17You must diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his decrees, and his statutes that he has commanded you. 18Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you, 19thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the Lord has promised.
20When your children ask you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?” 21then you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22The Lord displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household.
23He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. 24Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. 25If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right.”
Matthew 5:17-24, 43-48
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Welcome to Lent. Traditionally in the church Lent is a time of fasting, reflection and repentance. During this 40-day period we think about Jesus’ 40-day fast at the beginning of his ministry. We also think about his journey to Jerusalem and the cross.
Christ’s death and resurrection are the heart of our faith and they are too big a mystery to take in all at once. Lent gives us time to embrace that mystery by helping us imagine we are walking with Jesus to Jerusalem. We’re invited to journey with Jesus and reflect on everything that separates us from him, and to imagine what a new beginning in our faith and life could look like.
To help us on this journey our Lenten sermon series will be about sin and the cross, two crucial and related parts of the Christian faith. We’ll be studying the same passages during supper and scripture on Wednesdays, so if you’d like a little more time to digest these passages, it would be great to have you with us on Wednesdays too.
The first three weeks, we’ll explore three different ways of looking at sin. This week we’ll talk about sin as breaking the rules, doing things that God doesn’t want us to do or not doing things God does want us to do. Next week we’ll talk about sin on a bigger level, the way culture and structures that we are a part of are sinful in themselves. By that I mean things like sexism, racism, homophobia and economic injustice; big picture issues that keep people from the abundant life God wants for everyone. The third week we’ll talk about sin as a symbol for everything that separates us from God and from other people.
The second half of Lent we’ll talk about three different ways of thinking about what Christ did on the cross to save us. Each of these weeks will more or less fit with one of the ways of thinking about sin. So March 18th we’ll talk about how Jesus’ death takes the punishment that we deserve for our sins so we can be forgiven. The next week we’ll talk about how the injustice that Jesus was so fearless in confronting led to his death at the hands of the powerful. Finally, on Palm Sunday we’ll talk about how Christ’s death on the cross shows us the depth of God’s love and the length to which God will go to break down the barriers that separate us from God and from our neighbors.
My hope with this series is that we’ll be encouraged to understand and confess the ways we’ve turned away from God and the barriers to a fuller life of faith. Then we’ll understand the power of Christ’s love for us on the cross so we can trust that love more deeply. Hopefully, we’ll arrive at the cross on Good Friday with a stronger faith and greater love for Jesus so we’re ready to embrace his death and prepare for the new life of the resurrection at Easter and beyond. Throughout this season, like any other time, I’d love to hear from you how I can help you grow in faith and experience the grace of God more fully.
For many of us, the first thing that comes to mind when we think about sin is breaking the rules. Our passages for today talk about God’s rules for the chosen people of Israel. We call these rules the Law, which means not just law but also teaching.
The Ten Commandments are the core of God’s law and many of the more specific regulations in scripture are basically practical examples of the Ten Commandments in action. The passage we read from Deuteronomy comes soon after Moses reminds the people of the Ten Commandments. When Moses talks about covenant or instruction or law, if we think about the Ten Commandments we’ll have a pretty good idea what he’s talking about.
Moses talks about God’s law as a guide for the people of Israel as they enter the promised land. Moses knew he wouldn’t be with the people any more and he knew they would face new temptations and challenges when they came to their home. Rules would help the people stay on track, so God gave them the law.
God’s law was also a reminder of the people’s history and their connection to God. As the generations got further away from the exodus, Moses and God knew the people would need to be reminded that God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt. The law was a reminder that they hadn’t gotten to where they were by their own strength or goodness, but because of God’s love. The law wasn’t just a set of rules, but also reminder that they belonged to God.
Jesus pushes the law even further but keeps us focused on the point, not the details. He says he comes to fulfill the law, not abolish it. Then he gives several examples that take a commandment and make it stricter. The commandment says, “Don’t kill.” Jesus says, not only that, but also don’t insult or demean people. The commandment says “love your neighbor;” Jesus says love your enemies too.
Jesus makes the commandments broader: love isn’t limited to those inside the community but includes even to enemies. Strict obedience to the “rules” isn’t enough, either. It’s not enough not to kill; Jesus calls us to avoid even the violence of insulting others.
Like the original commandments, Jesus’ version provides guidance for a new community in a new situation. As we seek to follow Jesus today, his rules still guide our actions. Also like the original commandments, Jesus’ words remind us who we are and who we belong to. We follow Christ’s commands because we are his people. As God led Israel out of slavery in Egypt and gave the people rules for following God, Jesus leads us out of slavery to sin and guides us to a new life following him.
Unfortunately, Israel kept falling short of God’s law, and we often trip up as we seek to follow Jesus’ commandments today. We sometimes find ourselves thinking or saying mean things about people. We get caught up in frustration with another driver and let our tongues get the better of us. Other times we let fear or envy or simple laziness win out over love in our actions.
When we’re honest with ourselves, not a day goes by without sin. Even when we keep a tight reign on our lips, our hearts often harbor thoughts that aren’t worthy of Jesus.
The case against us becomes even clearer when we think about the love Jesus commands in the light of his own life. When Jesus talks about love he doesn’t just mean being nice to people. He means being willing to die to protect others. And being willing to die not just for those who loved him, but even for those, like his disciples, who betrayed him, denied him and ran for their lives. Jesus even died for those who put him to death, asking God to forgive his torturers even while they nailed him to the cross.
When I look at my life in the light of Jesus’ love, even my best moments look weak. Every day I do things I shouldn’t do and say things I wish I hadn’t said. Every day I leave things undone I should have done.
Part of the challenge and the hard blessing of Lent is that we are called to look at our faults and shortcomings honestly. We’re called to look at ourselves in the mirror of God’s law and Christ’s calling; in the light of Christ’s perfect love. We’re called to be honest about where we fall short and to make real changes in our lives to do better.
The good news that gives us courage to look at ourselves honestly is that Christ loves us and forgives us. We confess our sins knowing that our Lord welcomes us home; that no burden of sin is too great for his mercy. We’re not ready in our Lenten journey to focus on that mercy yet; we need some time with our sin, time to repent, to turn around. But even as we focus on our weakness and need, we know that God’s grace will be enough, so we have courage to repent.
In this week ahead I invite you to spend some time in honest reflection about where you struggle to be faithful. Spend a little time in prayer each evening reflecting on the day, on times you lived up to Christ’s calling and times you didn’t. During the first half of the week make a list of the areas in your life where you struggle to be faithful.
During the second half of the week spend some time praying about and planning to change those areas. It may help to share this with a friend you trust; it may be better to do that on your own; everyone is different. I know in my own life I can see my shortcomings, but it’s a different matter to really plan to change those things. I’m attached to some of my sin and it will be hard to let it go, but recognizing and repenting doesn’t mean much if we don’t change our ways, so let’s give it a try together. In Christ we know we are not alone.
Thanks be to God.