Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"For goodness sake"

Message preached August 31, 2008
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Romans 12:9-21

Order of Worship

When I was a boy, I loved to hear my father tell the story about the time he wrestled my Uncle John and made him eat grass. You see, my grandfather was killed when Dad was away at college and, as the oldest son, Dad had to become the disciplinarian to his three brothers when he came home. Apparently Uncle John, the next oldest, had done something smart-alecky, and Dad took him down on the ground and sat on him, and stuffed grass in his mouth.

What made this story so much fun was the fact that Uncle John grew up to be a mighty big man, much larger than his older brother. And there were times, if the truth be told, when this little boy was just a tad afraid of his Uncle John. So this story of wrestling in the grass helped bring this big man down to size in the eyes of a little boy. Instead of big, bad John, he could be my Uncle John.

* * * * * * * * * *

There are times when the bad things, the evil things in life seem pretty intimidating. Those who are old enough to remember, how did things look to you the day after Pearl Harbor? Yes, that event crystallized the resolve of a nation, but those days were grim, intimidating, were they not? How did things seem when you first learned the extent of the atrocities in the concentration camps of Germany?

My father told me another story, one not as fun as the last. The allies had just liberated one of those death camps, and he was put in charge of both freeing Jewish prisoners, and imprisoning their German guards. The evil that happened there was overpowering, and even in the re-telling, it affected this little boy. It wasn't a wrestling match. Stuffing grass in the mouth would solve little. One of my Dad's duties was also to prevent G.I.'s overpowered by the sight of this evil, from taking vengeance upon those German guards.

Those were evil days, were they not? Days when a hymn took on a different meaning: "This is my Father's world, O let me not forget that tho' the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet." There are times when the bad things, the evil things in life seem pretty intimidating. Of course, the days don't have to be as desperate as a world war for us to be intimidated by the evil around us. And it should come as no surprise to us, as Christians, that sin is pretty deeply ingrained in this old world. After all, that part of the world closest to us tends to be full of it. "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me," wouldn't be such loved words if we all didn't sense a fair amount of wretchedness within us, in need of God's Amazing Grace to sing out our salvation.

The apostle Paul put it this way, "Indeed, I know from experience that the carnal side of my being can scarcely be called the home of good! I often find that I have the will to do good, but not the power. That is, I don't accomplish the good I set out to do, and the evil I don't really want to do I find I am always doing. Yet if I do things that I don't really want to do, then it is not, I repeat, it is not "I" who do them, but the sin which has made its home within me." (Romans 7:18-20, J.B.Phillips paraphrase)

There is no such thing as a naturally "good" person. When push comes to shove even the best of us reveal the worst in us. If we rely on our own goodness, we are lost. Didn't even Jesus say, when that fellow asked him a question, calling him "good rabbi," didn't Jesus himself reply: "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." (Mark 10:18) No, there is no such thing as a naturally "good" person. All of us lean heavily on the Amazing Grace of God, on His goodness, His mercy, His love.

There are times when the bad things, the evil things in life seem pretty intimidating, even when we experience them in ourselves. But the good news is that that evil, that bad, that sin, is not the final word to be spoken on the subject. The evil, the sin, which tends to wrap itself around us, around our world, like the roots of a weed, imprisoning us in its grasp; this evil, this sin, is rendered powerless by God's final word, the Word made flesh: Christ Jesus.

Upon the cross of Jesus evil made its grand assault. The Son of God did not fight back. Defenseless and broken, Jesus died. All seemed lost. Darkness reigned. Unfortunately for evil, it did not recognize the day of its own defeat. Like the Presidential election of 1948, all the papers declared:


But the morning after brought the final tally:


Every Sunday morning, when we gather together, we are lifting up the real newspaper headline.


The details we discover, as we read on every Sunday, are that we have been set free from the powerlessness of which the apostle Paul spoke. Through the landslide victory of Jesus Christ, we have received the power to answer evil with good. We are no longer enslaved by chains of sin, forced by our very nature to do what we really don't want to do. We have been set free, and through Jesus Christ - God's goodness in us - we can prevail against the evil which sometimes seems so intimidating, so powerful. The truth, who all who are in Jesus Christ know, we know that we know, is that such evil is ultimately powerless before the cross of Christ. "There is no evil so dark, so obscene, but that God can turn it to good." (Beuchner, Wishful Thinking, p.24, Romans 8:28)

With that in mind, we again hear these words: "Repay no one evil for evil, but let goodness be lived out in you so all can see your integrity, your honesty. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. My friends, don't take vengeance into your own hands, instead, give place to the wrath of God; for it is written: "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:17-21)

Overcome evil with good. That's a powerful statement. It's not a statement made for pessimists, it's only for those who, thru the power Jesus Christ, manifested on the cross, have been rendered God's optimists. A pessimist is a person who, when given a choice of two evils, takes both. A pessimist turns out the light to see how dark it is. There are an awful lot of Christian pessimists. As a result, evil can run a mile while the church is putting on its shoes.

