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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Matthew 5:21-26
August 11, 2013 - Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

         I stepped on a rusty nail. I was nine years old and climbing around on the boards left from an old chicken coop behind my grandmother’s house. She warned me to stay away from there, but I just figured she meant not go out there with no shoes. I learned that an upturned nail goes pretty easily through the bottom of a pair of Keds.

         We were a family of nurses and there was great to-do and off we rushed to the small-town doctor for a tetanus shot. On the way my great aunt old me more than I wanted to know about puncture wounds and lock-jaw. Before they gave me the shot, the old family doctor looked at the nail hole, injected some Novocain in the area, and cleaned it out. I was brave and didn’t cry at all.

         Then, the doctor said, “Hello. What’s this?” “This” was another sore, between my first two toes, where a stick jammed when I was playing by the creek a couple days before. “This looks worse than the other,” he said, and began to poke around and clean that wound as well. He forgot the Novocain didn’t quite reach there. I did cry then. It wasn’t fair! I came in for the nail hole. I didn’t want him digging around somewhere else.

         As C. S. Lewis points out, going to God about our sins can be like that. You dig in, confess, let the Lord clean up a bit of pride or envy. But then the Lord goes on digging around in your heart asking “What about this? Or that?” That’s how I feel about the sin of anger. I really don’t want to poke around in there too much. It makes me angry.

         Our spiritual physician, Jesus, takes up anger as His first topic in the “antitheses” of the Sermon on the Mount. Six times He says, “You have heard that it was said,” referring to Old Testament law or common understanding of the law, then goes on to say, “But I tell you …” Each time He makes the law more difficult. He pokes into a brand new area of sin not really much addressed before. And he starts with anger. Next is lust, which is next week.

         We all feel anger. It happens, like pain or pleasure, like an ache or an itch. You are feeling wonderful on a sunny day. God is in heaven and all is right with the world. You drive down the road and pull up to a stoplight. The light turns green, you take your foot off the brake and begin to step on the gas. At the same time, the car facing you, stopped in the other direction, jumps the gun and whips a left turn right in front of you. Boom. Your pulse doubles and your hands clench on the wheel, maybe you lean on the horn. “You jerk!” you yell. Forget zero to sixty in six seconds. You went from happy to angry in three seconds.

         It’s a deadly sin, because anger is deadly dangerous. We have a term now for the anger we feel behind the wheel, “road rage.” And unchecked, anger leads us down a horrible path. Nathan Campbell may have been drinking before he drove down a boardwalk in Venice, California knocking down pedestrians like bowling pins last week, but it seems certain there was anger involved. Anger takes us down deadly roads.

         So one of the church fathers, John Cassian, taught that a good Christian should strive to totally eliminate anger from your soul. He was thinking in part of the verse we read from Ephesians 4:31 this morning, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger…” Anger is just too destructive, too divisive, too harmful to allow it any role in our lives.

         On the other hand, we also read verse 26 in Ephesians 4, which tells us, “Be angry, but do not sin…” The implication is that at least some forms of anger are not sinful. You can be angry without sinning. We might hope so, because Jesus Himself got angry. Mark 3:5 tells us Jesus got angry with Pharisees who did not want Him to heal a man on the Sabbath.

         It gets worse with Jesus. What does He say will put you in danger of going to hell? Calling someone a fool. But He Himself used that angry word. Turn to Matthew 23:17, and the first word in Greek is Jesus calling teachers of the law and Pharisees fools. Jesus got angry and said what He tells us not to say. You can hear His anger all through Matthew 23.

         Not all anger is sin. There is a holy use for anger. It can spur us to right a wrong or even, if we are angry with ourselves, to become better. Not even all name-calling is wrong. There is such a thing as righteous anger. And a very few people really deserve to be called fools. Like those Pharisees, they are people who fail to appreciate God’s grace or who prevent other people from receiving it.

