Sermon for Feb. 6, 2011, Wrath and the Peacemakers,

Matt. 5:9, 21-26

Wrath and the Peacemakers 

Egyptian protester kisses policeman: peacemaking

Matt. 5:9   “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

The Downward Plunge into Violence

The bible begins in a perfect world, a garden paradise where a man and woman are in perfect harmony with each other and with God.  But they want more: they want to be god-like, so they choose evil over good, and the downward spiral begins.

First, they play the blaming and blame-shifting game: he says “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree.”  She says, “The serpent tricked me,”  Then, as the story moves on, there is a rapid sequence of scenes that depict a head-long plunge downwards.  Brothers have a conflict; one feels shamed; he gets angry.  God watches – even steps in to give a warning:

Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.  6 The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?  7… sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”  8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” (Genesis 4)

Lamech’s Boast

The story descends further.  Cain’s descendants learn his ways.  We hear of Lamech; he comes home with a proud boast to his two wives:

23 Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. 24 If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4)

Lamech was the father of the famous ark-builder, Noah.  Genesis sums up the world that Noah was born into this way:

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” (Gen. 6:11)

Down and down and down; anger, vengeance, murder, violence; it’s enough to make you want to destroy the whole thing and start over.

Beatitudes and Deadly Sins

Is there a word from God for a world like this?  We are in a series in which each week we are examining one of Jesus’ Beatitudes which he gave in his famous Sermon on the Mount.  These are Jesus’ fundamental, central teachings; the starting point of true spiritual growth.

We are also pairing one of Jesus Beatitudes with one of the “Seven Deadly Sins.”  This pairing was suggested to me by a book by Jeff Cook.  The Seven Deadly Sins are the church’s best thinking, over many years, of the primary obstacles we face as we try to live the way Jesus taught us to live.

Today we are looking at the deadly sin of wrath, paired with the beatitude,   “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matt. 5:9)

Wrath

We don’t use the word “wrath” much anymore.  Wrath is anger, but more so.  Anger may be what we feel when someone hurts us, either verbally or physically; our faces flush, our blood pressure rises, we feel the desire to strike back by some means.  This is our biological inheritance.  It served us well when we were running around in loin-cloths with bones in our noses and with much smaller brains in our skulls.  Now it mostly just gets us in trouble and makes matters worse.

Wrath is more than an initial anger-reaction.  Wrath nurses the anger.  Wrath blows on the coals of anger until they become red-hot.  Wrath indulges in the seductive self-deception of righteousness indignation, and self-justification.  Wrath, as Cook says well, “is not concerned with restoration, but with revenge and dominance.”

Wrath is spiritual immaturity.  Wrath on display is not just a momentary failure, it is more: wrath is the sign that there has not been spiritual growth over years.  We no longer have bones in our noses, but the question is, how far have we developed spiritually?   The assessment is still true:

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” (Gen. 6:11)

The Blessed Peacemakers

There is an alternative way to be.  Jesus said,

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Let’s clear away some brush so that we can see this beatitude accurately.   The one who said this was Jesus, not Miss Manners.  Jesus was the one who was capable of saying things like:

“Woe to you blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”  (Matt. 23:24)

Jesus neither avoided conflict nor backed down in the face of opposition.  He is the one who took a whip to the animals in the temple and drove out the money changers who were desecrating it.

So, for Jesus, being a peacemaker is not the same as being a docile door-mat, a  spineless “peace at any price” person.  Jesus was passionate – about God, about justice, and about people: suffering people, poor people, and excluded people.

But he never used his passionate opposition to evil as an excuse for vengeance.  He was not seduced by “righteous indignation.”  He did not give-in to wrath.

Jesus’ Vision

Instead, he held up the vision of the world as it was made to be, the world as it should be, the world as the prophets say it will be, when, as Micah said,

“they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more;” (Micah 4:3)

Jesus’ vision of the world as it should be was multi-layered and richly complex.  It was both internal and personal – individuals made right and at peace  with God and each other, as well as public and political – nations and structures made right and at peace with God and each other.

The Personal

On a personal level Jesus got very specific about how God expects his children to live.  It seems that perhaps he had the story-line of Cain and Able in his mind when  later in the same Sermon on the Mount he said:

21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment;”  (Matt. 5:21-22)

Yes, there is some hyperbolic over-statement for effect, which Jesus used a lot – but it’s meant to wake us up.   Anger is like bacteria:  give it nutrients and it will explode in volume.  Yes, it feels good to be all “righteously indignant” – that should be the first danger sign.  Everything that feeds our pride easily seduces us into self-deception, the essence of spiritual immaturity.

The Political

There is another layer beyond the internal.  Jesus was not just a personal-trainer.  His vision of the world put right and at peace was profoundly political every bit as much as it was personal.  He specifically opposed the movement of violent revolution that was gathering steam in his day.  He saw the zealots and knew of their plans to overthrow their Roman oppressors.  He utterly rejected that violent path.  When push came to shove, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the sword came out, he said,

52“Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52)

Peter did put his sword away that day, but not too many years afterwards the swords did come out, and Jesus’ prediction horrifically came true.  It is still coming true today – all around the world.

Judas Iscariot, the zealot, betrayed Jesus because he would not take up sword and embrace “the myth of redemptive violence” (as theologian Walter Wink’s famously called it).  Jesus has been betrayed constantly throughout history and down to today in the same way.

War as Horror

Are we required then to be pacifists?  I wish I could be a pacifist, but I cannot.  Evil is too powerful.  Police have to be prepared to stop bad guys, nations need armies for protection.  Genocide must be stopped.  But I also believe what I have been told.  I have never had to go to war, but every last person I have ever spoken to who has been there, including some here today, have told me the same thing: war is horrible.

Even when it is justified and necessary, it is always horrible.  What happens in every war is horrible – the intended and (hopefully) justifiable parts of war are bad enough – but every war has always had unintended victims, piles of innocent bodies.

And yet, what happens when the topic comes up?  It is not with agony and horror that many of us consider the prospect of war, it is more like with bravado and glee!   How our Heavenly Father must grieve!

Our Mandate from Jesus

Jesus pronounced a solemn blessing on peacemakers.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

If we want to call God “Heavenly Father” and be his children, we have been given our mandate.  It does not matter that our culture loves violence; we have been called to an alternative way of living, on every level.

We have been called to be peacemakers in our homes and personal relationships.  We will not nurse grudges.  We will be the first to offer forgiveness and reconciliation because we are children of God, followers of Jesus.

We have been called to be peacemakers in our society.  We may disagree with one another over taxes, health care, the role of government, or even over human sexuality, but we will respect each other’s dignity and right to differ.  We will require our political leaders to act with civility towards one another, or loose our votes.  We will be peacemakers as our Lord requires; we are children of God!

We have been called to be peacemakers in our world.  We will demand that there is never a rush to conflict by our political leaders.  We will demand that if there is ever a need for war, that it be the utterly last resort, after every means of avoiding it has been exhausted, and we will never ever enter it with anything but agony over the failure of our efforts to keep peace.

No matter how small a minority we are, we will not betray our Lord; we affirm Jesus’ words:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

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