Third Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 91:1-10 (11-16)
Matthew 10:5a, 21-33
Being made free from sin, you became bondservants of righteousness.
Henry VIII did not like to hear bad news. The people he kept close were never willing to tell him the truth if they thought it might make him angry. Most people learn not to punish the messenger for an unwanted message, but not Henry. Men and women were cast out of his court when he did not like what they had to say. Some were even executed because they brought news that made Henry unhappy. The people in His court learned quickly never to say something that he would not like.
The people of Israel in Jeremiahís time were much like Henry VIII. They preferred good news. The prophets of the day learned quickly that they would do much better if they gave the people, especially the kings and leaders, words that they wanted to hear. If they thought the king wanted peace, they spoke of peace as if it were coming right from the mouth of God. If they thought the king wanted to go to war, they promised that God was behind the war and that they would be victorious.
Jeremiah had no good news for the people. As a matter of fact, the words which God had given him to speak were hard for the people to hear. The words were so hard that Jeremiah was persecuted. It is impossible for a man to speak such truth when there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of prophets speaking something different. The loudest voices often override any other sound, including the truth. We like to assume that the truth is found in the numbers. Surely the majority would be right? But that is not always true when it comes to Godís word.
Jeremiah surely had no idea how hard it would be when God called him to be a prophet. It would have been so much easier for him to be a prophet like all the others, preaching words that tickle the ears of the kings, leaders, and people. Jeremiah was upset with God, even to the point of blaspheme. Some translations suggest that God persuaded or enticed the prophet in the first line of todayís Old Testament lesson. Most versions, however, translate it ďO Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived,Ē (ESV) Perhaps Jeremiah was expecting the job of prophet to be an easy one. Yet, despite Jeremiahís hard words against God, he still had faith. Despite the persecution he faced by the world to which he was called to speak, Jeremiah still believed in Godís grace. He really wanted to stop being a prophet, but he knew there was no way he could stop speaking Godís word to the world. In the end, his terror gave way to praise because he knew that whatever God planned would benefit His people in the end.
Jeremiah said, ďIf I say, I will not make mention of him, or speak any more in his name, then there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones. I am weary with holding it in. I canít.Ē
We would rather be silent. We identify with Jeremiahís desire to remain silent. It would be so much easier to live our faith quietly and peacefully. After all, faith is a personal thing, right? In our world of individuality, we all need to let our neighbors believe what they believe. We donít evangelize because their religious life is none of our business. We know our neighbors do not want to hear that they are sinners in need of a Savior, so we decide not to tell them. We might talk about Jesus, but Jesus is not a Savior unless the people know they are slaves to sin and need His forgiveness.
The Romans understood slavery. As a matter of fact, of all the ancient worlds, the Romans held the most slaves. It was a common practice around the world. Many slaves were taken as prisoners of war and since the Romans were fighters and occupiers, they had many prisoners from vanquished nations who could serve in their homes, businesses and even the army. The highly trained and intelligent slaves were worth the most money and often served as singers, scribes, jewelers and doctors.
Slaves were not only prisoners of war. A man, woman or child could be sold into slavery to pay a debt. Any child born into slavery was automatically a slave. For some, slavery meant a better life than they could ever have lived in freedom. The slaves were usually well cared for, often treated as family. Female slaves were often very close to their mistresses, serving as advisors and confidents as well as servants. Most military men were slaves. Treasurers were often slaves. Slaves served in the mines and in other dangerous jobs. These slaves were often condemned criminals.
Slavery was not a dead end street for many of the slaves in Rome. A slave could be freed by the mercy of the master. Some slaves were given a salary of gifts, and he or she could buy their way out of their slavery with money they have saved. Though they had no rights as citizens, they were acceptable witnesses in court. They were not allowed to enter into public buildings such as the bath house, but were not held prisoner. They had the freedom to move about the city, especially the domestic servants who went to the market and did other errands for the house. The Roman economy depended on slavery, but most of the slaves were well treated and many were able to get out and live as a citizen again.
So, as Paul wrote to the Romans, they understood the concept of slavery. Many of the Christians who heard this letter were probably slaves; there were more slaves in Rome than citizens. Slaves were lesser people; they were at the bottom of the class structure. Christians were also looked down upon since they did not follow the Roman faith. For many slaves, the Christian message was one of hope for even them, one of equality, one of grace. So, slaves found great comfort in Jesus Christ and believed wholeheartedly in the Way.
In some ancient cultures, a freed slave could choose to stay with a master. If such a choice was made, the slave was nailed to the doorway of the masterís house, the nail through the earlobe. This was a statement that the slave chose to stay as part of the household, willingly serving rather than forced to serve. In the freedom of choice, the slave became a servant for life, welcomed by the master as part of his household forever.
