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Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Matthew 5: 21–37

James T. Batchelor

Epiphany 6, series A
Saint Paul Lutheran Church  
Manito, IL

view DOC file

Sun, Feb 12, 2017 

We are currently studying the Large Catechism in adult Sunday School.  A few weeks ago, we began studying the Third Commandment and encountered these words:

This commandment, therefore, in its literal sense, does not apply to us Christians. It is entirely an outward matter, like other ordinances of the Old Testament. The ordinances were attached to particular customs, persons, times, and places, but now they have been made matters of freedom through Christ. (Large Cat.: Commandments, art. iii, par. 82)

This surprised a lot of people.  Those of us who have gone through normal catechism instruction spent a long time studying the Ten Commandments.  Why did Martin Luther put them in the Large and Small Catechisms if they no longer apply?  What’s the deal?

To begin with: God gave the Law in two basic ways.  First of all, He gave it to Adam and Eve when He created them.  The Law was written on their hearts.  It was part of their being.  When Adam and Eve fell into sin, they corrupted that version of the Law.  Because human beings had brought sin into creation, they could no longer trust the version of the Law written in their hearts.  God needed to reveal His Law in other ways.

Eventually, God spoke the Ten Commandments to the nation of Israel as they gathered around Mount Sinai under the guidance of Moses.  God gave many other laws as well … laws concerning the building of the Tabernacle and all its furniture and utensils … laws concerning the sacrificial system … laws concerning the ways His people would set themselves apart from the other nations … and so forth.  One of the questions we must deal with when we study all these laws is which of these laws still apply to us and how do they apply to us.

Today, as we continue to make our way through the Sermon on the Mount, we come to the part of that sermon where Jesus interpreted some of the Ten Commandments for us.  In the section of the Sermon on the Mount that we heard last week, Jesus taught, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (Matthew 5:17) How did Jesus instruct us to keep the law now that He has fulfilled it?  As we consider Jesus’ teaching, we can begin to understand how the Law given to Israel through Moses still applies to us today.

When God spoke to Israel from Mount Sinai, He said, “You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13) Most people can say, “I never killed anyone.” Even soldiers and law enforcement officers can say, “I never took a life without the proper authority.” Strictly speaking these people have kept the letter of this law.

Jesus will not let them get away with this simple interpretation.  He taught, “I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:22) Here Jesus teaches us that murder includes any form of harm … anger … name calling, and so forth.  He has raised the bar.  All honest people will confess that they are murderers given the way that Jesus defines murder.

When God spoke to Israel from Mount Sinai, He said, “You shall not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14) Again, many people can say, “I have only been intimate with my spouse and no one else.” Such people would be inclined to believe that they have kept this law.

Again, Jesus raised the bar.  He taught, “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) Once again, we learn that we can sin in our thoughts even if we never act on them.  Once again, Jesus has forced honest people to confess that they are adulterers.

By the way ladies, this is not just the visual stuff that seems to corrupt us men.  It also includes those novels with the romantic hero who makes your heart race just a little bit.  It also includes those times when your husband has been a clod and you remember that there were other men in your life that you could have married instead of the clod.  Jesus raises the bar to include all this kind of thinking.

Jesus does this sort of thing a lot.  By the time He gets through with the Ten Commandments, we must all admit that we break them all every day.  We have gotten so used to breaking them that we often break them and don’t even notice it.  Martin Luther got this right when he teaches what sins to confess.  In the Small Catechism he asks, “What sins should we confess?” His answer is this: “Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even of those that we do not know, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer.”

Then, if we are tempted to think that sins are not all that serious, Jesus tells us to amputate all the body parts that cause us to sin.  “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matthew 5:29–30) You know it is serious when Jesus starts talking about hell.

Now, before we start collecting funds to amputate body parts, let me tell you about a couple of scenes from a television show that I enjoy.  Most of you have probably never heard of Babylon 5.  It was popular many years ago.  I won’t bore you with all the details of the show, but there are two scenes that apply today.  In the first scene there is an absolutely evil and insane Nero-like dictator.  This dictator captures one of the main characters and tortures him.  He orders one of his guards to flog him nearly to death.  It is not surprising that there is an assassination and a new dictator comes to power.  The new dictator offers our main character the opportunity to take revenge on the guard by flogging him nearly to death.  The main character replies and says, “When someone slaps you, do you blame the hand or do you blame the mind that ordered the hand to do the slapping.  The hand has no choice.  It is the mind that is at fault.  This guard was only the hand and had no choice.  The mind that ordered the flogging is dead.  I have no desire to flog the hand.” Then he threw the whip to the ground.

The true cause of sin is not the eye or the hand.  Jesus once said, 19For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. (Matthew 15:19) The Holy Spirit inspired Moses to write: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5) It is not the hands or the eyes that need amputating.  The seat of our sin is in our hearts.  We need to get rid of our sinful hearts.

I always find it just a little puzzling when people tell me that they have given their heart to Christ as though that were some sort of a noble gesture on their part.  The sin in our hearts is absolutely disgusting.  A jar of raw sewage would be a better gift than our old, sinful hearts.

God is not interested in receiving our hearts as a gift.  Instead, He is interested in taking our hearts and putting them to death.  As the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to say, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. … We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” (Romans 6:3, 6) He also wrote, “24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:24) When Jesus went to the cross, He took our filthy, toxic, sinful hearts with Him.  With His death, He put those hearts to death.

What about the big empty space left behind?  We can’t live without hearts.  How does God address this problem?

You may not know it, but you sing the answer to that question almost every Sunday: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  Cast me not away from Thy presence; and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation; and uphold me with Thy free spirit.” This is a prayer that asks God to create a clean heart to replace that old, sinful heart that Jesus took to the cross.

This also happens in Holy Baptism.  Even as the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write about the removal of the old heart, He also inspired Paul to tell of the new.  Paul said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) He also said, “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his … “If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Romans 6:5–8) When the Holy Spirit plants faith in us, He does a heart transplant.  He removes our filthy hearts of sin and replaces them with the clean and holy heart of Jesus Christ Himself.

Now, although we have the holy heart of Christ within us, we still live in a sinful world.  Temptations still attack us from all directions, and we often suffer defeat.  That is when our new hearts convict us of sin and drive us back to the cross.  There we once again confess our sins and receive forgiveness for all our sins.  In this way, God keeps our new heart clean until He takes us away from this world of sin to live with Him forever where our hearts will never be sinful again.

Each and every one of us was born with a toxic heart.  It was a heart that loved sin and hated God.  Over time our continuous sinning only made our hearts blacker and more toxic.  There was no way that we could give our hearts as a gift to God.  Instead, God took our filthy, sinful hearts and destroyed them at the cross.  Now through Holy Baptism, He gives us His heart – by the power of that heart we fear, love and trust in Him above all things – we turn to Him in time of trouble – and when temptations overwhelm us, His heart draws us to Him in confession in the sure and certain knowledge that God loves us for Christ’s sake and will forgive us.  Because Christ has given us His heart, we will live with Him in eternity and rejoice before His throne forever.  This is the new heart that God has created in us.  Amen



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