6 Epiphany Proper A6
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 5:21-37 Sermon
February 16, 2014
Click here for service internet broadcast/podcast.
Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal & With One Voice):
TLH 243 "O That I Had A Thousand Voices"
TLH 399 "Thee Will I Love, My Strength, My Tower"
TLH 651 "Be Still My Soul"
WOV 721 "Go My Children With My Blessing"
DO YOU SOLEMNLY SWEAR...?
TEXT (vs. 40-42): “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 the evil one.”
Governor Chris Christie from New Jersey has been in the news a lot lately, and you've heard a lot about some scandalous events for which he is being blamed. Now I'm not going to sift through the various details here; but the end result is that he is having to prove himself innocent. And a simple "I didn't do it" just hasn't sufficed. People want to be sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that this is indeed true.
The problem with all of this, is that even if Governor Christie proves ten ways from Sunday that he is telling the truth, there will still be that element of doubt that is lurking in the backs of people's minds. People aren't going to forget about this any too quickly.
The whole reason behind this bad press, is because Governor Christie is strongly considering running for President of the United States. And those who oppose him went about digging up anything that could even be remotely scandalous in order to defame him. They know that if there is even a seed of doubt in people's minds, they will question his integrity and suitability for the office of President.
Now I'm not standing up here today to try to make a strong political statement, or endorse Governor Christie, or to maybe insinuate that the charges against him are either true or false. I'm not standing up here on any political podium. But the reality of it all is that this will affect voters along the way one way or another. I believe that Governor Christie and any other political candidate for that matter deserves to have a fair go, and not be judged by conjecture, half-truths, or what happens to come out of the rumor mill.
I don't know how you personally feel about Governor Christie, but that isn't the point of this. We need to remember that similar situations happen all of the time. Something happens. Somebody jumps to a conclusion. Somebody makes up their mind without knowing all the facts. Somebody can't be bothered with knowing the truth when it conflicts with their preconceived notions. And so somebody winds up believing the lie they want to believe instead of the truth they are unwilling to face. In their estimation, a person's word is no good, regardless of how much they swear to the contrary.
This morning, the theme of my message to you are words you've heard before. Do you solemnly swear?
We all know about swearing when it comes to civic functions and duties. Since we're on the subject, the President of the United States is sworn into office when he is inaugurated. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is the one who administers this oath, where the President is required to swear to faithfully perform his duties and uphold the Constitution of theUnited States.
From there on down, political figures are sworn into office all the time. Governor Christie was sworn in as Governor. Law enforcement people have to swear to uphold the law. And if you are required to give testimony in court, then you have to be sworn in as a witness, to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Swearing oaths in the secular civic world is a necessary thing. We come to expect it. And why? It's because people lie all the time! Employees lie to their bosses, children lie to their parents and teachers, spouses lie to each other, and people lie to the police. So when a person swears to tell the truth in a court of law, and then lies on the stand, the penalty for doing so is not good at all. The witness has committed the crime of perjury, and is duly punished for doing so. Lying under oath is not taken lightly.
In the last verses of our Gospel reading today, Jesus is talking about swearing and taking oaths. He says in verses 33-34: “...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...”
In theory, all this sounds great. However, our society is inundated with swearing and oaths. You'll hear kids say, “cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye” as a type of sworn oath. Or people will say, “I'll swear to that on a stack of Bibles.” Or sometimes, “I'll swear to that on my grandmother's grave.” Or perhaps, “I swear that this is God's honest Gospel truth.” We're so used to it that it has become a figure-of-speech for many people. We just don't think a whole lot about it.
But when we bring this into the realm of the Church, and amongst Christians, then the words Jesus speaks have particular meaning. Allow me to explain.
I have a book that bears the title, “The Lutheran Agenda.” You've probably seen me with this book from time-to-time. This book contains most of the various occasional services and pastoral acts I need in the function of my ministry. There are also numerous services I will never need or use, but they're there anyway, just in case. You can have a look through it if you'd like.
With the orders in this book, I can baptize, confirm, marry and bury people. I can perform an ordination, an installation, or commission a missionary. I can dedicate a church, an organ, a school, a bell, a parsonage, or a cemetery. I can do a ground-breaking for a church or school, or lay a cornerstone. And today, I'll be using this book as I install the officers of our church that we elected to office a couple weeks ago.
Some of the various orders of service involve me asking questions particular to the function I'm doing. I ask questions of brides and grooms at weddings. I ask questions of parents and sponsors at baptisms. I ask questions of confirmands when I confirm them. And I will be asking questions of our council today when I install them.
