Sunday, September 9, 2018

Vengeance: A How-To-(Not) Guide: Sermon on Romans 12:17-21

'Twas a fair if misty afternoon at sea. From a half-sunk rowboat, a captain surveyed the damage to his vessel – the hull breached, the doom of all still aboard seemed sealed. The ship had been rammed by a whale that now floated, waiting, nearby him – just in front of the captain. But it – that whale, a massive albino unmistakable in age and feature – well, that was what he'd set sail for. The captain, in his late fifties, had been a whaler four decades, since leaving the cusp of youth. But that whale had ruined his last voyage – ruined him his last voyage – a fact the captain recalled every time he walked, whalebone peg from his bitten-off stump clunking against wood in alternation with his sole good leg. In the wake of the tragedy, people said the captain's “torn body and gashed soul” had “bled into one another.” Oh, that “murderous monster” of a whale. To the captain, it seemed something more – something like the prison wall of the universe, confining him, representing the face of the malicious void beyond, which he had to breach, had to strike that taunting cosmic malice.

Ever since they'd embarked on this voyage, he'd had one thought in mind: to find that same whale and bring it to its death. Nothing could dissuade the captain; he'd chase the whale all over the earth, even round and round the flames of hell itself, before giving it up. To him, that whale was the most loathsome thing, invested with all the weight of evil since the days of Adam. The sight of it chased all thought of himself, all thought of his wife and boy back home in Nantucket, from his mind. That whale seemed somehow... vengeful. Vengeful in striking the hull of the whaling ship that pursued him so far. But the whale's vengeance was met by the captain's. That was his single driving passion: vengeance. 'Twas a “wild vindictiveness” that drove him. “Vengeance on a dumb brute,” a critic said – no, the captain thought, vengeance on malice itself. But right in that particular: he had sailed for one “all-engrossing” object, to gain “an audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge.”

And so, as the Pequod in the distance took on torrents of death-dealing water through its breached hull, her captain cared for little but the whale before him – at long last. The whale seemed to wait for their encounter, too. Standing, and letting go for a moment of the gunwale to which he'd clung for safety, the captain shouted, “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee!” And a last harpoon flew from the captain's hand. It struck, but the line behind ran foul, and no sooner had he cleared it than the rope managed to catch him by the neck and shoot him from the boat. It dragged him down as the whale dove, tangled him beneath the deep – and so vengeance was the end of Captain Ahab.

Herman Melville's classic 1850s novel Moby Dick is about many a thing, but on the surface, at least, it portrays the quest of one man for vengeance against the whale that not only stole his leg but comes to embody all his rage. And no one can deny the white whale hurt Ahab. Think about it: to watch so many of his last crew slaughtered and torn apart in the ocean foam, and to have his own leg bitten off, and to have it replaced with a prosthetic made from whale bone, but every step he took reminded him only of what he'd lost. I can't imagine the torment Ahab went through, even physically, let alone psychologically. Not a one of us here, I think, has had quite that done to us. 

But I won't deny, couldn't deny, that we get hurt in this world – not by whales in the sea, but by men and women quite like ourselves. Some of us have been wounded, hurt physically, attacked. Some of us have been traumatized by tragedy of human craftsmanship. Some of us have been bankrupted by the machinations of others, robbed blind, left destitute. Some of us have been tossed to the curb, abandoned. Some of us have been accused falsely of wrongs we didn't commit, had our names dragged through the mud. Some of us have been excluded and exorcised from former places of business, former places of leisure, former places of worship. In a world of crime and offense, a world of blood and sweat and tears, it doesn't take a whale to hurt us; we get wounded, traumatized, cursed, excluded, denounced, betrayed, and all the rest, just in human society. Maybe it's a small thing, sometimes – a petty word or glance, a sharp remark, a simple slight, that sets your blood a-boilin'. Or maybe it's a larger thing – something that shakes us, something that redirects the path of your life.  Whether it be an unkind word or a terrorist attack, evil is at large in our world, and we get hurt.

