This past week, an extraordinary national election unfolded before our eyes. Regardless of how you voted, we should wonder at the fact that the first African American presidential candidate in history was elected in a nation that once defended the evil of slavery. We should also pray about the extreme challenges that President-Elect Obama will face. The inaugural address of Franklin Delano Roosevelt comes to mind, spoken on March 4, 1933, as he was preparing the country to face the crisis of the Great Depression: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
In Matthew 10: 24-33, we are listening in on Jesus’ missional inauguration address. Standing before him are not huge crowds of enthusiastic supporters, but a motley crew of 12 disciples who we know now will lead a movement that touches not a single nation but the entire world, from its greatest leaders to its most humble citizens…and not for 4 years or 8 years…but for 20 centuries and counting. Jesus warns that fear itself will be one of their greatest obstacles, and one of their greatest allies; for they can face their fears with a holy fear of God; and the promise of his love.
“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master….” Jesus says; "If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household." As I read these verses, I become acutely aware that persecution is a possibility, but it’s also a privilege (vv. 24-27). Jesus challenges you and me to count the cost of following him; to realize that there will be times when naming the name of Jesus will get us into serious trouble. But this “persecution” for the sake of Christ is also a privilege, for it marks us out as members of his household, members of his family.
I’ve been reading reviews on the film Religulous, a film that's billed as the "No. 1 sacrilegious comedy in America." It's supposedly a documentary, in which comedian Bill Maher (Politically Incorrect) travels the world asking religious practitioners questions about their faith. Though Maher makes fun of every world religion, about two-thirds of the film focuses on Christianity. At the beginning of the film, Maher says he's on a spiritual journey. But instead of interviewing pastors or Christian scholars, Maher poses complicated theological and philosophical questions to truck drivers, a Christian bookstore owner, and an actor who plays Jesus at an Orlando Christian theme park. LA Times movie critic Kenneth Turan said Maher's "reliance on skewering people who are no match for him in glibness, persuasiveness, or even intelligence finally leaves a sour taste”; and Time magazine says, "Maher seems interested less in conversation than in confrontation, so his movie is less essay than inquisition."
I'm glad that Jesus did not call us to be religulous…that is, ridiculously religious. He did, however, call us to be his disciples. “It is enough,” says Jesus “for the disciple to be like the teacher.” I want to be more than a religious convert; I want to be a disciple and apprentice, one who is learning to live my life as Jesus would live it if he were me. It’s a privilege to be a disciple; to be called to imitate the life of Jesus…and walk in his ways, to speak his words and do deeds of sacrificial love as he did; and as we do – despite persecution or mocking or skepticism -- the power (not the ridiculousness) of our faith will be evident.
The second thing I learn from these verses is that those who fear the Father, need not fear anything else (vv. 28-31), for Jesus says: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” When I think of the appropriate fear of God; I think of the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon is a magnificent act of God – with a 6000 foot drop in some areas. Many people are drawn to its incredible beauty; but it is also quite dangerous. Every year an average of 4-5 people are killed while visiting the park. Why? As one website states, it’s often due to “overly zealous photographic endeavors.” I think that disregarding the fear of God is something like that.
Let's admit it: we want a safe God; a cosmic homeboy, a Best Friend Forever; but our Lord is so much more than this. Sure, Jesus is the Lamb of God; but he’s also the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Thus he says, “Do not fear those who kill the body; but fear the one who holds the power of eternal life & death in his hands" (28). Augustine summed up this passage in a 4th century sermon: “Let us fear therefore, that we may not fear.” Our problem is not fear itself, but misplaced fear. If we don’t fear God we fear people and what they can do to us. We fear disease, we fear rejection, we fear being laughed at, we fear suffering, we fear a bad economy; but Jesus says that if we have a fear of God …nothing else need terrify us in this world.
My daughters still ask me to go with them into the dark hallways to the bathroom because of their fear of the dark. Why? Because they are more in awe of me …than the darkness. They trust that they can go anywhere in the house without fear because their dad is with them! Friends, we can go anywhere in this world -- or out of this world -- without fear, because the Father is with us.
And so, Jesus ushers us into the presence of the Father with a holy fear, but also with the assurance of his infinite love. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father….so do not be afraid, you are of more value than many sparrows” (29-31). We assume that God is present at great historic moments, like Tuesday night’s election, but we see the true majesty of God in that he is concerned not only about these things… but about ordinary things like the fact that “two sparrows are sold for a penny” (yes, he knows what things cost these days!); or the insignificant things that barely concern us; like a sparrow’s fall to the ground, which Jesus says does not happen “apart from your Father.” Neither the fall of empires nor the fall of sparrows occur apart from his presence (He cares deeply about both, and so should we)! And if God so cares for the least of these …we can be sure he cares for us. Indeed, says Jesus, “we are of more value than many sparrows.” We are made in his image; we have the capacity to carry on his creative work in our world; or to destroy it. He has the hairs of our heads and every cell in our body numbered. We are important to him, and he wants us to value him, honor him, fear him, and love him in return.
Finally, Jesus says, "Whoever acknowledges me before others I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven" (32-22). That is, "Stand up for me; and I will stand up for you!" Many of us are truly afraid of bringing Jesus up in the public sphere. But if we live in a pluralistic culture now, in which no single worldview or philosophy can claim superiority; it is also true that in such a culture we have the freedom to speak openly and reasonably with others about our deepest convictions…while giving others the same freedom. Two years ago, Barack Obama wrote these words in“The Role of Religion and Politics” which I think are very relevant today….
"Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King—indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history—were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. To say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition."
It’s not only OK to stand up; it is urgent that we stand up. Jesus warns us plainly: the one who denies me I will deny, but the one who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my Father. That’s a sobering remark, for we have all denied our Lord at some point through our words or our actions. It encourages me to remember what Jesus said to his disciples on the night of his arrest: “You will all become deserters because of me this night” (Matt. 26: 31); and then he predicted that Peter, his star pupil, would deny him not once but three times. They would all fail him; they would all falter and stutter and stammer when they were asked, “Who is your Lord who do you serve?” But that warning is not without a word of hope: “After I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee,” Jesus promised them. Their denial would not be final. They would fall, but by his grace and power they would have an opportunity to stand up again for him; and by his grace and power they did…and so can we.
It's time again to stand up and face our missional fears big and small with the liberating fear of God; honoring him above all other priorities and concerns. It's time again to entrust ourselves again to our Lord and Teacher Jesus Christ as his disciples and servants – body and soul; for the sake of his mission to our wounded world.