         Our problem is that we don’t usually know when and who. Most of our anger is unjustified, unrighteous. Most of our anger is deadly. My friend who loves professional pool says that if you are going to hit a shot really hard, you had better know what you’re doing, had better be a pro. Otherwise the cue ball and maybe others will go flying off the table. Unless you or I really know our cause is holy, our anger will send things flying. Jesus warns us about anger because it’s not deadly just when you pick up a weapon or ball up your fists. It’s deadly whenever it lashes out, even in words. Anger makes us liable to God’s judgment.

         At root, anger is a desire for punishment, says Thomas Aquinas. You wish a cop were around to nail that guy who turned in front of you. The essence of anger is wanting punishment for wrong-doing. Our problem is wanting more than what’s deserved or even what’s not deserved. You wish that guy to get smashed to bits turning in front of someone.

         So Jesus wants us to realize how easily anger can turn into sin. Even the speaking of an unkind word can be sin when it is undeserved. He is saying that not nearly so often as we might imagine does another person deserve our anger or our verbal abuse. The sin of anger does not begin when you commit physical violence. It begins when you choose to continue in anger that is unjustified. The Lord wants us to recognize the sin of anger for what it is: a deadly sin, a capital sin that leads to more sin.

         Jesus contrasted His warning about anger with what the commandment, “Do not murder.” In many ways, murder is worse. But it is anger which leads to murder, it is anger that is the root sin, the deadly sin. What happens first in your heart bears evil fruit. Anger in your soul produces anger in your actions.

         You might think verse 22 here gradually ups the judgment for anger and angry words. Unspoken anger is judged; an insult might bring you to court; saying “fool” sends you to hell. But the insult is literally “Raca,” which in Aramaic meant something like “empty-head.” We might say “idiot.” There’s no real difference between calling someone an “idiot” and calling her a “fool,” which in Greek is mwrov" (mõros), from which we get “moron.”

         It’s not that some name-calling is worse. That’s true. But Jesus wants us to see the danger of anger at every level. From inward seething to verbal expression to physical violence, unjustified anger is a sin which God judges. Anything beyond true justice is sin.

         So in the rest of the text, 23-26, Jesus calls us to leave off anger and seek reconciliation. When anger arises, the right response is to be reconciled. Don’t just bite off angry words, avoid saying them aloud, but carry them around inside. Verse 23 says you cannot come to God carrying both anger and an offering. You must lay down one of them to deal with the other. Go and be reconciled, says Jesus, and then bring your gift.

         So Paul gives us that excellent advice in Ephesians 4:26, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” It’s an excellent rule for married couples. Although, Phyllis Diller rephrases it as, “Never go to bed mad… Stay up and keep fighting.” Which as we so often do, keeps the letter of Paul’s advice and totally misses the spirit.

         Verses 25 and 26 are a little parable about anger. You are on your way to court. Chris would tell you what Jesus says here. It’s always better to settle before you get there. If you put yourself in the hands of the court, it could very well cost you more.

         Jesus isn’t offering legal advice, though. He’s telling us that it’s always better to settle our differences rather than to stand guilty before God of unjustified anger. Even if we think we have righteous anger, it might turn out badly if God doesn’t see it that way. So there’s another warning about hell, about eternal judgment, in verse 26 in the form of a prison from which there’s no escape until every sin, including anger, is paid for.

         It’s a model of relationship that Jesus repeated in Matthew 18 and which is understood in that direction not to go to bed angry. Directly, one on one, set aside your anger, offer forgiveness, and be reconciled to each other. It’s not easy. It’s takes everything we’ve got and more. It only happens with the help and grace of God who sets aside His own very justified anger and offers us forgiveness and reconciliation.

         Jesus talks in verses 23 and 24 about being reconciled to a brother or sister. Reconciliation is to be practiced especially in the church, in the Christian community of brothers and sisters in Christ. We try to do it here.

         Many years ago a couple of women in our church came asked me to mediate for them, to listen to their grievances against each other and decide who was right and who was wrong. I asked them, “Have you talked to each other? Have just the two of you tried to work this out?” They looked at each other and I could tell they hadn’t. So I told them I wouldn’t talk to them any more until they did that. They got angry at me. In fact, they got so mad at me that it united them against me. In the end they became friends again.

