In this letter to the church in Thessalonica, the Apostle Paul admonished the readers to live in peace. What does this mean for the local church? Alistair Begg teaches us that by practicing patience and renouncing retaliation, we can begin to reflect the Divine nature of our triune God.
May I invite you to turn in your Bibles, initially, to Matthew’s Gospel and chapter 18? We’re continuing our studies in 1 Thessalonians 5, and we will be there, but I want to read from Matthew 18:21 as a cross-reference to our study this morning:
“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’
“Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“‘Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents [which was essentially millions of dollars] was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“‘The servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“‘But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. [That’s just a few dollars.] He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded.
“‘His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.”
“‘But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“‘Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“‘This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.’”
Our God and our Father, we confess that we are frail, that we can’t do what we ought without your help. And so we pray that you would help each of us to do what is right to do, both in speaking and in hearing your Word. For the glory of your Son’s name we ask it. Amen.
We pick up our studies in 1 Thessalonians 5:14:
“We urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.”
Paul is finishing the letter to the Thessalonians here with a staccato burst of what are priceless principles. Each one of them is like a gem in a necklace. And indeed, it puts one in mind of the words of Solomon to his son in the book of Proverbs concerning the nature of wisdom, where he says, “Take these truths relating to wisdom and wear them as a necklace. Keep them really close to you, so that, as you understand them and as you benefit from them, they may be that which charts your progress through life.”
Now, in much the same way, these pithy statements are expressions of biblical wisdom, and they help us to answer the question, What is it going mean to be able to learn to “live in peace”? How are we, as a local church, going to be enabled to live in peace? Last time, we noted some of the individuals who are involved, and this time, mixing our metaphors, we begin to look at some of the ingredients that need to be put into the recipe, and one ’gredient in particular which, as we will see, needs to be left out.
There are no surprises here. They’re all straightforwardly in the text in front of you, and I’d like to go through them with you as time allows.
First of all, then, if we are to maintain harmony and peace amongst God’s people, we need to be those who are practicing patience—practicing patience. The word which is used here, makrothyméō, is a very important New Testament word. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is used frequently in describing the character of God. It means “to be long-suffering.” It indicates that whereby we do not give way to a short or quick temper with those who fail. And, of course, in dealing with the “idle,” “the timid,” and “the weak,” we have every opportunity to blow it.
And so, Paul, with his logical lawyer’s mind, as he thinks things through and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit writes this letter, there is a normal progression here. He says, “If we’re going to encourage people who are timid, if we’re gonna warn people who are idle, if we’re gonna help people who are weak, then we’re going to need a solid dose of Christian patience.” And indeed, without the practice of patience, we will be unable to maintain this harmony.
Now, I’d like you to notice just two things concerning this patience. First of all, the patience to which he refers is a divine attribute. That simply means that it is one of the dimensions of the character of God. It is what God is like. In Exodus chapter 34, after the event concerning the creation of the golden calf—after the people of God have made a dreadful hash of things—God speaks to his people again, reveals himself to them, and “the Lord,” we’re told in Exodus 34:5, “came down in the cloud and stood there with [his servant] and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.’” In other words, it was a revelation of the character of God which was essential for that moment. For here the people of God, in the midst of their wilderness wanderings, despite all of their protestations to the opposite, had fallen foul of their own natural human desires to create, in the building of this calf, some kind of godlike figure whom they would be able to control and manipulate, rather than the one before whom they would bow down and acknowledge their sin. And in the awareness of that, God reveals himself as the gracious, compassionate, slow-to-anger God.
The whole of the Old Testament is replete with such emphasis. And the psalmist, summarizing the same truth in Psalm 103:8, speaks of God in this way, and he says, “The Lord is compassionate” and “slow to anger,” he is “abounding in love.” What is God like? He is compassionate, he is patient, he is abounding in love, he is faithful. He is also a God of wrath who cannot tolerate sin. And it is sin which meant the meting out of God’s judgment on Calvary, and it is the immensity of God’s patience and grace and love which made Calvary a possibility. In other words, my sin made the death of Jesus a necessity, and God’s love made the death of Jesus a wonderful reality.
