"You Can't Be Serious!"
A sermon based on Matthew 5:21-37
Sunday, February 13, 2011 – Epiphany 6A
"You can't be serious," the teen said to his dad when he was told he would lose his cell phone if he didn't pull his grades up. "You can't be serious," the student said to his teacher when he was assigned a quiz on Monday, a paper on Wednesday, and a test on Friday. "You can't be serious," the woman said when her doctor told her they couldn't operate. The cancer would end her life soon.
Sometimes when the news is hard to take or the demands placed on someone seem to big, it's met with the objection, "You can't be serious!" This morning, Jesus gives us hard news to take. He places impossible demands on us. And we might be tempted to respond, "Jesus, you can't be serious!" But he serious about the law. He's dead serious. He explains that to keep the law is about more than just outward behavior. It's more than just the words you speak or even the thoughts you have. It's about who you are – your very person.
Listen to Jesus' explanation of the Law in Matthew 5:21-37…
21 "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
25 "Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
31 "It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.
33 "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' 34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
I. God is Dead Serious About Sin
Now you and I might normally be relatively comfortable talking about the problems of murder and adultery that society so struggles with today. 50% of all marriages in the US still end in divorce. That's every one out of two! Over one million abortions are performed in the US each year. That number is staggering. It's hard to believe what those people will do to serve their own selfishness!
But then Jesus widens the net of the law until "those people" become "us" and we too are caught. Look into the mirror of the law and see that we are "those people…"
21 "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.
"I'm justified in my anger," I think. "After all, look at what that person did to me. They deserve to suffer!" But Jesus says, "That anger is the equivalent to murder. After all, what's the difference between wishing harm and inflicting harm, but your cowardice of the consequences?" But, "really, Jesus? You can't be serious!"
Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.
You may be answerable to the courts for murder, or even for slander, but if you call someone "stupid," Jesus says, you're in danger of hell!! "Really, Jesus? You can't be serious!"
27 "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
It doesn't take cheating to be an adulterer. Letting the thought linger for just a bit, or imagining for a moment "What would it be like if…?" "But, really? A thought is the same as committing the act?! Jesus, you can't be serious!"
33 "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' 34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all… 37 Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
Don't swear at all. Have no need to swear. Be so well known by your honesty that people assume that if you said it, it must be true! "But, really, Jesus? I can't just shape the truth to put me in a positive light? Not even once in a while?"
You see, Jesus take the law and gets rid of all the superficial distinctions we try to make between sins. We try to make a distinction between a kid who throws a toy at his sister and the adult who actually kills his sister. We try to make a distinction between a harsh word spoken at the talking head on TV and the bullet fired at a person. We try to make a distinction between looking at a few images in a magazine or on a screen and having sex with people we're not married to. We try to make a distinction between stretching the truth a bit and committing fraud and perjury.
But Jesus takes God's law and backs us up against a cliff. "You are a murderer!" he cries! "You are an adulterer!" "You are a huge liar!" And as we inch our way back from his accusations saying, "Not me, Jesus! I haven't done those things!" we fall over the edge. And as we hang by the tips of our fingers, Jesus flicks them with the law one by one. Murderer. Flick! Adulterer. Flick! Liar. Flick! And by our failure to keep the law as we ought, we deserve to fall into hell. "Really, Jesus? You can't be serious!"
But he is serious. He's dead serious.
A Lutheran pastor named C.F.W. Walther once said that small sins become large when they're thought of as small. That is to say, when you think your sins are no big deal, that's when they become a big deal. For if you think they're no big deal, you won't plead for the help that you need. But your sins are as serious as a heart attack! Even more serious!
Jesus said, "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away… And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away…" And Jesus isn't speaking in hyperbole. He's serious. "It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell… " But the problem is it's not our eye or our hand that causes us to sin. It's our heart. We need more than an amputation. We need heart surgery.
When Jesus strengthens the law, and we cry out in disbelief, "Jesus, you can't be serious!" He responds with, "Oh, yes I am. I am dead serious about sin. For death is what sin deserves." But Jesus also took sin so seriously that it's precisely because of sin that he came to earth…
II. God is Serious About Saving You
Now, did you notice the audacity that Jesus displays in this text?! Imagine for a minute that I were to say in one of my sermons, "You've read in the Bible that God says this, but I, Pastor Guenther, tell you, you've got it all wrong. My interpretation of the Bible is the only one that can really be trusted. All others get it wrong." What would you think? "What nerve!" right? "Who is this guy that claims to be the only one who gets it? But that's exactly what Jesus did.
"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder…' But I tell you… You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you… It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' But I tell you… Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath… But I tell you… "
Do you see what Jesus is doing here? He's claiming to be the sole authority over the Scriptures—the very Word of God. He's indirectly claiming that he himself is God, the author of these things that were written, as if to say, "Let me explain to you what I meant when I had Moses write that down…"
And thank God that Jesus' bold claim is true! He is God! That's what gives power to the words of Matthew 5:17: "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."
Jesus did keep the law perfectly in our place. Jesus never had any hatred in his heart, even toward those who tortured him to death. Instead he prayed (in Luke 23:34), "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." Though he was a red-blooded male and just as human as you or I and was tempted in every way that we are, Jesus never lusted. He never once thought, "How can I use that person?" but always thought, "How can I serve that person?" Jesus always spoke the truth. Again and again, the Gospel writers report that Jesus said, "I tell you the truth…" And Jesus kept, not just the fifth, sixth, and eighth commands, but all of them… in our place.