Paul tells us that we are slaves. It is a hard concept for most of us to understand, because we never personally experienced any kind of slavery whether in Rome or even our own nation. We are slaves to other things, sometimes foolish things. We are slaves to our jobs, our schedules, our kidsí activities. We are slaves to our habits and our desires. We are slaves to sin, just as those Christians in Rome were slave to their sins.
We, like them, have been set free, however. We no longer need be a slave to sin. We have been given a much better choice, to willingly serve the Lord. We are set free from the bondage of sin and invited to choose to serve a Master that will treat us well. As slaves to sin, we are bound to suffer the consequences of our sin. As slaves to righteousness, we will receive the fruit of His grace. As we live in His household, we grow closer to our Master and are transformed and sanctified into the kind of servant He has ordained us to be.
There was once a commercial for some sort of special water that was designed to keep you healthy. The commercial showed a man take a drink of the water and suddenly realize that he was walking on bubble wrap. The voice over said, ďIt helps protect your body.Ē So, the man went around the city doing ridiculous things, things you could not do without the bubble wrap, things that you shouldnít do anyway. He rolled down a huge set of steps. He jumped into a wall. He rode an elevator to the top of a skyscraper and jumped off. No matter how good the water, it would never save a person from the certain harm of leaping from the top of a very tall building. The water probably has some health advantages, but that does not mean that those who drink it will never suffer pain or dis-ease. A bottle of water might help keep us healthy, but we will all still eventually know pain and death.
Jesus said, ďArenít two sparrows sold for an assarion coin?[c] Not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Fatherís will.Ē We have dozens of birds that hang out in our yard. We have bird feeders filled with seed that they love to visit. They spend their days eating and playing in our bushes. It is funny to watch the way they share; they purposely push the seed to the ground so more birds can have some.
Our cats also love to watch. They sit in the window meowing at the birds that gather in the bush and feed from the feeders. They sometimes even come right up to the window as if to say hello. It would be very dangerous for the birds to be so close to the cats, but the window protects them. Unfortunately, the window is also a danger. When the sun is shining and the sky is reflected in the glass, the birds think they can fly in that direction. We hear birds fly against the window several times a day. They usually fly off to safety in a tree until they recover and then quickly come back for more seed.
God knows each time those birds hit my window. He knows their pain and He rejoices when they are able to fly again. Sparrows could be purchased in the marketplace in Jesusí time for just two for a penny. They were used as food, although a sparrow could not make much of a meal. Human beings were created and charged with the rule of all Godís creation. We are His crown. As Jesus says, ďFear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.Ē This does not mean that God will cover the entire world with bubble wrap so that we will not suffer the pain of injury. We might even experience the persecution that comes from those who do not believe in the Lord God, but this is not a sign of abandonment. God is with us through the good times and the bad. He knows every hair on our head. He loves us, the ones who follow Him.
God calls us to be His voice in this world; He sends us to tell people about Jesus and their need for Him. We want to ignore the call, but we canít. Thereís something within us that demands our faithfulness. Can we truly praise God in the privacy of our homes and the comfort of our congregations when He is calling us to go out in the world to speak His Word to those lost in sin and darkness? We might avoid persecution, but are we being faithful and obedient by being silent? We donít have to be afraid of the persecution. Jesus promised that He would be with us wherever we go until the end of the age.
We are in the season of Pentecost. During the first half of the church year we study the story of God, particularly as manifested in the life of Christ. We experience the birth, ministry, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. We see Him complete His work, ascend to heaven and send the Holy Spirit to the disciples. Now, in Pentecost, we are asked the question, ďWhat are you going to do with this?Ē What do we do with the gift we have been given? What do we do with the knowledge that has been imparted? Now that the ministry has been handed over to us, where will we go with it?
During the season of Pentecost we read about the ministry of Jesus in Matthewís Gospel, watching as Jesus teaches the disciples how to do the work He is calling them to do. In todayís text He told them not to be afraid of those who can cause harm to the body because He can save the soul. Jesus doesnít wrap us in bubble wrap, but we can go out into the world with the promise that He will not abandon us.
We may suffer for speaking Godís Word into the world. Unfortunately, Christians are being persecuted. Some are being beheaded. Others are losing their children to enemies who kidnap them or governments that take them away. Yet others are having their reputations and businesses destroyed. Churches have been burned. Too many Christians have been led down paths that seem faithful but for the sake of tolerance or acceptance; they do not remain true to Godís Word. Too many have become the prophets who preach warm fuzzies into the ears of their listeners. Anyone who speaks against their way of faith supposedly does not understand Godís unconditional love; they are rejected for standing true to Godís unwavering holiness.
