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Sermon for Sunday 12 February 2017

FIRST READING Deuteronomy 30:15-20

[Moses said to the people:] 15“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”


PSALM Psalm 119:1-8

1Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord! 2Happy are they who observe his decrees and seek him with all their hearts! 3Who never do any wrong, but always walk in his ways. 4You laid down your commandments, that we should fully keep them. 5Oh, that my ways were made so direct that I might keep your statutes! 6Then I should not be put to shame, when I regard all your commandments. 7I will thank you with an unfeigned heart, when I have learned your righteous judgments. 8I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me.


SECOND READING 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

1But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? 4For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? 5What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.


GOSPEL Matthew 5:21-37

[Jesus said to the disciples:] 21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22But 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. 23So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If 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.31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.33“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”



It was back in grade school. Two friends were playing on the playground when one did something that upset the other. After returning to class one decided to send a note to the offending party. The teacher was busy at the blackboard so the one who felt wronged scribbled a message on a piece of paper, folded it into an airplane, then tossed it in the direction of the other. However, things didn’t go as planned. The note took a left turn and headed toward the teacher’s desk just as she turned from the blackboard. Then with a look of horror, the writer of the note realized that he had signed it. The teacher retrieved the note and read it out loud. The note said, “Johnny, you are a fool. Billy.”
Our teacher was a staunch Calvinist Presbyterian, and took her well-worn Bible from her desk. Many of you probably remember the days when we had the Pledge of Allegiance, a short Bible reading and a prayer each morning. The teacher turned quickly to Matthew, chapter 5, and starting at verse 22 she read: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” You could see that the boy who wrote the note felt terrible.
The teacher went further and launched into a fever pitched sermon that would have made a pulpit pounding preacher proud and the vilest of sinners repent. She then capped it all off by saying, “And you, Billy, should be particularly ashamed for writing such words; your father is a minister.” One could say that the whole incident caused more than one person to be angry. Now most pastors today will tell you that at some point, any sermon series, on the Sermon on the Mount, must contain at least one sermon on Jesus’ words about the forbidden anger.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, given in chapters five through seven of Matthew’s Gospel, could also be called “Lifestyle in the Kingdom of God.” Our Lord’s words contain exalted expectations, the most radical ethical standards ever articulated. Notice that in verse 21 Jesus said, “You have heard it said of old…but I say unto you.” The one who spoke of old was Moses, but now, Jesus has come bringing the kingdom and is updating expectations. However, we first need to understand that what Jesus isn’t claiming is that all anger is sin.
The Hebrew word for anger occurs 455 times in the Old Testament; 375 of these refer to the anger of God. Now I know this goes against much of what has been taught in the past several decades, but the Bible is clear, the Lord does get angry. Nahum the prophet asked, “Who can stand before his indignation? What can endure the heat of his anger?” (Nahum 1:03) Jesus even got angry at times. In Mark, chapter 3, we have an example.
One Sabbath Day in the synagogue Jesus met a man with a withered hand. Some of the Pharisees were standing around ready to pounce on Jesus when He healed the man. Remember, healing was considered work, something that was prohibited on the Sabbath. The Bible says, “Jesus looked around at them with anger.” (3:5) It irritated Jesus to see religious people, more so, religious leaders, who cared more about the rules than the well-being of another human being. Jesus became angry when people got hurt or God’s house was desecrated. It is important to note, however, that Jesus’ anger was never selfish. St. Paul even went so far as to commend anger.
Paul wrote, “Be angry but do not sin.” (Eph. 4:26) Anger is an emotion that can either be good or bad, depending on the why and the outcome. So, it’s important that we recognize that there are occasions when getting angry is the appropriate reaction. For example, it should anger us that young women are being forced, through human trafficking, into the sex trade. It should infuriate us that a child is needlessly shot and killed somewhere in the United States every two hours. It ought to anger us that over 1 million abortions are performed every year in America, most of them because the precious unborn child is considered an inconvenience to somebody.
It should anger us when towns are forced to remove manger scenes: When court houses are compelled to remove monuments that show the 10 Commandments and when the Christian flag is banned from being flown on public grounds. We should be angered when teachers are punished because in a science class, creationism is taught alongside evolution. The list goes on and on. My point is that this kind of anger is righteous indignation. You could say that it’s godly anger; anger that motivates us to overcome injustice and to extend mercy. And this isn’t the kind of anger Jesus condemns in the Sermon on the Mount.
In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus is attacking a much more common variety that lurks in all our hearts: selfish anger. This kind of anger, says James, “does not produce the righteousness of God.” (1:20) Paul was referring to this emotion when he wrote, “Put off all anger, wrath, and malice.” (Colossians 3:5). I read the other day about a pastor who was called to a church in Columbia, South Carolina. On his first day, the secretary told him they had a problem that he needed to address. It seems there was an elderly lady who lived across the street and who walked her male dog around the church shrubbery each day. As you can imagine her dog wasn’t doing the shrubbery any good.
The secretary was angry about this, and as the pastor wrote, her anger rubbed off on him a little. So, one day he saw the lady outside and he walked out to meet her. Before he could even say hello, the lady said, “Mr. Bouknight, I’m so glad to meet you. I’m proud to welcome you to this community, and even though I’m not a member of your church, I want you to know I pray for you every day.” Well, the pastor wrote that he just stood there flat-footed and said, “Thank you very much, so glad to meet you too,” and walked back to his office. Her kindness had shamed his anger. On further reflection, he decided that, “the shrubbery is just going to have to look out for itself.” The truth about selfish anger is, selfish anger is the parent of murder.
