Epiphany for Sinners
We go today where we seldom do: A 7th Sunday after Epiphany. It's only possible to have one more after this, but where we want to get to is that last verse: Where God's measure towards us is described by 3 perfect, passive verbs: forever being pressed down, shaken together, overflowing. How can that be for sinners like us? Only an Epiphany of the God-Man can take us there.
I see that some of the things the God-Man says in the text I can do. Love my enemies, do good to those who hate me, bless those who curse me, and pray for those who mistreat me. I got that. Don't get me wrong. It's hard, but with determination and disicpline I can do these on the outside at least. Really? Don't you feel Jesus turning up the heat? Our enemies conduct toward us escalates from mind, to mouth, to hand. It goes from hating, to cursing, to abusing, and our response is to be a corresponding escalating of doing good with the hands, blessing with the mouth, and praying in the mind. Whole churches consider these words of Jesus as a blueprint for Christian living. They will spend all their time strategizing how to do better. O they will grudgingly admit that they have a hard time doing these things consistently or out of the heart, but it's just a matter of degrees. They're getting better.
It's on that sort of response that Jesus really turns up the heat. Welcome to the next level. Jesus says, "'If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.'" You good with that? Do you ever, have you ever, will you ever do these? I don't do these things with friends let alone enemies. Maybe that's just me. The best I got here in this season of Epiphany, which means appearing, is that I appear to do some of these things. That's not nearly good enough. Laws of God have to be kept perfectly in word, deed, and heart before you can enter the kingdom of heaven. Moreover every broken jot or tittle of His Law has to be paid for. We're funny. Most of us have been at one end or the other of a broken contract. Human law will enforce every last detail of a written contract made by sinners. And we think that's the way it should be. But God? No, He should just let sinners skate. They tried. They did their best. Baloney.
At best we appear to keep God's holy law. Jesus appears, i.e. He Epiphanies to really do it all in place of all sinners. Skip to the bottom of the text. God in Christ is kind to the 2 most difficult people to be around: the ungrateful and the wicked. Not many people are able to maintain their kindness to a stray dog/cat they befriended that bites or scratches them. And how hard it is be kind to a neighbor who goes out of the way to literally trespass against you. But not God in Christ. Only one healed leper returned to give Him glory, but Jesus didn't un-heal the other 9. At the 11th hour, when Judas is in the very act of betrayal, Jesus calls him 'friend.'
Jesus, God the Son, appears, i.e. comes on the scene, to keep all of the laws that we can't keep that accuse us night and day. But go to John 18:22-23, "When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby struck Him in the face. 'Is this the way you answer the high priest?' he demanded. 'If I said something wrong,' Jesus replied, 'testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike Me?'" What gives? This is Thursday night, this is the height of the Passion, but no cheek turning here. What's going on? I'll tell you what. Jesus is saving us from the curse of the doable law. There have been pacifists who indeed have turned their check every single time. There are Christians who have given not just coats but the shirts off their back and have given to out and out enemies whatever they wanted and never asked it back. But then again, there are plenty of non-Christians who have done the same things.
Rather than giving you instructions to follow to be a Christian, Jesus stacks law upon law upon you till you cry, "Uncle." Till you say, "I can't do that." A Biblicistic, literalistic way of reading your Bible leads you to think of it primarily as a handbook for Christian living rather than the revelation, the Epiphany, of God in Christ. So after reading in Luke about turning the other cheek, you're confident that's what it means to be a Christian. Until you find Jesus not turning His cheek. Then you see this text that appears to be about what you're to do is really about what Jesus did. But the depths of that doesn't come through until the depths of your sins and sinfulness come through, and as long as you live thinking you can do the law, it doesn't; it won't; it can't.
Jonah couldn't fathom the depths of God's mercy, remember? He didn't want to go to preach repentance to pagan Nineveh because God would forgive those brutal, heartless terrorists. That's what happened and it fried Jonah. He goes into a pout outside the city. He's baking in the sun; God mercifully sends a plant to grow rapidly and shade him, and then sends a worm to eat that plant. This too fries Jonah. Then we have this interchange: "But God said to Jonah, 'Do you have a right to be angry about the vine? I do,' he said. I am angry enough to die.' But the Lord said, 'You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city'" (4:9-11)?
Search "Who were the Assyrians and what were they known for?" and you'll read: "The Assyrians were perhaps most famous for their fearsome army. They were a warrior society where fighting was a part of life. It was how they survived. They were known throughout the land as cruel and ruthless warriors." People struggle with God sending a great fish to swallow Jonah and spitting him back out. The mercy of God for pagan Nineveh is far more unbelievable. As is this illustration of God's love for fallen Egyptians. After the crossing of the Red Sea where the entire Egyptian army pursing the OT Church is drowned, they are whooping it up in heaven. An angel sees God standing their somber and silent. And the angel says, "Why aren't you celebrating Lord? You've delivered Your people with Your mighty hand." God answers, "Should I celebrate while my children lay dead upon the seashore?"
Grace is really the key here. The Christmas Gospel from John, telling us "The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus." And "of Jesus' fullness we have all received grace upon grace." Or turn to Zechariah 4:6-7. The prophet stands before a great mountain in the way of rebuilding the temple. That could be literal debris from the Babylonians destroying it. It could be the sin and sinfulness of the fallen OT Church that stands in the way. In either case, Zechariah promises that the capstone of the rebuilt temple will be brought forth with "Grace, grace to it!" No one knows the mountains of God's mercy and grace he needs unless God shows him.
No grace at all is needed to love those who you love you, to do good to those who do good to you, to lend knowing you're going to get it back. Our insert doesn't help us understand the point here. Jesus literally says if you love, do good, and lend, to those who reciprocate, "What grace is that to you." Three times Jesus uses the Greek word for grace, charis. You see just how much charis you've received when you see that you are the ungrateful and the wicked who have been mercied for Jesus' sake without any merit or worthiness in you now or in the future. The 'ungrateful' is literally the 'acharistos'. When we do the works of the law according to our standard or with our strength. We don't do them by God's grace. But here we're told that God in Christ has mercy for ungracious sinners like us.
The word 'mercy' here is also special. It's not eleos as in the Kyrie. This is oiktos which denotes an expression of emotion and sympathy with a willingness to help (Kittle, V, 159-61). Eleos is a synonym in that it's a feeling of pity but oiktos has idea of feeling with action. We were wholly at fault, biting the hand that fed us, scratching the grace of God, yet He sent His Son in our place. Without any merit or worthiness in us, purely of His grace He mercied us. Jesus came to do the law perfectly, stopping it from being able to accuse or condemn us, but God had no mercy on Jesus and punished Him for all sinners even ungracious and wicked ones. So, He can look with mercy on Assyrians and with love upon Egyptians.
Until we see ourselves in their ranks, we've seen neither the depth of our sins nor the depth of God's grace and mercy in Christ. The corollary to having a doable law is thinking we're a savable people to God. Luther said the only way we'll ever seek the things of God is "by a naked hope in the mercy of God" (Commentary on first 22 Psalms, 49). He goes on to say the only thing that opposes God's mercy is "our confidence" in our own righteousness (Ibid., 260-1). Even the Medevial church got this. Clergy were under the church not state and so couldn't be tried by the state. To prove you were clergy, you had to demonstrate your ability to read Latin. The traditional text the court used was Ps. 51:1, "Have mercy upon me, O God" (Browser's Dictionary, 79). Get that? Every clergyman was expected to know of God's mercy.
You'll never get to you using God's measure for others, one pressed, shaken, overflowing in grace and mercy, unless you first see that's how God in Christ measured these to you. Take the Introit home. Just use these over the top passages: "He forgives all my sins." "He does not treat us as our sins deserve." "As far as east is from west, so far, has He removed our transgressions from us." The Epiphany, the appearance of such grace and mercy for sinners like us in Jesus is what forever changes people. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany (20220220); Luke 6:27-38