Sunday, June 22, 2014

Choose Your Fear

[This was shared during worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, on June 22, 2014.]

Matthew 10:5a, 21-33
The following news item caught my eye yesterday:
The first Egyptian to try to legally change his religious identity from Islam to Christianity on his government ID was sentenced Wednesday to five years in prison.

Bishoy Armia Boulos, formerly known as Mohmmed Hegazy, received the prison term and a fine of 500 Egyptian pounds...for what the judge called ‘disturbing the peace by broadcasting false information’ after the 31-year-old Christian documented political unrest in Egypt brought on by numerous Muslim extremist attacks on Christians, attorney Wagdy Haifa said.
The article went on to say that Boulos, because of his conversion to Christianity and his desire to have that noted on his official IDs, is somewhat notorious in Egypt, a believer in Christ living with the constant threat of harassment and worse because of His faith.

Now, if you think this is going to be anti-Islamic screed, you’d be wrong. I do believe that Christian faith, faith that the crucified and risen Jesus is God  for us--Emmanuel--and that He alone is the way to a life with God. I believe that that is foundational truth. Salvation cannot be found in Islam. It can be found in Christ alone. But all of that is not what caught my eye in this news item.

The story, in fact, brought three thoughts immediately to mind.

First, I thanked God that I live in a country where I have the freedom to worship God in my own way or to not worship God at all, this latter freedom being one that something like 70% of those who identify themselves as Christians exercise every Sunday morning by not going to church. I don’t have to put my religious preference on any government papers. I’m not going to be locked up for pointing out instances when my fellow Christians are being harassed. We have freedom of religion and of irreligion in this country...and it’s a blessing.

The second thought that crossed my mind was actually a myself: “How would you hold up under the pressure that has been Bishoy Armia Boulos’ lot for several years now, would you continue to boldly profess your faith or would you collapse like a cheap folding chair?” 

My answer? “I don’t know.”

I don’t know what I would do if a government official, figuratively or literally, held a gun to my head and said, “Renounce your faith in Christ or die. Renounce your faith in Christ or face a lifetime of persecution, harassment, or time in prison.”

Thank God I live in a country where I’m not likely to ever face those kinds of choices. At least, not from the government.

But that leads to my third thought.

Today’s Gospel lesson comes from a section of Matthew’s gospel that recounts how Jesus sent the apostles out, two by two, to replicate His ministry. It was time for them to take off their training wheels and hit the bricks. In Jesus’ Name, they were to proclaim the good news that God’s kingdom can enter the lives of those with faith in Christ. In Jesus' Name too, they were also to heal the sick and cast out demons. And Jesus warned them that they would face opposition, maybe even from their own families.

Take a look at our lesson, starting at Matthew 10:21 (page 681 in the sanctuary Bibles): “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another.”

You don’t have to go to Egypt to find Christians who are suffering in ways similar to what Jesus describes here.

Go to any middle school or high school campus and you’ll find Christian young people dealing with the pressure to conform to peers among whom God is an old myth and self is king.

Talk to parents whose adult children deride them for their faith in Christ.

Talk to the Christian in the workplace seeking to follow Christ who is pressured to fudge sales figures, product reliability claims, or measurements of productivity.

The pressure to leave Christ behind is exerted on many of us each day.

It’s exerted by those who may be gatekeepers for our worldly success or the acceptance of others.

It’s exerted too by the temptation faced by every human being to conform to a sinful world rather than having our minds and our lives transformed by Jesus Christ.

According to Jesus, these pressures are the norm, not the exception, for those who follow Him. Verse  24: “The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!”

If we are members of the household of faith in Jesus Christ, if we’re His disciples, and the One we follow was crucified by a world that did not want to recognize Him as God and Savior, did not want to recognize their need of forgiveness and grace and new life that only Christ brings, did not want to accept the Lordship and authority of Jesus over their lives, how can we possibly expect that we will be treated better than He was?

If Jesus, God in the flesh, was called Beelzebul, that is, a demon, should those of us who bear His Name expect an easy time this side of our own deaths and resurrections?

The answer is, “No.”

At my first parish, we had a five week summer school program of Bible history and Catechism for kids going into the third through the eighth grades. It was required for Confirmation, in addition to weekly school year Catechism for the kids in the sixth through eighth grades. We had 85 kids in the program. It was a difference-maker in the life of that congregation. The people of that congregation know Christ and His Word very well there. I got a note just a few weeks ago from one of my old summer school students, now thirty-seven, who said that summer school was among the best experiences of her childhood. But one mom, back when I was there, didn’t want her son in summer school. I’ll never forget the meeting I had with her in which she told me that the church’s summer school was clearly demonic because it cut into her son’s fledgling baseball career.

If you’re a believer in Jesus, Jesus is telling us today, you can bank on people giving you a hard time, putting you in pigeon holes, putting you down, even calling your faith in Him evil. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, consider yourself fortunate. (And rare.)

Now, none of this sounds like very good news, does it? I mean, I don’t like the idea of being snubbed by family members and one-time friends because I try to follow Jesus. Many of us in this sanctuary know what that feels like and it isn’t pleasant. And no one likes to think that because they strive to follow Christ, they’ll lose promotions at work or experience a loss of social standing. And I certainly don’t relish the thought of losing my life on earth because I believe in Jesus.

All of that frightens me.

I imagine it frightens you too, if you think about it.

But in the midst of this truthfulness about the risks involved in following Him, Jesus tells us this: We must choose our fears. We all fear some things. Jesus says choose to fear the right thing.

Verse 26: “So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

The world can destroy your bank book.

The world can take away your job and investment portfolio.

The world can make you unpopular.

The world can even take your physical life away from you.

But it cannot eternally destroy you without your permission.

That’s because God, the God we know in Jesus Christ, Who has conquered sin and death for all who acknowledge their need of God and who trust in Christ for life itself, can and will save those who fear Him and refuse to fear the world.

“The fear of the Lord,” the book of Proverbs says repeatedly, “is the beginning of wisdom.”

It’s also the beginning of life. Every other fear leads away from God and to death. The fear of God leads to life.

I’m afraid of many things, probably more than most people. That’s what comes from being a little OCD, I suppose.

My greatest fear, in some ways, is that I will die before I’ve tasted the good I’d like to most experience in this world, sometimes forgetting the eternity of joy that awaits those who fear God and trust in Christ.

So this business of choosing the fear of God over the fear of the world cuts very close to home for me. I’m made ashamed by people like Bishoy Armia Boulos. I can almost sense God telling me as He told a king through Daniel in the Old Testament: “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.”

But blessedly, like you, I seek to follow that same God, made plain to the world in Jesus Christ, of Whom Lamentations 3:22-23 says: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning...”

“God,” I say repeatedly in many ways every day, “forgive me for fearing the world more than I fear You. Teach me to walk through this life boldly, fearing only You.” And His forgiveness and His power come to me again.

Maybe you struggle with fears of what this finite, dying world can do to you as well.

If so, don’t worry. Jesus didn’t come to die and rise for perfect people.

He came to die and rise for people willing to admit their imperfection and of their eternal need of Him.

Christ alone can cover our imperfections and replace our old fears of the world with a holy fear--a holy awe, a holy respect--of the God Who made us, loves us, and has paid the price to buy back from sin and death all who believe in Christ.

Our call as Christians living in this world is not to endure in perfection. Our call is to endure in daily surrender to Christ.

At the end of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.”

Never be afraid to acknowledge Jesus in this world because, despite our imperfections, He will never disown those to whom He willingly gives the courage to fear God and nothing and nobody else. Amen

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