The Bible never ignores that. And the Bible doesn't tell us to ignore that. “Just shake it off” isn't the biblical way to see things. Neither is the old Stoic idea of being imperturbable – undisturbed by all the misfortunes that come your way. No, the Bible tells us to “hate exceedingly what is evil,” while we “cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9). The Bible is too honest to pretend the world is fair or life is fair. Injustice is out there. It is real. It matters. We should take it seriously. Even when it gets personal.

Faced with the different ways we get hurt, slighted, excluded, and betrayed, we hate it – we hate injustice done to us. And that's not wrong – we're to hate what is evil, and hate it a lot. That can easily drive us to vengeance. That's a heavy word – 'Vengeance' – but more commonly these days, we just call it 'Payback.' And it isn't only about the big things. A business does wrong by me, and what's my first thought? Leave a bad review – but my mind might not be on other potential customers, but on hurting the business. Payback. I get cut off in traffic, and what's my first thought? Drive in a way that inconveniences them, whether it be by tailgating or getting around and slowing them down. Payback. Someone gives me the cold shoulder, and what's my first thought? Giving it right back to them, engaging in some passive-aggressive games, giving them a 'taste of their own medicine.' Payback. Someone criticizes me, and what's my first thought? Lay into them, put them in their place, teach them a lesson. Payback. Vengeance. Our world seems to run on vengeance. On payback. How else can we show we hate what's evil than to punish it, training those around us not to hurt us any more? We do it all the time. With our neighbors. With our relatives. With our co-workers. With each other. We want to behave in a way that will hold up a mirror to the way they've treated us. Payback. And just like Ahab, things may not feel right until we've done it; it can stew and boil inside us, because injustice is plain to see.

And yet... And yet, not so long after Paul tells us to hate what's evil, he says something else. He says, “Repay no one evil for evil” (Romans 12:17). How can that be? How can we not fight back? How can we take things lying down. If the business does wrong by us, aren't we to one-star it? If the colleague picks a feud with us, aren't we to outfeud him? If the driver cuts us off, aren't we to inconvenience her? If the family member cheats and mistreats us, aren't we to respond in kind? If the system cheats us, aren't we to work against it? If the whale bites off our leg, aren't we to hunt it? How else, when we're on the spot, can we show we take evil seriously? Something seems wrong here, we want to tell Paul.

But then Paul makes it worse; he says something harder: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves” (Romans 12:19). And we wonder, “Really, Paul? Really? Never avenge yourselves? Never get payback? Never teach them a lesson? How, then, shall they learn?” And Paul says back, “You heard me.” When the business does wrong by you, don't make it your aim to hurt them back. When the driver cuts you off, don't make it your aim to inconvenience them – Paul says, not even to curse them under your breath (cf. Romans 12:14). When your neighbor complains about you, Paul says, don't level the playing field by destroying their reputation. When your family member treats you coldly and distantly, don't give them the cold shoulder in return. When your critics surface with words of hurt, don't lash back with hurtful words of your own. Not even for the big cases. Not even against the whales of the world, the murderous monsters that roam the seven seas – and the seven continents, too. Paul doesn't say, “Sometimes avenge yourselves, when the case is serious enough.” Or, “Sometimes avenge yourselves, when it should be a quick thing to teach them to fix it.” Just, “Never avenge yourselves.” That's the word Ahab couldn't hear.

It's hard for us to hear, too. It makes no sense. How can we hate evil without showing evildoers in our lives that we take their evil seriously? But Paul sees something all too true. Paul sees that our vengeance, our own efforts to get payback, to put people back in their place, to teach them a lesson, can so easily get out of hand – that they run too high a risk of dragging us and our worlds down with them. It's too easy, in seeking to punish evil, to become an evildoer. Criticizing our critics, our words can run away with us. Inconveniencing the driver who inconveniences me, I can put myself in harm's way (or them!). Giving the cold shoulder to a cold kinsman, I can ruin a relationship's chances for revival. Tearing down the reputations of those who falsely accuse me, I can land in hot water myself. Our vengeance spins out of control: remember the Hatfields and the McCoys. Think of the escalating atrocities in almost any war. Sometimes the whale wins the day again, and you end up tangled in your own schemes, fathoms beneath air and sun.

