Sermon delivered on Trinity 17B, Sunday, September 27, 2015 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Esther 7.1-6, 9-10, 9.20-22; Psalm 124.1-7; James 5.13-20; Mark 9.38-50.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
How many of you got a little uncomfortable with our OT lesson this morning with its description of celebrating and rejoicing over the death of another? Or how many of you, upon hearing the story, reacted with some guilty pleasure. A bad dude got his. The good guys won. Yes! But aren’t we supposed to forgive our enemies and pray for them, even if they are out to destroy us? If you had one of these reactions—and I suspect if we are really honest with ourselves most of us did—you are not alone. You are dealing with a vexing issue for many Christians: how to balance justice and mercy. This is what I want us to look at this morning.
In our OT lesson we witness the culmination of a gripping drama made even more remarkable by the fact that God is never mentioned throughout the entire book of Esther. Yet God is always there as we see in our lesson today. The story is about evil being perpetrated by human agents, in this case Haman, King Xerxes’ right-hand man (Xerxes is the more commonly known Greek name for Ahasuerus). Haman had been offended by Mordecai, a Jewish exile who refused to bow in submission to him, and as a result, Haman had resolved to exterminate the Jews by essentially tricking the king into issuing an edict to this effect, an edict that could not be revoked. Because of Haman’s wounded pride and vanity, we are confronted with the real possibility of unspeakable evil being committed. And we all know what genocide looks like. We’ve seen the footage from the liberated Nazi concentration camps.
But we are talking God’s people. So where is God in all this? How can God allow such evil to be perpetrated against his people? After all, isn’t God always faithful to his covenant promises? We expect God to rush in and deliver his people in a mighty act of power, just like he did for his people Israel when he rescued them from their slavery in Egypt at the Exodus. But God doesn’t do it that way in this case. He rescues his people by placing two of them, Esther and Mordecai, in critically important positions and using them to bring about his justice on the wicked Haman. So far so good. Most of us do not have a problem with justice being executed on evildoers. But the possibility that we might have to forgive this guy? Really??
And then we learn that Mordecai issues an order instructing all the Jews living in the Persian Empire to celebrate Haman’s death and their deliverance from destruction, a celebratory spirit that is implicit in our psalm as well, and now our reaction may not be so straightforward. We are Christians, after all, and should never celebrate the death of anyone, no matter how evil they might be. We do this because God himself tells us he takes no pleasure in the death of evildoers (Ezekiel 18.23, 32). Yet most of us remember watching the crowds gather to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden. Some of us may even have wanted to join in the celebration. After all, our archenemy, the face of pure evil, finally got what was coming to him. The good guys won. I’m sure the reaction was the same when the news of Hitler’s death was announced. For those who are not Christian, this is no big deal. After all, they are not bound to follow the crucified one who died to spare us from God’s terrible and right judgment on our own sins. They don’t need to stop and think that they are celebrating the death of an image-bearing creature of God, marred as that image might be. But for us who profess to be Christian? What to do? For many of us, I suspect the answer is that we experience some guilty pleasure over the death of an evildoer. We know we shouldn’t but we just can’t help ourselves. We want justice, especially when it is comes to really bad guys like bin Laden. So what does the gospel have to say about all this? The answer is not as straightforward as some would like us to think.
Of course we are to take to heart and practice Jesus’ teaching and follow his example. We are to love mercy first and practice it. We are to pray for our enemies and forgive them instead of seeking to exact revenge on them. Doing the latter makes us agents of evil and that is simply not acceptable. Rather, as Paul reminds us in Romans, we are to leave room for God to execute his good and righteous wrath on evildoers (Romans 12.14-21). We are to leave this to God because God is our Creator and sovereign. Only he has the right to execute justice on evil and those who commit it. Let me be clear. I am talking about us as individual Christians, not the role and duty of the state. As Paul would write later in Romans, the state is God’s ordained instrument to carry out God’s wrath on the wicked (Romans 13.2-4). But most of us are not heads of state. We are just ordinary Christians who are called to embody the love and mercy of God made known to us in Jesus.
But it is a misreading of the gospel if we see all mercy and no justice. A closer look reveals that even the gospel acknowledges the existence of evil in our world and reminds us God is doing something about it. So while we are called always to forgive and be merciful to our enemies, even the blatantly evil ones, we are not called to ignore our desire to see God’s righteous justice being executed on those who perpetrate evil. As we saw last week, God will not be mocked and Scripture makes clear that God is implacably opposed to evil of any kind. He simply cannot and will not tolerate it. We see this at the Fall in Genesis 3.1-19. Adam and Eve rebel against God’s good will for them and find themselves (along with everyone else ever since) under God’s curse. We see it in God’s response to the evil his people committed when they worshiped idols and the corresponding lifestyle that developed as a result. You see, we end up becoming what we worship and when we worship false and wicked things we begin to act in corresponding ways. We see it in our OT lesson when the wicked Haman gets his just reward. He was hanged on the very pole he had erected to hang his enemy Mordecai. We see it in our gospel lesson, albeit more subtly. Along with tender words about caring for the little ones who care for Jesus comes the chilling reminder of millstones around the neck and the unquenchable fire of hell. We see it in James’ letter with its emphasis on prayer. The example of Elijah’s prayer to which James refers contains both God’s mercy and judgment. Elijah had originally prayed for drought as a result of Israel’s wicked idolatry (judgment) and his prayer for rain (mercy) came only after he had the 450 priests of Baal slaughtered. God was merciful and rain came, but only after judgment.
