Beloved. Today’s Gospel begins: When Jesus came down from the mountain, large crowds followed him. That mountain was where Jesus had preached the Sermon on the Mount. In that sermon, Jesus taught extraordinary things such as the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; He reinforced the holy Law of God: You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder.’ And whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment. But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment; here He gave the Our Father; here He told the people—and us today—to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and not to worry about the next day. These are huge claims and tremendous sayings, but who is Jesus to say and claim these things? That’s what He shows in today’s Gospel account. By healing the leper and the centurion servant, here is Epiphany! Here is Jesus revealing Himself as the true God, the One—the only One—who can undo and destroy what the devil has done. By healing these people right on the heels of coming down from the mountain having taught these bold and wonderful things, Jesus is confirming that He is the very God; He is confirming that He can say what He did and teach as He did because He is the very God Himself; or, to put it differently, the people who heard Him then—and we who hear Him today—hear God! That’s why we don’t just treasure the work of Jesus, but also His word. Let us be like that crowd that day: When Jesus came down from the mountain, large crowds followed him.
Jesus taught and by His miracles He confirmed His message that it is true and trustworthy, worthy of faith. But notice as well, Jesus and the crowd leave the mountain and come back “to the real world” and right away are confronted with the ugly harsh realities of life in this sin contaminated world. Here is a beautiful picture of Jesus and His Church: When Jesus came down from the mountain, large crowds followed him. As Christians, having heard Jesus’ word and following Him—we are not free from the sin and its effects. They are always present around us and in us: Just then, a leper came to Him. That is why our constant prayer is what we pray in today’s collect: mercifully look upon our infirmities, and in all our dangers and necessities stretch forth the right hand of Your majesty to help and defend us. These are not just physical infirmities like paralysis or leprosy, but also the infirmities of sin. Our own sin and the sin of others expose us to great spiritual danger from which we need help, the Lord’s help. One of these great spiritual dangers is just the simple day in/ day out life and our dealing with others. The simple fact is, that because of our own sin and weaknesses and the sins and weaknesses of others, there is much cause for anger, hostility, pettiness, unforgiving attitudes and hearts. Or, to put it differently our Christian faith and life is always being put to the test in our daily lives. How do I live out my faith each day? Does my faith influence me? Does it change me? –Or am I continuing on in living a self-righteous life—one that is unforgiving and unmerciful to the people around me, who, like me, are great sinners? In other words, is my life marked by love and forgiveness through which my faith is confessed and recognized as genuine? That’s where today’s text comes in. In it St. Paul is talking about the Christian’s life in the real live world and how we are to live in peace with people—not just the nice and pleasant but also with the difficult ones, like us; with the great sinner, like each of us. The thing to remember this Epiphany season is that not only did Jesus by His life, teaching and work reveal Himself as the Son of God and the Savior of the world but He is revealed in us as we live lives of forgiveness.
The thing is, as Christians, we have, through faith in Jesus, already won the battle. Jesus fought it and won it for us. By His holy life and innocent suffering and death He has obtained for us the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. He has defeated for us sin, death, devil and hell. He has reconciled us to God and opened to us the gates of heaven. His victory is our victory through faith. We are assured in Him of every heavenly and spiritual blessing. In Jesus—through faith in Him—we have won the battle. But now as we live out our lives as Christians, as we come down the mountain with Him into life in this world and deal with all the results of sin in our lives and in the life of others, deal with their weaknesses and ours, we are being called upon to win the peace—living a life of peace in this world of sin; living a life of peace even with those that make it difficult, if not, seemingly impossible. The thing is, this is a true spiritual battle. If we fail to win the peace, that is, strive to live peaceably as far as it depends on you, we are dangerously close to losing, if not having already lost, faith in Christ and thus the victory—because, remember, as we live lives of forgiveness and mercy toward those who sin against us that is the Epiphany/ revelation of Christ in us. If that forgiveness and mercy is not there, can Christ be there? Have we expelled Christ from our heart? Has He been replaced by pettiness, sin and selfishness? We do well to heed our Epistle.
St. Paul begins: Do not pay anyone back evil for evil. Focus on those things that everyone considers noble. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, maintain peace with everyone. Here is the call to fight self-love, that is, placing self first. That’s the whole basis of revenge, pay[ing some]one back evil for evil. Someone sins against us, does something mean to us, and because I love self—and how dare someone do something like that to me!—I pay … back evil for evil. But where is Christ being revealed/ His Epiphany in us? Think to Jesus and His humility—He—the true God, King of heaven and earth and all creatures was born miserably, in a stable. He, the almighty God, was rejected, beaten and spit upon, whipped, ridiculed and crucified. Why am I so proud? Why am I so great that I shouldn’t suffer anything? The King of glory suffered so much for our sake, who are we—aren’t we sinners worthy only of this and much worse? So long story short, we strive for and win the peace when we think rightly and humbly of ourselves, as the apostle says right before our text: Do not think too highly of yourselves. Yes, we suffer because of the sin of the other—maybe they say nasty things about us, maybe they did something to us, perhaps even years ago and even over an extended time. But let us see, repent of and get rid of this self-love so that Christ may reveal Himself in us by the mercy and forgiveness we show to those who do us wrong. And so, through humility, we win the peace.
But isn’t this hard? Certainly it is! We have our old sinful nature that loves self, that wants to serve self. Paying back evil for evil—that’s what our old sinful nature wants, that’s what Satan wants and followed through consistently, it will ultimately lead to rejection and expelling of the Holy Spirit, Christ and faith from the heart. But precisely to this difficulty of winning the peace, is what we have been called to as Christians. St. Peter writes [1 Pt. 2.20-21]: when you do good and suffer for it, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example... But not only is Jesus our example, He is in us, leading and strengthening us by the Holy Spirit. And that’s why it’s a real spiritual battle: we have the new self/ the Christian in us that is led and empowered by the Holy Spirit fighting our old sinful nature and its desires. But, dear Christian, we have the Holy Spirit. He works on us; He works through the Word and Sacrament to strengthen us to fight the urge for revenge, to not forgive, for pettiness. Keep close to and make faithful and diligent use of them.
What does the apostle say in our text? What is the “antidote” to this natural reaction to get even? –Focus on those things that everyone considers noble. Dear Christian, to win the peace through humility, let us set our minds on the good. St. Paul writes elsewhere [Ph 4.8]: whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. Instead of the wrong of the other and fixating on the badness of the other and how we can get even, as we set our minds on the good we, always have before us God and His grace and mercy toward us. How can we who have experienced such grace, goodness, mercy from the Lord—the very Lord we sin against by each and every one of our sins—be unmerciful to the one who wrongs us, repay him his evil? God didn’t do that with us, but just the opposite! Think of the good and don’t give room to the evil.
It will be impossible in this sinful world to live at peace with everyone. Peace does not always remain, for the world is evil and it is out of our power. There will be times when truth, right, justice, duty will force quarrel on us, but not commonly. Even though peace will not always be possible, let us never be the one intentionally causing strife. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, maintain peace with everyone. Just think how much strife/ quarrel will be avoided among Christians if both were people to strive for peace! How much so in Christian families and churches! How easy to blame the other—but it takes two for peace, two humble Christians striving to win the peace.
Do not take revenge, dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” says the Lord. How can we Christians even think of revenge and pettiness if we are thinking on and rejoicing in the Lord’s mercy to us? Led by the Spirit, our heart’s first thoughts would be to forgiveness and mercy. But there will be times when we see and experience injustice and cruelty, when, through no fault of our own, there is absolutely no way there can be peace. It is here that winning the peace requires patience. When we are wronged, we will endure it patiently, but leave it to God to take vengeance. It is truly a matter of faith, and one that exercises faith, when we leave the Lord to avenge the wrongs done to us. We are called on simply to wait and hope. The simple fact of the matter is: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” says the Lord. That is, vengeance is God’s office. Only He has the right to do it. It is His perfect and righteous judgment and therefore only He is capable of carrying it out.
But our delight is not is seeing someone who did us wrong “get what’s coming to them.” Instead, the fact that “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” says the Lord should move us to greater mercy and pity on the one who did us wrong. If they did wrong, if they are unrepentant, if not already here in this life/ world they suffer the Lord’s vengeance, then they certainly will eternally in hell. Shouldn’t that lead us to do all in our power to show them mercy, to reconcile with them that they may see/ experience the grace and mercy of the Lord in us and through us so that they repent and turn to the Lord in forgiveness?
Let our “vengeance” on our enemies, then, be unsought and unmerited love. But: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. For by doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. With these burning coals—by our works of kindness and love—the enemy is overwhelmed by kindness and is confused or angry at himself for his actions against us; and by that goodness they experience the sin becomes clearer to them and so they repent. Let the salvation of the other be our goal.
As we are Christ-like, as Jesus makes His Epiphany through the mercy of His Christians, there is also the blessing for us: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. We do not conform to our enemies but to Christ in us. Evil is only really overcome by the good that Christ demonstrated on the cross and believers follow. May our love for the enemy proclaim Jesus to our enemy and confront him with the love of Jesus and lead him through shame and penitence to faith. The peace, then, is won through humility, patience and doing good. INJ Amen.