It's hard for us to hear not to avenge ourselves. That seems so much like being a pushover, a doormat – like letting people, letting life, just walk all over us, by showing that we don't take injustice seriously. But Paul isn't done with his sentence when it tells us to never avenge ourselves. He says there's something else to do instead: “Give place to the wrath” (Romans 12:19b). And what he means is, “Step back and make room for the wrath of God to take care of it.”

That phrase – “the wrath of God” – we don't much like that. It's not the way we picture God in America these days, is it? God is all about love, about mercy, about kindness and grace. But the Bible paints a richer picture and uses some heavier colors. The psalmist prays, “O LORD, God of vengeance, God of vengeance, shine forth! Rise up, O Judge of the earth; repay to the proud what they deserve” (Psalm 94:1-2). Hear that title: “God of Vengeance.” When injustice rears its ugly head, that's how the psalmist sees God. When people get crushed, when the vulnerable get killed, when towers fall, when darkness thinks God isn't watching, the psalmist turns to a vengeful God, a wrathful God. The psalmist maybe remembers the song God taught to Moses, the one Paul quotes in today's passage. In the face of those persecuting Israel in the desert, God says, “Vengeance is mine, and recompense … for the LORD will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants, when he sees that their power is gone … I will take vengeance on my adversaries and will repay those who hate me. … Rejoice with him, O heavens, and bow down to him, all gods, for he avenges the blood of his children and takes vengeance on his adversaries” (Deuteronomy 32:35-36, 41, 43).

In the face of the world's evil, Isaiah pictures God wrapping himself in “garments of vengeance for clothing” (Isaiah 59:17), and foresees the proclamation of “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2). Jeremiah, a persecuted prophet, prayed for God to “take vengeance for me on my persecutors” (Jeremiah 15:15) and ultimately preached about God's vengeance against both Egypt and Babylon (Jeremiah 46:10; 51:11). Ezekiel heard God announce his vengeance on the Edomites and on the Philistines (Ezekiel 25:14-17). Micah heard God promise, “In anger and wrath I will execute vengeance on the nations that did not obey” (Micah 5:15). And the prophet Nahum even opened his book with the bold announcement, “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies” (Nahum 1:2).

It's not just the Old Testament, either. In Revelation, the martyred saints pray for the Lord to “judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth” (Revelation 6:10), and it shows God doing what the prophets foresaw by “avenging” on Babylon the Great “the blood of his servants” (Revelation 19:2). John the Baptist threatened the Pharisees about “the wrath to come” (Luke 3:7). Paul warned that an unrepentant person was “storing up wrath for [himself] on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5), and that for those who “obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Romans 2:8), and that “the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6). Revelation describes Jesus as treading “the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Revelation 19:15), and just so, Paul pictures the coming day when “the Lord Jesus [will be] revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who don't know God and on those who don't obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8). In the New Testament just like in the Old, God is a God of vengeance.

We can be uncomfortable with that. We don't feel at ease today with that, maybe – at least, not until we're hurt, not until we see evil up close, and then we remember its value. There's a Croatian theologian who teaches at Yale – I met him once – who grew up in socialist Yugoslavia, which was ripped apart in the Yugoslav Wars. And there's one passage from one of his books that I'll never forget. He said:

I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. … My last resistance to the idea of God's wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. … Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God's wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn't wrathful at the sight of the world's evil. God isn't wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.

