A sermon by Fr. Justin Clemente, delivered to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican) on July 23, 2022. Part of our ongoing “The Hard Sayings of Jesus” series.
Between a Rock & a Hard Place
Some of you may know the tale of American mountaineer Aron Ralston. In the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place (it was later turned into the movie 127 hours),he was made famous for his harrowing story of survival. In 2003, he made a solo descent into Bluejohn Canyon in Utah. On the way down, he dislodged a massive boulder, hopelessly pinning his right arm to the wall of canyon. He was stuck there in that position for five days. Over that period, he came to realize the desperation of the situation he was in. There was no other way out but than to do think unthinkable: amputate his own arm. But this was to be his freedom.
In our next Hard Saying, Jesus will proclaim something similar. The context is the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus is teaching his disciples on the Seventh Commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.” Let’s notice this first: Jesus does not teach his disciples to coddle sin, to affirm their sin, or to make an identity out of their sin. He teaches them and us to do what is the both easiest and the hardest thing: to repent and forsake our sin.
Jesus is the most loving and compassionate person to have every walked the earth. No one loves us like Jesus. And yet, Jesus always spoke the truth. His words were always timely, always loving, and always true. Jesus spoke the truth in love.
With all that mind, we want to look at what our Hard Saying today teaches us about sin and discipleship. I want to note here that I understand that today’s teaching is rather mature. For those with kids today, I expect that you’ll need to unpack some of this in an age-appropriate way later, and I’ll try to keep things PG-ish in my teaching while dealing honestly with the passage.
How to Deal with Sin – Don’t Go There! (vs. 29-30)
This is what Jesus means when he says to gouge out the eye or cut off the hand. It’s hyperbole, of course, for if we were blind, we might still lust. But the point is, of course, to deal with known sin radically, and at the outset – right away. To not give it any space!
Joseph is our example here. Joseph did not pretend to be strong, as if he could flirt around the edges. Joseph knew that against an assault of sexual temptation, he needed to be weak. He needed to run. In fact, growing in maturity of faith means knowing ourselves, not to be strong, but more and more dependent upon God. As author Brandon Meeks says, the scriptural model is to “Guard you heart, but never trust it.” The Apostle Paul learned this through his ministry as an Apostle: “But [Jesus] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
The Numbing Quality of Sin (vs. 29-30)
Second, we see the numbing quality of sin. Sin begets more sin – and a greater numbness to sin. We need to remember that Jesus’ primary audience here was actually his disciples. He taught them that serious sin (all sin is serious, but adultery is particularly deadly), if continued in without repentance, might even severe us from faith in Christ and lead to eternal destruction in hell. I have personally seen how this works. I have seen professing and married Christians move from lust in the heart, to falling into the sin of physical adultery, to then justifying their adultery (God wants me to be happy!), and then continuing steadfastly in that adultery without repentance. Friends, that is a scary place to be.
Apologist Frank Turek gives this illustration when it comes to adultery and sexual immorality. Sex within the God-given boundaries is like a fire in the fireplace: Keep it there, and it will warm your whole house. Take it out, and it will burn your house down.
As C.S. Lewis termed it, Satan has a “nothing” strategy when it comes to sin. That is to say, he wants you to be numb and dumb to sin, not sensitive to it. He wants you indifferent to sin, not seeking to forsake it. Lewis describes this “Nothing” strategy as “very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years, not in sweet sins, but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them…or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.”[i]
There is a deadening character to adultery – Jesus teaches his disciples to forsake at its first glimmering.
A Christlike Lenses (vs. 27-28)
“The ideal” writes author Jeffery Gibbs, “is always to regard members of the opposite sex through Christlike lenses.”[ii]
First, we should see that God has given us a legitimate and rightful place for the sexual desire he created: the marriage of one man and one woman. In marriage, all sexual desire is to be channeled into that one relationship. To paraphrase Martin Luther, nothing makes the Devil so angry as to see a husband and wife treating each other well in their marriage. Covenant love is the antidote for lust.
Luther’s words here are quotable: “In my wife I have a lovelier adornment, one that God has given me and has adorned with his word beyond the others, even though she may not have a beautiful body or may have other failings. Though I may look over all the women in the world, I cannot find any about whom I can boast with a joyful conscience as I can about mine: ‘This is the one whom God has granted to me and put into my arms.’”[iii] All others are to be viewed in terms of family, not as objects for personal gratification.
For those who are not married, God calls them to chastity in the body of Christ and to view other Christians as a brother or sister in Christ. The Body of Christ, is, first and foremost, a family. Our Anglican Catechism defines chastity this way: “Whether I am married or single, it means that I will love and honor others as image bearers of God, not as objects of lust and sexual gratification, and I will refrain from all sexual acts outside of marriage.”
For all of us, our fix and our gaze is to be, as Paul said in Philippians 4:8, on “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, [we are to] think about these things.”
Reborn…to Eternal Life
I want to end by coming back to Aron Ralston. Ralston later described the moment when he broke free from the rock at the bottom of Bluejohn Canyon. In an interview given by TLC, he described it as the happiest moment of his life. The interviewer said to him, “You were reborn.” Ralston said, “I was free…There will never be a more powerful experience for me. It was absolutely the greatest feeling to be given the chance to get out of here. …I was not going to die here.”
How much more then us? Jesus gives us, not just temporary freedom from a rock, but life eternal. No addiction and slavery to lust and sin is ever worth missing out on that.
So as you think over and apply this hard saying, “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.” (2 Thessalonians 3:5) Amen.
[i] The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, pg. 60. As quoted by Tony Reinke in 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, pg. 191.
[ii] Matthew 1:1-11:1 by Jeffrey Gibbs, pg. 289.
[iii] Ethics of Martin Luther by Paul Althaus, pg. 95. As quoted in Family Vocation by Gene Veith and Mary Moerbe, pg. 98.