September 3, 2023
Text: Romans 12:9–21
In the name of Jesus, Amen!
I bet you have some people you’d like to light on fire. I do. For those bullies and brutes and backstabbing betrayers, drop blistering anvils on top of their heads, pour fuel on top of the flames. The antagonists, the abusers, the culprits and perpetrators, riddle them with pinpricks and paper cuts. Shower them with brimstone and salt from heaven. To be honest, we like vengeance, sweet vengeance. But wait. In today’s epistle lesson, Romans 12, God teaches us that we must never avenge ourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God. For it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” So, basically, to those whom you want to light on fire, those whose heads you want to heap burning coals on top of, God teaches us a better way to treat them: You help them when they are in need and leave the vengeance to God. Think about it. If God avenges for you, would it not be more just and powerful?
What’s more. If we take a closer look at the context of what St. Paul is saying here, the real question is, “Do they qualify as genuine enemies?” As we are in Romans 12, Paul has started to talk about a life of living sacrifice as your spiritual worship as a Christian. This Christian life is based on the grace and mercies of God that we receive through faith in Jesus Christ, which St. Paul addresses from chapter 1 through 11. Having Christ and His salvation, we belong to God. Therefore, we should not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by renewal of our mind through the Word and the will of God. So, the way we think about who our enemy is also needs transformation and renewal. Paul’s not talking about a particular situation, certain individuals, or some unpleasant or even obnoxious somebodies, but in general terms. In fact Paul, even the whole Bible, encourages us to see the lineup of usual suspects of our enemies as our neighbors who need our love. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. (v. 14)” Paul echoes Jesus’ saying, “Do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). So, who is our real enemy? The devil. 1 Peter 5:8 says, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” You may say, “but the devil does evil things through evil persons, doesn’t he? The Bible is full of examples and our own experience tells us the same.” Yes. Then how do we reconcile this? The key is that each one of us in the world is both the victim and the culprit. That’s why St. Paul advises us in armoring up against “the schemes of the devil,” he goes on in chapter 6 of Ephesians, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The devil works against us through humans’ evil and selfish desires, through dark and perverted thoughts and ideas in the world, and through atheist and anti-Christ cultures, ideologies and philosophies.
In fact, our real enemy is much closer than you think. This enemy looms in the mirror and intrudes upon our mind. Paul says in Colossians, “YOU, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing the bad work of the evil one.” “We were powerless enemies of God.” Paul says in chapter 7 of Romans, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing… Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” You see, the real enemy resides inside of us — the enemy within. In our text, Paul uses the Greek word anthrakas for burning coals. From this, of course, we derive our English term anthrax. Anthrax is an infectious bacterium. Its infection causes people to develop black skin lesions looking like they have been burned by coals. It’s contagious and fatal among animals and humans, as well as between the two. It is used as one of the most common biological weapons. As a human-being with the sinful desires infected by the evil thoughts and ideologies from the devil, we would eagerly heap burning coals on our enemy’s head; at the same time we tend to ignore the “anthrax” in our own body and soul. This hateful thinking together with other evil thoughts and ideas spreads like a contagious and infectious disease.
But, thanks be to God! The Lord has coals of his own. The Lord God has coals for the burning up and cleansing of sins. When the prophet Isaiah was in the presence of the Holy Trinity, he cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then one of the seraphim flew to Isaiah, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched Isaiah’s mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” Note, the burning coal that touches Isaiah’s mouth comes from the altar burning sacrifices in the temple, which foreshadows Jesus Christ and His once-for-all Sacrifice on the Cross. We know this Sacrifice is in Paul’s mind because he mentions it as mercies of God in Christ Jesus so that we should present our bodies as a living sacrifice as a result and fruit of our faith. Paul here may be thinking of the fire that high priests like Aaron used when offering burning sacrifices to disinfect the Israelites. He also may be thinking of the charcoal fire that Peter warmed himself with when Jesus was arrested and Peter denied Him three times, and the charcoal fire that Jesus prepared for the disciples after the resurrection and asked Peter, “do you love me” three times. Yes, maybe Paul is also thinking of another fire, the fire that rested on every disciple’s head when the Holy Spirit descended on the day of the first Pentecost. The Chinese word for “righteousness” consists of two parts. The lower part is “I” or “me”. The upper part is a “lamb” or “sheep”. So, a lamb on top of me, a sheep on my head is Righteousness. Without the lamb, “I” is only “I”. “Me” is only “me”. Without the Lamb of God, I am only myself, not righteous at all. Jesus experienced the fiery and bloody baptism on the Cross to accomplish this Righteousness for us. Now, with the help of the power of the same Holy Spirit that rests on the disciples’ heads, we receive the Lamb of God on top of us and become righteous in the eyes of God. All of these are Good coals of fire that are burning up our sins, kindling our faith, keeping us warm in His Love, and fanning into flame the gift of God to proclaim the Good News around us and in the world.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!