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Sermon blog: habits of the heart; eyes, hands, feet

June 28, 2015

 Audio version here:

http://t.co/HkzySYtRa2

If tonight’s reading were being broadcast by the BBC this warning would be given:

“The Bible reading that follows contains graphic images which some readers may find disturbing”.

Matthew 5:27-30

My father used to speak at Christian youth camps. On occasion some of the family would accompany him. In fact it was at one of these camps, as an under age camper, that I became a Christian. The memories of those events go back a bit earlier though. In the recesses of my mind I recall that at the age of about 6 I discovered 2 things at youth camp; Christian book stalls and LUST.

I probably need to explain myself.

From the book stall I was allowed to buy a slim volume. It was a cartoon story by someone called Jack Chick, entitled “This was your life”. It seems from my internet research that this book, published in over 100 languages, enjoys some notoriety, as a book “that horrified children”. Looking at it now I’m not surprised!

The premise of the book is that the central character is enjoying life very much. Life is great! Until something happens which completely changes everything for the worse.

He suddenly drops dead.

From his grave he rises naked into heaven, which appears to be a multi-screen cinema complex, where he soon finds the events of his life replayed, everything has been recorded.  All those sins which are going to prevent our “hero” from staying in heaven.

Apart from telling naughty jokes, the height of this man’s sin is demonstrated in a brief scene where a blonde lady walks by. Our hero peers from the door behind and utters the words “Ummm NICE!” At the foot of the page, in case we’ve missed the significance of these 2 words, Matthew 5:28 (King James) is reproduced in full.

One can only imagine the number of young men who grew up knowing that to find a young lady NICE was the worst kind of sin.

Let’s be honest, lust is not the easiest thing to talk about. It can all be a bit embarrassing.

In my student years I attended a church house party. During a quiet moment, I was pinned up the corner by a younger man, who had a very earnest question for me: “Do you have trouble with LPs? How do you cope with them?”

Bear in mind this was the 1980’s, for me LPs were about discovering the delights of 1970’s classic and prog rock. For the younger ones here, LPs were what we now call vinyl.  My record collection was growing rapidly at that stage. So I told him I had no trouble at all with LPs, I thought they were fantastic. Of course it was always a pain when they got scratched.

Somehow the astonished look on his face told me he wasn’t talking about Genesis, Led Zeppelin or Queen.

I asked him to explain.

“Lustful passions” he whispered.

“Oh those?” I said. “Yeah I see what you mean….”

And it’s not the easiest thing to talk about in church. Some of you will remember this entry in Adrian Plass’s fictional sacred diary:

“Our church is getting like an auction room. One blink and you get ministered to. Sit still and keep your eyes shining – that’s my motto. This morning was Edwin Burlesford’s fault. Forty-five minutes on Sin. A record nine-fruit-gum talk.

Halfway through I was checking supplies when Edwin suddenly shouted “LUST!, and made me drop the packet under my chair.

Put my head down between my knees to locate it, then couldn’t get up because Doreen Cook pressed her hands down on the back of my head. She prayed that “our despairing brother would move from darkness to light”. I was all for that – I couldn’t see a thing.  When she let me get up she had one of those roguish Christian smiles on her face. Came very close to really giving her something to forgive me for.

Everyone thinks I’ve got a big lust problem now. At coffee time they all smiled reassuringly at me. Leonard Thynn hugged me”.

You might want to think carefully before you bow your head at any stage this evening…

In tonight’s brief section from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus continues with his teaching on the Jewish Law. He has described how he has come to fulfil the law rather than abolish it.

He turns his attention to the big one – murder, and now to the question of adultery.

“You have heard it said…” Of course they had. His listeners had certainly heard the laws of Moses. For many of them, their whole lives were about keeping God’s commandments. And certainly not just what we would call the 10 commandments but the hundreds that grew up around them, God-given and man-made alike. There was a great deal of pride in keeping the law of God.

On one occasion a young man came to Jesus asking what he should do to gain eternal life. Jesus’ response was to remind him of the commandments. His answer? “All these I have kept since I was a boy”. That is one big claim to make, but he seemed deadly serious!

Even the Apostle Paul, who described himself as the chief of sinners, when writing to the Philippians, recorded that in regard to the Law, he was a Pharisee. He went on to claim that “as for righteousness based on the Law”, he was “faultless”.

These people knew their law. And they determined to live by it. For the less holy people perhaps there was that sense that “we can never be that good”.

So when Jesus comes along he quotes what they know, what they have heard – “Do not commit adultery”. They know it. But now, as with his discussion of murder, he announces “but I say…”

His listeners are hanging on his every word.  Will he uphold the Law or not? He says he has not come to abolish the Law but to fulfil it. Will he perhaps lower the standard a little for the mere mortals among us? Make it a bit easier?

As we saw with Murder last week, Jesus actually raises the bar. His listeners would have been ticking them off smugly.

“Do not murder”.

“Yep fine with that”.

“Do not commit adultery”.

“Yep, tick that off. Keep them coming”.

“But I say if you’re angry with your brother…

But I say if you look at a woman lustfully…

If you are even entertaining the thought…”

You can be fine on the outside. People look at the outside, but of course as Samuel was reminded that may be what people do but God looks at the heart. His has an altogether different standard.

The rich young man who confidently affirmed his keeping of God’s commandments soon saw his confidence fall apart. I mean between you and I, I have my doubts about him. Did he really never even tell a lie? Of course I may just be judging him by my imperfect standards.

Jesus had been choosy with the commandments that he mentioned to him. When Jesus invited him to sell everything and follow him, he was immediately shown as a fraud. He could not even keep commandment number 1 “You shall have no other gods before me”. His money was his god.

As for Paul, I don’t know if he was literally faultless. Again I am guessing not. But keeping the Law was his obsession. But to the Philippians he could say that when he looked at all that, all that righteousness, he had to admit it was rubbish. Observing the law could not save him. His righteousness, as ours, could only come by faith.

So there is the sort of murder that lands you in prison. And the sort of adultery that lands you in the divorce court. And then there is the Jesus standard.

Not just the things which are obvious to everyone, but the crimes and infidelities that take place in our hearts.

So if you are sitting here this evening, relying on your own goodness to be right with God, then there is a challenge for you.

Firstly whose standards are you using to measure your goodness? Do you measure yourself against God’s rules? That is God’s rules as applied by Jesus. Do you truly know what it is to be perfect in action and in thought? That is the standard that God requires of us.

And where is this leading us? To a reminder that none of us is perfect by these standards. All of us fall short. None of us can claim ourselves to be right with God. It was all very humorous maybe earlier on when we looked at “This was your life”. Of course it is not a sin to think someone is NICE! But the inference that couldn’t really be put in a children’s cartoon was that there was a lot more going on in the young man’s head than was fully conveyed by the word “NICE”. He was not an adulterer according to the matrimonial court, but in God’s eyes it seems he was.

If you’re struggling to reach God by living a good life, the task just got a whole lot harder. In fact it just got impossible. Sorry!

What we need to remind ourselves is that Jesus came to fulfil the Law. He is the one who did succeed in living the perfect sinless life in thought and deed. He is the one who took our punishment upon himself.

Now as Paul says our hope is in faith in Jesus only. It is the difference between “Do” and “Done”. All other religions tell us to reach God by doing. In Christianity God receives us because of our faith in what Jesus has DONE.

The outlook just improved a lot.

It’s a happy ending.

But we’ve still got those 2 rather unpleasant verses in verses 29 and 30. So we’re going to have to look at them. “If your eye causes you to sin…” The immediate inference here is that adultery is a sin of the eye. The first thing is the looking.

If you have a sight problem, then get rid of it. Gouge it out. If you have a problem keeping your hands to yourself, then chop them off. Better to be missing a part of your anatomy, than to end up in Hell.

In case you do find the graphic images a bit disturbing, you might be thinking Jesus was just having a bad day, to talk in this way. But I’m afraid this wasn’t an isolated rant! In Matthew 18 he adds this “If your hand or foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.

Eye.

Hand.

Foot.

If you have a choice to make, then you had better make a right choice. Between sinning and eternal life with God.

The film “127 hours” is based on a true story of survival. As I am incredibly squeamish I still find it hard to believe I ever sat through it!

Aaron Ralston is canyoneering in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park when he slips and falls. In the fall a boulder traps his arm against a rock. He is unable to make himself heard and all attempts to free himself fail.  After about 5 days (127 hours) he realises that he has a stark choice. Cut off his own lower arm or die. He chooses to remove the lower arm.

In Jesus’ words, it is “better for him to lose one member”, than to die. That’s the choice that Jesus presents his listeners with. Sin will kill you ultimately. Cut it out.

But hang on a minute. Didn’t we just say that none of us can do that? If I cut off all my limbs and remove my eyes will that ever be enough for God? It can’t be. I am a sinner.

So are you.

Jesus is saying this. We have to make a choice between life and death. Heaven and hell. You may want to try to do it yourself. But it’s not a 50% pass mark in this exam.  And even if we thought our outward goodness is good enough, it’s perfection in action and thought that we’re talking here.

You need to do something about sin. As the Bible tells us Jesus steps in and solves the dilemma for us, by dying to take the punishment for our sin. The answer is his perfection.  The answer is faith in him.

So is that an end to where we are going with this? I am afraid not.

We have recognised that our only hope is in Jesus. We have put our trust in him. We are saved. We are secure in him. God sees us as perfect through Jesus. There is a life to be lived, but God’s Holy Spirit lives in us. He changes us, he makes us like Jesus. He helps us not to sin. We can depend totally on him.

But we still sin.  We constantly get it wrong.

Spurgeon told of a woman who announced that she had reached a state of sinless perfection. He said that changed when someone stood on her foot.

