Sermon for 02-27-11: “The Ten Commandments, Part 7: Adultery of the Heart”

Sermon Text: Exodus 20:14; Matthew 5:27-30

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The following is my original manuscript.

In 1976, when Jimmy Carter was running for president, he gave a controversial interview to Playboy magazine. Because President Carter was, and is, an outspoken follower of Christ, the interviewer asked a question meant to embarrass or expose Carter’s faith as mere sanctimony. “Have you ever committed adultery?” Carter gave an answer, mocked by many at the time, which nevertheless gets to the heart of the of the seventh commandment and Jesus’ teaching on it: Carter replied, “Only in my heart.”

This sermon will focus mostly on “adultery of the heart,” because this is the kind of adultery to which most of us fall victim most of the time. Throughout this series, we’ve been looking at each of these commandments in an intensely spiritual light to avoid narrowing our focus on the externals: “I haven’t bowed down to an actual idol, so I’m doing O.K. with idolatry.” “I haven’t killed anyone dead, so I’m all right on murder.” Jesus, of course, will have none of this. As with all things, the external action is a symptom of an internal reality—and that internal reality needs to change.

That being said, there few things you can legally do to screw up your life and the lives of your loved ones more than choosing to have an adulterous affair. Some of you are likely hearing these words with great sympathy and heartache because you know from experience that what I’m saying is true. It’s possible that others of you may be resisting these words because you are in an adulterous affair, and it doesn’t seem so bad. Or maybe you’re hovering dangerously close to crossing a line with someone, and that line—which seemed so clear and bright and threatening months or years ago—seems much fuzzier, less clear, and more inviting now.

If you find yourself in this situation, first of all stop… now. And know that, as bad as your situation is, help and healing are available.

Newsweek magazine had an article a few weeks ago about sex in the Bible. The story purports to be shocking and scintillating. Did we know that the Bible has a poem—Song of Solomon—whose primary purpose is to celebrate romantic and sexual love? Did we know that the Bible contains stories involving polygamy, prostitution, adultery, incest, and other weird sexual behavior?

The point the author wants to make is that given all this sexual stuff in the Bible, why are Christians and the Church such fuddy-duddies when it comes to sex? Why do we continue to insist that sex is something that should be practiced within the confines of a lifelong, monogamous, loving married relationship? Aren’t we really just trying to cover up the truth?

Of course we don’t have to be fuddy-duddies about sex. We believe that our God invented it. It’s a great gift from God. It’s meant to be enjoyed. The reason we believe in lifelong, monogamous marriage is because this is God’s intention from the beginning, as seen clearly in Genesis 2, affirmed in the seventh commandment, affirmed and intensified by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and also by Paul throughout his letters, but especially in Ephesians 5. And how could we be covering up the truth about sex when we encourage Christians to read and study the Bible for themselves? Most of the things mentioned in the article are plain for all to see. And other things in the article were just plain ignorant or wrong on the facts.

We can read our Bibles—and read about how its characters sometimes abuse and misuse this good gift of God—and still come away with the firm conviction that sex outside of marriage is wrong. It is a sin. It is contrary to God’s will. This includes not only extra-marital sex but pre-marital sex. And because we’re interested in “adultery of the heart,” how can we possibly square the widespread use of internet pornography with Jesus’ words about lust in the Sermon on the Mount: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart”?

Sometimes when we argue about scripture, we say, “Jesus never said anything about that.” But here’s a clear case where Jesus did say something about it—the internet didn’t exist back then, but lust did. What does it mean that twenty-five percent of all traffic on the internet is related to pornography. And how many people accounting for that large percentage of traffic are Christians? Is this not a huge crisis? Why is it that I’ve never heard it mentioned in a sermon? Well, I’m partly to blame, since most of the sermons I’ve heard for the past seven years have been my own—but you get my point.

This is a crisis! For all the good that the internet has brought us, it has also caused great harm; it has wrecked the lives of so many people and so many families. At least in the days before the internet, a person had to drive to a seedy part of town to visit an adult bookstore or pick up a prostitute, and shame alone might have been enough of a force to restrain someone from doing so. The internet, with its seductive promise of anonymity and its availability free of charge, changes all that. And it lures people into that sin who might otherwise not fall victim to it. It’s tragic.

You may not believe in Satan or the demonic. But you’ve got to admit that if the demonic exists, as I believe it does, then this is exactly how it would operate in our world. We often don’t even talk about the sin of pornography because it has become such an accepted part of our lives and our culture. We wink at it. We laugh about it. Even where it falls short of full-fledged pornography, a spirit of pornography pervades our advertising, our TV and movies, our music.

And in order for us to think that it’s no big deal, we have to disregard the plain words of Jesus.

