The Sermon Week Three - "The Raised Bar"
It's confession time this Sunday. From time to time, I just feel the need to share some of my deepest secrets and for some unknown reason I often feel compelled to share them publicly... at church... in front of hundreds of people.
If you do this on a regular basis, you are either insane, or a pastor--or perhaps both, which appears to be the case with me.
So here's the thing... and I know that this may not be that much of a surprise to most of the people who know me even a little... but I am a rather huge Def Leppard fan. Def Leppard is a band. From the 80's. They sold like a zillion albums. Nothing? Some of you are feeling me, I know.
When I was fifteen years old, the thing I wanted most in life was to look like Joe Elliott, the lead singer of Def Leppard. I figured I could make this happen if I listened to their album Pyromania enough times, grew my hair, became better looking and learned how to sing. None of these things was going to happen, but a boy could dream...
The biggest impediment to my becoming Joe Elliott was the fact that my parents were fairly dead set against my listening to any kind of rock and or roll music, which most definitely included Def Leppard. We were fundamentalist Baptists, you see, and rock and or roll music was verboten in fundamentalist Baptist world.
I was not to be denied, though. A friend secretly copied Def Leppard's Pyromania from album to cassette (these things existed in a better time and place, boys and girls), and I began listening to it incessantly. I knew every song by heart. Even the drum solo on "Billy's Got A Gun."
Then I went to summer camp with my church youth group, and this guy got up and told us that if we listened to rock and or roll music (which included Def Leppard) that were probably going to spend eternity roasting in Hell. Okay, he didn't say it exactly like that, but it was inferred.
So when I got home from summer camp, I took the well-worn cassette of Pyromania and I pulled the tape out of it in dramatic fashion before throwing it away. There were a few other tapes that got the heave-ho that summer to ensure the bliss of my immortal soul. I kept my Air Supply tape, though, which was a shame in and of itself.
Here's the problem.
I loved Def Leppard. I had memorized Def Leppard. I heard Def Leppard in my head. I still longed to be Joe Elliott. And it wasn't long before I found myself going back to my friend and getting another bootlegged copy of Pyromania. When I popped it into my little cassette player and heard the familiar strains of "Rock, Rock (Til You Drop)," it just felt so right, I knew it couldn't be wrong. Surely, I thought, God wouldn't send me to Hell because of music...
I decided at the age of fifteen that Christianity was nothing more than a series of impossible standards that were impractical at best and ridiculous at worst. And so began an eight year run within which I chose to live without those kinds of standards in my life--and eventually without Christianity.
Let's face it. Impossible standards are not exactly a great selling point when you're trying to tell someone why they should become a Christian. "And as soon as you start following Jesus---that's when all the fun ends, me boyo."
Christians have decided that the best way to "sell" Christianity is by tossing all of that stuff out the window. Or at least keeping it on the "DL" until after someone has agreed to baptism and tithing. "It's all about looooveee...." we might say in a sappy, syrupy kind of way that is sure to make everyone feel comfortable.
But here's the problem. No matter how we try to gloss over the difficult things that Jesus told his followers to do---they are still... difficult. Some might even say that it's nigh to impossible to live like Jesus commanded his followers to live. I know because I've said it more than once.
So what do we do when following Jesus seems impossible? Do we just give up? Do we decide to accept some of what Jesus said, and then ignore the rest?
I've learned something in my journey of stumbling after Jesus. It is impossible to follow him. The standards are high, and impractical. Which is just the way Jesus wanted them--impossible... without Him.
As we continue our exploration of the Sermon on the Mount, I want you to hold on to this one, unshakable truth:
The impossible standards of an upside down, Jesus-centered life are only possible through Jesus.
Today's passage of Scripture is rather long, but we need to work our way through it in order to understand our one, unshakable truth...
Before we begin, I need to remind us that Jesus is delivering this sermon from a hillside in Galilee. Just like Moses on the mountain speaking to the twelve tribes, Jesus is speaking to his twelve disciples (and some other people gathered on the shore), delivering a new covenant between God and Israel. Only this time the covenant isn't just for Israel, it's for everyone.
And another thing... Jesus is speaking well within his tradition. He doesn't ever claim to abolish the "old" law--he interprets it completely. He's in the tradition, but he doesn't let the tradition get the last word. He's reminding his disciples that embracing this new word is not to embrace a law that protects from sin, it's an expression of worship. He keeps poking his disciples with the question, "Does your righteousness exceed the Pharisees?"In other words, "Are you making the world a better place, and not just saving your own skin?"
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. 25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
Jesus is telling his disciples, "words kill." The word "Raca" means "empty head." Jesus is saying, "Thou shalt not kill" needs to also refer to the way you speak about one another. Then he declares that if you realize you have something against someone or vice versa that you need to interrupt church and make it right. Only, "church" in his day was in Jerusalem which was like three days away from Galilee. This was an impossible response.... but what hangs over his analogy are these questions, "How do you think murder happens? Where does it begin? To what lengths would you go to stop it?"