And as true God, his sacrifice in our place counted. Now we don't need to hide our failures. We don't need to cover them up. We can confess the anger that festers, the lust that lingers, the lies we've told, the sins that infect our very hearts. And he will forgive it all. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9) In other words, he gives us the heart surgery we so desperately need.
And like the woman that cries out in joy, "You can't be serious!" to the boyfriend who's just proposed, or like the sweepstakes winner that cries out to Ed McMahon, "You can't be serious!" We might think this forgiveness is too good to be true and cry out, "Jesus, you can't be serious!? My every sin, my anger, my lust, my lies, all forgiven?" But he replies, "Oh, yes I am. I am dead serious about sin. For I willingly died to pay for your sin."
And now, released from our sin and rescued from hell, we don't want to be like the dog that returns to its vomit. We want to be rid of it. And so, we don't take sin lightly, but get serious about serving God and being rid of sin in our lives. And we aim to live like Jesus…
III. We are Serious About Serving Him
Knowing what hell, Jesus has rescued us from, we are serious about thanking him. We don't take a lighthearted approach to sin, but strive will all our heart and soul to amend our sinful actions. And we do it to keep our salvation and not lose what God has given us!
After all, Satan is working hard to kill your soul. Make no mistake. He will stop at nothing to get the chance to drag your soul to hell with his. These are desperate times and desperate times call for desperate measures. So in thanks to Jesus and with a heartfelt zeal to resist the devil, we're eager to pluck out and cut off anything that causes us to sin.
Let's get serious about reconciliation and strive to rid ourselves of bitter anger and turn it over to Jesus and let him deal with it, forgiving others for the wrongs they've done us, just as we've been forgiven of the wrongs we've done before God. And strive to be reconciled to them at any cost!
A little boy was saying his prayers before bed time, but got caught on those words, "If I should die before I wake…" He repeated again slowly, "If I should die before I wake…" Then he got up and ran out of the room. He was back in a minute and mom asked where he went. And the boy replied, " "Mom, I thought about what I was saying, and I had to stop to put my brother's toys back. I hid them all just to see what he'd do in the morning. But if I should die before I wake, I wouldn't want him to be mad. Lots of things seem fun if you're gonna keep on living," he said, "but you don't want them that way if you should die before you wake."
So too, we're serious about our reconciliation with God, and so we're serious about reconciliation with others as well.
Let's get serious about purity and make every effort to remain pure. Let the Spirit work through the muscles in your neck as you look the other way when someone draws your gaze in an inappropriate way. Shut off the TV when it shows things you shouldn't watch. Put the computer in a well-traveled room. Maybe you even have to cancel the cable or the internet connection! "You can't be serious!" But we are serious. We're ready to cut off anything that causes us to sin!
I know of one guy who canceled the Sunday paper because of the lingerie displayed in the ads. And I know of another that would not shake the hand of another woman lest that physical contact put him in a compromising situation! "Really? You can't be serious!" some might say. But we say, "I am serious. I'm dead serious about serving Jesus!"
Let's get serious about our marriages! Don't let things deteriorate to the point where legal counsel is needed. But work at your marriage with all your might to make it all that God would have it be! That means we serve the other, even when it's uncomfortable, unpleasant, or undesirable. "You can't be serious!" I'm serious about serving Jesus!
Let's get serious about being honest and trustworthy so that everyone knows each of us as truth-tellers. Yesterday was the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, known as "Honest Abe." For, one night when he was counting the cash he'd received at the general store he ran, he noticed he'd take a few cents from a customer than was due. So he walked a long distance that night to pay it back. On another occasion, he discovered that his scales were off and that he'd given a woman too little tea for the money she paid. He closed the shop and went to house to give the woman what was her due, much to her surprise, as he she didn't even know she'd been shorted. Likewise, may we be so serious about telling the truth, that we're known as "Honest Rob" and "Honest Ryan" and "Honest" fill-in-your-name.
Will getting serious with sin be easy? Will it be pleasant? No. Of course not. It hurts to gouge out an eye. It hurts to cut off a hand. It hurts to swallow your pride. It hurts to refuse your sinful desires. But these are the growth pains of a maturing Christian.
We're serious about sin because we know it's no laughing matter. But when we do slip up and fall, we know that Jesus will pick us up. When we fail to keep his law, he will forgive. When we sin, we know that we can turn to him again. And by the forgiveness that's ours by his cross, we'll be empowered to commit ourselves to the fight all over again.
"Thou shall not kill." ("Thou shall not be angry.") "Thou shall not commit adultery." ("Thou shall not have impure thoughts.") "Thou shall not lie." ("Thou shall not ever make an oath, because an oath shall not be necessary.")
"Really, Jesus? Are you serious?" He is serious about the law and about our sin. But he's also serious about saving us from our sin by his death. Now we too are serious about the law. And we're serious about keeping it. And by his the forgiveness that's yours, you do have the power to be calm, and pure, and honest, and loving. In Jesus' name, dear friends, let's get serious! Amen.