Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sixth Sunday of Epiphany
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Part of the liturgy in many denominations is a moment of reconciliation between people. It is called “Passing the peace.” This has become a time to shake the hands of those sitting next to us, to wish them well and perhaps even ask about their kids. It often takes more time than it should as the worship leader had difficulty getting everyone to settle back into their seats. I know that on many Sundays I have chased after my friends to give them a hug and tell them how pleased I am to see them. This isn’t a bad thing, although it is not really the purpose of that time in the liturgy.

Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel lesson, “If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Passing the peace is about reconciliation. It is about restoring our relationships with one another before we stand before God.

Last week we heard a text from Isaiah in which God asked, “Is this the fast that I have chosen? A day for a man to humble his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under himself? Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to Yahweh?” God was calling our attention to the ways we think we are honoring Him, but in reality we are ignoring the ways we should do so. “Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Isn’t it to distribute your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor who are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you not hide yourself from your own flesh?” Jesus has added to this these expectations that the right way to live is not found in our offerings to God, but in our reconciliation with one another.

See, we think it is enough to attend church on Sunday and throw a twenty in the offering plate, but are we truly worshipping the Lord when we sit in our pew grumbling about our neighbors? It is usually not very hard to avoid the conflicts in our lives, whatever the reason. We can sneak out the back door or go the other way when we see them across the room. I have known too many Christians who sneak out of worship as soon as they receive communion, not because they have somewhere they need to be but because they want to avoid someone in the congregation.

Our Father wants us to be reconciled, to live in peace with one another.

The joke regularly made after I’ve mentioned this true reason for passing the peace is that everyone is going to watch me. “We’ll know something is up if we see you cross to the other side of the sanctuary!” We don’t really want to make such a public demonstration of our brokenness, and so we pass the peace to those who are nearby and continue to ignore the conflicts that are causing us to lose sight of our God. See, brokenness in our everyday life and world is magnified in our relationship with God. We can’t hate a neighbor and love God; this is why God wants us to lay down our offering and reconcile.

Here’s the hard part of this lesson: in most of our conflicts there is not just one person at fault. Jesus says, “If you remember your brother has something against you...” This text is calling the guilty to be the initiator. Yet, how often do we wait until the other initiates the reconciliation because we believe they hold the greater guilt in the manner? We think we are innocent in the matter. Listen to the arguments on the day time court shows and you’ll see just that. One litigant refused to pay because the other did something wrong. The other litigant will tell you that they did that thing because the other didn’t pay. It is a vicious circle. How do we forgive someone who hasn’t repented? How do they forgive us when we don’t do so?

There is a place to argue that we should not forgive without repentance, but the reality is that reconciliation is a two way street. Instead of running to the other side of the sanctuary to make peace with our neighbor, we should be meeting in the middle because we are all sinners in need of Jesus to make things right.

We have a choice. We can hold the grudges that keep us apart from our brothers and sisters, or we can pass the peace and find common ground in the reality of our need for God’s grace.

The Old Testament lesson comes at the end of the Exodus story. The Israelites were wandering in circles throughout the wilderness for forty years because they broke their relationship with God. A whole generation passed and the new generation finally reached the Promised Land. They were standing on the far side of the river preparing to see the promise made to their forefathers fulfilled. Moses gave them one final message before they crossed. They made the choice once when offered the opportunity to be saved from Egypt. The choice was easy then: stay in slavery or go to the Promised Land. They overwhelmingly chose to go forward into God’s promises. Yet, that first generation did not stay faithful. They turned from God along the way. That’s why they wandered for forty years. They made their choice to not trust God and they suffered the consequences.

But now a new generation stood on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to cross over. The next part of their journey would take even more trust. Joshua would have to lead the people in a parade around Jericho instead of into a battle. They would have to destroy everything according to God’s command. They would have to fight with ridiculously small armies. They would have to follow directions that made no sense at all.

“Behold, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and evil. For I command you today to love Yahweh your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances, that you may live and multiply, and that Yahweh your God may bless you in the land where you go in to possess it.” Moses called God’s people to commit to a life of obedience to God.

Sometimes they obeyed, and when they did, they succeeded. But sometimes they made another choice. They went another way. They did their own thing, and in doing so chose destruction. We aren’t any different. We go our own way too often; we choose to follow our flesh rather than God’s grace. Our lives may appear good because we haven’t murdered anyone, slept with our neighbor’s spouse or gone to court over defamatory statements about our neighbors. But who among us can say we haven’t been unrighteously angry or overcome with lust? Who among us can say we have never called someone a fool?

When they followed His direction, decisions and rules, they succeeded. When they did not, they knew only failure. God held them in the midst of it, but they suffered destruction and death along the way. He restored them each time, reminded them of the promise and re-instructed them on His commands, decrees and ordinances.

Psalm 119 is the longest book of the bible with 176 verses. It is divided into twenty-two sections, each one representing a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The psalm speaks of the law over and over again in many and various ways. What we do not see in our English (and perhaps other language) translations is that it is an elaborate acrostic poem, with the verses of each stanza beginning with the same letter. It is devotional in character, perhaps used as a learning tool for instruction on godliness. The writer may have been a priest who was passionately devoted to the Word of God; he also humbly acknowledges his own failure to live up to it.

To many, including those who put less focus on the Law, the 176 verses seem very repetitious. Each stanza uses many synonyms for the word Law. If you compare the texts from different translations, you will find that there are dozens of different words used like, “statutes,” “ordinances,” “testimonies,” “precepts,” “commandments,” “decrees,” “laws,” and “word.” While this psalm might seem unduly focused on obedience, we see within the stanzas repeated reminders of God’s promises. The one who lives according to God’s Word will be blessed with life, salvation, protection and provision.

If we look at this passage in Hebrew, we’ll see even more depth to what is being taught. The law words are very different, and each of the stanzas of 119 has a unique focus on living according to God’s Law. The first stanza promises God’s blessing on those who walk according to God’s Law.

The first verse sets us on the right path; it talks about being blessed by the Torah, the instruction or teaching of God. Those who do so are blessed because doing so leaves us blameless. They are also blessed who seek with their whole hearts to know God’s story. The second verse may use translations like statutes or commands, but the Hebrew shows that those who seek to know God’s story, His testimony, with their whole hearts will be blessed. In the third verse, we see that those who walk on the path God has established will do nothing wrong. He gives us the Law to keep us right with Him, so in the fourth verse we are called to obey God’s authority. The psalmist cries for help to stay on that right path in verse five. The word here, often translated statutes or decrees is about limitations or boundaries. We ask God to help us stay on that right path because when we do, we won’t be disappointed. Our failure to live up to God often ends in destruction and death, but obedience to entire body of God’s Law - word, command, promise, instruction, testimony, authority, scripture and most especially the Word made flesh - will bring us blessing. Verse seven reminds us that God’s judgment is right. We can and should give thanks to the God who has set on us His path. The psalmist promises to stay within the limits of God’s Law and prays that God will always be there.

We can rest in the knowledge that God will always be there and trust Him to lead us in the right path. We can trust that as we walk according to God’s Law, He will bless us and we will make the choices that lead to life.

Jesus seems to make it so hard for us. He commands not only that we obey the Law, but that we live in grace. He desires more than a life of obedience; He calls us to reconciliation. He knows our hearts and our temptations. It is so easy for us to respond to our anger by voicing our hostility. After all, we learn from a very early age that words can’t hurt us. And yet, Jesus tells the disciples that they are in danger of the hell of fire for calling someone a fool. The problem is not the words; the problem is the broken relationship. Murder is final, but even harsh words can destroy a relationship. We are called to live better; we are called to a life of peace. We can only do that when we are reconciled with our brother, despite the foolish things we all do when we fall to the temptations of our flesh.

The most important relationship that is affected by our sin is our relationship with God. Sin separates us from our Father in heaven, but thankfully God has breached the gap by sending His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to die on the cross. Now God sees our sin through Jesus-colored glasses, forgiving us each time we fail. It is only in forgiveness that we can be reconciled to God, because without Him it is impossible for us to live according to His Word. The same is true of our relationships with people. We can only be reconciled through forgiveness. We need to forgive one another and ourselves of the sins that destroy our relationships. We need to be reconciled before we will be able to present our gifts to God with a right heart.

Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on Galatians, “Works indeed are good, and God strictly requires them of us, but they do not make us holy.” We humbly approach these texts with the reality of our sinfulness. We will fail. We will break the commandments. We will destroy relationships, with God and with our neighbors. But we come to these texts with a promise: even when we fail, Christ has forgiven. He has reconciled us to God so that we can reconcile with our neighbors.

Jesus came to fulfill everything God promised in and through the Law. He came to help us reach the final destination. The Israelites may have crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, but a greater promise lay ahead: the restoration of God’s people to Him for eternity. How do we get there? How do we keep going forward? We love and trust God because He is our life.

Jesus’ word for us today is hard. It is easy to say that we haven’t killed anyone, but quite frankly I don’t know anyone who doesn’t get angry once in a while. A story is told about D. L. Moody, the evangelist, who was almost always an example of Christian love and charity. He was known to have a temper, but he kept it in check. Once, however, he was disturbed by a heckler and he lost it. In his anger he shoved the man down a short flight of stairs. The man was not harmed, but the tone of the evening was damaged because so many had witnessed his outburst. Anger can destroy lives as badly as murder.

The same is true of lust. Perhaps this is truer in our day and age when it is so easy to become involved in non-physical adulterous relationships. How many marriages are failing today because of online romances and virtual intercourse? Unfaithfulness is not just a physical action, but it is a turning of the heart. When one is unfaithful to a spouse by lusting after another, one has walked down the wrong path.

This is not easy. There are perfectly valid reasons to get angry. Perhaps the attacker had said something that could ruin his reputation? What if the detractor said something libelous? We don’t know what made him lose control, but it may have been something we would quickly justify in our own lives. But Mr. Moody knew he was wrong. When the meeting began, he apologized. “Friends, before beginning tonight I want to confess that I yielded just now to my temper, out in the hall, and have done wrong. Just as I was coming in here tonight, I lost my temper with a man, and I want to confess my wrong before you all, and if that man is present here whom I thrust away in anger, I want to ask his forgiveness and God’s. Let us pray.” Moody crossed the sanctuary and passed the peace with the one who had something against him.

We will fail. We certainly should try to live up to the expectations of the Law and Jesus. We’ll get angry. We will lust over someone. We will fail. I suppose that’s why we have such a hard time with these texts. He sounds so very unforgiving in this passage. He tells us we won’t get out of prison until we’ve paid our debt and that we should rid ourselves of our eyes if they cause us to look at someone with lust. This is not good news, and it doesn’t seem as though Jesus is giving us a way out.

We come to these texts knowing that Jesus has completed the work and that His forgiveness is ours. The text for today comes out of a larger body of words; it is an isolated scripture that is read in light of the rest. In this passage Jesus challenges us to be what God intends us to be because He knows the consequences of our failure. Anger can get us into deeper trouble. Adultery can destroy lives. Breaking our promises can lead us down a path of darkness and death. And so we come to the knowledge of our failure with the promise of forgiveness.

Moses told God’s people to love God, walk in His ways and keep His commands, decrees and laws. The psalmist shows us the many ways that God’s Word touches our life and the many ways we can be obedient. When we follow God’s Law, we will keep on the right path and we will know God’s blessing. It might be difficult to read these texts because they are so law-focused, but sometimes we need to hear God’s voice so we know the direction that He wants us to go.

I can’t imagine what it was like to be in Corinth in Paul’s day. Well, perhaps I can, because we continue to do the same things. There were factions in the church of Corinth, each following a specific teacher. One followed Paul and another followed Apollos. They were missing the foundation of both their ministries, and they were condemning one another in the process. He writes, “For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s farming, God’s building.” The trouble that was happening in Corinth is that the people were following individuals. One group believed the Gospel from Apollos’ point of view. Another followed Paul’s witness. They weren’t looking to God, but to man.

That is, perhaps, our greatest problem. We look to ourselves, to our opinions, to our points of view for guidance, when God has something completely different in mind. We get so caught up in what we want that we miss what God has for us. The Israelites followed God out of Egypt, but it didn’t take them very long to realize that the path was going to be hard, and they stopped looking to God. They wanted to turn around and go back to Egypt. How often do we start following God but when the going gets rough we decide to turn around? We think, “This way is better.” Or, “God could not have made this decision.” Or “I can’t go forward.” And then we end up going in the wrong direction. And when we end up going in the wrong direction, we find ourselves suffering the consequences of our actions.

Paul wanted to teach the Corinthians a deeper understanding of God. He wanted to them to live a fuller, richer faith. He wanted them to know God’s Word, and God’s Law, in a new, richer way. However, they were not yet ready for spiritual understanding. They were still caught up in the world. He continued to teach them the basics of Christianity, even though they should have been moving on to deeper things; instead of having the heart of Christ, they were living according to their flesh. And their flesh was sinful. Paul writes, “Brothers, I couldn’t speak to you as to spiritual, but as to fleshly, as to babies in Christ. I fed you with milk, not with meat; for you weren’t yet ready. Indeed, not even now are you ready, for you are still fleshly. For insofar as there is jealousy, strife, and factions among you, aren’t you fleshly, and don’t you walk in the ways of men?” They were following the wrong path, making the wrong choices. They were choosing death rather than life.

The psalmist writes, “Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to Yahweh’s law.” We aren’t blameless, and I can’t imagine any of us will be so in this life. We might get beyond the milk to the solid food to which Paul refers, but we will still do things that will satisfy our flesh and follow the paths that lead us in the wrong direction. We’ll still get angry or have lustful hearts. But we can try to live as God has called us to live, to follow His commandments and be obedient to His Word. We do this not of our own volition, but by the grace of God. He makes us perfect. He leads the way. He loves us with a gracious and forgiving love and calls us to do the same with our neighbors. The more we dwell in this grace, the less we will fail. The deeper we love God, the more we will be able to cross that sanctuary to pass the peace with the person to whom we need to be reconciled. Then we can approach God and present our offerings with a right heart.

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