Paul, when he writes to the people in Rome in his own day, speaks of the nature of man’s condition in rebellion against God. And then, in chapter 2 of the book of Romans, he addresses the Jewish people in particular, and he says to them, “You know, just because of your background, it’s not a good idea for you to think that you are somehow removed from this expression of God’s judgment.” And he says, “If you yourself are guilty of these things, why would you condemn others and pass judgment on them?” Romans 2:2: “Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward[s] repentance?”
Now, Paul was able to write with such conviction concerning this because this was exactly the discovery that he had made in his own life. He describes it, if you’re following with me, in First Timothy 1:16. He himself knew the wonder of God’s kindness to him, and he could never, ever forget it. First Timothy 1:15: “Here[’s] a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Now, look at what he says next: “of whom I am the worst.” This wasn’t rhetoric on Paul’s part. Throughout all of his life—indeed, the longer he walked with God, the closer he grew to Christ, the more he was aware of the sinfulness of his own heart, the gravity of his predicament. And look what he says in verse 16: “But for that very reason”—in other words, “because I was the very worst”—“I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.”
In other words, says Paul, “God determined, in looking down upon my rebellious heart—in seeing my life not simply as somebody who was disinterested in the things of Jesus, but as someone who was vehemently opposed to Jesus; not just somebody who didn’t go to church, but somebody who hated church; not just somebody who wasn’t really interested to come to any of these gatherings, but somebody who flat-out hated them, and indeed, was prepared at the gatherings to stir up the crowd in such a way as to take stones and throw them at the main people in the gatherings—that God looked down upon this character and determined that he would manifest the wonder of his patience towards him so that to others who regard themselves as the most unlikely of converts—as the most lost in their predicament, as the most buried in sin, as the most trapped in habitual behavior, as the most uninterested parties to the things of Christ—that in looking at the apostle Paul, we might say, ‘If the patience of God extends to this, then perhaps God’s patience might extend to me,’ and then his very kindness would lead that individual to repentance.”
Now, this morning, these things are not irrelevant. They’re not at arm’s length. God’s patience is God’s patience. It is a divine attribute. It is impossible to speak about the nature of God without acknowledging this dimension in his character.
The second thing to notice about this patience which Paul introduces here is the fact that it is also a Christian virtue. In other words, we’re supposed to look like our father. Most of us do. Indeed, we had children in our home in the last few days, and as I looked out of the corner of my eye at a girl in our house, it was just her dad all over her face; from the cheekbones to the point of her hairline, it just looked like her dad. There was no surprise! She’s her father’s daughter. She should like her dad! A wee bit like her mom, as well, but in that moment, she looked like her dad. And that’s exactly what Paul is saying here: if you claim to be the children of your heavenly Father, you’re supposed to look like your Father. And one of the ways in which we look like our Father is in this manifesting of Christian patience.
Now, this is not something that we try and do; this is something which God, by his Spirit, produces within our lives. Paul prayed it for the Colossians. Colossians 1:11, he says, “[I pray that you might be] strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience.” You just think about that for a moment. If we were finishing the sentence “I pray for you, that you may be strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you might have…,” I wonder what we would add? Not many of us, I think, would add “endurance and patience.” We might add “the power to do dramatic things,” “the power to speak in powerful ways,” “the power to be greatly used of God,” whatever it might mean. But no, he says, “I pray that God’s power may be so unleashed within your lives that you are able to endure when you feel like quitting and you’re able to be patient when you feel like flat-out losing it with everybody.” Now, I’ll tell you what: that rings my bell. I need somebody to pray that prayer for me in my life: “Father, I pray for him, that he might have great endurance. I pray that he might be strengthened with all power so that he might be patient.”
Same thing later on, Colossians 3:12. What he prays for them, he then encourages them to wear as part of their clothing. You got up this morning, and you chose your wardrobe. Or perhaps you chose it last evening. Some of us don’t have much of choice; it’s really a fairly easy, easy approach. Others of you have a greater variety, and that’s nice. It just adds to your problem; it just takes longer. And we’ve been given a Christian wardrobe in Christ. And we’re supposed to wear certain things. Colossians 3:12: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved…” In other words, “You’re kids of the kingdom, wear your kingdom outfits.” What are we wearing?
Well, he says, “Clothe yourselves with compassion.” “Compassion.” Remember that word; I’m coming back to it. Christians are supposed to be at the forefront of the culture when it comes to the issue of compassion. There should be nobody more compassionate in society than the Spirit-filled Christian. “Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” Oh, there’s that word again! “Patience.”