We cannot earn salvation by the things we do, and thankfully we don’t earn God’s continuing favour through our own hard work.  Christianity is all about the grace of God. But that doesn’t let you and me off scot free.

The Holy Spirit is God, but he requires our cooperation. There is a continuing sense in which we have to look after ourselves.

Adultery is one thing. Murder another. But Jesus’ teaching here can apply across the full range of wrongdoing.  There will be times when you will fail. And you will find God’s forgiveness for those times.  But sometimes the only reason you have sinned is because of the choice that you made in the first place.  We can actually be very good at putting ourselves firmly in the firing line.

Eyes.

Hands.

Feet. That list is probably not exhaustive. You could probably throw in ears and tongue as well. And more…

But let’s stick with the three for now. We don’t, judging by a quick glance of the congregation tonight take these words literally, but we do need to take them seriously. Deadly serious.

Eyes.

Hands.

Feet. Don’t look.

Don’t touch.

Don’t go there.

It’s all too easy when we fall to say “the devil made me do it!”, but actually more often than is sensible we have set ourselves up for the fall.

If you know that watching something is going to feed the wrong kind of thoughts then switch it off.

If reading is going to be your downfall then tear it up, throw it away and don’t buy it again.

If you feel the need to stare then sit somewhere else.

If filling your hands with the wrong stuff is damaging then don’t touch.

If that place is not good for you don’t go there. In fact use your feet to run in the opposite direction. That’s even better than amputation!

John Stott in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount makes the comment that we cannot for example be prescriptive about the things that Christians should watch on television or in the cinema.

Philip Yancey recalls “I grew up in a church that drew sharp lines between ‘the age of Law’ and ‘the age of grace.’ While ignoring most moral prohibitions from the Old Testament, we had our own pecking order rivalling the Orthodox Jews. At the top were smoking and drinking. Movies ranked just below these vices, with many church members refusing even to attend The Sound of Music. Rock music, then in its infancy, was likewise regarded as an abomination, quite possibly demonic in origin. Other proscriptions – wearing make up and jewellery, reading the Sunday paper, playing or watching sports on Sunday, mixed swimming (curiously termed ‘mixed bathing’), skirt length for girls, hair length for boys – were heeded or not heeded depending on a person’s level of spirituality”.

I naturally tend to assume that everyone has the same struggles as I do, but actually we are all tempted in different areas. Know your weaknesses and act wisely. If we are honest we all know where we are vulnerable. The areas where we struggle.

We feed our minds with the wrong stuff and the damage is done. The trouble too of course can be that if you keep feeding your mind the wrong food, it may come out in your actions too. Adultery in the heart can become adultery in the open.

It is said that it is that first lingering look, when the seeds of adultery are sown.  We need to take care of our eyes hands and feet.

Sometimes all these things work together. A series of bad choices put us right in the path of temptation.

Consider King David.

His adultery with Bathsheba resulted in a murder of her husband too. You could say that she belonged to someone else and that David should have kept his hands to himself. But that sin was growing long before the final act. David made a series of bad choices.

His eyes were definitely involved here. When he saw a woman taking a bath, he did not look the other way, but he feasted his eyes and eventually his moment came. His eyes caused him to sin.

But his feet were involved too. He was watching Bathsheba from the palace roof.

You could ask the question, what was he doing walking on the roof?! Sometimes you have to go to quite some lengths to put yourself in the grasp of temptation.

The writer of 2 Samuel reminds us too that David not only shouldn’t have been up on the roof. He shouldn’t even have been in Jerusalem. He was supposed to be leading his troops in battle.

David had a serious foot problem, a bad eye condition and itchy hands. He didn’t help himself when it came to his LPs. And we are too often just like him.

We do depend totally on God, but it may be that tonight you actually need to make some practical choices.

About what you watch, read, listen to.

The places you go, the clubs you belong to.

The things you possess and need to let go.

We need to be disciplined about these things. For many of us, says John Stott, to follow Jesus as we should, will mean a kind of maiming. It may be that we make some choices which others will struggle to understand. We may be regarded as narrow-minded, missing out on a great life experience. It may be that we are socially maimed.

But we too are presented with the choice. To weigh up what is most important. Enjoying the sin or walking closely with Jesus.

We are talking habits of the heart. We need to feed the good habits and starve the bad.

Where are you tonight?

Are you admitting for the first time that you cannot reach God in your own efforts, certainly not by the Jesus standard? You realise that the only way forward is to depend wholly on his amazing grace.  Then if you want someone to pray for you then please take that opportunity tonight.

Or if you see yourself constantly making the same bad choices that lead to the same sins, let someone pray with you.

We won’t assume everyone has a lust problem! Your problem may be quite different, but be honest about it.

Seek God’s help and determine to use your eyes hands and feet, and every part of you, properly!

Closing blessing: Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Keep your eyes fixed upon Jesus Keep your hand in his hand Keep your feet following in his footsteps

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