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Payback Time

Why Clint Eastwood Never Goes out of Style
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Piecing Together the Puzzle of Life". See series.

Sermon Six


Almost everyone I know wants to believe what the Bible says in the first verse of Psalm 73—that "surely God is good to … those who are pure in heart." We want to believe that if someone leads a pure and good life, then God will see to it that they receive good in return. We want to believe, conversely, that if someone leads a selfish and cruel life, that God will make sure that he or she doesn't receive good in return. Even those of us who leave God out of the mix still feel that, if life is working as it should, goodness will get rewarded and badness punished. Isn't that true?

What parent doesn't raise their kids saying: "Do your homework, be nice to others, and you're going to be successful." What society doesn't say: "Do right by the law and it will go right for you." What employer doesn't imply to its employees: "Work hard, keep up your end of the deal, and you'll prosper." If you think about it, the whole ethical, legal, and economic system we call Western civilization rests on this bedrock belief that people do or should reap what they sow.

This is the principle we call "justice," and, whether someone acknowledges it or not, this expectation that life should work with some fundamental fairness comes from the biblical worldview that has so profoundly influenced Western culture. It comes from the Bible's teaching that at the heart of the universe is not capriciousness and chaos, but a Creator who is fair and purposeful, who has established linkages between actions and consequences, and who wants to see Good advanced and Evil destroyed. This is the notion behind the assertion in Psalm 73:1 that "Surely God is good to … those who are pure in heart."

Sometimes life doesn't look just.

The problem, however, is that sometimes the bedrock of justice looks pretty cracked and uneven, doesn't it? This is why the psalmist goes on to say in verse 2: "But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold." What he means is, "God seemed to be enforcing justice so poorly that, frankly, I was losing my spiritual balance, my purity of heart." The psalmist goes on to explain how completely confused he was by the apparent "prosperity of the wicked."

I see these people whose "pride" isn't even private, but worn right out there like a shining necklace. I see people who "clothe themselves with violence," literally wearing their cutthroat attitude and bloody conquests on their sleeve. "From their callous hearts comes iniquity; the evil conceits of their minds know no limits." You should hear the cynical, sardonic, cutting way these people talk. "They scoff, and speak with malice." Sometimes "their mouths lay claim to heaven"—to being oh-so-spiritual—but "their tongues take possession of the earth." They go right on living in the most worldly, power-driven ways.

They have no respect for you, God. "They say, 'How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?'" I keep expecting you to smash these people. I mean, give them boils or bad hair or something. But it looks like you're blessing them! "They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong." As far as I can see, "They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills … Therefore their [groupies] turn to them and drink … in abundance. This is what the wicked are like—always carefree, they increase in wealth."

To be perfectly honest, God, the psalmist says, "I began to envy these arrogant people." So that's how life really works, I thought. You try to stay humble and do good and you have a tough, mediocre life. You live by lust, power, greed, and deceit and you become a celebrity. Verse 1: "Surely God is good to … those who are pure in heart?" Hah. Try Verse 13: "Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence."

Can you connect with any of these feelings? Do you ever think to yourself, You know, everything in me says that life ought to be about reaping what you sow, so why doesn't it look that way? I see dictators, child molesters, and corporate raiders getting off easy. I see rape-touting rap stars, arrogant executives, God-mocking people getting their own TV shows. I see the cruel, cocky guy getting the girl or the morally-challenged woman hooking the guy. Where is the justice in life? Have you ever felt at all like the psalmist?

Sometimes we question justice.

I suspect this is partly why Clint Eastwood never goes out of style. I think a lot of us just get tired of waiting for people to reap what they sow. It feels so good when Clint finally rides up on a horse or steps out in an alley and says: "It's payback time." Sometimes, you get the feeling that Clint's character is acting almost like a rebuke to God. "You didn't clean this mess up, God, so I guess I'll finally have to." But do you think God really is responsible for the injustice in this world?

An atheist once came upon a beggar boy without food or shoes who was holding a small hand-scrawled sign that read: "God bless you." The atheist couldn't resist saying, "Tell me, boy, if God loved you, wouldn't he send you food and shoes?' The boy looked into the man's eyes deeply and replied: "God told someone, but he forgot.'"

