Below is the text of my sermon delivered yesterday. The text below is probably about 85-90% accurate to what was actually delivered as it is my habit to continue to edit up until delivery with hand written changes.
Most Merciful God, author of all good things, who has given your holy commandments to us, by which we should direct our life; imprint them in our hearts by your Holy Spirit and grant that we may renounce all fleshly desires and the vanities of this world, that our whole pleasure and delight may be in your Law; and, being governed by your Word, may in the end attain the eternal salvation promised to us in it through Jesus Christ, your Son. Amen.
Today Moses gives us the answer to the question we all ask in one form or another, “what do I have to do,” “what do I have to believe,” “how do I make sure that I get eternal life?” This question deals with our very mortality and who we are as human beings and the answer Moses gives is that we must “choose life” if we want to live. Ok, that all sounds good, but what on earth does that actually mean? Well, choosing life, according to Moses, means choosing God and choosing the Law. At first glance, Moses seems to be giving us circles in which to run. Here’s the Law. If you want to live, choose life, love God, and obey it…. And if you don’t you’ll live a life of slavery, isolation, and death. But, let’s remember what Pastor Kris taught us a few weeks ago, God is not a nightmarish Santa Claus giving presents of life to the obedient and coals of death to the disobedient. Like so many passages, we risk our souls trying to interpret it in isolation.
So now, let’s consider Jesus’ teaching on the Law. He uses the formula, “you have heard it said. . . but I say . . .” He is NOT replacing or cancelling Moses. I say again, Jesus is not telling us to ignore the Law of Moses. In fact, he is doing the opposite and amplifying Moses’ teaching on the Law. In the case of murder, most of us manage to live our lives without killing anyone. But, have you ever been angry with someone? Have you ever refused to apologize? Jesus says to all of us that to refuse to reconcile with someone is to spiritually murder them. In the case of adultery, Jesus makes it clear that everyone of us who has ever even dated someone who is not our spouse, up to and including the crushes of our childhood and the dates of our formation years – has undermined the fidelity God desires of us. This is not even to mention the thoughts that sometimes fill our minds whether intentionally or against our will. In the final case of perjury and oaths, I will simply remark that what Jesus is getting at here is the difference between the integrity and power of words that ought to exist compared with the world we know where we set up a system of oaths and promises to reinforce our false notion of authenticity because deep down, we all know that we all lack a perfect integrity.
In Jesus’ teaching on the Law, he not only deepens the meaning of what we normally call “sins” such as murder, adultery, and dishonesty, but he gives us a graphic depiction of the cost of this sinfulness. When discussing anger, Jesus says that our anger can make us liable to a civil court depending on how we express it, but even more than that, our anger always makes us liable to the hell of fire. While discussing the passions behind adultery, Jesus gives us the example of literally cutting off one’s limbs and plucking out one’s eye in order to subdue our passions. After all, isn’t this better than being cast into the hell of fire? Finally, when it comes to the power of our words, speaking dishonestly or failing to be a faithful witness is tantamount to enlisting ourselves in the slavery of the evil one and no oath under heaven can undo our bondage to the father of lies. The picture Jesus paints in today’s Gospel reading is a bleak image of our condition seemingly compounded by the voice of Moses echoing through the Scriptures to “choose life,” as though that were easy or even possible.
So where is the Good News in all of this? On the one hand we have the Lawgiver telling us to pick life over death and on the other hand, there’s Jesus telling us that, well, we can’t and hellfire is apparently inevitable. In order to make any sense of this, we need to recall one of the foundational teachings of the Lutheran Reformation that “All Scripture ought to be distributed into these two principal topics, the Law and the promises” (Apology IV:5). When you pick up your Bible and read a passage, ANY passage, in order to make any sense of it the distinction between whether this is God giving us a commandment or God making a promise regarding Christ is of paramount importance. And make no mistake, we need both. Martin Luther summarized this need when he said that, “The Law discovers the disease. The Gospel gives the remedy.” Today, the Sixth Sunday in Epiphany, we have heard read in our presence from both Deuteronomy and in Matthew, 200 proof unadulterated Law.
