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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 2/16/2014

With Easter being a little bit later this year, the season after Epiphany that we’re currently in is a little bit longer.  What that means this year is that we spend more time with the Sermon on the Mount.  I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing because the Sermon on the Mount is and always has been challenging so in a way we might wish that Lent had already started and we could skip some of this.

One of the themes of Epiphany though is that of Jesus identity being revealed.  For us though, we already know Jesus’ identity because Christian doctrine tells us that he is fully human and he is fully divine; we’re probably incapable of understanding that completely, but we know that’s the right answer so during these weeks of Epiphany we would expect aspects of Jesus humanity and aspects of his divinity to be included in the readings and that is the case although so far humanity is ahead of divinity. 

The first Sunday after Epiphany is always the Baptism of Jesus and baptism is something done to humans.  In Jesus’ case with the voice from heaven and the Spirit descending like a dove there were hints that this wasn’t an ordinary baptism, but still baptism doesn’t make one divine.  Following that there were two weeks of Jesus calling disciples; other teachers had disciples too so nothing divine there.  Last week we had Jesus begin preaching which, believe me, is not a sign of divinity.

This week though, as Jesus continues this sermon he phrases things in a way that might slip right past us unnoticed but it shouldn’t because it has to do with the divine side of his identity.  This is the “You have heard it said…but I say to you” part of the sermon.  If you’re not paying attention “You have heard it said, but I say to you” sounds pretty innocent; but then you say, “Wait a minute; the “you have heard it saids” were said by God; these are the commandments Moses brought down from the mountain that Jesus is talking about.  For him to then say, “But I say to you” can only mean, “I am now speaking in the role and in the place of God.”  That’s pretty bold, but late in the season of Epiphany it hints at the fullness of Jesus’ identity, that he is more than just another prophet or teacher with a group of disciples.  In his interpretation of these things, he speaks in place of God.

So we do get indications of Jesus’ divine nature here but we can’t stop there because there are those “But I say to yous” that we have to consider.  A few verses before this, Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the law” and that’s pretty clear in what he says here because far from abolishing the law, what he does is raise the bar so high that no one can fully live by it.  When I teach the commandments in confirmation, we start with the first one, no other gods, and we agree that we don’t always put God first in our lives.  Then, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain??  In innocent “O my God!” kinds of ways and others that are not so innocent, we violate that one.  Remember the Sabbath?  Not always.  Honor your father and mother?  On a good day, yes, but sometimes your parents can kind of be a pain which makes it hard to honor them.  So we’re oh for four when we get to “Thou shalt not kill” and finally think, here’s one we haven’t violated; until I say, “Let’s see what Jesus has to say about this.  Have you ever been angry with anyone?” and the slump continues as we drop to oh for five. 

You don’t have to read much further to realize that according to Jesus’ “But I say to yous” you’re not going to do very well on any of these so the temptation is to throw up your hands and give up.  But this is the gospel lesson and gospel means good news so it must be there somewhere. 

Today’s first reading was from Deuteronomy.  Deuteronomy is law.  Tradition says that it’s the second giving of the law (deutero means two, nomy means law) as a reminder to the people of Israel concerning how they were to live as they were about to enter the Promised Land.  Deuteronomy is also an example of classic if/then theology, a classic example of a conditional, if/then covenant.  If you observe these laws, then I will be your God and it will go well for you in the land.

That’s Deuteronomy and it makes sense; it seems fair, until Jesus interprets the law in such a way that you can’t possibly follow it plus we Lutherans want to say, “And what about grace?  How does grace fit into this if/then covenant?”  It doesn’t, which is why there are other covenants, ones where there are no conditions, no if/thens, where it’s not about us but it’s all predicated on God’s acceptance of us even when we don’t deserve it.  But doesn’t one kind of covenant contradict the other?  In a way yes, but then again no, because you need both, I need both.  I need to know that God has expectations of me, but I also need to know that he loves me even when I go oh for ten on the commandments.  We need both.

In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, in his divinity, Jesus sees us as we are.  There were, there are, there always have been those who want to think they can keep the law, sometimes by trying to find loopholes to get around it, sometimes by just trying harder.  With Jesus though, he sees through our schemes and there’s no place to hide.  He closes all the loopholes such that no matter how hard you try, you can’t do it; you can do better, but you can’t do it. 

That then brings us to what I think is the real gospel of this text.  It’s what Martin Luther called the theology of the cross.  Among other things, what the theology of the cross says is that just as God brought new life and hope out of the death and evil of the cross, he continues to work through the brokenness we experience individually and collectively.  In this gospel text, Jesus exposes the brokenness; he uncovers our hiding places and sees us as we are.  What the theology of the cross tells us though, is that is precisely where God is revealed, working through the brokenness to do something new.

Jesus does set the bar impossibly high with his “But I say to yous.”  With some of them he also uses hyperbole and exaggeration with the command to cut off body parts that cause you to sin but it’s pretty clear that he’s just trying to make a point.  The point he’s making includes is a call to stop trying to hide and to stop trying to find ways to get around the commandments and instead to really be about the hard work of discipleship, the hard work of loving God and loving the neighbor.  But this is more than a call to try harder. 

If it’s only a call to try harder that makes it all about us and we know if it’s all about us we’re still in trouble.  When it comes to the if/then covenant of Deuteronomy we can only wind up on the wrong side of the ifs and the thens.  What we need to know is the unconditional covenant of God’s love and grace, the unconditional love and grace lived out by Jesus.  That covenant tells us that God won’t give up on us.  As Luther understood, it tells us that God is at work in the brokenness of our lives, doing something new, bringing life out of death.  That’s gospel!  That’s good news!  That’s what we and the world need to hear.

As a Christian community, that is what we proclaim.  We dare to imagine and proclaim a world where there is hope because we have faith in a God who will not abandon us.  When we fail on the ifs and the thens there are consequences but the consequences don’t define us because they don’t define God.  Instead we are defined by hope and new life.

In the Sermon on the Mount we do have a human Jesus revealed as a great teacher of wisdom.  Even more important than that though, is when we dig a little deeper we begin to see that the wisdom of Jesus is the divine wisdom of a God who is defined by love and grace and forgiveness.  Knowing that, we can then honestly look at ourselves and still live in hope, trusting not in ourselves, but in this God who strangely and inexplicably still loves us. 

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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