Rev Dr Edgar Mayer; Living Grace Toowoomba Church
Message: The Kingdom For Keeps – 13 – Sermon On The Mount Series; Date: 24 July 2011
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Coping With Grace
Three weeks ago the guest-preacher at the Station Street Community Centre introduced us to Jeffrey Dahmer (May 21, 1960 – November 28, 1994) who was an American serial killer and sex offender. Dahmer had murdered seventeen men and boys between 1978 and 1991, with the majority of the murders occurring between 1987 and 1991. His murders had been particularly gruesome, involving rape, dismemberment, necrophilia and cannibalism. Then, we were told that he was caught and thrown into prison – (this was good news) – (many of us thought that he was scum) – but in prison he became a Christian and God – according to the guest-preacher – listened to him and forgave him all of his sins.
This caused a reaction among us: No! After all that he had done – unimaginable crimes – this mass-murderer was now accepted and loved by God? How can this be possible? On the night – there was widespread anger in the room. We erupted in heated discussions at several tables and gave the guest-preacher a hard time. When he told us that on November 28, 1994, Jeffrey Dahmer was beaten to death by an inmate at the Columbia Correctional Institution, (where he had been incarcerated), someone next to me yelled out: “Good job!” This man deserved to die and he should now rot in hell, not enjoy heaven.
The following week I tried to explore this further but the same anger came back into the room and the same heated discussions around various tables made preaching hard. We couldn’t listen to the suggestion that a man like Jeffrey Dahmer could be saved – absolutely forgiven with his slate wiped clean of rape and murders. I went home and did not sleep well. From about 4 am, I was tossing and turning in my bed. What was going on? Why would we get upset with God because he was forgiving someone’s sin? Wasn’t that the point of sharing a meal at the Centre on Wednesday nights? Everyone is welcome – everyone.
How are we this morning? Can I have another go at unpacking the anger – maybe your anger – at Jeffrey Dahmer and his salvation? Think back over this year. Over the last few months we have also been studying the Sermon on the Mount and whatever Jesus preached in these three Bible chapters of Matthew 5-7 – is – (on account of what we hear him say) – many a time – directly related to our anger over forgiveness which extends even to mass-murderers.
This morning – if you are struggling with forgiveness, understand what is going in you. In the Sermon on the Mount – we hear Jesus insisting on holy perfection and we hear – again and again – radical demands of obedience such as …
Matthew 5:16: “ … let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Matthew 5:17-20: “ … For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven … For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Matthew 7:13-23: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it ... A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire ... Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven ... ”
It is not easy to process all of these demands because they are impossible to satisfy. Who can be as perfect as God himself? No one. Yet – in his preaching – Jesus kept pushing the impossible. His insistence on holy perfection was almost relentless: “Not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law.” This is too hard for us and therefore most Christians have found a way of coping which helps us to manage the problem but blunts Jesus’ preaching.
There are four basic coping mechanisms: 1) [This option is popular among Christians in the West.] We argue that Jesus did not mean what he said and our logic is reasonable: God is nice – very nice – and – therefore – he is not going to make life difficult for us. Good deeds are the goal but he is not going to worry about perfection. The narrow gate is not really that narrow. Thus, we can read the Sermon on the Mount – congratulate Jesus on his lofty ideals – but not see the need for changing our lives. 2) The second coping mechanism is to give up from the start. Why try when failure is assured? God cannot blame us for spotting the obvious. There is no chance of success. Therefore, stay away from any holy striving. 3) The third coping mechanism accepts the demands of perfection but seeks to compensate for failure by feeling miserable. This is the thinking: “If I cannot make God happy with what I do (because I will never be perfect), I can (at least) show him that I feel bad about myself. Thus, God and I are in agreement. He must be disappointed in me and I share his feelings. I am disappointed in me also.” Some depressed Christians love their depression because it makes them feel closer to Jesus than simply ignoring his preaching. They may also begin to feel superior to other Christians who are not as deeply pained and religious as they are which brings us to coping mechanism no 4.
4) [This is the most common one.] We agree that good deeds are demanded – even perfection in holiness – but we cope by becoming pleased with our efforts. “God look at us. We are trying hard and we are making good progress.” Every week we perform good works – turn up at working bees, mow lawns and cook meals, give away money and encourage one another – we are on the right track – especially when we compare ourselves to others. Jesus must give us the thumbs up. We are way better than others and our standard of obedience is pretty good. The Sermon on the Mount holds no fear for us – or so we think.
