A Visit From the Anti-Thief
Have you ever been involved in a friendly basketball game—ten sweaty guys, two teams formed by the time-honored method of “the first five to make free throws”—and, bit by bit, there began to be some tension? This is a self-reffing project, so someone gets fouled on a play; the next time down, he gets back with a little push. A minute later, there’s another elbow, and someone with the ball gives it a sharp one-dribble protest bounce and then a hard look. And then on the next play, suddenly two guys are in a full-fledged fight. Hitting, punching, trying to topple their enemy. And the other eight of you just stand in a little ring, feeling helpless, not knowing what to do.
Maybe you’re in a church board meeting, and there’s an undercurrent of emotion when someone talks about how someone else—three years ago—didn’t do their job right. Or overstepped their authority and made some purchase they shouldn’t have. And you can just sense, even though it isn’t said out loud, that there is some unexploded ordnance still embedded in somebody’s soul.
I heard of a church, likely apocryphal, where one old coot was simply against everything the others wanted. He voted no on all agenda items, including the closing prayer. If Christmas was up for a vote, he would veto it. And one day, someone came to the meeting with good news. So-and-so was willing to donate a thousand-dollar chandelier to the church. Everyone began rejoicing and praising God, until this guy hollered out: “I’m against it. I vote no.”
They all looked at him. Finally the pastor said: “Look, it’s a free chandelier. It’s being donated. We don’t have to pay a red cent for it. Why in the world would you be against that?”
The guy scowled and replied: “First of all, nobody around here knows how to play it. Secondly, nobody around here knows how to even spell it. Thirdly, what this church really needs is more light!”
Our topic in this series has been anger and fighting in the church, and so this brings us to one of Jesus’ most well-known and beloved sayings. It’s right in the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7, and also in His classic Beatitudes. What should we say and do when two people in front of us begin karate-chopping each other, physically, verbally, or—like enemy submarines—emotionally, underwater where we can’t see the torpedoes?
Here is verse nine of chapter five, which runs exactly twelve words long: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
It’s fun to read other versions:
Clear Word: Happiness comes from being a peacemaker, for such are God’s children.
Phillips: Happy are those who MAKE peace. We’ll come back to that idea.
Living Bible: Happy are those who strive for peace.
Good News: Happy are those who work for peace.
And what we find in this landmark verse is that God invites us to do more than to simply stand at the free throw line with seven other guys, holding the basketball and waiting while two other people exhaust themselves in a fight. To be a peacemaker means more than to simply not be in the fight yourself.
Have you ever had someone break into your home and rob the place? Perhaps you’ve come out to your car after a late-evening baseball game . . . and you see that your window is broken. And it’s not a case of vandalism: someone has climbed into your car and wrenched out your stereo and your GPS system to sell on the street corner. And it’s a devastating feeling. That was your car, your personal space, your property, your sanctuary where you and your loved ones always enjoyed fellowship and happy times . . . and this alien force has invaded it.
In one of Bill Hybels’ early books, entitled Who You Are (When No One’s Looking), he takes us to a wonderful verse found in John 10:10: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. He taketh thy car stereo and, forsooth, leaveth naught, yea, nothing but a bare hole in thy dash. (That’s my version!) I have come, Jesus says, that they may have life, and have it to the full. “Have it more abundantly,” says the King James.
And Hybels makes this point: “Jesus is not a thief but an anti-thief. He knocks patiently until you open the door, and then He fills up your house with a truckload of life’s most precious commodities.”
Now think about that. I don’t think anyone here is driving a 1971 Datsun B-210, but maybe there was a time in college when you did. And this would be like someone knocking on your car door and saying, “Excuse me, may I come in?” Well, that’s kind of weird, but you scratch your head and look around and say, “Uh, well, okay, I guess so. Just don’t scratch this beautiful vinyl upholstery.” But this Visitor climbs into the passenger seat and miraculously installs a brand new eight-speaker Bose system with a ten-disc changer, Dolby all the way around, bass amp in the trunk, and a leather-bound CD holder that has all of our church’s archived sermons in it plus five CDs of our favorite praise songs. While this Hitchhiker is in there, He somehow also gives you all new leather upholstery, brand new V6 engine, paint job, mag wheels, DVD player, navigation system—the 1971 Datsuns didn’t come with those—spins your odometer back to zero, and even sprays your interior with that new-car-right-out-of-the-showroom fragrance. By the time He’s done, your Datsun is a Lexus. And you see, this visit was from the Anti-Thief who comes in and fills your life with abundance. Instead of that bare, I’ve-been-robbed look that Lenny Briscoe sometimes finds on Law & Order, you come home and find that this friendly Visitor has filled the place you live in with warm and comfortable gifts beyond anything you could imagine.
