The Worst They Can Do
THE WORST THEY CAN DO
The worst they can do is kill you. If I were to sum up what Jesus is trying to say today that is how I would sum it up. That is not a lot of comfort Jesus if we are honest with ourselves. How many of us are truly willing to lay our lives down for the courage of our convictions? How many of us are willing say what we believe to be right in the face of opposition? How many of us are willing to admit when we were wrong despite the chance of public humiliation? What Jesus is talking about is the formation of character. His character, the character of Christ in us. The formation of a character that is not shaken, even under the threat of violence and death.
I remember the closets I got to dying was once when I was swimming in a lake with a group of friends. I always had ear infections as a kid so I never really swam that much. I could swim for a distance but I was not good at treading water. But my friends and I were swimming out to a pontoon barge in the middle of the lake. I thought once I got to the barge I could just hold on and be alright. But the rest of my friends got there first and they weighed the barge down so I couldn’t grab onto it. I tried to tread water but I couldn’t for long. I began to sink and cry out for help. But my friends were so busy having fun that they didn’t notice for a few moments till I was really panicking. My friends finally realized what was happening and they got off the barge so I could grab on. After resting and swimming back to shore I reflected on how little my faith in Jesus seemed to mean in that moment. Did I really believe in His eternal life? If so why was I so afraid of dying? In my every day life I have also been afraid. I am a people pleaser by nature. I have feared people more than I have feared God. I am called to preach the Gospel and to lead His church. But if I am so called why am I so afraid of what people will think about what I have to say whether I am right or wrong?
I am sure many of you have heard about the recent death of Muhammad Ali. Thousands came out to honor him at his funeral in Louisville, Kentucky. Muhammad Ali, also known as Cassius Clay was one of the greatest boxers of all time. Clay was also a divisive figure. To quote a recent New York Times article . “Ali was as polarizing a superstar as the sports world had ever produced. Both admired and vilified in the 1960s and 1970s for his religious, political, and social stances.” As you may know he converted to the nation of Islam, spoke out against white power structures, and refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War. Now I don’t necessarily agree with Ali’s stances on these matters. I just wanted to point out his sacrifices. He sacrificed untold millions, during the height of his career, because he was banned from the ring for his anti-war stance. Some of you had the opposite stance. I know Lew Collier served in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot and was in the line of fire. My point is not to support the pacifist stance over supporting our military. Nor is it to suggest that I believe Islam is an equal path to God or that overly racialized conflict is a good thing. I don’t believe any of those things. My only point is to point out how few of us in America have actually had to suffer or sacrifice for what we believe.
But Jesus is the only major religious figure that I know who’s recruiting slogan is “follow me and you will be persecuted.” Not follow me and you will become rich and healthy and have your best life now. Not follow me and I will show you how to make friends and influence people. But follow me and the world will hate you. Not the world might hate you, not there might be a possibility that people will take you the wrong way, but that the world will hate you. And in our passage today I think Jesus teaches us three things
- To be Wise as Serpents and as Gentle as Doves
- That the Father will give us wisdom to speak
- That we should fear God and not people
The first thing that Jesus teaches us in this passage is that we should be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. The word here for wise can mean various things. Prudent, sensitive to one’s own interest, crafty, someone who is practical, someone who sizes things up. The Greek word is where we get our modern word diaphragm which is the part of the body we use to control our breathing with. What this term suggests is someone who is crafty, someone who is in control. Of course, the serpent raises images in our mind of the serpent in Genesis. In the Hebrew mind a snake was a general symbol of shrewdness and craftiness. Because if you think about it a snake has to be crafty, a snake has to protect itself, otherwise people would step all over it because it is so close to the ground. What Jesus is saying here is not to flee from persecution. Not to flee from pain. But to be wise as to what battles we fight. He tells us we will be persecuted. But unless we are Lazarus, we only get to die once, so we must choose our battles.
