Epiphany V, Cycle A
“Live Like No One Else!”
February 9, 2020
The Rev. Dr. David M. Wendel
Saint Matthew’s, Wilmington, NC

Lessons: Isaiah 58:3-9a; I Corinthians 2:1-16; St. Matthew 5:13-20

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday and Tuesday this week, I was at our NALC Living and Giving Stewardship Task Force meeting in Phoenix. One of the members of the task force, Bev, from Pennsylvania, is a woman involved as a trainer in the Dave Ramsey Financial Peace University program often provided by congregations to encourage and stimulate good financial stewardship among Christians. And as Bev was sharing during our devotion, I was reminded of one of Dave Ramsey’s repeated themes in this program, that yes, we Christians are to “Live like no one else!” He uses it in different ways, first encouraging folks to “Live like no one else, so that you can LIVE like no one else”, meaning, if you live a disciplined, restrained life now, you will be able to live a more full and joyful life later.”

I mention it because I believe it suggests an appropriate theme for our Gospel lesson for today, where Jesus is truly teaching his disciples to “Live like no one else!” Many believe the Gospel of Matthew was written for life-long Jews who were becoming Christians, as Matthew compiled in his gospel the teachings of Jesus that would most speak to children of Israel–which were most of Jesus’ hearers–so that they might come to understand what it would mean should they become Jesus’ followers. Lutheran Professor, David Scaer, who teaches at Concordia Seminary, Fort Wayne, writes in his book, Discourses in Matthew; Jesus Teaches the Church, “Matthew’s Gospel was written as a catechesis, or summary of what believers were taught before being admitted by Baptism into the full Eucharistic membership of the church. The first evangelist’s preparation of a catechism was not the only purpose for (Matthew) writing his gospel, but it certainly determined its form.”

Dr. Scaer points out that in structuring his gospel, Matthew intended to show that now, the Old Testament message has become the New Testament Gospel, with Jesus as the new Moses, who instead of inscribing God’s will in Five Books called the Pentateuch, delivers the message of salvation in Five Teaching Discourses in Matthew. Now, instead of presenting Moses’ ten miraculous, but destructive plagues on the Egyptians, we see in Matthew’s gospel Jesus’ ten life-giving miracles that help the distressed. Now, the Prophetic Scriptures are not simply a collection of writings that recall God’s dealings with Israel, but they shape the identity and calling of Jesus who is Messiah, the Chosen One, the Christ come to deliver the New Israel, the Church. So that, in this context, Jesus’ Five Teaching Discourses serve to provide instruction to his followers, answering the question, “How should we live, then, as the New Israel?”

And Jesus’ answer, in each of the Five Discourses, but especially in the First Discourse, the Sermon on the Mount, can clearly be summarized as, “Live like no one else!” That’s what Jesus is teaching his catechumens, his students, as he sat on the hillside, teaching, first, his twelve called disciples, but second, the crowds who gathered around him to listen to Him teach. So that now, when we hear Jesus teaching in Matthew, our first question should always be, “if Jesus’ followers are to live like no one else in the world–how is he telling us to live here, in this particular passage?” And that helps us to understand, and to know how Jesus wishes to shape our lives, day by day, even now, 2000 years after his ascension. So, having heard our gospel passage for today, from the Sermon on the Mount, what is Jesus teaching us about how we are to live–differently from the rest of the world?

It’s helpful to note that this teaching comes immediately after the Beatitudes, which concluded, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account–rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Just before Jesus’ teaching that we hear this week, Jesus had been teaching his disciples that they would be persecuted, reviled, and slandered, for his sake. In other words, He was teaching them to be prepared to suffer with the prophets who lived before them, but also, together with Him, who would be arrested, tortured, and finally, put to death on a cross. That’s what Jesus had just been saying, so what does it mean, now, when Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth”?

According to Ezekiel, Exodus and Ezra, salt, specified “pure and holy” was to be sprinkled on the burnt offering in the Temple, as well as mixed in with the offerings of incense in the Temple. Salt in the Old Testament implied not only seasoning and preservation, but covenant-making, friendship, wisdom and knowledge. All we know definitively about the requirement to include salt with offerings, was that it was an integral part of sacrifice and covenant-making, so that offerings were not acceptable without the use of salt. So, just as Jesus had been telling his disciples that they would suffer and be persecuted, here Jesus is surely thinking about his disciples being salt, in the sense that they were being called to offer themselves, with Him. As He was to be the sacrifice, His followers were to be the salt mixed and mingled with His self-offering–salt that was to be pure and holy–not watered down, not adulterated with dirt or filth, which would dilute its saltiness and make it unusable. Salt in the Jewish Temple, or home that was contaminated in such a way, was indeed thrown out the door, to be trampled underfoot, for it was worthless.

