How Are Christians to Think of Victory?

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Sun, 08/13/2017 - 10:45pm

Matthew 12:14-21, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, August 13, 2017 

            Rhode Island is the only state to observe Victory Day to mark the announcement of the surrender of the Japanese government to the US in 1945, a few days after the death of more than a hundred thousand civilians killed by nuclear bombs. The fact that I was born in Japan does not make me loyal to their government; it just makes me ambivalent because I naturally see every Japanese person as a human being, a brother or sister in the human family. The fact that I am a follower of Jesus makes me wonder if this is the kind of victory we want to celebrate—the kind that comes at the cost of the death of the enemies we are commanded to love.

            I have been thinking about celebrating the Lord’s Supper at the same time we are celebrating victory. We lift up the broken body and shed blood of Jesus and proclaim that through his sacrifice he won a victory for us—over sin and death and the devil. From the world’s viewpoint, Jesus was a loser and a fool, a victim of state power and religious dogmatism, but from a Christian standpoint, Christ crucified is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). In a time when many are single-mindedly obsessed with “winning,” we have to ask what victory means to those of us who have taken up the cross of Christ as his disciples.

            If you look at how the word “victory” is used in the Old Testament, you’ll see that it’s pretty conventional, usually about a military victory. The first time comes in the songs sung by Moses and Miriam after the Egyptian forces are drowned in the Red Sea, which is celebrated as a victory of Yahweh, the God of the Israelites. Many times, it is said that the Lord gave the people victories over their enemies in battle. Sometimes it is made clear that it was God that won the victory, not the army, but the subject is still overwhelming violence. It appears that the psalmists celebrated their own Victory Days without any sense of ambivalence about the violence.

            But when you come to the New Testament, things change. You have this Jesus who spoke radically about loving your enemies instead of hating them; the psalmists had seen hating the enemies of Yahweh—Israel’s enemies—as a virtue. Jesus now points to forgiveness and not being filled with anger and, yes, actually showing love for those who hate you. The Greek noun for victory is nike, like the shoes, and it occurs only five times in the New Testament. I want to focus on the first of those, in the quotation by Matthew from the scroll of Isaiah about God’s servant.

            At least one prominent scholar (Eugene Boring, New Interpreter’s Bible) says that the verses we read from Matthew 12:14-21 are the climax of the first half of Matthew’s gospel, and that the final line, “In his name the nations will  put their hope,” is intended to parallel the end of the gospel when Jesus says to make disciples “of all nations.” The opposition to Jesus has been building, but now we are told that the Pharisees are planning to kill him. After this point, everything moves to the cross.

            What is Jesus’ response to learning that people want to kill him? If Jesus had been a leader like our leaders, he would have told them that he would kill them first. He would have sought a victory by rallying the people against the Pharisees. But look at what Jesus does in verse 15 (NIV): “Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill.” There’s a pattern in Matthew. When Joseph hears about the new king in Judea and is warned in a dream, he withdraws from there (2:2). When Jesus hears that John the Baptist has been arrested, he withdraws (4:12). When Jesus hears that John has been beheaded, he withdraws by boat to a solitary place (14:13). After Jesus has a conflict with the Pharisees over ritual handwashing and calls them hypocrites, he withdraws out of Jewish territory entirely to Tyre and Sidon (15:21). And in our passage from chapter 12, when Jesus becomes aware that the Pharisees are plotting to kill him, he withdraws.

            Jesus’ response to the threat of violence is to withdraw. Does that make him a coward? Or does that reveal how God responds to human violence? On the cross, human violence against Jesus was met with divine self-giving and forgiveness. You can even see a two-part strategy in verse 15: Jesus withdraws and heals. Rather than respond to hate with hate, or to violence with violence, Jesus choses to withdraw and then continues to heal all who are ill.

            What if that were the pattern of our lives? What if when we found out that someone was out to get us, our response was not to get them first, or to demand fair treatment, or to defend ourselves from their accusations? What if our first response was to withdraw from conflict, and then do whatever we could to bring healing? Even if we could not heal the relationship with our enemy, we could give ourselves to healing and increasing the amount of kindness in the world. I know that the behavior of nations is not the same as the behavior of individuals, but wouldn’t we be in a different situation today if we responded to belligerent threats by withdrawing and healing rather than puffing up our chests, defending our manhood and not giving an inch?