They are preaching useless good news because they are ignoring the reality of sin. The Gospel is not simply ďGod is Love,Ē it is ďJesus loves you so He died to save you from your sin.Ē Thatís too hard for the world to hear, so they seek a sugarcoated faith. They are willing to believe in the Jesus who is friend and model of good living, but they arenít willing to accept that they need His forgiveness. As a matter of fact, many Christians spend too much of their time pointing their fingers at everyone elseís sins while ignoring their own sinful nature.
We are called to speak the Gospel, to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are given the power and authority to cry out for repentance and to invite our neighbors to experience the forgiveness that God has promised. We are called to invite our neighbors into the Kingdom of God so that they might die to self and live for God. If we were bold, fearlessly preaching the Gospel even when we know that they will reject us and possibly harm us, then we would see the Kingdom grow. See, for every person who rejects the word of God, there are more who hear and believe. Godís Word does not return to Him void, so while there are those who will reject the reality of their sinful nature, others will see the truth and the truth will set them free.
I have to admit that sometimes Iím afraid. If we trust God, however, we canít be afraid of those who threaten to kill the body because we know they canít kill the soul. My fear is less about them and more about my own failure. How could God possibly choose someone like me to be a prophet? Iím nobody. Iím ordinary. I sometimes canít even get those who love me to listen or to understand what Iím trying to say. How can God ever think I could speak to the world?
But thatís the point of these texts, isnít it. We arenít speaking; we are called to let God speak through us. It isnít our words that matter, but Godís Word. We donít need to be afraid because we are already dead but He has promised us eternal life. When the world rejects us, even if it is our closest relatives, we can go on knowing that God can make miracles in the most extraordinary circumstances. See, every person who believes the Gospel is a miracle. They believe by Godís hand, by Godís grace, by Godís Word. And we are called to share in the making of these miracles, even if we have to experience persecution or death to do so.
But we need not be afraid. As the psalmist says, ďHe who dwells in the secret place of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.Ē God is with us. Jesus will be at our side wherever we may go. The Holy Spirit will guide us in the right paths and give us the words to speak. We have no reason to fear because God is our refuge and our strength.
A number of years ago there was a huge news story about an escaped suspected rapist running around Atlanta. Somehow he allegedly got a hold of a deputyís weapon, killed and wounded several people, beat a reporter and stole a car. For hours the authority hunted this man, to keep him from harming more people and to bring him to justice. The ordeal ended Sunday after a woman called 911 with information that the man was in her apartment.
While the authorities were searching and the city was in fear, a woman was suffering a more personal horror. She arrived home at about 2:00 A.M. and parked her car at her apartment complex. When she left her car, the man stuck a gun in her side and ordered her to go into her apartment. He tied her up and told her to be quiet. He warned her that he would kill her if the police found him there. Though she must have been frightened, she calmly spoke to the man and made him feel comfortable. Eventually he untied her. They talked through the night, watched television together and she made him pancakes. They talked about God and he admitted that he did not want to hurt anyone else. The man wanted to stay at the apartment for a few more days, but he let the woman go to see her daughter. Whether or not he expected her to return is not known. When she left, she called the police and they came prepared to take the man by force. It was not necessary, he was ready to surrender and he went with them peacefully.
The woman could have easily responded with fear, anger and hatred, but she treated him with compassion and love. He was overwhelmed by her kindness. We donít have a transcript of that conversation, but we can know that God was there with them, speaking through her as He reached out to the man. He was terrifying in the beginning killing those who stood in his way, but something about the womanís trust in God transformed him. The woman told the man that she thought God brought him to her door, and she took the opportunity to talk to him about His love and mercy. Her compassion helped to calm him and it brought an end to the violent episode, thus saving her own and perhaps more lives.
Faith does not guarantee we wonít face difficulty. No matter how much we trust in God, we might find ourselves in a frightening situation that does not end well. However, we can look to the womanís trust in God for inspiration and encouragement. When we are in the midst of terrifying situations, we should hold fast to God and speak boldly with compassion and love no matter what the consequences. If we die, we die knowing we stood firm in God to the end. If we die, we know that Jesus will acknowledge us before His Father because we acknowledged Him before the world.
We might just see the miraculous power of Godís word transform the situation and bring hope out of terror.
Will I have the courage to be like that woman? I donít think any of us will ever really know until we face the possibility of death. Will we remember that God is with us when we are too afraid to think? I hope I will have the courage if the time comes, but until that day we are all called to walk in faith and continue to build our relationship with God. One way we can do so is to write the words of todayís psalm on our hearts, holding them so close that we will not forget that God is with us when we face the hate of the world. Those words wonít protect us from being hurt, but they will always remind us that no matter what happens, God will be there to pick us up and take us home.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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