Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Scripture Readings

This week’s Gospel reading continues directly from the passage we considered last week. Jesus’ ministry has attracted crowds, so he has gone up a mountain with his disciples and he has begun teaching about life in the kingdom of heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” he tells his listeners. “I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.” I wonder why they might have thought that he had come to abolish the Law. Was it perhaps that their experience of the Law had become so oppressive that they hoped that the Messiah would put an end to it and set them free from its demands?

I think we are given an indication of this when Jesus tells them that their righteousness needs to exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees. As the rest of the Gospel makes clear, Jesus did not admire the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, and so I suspect that Jesus is not saying that his listeners need to have more of that kind of righteousness, but that they need righteousness of a different sort.

Jesus seems to experience the Scribes and Pharisees in much the same way as the prophet Isaiah experienced those he was speaking against in our Old Testament reading this morning. They were people whose religious practice was ultimately self-centred, whose fasting was an attempt to manipulate God. Do not fast only from food, Isaiah tells them, fast from serving your own interests, fast from oppression and quarrelling.

I think that Jesus recognizes that the Law originally represented a way of living that expressed the heart of God, and that he wants to restore that sense of it rather than do away with the Law just because its interpretation and application had become so corrupted. Ending injustice, freeing the oppressed, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless poor, clothing the naked, being available to those who need us, these all matter to God and are what the Law was given to ensure.

I think that is what Jesus means when he says that all must be accomplished before the Law will pass away. Only when our hearts are right and we all live according to the love of God for all people will the Law no longer be necessary because it will have been fulfilled. Then it is that our light shall break forth like the dawn and our healing shall spring up quickly, as the prophet Isaiah said.

“You are salt, and you are light,” Jesus tells his listeners. He does not say that they should become salt and light, he says that that is what they are already. Followers of Jesus already have salt within them, salt that can preserve and enhance the life of those around them. We already have light within us, light that can shine to dispel the darkness that surrounds us.

Our saltiness can be diluted and our light can be obscured when we live according to the spirit of the world, a spirit that increases our fear and insecurity and drains the life from us. As Jesus wanted a different kind of righteousness for his listeners, so the apostle Paul wants us to welcome and receive and live by a different kind of Spirit, the Spirit of God gifted to us by our crucified and risen Lord Jesus.

This Spirit reveals the wisdom of God to us, wisdom that is foolishness according to the spirit of the world. The Spirit of God comes to us in our weakness and fear and trembling, enabling us through the power of God to live abundantly according to the heart of God.

It takes a certain courage and strength to get our own fear-filled egos out of the way, with all the miserable self-obsession that goes with them, so that the light within us can shine undimmed. That light will reveal to us and those around us the goodness and beauty of the life that God has given to all. It will also reveal all the ways in which too many are deprived of access to that life.

When we see well, may we be enabled to act well together, and extend our salt to those in whatever need, acting justly, opposing oppression, feeding, housing, clothing, being present to those who need us. May we welcome and receive and use well the gifts of God to us, and may we be freed to share them in compassionate generosity.

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