The First Sunday after Epiphany January 10, 2016
44, 388, 381, 262(1,3)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion. Repay no one 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 is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In Christ Jesus, dear fellow-redeemed:
In the old western movies the battles were clear cut. The good guys wore white hats, the bad guys black, and good always triumphed over evil. That was movie fiction. Reality is seldom that simple.
Reality tells us that there is a battle between good and evil. The reality of that battle is in ourselves when we see with the Apostle Paul the good we want to do is what we don’t do and the evil that we don’t want to do is the very thing we keep doing (cf. Romans 7).
The reality of the battle is also evident in the world around us. As we observe the evil in the world, we notice that it isn’t always painted in black so that it is easy for everyone to recognize. We cringe to see many embrace evil as a friend instead of fleeing from it as an enemy. These realities of sin are what the hymn writer describes as being “tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within, without” (TLH 388:3).
GOOD AND EVIL ARE AT WAR. They will continue to do battle on many fronts for as long as this earth exists. Each will lose some of those battles and each will win some, but in the end ONLY ONE WILL WIN the final victory and the war.
There is no question as to which of these two opponents we want to win in our personal lives as well as for others. Today we consider how the Lord guides us to victory. To each of His children He says, I. Overcome evil in yourself and II. Overcome evil in the world. We ask for the Spirit’s blessing on our meditation.
When Paul wrote his letter to Rome he was writing to Christians who lived in a society that was shamefully similar to much of our own. The Roman empire ruled the world and its citizens enjoyed luxurious prosperity, but internal decay of a godless sort was already evident and would ultimately bring the empire’s collapse.
The Christians found themselves in the middle of this decaying society. Like waves of the ocean gradually eroding the beaches of an island, Paul well understood the dangers for a child of God being surrounded by the world’s wickedness. To the Christians, Paul wrote, “Do not be conquered by evil but conquer it” (cf. v. 21).
Our text is a slice out of a larger section in which Paul gives instruction concerning how to live God-pleasing, Christian lives and to conquer evil. He begins the larger section by saying, “I beseech you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God…” (Romans 12:1).
Very importantly, notice how Paul, before he ever speaks about presenting your body as a living sacrifice, begins by saying how to do it: “by the mercies of God.” A successful campaign against evil has to begin and end with Gods mercy because apart from that we are just evil—born in sin, dead in sin, lost in sin. By God’s grace and mercy the battle against sin and evil has already been fought and won. Jesus did everything that was necessary to conquer sin, death, and the Devil when He died on the cross. Before dying He declared, “It stands finished for all time, the battle has been won,” (cf. John 19:30) and then He sealed that victory when He rose from the grave Easter morning.
The victory that Jesus won over sin comes to each of us personally through faith. The victory which the Holy Spirit gave to us when He created faith in our hearts is ours just as surely as it is Christ’s. Through Christ, you already have overcome sin and every evil.
Overcoming evil in your self is not a question of how to accomplish victory, rather, it is how do we apply victory to our lives? How will we put this victory through Christ into action so that His victory will remain living and active in our hearts as we daily conquer our sinful nature that continues to live within us?
“Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own eyes” (v. 16). Paul’s concern was to maintain peace and unity in the Roman congregation. To that end he encouraged them to regard one another in the same way and to maintain a unity in their purpose, their faith, and their Christian concern for one another. In his warnings against what they should not do, Paul reveals what lurks in the heart of every sinner.
Human arrogance goes its own way and sets its mind on proud thoughts and its own goodness. The pride of our natures always knows best and will gladly exalt itself over anything or anyone who says otherwise. The self-wisdom that we by nature follow seeks to serve only itself. The more our sinful self gains the upper hand, the greater role pride, selfishness, and self-indulgence will play in our lives. Under these conditions, being “of one mind toward one another” becomes impossible, dissension and strife arise. The mind that is wise in its own eyes and is left unchecked will soon stop at nothing to serve its own end and fulfill its own desire.
The solution that Paul offers is: “do not set your mind on the high things of human arrogance, but instead associate with the humble.”
