Friday, February 24, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 5:38-48, Psalms 140, 142

Preached at TSM Chapel 2/24/2017

Our readings from the Gospel and from the Psalms strike quite a contrast today: in one, we hear that we are to “love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us and pray for those who spitefully use us” (5:44), in the other we cry out, “let the evil of their lips cover them; let burning coals fall upon them; let them be cast into the fire, into deep pits, that they rise not up again” (140:9-10). It would be easy, I think, to brush off the Psalm reading as “oh, that’s the Old Testament” so we don’t have to hear its witness or instruction. Or we could go the opposite direction and say, “Jesus didn’t really mean that -- it's just Semitic hyperbole.” Both options, I think, are precipices off the same ridge, one on either side. We must, instead, seek the narrow gate and the difficult way.

It would be helpful, at this point, to enlist St Paul as our interpretive guide. When speaking to the Corinthians believers, he interprets the wandering in the wilderness as both a lesson about Christ and, therefore, a lesson of how they should live. “Now all these things happened to them as types, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11). While he here confines his examples to the Pentateuch, elsewhere he draws the Psalms and the Prophets in that orbit, as does our Lord Himself when He says, “all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (Lk. 24:44). Can we hear the voice of our Lord praying these Psalms? Is there an Enemy He came to overthrow? One perhaps for whom “an everlasting fire” has been prepared? It certainly was not the Romans, nor even His countrymen who would rise up and crucify Him. No, even these He prays for, saying, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). Instead, He tells us, the “fire, the deep pit” from which none can arise is“prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41).

No man, no matter what they may do to our bodies or even our minds, is the object of the Psalmists’ approbation as we pray the Psalm with and in Christ. Instead, “God our Savior desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3-3) and so we lift up “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks for all men” (2:1), or as our Lord put it, “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). The imprecations, though, are reserved for those angels who have not “kept their proper domain, but left their own abode” (Jude 6), who even Michael the archangel does not “bring against a reviling accusation, but says, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’” (V. 9). These Psalms give us the words to follow Michael in asking for God’s judgment, which has already been prepared for them, to come against the demons who inspire and instigate the Great War against Christ and His saints (Rev. 12:13-17), the War that has made injustice our world’s default and has made our souls languish in shame and guilt. And what, in the end, shall we cry? “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living...deliver me from my persecutors, for they are stronger than I. Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise Your Name” (Ps. 142:5-7).

The Lord Christ, by His Cross, has conquered death and so shattered the power of the devil and his angels, as the author of Hebrews has said, “through death Christ might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15). Who is it that has been subject? “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin” (Jn. 8:34) and “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23): all were subject to the cruel bondage of sin and the fear of death, for “the stinger of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the Law” (1 Cor. 15:56), but, thanks be to God, Christ has destroyed the power of the devil and assured his ultimate destruction -- now we can let go of our hatred, and jealousy, and fear of others, for these are whom Christ has come to save. Let us, with the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us, pour that love out on our neighbors and enemies alike by seeking their salvation from sin, death, and the devil. “Therefore, you shall be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Amen.

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