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Sermon for February 12, 2023 – Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Program Transcript

Speaking of Life 5012 | Chosen by Life
Greg Williams

Life is full of difficult decisions. Sometimes you can make it through by consulting with your spouse, close friends, or coworkers. But sometimes difficult decisions have to be made for you, such as in serious health issues, or when you are unreachable, or unable to make a decision. Whether it’s the challenge of weighing up your options, or the worry you might not be able to make the right choice – there is a palpable relief when a friend or loved one steps in to help you with that burden.

The good news is Jesus has come to help us with the most important decision of our lives.

Thousands of years ago God put a choice before the Israelites that defined the essence of what it means to be human.

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…”
Deuteronomy 30:19

This phrase from Deuteronomy, “Choose life,” is a powerful phrase that has been lauded by Christians across the world as the appropriate response to God’s grace. Heaven and earth are watching, so to speak, eager to see the decision we will make.

A literal-minded reading of this passage might cause one to envision a courtroom where heaven and earth are sitting upon the stand as witnesses against us as we pull at our shirt collar in despair. Yet the language here is so much more. It is a way of showing God’s omnipotence and omnipresence — there’s no hiding place from our great and gracious God. Nor need there be.

We have an advocate who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He can counter any damning witness of heaven and earth with his judgment of grace. Jesus chose us and he chose to lay down his life for us so that we might share eternal life with him. We are encouraged to “Choose Life,” to choose the way of living in that grace. To choose to live as forgiven and loved sons and daughters of God. To choose to live in the freedom to love others as Jesus loves us. To choose to share God’s love and life with others because we love them. To choose to be a Great Commission, Great Commandment denomination, congregation, and person. To choose to love the One who loves us.

Today, we can indeed choose life because Jesus, who is the Life, has chosen us. Hallelujah, praise God that decision was made for us.

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 119:1-8 • Deuteronomy 30:15-20 • 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 • Matthew 5:21-37

In this sixth week of Epiphany, our theme is the challenge of righteous living. Speaking to the Israelites as they prepare to enter the promised land, God urges them to choose life over death by following his commandments and decrees. In Psalm 119, the psalmist extols the blessings of a life lived in accordance with God and laments the inevitable decline that follows a lapse in judgment. The Apostle Paul mourns that quarrels and pettiness have prevented the Corinthian church from learning the deeper lessons of faith. In our sermon passage from Matthew, Jesus declares the chilling challenges of leading a truly righteous life. In the Sermon on the Mount, he makes it clear that following all the laws and rules is insufficient when your heart is still led astray.

Mind over Matter, Jesus over Mind

Matthew 5:21-37

God’s binding goodness

In the final verse of the powerful 18th century hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, written by Robert Robinson, we find this line:

“May thy goodness like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to thee.”

Robinson here captures the conflicting emotions of gratitude and frustration that so often are a part of the Christian walk: gratitude for God’s streams of endless mercy and abundant grace, and frustration at how prone we are to wander from the love of Jesus and squander the righteousness he has given to us. It is easy to love these lyrics for their positive approach to the subject—we do not lament a life floundering in sin, but instead we celebrate God’s ever flowing blessings that binds us to him so that we never wander too far.

In Matthew 5, Jesus brings many challenges to those who wish to live a righteous life. Often read out of context, the passage can seem overwhelming and depressing—we cannot possibly live the life he describes here. But there is good news, Jesus can. The righteous life is the life of Jesus; he does what we cannot do so that we can reap the benefits of his righteousness and share in his life.

Let’s read the passage and see what we can learn from it today:

Read Matthew 5:21-37

Double standards

[Following is a personal example, you can make it generic or come up with your own example.]

A friend of mine recounted speaking to some of his Christians friends about the woman he intended to marry. He had always been cautious about dating and relationships, and this was the first relationship he had been in since his teens, and it was going splendidly. Now into his 30s, he was excited at the prospect of marriage, but one thing concerned him. She was divorced, and he wasn’t clear what the scriptures said regarding divorce, and he wanted to be sure before moving forward.

So, he sought the advice of his friends, not mentioning that he was speaking about his current situation. He asked their opinions on getting remarried after being divorced and the response was swift and condemning: “Oh no, you can’t do that, Jesus himself said marrying a divorced woman is adultery.” My friend was discouraged, and that’s when they asked him why he was asking, and he explained his desire to propose to the woman he loved.

Their tune changed swiftly. If they had known the details, they insisted, they never would have come out so dogmatically on the subject. It’s a complicated topic worth looking into more, they emphasized, and told him to give leeway for grace. This only added to his confusion.

When he took the time to study our scripture for today, he concluded that these friends were either biblically illiterate or had a distinct double standard—maybe both. His friends admitted to him that while they knew what the passage said and agreed with it, there could be extenuating circumstances. Had they asked more questions, they would not have expected him to follow this passage to the letter.

The irony of this story is made clear when we understand both Jesus’ intent in our passage today, and the cultural reasons for his advice on re-marriage. Jesus was helping us understand that in the kingdom of heaven there is no room for double standards or preferential treatment. The laws of God were there to protect us and lead us into a deeper relationship with him. They were not a tool to be applied to others for our own benefit—an endemic within his culture that has persisted to this day.

Your thoughts betray you

If we were to read Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 as a guidebook for righteous living, it would quickly become obvious that we’re not up to snuff. Either we lack the will to engage in personal dismemberment by plucking out an eye or cutting off a hand, or we are probably going to end up burning in hell.

Thankfully neither of those options are the end result.

The Pharisees of the time had become the leading authorities on scriptural interpretation. Their teachings called for fierce adherence to the Mosaic law, and in many cases, they went further, defining details to the law that were not explicitly present—just to be sure of their purity. They had cornered the market on defining righteous living.

