Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“You Actually Won” (Matthew 5:17-20)
February 9, 2020
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Every year at the conclusion of the Super Bowl I always feel wistful because I love football season and the end of the Super Bowl means the beginning of seven months without football (the XFL does not cut it for me). My wife Steph spent her childhood summers in Philadelphia and so she is a diehard Eagles fan. You may remember back in 2005 the Eagles, coached at the time by Andy Reid, lost to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX. And yet a couple months later at a discount clothing store in Virginia I came across a t-shirt that read “Philadelphia Eagles, Super Bowl XXXIX Champions!” But the Eagles had lost. As it turned out, this shirt was one of the many shirts made ahead of time for the Eagles in case they had won—and of course I bought her that shirt.
Last week I read an online article about what happens to all the championship clothing and gear made ahead of time for the teams actually lose the championship. These items are not released to the general public in the United States but are instead donated to organizations that distribute them to the needy around the world—millions of dollars’ worth of t-shirts, hats, towels, sweatshirts and other gear. So every year around the world people wear championship gear for teams that actually lost the championship, as if they actually won.
This of course leads me to legendary martial arts master turned actor, Chuck Norris. As a kid I loved watching Chuck Norris films, gems like Lone Wolf McQuade (1983) and Invasion U.S.A. (1985). How could theses masterpieces have never been nominated for an Oscar? Chuck Norris went on to star in the long running television series Walker, Texas Ranger. He was always invincible, and so in the wake of his legend many Chuck Norris “facts” emerged, including: Chuck Norris beat the sun in a staring contest, Chuck Norris can do a wheelie on a unicycle, Chuck Norris is the reason Waldo is hiding and the reason Forrest Gump is running, Chuck Norris doesn’t wear a watch; he decides what time it is, and my personal favorite, Death itself has had a near Chuck Norris experience.
Today I am preaching on one of the most challenging passages from the greatest sermon in the history of the world, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—a passage about doing something, I hesitate to say this, not even Chuck Norris can do. Jesus said:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:17-20).
That phrase “the law and the prophets” refers to the entire Old Testament. Jesus did not water down, or mitigate, or dismiss the Old Testament. Instead, Jesus turned the heat up. Jesus said every single part of the Old Testament—every detail of the Old Testament—every letter, every stroke of a letter (every “jot and tittle” of the Hebrew Old Testament) would be fulfilled, no exceptions. Jesus warned in no uncertain terms, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” My initial reaction to this passage is one word: yikes!
Jesus goes on in the Sermon on the Mount to emphasize that when it comes to keeping the Old Testament law, as in the Ten Commandments, God looks not just at your outward actions but also your inward motivations, not just your appearance but your heart. Jesus preached that even if on the surface you have never committed murder; if you bear anger in your heart toward someone you are guilty of murder. Jesus preached that even if on the surface you have never committed adultery; if you have lusted in your heart after someone besides your spouse you are guilty of adultery (Matthew 5:21-22 and 27-28). Again, yikes!
That is an absolutely impossible standard. You know that. Think about your actual life for a moment. How often have you broken the Ten Commandments either externally in your actions or internally in your heart? How often have you known the exact right thing to do, only to then do the exact wrong thing instead?
This defiance and selfishness regarding God’s law continues all through your life. Again, you can know the right thing to do and still do the exact opposite because knowledge of what is forbidden often awakens a desire to do that very thing. In the Garden of Eden, outside of commanding them to multiply and fill the earth, God gave Adam and Eve one, just one, commandment, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die” (Genesis 3:3). And you know how well that turned out.
This human desire to break God’s law, to transgress—to go against—God’s law, to do what we want to do when we want to do it because we want to do it regardless of what consequences may result or who may get hurt, goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden and continues from the cradle to the grave; it never stops, ever.
Think about toddlers for a moment. Most toddlers instinctively grasp two concepts even if they were never taught them: the concept of “no” and the concept of “mine.” You can ask a toddler to do something, especially something to keep them from harm, and their response will often be, “No” (often accompanied by a defiant and delightful shaking of their little toddler head). You can ask a toddler to please hand you something and their response will often be, “Mine” (often accompanied by an equally delightful pulling of that object even farther from your reach).
This idea applies not only to God’s law but also to other areas as well. Doctors face the reality of this every day when they see patients whom they have admonished many times to drop twenty pounds, or cut back on the Ben and Jerry’s and Dorito’s, or quit or at least curtail their smoking, or do more cardiovascular exercise, only to see that nothing has changed, that even though one’s actual life and longevity is threatened by their unhealthy habits they either cannot or will not change. Dentists face the same thing, as patients promise again and again, “Oh yes, I’ll start flossing, and yes, you’re right, I’ll start using mouthwash too”—all the while knowing these patients are lying to their face. Similar dynamics also occur between lawyers and clients, as well as priests and parishioners, but let’s not go there right now.
We all instinctively want to break the law and we do just that, again and again. But as songwriter Sonny Curtis, succinctly put it, “I fought the law and the law won.” This song was also covered by the Clash in 1979, but I digress.
Jesus knew this about us. Jesus knew we would always break God’s law, and that we would never stop. In an often overlooked passage in the seventh chapter of the Gospel According to John, Jesus plainly states, “Did not Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law” (John 7:19). So if what Jesus preached in today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount is true—“unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”—and yet none of us keeps the Old Testament law, we are in real trouble.
The Apostle Paul addressed exactly this in his Letter to the Romans, in which he vulnerably wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:15, 18-19). Can you relate? Paul then cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” and then answers his own cry, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25) and continues by explaining what Jesus did for all of us on Good Friday:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4).
In other words, Jesus fulfilled the law in your place. In fulfilling the Old Testament law for you, Jesus did for you what you have never done (or even wanted to do) and could never do for yourself. When Jesus preached, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” and further preached, “truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” he knew he was setting forth an impossible standard for sinners like you and me. And yet on Good Friday he died on the cross not only to atone for our sins but also to fulfill that law in our place—as scripture assures us, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus fulfilled that law for you.
Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount , “Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished,” and then later on a different mount, Calvary, as he died on the cross that same Jesus cried, “It is finished” (John 19:30)—“it is accomplished.” In fulfilling every detail of God’s law for you, Jesus did for you what you could never do for yourself, which means as Paul also wrote to the Romans, “You are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14).
This means you can stop judging and condemning others—and judging and condemning yourself—because Jesus was judged and condemned in your place, because Jesus atoned for your sins in your place, because Jesus fulfilled the law in your place. You are fully known by God, fully loved by God, fully forgiven by God.
And all this goes back to God’s unconditional love for you.
As you know, Jesus taught that the greatest two commandments are to love God with everything you have and love your neighbor as yourself, that Jesus said, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40)—the same “law and the prophets” he came to fulfill. Later at the Last Supper he told his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13)—and the very next day Jesus did just that. On the cross Jesus loved God the Father and loved his neighbor, you, as himself—actually more than himself. On the cross Jesus laid down his life for you to prove that no one, absolutely no one, has more love for you than God. As Jesus hung on the cross he fulfilled the law of love upon which “hang all the law and the prophets.”
Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament law for you, and still does—that is the good news of the gospel. And in response God calls us simply to love others, because “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).
Moreover, this means that although over and over again in your life you fought the law and the law won, you still get to wear a championship t-shirt. Yes, you actually lost, but because Jesus fulfilled the law in your place…you actually won.