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The Urgent Necessity

To forgive as we have been forgiven is to overcome evil with good.


(Read Luke 23:33-46)

In the city of Hebron on Israel's West Bank, there is a wall on which is written a poem commemorating the death of a child. The child was just sitting in her stroller, out with her mother on a lovely March day. The girl was murdered in the kind of tit-for-tat fighting that has claimed the lives of so many children on the streets of so many cities for so many years all across our world. A writer for the Washington Post called the inscription on that wall an "an elegy to [that child's] pinchable cheeks, her sweet smile, her kerchiefed cuteness—and to the urgent necessity of revenge." Linger on that phrase for a moment. The poem on the wall reads, "We will take revenge, we will scream for revenge in body and spirit and await the coming of the Messiah."

In every age, there come moments when people tire of waiting for a Messiah. They tire of waiting for someone to come and sort things out and set them right. They decide that they must exercise for themselves the vengeance that is evil's due. You understand that, don't you? You see the things that go on in this world, things like the slaughtering of a ten-month old child, the shooting of an unarmed teenager, the raping and trafficking of innocents, or the beheading or blowing up people who won't buy your faith. There is swindling of the elderly, growing fatter while children starve, hooking others on drugs, feathering your nest with public funds, pleasuring yourself with the video of somebody's daughter, betraying your spouse, abusing your children, and burying yourself in a world of trivia and entertainment while the wicked run rampant. This is evil, and it makes us mad.

We're mad a lot these days. An article in Esquire magazine titled "American Rage: The Esquire/NBC News Survey" sums it like this in bold capital letters: "WE THE PEOPLE ARE P****ED. THE BODY POLITIC IS BURNING UP. AND THE ANGER THAT COURSES THROUGH OUR HEADLINES AND NEWS FEEDS—ABOUT INJUSTICE AND INEQUALITY, ABOUT MARGINALIZATION AND DISENFRANCHISEMENT, ABOUT WHAT THEY ARE DOING TO US—SHOWS NO SIGN OF ABATING." Studies show that half of all Americans are angrier today than they were a year ago. Two-thirds say that they read or hear something in the news that makes them angry at least once a day. And 88 percent say they are angry at least once a week.

The impulse, understandably, is to just stick it to them, whoever they happen to be. Let's make the rich pay. Let's kick the freeloaders out. Let's fire the politicians. Let's kill the lawyers and fry the criminals. Let's punish Wall Street. Let's nuke the terrorists. Let's nail those evil-doers for "We will take revenge, we will scream for revenge in body and spirit and await the coming of the Messiah."

Thoughts on evil

Lets not sugar-coat it, just because we are sitting in a church building we ought to hate evil. If you don't feel some righteous anger in the face of wrong-doing, then you're not in tune with God. God's Word says, "Hate what is evil; cling to what is good" (Rom. 12:9). Secondly, there has to be accountability for wrong-doing or chaos grows and injustice reigns. As Edmund Burke famously observed, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Evil deserves judgment and will finally get it. The Bible is clear about that. "For it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord" (Rom. 12:19).

Before we dash off like the writer of that poem on the wall in Hebron, screaming for revenge in body and spirit, there are some realities we would be wise to face. For example, it is good to remember that we are notoriously good at spotting evil in others and notoriously bad at seeing the evil in ourselves. The parent who is outraged by her children's bad behavior is often blind to her own bad behavior. The spouse who is enraged by a partner's terrible performance would be shocked to know what other observers think it would be like to be in their spouse's place. America is righteous in all she does until you live for awhile outside the country. Islam is pure in all it does until you see how it treats the vulnerable. Certain Christians are puzzled about why everyone doesn't want to be just like them. Do we understand why Jesus spoke so often about hypocrisy and superficial righteousness and warned people to be very careful as they judged?

It is important to remember that as societies, we have frequently over-steered when it comes to dispensing justice. The ostensibly "just reparations" demanded of Germany to end all wars after World War I actually gave rise to the fascism that brought on World War II. The "just punishment" of the elite classes in Russia and China spawned an era of economic fruitlessness and mass starvation. The "three strikes and you're out law" seemed so wise and just when first enacted, but it has left us with the largest prison population in the developing world and not a safer or healthier society. How many times in history have we employed a heavy hand to stop evil, only to discover that the hand itself had become, unintentionally, Satan's tool?

Revenge and revolution often seem like a fine plan for overcoming evil. It's why so many people of various parties vote for it and march for it and why moderate voices quickly get trampled and left behind in angry times. Sometimes, these angry initiatives do yield improvements in the general state of affairs. More often, however, one form of tyranny gets replaced by another. As a general rule, the eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth approach to overcoming evil is a strategy that works best for a family, society, or world that is okay with eventually being largely toothless and blind. As the inscription on the wall says, we can "scream for revenge in body and spirit and await the coming of the Messiah," and many people do; but that is not the way salvation comes.