If we are wise in our own opinion and turn to that wisdom for everything we do, sin will be the result; but it is hard to become wise in one’s own opinion when we associate with humility and remember that we are but dust. We will overcome the evils of our sinful pride and lusts when we dwell on God’s wisdom and remember the mercies of our God who has freely given so much. Proverbs tells us, “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and depart from evil. It will be health to your flesh and strength to your bones” (Proverbs 3:7-8).
Another villain that is in each of us waiting to exploit an opportunity to work evil is anger. God’s wisdom in Proverbs tells us, “A wise man fears and departs from evil, but a fool rages and is self-confident” (Proverbs 14:16); and in James, “...the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).
“Ah! but I don’t get mad, I get even!” Grudges, silent treatment, and revenge of any kind are all fruits of anger. Vengeance is nothing more than a lasting anger put into action. “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it stands written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (v. 19). When anger rises within us we could feed the fire of that anger and let it grow with the potential to consume us with bitterness and hatred until it bursts out into some kind of revenge. God says, give place to anger and put it away before it can grow and accomplish some evil.
Again, the way to overcome this evil is to remember the mercies of God. Oh, how disastrous it would be if God were to hold His anger against us because of our sins. Rather, He is our forgiving Father who by His mercy through the redemption in Christ Jesus washes our sins away so that there is no more for which to be angry.
We call to mind Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant whose huge debt was removed but was so ungrateful that he refused to dismiss the small debt of his fellow servant (cf. Matthew 18:21ff). No matter what someone might do against us and no matter how wrong that person might be, there simply is no room for revenge in the heart that rejoices in the complete forgiveness it has from God.
God has made revenge completely unnecessary. There is no need to “get even” for some earthly advantage because God promises to take care of your earthly needs; and as far as earthly fame, glory, and wealth are concerned they aren’t our true treasure anyway. When Joseph’s brothers feared his revenge for selling him into slavery, he told them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me but God meant it for good in order to bring it about as it is this day to save many people alive” (Genesis 50:19-20).
Nor is there any need to “get even” so that justice will be served. Wickedness will not go on forever without consequence, but the consequence it receives is God’s to decide. God will see to that through the normal processes of His representatives—the authorities on earth—or in other ways as He sees fit.
Pride, sinful desires, anger, are all part of our natural selves that produce the evil in our lives that we wish to overcome. There are other parts to our sinful selves and weaknesses that produce other sins in our lives. Each of us knows these flaws within us and if we begin to forget what they look like we need only look into the mirror of God’s Law.
Don’t be overcome by the evil of your sinful self but overcome that evil with good. The only good that has and will continue to overcome evil is the merciful goodness of God. Remember the mercies of God and what those mercies have accomplished through the work of Christ—not simply remembering what those mercies are, but remembering what they mean to you personally, what that mercy led Christ to do for you, namely, offer Himself for your sin. Overcome evil in your self by soaking your heart, soul, and mind in the Gospel, having your sins washed away in the blood of Christ through faith, and applying that good news of salvation to every aspect of your life.
Overcoming evil in our selves by applying the Gospel is one thing, but there is still plenty of evil to go around in the world. Paul gives direction as to how to overcome that evil too. “Repay no one 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” (vv.17-18).
There is only so much that we can do about the evil that surrounds us. We cannot convert the hearts of sinners, but we can preach the Gospel and that does have the power to convert. We can’t stop our neighbor from doing evil against us, but we can curb the situation by not adding evil on top of evil.
David provides an example of a God-pleasing approach to evil. King Saul became jealous of David and tried to take David’s life. David, however, did not plot revenge or seek a way to do evil against Saul. Instead, David repaid good for Saul’s evil and continued to come and play the harp for Saul when an evil spirit troubled him. Later, David would not kill God’s anointed king even though he had the opportunity to do so and Saul was hunting him.
On the other hand, there is a modern example of a displeasing approach to evil. Soon we will mark another anniversary of the Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion in our country. The legalized murder of babies is an unspeakable evil that is sadly considered a “right.” Over the years, some have sought to avenge these infant deaths by harming those who perform abortions and destroying the places where they work. Repaying evil for evil is not the way to overcome evil. Vengeance belongs to God. Exercising evil in return for evil only amplifies and promotes it.
Though we cannot of ourselves keep peace in the world, we can keep our selves from becoming the center of the storm. To the extent that the events around us hinge on our words and actions, we can control the fostering of evil in the world and thereby live peaceably with all people.
There is a purpose to living peaceably as much as it depends on us. It is the same purpose as Paul explains to Timothy, “Therefore, I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, and for kings and all who are in authority that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
Both living peaceably with all people and praying for those who are in authority on the earth, serve toward a quiet and peaceful life on earth. That peace is a blessing for the personal lives of God’s children and it also promotes an easier and wider spread of the Gospel, which means more sinners will be brought to repentance and salvation in Christ, which will mean more individuals overcoming evil in their own lives by the mercies of God, which will serve to an even greater peace and still more messengers to spread the Gospel, which will call more and more sinners to salvation...and so it snow balls from there bringing ever more souls into God’s kingdom which is the desire and goal of our gracious and merciful God.
Our approach to the evil in the world is part of our Gospel witness to the world. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head” (v. 20). If we repay evil with evil we’re no different than the world. If, however, we show good to those who do evil against us, their conscience will ignite, then guilt and shame will burn within them. They may shut their conscience down, ignore it, and continue in their wickedness and unbelief; or their guilty conscience may awaken them to their guilt and they may, like the jailer at Philippi ask you, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). Then there is an open door for the Gospel of salvation.
As we go about our daily lives overcoming evil in the world by repaying evil with good, we do need to be careful that the coals of fire we seek to heap on the heads of others do not simply become another version of revenge. Our motive in dealing kindly with those who are evil against us is not to “make them feel good ’n guilty about what they did and that’ll teach them!” Rather, our motive is to open a door of opportunity through which we can present the Savior of sin—ours and theirs—and show them our gracious conqueror over sin and death.
There are many people who deplore the evil in the world and cry out about the need to overcome it. Overcoming the wickedness in the world is in our best interest as well, first for our work of spreading the Gospel to others, but also for our own souls. We come back to being that island surrounded by this sinful world. Knowing our weaknesses we sadly realize that the more those waves slosh against us, the greater is the danger that part of the island will wash away. The more that sinfulness is flaunted in the world, the more callous to sin even believers become. Can any of us say that the misuse of God’s name, murder, adultery and other sinful acts in the world offend us as much now as they once did?
The many people who deplore the wickedness in the world are also engaged in trying to overcome it. Unfortunately, the majority are using the wrong weapon. When a common cold strikes the body we can take medicine to ease the aches, the congestion, and the coughing, but the bottom line is that until the immune system destroys the virus, we are still sick. If those who work toward overcoming evil in the world do so only by speaking against sin as it shows up in sinful actions, and the only solution they suggest is to somehow curb those actions, then they are only treating the symptoms and the virus lives on.
Satan will be more than happy to have a drop in the abortion rate by means of birth control, just as long as the sinful desires and fornication live on without repentance. Satan will be quite willing to have a drop in the murder rate, just so long as self-promoting hatred thrives without stop. Satan will be glad to let prayers ring out throughout the land and will even tolerate outbreaks of morality, just as long as the prayers are to a generic god and the morality is followed because of pressure or as a way to earn reward.
The only way to truly make inroads in overcoming the evil in the world is to treat the source which is sin. That treatment cannot be done without the full truth of God’s Word.
We will be God’s servants in overcoming evil in the world when we identify sin in the way God identifies it in His Word—when we warn against sin, rebuke it in the unbelieving world, and evangelically correct and restore Christian brothers and sisters who fall into it.
We will overcome evil when we proclaim God’s denouncement of sin together with His pronouncement of grace and forgiveness through Christ.
We will overcome evil when we proclaim whatever word from God an individual needs to hear and show how God’s mercy and grace and Christ’s victory is applies to him—including when that individual is our own selves.
We overcome evil in the world by proclaiming the mercies of God—why we need them and what they are. Nothing else can do it.
Remembering God’s mercies for ourselves and proclaiming them to others will overcome evil but it will not create a utopia of perfection here on earth. Evil will continue and the battle between good and evil in our life of faith will wage on. If the struggle stops, then sin has won; but as long as the struggle remains we are still in the fight and with our Lord we will in the end overcome, win the entire war, and celebrate the victory in eternal life. “In the world,” Jesus says, you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57). Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.