Saturday, 8 February 2014

How can I live a good life that brings glory to God?

Matthew 5:13-20

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Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (v20)

Jesus in the previous verses has told us that:

You are either salt or you are not salt (v13)
The emphasis here is on what happens when the salt loses its taste. Technically, salt cannot lose its taste – but it can become diluted. And if it does, it is worthless.

You are either light or you not light (v14-16)
In verses 14-16, Jesus uses two pictures.

The first is that of a city on a hill. If you are the city on the hill, you will not be able to be hidden. If you drive down the M11, you will come to London. You will not miss it.

And Jesus says, in the same way, if you are light you will shine. People will see your light. It is possible to put a lamp under a basket, but it is pointless. Why bother to light the lamp in the first place? Light shines.

So the critical question is: how do we become salt – and keep our saltiness? How do we become light – and keep our light shining? How can we live lives of such righteousness that they exceed even those of the scribes and Pharisees?

The scribes and the Pharisees get a bad press in the bible. But we must not forget that they were considered to be the good, the moral people of that society. They were the rule makers and the rule guardians. They were the ancient equivalent of those in our society today who are socially conscious, environmental friendly, and what we critically call politically correct – but is actually about valuing each person as an individual.

So what Jesus is saying to his followers is that if you wish to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, you need to live lives that are better than those of the best people who are around about you.

How do we do that, especially if Christianity is a religion for sinners?
Jesus was accused of being a friend of sinners: of drunkards, traitors and  hookers.

I was talking with someone on Friday and was saying to them that this church was for sinners. If he considered himself a good person then he didn’t need to be here, and wasn’t welcome. But if he considered himself to be a sinner and messed up, then he was very welcome.

And yet Jesus here says, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (v20)

How do we, who are sinners, become more righteous than the most moral people in society today?

1. We need to go to the bible, to the law and the prophets.

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them ....’ (Matthew 5:17)

The source of the morality of the Pharisees were the traditions of their elders.
The source of morality for people today is the media and pressure groups.

Jesus is highly radical here. He says to his listeners that if they wish to know what true righteousness is, what a truly good life is, then they are to listen not to the elders, not to the media, but to the law and the prophets.

People wonder why we have the OT, the first 2/3 of the Bible.

It is the story of how God spoke to a nomad called Abraham about 6000 years ago, and said to him, ‘I’m going to make your people a great people, who will be my special people’.
It is the story of that people. They became a homeless slave people, who God rescued and gave a land. He gave them a precious gift: his law.
It is the story of their relationship with God, of their repeated disobedience.  
It is the story of God’s judgement on them and of his mercy.
And it is the story of how God promised that one day he would give them a ruler, who would establish his kingdom – and that on that day people would begin to do what God wanted them to do, not because they had to, but because they freely wanted to. God says, ‘I will put my Spirit in you’.

We need that story. We need, as Jesus said, ‘The law and the prophets’. We need ‘the smallest letter’, the ‘least stroke of a pen’ (v18). Other translations say, ‘every jot and tittle’!

So don't edit it - we need all of it.

The Justice and the mercy.
The slavery and the freedom.
The exile and the return.
The death and the life.
The suffering and the glory.

We need the psalms: the songs that long for God; that are overwhelmed with grief; that declare the wisdom of God; that are full of emptiness, anger, trust and praise.

We need the wisdom

We need the prophets: who speak of the coming Kingdom, and of the coming king: of the one who will rule and who will change the hearts and minds of men and women.

We need the law: because as we study the law we begin to glimpse the way of God, the heart of God – his deep love for people and his creation; his passion for justice, for the outcast or stranger; it speaks of an order that liberates and allows us to become who we were made to be. Yes, some of those OT laws may seem very obscure to us – but when we study them, when we ask why God gave them to his people for that particular time, we begin to uncover a deep wisdom.

And Jesus does not relax the demands of that law: ‘Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven’ (v19).

And we’ll see how he does that in the next few verses. The law says, ‘Do not murder’. Jesus says, ‘Don’t even insult another person’.

