June 22, 2014

Second Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 20:7-13
Psalm 91:1-10 (11-16)
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:5a, 21-33

He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble: I will deliver him, and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him, And show him my salvation.

Two weeks ago we celebrated Pentecost, the outpouring of Godís Spirit on His Church. Last week we celebrated the God we were called to serve, and we were given our marching orders, ďGo ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you...Ē We are left with a promise, ďÖand lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.Ē

And now we enter into the Pentecost season. For the next few months, our scriptures will focus on the life of faith. Weíll hear the stories from Matthew of Jesusí teaching and weíll see how the world confronts Jesus. Weíll also see Him moving closer to the cross through His ministry in Jerusalem. The stories are lessons for us of how to live in the grace He has given to us and how to face the world that is determined to stop our ministry.

We begin today with two disturbing texts. The first, from Jeremiah, shows what life was like for Godís servant prophets. The people to whom Jeremiah was sent wanted only to hear good news. They didnít want to see their sin and they did not anyone telling them that they needed to repent.

It is natural for people to prefer good news. None of us like to hear that our plans have failed or that we have done something wrong. We donít like to hear that we are going in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, the people of Israel in Jeremiahís time 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. 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 the truth when there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other prophets speaking something different. We like to assume that the truth is found in the numbers. Surely the majority would be right, especially when the words make us feel good? But that is not always true when it comes to Godís word, especially since His judgment comes with the consequences of disobedience.

Jeremiah had no idea how hard it would be when God called him to be a prophet. How much easier it would have been for him to go along with the crowd. In this message, Jeremiah is bold in his blaspheme against God. The New International Version translates the first line, ďO Lord, you deceived me.Ē 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 true 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, even if he suffered for it.

The Gospel lesson is just as discouraging. In chapter 10, Jesus sends out the twelve disciples with the power and authority to heal the sick and to cast our demons. Jesus is very clear with His instructions: they are to stay among their own people, trust God to provide through the people they serve, and avoid confrontation. If the people donít want to hear what they have to say, they are to go on to the next place. Sounds like Jesus made it pretty easy, doesnít it? After all, I think I could handle a ministry that lets me rely on the people who come from the same heritage which demands hospitality. And He has given them an Ďout,í if the people reject them, they can leave.

Yet Jesus doesnít think it is going to be that easy. He tells them that life is not going to be so good for those who reject them and tells them to be ďshrewd as snakes and innocent as doves.Ē He warns them that they should be on their guard and that even their own people will turn them into their enemies. In todayís passage, Jesus even warns them that their own families will betray them. He tells them to flee when they are persecuted, to try to speak to the people in the next town. Then He tells them that the hard times will be no worse than what He is going to face and that they should expect to be persecuted because the world will think no better of them than they do their Master.

But as in the story of Jeremiah, there is grace. We were told last week that Jesus would be with us wherever we go until the end of the age, and this week He reminds us not to be afraid. He reminds us that God loves us and that HE will always be with us. We need not be afraid of those who can harm us, because He has already saved us.

Now, we have to remember that we havenít been saved from physical death. We are not immortal now that we are Christian. As a matter of fact, we have died, like Christ, through baptism. We are dead and we donít have to fear death because death actually means life for us. See, death is just the beginning of the life God has promised we will live in His kingdom. Now, this does not mean we should seek death by forcing the hands of our enemies or by taking our own lives. It means that we donít have to be afraid to do what God is calling us to do, because if they do harm us we know that He will take care of us.

At Sunday school on Sunday, one of the other students talked about the bold actions of extremists and terrorists. They are willing to risk their own lives to do what they think they are called to do, which is to kill their enemies. They believe that death will lead them to a promise and they are willing to do whatever is necessary to be obedient to what they believe.

Can you imagine the world if Christians were as bold with our mission? Of course, we are not called to kill our enemy with bombs in the city streets. We are called to ďkillĒ with the Gospel, to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are called to invite our neighbors into the Kingdom of God, to die to self so that they can live for God. If we were as bold as those terrorists, fearlessly preaching the Gospel even when we know that they will reject us and possibly harm us, then many would come to faith. See, for every person who rejects the word of God, there is 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 so that they might be forgiven, others will see the truth and the truth will set them free.