Miroslav Volf is right. God is a God of Vengeance because God is a God of Love. God is a God of Vengeance because injustice against his people, injustice against you, is not something he will tolerate. He loves you, he loves us, far too much to let our harm go unavenged. That's why Paul chooses this verse to remind us who we are: Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but give place to the wrath, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord'” (Romans 12:19). Paul reminds us that we're God's beloved ones. God can afford to be a God of vengeance because no whale, no leviathan of the deep, can drag him down; but the reason God is a God of vengeance is because he loves you too much to watch those who hurt you get off scot-free.

And Paul explains to us that this truth, this reminder of God's wrath and God's vengeance, is exactly what frees us to abandon the hunt. No matter how badly someone has hurt you, you don't have to carry that burden. You don't have to carry it, because God loves you so much that he guarantees he'll deal with it – in his own way. No matter what someone has done or said to you, putting them in their place is not your place; it's God's place. And when we try to take vengeance into our own hands, we are getting in God's way. Vengeance is his – therefore, not ours. Payback is his exclusive domain; we need to stay out of it, stand clear of it, yield that turf to him and give him elbow room to work when and how he chooses – which, as it turns out, frequently involves the cross of Jesus Christ.

So what's Paul said so far? Injustice in the world is real. Injustice in our lives is real. People hurt us in many ways, they do us wrong. And we should hate evil – hate it with a burning passion. But that doesn't mean we're to deal in payback. Payback is God's business, not ours. So Paul tells us to never avenge ourselves, never try to dish out a taste of their own medicine, never try to get even, never try to get payback. If there's something criminal done to you, of course you're free to refer that to the proper authorities – Paul outright tells us that the ruling authority in the land is supposed to be “God's servant, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). But that's between God and his avenging servant, and our position is to never avenge ourselves but to instead leave a vacancy for God's action, trusting that his love for us will set all things right.

So where does that leave us? In the face of all the hurt, all the evil we're supposed to hate, do we then just let it slide – do we keep our distance? Paul tells us to aim to “live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). But Paul is hoping for something better than mere avoidance, if possible. Paul asks us to respond proactively to the hurt, the evil, the injustice. “Bless those who persecute you,” he says; “bless, and do not curse them” (Romans 12:14). Instead of cursing, instead of criticizing, instead of tearing down, we should work for the benefit of those who have harmed us. The driver who cuts you off – respond by driving in a way that blesses her. The coworker who won't stop getting in your way and in your face – respond in a way that blesses him. The family member who stirs up trouble – respond with blessing. The leader who betrayed you, the business that cheated you, the group that excluded you – respond in a way that blesses him and them.

When we're hurt, it's easy for our minds to get drawn into stewing over it, making our blood boil like Ahab's. It's easy to daydream about all the things we'd like to say and do to get back at those who did that to us. Paul suggests a better use for our brainpower. “Repay no one evil for evil” – don't even think about it – “but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” (Romans 12:17). When he says 'give thought,' he means to do active planning. Instead of meditating on payback, meditate on mercy. Not in a way that makes you look like a pushover or a doormat, but a way that shows an even greater control over the situation – Paul's calling here for an active response, not just a passive one. We aren't to be paralyzed in the face of conflict, not fearful when confronted with injustice and hurt, but to have already laid plans for how to respond in a vengeance-free, mercy-soaked way.

Hunting around in Proverbs, Paul has an example to suggest: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink” (Romans 12:20; cf. Proverbs 25:21). It's an idea that Elisha implemented all the way back in 2 Kings 6: the Syrian army comes to threaten Israel, so by the prophet Elisha's prayer, God strikes the enemy soldiers blind, and Elisha leads them into Samaria to the Israelite king. Seeing his enemies blind and helpless, the king of Israel asks the prophet if he may strike them down and win the day. But Elisha gives him other advice: to “set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master” (2 Kings 6:22). It was a concrete act of mercy – more than the blind Syrian soldiers could have expected, to have their enemy whom they persecuted come to their aid in their moment of weakness.