And there are many OT laws that are not immediately relevant for today. We do not follow the laws about circumcision, or what we can or can’t eat, or what we can do or can’t do on the Sabbath (which is Saturday not Sunday).

But we need to be very careful before we say that any of the OT laws were only relevant for that time and are not relevant for us today, even some of the most obscure – like not wearing clothes that combine two different fabrics. We need to make sure that in some way we have not rejected the law but that we have understood the heart of that law, the reason that it was given, and that we have now extended that law.

In Matthew 23, Jesus criticises the Pharisees for two reasons.

The first is hypocrisy. They teach the law, but they do not practice what they preach.

The second is that they have not really understood the law. They have missed the point of the law.

Jesus says (Matthew 23:23), ‘Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees. For you tithe (that is, give a tenth) mint and dill and cumin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done without neglecting the former’.

He says that they are like the person with a big hot mug of coffee.  A bluebottle decides to do a death dive into the mug. A gnat thinks ‘that’s fun’, and follows suite. You spend 5 minutes trying to fish out the gnat, and when you’ve finally got him, you drink the rest. You’ve somehow become blind to the blindingly obvious.

Jesus was asked what the heart of the law was. He replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. Those two commands, he says, sum up the whole law and prophets. By saying that he was both affirming the law, but also radically extending the law.

So if we, who are sinners, wish to become more righteous than the most righteous people of our society today, we first need to go to the bible to discover what is true righteousness.

The problem is that knowing what goodness is does not help us live good lives.  

So there is a second thing we need to do if we wish to be salt and light or if we wish our righteousness to exceed that of the Pharisees.

2. We need to come to Jesus

Jesus says, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’ (Matt 5:17)

Jesus is saying:
I am the one who gave you the OT.
I am the one who the OT is all about.
I am the one who alone can rightly interpret the OT
I am the one who lives out the OT as it is meant to be lived.

And if you want to know how to live the laws of the OT in the right way, you need to come to me. 

There is self-centred righteousness or there is God-centred righteousness.

Self-centred right-ness says, ‘I’m a good person, and I am going to prove that I am a good person by keeping the law and doing what is right’.

The problem is that we can’t because we are not sufficiently good people. We try hard, but be get exhausted and become weary. It’s very hard putting on a show all the time. So we lose whatever saltiness we had. We scurry under the basket to hide whatever light we had.

God-centred right-ness is different. It says, ‘I can’t possibly keep this law. I can’t possibly love like this. I’m weak, I’m sinful and I’m very messed up. But I know someone who can forgive me and help me – and I am going to him. And I am going to ask him to change my heart so that I both want to do what is right and so that I can begin to live what is right.’

God-centred rightness begins not when we give to God, but when we receive from God.

It begins when we go to Jesus and say, ‘I’m a cold dead wick. Please set me on fire so that I burn for you’.

One of the earliest Christian thinkers who lived in these lands, a man called Bede, wrote of how when God became flesh, when Jesus was born as a human being, it was as if our cold  human flesh was set on fire by God. It began to burn with an inner flame. 

And when we come to Jesus our heart can begin to burn with that inner flame.

It will not necessarily be dramatic.

John Ortberg wrote, ‘The main place you do the work of God is as you go along. It doesn’t have to be in high-profile, important positions. It will happen, if it happens at all, in the routine, unspectacular corners of your life. As you go along’.

If we come to Jesus, and remain with him, we will change. How we see God will change; how we see other people will change. Our priorities will change; so will how we meet disappointment or success; It will show when we lose it, how we lose it, and what we do when we’ve lost it; in the way we talk to customers, or pupils or colleagues, people in the shops or even to cold telephone callers; in a growing respect for every life and in how we treat our bodies and other peoples bodies; in how we are prepared to say sorry or speak the truth even if it is not to our advantage; in what we want to talk about; in how we spend our money or use our gifts and time.


And so if we listen to the bible, and if we come to Jesus, then we will be salt and we will be light, and glory will be given to God. 

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