A sermon to challenge…

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 New International Version (NIV)

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.  For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them,  I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Matthew 5:21-40

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.  Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’  But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 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 even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

There is an interesting aspect of Biblical translation work that isn’t often conveyed from the pulpits of many churches today.  That is that Biblical Greek is a literal language.  It comes down to us through the tradition of the Greeks which brought us the whole system of democracy.  It is a legalistic language.  It says EXACTLY what it means. And it means EXACTLY what it says, except of course where parables and imagery obviously abide and necessitate mediation of the literalness.  To that extent, there is much less of a challenge in preaching the NT than there is in the OT.  OT Hebrew is a flowery, expressive language.  It brings us the richness of the Psalms and the glory of the warfare of 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings and the like.  It brings us the expressive power of the Prophets and the Passion of the Song of Solomon. And it brings us many challenges of interpretation along those lines.

But this morning’s OT passage is one of several exceptions to this assumption.  As Moses is preparing to bid his people farewell, knowing he will not be accompanying them into the Promised Land, he leads them in what is called a Covenant Renewal ceremony.  Like a rededication of baptismal vows…

He cautions them that God Almighty has given them a choice.  It is a clear choice.  It is the choice between annihilation, carnage, or ruination, and blessing, peace, or success.  Between life and death, prosperity and evil.  It is not a difficult choice.  And yet it is one that His people never quite get right.  And largely because they, and we by association, are unwilling to pay the price.

Blessing, peace, success, prosperity, life itself comes with a price tag: obedience – a commitment to walking in the ways of God, following His statutes.  And so doing comes with a promise, a promised land, a land of peace and plenty. Life and blessing. In God’s way and in God’s time.

And with peace and plenty comes temptation.  The Jewish nation, like any other great nation is beset by the temptation to think they are something, to become puffed up with pride, to consider that their success is at the hands of their mighty military, their great intellect, their legalistic obedience to God’s law.  And in so doing their hearts are hardened, they are turned away from – the humble appreciation for what God has done, to the idolatry of their own abilities…look what I have done…look at the mark I have left…look at my legacy.  And God warns them that in such a state they will perish.  Pride comes before the fall. And so they fell, almost too many times to count.

He calls earth and heaven to witness against them that they have sworn not to become prideful, that they have sworn obedience to his law not to look to do an end run around it, that they have committed to surrendering their lives to things they cannot possibly understand and to be content with the knowledge that God is working through them, with them, and on their behalf to bring about His Kingdom.

Moses beseeches the Hebrews to choose life not death, to choose obedience not disobedience.  But notice, they don’t have an option.  They can’t choose life and disobedience.  Pride and faithfulness clash.  They are completely unrelated.  They are told that if they choose to harden their hearts, if they choose to compromise God’s word, it is a choice FOR death.  It is a choice to be cast out from God’s presence.

This my friends is the heart of sin. Sin is literally a turning away from the presence of God.  It is any action or failure to act in accordance with God expressed will. It started in the Garden with our wanting something denied to us, daring to believe that God hadn’t gotten it right.  That in His infinite wisdom, somehow couldn’t have known what we know today or wasn’t willing to provide for that through His Eternal Truth.

Jesus narrow this even further for us in this morning’s NT passage.

You have heard it said that murder makes one subject to judgement… but so too, and equally so, does anger toward your brother (or sister), the kind of insulting, vindictive judgement that lifts us up by putting others down.  The kind of arrogance that puts us in God’s place makes us liable to hell…

Make peace with your neighbor, your brother, your accuser before you appear for judgement.  Even before you come to worship. Before you profess to make an offering to God, offer your humility, seek forgiveness, get right with your friends and enemies before you try to get right with God.  That offering of $$$ or time or talent is of no consequence if you harbor hatred, resentment, and judgement in your heart.  It will only bring judgement down upon you…

And adultery? Really?  He says to those who were listening, if you have so much as lusted in your heart, it doesn’t matter if you ever had the physical interaction, you’ve already committed adultery.  Again, it’s the heart that matters every bit as much as the action.  The two are tied together and can never be separated.  It is NOT the thought that matters.  It is not the desire that counts.  It is the hearts desire which finds its fulfillment in action, the deepest desires that we long to fulfill and so do.

