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How do you respond to evil? What do you do when you see evil everywhere, on TV, on the news stand, on the internet? What do you do when people viciously attack you because they disagree with what you said in a post or a tweet? What if someone you thought was a friend turns out to be the one gossiping about you, or maybe stealing your identity? What do you do if you are physically attacked or abused?
We all know what the world says, what our first instinct usually is. “Don’t get mad, get even. Give them some of their own medicine. If they hit you, hit back harder. If they say bad things about you, rally everyone you can think of to say bad things about them.” The world says, “be tough, be strong, don’t let people run over you, stand up for yourself, exact justice.” It sounds so right. It seems like revenge is sweet and will make you feel good. But will it? Anything that goes against God’s will can’t make you feel good, not in the long term. It can only weigh you down with guilt and, if it becomes more important to you than God and his word, it could even destroy your faith and cause you to lose heaven.
This morning, Paul and Jesus give us some surprising ways to deal with evil. We heard how Joseph dealt in a surprising way with the evil his brothers did to him. And, of course there is no better example of dealing with evil in a surprising way than Jesus, who went to the cross to pay for everyone else’s evil and prayed for the forgiveness of those who were persecuting and mistreating him as they nailed him to the cross.
It’s interesting that at the beginning of this section of his letter Paul says that we are to have unhypocritical love, and that we are to hate what is evil and love what is good. Then he tells us to bless those who persecute us; bless and do not curse. Isn’t persecuting someone evil, especially persecuting someone because they believe in Jesus? So how can we hate the evil of persecution and bless those who are persecuting us at the same time? It sounds a lot like the old saying, “hate the sin but love the sinner,” doesn’t it?
Maybe the example of Joseph can help us. When his brothers were worried that he would try to get revenge for what they had done to him, Joseph showed that he hated evil and blessed those who had persecuted him. He showed that he hated evil by calling out their sin. You intended to harm me. What you did was wrong, sinful, inexcusable. But God turned it into good.
I’m sure that while Joseph was stuck in the cistern, and as his brothers sold him and handed him over to the Ishmaelites, and as he sat in prison because of the lies of Potiphar’s wife he was tempted to curse his brothers. But as he saw how God blessed him in spite of what they did to him, and when they came to buy food and he saw their guilt and their need for food, he blessed them by assuring them of his forgiveness and by providing more than they could have imagined. He hated the evil they had done to him but wanted them to be blessed with forgiveness so that they could share eternity with him in the glory of heaven.
Think of this in the context of some of the evils of today. Think of someone who has had an abortion, or someone addicted to pornography or drugs and alcohol, or someone trapped by the lies of the LGBTQ community. Hate what is evil. That means that you have continue to call what God calls sin, sin. But bless those who persecute you, and if you call these things sins you will be persecuted. Bless them by making it clear by your words and actions that you are pointing out that what they have done or are doing is sinful because you love them. Bless them by making it clear that you don’t consider yourself any better than they are. Bless them by telling them that you need forgiveness in Jesus just as much as they do. Bless them by pointing them to Jesus. Don’t curse them, call them names or speak evil of them. Pray that they would learn the truth, if not from you, from someone, so that they can be brought to hate the evil they are doing and be blessed by having Jesus remove their guilt and strengthen them to turn away from their sin.
One of the reasons so many are turning away from at least organized Christianity, is that too many of us who call ourselves Christians curse those who do evil instead of trying to bless them. We come across as judgmental, holier-than-thou. Some who claim to be Christians have made the news for picketing funerals and saying that the person died because they or others were practicing evil. They are clearly proud and conceited, thinking of themselves more highly than they ought. They might think they are hating evil, but they end up practicing evil themselves. As Paul says, don’t be overcome by evil, overcome evil with good.
Here’s the challenge. It’s a lot easier, a lot more comfortable to only hang out with people who are like you, who share the same faith and values and politics that you do. But how do you overcome evil with good if you never interact with those who might be practicing evil? The church people of Jesus’ day looked down on Jesus because he accepted invitations to eat with tax collectors and sinners. He interacted with them. Jesus made it clear that he was not excusing or condoning their sins. But he was willing to be in an uncomfortable situation and talk to people who were not like him so that he could not only point out their sin but assure them that he had come to win forgiveness for them. Not every sinner he ate with was brought to repentance and faith, but it wasn’t because Jesus avoided them or looked down on them.
Paul says to us, be willing to associate with people of low position. They may not like what you have to say about sin and salvation, but as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. Show by your actions that you are not conceited. Show by your actions that, even though they may curse you, you want them to be truly blessed, not just with food and water, but with forgiveness and eternal life.
It’s good to remember that when Paul tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn he is not talking primarily about our fellow believers. Of course, we want to rejoice with and mourn with our brothers and sisters in Christ. But Paul is talking here about people who are not a part of our congregation, people who might be a neighbor, or a coworker, but who is not a fellow member of our church. When something good happens in their life and they are rejoicing, what an opportunity to rejoice with them and point out that their good news is not something that happened by accident, or only because of their hard work, but it is a blessing from God. When a person has lost a loved one, mourn with them. Be there for them. Take them a meal. You will have an opportunity to share with them why, although you grieve when someone dies, it’s not as those who have no hope. You have the peace and comfort of knowing that those who die in the Lord are blessed. Who knows how God might use your witness to bless them beyond what they can imagine?
As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. But what about when you try to give your enemy something to eat and they curse you, or persecute you? What about when evil shows itself directly in your life, and you are hurt? Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. If you take revenge you are trying to overcome evil with evil and that never works. It just makes you evil. Leave room, get out of the way of God’s wrath, don’t bring his wrath on yourself. Remember that only the Lord can bring perfect justice. Only he knows the heart. Only he knows the future. Let vengeance up to him, and, as Paul reminds us in the next chapter, up to those to whom he has given the authority to punish evil doers – the governing authorities.
Peter reminds us that Jesus did not seek revenge. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. But Peter also reminds us that Jesus didn’t do this to give us an example to follow, although he did that too. Jesus did not seek vengeance because he came to suffer for the sins of those who were insulting him, and not only for their sins, but for our sins, and for the sins of the whole world. Peter continues, he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. He overcame the ultimate evil with the ultimate good and became the ultimate source of blessing for us.
Paul started this chapter by reminding us of the only thing that enables us to overcome our natural desire to curse our enemies and to seek revenge on those who hurt us. In view of God’s mercy. In view of the fact that God repaid the evil you have done with the good of sending Jesus to save you. In view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, that says don’t get mad, get even. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. As we are reminded of God’s mercy to us, and the fact that he lived and died for us even when we were still his enemies, and or our enemies too, we will be encouraged to respond to evil in ways that will surprise those who do evil; ways that may even move them to recognize their evil and be willing to listen when we tell them about Jesus. Then evil will be overcome by good in the highest way possible.