            Matthew says that Jesus’ pattern of withdrawing and healing conformed to the pattern of the Servant of the Lord described by Isaiah. “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight.” That sounds a lot like the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism. “I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.” Jesus himself says in Nazareth, quoting another part of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” What is surprising here is the he will proclaim justice to the nations, not just to Israel as her Messiah. The Hebrew word for “the nations,” goyim, is also translated “the Gentiles,” the non-Jews whom Jesus’ contemporaries saw as outside the covenant and outside the blessing of God. Matthew is writing a generation later as part of a church that is mixed with many non-Jews as well as Jews, and he sees in Isaiah a promise that Messiah would proclaim this inclusive message.

            But the really striking part of this Isaiah quotation to me is verses 19 and 20. This is where we see Jesus identified as being the humble servant who demonstrates the opposite of the braggadocio and self-promotion we are now accustomed to in a leader. “He will not wrangle or cry aloud,” he will not quarrel and seek publicity. “No one will hear his voice in the streets.” Instead, Jesus tells those he heals to keep it quiet. I was surprised to read this sentence in a conservative commentary on Matthew written in 2004 (NIV Application Commentary, Michael J. Wilkins) by someone who could not have known what we would be dealing with in 2017:

He is the Servant Messiah, who will not brazenly demand allegiance…but will gently and humbly invite those who are most in need.

It is a different kind of leadership and a different kind of victory he seeks. A bruised reed, which is good for nothing, Jesus will not break. A smoldering wick that has lost its fire Jesus will not snuff out. He comes to those who have been abused, and seeks to restore them rather than tossing them out. He comes to those who are about to expire, those who are burned out, and seeks to fan their faith into flame.

            And then, at the end of verse 20, we find the word victory. He will continue his quiet, gentle ways “until he brings justice to victory.” The Common English Bible renders that “until he makes justice win.” This is a victory won not by huffing and puffing, not by fire and fury, but by humility and gentleness, and, in the end, suffering at the hand of his enemies rather than making them suffer.

            Paul says in 1 Corinthians that he knows it all sounds crazy. To the Europeans, it’s foolishness; to the Jewish scholars, it’s a scandal. But this is his one message: that the Messiah was crucified, and the victory he won he won by being crucified. That message is the power of God, power demonstrated in weakness, as God’s power continues to be demonstrated in my weakness, Paul says.

            Three of the five times the word “victory” is used in the New Testament come in 1 Corinthians, all in chapter 15 in verses we typically quote at funerals. “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O Death, is your victory?” “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Death was conquered when Jesus rose from the dead in the resurrection, but the victory was won on the cross by Jesus’ act of obedience and faithfulness and sacrifice for our sake.

            There is a wonderful scene in Revelation 5, when John sees for the first time the worship that is going on in heaven. The heavenly creatures are praising God and saying “Holy, holy, holy,” when John sees a scroll beside the throne of God, sealed with seven seals. That scroll represents God’s ultimate plan for the world, the unfolding history, which cannot happen until the seals are broken. A mighty angel cries out in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But there is no one in heaven or earth who can open the scroll. No one is worthy. And John begins to weep. God’s purposes appear to be thwarted.

            But then someone says to John, “Don’t cry! The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed, and he is able to open the seals.” You fully expect that John is now going to see that Lion make an entrance and open the scroll. But here is what the next verse says, and you can hear the gears grinding as they shift: “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slaughtered…and he took the scroll from the right hand of the One who sat on the throne.” We expected a lion, the symbol of power, and instead we find a lamb, the symbol of weakness and sacrifice. This is the way God has won the victory over evil and over death; this is the way his plan for the world is going to unfold. Everyone begins to sing a new song to the Lamb: “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.” It was by his slaughter that he won the victory—not in spite of it but by means of it. It was his faithfulness to the death and his demonstration of love for sinners that changed the course of humanity.

            When we come to the Lord’s table, we remember that. We remember what Jesus did for us, but we also remember that this is to be the pattern for our lives, if we are to be victors, more than conquerors even though we are being killed every day, like sheep to the slaughter. This is the victory, First John (5:4) says, that conquers the world: our faith in Jesus, the crucified Messiah as the true revelation of God and the Savior of the world.

            What kind of victory is God calling us to win? It is a victory over the world that would suck us into its whirlpool of greed and self-centeredness and violence. And we win it the way Jesus won it, not the way the world fights. The verb form of the word “victory” in the New Testament is usually translated “conquer.” Paul says in Romans 12:21, “Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil by good.” That is, Do not allow evil to win a victory over you, but win the victory over evil by doing good. If we respond to evil with evil, if we respond to our enemies by acting like them, we have already lost. Win the victory, as Jesus did, by doing good to those who are evil. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Amen.