Hereís the thing: we donít do it, do we? We live in a world that has decided that it is wrong, perhaps even un-Christian, to convince people that they need Jesus. We arenít supposed to tell people they are sinners. We are supposed to tolerate everyoneís point of view and accept everyoneís gods. So, instead of taking the Gospel to all nations, we conform to the world. We embrace the fear and reject the One who has saved us from real harm. Jesus says, ďFear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows. Every one therefore who shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my Father who is in heaven.Ē But He doesnít leave it there: He warns us, ďBut whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father who is in heaven.Ē

We werenít saved from death so that we can hide in our church and worship God privately. We are called to the life of a prophet, one who tells the world about Jesus Christ and who invites them to repentance. This life God has called us to means that we might have to speak words that our neighbors do not want to hear. We have to tell people the truth. We have to bring light to the darkness and reveal what is hidden. We have to say what the other prophets refuse to say. We have to give them the bad news. But in the end we have even greater news, ďYes, you are a sinner, but I know this guy named Jesus and He died so you can live. Believe in Him and you wonít have to pay the price for your sin; He has already done it for you.Ē

The life of a prophet (yes, you might think that you are an ordinary Christian, but you are a prophet, one who is sent to take Godís Word to His people) is never going to be easy. We will face the difficulties of those who want to harm us because we donít conform to their expectation. But Paul reminds us that the difficulty is not only outward. We have to face the reality that despite what Jesus did for us, we will never be perfect. We will continue to sin. We will continue to make mistakes.

But weíve been saved for a purpose, and it will take the right kind of person to accomplish Godís work in this world. He expects us to be transformed and He helps us to be transformed. We are made new, recreated to be in His image. The rest of our life is then spent overcoming that which does not look like Him. If we lie, we must stop lying. If we cheat, we must stop cheating. If we use revolting language, we must stop using it. God will help, but it is up to us to work at not doing those things that disappoint Him. ďGo and sin no more,Ē He says. Just because we have been saved doesnít mean that God is entirely pleased with our lives. He continues to work in us and on us so that we can be all that He has created and redeemed us to be.

After all, how will anyone respond to the Gospel if we continue to let sin reign in our mortal bodies? We are under grace, and so we no longer have to let sin have dominion over us. God is with us. He will take care of us. He will help us defeat the sin that tries creeping into our lives every day. The more we are aware of our own sinful behavior, the more we can work at avoiding the things that displease God. We are slaves now to God, and as servants of the Master we are called to a life of pleasing Him. That means being obedient to all that He has taught us. That means avoiding the things that still want to enslave us, the things that make us conform to the world.

Paul reminds us that while we might have been free to do whatever we wanted before we were Christian, that doesnít mean we were free. We were slaves to sin, and as a slave to sin our fruit was not good. The end of sinful behavior and a nature of sin is death. But we have been given new life, a life of righteousness. Yes, we are now slaves to that life, but now we produce fruit that is good and God pleasing. We produce fruit that will make the world a better place. We produce fruit filled with love and hope and peace. As a slave to God and righteousness, we are embraced by His grace and continually sanctified so that on that day when we will meet Him face to face, we will be everything He has created and redeemed us to be. On that day we will receive the promise in full: eternal life.

We know we wonít be perfect until that day. I try very hard to overcome some of my failings. I use language I shouldnít. I am often afraid. I know I miss opportunities to share the Gospel. I get angry and I hold a grudge. I get terribly distracted by things that I know I shouldnít let waste my time. Thatís why we are being sanctified. I may not be perfect, but Iím better. God is still working on me, but I hope that Iíve learned the great lessons and that I am less likely to do the things that disappoints God. I know that I trust Him more, that I am more likely to think twice about some things that used to come naturally. Heís made a difference, and thatís what faith is all about.

I think, too, that Iím more likely to speak about Jesus than in the past. I think I trust God more and that I look to Him for guidance, shelter and strength. I find it much easier to wipe my feet of those who refuse to listen to the words I am called to speak, to faithfully continue Godís work even when someone is determined to stop the ministry Iím called to do. I donít think Iím quite as afraid as I used to be, and Iím less likely to be swayed by every wind. I have more courage to stand up for the truth of Jesus Christ, to shine the light in the darkness and reveal that which has been hidden.

But, I have to admit that Iím still sometimes afraid. I donít mind admitting that Iíd rather it all be over. ďCome, Jesus, ComeĒ is my battle cry. But even while we wait, we canít be afraid of those who have threatened to kill the body because we know they canít kill the soul. My fear is less of them and more that Iíll fail. 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 that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High Shall abide under 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.

I wrote about this psalm 9 years ago, at a time when 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. This story might not seem so unusual, after all the news is filled with stories like this of shootings and escaped criminals.

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 screamed and fought for her life, but instead of hatred, the woman 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, willingly killing those who stood in his way, 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 God is with us when we face the hate of the world. They 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.

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