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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
As one hears the Old Testament reading, you can clearly see a God who takes sin seriously. So seriously that it is a matter of life or death, good or evil, blessing or curse. Through His servant, Moses, the Lord God issues a warning and a promise to the people with whom He had chosen and established a covenant relationship based upon His grace:
“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess” (Deuteronomy 30:15-18).
What’s more, such blessing or curse, life or death, good or evil are not just for this life, but have eternal consequences.
Yes, the Lord who spoke through Moses is the God who takes sin seriously!
“But that’s the Old Testament!” some will say. “Everything has changed. We’re more enlightened now. Let each of us find the way to love and happiness that’s best for us. Don’t you dare impose your morality on me!”
And so, the proclamation of the Law has been largely silenced in society. Just to our north in Canada, a pastor can be found guilty of hate speech for saying that the Bible condemns homosexuality. More and more, it is becoming illegal simply to repeat what the Bible says.
But that shouldn’t be so surprising. Unbelief always attacks the Law of God. But the devil’s target ultimately is not the Law. It’s the Gospel. See, if the Law isn’t preached, it’s so much easier for people to deny that they’re sinful. If they don’t know they’re sinful, then they see no need for the Gospel.
But there’s also another danger that’s infected much of Christendom. Extensive studies of “Christians” in America show that what they really believe in is what has been labeled “moralistic therapeutic deism.” “Deism” means they believe that God exists, but that He’s pretty distant most of the time. “Therapeutic” means that they believe that you only need to involve God in your life when you’re in trouble, when you need help and healing. And “moralistic?” That means that Christianity is about being moral, being nice. It’s all about how you live.
That means that a stunning number of “Christians” believe that they can keep God’s Law well enough to please God. This can only mean that God has softened up over time, that He’s not quite so serious about sin or enforcing His Law anymore. After all, some will say, He used to strike people down on the spot for sin or call for people to be stoned to death for immorality. But that’s not the case anymore, so clearly God has changed how His Law is to be used. But God takes sin seriously. He hasn’t relaxed His Law, softened it up or dumbed it down. His Law is not something that you can keep. That’s the point! Its primary purpose is to show you your sin and how much you need Christ and His forgiveness.
We are not the first generation to say that God has softened up over time. It was happening at the time of Jesus, too. The Pharisees claimed to have a high regard for the Law. But, since they taught that people were saved by doing good, the rabbis tended to interpret God’s laws in ways that made them keepable.
When Jesus preached the Sermon of the Mount, He wasn’t changing God’s Law by either making it harder or dumbing it down. He was teaching the disciples what God had intended all along. This is the Law He still intends for you today. So, it doesn’t matter what “you’ve heard said” by others; what matters is what Jesus says to you. He is the God who takes sin seriously.
Jesus begins: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Anger, insult, and murder. A sin of thought, a sin of word, and a sin of deed. You can see how this progression often plays itself out in real life. Most homicides occur among people who know one another, are often related, or even romantically involved with each other. They are not premeditated, but crimes of passion: someone gets angry, so someone insults, and someone gets murdered.
Now, in this world, anger, insult, and murder are three different things that merit very different punishments. Anger might punish you with a loss of friends if you can’t control it. An insult might get you a civil suit or libel—or a huge following on Twitter. Murder, on the other hand, invites serious prison time, even the death penalty. So, they’re different sins with different temporal consequences. But to God all three sins are the same. They all bring judgment, even the hell of fire. All three have the same sinful root. If you commit any of these sins, you’re not loving your neighbor. You’re wishing or inflicting harm on him instead.
All three sins also put you at odds with God. No matter what your neighbor is like, God loves him or her so much that He has given His Son to die on the cross in order to redeem them. You cannot hate your neighbor and still love the Lord. Anger is a fire that seeks to destroy your faith. Repent of it. When it flares up, repent of it again. If you’ve got something against a brother, go and be reconciled. If they’ve got something against you, go and be reconciled. But do not ever believe that you are justified to remain angry at someone for whom Christ has died.
The Lord is the God who takes sin seriously.
Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Lust and adultery. There’s obviously a progression there too, often by way of pornography. There are varying degrees of consequences too. Lustful thoughts are among the most common of sins, while adultery destroys marriages, lives, and the future of children. Yet in a sense, they’re all the same to Jesus. All of them lead to hell. And lust and adultery share the same sinful root. God is the Creator of each person. He gives to each beauty and body as He sees fit, as well as the ability to help bring life into the world—what power and privilege! He also places great worth on each individual. With regard to a person’s body and procreative powers, God declares to each, “You are of such high worth that, before another can be intimate with you, he or she must promise before God and man to be faithful to you for the rest of your life.” That’s what those marriage vows are about.