In that story, the result, we're told, was that “the Syrians did not come again on raids into the land of Israel” (2 Kings 6:23). And so Paul and Proverbs tell us to feed hungry enemies and water thirsty enemies, “for by so doing, you will heap burning coals on his head” (Romans 12:20; cf. Proverbs 25:22). The idea is to heap up the burning shame of remorse through these acts of practical blessing – to hopefully shame the one hurting you into realizing that they're lashing out at a friendly face. The hope is to shame the evildoer into repenting.

Does it always work out like that? No. Paul's a realist. It's why he tells us, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). Paul knows it doesn't always depend on you. Sometimes the other party just can't bear the thought of peace. So sometimes, it isn't possible to have peace with everybody. Even after you heap burning coals on their heads through active blessing, sometimes they won't repent, won't turn, won't give up the evil they've done or plan yet to do. In that case, Paul says, just make sure you stand clear, and trust the God of vengeance to handle it. Just because the evildoer doesn't change his or her tune, doesn't mean you have a reason to change yours – because God has freed you from the burden of avenging yourself, and has told you to stay out of his way.

When we take it upon ourselves to dish out payback, even if it's petty, even if it's passive-aggressive, even if it's a small thing, we're encroaching on God's turf. What's more, we're tempted to “repay … evil for evil” (Romans 12:17). But who's left standing in a contest between evil and evil?  You guessed it: Evil. Evil can't beat evil – it can only multiply evil, multiply hurt, multiply hate. And when our hearts and minds stew over the things we refuse to release into God's care, the evil done to us keeps its hold on us. It drags us down. It tempts us to vengeance. It clings to our thoughts and our emotions. It restricts our freedom to relate to people unburdened. When we don't turn vengeance over to the God who holds the copyright on vengeance, it will eat away at us, distort us, mangle and deform us. Remember Captain Ahab – his obsession with the whale consumed his life, blocked out every other thought or pursuit, and brought about his destruction and that of his whole ship. “Do not be overcome by evil” (Romans 12:21). Don't let that evil attach to your heart and overcome you. Hate doing evil more than suffering evil.

But don't ignore evil. We can't ignore evil. All that's necessary for evil to triumph is for it to go ignored and unopposed. We can't afford to let evil run rampant. We have to name it for what it is. We have to stand in its way. We have to work for justice in this world – justice in how we treat others, and calling on God's appointed servants to administer his justice well – but that doesn't mean avenging ourselves, taking justice into our own hands, as it were. To hate evil, to stand in opposition to evil, to show that we take seriously the hurt that's been done to us – there's another way. There remains an option for victory.

And that option is the path of active blessing that Paul's been talking about. When you feed your hungry hater, when you give a drink to your wounder when he or she is thirsty, when you take care to show kindness to the one who hurt you, in deliberate and planned proportion to the hurt so that there's no mistaking that it constitutes a conscious response – well, Paul calls that “overcoming evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Take evil seriously by beating it with serious good. That's the only way forward. In Captain Ahab's case, it would've meant leaving Moby Dick to a long and happy life. In the case of the Hatfields and McCoys, it would've meant the sorts of joint family reunions the families really now do these days. In your case... what might it mean? What would it look like to claim the real victory – not by getting payback, but by leaving that in God's hands and aiming to overcome evil with good?

Maybe someone has come to mind during this message. Some person in your life who's done you wrong. That particular family member, or co-worker, or neighbor, or former leader, or schoolmate, or former spouse – or current spouse, for that matter. Someone who's hurt you, done evil to you, treated you unjustly, in a way that at some time or another, you've been tempted to treat them in a way that might teach them a lesson or put them in their place or otherwise pay them back. Well, pay them back this way: We've got a church cookout coming up. Reach out and invite them. Yes, that's my challenge for you this week. Go to them and seek ways to bless them somehow. Don't let the estrangement, don't let the hurt, don't let the wrong have the last word. If the two of you disagree on who did what, don't let that drag you back down into the dispute. Let God make it clear to them, and to you, what you and they have to repent of. Just bless them, bless them in the face of their injustice, and give space for God to handle the rest.  May our God teach us how rightly to overcome evil with good, in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

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