Saved by the Lawgiver

Proclaim Sermons
February 12, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Salty Christians show a powerful love that prevents the church from going bad. Bright-light ones act in ways that are good and right and true. When we put salt and light together, people will be drawn to Jesus Christ.

Jesus comes across as a hardline preacher of the law in our reading today from the Sermon on the Mount. If we really pay attention to what he said it can make us uncomfortable because he speaks against things that we all do. He condemns anger and resentment against other people, quarreling, uncontrolled sexual desire and disruption of marriages, lying and all the games we play with the truth. All of those are against God's law, he says, and any and all can lead to judgment and condemnation.

It doesn't really end there. If we would keep reading beyond today's text in the lectionary, we would hear Jesus speaking against retaliation for injuries and telling us to love our enemies as well as our friends.

We usually think of Moses as the Bible's lawgiver, but Jesus digs even deeper than Moses, and denounces wrong thoughts and desires as well as actions. We might say he is more Mosesy than Moses. The Bible tells us that Moses sinned,1 but Jesus can say, "Which of you convicts me of sin?"2 In the same way that a healthy person is a reproach to people who neglect or abuse their health, the righteousness of Jesus is a reproach to sinners.

We really don't want to hear this! We know that these words of Jesus zero in on who we really are, unmasking our pretenses of righteousness and revealing the sinners behind the masks. We'd like to skim lightly over these verses or sweeten them up and get to something less demanding. But we'll never get better; we'll never be healed that way.

You find a lump in your body that wasn't there a couple of weeks ago. It could be - well, you know. You could put off going to the doctor so you won't hear the "C-word," or you could look for someone who'll tell you that you shouldn't worry about it. That may not end well!

In the same way, you can find churches where the message is always positive, where they don't talk about sin. Or maybe they talk only about other people's sin. This is not a new phenomenon. Twenty-seven hundred years ago the prophet Isaiah described the reactions of people to his message. "Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions."3

Sin is a cancer that goes deeper than the actions that other people can see. It infects our hearts and minds, our fears and desires and fantasies that are so embedded in who we are that we may not notice them. Sin is the ways we picture ourselves as righteous, even at the expense of others, or the games we play with lies to make them seem true. We go in a direction opposite to God's will on a path that leads to final separation from God. Jesus calls it "the hell of fire," which might remind his hearers of the smoldering fires of Jerusalem's garbage dump.

This is bad news, but news that we need to hear. We miss the point if we try to pretty it up.

The little things

The reaction of many Christians to this may be to say, "All right, I guess it's good to be reminded to be serious about the Ten Commandments. But I don't kill people or sleep with other people's spouses or steal from my neighbors, and I speak the truth as accurately as I can. Why does Jesus have to call attention to all those little picky infractions of the rules? Does it really hurt anyone if I get a little heated in an argument with my neighbor, or have a fantasy about a relationship with a coworker?"

Probably most of you have had the experience of deciding that you need to clean up some area where you live or work - apartment, office, kitchen, garage or whatever. Things you work with get scattered, important papers get mixed with ones that should go to recycling and there are those odd items that you might need "someday." So those things go in the "Miscellaneous" folder - or drawer or closet.

If you're not careful, the clutter will get out of hand. People become hoarders. There's a scientific principle called the law of increasing disorder - the total disorder in the universe is always growing.4 Some degree of order is necessary for living things, so life is a continual struggle against disorder. Spiritual life is a continual struggle against spiritual disorder. If you are comfortable using some relatively mild insults with people you disagree with, the habit can grow, and you find yourself using dehumanizing language about people who simply have different customs, for instance. It may be only a short way from there to the commission of hate crimes. Little things matter.

Saved by the Lawgiver

Jesus laid down the law in that part of his sermon. A few chapters later we'll hear the same Jesus speaking quite differently, saying, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest."5 That sounds almost like a different Jesus from the preacher that we hear in our text. But notice that he does not say, "Come to me and forget about those demands of the law." It is precisely the people who had heard the unqualified demands of the law, who took them seriously and felt convicted by them, who are offered relief. "I will give you rest."

And as we read through the gospels, we're struck by the fact that Jesus, who can be a strict teacher of the law's demands, seems so often himself to be associated with sinners. In the setting of the gospels, the close contacts that Jewish tax collectors had to have with gentiles made it difficult for them to follow the strict demands of the Mosaic law. They were widely seen as dishonest by their fellow Jews. Nevertheless, Jesus called a tax collector to follow him and to be his disciple, and he followed that by having dinner with "tax collectors and sinners."6

The scribes and Pharisees - the morality police - were offended by his behavior and his friends in low places, and demanded, "Why does he eat with people like that?" But Jesus said we have to be more righteous than his critics, and his response them was was, "I've come to heal the sick, not those who think that they're already healthy."7

Jesus' mission is to save people who have failed to keep the law - which, when you come right down to it, means everyone. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," as the apostle Paul wrote.8 As we read through the gospels, we see Jesus moving inexorably to the cross. He will be condemned as a breaker of the law and rejected as one of the unrighteous, accepting the consequences of human sin.

The death sentence upon lawbreakers is carried out upon the one who gave the law. God becomes a participant in our story, not as a judge or an executioner but on our side, taking our place and paying the penalty for our sin.

Of course, that isn't the end of the story. On the third day he arose from the dead and proclaimed "Peace be with you" to his discouraged and fearful disciples.9 The penalty for sin has been paid, and fellowship with God is restored.

That's the way the message has often been presented. It's true as far as it goes, but if it stops there, something essential is missing. What Jesus Christ has done by his life and death and resurrection is more than just a legal transaction. By proclaiming God's love for us through the sharing of our life and dying our death, he has shown us that God is indeed to be trusted above all things, in life and in death. And it is that faith and trust in God that is the true restoration of a right relationship with our creator.


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