6th Sunday after Epiphany
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, What I have here is the employee handbook that I received for the part-time job that I had while I was at the Seminary studying to be a pastor. Why I still have it, I’m not sure. But this handbook details in 24 pages all of the dos and don’ts and policies that employees of this company must follow. It has all kinds of rules in it: pre-employment policies, in-service meetings, training, substance abuse, personal phone calls, rest and meal breaks, performance reviews, dress and appearance, use of company vehicles, etc. Then there’s even a separate list of 27 work rules including things like: failing to begin work promptly, no illegal drugs, alcohol, or firearms, falsifying time cards, theft of work property, sleeping on the job, spreading malicious gossip and rumors, even using profane or abusive language while on duty. And I’m pretty sure that I had to sign some sort of document saying that I agree and will abide by these rules set up by the company. Perhaps your work place has a similar handbook.
Now, even if there are things in here that I think are rather silly or ridiculous, I, as an employee, had no right to change them or to choose to disobey. If I did, the company had every right to lay me off or fire me. And over the course of about 4 years working at the company I saw plenty of people who were “let go.” Such standards or requirements are part and parcel of our society. Not only companies have set standards by which they follow, but also the government. There are cleanliness and health standards that every food service company is required to abide by. There are tax requirements, conduct requirements, the list could go on, and typically for every infraction of a standard there is a corresponding consequence. We might not like them, but if we choose to disobey them, we can expect the consequences.
Well, ought not God have expectations for the creatures whom He created, who belong to Him? He does and they are the highest of expectations. In fact, we get a sampling in Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Unfortunately, however, humans at Jesus day’ and even humans today have taken God’s laws and twisted them to mean something that God didn’t mean.
Our text begins with Jesus addressing the 5th commandment. Some, however, took the 5th commandment and thought, “Well, as long as I don’t actually murder someone, I’m keeping the 5th commandment.” What Jesus tells us here is that you can actually “murder” someone in your heart or with your words. Holding a grudge or insulting someone or calling someone a name or anger or hate or bitterness all stem from the same poisonous root as murder. And what does Jesus say? “Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” If I mock someone or insult someone with my words or even in my thoughts, I put myself on the fast track to hell.
Jesus goes on about someone going to worship and realizing someone has something against him and first going to be reconciled with that person. What Jesus is teaching us here is that we cannot pretend that our horizontal relationships with other people have no bearing on our vertical relationship with our God. If we have a broken horizontal relationship with another person, that can damage our vertical relationship with God. Likewise having a vertical relationship with God must affect our horizontal relationships with others. If I refuse to seek to be reconciled with someone (whether or not the other person is willing) or if I refuse to forgive someone who’s sinned against me from my heart, then there must be a major issue between me and God. Having a good relationship with God necessitates me wanting good relationships (at least on my part) with other people.
Jesus goes on. The thought of the day was that as long as you don’t actually go and sleep with someone who is not your spouse, you haven’t committed adultery. And that thought is very much alive today. I’ve actually had married people tell me, “It’s ok to look, just don’t touch.” What does Jesus say? If you so as much as look at another person (man or a woman) with impure thoughts or lustful thoughts, you put yourself in the danger of being thrown into hell! A person can commit a terrible, damnable sin without actually doing anything, just inside the heart. Then Jesus addresses divorce. In fact, God hates all divorce. Why? Because no matter what there’s sin involved. A man may in essence divorce his wife without realizing he is doing it by simply having an affair or committing adultery and thereby breaking the marriage bond.
And in the last part of our text Jesus addresses how we use words. The thought at the time was that some oaths were more “weightier” than others, as if what we say in one place or the words we use carries more weight in one context than in another. Jesus scraps that whole thought and simply points out that we shouldn’t use any of our words carelessly. The tendency to use words carelessly, to break promises, to mislead comes straight from Satan, the father of empty, misleading, and broken promises.
So how do you measure up? How do I measure up? Have we used our words or thoughts to “murder” someone? Have we allowed broken relationships with others affect our relationship with God? Have we committed adultery in our hearts? Have we used our words carelessly or frivolously? If we’re honest with ourselves, each of us must come to the conclusion that we have. And since we have, we’ve broken God’s most basic law and failed to meet his expectations and should be fully ready to meet the consequences: to be thrown in the fires of hell. That’s what any employer would do; that’s what any judge would do.
But that’s not what God did. Instead of casting us into hell, God sent the very one who spoke these words. It was Jesus who never committed a sin and never held an impure thought, even once. He remained completely pure in his thoughts and words and actions. So he could be the perfect Lamb of God and sacrifice his life for your life, his death for your death, his suffering hell for your suffering hell. You see, after convicting us of our sin and seeing how much we deserve hell, we cling to our Savior who’s righteous life and innocent death paid for our sins. Then we have a whole new attitude when it comes to God’s commands. We don’t see them as some sort of checklist or point system to follow to “get in good with God,” no, rather, in thankfulness we now look to God’s will as our opportunity to give him thanks. These words take on a new meaning for the Christian. What is Jesus telling me about how to live to say thank you to him? Our attitude is, “How can I do what you want, O Lord?” “How can I follow you?” “How can I serve you?”
Yes God doesn’t want us to murder, but there’s more than that. God doesn’t want us to even harbor anger or bitterness in our hearts toward someone else. Yes, there is such thing as righteous anger, but that’s only when God’s honor is at stake, if someone is trying to discredit God. Otherwise there is no reason for anger or insults, they aren’t found on the lips or in the heart of those who want to follow Christ.
Yes God doesn’t want you or me to commit adultery. But there’s more! He doesn’t even want lustful thoughts to enter our hearts! Any sin leads away from God and when sin gets a foothold in our lives and we repeat that sin again and again and again we put ourselves in danger of losing our faith and going to hell! So, Jesus directs: cut if off! If something is causing me to sin, cut it off. If watching a movie causes me to sin or lust, cut it off! It would be better to never what a movie again, than to go to hell. If a friend is leading me to sin or leading me to lust, cut it off! It is better to not have any friends, than to go to hell. If looking at something causes me to sin, move your neck so you don’t even look!
In a world so full of divorce where the question is way too often how to divorce amicably rather than whether to divorce or not. God’s simple direction is: don’t divorce at all! Rather, as God’s people, be faithful to your marriage vows and reflect the beauty of a Godly marriage to the world. Live purely. Don’t break the marriage by committing adultery, don’t be unfaithful, don’t break the marriage for any flippant reason.
Yes our words are powerful. Instead of trying to “reinforce” our words with frivolous oaths because no one will believe that we are telling the truth unless we bolster them, God wants us to be faithful with our words. He wants us to be honest, to use our words in order to say what we mean and only what we mean. He wants our yes to be yes and our no to be no and people know us to be so faithful and honest that’s all that’s needed.
The psalmist says, “Blessed is the person…whose delight is in the law of the Lord.” Yes, washed clean in the blood of Jesus, we WANT to follow God’s will and His ways and what He wants. Amen.