I want to begin this morning by reminding you of two stories from our faith history.
The first story is the one mentioned in our Old Testament reading for today. Joseph was the son of Jacob and the great-grandson of Abraham, the founding father of the people of Israel. Joseph’s father Jacob had two wives and two concubines, and from those four women he had a total of twelve sons. But his two favourites were the sons of the wife he loved the best, Rachel. Those two boys, Joseph and Benjamin, were the apple of their father’s eye. Joseph was older, so there was a time when he was his mother’s only son. You can just bet that went to his head, can’t you? You just know this isn’t going to end well!
And it didn’t. Jacob showed such obvious favouritism toward Joseph that his brothers hated him, and eventually when he was seventeen, they found a way of getting rid of him. Out in the wilderness, far away from their father’s eyes, they sold Joseph to some slave traders, took his clothes and dipped them in blood, and then took them home and showed them to Jacob. Jacob was convinced Joseph had been killed by a wild animal, and he was heartbroken.
The next thirteen years were tough for Joseph. The slave traders took him to Egypt where he was bought by an Egyptian general, Potiphar. Amazingly, Joseph was a good worker with a positive attitude and a strong faith, and he quickly rose to be a sort of butler in Potiphar’s house.
But then Potiphar’s wife took a fancy to Joseph and tried to persuade him to go to bed with her. Joseph refused. This happened several times, and eventually the lady got frustrated and told her husband Joseph had tried to rape her. Before you knew it, Joseph was back in prison.
But even in prison, Joseph maintained a positive attitude. He also developed a reputation for interpreting dreams, and eventually word of this got to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who had a particularly puzzling dream. He sent for Joseph and was impressed with his interpretation. There are going to be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, Joseph said, so you’d better appoint a capable man to collect supplies during the years of plenty so there will be enough to see you through the bad years. “Sounds like a good job for you!” Pharaoh replied.
So Joseph became one of the most powerful men in Egypt. Eventually the famine came, and people came from all over the world to buy food in Egypt. Among those who came were Joseph’s brothers. They didn’t recognize him, but he recognized them. Can you imagine his feelings? These were the brothers who were responsible for the last thirteen years of suffering and separation from the father he loved! Now he was in power and they were helpless!
Would you be tempted? I know I would! You’ve got the chance to take revenge, to make them pay! But Joseph didn’t do that. Yes, he made them jump through some hoops, but eventually he forgave them, rescued them from their trouble and brought them down to Egypt to stay with him. Fifteen hundred years before the time of Jesus, Joseph loved his enemies, forgave his persecutors, and gave to those who asked of him. That’s the first story.
The second story takes place in 1569, and some of you will remember it. It’s the story of a young man named Dirk Willems.
When Dirk was a teenager, he met some Anabaptists. In the 16thcentury, these were the Christians who opposed having a state church and assuming that people were Christians just because they were citizens of a ‘Christian country’. Anabaptists believed that you had to choose for yourselfto become a follower of Jesus, that you should be baptized as an adult as a sign of this commitment, and that you then became part of a fellowship of people who were learning how to put Jesus’ teaching into practice. In particular, most Anabaptists believed followers of Jesus shouldn’t participate in war and should love their enemies as Jesus taught us. The state churches considered them a threat to their power, and so hundreds of Anabaptists were horribly tortured and executed.
Dirk was attracted to these ideas and he was baptized as an adult in Rotterdam. He then returned to his home town of Asperen and quietly began to host illegal church meetings in his house. Eventually he was arrested and imprisoned, but he managed to escape from the prison by climbing out of the window and clambering down a rope made of knotted cloths, and he ran for safety. However, he was seen from the prison, and a guard ran after him. It was early spring. Dirk approached a frozen pond, but he had been eating the meagre prison food and didn’t weigh very much, so he made it across the thin ice. The guard, however, had been eating rather better, and he broke through the ice. In terror of drowning, he cried out for help.
What would you have done, in Dirk’s shoes?
Dirk turned back. At great risk, he reached across the ice to rescue his pursuer. When the guard was safely on dry ground, he promptly re-arrested Dirk and incarcerated him in a more secure prison — the tower of the Asperen parish church. This time there was no escape. Dirk was tried for heresy, and was condemned to be burned to death at the stake. The execution was exceptionally painful. The wind blew the fire away from his upper body and so he died very slowly. Witnesses are recorded as having heard him cry out many times, “Oh Lord, my God!” as he was being burned.
Was Dirk right to do what he did?
Christians have disagreed for centuries over the issue of war. Is it right for Christians to participate in wars and to kill the enemies of their country? Those who say it is right have argued that Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemies was intended to guide personal behaviour, not state policy. Be that as it may, what we have in both the stories I’ve told you today are precisely stories about personal behaviour, and so, at least in theory, all Christians are agreed that we can’t wiggle out of this one. Joseph and Dirk did as Jesus commanded in our Gospel for today. It turned out well for Joseph, but not for Dirk; Dirk suffered horribly for his decision. Why did he do that? And why did Jesus command us to do this?
