Where's the Light?
As far as I can tell, this text was not appointed for use in Epiphany by any Lutherans until 1978, and I know why. Where's the light? This is Epiphany the season of light. This is Epiphany the season that begins with the Magi following a star and ends with Jesus transfigured brighter than light. This is Epiphany where the people sitting in darkness see a great light. So where's the light?
It's not in the bear words of our text which have led many to darkness. Don't believe me? There are people who read this and say calling someone a fool means you're going to hell. So how does that square with Paul writing "Foolish Galatians?" Or what about the 50 plus times we find fools referred to in Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Or how about Jesus Himself calling the Scribes and Pharisees, "You blind fools" (Mt. 23:17).
People read this text and stumble in the darkness to the dark deed of gouging out their eye or lopping off a limb. Jehovah Witnesses read this and will not take an oath under any circumstance even though Paul and Jesus answer when they are put under oath and God takes an oath in Genesis 22. Even Lutherans see darkness has come from this text. In our Confessions we say, "The tradition that prohibits remarriage of an innocent party after divorce" is unjust (Treatise, 78). That dark tradition is based on this text.
The light is not in this bear text but in Jesus who speaks the Law to bring sin to life and light. Sin apart from the Law lies sleeping comfortably in the heart of every one. Apart from the Law a person thinks they are pretty much okay. They're not that bad. They've overcome any real sins long ago, and every now and again when a particularly bad one comes to mind they can think of a plausible excuse for it so it doesn't look that ugly, black, or sick.
And what lets their sinfulness really rest in peace, what enables them to feel just peachy about themselves is a doable Law. "I've never purposely hurt anyone." "I've been faithful to my spouse for decades." "I have never broken a promise to anyone." On the basis of this, you think you've got sin tamed, trained, beaten. Nope. What you've got is sin sleeping peacefully in your heart, and you're blind to it, and you will be lost to it eternally unless these Words from God deliver you.
Jesus takes 3 Commandments that good churchgoing folks like us are sure we keep. Jesus lights up our heart and there we see like monsters lurking in the dark corners of a cellar the sins of murder, of adultery, of lying. These ugly, damnable, dark sins are in every move we make, every word we fake, every breath we take. The sin that will take you straight to hell so fast your head spins is in that hurtful word you spoke to your spouse this morning, that lustful glance at someone else's spouse yesterday, that bold oath you took years ago to make your lying words certain.
You just don't think you've done anything worthy of eternal damnation and that's proof positive that you're on the way there right now. "But, but I don't feel that sinful; I don't look that sinful." That's because the real Law hasn't lit up your life yet. When it does you won't be able to look in the mirror because of how ugly, deformed, and damned you see yourself; then tell me how you feel.
Or try this. You know how when a character in a show has telepathic abilities suddenly? They can't bear the jabbering of everybody else's thoughts. The shear number overwhelms them. Imagine if you could hear the inner thoughts of every good Christian person sitting around you right now. What you'd be overwhelmed with is not the number but the baseness, the foulness, the filthiness, the awful sinfulness of them. I know you would because Jesus says that out of the heart "comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander" (Mt. 15:19), and I know what comes out of mine is even worse.
The light is here alright in Jesus shining the Law into the corners of our fallen heart and our sinfulness wakens where it has been sleeping silently and damnably maybe for years. "Turn it off, turn it off," our sinful old man pleads then demands and then tries to turn away or shield its ugly, ugly face. But Jesus isn't done yet. You still think you can do better; you still think you can get better. You still think you can deal with your sinfulness even now that it wakes and walks. You still think you're resolve puts you in charge of your demons, and as long as you think that, they still are.
So Jesus keeps the billion candlepower light of the Law pointed right at your heart, and shows the Law demands drastic, unthinkable actions if you're going to take care of your sinfulness yourself. If you can't be reconciled with your brother in Christ, better for you to stop being religious at all. If you can't stop your wandering eye, better for you to gouge it out. If you can't stop your hurtful hand, better to chop it off yourself. If you can't stop using oaths to make your words more certain, know that you belong to the Evil One himself.
But I can't reconcile with anyone. My eye and hand continually stumble into sin, and my words are no truer than my fallen, wretched heart. I hunger and thirst for what is evil and wrong and fallen and filthy like a Zombie hungers after human flesh.
Turn off the light of the Law now. Jesus is done with it. Jesus has used this text to bring sin to life and into the light, so you might see that you can't deal with it. You are helpless to overcome it in your own strength and determination. But the light of the Law is not the only light Jesus brings to this text. He brings the light of what He did to the Law and what the Law did to Him which is Gospel, Good News, for us.
While the Law only awakens sin in us, it didn't in Jesus the perfect Man. Though tempted in all the ways we are, Jesus never sinned. Never did Jesus use hurtful words even when His younger brother or sister was really being a jerk. Never did Jesus let a misunderstanding grow into a grudge because the other person really was pigheaded. And Jesus never looked at a woman to lust after it. Not once, not ever, no matter how scantily clad that woman was. Tempted He was but did He never. And never did Jesus use oaths to make Himself believable.
I am shining the light of the glorious Gospel into your life and some of you have switched back on the Law. You've thought of the person you didn't, can't, or won't reconcile with. Ironically, you've vowed to stop your lustful looking from now on. You're newly determined to be a man of your word. And you're right back under Law.
Those ugly demonic sins of yours have convinced you that they have learned their lesson. The can safely go back to the dark corners of your life. Stop! Don't turn the Gospel into Law for you. I'm not telling you how Jesus led a perfect life to move you to get out there and try harder or try again. I'm telling you what Jesus did to the Law so that you won't see it hanging over your head any longer.
Go ahead look up. Where's the 5th, 6th, or 8th Commandment if Jesus kept them already as a Man. They were given to Man to be kept by Man, as in Adam all sinned, so in Jesus all have kept the Law. You, says Paul, are to die to the Law in Jesus. Not even earthly laws have power over a dead man. In Jesus, you have died to the Law. In Jesus you don't know of one Law that can accuse you, convict you, or spur you on to greater sins.
The light of the Gospel is not just what Jesus did to the Law but what the Law did to Jesus. And if you hear what I'm about to say in pity for what Jesus suffered, you're not hearing the Gospel. If you're ashamed at what your sins caused Jesus to endure, you're hearing His suffering, sighing, bleeding and dying in your place as Law, and that's NOT how I want you to hear it here. Great joy is to burst from your heart as you hear what Jesus suffered to pay for your sins. Great relief is to spring up in your soul as the light of the Gospel shows you that if Jesus paid for the sins of the world than He must have certainly paid for mine.
Take the guilt, the shame, the pain, the ugly, malformed, creatures that lurk in the cellar of your souls and drag them into the light of the glorious Gospel where they will certainly die. Every resentful, hurtful, harmful word you ever said or thought has been paid for by Jesus. Every lustful, filthy thought you ever had has been covered by the blood Jesus shed on the cross. Every promise you've broken, every lie you've spoken, garnished with oaths or not, has been carried away by Jesus to the cross.
Now understand this: if Jesus paid for your sinful thoughts, wishes, and words, then most certainly He paid in full for your deeds. Don't believe the lie that deeds are more difficult to forgive than lusts, hurtful words, or frivolous oaths. Jesus suffering was enough to satisfy God the Father. He raised Jesus from the dead on the third day because there were no more sins anywhere in your heart, in your life, in the whole wide world that needed still to be paid for. Jesus made the last payment on the cross.
What caused the sinful woman to anoint the feet of Jesus with costly perfume? What caused Zacchaeus to leap to his feet a changed man? What caused Paul to count all the things he had been so proud of as garbage? What caused Stephen to forgive his enemies as they stoned him? What led Noah to board the Ark, Moses to go back to Egypt, David to bless the Lord? No Law no matter how bright it might shine could do any of these. If a Law could, then there would have been no need to send Jesus. No, it's only the light of the Gospel that changed, empowered, and joyed these people.
Where's the light of Epiphany? Always where Jesus is. And that light is pure Gospel. He takes up the light of the Law only so you might see and be drawn to the light of the Gospel radiating from Him. Not as moths to a flame but as campers to a fire. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (20140216); Matthew 5: 20-37