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February 9, 2020

Matthew 5: 27-30

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

Earlier this week, someone jokingly asked if I picked this passage for this Sunday in light of Valentine’s Day later this week, and to be clear, “No. Absolutely not.” If so, that would just be so weird on my part and would be a real mood killer if you ask me. No truth is, we are in the middle of a 3-month long sermon series on one of Jesus’s most famous sermons, The Sermon on the Mount, going through it section by section, verse by verse, and this just happens to be our passage for today. So as for it’s proximity to Valentine’s Day, consider it an odd coincidence, or I suppose if you squint just right, maybe a humorous one.

Now, this topic of lust and adultery is undoubtedly a heavy one, so I’m going to try my best to create moments of levity where I can. So let’s start here:

In many churches like ours there’s a pretty consistent order of worship, sing a song here, pray a prayer here, when I say this, you respond with that. That kind of stuff. And for many of us, we can become so familiar with the structure that we can get on autopilot. I heard about a pastor who would always come up front during the middle of the service and say, “The peace of Christ be with you,” and in response the congregation would respond by saying, “And also with you.” But on one particular Sunday, the pastor got up and soon realized his microphone wasn’t working, and so his first words instead were, “There’s something wrong with this microphone.” And the congregation faithfully responded as usual by saying, “And also with you.”

Pretty good, right? Friends, will you turn to the person next to you and finish this phrase for me, “There’s something wrong with this microphone” “And also with you.”

You all, this is where we must start as we look at our passage for today. Truth is, all of us, whether through our actions or in our thoughts, have missed the mark, in some way, at some point, when it comes to our sexuality. Friends, if every sexual thought I’ve ever had were to somehow be written and projected on the screen behind me for all to see, I would be deeply ashamed and you all would be greatly appalled. And my guess is, if your thoughts were up on that screen, you’d be terrified to. Truth is, we’ve all fallen short, in some way, at some point when it comes to our sexuality, whether through our actions or even through our very thoughts. You see, there’s not only something wrong with this microphone, there’s something wrong with us as well.

So having said all that, we’re now ready to consider our passage for today.

Last week we began a section within the sermon where Jesus reflects back on the Old Testament Law, where he specifically focuses in on two of the 10 commandments. Last week we looked at the command “Do not murder” and this week, “Do not commit adultery.” In both cases, he’s trying to get across how the commands against murder and adultery are about so much more than not committing the physical acts themselves and he does so by revealing a deeper understanding of the command itself, a higher and I believe a more beautiful kind of obedience to it.

And here’s how I want to structure our message for today. Four things I want us to see in our passage today, and that is,

  1. Bad News

  2. Good News

  3. Our Response

  4. Our Only Hope

Bad News

If we must hear bad news, I suppose it’s always better to start with the bad and follow with the good. And the good news about the bad news is that this part will be relatively short, I promise.

So here’s the bad news. It comes right away in these first couple verses:

Jesus says,

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Here’s why this is bad news – It shows us that we are more sinful than we probably even thought. You see, for those in the crowd that day, and for those of us here this morning, we probably look at this command, “Do not commit adultery,” and think to ourselves, “Hey, good news, I’ve never committed adultery before, I get an A on this one, gold star for me.” But yet when Jesus ties even something as seemingly small as lust to adultery, there would be audible gasps from the crowd as they realize just how far they too have fallen short of God’s design and vision when it comes to sexual purity. After all, consider what Jesus is saying here. He’s saying that sexual sin isn’t simply a matter of what we do or don’t do, or what actions we do or don’t commit, no, it actually runs far deeper than that, that it begins with our with our mind, our thoughts, our emotions, it begins as Jesus says, with our heart. Where rather than seeing people as God sees them – as people who are loved and made in God’s image who are meant to be appreciated, honored, cherished, adored, we instead sometimes see people as objects to be objectified.

And it’s in this sense that these first couple verses are bad news – they expose just how sinful we are when it comes to our sexuality.

And in addition we may see this as bad news not only because it exposes just how sinful we are, but even more Jesus seems to be setting a standard of sexual purity or sexual ethic that we might feel is impossible or one that we will never be able to obtain.

Some of us might hear this and be thinking to ourselves, “Jesus, you can’t possibly be serious. Only a heavenly angel with wings or a total prude could live up to this standard or ideal you’ve just described, to be the kind of person who never experiences or feels lust at all. We may think, Who can actually live up to this?”

And so not only does this seem like bad news in the sense of exposing just how far we’ve fallen short of living into God’s design, even more it seems like Jesus is putting before us a sexual ethic or standard that we’ll never be able to obtain. Which can leave us not only feeling convicted, yet also fill us with a sense of despair as well.

