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Mini Sermon: “Coals of Fire”

September 16, 2009

3362208974_953476006bTonight I shared a small sermon at my church.  I decided to write the whole text ahead of time.  My friend does this and because I’ve normally free-styled it, I thought it might be good to try this way.  I know that it helped me stay on track better.  Unless you speak regularly, you get that dose of adrenaline that sends your brain into auto-drive, and it’s easy to forget things.  On the other hand, you have to work to craft the sermon and it’s difficult (unless you know it very well) to deviate from it, if necessary, and come back to it.  In any case, it makes for a good blog afterward. 🙂  Anyway, here it is:

“Coals of Fire:  Forgiveness Leading to Repentance”
(I didn’t really have a title, so I’m making one now!)

Have you ever read a passage in the Bible that just didn’t sit right with you?  Like you knew something was missing, either in the wording, or in your understanding of the context?  To me Romans 12 is one of those passages.  In verse 9 Paul begins to lay out what the Christian life looks like in the life of a believer, and it’s beautiful! Yet, when we get to the end of the chapter, Paul mentions something that, in my opinion, is downright nasty.  Let’s begin in verse 9 and to see what I mean.  Listen closely to what the Christian life sounds like:

“Love must be without hypocrisy.  Detest evil; cling to what is good.  Show family affection to one another with brotherly love.  Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lack diligence; be fervent in Spirit; serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer.  Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality.  Bless those who persecute you [Where have you heard this before?]; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.  Be in agreement with one another.  Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble.  Do not be wise in your own estimation.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes.   If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone.  Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath [The literal Greek reading does not include “His” or the “wrath of God.”  That’s added by interpreters.  Also, Paul’s usage of the word wrath has more to do with justice than it does with downright anger—as if God is really ticked off.]  For it is written:  Vengeance belongs to me, I will repay, says the Lord.  But [and here Paul quotes from Proverbs 25: 21-22]: If your enemy is hungry, feed him.  If he is thirsty, give him a drink.  [And here is the part that drives me crazy!] For in so doing, you will heap fiery coals on his head.” (!!!)

Say what?!  You mean, I’m supposed to do all of these incredibly beautiful things to my enemy, just so I can set my enemy’s head on fire??  I know..this isn’t literal, but it’s kind of how it sounds right?  It seems like the motivation for doing good to those that persecute us is that in the end they will get what’s coming to them.  JUSTICE!  SWEET REVENGE.

For the longest time, I would read this passage and be amazed at the potential for the Christian life, just to come to this bitter end, where burning coals are going to be poured out on our enemies.  After all, there is hell to think about, and it’s quite common to think of God as really angry at people.

I want to submit to you that this is not the right way to read this passage.  And maybe you’ve never read it this way; maybe it’s just me that has thought that this motivation for doing good to our enemies is kind of messed up.

After reading some material for a class that I’m taking, I ran across the context for this odd phrase, and believe that it shines a whole new light on it.  As I’ve mentioned, Paul is quoting from Proverbs 25, and he is using this idea of burning coals as a metaphor.  But it’s not a metaphor of judgment!  Instead, it’s a metaphor of forgiveness.  In ancient Egypt, when a person wanted to publically repent, or seek forgiveness from someone, they would walk through the streets, or approach the person with a tray of burning coals as a sign of their repentance.

Of course, this was their own doing.  They were the ones responsible for acknowledging their wrong and coming to repent.  Yet here, Paul says that through our kindness to our enemies, we will be putting “coals of fire on their heads.”  In other words, we will show them forgiveness ahead of time, in the hopes that they will be led to repentance.

So what implications does this have for the Christian life?  I think everything.  The concept of the Kingdom of God is extremely popular in Theology today—and it should be.  The central teaching of Jesus is on the Kingdom of God coming to earth.  Everything that Jesus did was to show what God looks like; what His kingdom looks like; what His reign looks like.  And you know what?  As Christians (the body of Christ) we’ve been invited to do the same thing.  Paul says in II Corinthians that “we are ambassadors for Christ…pleading on Christ’s behalf: ‘Be reconciled to God.”  As Christians we are called to express the Kingdom of God in and out of our lives.  As the body of Christ, we ARE the image of God in this world.

When we love and serve our enemies, we’re “pouring coals of fire on their head”—we’re inviting them to consider their need for forgiveness and repentance.  As an ambassador—a kingdom representative—we are expressing the forgiveness of God through our kindness.  And by doing so, you’re imitating the Son of God, who said things like, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”  You’re imitating the way God brings about forgiveness for “God show His love to us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”  God’s way to lead people to repentance, is to show them mercy and kindness; and he invites us to do the same.

When we show extravagant acts of kindness to those who are on the outside—not just those we don’t like, but those who don’t yet know God—we are becoming the image of God to them.  We are saying to them, “This is what our God is like; this is how he feels about you.”  And we do it all, in the hopes that they will come to repentance.  For them to acknowledging their wrong against us is a small thing.  Them coming to the goodness of God is HUGE.

I’ve struggled with this idea lately.  I work in a job [I’m a server in a restaurant], where it is so easy to get angry and show unkindness to the people I work with and to those I serve.  Yet, I’m coming to recognize that I am the image of the Kingdom of God to people.  I’m beginning to see that we are the Christ that people see on a regular basis.  We need something more than just a set of good morals that show what upstanding people we are.  (Being a “good Christian” is MORE than just not sinning!  It’s embracing the beauty and righteousness of God in our lives, so that it flows out of us into the lives of others!)  We need to begin to emulate and embody Jesus Christ and his heart on this earth.  This is how the kingdom of God advances.  And forgiveness and reconciliation are at the heart of God’s beautiful kingdom.  He’s called us to show that forgiveness through the way we treat others.

So, will you consider “heaping coals of fire” on the head of those that may be your enemy?  Would you consider expressing kindness and forgiveness ahead of time so that they might experience the mercy of God?  If you do, if we do, God’s kingdom will advance in our hearts and in this world.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Hunter Harper permalink
    December 7, 2009 1:45

    This verse has always bothered me – I appreciate the clarification. What you say makes sense. However, as this is only one of the MANY verses that, without historical-cultural context can be totally confused, do you feel that the bible can be understood properly without thorough historical commentary? Is there danger in a person seeking truth within just the words themselves? How many ministers are there that do not consider this idea when advocating for certain things such as this? – Being kind so God will punish our enemies? And what of the “Spirit of Truth” which would hopefully lead us to the proper conclusions either way?

    • jonathangroover permalink*
      December 27, 2009 9:32

      Hunter,

      I think that while the “Spirit of Truth” constantly seeks to lead us into all truth, he has to work with some pretty stubborn creations. We do not naturally lend to direction from the voice of God. Therefore, I think it is essential for pastors and teachers of the Bible to make it there aim (as much as possible) to understand the historical-social context. This gives us a foundation for our own understandings of particular scriptures. When we use our understandings of context as a springboard we may provide fresh interpretations that do not undermine the original meaning (which is admittedly hard to get to at times). All this to say, HUMILITY should be a primary principle in our theological and interpretive endeavors. No one has the premium on knowledge and/or truth.

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