Based on a Sermon on 22nd November at South Woodham Evangelical Church.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:19-21
This morning after a time of silence in our worship, we read ‘Blessed Be the Lord for he has shown me his love in a besieged city.’ (Psalm 32:21) It makes me think about the wonderful way that many have chosen to respond to the Paris attacks, not by retreating in fear, but by extending a welcome to the stranger who may be sad, lonely and dispossessed.
It has been sad on the other hand to see people stirring up fear, Islamophobia and even xenophobia in the wake of the attacks. I do understand that fear and I do understand those feelings. ….But we must never play into the hands of terror….of hate and of evil.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam all look back to Abraham for the origins of their faith. They are known as the Abrahamic faiths and are all monotheistic (that is they believe in one God).
Abraham lived amongst people whose faith, ethics and practices were alien to his own. Yet he did not go around smashing idols. He did not impose his faith on others. He did not hold people of other beliefs to the same standards of ethics or holiness that he felt called to observe. Yes, he held them to account for seizing his well, but that’s a common ‘moral’ law issue, not directly related to religious ethics or faith.
Abraham’s nephew Lot moved to a place called Sodom. According to Genesis 13, the people of Sodom were wicked and sinned greatly against the Lord and yet Abraham is not once mentioned as having criticised or condemned them. In fact when he heard that a severe punishment was headed their way, Abraham pleaded one of the boldest prayers in the Bible by calling upon God to spare the people.
His contemporaries sense that there is something special, perhaps even godly about him. Melchizedek, king of Salem, salutes him with the words ‘Blessed be Abram by God most high, Creator of Heaven and Earth (Genesis 14:9). The Hittites say ‘You are a Prince of God among us.’ (Genesis 23:6.)
These men did not know God the way Abraham did and yet Abraham gained their respect by the way he lived, not the way he forced, or even urged others to live. He sought to be true to his faith whilst being a blessing to others regardless of their faith.
This deep love between Abraham and God has in various ways inspired Jews, Christians and Muslims to see themselves as Abraham’s rightful heirs.
Surely then, all who embrace Abraham as their father must aspire to live like Abraham. Could anything be more foreign to the spirit of Abrahamic monotheism than what is happening today in the name of jihad?!
The brutal murder of the innocent. The cold, brutal killing of those with whom you do not agree. The pursuit of domination in the name of empire (or caliphate) and the idea that you can impose truth by force. These are pagan ideas and must have no place in the life or faith of anyone who is a true heir of Abraham.
Let’s have some hubris here. The Christian faith has not been immune to imposing its’ views on others. Christianity was certainly not above reproach during aspects of The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Reformation and whilst burning witches! We may well say….yes, but that wasn’t proper Christianity. Scripture was misinterpreted for political ends…for power! Can the same not be said for this extreme form of Islam?….For the beliefs and practices of ISIS or Da’esh – that few Muslims would recognise as being Orthodox Islam? Let’s remember that by far the greatest loss of life amidst the current atrocities has been amongst Muslims themselves…Muslims who do not agree with ‘them’.
There are difficult texts in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Qur’an and the Hadith. Applied directly without careful interpretation…some of the texts from all of these faiths can and have and will do great harm! The advent of the internet and social media permits extreme interpretations to rapidly gain adherents! This is particularly true for Islam, though fundamentalist and extreme christian views are also getting far more publicity than they should. Westboro Baptist church for example is a church that many of us would struggle to recognise as Christian.
Psalm 24:1 ‘The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it. The world and all its’ people belong to him.’
Everything – the land, its’ produce, its’ power, its’ people and life itself. They all belong to the Lord. We may possess the land, but we do not own it. Human beings are stewards called to act on God’s behalf. ISIS and other similar extremist organisations-they’re not acting as stewards. They have declared that they want restoration of the Caliphate and the application of their twisted form of Islamic law in all the lands where Islam once held power from Israel through to Spain. These are political objectives. They have nothing to do with the God of Abraham. The God of Abraham does not accept human sacrifice. When religion turns men into murderers, God replies as he did to Cain ‘The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.’
As Christians, I believe that we need to remember the values within our own faith that make true Abrahamic monotheism the humanising force it can and should be. These include the sanctity of life; the dignity of personhood, the upholding of justice and mercy, the responsibility of the rich for the poor, the commands to love the stranger and the insistence on genuine listening. With these values perhaps the church can be the salt and light in this situation that the she is called to be.
The use of religious language by any faith to justify the current wave of heinous terror crimes is not faith, but imperialism.
Unless we are careful, the victims of terror will not just be the dead and maimed, but also the values upon which a free society is built. Trust, security, civil liberty, tolerance, the willingness of a country to open its’ doors to the stranger. We must not let those values be eroded! True faith never needs terror to make its’ voice heard!
The God of Abraham has the power to rescue the powerless. God Almighty turns his face and inclines his ear to the poor, the lonely, the marginalised, the refugee, the one who has no earthly might. Above the noise of war and hate, God hears their strained cry……. and so, if we follow him, must we.
In the Middle East, the advent season has already started and in just one week we too will be looking forward to the coming of Emmanuel, God with us.
God who came to be with us in a way that was so mind blowingly unexpected.
The one who was all powerful who
‘made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness and then who being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
Jesus – God squeezed into human flesh, entered into a hostile world…an illegitimate baby who whilst still a toddler had to flee a murderous political-religious regime and become a refugee in a foreign land.
What a contrast between the way that God came down to establish his Kingdom on earth and the way that King Herod sought to establish his earthly Kingdom! God turns our understanding of power on its’ head….and that same subversion of power continued through Jesus’ life….and continues today.
When Jesus became a man instead of taking the lives of those who didn’t agree with him, he died in their place at the cross of Calvary! But we know more of that story don’t we……..?
…..We know that because of his birth, his life, his death and his resurrection that His love can not only overcome, it can counter savage cruelty, assault, murder, rape, persecution, genocide, injustice, slaughter and hate at their very source – the human heart.
God’s love through Christ can change hearts in a way that no other force can. God’s love alone can stop the cycle of violence…
Of course we must resist evil. Of course we must protect victims of violence. But love alone must shape the heart attitudes from which we respond. If fear and hate shapes our heart attitudes more than does the love of God, then terror will have won a victory in our lives too.
‘Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’ (Martin Luther King)
Let us like Abraham win the respect of others by the way we live our lives, not by the way we force, or even urge others to live…and then maybe ‘the other’ will see something godly about us.
Surely that it what it means to be a light in the darkness – A light that is extinguished if we compromise our faith by fighting hate with hate; by fighting human power with human power instead of allowing God’s power to be released.
This advent ask Christ to let his image burn so brightly inside your life that it will consume the fear, the hate and the darkness within your own heart so that we his church can carry the light wherever we go! The Church of Jesus Christ fully alive to his life transforming power is the hope of this world.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not and will not overcome it! We are the light of the world!