Of i's and dots
Little things can mean a lot in communication. A comma once cost a man a fortune. His wife had cabled him about their stocks asking, "Should I continue to sell?" He cabled back, "Don't, buy." The telegraph operator forgot the comma and sent, "Don't buy," so the wife kept selling and lost millions. The comma meant a lot to that man; it meant more to another. Maria Feodorovna found a death warrant signed by her husband Alexander III: "'Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia.'" Maria moved the comma to read: "'Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia.'" The convict went free (Wonder Book, 139).
About the only thing smaller than a comma is the dot of an i. Christ says in the Beck Bible translation of our text, "Not an i' or the dot of an i' will pass away from the Law." The Law does not wear out like the heavens and the earth. The sharp points of the Law aren't eroded by wind and rain. The commands of the Law don't fade in the summer sun or get covered by the winter snow. The Law of God isn't time sensitive. It doesn't have an expiration date. People frequently say things like, " It's the 21st century" to justify a sin against God's law like living together, abortion, or homosexuality. God says the "i's" or even their dots in His judgment against sins haven't expired and never will no matter how accepted they are by society.
But in our day people aren't dropping "i's" here and dots there. No, they're dropping whole words. People who claim to be Christians won't call anything society accepts damnable sin; that's everything from sexual sins to baby killing. While God thunders that not an "i" or its dot ever passes away, they act as if whole commandments have. While God pronounces judgement on those who ignore "i's" and their dots, these people claim to be more loving than He. And don't think you'll escape because you don't drop the "big" things. God drop dead serious, damn serious about all His "i's" and even smaller dots.
Our lack of fear, love, and trust in the true God, misusing His name, not hearing His Word are more damnable than abortion, homosexuality, or co-habituating because they're sins directly against God. Persistent, willful sinning drives out the Holy Spirit whether we're talking about sins against whole commandments or just "i's" and dots. You can't persist in sins and claim to have faith or the Holy Spirit; that's what you bind me, vow me, make me promise to teach according to the Book of Concord: "We also reject and condemn the teaching that faith and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit are not lost thorough malicious sin, but that the holy ones and the elect retain the Holy Spirit even though they fall into adultery and other sins and persist in them" (FC, Ep, IV, 3). I'm concerned that I haven't been clear about this. I'm worried that I've preached some of you to the brink of hell by giving you the impression that the Gospel causes the Law to pass away, as if having faith and the Holy Spirit means you can break the Law and not do good works. You've made me promise to teach according to the Lutheran Confessions: "it is a hypocritical and fake repentance unless good fruits follow" (AP, IV, p.162, Kolb).
Some of you are squirming. Thank God then our text begins with Gospel. Jesus says, "You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world." This isn't a word of command but a gracious word of fact. You're salt and light by God's Word. In early Lutheran Baptismal liturgies they gave, as we still do, a lighted candle to the newly baptized and put salt in their mouth. By baptism, by God's work not yours, you are salt and light. This is Gospel. Salt seasons by nature; light shines by nature. We confess that by nature we are sinful and unclean. What a hopeless condition that is? On the other hand, what a hopeful condition it is to be by a new nature salt and light. In Christ you don't have to fear that you're not doing the works of the Law, that you're failing to be salt or light. Salt doesn't fail to season any food. Light doesn't fail to shine no matter how dark the night.
But what about Christ's words about salt losing its saltiness and light being hidden underneath a bowl? Isn't Christ warning us? No, He's assuring you that since He makes you salt, you will indeed season. Since He makes you light, you can't be hid. Those in Christ need not fret about not doing enough good works because in Him they do. Hold on there. What about the "i's" and their dots? That's what started me down the path of worry to begin with. There are so many "i's" and dots, and I do fail miserably at keeping them. You've only reached the conclusion Scripture does; we need forgiveness even for our good works; that even our righteous deeds are filthy rags (Is. 64:6).
God is unbending in His standards. He doesn't merely say that we should try our best to keep the Law; He says all of the Law must be done, every "i" and dot. God declares in Leviticus 19, "You must be holy," not, "You must be holier than others," or, "You must try to be holy." Only holiness is acceptable to God. God is a perfectionist. God never says, "That's good enough." James 2:10 pointedly says, "Whoever keeps the whole Law and yet stumbles in one point has become guilty of all." No, wonder we need forgiveness even for our good works! Even though Christ has made me salt and light, even though I do season and shine by reason of what Christ has made me, I still find myself pepper and darkness. I irritate and burn others. I cast a shadow of hatred and bitterness. And no matter that I spend a whole day seasoning and shining, just one grain of pepper from me, just one dark shadow and I'm guilty again of the whole Law says James.
Can you see then why we sing, "My soul, no more attempt to draw/ Thy life and comfort from the Law"? Christ covering us with Himself in Baptism, bodying and blooding us to Himself in Communion, really does change us. We're not the men and women we use to be. This is absolutely true. We were sand; now we're salt in Him; we were darkness; now we are light in Him. But, we don't find our peace in this change in us. We are not to set our frail, spotty keeping of the Law as Christians against the God who never drops "i's" or their dots. No, as we go on to sing: "Fly to the hope the Gospel gives/ The man that trusts the promise lives". Only a perfect God can satisfy a perfectionist God. Only God can fulfill every "i" and every dot of God's Law. And this is to Whom we are pointed in our text.
Jesus points us to Himself by telling us "unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven." People considered the scribes and the Pharisees the holiest of all. If anyone was going to heaven, they were. They never missed a service. They diligently and willingly studied their Bibles. They gave more money to the church than anyone else did. How shocked then people were when Jesus said, "Your righteousness must be more than theirs or there is no way you'll ever get into heaven." It's like the joke about the guy whose greatest fear is that he'll be standing in line to enter heaven behind Mother Teresa and hear God say to her, "You know, you could've done more." That's the point of Jesus' words. If you want to talk about a righteousness good enough to go to heaven, if you want to talk about works good enough to get into heaven, you need more righteousness and good works than the scribes, Pharisees, or Mother Teresa have.
You need God's righteousness; you need God's works to get into heaven, and you have them in Christ. He was born under the Law that weighs so heavily on you. He was born obligated to keep every "i" and every dot. and He did! He kept the big ones and the little ones. He kept perfectly the Laws we break daily. But that's not all. As we sing, "What curses doth the Law denounce/ Against the man that fails but once!" If you're truly listening, the Law pronounces horrendous, shake your boots, pee your pants curses against any and every violation of God's Law. But what does the Gospel say? It says, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse in our place." The judgments of the Law had to be carried out, and they were: on the back, on the hands, on the feet, on the side, on the holy body of Christ.
Let me apply this to you. Luther tells the story of a dying hermit who lay sad and motionless for 3 days; his eyes fixed on heaven. When asked why, he said he was afraid of death. His pupils comforted him by saying he had lived a holy life and had no reason to fear death. He responded, "'I have indeed lived a holy life and observed the Commandments of God, but the judgments of God are quite different from those of men!'" (LW, 26, 149). The hermit was right. In the Law, God judges all men worthy of death for not keeping the "i's" and the dots. But the hermit didn't see the other side. Do you?
He didn't see that God's judgments are more radically different than he imagined. He didn't see that God judged all men to have kept the Law because the Last Man, Jesus did. He didn't see in Jesus the Law can't accuse him because in Jesus it has all been fulfilled. In Christ, no one, not others, not the devil, not even your own conscience can find one Law that needs keeping that Jesus didn't already keep. Likewise, God judges you to have been redeemed from the curse of the Law because Jesus hung in your place on the cursed cross. The Law has no more curses for those in Christ having pronounced them all against Christ already. There is not some punishment still left to bear for our imperfect works, for our heinous wrongs. Jesus declared He has suffered on the "T" of the cross for every missed "i' and every forgotten dot. And God judges His sacrifice to be far more than enough for everyone.
So, when it comes to "i's" and dots of the Law, don't forget the "T" of the cross. Thanks be to God that the capital T of the cross is bigger than all those dots and all those "i's"; it's tall and wide enough for all of us sinners to find eternal shelter under its wings. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (20200209); Matthew 5: 13-20