Faithlife Sermons

Beyond Self-Justification

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 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”

I am a pretty sentimental guy, and holiday traditions are important to me. I like this picture because it is a memory of my sister and me preparing family Christmas food in Michigan during my first year of seminary. I have to tell you, though, that I dislike this picture more than I like it. When I see it, I see a very unflattering view of me. I didn’t realize that my midsection put so much pressure on my sweaters. When I look at this picture, I’m a little embarrassed. I’ve been told that without even thinking about it, most people have learned to look in the mirror at just the right angle to minimize their imperfections. Visual self-justification. I must fit in that category. I’ve had this bald spot my whole life, and sometimes it still catches me off guard in photographs. The point isn’t my physical condition; the point is the day that photo was taken, that is not what I saw when I looked in the mirror.

The bigger point is that I think the same thing happens when we try to evaluate the condition of our hearts. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” We are experts in self-deception and self-justification.

In our text today Jesus shows us a picture of ourselves “obeying the Law,” and we quickly realize that it is not the way we saw ourselves when we last looked in the mirror.

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            Jesus is talking to people who think they’ve accepted and obeyed the law. “Murder? Adultery? They’re out. I wouldn’t touch them with a ten foot pole.” And then Jesus holds up the photograph that shows what their obedience really looks like in light of God’s true intent for his kingdom. When the people looked in the mirror, they saw themselves keeping the peace, doing no excessive harm, obeying the big laws, and it looked pretty good to them. But Jesus holds up the photograph that shows obedience that goes far beyond the surface-level words. By murder God means nursing a grudge or cutting somebody down a notch. By adultery God means not even savoring that hungry gaze at another person. When the people see the photograph in Jesus’ hands, it is not at all flattering to them. They see the paunch, the bald spot, the murder stains they had missed on their clothes, the adultery streaks they hadn’t seen on their faces. The picture doesn’t cancel the law – it fills it full of its deep meaning, and it reveals the people’s disobedience.

            This week and next week we see Jesus taking individual Old Testament commands and doing three things with them. Jesus gives the old command, he follows it with the new command, and then Jesus gives little steps of obedience. We’ll be spending our time on the second and the third steps.

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            Jesus goes to the heart of the problems in more ways than one. He strikes at the heart of murder and the heart of adultery – anger and lust, and he begins where it counts – right in our hearts. Note that Jesus isn’t just worried that anger will lead to murder or that lust will lead to adultery. No. These things in us that we consider to be “little things” for which we want to say, “no big deal,” Jesus points to and says, “No…BIG deal.” Being angry is grounds in itself for judgment, and lust in the heart is in itself adultery.

            I’d like to take a close look at what Jesus prohibits here. I’m NOT trying to find a loophole to water down these commands. Loopholes are simply excuses we use to avoid God’s work in our lives. But I also don’t want to say more than what Jesus is saying here. Some people look at these commands and see them as a religious way to heap an inordinate amount of guilt on people. That is exactly backwards. Jesus came that we may have life, and have it to the full – John 10:10.

            Jesus’ warning in the original text carries a sense of being angry. It implies something ongoing. Getting angry happens; being angry, staying angry, nursing a grudge is something we allow to happen. In a similar way Jesus’ wording in his warning against looking lustfully carries the sense of looking in order to lust. Seeing somebody with some desire happens, but looking at someone in order to desire or lust is something we allow to happen. What seems to be the focus here is the command, “Don’t allow these things to keep going on; don’t decide to let them take hold in your heart.”

Then Jesus follows the commands with little steps of obedience. These aren’t simply more rules to follow. The little steps don’t even guarantee a changed heart. You could cut off your right hand and gouge out your right eye, and still be as much of an adulterer as you ever were. At the same time these are not mere suggestions. These are commands from Jesus. Jesus knows that we have a constant struggle between the renewed heart and the old self, and his little steps remind us that we have to structure our lives towards obedience.

How do we go about not nursing a grudge? Jesus says seek reconciliation. Make it right. Don’t just rely on the courts to declare you right. It isn’t enough to be right. What Jesus demands is right relationships. Jesus is looking for a right heart.

I’ve often thought of anger as hot coffee in a cup. When I was a teacher I had to walk a long way between the coffee pot and my classroom. It was difficult to carry a full cup that distance without having it spill over, even when the hall was empty. When we nurse grudges or hold on to anger, it doesn’t take much for our temper to overflow. We lash out unexpectedly, and we mistakenly think that the problem lies in the person who “caused” the anger. Actively seeking reconciliation calms the waters inside; it empties the cup.

            I just finished reading the Newberry winner, When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. The narrator is a 12 year old named Miranda. There is another girl, Alice, who apparently has a very small bladder. A group of mean girls likes to keep her occupied when they see she has the need for the restroom. Their goal is always to embarrass her. This has become Alice’s social identity. During a music assembly at school Miranda realizes that it is happening to Alice again.

I turned to Alice. “Hey,” I said, “I have to go to the bathroom. Be my partner?”

Sometimes you never feel meaner than the moment you stop being mean. It’s like how turning on a light makes you realize how dark the room had gotten. And the way you usually act, the things you would have normally done, are like these ghosts that everyone can see but pretends not to. It was like that when I asked Alice Evans to be my bathroom partner. I wasn’t one of the girls who tortured her on purpose, but I had never lifted a finger to help her before, or even spent one minute being nice to her.

She stopped squirming and looked at me suspiciously. “You have to go?” she said. “Really?”

“Yeah.” And in that moment, I wanted nothing as much as I wanted Alice to feel safe with me. “Really.”

True reconciliation goes the extra mile to seek the good of the other person – the good of every person.

            Then Jesus addresses lust. The wording in the command points toward men, but we know that this is for all of us. You can’t have a successful TV series named Desperate Housewives in a world where lust is limited to a single gender. Jesus tells us that the little steps of obedience are cutting off our right hand or gouging out our right eye if they cause us to sin. That is a good first step. Remember, though, that the goal is a pure heart. Rules are only tools and arrows pointing to the good life. Rules are the banks of the river that allow our hearts to flow freely.

5 ½ years ago I was part of a gathering of Christian Reformed youth pastors. One of them said, “When it comes to lust, we need to stop over-spiritualizing this problem. We need to step up to the plate and help each other out.” What he meant was that while lust is a spiritual problem, we need to take Jesus seriously in these little steps of obedience. We are not only soul – we are body and soul. I asked what he suggested, and he introduced us to X3 accountability software for computers. I still use it. If I visit a questionable Internet site, he gets an e-mail from the company, and I get some hard questions from him. I installed the software on my phone. Now my friend even has access to a record of every app I download.  In this case the hand that I cut off was my own privacy and autonomy. For me that is a challenging step. A couple of us went to hear Jon Kitna speak this week. He said, “a lot of us look at Tiger Woods and say, ‘what a pig. I’d never do anything like that.’” Then Kitna said, “The main difference between Tiger Woods and most of us is that he had the opportunities.” Cutting off a hand or gouging out an eye means getting rid of opportunity. I’ll be the first person to tell you two things about cutting off a hand like that. One – it doesn’t change your heart. Two – it really helps. This Saturday there is a conference for men over at Westminster Chapel. It is meant for men ages 13 and over, and we really hope to see fathers and sons come together. It is called men of valor, and it is all about pursing integrity in a sexualized world. We will be talking about transformed hearts and little steps of obedience.

            Frederick Dale Bruner, a scholar with great insight into the book of Matthew, writes, “In anger we like to prove to ourselves and others that we are right; in lust we like to prove to ourselves and others that we are attractive. In both we manifest a deep uncertainty about ourselves. In both we seek a ‘justification’ of our self.”

One of the big problems in that kind of self-justification is the lie we tell ourselves: “I can have it all.” God’s response is, “I don’t want you to have it all. I only want you to have what is best.” Jesus is clear on the matter: It is better for us to suffer a minor loss for great gain than to lose everything in the end.

We need to see that Jesus didn’t just take the rules and make them harder. Jesus came to restore what was broken and lost, and these teachings are part of that restoration. Jesus holds out what is best, and we see three areas where this is the best way.

            First, God wants the best for us. In Ephesians 4:26-27 we read, “‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” Jesus is protecting us. He wants God to have the foothold in our lives. In our brokenness and sinfulness as people, there is something that feels good when we nurse anger or practice lust.  But when God transforms our hearts and sets us free, we see and experience that our former way of life was slavery and addiction. God, in his power, works in us to transform our lives. The reward is infinitely greater than the loss. We have to remember the blessing that came right before these commands: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Remember, these aren’t the rules for gaining God’s favor. In Christ we already have God’s favor. Romans 10:4 tells us, “For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God.” On the cross Christ put to death our slavery to sin and now offers us a new start every day. So when we have cut off a hand and later find ourselves lusting again, we don’t lose hope. We confess. May I suggest Psalm 38 as a prayer of confession? At that moment of weakness we are poor in spirit, and then we remember the very first words of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The first thing we see is that in his law, God wants the best for us.

            The second thing we see is that God wants the best for the people around us. Right before these commands, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” These are not only good things, they are necessary things. Christians who live in the reality of the kingdom of God enhance and protect the lives of everyone around them. They bring God’s good news of complete restoration, and their lives are a picture of what they are preaching. Paul writes in Romans 13:9-10, “The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Jesus puts a protective shield around every person we meet when he gives us the law.

            Third and final, God receives glory when we live this way. When Jesus says we are the light of the world, he says, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” We don’t just live for ourselves. We are part of something much bigger. Our lives find their deepest worth when God is glorified through us.

            Brothers and Sisters, Jesus calls us to get out the scalpel, because it is time to perform some amputation on ourselves. Jesus also calls us to get out the bandages, because it is time to actively work for the healing of others. God doesn’t simply want us to be better people or better Christians – he wants the best for us – for our sake, for the sake of the people around us, and for the sake of his glory. The Kingdom of God includes all of that. Jesus is not squashing our desire or pleasure – he is pointing out the best possible expressions of our human drives. Jesus wants to transform us from the inside out.

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