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The Upside-Down Kingdom

Anger In The Heart

Rev. Philip Miller | February 6, 2022

Selected highlights from this sermon

The world is full of anger. Sometimes our anger is big and explosive, other times it’s small, simmering and smoldering. Low-grade anger carried around in our bodies spills out like acid on those around us.

In this message, Pastor Miller asks us: What if there was another way? What if the anger dominating us could be arrested? What if that anger could be diffused before it ever gathers strength? But he answers his own questions by showing us how Jesus can set us free from the bondage of a heart enslaved by anger and how our angry hearts can truly become hearts of peace.

Anger! This world is full of anger. Angry Twitter mobs, angry protestors, angry talk show pundits, angry parents, angry children, angry teens. We have angry streets, angry cities, angry nations.

Sometimes our anger comes out big and loud and explosive. And everyone pays when the bomb detonates. And sometimes our anger gets small, and it simmers and smolders like a low-grade anger that we carry around in our bodies, and it spills out like acid on people we run into.

It’s so easy to be angry these days. Have you noticed? Pandemic restrictions, political hot-button issues, geopolitical tensions, tragic injustices. And all that anger is stoked by our cable news who have learned that rage equals ratings. It’s amplified by our social media that have learned that anger is good for algorithms. And it’s exploited by our politicians who have learned that vitriol means votes. And so no wonder so many people are so very angry over so many issues so much of the time.

This world is scarred over by the ravages of anger, abuse, and brutality, and violence and bloodshed and war. And so it is in the kingdom of Earth. But what if there’s another way? What if there’s an entirely different way to live? What if the anger that so dominates us and and is so destructive to all of our relationships could be arrested? What if anger could be diffused in our hearts before it ever gets legs under it? What if Jesus can set us free from the bondage that a heart that is enslaved by anger is held captive by? What if in the kingdom of heaven, our angry hearts can actually become hearts of peace? What if that were true?

Grab your Bibles. We’re going to be in Matthew 5:20–26 this morning. You’ll find today’s reading in page 810 in the pew Bible there if you want to grab it. 810. Again that’s Matthew 5, verses 20 down to 26. I’m going to read these, and we’ll jump in, okay?

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard it said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”

Thanks be to the Lord for the reading of His Word.

I want to sort our ideas here this morning into three categories. We’re going to look at The Heart of Righteousness, The Deadliness of Anger, and The Mending of the Kingdom.

The Heart of Righteousness, The Deadliness of Anger, and The Mending of the Kingdom.

Let’s bow our heads and ask the Lord to be our teacher this morning.

Father, we confess that we harbor much anger over little things and big things. The world has gone angry and mad, and so often we get swept along with it. This world has a tendency to get inside us, and the anger in our hearts is undeniable. Would you set us free today? Teach us to live in the righteous heart of the kingdom of heaven we pray in Jesus’ name. Everybody said Amen. Amen.

First, The Heart of Righteousness, the heart of righteousness. Jesus leads into His teaching here on anger by making the radical statement we looked at last time: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The scribes and Pharisees taught that righteousness is primarily what we do. It’s how we act. It’s how we behave. What God wants most out of us is for us to be good, to do good. And so they had a strategy: shape up, clean up, get in line! A lot of you know what that’s like. They became experts at sin management and behavior modification. It was an outside-in strategy for change, and it ran on two main things, fear and pride. Fear and pride.

“Shape up or you’ll get busted!”

“Be good or God will get you!” That’s fear, right?

“You don’t want to be like those people. You’re better than those people. Show that you’re different.”

That’s pride.

And you can change your behavior, can’t you, with fear and pride, at least for a little while? And if you’re successful in modifying your behavior, you become proud, don’t you? “Look what I did. I changed.” Self-righteous. “I’ve got it.” Judgmental toward other people who don’t have what you have!

In other words, by using pride to change, it swells and you become more and more prideful, the more you use pride to modify your behavior. If you are unsuccessful at modifying your behavior, you fail. You fail again and again and the fear takes over, and the self-loathing takes over, and you beat yourself up again and again and again and become crippled by fear. And as you use fear to change you get more fearful.

And so when we operate in fear and pride to try to change ourselves, to try to be good, we’re being good, not for God’s sake, or even for goodness’ sake. We’re being good for our sake; don’t you see? We’re changing in order to become ourselves, to be better ourselves. It’s a selfish way to change. Our righteousness is therefore selfish to the core.

