< back to Sermon archive

Sermon for Sunday 9 February 2020

First Reading                                   Isaiah 58:3-9a

 3“‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers.4Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.5Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? 6“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 8Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’”

Psalm                                                     Psalm 112:1-9

1Hallelujah! Happy are they who fear the Lord and have great delight in his commandments! 2Their descendants will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed. 3Wealth and riches will be in their house, and their righteousness will last forever. 4Light shines in the darkness for the upright; the righteous are merciful and full of compassion. 5It is good for them to be generous in lending and to manage their affairs with justice. 6For they will never be shaken; the righteous will be kept in everlasting remembrance. 7They will not be afraid of any evil rumors; their heart is right; they put their trust in the Lord. 8Their heart is established and will not shrink, until they see their desire upon their enemies. 9They have given freely to the poor, and their righteousness stands fast forever; they will hold up their head with honor. 10 The wicked man sees it and is angry; he gnashes his teeth and melts away; the desire of the wicked will perish!

Second Reading                         1 Corinthians 2:1-16

1I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. 6Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. 7But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” — 10these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. 14The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16“For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

Gospel                                             Matthew 5:13-20

13{Jesus said,} “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. 14You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In 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. 17Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”


I’m pretty confident that, overall, most of us consider ourselves to be law-abiding citizens.  The majority of folks take it for granted that the bulk of the laws in our society are worthwhile and reasonable, and we’re thankful for them.  Temporal laws, as we realize, are absolutely essential in keeping us safe and providing us with an orderly society.  However, and setting aside those laws that violate Biblical commands, every once in a while, we encounter a law that has unintended consequences.

For example, many states enact laws to protect the general public from those who have been convicted of certain crimes.  One way they do this is by limiting the types of jobs that former criminals can hold.  The state of Ohio alone has created over 500 laws to ensure that former criminals who have served their time can’t do such things as vote, “operate a racetrack, cut hair, sit on a jury, provide hospice care . . . deal in livestock, broker real estate and obtain a license to repair air conditioning systems.”  Some of these restrictions may, on the surface sound odd, but there are good reasons for each prohibition.

The American Bar Association did a study to see how many of these types of laws there are on the books, and they found some 46,000 laws across the United States that limit the employment opportunities of former criminals.  Again, the intension of these laws is to keep us safe and protect us from fraud.  However, the unintended consequence of many of these laws, is higher unemployment levels among former criminals which results in higher crime and recidivism rates.  That’s not what the lawmakers intended, but often, that’s what happens.  This is but one example of the law of unintended consequences.  This law is also sometimes referred to as the “cobra effect.”

Many years ago, parts of India were overrun with cobras.  The British government began offering financial enticements to the Indian citizens to catch and killed cobras and turn them in to local authorities.  I’m certain you can guess what happened.  The incentives for turning in dead cobras were so good that some Indian citizens began breeding cobras just so they could kill them and turn them in for the reward money.  That, in turn, produced a bumper crop of cobras.  Here in South, the “cobra effect” could be called the “kudzu effect.”  Kudzu, as you probably know, is a plant that was imported from Japan to the United States in 1876.  It was used as animal feed, as ground cover along highways and in high erosions areas across the South.

The problem is kudzu grows very quickly.  It can grow up to one foot per day, and it’s very hard to kill.  Soon, kudzu was covering trees and creeping up the sides of homes and covering power lines.  It blocks out sunlight and kills other plants and trees.  It costs power companies millions of dollars each year to clear kudzu from power lines.  And kudzu eradication programs can take seven to ten years to actually get rid of the stuff.  Kudzu seemed like a helpful agricultural plant when it was first imported to this country.  The problem is, no one guessed how destructive it could be once it took root.  

It was a well-intended, but the unintentional side effect, was that Kudzu became a real nuisance.  Now before I continue, we need to be reminded that the word consequence isn’t negative.  Consequences is nothing more than the results of an action.  If our actions are well thought out, loving and beneficial to all, then the results are generally good.  However, when our actions are self-focused or vengeful, then the results are less than desirable.

Our Bible passage today is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus has been preaching, teaching, casting out demons and healing sickness.  And as a result, a big crowd has gathered to see what He’s going to do, or say, next.  So, Jesus sits down, the disciples gather around Him, and He begins to teach the assembled crowd about the kingdom of God.  But as with most things, there was an unexpected consequence.

