10th Sunday After Pentecost August 5, 2012
1 Kings 19:4-8
24, 347, 392, 411(5-7)
Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.
Little children imitate their parents. It has been observed, for example, that infants, even just a few minutes after birth, will mimic the facial expressions of a mother or father. And, of course, as they grow up, our children will most often “do what we do.” They will respect the things we respect. They will despise the things we despise. For better or for worse, they will follow us, imitating our every move.
Since we are God’s children by faith in Christ Jesus, it is natural for us too to imitate our Father who is in Heaven. The Apostle Paul in His letter to the Ephesians expresses this thought when he writes: “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children.” [5:1]
Can we imitate God in every way? Of course not. God’s power and ability are beyond our reach. We cannot do as He does when He sets the stars in their courses or when He provides for and sustains His whole creation. We cannot do as He does when He stretches out His hand to calm a storm or carry out some other great miracle. Nevertheless the Bible points to several areas where we should strive to mimic our Creator.
Children will often talk a lot like their parents. They will use the same vocabulary and sentences that their parents use. Their speech patterns will be similar. In the same way, as God’s children, we want to imitate God’s way of speaking.
What is God’s way of speaking? It is obvious that God’s way of speaking does not include the sinful cursing and needless swearing that sometimes marks our speech. When He spoke to Moses or to Abraham or to any of the other prophets, do you think He laced His talk with profanity or misused His own holy name, throwing it around carelessly like any other interjection?
Of course, the talk that comes out of God’s mouth is pure and righteous, but there is more to understand about God’s speech than the simple fact that it is not gutter language. There is also this: The words that come from God’s mouth are words that are helpful for building others up according to their needs.
When God speaks there is a purpose to His talk and that purpose is to build others up, to guide, strengthen, and uphold them on their journey through this life toward the life to come. In the Old Testament lesson today we heard about Elijah the prophet who had curled up under a juniper tree and asked the Lord to take His life. God instead answered, “Get up and eat.” Later on, God used His words to bring Elijah out of his depression, telling him that his work as a prophet was not for nothing. God’s loving, prodding, and encouraging talk built Elijah up, strengthened him in his soul just as food from God strengthened his body. When God speaks, His speech builds up, it does not tear down.
Sometimes when God talks, people don't like what He says, especially if it is Law telling what to do or what not to do. When the Lord thundered at Mount Sinai and smoke and lightning were upon the mountain, the people were afraid and they did not want God to speak His commandments to them any longer. Yet even then God’s talking was for the good of Israel—they needed to know their sins so that their faith in the coming Savior would not be destroyed because of them.
God speaks to us according to our needs for the purpose of building us up. To the one feeling a little too self-righteous, His speech reveals man’s sin and the need for Christ’s forgiveness. To the one sorrowing over His guilt, God speaks comforting words of mercy. To the one wandering down the path of unrighteousness, God calls, inviting him back to the fold.
When the Apostle tells us to be imitators of God he says: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” [4:29 NIV] If the things we say are not things that are helpful for building someone up, then they need to be left unsaid.
This is hard for us. Sometimes we feel such a strong urge to talk about someone else behind his back, or to run him down in front of others, that the speech just tumbles out of our mouths. It can even become such a habit that we hardly realize we are doing it. How terrible our tongues can be. They can be like little swords that cut other people up and down. In the book of James God says: “No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8 NIV).
When our speech tears someone else down rather than builds him up, this is not imitating God. In fact, this grieves the Holy Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit is that person of the Godhead whose special work it is to call sinners to faith in Jesus, to build them up in the faith, and to keep them strong until the end. The Spirit is the greatest of all “builders” we might say. So while He is busy trying to strengthen others, it is not right for us to be busy tearing them down. That grieves Him. It makes Him sad.
You are God’s children. He has spoken to you with words that have built you up to be believers in what the death of His Son Jesus has accomplished for you. The Spirit has sealed you for your redemption. With His speech, God has made known to you your very salvation. What a privilege that you can imitate Him in your talk—building others up too!
Now not only in speech, but also in action we can be imitators of God, doing as He does. The Apostle writes to the Ephesians particularly about the act of forgiving one another.
Our sinful human nature cringes at any mention of forgiveness. It instead likes to keep a record of wrongs and hold it against all those who do us harm. We all know how difficult it can be not to hold a grudge against someone. When we are wronged we want to fight back. When we are hurt by another, we are tempted to pay back evil for evil and fairly often we give in to that temptation while in the process becoming as guilty as the one who wronged us.
Sometimes in our minds we even try to justify our actions. We might continue nursing a grudge toward someone because we tell ourselves “he never said he was sorry” or because we think “I have a right to be angry for what was done to me.” But where does God say you have a right to be angry? Where does God say that you should return evil behavior done to you with more evil behavior? Scripture says “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” [4:31 NIV] That doesn’t just go for those who hurt you, it goes for you. If someone sins against us, that does not give us the right to give him the “cold shoulder” or treat him in an unloving way. Instead, we are to rid ourselves of our bitterness.
The Apostle Paul mentions five things that seem to follow one upon the other. First, he mentions bitterness, which is an attitude of the heart. Bitterness turns into rage which then shows itself in outward anger. That leads to brawling—raising of the voices—and slander—speaking hateful lies about others. One or all of these things make their appearance when we fail to forgive one another. So finally, Paul says, “Just get rid of it all. Get rid of all malice.”
Grudge-holding has no place among God’s children for that is not how God has treated us. Our text urges us to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” [v.4:32] When God sent His Son to the cross to pay our debt of guilt, He did so while we were yet sinners. Imagine how much real evil and wickedness we have all done before God—yet in Christ, the Lord found a way to satisfy divine justice and release us from the crushing weight of our sin. Because of Jesus, the Father in Heaven does not hold a grudge against us. He does not insist on anything from us—no reparation, no payback. We are forgiven.
So how can we imitate God? By being careful how we react and respond to those who sin against us. If we respond to a person’s evil by thinking, “I hate you. I never want anything to do with you again,” then are we imitating God? Certainly not! If we respond with a forgiving attitude and then do what we can to help the other person get right with God too—then we are on the road to being “kind and compassionate to one another.” We hope that getting rid of our own grudges would lead our neighbor to appreciate Christ’s forgiveness—which is the forgiveness that really matters.
I am sure the LORD is stunned and disappointed by the way we humans sometimes handle our arguments. So often when we are hurt or wronged by others our answer is to say, “I just won’t have anything to do with them anymore.” But that’s not at all how Scripture says to handle it. When I have been wronged by someone, it is my duty not to hold that wrong against him. It doesn’t matter if he asks my pardon or not—that makes no difference. I insist on nothing in return when I am wronged, as Jesus said to His disciples “If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic” (Luke 6:29 NIV). Arguments and quarrels will melt away, for where there are no grudges being held, there is simply no fuel for the fires of discontent and anger.
Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children. Do as God has done for you—both in your speech and in the way you show forgiveness toward one another. We pray that God pardon our past mistakes for the sake of His dear Son and help us by His Spirit to guide us in our futures. Amen.
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