It’s part of the fruit of the spirit. Galatians 5:22: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, patience, self-control,” etc. (Can never put them in order.) It’s also an evidence of Christian love. First Corinthians 13:4: “Love is not stuck on itself, love does not demand its own way, love is kind, and love is always patient.” So when Paul addresses this issue, he is addressing it from the foundation of the character of God. He has every right to call the Thessalonians to live in peace with one another on the basis of this expression of Christian patience, because we don’t go out and buy it in a store, but we discover it as an increasing expression of family likeness.
Now, he knew that it was imperative at every point. It is important in the pews, and it’s important in the pulpit. Indeed, he says, it’s vitally important in the pulpit. So, to Timothy as a young man, when he gives him council as to what he should do as a pastor, he says in 2 Timothy 4, “I give you this charge: Preach the Word.” Okay? “Be prepared in season and out of season”—when you feel like it, when you don’t feel like it. What should the content be? “Correct, rebuke and encourage.” So there should be correction, there should be rebuke, there should be encouragement. What is the manner in which this is to take place? “With great patience.” Why? ’Cause we’re really slow learners. Really slow.
You know, I have every respect—and sympathy—for schoolteachers, particularly. I don’t want to discourage you; what a great opportunity you have tomorrow morning! But, I mean, you go back to that same little group, don’t you? With the same bunch of stories as last week about why they don’t have their homework, about why they don’t have a note, about how they don’t understand number seven. Running out to the front: “’Scuse me! ’Scuse me! ’Scuse me!” “Don’t pull! I mean, ’scuse me, don’t pull on me, now, honey.” How many times should you answer their question? Up to seven times? I tell you, seventy-seven times would be getting off light.
And the same thing in preaching the Bible. Paul is realistic; says, “If you’re gonna preach, correct, rebuke, and encourage, you better do it with great patience”—the patience of Jesus for his disciples as he tells them again and again and again, and still they don’t get the picture, and he says, “Have I been so long with you, and still you do not understand?”
Now, the context, you will recall, in 1 Thessalonians 5 is that we might be tempted to discard—to leave in the lurch—those who are a bit of a problem and a bit of a nuisance. Like who, for example? Well, like the “unruly,” the “idle.” Like “the timid” that we want say, “Oh, come on, give yourself a shake, let’s go!” Like “the weak” that we want to say, “Stop that! Let’s move.” And so he says, “Listen, if you’re gonna deal with the idle, the timid, the weak; if you’re gonna live in submission to biblical leadership; if you’re gonna live in the expression of peace with one another, then it is absolutely vital that you manifest a commitment to patience with everyone.”
Okay, no surprise, right? Nobody’s surprised. Everyone’s slightly convicted, but nobody is remotely surprised. And it’s easy, in the relative tranquility of a Sunday morning worship hour, to determine that we really are patient—and indeed, as of this instant, we’re going to be really patient. And that’s fine. But within five minutes of the benediction, you’ll have enough reason to lose your patience. In fact, let me back it up a little to two minutes in the benediction.
Let me tell you why: Because after the first service, as I stood talking to somebody down here, somebody, through some electronic wizardry—trying to correct something, I should hasten to add—kept making this thundering great noise through the sound system. And I found myself, having just exhorted the congregation in a rigorous and righteous call to patience, going, “Who the devil’s making that…?” And then I said, “Oh, man! I can’t even make it through sixty-five seconds after the benediction of blowing my own sermon.” Now, I don’t expect you to be like that, ’cause you’re a very upright kind of group of people. I’m just confessing my own sins.
But there are plenty of places that have been set up in society just to test your patience. If you haven’t got a driver’s license lately, just hold on. ’Cause those bureaus are set up, I think—they were invented—for the testing of the patience of humanity. And there are some classic illustrations out of that. I met a man the last time I was there who had a vintage car that went back into the 1920s. It had never had a title. And if you could’ve seen this poor soul trying to get this car titled, and licensed, and roadworthy, and everything else! It was pathetic to see a grown man reduced to tears as he shuttled up and down Mayfield Road, and all over creation, just having his patience tested.