So friends, are you ready for some good news? I know I am. So here it is.

Good News

Here’s why these verses are such good, good news. And that is, not only is what Jesus calling us to possible, but I am convinced, it’s the sexual ethic and standard of purity that we want and hope for deep down. I know that might sound crazy, but think of it this way. For those of you are married, what do you want and hope for from your spouse when it comes to both their actions and their thoughts when it comes to sex? Not only do you hope that your spouse stays faithful to you by not committing adultery, that we assume is a given, but yet you also hope and pray that they are faithfully devoted to you in their heart and thoughts as well. Imagine if your spouse were to say this to you - “Honey, I’ve never cheated on you, but I think about it all the time.” My goodness, that would break your heart too, right? Now, to be clear, to commit adultery is worse than a lustful look specifically in terms of the relational damage that it can cause, but yet, deep down, you and I hope for more. We hope for more than just not committing adultery, we in fact hope total and faithful commitment not only in our spouses actions, but in their heart and thoughts as well. And if this is what we hope for from the ones we love, certainly it ought to be what we hope for and aspire to for ourselves as well.

Friends, are you seeing how this is good news? Jesus isn’t laying down before us an impossible or strict or prudish standard for sexual purity. No, I am convinced this is the standard we all hope for deep down. And so that’s one way in which this is good news.

And yet, here is another reason why these verses are good news, this prohibition and call against lust itself, and that is, lust ultimately hurts us and has a way of killing our joy and ability to find true contentment.

Think about what happens in our mind and heart when we lust after someone. To lust after someone is to go far beyond the initial look and thought of, “Oh, that person is really attractive.” That alone is more than fine, in fact it’s good. God has designed us to be physically attracted to one another. Yet, the problem with lust is that it takes that starting thought and takes it much, much further. If adultery is the act of sleeping with someone other than your spouse, then lust is to not only imagine that act, but to be fixated on it, to be obsessed by it, to be consumed with it.

And when we let our imagination run wild like that, it has a way of killing our joy and ability to find true contentment because it moves our focus and attention on what we wish had but rather than being grateful with what we do have.

This is one of the reasons why pornography itself can be so damaging. It fixes our eyes on something fake, something counterfeit, something we’ll never have that in the end can create real and lasting negative consequences when it comes to building intimacy with the ones we love or might be with someday.

A pastor by the name of Ed Stetzer drives this truth home so poignantly, when he was speaking at of all things a church leadership conference, where he was with a group of small church pastors who were in awe and amazement as they looked at the extraordinarily impressive facilities of the megachurch in which they were sitting in. Better facilities, bigger budgets, more advanced technology, things like that. And here’s what Stetzer said to this group of small church pastors. He said, “You all, this is like ministry pornography for you,” he told them. “It’s an unrealistic depiction of an experience you’re never going to have that distracts you from the real and glorious thing.”

Oh my goodness. He is so, so right. Friends, do you see the problem with lust and can you see how Jesus’s words here are such good, good news? Lust ultimately hurts us and has a way of killing our joy and ability to find true contentment.

And while lust is specifically tied to sexual desires, truth is we can find a way to lust after just about anything. Not just a better spouse, but maybe a better family or a better job or a better house or a better retirement or a better whatever. All of which hurts us and has a way of killing our joy and ability to find true contentment.

So for example, I heard a story about a married woman who was envious of another wife she knew well. This is a story that I shared with you all last summer when speaking about envy, but yet I think it applies to lust as well. As the story goes, this woman when she was at the grocery store would always see this friend’s wife’s husband picking up a bouquet of flowers. And she would think to herself, “Man, what a great guy. My husband never buys me flowers.” And she was envious of this wife who was always getting flowers. But what she didn’t know is that, as she would later hear from this wife, is that they were very rarely “I love you” flowers or “Just thinking of you” flowers, but rather they were almost always “please, forgive me” flowers, “I’m so sorry” flowers for the fight they had got in the night before. You see, this woman had created this fictional account of this perfect marriage, with the perfect husband who always brings home flowers, maybe even thinking as she drove home, “Wow, what an amazing husband. I bet he even joyfully volunteers to always clean the bathrooms and whistles while he works.’ And yet, it was only after this conversation with her friend that she was so incredibly grateful for her own husband, who spoke kindly to her and treated her with respect each and every day.

This is what lust does. It allows our imagination to run wild, creating these stories of fiction, these false narratives, all of which kills our joy and ability to find true contentment.

Friends, I’m hoping you’re seeing how Jesus words here are good news for us, how this all ultimately for our good.

So to summarize, so far we’ve seen how Jesus words are bad news – they expose how sinful we are, even in our sexuality. But yet it’s also good news – it’s the sexual ethic we ultimately want and in so many ways is ultimately for our good.

