Pastor’s Sermon

EPIPHANY 6—2-16-20—MATTHEW 5:21-37

There’s an Instagram feed called @overheardinnewyork that lists some strange quotes from actual conversations that people have overheard in the Big Apple. One quote goes like this: “Everyone knew she was crazy but me . . . even my parking garage attendant asked me, ‘What happened to that crazy lady you were dating?’”  Doesn’t it make you wish you had heard the rest of the conversation?

Sometimes when we read the Bible, it feels like we’re walking into the middle of a conversation. We cannot understand certain passages unless we understand their context—the first part of the conversation. We do not want to base our understanding of God on a Bible verse taken out of context. Taking a Bible verse out of context does not lead to a true understanding of God. For today’s Bible passage, it’s especially important to understand the first part of the conversation.

As we saw last week, Jesus starts off his public teaching by telling people that their righteousness must exceed that of their religious leaders. Now Jesus that has everybody’s attention, he is challenging everything they think they know about their religion. And so the scene is set for today’s lesson. He begins, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.

Whoa, it’s difficult to feel self-righteousness when even your thoughts are under scrutiny. Jesus is saying it’s a sin to even harbor an angry thought. He adds that if you even look at a woman lustfully you have already committed adultery with her in your heart. That’s extreme. What hope is there for anyone?

It’s like a mother who was helping her son one day with his spelling assignment and they came to the words conscious and conscience. She asked her son, “Do you know the difference between these two words—conscious and conscience?”

He said, “Sure, Mom. Conscious is when you are aware of something. And, conscience is when you wish you weren’t.”

Everyone listening to Jesus that day suddenly became aware of the depth of their sins. Now they realized they were all guilty in the sight of God. They were feeling good about themselves because they had never murdered, or stolen, or committed adultery. But Jesus says that sin goes far deeper than overt action. It involves the inner attitude that leads up to that action.

You see, Jesus is saying that sin does not start where we think it does. Sin does not start with an action. Sin starts with a decision—the decision that our life is our own and that God has no business interfering with our desires. If you think sin begins and ends with your outward actions, you are fooling yourself. No one wakes up one day and decides to commit murder. The act of murder starts with contempt or hatred or envy or anger or resentment or pride. It thrives in the heart that does not take God seriously. The same is true of every other sin as well.

On the night of August 21, 1986, the villagers of Nyos, Cameroon heard what sounded like a rumbling noise coming from the lower valley near Lake Nyos. The next morning, almost every person in the village—around 1,800 people—lay dead. Even cattle that grazed near Lake Nyos were dead. And the tranquil blue lake had turned a strange shade of red. The grief and confusion were overwhelming.

Scientists from around the world came to Nyos to research this tragic mystery. They finally concluded that a build-up of carbon dioxide gas on the bottom of the lakebed had caused the tragedy. Carbon dioxide is released from the melting and cooling of rocks. Lakes that are near volcanoes are prone to have carbon dioxide under the water. But most lakes release the carbon dioxide at a slow and steady rate. Not Lake Nyos. The deadly gas built up on the bottom of the lakebed over many years, until suddenly it exploded like a can of soda pop that has been shaken up. The gases reached the surface and formed a toxic cloud, instantly killing 1,800 villagers.

The power of sin, the power of hate and anger and lust and pride and greed and selfishness are deadly. They are the toxic gas that builds up at the bottom of our hearts and minds and then explodes into tragic action one day. The same anger that causes us to stop speaking to a neighbor is the seed of domestic violence and school shootings and genocide. The same greed that causes us to hoard our money for luxuries and ignore the needs of the world is the seed of organized crime networks and slave labor operations. What separates you or me from the warlord or the mass murderer? We carry the same seed of sin within us. Examine your own hearts, Jesus is saying. How thin is the line between the thought and the act? We may be acting like a follower of Jesus, but if our heart and mind are not ruled by the spirit of God, then we are still in moral and spiritual danger.

Jesus says that sin does not start where you think it does. But he is also saying sin does not end where you think it does either. Look at verses 23-25. Jesus is saying that if we are really going to be at peace with God, then we must also be at peace with one another.

Let that sink in. You think your sin is only between you and God? We all bear the image of God. If we are in conflict with each other, then we are in conflict with God. The gift Jesus is referring to in our gospel is the sacrificial animal laid on the altar and killed to atone for a person’s sins. But Jesus is saying, “Forget about the sacrifice! Go deal with the sin. Humble yourself, confess, repent, reach out, be reconciled.”

Worship is being in the presence of a holy God, and the greatest sacrifice we can bring to a holy God is a pure heart. Some folks sitting in pews each week wonder why they don’t experience the joy and peace that flows from heartfelt worship. Could it be that they need to be reconciled with a brother or sister? Is there a conversation they’ve been putting off?

Rev. Nathan D. Baxter, the Dean of the Washington National Cathedral, tells of growing up in a family of strong-willed brothers. As you can imagine, the brothers got into all sorts of arguments and fights with each other. Usually the arguments would blow over, but sometimes Nathan’s mother had to get involved. And she always had the same formula for ending any kind of fight or argument: “You boys go back and resolve it,” she would say, “and remember you are brothers.” It did not matter what they were fighting about. It did not matter who was at fault. Her command was always the same: “You boys go back and resolve it, and remember you are brothers.”

Reconciliation matters more than religion. That is the clear meaning of Jesus’ teaching. We want to believe that worship means coming to church for one hour each week and sacrifice means teaching the third-grade Sunday school class. But Jesus is saying here that reconciliation and unity are spiritual acts of sacrifice and worship. They require more than just showing up. They require humility and confessing our sins to one another and repentance and forgiveness and grace. All the things that Jesus came to teach us. 

Jesus has already shaken up the crowd by telling them that sin doesn’t begin where they think it does; neither does it end where they think it does. The final point he is making here is that the starting and ending point of righteousness is living with the heart and mind of God within our souls. We need to be so full of God’s spirit that there is no room for such things as angry thoughts, or lustful thoughts, or greed.

Author Max Lucado experienced some heart problems a few years ago, so his doctor recommended what is known as a catheter ablation procedure. As he was being wheeled into the surgery prep room, Lucado began joking around with the surgeon.

“You’re burning the interior of my heart, right?” said Lucado

“Correct,” said the doctor.

“You intend to kill the misbehaving cells, yes?” Lucado continued.  

“That is my plan,” the surgeon nodded.

“As long as you are in there,” asked Lucado, probably with a twinkle in his eye, “could you take your little blow-torch to some of my greed, selfishness, superiority, and guilt?”

The surgeon smiled. “Sorry,” he said, “that’s above my pay grade.”We are a self-centered people. Purifying our hearts and cleansing them from sin is above our pay grade too. We need God’s Spirit within for that. We need to spend more time with God, more time in worship, in prayer, in repentance, in obedience, in acts of service. And as our love for God grows, then we will begin to think with the mind of God and respond with the heart of God. That is the starting and ending point of all that God means for us to be.