Well, what does this have to do with “Blessed are the peacemakers”? In the original Greek, this word “peacemakers” comes from eirçnç, which means “peace,” and poieô, for “make.” And the Hebrew word paralleling eirçnç, “peace,” is shalom, which we’ve all heard before as a Jewish greeting. But it carries with it the idea of completeness, of soundness, prosperity, a full life, “condition of well-being.” The Bible tells us to make other people’s lives full, to bless them with hands-on intervention, with an attitude of abundance. So we’re supposed to be at peace (I Thessalonians 5:13), and “follow peace with all men” (Hebrews 12:14). We should pray for peace, work for peace, and do whatever we can in our society to help make it happen.
We’ve spent a whole month here facing up to the reality that even in the Church, sinful humans love to fight. Fighting is in our blood. We keep score. We hold on to grudges. We enjoy drawing blood.
Some of us have had the unfortunate experience of working for various Christian ministries that were at war all the time. Where conflict ruled the place. And I’m ashamed to admit it: it can be a very human temptation to come to board meetings, knowing that an edgy, blood-drawing agenda item was down there at #6 on the list. You have opening prayer, the minutes, the financial report. And all through the mundane items, there is a sinful itch, a little bit of pounding pulse saying, Come on, let’s get to the war zone. This is gonna be good. That person I don’t like is going to get his comeuppance. But this is human nature. The book of James, in the King James, has this great antique line: The lusts that war in your members. So hostility is not an unusual reaction; it simply is a sinful one. Bickering and doing battle are ingrained in the software of the soul; it’s our default mode.
So the Christian is called to exit from that battlefield, but not for the purpose of simply walking to the sidelines. If you’re one of the eight non-fighters in that Saturday night basketball game, God doesn’t call you to just stand there in the key while the fight wears itself out. Notice again from this great verse that Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are the peace-lovers.” That’s not it. God’s command to us is very stark: Blessed are the peace-MAKERS, for they will be called sons of God.
The Adventist Bible commentary reminds us that Jesus came to this world—talk about not staying on the safe sidelines—with a message of peace. He invaded our hostile planet as an ambassador of peace; Romans 5:1 says we have peace with God because of Calvary. He told His disciples, My peace I leave with you; My peace I give unto you. Jesus was the Prince of peace.
In this world there are thieves, and there are neutral people, and there are anti-thieves. And here in this wartime scenario, there are fighters, bystanders, and anti-fighters. People who don’t just go into their houses, shut and bar the doors, draw the shades, and turn up the volume on their Enya CD. No, these people of God invade the community where the conflict is happening. They try to draw people together. They come to the board meeting and try to gently probe beneath the surface and fix that underlying scar. They come to church every Sabbath and try to create calm. When someone attacks the pastor—and I’m talking generically here—they look for the good in him. Or they gently ask: “Have you talked to the pastor? That guy is a servant of God, man. I know he would want to fix that problem. I know he would move heaven and earth to resolve that situation, if you’d just make him aware.”
One of the wonderful realities in the body of Christ is that we have a smorgasbord of gifts and talents. What you cannot do, someone else can. The skill that isn’t in your portfolio, someone sitting nearby has. If a child gets hurt at one of our church picnics, I’m helpless to sew sutures or apply a cast, but we have people who are trained in those very skills. They do it all the time.
In this place, there are people who have been dealt a tough financial hand; they sometimes struggle to make ends meet and keep groceries on the table. That’s why we have food bank programs. We have friends sitting right here who need a bit of help driving Joe Camel out of their backyard; well, there are people in our faith community who know how to help with that. A person who can do a parenting seminar provides help for those who would like some additional insight in that area.
And the plain fact is that many of us need real, tangible help in terms of finding peace in our lives. All sin is dysfunction, and if you are locked into a decades-long pattern of negative thoughts, resentful reactions, a payback mentality, you might very well need help from someone else at this church who doesn’t just sit on the sidelines, but who actually wades into the fray and makes peace.
I gave you a series of different renditions of Matthew 5:9; here’s just one more from the Message paraphrase written by Eugene Peterson: You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
So this is not passive cheering from the sidelines. This is wading into the fray. This is those who know the gospel, who have experienced some transforming by the gospel, who have walked down the forgiveness freeway a few miles reaching out to someone else and saying: “Let me help. I’m the ER doc of hurt feelings.”
