Sermon notes 02-16-20 Doin’ What Comes Unnaturally
Matthew 5:38-48 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (ESV)
I gave my message the title “Doin’ What Comes Un-naturally” thinking that everyone would get that it was a wordplay on the song “Doin’ What Comes Naturally” … but after it was already out there on the sign it occurred to me that maybe not everybody knows the song “Doin’ What Comes Naturally.” And sure enough, I asked Kim about it and she said she had never heard of it. And when I sang a verse for her, she made it pretty clear she was glad she had never heard of it and hopes she will never have to hear it again.
But the bulletins were already printed by then and it was too late to change the title, so let me tell you about the song. I’m not going to sing it for you, not after the reaction I got the last time I sang it for someone … but I will tell you that the song “Doin’ What Comes Naturally” is from the Broadway musical “Annie Get Your Gun.” It was written by Irving Berlin, the same guy who wrote “White Christmas” and “God Bless America” and many other songs you would probably know.
The message in the song “Doin’ What Comes Naturally” is basically that folks get along just fine in life without much education or money, by simply following their instincts, or by doing what they are naturally inclined to do. It’s a cute and funny little song—I think Kim should give it another chance—but the message of the song is the antithesis of Jesus’ message in our reading today from the Sermon on the Mount.
That word “antithesis” you probably know means “opposite,” and the reason I said “antithesis” instead of “opposite” is because the passage that Janice read for us just now is from what is called the “antithesis” section of the Sermon on the Mount. The antithesis section actually began back a few verses earlier in verse 21 when Jesus first used those words that he would repeat over and over again, “You have heard it said … but I say….”
The verses in this part of Jesus’ sermon demonstrate that Jesus’ interpretation of the Old Testament laws and teachings is in many cases the antithesis, or the opposite, of the flawed interpretations and misunderstandings of the Old Testament that were prevalent at that time. Jesus is saying in effect to his audience, ‘your interpretations and applications have been distorted by your selfish human perspective and motives. You have allowed human nature to distort the teachings of Scripture. I am hear to tell you that fullness of life in the kingdom I have come to establish is not realized by doing what you are naturally inclined to do, but often by doing just the opposite, by doing what does not come naturally.’
“…You have heard it said… but I say….”
For the past few weeks we have been studying the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. We have already observed that in this most famous sermon ever preached, Jesus made it clear that he had come to establish a kingdom … but it would be a very different kingdom from the kind of kingdom the world had grown accustomed to and expected. It was a kingdom that turned worldly values on their heads. In this section of his sermon Jesus sets up a contrast between the kind of kingdom in which human nature prevails, that is, the “all about me” kingdom; and the kingdom of God, in which Jesus challenges his disciples to do things that seem contrary to human nature.
I think if we are honest with ourselves we will admit that at times we don’t really care much for these teachings. Not that they don’t sound like great things … for other people to do. It’s just that they are hard for us to do. The teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are very familiar, beautiful and … just about impossible. Jesus says so many things that rub us the wrong way, he asks us to do things that go against our natural instincts. He expects us to deny our human nature and to do the opposite of what seems natural, normal and reasonable. Listen again to some of the things that Jesus teaches us to do in just these few verses:
• Offer those who have slapped one of your cheeks the other cheek.
• Give those trying to steal your outer garments your undergarments as well.
• Offer to walk a second mile with someone who has just forced you to carry a load for one mile.
• Give generously to everyone begging or wanting to borrow from you.
• Love and bless and do good to and even pray for those who persecute you.
None of those things seem natural, normal or reasonable from our selfish, human perspective. And if that were not enough, Jesus adds at the end, “Oh, yes, and besides all that be perfect.” Right. He can’t really mean that, can he?
All of these things Jesus asks us to do are the antithesis, the opposite of what we are naturally inclined to do. Sometimes it seems to us that Jesus just doesn’t understand human nature. And we want to say to him, “Jesus, don’t you realize?”
• If I turn the other cheek … I’ll get slapped again!
• If I give to everyone who begs … I won’t have anything for myself!
• If I love my enemies … I’ll get persecuted even more!