And all of this raises an important question, that is, What do we do? How should we respond? How can we be the kind of people who actually live up to this standard of sexual purity and sexual ethic that Jesus puts before us? How do we get there?

Our Response

Well, here’s what Jesus says next, and in some ways, these latter verses, at least after an initial reading, are more jarring than the ones before it. Here’s what he says,

29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

Stunning words for sure. Before I go any further, let me first establish this. Every scholar and commentator agrees that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole here. This is not a command meant to be taken literally. He’s simply speaking in hyperbole to get people’s attention and drive home a greater truth. And so the question is, what exactly is Jesus trying to get across to us through these verses?

Well, I am convinced that Jesus is trying to communicate two main truths here:

The first is that, in order to free ourselves from lust, we must ruthlessly eliminate those things or situations that tempt you to sin or lust in the first place. This is the clearest and most obvious thing he’s trying to get across – that if there’s something in your world that is tempting you to sin or lust, get rid of it. So therefore, if there’s any pornography in your house, get rid of it. If you’re worried about where you’ll end up on the internet, only use a computer in public spaces rather than private ones. Find a friend who can keep you accountable, make all our accounts and passwords available to your spouse so that nothing is hidden. Think through and think carefully if and when and where you meet 1on1 with people of the opposite sex, so that you don’t put yourself in a situation that you’ll regret or will only lead to trouble. When Jesus says,29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away …He’s saying ruthlessly and diligently eliminate those things or situations that tempt you to sin or lust in the first place.So you all, what steps do you need to take, what do you need to do to ruthlessly eliminate from your life those things that lead to you towards sin and lust? That is how we must respond, Jesus says. And we should do all that we can to do as he says on this one.

And yet, here’s the second thing he’s trying to get across. Even if we follow Jesus’s advice and take every measure, here’s the problem: It still won’t be enough.That is, even if we destroy every ounce of pornography, even if we have 10 accountability partners, even if for some reason we literally gouge out our eyes and cut off our hands, you and I could still find ways and things to lust over. And Jesus knows this as he gives his people this advice and calls them to respond in this way. And that’s because, as Jesus has just said moments before, lust begins in the heart.“28 … everyone who looks at person with lust has already committed adultery with them in their heart.”Lust, above all else, is a heart issue, and so, what we really need is a new heart.And this leads us to our fourth and final part of our message today:

Our Only Hope

Simply trying to eliminate and destroy sin and temptation from our life will never be enough. To do that is to simply try and play a life long game of behavior management. But yet, the truth is Jesus wants more than that. He wants to do more than simply help us to change our behavior, rather he wants to transform us altogether. Where he doesn’t so much want us to be better people, but rather a become different type of person altogether. And the good news is, this is exactly what Jesus came to do. He came to give us a new heart – one filled with a whole new set of wants and desires, where what we want to do and what God wants us to do would be the same thing. Where what God wants for us in terms of sexual purity and what we want for ourselves in terms of sexual purity would be the same thing.Friends, one of the reasons why this scripture is so difficult and so painful is that for so many of us, we are filled with a profound guilt and shame, because of the things that we’ve done or things that we’ve thought. Things that we’ve done in our past, things we regret, things we so badly wish we could take back. And I think for many of us, we have this mindset that going forward, in order to atone for our past, we simply need to try harder or be better. Yet for that to be our first and only goal is to miss out on the good news Jesus came to bring.As we’ve highlighted these past few weeks, our identity and self worth as Christians does not ultimately come through our obedience to God’s law or through us striving to be a better person. No, our identity and self worth comes through what Jesus has done for us on the cross, dying and rising again.Friends, if you’re feeling guilt, Jesus wants your guilt. If you’re feeling shame, Jesus wants your shame. He came to nail it on the cross once and for all, and that through faith in Jesus Christ, “Though our sins are scarlet, he’s washed them white as snow.”Jesus has come to fulfill the law, bybeing the first and only person to have gone his entire life living in perfect obedience to it, measuring up to it in every way and then in a shocking reversal of roles later giving his life for all those who have fail to obey it time and time again.Because of Jesus’s death and resurrection, there is good news for us, past, present and future. All of our past, through Jesus, is completely forgiven, once and for all.And in this present moment, he has given us a new heart, he has made us into a new creation, a new kind of person altogether, so that we can have the motivation and desire to be the people he has called us to be, even when it comes to lust.

And while we’ll certain mess up at times going forward and fall short of all what God hopes for us, we can rest assured, we can have confidence that our future has been secured once and for all, not because of what we have done, but rather because of what Jesus has done for us, in us and through us.

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