This was a sermon I gave at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Dixon, Illinois, a few weeks ago. It didn’t really work as a sermon, at least not for that congregation in that place at that time. But I’ve wanted to post it for a while because this is an example of where my thinking theologically is moving.
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Sermon for the Weekend of August 30-31
- Jeremiah 15:15-21
- Psalm 26:1-8
- Romans 12:9-21
- Matthew 16:21-28
“Lord, you know. Remember me and visit me, and take vengeance for me on my persecutors.”
These are the words of Jeremiah, his lament, in the first reading today. A reading which comes in the midst of God’s angry and unyielding judgment upon God’s people, a judgment they have earned because of their faithlessness and their idolatry. In the previous chapter, God has commanded Jeremiah, “Do not pray for the welfare of this people,” for God “will not hear their cry” and “will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence.”
God is speaking this. About God’s people.
It’s a harsh message, this message of earned judgment, of coming defeat and destruction. It’s a message no one wants to hear, especially in the midst of war — because for much of Jeremiah’s prophetic career, the Kingdom of Judah is at war with Babylon, a war of defense and survival, and Judah is losing. Jeremiah pays quite a price for the things he says. Imagine, for a moment, how someone counseling defeat and surrender would have fared in the weeks and months after 9/11.
God says a lot to Jeremiah, and sometimes it’s not entirely clear whether God is speaking to Jeremiah, or through him to Israel, or both. Right before today’s passage, God tells Jeremiah, “Your wealth and your treasures I will give as spoil, without price, for all your sins, throughout all your territory. I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know, for in my anger a fire is kindled that shall burn forever.” That’s Israel’s fate. But is it Jeremiah’s, too?
So when Jeremiah asks for vengeance against his persecutors, is he asking for himself, thinking of the priests, court officials, and army officers who have — and will continue — to try and kill him as he counsels defeat and surrender? Or is asking as besieged Judah, as the people of God, who will lose this war to Babylon, whose leaders will be dragged into exile far away?
Vengeance. It’s a tough subject. A tough subject for us to even consider. We are, after all, the people of a kind and loving God, a God of grace. We are the people who are told to turn the other cheek when assaulted or offended, or walk a second mile when compelled to go one, or give up our cloaks to whoever wants to take our tunics. That’s the virtuous people we are — in theory. That’s what Jesus tell us to do. That’s who Jesus tells us we are.
I get the feeling sometimes we think we’re not even supposed to want vengeance. To even feel anger and resentment, or the desire to get even. But Jeremiah wants vengeance, for himself or for his people. Or both. And he prays for it. Scripture does not shy away from that very human desire. The psalmist in our reading today seeks vindication, for he has done everything right — avoided sin and sinners, he’s worshiped properly and faithfully proclaimed. Vindicate isn’t quite vengeance — there’s no implication of violence and destruction, just a very public demonstration to everyone that the psalmist is correct. It’s kind of the same thing, though. Revenge is a theme in a few psalms.
None is more graphic, and more troubling to us, I think, than Psalm 137, which was composed in exile, after Judah had lost that war Jeremiah preached against.
1 By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
3 For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!
7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
There is probably no greater desire for vengeance in scripture than that last verse. It’s a human desire, a deep lamentation of despair and anger, given up to God in the midst of exile. We should not be ashamed of this. Each one of us has had that desire. Perhaps even today.
The whole thing is even more troubling if we consider that Martin Luther saw the psalms as a prayer book, the very very best words, spoken by the saints of God themselves, in deepest earnestness, directly to God. Not just words of happiness, joy, and praise, but words of sorrow, anger, despair, words that help us peer into the deep darkness of the human heart.
Before I go any farther, I want to make it clear what is being prayed for in Psalm 137. “Blessed shall he be…” This is not a rallying cry for action, not “Blessings to us as we…” It is merely an acknowledgment of the anger, a very real and legitimate anger. As God’s people, we can be angry. We can want vengeance. We just aren’t empowered to do anything about it.
Because Babylon is doomed. It will fall. And it does fall, many years later, to the Persians, who will then allow the exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild it.
This is where Paul comes in. Never avenge yourselves, he tells the faithful at the church in Rome, but leave it to the wrath of God. Trust God to do that work, and go about the business of loving neighbors and enemies. He then gives’ Jesus’ command to love enemies some flesh — feed your hungry enemy, give them something to drink if they are thirsty. If nothing else, it will shame them.
“Vengeance is mine,” Paul writes. “I will repay, says the Lord.”
Heard that before? It’s from Deuteronomy, chapter 32, and it comes from a long song Moses sings — yes, sings — to the people of Israel as they are preparing to enter the promised land. In that song, Moses lays out the history of Israel that has passed and that will come, and the vengeance he speaks of — the vengeance Paul quotes — is God’s promised vengeance upon God’s faithless and idolatrous people if, or when, they fail to keep their end of the covenant.
God’s vengeance upon us.
There’s another reason we need to let God have vengeance. Because maybe we don’t know what God’s vengeance, what God’s wrath, really looks like. Yes, we envision the destruction of the wicked, the suffering of those who have done us wrong, and maybe even fire and brimstone raining down from the heavens, but consider Paul, who I suspect knew a thing or two about the wrath of God. In the Bible, we meet him as Saul, when Stephen is stoned to death, and he is ravaging the early church, banging down doors and taking the followers of Jesus to prison. He is on his way to Damascus, breathing threats and murder against the church, when he is struck down blind by Jesus. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
And Saul becomes Paul, preaching Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord to gentiles, kings, and the people of Israel.
Couldn’t we call that striking down, that grasping of Saul and not letting him go, the vengeance of God? No doubt many cursed Saul, and some very likely wanted him dead, but what better vengeance can God possibly have but to take someone so vigorously and murderously opposed and make him God’s own? You and I think we know what vengeance is, but we are called to trust God. And maybe God knows better what vengeance really is. The exiles who sang their lament along the Euphrates River and said “Blessed shall he be…” most likely never lived to see Babylon defeated. They would never see home again. They lived as a defeated and conquered people, and had to trust that God would deliver, not them, but their children and grandchildren.
That’s a hard trust. Especially when we hold in our hands the power of death and destruction, the ability to exact vengeance and the willingness to call it justice. To do it right now! It’s satisfying, that power. Why trust in God when we can do something ourselves?
But that’s the power Moses sang against, and he told Israel where trust in that power would lead. Jeremiah preached against that power as it pointlessly tried to save itself. And Jesus faced that power, that desire, in the crowds, the high priests, the soldiers, the Roman governor, and the executioner.
And we face that power, too. United in death and life to the risen Christ who overcame death and sin for the glory of God.
And that’s how are we not overcome by evil. And how we overcome evil with good. By remembering that we are baptized. By remembering whose life, death, and resurrection we are joined to in that baptism. By remembering the promise of eternal life that comes with the water and saving word. By remembering that Jesus went to the cross, knowing he would be tortured, that he would die, and that he would rise again three days later, Lord of all. By remembering that the world is saved by an act of power and might that emerges out of suffering and death. Jesus rose, showing us — showing the whole world — that death and sin are powerless and defeated.
By remembering that, in words Paul himself writes in Romans, we too, all of us, were once enemies of God, reconciled to God by Jesus’ death *and* his risen life.
*That*, sisters and brothers, is the vengeance of God. And it is a marvelous thing to be a part of.