Epiphany 7a

Preached: February 20, 2011

Love That's out of This World
Matthew 5:38-48

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The Word from God through which Jesus speaks to us is Matthew 5.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you not to resist an evil person. Rather, whoever slaps you on the right check, turn to him the other also. And the one who want to take you to court to get your shirt, let him have your coat also. And whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. To the one who asks, give, and don't turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.” But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you show yourselves to be sons of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the wicked and the good and gives rain to the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don't even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing? Don't even the heathen do the same? Therefore, as for you, reach the goal even as your heavenly Father reaches the goal. (Matthew 5:38-48)

This is the word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

Valentine's Day last Monday, a day of love. Or maybe more precisely: a day of liking. Because isn't that whom we give Valentine's to, isn't it? People whom we like. And contrary to popular opinion, love doesn't necessarily mean to like someone a whole lot. But that's as far as the fallen human heart can go. By nature we only love the people whom we like. There's something about them that draws our friendship or attracts our affections. Maybe it's a natural bond as between parent and child. Maybe it's shared interests or common likes. Maybe we feel good around this person. Their company brightens our day and makes us feel complete. The various shades of love are just different degrees of liking. That's the only love this world knows.

Today, dear friends, let's talk about love that's out of this world. May the Holy Spirit, through the words of Jesus, work that love in us.

A. The Father's love for us while we were still his enemies

1. What's so remarkable about God calling himself our Father?

Jesus describes that love, love for people we don't like. He says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44, 45 NIV1984). But before we talk about our love, we gotta rewind. Did you catch those last words of Jesus? “Your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:45 NIV1984). Do you realize how much is in those words? You should. You say the same thought every time you pray: “Our Father who art in heaven ...” Let's think about this.

How would you feel if some sleazy, dirty, smelly despicable character with a horrible reputation around town rang your doorbell and said, “Hey, good buddy, let's hang out together”? I'd be offended and taken back a bit. How much gall does he have not only to ring my doorbell but to think I'm his friend, that I like him?

Now multiply that indignation to the nth degree. Who are we dirty, smelly, despicable sinners to address the holy, pure God, not simply as a friend but as Father? How dare we claim to be his children! The shock of it is lost on us because we each fail to see how repulsive my own sinfulness is. It's hard to smell your own stench. But think of the worst harms a person could inflict on you, pains that rip not only your body but your heart and soul as well. Think of the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin, or Charles Manson and Ted Bundy focused at you and your family, your children. What I've done, what you've done against God, is far, far worse than what any person, even those worst of people, could do to you.

I know that comparison sounds so farfetched, such an overstatement. “We're not that bad of people,” we think. But that thought only demonstrates how easily we downplay our own sinfulness. Your sin and mine was rebellion. “[T]he sinful mind is hostile to God” (Romans 8:7 NIV1984). Your pride and mine usurped God's throne. Our sinful words and actions trampled his holy name into the dirt. There was nothing in us for God to like. Everything about us repulsed his holiness. Psalm 5 correctly says to the Lord: “You hate all who do wrong” (Psalm 5:5 NIV1984). How much wrong haven't you and I done? We were under the solemn verdict: “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:4 NIV). Where do we get off calling him our Father?

Our human reasoning desperately tries to bridge this chasm. It figures there must have been something likeable about us, at least a tiny spark. But as I've tried to illustrate, that's just a deadly mirage. Don't try to cross that phantom bridge. The answer has nothing to do with anything we can discover or create in ourselves. The answer to why God is our Father is in the love that's out of this world, God's love that has nothing to do with liking.

2. Describe God's love.

So just and holy is the true God that he hates all that's tainted by sin and damns the sinner to hell. Nothing from us could change that or make us likeable in the least. Nonetheless, the holy, just God so loved this sinful, hated world, which includes you and me, that he gave his only-begotten Son to save sinners. Yes, whoever believes in Jesus, the Son, will not perish but has eternal life. That, dear friends, that is love that's out of this world. Love that loves the unlikeable, even the unlovable. God's love that loves you and me.

The Holy Spirit said it best. Through the Apostle Paul he declares to us: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly [that includes you and me]. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8 NIV1984). That's love that's out of this world. Love that has made you children of the heavenly Father through faith in the Son, Jesus Christ.

So as Jesus reminds us in the text of our Father in heaven, he recalls to our hearts that love from heaven that came down to the cross for us while we were still his ungodly enemies. His love reconciled you to God changing you from an enemy into God's own dear child. Paul continued in that section from Romans: “For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life” (Romans 5:10 NIV1984).

Every morning that the sun rises, every time the refreshing rains make our food grow, ponder the Father's love, his love that's out of this world, love even toward those who still hate him, as we used to. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45 NIV1984). That's the love that gave you his only-begotten Son. That's the love that brought you to know and trust in Jesus as your God and only Savior from sin and death, so that you, yes even you dear sinner, are a child of God through faith in Jesus. Your faith confidently calls to God, “My Father!” What love that loved us even while we were still his enemies! Love that's out of this world!