Second, Jesus tells us we must be gentle as doves. The word here means to be pure, unmixed, simple, unsophisticated, blameless. The dove has always been a symbol of peace, purity, and devotion. Matthew tells us at his Baptism the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove. As one scholar I read suggested we are to be like snakes without the bite. We are to be like doves but we are not to be pushovers. Instead, we are to wait for the opportune time to give a witness.
Jesus tells us that the stakes are high. He tells we are like sheep in the midst of wolves. That sounds pretty scary Jesus. Well it sounds even more scary when you come to understand how wolves hunt. As the site Living With Wolves tells us, “What the wolf lacks in size, power and weapons it makes up for with collaboration and intelligence. Smaller and less powerful than mountain lions, for example, wolves work together to take down prey much larger than an individual wolf; prey that may otherwise elude them. While individual wolves have been able to subdue large prey animals, their advantage is in collaborating with their pack.
Wolves are opportunists. They test their prey, sensing any weakness or vulnerability through visual cues and even through hearing and scent. Contrary to ambush predators that rely on the element of surprise and a short and intense burst of burst of energy to secure their prey, wolves are endurance or coursing predators. They chase their prey, often over longer distances, sometimes even a few miles, in order to find the right animal or opportunity.”
Wow Jesus, thanks a lot. That is great. Like sheep in the midst of wolves eh? Couldn’t you have sent us in the midst of lions, cheetahs, bears, or how about that alien from the movie Predator? At least then our death would have been quick. But wolves? You certainly are not doing us any favors Jesus. But that is what Jesus says. We are sent out in the midst of wolves. And in the midst of these vicious predators we are to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.
Second, Jesus tells us not to worry. Not because he promises to deliver us from pain, not because our persecutors will get their just deserts, not because he will give us the power to become an avenging action hero that is a one man army, but because he will give us what we should say. Specifically, he says the Spirit of our Father speaking through us will give witness. This is the only place I know of in the scriptures where the Holy Spirit is described as “the Spirit of the Father.” And I think it is because in Matthew the Father is described as the source of all wisdom, knowledge, and power. As Jesus tells us the Father knows every hair on our head. He knows enough to tell us what to say when we need to say it. We don’t have to be the best theologians, we don’t have to be the bravest souls, we don’t have to have memorized all the go to Bible verses. The Spirit of our Father speaks not through the elegant but through the simple. Are you worried about your witness today? Are you worried that when the pedal hits the metal, when your back is against the wall, when your world or the world of someone you love is falling apart, that you won’t be able to give a word of encouragement, a word of support, a word of comfort, a word that will convince them that God has not abandoned you or them? Don’t worry Jesus tells us. The Spirit of our wise Father will give us the words to say.
Finally, Jesus tells that while we must be wise we should not be afraid. He tells us who are you going to be afraid of those who can kill the body or the one who can destroy soul and body in hell? Jesus is referring to God casting folks into hell. Whether Jesus is talking about total destruction of the soul or eternal torment is debated and you can find scriptures to support either view. But what is clear is that Jesus is warning about the perfect Judgment of God. He is raising to us the question whom shall we fear man or God? For if we fear man we cannot fear God. If we fear God than why should we fear man?
