Vicar’s Sermon – 9th February 2020

Matthew 5.13-20

What was it about Jesus that caused the Jewish authorities to conspire to have him killed? Why was it that he was plagued, throughout his ministry, by those who saw him as a threat to their way of life? Christian people find these questions hard. Jesus, for them (for us) talks nothing but common sense. We hear his teaching and nod as we agree with his presentation of what it means to live the good life, to be a citizen of heaven. Two thousand years have helped us to take his words to heart, to reflect on their truth, to learn to live by them. But back then, back in first century Palestine it was by no means clear what Jesus’ teaching meant. We need to take a leap of imagination to think ourselves into the minds and hearts of those who first heard Jesus teach. By the time Jesus stood in front of the Sanhedrin early on Good Friday morning it had been decided that he was a false prophet (and the punishment for leading Israel astray was death). In his trial he was accused of blasphemy. The witnesses who lined up against him accused him of speaking ill of the temple…and had he not just caused chaos in the temple courts as he overthrew the tables of the moneychangers and drove out the animals with a whip? For us, it is so much easier to hear what he is saying (even if it is just as hard to obey his teaching). But then everything he said was contested, not least his attitude to the Torah, the sacred Jewish Law given by God to Moses on Mont Sinai. ‘Should we keep the Law or not?’ asked his Jewish audience. ‘What have you to say about the Law Rabbi?’ ‘If the Law has been given by God why do your disciples not obey it?’

In the sermon on the mount we hear Jesus talking to his followers. He is the new Moses. Here are the commandments he brings. In these chapters he is not assailed by the questions of his enemies. Here he is free to say what he thinks, He doesn’t have to guard his language quite so much. Yet still he must address the question of ‘the Law’ head on: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets: I have come not to abolish but to fulfil it.’ His teaching, his ministry fulfils the Law. The Law’s commandments must be kept, must be taught. Fine. He’s said it …but what did he mean by this? For when did you last make a sacrifice in the temple? When did you last take care to ensure that you weren’t wearing two different sorts of cloth? …and don’t we all enjoy the occasional bacon sandwich? If the Law is to be taught and our failure to teach it makes us least in the kingdom of heaven then what do we think we are playing at – have we totally misunderstood Jesus’ teaching?

The apostle Paul faced this problem. He wrote about it…at length. He had, of course, one or two advantages over us in understanding the issue. He was Jewish. He was a strict Pharisee: he knew the Law, he tried to observe it. He loved God’s Law – that’s something we often forget, the Love the faithful people of God had for His Law: the delight they found in it, the vision of its divine author that it laid before them. Paul had all of this but cast it all aside as He found the Law’s fulfilment in the person of Jesus. The Law, (the Torah) explains Paul in his letters to the Romans and the Galatians, gets you so far. The Law is like the stabilisers on a child’s bike (that’s me, not Paul), it is like a tutor bringing a child to adulthood. The Law is good, it reveals God to us, we still have the Law in our scriptures. In it we learn of the holiness of God. Here we can see His concern for Justice. Here we find his empathy for the weak and the poor. In the Law God provides for our Sin and points to His desire to reconcile the world to Himself and to its cost. This is not a small thing. ‘The Law of the Lord is precious, as sweet as the honey in the honeycomb. O how I love your Law’ says the Psalmist.

But the Law cannot change a human heart. It can discipline us. It shaped the life of Israel. It can constrain our actions so that we are directed in the ways of righteousness, but it can’t make us righteous. We might fulfil its commands without allowing it to change us. The letter of the Law brings death. It’s the Spirit that brings Life. What Paul found, what we all find, is that ‘the things I want to do I cannot. The things I do not want to do, they are the things I do.’ And the result? The wonderful, glorious, mystifying Torah, the word of God Himself, accuses me: it highlights how far I have fallen from the perfection that God would desire of me.

Paul’s response seems bizarre: ‘Thanks be to God’ he says. Knowing that all of us are complicit in the world’s Sin (Sin, as Sarah pointed out the other week, being the brokenness of the whole world not just a list of the boring sins we have committed) …knowing our Sin God has revealed to us His compassion, His mercy, His faithful enduring love and forgiveness in the person of Jesus. And so we live by Grace, through faith in the One who revealed these things to us. This is so very different from the way the Torah was being taught and observed at the time of Jesus. It seems as if all the love had been sucked out of its observance. ‘Do this, don’t do that’ – heavy loads laid on people that ground them down, killed their spirits and led them no nearer to God’s presence.

Jesus was not the first prophet to highlight to Israel the need for more than mere observance of the Law. Isaiah, as we heard in our first reading, made it clear that an unthinking obedience was not enough. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah all take Israel to task: it’s not enough, the observance of Feast Days, the making of sacrifices. God looks for more. Read the Law in its entirety and then read between the lines. Where is your concern for the poor? Why do you cheat the worker of his wages. Why have you not provided for the refugee, the widow and the orphan? ‘Rend your hearts not your garments’ is the prophets’ cry. Outward observance , they knew as well as we, was not enough. A new heart is needed. Ezekiel, I believe, speaks of ‘a circumcision of the heart’, Paul takes up the phrase in his epistles: your heart must be in this. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul and all your strength’. That ‘all’ is impossible. No amount of trying, no amount of effort can enable me to do this – again, the commandment is broken and I am lost.

‘Thanks be to God’ is again the response. We can grow from here. It is only when we know that we cannot win our way into the Kingdom of Heaven; when we know that we need God’s grace; when we learn humility before Him – only then we can start to please Him. The good news is that a relationship with God, entry into the kingdom of heaven (however we want to describe this) does not rest on you, rather, it rests on what Jesus has done for you. For those of you who like some homework go and read the 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th articles of religion in your Book of Common prayer – or look them up online: ‘We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith and not for our own works or deserving’ wrote the Reformers. He fulfils the Laws commands for us. It is done. It is finished. And because the Spirit of God has transformed our hearts now we can live for Him, for the one who died for us, who took the Law and its commands, fulfilled them and then nailed them to the cross so they can accuse us no more.

Now we fulfil the Laws requirements out of love for Him…not out of fear of retribution or deluded self-righteousness. Now we can love Him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength because we want to, not because we have to and He empowers us with His spirit to do so. ‘Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’: hard words, but thanks be to God, I have no righteousness of my own, only that given to me by His Son, Jesus Christ to whom be all honour, praise glory and majesty, this day and forevermore.

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