Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. Have you ever noticed that we live in a profoundly angry world? Anger is absolutely everywhere. Just drive down the highway, listen to the drama that people spend so much of their time talking about, or scroll through social media and you will very quickly see just how profoundly angry the people around us are. But letâ€™s be honest with ourselves as well. Itâ€™s not just other people who are profoundly angry, itâ€™s us too. I need to take responsibility for the times that I have acted in anger or induced other people to anger while driving on the road. I need to take responsibility for the times I have participated in or encouraged the spread of drama. I need to take responsibility for the social media anger that I participate in either through my engagement or my continued consumption of it. See, itâ€™s not just everyone else who is profoundly angry, we are all prone to anger much more than we would like to admit. And because we donâ€™t want to admit it, we try to disguise our anger by calling it â€œfrustrationâ€ or â€œdisappointmentâ€, but regardless of what we call it, itâ€™s still anger. The first step to deal with the anger is admitting the problem, right? But even when we admit the problem and do our best to deal with it. Even when we take deep breaths, count to five, or try as hard as we can to suppress our anger, itâ€™s never overly effective, is it? We live in a profoundly angry world. We are profoundly angry ourselves. And worst of all, we canâ€™t escape our anger no matter how hard we try. How fitting is it, then, that in our Gospel Reading for today, our Lord is teaching his disciples about anger?
2. But before we see what our Lord has to say about anger specifically, we need to explore in some detail the more fundamental teaching that our Lord gives in the first four verses of the Gospel text. I would like to direct your attention, first of all, to the verse that probably jumped out to you most when this text was read earlier:
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heavenâ€ (Matthew 5:20).
Ouch. How are we supposed to enter the kingdom of heaven, then? The scribes and Pharisees were the people who devoted their lives to keeping Godâ€™s law. How do the rest of us who canâ€™t even keep our anger in check stand a chance then? But to ask this kind of question is to completely miss the point of how one enters the kingdom of heaven. The problem with the scribes and Pharisees was that their righteousness consisted entirely of their own efforts to observe Godâ€™s law faithfully. For as decent of a job as they did of observing the law outwardly, they still werenâ€™t perfect. This is why we need a greater righteousness to enter the kingdom of heavenâ€”because their righteousness, which consists of disciplining themselves and doing the best they can, isnâ€™t good enough. We need a righteousness which greatly exceeds our own ability to enter the kingdom of heaven. This is why Psalm 31:1, which served as our Verse for today, directs us to look to the Lordâ€™s righteousness for deliverance. In that Psalm, we pray:
In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me! (Psalm 31:1).
See, it is only our Lordâ€™s perfect righteousness, which has also been given to us, that allows us to enter the kingdom of heaven. Christâ€™s righteousness is the righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. We must receive the righteousness of Christ and ever live in it if we desire to enter the kingdom of heaven.
3. And so, let us see what our Lord has to say about living in his righteousness before we return to our discussion of anger. In our Gospel Reading for today, we learn that:
We live in the righteousness of Christ by
1.) Taking Godâ€™s word of law seriously,
2.) Taking Godâ€™s word of gospel seriously, and
3.) Taking our continued need for Godâ€™s Word seriously.
II. Taking Godâ€™s Word of Law Seriously
4. First, our Lord shows us in this text that to live in his righteousness, we must take Godâ€™s word of law seriously. And itâ€™s tempting not to do this. Itâ€™s tempting to look at Godâ€™s law and what it requires of us and to say, â€œI canâ€™t possibly do that! So, why even try!â€ Unfortunately, many Christians fall into this trap. They think that because Christ has already fulfilled the law for us, there is no reason for us to worry much about keeping the law anymore. The Gospel is all that matters. But in response to that, Saint Paul says very clearly at the beginning of Romans 6:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Romans 6:1-2).
And our Lord himself says very clearly in our Gospel Reading for today:
â€œTherefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heavenâ€ (Matthew 5:19a).
