Sermon: Epiphany 5A

February 9, 2020; St. Stephen’s, Maple

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

I

At the parish in Scarborough where I did a student placement, the priest would often say, “the first instinct of a Christian is to stand up, and reach out.” A Christian is someone who is in the habit of serving; a Christian responds to the needs of others almost as a knee-jerk reaction. A Christian is committed to doing the types of things we hear in Isaiah: “loose the bonds of injustice…share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house.”


The Psalm we sung tonight promises that those who do these things will be “happy,” or “blessed.” They’ll be filled with wealth, long life, a large family: the best things imaginable in the ancient world or in any world. Even more, the Isaiah passage seems to tell us that this is the ticket to getting an audience with God, something otherwise denied to us, even through fasting and ritual humiliation. If you “stand up and reach out”—so the logic goes—only then will “your light…break forth like the dawn, and your healing…spring up quickly….Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”

I don’t know about you, but to be honest, my first instinct when I read this is to get my back up, to hear in these passages a heavy-handed moralism focused on earning God’s favour. I know this isn’t what my priest-supervisor was saying, but this is what I, an urban millennial inherently skeptical of traditional authority, tend to hear. Isaiah’s trumpet just sounds shrill and out of tune.

But hey—that’s just the Old Testament, with its curmudgeonly prophets, nefarious and self-serving monarchs and austere obsession with law and order. With its vision of an angry and vengeful God who would rather smite than redeem. Surely we can get past all that and jump straight to Jesus and the New Testament, with its soft, comforting shepherd-God and his wise compassionate messenger at the centre. Surely He’s done away with all that “if-then logic” about earning a place with God, and just lets us approach him all hunky-dory, right?

Yes, we can “approach with boldness the throne of grace,” as the author to the Hebrews puts it. But the New Testament writers themselves never described anything as simple as an easy division between “Old Testament Law” and “New Testament Gospel,” some “Old Testament god” we can reject in favour of a “New Testament god” more to our liking. And as we heard tonight, right there in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus throws a wrench into the gears of this interpretation:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 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….For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I’ve already touched on why this might sound strange or surprising to us: we’re often taught that Jesus did abolish the law, otherwise He’d be just as legalist and overly moralist as those antagonists of the Gospel narrative, the scribes and Pharisees. So if they want to contrast Jesus with His opposition, they swing the pendulum over to the claim that He abolished the law. Some people in His day must’ve also been thinking this way, since He directly responds to this by telling them not to think this.

However, others would have been far more surprised by the call to outdo the scribes and Pharisees in the righteousness department. Which is hard because that’s actually at the heart of Jesus’ prophetic message. It’s why so many people in the Gospel story are often scratching their heads after hearing Jesus say something. And the sermon on the mount is itself the longest and most comprehensive statement we have of Jesus describing this prophetic message, describing who He is and what He’s on about. It’s intentionally on a mountain, and begins with a list, a set of beatitudes that describe the characteristics of those who are “blessed,” or “happy.” The content is a lot like Psalm 112 and its promises of blessedness, but the repetitive list is meant to sound a lot like the Ten Commandments, that list of “dos” and mostly “don’ts” from Exodus and Deuteronomy that I’m guessing some of you can recite from memory.

Well, guess who else could recite those ten from memory, and hundreds more besides? The scribes and Pharisees, who weren’t seen as antagonists but as wise teachers, upheld as the highest models of righteousness and virtue. And yet, Jesus told his listeners that they were to exceed even them, exceed those carefully selected to devote their lives to meditating on, studying and teaching the law of Moses. How is this even possible? It was beyond their imagination.