The truth of the matter is, God judges the angry heart as severely as the murderous deed. Now to this statement some would say, “That’s not reasonable. There’s not a court in this country that would equate an angry heart with a murderous deed. But you can’t appeal Jesus to the Supreme Court. Indeed, Jesus judges the Supreme Court. We need to keep the two types of anger straight.
Selfish anger is the heat under your collar when a driver cuts in front of you without signal or warning. Selfish anger is the resentment you feel because your spouse won’t agree to do whatever you want him or her to do. Selfish anger is what causes a politician to refer to one portion of the electorate as “devils,” and selfish anger is what causes that portion of the electorate to despise them.
Selfish anger causes people to misrepresent their competitors as immoral practitioners of deceit. Selfish anger causes a parent to degrade the discipline of a child into a venting of frustration. Selfish anger makes us file, very carefully, every incident when we’ve been mistreated, and to look for chances to even the score. Selfish anger harbors with it resentment and thoughts of revenge.
A girl doing her homework asked her father to explain the difference between anger and exasperation. Going to the telephone he dialed a number and had his daughter listen. “Hello,” he said to the man who answered, “Is Melvin there?” The man replied, “There is no Melvin here.” The father hung up. Then he dialed the number again, “Hello, is Melvin there?” “Now look,” the man yelled, “I just told you there is no Melvin here. Why don’t you look up numbers before you dial them?” Then he slammed down the receiver. The father explained, “You see, that was anger. Now I’ll show you exasperation.” Again, the father dialed the number, and when a voice roared “hello,” he calmly said, “This is Melvin. Have there been any calls for me?” This brings us to the second truth about anger: It’s impossible to worship God while harboring sinful anger toward our neighbor.
Jesus never allows us to separate our relationship with God from that of our fellow human beings. Therefore, Jesus says, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt. 5:23-25) John Wesley said, “Christianity is essentially a social religion, and to turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it.” In other words, we’re unable to relate to our heavenly Father vertically, if our horizontal relationship with our neighbor is soiled by anger. The third truth we need to understand about anger is: we must take the initiative to settle disputes quickly.
In verse 25 Jesus tells us, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him…” Jesus was making the point that the longer the dispute goes on, the more fuel will be added to the fire. Read the history of the Sanitation strike in Memphis in the late 1960’s. One truth becomes obvious: the longer the dispute went on, the more anger controlled the actions of those involved. What started out as righteous indignation over the working conditions of the workers, quickly turned into selfish anger by management and the strikers. It’s clear, if the problems would have been resolved quickly, the destructive results of the strike could have been averted.
St. Paul urged Christians to be quick in settling problems. He wrote, “Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath.” (Eph. 4:6) Now all of this sounds good when one is cool, calm and collected, sitting peacefully in a worship service. But there’s a problem. Elsewhere Jesus answered Peter by saying that we’re to forgive our enemies seventy times seven times. (Matt. 18:22) And here in the Sermon on the Mount we humans are asked to do the impossible. Every lustful thought is labeled as sinful. Almost all divorce is outlawed. And two verses later in verse 39, we’re told that when someone does us wrong, we’re to turn the other cheek and if we get angry, we’re labeled as sinful. A little further in this chapter, we’re commanded to “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” It’s as if Jesus made the law impossible to keep and then charged us to keep it anyway. So, what are we to make of these unrealistic, exalted expectations of Jesus?
Philip Yancey, the author of a little book titled “The Jesus I Never Knew” may be of help with this problem. The Sermon on the Mount is God’s ideal plan toward which we should never stop striving. Our inability to live this ideal, means that all people stand before God on level ground: murderers and temper-throwers, adulterers and lusters, thieves and coveters. Because we don’t measure up to these ideal standards, we have nowhere to turn but the safety net of absolute grace. Any Christian who takes the Sermon on the Mount seriously, is driven to their knees, crying out, “Lord, be merciful to me for I am a sinner.” (Lu. 18:13) But here’s the good news: There is forgiveness when we fail.
The same Jesus who commanded these impossible standards is the one who forgave an adulteress, the thief on the cross, and a disciple who denied, three times, ever knowing Him. The Jesus who called us to be perfect, is the same one who paid the penalty on the Cross for the sins of imperfect folks like you and me. The Sermon on the Mount is both absolute ideals and absolute grace, without one compromising the other. Only as we’re healed by grace and equipped by the Holy Spirit, can we grow toward the ideal of the Sermon on the Mount. In closing, I’d like to share a true story about anger and God’s transforming power.
There was a pastor who had a chronic problem with anger. His wife and young son had often been subjected to his wild outbursts of temper. The little boy would often hide in a closet and tremble during his father’s explosions of anger. The pastor sought and received counseling. He asked a group of friends in a prayer fellowship to pray for him, that he might gain control of this destructive emotion. Slowly, God began to change him at a very deep level. One day he faced a real test of his changed temperament.
He had a hobby of collecting model trains. He happened to find a 50th Anniversary Lionel train in mint condition. The price was $400. He really couldn’t afford it, but his wife, knowing how much he wanted it, juggled the budget a bit so that they could buy it. It became the jewel and prize of his collection. Proudly he displayed it in the hobby room above the carport. One day his little boy was playing with the train and accidentally spilled paint remover all over it. It was ruined.
The little boy burst into tears, anticipating the awful explosion that was sure to come. His father came to see what was wrong. When he sized up the situation, suddenly there was unleashed within him an awful battle. But he didn’t explode as he had done so often before. Instead, he took a deep breath and didn’t say anything for a moment or two. Then he said to his son, “The train was very important to me, and we’re both sorry about the accident. But I want you to know that you are more important to me than all the trains in the world.” He embraced his son. And that day, they both experienced the shalom of God’s grace.
Only when we confess our failures to achieve God’s ideal can we know the grace of the Cross. And as we receive and share that grace, then we find new strength to reach farther toward God’s ideal.

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