But then Jesus comes along and He says, “That’s not enough!” That kind of righteousness, external righteousness, motivated by fear and pride, that righteousness doesn’t work. You’ve got to have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. You’ve got to have a righteousness that is better than external modification and sin management, a new righteousness that’s deeper, wider, better, higher, greater, fuller, richer. You need a righteousness that’s not just about what we do. We need a righteousness that’s about who we are. It goes beyond the outside to the inside. It goes beyond behavior into the heart. As Jesus says in summary at the end of this chapter, in chapter 5, verse 48, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

So Jesus is telling us that the righteousness that God desires, the righteousness that is at home in the kingdom of heaven is a goodness like God Himself. It saturates all the way in and permeates all the way out. It’s a righteousness that springs, not from a heart full of fear and pride, but a heart of love like God Himself.

And to help us understand what that kind of inner, heart-righteousness, that sort of loving goodness on the inside that comes out of us, what that looks like, Jesus now gives us a number of illustrations. And the first one has to do with anger.

Verse 21, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.”

You may recognize here that Jesus is referencing the fifth commandment here when He says, “You shall not murder.” It’s important to see that He’s pitting Himself, not against the Old Testament Law, He’s pitting Himself against the Pharisees’ teaching. The Pharisees have said (You’ve heard them. You’ve heard them say it.), “This commandment simply means, ‘Don’t murder.’ Don’t kill anybody. What is the righteousness that God requires? Don’t murder people. Right? Have you murdered anybody? No? Okay, good. Check! That’s easy. Move on to the next one.” And Jesus says, “No, no, no, no, no, no! Not so fast. You’re missing the point! Of course you shouldn’t murder, but if your heart is righteous like God’s, and is full of the kingdom of heaven, you won’t even let anger take root in your heart.” It’s the difference between behavior modification and heart transformation, you see.

The Pharisees are satisfied if you just simply stop short of murder. “Just don’t do it, just don’t. You may feel really, really angry, angry enough to kill, but just don’t pull the trigger. That’s what God wants.” It’s a surface level righteousness. You see this. It’ll keep you out of prison. That’s a good thing. It’ll keep people alive. That’s good. You shouldn’t murder. Let’s be clear on that. But the problem runs deeper than that. Murder is the symptom. The heart is the disease. And we have hearts that have gone wrong in anger. The righteousness of God needs to go way beyond simply avoiding murder, friends. It needs to deal with the anger that resides in our hearts.

So let’s talk about The Deadliness of Anger. Let’s talk about the deadliness of anger. Verse 22: “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Now, if you look carefully, you’ll notice there’s a progression, an escalation in these three things here: anger, (something bigger) insults, and (something even bigger) “You fool.”

And there’s ratcheting up of the consequences each time: A liability to judgment (you’re guilty before the Law of God); you’re liable to the Council (you have to be brought in before the elders of Israel, the Supreme Court, all 70 of them. That’s a pretty big deal); and then finally the hell of fire itself, and the eternal damnation of all of that.

So there’s a death spiral here that Jesus is trying to show us: anger that moves to contempt that ultimately moves to vilification.

Let’s unpack each one of these: anger, contempt, and vilification.

Anger: Jesus says, “Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” The word here is orgizo, orgizo. You want to try that? Can you say that? Orgizo? Yes, very good. It means to be intensely angry, to have a burning hostility on the inside. This is not flash-in-the-pan-anger. This is cultivated anger. This is sustained anger. It is nursed along. It’s anger that’s being fed.

He’s not talking about basic anger which can be quite healthy, right? We get angry when something we love is being threatened. So someone goes after your kid and you’re angry. Anger helps you respond and deal with the situation. There is such a thing as good healthy anger, which is why Ephesians 4:26 says, “Be angry and do not sin.” In other words, it’s possible to be angry and not sin. There is a category, rarely happens, but it’s there. Most of the time anger and sin go together.

Orgizo is a cultivated anger, a sustained anger, an anger that settles down into the heart and takes up residence there. And Jesus is saying anger like that, living in our hearts, even if we never act on it, falls short of the righteousness of God. A heart that cultivates anger has no place in the kingdom of heaven.

See, when we nurse anger, friends, when we dwell on our pain, when we lick our wounds, and allow hate to smolder, and will the rage to burn, there’s always a degree of malice in it, isn’t there? We want the other person to feel our displeasure, even if it’s just in the words we use or don’t use, or the looks we give or don’t give. We intend to inflict pain on another. And our hearts are shot through with malice and ill-will and harm. And sometimes that anger grows into contempt, the second thing Jesus talks about here. “Whoever insults his brother… The word here is literally “raca.” It’s the sound, it’s an onomatopoeia, right? It sounds like the word. It’s “raca.” It’s the sound you make when you’re gathering spit. To spit, like in some cultures you (makes spit sound). It’s a… (makes spit sound) Right? It’s to dismiss. It’s raca. (spits) It’s shame, contempt. This is far worse than anger. In anger I have ill-will toward someone. In contempt I’m indifferent. You’re dead to me. I don’t even care any more.

