A sermon on Matthew 5:21-37 by Pastor David Jacobson
Katie, my wife, will tell you that I’m not exactly Mr. Handy Man. But from time to time, with the help of my Dad, I’ve taken on some pretty sizable renovation projects, particularly in our previous house on Stratford Rd. in Academy Heights. Our basement bathroom was original to the house, which was built in 1950. The shower walls were made of sheet metal, so it sounded like a thunderstorm whenever you showered. And if that weren’t bad enough they were this queasy green color, that someone had apparently decided was so trendy that they thought that they would paint the bathroom walls AND ceiling in the same color.
That bathroom desperately needed a renovation. And so my Dad and I started the hard, but rewarding work of demolition and reconstruction. It took us quite a while, but the end product was a new bathroom that was as beautiful as it was functional.
My sermon topic today is the “renovation of the heart.” That phrase, and a lot of what I have to share today, come from “Dallas Willard,” whose books have challenged and grown me as much as any I’ve read.
What I’d like to do today is first to persuade you that you need a renovation of your heart. Then I will try to show briefly 1) what that renovation would look like once it happened, 2) the importance of actually making a decision to have a renovation done, and 3) the actual means through which the renovation will take place.
So first, I want to convince you, in love, that you need a renovation of your heart. If your heart is pure and free from sin, then you may disregard this section of my message. Otherwise, I urge you to continue listening.
Four times in the reading for today, Jesus says, “you have heard it said… but I say to you.” Sadly, I can’t talk in depth about each of these statements today. But I do want to simply point out that each time, Jesus takes a prohibition about some external behavior prescribed in the Old Testament law and he turns it inward and takes it deeper.
- You’ve heard it said “don’t murder”… but I say to you “Don’t be angry or [insult others]”
- You’ve heard it said “don’t commit adultery”… but I say to you “don’t lust”
- You’ve heard it said “When a man divorces his wife, he should give her a certificate of divorce,” but I say [to paraphrase] the marriage bond cannot be broken easily, so “Don’t divorce for cheap reasons.”
- You’ve heard it said “don’t swear falsely” but I say “don’t swear at all”– basically be a person who means what they say and says what they mean.
In every case, Jesus seems to be saying, “this isn’t just about external behaviors, it’s about intentions. It’s about the heart.”
But here’s where the really tricky part comes in. Mere human will is never enough to get our hearts to the right place. I can’t will myself into not being angry with someone. I can’t will myself into not lusting. We can control our external behavior to a degree, and thank goodness for that, but we can’t control what comes out of our hearts.
What all of our experience teaches us is that when we aim to will ourselves into acting like Jesus said we should, we fail. That gritted-teeth method of forcing ourselves into right behavior is what Jesus called “the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” earlier in Matthew chapter 5. The scribes and Pharisees were very exacting at holding to the letter of the law. But Jesus scolded them, saying, “You are like whitewashed tombs. They look beautiful on the outside. But inside they are full of dead bones and all kinds of filth. In the same way you look righteous to people. But inside you are full of pretense and rebellion.” In other words, “People look at the outward appearance [and you look impressive indeed], but the Lord looks at the heart [and there finds you lacking].”
Jesus said to his disciples, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” I really believe that what he is saying is that “your hearts must be transformed.”
Later in the sermon on the mount, Jesus will say “a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” Jesus builds on this image in Luke’s gospel. He says, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”
No point expecting a bad tree to bear good fruit. You need a different tree. In the same way, there’s no point expecting a heart “bent to sinning” to love and serve God. We need a new heart. A clean, renovated heart.
So what we have here is the problem of the sinful human heart that has no human solution. It’s impossible to get good stuff to come out of a heart that has been formed by sin rather than God. That was what Jesus says the scribes and the Pharisees were doing. In Matthew 15 he says to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.’”
Jesus is looking for a people whose hearts are near to him. Jesus is saying you can have all of the external obedience in the world, but your heart can still be in rebellion against God.
We need a renovation of the heart. Are you convinced?
So what will this transformation look like once it has happened?
Well, the transformation should result in what John Wesley called, “Scriptural Christianity.”
Jesus came announcing nature and availability of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the domain where God’s will is done. And so we can expect that in entering into the kingdom of God, we will be able to do God’s will, not just in the sweet by and by, but here and now. Our heart will be all love for God and others.
