A service for the Peace of Israel & Palestinian Territories

A sermon from Dean Sandy Grant taken from Isaiah 11:1-10 and Romans 12:14-21

Imprecation is not a word you hear much these days. Most literally it refers to the act of cursing another. Less technically, it refers to our painful cries for vengeance, often to God, calling for justice to be done on the evil-doer, especially in the face of terrible acts of cruelty on the weak and innocent, such as little children.

     After the initial allowance for a knee-jerk reaction, we in the West tend to disapprove of such imprecations. Vengeance is not an idea we find easy. We are mostly comfortable and far removed from warfare and strife, from harsh repression and barbaric terrorism. But the Bible is a very honest book. And the Hebrew Psalms or songs honestly record cries of imprecation on the enemies of God, especially when expressed in the persecution of his people or by indiscriminate attack on the marginalised and vulnerable… I don’t think it’s a knee-jerk reaction. At the risk of coining an ugly phrase, I think it is a ‘heart-jerk’ cry of pity and justice, which the Lord permits us to pray, though we ourselves are fallen and flawed; indeed, for which he has graciously given us words, however carefully we must handle them. 

God sets governing authorities in place to punish the evil doer and may bear the sword to do so

     And the Bible also records a proper place for the police officers and the defence force personnel of our nations. In the very next chapter after tonight’s New Testament reading, Romans 13, says God sets governing authorities in place to punish the evil doer and may bear the sword to do so. But that’s not my topic tonight. That’s for the society, as a whole, and especially applies to those called to government and public protection. 

     I want to talk about the personal, the anguished personal. That’s what Romans 12 helps us with… Just look at the challenging wisdom of Romans 12:14. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” In New Covenant times, this is the transformative call of Jesus, a Palestinian Jew, whom we Christians call Christ! Because the Apostle who writes these words is obviously familiar with the teaching of Jesus in that most famous of sermons, “on the mount”; where Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44). There is the personal response Jesus calls for. Not easy. But beautiful and transformative. 

     Of course, such moving thoughts were not absent in the Hebrew Scriptures, as the end of Romans 12 demonstrates in vv17-21… “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” 

I am thankful that v18 honestly admits that sometimes others can make it impossible to live at peace, despite your better attempts. 

Revenge and judgement

     But regardless, v19 continues, and it speaks particularly to us as individuals, but also, I believe, to our social groups and sub-cultures, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” St Paul quotes the Torah or Law of Moses. And you can’t read the Bible and not realise there is a Day of Judgment, when the only wise God, who sees all things fully and accurately, will judge us with justice, including all who escape the earthly bars of justice. Indeed, it is, arguably, the atheist, who struggles at this point, with the ultimate meaninglessness of a universe for which all is, in the end, random, and so there is no original or final objective standard of goodness and morality by which to judge. But that final judgment belongs to God, and God alone. 

     So coming back to the personal… For us, now and always, v20 says, “On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” V20 is a quote from the Hebrew Proverbs. Not just a negative principle of personal non-retaliation. But the positive principle of neighbour love, active good, applied especially to enemies.

     You may know there is some dispute about the meaning of the “burning coals on the enemy’s head”. Surely it cannot be that you try to increase his punishment from God by the good you do him. So some have alleged there’s a reference to the provision of warmth, perhaps in freezing Ancient Middle East conditions, by supplying coals for an enemy to carry back to his own empty fireplace. This too is hard to prove with this phrasing alone. Most simply conclude that your own acts of kindness somehow shame the enemy, hopefully into some form of repentance. And in the context of a passage of such love and mercy, this seems closest to the overall sense, especially when we climax with v21’s aim of not being overcome by evil, but overcoming evil with good.

     The intervening verses I skipped remind us that such actions will only arise out of a deep humility and empathy for others, v15… “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.”

“May his memory be a blessing"

     I am thinking here of the story of Awad Darawshe, a Palestinian Arab Israeli parademic on duty at that fateful music festival in southern Israel this month.

     When Hamas unleashed its attack on thousands of Jews on October 7, bleeding revellers raced to the paramedics’ station. As the scope of the attack became clear, the station’s leader ordered the paramedics to evacuate. Darawshe refused to leave. He remained treating the injured and was shot to death while bandaging one of them. As reported to The Associated Press, the paramedics who survived told Darawshe’s family he chose to stay, because he felt that, as an Arab, he could somehow mediate with the attackers.

     The Israeli Foreign Ministry called Darawshe a hero. “May his memory be a blessing.” His cousin, Mohammad, works at the Givat Haviva Center for Shared Society, an organisation that works to bridge the gap between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. He said: “We are very proud of his actions.” Indeed, though their sorrow is great, his cousin said this is simply what it is, or should be, to be human.

     Of course, this reminds me of the actions of the Lord Jesus Christ, the one we believe is the Messiah, the Spirit-anointed root or stump of Jesse, the hope of Israel, a light to the Gentile nations, defender of the poor, robed in righteousness, prince of peace, whose resting place will be glorious in the new creation. 

     And Jesus did it by sacrifice, laying down his life on the cross, brave shepherd for wayward and wandering sheep, paying the penalty in our place. He took all the horror of our sin onto himself… And it was not futile. 

     For his resurrection brings us hope beyond the grave. His empty tomb says, to all who will believe, that death is not the end; that hatred and evil do not triumph; that people like us can emerge through just judgment upon our own sins into full and free forgiveness, won at such a cost, by the suffering servant of the Lord. 

     And that is where the transformation is – with Jesus. That is where the power to change resides – with Jesus. That is where we learn to say we will forgive the trespasses of others, as we ourselves ask Jesus to forgive us our trespasses. That is where we find mercy upon mercy for ourselves, and the power to love our enemies and to pray, as Jesus said, for those who persecute us.