Feb 19 :: Matt 5:44-45 :: God's Benevolence, and Ours

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. – Matt 5:44-45

I want to work backwards through these two verses this morning. 
Sort of like a mystery novel – the first few chapters only make sense when the ending is revealed. We can only understand the high call God has placed on our lives, when we first understand God himself. 

So that's where we shall begin, with the character of our Father in heaven, who, as Jesus said, makes the sun in the sky rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

What looks like a fairly simple statement, is actually packed with theological insight.

To get there though, we have to remember that the world of Jesus' day had a very different economy than ours does. There were no factory-farms, or government subsidies or globalized trade, or grocery stores to go to. If you wanted food in first century Galilee, pretty much your only option was to catch it or grow it in your own town.

So, when Jesus is talking about Sun and Rain, he's not just talking about pretty things in the sky, he's talking about livelihoods. He's talking about provision, and food, and ultimately survival. He's talking about our daily bread.

What Jesus is saying here, is that God is the provider of these things. In the same way he provides food for all the beasts of the earth, as the Psalmist says, he provides Sun and Rain for the harvest, so that the creatures made in his image – us humans, can have food to eat, can stay alive.

Sun and Rain, and by extension food and drink, and all of the material things that keep us alive and that we enjoy – none of these are just natural things that we can take for granted. They don't happen on their own. They aren't automatic. They aren't just “givens”, they are given to us, hour by hour, day by day, by the God who rules over heaven and earth.

When we understand this, we catch a new glimpse of the kindness of God. Of his goodness.

Think about what you would do: Think of your own adult kids, if you have them: Imagine you gave them a Christmas gift, and they turned around and hit you on the head with it. And then tried to steal your wallet. Imagine if that happened every day! Would you continue to give them gifts? Of course not! And yet, what does our heavenly father do? He continues, every day to give gifts of life and food to all his creatures. Whether we are grateful or ungrateful. Whether we do good or evil with his gifts. He continues to provide for us. He is always benevolent and kind. 

This is a pretty crazy level of mercy, right?
It means that God is sustaining the life of the members of ISIS, just as much as he provides for us here in Opelika.

As Jesus said, he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good.

Distilling theology from this truth then, we can say about our own lives, that God's material blessing is not connected to our performance as Christians.

I'll say that again:
God's material blessing is not connected to our performance as Christians.

This is a truth with two sides. On the one hand, it is a great mercy. If whether or not I got food to live depended on how I was living as a Christian, there would be a lot of days where I would go hungry. In fact I would surely be dead already. No, he doesn't stop blessing us with our daily bread, when we mess up and sin. When we fall short of his commands. He continues to provide.
Thanks be to God!

On the other hand, just because we continue to be blessed with our daily bread, doesn't mean we're necessarily living on the right path.
Since God's material blessings are independent of my performance – which, recall, is a mercy to us – we can't read into what blessings we have received, and assume we are doing just fine in our Christian lives.

In other words, outward blessing, is not an indicator of spiritual well-being. 

Members of ISIS, got food today.

The only way to know if what we are doing in our lives is in accord with God's good will, is to study his Word, and to seek that will in prayer. 

outward blessing, is not an indicator of spiritual well-being.

On the contrary, as a side note: Those who have followed the Lord closest: the apostles, and martyrs and saints throughout the ages, often experience more physical hardship than others, not less. 

But back to the main point of verse 45: The mercy and benevolence of God, in his provision and in his gifts. 

And working backwards from this reality: It is because GOD is merciful, that WE are to be merciful. 

But the mercy we are supposed to show, that's the third point I want to make this morning – we'll come to it in just a minute. Point #2 is the bridge that connects the two. What is it, Why is it, How is it that these two things – God's mercy and our mercy – are connected?

The answer is right there in that phrase in verse 45: “children of your father in heaven”.

The whole Christian life can be summed up as the process of becoming like God our Father. 

As Jesus says in verse 48, we are to be “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Part of this high call to perfection is to be found in the similarity of our behaviors.

What God does, that's what we should do. We should copy him. We should imitate him.  As Paul says in Ephesians 5: Be imitators of God, as beloved Children. 

And that's why Jesus has given these crazy high standards in his sermon on the mount: moral commands against anger, and lust, and swearing, and everything else that is opposed to Godliness.

Jesus tells us all these things in the Gospel, to point out to us the narrow way of imitating God. To give in plain detail what it means to be holy like God is holy, as God commanded long ago through his servant Moses, as we heard in our reading from leviticus.

But if all God did to encourage us to imitate him was to describe the strict rules, we'd be left in a sorry state indeed, right?

It is the great message of Christmas that we celebrated just a few weeks ago that of course this is not all God does. No – God the Son actually became incarnate, he became like us in Jesus –
and why did he do this? What is the purpose of the incarnation? 
God became like us so that we might be like him! So that we might be empowered to imitate him.

He took on our flesh, and united it with his divinity, so that he could pour out his holy Spirit on all flesh. That is, because Jesus himself bridged the gap between God and us, God the Spirit can now live within us. And he does! You who have been baptized have been given the Holy Spirit!

This is part of what Paul is talking about in Corinthians, right? 
I love when this happens – when all the readings line up like this. The Scripture tells us: We are temples of the Holy Spirit! He lives within us! And therefore, we are not alone in our efforts to imitate God! God himself is active within each of us, giving us strength to do just that! Only with his help is it possible, but with his help – it is possible!!

It is a terrible mistake to think that, because we acknowledge we are sinners, we can just be ok with that fact. No, because God lives within us, we should be exceedingly sorrowful over our sins, and resolve with all our might and with all his help, to seek to stay on the narrow way. 
To be imitators of God, as beloved Children. To copy our father, who has made us born again, through the Holy Spirit. 

That's the bridge between God's behavior and ours. Jesus. And The Holy Spirit. The fact that we have been adopted as his children, and are now called to live according to the family values of his heavenly family. 

Which brings us, working backwards, to my third and last point this morning:

Jesus commands us to  Love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

Now this is crazy, right? It's un-natural! Everything in us is inclined to do the exact opposite – to love those who love us, and to hate our enemies with a passion!

If someone slaps you on the cheek, you would almost certainly slap them back, am I wrong?

This is natural, in a sense, but it is not Godly. 

Jesus gives us a higher standard that is greater than nature. It is super-natural. And, like I've been saying, it is only possible with the super-natural help that he gives us.

But here it is: Since God doesn't “strike back” when others oppose him. Neither should we. 
God sends good rain on the good people and the evil people.
And WE should do good to good people and to evil people.

We are to do good to those who hate us, just as we would do to someone whom we loved dearly.

Now, this is hard for us at every level. Not just as humans, but especially as Americans, where we are really big on freedom and rights. 

To be clear, what Jesus is telling us to do –  It's the exact OPPOSITE of insisting on your rights. It's giving them up entirely! It's giving away even more than is being stolen!  if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well  (!)

If this sounds really radical – then you're hearing it right. It IS radical!

But if we are followers of Jesus. If we are children of God, as we are – then we have no other option other than to seek to be radical.

At every level of our lives.

At a personal level: It means Christians can never, ever, ever hold a Grudge. So if you've got any grudges this morning – you need to give them to God. It means Christians can never hit back. If someone insults you. Or attacks you, verbally or physically, Jesus knows nothing of retaliation, or vigilante justice. 
Fleeing for safety, or defending others he's – big on, but retaliation? – no way. 
Verse 39: Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. 
If someone treats you badly – not only does Christ call us not to retaliate, but he goes even further. 
Neutral avoidance isn't the goal; Christ commands us to treat them exactly as we would if we loved them.

Just like how God does – he provides rain and food for us out of love, regardless of how we treat him. 

Christ's high calling here affects us at a personal level, but it also affects us at a societal level. Let me ask you – what is your primary identity – are you first a Christian, or are you first an American?
If that's true, then what Christ asks us to do is our chief marching order.
In other words – the fact that our Christian life affects us personally, means it must also affect societally, or in other words: Politically.

And: Christ tells us to Love our enemies.

So no matter what our country says about this or that enemy, or who are enemy is, or what they are trying to do, as Christians, we are called to show love to them no matter what. 
Just like our heavenly father does!
This means that if Jihadists moved in next door, God wants me to bake them cookies to welcome them, and have them over to dinner. And to never speak ill of them, as human beings. Jihad I am against. But Jihadists – God calls me to love.
As Christians, we are not afraid of any human being, no matter what country they are from, or what skin color they have, or what religion they adhere to. We are not afraid, because perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). 

Of all people, we should be the least worried about the things our leaders are telling us to be worried about. Because whether he is friendly, or whether he hates me, any one I come in contact with, citizen, immigrant, refugee, whatever – my response is to be the same. To love. To have over for dinner. To help out. To talk with. To talk well of. To give gifts to.

If this sounds like I'm wading into politics – it's not my fault! Look at the text! JESUS is telling us this!
Love your enemies...if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?

In Jesus' day, a personal enemy was often also a political enemy. That bit about walking two miles when you're made to walk one – that's a thing that Roman soldiers – who were political enemies, and represented the oppressive political over-lords that all the Jews of Jesus' day hated with a passion – Roman soldiers would make Jews carry their supplies for them, one mile at a time. So, when Jesus says 'love that guy', and gives a concrete example, 'Go an extra mile', he's absolutely treading on political toes. '

Jesus is certainly commanding us, not only to love that rude family member who antagonizes us, but also those people who we think of as enemies of our country. Political enemies. 

LOVE your enemies. Love Muslims. Love Syrians. Love Democrats. Love Republicans. 

Whoever your enemy is, that's who Jesus commands you to love.

It's a super-natural command, a command that imitates the very character of God, who loves us even when we are his enemies.

Thanks be to him, for his infinite mercy to us. May we imitate it in every area of our lives, as his children. Amen.