“How Good Do We Need To Be?” – 02-16-14 – Epiphany 6 – Cycle A

Listen to the sermon here:

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

Let us pray. O God, the strength of all who hope in you, because we are weak mortals we accomplish nothing good without you. Help us to see and understand the things we ought to do, and give us grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

From Deuteronomy 30, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”

From Psalm 119:1-8, “You laid down your commandments, that we should fully keep them. Oh, that my ways were made so direct that I might keep your statutes! Then I should not be put to shame, when I regard all your commandments. I will thank you with a true heart, when I have learned your righteous judgments. I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me.”

From Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, we are reminded that we need to work gradually on understanding and living God’s way. It is like recovering from an illness that prevented us from eating at all. We start with a few sips, than bigger swallows, then we start to get the feeling of hunger again and can handle soft food, then solid food.

So it is with our understanding of what God expects of us and how to accomplish these high goals. We hear the word “commandments.” It seems to me that we can never attain a life of totally following the commandments. If we think we have reached that place, that is almost a sin in itself. There is always room to grow.

Paul says that God is the one who regulates growth. We can plant the commandments in our brains and hearts, we can continue to water our spiritual life, but it is God who gives the growth. Other people in our lives can plant seeds in our hearts and brains and be models for us, other people can water our desires to become blossoming, perfect plants. We can make following the commandments our life’s goal, but unless God is engaged with us, we, like plants, will wither and die. This death can be unnoticeable for a long time as it may happen very slowly.

Or this death may happen quickly. We can fall by the wayside, we can be sucked into a trap, faster than we can blink our eyes. In Matthew 5: 21-37, Jesus is painting gross pictures. It is easy to picture hell in this passage. It is a contest between ourselves and “the evil one,” commonly called Satan. Here Jesus does not mince words about our failure to follow the commandments even in our thoughts. You know this one, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

There is more, much more. Jesus is on a roll as we read, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” And then is the part that makes many of us cringe and wonder what went wrong with ourselves when we weren’t looking. It is his oratory about divorce.

Changing the subject but still saying with these emphatic words of Jesus, Jesus addresses the idea of swearing ourselves to be faithful to whatever we are becoming such as when we become a witness in court and are asked to lay hands on a Bible, of all things, and promise to tell the truth. Being raised in the Mennonite Church, we were taught not to swear on a Bible for any reason.

Of course, we teach our children and we try to control ourselves from bringing loose mention of God in our daily language. Jesus probably did not cause the hammer to hit our finger. So why do we call his name as though Jesus caused the accident. We may excuse ourselves and everyone else by saying that we are calling on Jesus or God to help us. Do you really think that is what is happening? Somewhere along the line, we absorb the language of persons who do not know God or know the Son, Jesus. This language becomes a part of us without our knowing how displeasing it is to the one we are naming in a less than praising way.

But now we know! The Bible tells us so! Right here in Matthew 5:21-37. Concerning this bringing God into our language when it is not appreciated by God, Jesus is telling whomever is listening, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” So here we are face to face with Satan. My, oh my! What a predicament!

We may be thinking that we have not fallen into this trap as yet. Maybe, maybe not. Jesus gives some examples. “Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 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 one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

In today’s language we hear ourselves saying, “I swear I did not hear you tell me to wash the car.” Or, “I swear that I locked that door.” Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms to just say, “Yes, I locked that door when I left.” Or “No, I did not close the fence and that is why the dog ran all over the neighborhood looking for food because I also forgot to feed the dog.” We shall not fall into the temptation of saying, “I swear by the stars, I had other things on my mind.”

This brings us to the awful dilemma of how do we follow the commandments when life is so slippery. Well, we need to find a jar opener to keep from sliding. What else can we use? We can wear shoes with soles like winter-tread tires. Stop that sliding! This attempt to be faithful to the commandments of God, could be likened to walking a tight-rope or one of those awful swinging rope-like bridges over a waterfall. We are told to look forward, not down. We shall keep our eyes on the goal.

Walking on one of those bridges or on a tight-rope in a circus is not for the faint-hearted. We could say that we need to be natured for that sort of activity. Some people may actually enjoy being way above the throng, depending on the safety of the rope and the skill of a partner as with trapeze artists. It looks so thrilling; so effortless. Sometimes navigating through life is like walking on a tight-rope or throwing our bodies in just the right way or at just the right time to catch that open trapeze. Does life need to seem that daring? Can life be calm, can life work, can we reach goals? Does that work for some people? It appears that it does work for some people. We wonder how they know how to do what when and how. Some of life’s skills are taught. People, who are raised in a family that has learned these unspoken rules or methods, have a head start.

What if we did not have a good model? What if we still do not have a good model? The ultimate model for living according to God’s plan is Jesus. However, we easily excuse ourselves acknowledging that Jesus is one of the three persons of God and is therefore HOLY. We know we can never attain the perfection of Jesus. But, we have Jesus as a model. His commandment to love each other as much as we love ourselves, and even as much as Jesus loves us, is the major guiding principle.

But then we have these rules. Earlier in Matthew 5 we read that Jesus did not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. The law and the prophets flow into the life of Jesus. They provide the backbone for our daily living and for our life goals. But backbones need flesh which is the love that gently covers and sustains the solid structure. Love without basic rules or a basic backbone will swirl a few times and disappear. Love without commitment is as weak as cotton candy and as sticky. We know how difficult it is to get rid of the stickiness. Surely we can think of times in our lives, maybe even at this very moment, when stickiness is sticking to our souls, rendering us helpless in physical ways and mental ways. We are stuck! Some of our unfaithfulness, our carelessness, causes a permanent stain in our own lives and in the lives of the last people we would ever want to hurt.

What can we do? How can we get rid of this stickiness, the stain? We could spend money to try all the stain removers that anyone ever recommended to us. I have learned that it is an elusive cause – never have I found the right stain remover. I think of all the people I could have helped with the money which I wasted on stain removers. So if a search for solutions does not yield an unsticky, unstained soul, where can we turn? What can we do? We could close our eyes and continue following our noses, one step in front of one step while we wear a smog-filled mask. The sunshine cannot get in. The love of our family cannot get in. God’s love cannot get in. The love bounces back to the giver causing more grief and disappointment and alienation.

This is what we shall do. We shall bow in reality or in spirit before God in the threeness – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We shall say, “I have failed and there is no way I can redeem myself. I hurt. I am ashamed. Wash me clean. Remove this cotton-candy stickiness, remove the deep raspberry stain. I am helpless.” Because God created us, because God loves us with an everlasting love, through our despair we will gradually feel relief, or sometimes the change is instant and overwhelming.

“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” This does not mean that we need to live in a certain geographical place. To me it means that our soul-place will be side-by-side with these patriarchs who were in God’s favor. These three persons were far from perfect. Read their stories. They were also sinned against. They were the recipients as well as the doers of evil. But God’s favor was upon them. Believe this: God’s favor is upon us! God planned for us. God created us. God loves us with an everlasting love. Let us believe this and live upon this great gift of forgiveness and love! Amen.