Isaiah 58 : 1 – 9a 1 Corinthians 2 : 1 – 12 Matthew 5 : 13 – 20
“Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” That sounds like a formidable challenge from Jesus – and so I’ve given this sermon the title: ‘What does it mean to be righteous?’
Jesus says that you have to be righteous in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. I am going to assume that it is the ambition of each one of here this morning to enter the kingdom of heaven – that blessed realm where God dwells and reigns in glory; and for whose coming we express our longing every time we say the Lord’s Prayer – ‘Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ Whatever else may be commanding my attention from moment to moment, deep in my heart I know I want above all else to be part of God’s kingdom. I hope it’s the same for you. As I may well have said before to many of you, I remember so well visiting a man who was dying, and indeed was ready to die, and he said to me: “I am so much looking forward to seeing God.” Search your soul and somewhere I believe in all people there is that deep-seated longing, whether recognised or not.
Here, Jesus tells us quite explicitly that – if we want to enter God’s kingdom – then our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law.
Now we know from the Gospels that no-one could have been more meticulous in keeping the letter of God’s Law as set out in the Old Testament than the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. And Jesus has just said that he has not come to abolish that Law but to fulfil it, and that anyone who breaks even the least of those laws is effectively endangering his chances of being part of God’s Kingdom. It’s clear that we have to do better than these expert law keepers, who know the Old Testament Laws with all their multiple rules and regulations, inside out. It sounds like a ‘tough call’ doesn’t it?
But wait a minute....don’t we seem to remember that Jesus himself was constantly being criticised by those Pharisees for breaking the law? He healed people on the Sabbath, and that was apparently against the law, because it was ‘work’ and the Sabbath Day must be kept free of any kind of work. It was the same when Jesus’ disciples were observed eating food without first performing ceremonial hand-washing, and plucking ears of corn on the Sabbath, and then being strongly defended by Jesus. What, then, can Jesus mean?
There can be no better explanation than we find in our reading today from Isaiah Chapter 58, where God’s anger boils over at those who keep the outward letter of the law, while their lifestyle shows that they are wilfully ignoring its intentions. See verses 3 – 5.
It becomes even clearer what God means by keeping his commandments in the following verses 6 and 7....Jesus has expressed this active and practical lifestyle that pleases God in the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount from which today’s Gospel comes - (the first 12 verses of Matthew chapter 5)...Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the peacemakers....
Jesus taught us that all the commandments can be summed up in two great commands: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength’. And ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.
Now we need here to note that Jesus is not saying that outward observance is wrong in itself. Indeed – rightly understood - it is health-giving. For example we have been given what we call the ‘means of grace’ – scripture, prayer, sacrament, gathering together for mutual support, encouragement and challenge as we come to church and join in small groups. Making every use of the facilities God has given us is our duty, it is our joy, it is our health – the spiritual equivalent of eating, sleeping and exercise. There is nothing wrong with dutiful obedience, even when we don’t feel like it. It sustains our spiritual lives, helps us to grow in faith and maturity, and maintains godly discipline. BUT the outward and necessary discipline must be matched by the inward intention and moral imperative.
In other words, it must be accompanied by a lifestyle that matches our words and our religious profession. “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”. (1 Samuel 16:7).
We can come at it from another angle when we think about Jesus’ teaching in Mark 7:15. “Nothing outside a man can make him unclean by going into him. Rather it is what comes out of a man that makes him unclean. And he goes on in verse 21: “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean’.
So the basic commandments stand, as Jesus says – he has not come to abolish them. But – as the passage that follows shows very clearly – they are not simply rituals to be gone through by rote, let alone (as with the Pharisees) according to hundreds of ridiculously detailed instructions. The commandments embody a whole (and indeed holistic) way of life that fills everything we are, and think and do and say. God is looking at your heart, not at the minutiae of the way you pray or read your Bible or any special actions you perform as you come to Holy Communion.
The next point in this Gospel reading that we need to pay attention to is that Jesus tells us that he has come to fulfil the law. In him we see God himself acting out the perfect life and bringing all the commandments to fulfilment. If we want to know what it means to live according to God’s commandments, we must look at the life of Jesus. And that means to live life as it is meant to be lived. To live life to the full and most satisfying. All of God’s creative purpose is exemplified in Jesus who fulfils everything that God and we most desire.
But, of course, for us that immediately throws up a massive problem. However hard we try, we simply cannot live up to that standard. So - does that mean exclusion from God’s Kingdom? To answer that we have to look again that this word ‘righteousness’. What does us mean for us to achieve ‘righteousness’?
It seems that the Pharisees – in all their meticulous attempts to keep the letter of God’s Law and so achieve righteousness – had forgotten the forefather to whom they all looked back – Abraham. In Genesis chapter 15: 6 they would have read: “Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord credited to him as righteousness.”
The righteousness of which Jesus is speaking means a right relationship with God. And for that, Jesus in the way, the truth and the life. Of course we are not able to live up to God’s perfect law. But Jesus died on the cross to win forgiveness for all our shortcomings and sins, and so bring us into a new relationship with God as his beloved children. We achieve a greater righteousness than the Pharisees and teachers of the law – not by trying harder – but (like Abraham) through our faith.
We place our trust in Jesus and It is his righteousness which clothes us and gives us a right relationship with God.
Once we have grasped this wonderful – fundamental - truth that lies at the very heart of the Christian faith, two things follow:
First, we are empowered to live good lives, not in order to win our way into God’s Kingdom, but as a joyful response to a salvation already ours as a free gift. We are no longer trying to impress God – a ridiculous idea if ever there was one. Rather, we know we are accepted through faith in Jesus, now his beloved children, living by grace, and our lives are our response to what - in his love - he has done for is in Jesus.
Second, we are empowered to fulfil the earlier part of today’s Gospel from the Sermon on the Mount, and become the salt of the earth and light to the world. We become people who – in the power of the Holy Spirit – can now make a difference.
As we come to Communion this morning, let us, first of all, rejoice that we are members of the Kingdom of heaven, not by trying harder and harder like the Pharisees in a hopeless task, but through personal faith in Jesus Christ, his cross and his resurrection. And, second, let us pray for the infilling of the Holy Spirit, and his guidance, as to how we can now become salt and light in a world where there is so much decay and darkness. You may think you have little to offer. Actually, it’s very exciting, fulfilling and indeed astonishing, to discover what you can do in the power of God and through faith in Jesus. Over many years in church life I have been just thrilled to see so many people who thought they had nothing much to offer, step into roles they would never have imagined, and discover a whole new life, just because they had put their trust in Christ, and listened to the call of the Holy Spirit. Your life-giving righteousness will far exceed the legalistic attempts of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, and you will be fulfilled beyond anything they might have dreamt of. Step out in faith – and - Prepare to be amazed!
1.What does it mean to be more righteous than the Pharisees and teachers of the law?
2.What does it mean to be salt and light to the world? Practically, how can we do this?