I’m preparing to guest preach the next two weeks. When I do pulpit supply, I usually refer to the lectionary because I can be pretty sure the passage was not preached on the week before. If you follow the Revised Common Lectionary, you’ve probably been studying the Sermon on the Mount. This coming week the passage is Matthew 5:38-48. This, of course, is everyone’s favorite. It’s the one where Jesus tells us to go the extra mile, to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
I had an interesting discussion in a recent Bible study about how God speaks to us. Most Christians would agree that God speaks to us through Scripture. But is this the only way?
I don’t think so. In Scripture we see where circumstances confirm a word from the Lord (Gideon in Judges 6, the shepherds in Luke 2). We also see that people confirm God’s word (Simeon and Anna in Luke 2, Philip in Acts 8). I believe this is still true today.
This is both the good news and the bad news.
It’s good news because if we don’t get the message one way, God helps us to get it another way. It’s sort of like multiple intelligences. This is good news, because we want to have God’s path for us confirmed. We don’t want to make the wrong choice or head the wrong direction. This is good news because it shows the living, breathing, active nature of God’s word in our lives.
The bad news is that there are a lot of competing voices in the world. It’s hard enough to discern God’s voice in the best of times but must we have confirmation in these other ways? What happens when they conflict? How do I know I’m not trying to ordain the choice I want?
The first step is always making sure that what you are “hearing” is consistent with God’s word to us in Scripture. This is what brings me back to Matthew 5. Throughout this chapter Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…But I say to you.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could hear God’s voice this clearly?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” – Matthew 5:38-42 (NRSV)
As we try to discern God’s voice in the cacophony of voices in and outside our heads, we should consider authority and motive. I’m not going to argue Jesus’ authority to say this to us – hopefully we can agree that he has it. So what about motive?
On the face of it, it doesn’t seem like Jesus has our best interest at heart. After all, turning the other cheek may open me up to abuse or being taken advantage of. We could also agree that Jesus’ motives are always good but let’s play this out since we often turn to others for godly counsel. To understand Jesus’ motives, we need to move further into this passage.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons [and daughters] of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others?
Do not even pagans do that?
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSV)
Jesus is not asking us to do something as much as he is asking us to be like someone. Jesus isn’t even asking us to be like him (at least not here, Jesus does this later). He says that when we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, we become sons and daughters of our Father in heaven. Isn’t this the point: to be a reflection of God to those around us?
God’s word to us – whether we hear it in Scripture, find it confirmed in our circumstances or clarified through the voice of godly counsel – always has our best at heart. Just because God’s word is clear, does not mean it’s easy. Jesus says over and over again in John’s Gospel that if we believe in him and obey his word our joy will be complete. I have it on good authority that this is a Voice we can trust.
As part of my sermon preparation, I was asked to create Worship Notes for the confirmation class. Here was my challenge to them in the coming week:
Identify someone in your life that is your “enemy.” You might not truly hate them, but maybe you avoid them or wish they would just leave you alone.
- Walk away from conversations that lead to anger and hate. Philippians 4:18
- If you can’t pray for your enemy, begin by asking God to give you His heart for your enemy. James 1:5
- Pray for your enemy’s basic needs. Romans 12:17, 21
In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven. – Matthew 5:16 (CEB)