There’s a spiritual web site called www.thelivingwordbc.com, and author Ken Trivette, exploring the book of James, helps us with this observation: “A spiritually mature person does not live after his or her own desires. They do not live by the wisdom of the world. They live by an altogether different standard. They don’t cause trouble. They sow peace instead of strife.”
That metaphor takes us back to Matthew 13 where we were a couple weeks ago. An enemy invaded the good guy’s field, with a ski mask over his face. He disabled the alarms, covered up the surveillance cameras, climbed over the fence at midnight, and spent two hours planting weeds everywhere. Here it’s the opposite. These quiet heroes of the kingdom of God go about their lives, sowing seeds of harmony. They quell rebellions instead of fomenting them.
Maybe you read recently about a 54-year-old Quaker named Tom Fox, who didn’t just pray for peace. He was part of a group called CPT: Christian Peacemaker Team, and he spent two years in Iraq, actually living peace, making peace, sowing seeds of peace. He was killed for his efforts not too long ago. And his grieving friends, noticing maybe that Blessed are the peacemakers is immediately followed by Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, issued this spiritual invitation to all of us who are in the grip of a cycle of anger:
“In response to Tom’s passing, we ask that everyone set aside inclinations to vilify or demonize others, no matter what they have done.”
Now, this challenge runs so contrary to our human nature. I mentioned that Bill Hybels book; one chapter earlier he has a passage entitled “Radical Love: Breaking the Hostility Cycle.” Again, hostility is the default setting for most of us. As newborns, almost, we strap on swords and shields from Johnson & Johnson when we’re still in the delivery room. You teachers in our Cradle Roll department can testify what happens when you try to take something from a toddler. Oh, what a look you get. Even one-year-olds are able to shoot daggers at us already. But Christ wants us to do the opposite thing from our fallen inclination. Don’t be a thief; be an antithief. Don’t be a peace-destroyer; be a peacemaker.
Jesus Himself gives us an illustration. Turn the other cheek. Now, there are karate / kung fu schools very near this church, and I don’t think turn the other cheek is part of their sales brochure. By the way, whacking someone’s cheek was a common insult in Jerusalem; it carried more emotional weight than just the sting of the hit. That was the flipping-off expression of the streets. And what is our karate instinct? To hit back, tit for tat. When someone insults us, we immediately think: “Well, but you did such-and-such” . . . even if their misdeed has no connection whatsoever with ours. But Jesus tells us to love peace, to make peace, to turn the other cheek. Accept a second blow. Give someone your coat and your cloak.
Hybels calls these people “radical lovers” and shares this little story: “A friend of mine is a paramedic in Humboldt Park, a Chicago neighborhood notorious for its gangs. ‘You know how it goes,’ he told me. ‘It starts with a little misunderstanding. It escalates when someone gets his feelings hurt and uses a little sarcastic language. His sarcasm provokes a smart-aleck response, which elicits a threat and then a challenge. Now the male bravado and honor get going. And then come the fists and the clubs and the knives and the guns. The blood flows and the flesh tears, and when it’s all over and people are lying in piles, they call us and we come in and pick up the pieces.”
The late Mario Puzo has a fictional tale that maybe you’ve heard before. Somebody shoots Don Vito Corleone. So the Corleones get on the scoreboard by killing Bruno Tattaglia. They hit Michael in the jaw. His family retaliates by gunning down Virgil Sollozzo. The Five Families execute Sonny out by the Jersey tollbooth. So Michael ends up killing Moe Greene and just about everybody in New York City. You get the idea.
And even in our white-collar world, where it’s not blood and shotguns and going to the mattresses, the same is true on an emotional level. Hybels describes our dilemma this way: “I know how it goes. It’s been going that way for thousands of years. Granted, in a ‘sophisticated suburban’ environment most of our hostilities do not end in hand-to-hand combat. They end in cold wars: detachment, distrust, alienation, bitterness, name-calling, mudslinging, separation, isolation and lawsuits. Although we rarely fight with our fists, we can do a great deal of damage without ever soiling our three-piece suits.”
Take a moment and think about your own sphere of relationships. Where is there a broken friendship? Or maybe you have loved ones who have gone through a fracturing, and up until now you’ve been standing on the safety of a distant shore. But could you do what it takes to make a U-turn, to reverse the tide of hatred? Here’s the conclusion Hybels gives: “But the cycle of hostility must be stopped if there is ever going to be relational harmony in this world, and it will take radical, nonretaliatory, second-mile lovers to stop it. Somebody has to absorb an injustice instead of inflicting another one on somebody else; somebody has to pull the plug on continued cruelty. God says, ‘You can do it, if you’re willing to become a radical lover.’”
