(Jeremiah 20:7-13, Psalm 69:7-18, Romans 6:1b-11)
24‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.
26‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.* 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
32‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 34‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’
Only three Sundays into this long season of Pentecost and we hear some pretty strong and foreboding words from scripture! What’s going on here?! We opened our readings with a rather despairing account from the prophet Jeremiah of the misery he withstood. Jeremiah had a pretty rough go of it as we hear him explains: “I have become a laughing-stock all day long; everyone mocks me…all my close friends are watching for me to stumble.” All this misery and for what? Simply for being one of God’s prophets…for being the voice of God to a people that have forgotten or ignored God…for being the voice of judgment to a wayward people. Jeremiah cries out, “let me see your retribution upon them.” Poor, poor Jeremiah, all that authority without any respect or appreciation.
And the situation isn’t any better for David as we hear in today’s psalm. He, too, cries out, “Save me from the mire; do not let me sink; let me be rescued from those who hate me and out of the deep waters. Let not the torrent of waters wash over me, neither let the deep swallow me up; do not let the pit shut its mouth upon me.” David’s frame of mind sounds awfully familiar to that of Jeremiah. Both of these great leaders seem to confess the same sorrow and despair. Both seem to be pleading with God to save them from their wretched situations, from the evil ways of all those around them. Both seem to believe that God owes them their salvation as well as retribution upon their enemies. After all, it was God who led them into their dreadful situations. It was God who convinced them to follow and serve him. It was God who promised them freedom and glory in serving him. God OWED them salvation and retribution, or so they believed.
These are the same types of people that Paul is addressing in his letter to the Romans. Again, with the help of God and God’s words, Paul convinced those around him to curb their sinful behavior. He led them into situations that were free from sin and death. But sin and death are powerful forces in this world, not easily deterred or destroyed. Sin and death played mind tricks on those around Paul. They tried to persuade the people that it was precisely because of sin and death that they received God’s grace. It was only because they were sinning and dying that God shared his love and mercy. Without sin and death, the people could not receive God’s grace, or so they were led to believe…by sin and death themselves! In his letter to the Romans, Paul refutes this harmful line of thinking. He poses the question, “should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!” He goes on to explain that in dying to sin we are raised to new life…to life no longer enslaved to sin. We are forever “alive to God in Christ Jesus.” But doubt and despair have a terrible way of sneaking back into our lives. If they can sneak into the lives of righteous leaders like Jeremiah and David, they most certainly can sneak into us. Like I said earlier, sin and death are powerful forces in this world and they use doubt and despair as tools to destroy us.
As if the despair of Jeremiah and David and the people around Paul weren’t enough, we can’t help but despair when we hear such strong and foreboding words from Jesus himself. In our passage from Matthew, we heard Jesus say, “do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Jesus goes on to warn, “whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” These are not your typical words from Jesus. Indeed, these are words that can cause great despair in many of us…perhaps the same despair that afflicted Jeremiah and David and the people around Paul. We struggle to hear these words. We don’t want to hear these words! We don’t want to hear that we can’t love our families more than Jesus! So what do we do with these words? What do we do with these passages? Are…we…to…despair?
Well, as Paul stated to the Romans, “by no means!” We are simply to be prepared. We are to fully understand what it is we’ve gotten ourselves into by claiming to be Christians. Being a Christian in our world is a difficult thing to be. It has always been a difficult thing to be! Don’t think that our current socio-political environment has made it more difficult to be a Christian than in years past. Christianity has been more popular at certain times than at other times but that didn’t mean it was easier to be a Christian. No, God’s words as fulfilled in Christ are difficult words. They are life-creating and life-sustaining words and life must fight for a place in this world. This world, though perfectly built for life to thrive in, is a world overrun with sin and death. Life must fight to survive in this world and we shouldn’t despair over this. We must simply equip ourselves with the best tools and weapons. We must simply equip ourselves with tools and weapons that will ensure the survival of life. We must simply equip ourselves with Jesus and God’s words…with God’s grace. God’s grace always ensures the survival of life!
God’s grace does not pull us out of the fight though. There is still suffering in this world even with God’s grace. And we shouldn’t despair over the suffering of this world either. Paul helped us to not despair over the suffering of this world when he explained earlier in his letter to the Romans that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” As Paul clearly explains, suffering produces hope and hope is a great gift to have. It enables us to do unimaginable things. It enables us to live and love fearlessly. It enables us to be as God wants us to be. Hope is a great gift indeed!
Someone once asked C.S. Lewis, the great author/theologian of the 20th century, “Why do the righteous suffer?” I loved his response: “Why not? They’re the only ones who can take it.” Serving God often results in suffering. Just look at Jeremiah and David and the people around Paul! But suffering is not without a purpose. Suffering has a purpose which is ultimately to produce hope. Following Jesus will likely result in suffering, if only to re-prioritize some of our relationships in life. And God wants us to serve him with our whole hearts. Not just some of our hearts, not just half of our hearts, not just less than half of our hearts, but with all our hearts. Anything less is not enough! Why? Because God loves us with all his heart and it is his love that enables us to withstand the suffering of this world.
As Helen Keller, the bright star of hope despite her being born both blind and deaf, once commented, “although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” Our world may be overrun with sin and death but it is not without hope. It is not without people willing to serve God…to say and do what God wants them to say and do despite the suffering inflicted upon themselves…to love God with their whole hearts above all else…our world is full of these people. As we set about our journey through Pentecost, let us strive to be one of these people, as difficult as it might prove to be. Let us listen to what God says and try to obey him. God loves us and will always love us!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.