If God has supplied human beings with the resources to end hunger, to prevent so many diseases, to stop the reverberations of poverty in the inner city, or care for their environment, is God to blame when human beings forget to sow those resources wisely or unselfishly? We have been told, said the prophet Micah, what is "required" to bring a greater "good" into this world. It is for us "to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God."

Would it be better, do you think, if we just washed our hands of God altogether and took the full reins of authority ourselves? Would we do better with fewer Christians and more Clint Eastwoods? The 20th century gave us the chance to test that theory. Dozens of utopian, totalitarian regimes arose, divorced from God and armed with unprecedented gun-slinging power. The payback, however, was the death of hundreds of millions in China, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. If history has taught us any lesson, it has to be this: As painful as life can be in the world that God has made, it gets a whole lot more painfully unjust anywhere that people try to live apart from the God we meet in the Bible.

The question arises, too: Would we really want absolute justice right now? The psalmist looked at how the wicked appeared to prosper and was simply mystified by the actions of God. We look with confusion at how God lets blessings fall on a character like Paris Hilton or Donald Trump. But there are probably angels in heaven who still can't get why God keeps doing good for the likes of you or me. Jesus said that your "Father in heaven … causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends his [refreshing] rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" alike. The apostle Peter says that the Lord "is patient with [us], not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." If given the choice between a God who is primarily just or primarily merciful, which would you choose? The great Reformers were always calling us to be thankful that, for the present time, God is a Lord of a simply amazing grace.

Which brings me to a final question when we speak of justice: Are we always clear what God's gracious blessings really look like? I know a pair of Harvard-educated parents whose lives were utterly rocked by what felt like a heinous injustice. From their perspective, they had done everything right in life. But when their long-expected child was born, little Adam had Downs Syndrome. How could they have sown so carefully and reaped such tragedy, they wondered—until that child taught them what beauty and love meant in a way that nothing else ever had. For six years, I pastored a church in the wealthiest community in America. I saw people floating in everything that Madison Avenue considers a blessing and I watched as some people's souls, marriages, and kids were completely drowned by it.

Do we even know what to ask for when we ask God to bless us? One person says: "I asked for strength that I might achieve; God made me weak that I might obey. I asked for health that I might do greater things; I was given grace that I might do better things. I asked for riches that I might be happy; I was given poverty that I might be wise. I asked for power that I might have the praise of men; I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God. I asked for all things that I might enjoy life; I was given Life that I might enjoy all things. I received nothing that I asked for; but all that I hoped for. My prayer was answered." "For my thoughts are not your thoughts," declares the Lord through the prophet Isaiah. "Neither are your ways my ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."

We can always trust in the coming Day.

Is God really to blame for the injustices of this world? Could we do a better job of creating a just planet? Would we really want absolute justice now? Do we even know what justice looks like? When it comes to understanding the justice of God, there are more questions than there are answers. The psalmist says, "When I tried to understand all this [on merely human terms] … my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered. I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you … till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood." There is a certainty—one day, there will be a payback time. "Those who are far from you will perish … How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away."

"Do not be deceived," said the apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians: "God cannot be mocked." No matter how it looks to our eyes today, in the end "a man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life."

As the great Lutheran theologian Helmut Thielicke put it: "Someday the mystery of suffering … of madhouses, mass graves … of widows and orphans [will] be illuminated. Someday [will] come the 'hereafter,' when we shall learn all the answers. Someday the paralyzing contradiction between justice, on the one hand, and life's [apparent] game of chance, on the other, [will] be reconciled. Someday the tension between rich and poor, between the sunny side of life and the gloomy zones of horror, [will] be equalized." This you can trust.


Until that day comes, let these words of the psalmist be your focus. "As for me," he writes, "it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge … I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward … take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever …. " Surely God is good to … those who are pure in heart."

Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Sometimes life doesn't look just.

II. Sometimes we question justice.

III. We can always trust in the coming Day.