“Starting from Zero”
19 February at Tainan International Community Church
TEXTS Matthew 5:38-48 Psalm 119: 33-40
When we start from Zero and Aspire, we build towards completeness.
As a teenager, I became interested in machines. I liked to take them apart and reassemble them, hoping against hope that they would run again. . It began with my bicycle and eventually moved to my first, second and third cars. I had many tools, and I got a lot of experience working on those cars because I wasn’t very good at fixing them, so often had to repeat the repairs over, and over. Along the way, I learned to distinguish between the things that were under the bonnet (as it’s called in England) or hood (as it’s called in America) and which maybe should simply be called the engine cover.
Then I came to Taiwan for 2 years and learned that I could easily live without a car. When I returned home for graduate study I began riding a bicycle and no longer carried any tools. One day I met a man whose car had stopped by the road. Both the boot and the engine cover were open. I thought that I might help, but had no tools. It soon became clear that he knew little about tools or cars. In his hand he held the lug wrench, used for removing a wheel when changing a tire. He was using it to randomly tap on different things he saw under the engine cover.
Being able to distinguish one part of a machine from another is not necessary for life, but it can be helpful. Being able to see how things fit together is basic to understanding them.
Analysis is also at the heart of the prayer we read in Psalm 119: 33 today. “Teach me, Lord, the meaning of your laws, and I will obey them at all times.”
I: A “GRAB BAG” OF STATUTES
If we were to analyze the verses we read from Psalm 119 today, we might start with the many different words used by the poet to describe the law of God, which is the topic of the entire psalm. In the 8 verses we read, God’s law was called, “law, commandments, promise, judgments, and commands.” The English translation we use at Tainan International Community Church is written in a simplified vocabulary. A more “standard” translation uses more terms: “way, statute, law, commandments, decrees, promise, ordinances, and precepts”
Our New Testament reading, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, had a lot of different parts to separate from each other. We could spend all of our time this afternoon going over them one by one and thinking about what was meant by each of these: (Read 9 items off of small slips of paper, dropping them into the offering bag one by one as you do)
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you.
If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too.
If someone takes you to court to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well.
If one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one kilometer, carry it two kilometers.
When someone asks you for something, give it to him.
When someone wants to borrow something, lend it to him.
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Why should God reward you if you love only the people who love you”?
We could consider each of these and attempt to figure out how each applies to the lives of people living and moving in 21st century Taiwan, but if we did, we’d miss the performance of Elijah’s Oratorio at the cultural center at 7:30 tonight. Therefore, we’ll just do a couple. (Take the offering bag to the congregation and have 2 people each take out one of the little pieces of paper, then extemporize on each of them.)
If any of those 9 statements sounded like a rule, perhaps it was. In life we want to know all of the rules, either so we can follow all of them or figure out ways to get around them. Psalm 119:39 puts it this way, “Save me from the insults I fear;….”
II: A SUMMARY OF MATTHEW 5:38-47
Though point-by-point analysis is important for scientists and literary critics who have the time and the need for such things, we don’t have that privilege as Christians if we are to live in community with others, whether Christians or “not-yet-Christians”. That level of analysis would take all of our time, to find all of the rules in the Bible and then to make sure we were obeying all of them. It would leave NO time left for community.
To do that with just the verses of the Sermon on the Mount that we read today might take us all week. So let’s take these in two big pieces. The first,(rom verse 38 to 42) basically says, “Don’t Resist Evil” Some of the people who listened to Jesus thought they had the right to take back “equally” what had been taken from them, if that involved an eye or a tooth, it was clear. But, if you hit me, it hurts me more than you realize, and when I give you back what I think is an equal hit, you’ll feel that I added something, and then you have the right to hit me again just to make things “equal”. Someone has summed it up this way, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves everyone blind and unable to chew.” Jesus said that even though this was the law of his people at that time, it was not the way. If God used those standards, which of us could stand? So what was God’s way? We meet it at the cross where Jesus suffered and died, not resisting evil but taking it upon himself for our sake.
Verses (43 to 48) basically say, “Love your enemies”. For the people who heard him say this, it was a new idea. They were familiar with the idea of “love the people of your family, your tribe, your town and your nation”, but once one had crossed the borders, they were not obligated to love anyone, least of all foreign enemies who threatened their feelings of security. Though enemies can be personal (as others in the lab or at the company who are our rivals for promotion), enemies can be “family enemies” (people whose ancestors did something bad to our ancestors), other towns, other religions, other nations, the list can go on and on, but Jesus doesn’t allow us to make lists. We are to love people. FULL: STOP.
III: DEALING WITH THE DEMAND FOR PERFECTION (Matthew 5:48)
Psalm 119: 37 reminds us to seek God’s way of life, “Turn my eyes from looking at vanities, give me life in your ways” The problem is, God’s ways are perfect.
In Matthew 5:48 we’re instructed to meet God’s standard: perfection. That’s a hard standard. It means getting a score of 100 on every exam and in every course. It means never making mistakes, either because you were careless or deliberately sinful. It means never having to use an eraser on a pencil, or the backspace key on your computer keyboard.
Teenagers and young adults often struggle with parents who refuse to accept any score less than 100, or any rank lower than “top in class. If God wants that from me, then I not only don’t want it, I don’t really want God. So maybe the problem is my understanding of perfection.
When did you learn to walk? Were you good at it from the start, or did you fall down a lot? It’s likely that your first steps weren’t perfect, but that’s OK, nobody required you to do it perfectly the first time.
How did you learn to write? Have you ever found something that came from your hand as you were learning to form your letters or write Chinese characters? It didn’t look very good, did it?
At each stage in our lives, at each stage in our development of skills, there are different degrees of “completeness” that apply to our progress, and as good as we get at something, we may attain the world’s highest standard, but we will never reach perfection. One theological system calls this “total depravity”. It doesn’t mean that everything is completely bad, but that nothing is completely good. There’s always something lacking.
So, let’s look at the demand for perfection “as your Father in Heaven is perfect” to be one for “completeness”, as complete as you can be at that stage of your growth. Only God has arrived at perfection. None of us is there yet. None of us will EVER be as perfect as God, or will BE God. Completeness is still a high standard, but it DOES recognize that you haven’t yet arrived at the greater degree of completeness that awaits further along the line. It’s a day by day thing. Each day’s completeness is its own. Each morning we start at Zero growing toward that day’s completeness.
None of us is perfect. All that’s demanded of us is to be as complete as we can be right now. That doesn’t exactly make it easy, but it makes things more possible. We should not demand perfection of ourselves, and we especially should not demand perfection of our enemies. Whatever we see lacking in THEIR completeness, whatever imperfections we may see in them, we probably can see to the same degree when we look in the mirror.
That doesn’t leave us completely “off the hook” or “unresponsible” for ourselves, for the ways we live, and for the ways we interact with each other. Jesus commands us to act in certain ways that we have not yet attained, things having to do with how we respond to evil, and whether or not we pray for people who persecute us. If you’ve already arrived at completeness in areas like this, please teach me how I might do it.
As we leave today, with the love of God’s law (from the Psalm) and the goal of completeness (from the Gospel) fresh in our minds, we should go also with a plan to make one step towards completeness in some area of our lives. Choose whichever area you like. Personally, I’ll be working more on relating to others than on my table tennis serve. But name it, aim at it, and work to get there.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN