It was the start of Jesus’ final journey to the cross. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village” (Luke 9:51-56).
Tempting isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be simple justice if we could incinerate those who treat us with contempt because they don’t accept our race, our God, our beliefs about our God, or the direction we are heading? 2000 years later, along the same roads, in the same villages, men and women are attempting to do just that with C-4 plastique explosives strapped to their waists and rocket fire in return.
We are intellectually lazy and spiritually irresponsible if we read the headlines and watch the news and turn away without thinking about why the violence happens and whether we are capable of it.
There are other methods to eliminate opposition. There are means of destruction much more suited to the pious confines of church boardrooms or the technical anonymity of the Internet and the instant access of the cell phone. Some of these methods do as much damage as a suicide bomber in a crowd, but without the personal cost — tactics like whisper campaigns, character assassination, withholding information, sneak verbal attacks, the preemptive hypocrisy of insisting that those who disagree with us are “intolerant, ” and the heat-seeking missile of the out-of-context quotation delivered with the loudest bang possible. Lacking the patience, or perhaps the skills or evidence to persuade those who dissent from our views, we too easily move to intimidate the dissenters to silence or to the ultimate solution of eliminating them altogether.
The futile consequences of human self-righteousness that nailed Jesus to the cross plays out again and again in a pattern as old as a jealous Cain slaughtering a worshiping Abel over which one deserved God’s approval. So long as we think that we have to be “right,” we are going to escalate though a spiral of fighting, quarreling, and destroying (Js 4:1-4). “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Js 1:17).
James’ and John’s blind zeal to vindicate God distracted them from what God’s path. Just days before, Jesus had sent out his disciples “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them…”Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony to them” (Luke 9:2, 5).
“Tell them about God and heal them, not because they deserve it, but because that’s who you are and what you do because of me. If they don’t accept you, move on.” Hardly the stuff of fireballs. Jesus’ way is persuasion and choice because those are expressions of love. If God’s solution to the rebellion of sin was to vaporize those who reject him there was no need for Jesus to make the appointment in Jerusalem. He made that appointment because his way is to give his life, not to take a life. Laying down one’s own life in love for another is the way of Christ.
A wise woman once told me, “Never let someone else’s anger use your authority.” Jesus was not about to let James and John, the temperamental “Sons of Thunder,” use his authority to wipe out some ill-mannered Samaritans. Consider the consequences if he had “nuked” them. His walk to Jerusalem would have been unimpeded, but silent. No blind men calling out for mercy, no Zacchaeus running and climbing the tree in joyful expectation of seeing Jesus, no praising children–they would have cowered in their houses and hidden in the woods rather than face Jesus.
To coerce repentance or to limit liberty in an effort to justify one’s rightness is as much a rebellion against the God of love as was Eve eating the fruit at the fall. In both cases, the lie prevailed that we can be like God, but nothing could be less like God than pushing our own way on someone else.
Scripture is abundantly clear on this point with no exception. “Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord (Is. 1:18). “For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:17). “Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4). “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).
The Lord holds his servant to the same standard of friendly persuasion. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:18-19). “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, and that they may escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will” (2 Tim 2:24-26). If our witness is not motivated by love, it is not motivated by God.
Of course, it is easier to scare people than persuade them.That’s not choice, however, and it is not Jesus’ way. He is after an eternal relationship of love, not quick, coerced compliance. Martin Luther noted that “If men are converted because of fear they will later hate their conversion.”
I have friends raised in a reactionary religious environment at home and school who threw out the bath water, the baby and the entire bath tub of Christianity when they gained independence. They had limited and false choices. They could live in the misery that perfection was required. They could never measure up, though, and therefore they gave up on God. Or they could assume smugly that by belonging to the group and keeping its rules, they did measure up and had no need for anyone or anything more. Or they could keep chasing the “carrot” of salvation, while learning adroitness in avoiding the “stick” of the law, spending their whole life in a wearying exercise that they didn’t really understand, but feared too much to stop. So they took the first choice and quit on God. It is very difficult to persuade them that God loves them.
Then, again, it is just as hard to convince their parents and teachers that God loves them. Any objection to the harshness of keeping appearances is met with the fearful response that we have to meet God’s standards or be lost. Jesus said one could keep every rule there is, but it wouldn’t be enough to earn one eternal life. “No one is good but God,” he said. He told his disciples that the only possibility of salvation lies with God not only becoming our focus, but our entire identity. (Luke 18:18-30). It is impossible to enter eternity except in the encompassing embrace of the Savior. He covers us with his perfection.
God takes off the pressure for those who will listen. “I love you,” our Father says to us before we even know that we are loveable. Let’s think about this. Will telling someone “You have to love me!” make them love us? Will telling someone “You have to love and honor and cherish me!” make them do those things for us? Will telling someone to “Love me or I’ll kill you!” cause them to respond in love? Will commanding someone to “Love and worship me or I will punish you!” bring them to falling in love.” What will destroying all those who reject our God say about us? What will it say about our God?
So why do preachers yell, zealots rant on blogs, and why do we point and shake our fingers at those who do not know our Jesus? I have never heard of one person who was threatened into love or forced into a loving relationship. The climactic “wedding of the Lamb” with his bride, the Church” is a love match, not a shotgun wedding (Rev 19:6-10).
There is evil in the world, alright. God hates it and, if we put our trust in God, we hate it also. But note that Jesus didn’t say he came to condemn the world, but to save it, meaning us, because the “world” in this sense means people. The whole risk of the Cross, of Christ making the statement that “Our Creator would rather die than live without us;” of God’s own Son erasing anything and everything that stands between God and us; of the very glory of God being kindness to the ungrateful, speaks to us of life, not death. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). David glimpsed this truth and wrote “The Lord abhors those who are violent and deceitful. But through your great love I may come into your house and at your holy temple bow down in awe” (Ps.5:6-7).
A friend of mine went from a difficult, dysfunctional childhood into an adolescence and adulthood of drugs and degradation. One evening, just three blocks from my house, he was binging on “speed” in his garage with a friend to the accompaniment of a heavy metal sound track.
His friend became violent, shouting obscenities and praises to Satan as he pounded his fists into the wall and broke things. My friend in fear ran from the garage into his house, grabbed his Bible from earlier church school days and opened it randomly to read these words: “Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence. Let us acknowledge the Lord; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth” (Hos. 6:1-3). He fell to his knees, his angry, amphetamine-fueled defenses devastated by a God who loved him enough to tear him apart and put him together again in Jesus Christ.
He gathered up his drug-paraphernalia and drugs and threw them into the trash can. He told his friend to go home. The next day he took his heavy metal CDs and sold them. On the way home, he gave most of the money to a homeless man he encountered. The rest he used to pay his dump fees for the other debris of his former life. Years later, he has a deep knowledge and love for Christ and the Gospel despite a severe learning disability and lasting ravages of his former drug-life.
You’ve read this far and I have to ask you, “Do you insist on working out your problems for yourself, of measuring-up through your own effort? Do you require a God who will manhandle you into submission and slap you around when you fail? Is your greatest request of God that he put your enemies six feet under or make others as miserable as you are? Or is a God who loves you and offers you kindness and forgiveness enough for you? Can you accept him giving you what you cannot earn yourself?
As always, I have really only one thing to say to you, “O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are they who find refuge in him” (Ps. 34:8).
Under the mercy of Christ,