This sermon is part of the sermon series "Earthy Spirituality". See series.
Recently our church softball thoroughly trounced our opponents. The game ended with what's called the mercy rule: when one team is ahead by 15 runs or more, the officials stop the game before it gets downright humiliating. As we were approaching the point of the mercy rule, we weren't acting very merciful. We were still hitting hard, running hard, and enjoying every minute of it. At the end of the game, one of our teammates scolded us: "Guys, I'm embarrassed by our behavior. We know what it's like to get creamed—it happens to us often. We don't like it when other teams rub it in our faces. Why should we treat our opponents like trash? We should show honor and respect even in victory." We all hung our heads in shame, because he was absolutely right. We all participated in our unmerciful, but very happy, trouncing.
Thankfully, our Lord Jesus Christ doesn't have days when he fails to show mercy. In fact, my softball teammate had an excellent point: because God has shown us mercy in Christ, we should display that same mercy to others. If we say we love God, follow Jesus, and have been touched by the power of the Holy Spirit, then it should show in the way we view and treat others—even our enemies.
In true, biblically grounded spirituality is an inseparable link between how you love God and how you love people. If we fail to do justice to people that need it; if we fail to share our resources with a world in need; if we hold bitterness in our hearts towards someone else; if we wound others or hate others; if we show contempt for someone because he or she is from another race, culture, economic group, or educational level, then we have divorced spirituality from justice and loving our neighbors. According to the Bible, God hates that.
When people are mistreated—especially the weak and vulnerable—God comes looking for a fight. Psalm 12:5 says, "'Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise,' says the Lord. 'I will protect them from those who malign them.'" When political and spiritual leaders act like "wolves tearing their prey, shedding [innocent] blood," the Lord looks for someone to "stand in the breach … and seek justice."
This sounds so simple. Yet the history of the world, the state of current affairs, and our own track record suggests that we keep forgetting this simple biblical truth. Second Chronicles 28:1-15 calls us back to a holistic spiritual life that begins with worshiping God and flows into a broad love for others.
Our justice must reflect God's justice.
In Old Testament times, Israel was divided into twelve tribes. Two of the tribes split off from the twelve and became known as the southern kingdom, or Judah. The remaining ten tribes were known collectively as Israel. In this passage, Ahaz is king of the southern kingdom, and Pekah is king of the northern kingdom.
Second Chronicles 28:1 shows that, unlike his distant relative Kind David, Ahaz was a lousy king. "He did not do what was right in the eyes of Lord;" that sums up his life. Ahaz's distorted understanding of God and worship had several radical consequences, including his construction of idols and offering child sacrifices to pagan gods. The Valley on Ben Hinnom, where the sacrifices took place, was located south of the temple, and it became the place where dead animals and garbage were burnt. There was a constant odor from the fire. It was in that burning garbage heap that Ahaz sacrificed his sons. How revolting, we think; we would never do that! Yet if you look around the world today, you see that children are routinely being thrown away. According to statistics from World Vision, nearly 3 percent of children under the age of 18 in Brazil sell themselves for sex; one-third of the 50,000 prostitutes in Cambodia are younger than 18. In our own nation, it took a long, uphill battle to deny access to partial-birth abortions. Worshiping the true God leads to the protection of the weak and vulnerable members of society.
In response to Ahaz's disastrous worship, God sent the northern army to discipline Judah. Verses 5-15 describe what's known as the Syro-Ephraimite War. This war sprang from a group of nations that were trying to form a NATO-like alliance against Assyria. Judah was nestled safely in the hill country so they refused to join the alliance. This enraged the northern kingdom of Israel, so they attacked Ahaz and the tribe of Judah. Verses 5-8 describe the plunder—including prisoners of war—that the northern armies carried away.
As we read verse 9, imagine a large group of victorious soldiers—sweaty but happy, holding weapons of destruction, giddy with wine, and singing songs of conquest—walking down the road with their plunder and prisoners of war. Unfortunately, these aren't foreign prisoners; they are their brothers and sisters from the united nation of Israel. In verse 9, the prophet Oded confronts these soldiers and says, "Because the Lord God of your fathers was angry with Judah, he gave them into your hands. But you have slaughtered them in a rage that reaches to heaven." First of all, notice that Oded has lion-hearted courage. He knows that when you really love God and other people, sometimes you have to fight for them. Love doesn't just mean being nice; it means defending, protecting, and even fighting for people. So often we assume that the only Christ-like virtues are being kind and sweet and nice; Christians should always try to keep the peace because that's what Christians do. The truth is, though, that when Jesus fills you with his love, he makes you bold and courageous; he helps you fight for people.
Oded and the other Old Testament prophets didn't say anything new; instead, they reminded people of what God had already said. Oded's critique is based on previous words from God. Excessive violence in war was regularly met with God's disapproval, and enslaving fellow Israelites was against God's law (Leviticus 15:39-43). In other words, God is saying through Oded: You can't say you love me and then ignore or inflict pain on people. I'd rather have you stop pretending that you're worshiping me, because what you're doing isn't worship unless it flows into justice and protection for the most vulnerable members of society.
Justice for a Christian is based in God's justice. When Cain murdered his brother Abel, God said, "What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground." Similarly, the excessive rage that Israel displayed in their military conquest "reached to heaven." As John Stott has said, "It is not so much the case that I am under obligation to my fellow human beings as that I am under obligation to God for my fellow human beings."
Our forgiveness must reflect God's forgiveness.
Ironically, the northern tribes—the victorious army—should have known better. Two hundred years before, the northern kingdom had allowed their spiritual lives to go bad, and the southern kingdom attacked and defeated the northern kingdom. They knew what it was like to be defeated and victimized. They knew the hurt and pain, but it didn't change their behavior. Both stories are told with nearly identical language. Israel was simply repeating the cycle of violence and oppression and injustice.
Furthermore, the northern tribes had experienced God's mercy. They weren't in a position to throw stones, because according to verses 10, 11, and 13 their sins were also great. But God showed them mercy in spite of their great sins. At the heart of the Christian story is a similar lesson about how we should treat people because of how God has treated us. When Oded confronted Israel with their mistreatment of the people of Judah, they repent—they have a change of heart that led to a change in behavior. Repentance works the same way for us. First, you feel conviction in your heart. Second, you start to change. This is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. You can't make yourself repent, but you can open your heart to God's Spirit and ask him to soften your heart. That's exactly what happens here: "The men designated by name took some of the prisoners, and from the plunder they clothed all who were naked. They provided them with clothes and sandals, food and drink, and healing balm. All those who were weak they put on donkeys.
This passage is not telling us how to treat prisoners of war in every situation, but there are a few principles that we can infer from this example. First, in regards to war, we need to treat our prisoners as well as possible. In fact, we should treat them better than they treat our prisoners of war. Second, in regards to matters of social justice, we must show mercy to the needy. This is so simple: feed them, clothe them, give them medicine, and help the weak. Spiritually speaking, we had nothing. We were naked before a holy God, but he accepted us in Christ: he washed us, clothed us, and cared for us when we were spiritually weak. Now we are to go do the same for others in the name of Christ. How you treat people reveals how much you worship and love God. Treating people well is a sign of true spirituality. Forgiving others is a sign that you understand God's forgiveness.
Are there any instances in your life where the link between love of God and love of neighbor is currently broken? Is there a neighbor or a co-worker who needs to know Jesus Christ but you've never taken the time to share the Gospel with them? Is there someone that has hurt you whom you have not forgiven? Remember, we worship God first and foremost. But real worship leads to justice, compassion and forgiveness.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.