These examples serve, in part, to remind and show us that God is a good God who is implacably opposed to evil of any form and who is simultaneously at work restoring his good but fallen creation back to its original goodness. We are called to be part of that rescue mission and have strict orders to act accordingly—and to let God do likewise. Part of our calling is that we are not to take justice into our own hands. To do that results in holy lynch mobs. But to advocate mercy at the expense of justice would be to violate our sense of what is right and deny that God is both a God of justice and mercy. If God is not both, there would be no need for the cross.
So part of the challenge of living faithfully as Christians is to strike a healthy balance between justice and mercy. We must never turn mercy and forgiveness into forgive and forget, where we deny that any wrong has been done to us. That is not how forgiveness works. To truly forgive someone and extend mercy to that person requires that we first and foremost acknowledge the person has acted evilly and done us real harm. So when we forgive, we acknowledge the harm but resolve not to exact revenge and become evildoers ourselves. The hurt matters and we must work though it and ask God to heal us. This is precisely why forgiveness is so difficult and costly. When we forgive, we resolve not to get into the ditch with the pigs and become like them. We trust God to deal with our hurt as well as those who caused it because we realize God is just as well as merciful, and that we are as much in need of his mercy as our enemies are. And if we are open to this dynamic, God will never let us down.
This is why James ends his letter with the exhortation to pray for each other and forgive each other. Healing comes with forgiveness. Real healing. And it’s the only way we will ever be able to experience real healing from sins and evil perpetrated against us as well as from our own sins. James has been warning us to follow the way of Christ, precisely because he knows we are at war with our disordered hearts and the powers and principalities who use our disordered desires to entice us into more sin and evildoing. But unlike many today would have us believe, there are terrible and eternal consequences to our sins as Jesus reminds us in our gospel lesson. This is why we are to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with our God. We are to love mercy because we ourselves have received mercy in and through the death of Jesus, and James warns us not to throw our pearls to the swine by acting and speaking in ways that are contrary to our call as Christians. That is why he links prayer and forgiveness to healing.
But this doesn’t mean we should ignore our desire for justice. God cannot tolerate evil. Why should we? But here’s the rub. As individuals, we are to let God execute his vengeance and justice on evildoers and are not to take glee when he does. If we truly are being transformed by God’s love in Christ made known to us in and through the power of the Spirit, if we really are Jesus’ people, we should be praying for evildoers so that they don’t suffer the eternal fate of unquenchable fire. To really desire that for someone is a damning indictment of our own hard heart and indicates at some level we really have not accounted for our own sin or have a real faith Jesus. To be sure, there are different levels of sin and evil. But God is opposed to even the slightest trace of sin or evil and that makes us liable to his judgment as well.
Mark has some godly wisdom for us in this department. If we take to heart what he tells us, it will help us from becoming hard-hearted and self-righteous folks. Unlike James, Mark imparts God’s wisdom by telling us stories about Jesus and so we have to pay a little closer attention to what he says. Case in point. Consider Jesus’ rebuke of John. We stopped a man from casting out demons in your name, he tells Jesus, and I suspect he said that rather proudly. In saying this, John was really saying that only those who are authorized by Jesus can do his work. Not so, retorts Jesus. Anyone who isn’t against me is for me. Furthermore, if you hinder anyone from believing in me, you are literally toast. So what was Jesus talking about? The context of this warning, coming on the heels of John’s statement, suggests that Jesus was not talking about leading others to do immoral things like making someone lie or cheat or steal. Rather Jesus was warning his disciples to take a hard look at their own behavior. He was afraid that people would take offense at him because of what his followers did. So examine yourselves, he tells us. Cut out anything that might cause others to think badly about me because of what you say or do.
In the context of balancing justice and mercy, what do you think we could do that might make people more readily take offense at Jesus because of our actions: That we are too merciful or too eager to exact justice? Again there is a fine line here and balance is needed. But God help us if we do not take Jesus’ warning seriously. We saw last week why the Nones don’t come to church. They think we are judgmental hypocrites. Here our Lord himself warns us about the same thing. A desire for justice, yes. But each of us who have been rescued from sin and eternal death by the blood of the Lamb had better be as willing and eager to extend mercy to our enemies as we are quick to condemn them. This is true not only because Jesus tells us we will be judged by the measure we use to judge others (Matthew 7.2), but also because we embody his presence as his followers, and he calls us to be better than our enemies. This doesn’t mean we ignore the need for justice to be done. It means that we are as concerned for the welfare of our enemies as we are for our own welfare. This is radical and disconcerting stuff, and there is always the danger that we will offend some folks in our call for justice and others in our insistence that we be merciful to evildoers. But maintaining this balance is being faithful to the entire gospel message and Jesus himself, and this must always be our goal as Christians.
In closing, then, let us all reflect soberly on these matters of justice and mercy. As Christians we are always called to be merciful and to forgive. That is a gospel imperative. However, the gospel is also concerned about the need for justice. Justice is part of God’s healing of the nations, of God putting all the wrongs of his world to rights, and the demand for justice is all over the gospel as we have seen. But the gospel is Good News and should make a difference in our lives. It should transform and heal us in response to God’s love, grace, and mercy extended to us in Jesus. It should give us a real hope that God does not let evil go unpunished, unlikely as that seems to us at times. We have a real future ahead of us, a future devoid of evil and suffering, a future that entails our radical renewal where somehow all of the hurts and wrongs done to us will be fully healed so as to never hurt or wound us again. We don’t have this future because we are worthy of it. We have this future because of the blood of the Lamb shed for us, unworthy as we are. Our Lord calls us to embody his love and to live our lives in ways that will cause others to want to know him as their crucified and risen Lord, just like he is ours. Having a healthy and balanced perspective on justice and mercy, a perspective that reflects our need to show mercy to our enemies just as we desire God to show mercy to us, while at the same time acknowledging that God’s restorative justice is part and parcel of the healing of the nations as well as our own, is one of the best ways we can proclaim to the world that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.