The heat of anger has now settled into the coldness of contempt and we seek to exclude, to snub, to shame, to signal that someone isn’t welcome in our presence, that they are not valued, they are not worthwhile, and so we degrade them with disgust and devalue, dismiss, and disdain.

And then there’s vilification, “Whoever says, ‘You fool!’” This is a terrible translation. The translators chickened out. It’s impossible to convey how offensive this word is. Think of the worst curse word you know that someone could say to someone else (spits) toward them. You know the one I’m thinking about, the filthiest swear word you can imagine and spit it in their face. That’s the idea.

The amassed hatred of the heart is so deep, so hateful that it is resolved to treat the other person as monstrous, villainous, repugnant, irredeemable, a smirch on the face of the earth. It is the worst of anger and contempt all rolled up into one. Vilification is the dismissal of human worth. It is a violation of their existence, a desecration of their personality.

Jesus is telling us that unchecked anger is dehumanizing and desecrating. Do you see this? It’s dehumanizing and desecrating. When my heart is caught in the death spiral of anger, contempt, and vilification, what Jesus is telling me is that my heart has become murderous. Oh, I may not have pulled the trigger, but there’s nothing righteous in a heart like this.

Think about it. Jesus is comparing anger and murder. Those feel like they’re so far apart. Jesus says, “They’re more closely connected than you realize.” Murder is the destruction of the image of God, yes? People are made in the image of God, and therefore, to assault the image of God is offensive to God Himself. It’s to destroy. In the ancient world, the gods had statues, right? The god wasn’t the statue, but if you gouged the eyes out, if you spray painted it, if you lopped its head off, you were desecrating the image of the god and therefore you were desecrating, offending, dishonoring the god himself, right?

And here comes God. He makes humanity in His own image. We are the image of God and to desecrate, treat with evil, hatred, contempt another human being is to dehumanize them, and is to desecrate the image of God in them. So murder is the destroying of a physical image of God, but anger goes after the spiritual image of God in a destructive, tearing, defiling sort of way. So I can desecrate and defile the image of God without even committing murder. Do you see that?

When I cultivate anger in my heart, when I wish malice, ill-will, and harm on another being made in the image of God, when I’m full of contempt and I try to snub and shame and degrade someone else; when I vilify them and I reduce them to the worst parts of who they are and view them as monstrous, repugnant, accursed, and irredeemable, I am not honoring the image of God in them. I’m dehumanizing them and desecrating the image of God.

And not only am I dehumanizing and desecrating the image of God in them, I’m dehumanizing and desecrating the image of God in me. In me. As the death spiral of anger takes over my own heart, I’m becoming less and less like my Father who is in heaven because He is not like this. And it usually hurts innocent bystanders as well. Anger between people rarely stays contained. If we walk around full of anger like this, it tends to spill out on all of the most innocent people around us. We snap and angry shrapnel flies out and hits everyone around us.

Friends, angry hearts are destructive to the image of God everywhere. And Jesus is saying it’s murderous. It destroys the image of God. It dehumanizes our personhood. It’s desecrates the infinite worth of the the people made in the image of God. The people we’re angry at, ourselves, the ones who bear the anger, and everyone around us gets hit by the shrapnel. It’s not enough, friends, to simply avoid murder. Anger destroys life wherever it finds home in our hearts.

But it shall not be so in The Mending of the Kingdom, the Mending of the Kingdom. Jesus says, “Let me show you what kind of inner heart-righteousness is right at home in the kingdom of heaven.”

Verse 23: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”

There are two pictures here in quick succession of a different kind of spiral, a healing spiral of compassion, reconciliation, and peace in the kingdom of heaven. Let me show you those pictures.

First: The first picture is with a brother, a brother. Jesus says, “Look, okay! Let’s say you’re in the temple. Let’s say you’re offering a sacrifice before God. You’re there to worship.” Pause for a moment here. What are we expecting Him to say? We can talk about anger in our own hearts. We expect Him to say, “If you’re at the temple and you’re about to offer your gift, leave your gift, and you realize there’s anger in your heart, leave your gift and go deal with it.” That’s what we expect Him to say because God wants your whole heart. He cares about your whole heart and you can’t worship with a heart of anger. That’s what we think He’s going to say, but that is not what He says.