Fast-food restaurants! Who invented them? Do you remember them? There’s a patience tester. How do you always get in the line with the guy who always looks like he wants a coffee and then buys something for a complete coach party? And how come you feel like everything is taking place in slow motion, like you’re watching an action replay? I mean, how hard is it to pour coffee? “Oh, you’re very impatient, Alistair.” How come you’re laughing?
And what about green traffic lights? Aren’t you supposed to go when it turns green? I mean, what is the mystery in this, for crying out loud? We’ve all been sitting there, everybody understands, “When it goes green, you go”—everybody except the guy at the front! Takes him totally by surprise: “Oh!”
Now, in those kind of circumstances—and they are real circumstances—the people around us are not going to be impressed by our theological truth. Not a good time to have bumper stickers. You will note, there are no bumper stickers on my car, except one small St Andrew’s flag, which identifies me with Scotland. But I daren’t identify myself with the church of Jesus Christ, because of some of the things I’m mentioning to you. You say, “Well, you should.” I say, “I understand that, but I am a sinner.” And so, I just don’t want to make it as obvious as some of you have chosen to do. And that’s… “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
People are not going to be impressed by our theological grasp, but they may be impressed by the expressions of practical godliness. And there is no more practical expression of godliness than genuine biblical patience. I’ve got a long way to go in this. If you doubt that, you only need to ask my wife.
We don’t play the tape in the car anymore, but it stills rings in my ears; some of you are playing it, ’cause your children are the right age. I can’t remember it, but they always had funny little voices, the people who sang this stuff. On the fruit of the spirit? Do you remember this thing? About Herbert? I quote, now:
There was a snail called Herbert who was so very slow.
He caused a lot of traffic jams wherever he would go.
The ants were always getting mad … the beetles, they would fume,
But Herb would always poke along and sing this little tune.
And then it went,
Have patience, have patience,
Don’t be in such a hurry.
When you get impatient, you only start to worry.
Then it goes,
Remember, remember that God is patient too,
And think of all the times when others have to wait for you.
And you find yourself in the car going, “Would you turn that blooming stuff off! You turn that stupid snail stuff off!” The kids are in the back going, “Wait a minute, I thought you were teaching us the fruit of the spirit, patience?” “I am tea—oh, oh yes, I am, yes, sorry. Yes, yes, good. Well, why don’t we play it a little later, children?”
Now, I tell you, I am an authority on this stuff. I don’t claim to be an authority on much, but I am an authority on impatience. And it shames me.
Matthew 18: the guy who has been forgiven millions, choking the life out of the fellow who owes him ten dollars. Why? ’Cause he has never understood the immensity of the debt that he owes here, and so he’s prepared to choke the life out of the individual here. Every time that my impatience reveals itself in the lives of others, what I’m saying is that my time is more important than theirs, that my interests are more significant than theirs, that my concerns have more preeminence than theirs, and that when I hold an unforgiving spirit towards them, I’m declaring that I haven’t understood in the smallest degree the immensity of the need for forgiveness in my own life and the absence of patience in my own heart.
So, the practice of patience is essential for living in peace.
Secondly, he says, not only are we going to have to practice patience, but we’re going to have to be prepared to renounce retaliation. Look at verse 15: “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong.” Now, to whom is he speaking? “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong.” He’s speaking to the group. And he is addressing the group concerning the activities of the individual. So he’s saying that we have a corporate responsibility to make sure that we don’t allow anyone in the group to get away with retaliatory behavior.
That, incidentally, is one of the reasons why the New Testament says that you should not listen to an accusation against an elder except in the presence of two or three witnesses. Because what it does is, it shuts down gossip and it prevents retaliation. And the picture that immediately comes to mind in looking at this is a picture from sporting events—I take it from the world of soccer—where you go for a ball, and a guy takes your legs out from underneath you. Absolutely goes over the top of the ball, puts his cleats right into your shin. It hurts like fury. In an instant, you turn around on him, and you go to get him back. And your teammates come in as a buffer between you and that individual, they gather you up, and they say, “Don’t do that. Don’t retaliate.” “Yeah, but look what he did!” “We know what he did, but don’t retaliate. You’ll make it worse for yourself and worse for the whole team.” That’s what he’s saying here. Say no to retaliation. Every time we choose to retaliate, we make it worse for everybody involved.
