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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

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

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Program Transcript

Not Today Satan w/ Dishon Mills W2

Anthony: So, with that in mind, let’s look to Jesus as we transition to our next pericope for the month. It’s Matthew 5:21-37 from the Common English Bible. It is a Revised Common Lectionary passage for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany on February the 12th.

Dishon, read it for us please.

Dishon: Absolutely. And I’ll read this also in the CEB.

21 “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. 23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift. 25 Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny. 27 “You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery. 28 But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. 29 And if your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into hell. “It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a divorce certificate.’ 32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except for sexual unfaithfulness forces her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago: Don’t make a false solemn pledge, but you should follow through on what you have pledged to the Lord. 34 But I say to you that you must not pledge at all. You must not pledge by heaven, because it’s God’s throne. 35 You must not pledge by the earth, because it’s God’s footstool. You must not pledge by Jerusalem, because it’s the city of the great king. 36 And you must not pledge by your head, because you can’t turn one hair white or black. 37 Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Anthony: Whew. That was a good reading. Thank you, brother. It seems to me, Dishon, in reading verses 21 – 26—and this will be an understatement—God cares deeply about right relationship and reconciliation and the rest of the pericope points to a similar outcome. So, tell us more. What’s your conclusion and why?

Dishon: Sure. So let me back up, and I should say that both the previous verse and this verse are part of what we call the Sermon on the Mount. And in this sermon on the Mount, God Jesus is introducing his listeners to what we sometimes call the upside-down kingdom. He’s been saying the kingdom of God is at hand and he’s been saying that stuff. And now he’s painting an image of what this kingdom looks like and what life in this kingdom looks like.

And it’s so counter to what we experience on a daily life, it seems upside down, but really, we are the ones who are upside down. He’s right side up. And so, in this section of the sermon, I think Jesus is clarifying some misperceptions or misapplications of scripture. He is coming out against an external, superficial, false piety.

He wants his followers to have transformed hearts, not just finely painted exteriors. And if we look at the particular examples that he uses, he seems to be especially concerned with heart transformation, with regard to other people.

He wants to see us truly, honestly, authentically, lovingly engaging with others, and that’s evidence that we are truly followers of his. How we live out our faith in the company of others shows the extent to which we love God, right? He talks about that too. So, the problem is that there is a form of religion that was practiced then and is still practiced now that allowed people to use the law to justify being unkind, unrepentant, unfaithful, without compassion, and dishonest towards others.

And if you look for each one of those examples, that is what Jesus is coming against: unkindness, unrepentance, unfaithfulness, lacking compassion, and dishonesty. And you could use the law to justify those behaviors and call them legalism, right? You could say I am able to do this.

I’m not breaking any laws by doing this. And so, Jesus is saying, that’s not good enough. It’s not good. Our standard is not to not break laws. Our standards should be to be good, to be kind, to be loving, to be like Jesus, right? So, Jesus is coming against this legalism, this superficial false piety. And we have to think back to Jesus’ claim to be the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.

So, we have to look to him in our dealings with others. We can’t just stand on our legal right to treat someone in a certain way. We have to look first to Jesus to say, how would Jesus behave in this particular situation? How did he treat others? What is the standard he’s calling us to live up to? And then we live in that reality, not just standing on a legal precedent.

And this is a tall order. This is a very challenging set of scripture because, I don’t know about you, but I’m from Jersey and more than once, I might have called someone an idiot in my mind. And maybe more than twice, I might have said it out loud. And I have to begin to look at my heart and say, what does that mean for how I think about my neighbor?

If I so easily judge them in this way, how do I think about my neighbors in general? And that requires heart transformation. There’s a lot of gunk in there that needs to be cleaned out, and we’ll never relate to others perfectly. But we have to rely on Christ in our relationships.

Again, it gets back to when we were talking about light. We have to allow the Holy Spirit to lead us and to prompt us and help us to be like Christ in our relationships because that is the only way that we can relate to others well—is not by trying to relate to them directly, but through the lens of Christ and through the work of Christ.

