Give Me Life in Your Ways
Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways.
The mother ran into the bedroom when she heard her seven-year-old son scream. She found his two-year-old sister pulling his hair. She gently released the little girl's grip and said comfortingly to the boy, "There, there. She didn't mean it. She doesn't know that hurts." He nodded his acknowledgement, and she left the room.
As she started down the hall the little girl screamed. Rushing back in, she asked, "What happened?" The little boy replied, "She knows now."
In our gospel reading today we come again to that portion of our Lord’s sermon on the mount where he takes up the subject of retaliation. His teaching on this subject is often summarized with the phrase “to turn the other cheek.” A phrase that is broadly known in our culture even if the source is unknown. As we consider our Lord’s teaching regarding retaliation and love for enemies I invite you to join me in taking a step back, so to speak; to step away to reflect on how we approach our Lord’s teaching. Are we listening to judge whether we think Jesus’ teaching a good idea or are we listening so we can learn how to obey the Lord of life?
1. Let me come at this question from the perspective of Psalm 119. The Psalm begins with beatitudes; the same way that our Lord begins his sermon. (Cleary our Lord’s preaching is shaped by Biblical pattern, or we could say, shaped by the gospel.) Psalm 119 opens with these beatitudes; “Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways.” (Psalm 119:1-3)
Psalm 119 is a masterful prayer on the glory of God’s word revealed in scripture (Torah or teaching). This longest Psalm in the Bible constitutes an elaborate acrostic. Each stanza of Psalm 119 contains eight lines beginning with the same Hebrew letter, and each successive stanza uses the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet, totaling twenty-two stanzas. Further, the psalmist repeats at least six of an eight theme-word set (statue, law, commandment, decree, promise, ordinance, precept, word) in each lettered stanza. This literary feat alone would be worthy of awe; it is also marvelous poetry. It is also a Psalm that teaches in the style and content of Wisdom psalms. A stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet signifies that this word of God is worthy of following from A to Z.
Or as Jesus said in his sermon, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18)
In the fifth stanza of Psalm 119 (that we read responsively in our worship), the Psalmist prays, “Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways.” As we approach our Lord’s teaching on retaliation and loving enemies is our posture “give me life in your ways?” Do we believe that life, real life, life as it ought to be is found in obedience to his word and ways?
2. I invite you to reflect with me on the wonder of “give me life in your ways” in what some are calling our fake news era. After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2016 is post-truth – an adjective defined as 'relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief'. Words, so it is thought, mean what speakers want them to mean, no matter what their listeners might objectively hear. Indeed, listeners too insist words mean what they have heard, no matter what the speaker might have intended.
Consider the story of the controversy that ariose around University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson because of his insistence on limiting his use of gender specific pronouns in his classroom to “he” and “she.” Because new pronouns are invented to correspond to gender definitions insisted upon at the will of the individual, Peterson has been called a bigot. Is this the nature of our existence—post-truth; things are only what an individual thinks them to be? It is not much wonder that insecurity is writ large into the modern psyche.
The Roman world and its many gods encroached everywhere on life in Galilee where this Sermon on the Mount was preached. Not far away in Capernaum there was a Roman garrison stationed. Sephora was a thriving Roman city not far from Nazareth. On the northern reaches of Galilee was Caesarea Philippi on the foot of Mt. Hermon. It was a place crowded with pagan temples and niche statues representing the polytheism of the Roman world.
Jesus insists that it is the word of God that names the truth about the reality of our existence. Jesus’ probing, in his sermon, of how true life is found in the ways of God indicates his commitment to the word of God. John’s gospel proclaims that “in the beginning was the word.” John tells us that on the lips of Jesus we hear the one who is way, truth, and life. In a post-truth world the gospel proclaims that the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. This Word is not a post-truth word, but a Word that is truth in himself.
The gospel proclaims that we do not live in a world where reality is something we imagine; a world of our own construction. In the Genesis story of Eden the humans decided they knew best how to construct a world of their own liking. “Knowing good and evil” is a Hebraism that means, “whatever the human can imagine.” In our rebellion humans told God we can do this on our own, thank you very much. The scripture says that the light of this Word of the Father shines in the darkness; the darkness where great clouds of falsehoods of human imaginings have cast their shadows. As the Word that was in the beginning, through whom all things came into being, Jesus Christ is the reality in which the world exists. As we study his word we find life, real life, life grounded in reality, in his ways.
“Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways.” When I read that prayer I fear that I am way too fond of vanities. Too much caught up in the thick of thin things. Do I really want God to “give me life in your ways” or am I afraid that his ways are life-limiting. Turning the other cheek and loving enemies seems very impractical, even dangerous in an often hostile world.
Do I trust God that life is to be found in his ways? It could be that this prayer is in the Psalm because God knows our struggle and our need to pray for it. Admitting the corruption of my own heart I need God’s help to turn from vanities; I need God’s help to acquire the expulsive power of this new affection—“give me life in your ways.”
I wonder too if we think that a life focussed on “give me life in your ways” is limiting. We picture it like a boring Sunday school class or listening to a sermon that has gone on way too long—the sermon has been over for a while but the minister is still talking. The gospel calls us to think of such pursuit in terms of exploring the wonders of the limitless love of God. Recall the promise in our Lord’s beatitude; “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Have you ever been disappointed that you did the right thing? The Apostle Paul’s final admonition to the Philippian church comes to mind. “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)
3. As we hear what our Lord says about retaliation and love for enemies is this our prayer—“give me life in your ways”? You don’t have to do much internet surfing to experience how instinctively humans express their hostilities towards one another. I read the condescending way political pundits unleash their vitriol against a politician because the candidate of their choice did not win election. Retaliation is not only the thing we instinctively do it is also something we cheer on; we like someone so self-righteous to be knocked down a notch or two. Turning the other cheek seems a weak-kneed response.
Newspapers document the atrocities that enemies inflict on one another. Acts of terrorism decried in one place in the world are cheered as victories in another. The Palestinian authority names streets in its territory with the names of suicide-bombers who killed people in Israel. It is easy to speak of love for enemies when you dwell in a place of relative safety. Not so simple when the threat to security is nearby.
I want to briefly point out something we have noted previously about this text. We must be sure to understand that to turn the other cheek isn’t to overlook abuse of others. Whenever Jesu came upon heartless people abusing others he acted forthrightly and formidably. Neither is it to submerge public justice. Christians are called to justice. Neither is it to glorify “doormatism.” We must never confuse our Lord’s going to the cross with “doormatism.” “No one takes my life from me,” Jesus insisted, “I lay it down of my own accord.” To turn the other cheek is, quite simply to renounce retaliation. Reconciliation between people is never won by retaliation. Someone needs to renounce retaliation.
In a similar way to love your enemy isn’t to deny that enemies exist; it isn’t to turn a blind eye to their desire for your destruction pretending they are just a friend you haven’t met yet. Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for them; nowhere does he say to trust our enemies. To love enemies means that we will not seek their harm; will not defraud them; treat them with disdain because they are enemies.
What I would invite you to consider is how a posture of renouncing retaliation and praying for enemies seeds the world with the love of God. You may not think that as an individual I can do much to move the hostile trajectories of our society; we underestimate what God is doing in saying such things. To live this way is to engage in behaviour that befits the coming kingdom of God—it is to act out “thy kingdom come.”
Consider how this truth is illustrated in the Advent news letter from our missionary friend Reg Reimer. Reg served as a missionary in Vietnam during the war with the Americans. Reg was in Saigon and Hanoi for Advent in 2016. He writes, “December 8 illustrated for us again the complete contradictions which characterize Vietnam. In the morning we walked to the Hoa Lo prison, … Not an inappropriate name for what American POW’s knew as the “Hanoi Hilton” for nine years, and thousands of Vietnamese revolutionaries and criminals occupied for over half a century. … Original buildings house gruesome statues, pictures and tools of torture, including the original guillotine. … Having come to know three men who were incarcerated in Hoa Lo added poignancy to the slow walk through the prison’s remains. I told the incredulous ticket takers that I had three friends who had enjoyed free room and board at Hoa Lo!
Reg’s letter contained news of the church in Vietnam. He continued, “I have been on mission to northern Vietnam and making friends during a hundred or so visits over 34 years—doing my small part in quietly advocating, encouraging, connecting people, and supplying resources. The ECVN(N) had only a dozen churches when I first went to northern Vietnam in1982. Today it has 1,100, mostly Hmong! To say nothing of house churches!
“On Monday, Dec. 12 evening we hosted a dinner for 17 in a place I call the Upper Room. It is better known as Restaurant 22.” Reg tells of the ministry of many at that table. Here is one that typifies. T is leader of 32 house churches. Son of a prominent official he became addicted to heroin to the point he once tried to sell his baby daughter to feed his habit. Saved and delivered by the POWER of Christ, he now also runs a drug rehab center, one of 42 operated by house churches! T and wife C excused themselves a bit early as he had to speak at a Christmas program they were hosting for 700 students at a public university!”
Renouncing retaliation and praying for the enemy; endeavouring the proclamation of the gospel believing it to be good news for people has brought blessings of great hope to many.
It's a well-known fact that mobile phones continue to store more and more of our personal information. What people might not realize, however, is how much information is stored not just internally, but externally. Scientists from the University of California at San Diego recently ran a series of experimental molecular swab tests and were successful in identifying a series of traits about different cell phones' users. The process can "reveal the types of soaps, lotions, shampoo, make-up, food—such as vegetarian versus meat-eater or spicy foods—type of drinks, medications, even materials of clothing one uses," says Dr. Pieter Dorrestein, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the university. "We could tell if a person is likely female, uses high-end cosmetics, dyes her hair, drinks coffee, prefers beer over wine, likes spicy food, is being treated for depression …"
Here is my point. If everything we physically touch tells a story about us think about how this is spiritually true as well. Rejecting retaliation and refusing to seek the harm of those who would harm us leaves its trace in the world that God is blessing for the sake of his kingdom. If how you live makes its imprint on what you touch think then how much more the way you live towards others leaves it impact in the world. We just don’t see it. Every time you curb your enthusiasm for retaliation it leaves its imprint in ways God blesses—it is to live out in practical ways something we pray each week—thy kingdom come.
Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways.