Justice or Vengeance – January 18, 2015 – Matthew 4: 1 – 11

Young adults spend much of their time finding themselves. They want to find out who they are, what they stand for and what they want to do with their lives. Some may even have a quarter life crisis if what they are doing doesn’t reveal who they are or if their actions don’t show that they are the type of person they want to be or if their life doesn’t match who they are. Young adults need to establish their identity and fit the pieces of their life into that identity. Jesus was no different.

The first part of the Gospel of Matthew is all about establishing Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. Later, throughout the Gospel, Jesus will try to hide His identity from others, but Matthew wants to make sure we know just who Jesus is before telling us what Jesus did. The things that follow in the gospel will reveal that Jesus is fulfilling His calling and that who He is and what He does is because of His role as the Son of God.

Last week, we read the story of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. The Spirit descended like a dove upon Him shedding light all around Him. The voice of God was heard as He came up out of the water. God said, “this is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Our story today further solidifies for us that Jesus is the Son of God. His temptations by the devil always begin with, “If you are the Son of God…” The devil wants Jesus to prove that He is the Son of God. Jesus doesn’t prove His identity to the devil in the manner the devil proposes. Jesus proves His identity by resisting the trials by the witness of Scripture.

Jesus’ trials are much like the trials the Israelites faced in the wilderness as they moved from Egypt into the Promised Land. In the wilderness, Hebrew slaves became the children of God, the chosen people. They were prepared and taught before they claimed the land God would give them and live as a people different than others. In the desert, Jesus is prepared for His life as the Son of God, the chosen One.

The Israelites spent 40 years wandering the wilderness learning about who God is, what God does, and how to be the people of God. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness learning what He was made of. If you remember from a previous sermon, the number 40 tells us that it is a period of testing or trial. The Israelites were led into the wilderness by God for a time of trial. Here, Jesus is led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness for a time of trial. His responses to the devil are taken from Old Testament Scriptures which reference the time the Israelites spent in the wilderness. (For further thoughts, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=902)

Jesus’s first temptation was for food. The Bible tells us He was fasting for 40 days and 40 nights and the devil tempts Him to break the fast. The devil says, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stone to become bread.” The Israelites were hungry in the wilderness and complained to God. God responded to their need with manna, water, and quail. Jesus’ response to the devil is taken from Deuteronomy 8:3 which is a reminder to the Israelites that they were fed physically and spiritually. Jesus says, “Man shall not live on bread along, but on the every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The Israelites were taught to trust God and follow His commands because God would care for them and Jesus’ response to the devil implies that Jesus knows He can trust God for spiritual and physical nourishment.

In the second temptation, the devil quotes Scripture as he tries Jesus. The devil quotes Psalm 91: 11 – 12; “for He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” But, Jesus knows not to test God. Jesus’ response is from Deuteronomy 6: 16. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test…” In Deuteronomy 6, the Israelites were reminded that they were protected by God. They were reminded that their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell in the wilderness. They were fed and given water and they didn’t face war with any nations that would try to hinder them becoming a nation. Jesus by His response tells the devil that He will trust God for protection without testing God’s ability to protect Him.

I’d like us to spend some time with this third temptation. The devil makes his greatest claim, “All this I will give you if you bow down and worship me.” Jesus’s responds with words again from Deuteronomy 6; this time verse 13. This is chapter is an exposition on keeping the commandments of loving the Lord your God. Jesus says, “Fear the Lord your God, serve Him only…”

Jesus’ temptation was more than for the gain of earthly possessions and power. This temptation was about choosing between justice and vengeance. If Jesus chose the power the devil offered, He could avenge the deaths of the innocents killed in Bethlehem by King Herod. Jesus had the choice between vengeance and trusting God to avenge their lives. Jesus choose the justice of the Kingdom of Heaven over the vengeance the devil had to offer.

If He had chosen vengeance, not justice, for Himself, He would have given up hope in God’s vengeance. Perhaps justice and vengeance is the reason we often have trouble reconciling the God of the Old Testament with Jesus, the God of the New Testament. The Old Testament uses the word vengeance 29 times. It is not used in the New Testament. The use of the word vengeance in the Old Testament refers to God’s action of taking vengeance. On the other hand, the word justice is used 130 times and always refers to the actions of humanity. So, justice is our duty and vengeance is left to God.

The dictionary defines justice as being equitable, righteous and moral. Vengeance is defined as inflicting harm or revenge. The Bible says justice is about treating people fairly. Vengeance is God’s reckoning for injustice.

Let’s think about justice and vengeance in light of terrorism. I was praying after the attacks in Paris that the men would be found and justice would be served. But, I had to question what justice was. There was a part of me that wanted the men to be killed for the killings they carried out. I think many people wanted the death of these men for what they had done.

So, with this war on terror, do we want justice or vengeance?

Justice would suggest that Islamic extremist terrorists would be tried, convicted and jailed, without physical harm, for the acts they commit. Vengeance would suggest brutal action, avenging death with their death. Are we seeking justice or vengeance when we face terrorists?

I’m not addressing the actions of police or military that shoot a terrorist that is shooting at them. I’m thinking big picture war on terror, hunting down terrorists.

Have we given up on the hope for peace and reconciliation?

Have we given up hope for them to have a change of heart through dialogue and seeking to treat them fairly?

Are we really seeking justice or vengeance?

I’m not saying we’re any better or worse than the terrorists. Terrorists have clearly bypassed the hope of justice and gone the route of vengeance. And, we operate trying to defend ourselves from planned attacks. There is a fine line between defending ourselves and vengeance. I think that’s where the devil sits, on that fine line between defense and vengeance. I imagine it is a tough call to make to go into a terrorist cell at the right time, watching to see when an imminent threat arises, waiting for a person to reveal themselves as a terrorist verses an extremist.

As I was watching the kids’ movie on Friday night, I was thinking about how we teach our kids that fine line between justice and vengeance from a very young age. We watched “How to Train Your Dragon: 2”. There was a bad guy Drago and he brought an army to wage war on the people and steal all the dragons. Drago had killed many people and turned a lot of dragons evil.

A dragon under the control of Drago killed Hiccup’s father. In that moment after his father died, Hiccup’s action changed from defending the dragons to avenging his father’s death. Hiccup went after Drago with vengeance. Of course, Hiccup’s people and the good dragons win.

A movie’s writers have the tough job of deciding what to do with the bad guy, kill him or jail him. There is very seldom a change of heart. We teach our kids from this very young age that turning away from sin is impossible for some. There is only justice or vengeance. Kill the bad guy or put him in jail.

Kids movies and adult movies alike address our desire for something to happen to the bad guy and bring to light that struggle between justice and vengeance that we live every day in the face of terrorism. That’s what the devil tried Jesus with – justice or vengeance.

Jesus chose justice because he knew vengeance belonged to God. Jesus trusted that God would punish the men who killed the innocents in Bethlehem. We too should trust God for vengeance and seek justice. We should hope for terrorists to be jailed. That is a greater punishment than death. Terrorists want to die as martyrs. They believe they will enter Heaven rewarded for defending their faith. What they don’t realize is that God will not reward their actions. God will punish them with vengeance for their actions.

With terrorists, we can trust in God’s vengeance. We can put aside our desire for vengeance, defend ourselves, and seek justice. We can choose justice because that’s what the Bible tells us to do and that’s what Jesus chose.


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