Now some of you may think that the fear of the Lord is a rather Old Testament notion. That Jesus revealed to us a God of Love and somehow invalidated the character of God as portrayed in the Old Testament. Saying that the God of the Old Testament is not the God of the New Testament is actually a Hersey called Marcionism named after the guy who led that movement in the second century. Many may point to 1 John 4:7 which declares God is Love. Well this is true. Love is one of the defining attributes of God. But just because God is Love does not mean all love is of God. In our lives we know that we can make our love for things other than God into idols and love can actually lead us away from God. God is Love, but as a pastor I was listening to recently argued, Love is not God. God is not a person. But God is personal. God is not an abstraction. God is the ultimate being. He is personhood made perfect. And one of the other main attributes of God that the scriptures tell us is that God is Holy. To be Holy means to be set apart, to be different than the world around us. As 1 Peter tells us, “as obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter1:14-16) God is separate from us. God is perfect. And God cannot stand sin. In a sense we understand this. We all in some sense want a just God. Who would want to worship a God who simply gave a free ticket to heaven to the Orlando shooter? When such tragedy, when such slaughter grips our world, there is an outcry for justice. But the Lord’s justice is perfect and eternal. There are no hung juries, no conflicting witness testimony, no bias, and there are no appeals. In a sense we want that sort of justice when the worst of humanity is presented before our eyes. But if we are honest we just don’t want that justice to apply to our lives. To our own sin. We are told that God is love and God is Holy. Love is about connection about relationship, about wholeness. Holiness is about separation, otherness, and justice. How can the two be reconciled in one God? The answer is of course Jesus. The answer is the cross and the resurrection. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “ For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Yes the Lord is Love but he is also Holy. And we should have a healthy awe and fear of him. As the writer of Hebrews tells us, “ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
The scriptures tell us that two things free us from the fear of people, from the fear of worrying what others think of us, the fear of thinking what others will do to us, and those things are the love of God and the fear of God. The thing that happens if we only have the fear of God is we can become overly judgmental and legalistic. We may not be afraid but we may cause fear and hurt in others. We may be serpents but we certainly are not doves. As 1 John 18 tells us, “there is no fear in love but perfect love casts out fear.” We need to both fear and love the Lord. Only then can we be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.
Scripture actually gives us plenty of examples of the disciples practicing Jesus’ command to be wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. In Acts 22 Paul is witnessing to a group of Jews, his own people in Jerusalem. But apparently something Paul said didn’t sit quit right with the crowd. They started to riot and threatened to kill Paul. A Roman tribune captures Paul and orders him to be brought back to the barracks to be flogged to find out why this riot has started. But right when he is about to be whipped Paul asks, “is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned.” Being a Roman Citizen entitled Paul to certain rights. But he didn’t use these rights till it benefited his witness for the Gospel. I mean he could have lead with, “hey I am a Roman Citizen” before the guards were ready to whip him. But it put the guards off guard, somewhat humiliating them. It also caused the guards to order a meeting of the High Jewish Council and they brought Paul before them, something Paul could not have done on his own. Again, Paul is before a hostile crowd. But he perceived that part of the group were sadducees, who did not believe in the Resurrection and the other part were Pharisees who did believe in the Resurrection. He tells them he is on trial for belief in the resurrection and that causes a violent dissent between the Pharisees and Sadducees. And during the fighting that ensued the Roman guards are able to get Paul out of there. So multiple times Paul uses his craftiness to preach the Gospel and live another day. It is sort of like Captain America Civil War. I am not sure you have seen the movie. But the premise is that a pretty normal guy gets two of the most powerful characters in the marvel universe, Captain America and Iron Man, to fight one another by tricking them. That is how this is. It is normal, powerless Paul, versus some very powerful people. But the Spirit of the Father gives Paul the words to turn the tables and to be a witness to Jesus.
However, we must remember that just because we don’t fear people doesn’t give us permission to say whatever we want or to be jerks. We all know the holy roller, the more righteous than though type. They may be right, but they are so self assured in their own rightness that they have an aura of superiority which pushes people away. They may know the Truth but they end up alone with no one to tell the truth to because well they are jerks. That type of attitude is not what Jesus is talking about here. As Paul tells us in Romans chapter 12, “bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengence is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
As Paul tells us later in Romans as much as we can we are to submit to governing authorities and we are to try to live in peace. Fearing God over man, being wise as serpents and gentle as doves, does not give us license to be rebels without a cause. We are to be snakes without the bite, doves that are not easily captured. The key is to know what the scriptures teach us is the heart of the Gospel. The key is to know the heart of Jesus. So when the world comes against us and commands us to do something against our Lord we may know when to say no, when to take a stand for what we believe. My prayer is that we might say to the world what Peter and John said to the religious leaders in Jerusalem, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” So let us love God and love people. Let us fear God and not people. For what do we have to loose? What is the worst they can do to us?