Last Christmas I found myself with some free time on my hands, so I decided to tackle a project I had never been able to complete: the Rubik’s Cube. To be honest, up until that time, completing a Rubik’s Cube had never really been a strong desire of mine – I mean, who wouldn’t want to be able to complete such a challenge. But my desire increased last year. See, over Thanksgiving of 2014, I watched my sister complete a Rubik’s Cube … with little to no trouble. I even kept mixing it up just to make her finish it again. My sister and I, who get along as well as most middle children get along with their younger sibling, have often had a competitive relationship with one another. Each of us would tell you that in most competitions, I have won. Only, she would define my win by saying that she gave up, and I would say I just dominated.
So, you can get a picture of how I probably handled the fact that my sister (who was a child prodigy growing up and is still the most intelligent one today) was easily solving a Rubik’s Cube, and I had no idea where to start. So, for Christmas last year, my loving wife – knowing the disdain that was growing inside of me – got me a 2×2 Rubik’s Cube. I call it the less-er cube for the less-er intelligent. I still had no idea where to even start! It’s really not that simple if you don’t know how the cube works – at least it wasn’t for me.
So, like any aspiring and devoted student, I sought the Rubik’s Master – Google. I needed someone to walk me through the right steps to solve the puzzle. I found multiple instructional manuals that provided step-by-step instructions on how to solve the cube. And, after a couple days practice, checking back with the master anytime I ran into a problem, I found that I could solve the 2×2 cube with little to no trouble. I found myself drawn to the cube. I practiced, and I practiced, and I practiced, until I knew I had it down.
What do you do when you are thoroughly convinced that you can solve a 2×2 Rubik’s cube with little to no effort? Well, you should give up and celebrate your victory. Not me.
I begged Jen, can we please get a 3×3? My mastering of the 2×2 only peaked my interest in mastering the 3×3. So, having picked up the 3×3, I again sought Master Google. And again I was provided with the instruction manual for a 3×3 Rubik’s cube. Would you believe it, after a few days of practice – referring back to the instructions every time I screwed up, I was able to not only solve the cube, but could confidently go start to finish without needing to refer back to the guide.
My skills went from 0 to 100 in just a week’s time because I was willing to seek the guidance of someone else more wise than I – to see how someone else went about solving such a difficult and challenging puzzle. And I can say today, because of the yearning I had to beat my sister … and because of my desire to conquer the Cube … and because of my willingness to be taught how to complete it, I can now complete the 2×2 and the 3×3 Rubik’s Cubes with little trouble, and with full confidence.
In our sermon series, Upside Down: Living a Better Life, we are considering in the month of January what may be the best New Year’s Resolutions for us to make for 2016, seeking guidance from Jesus in his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Last week we talked about how Jesus is urging us on to a higher standard than we are accustomed to. He tells us, “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.” In other words, you can change the world in which you live. You can be light in the dark places. You can do great things for God, and our very presence can be salt and light for the community in which we live. While we lift up Jesus as the light of the world, especially in this season of Epiphany when we celebrate Jesus’ revelation of God’s love, Jesus tells us we too are the light – because we have been instructed by the light.
Jesus, in his teaching and exhortation, lifts us up to a higher place than we could ever attain on our own. When we are a part of something like that, it is an amazing feeling – the feeling that something bigger than me is happening here. Our connection to the master enables us to do something great, to reach a much higher standard than we could possibly dream of attaining on our own.
Today’s text, a series of four powerful statements from Jesus, offers us a clear understanding of Jesus’ expectations on a few tough subjects. His teaching leaves little room for error. Again, to re-emphasize what was stated in the first week of this sermon series, the Sermon on the Mount is not Jesus offering a list of rules to replace the 10 Commandments given by God to Moses and the people of Israel – the Sermon on the Mount is not a replacement at all, it is a continuation of, and elucidation of the 10 – better clarifying for us how to live out in relationship with ourselves, with one another, and with God. You will see that today’s text picks up on some of the themes in the 10 Commandments, but as we heard last week, Jesus is not getting rid of the law, he is expounding upon the law – “[His] teachings are not simply interpretations of Torah but supplementary additions” of how we are to live in right relationship with God, with ourselves, and with one another.[i] But in highlighting that these words from Jesus pick up on the law of God in the 10 Commandments, I want to be certain that we still understand the context in which Jesus is speaking.
The customary rules of the 1st Century are not quite the same as the customary rules of our day. Just as clearly as we can say this and name it as a truth, Jesus knew that in the same way, the customary rules of the 1st Century (in which he was living) were not the same as they were in the days of Moses. In each of the exhortations of Christ, Jesus begins with the phrase, “You have heard that it was said …” In doing so, Jesus is picking up on the powerful voices that have come before. He is picking up on the centuries of religious guidance offered by the faithful community in past years.
