(shared with the people of Friendship Church, August 1, 2004)
I grew up the oldest of five kids. All through my school years, I struggled with Math, barely getting through each class. The two siblings closest to me in age, Betsy and Kathy, were three and six years behind me in school. Sometimes, after I’d moved up a few grades, I’d see that they had Math homework in the very text books that had so troubled me when I was younger. I’d pick up the books and look at the problems and be amazed: the Math I had found impossible three and six years before was easy; I wished that I could go back in time and ace the old classes.
That’s sort of how I've felt as we've progressed through that section of the New Testament book of Matthew called the Beatitudes. Here, at the very beginning of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, He presents a series of portraits of blessedness or true happiness. Jesus’ pictures haven’t exactly conformed to our usual understanding of what happiness looks like. As I’ve prepared these messages, I’ve felt like I did tackling a new Math class as a kid. Each of Jesus' beatitudes has been a tough assignment!
But as difficult as each of the first seven beatitudes were to deal with, the message from Jesus for today makes the first seven seem like child’s play. This is the hardest one. Jesus says:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.Reading Jesus' words about the happiness of persecuted people, I'm reminded of the man Abraham Lincoln once told about. It seems that a whole town had turned hostile and tarred and feathered the guy. Asked later what the experience had been like, he said that he would gladly have passed on the whole experience "if it weren't for the honor of the thing."
“Blessed are you when people revile you and speak evil of you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
In a nutshell, Jesus is saying that among the happiest people on the planet are those have been honored for their faith in Him by encountering hostility and persecution in the world. And if the world is against you because you seek to follow Him, Jesus says, that’s a badge of honor, putting us in the select company of Old Testament prophets who engendered similar reactions!
That's a little daunting, to say the least. But before we just turn our noses up at what Jesus tells us today, let's---as one of my seminary professors used to say---"unpack" His words. Let's try to understand what Jesus wants to tell us about the happiness that comes to those who follow Him even when the world turns away.
I think that there are two major ways that followers of Jesus can experience hostility or rejection or persecution as they strive to follow Him.
One comes from inside ourselves.
The other comes from outside of us. The two sources of this outside persecution are the world and the devil.
From inside ourselves, we can be persecuted by our own evil thoughts. As you know, one of my favorite preachers is Gerald Mann. In one of his sermons, he tells the story of what happened when, back in the 1970s, his church unable to pay him much salary, he moonlighted by getting involved in buying and selling real estate. Mann did one deal that allowed him to turn a quick $50,000.00 profit. At the closing, the guy to whom he was making this sale asked if he could pay in cash, with $35,000.00 of it in one dollar bills. Mann said that would be all right. There would be no checks, no paper records.
A few months later, Mann went to his accountant’s office to have his taxes done. They went through all the paper records and then the accountant asked, “Any other income?” Mann hesitated a second and said, “No” and left. Five minutes later, he was driving down the road and decided to make a U-turn. There was no way he could lie about that income! He told the accountant that he’d forgotten about the additional $50,000.00.
Half of that went to taxes and for months afterward, the sinister, earthly part of Gerald Mann’s nature persecuted him. “Why,” it demanded, “would you have been so stupid as to have done the right thing like that, especially when you know how the government wastes money?” He felt internally persecuted for having done the right thing.
Let me tell you something, folks, the follower of Jesus eventually does feel happy and blessed when we do the right thing. But before we feel good about it, we're first we’re likely to feel miserable. For our long-term happiness and for our eternal happiness, I personally have learned that the best thing we can do is resist doing evil and do what God wants us to do.
From outside ourselves, we can also be persecuted. This can happen in simple acts of shunning or in putdowns by others who view our commitment to the God we know through Jesus Christ as being quaint, stupid, naive, or unnecessary. I've experienced that. I'll bet you have too.
This past week, we watched the second episode of the TV show, Joan of Arcadia. CBS is rerunning this series on Friday nights and I’m really enjoying it. If you’ve never seen the show, it tells the story of a seemingly typical teen named Joan who keeps being contacted by God. In the most recent episode, God tells her to get together with the "geeks" of the Chess Club. Her friends are horrified. But Joan learns that when we dare to respect and reach out in a loving, accepting way to others, God will bless us even when the world turns the other way. In spite of the world turning the other way---persecuting her, Joan is blessed.