And this is what Jesus is saying about the life of the disciple–we are to remain pure and holy, to be acceptable, and usable, as our lives are to be caught up in Jesus’ life, and even more, in His offering of Himself for the sake of the world. Like the salt used in the Temple sacrifices, followers of Jesus will be called to give their lives, with Him. And yet, not only are their lives to be an offering, Jesus goes on to say that their lives are to be light–light in the midst of a dark and shadowy world.

The second thing Jesus says about the lives of His disciples is that they, we are to be light for the world–bringing hope and faith to those living in darkness, through our deeds of love, mercy and kindness. And this is not altogether distinct or separate from our use as an offering, or sacrifice, for what happens to a candle as it burns–and what happens to oil in a lamp? As it provides light, it is also consumed–the wax, the oil are sacrificed, to give light to those in need. And so it is with us. We say in the baptismal rite, as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Jesus teaches us, saying, “You are the light of the world; as you are my disciples, you are to live, not in darkness or fear, not hiding within the confines of your church building, home or office, but living out in the world, where you are to do good works–for the sake of your neighbor in need. In this way, we are to fulfill the Law and commandment of God; that we are to love Him, certainly, but that we are to love our neighbor, as well. That’s how we let our light so shine–we care for the poor, the needy, the grieving, the lost and the lonely, and so fulfill the Father’s will.

Which brings us to the last teaching Jesus offers in this section of the Sermon on the Mount–that the Laws and commandments, statutes and ordinances of God are not abolished or diminished with the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, but as Jesus has come to fulfill them, we, too, are to live under them, striving both to keep them, and to teach them–reaching an even higher righteousness than that of the scribes and Pharisees! And what does that mean? The scribes and Pharisees under the Old Covenant were all about keeping the laws and commandments of God, strictly, legalistically, seeking to obtain God’s favor by their obedience. So, they kept the letter of the law, but only the letter of the law. They loved their neighbor in accordance with the law’s demands but used the law as a limit–so that they would go this far in loving their neighbor, but no further. The disciples of Jesus are to live differently, says Jesus, in that we are to see, in God’s laws and commandments, a higher righteousness–a principled righteousness that keeps the law of God, but goes even further when possible, for the sake of our neighbor. So that we see the laws and commandments of God, not as the maximum required, but the minimum–the starting place, if you will, for being light in the world, as we show love, and mercy and kindness. This is what Jesus is teaching us in our Gospel lesson today–that every letter, every stroke of the letter of God’s law remains in effect and cannot be dismissed or ignored–but calls us to go beyond, for the sake of our neighbor, and our troubled world.

St. Paul writes in our second lesson, “For who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to instruct him?”, and St. Paul answers his own question, saying, “But we have the mind of Christ!” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is instructing us, sharing with us His own mind, His own understanding, will and desire for His followers–so that now, we are to live, not according to our own understanding, but according to the teaching and call, of Christ Jesus. We are to live, not as the world lives, but as His disciples we are to live according to the mind of Christ–being salt, being light, being obedient to the law of God. We are to live as He lives, giving Himself, for the sake of those in need.

And this is important for us, critical for we who live in the 21st century, in North American culture. It is important for us, because all around us, we are being tempted, pressured, to fit in, to accept the ways of the world, to live, not according to the Word of God or the mind of Christ, but to accept reality and live, just like everyone else around us! The Christians in the first century, A.D. were persecuted and ridiculed because they didn’t fit in with Roman culture, often being seen as disrupting the Pax Romana. And yet, they knew they were called to “live like no one else—” they were called to a different life, a Christ-like life; a life which, at times, was counter to the culture around them!

And aren’t we called to the same counter-culturalism in our day? Contrary to the secular culture around us, what St. Paul calls the “spirit of the world”, we are called to be led and taught by the Spirit of God, called to live lives of purity, godliness, obedience and faith. We are called to reject the false teaching which comes from the natural, reasonable mind, instead holding fast to the good news that we are saved by grace, through faith, not in ourselves, but in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, proclaiming clearly and boldly that Jesus, only, is the Way, the Truth and the Life, that no one comes to the Father, but through Him. We know nothing except, Jesus Christ and Him crucified, as our hope, our confidence and our peace, as revealed to us, through the Word of God and the mind of Christ.

May our every thought, word and deed be in response to Jesus Christ and him crucified and risen, and may we seek to live, in so far as we are able, lives which reflect His presence, in our lives!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.