In our own strength, I think this is pretty near impossible. I know I have a long track record of revenge; it’s hard to go in the opposite direction from our impulses. Only two things can help, really: first of all, to accept that God’s power is sufficient, that all events are under his control, and that He has promised to take care of us. When Peter asked Jesus one day, “How many times do I have to forgive all these idiots around here?” and Jesus said, “Not seven times, but four hundred ninety,” all twelve disciples immediately fell over in a daze and said: “Lord, increase our faith!” Because it takes faith to believe that God won’t let our releasing of resentment cause us to be shortchanged in the end.
And then secondly, we need to grasp the enormity of this campaign we’re in together. Historial Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote a fascinating, 800-page book entitled Team of Rivals. In 1860, a young unknown named Abe Lincoln miraculously managed to win the presidential nomination of the brand new Republican Party. There had been four contenders: him, William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates. Lincoln was easily the least experienced and most unknown and untested in the bunch. Going in to the Chicago convention, his goal had been to be everybody’s second choice. Seward, the overwhelming front-runner, had been a senator and Governor of New York. On the first ballot, needing 233 to win, he got 173½, with Lincoln coming in a surprising second. On the second ballot, as delegates abandoned Bates and Chase; Seward won again, but now just 184½ to 181. On the third and final ballot, the rail-splitting nobody from Illinois got the presidential nomination.
The other three men were absolutely crushed, especially Seward, who had waited his entire life for this moment. Being President had been his destiny, and now a wisecracking, hack lawyer from a hayseed western state had stolen his prize.
Here’s the interesting thing. After winning the Presidency, Lincoln immediately got all three of these men, all of them disappointed, all of them bitter, and persuaded them to be in his White House cabinet. When advisors said to him, “Mr. President, are you nuts? ‘Your team of rivals will devour one another,’” Lincoln told them that the stakes for the nation were simply too high. The country was about to break apart over slavery; the Constitution itself hung in the balance. In his own words, Lincoln admitted that he was going to occupy the most important Presidency since George Washington’s. He had to have the best men there were, the keenest minds, the most talented people, regardless of personal feelings. “These are the very strongest men,” he said. “I have no right to deprive the country of their services.” What hung in the balance was so crucial that he had no choice but to forge a powerful team through reconciliation, putting self aside for the larger good.
Now, what about us? We are Adventist Christians. Some of you have told me recently that you are really starting to care about the success of this place; you’re part of something larger than yourselves. But in the upper room on that dark Thursday night, when Jesus did the unexpected thing, when the King washed the feet of the servants, when the Teacher got on His knees and made Himself lower than the students, eleven men suddenly saw that they were part of something bigger than their feelings. They didn’t have to stop forgiving at seven times, because heaven became a bit more real when they went on to eight, nine, ten, and out to the mythical four hundred and ninety.
Think about your marriage. Can you suddenly pull the plug on the jockeying for advantage, the instinct to justify yourself and treat yourself? How about in our businesses? Don’t just walk away from the tumult; walk into it with a plan for peace and a willingness to give, not just one, but both cheeks to the cause.
I have said to many of you, “Your being here is a truly meaningful thing. You being here makes a difference. Your presence here is a successful gift to God’s cause.” You arrive here with a check made out, and you put it in an envelope and give it to this church. You could buy some very pleasant other things with that money, but you bless all of heaven by giving it instead.
And now comes this question: can we surrender that emotional coat and cloak? Can we turn the other cheek? Can we be nice to that person we frankly don’t like? Oh, man. It’s hard to do, and there’s probably no glory in it, because our treasurer will never know about it and give you a big year-end tax receipt for that gift. This is akin to putting your entire self on the altar of peace-making. But Matthew 5, where this command is found, is the Magna Carta of the kingdom. When we are meek, hungry for righteousness—and especially when we sacrificially make peace—we advance that kingdom. As we say in the Lord’s Prayer, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
We not only pray that prayer, we help Jesus make it come true. Shall we pray?
Jesus, this is a hard invitation. It runs contrary to our instincts and our entrenched life patterns. Thank You for showing us the way. Thank You for giving us Your abundance, and asking us to go out and make peace by spending from Your storehouses. Bless us, please, as we try to advance Your eternal kingdom. In Your name we pray, Amen.
Submitted by David B. Smith. Better Sermons © 2005-2008. Click here for usage guidelines.