Sermon from the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Sunday, February 12, 2023
By: Deacon Ben Remmert

Lord, open my mouth to speak your truth and our ears to hear it. Amen.

This past Friday my children’s preschool was having a science fair and to my surprise our son was so excited to attend and see each different experiment on fire and smoke. Hearing this excitement from Asher made me reflect on my childhood. I remember receiving a science kit for my ninth birthday from my uncle. It contained some ingredients so I could conduct simple experiments at home. The kit also came with a simple microscope. The microscope came with a slide, and you could put things from simple tap water to leaves on the slide and look at it under the scope. One recommendation was to put some onion skin under the scope. We had an onion in the house and so we did that. I was completely unprepared for what I was about to behold. Seeing the structure of the individual cells took my breath away. Who knew that such delicate structures were present in these simple onion skins?

We see so many different items of creation all around us. At first glance, they seem quite ordinary. But when their inner structure is revealed, we’re awestruck by their beauty and form. There’s a whole world of hidden beauty within them! It’s vibrant and pulses with life! If a humble onion can show such splendor and grace, what is hidden within each of us?

Today our two biblical texts both speak to God’s commandments. The commandments are God’s law given to us. They have a dynamic much like the difference between viewing with the naked eye and looking at it through a microscope. The more we investigate the commandments, the more closely we probe and ponder them, the more we come to appreciate the wisdom of God.

It comes down to the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. When we have a superficial connection with the law, we tend merely to the letter of the law. We complete the bare necessity to be compliant. Take a four-way stop at an intersection. The letter of the traffic law requires that I come to a complete stop. But if the traffic is light and I’m in a hurry, I might be tempted to make that complete stop something closer to a slow roll. The law requires that I come to a stop. So long as I stop, no matter how briefly, I’m following the letter of the law.

But the spirit of the law looks beyond just my raw actions. The spirit of the law examines the inner workings of that law. Why is it necessary for me to stop here? How is society benefitted from a full stop and a careful search in all directions? How can I enhance the safety and welfare of my community when I stop here?

Our two readings this morning look beyond the letter of God’s commandments to the spirit of God’s law. They look to the divine brilliance and wisdom established within these commands for us.

The passage from Deuteronomy takes place as Israel stands on the far banks of the Jordan River. They’ve left their slavery in Egypt and traveled through the wilderness for forty years. Now they stand ready to enter the Promised Land. But before they enter, Moses addresses the nation. How are they going to order their days in this new land? Moses encourages them to align their living in accordance with God’s commands. He tells them these commands are intended to promote life and goodness. That’s why God gave them to us! Moses realizes that the spirit of God’s law promotes life.

The writer of Psalm 1 understood this, too. Psalm 1 is a hymn of praise to God’s law. It states that people who follow God’s law are like “trees planted by streams of water.” They continue to thrive, even in dry seasons. They’re tapped into the source of life and goodness. Both the Psalmist and Moses knew God’s law is life. God has given us the commandments for our good. When we live according to God’s law, we’re like trees planted by water.

In our reading from Matthew, Jesus looks at the spirit of the law and lifts several of the commandments. Under this closer examination, the scope of the commandments becomes much more expansive. For instance, Jesus expounds on the fifth commandment, “you shall not kill.’” Under the letter of the law, we all understand what it is to kill. The letter of the law simply instructs us not to take a physical life. It seems like one of the easier commandments to follow. But Jesus draws us into the spirit of the law. “Here’s the deal,” he says, “words have the power to kill.”

I don’t think anyone is more aware of the power of our words to destroy than our children and youth. Words can build them up, but also the power to tear them down. Bullying and verbal persecution can make life a living hell. Mean comments can shred a person on the inside. Derogatory words kill the core of the soul. A harsh comment has the power to affect a person for their entire life.

Jesus puts three commandments under the microscope in today’s gospel. He looks deeply into them and reveals the spirit of God’s law. What he reveals is this: love and respect. In my past, we often look to a simple question that led us directly to this spirit of the law: What would Jesus do? When we’re in a quandary of what to do, this simple question can bring our fuzzy vision into sharp focus. This query brings us directly to the spirit of the law. And that spirit is love.

St. Paul comes to this same conclusion in his letter to the Romans. Here’s what he writes to them: The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:9-10).

When we look at Jesus’ actions, we see the full completion of all God’s good intentions. In love, he became incarnate and lived among us. In love, he healed the sick, he embraced the outcast, he forgave the sinner. In love, he instituted the meal of his presence, even while his betrayal was underfoot. In love, he went to the cross. In love, he descended to the dead. In his living and through his dying, Christ has perfectly completed God’s love and fulfilled God’s divine law.

We now are called to be channels of God’s love for the world. When parents and children serve one another in mutual respect, we fulfill God’s law. When we are agents of reconciliation instead of violence, we fulfill God’s law. When partners love and respect one another, we fulfill God’s law. When we take care of and protect our neighbors, when we support them to make a decent living, we fulfill God’s law. When we speak the truth in love, we fulfill God’s law. May we strive always to discover the spirit of the law. For it is life. Amen.