The book, Jesus Freaks: Stories of Those Who Stood for Jesus recounts true incidents of people from throughout the world for whom following Christ engendered a more serious form of persecution. They are the martyrs for Christ. That word, martyr, comes from the New Testament Greek word, martureo. It literally means I witness. A martyr is one who believes, or entrusts their whole lives into the hands of Jesus and by their lives and words, gives witness to His love, power, grace, and goodness. A martyr is one has turned from sin and death and turned to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and life. Over time, that term has also come to mean someone who has suffered or died precisely because they do trust Jesus Christ completely.
One of the martyrs in Jesus Freaks is Mary Khoury, a Christian teenager who lived through Lebanon’s civil war, a conflict that went on from 1975 to 1992. Fanatical Muslims forced their way into Mary’s home one day, waving pistols at the entire family and threatening, “If you do not become a Muslim, you will be shot.” Mary knew that Jesus had once been given a similar choice. Jesus had been told to renounce His claim to be Savior of the world so that He could avoid the cross. But Jesus knew that without His death and resurrection, no human being could never have eternal life with God. So, Jesus went to the cross. Mary decided that she would not renounce Jesus. Mary told the men, “I was baptized as a Christian, and [God’s] word came to me: ‘Don’t deny your faith.’ I will obey [God]. Go ahead and shoot.” With that, Mary heard a gun go off behind her and she fell limply to the ground.
Sometime later, the Red Cross found the bodies of Mary’s family members. Miraculously, Mary, on the floor next to them, had survived. But a bullet had severed her spinal cord. Both her arms were paralyzed, stretched out beside her, bent like Jesus’ arms had been when He was on the cross.
You might expect Mary to have become bitter. But she had the happiness and the blessing of one who has done the right God calls us to do. She knew that God had a plan for her life. “Everyone has a vocation,” she said, “...I will offer my life for Muslims, like the one who cut my father’s throat, cursed my mother and stabbed her, and then tried to kill me. My life will be a prayer for them.”
Whether we’re persecuted by our own evil thoughts or by others, we can take comfort.
We take comfort first from knowing that we’re not alone. God is with us always. A God Who suffered and died on the cross will not abandon us when we suffer for our faith.
We can also draw comfort from knowing that the closer you and I are to God, the harder life sometimes gets. The fact that we encounter opposition and difficulty can be a sign that we have grown close to God. There are reasons for that. One is that following Jesus is a little like walking up to a lighted mirror after a new zit has appeared on your face. When you and I get closer to the light of Jesus, we see our faults and sins and it bothers us more than it did when we ignored Christ or His will for our lives.
We also see that we're growing closer to God in the ways others may try to trip us up in following Him. Most people want Jesus' blessings without having to bow to Jesus' authority over their lives. When others see followers of Jesus earnestly trying, with God's power, to follow Christ, they resent the audacity of it. They're bound to hurl insults and monkey wrenches our way!
The everlasting life and hope that we have as Jesus-followers is a free gift. But the more we live in Jesus’ orbit, the more opposition we will run into, whether it’s the evil from within or the evil from without. And that opposition or persecution in fact, is often a sign of our growing closer to God.
But the happy people--the blessed people--are those who know that God is bigger than our enemies, that God’s blessings are better than the world’s curses, and that the God we know through the resurrected Jesus will still be standing when all the things that scare us in this life have passed away. Jesus followers know that God can bless them now and forever.
They also know that God can use their lives--and sometimes their deaths--to help the rest of the world experience the same happiness they have from following Christ. The happiest people are those who cling to Jesus Christ no matter what. They’re the people who know that they are part of Christ’s kingdom forever. They’re the people who know that just like God’s Old Testament prophets who were often rejected by the people of their time, they can be used to draw others into a relationship with the God we know through Jesus.
A Christian woman held in a Soviet prison camp back in the 1960s for the crime of following Christ, wrote a stirring prayer. It says, in part:
“God, accept all my sufferings, my tiredness, my humiliations, my tears, my nostalgia, my being hungry, my suffering of cold, all the bitterness accumulated in my soul...Dear Lord, have pity on those who persecute and torture us day and night. Grant them, too, the divine grace of knowing the sweetness and happiness of Your love.”I ask God to help me pray that prayer. More than that, I ask Him to help me to mean it.
[NOTE: By the way, I hasten to add that there are such people as fanatical Christians. These are people who have so departed from the love of Christ that they try to force people into following Him, whether through social pressures, legal measures, or violent intimidation. It is utterly wrong and utterly contrary to the will of the God we know in Jesus Christ!
[The prayer at the end of the message also comes from the book, Jesus Freaks.]