A better righteousness than that

Sermon for Trinity 6

Exodus 20:1-17  +  Romans 6:3-11  +  Matthew 5:20-26

We just sang Martin Luther’s great hymn on the 10 Commandments.  It fits perfectly with our Scripture readings today, not only with the Old Testament reading from Exodus where the Ten Commandments were originally pronounced from Mt. Sinai, but also with the Gospel.  The commandments teach us what righteousness looks like, what God demands, what men are required to do.  And as you noticed, each stanza of that hymn goes beyond mere superficial obedience.

That’s what Jesus does in the Gospel.  He uses the example here of the Fifth Commandment.  “You shall not murder.”  Well, of course not!  But not murdering does not make you righteous.  The commandments require a better righteousness than that.

Jesus says in the Gospel that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.  The scribes and Pharisees were not murderers; they were not killers.  For that matter, they were not rebellious against their parents, or adulterers or thieves, either. They were “good people,” honest, hard-working citizens, and even more religious than the average Jew.  But listen again to what Jesus says.  Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.  It takes a better righteousness than that.

Jesus goes on to explain.  Yes, murderers will be subject to the judgment.  And that includes those who murder little children inside the womb.  But who else will be subject to the judgment?  Also the one who is angry with his brother for no divinely approved reason.  As the Apostle John writes, “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.”  And who would have guessed that calling your brother a fool or an idiot or a dummy would put you in danger of hell fire?  And yet, it does, says Jesus.

What’s true of the Fifth Commandment is true of all of them.  Honoring father and mother is not just obeying with the hands, but respecting with the heart.  Not committing adultery also means not lusting after anyone or living a life that is less than chaste and honorable.  All the commandments are to be kept with the hands, but also with the heart and with the tongue.  And they are all broken, not only with the hands, but also with the heart and with the tongue.  True righteousness is outward as well as inward.  True righteousness is perfect obedience to the Commandments.

Notice, too, that Jesus emphasizes the commandments that have to do with your neighbor.  You can’t be righteous toward God while being unrighteous toward your neighbor.  If you think you can present an offering to God at His altar or in the offering plate while knowingly sinning against your neighbor, you’re wrong.  If you think you can serve God without making things right with your neighbor, whom you have injured, you’re wrong.  Your offering, your sacrifice to God doesn’t make up for your sins against your neighbor.  God requires a better righteousness than that.

In short, even as modern so-called “Christian” churches back away from God’s commandments and try to legitimize immorality in our world and in our country, Jesus pulls out God’s Commandments and says, here is righteousness! This is what it looks like, and it doesn’t change.  At the same time, those who want to boast about their own righteousness or rely on their own righteousness before God have the rug pulled out from under them by Jesus, too.  He holds up the Commandments as the true mirror that they are, the mirror that reveals one inescapable lesson to everyone:  You are not righteous.  God requires a better righteousness than anything you can provide.

Which is why each stanza of Luther’s hymn on the 10 Commandments ends with the plea, “Have mercy, Lord!”  As the stanza says, “God gave these laws to show therein, O child of man, your life of sin, And help you rightly to perceive How unto God you should live. Have mercy, Lord!”  As we stand before God, the Judge, in His courtroom and His commandments accuse us, and the Judge points to the commandments and says, “These are the charges against you. How do you plead?”  There is only right answer.  “Guilty.”  The Law was given to silence every mouth before God, so that everyone has to concede, “Yes, that is what I was supposed to do.  That is what I should have done, what I should do, and how I should be.  But I have failed.  Have mercy, Lord!”

You must have righteousness to stand before God uncondemned.  The commandments make it plain to every honest person: Righteousness is required, but it can’t come from you.  A better righteousness than that is required.  It has to come from somewhere perfect, from somewhere else.   That “somewhere else” is the theme of the Gospel.

Where it comes from is the cross of Christ.  Where it comes to you from is the altar that gives you His body and blood.  During the distribution today, you will sing, “Jesus, Your blood and righteousness my beauty are, my glorious dress; mid flaming worlds, in these arrayed, With joy shall I lift up my head.”  You will also sing, “Your works, not mine, O Christ, speak gladness to this heart. They tell me all is done; They bid my fear depart. To whom but You, who can alone For sin atone, Lord, shall I flee?”  Or as the final stanza of Luther’s hymn puts it, “Our works cannot salvation gain; They merit only endless pain. Forgive us, Lord! To Christ we fly, Our Mediator on high. Have mercy, Lord!”  That is where the Lord does have mercy—where Christ is.  Christian righteousness does not come from keeping the commandments.  Christian righteousness comes by faith in Christ.

When you repent of your law-breaking, when you see that you have done wrong and deserved God’s wrath and look for somewhere to flee, the Gospel calls out, “Flee to Christ!”  Faith latches onto God’s promise, given to us in Holy Baptism, that all of you who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have put on Christ.  Now there is a better righteousness that covers sin.  There is a life of perfect obedience.  In a human court, you can’t claim someone else’s obedience as your own; you have to have a clean record.  But the Gospel reveals the grace of God that not only allows us to claim Christ’s righteousness as our own, but invites us to do it.  In a human court, no judge can knowingly sentence an innocent man to jail for your disobedience; you have to pay for your own crimes.  But the Gospel says that Christ has paid the price for all and earned forgiveness for all, so that no one who trusts in Him will suffer condemnation.

As for the commandments, you must still do them.  They are God’s will for how we are to love Him and love our neighbor.  The secret is, that only the one who is first righteous by faith in Christ can even begin to keep the commandments.  By faith, we are free from the law’s condemnation. By faith, we are free from our obligation to come up with a righteousness that works before God, because we have received the righteousness of Christ as a free gift.  But we are not free from obeying the law.  We are not free to serve sin again as slaves.

We have been cleansed, forgiven, washed and sanctified by the blood of Christ.  We are finally set free to keep the commandments, not for salvation’s sake, but for God’s sake; not under compulsion, but out of reverence and thanksgiving to God; not to help ourselves, but to help our neighbor; not for the purpose of receiving praise from God or mercy from God, but because we have received God’s mercy.

So now, we return to the Commandments as a guide, not to learn how to enter the kingdom of heaven, but to learn how children of heaven are to behave in this world, how children of heaven are to think and speak and act toward our neighbor.  Jesus commands you to be righteous people, and He teaches you in His commandments what righteousness looks like.  It looks like fearing, loving and trusting in God above all things, honoring His name and not misusing it, honoring His Word and the preaching of it and gladly hearing it and learning it.  It looks like honoring parents and others in authority.  It looks like kind words and thoughts toward your neighbor, and hands that are ready, never to hurt, but always to help him in every bodily need.  It looks like Christians living chaste and decent lives, honoring the marriage bed as defined by God, spouses loving and honoring each other.  It looks like Christians respecting their neighbor’s property and even helping him to improve it.  It looks like Christians preserving their neighbor’s reputation, even at the expense of their own.  It looks like Christians being glad for their neighbor’s prosperity, not jealous or covetous of his house or his things.

Only Christians can begin to live a righteous life like that, because only Christians—only believers in Christ are being renewed daily by the Holy Spirit in our New Man.  Only Christians have our conscience cleansed before God by the blood of Christ, so that we are covered before God in the righteousness of Christ.  There is no better righteousness than that.  Amen.

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