         In a much, much greater way, Jesus ended up like I did. In order to reconcile us with each other and even more, with God, Jesus let us turn all our human anger on Him as He hung on the Cross. There, as Ephesians 2:16 says, He became our peace, reconciling us to each other and to God by putting to death in His own body our hostility, our anger. It’s only by trusting in the sacrificial grace of Jesus that our anger can truly be healed.

         Let me pause here to tell you I don’t want anyone to think this call to set aside anger by the grace of Christ means you must keep being abused. If you’ve been abused, if you are being abused, you have a right to be angry. And we as God’s people should be angry with you, angry whenever evil is done against people who do not deserve it. You may have tried to reconcile, but were only abused more. Jesus isn’t telling you to stay and keep being hurt. It’s time to get away and seek God’s help and healing. If you are in that situation, I will certainly talk with you. We will certainly help you escape someone else’s abusive anger.

         For most of us though, let us seek our Lord’s help to learn that difficult, but sacred art of reconciliation. Walter Wangerin tells how he used to fight with his wife. She would cry. He would talk. He would ask, “What is the matter?” She would cry more. Then he would sigh. Then he would ask again, “What is the matter?” More crying. And he would ask again, stomp around the room, and throw his hands up to heaven, and carry on until finally, all of a sudden, she would stop crying. But then the floodgates would open and she would unleash on him a complete and detailed list of all his sins against her, numbered and dated.

         Wangerin said he had only one defense, one weapon left. He would jam his arms into his overcoat, bolt down the stairs of their little apartment, and go out into the cold night, slamming the door behind him. He would walk for three hours, trusting she was feeling properly guilty and was worrying about him being mugged. “Take that,” he thought.

         That is how their fights went until one night when God brought a different ending to the story. It was his birthday, but the fight had started. When she had finally delivered the angry list of his wrongs, he grabbed his coat as usual and got ready for the finale. He says,

         Indeed, all went well, right up to the jamming of my arms into the over­coat, the running downstairs, and the dramatic leap into the night. But then God piddled on the affair.

         When I slammed the front door, I caught my coat in it.*

         He quickly discovered the door was locked and he had no key. He had two choices. He could remove the coat and go out into the cold in his shirt sleeves. That had drama to it, but the problem was that his wife would not know and so would not appreciate the drama. Besides, it was below freezing. Or he could ring the doorbell.

         After standing there shivering for ten minutes, he rang the doorbell. His wife came down the steps. She peeped out. She unlocked the door. “And what was she doing?” he asks. She was laughing! “She laughed so hard the tears streamed down her face and she had to put her hand on my shoulder, to hold her up.”

         The grace of God was a coat caught in a door. It was his cue to smile too, to chuckle, to take her hand and apologize and accept the gift of God who was “arranging armistice, staging reconciliation between a wife and her husband.”

         “But,” he says, “what did the dummy do? Well, he batted her hand away, cried ‘Hmph!’ and bolted away to stalk the night out doors more grimly than before.” He gave up the gift of God and clung desperately to his anger and his pride. It was a long while yet before they learned to forgive each other and not let the sun go down while they were angry.

         How often are we like that with God? Jesus gave His life to reconcile us to Him. He gave His life to reconcile us with each other. Now He’s constantly reminding us of that gift. Where in your life is God catching your coat in the door? How is He inviting you to pause and lay down your anger and be reconciled to Him or to another person?

         Our Lord gives us those blessed opportunities to settle things with each other now, on the way, rather than at the end in His court of judgment. Let us recognize and accept those opportunities of grace. If we refuse them, then maybe we really are fools.

         Yet the Lord loves us even in our foolishness. Even in our anger. Romans 5:8 says, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” While we are still fools, He reconciles us to God. And His grace comes daily to us, bringing us forgiveness for our sin, even the sin of anger, and bringing us reconciliation, even reconciliation with each other. He is offering that grace to you. Don’t turn away. Stop, lay down your anger, and receive His grace.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

* Ragman and Other Cries of Faith, Harper & Row, Publishers, New York: 1984, p. 126.

Last updated August 11, 2013