1 Corinthians 2:6-10
Matthew 5: 20-22, 27-28, 33-34, 37
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, we hear part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and these are passages that everyone is familiar with. I’m going to talk about them today. One of the things you can’t miss when you read from the Sermon on the Mount is that Jesus has, what seems to be, an impossibly high standard for us to meet. The Mosaic law says, don’t kill, but Jesus says don’t be angry. The Mosaic law says, don’t commit adultery, but Jesus says don’t look at a woman with lust in your heart. How do we do that? How can we not be angry with somebody? How do we not be lustful? How do we not do these things that are inside, that are in our hearts? It’s one thing to control our actions, but it’s another thing to control how we feel and what we’re thinking. So what is Jesus telling us? What is the reason behind what Jesus is telling us?
As I was preparing this message I thought of a common experience we all have, at least if we have kids, and maybe we’ve experienced this ourselves in other ways. The kids do something you don’t want them to do, maybe they’re mean to their brother or sister, something like that, and you say, “tell them, I’m sorry.” Right? “You better tell your brother/sister you’re sorry for what you did.” And they don’t want to do that, so they say “I’m sooorry” in a very insincere way. We’ve all seen this. We may have done it ourselves. I suspect I have from time to time. They’re not really sorry, right? They say they’re sorry, but they’re not really sorry. They don’t have regret in their heart for what they did that was wrong.
This is what Jesus is getting at in this part of the Sermon on the Mount. He presents us with a very high ideal of ethical behavior. It doesn’t mean that the law is being displaced. He says I’ve come to fulfill the law, not to change it. Jesus comes in fulfillment of the law, not to change the law. One thing I want to say right there, Jesus is telling us who He is. He’s not just one of the teachers. He’s not like a scribe, or a Pharisee, or one of the lawyers. He’s somebody who speaks with a very special kind of authority. He’s telling us who He is: He is divine man; He is God incarnate; He is Christ. He is different than the lawyers and the teachers of the law. He’s come to fulfill the law, and He’s telling us what it means in the Sermon on the Mount.
There is a question of the law. Are we supposed to follow the Mosaic law? We talked about this before. In the early church this was an issue that was debated and discussed. Paul concentrates a lot of effort on it, in his letters to the churches, saying that we as Christians are not obligated to follow the Mosaic law. Not all the dietary laws, the circumcision, and all that sort of thing, but the ethical parts of it, Paul says, we are expected to follow. You can tell there are some different portions of the law. There are some that clearly relate to ethical behavior: How we treat other people, and the respect that we have for God and for our fellow human beings. Paul explains, there are other things that are markers of the Jewish community. These were things that serve to set the Jewish people apart, as God’s people with a special mission from God to perform in human history. So there are some things that made them recognizably Jewish; the dietary laws, the Sabbath, and those kinds of things. But these, the kinds of things Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount, relate to all Christians. These are the ethical core of that law that relates to all of us as Christians, and that God expects all human beings to follow. I told you already what some of these demanding principles are that Jesus sets forth in the Sermon on the Mount. So why does he do that? Again, He’s not changing the law. He’s saying, this is the law, and He’s not changing anything. This has always been the law.
If you look at a woman with lust in your heart, you’re committing adultery. If you’re angry with your brother, you’re doing something wrong. You’re violating that commandment, thou shalt not murder. You’re not physically killing him, but what are you doing if you’re doing things that are cruel to other people. He says, if you call someone a fool, you’re liable to judgment. If you’re cruel to other people, if you’re doing these things, this is what’s in your heart. That cruelty, that wrong kind of lustfulness, that anger, and so forth, this is what’s in your heart. This is what you choose.
Our Old Testament reading from today is from one of the deuterocanonical texts, Sirach, chapter 15. This is relevant to what we’re talking about, because Sirach is telling his readers that “God has set before you fire and water to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.” Choose is the key word there. “Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” Whichever we choose! We make a choice! We make a choice over our actions, but we also make a choice about where our heart is! Where is our heart? And this is what Jesus is getting at in these very challenging, demanding passages in the Sermon on the Mount. What we do is important. What we do comes from the heart that we have within us. What our intentions are, where our heart is. Think about it this way. Think about somebody who doesn’t actually do these things, like murder, and adultery, and all these sorts of things, but they really want to. They really want to do that. They really want to commit murder, they really want to commit adultery. Is that person seeking God with all their heart, with all their soul? No! They’re not seeking God at all.
If we are seeking God and intend to do His will for us, we won’t do these things. We won’t do the murder, and we won’t do the adultery, but we also won’t have the bad intentions, and the bad heart, that Jesus is talking about, in these very demanding passages presented in the Sermon on the Mount. We won’t want to do these things. We won’t think about these things, not in a willful kind of way. We won’t have those bad intentions, the anger, all that kind of stuff, and wanting to be cruel, and so forth.
Think about it like this: sometimes we’re angry at somebody. We all experience this. We get mad at somebody, and we imagine ourselves really telling them off, right? We all do this. We’re really going to tell them off, we’re really going to put them in their place. Is our heart where it needs to be when we do that? No! Most of the time we’re not actually going to do those things, but when we’re thinking those things, our heart is not where it needs to be. So what do we do? Our heart is often in the wrong place. That doesn’t mean we’ve actually killed somebody, or committed adultery, but often our heart is in the wrong place. What do we do about that?
We have to recognize our dependence upon God. We depend upon God, and God will transform us, if we let Him do it. God will put our heart back in the right place. If we reach forth, like Sirach says, if we “stretch forth your hand.” If we reach out to God, and ask God to put our hearts in the right place, God will do that. I said it this often, God does the hard part, God does the heavy lifting. God can change our thoughts and our intentions and our hearts. God can do this. And then we won’t be as cruel and lustful, etc. because the Holy Spirit has transformed us. God works sanctification in us, makes us more holy, more like He intends for us to be, through the Holy Spirit in our lives. God does this. God changes our hearts. We just have to let God do that.
Let me go back to the example I gave at first, of the kid saying I’m sorry. Think of how you feel when the kid does it properly. When the kid really does feel bad, and they say to their brother/sister “I’m sorry” and they mean it. You’re happy, right? Because your kid, who you created, is doing the right thing. This is like the joy God has, when we live in the way God plans for us to live. God is joyful when we do the right thing, when our heart is in the right place.
We know we’re flawed. We’re imperfect, right? We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. This is Paul’s message, repeatedly, that it’s not the law that saves us. We cannot save ourselves by following the law. We don’t save ourselves by anything we do. We’re powerless to do that. It is Christ that saves us. Christ has saved us through His death on the cross, as a propitiation for our sins. We will fail to follow the law. We will. Especially the demanding principles that Jesus articulates in the Sermon on the Mount. We are often going to fall short of that standard, because we are human. But what we do? We don’t accept failure. We don’t go, oh well, I’m a fallen, simple creature, so I’m just going to wallow in sin. No, we don’t do that. We keep seeking after God. We do what we can to be willing to let the Holy Spirit, sent by God, transform us into the people that He created us to be. That’s what we can do – be willing and be persistent.
The Psalm today, Psalm 119, part of it says, “blessed are they who observe His decrees, who seek Him with all their heart.” Let’s do that! Let’s seek after God with all our heart, and God will transform us, putting our hearts in the right place, in the place He created them to be.