just in case, listen up: the Pharisees were the very best at outwardly observing the Law and keeping the rule, and Jesus said that unless your righteousness was greater than that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. Note that Jesus did not say "might not" or that you could miss - but that you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. You've got to be better than the best.

Then comes the part that jumps up and grabs me - the part I didn't think about before. Jesus talks about making friends with your opponent at law. "Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, in order that your opponent may not deliver you to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you shall not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent."

I have to confess that I have preached this as I have heard it preached in the past - reconcile with your brother now - you know, make hay while the sun shines. But as I prepared to write this sermon, it stuck in my craw, so to speak. It just didn't fit. The thought is okay, God would have us reconcile with one another - it's just that it really never seems like that is what Jesus is getting at there. He does that in the verses before, when He tells us to leave our gift at the altar and go and be reconciled with our brother before we present our gifts. More than just saying, "God loves a cheerful giver," Jesus is saying there that God doesn't want anything from you - not offerings or worship or anything until you get right with your brother down here. It is like where John writes, in 1st John, "If someone says, ‘I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen."

Jesus tells us in our Gospel that we have no business even approaching God with anything standing between us and our brother - that is, a fellow believer. He speaks there of reconciliation and setting things right man to man and woman to woman so clearly that it cannot be what He is talking about in these last verses of our Gospel.

Then it struck me, our ‘opponent at law' is God Himself. The judge will be Jesus at the end, and jail from which we shall never escape ‘until we have paid the last cent' is hell. Jesus is preaching the Gospel here, sort of. He is saying fix the problem of sin while you are on the way - you know while you are alive or before you face God at the end. But we cannot. We need to be better than the best. We need to be better than we can be, and each one of us has dared countless times to come before God with anger and hard feelings standing between us and someone else, even between ourselves and those who also profess faith in Christ. So what are we to do?

Since we are lost already - and we cannot make friends with our opponent at law while we are on the way - we need Him to rescue us. And that is precisely what He has done. He took the entire burden of our sins and paid the price, bore the penalty, endured the wrath of God which was ours by right and by deserving. Jesus did all of that on the cross with His brutal death, and He invites us to make friends by taking Him at His Word and trusting His promises and believing that because of His death, and this is proclaimed by His resurrection, our sins are fully and freely forgiven, and that He that believes and is baptized shall be saved!

How do you make friends? Trust Him. Take Him at His Word. If you do, and you take that seriously, you have that righteousness which surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you have the righteousness of Christ by His gift and grace. You are cleansed by the waters of Baptism, and you are filled with the righteousness of Christ by forgiveness and by the indwelling of Jesus Christ in you which you receive as you eat of His body and drink of His blood in the Holy Sacrament. In Christ, you are declared by God to be better than the best – at least the best that man can accomplish by his own powers and natural abilities.

Our lesson this morning is a piece of the Sermon on the Mount. Many people love the Sermon on
the Mount because Jesus taught it and they interpret it as pure Gospel, somehow. It is not. It contains some of the sternest Law of the entire Bible. Jesus made the Law more demanding and exacting and comprehensive – as He did in our Gospel lesson this morning – so that no one could misunderstand and dream that they could earn eternal life. Obviously, that hasn't stopped most people – not even most who call themselves Christians. I read an article this past Monday about how a false and "therapeutic" Gospel is replacing the Christian faith for most even in the church – but you should not allow yourselves to be deceived.

The message this morning is, give up on yourself. You are not good enough. Throw yourself on God's mercy, and He will have grace and forgiveness and salvation for you, if you humble yourself and repent, and trust Him. When you do, the Holy Spirit will work in you through Word and Sacrament, and your life will demonstrate the sincerity of your faith as He leads you to live a changed, repentant life. Sadly, your life on this earth won't be perfect even then, but our life and our perfection is not our hope. Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness. In Jesus Christ, and only in Jesus Christ, are we better than the best.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

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