Jesus’ sexual ethic is uncompromising, unpopular, and deeply countercultural in our day. Many of us may hear Jesus’ tough words and feel guilty because we know we’ve fallen short. This message offers both a challenge to change and a reminder of God’s mercy and grace.
Sermon Text: Matthew 5:27-30
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
I can’t read today’s scripture without thinking about Jimmy Carter. When he was running for president in 1976, he gave an interview in which he was asked if he had ever committed adultery. He answered that he had committed adultery—adultery in his heart. He was, of course, referring to Jesus’ severe words in today’s scripture. And for saying this, Carter was mocked and ridiculed all over the media and on national TV.
Jesus’ words were deeply unpopular in 1976, and it’s easy to see that they’ve only become more so since then. There is this popular idea that when it comes to issues pertaining to sex and sexuality, the church and the Bible and Christianity are hopelessly backwards. Repressed. Prudish. Our culture teaches us that the problem with human beings isn’t that we are helpless sinners who need a Savior; our problem is that we have failed to get in touch with who we really are—in here, in our hearts—and if only we’d do that, then we’d be healthier and happier. This is the feel-good gospel preached by Oprah Winfrey and many others. Our culture also says that what the church asks us to do as Christians—to not have sex before marriage, to not to have sex outside of marriage; to be monogamous within marriage, and to be celibate outside of marriage—is deeply unnatural.
And I’m like, “Yeah, it probably is unnatural.” What’s your point? “Doing what comes naturally” and being who we naturally are, is precisely the problem that God sent his Son into our world to solve! All of us are born as broken human beings that need to have our brokenness healed. Part of this healing process means bringing even our sex lives under the lordship of Jesus Christ. And to do that, we need to listen to what Jesus has to say about the difficult issues of lust, adultery, divorce, and marriage—and it means working hard to be faithful to Jesus in this area of our lives—and trusting in the Holy Spirit to make us faithful.
But I need to say this up front: If you hear these tough, uncompromising words of Jesus and feel like a failure, and feel like you’re the worst sinner imaginable, let me set your mind at ease: I bet there’s someone sitting in the pew in front of you, or sitting in the pew behind you, or sitting in the pew next to you, who’s just as bad or worse! I’m not even kidding! My pastoral care professor at Emory, Rodney Hunter, said he had a recovering alcoholic friend who attended an AA meeting in the basement of his church. One day Dr. Hunter said he saw his friend coming up from the church basement as Dr. Hunter was going into the sanctuary for a church service. Dr. Hunter waved at his friend, and his friend pointed to the basement and said, “That’s where church really happens!” That’s where church really happens…
What do you think he meant by that? I think he meant that when you’re in AA, everyone knows that you’re not there because you like the coffee: you’re there because you have a problem, which in this case happens to be an addiction to alcohol. And you’re very open and up-front about that. You introduce yourself to other people that way: “Hello, my name is Brent, and I’m an alcoholic.”
I wish church could be more like that. Because while our sins, compulsions, and addictions may not be as obviously harmful and self-destructive as drug or alcohol addiction, they are every bit as real; they can destroy us on the inside; and we need help overcoming them every bit as much as our brothers and sisters in Alcoholics Anonymous. So, if I can get a little bit of audience participation, I would love for us to turn to the person sitting on your left and say, “Hello, my name is fill-in-the-blank, and I’m a sinner.” Now turn to the neighbor sitting on your right and say, “Hello, my name is fill-in-the-blank, and I’m a sinner.”
See, we’re all in the same boat. We all fail in one way or another to be faithful to Jesus—including in the very intimate area of our lives that Jesus addresses today—but there’s always, always, always enough of God’s amazing grace to forgive us and give us a new start.
Let’s first be clear about what Jesus is and isn’t talking about when he talks about lust. He isn’t talking about noticing or even liking the fact that someone is beautiful, good-looking, or attractive. Sexual attraction itself isn’t wrong—which is good, because otherwise, for most of us, there would be no way to avoid “adultery in the heart.” No, God made us to be sexual beings. Our sexuality, God says, is very good, and it plays a role in nearly all human interactions—especially, for most of us, with the opposite sex. But whether it plays a harmful or destructive role is always within our power to control—even, Jesus implies, the power to control our thoughts and our imaginations. Feeling attracted to someone isn’t the same as fantasizing about them or imagining using them as sexual objects for our pleasure. “Adultery in the heart” always involves the will. Something we can control.
But there’s the challenge: If only adultery were something that just involved a physical action—wouldn’t that make this scripture a lot easier to bear? See, that’s what many religious people in Jesus’ day believed or hoped: that you could give free reign to your fantasies so long as you didn’t make physical contact with someone, and God was A-OK with that!
I think we all know that’s wishful thinking.