B. Our love for others while they're still our enemies

1. Why is harboring revenge in our hearts so dangerous?

And that, dear Christians, is the love that fills your hearts. For in Christ you are children of the heavenly Father. You know the old saying that the apple does not fall far from the tree. Children inherit or imitate the characteristics of their parents. And dear friend, you, through faith in Christ, are a son or a daughter of the your Father in heaven. When we know his love for us in Christ, that changes our love toward others. Jesus describes those changes that show that we are true sons and daughters of our Father in heaven.

Jesus talks about getting even, personal revenge. The Pharisees quoted the Old Testament, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth” (Matthew 5:38 NIV1984, Deuteronomy 19:21) to justify getting back at their personal enemies. But God did not give those words to condone getting even. Rather they say that the punishment is to fit the crime. They speak to the government and the courtroom, not to my personal behavior.

When it comes to our personal life, revenge has no place in the Christian heart. As a Christian, I don't want it there and neither do you. It's better to suffer wrong than to seek revenge. See how Jesus illustrates that. It's better if someone hits you on both checks than to fill your heart with revenge. It's better if someone sues you for twice as much than to harbor revenge in your heart. It's better to carry their luggage an extra mile rather than have a heart of revenge. For when revenge fills the heart, what room is left for God's love to fill you?

This is nothing new that Jesus is teaching. The Old Testament made it clear as well. The reading from Leviticus said, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge” (Leviticus 19:18 NIV). In Deuteronomy the Lord God says, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” (Deuteronomy 32:35 NIV1984). It belongs to God and his representatives.

Now if God has placed you in authority in the home or government or church, you have two roles. In your role as a Christian personal revenge is never to be a motive, but you are also God's agent in your role of authority. For example, as a parent punishing your child or as juror deciding a case it would be wrong to ignore the bad behavior claiming you're turning the other check. As God's appointed agent in this situation, you are to see that the punishment fits the offense as much as possible, but to do so without personal vengeance in your heart.

Now what Jesus says here about turning the other check and so on including what he says next about freely giving and lending are not blank checks for others to misuse and abuse us Christians. For one, God has given us the government to protect our body and property. Rather than seeking revenge, turn it over to the proper authorities God has place over you. Do so not because you're driven by vengeance or selfishness, but out of love for what is right and out of thanks to God for the body and property he has given you. And if the authority does not do it's job to our satisfaction, we still have no right to take the law into our own hands. We leave it in our heavenly Father's hands. He will repay.

2. What role does Christian wisdom and honesty play as we show love?

As we think about Jesus words here, how do we put them into action? He doesn't want a mechanical application. He is aiming at our hearts. Turning the other check, walking the extra mile, freely giving calls for Christian honesty and wisdom. First honesty about my own heart. What is my true motive as deal with others? Even though my sinful flesh taints all my motives, what is the driving force behind my behavior? Is it revenge and selfishness or is it love? And then Christian wisdom knows that “[l]ove does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6 NIV1984). Or as you heard in Romans: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9 NIV1984). Love wants what is truly best for the other person, not necessarily what the other person may think they want. Christian wisdom guides love.

For example, if someone who has been wasteful or lazy and shows no evidence of change comes to you for money, Christian love refuses to freely give. That would be sharing in their sinful wasting or laziness. Love and wisdom work to help others lead a god-pleasing life, not delighting in evil, but rejoicing in the truth doing so honestly examining the motives in my own heart.

3. What is our goal as we show love and kindness to our enemies?

And this helps us understand loving our enemies. This too was clearly taught in the Old Testament, contrary to the interpretation of the Pharisees. For example, Exodus 23 says that if you find your enemy's donkey that's wandered off, return it to him (Exodus 23:4, 5). Jesus wipes away their false interpretation by clearly saying: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44, 45 NIV1984).

Why does God do that? Why does he show goodness to the wicked? Because he is merciful: “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from theirs ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways!” (Ezekiel 33:11 NIV1984). Why does he show goodness to the wicked? Because he is patient: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promises, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9 NIV1984). Why does he show goodness to the wicked? Because he is kind: “Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance, and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?” (Romans 2:4 NIV1984). Now, do you see the goal of God's mercy, patience, and kindness in all of these? Repentance.

So also our love for our enemies longs for their repentance, and we pray for their conversion. We don't approve, condone, tolerate, or minimize their sin. We dare not like their bad behavior. Even as God hates all that is evil, so do we his children. When we pray, we ask God to stop such evil, as we do when we say “They will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” But as children of our heavenly Father, we love our enemies with that same longing for their repentance. We pray that through his Word our Lord turns their hearts. The kindness, patience, and mercy we show them aims to bring them to see the kindness, patience, and mercy of our heavenly Father. What a way to shine as lights so that others praise our Father in heaven!

What a goal to live our lives by! You have experienced love that's out of this world: The Father's love that gave you his Son while you were still his enemy. What a goal to shine with that love to those around us, yes even to our enemies! Through you, may they also experience this love that's out of this world. Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313