For example, imagine if you will, that a new preacher came to Charlotte and began performing miracles and preaching things that were radically different from what most churches were teaching.  Naturally, you would expect that the clergy, the religious scholars and the professors of theology from the local colleges might turn out to stare and gossip and question this new evangelist.  That’s something like what happened when Jesus came to town.

In Jesus’ day, the religious leadership of the Jews was composed of four different groups—each with its own interpretation of the Torah.  These were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots, and the Essenes.  The Pharisees believed in painstakingly following traditions and laws.  They looked to the Mishna and the past for their standards and beliefs.  For this group, these human interpretations of the Hebrew Bible came first and was their primary document for theological reflection. 

The more liberal Sadducees on the other hand, claimed that the old laws and traditions needed to be re-interpreted for more modern times.  They forwarded that scripture needed to be interpreted through the lens of current societal trends.  The problem with both these groups was that they failed to allow God’s word to interpret itself.  Then you had the Essenes who believed that happiness came from separating one’s self from the world.  They moved out into the wilderness and lived monastic lives. They gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Finally, there were the Zealots.  The Zealots believed in political revolution.  They believed that their faith called them to rebel against any power that in any way threatened the Jews. 

Pastor John MacArthur writes, “So, the Pharisees were saying go back.  The Sadducees were saying go forward.  The Essenes were saying go out.  And the Zealots were saying go against.”  It became very confusing for the average Jew who simply wanted to follow God’s statutes faithfully and to live a Godly life.  I’m certain that the typical Jew was probably pretty tired of the religious leaders of the day creating more and more rules and setting up roadblocks between them and God.

So it goes without saying that each of these groups wanted Jesus to support their theological teachings.  The problem was Jesus would have nothing to do with that.  He, by teaching God’s word alone, confounded their expectations.  This reminds me of an old story some of you may remember about a country preacher who had a teenage son who was trying to choose a future profession.  One day, while the boy was away at school, his father decided to try an experiment.  He went into the boy’s room and placed on his study table three objects:  a Bible, a silver dollar and a bottle of whiskey.

“Now then,” the preacher said to himself, “I’ll just hide behind the door here and when my son comes home from school this afternoon, I’ll see which of these three objects he picks up.  If he picks up the Bible, he’s going to be a preacher like me!  If he picks up the dollar, he’s going to be a businessman.  But if he picks up the bottle, he’s going to be a drunkard—a no-good drunkard and Lord, what a shame that would be.”

Soon the preacher heard his son’s footsteps as he headed back to his room.  The young man spotted the objects on the table.  He studied them for a moment.  Then, the moment of truth arrived!  The young man picked up the Bible and placed it under his arm.  Then he picked up the silver dollar and dropped it into his pocket.  Finally, he uncorked the bottle and took a big gulp of the whiskey.  “Lord, have mercy,” the old man whispered, “He’s gonna be a politician!”

The crowds of people that day were waiting and watching to see if Jesus would be a politician—if he would shape His message to please His listeners.  Would He please the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes or the Zealots?  Evidence in the Bible suggests that He shocked them all.  Listen again to what Jesus says verses 17-20: “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.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.  Therefore, anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I’m sure the religious leaders of the day were confused, asking themselves, what’s going on here?  On some occasions Jesus seemed like a wild-eyed radical welcoming prostitutes and tax-collectors and all kind of riff-raff into the kingdom and saying things like, “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you . . .”  But on this occasion, He sounds like the most dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist ever . . . saying that you can’t enter the kingdom of God unless you are more righteous than the Pharisees.

Many of those listening that day thought, “It’s impossible for someone to be more righteous than the Pharisees and teachers of the law, and now you’re saying we have to surpass them in righteousness before we can enter the kingdom of heaven?  I’m certain some thought, we might as well give up now.”  Maybe that’s exactly what Jesus wanted them to feel.  Whether they were Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots or just ordinary folks, I believe that Jesus wanted them to rethink the role of God’s Law in their lives.

When you study the Bible, God gave us the law in order to bring us into a right relationship with Him.The Law wasn’t created for itself; it was created to keep God’s people in a safe, harmonious relationship with Him and with each other.  The Law was an expression of God’s protective love for us.  But the religious leaders of the day ignored the relationship God wanted with us and fixated on the letter of the law instead.  Consider this analogy.

