Matthew 10:24-39 Don’t be afraid to preach the Gospel message
Today’s sermon is based on the Gospel reading from Matthew.
Fear is one of the most pervasive and powerful motivating forces in human experience.
From the moment we are born, we learn to fear the world around us, certainly to fear the stranger, sometimes to fear even those who are closest to us. Political leaders have long recognized the power of fear in ensuring our conformity to the structures of this world, even when doing so does not serve our best interests. Fear is the driving force behind vast segments of our economy, as well as, increasingly, our political priorities. If you pick up a newspaper you will find several headlines promoting fear; these are just a few from a couple of papers this week:
“We’ve all been infected with excessive fear.”
“Doom monger advisers.”
“Terror of being blamed.”
“Fearful of ditching 2 metre rule.”
“Clubs fear lockdown cheating.”
Yet the dominant, recurrent message of our Gospel passage today is ‘not to fear’. It is repeated in verses 26, 28 and 31.
In reality though, you might think this is easier said than done, particularly at this present point in time. Franklin Roosevelt famously declared, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, but how can we turn fear off when it has us in its grip? So many of us fear catching the corona virus, we fear being too close to people, we fear losing jobs or homes, some fear leaving their homes after so long in lockdown, and businesses and churches fear opening. So many fears, and in the Gospel message today Jesus recognizes this fear in His disciples and knows it can also cause the failure of discipleship.
Jesus’ disciples courageously leave the security of their homes and families to follow him as they proclaim the advent of God’s reign, but they, too, will know and ultimately bow before the power of fear. Faithful proclamation and practice of the gospel inevitably puts the disciples on a collision course with the powers of this world. So, as Jesus prepares his disciples for their mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he is starkly realistic about the threats they will face, at the same time he builds the case for why they should not let this fear master them or hinder their witness.
Last week the Gospel message saw the disciples being sent out into the world on their mission to proclaim the Gospel, and you will recall that Jesus didn’t make it sound easy or even very attractive. The tough nature of their job was spelt out in honest detail. In today’s reading from the same chapter of Matthew, Jesus warned them that they were not to expect any better treatment by the world than their master.
It was a tough message. In proclaiming the coming of God’s kingdom they were called on to tell people to turn away from their sins and turn to God, to show mercy and justice to their neighbours. Jesus has told them He is sending them out like ‘sheep into the midst of wolves’ and that they risk being handed over to the authorities and flogged. On the one hand they are granted the remarkable powers to heal, cast out demons, cleanse lepers, and even to raise the dead, and yet they are denied money, pay, clothes, a staff for protection and even sandals. They are to undertake their mission in complete vulnerability and dependence on God. A tough act. No wonder they were fearful. Yet they went about their mission in complete obedience to Christ and preached the tough message given.
I wonder how this difficult message would be received today? I think if Jesus were expressing these views today, he would be advised to repackage the message to be more attractive. A PR expert would say, “Please be less heavy on the potential suffering angle, Jesus, and tell them more about the eternal reward”. Disciples these days might be asked to carry out Risk Assessment appraisals, fill in Insurance forms. If anything confronted them which was difficult, or caused them pain, they might be advised to seek counselling or debriefing. Mentors would advise them not to burn themselves out, or tell them how to set boundaries to protect them from the people they were commanded to serve.
Yet being a disciple means being fully committed to Christ, no matter how difficult the message is. Christ throws out this challenge to His followers, even us today, and in the difficult circumstances of this present time. It means voicing opinions, standing up for what you believe, stepping out in faith, speaking the Gospel message with boldness, proclaiming God from the rooftops, no matter what the chastisement.
One thing I have been doing during lockdown is watching some of the videos of Billy Graham. I met him some years ago at Wembley Stadium and recommitted my life to Jesus. He was not a man to shy away from the truth, he always preached the message of love but was never afraid to preach the difficult parts of Scripture. We can learn a lot from him. Christians are to be people of courage for we are told to do nothing out of fear, for fear is the antithesis of faith. As we step out in faith and reopen our churches this week we need to remember this.
As Christians, we are called to stand in the light. Christ says: “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light.” Jesus’ instructions to His disciples invite us to let a little heavenly light shine on our earthbound fears. Not that we can put all our fears behind us, but we can lower the level of terror inherent in the situations that frighten us. I think it would be helpful to differentiate between being afraid and being fearful. We have little control over feelings. Our feelings simply are what they are. But we have choices about our attitudes and how we will live. Feeling afraid is a normal response to a perceived threat. But being fearful is an attitude toward life. And there is a difference. When it comes to fear, there’s always some choice in how we react. In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells us to face our fear, even at its possible worst, and proceed in the right direction anyway. That has applications for us even in the face of problems forced on us.
Being Jesus’ disciple is not an invitation for glory. It is an invitation for sacrifice and suffering in the presence of powerful opposition. Jesus never promised us an easy life if we become his disciples. In fact, being Jesus’ disciple is one of the hardest things we can do. In the words of Loretta Lynn’s famous song:
I beg your pardon
I never promised you a rose garden
Along with the sunshine
There’s gotta be a little rain sometime
Israel was famous for persecuting both the prophets and Jesus. If they were persecuted for their faith, we will also face persecution. This is hard for us in the developed world to understand and accept because until now we have not been ridiculed or put to death because of our faith, yet we know our Christian brothers and sisters in the developing world have not been as fortunate.
Yet maybe now the time has come here in the developed world to be bolder and speak up for Christ ourselves – at no time is it more important. In this country, how many headlines have we seen in the news about what the Church is saying, or how it is reacting towards the Corona Virus situation? Priests are key workers in our society, the face of Christianity with their collars, and yet they have only just recently been allowed to stream services from their own churches, while it was ok for those which had foodbanks to allow people into the buildings to distribute these. Closed churches. I wonder what Christ would have made of this? Where was the voice of the church? Who spoke up?
The truth is Christianity today is being pushed aside and the truth about Christ pushed aside. Teachers are hesitant to say anything positive about Christianity. The entertainment industry portrays Christianity in a negative light. Stories about the church’s good works rarely make news, but the misdeeds of the church are reported. To many the Church has become irrelevant. We are getting closer to the day when Christians here in the developed world may find out first-hand about the dangers and hard choices Jesus is talking about.
We are called to speak out: “what you hear whispered, proclaim from the rooftops”. It is too easy to be swayed by the ties of this world, to go with the flow, to fall in with the prevailing mind-set in order to keep the peace, to allow things to go unsaid for fear of the reaction. These days, we are not to speak about our faith, or speak about our politics, for fear of upsetting people. Increasingly, it seems, the only safe subject for conversation in British Society is the weather.
We must speak up because in the end, all right and wrong will stand exposed. It can happen here and now, when people take their faith and live by it, when people go into complex situations trying to live by Jesus’ teachings. It is remarkable what a difference that makes and across the church we hear daily stories of how Christians make a real difference – operating food banks, helping the elderly, helping people out of lives of crime, helping the long-term unemployed back to work, helping people off drugs or out of debt – the list goes on and on. Church may not look the same at the moment but it is still working to the good of all people and showing Christ’s love to all under very difficult circumstances. As our churches are about to open once more this week, we should be shouting it from the rooftops; the Church is alive and welcoming.
So let’s be people of courage. Three times in this short teaching, Jesus tells us not to be afraid: “have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered”; “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot hurt the soul”; “do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
We are to be unafraid of the truth, even when the truth is to our discredit. And we can dare to do that because only God is our judge and he is the same God who died to save us from our sins.
We who follow Jesus ought to remind ourselves that the things we fear never have the final word on our lives. That’s what Jesus was telling the disciples as He sent them out into dangerous situations. We can imagine several of them praying a similar prayer: “God, don’t let me panic,” and it must have been answered, because they all went forward, doing what God called them to do, regardless of the dangers. Jesus assured them that God, whose eye was on even the sparrow, who knew even the number of hairs on their heads, regardless of how great or small that number may be, was with them, would not desert them.
As a follower of Jesus, the same is true for you. The same is true for all of us who follow Christ. Nothing can separate you from the love of God, not even fear itself, and not even the frightening things that actually happen to you.
Don’t let your fears paralyze you into not doing what God calls you to do. The God who calls you is the God who is with you, and He has the power over all things and the last word in all things.