He says, “Let’s say you’re in the temple. You’re about to leave your offering in worship before God, and you remember your brother (somebody else) has something against you. They’ve got anger they’re cultivating in their heart. You stop everything and go make it right. Go rescue him.” Jesus says, “Look, I want to show you what the righteous heart of the kingdom of heaven does. The righteous heart of the kingdom leaves its gift at the altar. It goes and it is reconciled with its brother. It frees him from the death spiral of anger that is taking his life down, and then it comes back and it offers the offering, the sacrifice.”

This is utterly shocking. Jesus is saying in the kingdom of heaven, harmonious relationships take priority over worship; stop everything and go be reconciled; that I have an obligation to go rescue my brother who cultivating anger against me. It’s not even my anger. It’s his anger. But it is my responsibility. Jesus is saying that the inner heart righteousness that is at home in the kingdom of heaven will go and take the initiative, even if we’re not the one with the anger in our hearts.

The heart alive in the kingdom of heaven is so burdened with compassion for our brother who is trapped in the death spiral ravages of anger that it is willing to do whatever it takes to go set them free. Just as your Father in heaven is so eager to forgive and to atone and to reconcile with you. That’s what all the offering is about! It’s about relationship with God, a right relationship with Him. That’s what those sacrifices are all about. Just like God is so eager to reconcile, make peace, reach out, and restore relationship with you, your heart, when it is alive in the kingdom of heaven, will be moved with compassion, eager to restore, to reconcile, willing to do whatever it takes, pay whatever price to go and set our brothers and sisters free.

And friends, reconciliation is costly work. Atonement is sacrificial work. Healing demands lots of grace. Mending necessitates abundant mercy, but this is the heart of the kingdom of heaven. That’s the first picture. Go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come back and worship.

The second picture is now one of an enemy. Jesus says, “Look, let’s say you’re being sued. (chuckles) Let’s say someone’s really angry and mad at you. They’re trying to make you pay. They’re going to take you to the cleaners. Here’s what a kingdom heart would do. The kingdom heart would settle things quickly. It would be quick to apologize. It would be quick to take responsibility. It would be quick to come to terms. It would be quick to make peace. In other words, it stops the death spiral of anger before it gets out of control and burns the world to the ground.

The righteous heart of the kingdom of God will seize the opportunity to keep anger from spiraling out of control. Otherwise the person who is trying to sue you is just going to get more angry, more bitter, more vindictive, more deeply entrenched, and nothing will satisfy their anger in the end. No settlement will cure the damage that’s been done to their soul. No amount of jail time will heal the wounds in their heart. No amount of vengeance will make them less miserable. In the inner heart, righteousness that is at home in the kingdom of heaven sees the image of God in the accuser, in their brother and now in their enemy. And it stops the dehumanizing and desecrating murderous cycle of anger, and chooses instead to honor the image of God, however unworthy it might be, to treat it as sacred and holy. This is the healing spiral of compassion, reconciliation, and peace.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. When we prioritize reconciliation, friends, what we’re doing when we choose to settle early like this, when we choose to extend and receive forgiveness, when we choose to bear the cost of setting people free, we are becoming like our Father. We’re like sons and daughters of our perfect heavenly Father. We’re being conformed to the image and likeness of Christ. We’re walking in the power of the Spirit because this is what God is like.

Friends, this is how God loved us. Isn’t that true? When we were yet sinners and enemies Christ came for us. I love the story of the prodigal son, who makes a royal hash of his life, offends his father at every level, and when he comes home the father won’t even let him finish saying I’m sorry, and wraps his heart, that’s the heart of our God. He didn’t wait for you to figure it out and properly repent, or confess your sins completely, or right all of your wrongs or break the cycle of your anger. No. He left everything to come and be reconciled with you! He bore the cost that would make you right with Him. He made atonement for all of your mess, and extends forgiveness and grace and mercy every day. Jesus came and did whatever it took. He bore every cost. He laid down His life that we might be reconciled. Friends, Jesus came from heaven to Earth, and He laid His life on the altar in order that He might be reconciled with us. “Father, forgive them,” He prays, “for they know not what they do.” What a generous statement. We knew what we were doing, and yet the charity and generosity in His heart, so eager to make peace, that He would say such a thing.

And now He calls us sons and daughters of God to love others as He has first loved us, because that’s what children of God do. That’s what sons and daughters of God do. They love God and love people.

