Our Gospel message comes to us today from the 5th chapter of Matthew, beginning with the 21st verse.
5:21 “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.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:21-37)
“Repentance Means Change”
by Rev. Scott Jensen
In Thomas Costain’s history, “The Three Edwards”, he describes the life of Raynald III, a fourteenth-century duke in what is now Belgium. Grossly overweight, Raynald was commonly called by his Latin nickname, Crassus, which means “The Fat.” After a violent quarrel, Raynald’s younger brother Edward led a successful revolt against him. Edward captured Raynald but did not kill him. Instead, he built a room around Raynald in the Nieuwkerk castle and promised him he could regain his title and property as soon as he was able to leave the room. This wouldn’t have been difficult for most people since the room had several windows and a door of near-normal size, and none was locked or barred. The problem was Raynald’s size; he couldn’t fit through the door. To regain his freedom, he needed to lose weight. But Edward knew his older brother, and each day he sent a variety of delicious foods. Every day he wheeled before Raynald on a cart, the tastiest of foods. But instead of dieting his way out of prison, Raynald grew fatter from the food. When Duke Edward was accused of cruelty, he had a ready answer: “My brother is not a prisoner. He may leave when he so wills.” Raynald stayed in that room for ten years and wasn’t released until after Edward died in battle. By then his health was so ruined, he died within a year, a prisoner of his own appetite.
There are many of us who are like Raynald, trapped by our own sinful desires. We wish we didn’t have these desires, but often the delicious temptations that are wheeled before us, are too hard for our flesh to resist. We each have an appetite for a certain sinful pleasure, that whenever we’re tempted with it, we give in. And it’s a cycle of feast and famine, pleasure than guilt. Jesus mentions two specifically: anger and lust. But there are others just as damaging. Perhaps that temptation is gossip, gambling or pornography. Maybe drugs or alcohol. Maybe your irresistible temptation is fatty foods or overspending on your credit card. But whatever it is, many of us lack the willpower to overcome it. The temptation is just too strong.
(adopted from Burgess, Aaron. “Tackling Temptation.” Available on-line at http://www.sermoncentral.com/print_friendly.asp?ContributorID=&SermonID=42369)
Today’s gospel lesson talks about that type of temptation. It talks about sin that’s ingrained in our lives, that we have difficulty avoiding. Jesus talks about sin that gets into our system; it gets into our heart. This morning, I want to take a closer look at the sin we allow into our lives: the source of our sin, our response to God’s grace, and the idea of a contrite heart.
Let’s start by taking a closer look at the source of sin in our lives. All of here today are sinners. We have our own struggles and successes. But, sometimes we knowingly allow sin to get into our life. We choose to put ourselves in situations that set the stage for us to continue our bad habits. A gambler might look up the statistics of his favorite horse race, only to fall prey to another bet. A pornography addict might rent an R rated movie filled with sex scenes, resulting in unpure thoughts and perhaps unclean actions as well. A substance abuser might continue to frequent bars, opium dens or crack houses. The location itself isn’t the problem. But, allowing that temptation into their life might result in further abuse.
Some might think these are acceptable practices. Looking up statistics isn’t actually gambling. Renting a movie isn’t cheating on your spouse. Going to a bar isn’t the same as drinking. But, is that assumption correct? Placing these temptations in our lives leads to the thought and actions that Jesus condemns in the Gospel message. Unclean thoughts lead to unclean actions. The thoughts themselves are part of the problem. The thoughts themselves are a form of sin.
The simple fact is that people like to put themselves in these situations. Take pornography for example. The economic effect of pornography in the United States is well into the Billions per year. The cost is estimated to be greater than the sums of the National Football League, National Basketball Association and the National Baseball League combined. That’s a lot of money, that’s a lot of sin.
Jesus spoke about this problem directly. Just thinking lustful-thoughts puts you into the adultery category. With billions going toward images designed to spur this feeling of lust, that’s a lot of cheating going on.
But, these are not the only sins that plague the American landscape, or the Christian pews across the nation. Anger is another common problem that has infected our communities. We find it easy to find fault, hard to find a forgiving heart. Getting cut off in traffic might offend our sensibilities. Perhaps we even are the aggressive driver forcing our way through the maze of cars and trucks. Anger on our roads has become a big problem. There have even been reported shootings in California due to situations on the road.
Lust, anger, gambling, money, we may find times where we chose to put ourselves, or our sinful desires ahead of the commands that God has given us to fulfill. Some of this comes because we expect forgiveness, without repentance. We expect some form of cheap grace where we can do what we want, when we want, how we want, all without consequences for the actions we choose to commit.
Dietrick Bonhoeffer once said “Cheap grace is the grace we beset on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
(Rowell, Edward K. and Leadership Journal. “1001 Quotes, Illustrations & Humorous Stories for Preachers, Teachers & Writers.” Baker: Grand Rapids. 1996. Pg. 81.)
Unfortunately, that’s what some of our churches across America expect. Many televangelists have made their fortunes by preaching messages that say: you can become rich, famous, or anything you want. They preach that God wants you to be successful in every endeavor you choose. But, that’s not entirely true.
I heard a story once about a man who took on the challenge of a New Year’s resolution. He was overweight and desperately wanted to lose 50 or more pounds. But, he had a weakness for sweets. He prayed to God for the strength to stick to his diet and exercise regimen. He chose to put his faith into God to help him through what was for him, a difficult situation.
But as the days went on, the challenge of sticking to his diet grew. One day, he prayed to God for guidance on what to do next. As he passed a doughnut shop, he prayed, “God, if you want me to stop by that shop, show me an empty parking space, and I will stop.” Sure enough, as he circled the block for the seventh time, lo and behold, there was an empty parking spot.
Was the man really following the will of God to stop by a doughnut shop? I don’t think so. But, he ensured that the situation would turn in the way he chose, by driving around the block seven times. Sometimes, I think we try to credit God with putting us into tempting situations, when that’s not really the case. We often put ourselves in places we don’t belong, where we will not just be tempted. We know that we will follow through with the sinful desires that we already know we should be avoiding.
Similar to the overweight man and his diet, we find ourselves circling the block looking for an excuse to fall prey to our own sinful desires. That’s not repentance. That’s our own sinful desires stepping in the way of God’s grace. That’s us, putting our own priorities ahead of what God has already told us not to do.
The grace that God gives us is freely given. However, the faith that is in us should be shining through in all that we are and all that we do. Driving around the block seven times is not the sign of someone dedicated to a diet.
Similarly, a Christian watching pornography is not following through with the commands that Jesus has dictated to us. An alcoholic frequenting bars is not really trying to quit the habit. There is no such thing as cheap grace. We’re expected to have a repentant heart. We’re expected to turn away from the sin that plagues our lives, and turn toward the path that Jesus laid out for us. We won’t always succeed. But, we shouldn’t be intentionally driving away from the cross either. We shouldn’t be intentionally circling the block looking for an opportunity to go against God’s commands.
Intentional sin is not repentance. Intentional sin is not really something you’re asking to be forgiven for. It’s only when we turn away from that sin, that lifestyle, that habit, that we show God that we’re true followers. It’s only when we change our habits of disobedience that we show how we are faithful followers.
This story probably sums it up best.
J. Edwin Orr, the revivalist and historian, was with Billy Graham when the evangelist addressed a meeting in Beverly Hills attended by the notorious gangster Mickey Cohen. “He expressed some interest in the message,” Orr later wrote, “so several of us talked with him, including Dr. Graham, but he made no commitment until sometime later when another friend urged him to become a Christian.
“This he professed to do, but his life gave no evidence of repentance: ‘the mighty change of mind, heart, and life.’ He rebuked our friend, telling him, ‘You didn’t tell me that I would have to give up my work!’ He meant his rackets and illegal schemes. ‘You didn’t tell me that I’d have to give up my friends!’ He meant his gangster associates, murderers and thieves.
“He had heard that one person was a Christian cowboy, another was a Christian actress, a third was a Christian senator, and he really thought he could be a Christian gangster.
“The fact is, repentance is the missing note in much modern evangelism.”
(adopted from Morgan, Robert J. “Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations & Quotes: The Ultimate Contemporary Resource for Speakers”, Nelson: Nashville. 2000. Pg. 662-663)
Mickey Cohen wasn’t ready to change his lifestyle to become a Christian, but that’s exactly what Jesus called us to do. When He asked the disciples to follow him, He expected them to follow with all their heart, all their soul and all their mind. He’s asked us to do the same today.
With the Gospel lesson, these stories show us that we can cause our own problems in our life. We can put ourselves in situations that will not bring us closer to God, but farther from His side.
Dietrick Bonhoeffer was right. Grace isn’t cheap. We’re expected to turn away from our sinful past, and repent. We’re expected to turn away in thought as well as word and deed. We’re expected to scrub our inner self as well as our outer actions to make ourselves clean. The message Jesus gave us today is one of a clean heart.
Like Raynald III, we need to change our lifestyle away from our old, bad habits, and towards the lifestyle Jesus has outlined for us. We need to be ready to change what goes into us, so that we can change our outward self as well. Each of us is in our own sinful prison that we are having difficulty getting out of. We need to be prepared to drop the habits that are keeping us away from God, and isolated in our own cell.
Like the man who chose to diet, we need to drive past that sinful temptation, and continue to work on being better people. If we choose to continue to drive near our temptations, we will eventually give in to their call, and submit to their authority rather than submitting to the will of God. Don’t drive near the temptation. Drive past it.
Mickey Cohen learned the lesson that we all need to embrace. Being a Christian means changing ourselves and turning away from the sinful habits, locations, and friends, and towards the path that Jesus laid out for us.
But, that path is not easy. We need to do what we can to rein in our emotions, and our feelings. We need to monitor ourselves for unclean thoughts and turn towards pure thoughts.
I’d like to close with these words that sum up where we need to put our trust. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he wrote: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, I look up to you in this time of change. Allow me to have the courage to change my life for the better. Allow all my burdens to be risen up to you as I know that You will see me through. Forgive those who have done evil and allow me to do the same. Teach me to love with an open heart and an open spirit. Take time for me today to help with all the trials you have set out for me and allow me the strength and energy to follow you. Give me the blessings to find a new home, keep my family together, and bless those who are away, may they be strong and know how much love is out there. Let them know you and I are thinking of them and missing them dearly. Bless me with love, strength, wisdom, health, courage, forgiveness, and a willingness to learn. Amen.
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Scripture is taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. Sermon contributed by Rev. Scott Jensen.
A sermon based on both the Law and the Gospel. Jesus explained what sin was. We need to head His command and turn away from temptation.