Now, why is this so pressingly important? Well, because revenge is one of the most natural of instincts. Revenge is one of the most instinctive vices. And it’s therefore to be guarded against strenuously and continuously. There’s no guarantee that because we had a successful yesterday that we will have a successful today.
Paul addresses it, again, with frequency. Romans chapter 12, for example: as he deals with some of the practical expressions of Christian discipleship, he says in Romans 12:17, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Now, notice verse 19: “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay.’” There’s going to be a payday one day. At the present time, because we live in a fallen world, all kinds of things are messed up. God will work his purpose out according to his plan. And in the meantime, he is not looking for any help from us in relationship to setting matters to rights.
Now, loved ones, you’re going to have to think this out very, very carefully. Paul not only delineated the principle, but he demonstrated it. First Corinthians, in chapter 4, and he says in verse 12… And I hope you’re turning to this and looking for it. Some of you have gone asleep already. That’s all right. Rest well, Monday’s coming. First Corinthians 4:12: “We work hard with our hands,” he says. “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment, we have become the scum of the earth, [and] the refuse of the world.”
In other words, Paul was living and ministering in an environment that gave every opportunity for retaliation. People were cussing them out all the time. And the temptation was to respond in kind. He said, “We responded by saying, ‘May God bless your life.’” People were persecuting them. Do you understand that in the Neronian persecution, Nero used to have people turned into candles in his backyard? They drove them down into the ground, they covered them in wax from their chest to the top of their head, and then they set them on fire. And that was the environment in which Paul was ministering and Peter was writing—right in that context! It’s not that people were saying one or two not nice things about them; it was that they were enduring the most immense persecution. And he says, “I want you to understand that when we faced this kind of thing—when our backs were flayed open by the unjust response of the government around us—we responded by enduring. And when we were slandered and abused, we answered kindly. And we’re not in any doubt about where we’ve come. At the moment,” he says, “we’ve reached the starry heights of ‘scum of the earth.’”
Does this sound like middle-class American Christianity? Not for a moment. It is so far removed it’s unbelievable. “We were the scum of the earth,” he said. “They beat us up, tore us down, spat on us, abused us, did everything to us. But we determined to put into practice the principle which I’ve shared with you elsewhere, and that is that we refused to take matters into our own hands.”
Consider—and I’ll just give you one other reference. I mentioned Peter. Let’s look at Peter in 1 Peter 3:9: “Finally [brothers], all of you, live in harmony with one another.” You see this same call to peacefulness. “Be sympathetic, love as brothers.” You get it again, same sort of idea. “Warn the idle, encourage the timid, help the weak”—it’s the same message. “Be compassionate and humble.” There’s the word “compassion” again. Now here it comes: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”
Where did he get this from? He got this from Jesus. Where did Jesus propound it most clearly? In the Sermon on the Mount. Where’s the Sermon on the Mount? In Matthew chapter 5. Where does Jesus say this? In verse 43–44: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love you neighbor and hate your enemy.’” That was never said in the Old Testament, incidentally. That’s not the Old Testament law: “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” That’s a corruption of the Old Testament law. The Old Testament law did not tell people to hate their enemies. People were saying, “You can hate your enemy.” Jesus says, “No, you can’t hate your enemy. You couldn’t in the Old Testament, and you can’t in the New.” He says, “But I [want to] tell you: Love your enemies … pray for those who persecute you, that you may be [the] sons of your Father in heaven.” Notice that: “that you may be [the] sons of your Father in heaven.” How are we going to show the world that we are the children of God? As a result of compassion, and kindness, and meekness, and humility, and patience, and renouncing retaliation.
Now, loved ones, hold that thought for a minute. August 16, 1993, USA Today—article concerning a minister in Alabama who sent an advertisement to a newspaper showing a man pointing a gun at a doctor’s head with a caption which read, “justifiable homicide.” The minister, when interviewed, told the international newspaper, “If 100 doctors need to die to save over 1 million babies a year, I see it as a fair trade.”
Okay, class, I want you to split up now into your seminar groups, and I want you to discuss that in relationship to what we are just considering in relationship to the renouncing of retaliation. I put it to you, loved ones, that this has washed over our heads so much now for the last two decades that some of us would be hard-pressed immediately to respond to it with biblical accuracy. It emerges from the fact that we fail to distinguish between the application of criminal law, which is God’s prerogative, and the practice of personal revenge, for which the Bible gives us no mandate. And when we seek to introduce personal revenge to take the place of criminal law, then we have completely subverted the plan and the purpose of God.