The transformed heart looks like the person described in the sermon on the mount: pure in action and in intention. People who exhibit what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Obedience to Jesus’ commands will come out of who we are, not by gritting our teeth and trying harder. The renovation we seek is the kingdom of God, that Paul says is, “Righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Jesus came announcing the good news of the the kingdom of God. He says, “for this reason I was sent.”
A transformed, renovated heart is overflowing with love for God and others. It is the answer to the prayer that we so regularly pray at the beginning of our worship, “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts… that we may perfectly love you.”
That’s life in the kingdom of God. That’s the transformation that we seek.
Once we understand what we’re talking about, we have to understand the importance of actually making a decision to have a renovation done.
We can’t make ourselves live out the kingdom life, but we can decide that we want to. We can trust Jesus. And trusting in him means intending to obey Jesus’ teaching. We don’t stop at believing things about Jesus. James says, “even the demons believe!” But we need to actually decide that we’re going to do what he says.
In the words of Dallas Willard, “you can no more trust Jesus and not intend to obey him than you could trust your doctor and your auto mechanic and not intend to follow their advice.” Moreover, “People who do not intend to be inwardly transformed, so that obedience to Christ “comes naturally,” will not be.”
However, if we do, in fact, intend every area of our lives to come under the Lordship of Christ, we can be confident that it will happen. As Jesus said at the beginning of chapter 5, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
It’s possible that you’re hearing this and you’re thinking “I don’t know that I’m up for all that digging around in my heart at the moment, but having a new heart that overflows with love for God and others is something that I’d like. So, if you’re not ready to say, “I want it!” But can you at least want to want it?
Finally, once understanding what the renovation will bring, and making a decision to pursue it, we must actually use the means that God has given us to pursue it.
We cannot renovate our own hearts. In that sense, transformation is out of our control. The action of God for me and in me is not something I will ever have control over. But God has given us means to pursue transformation and he intends for us to use them. And when you have a vision for what the transformation might look like and you actually decide to pursue it, then these actions become full of expectation and purpose.
For example, I can study and meditate on the teachings of Jesus and on the rest of scripture. If I really intend to follow the teaching of Jesus, this isn’t an optional extra. Yes, I read to learn and I study to gain better understanding. That’s absolutely foundational. But I don’t stop there. I let God’s word search me. I let it change my plans. I prioritize obedience to the way of Jesus in my life.
I can pray. Sure, I have the on-going conversation with God throughout the day, but I also can set apart time in my day where I can expect to be empowered and formed by God until I am actually transformed.
I can also make use of opportunities to receive prayer. As I pursue a heart renovation, I have to stop caring so much about what other people think. “Maybe they’ll think I have some huge problem,” the enemy will whisper in one ear. In the other ear the enemy will say, “Oh, look who thinks they’re super spiritual and special.” Silence the voices and get prayed for. The most profound acts of God that I’ve seen, both spiritual and physical, have come through prayer ministry. If you can’t get prayed for in church, where can you?
I can fast. I know it’s not popular, or fun. But I can set apart a day where I will remind myself that Jesus is Lord, not my stomach. I won’t die. It’ll be ok. And fasting won’t only be a means of grace for me personally, but it will remind me of our need for God as I intercede for the United Methodist Church in this uncertain time.
Things that the church calls spiritual disciples are called disciplines because you simply have to make the habit of doing them. You have to decide, “I’m going to do this.” And then you do it. You can’t change your heart, but you can change how you spend the first 30 minutes of your day. And through that time, God will form you, and ultimately transform you.
In Romans 12, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Our minds can get so twisted into unhealthy, harmful patterns of thought. I can’t control what my mind gravitates to– not at first. But I can control what I let myself consume. Remember, this isn’t a new law to oppress you. This is a means that God may use to transform you. In the world of the spiritual life, “garbage in, garbage out.” Jesus needs to be Lord of my screen time, my Netflix queue, and whatever else I consume.
Spiritual transformation is possible, and in fact, it was the reason that early Methodism spread across Britain and America as it did. Lives were being changed, and people noticed. We need to restore our sense of expectation about what God is able to do in us. Because God is able.
“The greatest need you and I have, the greatest need of collective humanity, is renovation of our heart.” People with transformed hearts will transform the world. We must decide that we desire to be transformed and pray “Come, in Lord and do the work of renovation!”
“Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.” The person who persistently prays that prayer will be the person to whom transformation comes.