Pastor Kyle Bitter

Text: Romans 12:14-21

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From 2011-2015, ABC produced a TV drama under the title “Revenge.” The show was set in the Hamptons – an extremely wealthy neighborhood on Long Island – and was centered around a woman who had grown up in the neighborhood, but whose family had been falsely accused and forced to leave the area in disgrace when she was a kid. Later in life, she amasses a fortune and the show tells the story of her moving back to her childhood home…to seek revenge on those who had destroyed her family despite her father’s encouragement to forgive and move on. Over the course of the show, viewers watch as this woman befriends her enemies and then manipulates them against one another, using their own selfishness against them as she seeks her revenge and slowly destroys all of their lives. Not really an appealing premise for a TV show in my opinion, but reading the reviews it seems as though many critics found the plot oddly compelling. A phrase that kept coming up in the online reviews I read referred to the show as a “guilty pleasure.” I suppose there’s something appealing about watching someone carry out the kind of vengeance that you might find yourself wishing for even if you know you shouldn’t pursue it yourself. 

Why does the concept of getting revenge have a bit of an appeal, even though we know it’s wrong? I wonder if it’s because there are times in life when the idea of getting revenge seems to satisfy our innate sense of justice and fairness. That sense of justice and fairness is pretty deeply seated in our lives when you start looking for it. It’s not just in TV shows.  You can take your pick of hot-button political or social issues that you see in the news – and when you push the politics aside and dig down to the bottom of it in most cases you’ll find that the controversy is tied to someone’s perception of what would be just, right, and fair. It’s something we find ourselves wanting, and that goes for the less impactful parts of life too. For example, it doesn’t matter what major sport you’re watching – they all have instant replay.  Gotta get the call right. It’s just and fair, and in American society justice and fairness seem to be some of the most important factors to consider in almost any decision. 

While acting in a just and fair way is certainly an ideal to strive after, Jesus is pretty blunt when he says that justice and fairness aren’t always going to be a part of the lives of Christians. Let me read you a few words from today’s gospel again. “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking you tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” (Luke 6:27-31 – NIV84). You look at that and you find yourself asking why? Why should I let people get away with their wickedness? Actions have consequences. Where’s the Justice? 

Because of that, Jesus’ teaching proves to be a difficult way to live. I’m guessing you’ve wrestled with it in your life.  Maybe there was a family member, a classmate, a co-worker, a boss who bullies you or treats you unfairly. Rather than returning the favor, Jesus says, “Pray for those who mistreat you, if someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.” Where’s the Justice?  Maybe there’s been a long-time, strained relationship in your life – a spouse or child or a neighbor – and every time you talk with this person it seems like its constant criticism aimed at you with no apology to be found, and Jesus says, “bless those who curse you.”  They don’t deserve it. Where’s the Justice in that? 

In today’s second lesson, the apostle Paul elaborates on Jesus words from the gospel, but in order to understand what Jesus is teaching, and what Paul is applying to the lives of the Christians in Rome and to our lives today, we have to start by realizing what constitutes justice and fairness when it comes to our relationship with God. That starts with who God is. God is perfect and holy and therefore he is 100% just and fair all of the time. Because of that he cannot welcome into his presence and bestow his blessing upon people who are not holy and perfect. To do so would be a travesty against his perfect justice and holiness.  God cannot pretend that sinfulness doesn’t matter and at the same time remain perfectly just and holy and fair himself. We have gray area in our legal system because no one is perfect, but God’s system is perfectly black and white. Holy, or not holy. Perfect, or not perfect. Nothing in between. Absolute justice. By that standard of justice, it is perfectly fair that God turns his back on those who turn away from him, even in the smallest way.  That’s why God created that terrible place called hell – the one place that God has turned his back on, withholding every blessing and allowing hell and its inhabitants to fester in sinfulness, wickedness and despair for eternity, separated from the power and blessing of God. It’s a terrible place, but it’s also a very just and fair place. This is what happens to unholiness. 