Dallas Willard defines lust, not as the visceral reaction of a person to another which is tied to chemistry, age, and spiritual maturity, but the thought as to whether or not someone is worthy of our attention.  It’s that looking to see if someone is attractive, not noticing that they are attractive.  It’s the looking to see if the short skirt belongs to someone who is also very good looking.  It’s looking to see if those tight blue jeans are worn by an attractive young man or not.  It is the desire to experience attraction, to see something provocative. That is the lust. And it is every bit as bad as adultery.  Those are some pretty high standards to keep.

And God hates divorce.  It doesn’t matter what excuse we use.  No one falls out of love. Love, Biblically speaking, is a commitment.  It’s agape, looking out for the best interest of the other ahead of our own best interest. It’s dying to self to live for another.  It’s putting aside our needs, our fears, our choices for the sake of the one we claim to feel an emotional attachment to.  It is NOT the emotional attachment itself.  And we either choose to honor our commitments or to abandon them.  It’s why the scriptures constantly compare our relationship to the Lord to marriage.  Idolatry and Adultery are intimately connected.  Because women couldn’t divorce their husbands Jesus speaks to the men, but it might typically apply to women today.  If YOU divorce your spouse for ANY reason other than unfaithfulness, YOU make your spouse and adulterer.  It becomes your fault.  The onus is on you, not on your spouse.  And anyone marrying a divorced person commits adultery. The only exception is when unfaithfulness has occurred… And yet there is within the passage something of a recognition that hardened hearts are as much at fault as anything… We are prone to the disease of sin!

And don’t take any oath? Not even in court? Don’t say “I swear to God.” Don’t say “as heaven is my witness.” When you answer anyone for any reason, don’t qualify it.  Let yes always mean yes and no always mean no. Anything else, any qualification, any condition comes from the evil that resides in your heart…

All of this judges human behavior.

We who live on this side of Grace, on this side of the cross, know far better than the OT Jews the price God paid for our salvation.  And yet we are warned even to this day that “He who loves me obey my commands.”  The Law of God has not been done away with but fulfilled in Jesus Christ who has shown us the price each of us must likewise pay if we are to enter the Kingdom of God.  We make a mockery of the cross if we sin with impunity thinking it’s no big deal since Jesus died for our sin.  Jesus’ death on the cross removes our captivity to sin, our bondage to sin.  In Jesus Christ we no longer need to sin.  He has given us a way out out of every temptation that faces us, if we will but turn to Him in that hour.  He who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  And so we are called on to cease and desist from sin.  To grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  To follow where He rightly leads. To love Him more than life itself.

Later on, in the 10th chapter of Matthew, Jesus says to those gathered looking for a way out, an exception to their behavior:

 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—  a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds their life (or dare we say, saves their life by compromising their faith) will lose it, and whoever loses their life, for my sake, will find it.”

In the 16th chapter of Matthew Jesus revisits this theme with a terse:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”

In Luke 9 Jesus cautions us yet again:

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

And elsewhere is it not written? “Let the dead bury their own (that is those who are already spiritually dead). But you come and follow me.”

My friends in Christ, God commands our absolute devotion. No job is more important that the service of the Lord God Almighty.  Nothing you can do, no life you can save, no defense you can give can supersede that which you do to help establish His Kingdom. No relationship on earth should ever surpass our love of and devotion to Him. No excuse is sufficient to justify our sin.  Human wisdom cannot even approximate the understanding of God.  God’s Word is Truth. Inviolate. Inerrant. Infallible…

In David, a man after God’s own heart we hear these words, echoing across the ages:

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world…”

And this is what they say…

“The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.

“The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous.

“They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.”

Culture must never think it knows better than the Word of God.  Those who would consider themselves Christian must never rise to the arrogance of apologizing for its weighty and costly Truth.  Those of us who worship Him must do so reverently, in spirit and in truth seeking the grace which allows us to live a life which is obedient to His word, even if it should cost us our very lives.

Choose life.  Choose obedience. Choose to live a life which is pleasing to God. Choose obedience to His word at ANY expense – for those who would save their lives, those who would seek to save their reputation amongst their friends, those who would seek popularity or acceptance over obedience will lose the very thing they hope to save, but those who lose their lives for His sake will reap an eternal reward.

May these words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in His sight, our Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. In the costly name of Jesus Christ, praying Lord have mercy. Amen.