Anthony: Yeah, that last thing you just said, Dishon, I think is really important—the work of Christ. Because too often, we think of Jesus in his earthly ministry as the model, but I think of it like this.

If Michael Jordan is my model, I’ll never get there. Like I’ll never be able to dunk a basketball like him or play basketball like him. So, he can’t only be a model alone when we come to faith, like it has to be Christ himself through his Spirit, empowering us to do it, because otherwise we’ll never get there.

We’ll never be able to live this out the way that he embodied it, but because he does live in us by his Spirit we can move toward right relationship and reconciliation because that’s his idea. And it’s good. And especially as we think about our neighbor.

And you reminded me of a quote. One of my favorite sermons ever was “The Weight of Glory” by CS Lewis. And he wrote this, and I quote, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Next to the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” That’s a staggering heralding of the gospel. And it’s true, right? We know it in our spirit that it’s true.

And I think this is what Jesus is pointing us to in this passage—there is another way. It’s upside down to the way the world works but that’s not what’s true. And so anyway, yeah. I think that’s important to say that it goes beyond just checking off a box. Like, I got the rule, right?

This is really about relationship. And it also points us to a more true understanding of freedom—that we’re not free to do whatever we want to other people, right? We are free for God, to live as God in the world. And that looks like love and kindness like you pointed to.

Dishon: That’s right. And that should bring a certain amount of humility to us too, that we’re never going to be at a point where we say we have arrived. So, there’s no need for that false piety. There’s no need for the masks; there’s no need for the inauthenticity. We could just be ourselves and say, hey, we are on a journey. I’m becoming, I’m not there. I’m becoming. Some days I get it better than others.

But that’s why we need to just be honest and place-share with each other in the church. That’s how we help each other move forward.

Anthony: Words matter. Jesus was the Word who became flesh. And so of course, words matter. And he says, the Word himself says, let your yes be yes. And your no be no.

But we also think in terms words like, they’re not going to break us. They’re just words. So, what’s the big deal here? Why is he pointing us to this? Yes be yes, and our no be no.

Dishon: Yes. Jesus wants us to be honest. So, here’s what was happening under the law of Moses—as far as I understand it, I wasn’t there. But here’s what I’ve been told.

Under the law of Moses, the law said oaths that are sworn in the name of God are binding, right? So, if you swear something in the name of God, you really have to do that. That is binding. Here’s what people would do to get around that.

They would start swearing on heaven, on earth, things that are God-proximate in their mind, but not on God himself, not in the name of God. And so later on, they would say I was going to do this, but I don’t want to. And since I didn’t swear on the name of God, this oath I took is not binding so I could get out of it.

So what people were doing is they were swearing these lesser oaths in order to give themselves a back door out of their promise without, in their mind, breaking the law. And what Jesus is doing, he’s closing that perceived loophole even though there wasn’t one. But he’s making it very clear that we in ourselves should not create escape routes from our promises.

We should not in our dealing with others, leave ourselves an out in order to be dishonest or disloyal. So, he is saying, when you say something, mean what you say, and don’t try to play games or leave yourself a door for dishonesty.

And man, that seems simple, but can you imagine what our society would look like if everyone did that? Imagine if every leader or politician or boss or whoever just told the truth. They just said what was true and did not try to leave themselves wiggle room to be dishonest. They just spoke what was true for them. And I think Jesus, again, in keeping with the theme of salt and light and what we’re supposed to bring, we should bring beautiful honesty wrapped in love, compassion, and empathy to the world.

We should not be trying to manipulate and leave ourselves escape routes from our promises. Our word should be good for those around us.

Anthony: And we’ve already pointed to Jesus as the hermeneutic, the interpretive key to Scripture. And he himself is truth. He said it. I am the embodiment of truth.

Our words should reflect reality. And he told the truth. And sometimes that ticked people off, but it was never from a place of trying to cause harm. Because all that Jesus, as God, can do is who he is, and he is love. So even the words that were hurtful in the moment to people were exactly what they needed to hear.

And that’s why even when we read Scripture, we have to allow Scripture to read us.

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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