Under that standard, it would be perfectly just and fair for God to allow every one of us to proceed along our natural pathway of sinfulness, all the way to hell. It would be perfectly fair for God to sit by and watch this natural justice serve itself, but God didn’t. He intervened. He sent Jesus to face the terrors of hell in our place. And that changes everything. The real injustice in the world isn’t that some people seem to “get away with it” and don’t seem to suffer for their wrongdoing. The real injustice isn’t that some people end up better off than others from a human perspective than others. The real injustice is that we don’t have to suffer the punishment we deserve. Jesus did that for us. 

And so unfair though it might have seemed, we were able to sing the refrain of today’s psalm. “I will hear what the Lord proclaims, peace to his people!”  Peace of mind, in knowing that Jesus suffered what we justly deserve and now we don’t have to be afraid of God. Peace of conscience in knowing that our guilt can be put aside, because no matter how times we’ve turned away from God, the payment for our sins has been paid. Where is Justice?  Ultimately, it’s found at the cross, where every single one of us receives the same undeserved gift – a full and free pardon in place of a well-deserved sentence to be punished in hell. 

Justice among God’s People

In today’s second lesson, Paul shows us how incredibly different life looks when it’s lived in the shadow of God’s justice at the cross. Consider some of the natural reactions we might have in our interactions with one another. When you see someone experiencing something difficult, have you ever heard a little voice in the back of your mind saying, “I wonder what she did to deserve that?” Or, when you see someone enjoying a major run of success in life, have you found yourself thinking, “I wonder what corners he cut to accomplish that?” Or, “look at what that person did. I’m glad I’m not like that!” As easy as it is to have sinful reactions like those, consider how they change when look at life with God’s justice at the cross in mind, admitting that we all deserve nothing, and yet God in his grace gives us everything. Paul describes the beautiful attitude that results from such thinking: "Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.” (Romans 12:14-16 – NIV84). God’s justice served at the cross levels the playing field among God’s people, we all deserve the same punishment, and we all receive the same mercy, and so we are free to treat one another with kindness and compassion, offering encouragement and support as we all rejoice in the same spiritual blessing from God. There’s no need to ask, Where’s the Justice, because we know we already have far more than we deserve!     

Justice in the World

And for as big of an impact as that can have on our relationship with each other, Paul points out that Jesus leveling the playing field has an even bigger impact when it comes to your relationship with society at large! Paul describes it like this,“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.” (Romans 12:17-19 – NIV84)

Where’s the Justice?  It’s in God’s hands, and that is the best place for it to be when you consider our mission as Christians. God’s point here isn’t that his people should be punching bags for everyone else to beat up on whenever they want. He isn’t telling us that we are supposed to sit by and allow ourselves to be taken advantage of. No, God is simply reminding us to keep perspective – to filter all of our interactions in life through God’s justice displayed at the cross, realizing that we all start with the same problem and look to the same Savior. We are on the same level as any other person we meet, no matter what their background might be. From that perspective, we can see that our desire to experience justice and fairness during life right now is not at the top of the list of important things for God’s people. Our mission as children of God is to tell people about Jesus – to show them what God’s justice is – the cross. And what clearer way could there be to do that than by modeling what Jesus did by showing kindness to someone who doesn’t deserve it? When people are unkind, they know it’s fair to be treated in the same way in return. What a surprise, then, when their wickedness is returned with kindness!  Using a proverb, Paul points out what the result might be:“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Romans 12:20 – NIV84). The point isn’t a roundabout way to get revenge.  Paul’s describing the shame that comes when your kindness shows a person just how unkindly they behaved by comparison. Perhaps, burning with such shame, your enemy might wonder what motivates such unexpected kindness, and in the process, they might find out about their Savior. 

Paul concludes this section by summarizing the whole concept of what Jesus teaches with these words:“Do not be overcome by evil (don’t be sucked into the worldly pursuit of well-deserved revenge) but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21 – NIV84). Use the wickedness of other people around to demonstrate the same kind of love that Jesus showed to you and me. It’s certainly not easy, but it’s a beautiful reflection of our Savior.  May God give us the insight to see these opportunities when they present themselves.  May he give us that strength we need to push back against our natural desire for revenge and model instead our Savior’s love. And, if it is God’s will, may he allow us to see what great things he can accomplish through the kind words and actions of God’s people before a watching world. May God allow us to see the joy that comes when another person comes to understand God’s justice at the cross.  Amen.