And yet – Jesus’ words for us include the Gospel in a subtle and surprising place; a phrase that so offends us that we dare not look long enough to really understand what is going on. Jesus hints at the Gospel when he refers to the hell of fire. And because I know that doesn’t seem to make any sense, I’m going to violate one of the standard rules of preaching and do a brief Greek and Hebrew lesson. If you were to read this text from your Bible you will probably see a footnote by the word “hell” indicating that the Greek word used is ‘gehenna’. That’s all very good except that it doesn’t improve our understanding of the word Jesus is using. The Greek word ‘gehenna’ is a transliteration of the Hebrew ‘ge hinnom’ which does not mean “hell” as we know it, but the “valley of Hinnom,” which is itself a shortened form for the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom. Again, this means basically nothing to us, but to the Hebrews, this is referring to a place hyper-charged with horrific meaning. At the height of the kingdom of Judah’s apostasy, the Valley of Hinnom is where Hebrews made sacrifices to the false-god Molech; not offerings of incense or goats or bulls, but their own children. As devotees of this Canaanite cult, parents would literally throw their own child alive into a pit of fire. This was the location where children were offered to a bloodthirsty demon in one of the most perverted degradations of religion the world has ever seen. And it took place in a valley outside of Jerusalem. During the reforms of the pious King Josiah, described in II Kings, this place was desecrated so that no one could ever do this to their son or daughter again. The Valley of Hinnom was so scarred into the memories of the Hebrew people that the valley was condemned and used as a trash heap. This is what Jesus is referring to when he says it is better to cut off your hand than to be cast into the fiery valley of Hinnom as an offering to a demonic false-god.
So, what does this have to do with the Gospel? From the very beginning of history – sin, reconciliation, and sacrifice have been intertwined with each other. We see it in the Eden narrative: Adam and Eve are tempted to follow the advice of the serpent, are expelled from the Garden, promised that a son of Eve would trample the head of the serpent, and God initiates sacrifices to literally clothe our ancient parents. We see it in the conflict of Cain and Abel where sacrifice, sin, and reconciliation are so closely related that it is easy to accidentally reduce it to mere sibling rivalry and move on. The religion of the Hebrews is built on the idea of sacrifice and reconciliation and, like the distinction between Law and Gospel, is one of the major keys to understanding the Bible. More specifically, it is the key to the three sins focused on by Jesus this morning. When we sin, we are adulterers against our covenant with God. We use our words to defend our sinfulness and oaths to prove our righteousness to ourselves and others. And finally, every time we refuse to reconcile ourselves to our brother or sister, refuse to come before the Lord in penitence, we commit spiritual murder. This is why the Valley of Hinnom is such a powerful symbol: it is the absolute perversion of the sacrificial system God provided his people and a merger of these spiritual sins with a liturgical act of infidelity and murder. But even still, no matter the degree of degradation, the method of salvation cannot be totally obscured. God’s plan remains.
There is one more thing I want to urge you to remember about these words of Jesus: this is an excerpt from a much larger sermon: the Sermon on the Mount. A sermon that begins with the Beatitudes and words of blessing before we get to today’s selection. In the language of our Lutheran forefathers: today we got a heavy dose of Law, but the sermon began with promises. You are blessed when you recognize you are spiritually helpless. You are blessed when you experience real loss and open yourself to God. You are blessed Jesus says. Again and again, you… are … blessed. Then as we heard last week he again blesses us when he says, you are salt; you are light. You are blessed and you are a bless-ING to the world around you. Only after these blessings does he say, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… But I say to you. Beginning with blessing before discussing obedience is not just good psychology, it’s good theology and Jesus knows exactly what he is doing.
We don’t love the Law because preachers tell you to. Nothing Pastor Kris, I, or anyone else can say will make you love the Law. At best, we can make you feel guilt, but we can’t make you love obedience. Similarly, fear of a fiery alternative cannot and will not make you love the Law either. Words cannot exhort you to love the Law and no one can muster the strength to do it on their own. The only thing that can do it is Justification. Yes, that Justification: justification by grace alone through faith alone; the blessing of being justified at nothing more complicated than the promise of Jesus who hears our confession and blesses us. Our repentance brings us closer to Christ who fulfilled the Law. Christ did not murder in his time on earth. Christ did not curse or speak untruth in his time among us. Christ did not abandon, divorce, or ignore his covenant people. And, though we naturally fear the Law, it shows us our sin, shows us the Son, and displays his victory over sin for us. Hold up the Law and we see the true image of the Lamb of God: bloodied and nailed to a tree. Put there by murderers, adulterers, and faithless mockers. It is the Law that points us to life by showing us the One who was faithful when we weren’t and reveals him to be the very Word of God who spoke to Moses in the first place. It is the Law that directs our attention to the Tree of life; the body and the blood nourishing us in the ongoing sacrament at the altar of reconciliation. It is no accident that our churches often place a cross over the altar. This is where Law and Gospel meet. So yes, the Law calls us murderers, adulterers, liars, scum, and faithless sinners and although we like to distance ourselves from this accusation by neatly framing it in theological terms; with openness, we know these things describe our experience in this world and express how we really feel. The painful honesty of the Law both teaches and condemns us in order to direct us to the ultimate Victim of our crimes who continues to pour his life out for each and everyone one of us saying, “Take and eat, I do this for you. You are salt because I nourish you. You are light because I shine my light through you. You are blessed; follow me in the blameless way of the Lord.”
 Personal revision of Collect for Psalm 119 in the Scottish Metrical Psalter, originally composed by Augustin Marlorat.