Jesus took their approach in his sermon and pushed it even further. If righteousness is grounded in a perfect life, then it is not just the actions that must be perfect but the thoughts too. This is sound logic, and it’s unlikely the Pharisees could disagree.

But this also isn’t just rhetoric. What Jesus is saying here is true—the wrongs we commit in our heart and mind are frequently of a sinful nature. If your end goal is to lead the perfect life, then sadly, we’re out of luck; even a perfect outward life would be ruined by a single errant thought. To take a line from Darth Vader: “Your thoughts betray you.”

Rescued by grace

So, Jesus has established that perfect living is unattainable to a soul corrupted by sin. This is part of the reason for Jesus’ incarnation—he came as a human to reveal the Father to us and to lead the perfect, righteous life that was needed.

The Pharisees and their disciples faced a very real risk that they would not understand their own need for salvation. That remains true today. As Christians, we are often at risk of reverting to legalism and suffering the associated loss: if we believe ourselves righteous by works, we will miss out on experiencing the full abundance of grace that awaits us.

The seemingly unattainable standard of living a righteous life also highlights the perfect life Jesus is living. This perfect life creates the righteousness for us we are unable to obtain on our own. It helps us understand more deeply that it is not our own righteousness that saves. It is Jesus’ righteousness that saves us. His righteousness rescues us from both the depths of despair and the pinnacles of pride that our attempt to live an upright life would inevitably bring upon us.

Yet still…

So, does this mean that everything we read in this passage is just hyperbole, or a description of a perfect divine existence inapplicable to our own experience?

No. There is still a lot we can learn from what Jesus tells us here. His statements are true, and his call to curate our thoughts with grace remains a cornerstone of a healthy spiritual life.

The application of this passage can be found in two examples given by Jesus in verses 31-37. Let’s re-read each of these in turn:

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.” (Matthew 5:31-32)

Jesus brings up two common social practices to demonstrate how a law-abiding life without thoughts tempered by God’s grace leads to abuse and evil. The practice of divorce was a common one within his community at the time; the certificate of divorce mentioned was used liberally and in full accordance with the law. Yet only the men could use these certificates. This unhealthy power dynamic was being abused. Given the culture of the time, this could have devastating consequences for the women on the receiving end as they lost access to security and social status.

Certificates were granted for trivial reasons, from inadequate meal preparations to dissatisfaction with their wife’s aging appearance. Jesus’ limitation upon divorce forced the men to think through what they were doing and limited their ability to abuse the institution of marriage. This was an act of protection, made by Jesus on behalf of a vulnerable subsection of the Jewish society at the time.

This was a clear example where the letter of the law was being used to undermine the spirit of the law. The selfish thoughts that led to the men divorcing their wives were themselves sin. And by putting a prohibition of marrying a divorced woman, it prevented those women from being used again. It is important to note that the sin here lay solely upon the men involved. Only they could divorce, and only the men were committing adultery if they married the divorced woman. By saying that the women were victims of adultery, he ensured that a man who divorced his wife without cause would remain financially and socially responsible for caring for her.

Promises, promises

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. (Matthew 5:33-37)

We’re beginning to see how controlling our thoughts can shine a light on practices we otherwise might assume are acceptable. For another example of that Jesus turns to the question of oaths. In this context, an oath is a commitment made with embellishments to placate the hearer into believing you will follow through. They are as common today as they ever have been in the past.

“I swear on my mother’s grave.”

“Cross my heart.”

“Pinky promise.”

These sayings are oaths, and though amusing or cute, they reveal a problem with our thinking. They all imply that either we cannot be trusted, or, if we insist on them being used, that we are lacking in trust (and so being judgmental). Either our normal commitments are unreliable, and we need to garner trust by embellishing our assurances, or we seek those assurances from others by asking for a promise.

All these oaths are meaningless. Your mother’s grave, symbols over your heart, and a bent pinky do nothing to ensure the earnestness of the person making the statement. Nor do they provide collateral should you fail to follow through.

This is a matter of our thoughts being put in order. Jesus’ solution is simple; just speak the truth always. To do that we must first be earnest with ourselves and others, shifting our patterns of thinking so that we truly do view our word as our bond. Doing so allows us to be a source of certainty and strength to those around us and creates a culture of trustworthiness in contrast to one that justifies the breaking of commitments that are not validated by oaths and promises.

Jesus uses these two distinctly different examples to highlight how our thinking can become perverse and warped. Both examples have victims who suffer, even though laws or rules might not have been broken.

Instead, we are called to follow Jesus, not just in act and deed, but with our thoughts as well. Because we have been given his righteousness, we can now share in his thoughts. Thoughts of abundant grace and unrelenting love will define how we live and act.

Not Today, Satan w/ Dishon Mills W2

February 12 – Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Matthew 5:21-37, “But I Say To You”

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Small Group Discussion Questions

Speaking of Life

  • Can you recount a time when you needed someone to step in to help you make a decision, or even make it on your behalf? What feelings did it evoke to have the assistance in a time of need?
  • We are familiar with the phrase “choose life” as a direction to live in accordance with God’s will. How does it make you feel to know that in Jesus, life has chosen you?

From the Sermon

  • When you catch yourself indulging in sinful thoughts – whether they be of lust, anger, or resentment – what do you do to try to bring them back to Jesus’ thoughts of love and grace?
  • Whether tax loopholes, a badly worded contract, or a rigid interpretation of scripture, it is easy to find unintended ways to benefit from laws. Why do you think indulging in those “opportunities” is a slippery slope we need to avoid at all costs?
  • The examples that Jesus uses in these passages reveal ways that rules were being used to take advantage of others. Jesus set us the example of self-sacrifice in their stead. What are some ways that we can make sacrifices that will help the vulnerable in our communities?

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