Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Text: Matthew 5:38-39
"You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.í But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too".

People of grace

A despondent woman was walking along the beach when she saw a bottle on the sand. She picked it up and pulled out the cork. Whoosh! A big puff of smoke appeared. A genie told her. "I am able to grant you three wishes. But take care, for with each wish, your husband will receive double of whatever you request."
"Why?" the woman asked. "That bum left me for another woman."
"That is how it is written," replied the genie.

The woman thinking that this whole deal wasn't fair nevertheless thought she would take advantage of the offer.
"For my first wish, I would like a million dollars", the woman asked. There was a flash of light, and a million dollars appeared at her feet. At the same instant, in a far-off place, her wayward husband looked down to see twice that amount at his feet.

"And your second wish?"
"Genie, I want the worldís most expensive diamond necklace." Another flash of light, and the woman was holding the precious treasure. And, faraway, her husband received two expensive diamond necklaces.

"Genie, is it really true that my sneaky, low-down, conniving creep of a husband has two million dollars and more jewels than I do and that he gets double of whatever I wish for?"
The genie said it was indeed true. "Okay, genie, Iím ready for my last wish," the woman said.
"Scare me half to death."

Revenge, getting back lies deep within the human spirit. The need for retaliation isnít something that God built into humans when he created the first man and woman Ė after all God had made people to be like him Ė created in his image. The desire to get back when someone wrongs us arises from the evil in the human heart that believes that "an eye for an eye" is the only way to teach the offender a lesson and deal out the kind of justice that is logical and deserving.

Getting back Ė revenge Ė retaliation can be found in a school yard, among neighbours, among members of a family, between political parties and between countries.

In the Old Testament, the law of the land was to give back equally what you received. If someone took your cow, you could rightfully take his lamb. If your fence was broken, you didnít ask the person responsible to repair it, you simply broke his fence. If a neighbourís boy threw a rock and took out your childís tooth, you were obligated to knock the other kidís tooth out. If a pregnant woman is seriously injured by two men fighting and she miscarries, (to use the words Exodus 21:23) "the payment will be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, cut for cut, and bruise for bruise". The Old Testament law of retaliation was intended to prescribe fair punishment but it soon became the justification for giving back as much or even better than you received.

Jesus words, "If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too" must have raised quite a few eyebrows as people asked, "What do you mean, Jesus?
Does that mean we stop striking back, even though we and the people around us believe thatís the right thing to do?
Is Jesus challenging us to stop the whole retaliation cycle and seek only peace when we are attacked?
Is Jesus saying that instead of getting back we offer peace and forgiveness to the offender? The answer is "yes."

On the other hand we have to ask, is Jesus saying that there is no need for the law courts to pass judgement on crime and to make the punishment fit the crime? Of course not!
Is Jesus giving permission for the perpetrators of crime, violence and abuse to keep on slapping their victims? No! Quite the opposite. Jesus is calling everyone involved in any sort of violence and retaliation either in thought, word or deed to be a peacemaker Ė to step out of their comfort zone and find ways to bring about reconciliation and harmony.

These words of Jesus are just as radical today. Seldom do we see anyone turn the other cheek in this competitive, conflicted world of ours. Road rage is a 21st century example of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Gangs and violence go hand in hand, and when one brother is killed in a gang war, there is certain to be revenge the next night.
When marriages end, the feuding spouses will stop at nothing so they can feel vindicated and victorious in divorce courts.
We hear of Australian soldiers being killed by home-made explosive devices in Afghanistan and Iraq Ė revenge for the injustice of outsiders taking over their country.
Watch the news or a TV show like Judge Judy and you will see people at their worst carrying out the principle of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth".

Do we enjoy being in conflict with neighbours, or spouses, or nations or adversaries? Do we relish the bickering and fighting? I expect we would say, "No, we donít really like it at all".
Then why do we do it?
Why do we continue to fight and attack and insult and avenge?
"Because he hit me first. Because she started it. Because itís their fault."

There is no happiness in this kind of behaviour no matter who claims to be in the right and how much the other side is accused of wrong-doing. One slap leads to another in return and that leads to even harder slap the next time round and so the situation starts to escalate to something that is far bigger than the original cause. Getting back leads to just more getting back.

As adult Christians we know that. We teach our children to not get back. We promote the idea of making peace when others offend us, but you know as well as I do that as soon as something happens that really hurts us or we think that we have been unjustly treated, there is that something inside of us that just wants to retaliate.
It is there in our thoughts, "If only I could give him/her some of the same medicine".
It is there in the way we run down the offender to others or speak unkindly to the person directly.
Itís there in the way we break relationships, ignore people, decide to have nothing more to do with a particular person, give them "a piece of our mind" or even find ways to get back in a physical way.
It happens right here in the community of the church and in the sacredness of our homes.

When Jesus says, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" he is not asking for something that is just a pious wish Ė he is deadly serious. He is challenging every one of his listeners to turn the other cheek. What if every Christian took seriously Jesusí words to show love and kindness and grace and became convinced that Jesusí call is one to each of us personally and so began to live our lives that way? Our lives would be changed. The world would be changed. We would see the burden of conflict and revenge lifted and we would indeed be blessed. As Jesus said (my version), "Full of divine joy and truly blessed are the peacemakers, those who step out of their comfort zone to bring about reconciliation and newness, for they will be called children of God."

Jesus throws down a further challenge. "Why should God reward you if you only love those who love you? Ö And if you speak only to your friends, have you done anything out of the ordinary?" But thatís what we do. We donít waste our energy loving those who donít like us or talk to people with whom we donít get on very well. The challenge is always the same. "You are a people of God's grace so be God's grace to the people around you".

Most likely there is not one person here today who finds Jesusí Sermon on the Mount easy to swallow. And when Jesus highlights our deep desire to get back at the people who offend us and tells us that this is not God's way of dealing with those who donít like us, we realise just how much we need God's forgiving grace and his Holy Spirit to guide us and help us to learn and relearn that the way we deal with others should be the same as the way God has dealt with us sinners.

It is true that in this life we can never be perfect as God in heaven is perfect but Jesus is urging us to bearers of God's love, grace and mercy to the people in our lives. Even though at times this will be far from perfect, nevertheless the Holy Spirit can use us to make a difference in our world; we can be lights in the darkness of a world where revenge and retaliation are so prominent.

Corrie Ten Boon tells this story. "It was a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the Nazi processing centre at Ravensbruck. Suddenly it all came back to me - the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, pain-blanched face of my sister Betsie.

He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. "How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein," he said. "To think that he has washed my sins away!" His hand was thrust out to shake mine.

I stood there for what seemed an eternity with the coldness clutching my heart. Forgiveness is not an emotion. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.

I tried to smile. I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so I breathed a silent prayer. ĎJesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgivenessí. ĎÖ I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.í

As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened - into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that brought tears to my eyes. For a long moment we grasped each otherís hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known Godís love so intensely, as I did then.

And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the worldís healing hinges, but on Godís. When he tells us to love our enemies, he gives, along with the command, the love itself".

Letís make it our prayer that God would give us the will to walk away from a fight; the ability to love our enemies, the desire to go the extra mile to bring about peace. Sometimes our efforts are half-hearted, are lacking in feeling and something we donít want to do but we do it anyway, like Corrie ten Boon. Be prepared to be surprised when God passes on his grace and forgiveness through us.  To do that at home, at school, at church, among friends is to take part in Godís kingdom right now in our everyday life. Letís be a people of grace today and we will all know what it means to filled with divine joy.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
20th February 2011

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