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Jesus declares that adultery is not limited to the physical, sexual act of adultery, but is now extended to the lust of the eyes, and the heart. His expansion of the definition of adultery here places the burden to avoid it completely on the man--which would have been a cultural bombshell for his hearers. Women, he declares, are not sexual objects, and men are not merely slaves to their desires. Again, this seems like an impossible standard, but there are also some important questions that hang over it: "How do you think cheating happens? What role does my thought life play in the way I act?"
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Here Jesus realigns marriage with God's original intent. In his day there was a great deal of discussion among the rabbis about the requirements for divorce, how to obtain one, who was able to demand it, and so forth. Things had gotten so bad that men were basically leaving their wives and families, moving to another town and starting over. Adultery was supposed to be the only reason for divorce, but women could not accuse a man very easily and succeed. Men essentially needed only their word that their wife had committed adultery and they were clear. Jesus is saying, "everyone is talking about the reasons for divorce---I want you to preserve marriage." Over this statement hangs the question, "How do you think society starts to crumble? Does it begin with the disintegration of the family?"
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
Jesus is asking his followers, "Does what you say really matter? Do you need to swear an oath before anyone believes you? Do you only mean what you say sometimes?" He exhorted his followers to be trustworthy with all of their speech--to say what they mean and mean what they say. It's like he's asking, "How do you think people get so suspicious and jaded? Does it start with a fundamental distrust of the way we differentiate one way of speaking and declaring truth over another?"
This is heavy stuff to dig through on a Sunday morning. I get it. The study of this stuff seems impossible in and of itself. And the rest of it? Impossible standards to live up to, to say the least.
Unrealistic ideals to live up to, right?
We can think of a hundred excuses why it's too hard:
"I know I said I wish he was dead... but I didn't really mean it."
"I can't help looking at attractive people--have you seen how everyone dresses these days?"
"I know what Jesus said, but half of marriages end in divorce today--including Christian marriages."
"I can't always say how I really feel about things--people might take it the wrong way."
Are there moments when the ideal is not immediately possible?
So why should we bother to even try to live up to Jesus' standards?
When we read this passage we can hear Jesus saying to his followers, "You are thinking too small...."
"You think you're doing good because you've never killed anyone," Jesus is saying. "Then you think murderous, killing thoughts." "You think you're doing good because you haven't committed adultery. Then you objectify women and obsess over what you'd like to do with them." "You think you're good because you can justify all of the lawful reasons for divorce. But you don't seem to be at all interested in saving marriages." "You declare to everyone who will listen that when you swear an oath, you're telling the truth. But in your every day speech you speak meaningless words, babble incessantly about nothing and expect everyone to believe you."
Listen. You can almost hear Jesus saying, "I want so much more from you than that. I came so you could have huge, expansive lives filled with meaning. Stop limiting yourself. Aim higher. Imagine what the world could be if you lived into the potential I know you have..."
Because this is what we know about what the way that Jesus is calling us to travel as we stumble after...
This isn't a pleasant lifestyle choice--this is a way that leads to life...
This isn't a contradiction of grace--but it is a warning against a cheap view of grace that leads me to believe I can behave any way that I want...
This isn't about a "right" interpretation of Scripture--this is a vision of the way things ought to be, which is infinitely more meaningful.
Brothers and sisters, just because they're hard doesn't mean you get to ignore Jesus difficult teachings.
But we do need to understand that there's only one way that we can make what is impossible, possible. There's only way way that we can reach these unreachable goals, live up to these standards that are impractically high....
The Fosbury Flop.
Until 1965 there was basically one way to complete a high jump in track and field events. Forward. High jumpers would run up to their approach, jump really high in the air, and try to tuck their legs, or straddle the high jump bar like they were jumping over a hurdle. Then Dick Fosbury figured something out. If he threw himself over the bar backwards, landing on his back and shoulders--he could jump higher---way higher--heights that had never been humanly possible.
No one had ever done this in all of the years of track and field. Until Fosbury, who won a gold medal at the Olympics in 1968.
Now everyone jumps the high jump like Fosbury did.
Until the Fosbury Flop proved otherwise, conventional wisdom stated that jumping to the heights he achieved was impossible--heck, it was impossible. Only when Fosbury figured out an entirely new way of doing it did people begin to understand that what had been impossible---wasn't.
I get it. These standards that Jesus set forth are impossible....
But Jesus had this impossible vision of a world free from anger, and murderous thoughts... free from people exploited and controlled by lust... free from broken marriages and homes... free from dishonesty and cynicism...
I don't know about you, but I'd like to live in such a world. We have a choice--we can sit and dream about it, or we can try to live into the hope of this impossible and beautiful future marked by impossible standards.
I say we live into a hope by the power of Jesus Christ---Because the impossible standards of an upside down, Jesus-centered life are only possible through Jesus.