• If I am too nice … I’ll be seen as weak, a doormat, a pushover!
The truth is, brothers and sisters, Jesus really does understand human nature. He indicates his understanding of human nature in this passage when he asks, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you have?” Jesus knows it is our natural instinct, our nature, to love those who love us. Then he asks, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters what more are you doing than others?’ Jesus knows it is our nature to be friendly with our close associates but to be suspicious and even resentful of outsiders. So we see that Jesus understands our natural inclinations fully well, but Jesus is calling us to be part of kingdom that requires us to do what comes unnaturally, to go beyond our natural instincts and our human nature.
We know that in this sermon, Jesus is speaking to people who are very familiar with the laws of the Old Testament. Jesus does not diminish those laws, but rather, he corrects the misinterpretations and takes the Old Testament one step further. Jesus raises the stakes, so to speak. One misinterpretation that Jesus corrects is that we are to love our friends but hate our enemies. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. The Old Testament never says that anyone should hate his or her enemy, so we see that Jesus is not correcting the Old Testament itself, but only misinterpretations of the Old Testament. The Old Testament does say: love your neighbor. And yes, the love Jesus is saying we are to embody in his Kingdom surely starts with loving our neighbor, but then it goes much, much deeper. While the Old Testament calls for love of neighbor, Jesus teaches the crowds, and teaches us, that in God’s kingdom we are called to love those who harm us, oppress us, and even enemies intent on destroying us. Loving our neighbor is on the kindergarten level; loving our enemy is like earning a Ph.D.!
Jesus is calling us to a much higher level of love than The Old Testament. He is even calling us to perfect love. “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” Jesus concludes. I know this notion of being perfect is something that makes us want to just throw in the towel. But the call to be perfect is not meant to make us feel like failures; instead it is to assure us that we are not alone in the world and that God continues to work in and through us.
The kingdom of God that Jesus describes is a picture of the heart of God, who loves those who are unlovable, who comes among us in Christ, suffers greatly at our hands and then rises to forgive us. The Lord who accompanies us on our journey offered his own cheek to be slapped and his back to be whipped. This is the kind of love God demonstrated to us in Christ, and as unnatural as it is, Jesus calls us to love others as God loves. We turn the cheek, give the cloak, go another mile, lend to and love the enemy—because that is how God loves us.
Jesus really means for us to live these kingdom values. He showed us how. What are the things that keep us from living these kingdom values?
• Maybe we are too suspicious of the outcome; in other words we are not sure we really want to be a part of God’s kingdom.
• Maybe we are so stubborn we would rather be right than be in relationship with others.
• Maybe we are more intent on protecting ourselves than considering the needs of others.
• Maybe we don’t really believe that we are called to be perfect.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, believed that we are all striving to perfection. And he said we get there by something called sanctifying grace. Wesley taught that the sanctifying grace of God helps us overcome our human nature, our natural instincts, until we are able to love God and neighbor perfectly. Phil. 1:6 says, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Through sanctifying grace, God is continuing to work in us to bring us to perfection. God really means for us to get there. As we seek to live in conformity with Scripture and to follow the example of Christ, we really are pursuing the very perfection of God.
Perfection does not mean always having things just right; it means loving as God loves, with every breath God gives us. The goal is not that we can one day claim to have arrived at perfection. The goal is to be a part of the kingdom of God that Jesus came to establish. Perfection is less about getting things right and more about loving as God loves. Jesus is God’s clear and concrete example of that love. When Jesus tells us to be perfect, it is not a judgment against us, it is a promise of the kingdom.
Friends, Jesus teaches that perfection in love in this life is made possible by the approaching of God’s kingdom that Jesus came to establish. This seems impossible to us because we know that our natural inclination, our human nature, is sinful. To not sin is unnatural. That is what Jesus calls us to do; to do what is unnatural. The message of the Sermon on the Mount is not about trying harder, because then it would be a recipe for failure. We can only do what comes unnaturally with the Holy Spirit helping us. It is unnatural, even impossible to love God and others perfectly. But with the Holy Spirit of God helping us, all things are possible. Thanks be to God. Amen.