The purpose of the questions is to remind people of various responsibilities and duties. This is something that people need to know. And when I ask if it is their intent to faithfully attend to whatever I'm asking, the response is most always, “Yes, with the help of God,” or “Yes, as God gives me strength,” or something along that order.
In no place, or at no time are the words “Do you solemnly swear” EVER used. When I was ordained, I was never “sworn in” as a Pastor. I don't “swear in” teachers. I don't make couples getting married “swear oaths” to each other. And when I install our council, I will not have them place their left hand on a Bible, and raise their right hand and take an oath of office. That's because Jesus says that this is not proper for Christians to act in this manner.
As important as this distinction is in the formal function of the church, we need to bring this down to a personal level. And here's where our interpersonal relationships come into play. In verse 37 of our Gospel for today, Jesus says: “Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one (referring to Satan).”
Have you ever doubted the word of a fellow Christian? When somebody has told you something, have you ever felt that they weren't telling you the truth? Have you ever gotten it in your head that a brother or sister in Christ has been working or plotting against you?
There's a lot of this that can be classified as plain and simple paranoia. People get it in their head that everybody is out to get them or that others mean them harm. Paranoia can be deadly poison in people's lives, and such feelings are hard to deal with amongst Christians.
I've had it happen. I've had church members in the past who are so paranoid that they take every word or phrase or glance in the worst possible way. And when others become aware of this, they avoid those paranoid people like the plague; and when they do have to encounter them, they have to “walk on eggshells” as the saying goes. This makes for a miserable existence for everybody.
The lesson Jesus is teaching today is simple, and it goes two directions. First, be a person of your word. Be accurate. Have all of your facts straight. Try to avoid mistakes if you can. And when you speak, use unmistakable terms and mean what you say. As a Christian, your word must be trusted.
Second, put the best construction on everything, and take a person's words and actions in the kindest possible way. That's the meaning of the 8th Commandment. If something doesn't seem right, then ask somebody about it privately. Don't automatically assume the worst. And most importantly, trust your fellow Christians. Don't go around thinking that God's people mean you harm, or that they are basically dishonest and are trying to “put one over” on you. And if there's ever any question about someone's actions or intentions, then we must do as Jesus says in verse 25 of our Gospel lesson: “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him...” In other words, handle matters privately, one-on-one.
Jesus is no stranger to people swearing oaths and giving false testimony. When he was being illegally tried, sworn witnesses gave conflicting testimony. Simon Peter, when he was asked by a servant girl if he knew Jesus, swore oaths and even called down curses from heaven to back up his claim that he never even knew him.
Amongst Christians, we can easily see how swearing is of no value, and in fact how it can be detrimental to our relationship with each other, and ultimately with Jesus himself.
Jesus doesn't ask us to swear an oath when it comes to our relationship with him. All he asks is that we come to him through nothing more than faith alone. We're human, and we make mistakes. We haven't always spoken as truthfully as we should, and we haven't always taken people's words and actions in the kindest possible way. Time and again we've shown our sinfulness, even through a misapplied simple “yes” or “no.”
The Gospel of John describes Jesus as being “full of grace and truth.” We can certainly trust what Jesus tells us, and see the wisdom in the instructions he gives to his children on earth. When Jesus says “yes” or “no,” there is no doubt in what he is saying.
Jesus says “yes” to us, and that is the biggest “yes” we could ever hear. That's the sound of the Gospel, which promises us that our sins are not only forgiven, but are forever removed from us through faith in our Saviour.
That “yes” is also the sound of heaven's gates being opened to us. Jesus paid for all of our sins and doubts, so that his “yes” could be heard above everything, loud and clear.
Jesus also says a clear “no.” He said “no” to Satan when he thought he had defeated Jesus. He said “no” to the threat of death and hell. He said “no” to us when we despair or think he doesn't love us or have our best interest at heart.
This morning, I began by using the example of all the media hype regarding Governor Chris Christie. And people being the way that they are, there are those who will continue to believe the worst, even if he is found completely innocent.
People jump to conclusions, regardless of the facts. People make up their minds because they want to believe something is true. It has happened far too often, and something similar has probably happened to you. It has happened to me. You can identify with the betrayal and hurt of being accused of lying when you are telling the truth, and you can identify with the shame and remorse when you are the one doing the accusing.
The answer is found in Christ Jesus, because he is the epitome of God's love for us. The forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ alone is the clear demonstration of this. Therefore, we need to put God's love for us in action toward others. In doing so, we must always remember God's Word recorded for us in 1st John, chapter 4, verses 19-21: “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, 'I love God,' yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”