David Kolander

Heaps and Heaps of Burning Coals

by David Kolander on February 19th, 2017
Romans 12:9-21

How many of you are taking advantage of the warm weather this weekend to bring out your grills from winter storage and do some cooking on the grill? If you did do some grilling – or if you are a griller all year long, no matter the weather – are you a gas griller or a charcoal griller? I have heard debates go on for several minutes at a time about why gas is better or why coal is better. While I’m sure that that debate will go on for a long time, today I’m going to opt for coals – coals not on the grill, but coals on the head – coals on the head that comes from the thought of God’s Word in verse 20 near the end of our lesson: “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.” As we reflect on all the commands and encouragements of this reading from Romans 12, I hope that we will see that we all have a great need to be receiving – and that we all can find great joy in giving – heaps and heaps of burning coals.

Do you know what that expression means exactly – to heap burning coals on someone’s head? If you don’t, don’t feel bad, because we really don’t know for sure what that custom is referring to. I’ll just mention two possible thoughts, both of which make sense in the context of this verse about showing kindness to people, even to those who are our enemies. One possibility is that it is referring to the time when, if a man needed to get some coals to keep the fire going in his house and didn’t have enough of them, he would place a container on his head, as men and women did at that time, and go to his neighbors to see if they could spare a burning coal — and hope that they would place that burning coal in the container on his head. Another possibility – and this may be more to the point — is that it is referring to a proverb describing someone trying to bring someone else to repentance by causing that person’s conscience to start burning and hopefully help them see the error of what they had been doing or how they had been treating him. Whatever the background of the saying, both ideas would have to do with caring for someone and wanting the long-term good of someone. They would be returning unkindness – or no reason for showing kindness — with kindness.

When you think about these commands of Romans 12, do you deserve to have anyone care about you enough to heap burning coals on your head, based on how you have used the thoughts in your head or the words from your mouth in treating other people? More importantly, do you or I deserve to have God heap burning coals on our heads by returning your unkindness – my unkindness — with his kindness? Just a few examples from these verses: “Love must be sincere,” Paul says in the opening verse, verse 9. That word “sincere” means that it’s not wearing a mask, not giving a pretend love, not trying to get something by giving something. “Honor one another above yourselves,” Paul says in verse 10. Literally that means put other people ahead of you – in front of you – where you can see them and not yourself — considering them to be more important than you, their needs to be of a higher concern than yours. “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction,” Paul says in verse 12. That word “patient” means to stand up under something, enduring what God allows you to go through, because it is God who allows you to go through it, the God who says it is such a joy to have the sure and certain hope of heaven. And that’s just a few of the many exhortations in these verses! Even a little reflection impresses upon us that the only heaps of burning coals that you and I deserve are the burning coals of God’s judgment, God’s anger, God’s punishment, God’s curse of eternal death.

But when you and I as God’s people hear these words, which tell us some of the ways God wants us to show Christian love, why is it, then, that we are glad to hear them and not afraid of how we fail to do them as we should? It is not because we make excuses for failing to heap burning coals on others as we should. It is not because we are glad that we are better than others who fail to heap burning coals on others – or us — as they should. It is always and completely because of what God has done to heap and heap burning coals on us, not because he should, but simply because he does. And God does … because of his mercy.

If you know one important detail about St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, it is that it highlights above everything else God’s mercy. This chapter is chapter 12. In the first eleven chapters the apostle Paul has stated again and again that in God’s mercy he has justified us – that means he has declared us not guilty of all the things that we are guilty of – because his Son Jesus paid the price for those sins by dying on the cross. One of the many verses in this book of the Bible that summarizes God’s mercy is one that many of us may have memorized in our religion classes: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace (by his mercy) through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

It is that most important of all assurance of God’s grace, God’s mercy and God’s love that St. Paul actually began this chapter with in the words before today’s Lesson starts. He basically summarized the entire first part of his letter by saying this: “Therefore, I urge you, in view of God’s mercy to offer your bodies as living sacrifices.” In other words, because you know how much I love you – and always will – you also have the desire to be a “living sacrifice” for others – a person who burns to ashes any thought of getting ahead at the expense of others – a person who burns to ashes any thought of getting even with those who have wronged us, or whom we think have done wrong to us – a person who burns to ashes any other thought in our minds except the one to be merciful to others, just as Jesus my Savior has been merciful to me.

And that is not easy, is it? That’s why we need to keep the coals of our faith burning by keeping them burning. The way to do what Paul says when he says, for example in verse 11, “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord,” is to never be lacking in listening to and reading about and learning of and reflecting on God’s fervor in serving me. In addition to doing that by hearing of God’s love in his Word, as you are doing right now, many of you also will come forward to receive that love – that mercy – that forgiveness from the one gave you the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper the night before he offered his own body as the living sacrifice unto death and then back to life again.

We also keep the coals of our Christian faith and life burning by continuing to do all we can to help others among us and beyond us – people we may know well and people we may not know well, if at all. The more that we heap burning coals on others, the more people see Jesus in action in our lives, and the more they will hopefully appreciate Jesus in action for their lives by giving them the same certainty of eternity that we have… So, while we are still on earth, “hate what is evil, cling to what is good.” So, while we are still on earth, “Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” So, while we are still on earth, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.” So, while we are still on earth, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live in peace with everyone.” So, while we are still on earth, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath.” So, while we are still on earth, “On the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give his something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” So, while we are still on earth, remember where you can find those heaps and heaps of burning coals – in the fire pit of God’s heart, which is on fire with the eternal flame of his merciful love for you. God bless you with heaps of happiness and joy as you heap the coals of that mercy on others. Amen.

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