And so it’s wishful thinking for some Christians today to imagine that there’s nothing wrong with pornography, for instance. There’s simply no way to reconcile Jesus’ words here with the thought that Christians can in good conscience view pornography—or wink at it, or think it’s not really a big deal. It blows my mind—and it angers me a little—that as recently as 20 years ago, you usually had to go to the other side of the tracks, to some seedy part of town, to an adult bookstore, and pay money, in order to access what now comes free and unimpeded into nearly every American home. We the consumers have to do something in order to block it or prevent it from coming to our smart phones, tablets, and computers. Otherwise, even if we’re not tempted by porn, we can stumble upon it by accident when we do a Google search. And if we are tempted by pornography, well… it’s incredibly easy to find.
But maybe for most of us Christians, pornography is just obviously wrong. But what about other things in our culture—things that may fall short of hard-core pornography but are still spiritually harmful for us, and we ought to avoid—whether it’s a movie, a TV show, a novel, or music. We can’t be legalistic about when to do that, but just know that there are times when we need to abstain—because this thing will lead us down a dangerous path.
We also need to carefully discern the messages that our popular culture communicates. If you don’t know already, I watch a lot of TV, and I go to movies. I have to: It’s sermon research. And like many of you, I always loved the show Friends. It was a very smart, well-written comedy that never fails to make me laugh when I watch it in reruns. But the characters’ attitude about sex was way off base. Honestly, in nearly every episode, they’re wrong about sex. The show communicated that sex was perfectly O.K. so long as you’re in love. Or even if you’re not in love, sex is O.K., as long as both people understand that what they’re doing is meaningless, that there are no strings attached. Or that sex was a natural human need, just like our need for food, and that there’s no reason you shouldn’t do it as often as you like and with whomever you like—so long as no one gets hurt.
I think the show reflects our culture’s basic attitude toward sex, and it’s one that’s shared by many, many people—including, unfortunately, many Christians. And it’s just plain wrong.
Is it really possible, for example, to have no-strings-attached sex and for no one to get hurt? I mean, even on Friends, the characters were constantly dealing with broken hearts, were constantly feeling love-sick, were constantly feeling jealous, angry, or betrayed because ex-boyfriends or girlfriends. The common denominator in all those relationships was sex outside of marriage! I wish one of the characters would have come to the realization that, “Oh yeah, maybe sex isn’t a good idea before I get married.” So even as a show like Friends was denying what Jesus teaches on the one hand, it was affirming it on the other!
This word that Jesus uses for lust points to the reason why sex outside of marriage is so harmful: It means an excessive, sinful, or unhealthy desire for something. It’s the same word that’s used elsewhere in scripture for coveting. As pastor Tim Keller says in a sermon on today’s scripture, what’s underneath our confusion about sex is actually something quite good: a deep desire for God. Through lust, however, we confuse our desire for God with a desire for something that is far less than God. It’s the same mistake we make with greed and materialism: just as we imagine that money, a car, a house, the latest electronic gadget can satisfy the deep hunger in our soul, so we imagine that sex can satisfy this deep hunger. In both cases, they are a hunger which can only be satisfied by God. What we often want out of sex we can only find in God.
So lust, in other words, is a form of idolatry. We have a good, built-in desire for God. But finding God is difficult, and sex—like materialism—is a cheap, easy, although far less satisfying, substitute. It’s a cliché that’s been said a million times, but it’s still true: we have a God-shaped hole in our heart, and only God can fill it.
For those of you who are having sex before marriage, or are tempted to, pray and ask yourself, “What am I really looking for here? Why do I imagine that this human being can fulfill that need? In reality, only Jesus can.” For those of you who struggle with lust and pornography, I know you wouldn’t worship an idol if it were sitting in front of you, but in way that’s exactly what you’re doing when you lust. For those of you who have crossed a line in your marriage, into an adulterous affair, or perhaps are getting dangerously close, you are making an idol out of that other person.
If this describes you, hear Jesus’ stern warning: your actions are putting you on a path that leads to hell. This is not something to trifle with, to play around with, or make light of. It’s time to repent and change—and as you repent and change, to believe that there’s always grace to begin again.
Listen: I was counseling one time with a man—who’s not a member of this church—who confessed to me that he had struggled for years with an addiction to pornography. He would go months at times without it, and then give in to the temptation. And he was worried. “If I’m really a Christian, really saved, why am I struggling like this? How do I know God will keep on forgiving me?” And I pointed him to Matthew 18, where Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” And Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy times seven.” Jesus doesn’t mean 490 times. He means an unlimited number of times—so long as your brother or sister repents you keep forgiving.
And I told this man, “Do you think Jesus is less forgiving, less merciful, less gracious toward us than he asks us to be toward one another?”
Of course not. If Jesus has already forgiven you 4,972 times, what makes you think he won’t forgive you 4,973 times? We can always return to our Lord—and find mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Amen.