There was a shopkeeper in England named Sohan Singh who has banned customers from his grocery store.  He told a London newspaper that he was forced to take such drastic action because of people’s bad manners.  First, he banned smoking, then crude language, then baby strollers, pets and finally, the customers themselves.  Shoppers were forced to look through the window to spot items they wanted and then ring a bell to be served through a small hatch in the door.  “I’ve lost business,” Singh said, “but I cannot say how much.  I’m a man of principles, and I stand by my decision.”

I so sympathize with some of Mr. Singh’s principles.  However, weren’t stores created to serve their customers?  Mr. Singh would rather have an empty but orderly store, than a thriving but messy business.  It’ll be interesting to see how long he stays in business.  The religious leaders with whom Jesus clashed replaced a living relationship with God with a list of rules.  They fixated on rigid obedience of the Law, as they interpreted it, with its many variations, rather than on the reason God gave the law and on being in a loving relationship with the Lord.

The first law given by God was given in the Garden of Eden.  In Genesis chapter 2, God created a beautiful, orderly, fruitful world for Adam and Eve to enjoy.  In Genesis 2:15, we read that God had but one rule, one law to protect Adam and Eve in this perfect new world: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.  And the Lord God commanded the man saying, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’”

Let me ask you this:  when God told Adam and Eve that there was a tree in the garden that was poisonous—that if they ate from it, they would die—was He threatening them, or was He simply warning them of what would happen if they ate the fruit of that tree?  Obviously, it was the latter.  Adam and Eve were created to live in a close, fruitful relationship with God and with each other.  They were created to live in freedom, so long as they lived under the protection of God’s one law.  But Adam and Eve didn’t trust God enough to honor that relationship.  By disobeying the one law given by God, they lost that relationship.

Later, God gave the Law to Moses as a way to bring Israel back into a right relationship with Him and with each other.  God’s law was always rooted in love.  The first Mosaic Law, the first of the 10 Commandments is “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me.”

The Law establishes a relationship with our Creator and serves as a reminder of God’s love for us.  This is the God who set us free from slavery to sin.  We need to stop spending our lives chasing after and making sacrifices to false gods.  Says our heavenly Father, “I am your God, and I have set you free.”  The Law was given to bring us into a correct relationship with God.  That’s number one.  Equally, a relationship with God helps us understand the purpose of the law.  God’s law has always been rooted in love and freedom. 

A woman was married to an abusive husband.  After they were married, he gave her a list of all the things he expected her to do.  In time she grew to hate that list and the man who gave it to her.  After a few years her husband died.  Later, she remarried another man who was kind and loving to her.  This husband had no list—he loved her unconditionally.  While going through some old boxes she found her first husband’s list.  She realized that she was now doing all the things on the old list, but they were not a chore, because they were done out of love and gratitude and not out of compulsion.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had turned the Law into an act of external obedience instead of a reflection of the love of God.  They removed the joy of living in obedient submission to God and made it into a list of rules that burdened people.  Jesus reminds us that the Law was given to bring us into relationship with God and that a relationship with God helps us understand the purpose of the law.  This brings us to one final thought:  Jesus fulfilled the Law for us, by giving us His righteousness so we could enter His kingdom.  That’s the meaning of grace.

That’s what Jesus meant when He said He didn’t come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.  He fulfilled it in His life by living in perfect relationship with and perfect obedience to God.  And He fulfilled it in His death when He took on the penalty of the Law, that is death, and gave us His righteousness so that we could have eternal life.  So to all those who think they’ll never be good enough to earn their way into the kingdom of heaven—you’re right.  Give it up.  If you think you can earn your way into heaven by following a bunch of rules, you’ve failed before you’ve even started.  That’s the good news Jesus came to bring.  In the Chinese language, the word for “righteousness” is composed of two symbols:  the word for “lamb” over the word for “me.”  Righteousness in the Chinese language is represented by the concept of “the lamb over me.” 

We could never be good enough to fulfill all the requirements of the Law.  But Jesus was good enough to fulfill all the Law’s requirements.  Like a lamb to the slaughter, He took the penalty for us and gave us His goodness and His righteousness in its place.  Who among us wants to stand before a holy God and claim that we’re good enough to enter the kingdom of heaven by our good works alone?  I’m sure all of us would rather have the perfect Son of God stand in our place instead, and open the gates of the kingdom for us.


Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.

< back to Sermon archive