However, this last coping mechanism only ever works well when we take our eyes off Jesus and his holy perfection – (that which is beyond reach) – and compare ourselves to others. We may not match Jesus’ demands but we can look good among other human sinners – (in this church). Furthermore, we speed up this process by being lenient with ourselves and harsh with others. It’s so easy to buy into a little self-deception where my own sins are less troublesome than someone else’s serious transgression.
None of these coping mechanisms are helpful and Jesus absolutely anticipated them in his preaching. In the Sermon on the Mount – he (particularly) tackled the most common one where we become pleased with our own efforts in comparison to others. Jesus preached holiness and – at the same time – warned about coping in the wrong way. I list a few references. Notice the headings.
You can never afford to look down upon anyone else
Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Matthew 7:1-2: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
Your sin is not any less serious than others
Matthew 5:21-22: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment … And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
Matthew 5:27-28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
See also … Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden simply tasted some forbidden fruit but the judgement was severe because disobedience and betrayal of trust is common to all sin (Genesis 3). Then, the son of Adam and Eve proved the connection when he immediately progressed to murdering his brother.
Romans 3:10-18: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one … There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Your showcasing of righteous works makes them worthless.
Matthew 6:1-6: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Matthew 6:16-18: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Your pride is misplaced and has blinded you to your own sin.
Matthew 7:3-5: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
See also … Romans 2:1: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”
Jesus preached holiness in the Sermon on the Mount but also – absolutely – warned against the false coping mechanism of becoming pleased with oneself in comparison to others. He told a story about the dire consequences of such an attitude:
Luke 18:9-14: To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
With this story, Jesus clearly established that looking down on others does not help you. The Pharisee was feeling superior to the tax collector. He was pleased with himself; therefore failed to deal with his own need before God. [Already in the Garden of Eden Adam felt superior to Eve when he suggested that he wasn’t as bad as her and Eve suggested that she wasn’t as bad as the serpent.]
My impression is that – (to some extent) – this is what happened among us at the Station Street Community Centre. We were like the Pharisee. We know that we are not perfect. We are not even trying as hard as the Pharisee in the story – (fasting twice a week, giving a tenth of all we get) – but – like him – we felt justified to look down upon someone like Jeffrey Dahmer because – at the very least – we are better than him. Our own sins – and be they drug addiction, sexual immorality and thieving – are not as bad as being a mass murderer. Good job when someone kills him in prison.
Do you agree? For those of us that were there, this is not flattering but is it the truth? Are we sometimes like the Pharisee – pleased with ourselves, blind to our own sin and feeling superior to others?
However, this is not the whole story. There is a tendency in all of us to become a Pharisee but this does not yet explain the anger at the Community Centre. Why did we get so ropable when the guest-preacher suggested that Jeffrey Dahmer was forgiven by God? Now we get to the real reason why I was tossing and turning in bed. Many of us here do not yet understand the love of God – what it is all about. We don’t understand the love of Jesus who died for us on a cross.
If you became angry and want to understand your anger, listen again to a familiar story which Jesus told the Pharisees and people like them:
Luke 15:1-32: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ Then Jesus told them this parable … There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Imagine that Jeffrey Dahmer is the younger brother in this story. He did everything wrong – turning his back on the father, squandering his inheritance, in bondage and lost in sin. Yet – when he was desperate enough – he came back and was surprised by complete forgiveness. He was reinstated as son and heir. However, this made the older brother angry. Do you recognize the anger? It is the same anger that was at our Centre over the last few weeks. The older brother thought that the loving welcome of his younger brother was so unfair. He was slaving away to please his Dad and seemed to get nothing but scraps. Not even a goat while his young brother now feasted on the fattened calf. For him, there was no joy in doing one’s duties but here he was – day after day – striving hard after righteousness. The younger brother broke all the rules – pleased himself and not the Father – but then gets everything before he even properly said sorry. This was unfair and made the older brother angry.
This morning – you may not measure up to the older brother because you have not been as faithful as he was. You may have acted more like the younger brother and made many mistakes but could it be that – when you came to your senses – you have never accepted the welcome of the Father? Could it be that you have never tasted the fattened calf and have never worn the Father’s best robe? Could it be that you have avoided the Father’s embrace and simply joined the older brother in trying hard to do your best without the celebration? Could it be that you struggle so hard in the church and struggle so hard to find acceptance – even accepting yourself – that anyone receiving free forgiveness (like the younger brother) makes you hopping mad because this seems unfair? Why should anyone have an easier ride than you yourself?
