Your righteousness will never be good enough

Sermon for Trinity 6

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

“You’re not good enough.”  No one ever likes to hear that, do they? You’re not good enough to be on the soccer team or the baseball team.  You’re not good enough to make the honor roll, to advance to the next grade, to get a certain job.  You’re not good enough to be my friend, or my spouse, or my child.  It hurts to hear that you’re not good enough.

Now, sometimes people will go to church to hear that they are good enough, just the way they are, and false churches will tell people just that.  Come right on in! You’re good enough for God, and we’ll show you how you can be even better!  It’s good marketing strategy, actually.

Jesus didn’t care about marketing strategy.  Instead, he used the worst marketing strategy known to man.  He told people the truth.  It wasn’t attractive. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t exciting.  And it surely wasn’t flattering.  But it was honest.  And in that honesty lies the only hope for mankind.

Jesus came along in his Sermon on the Mount and announced to his hearers, including us, that we are not—and never will be—good enough to get to heaven. Your righteousness will never be good enough for God.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

You heard the first “sermon on the mount” in the Old Testament reading today as the Lord God thundered down the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai.  The “wisdom” of the day back in Jesus’ day was that those commandments were the guide for getting into the kingdom of heaven, and no one kept those commandments better than the Jewish scribes and Pharisees.  They were the good people, the righteous people, the law-keepers in everyone’s eyes, especially their own.

And here comes Jesus telling the crowds that it wasn’t good enough.  You need a better righteousness than the Scribes and Pharisees have if you ever want to get into the kingdom of heaven.  As we learn in our catechism, the Ten Commandments preach repentance.  They show us our sin and how much we need a Savior.

Jesus illustrated his point by taking just one of the Ten Commandments (in our Gospel) and opening it up to reveal to the people just what all was included in it.  It’s the one we’ve numbered the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not murder.”  Jesus honors Moses, the Law-giver, or in reality, God, who gave the Law through Moses.  He treats the Law as something holy.  He does what the Apostle Paul says we do as Christians.  We do not abolish the Law.  We uphold the Law.  Yes, it is a damning sin to take a person’s life through murder, homicide, abortion, or suicide.  But no, it’s not good enough to simply not kill another human being.  It’s also a damning sin to get angry with your brother, or to speak an unkind word to your brother, like “Fool!  Idiot!  SoB!”  Or something more…graphic.  It’s also a damning sin not to go and seek reconciliation with the one who has something against you, whether or not you happen to like that particular neighbor.  It’s also a damning sin to refuse to apologize to the one whom you have wronged and not to try and make up for a sin you committed against your neighbor.

Now raise your hand if you live up to the righteousness required by God in the Fifth Commandment.  No, don’t you dare raise your hand.  To all those people who hope to get to heaven because, hey, you haven’t murdered anybody or anything, Jesus reveals the truth.  Yes, you have, by God’s definition. You, too, are a murderer.

Jesus could have pulled out any of the Ten Commandments here and shown how deep each one goes, how much each one demands.  He doesn’t even bother with the commandments that have to do directly with God.  If you can’t keep the commandments that deal with your neighbor, you have no hope of keeping the commandments that have to do with God. God’s commandments don’t require this or that action or inaction.  They require you to be a holy person, inside and out.  But you’re not and you never will be till the day you die.  Your righteousness will never be good enough.

There’s only one thing to do.  You have to get off the path of the righteousness of the Law, because it ends in death.  In fact, the only way off of that path is death. The sinner must die.  You must die.  You must suffer and be crucified.  This is what Jesus is teaching in the Gospel.  But here’s how he wants you to die:  He wants you to die by crucifying your sinful flesh each and every day—not by harming your body, but by killing the sin that dwells in you. He wants you to die through repentance, and by being united with him in Holy Baptism.  Isn’t that what Paul said in Galatians 2?  I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  Isn’t that what he said also in Romans 6? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?

In the Person of His Son, God has provided an alternate place for you, the sinner, to die, by causing Jesus to die for your unrighteousness and by pulling you into Jesus’ death through Holy Baptism, by the work of the Holy Spirit.  Baptism and faith in Jesus = the death God’s law demands that you die.  And righteousness—that righteousness that surpasses the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees?  That’s not something you provide to God.  That’s something God provides to you.

There is only one Man whose righteousness surpasses the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees—one Man who kept the holy commandments of God, Jesus the Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Man.  Only He has the right to enter God’s holy Temple.  Only He—the Righteous One—has the right to stand in God’s presence.  Only He can enter the kingdom of heaven.

And He did enter, by shedding His blood for the sinners of this world and opening up for you a Throne of Grace—His own blood that blots out your sins; His own righteousness that is credited to all who believe in Him.  The righteousness of the Law—of being good enough for God—ends in death.  You’ll never be good enough to enter the kingdom of heaven that way.  But the righteousness of faith in Christ begins with death—His death, and then your baptismal death—and ends in resurrection—His resurrection, and then your baptismal resurrection, and then, one day, your bodily resurrection, too.

The Law rightly proclaims that you are not good enough. That’s supposed to make you afraid.  And when it does, repent of your wickedness and run away from the Law to the Gospel of Christ, to the righteousness of faith that He gives to you, free for nothing.  Trust in God’s baptismal promise to you that whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.  He who believes in the Son has eternal life.

But what else did Paul say in Romans 6? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. Christ died to sin.  And you were baptized into Christ.  You died to sin.  How will you live in it any longer?  Christ rose to newness of life.  And you were baptized into Christ.  You rose to walk in newness of life.  How will you murder your neighbor?  How will you go on being angry with neighbor, or saying hurtful things or failing to help him or her in their need?

Understand, the power of Jesus’ resurrection does not help you to walk the path of the righteousness of the Law so that you become righteous enough and good enough to enter into the kingdom of heaven.  No, by your baptism and faith in Christ, you have been rescued from the path of the righteousness of the Law and have been placed onto the path of the righteousness of faith.  By faith in Christ you have already entered the kingdom of heaven.  It’s only here in God’s kingdom where anyone can begin to love his or her neighbor, to get rid of anger and bitterness and hurtful words, to seek reconciliation with one another and to forgive one another.  Because it’s here, in God’s kingdom, where we have been shown mercy, where God has forgiven all our unrighteousness and has given us the gift of eternal life.

Here in God’s House, God’s kingdom, as you seek mercy from Christ, who is the Throne of Grace, as you seek forgiveness from His body and blood, you are covered with the righteousness of Christ that surpasses the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees and of the greatest saints who ever lived.  If someone ever tells you, even the devil, even your own heart, “You’re not good enough for God,” don’t argue with them.  Don’t even disagree.  You tell them, “I know I’m not good enough, and I never will be.  But Jesus—He gave Himself for me, the Righteous for the unrighteousness, to bring me to God.  My righteousness will never be good enough, but His righteousness will always be good enough, for me and for all who trust in Him.”  Amen.

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