So Jesus is telling us, He’s offering us a whole new kind of heart. A whole new kind of heart, alive in the kingdom of heaven and it’s the difference between two polar opposites: the heart of an orphan and the heart of a child. The heart of an orphan and the heart of a child. Friends, everyday I get to choose which one I’m going to live in, which kind of heart I’m going to live from, the heart of an orphan or the heart of a child.

When I live from the heart of an orphan, I live as if I’m on my own and I have to fend for myself in this world. I have to make sure all my needs are met, and no one is going to meet them for me. I’ve got to survive. I’ve got to make sure I get the respect, the love, the recognition, the fairness of what I deserve in life. And if anyone withholds those things from me or takes them from me, I get angry. And I have to be the attorney, and the judge, and the jury all at once because it’s up to me to make sure I get what I deserve in life so I’m full of anger, and it’s my job to make sure they pay. And so I get sucked in to the death spiral of anger in my heart. And when I live in that spiral, forgiveness is almost impossible because they mistreated me and I deserve more, and my wounded pride will never let me let go. And hurt people hurt people in the kingdom of this world.

But there’s another way. By grace through faith in Christ I am a child of God, which means I’m not on my own, and I don’t have to fend for myself because I have a good Father who loves to give good gifts to His kids, and He knows everything I need, even before I ask Him. And I may not get respect and love and recognition and fairness in this life, but do you know what? With God I am crowned with honor, I am loved to the skies, I am ever welcomed in His presence, and I am clothed in the righteousness of Christ. I’m a son (and a daughter) of the Most High God. And so when people hurt me I don’t have to become the attorney, the judge or the jury because I can entrust myself to the One who judges justly. I don’t have to be my own attorney because Christ pleads for me. I don’t have to be the judge and jury because God is the final Judge. And every sin will be paid on the cross or in hell, but it will be finished. And so I have a place then to lay my anger down, you see, to cast all of my cares on Him because He cares for me. And that means I can actually forgive. I can forgive others as God in Christ Jesus has forgiven me because I’ve been forgiven so much. How can I not forgive others?

Hurt people hurt people, and forgiven people forgive people. So the heart of an orphan which is full of fearful anger and prideful unforgiveness, or the heart of a child that rests secure in the Father’s love and forgiveness and so gladly extends that love and forgiveness to others

See the Pharisees tried to change by leveraging the very things that are most deadly in the heart of the orphan—fear and pride. They just took orphan hearts and used the orphan hearts to try to change behavior. That was the Pharisees.

Fear and pride; It just makes you more fearful and more prideful. But the Gospel comes in and the Gospel slays our pride. It says you’re far more sinful than you ever dared realize. You’re a mess, congratulations! But it also says you’re loved more than you ever dared dream. You’re loved to the skies, and that soothes our fears. So the Gospel dismantles our pride and it soothes our fears and it puts us in a whole new place, a place of love. In the heart of a child we realize that Jesus is our righteousness, and yet no righteousness on our own is enough for us. We have been welcomed and brought close in the love of God, by grace through faith in Christ. It means we’re full of the Spirit, led to become more and more like our Father, like our brother, Jesus Christ. And one day, God will take us into glory and He’ll make us right all the way through, and we’ll become people of love like our Father in heaven, perfect in every way.

So here’s the takeaway: How’s your heart? How’s your heart? Who needs your forgiveness? Who needs your apology? Who needs your peace?

Friends, in a world that is shot through with anger, maybe we’re meant to live upside down. Maybe we’re meant to be salt and light, to live from a totally different kind of heart in this world.

This is not in my notes. I’m just going to say it. There’s a whole lot of anger in the world right now over cloth on your face, needles in your arm, mandates, prescriptions, politics. Don’t let it get in your heart. That’s all kingdom of Earth stuff. Lift your eyes. Live for the kingdom of heaven. We’re going to be brothers and sisters forever with people who made the opposite choices we did about this pandemic. Don’t let this divide what Christ is bringing together. We’re bigger than this. (applause)

Let’s pray.

Father, teach us to live this kind of life. Create in us a new heart, oh God. We have so many bad habits, so many orphan tendencies. We’re children of God, but so often we don’t live like it. We don’t harness the resources of the kingdom of heaven. We don’t metabolize all that’s available to us in Christ. We just limp along through life like orphans when you are offering us a whole new kind of kingdom life.

Create in us a new heart. Draw us close and make us like yourself. We give you every ounce of who we are. Come in. Take over. Demolish and rebuild who we are from the inside out. Make us children who look like you in the kingdom of heaven.

We pray this in Jesus’ beautiful name, Amen.

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