Straight Talk about Sin
Pastor Johnold J. Strey
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church; Belmont, CA
Sermon on Matthew 5:27-30
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (Year A)
Sunday, February 13, 2011
STRAIGHT TALK ABOUT SIN
- The real definition of sin
- The bold battle against sin
This is the third of five Sundays in a row when our Gospel comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And this is the third of five Sundays in a row where an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount is the basis for our sermon. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount seems to be a favorite section of Scripture for many Christians—even Christian who come from very different perspectives. Liberal Christians love the Sermon on the Mount because they understand Jesus’ words to be a call for social justice. Conservative Christians love the Sermon on the Mount because they understand Jesus’ words as a call to traditional moral values. There’s no doubt that Jesus has a lot to say about the Christian life in his famous sermon.
I wonder why Christians of all sorts find the Sermon on the Mount so appealing. I wonder that because Jesus’ words in this sermon are not easy to hear—at least, they’re not easy to hear if we take them honestly and seriously. To reduce this sermon to a talk about social justice or traditional morality is to miss the point completely. Yes, Jesus says quite a bit about the Christian life, but an honest reading of the Sermon on the Mount reveals a direct, blunt, and unapologetic discussion about the seriousness of sin. You probably sensed that as you heard the Gospel read a few moments ago. The selection we heard today especially contains straight talk about sin, and today’s sermon will demonstrate Jesus’ straight talk about sin by focusing on just four verses in the middle of our reading. Jesus’ straight talk about sin will explain the real definition of sin, and will describe the bold battle Jesus wants us to make against sin.
Several years ago, after a funeral service I conducted, someone came up to me to respond to a comment I made in the sermon. The person was troubled because I said the deceased was a sinner. That incident taught me an important lesson: the way that society uses the words “sin” and “sinner” is very different from the way that the Bible uses those same terms. In popular usage, “sin” refers to serious misdeeds like murder, theft, adultery, or assault, and “sinner” refers to people like criminals and other shady characters in society.
The biblical definitions of “sin” and “sinner” aren’t so limited. The most obvious statement comes from Romans 3:23, where Paul wrote that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But you can also sense that broader perspective in Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’” Jesus uses the Sixth Commandment as an example. The religious teachers of Jesus’ day often limited the extent of the commandment to outward actions. That’s why Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’” The way the commandment was taught made it sound like all that mattered was the outward faithfulness of husband and wife. But Jesus points out the real extent of the commandment: “I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus points out that the sin against the Sixth Commandment is not just outward infidelity, but even a look that results with an inappropriate thought. There’s not a man alive on the planet that can dodge that definition!
Now take Jesus’ extent for the Sixth Commandment and apply it to every commandment. Suddenly “sin” is not just something that criminals do. God’s definition of sin is not merely outward murder, adultery, or theft. God’s definition includes disrespectful sighs aimed at parents, ill feelings toward someone we consider to be a difficult personality, a wandering eye or mind that imagines life with a different person as our spouse, envy at another person’s lifestyle, and the private trash talk that happens behind closed doors.
The school children who sang for us this morning learned this lesson in one of their Bible stories this week. Last week they learned the story of Jesus and the rich young man (Matthew 19:16-26). The young man who came up to Jesus asked what he had to do to get to heaven. His question was flawed – there is nothing a person can do to earn their way to heaven – but Jesus used the man’s question to reveal that point. Jesus asked him if he kept the commandments, and the man actually claimed that he did—a delusion of grandeur if there ever was one! But then Jesus laid the final blow. Would the man get rid of all his wealth and possessions and follow Jesus? The answer was a silent “no,” as he walked away from Jesus depressed at the thought of parting with his wealth. You see, he really didn’t keep the commandments, because his thoughts were sinful. His love for things was greater than his supposed love for God.
We can try to redefine sin however we want. The world can convince us to soften the definition so that we think like the rich young man in the children’s Bible story from last week who thought he really wasn’t a bad guy at all. But the Son of God has spoken and declared that sin is not just the really bad, outward actions, but even the evil inward thoughts that spring from sin’s cancer that eats away at our hearts. And the Word of God has spoken and declared that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” The title “sinner” doesn’t describe the “bad” people “out there.” It defines every person here today! The word “sin” doesn’t describe the evil actions “out there.” It is a one-word summary of our life’s biography!