In the story – Jesus extended a hand to you. You are wrong. You have always been a son and the Father says to you: “Everything I have is yours. You are always with me.” You are living with a kind of misery that is totally unnecessary. What the younger son received is also offered to you. God the Father wants to forgive you all of your sins. Don’t carry them anymore. Don’t be burdened by them. The Sermon on the Mount was never meant to be a do-it-yourself manual. We will always fail at perfection – (you don’t have to find coping mechanisms) – but all of us – you and Jeffrey Dahmer included – can be completely honest with our shortcomings because we live by forgiveness and not our own efforts. Thorough repentance is only possible because everything can be forgiven – rather than fixed by our own performance.
If you can work through your anger, you may humble yourself like the tax collector in the previous story. He did not even dare to raise his eyes and prayed: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This is not a complicated prayer but will set you free. The Father will have mercy and wipe your slate clean – completely.
Listen to the Bible:
Ephesians 2:4-10: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
As you put your faith in Jesus Christ, you receive grace – undeserved love from God – free forgiveness. Jesus Christ died for you on a cross and his blood atoned for your sins. It was the sacrifice which paid the penalty for your sin and it was given for you out of love. God loves you.
There is not a single person in this church that is a Christian in any other way. Some time an evangelist visited Toowoomba (David Tomberlin) and he told me that soon after his conversion he was zealous to be righteous. He prayed and fasted and read his Bible but – in the midst of this season of holy living – an angel visited him and the angel held up a mirror in front of him. In the mirror, he could see his heart and his heart was filthy and vile – ugly and horrible. Therefore, when he thought that he was as good as he could be, the angel showed him that he was still far from perfect. He could never afford to look down upon anyone else. We all live by forgiveness and grace. Give up you pride – your anger – your frustration that God is unfair – and accept love yourself.
On one of the nights at the centre, one person first argued that she improved herself without God and later stomped out in protest. Jeffrey Dahmer should have been more like her. Yet – after the preaching – this is what she said to me: “I can’t do this anymore. I cut myself and tried to take my life.” Come to the Father. Receive his love – the fattened calf – the best robe – sandals on your feet – a ring on your finger – without any need to prove yourself. Allow yourself to be forgiven and forgive yourself.
This lies at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount. If you don’t understand this, you will never understand why Jesus can so often talk about God as a loving Father in his preaching. He preaches perfection but assures us of a loving Father because the foundation of everything is forgiveness:
Matthew 5:16: “ … praise your Father in heaven.”
Matthew 5:45: “ … that you may be children of your Father in heaven … ”
Matthew 5:48: “ … your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Matthew 6:1: “ … your Father in heaven.”
Matthew 6:4: “ … your Father … will reward you.”
Matthew 6:6: “ … pray to your Father … ”
Matthew 6:8: “ … your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Matthew 6:9: “ … Our Father in heaven … ”
Matthew 6:14-15: “ …your heavenly Father will also forgive you … ”
Matthew 6:18: “ … your Father … will reward you.”
Matthew 6:26: “ … your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”
Matthew 6:32: “ … your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”
Matthew 7:11: “ … how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
Matthew 7:21: “ … my Father who is in heaven.”
In closing, our anger at Jeffrey Dahmer showed me that we not only accept free forgiveness at our conversion, we struggle with seeking God when we are in trouble. Instead of drawing closer to God in times of temptation, we feel even more unworthy and then try to prove ourselves by our own efforts before we have the courage again to seek him in prayer. Please – always come to church. You may not even dare to look up but be here and pray: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Receive mercy – forgiveness – and the strength from God to live differently. The reading before explained that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). Let God make you his handiwork and create in you everything that you need to carry out the good works which he has prepared beforehand for you to do. The harder you struggle, the more closely draw to God because you need him to overcome sin – Galatians 5:16: “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”
How are you feeling now? Anger may be a powerful emotion but – before God – it is not going anywhere. Today – can we see past Jeffrey Dahmer and see our own need for forgiveness? Can we be honest about our own efforts and no longer compare ourselves to others? God is not unfair and accepts even you. Amen.