I added a section near the end about God punishing our sins in this world by turning us over to them. In the case of the fifth commandment, that means a life of bitterness and resentment as we keep score of sins committed against us. Much better is the gift of forgiveness – not only the forgiveness we receive in Christ, but the forgiveness we can then show to others. Love and forgiveness is a much better way to live than bitterness and resentment. I tied that in to the “life to the full” that Jesus talks about. Not just eternal life – although we have that too. But we have a better life now, because we aren’t slaves to our sin anymore.
It was a really nice section, and I wish you all could have heard it.
When you get to that part, just insert the above thoughts.
In the collect today we asked that our heavenly Father would “increase in us true religion.” There’s pretty much nothing we could pray for that is more against the culture we live in than that.
The word religion is not a popular one today. People don’t like the word. “Spiritual but not religious” is what people strive for. Religious – that means someone who takes eternal matters seriously. Religious people are likely to let their conduct be influenced by some centuries old document. And that’s horribly outmoded, unfashionable. After all, that was life in the dark ages. We’ve moved past that. We have such amazing technological advances today, we don’t really need all that religion stuff. It’s ok in small doses, as long as you don’t really let it make a difference in anything you might say or do. The world will tell you how you should behave. Do what feels good, we are told. Have no concern for others. You need to be self-actualized, do things that boost self-esteem. Chase after your bliss. And if that conflicts with the basic reality of biology and genetics, then reality is the problem, not you. Anyone who says differently is a bigot.
Religious people tend to be crusaders – actually standing up for what they believe. Claiming that there is a right and a wrong. That’s just not the sort of thing you want to be caught doing these days.
Which brings us to the other problem – true religion. That implies that there is also a false religion. As if somehow all religions aren’t paths to the same thing. As if some people might actually be wrong about their beliefs. But the thing that is more frightening to the world is not that someone might be wrong about god. The thing that is so frightening that it is never spoken is that someone might be right about God. That perhaps, just perhaps, there is a right thing to believe. God is not everything and everyone you meet. He is above and beyond this world, and the word he speaks is to be listened to. That’s the really frightening thing for the world. That perhaps when the church says that Jesus will return to judge the living and dead, he might actually be telling the truth.
That just can’t be says the world. Such a scenario is too frightening to even contemplate. So, the world tells the church to shut up about God’s Word. And it’s tempting to listen to the world. To try and make the message of the church more agreeable. The Law seems mean – so maybe we could ignore the parts of the law we don’t like. But to ignore part of the Law is to ignore the law. The word of Christ forgotten. Like a child who plugs his ears and closes his eyes and stands shouting “Lalalalala” to avoid being told to clean his room. If I just ignore what God says, that makes it go away.
Jesus says “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them.” The Law of God can not be ignored. The word we heard today from Exodus – the Ten Commandments – still stand. They are not abolished or wiped away because of Jesus coming into the world. It’s not that once it was wrong to kill, and now its ok. The helpless and the innocent are as deserving of protection as they were in the time of Moses. Children, the disabled: the culture of death says they must sometimes be sacrificed for the greater good. But God gives life, and only God can take it. The inherent value and dignity of life does not depend on what the person can do, or how much the person can understand. All human life is created by God, and all people are to be protected.
Jesus goes beyond just the act of killing – he says that we are not even to be angry with others. That anyone who even has unkind thoughts about others is guilty of breaking this commandment. That’s a harsh judgment. Not even the happiest of husbands and wives can claim they have never been angry at each other. Who has not had an unkind word – even if only spoken under the breath – for a coworker. Who has never thought himself better than another and if not better, well, at least a little more faithful. Jesus says it is all breaking the commandment – it is all worthy of judgment – the hell of fire.
That’s why Luther, in his explanation to the fifth commandment, says we are not to hurt our brother in any way, but we are to go beyond that, and help him in every physical need. That’s an impossible standard. Not because God is unreasonable in asking us to do something we can not. But because we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We are deserving of temporal and eternal punishment for our constant disobedience. Without God, we are incapable of loving another. Of getting past our own selfish self-interest and truly caring for others from our heart and wanting only good things for them.
Jesus often condemns the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. But to look at them, you wouldn’t say, “There’s a group of evil plotters”. These were men who were upright and respected in the community. They were charitable, they lived good lives. They devoted themselves to studying the word of the Lord. Why then does Jesus pick on them so constantly? “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will be no means enter the kingdom fo heaven”? Why make them seem like bad people? Maybe we’re better off just going out and sinning and doing whatever we want. After all, we’re told that Jesus hung out with sinners. Maybe that’s the answer. Find people who commit really big sins, and listen to them. They have exciting stories to tell of redemption. But Jesus wasn’t about sin, anymore than he was about false righteousness. Yes, he came to save sinners. Yes he came to forgive. The difference is that the Pharisees assumed that they didn’t need saving, because they had their own works to rely on.
Luther calls works the greatest idolatry. We can never think we are saved by them. We are not. Our works do nothing to help us. That doesn’t mean that we go out and just do whatever we feel like and then say, “Well, Jesus saved me anyway, who needs that pesky law?” We don’t exalt sin, as if somehow we are better Christians when we are forgiven for really big sins, than when we are only forgiven for small ones.
Sin corrupts. It always corrupts. It only corrupts. Whether it be the sin of hating others, of being unloving and so violating the fifth commandment. Or whether it be the sin of ignoring other parts of God’s word. Or whether it be the sin of assigning merit to our own works, and thinking they will get us into heaven – that surely God is impressed with all that we have done to please him. We are more zealous, more faithful, more holy than others.
We aren’t. Our holiness is only in Christ. Our faithfulness is only because he is faithful and has redeemed our blackened and condemned sinful heart. Only because he has put new life in us. We are forgiven only because of Jesus works and merit on our behalf. Only because he accounted his life as nothing, and so gave himself as a sacrifice, a ransom for your sin. He is your sanctification. You are made holy because of what he has done.
And yet, we do not then say, I have done and can do nothing for salvation, so I may as well just do whatever I want. That is not correct either. It makes a mockery of his sacrifice. It treats cheaply the forgiveness that was won for you at so great a price, with the precious blood of Jesus poured out on your behalf.
That is why we say that we must do good works – they are necessary. It is necessary that we love our brother. For whoever does not love his brother whom he has seen, can not love God whom he has not seen. It is necessary that we repent of sin, that we turn away from the world’s way of doing things, and walk according to the way of God and his commandments. Yet, we also know that such works do not save. Not even a little. Not even the smallest portion. That is only and always the loving work of Christ.
But because of his loving work, because of what he has done, we can now love. God has taken from us our heart of stone, and given us a heart of flesh. We pray “Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.” That is what God did in Holy Baptism – and unless we reject that baptism outright and return to the way of the world, the way of death – we now struggle daily with the old Adam in us. We are weak and we stumble, but God strengthens us. The Spirit God has given wants the things of God. We must repent daily of sin, put to death the old Adam each day, and by God’s grace, a new man must arise to live before God in righteousness and purity. This is a struggle to be sure. The old Adam does not want the things of God. And even when we do works that show love toward our neighbor, the old Adam wants credit for them. As if our work has earned something. But it does not. We show love to others in freedom under Christ – as his servants. Not because we can or need to earn anything before God. That has all been done for us. But because we belong to Christ, we have been redeemed by him.
Your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees because Christ has given you his righteousness. He has fulfilled the law for you. And now, you walk in him, not in the way of the world. You can fulfill your calling under Christ. And as Christ has reconciled you to himself – he has done that work, so now you can be reconciled to each other. You can forgive as you have been forgiven. Under the curse of sin that is not possible. Only retribution or repayment is possible. In Christ, forgiveness for sins committed against you is possible, because you have been given forgiveness for your own sins under Christ. You have been reconciled to God, and now live the life forgiven and forgiving.
Jesus came to fulfill the Law – to show forgiveness to all who confess their sins, and who look to him for salvation. The problem with the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is that they looked to their own righteousness – not Jesus. That’s the problem with ascribing anything to our works. It means we don’t need Jesus forgiveness.
Jesus came to fulfill the law for you. To forgive you your sins, so that you can forgive others. So that you would be freed from the demand of the law to now walk in the light of his grace. So that you would not live according to the pattern of the world – the pattern of death and sin – but so that you would be renewed, restored given new life in him.
Thanks be to God for the salvation that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord.