Sunday, October 07, 2007

Sermon: Trinity 18

7 October 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Matt 22:34-46

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

People stop asking questions for two reasons – either their question has been answered and they now understand, or they don’t understand but are afraid of the direction the answer is going.

The Sadducees and Pharisees didn’t like Jesus’s answers. In fact, their questions were almost always just attempts to trap Him. The traps always backfired, and the opponents of Jesus were the ones who were trapped by their own questions.

Rather than ask more questions in an attempt to really get to the truth, nearly everyone from these groups stopped asking questions and started plotting to assassinate Him.

The opponents of Jesus were great scholars of Scripture. They knew the law inside and out, had committed much of the Old Testament to memory, and could make clever arguments to bolster their particular spin on God’s Word. However, their witty ability to read and interpret amounted to nothing in the presence of the Author.

As not only the Author of the Word of God, but as the living Word of God incarnate, Jesus gives them indisputable proof that the Messiah would not only be David’s male descendant, but also David’s Lord and God in the flesh: “How then does David in the Spirit call Him ‘Lord,’ saying: ‘The LORD said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool”’? If David then calls Him 'Lord,' how is He his Son?” And notice how the enemies of Jesus respond: “And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him anymore.”

Not only has Jesus cited Scripture to prove that the Messiah was to be God in the flesh, but He also cited Scripture that God would make the enemies of the Christ His footstool. Jesus is warning His enemies that they had better repent, acknowledge Him as not only Messiah but as God Himself, or they would end up under the feet of the very divine Master that they deny.

Thus that line of questioning came to an end. They did not like where this was leading. Instead of saying “Tell us more, Rabbi,” they chose to become silent.

They had just questioned Jesus about the law. For the Pharisees were always concerned about the law. They loved the law, not because it exposes our sins, calls us to repent, and leads us to the Christ for forgiveness, but rather because the Law was their pet. They carried it about in little boxes on their heads. They made a public spectacle over their ability to keep it whole and undefiled (of course, they had to butcher and mangle it beyond recognition just to give themselves the appearance of keeping it).

Jesus disarms their trap the way He disarmed the trap of Satan – by citing Scripture. When the Pharisees seek a discussion about the Law (no doubt so they could show off their wit and wisdom, their cleverness and their pious religion), Jesus quotes the Word of God and exposes their abuse of the Law. The Law isn’t there to be interpreted and re-interpreted to make you feel good about keeping it. It’s not there to give us a way of showing off. Rather, it is rooted in love. And love isn’t about boasting.

If you really want to keep the Law, you don’t need elaborate ceremonies and obscure regulations. You don’t have to follow rules about diet and codes of dress. If you really want to keep the Law, you simply have to love. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

The Law isn’t about self-aggrandizement, and in fact is the exact opposite. The Law isn’t about making oneself righteous, but rather in selflessly serving others. The Law is not about what we can do for ourselves, but rather what God expects us to do for others. The focus of the law is not our scorecard of good works, but rather the list of needs of our brothers and sisters. The Law is not about calling attention to what we have done, but rather in calling attention to what needs done. And if it needs done, that means we have not done it.

Does this sound familiar: “We have not loved You with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”?

That’s the Law, dear brothers and sisters. God demands that we fear, love, and trust in Him alone – and we don’t do it. The Law demands that we withhold nothing from God: not our time, money, possessions, even our very lives. We are not to grumble or complain, but rather to seek Him and serve Him alone. The Pharisees and the Sadducees didn’t do this, and neither do we.

The same Law commands that we serve our neighbor – spiritually and materially, asking nothing in return, feeding him if he is hungry, clothing him if he is naked, giving him water if he thirsts, even turning the other cheek if he strikes us. We are to pray for him if he persecutes us. We are to walk with him an extra mile if he takes advantage of us. Even if he is a stranger, we are to bind up his wounds and pay for his lodging. We are to seek him out if he is lost, and we are to bless him if he curses us.

Of course, the Pharisees did none of these things (and neither do we). The Pharisees followed a law of their own imagination, one that fretted over rules of fasting, regulations about clothing, rituals of hand-washing, hundreds of laws that are found nowhere in Scripture. They became a club of People Who Follow the Rules – whether or not the rules were in accordance with Scripture, whether or not the letter of the Law conflicted with the Spirit of the Law. Love had nothing to do with their law.

Jesus exposed their misuse of the Law, their hypocrisy, and their lovelessness and sinfulness. Their tricks fell back on themselves, their traps caught them by their own necks, and the law they used as a means to declare themselves better than the average person became the judge and executioner that declared them guilty and deserving of death.

It’s easy to see why they didn’t like Jesus, and why they decided to stop questioning Him.

What the Pharisees and the Sadducees failed to realize is that the Law which takes our self-esteem away and makes us look bad is doing its job. They also failed to see that Jesus had come to fulfill the Law for all of us who are bound to Him by grace through faith, and connected to His sacrificial death and resurrection by Baptism.

Jesus is the One who loves. He truly loves God, loves His neighbor, and loves Himself perfectly. He demonstrates this selfless, law-fulfilling love, withholding nothing from His Father. Not His time, money, possessions, even His very life. Not once does He grumble or complain, but rather seeks and serves His Father alone. He likewise serves His neighbor – spiritually and materially – seeking no reward for Himself. He feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, gives water to him who thirsts, and turns the other cheek as He continues to be struck by the world. He prays for those who persecute Him. It is He who goes the extra mile and binds the wounds of the stranger, providing him lodging. It is Jesus who seeks out the lost, and blesses those who curse Him.

The Pharisees did not like the Law as Jesus proclaimed it, and they liked Jesus even less. They were people lacking in love for God and for neighbor – and ultimately, they did not love themselves. For they chose a path of self-destruction in the name of self-improvement. They chose to keep a counterfeit law and reject the real Christ. By their hypocrisy and fraud, they missed the very grace of God that Jesus offered them with outstretched, cruciform arms. They chose a perversion of self-love over the real divine love that is not self-seeking, but rather seeks to serve others.

Our Lord is warning us today, dear brothers and sisters. If you are falling for the diabolical lie that Christianity is about following rules, obeying laws, and feeling good about yourself for doing it (while, of course, getting annoyed that other people aren’t noticing you or complimenting you for your work), you need to repent of this.

We can love God and our neighbor – if only imperfectly – because He has loved us first. God is love. Jesus is love incarnate. No greater love has anyone than that He would lay down His life for His friends. And in the case of our Lord, he lays down His life for the life of the world.

We love God when we confess Christ. We love our neighbor when Christ works through us for the benefit of others. And we truly love ourselves by serving God and our neighbor selflessly in recognition of the love shown to us by Him who loved us and gave Himself for us. Thus we can thank God always with St. Paul: “for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus, that you were enriched in everything by Him in all utterance and all knowledge, even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you, so that you come short in no gift, eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.

In the name of the father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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