Fifth Sunday After Epiphany February 6, 2000
12, 339, 395, 134
Do not repay evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. ‘Therefore if your enemy hungers, feed him; If he thirsts, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ These are the words.
In the name of Jesus Christ, Who forgives us and bids us forgive others, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
Have you noticed?—An old type of movie is coming back into style. It’s the type of film where an evil villain does something terrible, but a brave, strong hero eventually catches up with him and makes him pay for it in the end. The characters are all different these days, of course. The heroes of the silver screen used to be John Wayne and Roy Rogers; now they’re Arnold Schwarzenegar and Clint Eastwood. But the plot’s pretty much the same. The bad guy always does something so cruel and inhuman that, by the end of the movie, we’re glad to see him destroyed by the hero. We think to ourselves, “Boy, that guy’s really got it coming!”
That’s what a lot of these new action movies are about—justice, a pay-back, revenge. And I wonder, sometimes, whether they don’t help to shape our own ideas of justice and fair play. Perhaps we even dream about who sweet it would be to get a little movie-star justice of our won. You know—to strike out at our enemies, especially the ones that have “really had it coming” for a long time. Yes—sweet revenge! As the bumper sticker says, “Don’t get mad, get even!”
Our text today is about revenge and justice—God’s idea of justice. It may be a little hard for us to swallow, because God’s justice isn’t anything like movie-star justice. His standard of justice is a wonderful thing, because He uses it to save us. But it’s a difficult thing, too, because God expects us to use the same standard when we deal with our neighbor. This morning consider the theme:
Usually, when we’re watching those movies, we tend to identify with the hero, don’t we? We like to put ourselves in his place, imagine ourselves as “the good guy.” But today I want you to imagine yourself in the role of the villain. And it’s not make-believe, either, because according to the Bible, there are no “good guys” among the children of men. Every single descendant of Adam—including each one of us—is by nature sinful. Paul tells us that “…through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.”—Rom 5:12.
“…Death spread to all men.” Like a disease, the sinful nature of humanity has been passed along from parents to their children, right down to the present generation. I’ve got the disease, and so do you. It’s a sickness that’s worse even than the AIDS virus which is sweeping the globe. Yes, AIDS is incurable; it leads, sooner or later, to the death of the person who has it. But sin, IF LEFT UNTREATED, always leads to the death not only of the body—but to the eternal death of the soul! Scripture is very clear about that; it says, simply, “The wages of sin is death.” Rom 6:23. This is the disease you were born with. It’s the disease whose symptoms crop up every day in your life—every time an unkind word passes your lips or an impure though crosses your mind. You are a sinner. Deny that, says John in his first epistle, and you’re only fooling yourself!
So let’s be truthful about things. Ask yourself, “Who really deserved the punishment for sin? Who really had it coming to him?” You did, but God let you off the hook! God came up with an alternate plan. A plan to lift the guilt of sin off your shoulders. Paul says that it was a plan so wonderful that no one could ever have guessed it, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”—I Cor 2:9. God’s plan was to take the guilt and punishment of your sin, and lay it on the shoulders of another, the shoulders of His own Son, Jesus Christ.
Here is God’s strange and wonderful justice. Punish Jesus for sin? Why, Jesus was the only man in the history of the world who didn’t deserve it! The Bible describes Him as “a lamb without blemish and without spot.” Jesus once looked around at a group of hostile Jews and asked them, “Which of you convicts ME of sin?”—Jn 8:46. They couldn’t answer Him, of course, because He had no sin. Jesus was the one Person who didn’t have it coming…but God punished Him anyway! God’s righteous anger over sin—your sin and my sin!—had to fall somewhere, so He let if fall like a devouring bolt of fire upon His Son. All the pain, the punishment, the agonies of hell tore at the our Savior’s body as he suffered for us on the cross. He made the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice of His own precious blood, in order to solve the problem of our sin once and for all. In I Peter 3 we read, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit.”—I Pet 3:18.
It was a strange justice—setting us free from the punishment of sin, and laying that punishment on Jesus. I truly believe that when you and I meet again in heaven, we’ll be rejoicing for endless ages over this strange justice of God’s. In the meantime, though, God wants us to imitate this justice in the way we treat the people around us. Situations come up in your life when you’re treated unfairly by others. Times when you find yourself the object of hatred, or gossip, or just plain dirty dealing. What then? Movie-star justice tells you to get even. God tells you to have mercy!
Our text says, “Do not repay evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men.” This is just the OPPOSITE of the way our society tells us to act. Have you ever heard of “Assertiveness Training?” It’s sort of a craze in the larger cities these days. You go to classes to learn how to stick up for yourself and demand attention. They teach you how to get what’s coming to you; also, how to make sure the people you don’t like get what’s coming to them!
Scripture gives us a different picture of what a Christian should be like. “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus said, “for they shall inherit the earth.” In another place He said, “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.” That doesn’t mean that you should never defend yourself; or that you have to be some kind of spineless milquetoast in order to be a Christian. Just the opposite—it takes a lot of backbone to rise above the petty jealousies and conflicts that whirl around us in our society. To behave with courtesy and patience and kindness is a tremendous task in this day and age! And Paul admits that, sometimes, it’s not even possible to avoid a conflict! But, he says, “…if it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.”
And he goes on, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Revenge wasn’t meant to be a part of the Christian vocabulary. God tells us simply to leave that to Him. But God’s standard of justice can be pretty hard to live up to. One thing I’ve noticed about people is that they have long memories when it comes to insults, real or imagined. I’ve heard people speak bitterly about wrongs their neighbors did to them twenty years ago, or longer! They still harbor bad feelings, after all this time, and sometimes I get the impression that they’d jump at the chance to give a little of their own back in return. I can almost hear them say it—“After all, he’s got it coming after what he did to me!”
Are you nurturing any grudges like that? Catch yourself, before it goes any farther! That’s not the way God treated you—remember? He let you off the hook, for Jesus’ sake. Can you do less than that for your neighbor? Paul said, “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also should do.” Col 3:12-13. If we can learn from God the art of forgiveness and mercy, Scripture promises we’ll end up with a lot more satisfaction, and we may just do our neighbor a world of good to boot!
“Therefore if your enemy hungers,” our text says, “feed him; If he thirsts, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” A true story is told about two ranchers whose land was separated by a shallow river. One day when the corn fields were just about ready for harvest, the cows of one neighbor got out of the pasture and crossed the river into the other neighbor’s corn. They slashed and ruined several acres. The man who owned the damaged corn rounded up the cattle and put them in his barn. He demanded that his neighbor pay for every ear of corn that was destroyed, and then made him pay a hefty price to get his cattle back. Later that fall, the situation was reversed. The hogs of the man whose corn had been eaten got out and crossed the river into his neighbor’s potato patch. They just about destroyed it. When the fellow looked out and saw the hogs in his patch, he calmly took them back across the river to the barn where they belonged. The owner saw them coming, got his gun, and hid himself with the promise that if his neighbor harmed the hogs, he would shoot him. When he saw that he had no intention of hurting the hogs, he was surprised. He came out from where he was hiding and asked, “What in the world made you do this, after the way I treated you?” The other replied simply, “It was the Christian thing to do.” This response amazed the man…and it also make him curious. Before long, he and his wife were Christians too.
That man had some coals of fire heaped on his head—the Christian behavior of his neighbor left him burning with shame. But it also lit a fire in him that didn’t go out until he found the grace of God, too. God grant that all of us may adopt the Lord’s methods of justice, forgiving as we have been forgiven, showing mercy where God has been merciful to us, reflecting the kindness that gleams in our Savior’s love for us. What have we Christians got coming to us? We’ve got eternal life coming to us—God grant that we may share that life with others, as well! AMEN.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.