Even as people who live by the Gospel in the freedom of Christ, you and I must still take Godâ€™s word of law seriously. By our adherence to the law or our failure to abide by it we are not granted or barred access to the kingdom of heaven. Thatâ€™s not why we take the law seriously. We take Godâ€™s word of law seriously because our Lord instructs us to do so and because he knows what is best for us. Therefore we must take Godâ€™s word of law seriously because it teaches us of the evil nature of sin and how we can live best according to Godâ€™s eternal will.
III. Taking Godâ€™s Word of Gospel Seriously
5. But this leads very quickly to the second point. We must also take Godâ€™s word of gospel seriously. If we take the law seriously, then we know full-well that we are poor, miserable sinners. If we take the law seriously, then we know that we justly deserve the Lordâ€™s temporal and eternal punishment. And if we know just how serious our offense against the Lord is, then we recognize just how much our Lord has done for us. We are poor, miserable sinners. Despite our best efforts, we continually offend our Lord and fail miserably in our attempts to obey him. And yet in spite of this, or rather because of this, our Lord has had mercy on us and sent his only Son to die for us so that we might be forgiven. See, when we take seriously Godâ€™s word of law and strive with every fiber of our being to obey that law, and when we inevitable fail in those efforts despite some progress by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we also see more clearly and take more seriously the love that our Lord has for us. These two things must go hand-in-hand. Those who would take the gospel seriously must also take the law seriously; and likewise, those who take the law seriously must also take the gospel seriously. Our Lord hints at this earlier in Matthew 5, when he says:
â€œBlessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfiedâ€ (Matthew 5:6).
What does it mean to hunger and thirst for righteousness except to seek with all of your being to live in the righteousness of Christ by receiving his good gifts and in turn sharing those good gifts with others? When we take Godâ€™s word of law seriously, we necessarily take his word of gospel seriously.
IV. Taking Our Continued Need for Godâ€™s Word Seriously
6. This leads to the final point regarding living in the righteousness of Christ: To live in the righteousness of Christ means that we must take our continued need for Godâ€™s Word seriously. In the final two verses of our Gospel Reading, our Lord says:
â€œCome to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last pennyâ€ (Matthew 5:25-26).
The warning from our Lord here is stark. Itâ€™s similar to the warning Saint Paul gave to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 10:12:
Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Corinthians 10:12).
The warning is clear: Donâ€™t become over-confident. Donâ€™t assume that because you seem to have everything together in this moment that it all canâ€™t come crumbling down in an instant. Donâ€™t pretend that the rules donâ€™t apply to you and that you can do whatever you want. Godâ€™s Word of law and gospel are life-giving, as we discussed last week. We must continually surround ourselves by Godâ€™s Word lest we become like the man who failed to treat his accuser well and ended up in prison. If we donâ€™t continually depend on the Word of God, then there is no one but ourselves to pay the debit that we owe when we find ourselves in prison. But when we continually depend on and surround ourselves with Godâ€™s Word, our Lord Jesus is there to fulfill the debt which he has paid with his own blood, down to the last penny.
7. So, how does all of this apply to the topic of anger? Well, as we know, our own continued efforts to rid ourselves of anger tend to not work very well. Maybe theyâ€™re effective in the short term, but their effectiveness is only temporary. So, how do we deal with anger? The short answer is, you donâ€™t because unless your righteousness exceeded that of the scribe and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven, and you sure wonâ€™t be able to deal with your own anger problems either. But Christâ€™s gifts to us do change us. Christ came to fulfill all things. He has paid our debt. His gifts of Word and Sacrament are that which satisfy those of us who hunger and thirst for righteousness. So, donâ€™t try to replace your anger with a peace that comes from within yourselfâ€”that will never work! Instead replace your anger with Godâ€™s Word. When you feel angry, open your Bible and read a Psalm, open your hymnal and read or sing a hymn. Or better yet, do these things regularly when you arenâ€™t angry so that when you do feel anger coming on, you have familiarity with the Scriptures and hymns from which Godâ€™s Word can calm your anger and his Spirit can be at work within you. On our own, we will fail at this, but when we depend on Godâ€™s Word, his Spirit will bring to completion what he has started in us.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.