The Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Robert Moore_3The Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
February 16, 2014

Robert G. Moore, Senior Pastor
Christ the King Lutheran Church
Houston, Texas

Readings (NRSV) and Psalm (ELW):
Deuteronomy 30:15–20
Psalm 119:1–8 Happy are they who follow the teaching of the LORD. (Ps. 119:1)
1 Corinthians 3:1–9
Matthew 5:21–37

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. 

How many of you have that uneasy feeling that you might just be going to hell? Nowhere in the Bible is hell mentioned so often as in this passage from the Sermon on the Mount.  And nowhere has it been more misused. Jesus uses it here unrelentingly, so much so that we pastors feel an urge to avoid it. First, we are uneasy with this condemning language which the church used for so many years to literally scare the hell out of the people. Secondly, it is just not nice to use the word “hell” among polite company. But what the hell! Nobody believes in hell anymore anyway.

So why is Jesus speaking in such a way? To answer that question, we would need to know what hell is in the society and culture of Jesus’ time. That is not so difficult to do. The word that we hear in English is not such an overly laden word in the ancient world. The authors of the gospels used the Greek word, γέεννα; Gehenna was a well-known and specific place in Jerusalem. It was the low-lying valley below the city of Jerusalem. There the people would cast away the waste of daily living. It was the city dump. Everything deemed no longer useful was dumped there. It stank just like our landfills stink. But it also burned and smoked. It was the kind of place one would prefer to avoid.

Gehenna became the supreme symbol of worthlessness. To be dispatched to Gehenna was to be declared worthless. It was the ultimate judgment over someone’s being. To be condemned to Gehenna was to hear what is painful to any human being: “you have no value, no worth. You are to be cast away with all the trash of the city, with those things that I do not want in my house.”

It does not matter how we avoid the word or the reality of hell. Hell for us human beings is right around the corner when we find ourselves being ignored by society, underappreciated by colleagues, or outright humiliated in the public forum.  

It is just this fear of hell with which Jesus engages the whole world with the message of the kingdom of God.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)

Jesus enters a world that is filled with the need to justify ourselves. Why did you do that? Could you have done something different?  Could you have done something better? There is hardly anything that we humans do that in some way is not a seeking after recognition. But even seeking acknowledgement from others is to subject ourselves to the questions and evaluations of others—and worse! We subject ourselves to our perceptions of what others are thinking about us. How do they value or not value us.

We know from our infancy how important it is to be valued. It happens right there in the parent child relationship. The infant finds in the eyes, hands and body of a parent the kind of unconditional recognition that can only come from beyond us. Even the lack of such unconditional love only confirms our need of it. For we human beings spend our lives in lifelong search for what we knew in infancy but lost in our coming-of-age fall from grace or in search of what we never received at all.

To live in this kind of world is hell. There are many religious responses to this human dilemma of being in the world. What we have heard in today’s readings is the Jewish and Christian response to the situation.

The Jewish response is absolutely necessary to our understanding the Christian response. It comes to us in the Law of the Lord. The Deuteronomist has Moses declare it near the end of his life. Moses has mediated the giving of Law to the Children of Israel, not as a condition of salvation from the slavery and suffering in Egypt. The Law is given as a means to understand who is this god who has chosen a people who were deemed by the other nations as worthless and without rights and has set them free as a witness to the justice and mercy of the God who created heaven and earth. These people have been called out, set apart to be witnesses to the God who is to be feared and loved above all others.

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. (Deuteronomy 30:15-16)

In such a way the Children of Israel are set free from the judgment of the nations. They are set free for ongoing relationship with their God who gives them Law, that is, Torah, by which they may live lives informed by the instruction of the Lord. They do not have any means of justifying themselves for their lives on earth except the testimony they belong to God and they should listen to the voice of the Lord calling them to lives that faithfully reflect the God to whom they belong.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

When Jesus arrives on the scene he comes with the good news that what God has accomplished with the children of Israel, God now is doing among the Gentiles.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)

But Jesus meets with resistance among those who have come to believe that their relationship with God is dependent upon their performance of the laws. They forget what the full force of the Law of God is, for the Law of God is meant for knowledge of God’s will. That will is that we should love God, not the God whom we have coaxed into drawing near, not the God whose favor we have won by being good or by being scrupulous in keeping the law, but the God who has already drawn near to us in Jesus, Emmanuel (God with us).

Dear sisters and brothers, in the church we have come to know God in a new way. God has come to us. There is nothing we can do to get God’s attention or approval anymore than all our attempts on this world’s stage will win this world’s approval and recognition. To know this is to be set free from having to prove ourselves and to be set free for doing what God has already shown us in Christ to do.