Now, I’m preparing on a message on this at the moment, and I will return to it, but for the time being, I just want to sow the thought in your mind. The fact of the matter is that in the very garden of Gethsemane, the disciples got it wrong. The people come for the arrest of Jesus, and the response of Peter is to do what? To take his sword and to take matters into his own hands and to ensure that nothing will happen to Jesus—a worthy and understandable reaction, but a wrong reaction. Because, says Jesus, “My kingdom is not this kind of kingdom. My kingdom does not come in this way. My kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If I was seeking to do this, Peter, I could call twelve legions of angels, and we could fry the whole operation right now, and we could establish domination over the Roman Empire, and we could take over government, and we could put everybody in place. But that is not my plan, it will never be my plan, and it is not something to which you ought to give yourselves. Go into all the world and preach the gospel, teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And when you teach them how to live, remind them to practice patience, and remind them to renounce retaliation.”
I put it to you this morning that great sectors of our society have got no concept of the message of compassion which is found in Jesus Christ, because of the face of contemporary Christianity. I understand its motivation. I understand the justifiable concern with our nation and our desire to have it “the way we want it.” But don’t mistake the American Dream for the gospel of Jesus Christ. There has never been a culture that has been established as the kingdom of God, and there never will be a culture established as the kingdom of God. And Jesus made it clear, and the apostles bore it out.
Do you think this morning that the person who is held in the grip of pornography has an interest in the things of Christ? That the drug dealer, the child molester, the abortionist, and the homosexual are clamoring over one another to get to the message of compassion which is found in Jesus? Absolutely and categorically not. And I will tell you why: Because they do not see Jesus behind our slogans. They do not meet Jesus in our marches. They do not encounter Christ in our coalitions. They do not find “his love shed abroad in the hearts” of those of us who, in apparently upholding a biblical mandate, are more concerned about our white, middle-class values than we are about the ethical commands of Jesus Christ. And if that’s tough from some little heretic across the pond, I apologize for it.
But listen here, and listen carefully: When Jesus told the story in Luke 15 of the prodigal boys, one was lost from his father’s house, one was lost in his father’s house. The boy who was lost in his father’s house was a total write-off. “‘Father,’” he says to himself as he made his speech, “I’ll go back to him, and I know I can’t be a son again; I’ll go back to him and I’ll say, ‘I’ve sinned against heaven and in your sight, and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Can I just be one of your servants?’” And so he arose, and he came to his father, and he had his speech planned, and when he was yet a long way off, his father saw him. And he ran, and he had compassion on him, and the boy begins his speech, and he smothers him up in his embrace, and he kisses him on the neck, and he shows compassion to him. Had he screwed up? Royally! Was he messed up? Totally! Did he have any reason to welcome him back as a son? Absolutely none! Except for his immense compassion and patience.
And meanwhile, out in the field was his brother—smarty pants. The servant tells him, “Big party! Your brother was lost, he’s found—dead, alive again! Come on in!” And he refused to go in. ’Cause he was a Pharisee. He was lost, and he didn’t know how lost he was: “What are you doing, forgiving him all this debt? I’d choke him! Spending your substance with harlots, wasting all his inheritance, fouling up the whole thing. I know what I’d do with him.” And again, the father—with every justifiable right to say, “You know what? Why don’t you go to a far country!”—the father comes out to him, he says, “Hey, come here, son.” Puts his arm around him, he says, “Listen, you’re always with me. All that I have is yours.”
And the Pharisees, as the story draws to a close, were totally ticked off. ’Cause they were on the side of the elder brother; in fact, they were the elder brother. And they take off—“We’re out of here, we hate these stories”—but I can guarantee you, and heaven will reveal it, that there was a group that stayed around Jesus, and I’ll tell you who was in the group: prostitutes, lost people, empty people. ’Cause they heard the heart of Jesus in the wonder of the story.
You think you’re gonna convert America by political methodology? I’m telling you right now, it will never happen. Are you supposed to take your place as a citizen? Absolutely. And I’ll say more about that when I come to it. But listen carefully: don’t confuse the kingdoms. The kingdom that we are building is an eternal kingdom, not an earthly kingdom. “It is not by might, and it’s not by power, and it’s not by chariots, and it’s not by horses; it is by my Spirit,” says the Lord.
