The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
In today’s Gospel lesson (the Sermon on the Mount), we hear Jesus speaking very clearly about His fulfillment of every single dot and iota of God’s holy Law. This is pure Gospel. It makes perfect sense to our ears of faith, doesn’t it? Jesus fulfills—perfectly—every single demand of the Law. He does this precisely because we cannot. Not one single loophole or snare is left to catch us and drag us into hell. Jesus didn’t forget anything. He didn’t come up just a little short, nor did He just get the big stuff, leaving all the little, simple laws for us to clean-up, handle, and fulfill on our own. He’s not just in charge of the heavy lifting, leaving all the “easy” stuff to us. Nope. That would be impossible. We are sinners to the core; dead in our sin, which means that we are completely unable to “do” the Law in order to atone for our sins and save ourselves. We can’t even dot the “I.” We’re not capable of a single dot or iota in terms of fulfillment. After all, if you can fulfill one part of the Law, you can fulfill it all...you just need to try harder. But that’s not how it is. Jesus has done it ALL for us. “It is finished, once and for all.” Praise God for this Christ-centered Gospel Truth!
But then we get just a couple of verses later—the same conversation—and we hear Jesus commanding us to have “a righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees’ righteousness.” Wait a minute…aren’t the Pharisees a bunch of works-righteous fools? Aren’t the Pharisees the guys who honestly thought that their “holiness” and “perfect” keeping of the Law merited them God’s righteousness and favor? These are the very same guys that Jesus warned His disciples about. “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees,” that is, beware of the false teachings and practices of the Pharisees. Well…which is it? Are we to beware of these works-righteous fools, or are we to try and “out-righteous” them? Can we even do that? Is that even possible? Again, Scripture is very clear in stating that we do not have a righteousness of our own, so even if we could out-good work and out-righteous the Pharisees; even if we could beat them at their own game, we would still have nothing to offer God in terms of earning or meriting salvation. All those good works, and yet we would still have nothing to present to God that would save us. Our works do not save us, lest any man should boast.
So…what is Jesus saying here? What is He teaching us when He commands that our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees? Folks: Don’t over-think this. It’s actually quite simple. Think like a 3-year old. Whose righteousness saves us? Answer: Jesus’ righteousness! Look to this cross! Here is the righteousness that far exceeds the righteousness of any child of Adam. In fact, here is the ONLY righteousness that saves you. Here is the perfect righteousness of almighty God, and it is this perfect righteousness—the righteousness of Christ Jesus—that is imputed to us; that is, freely given and applied to us, not because we’ve earned it, but because God is so loving and gracious and merciful to us.
Think about that for a moment. You wanna talk about unfair?! You wanna talk about some bad accounting?! Our heavenly Father imputes Christ’s righteousness to us. Our sins and our guilt; our justly-deserved death sentence and holy wrath, all imputed to Christ, while His righteous suffering and fulfillment of this justly-deserved death sentence is imputed and applied to us. We are saved by grace—God’s grace—which He freely bestows and imputes to us for Christ’s sake. We are saved through faith alone in God’s grace alone, which is ours because of Christ alone. Unless your righteousness exceeds the Pharisees’ righteousness; that is, unless your righteousness is Christ’s righteousness, you don’t stand a chance. If the Pharisees aren’t getting into heaven with all their exemplary good works and righteousness—good works and righteousness that would leave every single person here in the dust—then you don’t stand a chance. Salvation through faith alone in Christ alone. It really is so simple.
But…what does this mean for us in terms of everyday life? I know that probably sounds like an odd question. Everyday life? “We’re ALWAYS saved by God’s grace. There’s NEVER a time that we’re not saved by Christ’s perfect righteousness.” You’re right, but what does this mean for everyday life? This is an important question for us to consider. Jesus Himself gives the answer. He says just a couple of verses later, “You have heard that it was said…, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But 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. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Let me ask you: Did Christ Jesus die for you? Did Christ Jesus shed His blood for your righteousness; for your justification; for your salvation? Okay…so what about everyone else? Did God so love only you? Did God so love only your little clique? Did God so love only you and people just like you, or…did God so love the whole world—even the people you don’t like; even the people who persecute you—so much so that He sent His only-begotten Son to live, die, and rise again for them too?
So…if Jesus loved you (and everyone else) so much that He so graciously and willingly gave up all of heaven’s majesty to take on human flesh, all for the purpose of taking that flesh to a bloody, wretched cross for your forgiveness, your life, and your salvation…and for the forgiveness, life, and salvation of the entire world, does it seem right that you turn around and murder someone that Christ so lovingly died for with your barbs, your words, your accusations and condemnations? Jesus calls them “beloved,” and you call them “fool”? (And we all know that we can be much crueler than that, right?) So…God’s unconditional grace and mercy is paramount for you, but it’s okay to turn around, tear down, criticize, and demand a pound of flesh from someone who doesn’t quite fit your cookie-cutter ideals? Its okay to condemn and slander someone because they’re not measuring up to your perfect standards; standards that you yourself don’t even measure up to? You expect perfection from others, but in the same breath proclaim that you’re not perfect, but you are forgiven? That sounds like a “you” problem, and not a “them” problem.
Just look here at this communion rail. This is exactly what your Lord is referring to when He speaks of bringing your gift to the altar. This language of gifts and altars is the language of priesthood and sacrifice. What is one of the primary jobs of a priest of God? Answer: To make sacrifice. Well…what remains to be sacrificed if Christ says in His all-atoning sacrifice, “It is finished”? Answer: Nothing. Now, does this mean that the vocation of the priest is no longer in effect? Are we no longer a priesthood of all believers? That’s not what God says, is it? In fact, God is very clear in telling us that we are, indeed, a priesthood of all believers.
So, my fellow priests, what sacrifice is left for us to make? What sacrifice do we, as priests, bring to this altar? Answer: We offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving. That means we come to this altar empty-handed. We bring nothing to this altar and feast table…nothing but faithful thanksgiving for the all-atoning sacrifice of Christ our Lord and Savior.
And it is right here where your Lord brings this all together (and all this talk of righteousness, judgment, hypocrisy, and gifts does go together; this isn’t a series of un-related bullet points or soundbites of wisdom). Just think about what your Lord is saying here. You know where righteousness—true, saving righteousness—is found. You know the only place to find it—Jesus Christ. Here is this righteousness in the flesh, freely holding out to you His unconditional grace, mercy, and peace; freely holding out to you His righteous body and blood; freely holding out to you His righteousness, for you to take and eat, take and drink, for the full and complete forgiveness of all your sin and for the peace—His peace—that surpasses all human understanding. Ask yourself: Can you honestly, rightly, and faithfully come here, receiving such undeserved grace and offering up your sacrifices of repentant thanksgiving for such undeserved grace, mercy, and imputed life-saving righteousness, and still go about your life at enmity with those whom Christ Himself died for? With the blood of Christ on your breath, can you still in good conscience breathe out murderous, arrogant, condemning words against someone created in His image; someone Christ shed that very blood for? Not according to Jesus.
So…how do we “fix” this? What’s the prescription? “Tell me what I need to do!” What you need to do? How Pharisaical of you. It’s not about what you need to do. It’s never been about what you need to do. It’s all about what Jesus has already done for you. This is why I will simply end today by pointing you to Jesus Christ; to His perfect, all-atoning, all-availing, completely free and unmerited righteousness. Here is Christ, for you, for me, and for each and every sinner descended from Adam. It is finished, in Him and because of Him.
May this blessed, undeserved righteousness give you peace. And may this same righteous peace take root in your heart, mind, and soul, and may it spring up and bear abundant, God-pleasing fruits of humility and repentance in all that you say and do, now and into all eternity.
In Christ’s Name…
Feel free to use any or all of this sermon for the edification of God's people.
Send Pastor Jason Zirbel an email.