The reason Jesus commanded us to do this is because this is the way God behaves. At the heart of the Christian Gospel is the story of a God who loves his enemies. Listen again for a moment to the outrageous things Jesus tells us to do.
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you…
“But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.” (Luke 6:27-31, 35-38a).
How can Jesus possibly demand such a thing? Surely this will just reinforce people’s evil behaviour, won’t it? Is Jesus being impossibly idealistic here? I’m reminded of the story of a young pastor who was preaching a sermon series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. An old lady objected to one of his talks, and when he replied that he was simply quoting the words of Jesus, she replied, “Yes, but he was a very young manwhen he preached that sermon!”
Let me ask you this: Don’t we assume, every one of us, that Godwill treat us this way? The God Jesus tells us about is constantly loving his enemies, doing good to those who hate him, and blessing those who curse him. As Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, God doesn’t check to see if you believe in him before he lets you benefit from the sunshine. He doesn’t check to see if you’ve obeyed the Ten Commandments before he decides whether or not it will rain on you. No, ‘he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (Matthew 5:45).
God is constantly lending things and not getting them back. He lends us talents, and hopes we’ll learn to use them for the good of all, but instead we hoard them for ourselves and use them for our own selfish pleasure. He entrusts money and wealth to us, hoping that we’ll use it carefully, not just to meet our own legitimate needs but also to further his kingdom and bless the needy. Does he get the return he wanted on that investment? Nine times out of ten, no. He lends us the very earth he created, and asks us to take care of it for him, but we assume it belongs to us to rape and pillage as we please.
The God we read about in the New Testament is constantly forgiving people who don’t deserve to be forgiven. How are you doing in the battle against your favourite sins? I have to say, I’m not doing too well. I’ve made progress in some areas, but in others I’ve gotten nowhere at all. Sometimes I put in an honest effort to change, but at other times to be honest, I find a particular sin just too enjoyable to give up. And yet, day by day, I go to God and ask him to forgive me. I never think of saying to him, “I don’t think you’d better forgive me for this, Lord — if you do, you’ll just reinforce my bad behaviour.” No, I ask for forgiveness, and I know I’ve received it, because he continues to bless me with a sense of his presence and an awareness of his mercy and grace.
The God we read about in the New Testament is constantly turning the other cheek. And in this case, it’s like Father, like Son. Jesus was the ultimate practitioner of his own sermon. He loved his enemies, blessed those who cursed him, and prayed for those who abused him. When the soldiers were nailing him to the Cross he prayed for all who were involved in his execution, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” His death was the ultimate example of how God treats human sinfulness. God chose not to take vengeance on the entire human race for our rebellion against him. Instead, he came among us in Jesus and took the sins of the world on his own shoulders. Rather than making us suffer for our sins, he chose to bear the suffering himself, so that we could be forgiven.
Today’s Gospel reading is rooted in the good news of God’s grace. Remember that grace is a Bible word that means ‘love you don’t deserve’. You don’t have to earn it, you don’t have to do something to purchase it, it just comes to you for free, because God is that kind of God. God doesn’t love us because we’re loveable. God loves us because he is love, whether we’re loveable or not. And that’s the wonderful good news that Jesus has commissioned us to announce to everyone, everywhere. You can be the older brother who never left home or the younger brother who squandered his father’s property with prostitutes. You can be a self-righteous Pharisee or a tax collector who’s broken every rule in the book. God’s not choosy – if you turn back to him and put your life in Jesus’ hands, you can be forgiven.
But if you want to take advantage of God’s grace, you have to commit yourself to living by that same principle of grace in your own life. Jesus spelled it out for us in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Or, as he put it in our passage today, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (v.37) We were God’s enemies, but fortunately for us God is in the habit of loving his enemies, and so instead of being cast into the outer darkness we were welcomed home to the Father’s house. Very good, Jesus says. Now: go and do likewise.
The way Jesus sees it, children who have good parents should want to be like them. If they don’t, there’s something wrong. So often, when we are confronted with some piece of sinfulness in ourselves, we say, “I’m only human, you know!” And of course God understands that, which is why he is so patient and merciful with us. But he longs for us to aim higher. He longs for us to look up to him and say, “When I get older, I want to be like my Dad.” Or I think of a younger sister who looks up to her older sister and says to herself, “When I’m a big girl I’m going to be just like her.” And we Christians also have an older brother to imitate. As Paul said, ‘For those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family’. (Romans 8:29)
No one ever said this would be easy. No one promised it would never get us into trouble. Dirk Willems knew very well that turning back to help his enemy would probably mean his death. But he did it anyway, because he wanted to be like his big brother Jesus. Followers of Jesus are content to do as Jesus says, and trust that the same God who vindicated him will one day vindicate us as well. And so, as he commanded, we take up our cross and follow him, in faith that the way of the cross will turn out to be not just the way of death, but also the way to resurrection.