Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity
Matthew 5:17-26 + Exodus 20:1-17 + Romans 6:1-11
You heard the Ten Commandments proclaimed to you from Mt. Sinai this morning. Did you tremble as Israel trembled when they first heard the commandments? No? Why not? Granted, there is no fire here or peals of thunder or billows of smoke – no loud trumpet blast, no voice booming down from the mountain at you. Just words read from a page, right? You’ve heard them before. Still, you know these words to be God’s words. You know these commandments to be God’s commandments. Why wouldn’t you tremble when you hear them?
There are only three possible answers to that question. Either you don’t think God’s commandments have to be kept, or you think that you have kept them.
Israel fell into both ways of thinking throughout their history. In a little over a month after they were given the Ten Commandments, they stopped trembling. They figured God wasn’t so serious after all about his commandments, they didn’t really have to be kept, he wouldn’t punish just a little idolatry, now, would he? But, of course, they were wrong.
Then you had people like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day who didn’t tremble at God’s commandments, because they thought they were keeping God’s commandments, and then some. After all, they prayed to God all the time and they weren’t stealing people’s money like the tax collectors or committing prostitution or murdering anybody. They figured they didn’t need to tremble before God’s commandments. But, of course, they were wrong.
Do you fall into either of those categories? If you don’t think God’s commandments have to be kept, if you think maybe God wasn’t so serious after all with his command to be holy like him, to obey his holy laws, to love him above all things and to love your neighbor as yourself, if you think God will tolerate even one sin against his commandments, if you think you can see the kingdom of heaven without God’s commandments being perfectly kept, if you think Jesus came to tell you, “It’s all right. Don’t worry about it. You don’t have to keep God’s Commandments,” then you’re wrong. And you should tremble.
Or, if you think that you have kept them, if you see yourself as a “good person,” if you honestly believe that you have lived your life in harmony with the Ten Commandments, because, after, all, you pray and you haven’t murdered anyone, if you think that all you need Jesus for is to iron out a few wrinkles and cover over a few minor blemishes in your commandment-keeping record, then you’re wrong. And you should tremble.
Jesus makes it abundantly clear in today’s Gospel: God’s Law must be fulfilled.
God’s Law must be fulfilled by man, for salvation.
Some people were wondering in Jesus’ day whether maybe he had come to do away with the Law Moses had given, but Jesus denied that. No, the law is good. I have not come to abolish it but to fulfill it. Every sentence of the law is binding on mankind, every phrase, every word. When God says, “You shall not!”, then you must not. When God says, “You shall!”, then you’d better.
God’s commandments must be kept. And they must be kept far better than most people imagine. For I tell you, Jesus says, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Remember, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were outwardly good, religious people. They were not criminals or adulterers or murderers. “Not good enough,” Jesus says. That’s not good enough for man to be saved. God’s commandments require far more than that.
He goes on to give an example from the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not murder.” Well, fine, everyone knows that. But what not everyone knows, what Jesus revealed to his disciples, was that the commandment, “You shall not murder,” also requires, “You shall not hate your neighbor, or become angry with him, or utter cruel words against him.” All these things, Jesus says, make a person subject to eternal judgment in hell.
“You shall not murder” also requires, “you shall show kindness to your neighbor, help and befriend him in every bodily need. And if you injure him in any way, don’t bother bringing an offering to God’s altar. You go and make things right with your neighbor first, even if your neighbor is your enemy.”
That’s what it looks like to keep just the Fifth Commandment. So no more pretending, if you are still pretending, that the Ten Commandments are really the Ten Suggestions, that they are optional, that God is not serious about having them kept. No more pretending that you have actually kept them, because you know what it is to hate. You know what it is to get angry with someone, and harbor bitterness in your heart, to harm someone and then figure you don’t have to make it right. The law must be fulfilled by man for salvation. But you have not kept it.
There is one who has. His name is Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, born of a woman, born under the law to redeem those who were under the law. He said it himself: I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. Every time God’s law said, “You shall!,” he did. And every time God’s law said, “You shall not!”, he did not. Here is the righteousness that God’s law requires. Here is the righteousness that counts in God’s sight.