And the same is true for pre-marital sex. I might have mentioned before that I’ve performed a few dozen weddings in my ministry. As per the Book of Discipline, I counsel with the couple before doing so. I’ve only married people outside of the church, so I’m not speaking of anyone you know. But there have only been a few of those dozens of couples that weren’t living together before marriage. And I think—if this couple was telling me the truth, and I think they were—only one couple were virgins. Most of these couples, however, were at least nominally Christian. Again, we the church are letting a lot of people down if we are communicating to the world that sex outside of marriage is no big deal.

We may tell ourselves, “Sex outside of marriage is fine so long as no one gets hurt.” Right? The first problem is that we can’t know to what extent we’re hurting one another or ourselves. Even movies and TV shows that feature casual sex often show its consequences—like betrayal, jealousy, and heartbreak. Regardless, whether or not we see the harm in it, doesn’t mean that harm isn’t there.

God gives us sex in part to make children, of course, but at least as much to bring two people together in such an intimate union that the Bible says, “the two become one flesh.” It’s as if through sex our bodies make a promise to one another that says, “We’re going to be together for the rest of our lives. We are made for one another. This is what’s meant to be.” How can we so casually break that promise

But even as I say this, I’m aware that it sound hopelessly old-fashioned and out of date and naive. But you tell me? What has happened in the past 40 years since the sexual revolution that convinces us that our culture has the right answers about sex? What’s happened is that divorce rates have skyrocketed, rates of sexually transmitted diseases—and deaths from those diseases—have skyrocketed, and the abortion rate has skyrocketed. Abortion is down from its peak many years ago, but it’s recently been climbing again.

By the way, if, like me, you stand alongside the United Methodist Church and believe that abortion as a means of birth control is wrong, you don’t get to be casual in your attitude about sex. Because these two things are related. Our culture encourages us to believe that we can have sex without consequences, but an unintended crisis pregnancy is the most conspicuous reminder that our culture is lying.

When Jesus was preaching these words about lust in the Sermon on the Mount, he was speaking to some people—the Pharisees—who at least understood that lust was a serious sin. There was a group of very strict Pharisees, in fact, who would close their eyes when they passed a woman out of fear that they would lust. Jesus tells them that that’s not going far enough. They better do more than just close their eyes; they better gouge their eyes out entirely—because the consequences of sin are that deadly serious.

Of course Jesus understands that maiming ourselves wouldn’t solve the problem anyway. Because the problem goes much deeper eyes and hands. It is a problem of the heart. But if we are going to solve the problem, let’s please first recognize the problem, and stop “winking” at it, acting like it’s no big deal—when Jesus tells us plainly that it is a big deal.

Remember the first commandment? “You shall have no other gods before me”? Our lax, casual, winking attitude toward God’s sacred and beautiful gift of sex results in part from our unwillingness to follow this first commandment. When we get right down to it, we want to be in charge of our lives. I mean, sure, we’ll decide to give God this part of our lives when it suits us, but that part of our lives is off limits—because we know better than God what’s good for us; because we don’t agree that God should have that part!

Who is in charge here? Why are we so often reluctant to let God be in charge of our sex lives?

I have a colleague in ministry who is single and female, and she’s not reluctant to let God be in charge of that part of her life. But she told a group of us recently, “It’s hard being a single female pastor and trying to date.” Why? Is there a better, more appealing job in the world that being a pastor? Come on! She said, “Because men know in advance that you’re not going to put out!”

What do you say to that? How would you respond to my friend? What would you tell her to encourage her? I don’t know… But I do know that following Jesus is hard. And there is something downright heroic in her resolve not to sell out.

I’m sure that there are people in here—especially women—who feel that same pressure and don’t necessarily have the same spiritual resources to draw upon. And there are plenty of Christians out there—both men and women—who are trying very hard to be faithful to Jesus in the area of sex, but they realize that by doing so they are going against the grain of a culture that constantly lies to us about it. A culture that tells us that everyone should have as much sex as they want, with whomever they want, and that if they don’t, something is wrong with them. In fact, they’re probably gay and don’t even know it! And they’ll probably die from repressing all those natural urges!

Give me a break! The Bible teaches us that often doing what comes naturally is unhealthy, because we are naturally sinners in need of God’s grace and the life-changing, transforming power of the Spirit. I would say to anyone who is trying to be faithful to Jesus in this area of their lives: Be heroic. Be different. Be radical. Be a non-conformist. Be your own person—not the person someone else thinks you’re supposed to be. Be an example. Be a witness. Be salt and light to a wounded world that is stumbling in the dark.

The world is confused about sex; not Jesus and not God’s word.

Listen, if you have failed to be faithful to Jesus in this area of your life, please know that grace and forgiveness are yours through Christ. There’s nothing you’ve done, no sin you’ve committed, that wasn’t nailed to the cross of Christ. But also know that there’s a better way to live, and Jesus will show you the way, if you’ll trust in him.

And trusting is hard. But Jesus has never given me any reason to doubt him. He’s never failed to be trustworthy. His words are the words of eternal life.

His words point the way to a life that is happy and joyful and whole. I’m going to trust him today and the rest of my life. Are you with me? Amen.

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