Overcome evil with good. That's a powerful statement. It's not a statement made for pessimists, it's only for those who, through the power Jesus Christ, have been rendered God's optimists. Overcome evil with good.

Church Consultant Speed Leas once wrote: "The weaker people perceive themselves to be, the more they will fight dirty or use violence... ...individuals or groups use aggression or violence to accomplish (something they can't achieve on their own)." ("Rooting out Causes of Conflict," Leadership, Spring 1992, p.29)  That fits into a Christian understanding of God's goodness.

In God's reality, the leading to overcome evil with good, comes from a position of power, not powerlessness. ....True power. It's a power that knows what is really real. It knows that evil is really powerless. It knows that "Christ is risen!", that death is no longer the final word. It knows that the great battle has already been fought, and the final defeat of evil at the end of the age is already a sure thing. The victory of Jesus upon the cross, and the victory of God when the page of this age is turned, is a victory followers of Jesus can live in today. Because we know what has already been accomplished, and because we know where our future lies, we can act upon it. We can overcome evil with good.

As the apostle Paul writes, In all the darkest times: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword; "In all these things we are more than conquerors, we are superconquerors, thru him who loved us..." (Romans 8:37) and nothing can separate us from that love. We can overcome evil with good. We are overcomers, which is another way of translating "conquerors." Given the possibility of being overcome, overwhelmed by evil - through the love of God in Christ we can choose instead the possibility of overcoming evil with good. We have that power.

The power of being an overcomer, rather than being an overcomee, is not something we wield like a sword. Such triumphalism is what turns off all too many non-Christians. There is a difference between overcoming evil with good, and being what some might call a "goody two-shoes." That phrase, by the way, goes back to a children's story published in 1765 by an anonymous author. In it, a poor orphan girl named Margery Meanwell, goes through life with only one shoe. When she is given a complete pair by a rich gentleman, she is so happy, that she tells everyone that she has "two shoes" - thus her nickname (and the title of the story) “Little Goody Two-Shoes.” The phrase, contrary to this variation of the Cinderella story, has come to describe an excessively or annoyingly virtuous person, or worse – someone whose goodness is insincere.

            A "goody two-shoes" type person, as we use this title, parades his or her goodness before other people. It's really a form of pride. Of course, often goodness is in the eyes of the beholder. And we have no control over what another person sees in us. Real goodness, grounded in God, can be a lightning rod which attracts attack. That is something beyond our control. However, we don't seek to provoke. Provocation comes of its own.

Goodness, most of all, is not a form of manipulation. When the Bible speaks of doing good - which will heap burning coals upon the head of an enemy - that is not a form of manipulation. Our goal is not, through our goodness, to somehow shame them into doing what we want them to do. Too many Christians make that mistake. Doing good is not the same as being nice. Have you ever experienced someone “nicely” stab you in the back? We can kill the spirit of another person with our “niceness.” But that, my friends, is not doing them good. If anything, such sweet viciousness runs counter to the gospel of Christ, and is not at all what the apostle Paul means here with this quote from Proverbs 25:22.

We are to focus less on the heaping and the burning (which is not really in our hands, anyway) and more on feeding those who are hungry and quenching their thirst (which is something we can do). Our task is not to heap coals that will burn into the skull of someone we don’t like. Instead, we are invited to live out God's goodness with them.

That, in and of itself, is satisfying. An ulterior motive of heaping coals is really the product of an unhappy heart. The only good wrath, the only good anger, the only good vengeance, is God's. Does that make sense? In God's hands, it is tool of healing, like a surgeon's knife sterilized by fire. In our hands it is a bitter acid that corrodes away our insides.

When my father was responsible for even the safety of those Nazi guards, having seen the great evil that they perpetrated, or at least allowed, he struggled with the acid of wrath. Inside, he partly agreed with those allied soldiers who wanted to take justice into their own hands, and continue the killing spree. But instead, he gave place, he placed the wrath in God's hands. It's not that he, or anyone else, was all-that-good a person, It's just that wrath corrodes in our hands, it eats away, and eventually it consumes us. We are not given the power to handle God's wrath and live. But we are blessed by His goodness.

And O, how good God's goodness is. And it is "for His goodness sake" that we are given the power to overcome evil with good. It's a fruit that grows and multiplies in us. And it's a fruit, like all the other fruit of the Spirit, which attracts people to Jesus Christ. For goodness sake, let's not fail to cultivate this fruit. 

(para traducir a español, presione la bandera de España)


©2008 Peter L. Haynes   (revised from 5/24/92, revised from 5/21/89)
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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