Anytime we are offered words of advice, exhortation, or critique, they stick with us – words of guidance, words of wisdom, words of assessment, even words of shame. Words that “you have heard said before” can keep you paralyzed in the same place for a long time. It is this paralyzed place Jesus found the 1st Century believers, and I wonder if we don’t find ourselves in a similar state today.
In naming these four areas in the text – anger, adultery, divorce, and oaths (or swearing), Jesus is naming for his disciples, that while they have heard the rules (i.e. “You shall not murder,” “You shall not commit adultery,” “Divorce should only be legal under certain terms,’ and “You shall not swear falsely,” etc.), they have not done so well in keeping the rules. The belief among the faithful followed these lines: so long as I don’t let an underlying problem escalate to the level of breaking one of the 10 Commandments, or one of the other few hundred laws in the Old Testament, then I am still in right relationship with God, myself and the world.
But Jesus calls believers to a higher standard – and for good reason. The standard Jesus sets is one of humility and equality – it’s one based on a deeper appreciation and experience of God’s love. These four topics each name a cause of division within the community – both the community of faith as well as the community in which the faith community exists. When anger leads to death, it takes away life, it divides families and it exiles those who are found guilty. Adultery tears apart relationships and it devalues individuals and it devalues covenants that were made with God and with one another. Divorce tears about families and friends, and in some cases it can tear apart entire communities. And making oaths, or swearing, is primarily about telling the truth. When one must swear, or take an oath, it’s because there is doubt as to whether or not they are speaking the truth. Lying destroys relationships, tears apart the community of God, it devastates the community of humankind.
But Jesus says these acts are not the only problem – it’s the underlying, often hidden motivation that is the destructive force in the world.
Christ names that for one to commit murder, there must be an underlying anger that has festered without reconciliation. Jesus allows for anger to exist – it’s a common driving force for peaceful change. The problem with anger is that it often goes unresolved – when it festers in our hearts, anger leads us to speak or act in ways contrary to God’s love. Jesus says a person shouldn’t even approach the altar of God without first reconciling their anger – their brokenness in relationship with others – or their anger and yet unreconciled love for themselves.
Adultery – while a visible and detrimental act – is preceded by lust, described by Jesus as adultery with one’s heart. Jesus says, in quite the hyperbole, that if an eye or other member of the body causes one to sin, it’s better to tear it out than to risk an eternity in hell. The higher standard is not to simply circumnavigate the acting out on ill or lustful passions, it’s to stop having ill and lustful passions that may cause us to break, destroy, or otherwise ruin a relationship with God, with ourselves, or with others in the world.
And with Oaths – we are instructed, don’t swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord. Jesus says, just don’t swear – by any means. Don’t pinky swear, don’t ‘cross my heart and hope to die’ swear, don’t swear on your momma’s grave – to make such a statement says there is question as to whether or not you would be truthful in the first place. Jesus says, “let your yes be yes, and your no be no” – let there be no confusion in your honesty. For dishonesty tears apart the world. Dishonesty leads to distrust. And distrust pits people against one other; it destroys God’s vision for humankind – for God’s creation.
We can look around the world even today and name where we think the problems lie – problems both in our own community and around the world. But often, what we will likely be naming are the visible acts that we have seen in the news or heard of in the headlines. We can so easily convince ourselves that others are wrong because of the talking heads and pundit voices that are putting blame on those carrying out such unspeakable acts. And those voices may be correct – the acts of many in the world are heinous, inconsiderate, and they are tearing apart the opportunity for peace and community. But Jesus reminds us, these acts would not happen were we to identify the underlying tensions, angers, lusts, distrust, and dissatisfaction in our lives. Jesus reminds us that these acts would never to come be if we truly sought reconciliation, offering a gift of God’s love to any and all, despite our differences in appearance and opinion. Instead of being ruled by bitterness and anger, in the Upside Down world, Christ proclaims we should be ruled by Jesus – who is the epiphany of God’s love.
When you encounter Jesus for who he truly is, for all he really wants to do in and through you, your life will be different. It’s not just about following rules; it’s about how you can live your life without anger, or lust, or bitterness, or distrust. Is it counter-cultural? Yes. Is it Upside Down from the world today? Yes. But to live a life ruled by Jesus, with the basis of every decision made being God’s love, not cultural dissatisfaction, oh what a world that would be.
And the good news is that Jesus wants to make this possible. And so Christ came to offer you forgiveness. Christ came to reconcile your sin, heal your wounds, and show you how wonderful and unique and gifted you are, and how you can live according to a higher standard.
To do so, in 2016, I invite you – as you continue to search for the right new year’s resolution – to name a resolution that will address those things that are crippling you and our world, such as anger, lust, the reality of broken marriages and broken relationships, and the pain of broken promises. We can only move through these things with the help of Christ and the love of God. And with such a resolution, we can live into Christ’s teaching, and live at a higher standard.