Epiphany 5A St. John, Galveston 2/9/20
“The Righteousness of God”
+ In Nomine Jesu +
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“You are the light of the world (says Jesus). A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven…Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Many years ago, I was driving down a Houston freeway with a friend of mine. We both looked out the driver’s side of the car as another car zoomed past us doing perhaps fifteen or twenty miles an hour over the speed limit. Those sorts of things, of course, happen all the time on Houston freeways. This incident wouldn’t have even been remembered were not for a sticker on the back of this particular car. It was a fish symbol, the universal sign of the Christian faith. As the car sped by, my friend looked up, and, with a wry look on his face, said, “go Christian go!” As I think back on that incident, it occurs to me Come to think of it, it may be that incident many years ago that caused me that may have been when I decided to take the “clergy” sticker off of the back of my truck. It is simply too much pressure.
People, of course, exceed the speed limit all the time, especially in Houston. Christians though aren’t supposed to speed, right!? To be real, to be genuine, the Christian is supposed to obey the law at all times. He, or, she is to let others cut in front of them in traffic, even if the person cutting in doesn’t give a proper signal. Christians are supposed to drive 58 miles per hour in a 60 mile per hour zone, on the slim, but, still real chance that their speedometer might be a couple of miles per hour off.
The world has certain expectations of Christians, doesn’t it? There is really no getting around it. Every day, you and I bear witness to whose we are and to what we believe, for good or for ill, by the lives that we lead. And while the expectations of those looking on may seem a bit unfair, or, perhaps even based on a double standard, we needn’t be surprised that people’s expectations of us are so high. After-all, (you are, as Jesus says) “the light of the world.” That being the case, you and I are called to be different, to shine the light of Christ, to offer a ray of orderliness and consistency in an otherwise chaotic and random world. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify our Father in heaven.”
The incident on the highway, of course, is a comparatively trivial one. I mean, we all violate, from time to time, the laws of men. Truth is, on a deeper level, we violate from time to time even the deeper convictions of our hearts. Both before men and before God, we acknowledge that we are broken vessels, called to live according to a standard that is simply beyond our ability, and frankly, that is even, at times, beyond our will and our desire.
All of this brings us to the call of our God to be righteous people in an unrighteous world. In calling us to righteousness, it is evident Scripturally, that God sets two standards for us in this regard. There is the righteousness that we are called to demonstrate to our fellow man. There is also the righteousness that we have before God. These two types of righteousness are fundamentally different. The former, our civic righteousness, as we might call it, requires effort on our part, it requires work. Whether it’s obeying the laws of the land, or, doing what should be done in any given situation, our righteousness in this area of life is earned, not given.
The righteousness we are to have before men isn’t unique to Christians. God says to all of humanity “stop sitting around on your hands!” “Get to work!” “Be of service to your fellow man!” “Do what is right!” “Do what is expected of you!” “Contribute something to the society in which you live!” “Do to others as you would have them do to you!” The motivation for this kind of righteousness is really ingrained into all of us. An innate sense of fairness within us says I should treat others the way I would like to be treated. This is the kind of righteousness that we can and should demonstrate to our fellow men. When we do it as Christians, the added blessing is that we bear witness to the glory of God, who has called us and empowered us to serve Him by serving others.
When it comes to our relationship with God, however, the Scriptures speak of completely different kind of righteousness. God, the Righteous Judge, raises the bar to a much, much higher level. Righteousness before God isn’t just an external act, carried out by obedience, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Rather, it is achieved only through absolute perfection. Later, in His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”And here, in the reading for this morning, He says, “unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
When it had to do with civic righteousness, the Scribes and Pharisees were the guys, or, as we might say today, they were the “goat,” the greatest of all time! They were the model citizens, particularly the Pharisees because, while the Scribes were professional “law keepers,” the Pharisees were the layman’s class, the blue-collar keepers of the law. People looked up to the Pharisees because they set an example to be admired. They did all of the right things according to their religious custom and tradition.
And yet, as Jesus said, they weren’t fit for the kingdom of heaven. “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” To the average hearer, the ones who admired the Pharisees, they must have thought, if the Pharisees aren’t good enough for the kingdom of heaven, what chance in heaven do I have in go there? Things don’t get any better when God, the Righteous Judge, says, to enter the kingdom of heaven you must be as He is. You must be holy. You must be pure and perfect.
I was at a Board meeting of Concordia University Texas on Friday. We always begin our meetings with a devotion. The person who lead the devotion told us that he and his wife were at a church in Minnesota leading a program they do around the country. The program includes a time of singing. He said his wife plays an amplified acoustic guitar that doesn’t always “show up,” meaning the amplification doesn’t always work.
Between presentations, a man walked up to them and offered them the use of his amplified acoustic guitar. They said, that would be great. They used the guitar and it was indeed great. A fine, very expensive guitar. After the session, the man said, “what did you think of it?” Oh, it was great, they said. An incredible instrument. The man said, would you like to have it? They said, what do you mean? He said, the guitar, would you like to have it? They said, oh, we can’t take your guitar. You don’t even know us. It’s too big of a gift. The man who was trying to give them the gift, a big man, was almost in tears as the couple insisted they couldn’t take the gift.
Long before Jesus graced the world with His presence and took your sins with Him to the cross, God had promised that you would be clothed with the righteousness of His Son and that that righteousness would be given to you as a gift. “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, My soul shall be joyful in my God; For He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, As a bridegroom decks himself with ornaments, And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its bud, As the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth, So the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.”
As the redeemed of God, as is often the case, we live paradoxical lives. Your righteousness before men sometimes falters, for you are still afflicted by the sin of the Old Adam. And yet, you are holy and righteous before God, His Son’s holiness and perfection being wrapped around you in your Baptism. It is in that wonderous gift of God that your righteousness, that is, your righteousness before God, exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees.
“Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.”
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +
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