Lust devalues others. By lust you determine that someone is an object to be used, not a neighbor to be served. It doesn’t matter if that “neighbor” is willingly devaluing herself and inviting the sin. Who are you to confirm her in her sin? She is also one for whom Christ died: who are you to encourage her to impenitence?
Flee lust. It is destructive enough in its consequences for this life. Far worse, it will destroy your faith. You cannot rob others of the worth God gives them—even just in your own mind—and at the same time embrace the worth that God gives you in Christ.
This is a difficult sin to flee from, because it often doesn’t feel like disdain or harm. And you always carry your sinful heart and lustful eyes with you. Perhaps this is why Jesus goes on to say, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
We have a God who takes sin seriously.
On a related note, Jesus goes on: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
This is a difficult one to speak of because it’s such a sensitive and painful subject, especially for those who have suffered it. It’s very likely that there is not one person here whose family has not experienced the effects of divorce.
We should note that Jesus is especially warning against a casual approach to divorce. In His day, as in ours, the common presumption in society was that divorce is not that big of a deal, and the important thing was just to carry it out in the right way. Against this, the Lord’s authoritative voice thunders! Divorce is sin! Divorce shatters a union that God intends to be permanent. Planning one, especially scheming to bring one about, is going to do serious damage to faith.
Should marriage be in your future, choose carefully. If you are married now, work hard in service to the other. Where sin threatens marriage, repent and pray. If you’re ready to give up, don’t. God hates divorce. Speak to your pastor. He can help you apply God’s Word to your situation. And if you have undergone divorce, please know that you are not forsaken. It’s a tangled web to sort out and it will almost certainly include grief and repentance. But God is faithful.
Finally, in our text, Jesus says, “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”
Aside from those oaths that He permits (like marriage vows and court testimony), Jesus warns against taking oaths. To swear an oath by God is to bind Him to your promise, and you don’t have His permission to do so. To swear by heaven or earth is to use His creation as collateral, and you don’t have His permission to do that, either. If you break your oath, you communicate to others that misusing God’s name itself is no big deal. But to take God’s name in vain is to break the Second Commandment and invite God’s condemnation. That God doesn’t strike you down doesn’t mean He’s softened up. Rather, it means He is patient and merciful, so that you might repent before the Day of Judgment.
Anger, murder, lust, adultery, divorce, oaths: some we would call “big sins,” others we would call “little sins.” All have consequences in this life, and that is a blessing because those consequences are meant to warn you of the greater consequence of hell if you hold onto these sins and do not repent. Ultimately, that’s what makes them all the same. That’s what Jesus says.
He is the God who takes sin seriously.
We have a God who takes sin so seriously that He sent His only-begotten Son to die on the cross in payment for our sins and to bring us forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. We have a God who takes sin so seriously, He took on human flesh and bore our sin, lived a holy, righteous life resisting all temptation and willingly gave Himself as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Where you and I deserve God’s righteous anger for our sins, God took out that wrath on His Son on the cross instead. Jesus has suffered the judgment, the condemnation and the hell of fire in our place. He endured the mocking and scorn and false accusations of His enemies. Though you are guilty of anger and insults, hell is not for you because Christ forgives you. Even if you are, literally, a murderer, Jesus has laid down His life so that you might have life forever.
Where you have reduced and demeaned others by your sins of lust, you have also demonstrated your poverty of sin. But Christ has died for you, too. The holy Son of God has given you worth—you’re worth the price of His own innocent, precious blood. Rather than live for Himself and His own gratification, Christ offered His hands and feet to nails and His back to the scourge in order to atone for your sin. He’s suffered for you in His body already. He gives grace freely. For your adulterous thoughts, you are forgiven.
When you have undergone divorce, it probably still chews at you because you know your sin, your part, and you’ve got to live with yourself. Confess your sin, for you hear this Gospel that Christ has died to lay down His life for His bride, the Church, of which you are a part: and though you or others prove faithless, He is always faithful with forgiveness for you.
Likewise, there is forgiveness for you where you have misused God’s name and broken your word. Though you demonstrate your failure and faithlessness, the Lord remains faithful. He has made good use of His name to baptize you and continues to speak His Absolution to you in His name. He gives you His Word that He forgives you for all of your sins, and the Lord always keeps His Word.
Dear friends, as Jesus demonstrates in our Gospel, the consequences of sin are devastating—but they need not be for you. Christ chose to be cursed on the cross in your place that you may be blessed. Christ chose to give Himself into death that you might have life, eternal life. Christ chose to take on your evil and overcome it so that you might receive good. In Him, your sins are all the same—gone, remembered no more! For you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.