Strangers

The Fourth of Sunday
Sunday, April 21, 2013
Revelation 7:9-17

Is there no decency left? Is there no goodness, no charity, no love remaining in this world? Is there no respect for human life? Is there no hope? Is there no forbearance? No tolerance? Is there no loving God? Is there no God who protects the people of Boston? Is there no God who protects the people of West?

As we all know, this has been a particularly difficult week for the people of the United States. We are beset by tragedy – both accidental and intentional. Death and injury are at hand, and recklessly splash themselves over our TV screens and Facebook news feeds.

The responses to these tragedies have been both inspiring and despicable. To see the charity, and selfless acts of service was inspiring. Men and women rushing toward explosions. People of great valor and courage fighting fires, making tourniquets, housing the newly minted homeless of West. I have been inspired and grateful for numerous acts of selfless love.

And I have been sickened. I have been dismayed and distraught over some of the responses to the events of this week. I have heard the bloodthirsty desire for punishing those men in Boston. This week, I have been sickened by the use of the word “justice.” We have heard how these terrorists must be “brought to justice.”

My friends, I tell you, that is not justice. That is a perversion of our Christian belief of justice. Do not be fooled by the politicians and the pundits when they clamor for justice. Because they do not know what they are saying. The politicians and the pundits, the leaders of this world, they do not want justice. They want revenge. They want vengeance. They want an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. And they do not know what they are saying.

Justice is not about punishment. Justice is not about eliminating threats. Justice is about putting things right. Justice is providing help and comfort for the amputees in Boston. Justice is working with the people of West to rebuild. Justice is defined by hope, love, and trust in God. Justice is not exacting vengeance.

For vengeance belongs to our God. And no one else. Seeking revenge, wanting to punish for a wrong-doing, is not our purview. That is God’s. For our intentions are never pure, our judgments are never free from error. Only God, who is the gracious judge, can ever sort things out rightly. As Isaiah says, God’s ways are higher than our ways. When we want to exact revenge for a wrong-doing, we are committing blasphemy. Because we are putting ourselves in the place of God.

I am not calling us to be weak or helpless. I am challenging us to call a spade a spade. Do not confuse justice with vengeance. Justice is caring and providing for those who have been the victims of senseless or accidental tragedies. Vengeance is our misbegotten and unholy desire to punish. Did these men commit a horror of horrors? Of course. Should we seek out who is responsible for these atrocities? Absolutely. But it must be done with a faithful view of the future in mind. We are seeking who is responsible in order to protect ourselves in the future. We are not seeking who is responsible to exact a vengeance upon what has happened in the past. Because no amount of punishment, no arrest or investigation, will ever put limbs back on bodies or raise the dead. That’s what God does. An infatuation on the past only makes us callous, and more focused on retribution than on how to start putting the world back together again.

These words may grate on your ears. They may make lumps in your throats. But I ask you to think on Jesus. Our Lord was an innocent man put to death by a vicious and cruel system. But notice how our Lord responded. Jesus did not rise from the dead to take vengeance on those who killed him. Jesus did not rise from the dead to kill Romans. Jesus did not rise from the dead to take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Jesus rose again from the dead, so he could start putting the world back together again.

As Christians, we follow the innocent man who said, “Father, forgive them,” even as he was being unjustly murdered. And as much as I hate to say it, and it makes a lump in my throat, the first thing a Christian must do in a time like this, is to forgive. We must forgive the men who wrought terror and death in Boston. Even if they do not want forgiveness, even if they do not ask for it. Jesus forgave those who were crucifying him, and they never asked for it. And every Sunday, and I hope every day, each one of us says to God, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

I have no illusions. This is difficult work. It’s almost impossible to forgive such hatred and murder. But it is what Jesus calls us to do. Anything less is abandonment of the Christian faith in favor a bloodthirsty, meaningless secularism.

So what do we say? What do we say in the face of such horror and malice? We say that, no matter what, God wins. God wins. That’s why the great throng in this vision from Revelation is holding palm branches. Palm branches were signs of victory – reminders that God is victorious over everything, even bombs and explosions and death. God wipes every tear from every eye, God leads us to springs of the water of life. God wins.

For the first Christians who heard this great vision of Revelation, it must have been a great challenge. There they were in the first century, persecuted by Rome. Those Christians had seen their friends thrown to the lions, tortured, maimed, killed for their allegiance to Jesus. Those first Christians probably wanted to fight back. They probably wanted vengeance. They wanted to take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

But those first Christians are reminded that God wins. God is victorious over the Romans, over evil, even over death itself. Those first Christians knew, they knew that justice and vengeance are strangers.

So we pray, “lead us not into temptation.” We pray that we are not tempted to confuse justice and vengeance. We pray that we are not led into the ways of the world with its harsh system of retribution. We pray that God delivers us into a higher way. The way of Christ. A way of hope, peace, faith, and love. Even if it means that we have to be crucified with Jesus.

We pray, and we trust in the God who wipes every tear from our eyes. Tears for Boston. Tears for West. We trust in a God who leads us to the springs of the water of life. We trust in a God who forgives his own murderers. So that we too can forgive the evil ones of our own day.

With our Lord Jesus, we must utter those terrible and difficult words, “Father, forgive them, for they know now what they do.” And with the great multitude gathered around the throne of the Lamb, we trust that God will sort things out. God will take his vengeance, which is infinitely more loving than we can imagine. And God will give us justice. God will put limbs back on bodies, God will raise the dead. God will make things right. God wins.

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One thought on “Strangers

  1. It is a struggle to forgive at times like these. Thank you for continuing to remind us. I just pray that the opportunities for needing to be reminded, will lessen.

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