When the school children learned the Bible story of Jesus and the rich young man last week, they heard a rather shocking statement from Jesus at the end of the story. Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The fancy name for Jesus’ statement is hyperbole. The simple way to describe Jesus’ statement is to say that he exaggerated to make a point. His point, highlighted by his impossible statement, is that it is very easy for wealth and riches to get in the way of faith.
In his discussion of sin, Jesus does something similar. He makes a shocking statement to get his point through. The next verses describe the bold battle against sin that Jesus calls his disciples to engage in. “If your right eye causes you to sin, 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. And if your right hand causes you to sin, 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.”
It is not hard to decipher Jesus’ point. Here is his straight talk about our battle against sin. Believers must do whatever it takes to rid their lives of sin’s influences. The alcoholic must stay away from the bars and parties that would compromise sobriety. The gossip must stay away from the inner circle of friends who can’t hold a conversation without badmouthing someone else. Pick the sin, but Jesus’ advice will be the same: Get away from anything and everything that leads you into that sin. The earthly pain you endure as you battle sin will be real, but it will be temporary. The earthly pleasure you enjoy if you remain in your sinful ways will be temporary, but God’s punishment for unrepentant sin is eternal and horrific. No wonder Jesus does not pull any punches about the bold battle against sin!
Do we battle sin with this kind of boldness and seriousness? Do we agree with what St. Peter wrote (1 Peter 3:8), that “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour”? Or do we treat Satan like cute little mythical kitty cat whose temptations will do us no harm? Do we recognize and avoid the sinful influences in the world around us—a culture that glorifies greed, and promotes lust as perfectly acceptable, and ridicules faith as an outdated relic of a past era?
Do we see how easily our sinful nature jumps on the bandwagon with the devil and the world? Do our checkbooks reveal our misplaced priorities? Do our sporadic appearances in God’s house reveal just how much we have lost our love for the gospel? Have we filled our mouths with gossip and our eyes with lust and our hands with greed so often that we think that it is no big deal? And does our lack of urgency in this battle against sin reveal that we are more comfortable with the potential of throwing out our salvation than we are with expelling sin’s sadistic influences from our lives?
Jesus is deadly serious about sin’s consequences. That should be more than obvious from his words in today’s Gospel. But look at his life, and you will see another way that he is deadly serious about the battle against sin. Jesus’ life story is one battle after another against sin, but his battle looks so much different than ours. Jesus faced the very same temptations you and I face, but there is not a single battle that he lost. Jesus faced the results of sin in this world every day, and his miracles of healing and raising to life proved that he has power over the sin that affects every aspect of our lives. Jesus’ battle against sin took him all the way to the cross, where he did battle against your sin and paid the entire eternal punishment for your sin, erasing every last sin and failure and shortcoming from your name in God’s record book. Jesus’ battle against sin took him all the way to the grave, because only by his death would he be able to rise on the third day and declare to you and all believers that sin has lost both the battle and the war!
Does Jesus’ battle against our sin suggest something to you and me, who have been called to faith in his saving and forgiving work? You and I were defeated by sin, but now sin is defeated by Jesus. All our gossip and lies, greed and envy, lust and apathy—all of it is cleansed by the precious blood of Jesus. Doesn’t his victory over our sin encourage us to stand up in our daily battle against sin, to avoid it at all costs, and to stop trivializing or excusing it? Doesn’t Jesus victory over our sin call us to sincere repentance and honest confession? Doesn’t his victory over our sin take us back to our baptism, where he first connected us to his death and resurrection and now gives us the strength to drown our sinful nature each day and rise once again to live for him who was raised for us? Brothers and sisters, there should be no doubt in our minds that the amazing grace and forgiveness of God will drive our souls to be bold in the daily battle against our sinful nature!
We follow a lectionary in our Sunday services—a predetermined pattern of Scripture readings that guide us week by week through the church year. You had better believe that if the lectionary hadn’t appointed today’s readings with their straight talk about sin, there was no way I would have picked this topic on my own. With school children singing, families visiting, and fellowship activities planned for after the services, straight talk about sin seems like the last subject we should be talking about this morning! But then again, this tool that we call the lectionary helps us to preach through all the teachings of God’s Word and helps us to review all that Jesus said and did during his ministry. Children and guests and anticipated fun should not deter us from saying the very things that Jesus said.
Jesus definitely gives us some straight talk about sin today, but his straight talk about sin leaves with no option but to run straight to his cross where he proclaims forgiveness for yesterday, strength for today, and heaven for eternity. That’s the kind of straight talk that every soul needs to hear all of the time! Amen.