Today’s Lessons Are Not…, Proper 6 (A) – 1996
June 16, 1996
Today’s lessons are not comforting. They run counter to the belief commonly held by many Christians that if you choose to live your life in accordance with God’s word, then everything will be alright. You will live in peace and quiet and that nothing bad will happen to you because you are being good. Today’s lessons provide the Biblical answer to that “Pollyanna-ish” way of thinking.
First we have Jeremiah, a prophet who lived in Judah during the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE, during the last years of that Kingdom before it was conquered by the Babylonians and Jeremiah himself fled into exile in Egypt.
Jeremiah was an unlikely prophet. He in fact was a member of a priestly family living quietly in a small village north of Jerusalem. But something strange and powerful happened to him when he was a young boy. The word of the Lord came to him and declared that he was to be a prophet and was to speak for God.
This was the undoing of the comfortable course of Jeremiah’s life. The message he was to speak for God was not a popular one. He was called to preach repentance to Judah, to challenge the nation to turn back to the way of faithfulness to the Lord their God. To turn back or to face doom at the hands of the revived Babylonian empire. And so Jeremiah preached the word of the Lord.
And he paid a high price for his faithfulness. He was accused of treason and of blasphemy. He was imprisoned. He was the object of an assassination attempt. He was ostracized by the nation, by his fellow priests and by his family. He was ridiculed and scorned. And at times he fell prey to the dark forces of despair and hopelessness.
Today’s lesson reveals one of those moments. It is a highly personal lament for the fate that has befallen him. He accuses God of enticing and overpowering him by the irresistible power of God’s word. But the power of God’s word seems only to be irresistible to Jeremiah, for when he speaks and cries out, he is met by reproach and derision. He has become an object of mockery and is a laughingstock, the butt of jokes. He wants not to speak. He says that he tries not to mention God or to speak any more in his name. But whenever he tries to remain silent, the word of the Lord overpowers him again. He describes it as a fire burning within him, within the very marrow of his bones. He wearies of the struggle to hold it in, and he cannot. He speaks even though he knows his speaking will yet again inflame his opponents–including his closest friends–and stir them to take action against him.
Yet, still he speaks, for the word of the Lord has taken hold of him and changed him, and to the Lord he has committed his cause. He speaks, trusting ultimately in the faithfulness of God. He speaks trusting that in the end, no matter what happens to him, deliverance belongs to the Lord for “he has delivered the life of the needy”.
Jeremiah was able to sing the praises of a faithful God of final deliverance. But in the meantime, Jeremiah’s faithfulness was costly.
In Matthew Jesus says much the same to the disciples. While he is addressing the Twelve in the text, he is also addressing you and me.
Jesus sends the disciples out. He sends them out to speak. They are to speak about everything that he has told them. What they have heard in the whispered intimacy of nighttime conversations, they are to proclaim from the housetops in the bright light of day. None of what he has told them is to remain secret and covered up. He assures them that they will, in fact, be speaking the word of the Lord, for it will not be they “who speak, but the Spirit of [their] Father speaking through [them].”
But it will not be easy. There will be a cost, a high and painful cost. They will be handed over for trial. They will be punished. Their families will reject them and side with their enemies, and the disciples “will be hated by all because of [Jesus’] name.” He says that the world will treat them as the world treats him: “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul–the Lord of the Flies or of the Dungheap, that is to say Satan, how much more will they malign those of his household!” Nevertheless, he assures them not to fear, because for their willingness to acknowledge Jesus to the world, Jesus will acknowledge them before the Father who knows them each intimately, down to the hairs on their heads.
The Biblical answer then to the Pollyanna view of Christianity, the view that holds that being a Christian will ensure a life of peace and quiet and of all good things, is: “Not so.”
Following the Lord has always involved a high cost. That was true for Jeremiah 600 years before Jesus. It was true for Jesus and the disciples 2000 years ago. Can it be any different for us today?
Following the Lord involves a cost because following the Lord can not be done in secret. Following the Lord involves public action, it involves all aspects of our lives. Above all it involves telling others about the Lord who loves us and who gives us life. And this is where the cost begins to make itself known.
We in this country do not live in a society which uses the power of the state to persecute Christian proclamation. There are in the world many places were Christians remain subject to arrest and punishment for publicly proclaiming the Good News. Yet even there the Good News is preached.
In our society the cost of “going public” about one’s faith often looks different. Our culture increasingly views Christianity as irrelevant, a cultural hang-over from some unenlightened pre-modern era. Or it sees Christianity as painfully relevant, but as one of the “bad guys”, wielding a “big stick” and sternly enforcing a moral code which is imposed even on those who choose not to embrace it willingly by becoming Christians. In many places and in many hearts, Christianity is being replaced by some vague notion of a privatized, innate spirituality which makes few demands on one intellectually, socially or morally. The refrain here is: “I’m not religious, but I’m a very spiritual person.”
In most parts of our country, Sunday morning is no longer viewed as the time for gathering to offer praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God, rather, since most people don’t work on Sunday morning, it is the ideal time to gather for brunch or little league baseball. And when one declines the brunch invitation or refuses to attend the baseball game, the cost begins to show itself. One’s child is off the baseball team, ostracized from her peers. And one’s putative brunch partners look at you in disbelief. They say, “You couldn’t really believe all that stuff!” In our society the cost of discipleship takes the form of ridicule and ostracism.
Yet, to be a disciple means “going public” about one’s faith.
We go public for three basic reasons. First, we go public because Jesus, the Lord whom we follow, has told us to. He does not allow us to keep our faith as a secret whispered in the dark. He tells us rather to speak about it in the broad daylight, even from the housetops. You don’t get much more public than that, and if you try it, I can assure you that you will be viewed as a laughingstock–or at least as just a little bit touched in the head.
Second, we go public because the knowledge we have irresistibly insists on being told. Knowledge of the love of God cannot keep silent, it burns within us like the fire in Jeremiah’s bones. Even when we try to keep silent, in burns in us yearning to be spoken about aloud. If you don’t believe me about this, the next time someone makes a misstatement about or even ridicules Christian faith and practice in your presence, keep silent. How do you feel? What happens in your conscience as a result of your silence? That uneasiness–perhaps even shame–is the fire of the word of God burning to be told.
Finally and chiefly, we go public because we want others to know and to share what someone has given his life to share with us. Paul reminds us again in today’s lesson from Romans that Jesus Christ by his obedience, even unto death, has won for us the free gift of righteousness and eternal life.
And so we go public–in the face of scorn and ridicule, in the face of ostracism and mockery, possibly in the face of punishment and pain–we go public so that others may join us in the joy of knowing the Good News of new and eternal life won for us all in Jesus Christ our Lord.
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