When evil thinks it's doing good

By Good Friday, it was clear to almost everyone that Jesus could not possibly be the Messiah. The Pharisees had known it for a long time. They were the academic and capitol elites of their day and Jesus had the temerity to criticize them. The fact that he was so popular with the uneducated, unattractive people who lived in the rural areas made it doubly certain that Jesus was an instrument of ignorance or evil.

It was obvious also to the zealots that Jesus wasn't the Messiah. When he was offered the chance to overthrow the Romans by force and make Israel great again, he rejected it. With Israel in the state of crisis it was, Christ's low-energy approach seemed like evil of another kind. Judas had to drop his endorsement of Jesus.

It was certainly apparent to the Romans that Jesus was not the Messiah. By the end, Jesus had only a tiny circle of delegates. His poll numbers were so low Pilate wondered why the producers were even bringing Jesus to him for an interview. He was the worst kind of evil to a public figure like Pilate; Jesus was someone who could hurt Pilate's public ratings.

So they crucified Jesus. The liberals, the conservatives, and the powers that be crucified Jesus. Well, first, they tortured him. Then, when he was so physically ravaged that he struggled to stand, they made him carry his own instrument of execution through the streets while throngs of people jeered him for being a loser. They marched him up a hill, pushed him down on a rude spar of wood, and drove iron spikes through his bones and flesh as if he were an insect. Then they swung his cross up, thudded it into its post hole, and left Jesus there to die. They had judged, convicted, and punished Jesus for one pure reason: because he was so evil.

As Mary watched her baby die, do you suppose she recalled how she once held him in her arms, adoring those pinchable cheeks, that sweet smile, and that kerchiefed cuteness? I don't know. As he hung from that cross, gasping in agony for air and gazing through tears at a world so sin-sick and broken that it could so regularly mistake good for evil or so commonly do such evil in pursuit of the good, what do you suppose Jesus felt? As he looked down at that crowd mocking or morbidly enjoying his painful death, do you suppose Jesus felt, like we might and like so many angry people in our world right now do, the urgent necessity of revenge? Whatever he felt, what came from his lips was as far from a scream for revenge in body and spirit as ever was cried upon this earth. "Father, forgive them," he said, "for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34).

Victory over vengeance

In his magnificent study (The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World) of genocide, terror, and personal injustice, Yale professor, Miroslav Volf draws on his own experience of the Yugoslav Wars and his heritage as a Christian theologian to reflect on the meaning of the Cross. He says, "To triumph fully, evil needs two victories, not one. The first victory happens when an evil deed is perpetrated; the second victory, when evil is returned. After the first victory, evil would die if the second victory did not infuse it with new life."

I think of the story of Victoria Ruvolo, as told by Les Parrot in his book You're Stronger Than You Think, whose life was forever altered when 19-year-old Ryan Cushing hurled a frozen turkey out of his car into oncoming traffic. The projectile crashed through Victoria's windshield and obliterated her face. Yet Ruvolo attended Cushing's sentencing and pleaded with his judge for leniency. "There is no room for vengeance in my life, and I do not believe a long, hard prison term would do you, me, or society any good." Cushing, who wept and expressed profound remorse for his action was looking at a 25 year prison sentence. Victoria's testimony changed the sentence to 6 months and turned around his wayward life."

Think of the church in Charleston whose members extended forgiveness to the man who ravaged their congregation with death. Do you think racism in America grew or diminished because of those Christians' refusal to return evil for evil? Think of those Amish people in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania who lost their children to a gunman's evil deeds but then reached out to embrace his family with love. Do you think respect for the Amish tradition and the health of that community went up or down because they chose not to return evil for evil? More personally, think of all the sins of commission or omission in your life or mine. Think of all the evidences of evil and ego and deception and distortion that are on your eternal rap sheet and mine. Does it matter to you and me that Jesus took the full weight of all that evil upon himself on the cross and rather than screaming for revenge said, "Father, let them go. Let them live and flourish."


The great Scottish Presbyterian James Stewart once marveled at the uncommon strategy of Jesus as he sought to overcome evil, in his book The Strong Name:

The very triumphs of His foes … He used for their defeat. He compelled their dark achievements to serve His ends, not theirs. They nailed Him to the tree, not knowing that by that very act they were bringing the world to His feet. They gave Him a cross, not guessing that He would make it a throne. They flung Him outside the gates to die, not knowing that in that very moment they were lifting up all the gates of the universe, to let the King come in. They thought to root out His doctrines, not understanding that they were implanting imperishably in the hearts of men the very name they intended to destroy. They thought they had God with His back to the wall, pinned and helpless and defeated: they did not know that it was God Himself who had tracked them down. He did not conquer in spite of the dark mystery of evil. He conquered through it.

This is why the cross of Christ still towers o'er the wrecks of time. It is here we see evil at its hateful worst. It is here we see an accounting for sin and a judgment exacted. It is also here that we see the horror of evil overcome by the splendor of God's redeeming love. We hear the good news that we are forgiven. The heart we need to turn from the revenge that is wrecking our world to the amazing grace that overcomes evil can be found by you and me and further formed in us to the glory of God's name and for the hope of this world.

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. Thoughts on evil

II. When evil thinks it's doing good

III. Victory over vengeance