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Sermon for 12 February 2017


Deut 30:15-end, Matthew 5:21-37

Reading the gospel can be a strange experience. One time we will read the most extraordinary promises of God’s love and goodness - promises that you and I are loved by the power that lies at the heart of everything. And another time we’ll get stories of glorious healings, and of the most incredible insight and forgiveness. 

And just a couple of verses before the gospel reading for today, we get the beatitudes - a series of mind bendingly, heart wrenchingly, upside down thinking about the way the world really works - in which the bereaved, the downtrodden and the humble are placed at the very centre of God’s plans for the world.

And then we get passages like the one we’ve just read. A passage that, after all the good stuff, sounds so extreme - if you’re angry with your brother or sister, you might as well have murdered them, call someone a fool, and you’re done for; look at someone lustfully, and you’d better tear your eye out.

Why this mix? Why can’t we just have the nice stuff?

The answer of course is that Jesus knows that God’s love is complete and total. And because of that he didn’t come to tell us a few nice stories, and reassure us that everything’s ok really. He came to deal with the really important stuff - the kind of stuff that you would need to die to sort out. Jesus knows the human heart. And because he loves us, he wants to tell us the truth. 

And today he tells us the truth about 4 areas of everyday human interaction. 4 areas which are the root causes of much of the brokenness of our own lives and our world - anger, contempt, lust and lies. These, he says, are key parts of our lives that we must be attentive to. These are the areas where we particularly try to hide our failings away, but which underpin much of the brokenness of our lives and of our world. These are the areas in which it is easy for us to make those excuses that we all know - the ones that we use to convince ourselves that our behaviour is justified, and which always lead to more distress and suffering.

Take anger for instance - which is where Jesus starts.  Although anger starts as a feeling, which we may have little control over, when it continues, it is almost always a way of protecting ourselves. And it’s protective tactic is to attack - to revile, or denigrate someone else - or worse. Be very careful of it, says Jesus.  Because what starts out as a resentment against your nearest and dearest, can end up somewhere much more serious. 

And Jesus makes a similar point about contempt and swearing oaths. Don’t let these small things fester - notice what is really going and don’t allow them to take over - because it is the small things that set your direction towards the big things.

CS Lewis, writing in The Screwtape Letters - letters from the devil to a junior devil - understood that even little sins are a big problem -  he had the devil say to his junior sidekick:

"It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” 

That nasty thought, the sniping comment, the overbearing promise ‘I swear I didn’t do it’ - these are all early steps on that gradual slope. Much better notice them, bring them before the Lord and invite him to deal with them.

And then there are Jesus’ words on divorce, something which I know has affected many of us sitting here today, maybe the majority of us  - whether you are divorced, or have been affected by the divorce of others around you. And I want to make a couple of points about what Jesus says.

The first is to say that, of course, God does not want people to divorce. Although there are couples who split up and make it work, there is always pain and suffering involved - and usually very significant pain and suffering. And because he loves us, God doesn’t want us to suffer. So of course, he is against divorce.

Secondly, Jesus is right in his diagnosis of the root cause of adultery - which is one of the main causes of divorce. It is what one person has called ‘the second look’. The first look is the one when a man or a woman looks at someone else and notices that they are attractive. And that first look may be reasonably innocent. But then we have a choice - one we often don’t notice. The choice is whether we have a second look. Because we can choose to lift our eyes again and to look, as Jesus puts it ‘with lust’, or we can choose to look elsewhere. And it is in these small choices that the move from looking to adultery takes place. Jesus is not suggesting that every second look will lead to adultery, but he is right that every affair starts like that. The first step in an affair is never sleeping together - it has always started somewhere else, at an earlier point, and Jesus is simply pointing that out.

And a third thing, the bible is rather subtler and more nuanced on divorce than we might think. And without turning this into a whole sermon on divorce, let me just say that when Jesus teaches on this subject - which he also does in Mark 10 and Matthew 19 - he is responding to a specific dispute that was present at the time, between those who thought that a man could divorce a woman for more or less any reason, leaving women desperately vulnerable to male whims, and those who called for greater equality and for divorce only in certain situations. As well as setting the bar for divorce high, Jesus is, just as importantly, concerned for the equality and protection of women.

And in all our consideration of divorce it’s worth remembering one more thing. In the Old Testament, God makes a covenant - a marriage vow - with Israel. It is one of the most powerful images of the depth of God’s commitment to his people. This for instance is from the prophet Ezekiel

"As I passed by again, I saw that the time had come for you to fall in love. I covered your naked body with my coat and promised to love you. Yes, I made a marriage covenant with you, and you became mine.”

And then there are also passages when the prophets proclaim that God has divorced his people because of their faithlessness. This is God speaking through the prophet Hosea,

'My children, plead with your mother—though she is no longer a wife to me, and I am no longer her husband'

And that should give us pause for thought whenever we think about divorce. God has gone through a divorce Himself. So of course He understands, and of course anyone who has been divorced is welcome in his family. And of course, He is the God of second chances, and of resurrection and new hope - and just as his divorce from Israel was not the end, nor is a human divorce ever the end.

But isn’t this all a bit over the top? Sure, anger and adultery and lying are bad - but doesn’t Jesus go a bit far with all that cutting your hand off stuff? 

Well, 2 points:

First, it depends what we think we are like and what we think God is like. If we think we’re basically good people who get the odd thing wrong, then Jesus is taking it too far. If on the other hand, with God’s help, we come to see just how much anger, contempt, lust and lying are normal ways of behaving for us, and that they are the root cause of all that is wrong with the world, then Jesus is absolutely right to speak as strongly as this. 

And if we think God is basically like us, but a bit nicer, then all this is over the top. But if God is love - pure, perfect love, which would never hurt or damage anyone, then Jesus is bang on. Because then God is desperate to meet us, to be with us, to transform us, to save us from our worst decisions. Because he loves us. Always, utterly and forever. 

Secondly, it depends on how seriously we take this discipleship business. If being a Christian is a bit like a hobby - something that we really enjoy and which gives us a lot of pleasure, but something we do in our spare time, then Jesus is exaggerating. As he is if what he offers is a version of life that looks pretty much like normal life, but with church on Sunday. If, on the other hand, Jesus offers all the answers to all the problems of life, and if following him is a matter of giving him our whole lives, then of course it matters that we take anger, lies and lust desperately seriously.

Do we need to cut off our hands and pluck out our eyes when we get things wrong? No, of course not - Jesus is making a point. Do we need to be honest before God and with each other about the terrible consequences of our anger, contempt, lust and lies? Yes we do. And the more we allow God to look deeply within us, to the places where these things reside, and where they fester, the more we can let his love do its work, and the more we will find ourselves choosing life, not death and the kingdom, not the world.


Posted: 12-02-2017 at 13:50
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