“Unexpected Acts of Love”
September 10, 2017
By John Partridge*
Exodus 12:1-14 Romans 13:8-14 Matthew 18:15-20
How many of you own jewelry of one kind or another?
Most of us do.
Some of it is elaborate, ornate, and expensive, while some of the things that we use to adorn ourselves are simple, plastic, and cheap. I have a cross that’s made of wood and bit of yarn. I’ve seen others that came out of a vending machine at the grocery store for a quarter. But regardless of their cost, many of the things that we wear include symbols that have meaning. And one of the odd things about the stories of the Bible are the times in which things that are ordinarily gruesome, terrible, and frightening are redeemed and transformed into symbols of something else entirely. The cross is the most well-known example. With few, if any, exceptions the cross is among the most painful, gruesome, and horrific ways of dying. Merely the threat of crucifixion was enough to bring about the stubborn obedience of entire nations to Roman rule and law. The cross was, absolutely, a clear and profoundly terrifying symbol of pain, suffering, and terror. Few of us would wear a necklace with an electric chair, or a guillotine, or a gallows around our necks. But the death of Jesus Christ transforms the meaning of the cross into a symbol of faith, hope, and love.
Somehow, in the wisdom of God, this symbol of horror becomes instead a symbol of something else entirely, and this one act of suffering and death is revealed to be a completely unexpected act of love.
As we continue reading the story of Moses and the people of Israel in Exodus 12:1-14, we see another well-known example of this.
12:1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, 2 “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. 3 Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. 4 If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. 5 The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats.6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. 8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. 9 Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. 10 Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. 11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.
12 “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. 13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.
14 “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance.
Darkness, frogs, lice, locusts, blood, and even death are sent to plague Egypt and while all of these things are terrible, they become for the nation of Israel, symbols of hope and signs that remind us, even today, of God’s faithfulness. And in this passage we see the slaughter of year-old lambs and goats and their blood being painted on the doorframes of houses. In any other context, painting houses with blood would be offensive, threatening, disgusting, and terrible. Today, the perpetrators would likely be charged with a hate crime, but in this particular case, the blood of these slain animals becomes a mark of the faith of God’s people and a symbol of God’s love that endures for thousands of years.
More than that, the plagues of Egypt themselves, including the death of every firstborn, while haunting and terrible, are not signs of God’s hatred of Egypt or a suggestion that God is somehow evil, but instead are symbols of God’s love even for Pharaoh and the people of Egypt. Over and over again, God demonstrates his power and authority, granting second chance after second chance, in an attempt to bring about their repentance. God could have just as easily started with the destruction of Egypt but, in his mercy, provides advance warnings through Moses, and repeated non-lethal demonstrations of his sovereignty so that even the Egyptians might accept him and be saved.
And even though we might struggle with elements that seem to be negative and difficult, we see something similar as we read Matthew 18:15-20.
15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
None of us like conflict and confrontation, and what Jesus tells us to do is exactly that. When we see a follower of Jesus Christ that is falling into sin, we are called to go to them and point out their error. The intent of this confrontation is not to be angry, or vindictive, or to gloat over their sin, but to call them to repentance in a way that is loving so that they can be restored to the body of Christ. The first effort is totally private and done in such a way that, should they see their error, no one else would need to know. You saw it, pointed it out to them, and if they recognize it, repent, and change, then it’s all over and done. The second attempt is nearly as private, but lets the fallen person know that others in the community are aware of what they have done, and they are given a second chance to repent and stop doing whatever it is that they have done. And still there is a third chance given where the sin is made known to the entire community of faith and still there is time to repent and to be restored. But should that fail, then the fallen can be expelled from the church. All along, the goal is never about confrontation, or humiliation, or ruining reputations, but the goal is always to be caring and loving, and to bring about repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration.
Paul sums up the commands of God in a wonderful way in Romans 13:8-14 where he says…
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.
Paul’s summary of the law of God is one of the simplest to remember in all of scripture. “Whoever loves, has fulfilled the law.” Boom. That’s it. Every commandment of God can be summarized with this one simple statement because “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.” Although they are important, there’s no need for us to get all wrapped up in trying to remember rules and laws because, in the end, all of them are accomplished if we love one another and seek the best interests of others.
What is unexpected, when we look at the examples that we read earlier, is how often the loving thing, done in the best interests of others, can sometimes appear to be quite the opposite. Our children thought that we were terrible parents when we said ‘No” to their requests for candy before dinner or caffeinated soda before bed. Our teens were furious with us when we grounded them for breaking the rules or refused to allow them to go out with their friends the night before a big test. Darkness, lice, locusts, boils, and death certainly don’t seem to be the acts of a loving God, and yet, all of these were an attempt to draw people, both Israelite and Egyptian, into the kingdom of God. Confrontation, accusation, humiliation, and even excommunication do not seem like loving acts, but the goal, in every case, is to bring about restoration and reconciliation.
To a toddler, a swat across the hands does not seem to be a loving act, but to the adult who stopped curious fingers from touching a hot stove, that mild act of violence was understood to be a loving rescue.
Sometimes love is unexpectedly painful.
Jesus sought to do what was best for all of us at the expense of his own comfort and even at the expense of his life.
And our calling is to pursue what is in the best interests of others even when it might seem, on the surface, to be something less than loving.
“Whoever loves, has fulfilled the law.”
We may find that love is expressed in some unexpected ways.
But love must always come first.
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* You have been reading a message presented at Trinity United Methodist Church on the date noted on the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Trinity of Perry Heights in Massillon, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry may be sent to Trinity United Methodist Church, 3757 Lincoln Way E., Massillon, Ohio 44646. These messages are available to anyone regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To subscribe to the electronic version sign up at http://eepurl.com/vAlYn. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.