February 11 & 12, 2017 Epiphany 6
Matthew 5: 27-32
Dear friends in Christ Jesus:
In working with couples planning their wedding service, I, sometimes in jest, suggest Hymn 127 as a great piece for the processional. Hymn 127 is the Lenten hymn, “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted” (CW 127). In all seriousness, one of the stanzas of that hymn begins, “If you think of sin but lightly, nor suppose the evil great, here you see its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate.” To put that in plain English: If you think sin is no big deal, if you think of sin but lightly, then look at the hellish suffering Jesus endured to remove sin’s guilt from you.
That line came to mind as I prepared today’s sermon. In our Gospel reading, taken from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we have a very hard-hitting, soul-searching section that is bound to make you shift and squirm in your seat. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount gives us a very sober and serious examination of what sin does to a person’s heart and life. If You Think of Sin But Lightly, Jesus warns us, then realize the damage it can do to you, and realize the damage it can do to others.
This is the third of four Sundays in a row where the Gospel comes from Matthew chapter five and Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus has a certain pattern he uses in this chapter as he moves from one matter to the next. Each section begins, “You have heard it said…but I say to you.” Jesus first quotes the Old Testament or the rabbis’ interpretation of the Old Testament, but then he goes on to explain the full force of the Old Testament’s laws and commands which the religious teachers of his day missed so often.
At the start of the section we are considering today, Jesus shows the full extent of what God intends with the Sixth Commandment. “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.” Someone putting their own spin on the Sixth Commandment might assume that he has obeyed it because he hasn’t had an affair. But Jesus teaches that the sins against this commandment are not just the outward actions but even the inward thoughts of the heart. Jesus treats lustful thoughts as actual sin, not just some possible evil. Sins of the heart are just as much “sin” as sins in words or actions.
And yet even God’s people are prone to treat sin lightly. And so Jesus goes on to explain the great lengths one should undergo to avoid sin’s deadly destructiveness. “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.” Jesus is speaking in hyperbole. He’s overstating his case to make a point. Gouging out eyes and chopping off limbs is not his goal. His goal is to get us to understand that anything and everything that leads us into sin must be removed from our lives!
And why does he speak with such stark boldness? Because if we think of sin but lightly, if we fail to remove the sinful influences that lure us from him, we are gambling with our eternal salvation. As Proverbs 6:27 says, “Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned?” Can we play with sin’s temptations without sin doing serious damage to our souls? Sin, if not repented of, damns to hell.
The problem comes in when we don’t take sin seriously. Oh, we take sin seriously when it’s someone else’s sin. “Oh, how awful! Why would he do such a thing?” But we need to take sin just as seriously when it is our sin. 1 Peter 5:8 describes the devil as “a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” But our sinful nature pictures Satan as a harmless little kitty cat. If you think of sin but lightly, listen up carefully! Those smutty websites you visit are dragging you into hell. That gossip you delight in is dragging you into hell. The resentfulness and hatred you harbor in your heart is dragging you into hell. That me-first selfishness that throws the leftovers into God’s offering plate is dragging you into hell. Your lukewarm attitude about God’s Word and prayer is dragging you into hell.
If you think of sin but lightly, Jesus drags you by the arm up the volcanic mountain of God’s wrath and has you peer from the top down into the fiery hellish lava beneath, and he turns to you and says with spine shivering seriousness: “Why do you think of sin so lightly! This is what your sins deserve!”
And then he jumps in.
For all the times we have thought of sin lightly, Jesus took sin seriously and willingly threw himself into hell’s fierce flames and punishment as he hung on the cross. For all the times our eyes have lusted and our lips have lied and our hearts have harbored hatred for others and apathy toward God, for all the times we have thought of sin lightly, Jesus dealt with our sin with full seriousness. He lived a perfect life, and by his sacrifice on the cross he saved us from the punishment for sin that would have condemned us forever.
Why does Jesus warn us about sin so sternly? Because he loves you so deeply! Because he has already done everything to forgive your sins. He has brought you to faith in him and he wants nothing, absolutely nothing, to undo the work of salvation that his death and resurrection have accomplished. So if you think of sin but lightly, then view his sacrifice for you clearly, repent sincerely, and in his forgiveness, take his warnings to heart fully.
As we move on in our reading, Jesus brings up another Sixth Commandment topic, the matter of divorce. He starts out with a similar comparison, although this time he does not start out with an Old Testament quotation but with a common misinterpretation of God’s moral law: “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.” The rabbis of Jesus’ day did not teach what Scripture taught. They permitted divorce for just about any reason. Some said that if a man found any reason to be displeased with his wife, he could divorce her. Others said that if a man found another woman that he wanted for his wife, he could divorce his present wife. The rabbis seemed only to be concerned with following the proper process, not the proper will of God.
Jesus’ words in this matter show that one person’s sin can damage another. Most English translations are misleading. “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.” It sounds like the innocent party in the divorce case is sinning. It is difficult to translate the grammar of this sentence into smooth English, but what Jesus is getting at is that a husband who unjustly divorces his wife makes his wife appear to be guilty of adultery, and a man who then marries the woman might also appear to be guilty of adultery even though he is not. Jesus’ meaning here shows concern that innocent parties are not made to look like they are guilty of sin when they are not. Someone may observe the divorce and the new marriage from a distance and think, “Oh, this is the reason the marriage broke up. This is the man who broke up the marriage.” Jesus’ concern is that sinful actions by one person could do damage to others.
God has given us the Eighth Commandment for a reason. He devotes an entire commandment to protecting people’s reputations. When we fail to do that, we can inflect serious damage to another person unfairly. Children, when you are at school you do serious harm to your classmates when you think they’re “weird” and call them names or make fun of them just because they’re different than you are. And unfortunately we adults don’t always give up those childish ways. We also jump to conclusions about others when we only have a fraction of information about them. We can assume someone is rude or uncaring or faithless or a host of other hurtful assumptions. And what good comes from these assumptions? None at all!
Reputations are sensitive. That is why God protects them with their own commandment. That is why it is such a crime to God when we think of sin but lightly and allow our words and actions to damage another person.
But Jesus did not take our sin lightly. He went to the cross and endured the fires of hell for you because he was concerned for your status, not your status or reputation before the world, but your status before his Father in heaven. Jesus shed his blood on Calvary’s cross and has now sent his Spirit into your heart so that your eternal status before God would not be “condemned sinner,” but “redeemed and loved saint.”
Jesus was frequently described as someone who preached with great authority, not as the other teachers of his day. And he does! He teaches with an authority that doesn’t redefine sin, but that exposes and condemns sin. But he also showers us with a love that removes sin, not by removing us from his presence, but by removing sin’s guilt from our hearts in his eyes. Washed in his blood, forgiven by his cross, adopted at his font and fed at his altar, how can we “think of sin but lightly”? How we are motivated by our forgiving Lord to fight against sin. Amen.