And by and large, if you interview people down in Coventry; if you interview people in Central Park, New York; if you talk to young people with earrings through every ostensible piece of their body that can take a piece of gold, and you ask them about Christianity, and you ask them about Jesus, you’re gonna look long and hard before you find somebody that is able to talk to you about compassion. Because they’ve got us all squared away with an ugly public face.
“If a hundred doctors have to die to reverse the balance for a million babies a year, that sounds like a fair trade to me.” And Jesus said, “And I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who use you despitefully, and cry out with compassion for those who are lost.” As we mobilize our marches, and organize our campaigns, and select our slogans, and seek to commandeer our culture, there is the sneaking suspicion in the back of my mind that, despite our use of biblical rhetoric, our agenda has got more to do with preserving the dominance of white, middle-class values than declaring the clear ethical demands of a Galilean carpenter called Jesus of Nazareth.
You want to have an impact with the AIDS community? Start loving people who’ve got AIDS. Do you want to have an impact with people whose lives are held in the grip of pornography? Start loving the people. ’Cause I am a potential pornographer, but for the grace of God. I am the next AIDS victim, but for the grace of God. If God gave AIDS as a punishment for homosexuality, thank God he didn’t give me a punishment for the lack of impatience. What kind of disease would he have given me for my absence of patience? What disease would he have given you, justifiably, for the presence of slander? What disease do you think would be suitable to the absolute total lack of compassion in the people of God? “You’re not gonna go touch those lepers, Jesus, are you?” “Absolutely!”
I’m gonna tell you right now, if we don’t do it, there will be nobody to do it. And we are called to do it, and therefore we must. I don’t know flat out what that means. I know some of you work in infectious diseases. I know some of you are on the forefront of these things in many different ways. And I just simply say to you, keep on. For Jesus’ sake, keep on.
This little book here, from which I quote, is the story of my friend John Harper, whom I told you about before—a guy who drowned on the Titanic, along with over a thousand other people. On the night before he drowned, he led a kid to faith in Jesus Christ on the deck of the ship. And into this little biographical narrative, somebody writing about the passion and compassion of John Harper’s heart summarized it in this somewhat prosaic little poem. But here’s the deal:
If we but knew that through the closing door
Some one we love [or even dislike] would [never] enter [more],
Would we not hasten with our richest store?
If we but knew!
If we but knew that from the market-place
Soon we [would] miss some kind, familiar face,
Would our cold greetings not be touched with grace?
If we but knew!
If we but knew some heart beside our own,
Had walked in dark[est] Gethsemane alone,
Oh, with what [largeness] would our love be shown!
If we but knew!
Dear Jesus, patient, understanding, kind,
We are [your] lost sheep in a winter wind,
Forgive us that we are so willful blind!
Teach us to know!
And Jesus said, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples: that you live in peace with one another.” What does that mean? Practicing patience, renouncing retaliation, and next time, cultivating kindness.
Let’s pray together, shall we?
Lord, your Word is sharp as a two-edged sword—lays open our misconceptions, personal agendas, lack of patience, desire for revenge. Part of us wants to go the right way, part of us wants to go the wrong way. It makes us unstable. And so we pray that you will give us an undivided heart, for the sake of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
 Proverbs 3:3 (paraphrased).
 1 Thessalonians 5:13 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 2:1 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 13:4–5 (paraphrased).
 2 Timothy 4:1–2 (NIV 1984).
 John 14:9 (paraphrased).
 1 Thessalonians 5:14 (KJV).
Philippians 2:12 (KJV).
 Frank Hernandez and Sherry Saunders Powell, “Patience (Herbert the Snail)” (1977).
 Matthew 26:53 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 28:19–20 (paraphrased).
 Romans 5:5 (paraphrased).
 See Luke 15:11–32.
 Zechariah 4:6 (paraphrased); Psalm 20:7 (paraphrased).
 Possibly Robert Plant, Titanic: Ship of Dreams (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus, 2011).
 Annie Swan, “If We but Knew,” Songs of Memory and Hope (New York: H. M. Caldwell, 1911), 14–15.
 John 13:35 (paraphrased).
 Hebrews 4:12 (paraphrased).