Good for him? No, good for you. God gave his Son to you and to all as a Substitute, as a fill-in Man to stand in the place of mankind before God. Since no man could be found who could fulfill God’s law, God made his Son to be The Man who would fulfill the Law for our salvation, to offer us his righteousness as a covering, so that you could stand before God – holy and innocent and righteous, through faith in Christ Jesus.
We call it vicarious obedience, foreign righteousness. That means, it’s the obedience of a substitute, the righteousness of another Person by which God judges you who believe in Jesus. When God calls on you to repent, he means that a change in your thinking should take place. Stop thinking that it’s OK to disobey God’s commandments, stop thinking that you’ve kept them well enough to offer God any of your own righteousness. And trust instead in the foreign righteousness, the vicarious obedience and the vicarious suffering and death of Jesus for your salvation. For all who trust in him, there is only forgiveness and righteousness, and life.
You know when he covered you with his righteousness like a set of clean, white clothes. It’s when you were baptized. Someone asked me recently, “Pastor, if our sins were forgiven when we were baptized, why do we still have to be reminded of our sins all the time?” I’ll make a deal with you. When you stop sinning, I’ll stop reminding you of your sins. When you are no longer in danger of falling into temptation, I’ll stop warning you about falling into temptation. When your sinful nature is destroyed and the devil stops trying to convince you to rely on yourself and your righteousness instead of relying on Christ and his righteousness, then I’ll stop talking about sin. But until then – and I hope you know that “then” is when you leave this earthly life – until then I will remind you of your sin and keep calling on you to repent and keep looking to Christ for forgiveness, because that’s what it means to live in your baptism.
We say in our small catechism, Baptism means that the Old Adam (the Old Man) in us should be drowned by daily contrition and repentance, and that all its evil deeds and desires be put to death. It also means that a new person should daily arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Where is this written?
It’s written in the words you heard in the Second Lesson today. St. Paul says in Romans, chapter 6, “We were… buried with [Christ] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
And how do we live a new life? Well, there are the Ten Commandments to guide us. The law must be fulfilled by man for salvation. But we haven’t fulfilled it, so God sent The Man, Jesus Christ, to fulfill the law for us and for our salvation. Now the law must still be fulfilled, by the new man God has created in us, not for salvation, but because it’s God’s will; it’s what he wants.
And it’s what the new man wants, too. The new man in us who believe never hears God say, “You shall not!”, and then says, “Hmmm, yeah, I think I will.” The new man in us who believe never hears God say, “You shall!”, and then answers, “Um, no, I don’t think I will. I’m forgiven, so, I don’t have to. God has forgiven me, so I don’t have to worry what kind of impact my words or deeds have on my neighbor. I don’t have to make up for anything I’ve said or done. I don’t have to help my neighbor in his need.” That’s how sin talks. But as Paul said to the Romans, “You died to sin! How can you live in it any longer?” No, the new man hears and responds to God’s commandments differently.
You may recall that, at the beginning of the sermon, I mentioned that there are three possible answers to the question, “Why would you not tremble when you hear God’s commandments?” I only mentioned two possibilities: because you don’t think they have to be kept, or because you think you have kept them. Here’s the third possibility: You don’t tremble at God’s commandments, because you know they must be kept and you haven’t kept them, and that’s not OK. But you also know that Jesus has kept them for you and shields you by his blood from your well-deserved punishment.
So you who believe in Jesus can use God’s commandments rightly. Use the commandments – know them, recite them, meditate on them in order to crush your sinful nature every day, to show you your need for a Savior, and then to guide you in the things you must do today and the things you must avoid tomorrow, not in order to be saved, not in order to become a child of God, but because you are a baptized child of God, because you are saved through faith in Christ Jesus, and as God’s children, reborn and recreated in the image of Christ, you no longer hear God’s commandments as a threat, but you take it as a simple reality: The law of God must be fulfilled! Amen.